The Curse of the Wendigo
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“What the bloody hell are you doing, Warthrop?” His panicky cry echoed in the indifferent air. “We shouldn’t be out here like this. We don’t know if . . .” He let the thought die unfinished. His voice betrayed how closely he teetered upon the edge. It was as if the world had lost all familiarity; he was the aboriginal man, alone in an alien landscape. “Let’s get him back to camp, and there you can sniff him to your heart’s content!”
The doctor assented to the wisdom of the suggestion. I led the way, the doctor and Hawk bearing our gruesome find behind me. The fire had burned down to a few ash-covered embers in our absence, and I used the hatchet to cut up some more wood. Hawk was dissatisfied with my efforts; he added two more armfuls of fuel, and soon the fire was blazing four feet into the air.
“You’re quite right, Sergeant,” Warthrop said, kneeling beside the corpse, as a penitent before a patron saint. “This is much better.” He cupped the head gently in his hands and pulled the chin back. The empty eye sockets rolled toward the canopy. “Look closely now. Are you quite certain it’s Larose?”
“Yes. It’s him. It’s Larose.” Hawk dug into his rucksack and removed a silver flask, unscrewed the top with shaking fingers, gulped down a few swallows, and shuddered violently. “I recognize the red hair.”
“Hmm. It is quite red, isn’t it? Curious how the face has been left untouched, except for the eyes.”
“Why did they cut out his eyes?”
“I am not certain anyone did.” The doctor brought his face close. “My guess would be carrion, but I can’t make out any marks in this light. We’ll have to wait for morning.”
“All right, but what about the skin? No animal strips off the skin and leaves the rest—and where the hell are his clothes?”
“No, whatever flayed him was no animal,” the doctor said. “At least, not of the four-legged variety. The skin has been sliced off, with something extremely sharp, a hunting knife or . . .” He stopped, hovering over a large hole that yawned in the middle of the man’s chest, the only obvious wound visible other than the spot lower down where he had been impaled, and then hacked free from the hemlock. The monstrumologist laughed under his breath and shook his head ruefully. “Ah, my kingdom for some real light! We could wait, but . . . Will Henry, fetch my instrument case.”
I scooted around our consternated guide and retrieved the doctor’s soft canvas field case. He tugged free the leather ties, flipped it open, and pulled out the desired instrument, holding it up for Hawk to see.
“Or a scalpel, Sergeant. Will Henry, I’ll need more light here—no, take the opposite side and hold the lamp low. That’s it.”
“What are you doing?” demanded Hawk. He drew closer, curiosity getting the better of his revulsion.
“There is something very peculiar. . . .” The monstrumologist’s hand disappeared inside the hole. Operating by sense of touch and his knowledge of anatomy, he made several quick slices with the scalpel, then handed the instrument to me.
“What is?” asked Hawk. “What’s peculiar?”
“Ack!” the doctor groaned. “I can’t do both. . . . Will Henry, set down the lamp a moment and pull this apart. No, deeper; you’ll have to get hold of the ribs. Pull hard, Will Henry. Harder!”
I felt someone’s breath upon my cheek—Hawk’s. He was staring at me.
“Indispensable,” he whispered. “Now I understand!”
The doctor’s hands disappeared between mine. Then, with a dramatic flourish, the monstrumologist hauled out the severed heart, cradling it in his hands and holding it high like a bloody offering. I plopped onto my backside, the muscles of my forearms singing with pain. Warthrop turned toward the fire and allowed the light to play over the organ. As he pressed on the pericardium, thick curds of arterial blood dribbled over the severed lip of the pulmonary artery and fell into the fire, where it popped and bubbled, steaming in the intense heat.
“Most peculiar . . . There appears to be denticulated trauma to the right ventricle.”
“What?” Hawk fairly shouted. “What to the what?”
“Teeth marks, Sergeant. Something bored a hole through his chest and took a bite out of his heart.”
There would be no sleep that night for the monstrumologist. Around three in the morning he shooed me to bed—“You’ll be no use to me in the morning otherwise, Will Henry”—and urged Hawk to get some rest as well. He would take both watches. Our shaken escort did not take kindly to the suggestion.
“What if you fall asleep?” he asked. “If that fire goes out . . . the smell of . . . It will draw all sorts of things. . . .” He was hugging his rifle as a child might his favorite blanket. “Not to mention whoever did this is still out there. They could be watching us right now, waiting for us to fall asleep.”
“I assure you, Sergeant, I will not doze off, and I shall keep my rifle close. There is nothing to fear.”
Hawk would have none of it. He did not know the doctor as I did. When the hunt was on, he could stay awake for days. Now Warthrop’s eyes were bright, and all fatigue had fled. He was in his element now.
“Nothing to fear! Sweet Mary and Joseph, listen to the man!”
“Yes, I would beg that you do, Sergeant. Now is not the time to lose our heads and submit to our baser instinct. How far are we from the Sucker encampment?”
“A day . . . a day and a half.”
