The Curse of the Wendigo
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“Someone should say something,” he said. “Do we have anything to say?”
Apparently we did not. The doctor absently wiped bits and pieces of tacky viscera from his duster. I twirled the tip of the shovel in the dirt.
Wearily, with words that struck me as hollowed out of all import, Hawk recited the Hail Mary prayer:
“Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee. . . .”
Something stirred in the bush. A large crow, its ebony body as shiny as obsidian, its black eyes brightly inquisitive, was watching us.
“Blessed is the fruit of thy womb. . . .”
Another crow hopped out from the shadows. Then another. And another. They stood, motionless, balanced upon their skeletal legs, four pairs of depthless black and soulless eyes, watching us. More appeared from the tangle of vine and scrub; I counted a baker’s dozen of crows, a mute congregation, a deputation of the desolation, come to pay their respects.
“Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death.”
Overcome, Hawk began to weep. The monstrumologist—and the crows—did not. The birds commandeered the rite when we left. I looked back and saw them hopping about the makeshift grave, pecking at the offal Warthrop had flicked from his coat.
After a hurried breakfast of dried biscuit and bitter coffee, we broke camp. Though both men were anxious to finish the final leg to Sandy Lake, they recognized the necessity of exploring the clearing and its environs in the daylight, and so for an hour we tramped the grounds, looking for any evidence that might help solve the riddle of our macabre discovery the night before. We found nothing—no tracks, no scrap of clothing, no personal belongings or trace of anything human. It was as if Pierre Larose had dropped from the sky to land in an extremely infelicitous spot.
“It’s not possible,” mused our guide, standing before the broken spine of the hemlock tree.
“It happened, so it must be possible,” replied the monstrumologist.
“But how? How did he heft the body eight feet off the ground like that—unless he stood on something—and if he did, where is it? I’d say there were at least two, maybe more. Hard to imagine a single author to this story. But the more bothersome is not how it was done but why was it done? If I were to murder a man, I would not go to all the trouble of skinning him and heaving him onto a pike. What is the point of that?”
“There seems to be a ritualistic aspect to it,” said Warthrop. “The author, as you call him, might have been getting at something symbolic.”
Hawk nodded thoughtfully. “Larose was in debt to half the town. I’ve dealt with more than one complaint of his swindling.”
“Ah. So perhaps an angry creditor kidnaps him, hauls him miles into the wilderness, skins him—how poetic!—then takes a bite out of his heart.”
Hawk chuckled in spite of himself. “I like it better than the alternative, Doctor. I suspect our friend Jack Fiddler would say the Old One of the Woods got a little clumsy and dropped him from on high!”
The monstrumologist nodded grimly.
“I am very interested in what our friend Jack Fiddler has to say.”
“I Have Come for My Friend”
His real name was Zhauwuno-geezhigo-gaubow—“He Who Stands in the Southern Sky”—or, according to records of the Hudson’s Bay Company, with whom he traded, Maisaninnine or Mesnawetheno, Cree for “a stylish person.”
He was the son of the chief, Peemeecheekag (“Porcupine Standing Sideways”), and he was the tribe’s ogimaa, or shaman, respected to the point of fear by his clansmen for his skill and power, particularly over the evil spirit that possessed his kinsmen in times of famine. He claimed in his lifetime to have killed fourteen of these creatures that “devour all mankind,” the last in 1906—Wahsakapeequay, the daughter-in-law of his brother, Joseph. His reward for this selfless act of altruism was his arrest by the Canadian authorities the following year.
After being convicted of murder and sentenced to death, Jack Fiddler escaped—from prison and from the indignity of the white man’s justice. He carried out the sentence himself. The day following his escape they found him hanging from a tree.
He was a bit shy of his fiftieth year when he met his spiritual brother—Dr. Pellinore Warthrop, expert in the natural philosophy of aberrant species—though in appearance he seemed far older. Season after season in the brutal cold, and the unimaginable hardship and deprivation of the harsh subarctic wilderness, had taken its toll; he appeared closer to seventy than fifty, his skin cracked and laced with deep wrinkles, his face as dark and worn as old shoe leather, in which the eyes dominated, dark, deep set, intense but kind. His were the eyes of one who has seen too much suffering to take suffering too seriously.
As night fell, we reached Jack Fiddler’s primitive kingdom hacked out of the Canadian bush on the shores of Sandy Lake, after the most grueling day of our long trek from Rat Portage, pushed by Warthrop’s eagerness and Hawk’s unease to the limit of our endurance. The latter’s agitation grew as the day aged, his eyes flitting back and forth along the trail, seeing menace in every shadow, bad omens in even the most minor of delays.
“Have you noticed, Doctor,” he said when we halted briefly for lunch, “that we haven’t seen a single animal since leaving Rat Portage? Not a moose or a deer or a fox or anything. Nothing but birds and insects, but I don’t count them. I’ve never been up in these woods without seeing something. Even the squirrels—this is the busiest time of year for the squirrels—but not even a squirrel!”
