The Curse of the Wendigo
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Warthrop nodded. “Asleep—or unconscious. He has to be exhausted. I don’t think he’ll get up again.”
“But why did he—”
“Delirium, Will Henry. Obviously.”
He absently picked the needles of wolf’s claw that had adhered to his palm and flicked them into the fire, where they sparked for an instant and died. As bright as stars, then gone.
“We’ll wait an hour more after sunrise,” he said. “Then we’ll press on. If we are doomed to perish here, I would rather die looking for the way home than sit here like rabbits paralyzed with fear.”
Over the comforting crackle of our fire, the wind whistled, a melancholy sigh, a song of lamentation.
The doctor lifted his face and said, “There is a storm coming.”
It arrived just before dawn. The wind dove down, driving ahead of it the first heavy snowfall of the season. By eight o’clock, when we broke camp, two inches of fresh powder lay upon the ground. It continued throughout that day, and we shunned the clearings, for our protection lay under the arms of the forest. In the open spaces the snow furiously swirled into blinding white maelstroms in which we were no more substantial than ghosts. By two o’clock more than a foot had fallen, and there was no sign of the snow abating. We stumbled over buried root and bumped into each other in the murk, trudging through a trackless maze. Too cold and too numb to speak, we lowered our heads against the freezing wind, and stopped only to relieve ourselves and fill our canteens with snow. I now carried both rucksacks and Hawk’s rifle. Our provision bag had long ago been discarded.
My mind darkened with the day. By four, the storm had all but murdered the light, but the doctor pushed on, saying, “A little farther, a little farther.”
With light nearly gone, all at once we happened upon some half-obscured tracks cutting across our path—human footprints—and immediately my fatigue melted away, replaced by unutterable joy. Fresh prints! The world had not swallowed up all humanity; here was proof we were not alone in the vastness. They snaked across our path, going from right to left, two pairs, one noticeably smaller than the other, small enough to be the footprints of a child. The significance of this hit the doctor first.
“Oh, no, Will Henry. No!”
He fell against a tree. Ice had formed in his whiskers; snow frosted his eyebrows. Other than his rosy cheeks and bright red nose, his face was horribly drawn and pale, the wrinkles in his forehead cavernously deep.
“They’re ours,” he murmured. “We have been walking in circles, Will Henry.”
He slowly slid to the ground, cradling his charge in his lap. I stood next to him, buried to my ankles in snow, and so great was the loss in his eyes that I turned away. Around us the forest had been blasted white, and the snow continued to fall, flakes the size of quarters, a heartbreakingly beautiful landscape. Suddenly my eyes welled with tears—not tears of sorrow or despair but tears of hatred, of rage, of a loathing that rose from the very depths of my soul. The doctor had been wrong. His true love was not indifferent. She rejoiced in the brutality of her nature. She savored our slow, torturous death. There was no mercy, no justice, not even a purpose. She was killing us simply because she could.
“It’s all right, sir,” I said through my chattering teeth. “It’s all right. We’ll set up camp here. I’ll make the fire now, sir.”
He gave no reply. I might as well have tried to console the tree. I found my own consolation, however, in the task itself, the mindlessness of gathering the kindling for the fire (a chore that proved more challenging than usual in the three-foot drifts), clearing a spot well away from any tree, piling up the damp wood. The wind worked against me, the wind and the wet wood, for barely had I lit the match when it was a smoldering, impotent wick. Warthrop appeared beside me, jerking his head toward Chanler. “I’ll do it; watch him.”
“I can do it, sir,” I said stubbornly. “I know how.”
“Do as I say!” He grabbed at the box, and it flipped out of his fingers as I pulled back. The matchsticks cascaded onto the snow, and the monstrumologist cursed loudly, his voice strangely muffled, stamped down by the wind.
“Now see what you’ve done!” he cried. “Go! Fetch the tinderbox from the sergeant’s rucksack. Snap to, Will Henry!”
I found no tinderbox in Hawk’s gear. I turned over the contents of the doctor’s rucksack next. Nothing. My heart sped up. What had happened to it? When was the last time I’d seen it? Was it the night the sergeant disappeared? Had Hawk taken the tinderbox with him, and if so, why?
I felt someone come up behind me. Crouching in the snow, I craned my neck around. The doctor had stopped a few feet away. I could barely see him in the glimmering twilight.
“Well, Will Henry?”
“I can’t find it, sir.”
“It must be there.”
“I thought so too, sir, but it isn’t. You can look for yourself if you like.”
“I would not.” I could not see his face. I could not read his tone. Somehow that made it worse.
“If we had a knife,” I began, “we could whittle a stick and—”
“If we had a knife, I would cut your throat with it.”
“It isn’t my fault, sir. The wind . . .”
“I left it to you. I thought such a simple thing as lighting a campfire would not be beyond even your limited capacity.”
“You dropped the matches,” I pointed out, trying to keep my voice level.
“And you lost our tinderbox!” he roared.
“I didn’t lose it!”
“Then it hopped out of the rucksack and took off into the woods on its own little legs!”
“You’re the one who decided to break camp in this!” I hollered back. “We should have stayed where we were! Now we’re lost and we’re going to freeze to death.”