“Good. We are of the same mind here. The quicker we reach our destination, the better. You know these people, Sergeant. Have you ever heard of anything like this?” He nodded toward the body, its arms outstretched as if waiting for a hug. “Is there anything in their culture to suggest such desecration, perhaps for shamanistic reasons?”
“You’re asking if they’d ever skin a man and eat his heart?”
The doctor smiled wanly. “There are certain indigenous beliefs about taking on the spirit of what one consumes.”
“Well, I don’t know about that, Mr. Monstrumologist, but I’ve never heard of the Cree doing anything like what was done to poor Larose here. They say they’ll chop off the head sometimes—chop off the head, cut out the heart, and burn the body to keep it from coming back.”
“To keep what from coming back?”
“The Outiko—the Wendigo!”
“Ah. Yes, of course. Well, whatever snacked on Monsieur Larose’s heart was no Cree—or anyone of any color for that matter. The bite radius is too large, for one thing, and every cut is jagged—an indication that the mouth that bit him lacked incisors.”
“Lacked . . . ?”
“The cutting teeth. These here.” The doctor tapped his front teeth with a blood-encrusted fingernail. “In other words, whatever bit him had a mouth full of fangs.”
The night wore on, and Hawk wore down, at last throwing himself upon the ground beside me with an agonized moan. Warthrop remained outside the tent, keeping watch over his special charge while keeping the fire stoked. If not in actuality, at least the fire gave off the illusion of defense against whatever might lurk just beyond the range of its beneficent light.
Soon my tent mate’s moans were replaced by the pleasant drone of his humming, perhaps to comfort himself in the way a man might whistle in a graveyard, the same haunting voyageur song he had sung before:
J’ai fait une mâtresse y a pas longtemps.
J’irai la voir dimanche, ah oui, j’irai!
A gentle lady charmed me, not long ago . . .
I’ll visit her on Sunday, it shall be so!
I was roused from my restless slumber by something tugging upon my boot. I sat up with a small cry.
“Easy, Will Henry; it’s only me,” the monstrumologist said. He was smiling. His face had taken on the same feverish glow I had seen a hundred times before. He gestured for me to join him outside. The cold, moist air made my lungs ache, but my heart sang with the shimmering bars of golden light streaming through the welcoming arms of the trees. The fire had all but died, and now in its smoldering ruin sat the coffeepot, steam rising languorously from its spout. The doctor gave a soft clap of his hands and desultorily asked how I had slept.
“Very well, sir,” I said.
“Why do you lie, Will Henry? Have you never heard that a person who will lie about the smallest of things will have no compunction when it comes to the largest?”
“Yes, sir,” I said.
“‘Yes, sir.’ Again with the ‘yes, sir.’ What have I told you about that?”
“Yes . . .” I hesitated, but now I was somewhat committed. “. . . sir.”
“Come, I’ve found a suitable spot.”
A suitable spot for what? I followed him a few yards into the trees, where I found a shallow trench; the camp shovel lay abandoned beside it.
“Finish up and be quick about it, Will Henry. You may break your fast afterward. If Sergeant Hawk is correct and not indulging in some wishful thinking, we may reach Sandy Lake before sundown.”
“We’re going to bury him?”
“We can’t very well bring him with us, and it wouldn’t do to leave him here exposed to the elements.” He sighed. His steamy breath roiled in the cold air. “I had hoped the morning light would reveal more clues as to what happened to him, but there’s little else I can do without the proper equipment.”
“What did happen to him, sir?”
“It appears from the evidence that someone impaled him upon the broken trunk of a hemlock tree, Will Henry,” he said dryly. “Snap to now! Remember, he that would have fruit must climb the tree.”
And many hands make light work, I thought as I snapped to with the shovel. The handle was half the length of a proper shovel’s, the ground was rocky and unyielding, and blisters soon formed on my hands and a dull ache set in between my shoulders. From the campsite I heard my companions arguing—Hawk must have gotten up—their disembodied voices sounding ethereal and tinny in the labyrinthine halls of the arboreal cathedral.
Presently I spied them stumbling along the crooked path toward me, bearing between them the body of poor Larose, the sergeant holding the upper half, Warthrop the legs. Hawk, who was forced by the narrowness of the passage to walk backward with the load, lost his balance on the dew-slick ground and fell, pulling the body sideways and down as the doctor remained upright. The gash inflicted by Warthrop the night before split wide with a sickening crunch, and the corpse broke completely in two. The top half came to rest in Hawk’s lap, the head with its shock of red hair nestled in the crook of Hawk’s neck, the open mouth pressed under the sergeant’s jaw in an obscene mockery of a kiss. Hawk dropped the torso, scrambled to his feet, and cursed Warthrop roundly for his failure to “go down” with him.
As the possessor of the sole shovel, the honors of the dead guide’s internment fell to me. Hawk grew impatient; he seemed nearly mad with the desire to quit this part of the forest. He fell to his knees beside the grave, dragging handfuls of earth into the hole, all the while muttering obscenities under his breath. Then he collapsed against a tree trunk, his gasps all out of proportion to the difficulty of his efforts.