Warthrop grunted. “We haven’t exactly been as quiet as church mice, Sergeant. Still, I agree it is unusual. They say the animals of the island rushed pell-mell into the sea just before Krakatoa blew.”
“What do you mean?”
The monstrumologist was smiling. “Perhaps a great disaster is upon the horizon and we are the only animals stupid enough to remain.”
“Are you saying a moose is smarter than us?”
“I am saying a larger brain comes with a price. Our better instincts are oft put down by our reason.”
“Well, I don’t know about that. But there is something odd about it. Now, a single wolf will clear the woods for miles—but what is there that will chase a wolf away?”
If the doctor had an answer to that, he kept it to himself.
As the sun sank into the dark waters of the lake, painting the surface with fiery bars of expiring light, a group of elders appeared at the shore to meet us. Our arrival, it appeared, was not unexpected. We were greeted with great solemnity and were offered fresh fish and cured venison, which we gratefully accepted, supping by the roaring fire a stone’s throw from the lakeshore, with the gift of warm blankets thrown over our laps, for the temperature plunged dramatically with the quitting of the sun. The entire village turned out for the meal—though we were the only ones eating. The villagers stared with intense, if mute, curiosity. White people were a highly uncommon sight this deep in the backcountry, Hawk explained; even the missionaries rarely visited here, and the few that did left heavyhearted. It seemed the Sucker people had no worries about the fate of their immortal souls.
They knew Sergeant Hawk and spoke to him in their tongue. I could make out hardly any of it, of course, except the words “Warthrop,” “Chanler,” and “Outiko.” The adults kept a respectable distance, but the children gave in to their fascination, easing closer and closer until they had clustered around us, and one by one they reached out with hesitant fingers and stroked my white skin and felt the coarse wool of my jacket. An elderly woman rebuked them, and they scampered away.
Another, much younger, woman—one of the shaman’s wives, I later learned—escorted us to the wigwam of our host, a dome-shaped structure composed of woven mats and birch bark. The shaman was alone, sitting upon a mat near the small fire in the wigwam’s center, wearing a wide-brimmed hat, and draped in a ceremonial blanket.
“Tansi, Jonathan Hawk,” he greeted the sergeant. “Tansi, tansi,” he said to Warthrop, and waved us to sit beside him. Our sudden appearance in his village did not seem to faze him in the least, and he regarded the doctor and me with mild curiosity and little else. Unlike many of their displaced, hounded, and murdered brethren, the Sucker clan had been, but for the occasional visit from the well-meaning but misguided missionary, left alone by the European conquerors.
“I heard of your coming,” he said to Hawk, who translated for our benefit. “But I did not expect you to return so soon, Jonathan Hawk.”
“Dr. Warthrop is a friend of Chanler’s,” said Hawk. “He is ogimaa too, Okimahkan. Very strong, very powerful ogimaa. He’s killed many Outiko, like you.”
“I have done no such thing,” protested the doctor, deeply offended.
Jack Fiddler seemed bemused. “But he is not Iyiniwok,” he said to Hawk. “He is white.”
“In his tribe, he is called ‘monstrumologist.’ All evil spirits fear him.”
Fiddler squinted in the smoky light at my master. “I do not see it. His atca’k is hidden from me.”
His fathomless dark eyes lighted upon me, and I squirmed under their quiet power.
“But this one—his atca’k is bright. It soars high like the hawk and sees the earth. But there is something . . .” He leaned toward me, studying my face intently. “Something heavy he carries. A great burden. Too great for one so young . . . and so old. As old and young as misi-manito, the Great Spirit. What is your name?”
I glanced at Warthrop, who nodded impatiently. He seemed annoyed that the renowned medicine man had taken an interest in me.
“Will Henry,” I answered.
“You are blessed by misi-manito, Will Henry,” he said. “And a heavy burden is this blessing. Do you understand?”
“Don’t you dare say no,” the doctor whispered ominously in my ear. “I didn’t come two thousand miles to discuss your atca’k, Will Henry.”
I nodded my counterfeit assent to the old Iyiniwok.
“What he loves does not know him, and what he knows cannot love,” said the ogimaa. “Eha, like misi-manito—that which loves, which love knows not . . . I like this Will Henry.”
“I understand it’s a nearly inexhaustible topic, but if we are quite finished singing Will Henry’s praises, can we get to the point, Sergeant?” asked the doctor. He turned to Jack Fiddler. “Pierre Larose is dead.”
Fiddler’s expression did not change. “I know this.”
“That is not what you told me, Okimahkan,” said Hawk, startled by the admission. “You told me you didn’t know where Larose was.”
“For I did not know. We found him after you left us, Jonathan Hawk.”
“What happened to him?” Warthrop demanded.
“The Old One called to him—Wi-htikow.”
The doctor groaned softly. “I understand, but my question is why was he mutilated and left for carrion? Is this the way of your people, Jack Fiddler?”