He was upon me in two strides. His hand went back. I tensed myself to receive the blow. I did not flee. I did not cower. I froze, and waited for him to hit me.
The hand dropped to his side.
“You disgust me,” he said. He turned on his heel and strode to the pitiful pile of sticks. He sent them flying with a violent kick.
“You disgust me!” he repeated. “Only the intelligent can afford to be so judgmental. Who are you to question my decisions? You thickheaded sycophantic piece of snot. I’ve dissected worms with larger brains than yours! You’ve been nothing but a burden to me, an albatross around my neck. . . . God damn your parents for dying and foisting your despicable carcass upon me. ‘It’s all right, sir! I’ll make the fire now, sir.’ You make me sick. Everything about you is repulsive, you nauseating, worthless mealymouthed half-wit!”
Now he was but a lighter shadow among darker ones, a maddened wraith.
“The only use left for you . . . the one useful thing you could do is die. We could live a week off your miserable hide, couldn’t we, John? You would like that, wouldn’t you, Chanler? Tastier than moss. It’s what you really crave, isn’t it? The Outiko has called you. The Outiko has you now. Isn’t that so? Will Henry, be a dear and give him another taste!”
He fell down. One moment he was standing, railing as loudly as the wind that whipped his long, unkempt hair. The next he was on his knees in the snow. His voice fell with him.
“Snap to now, Will Henry. Snap to.”
I did—with the tent. I drove the stakes, tied off the lines, flung the weathered canvas over the poles. Then I dragged Chanler inside while the monstrumologist wallowed in his own malaise, in the spot where he’d collapsed. It was slow work in the dark—and absolute was that dark—slow work with senseless hands and freezing feet. Chanler was so still that I placed my hand beneath his nose to make sure he breathed. I remained inside the tent with him for some time, shivering uncontrollably, huddled against his filthy and stinking blanket, breathing shallowly the foul atmosphere of a dying man. I must have dozed off, for the next thing I knew Warthrop was sitting beside me. I kept my eyes closed, pretending to sleep. I was not afraid of him. I was too hungry, too cold, too empty to feel anything. Terror had given way to a soul-numbing lassitude. I felt nothing—nothing at all.
Gently he pulled my hands into his. His warm lips touched my knuckles. He blew onto my dead flesh. He vigorously rubbed my naked hand between his. Feeling began to return, and with it a measure of pain, the proof of life. He crossed my hands over my chest and pushed his body against mine, wrapping his long arms around me. I felt the delicious warmth of his breath against my neck.
He’s just using you, I told myself. He’s just using you to keep from freezing.
My parents had died in a fire. They had burned alive. Now I would die of cold. They by fire, I by ice. In the arms of the man who was responsible for both. A man to whom I was nothing but a burden.
You are young, he had told me. You have yet to hear it call your name.
I think now he was wrong. I think it had already called my name.
And now it lay with its arms enfolding me.
“The Real Danger”
We awoke to a world of dazzling white. The clouds that had lingered for untold days were torn away by the relentless wind, and dawn arrived on the wings of a sapphire sky. Our few fitful hours of rest had done little to relieve our exhaustion; we stumbled from the tent and surveyed this new world with dead expressions, like scarecrows contemplating the immense autumnal firmament.
Warthrop pointed off to his left. “Do you know what that is, Will Henry?” he asked in a raw voice.
I squinted along the line of his finger. “What?”
“Unless I am very much mistaken, that is what men call the sun. Which rises in the east, Will Henry, which means that way is west, that north, and that south!”
He clapped his hands. The sound was very loud in the sanctuary stillness of the forest.
“Here we go! It’s much colder, but much brighter, isn’t it? We’ll make good time now, and no going in circles this day! Snap to and let’s pack up, Will Henry.” He noticed my staring at him. “What is it? What’s the matter? Don’t you see? We’re going to make it!”
“We’re still lost,” I pointed out.
“No, we are not,” he insisted. “We’ve merely misplaced ourselves!” He forced himself to laugh—a ludicrous mimic of a laugh. “I don’t see you smiling. It is so rare that I attempt witticism, Will Henry—smiling might encourage it.”
“I don’t want to encourage it,” I replied. I kneeled to pull a stake from the ground.
“I see. You’re still smarting from last night. You know I don’t really mean those things I said. I have always attested to your usefulness, Will Henry. You have ever been indispensable to me.”
“It’s what I live for, sir.”
“Now you are being facetious.”
I shook my head. I was sincere.
It was not the carefree stroll the monstrumologist had envisioned. The snow was piled five feet deep in places, drifts as high as my head, into which I would drop to my waist, and I’d be forced to wait helplessly for the doctor to set down Chanler and pull me out. We stopped at midday, shoveling handfuls of snow into our parched mouths, and I endured twenty minutes of Warthrop whining on about snowshoes, wondering if, without doing anything about it, we might be able to fashion some from sticks. The sunlight hardly alleviated the cold; the deep snow made every step more a matter of willpower than strength. We were headed in the right direction, but could still have been scores of miles from civilization. I stopped caring. By midafternoon an enormous lethargy overwhelmed me. All I wanted to do was curl up and go to sleep. I even stopped feeling cold. Indeed, I began to sweat beneath my layers.