The Curse of the Wendigo
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I was considering pulling off my heavy wool overcoat when Warthrop called to me, “Look over there, Will Henry.”
Several black specks floated high over the treetops, rotating majestically on the updrafts. Buteos, Sergeant Hawk had called them.
“Snap to now!” said the doctor, making straight for them. “Where there are scavengers, there is carrion, Will Henry, or soon-to-be carrion! We may dine like kings tonight if we hurry!”
And hurry we did, pushing our way through the stubborn snow, our protesting muscles fighting against the creepers and scrub that lay buried beneath the snowpack. We were out of breath and near the end of all endurance when we reached the spot over which the scavengers patrolled—a towering white pine, upon whose upper branches several of their fellows perched, as serene as church deacons clustered about their afternoon repast.
Their meal hung tangled in the uppermost branches. His arms were outstretched and his legs together, like Christ crucified, and his head rested on one shoulder, the eyeless sockets looking toward the indiscernible horizon. He looked very small from our vantage point forty feet below, no larger than I. He looked like a child who had in fun climbed a tree and gotten stuck near the top, able to climb no higher and too fearful to scamper down.
I could see the shiny brass buttons of his open coat, his shredded shirt fluttering in the high wind, and the ropy snarl of his frozen intestines, glittering in the sunlight. While I watched, a buzzard turned its tonsured head toward the man’s face, cocking it in that curiously obscene gesture of scavengers, and tore the tongue from his open mouth.
We had found our lost guide.
“Can you do it, Will Henry?” the doctor asked.
“I think so, sir.”
“No. Not ‘think so.’ Can you do it?”
I nodded, feigning confidence. “Yes, sir.”
I slung the coil of rope over my shoulder and began the arduous climb. The skin of the pine was slick, the branches thick toward the bottom but tapering as I rose.
“Get to one side, Will Henry, not below him. He’s bound to be frozen stiff, so it won’t be easy. . . . Careful there! Watch what you’re doing, boy. That branch is cracked—I can see it from here! Carefully, Will Henry, carefully!”
The wind tugged at my shoulders; it sliced at my cheeks; it sang in my ears. I kept my eyes on my quarry; I did not look down. I paused to rest with my head level with the bottom of his boots, arms aching, with feet too numb to feel the slender branch beneath them.
“Higher, Will Henry,” the monstrumologist called up. “And to the side. He’ll come down right on top of you from there!”
I nodded, though I doubted he could see my assent. Three feet more, and now I was level with the torso. His entire chest cavity had been opened up. Ice crystals glittered like jewels festooning his ribs, lining the walls of his ripped-open stomach; his lungs looked like two enormous multifaceted diamonds; his frozen viscera shone as brightly as wet marble. It was terrible. And it was beautiful.
I climbed higher. With his outstretched arm brushing the top of my head, I looked up into the face of Jonathan Hawk—or what was left of it. How much does our expression rely upon our eyes! Without them, can one tell fear from wonder, joy from sorrow? His nose had been torn off—like his tongue, digesting in the bellies of the birds who had returned to the cloudless sky, with not so much as a protesting squawk at my intrusion. They were patient; the meat wasn’t going anywhere, or if it did, there would be more meat somewhere else. There was always meat.
“No, no, no!” The doctor’s voice floated up to me, puny and feeble in the thin air, competing with the singing wind. “Not around his waist, Will Henry! Throw the loop around his neck!”
With one hand clinging to a branch that bowed dangerously low, I reached up with the rope and dropped the hastily fashioned noose over Sergeant Hawk’s head.
The buteo had not gotten all of his tongue. A sliver the size of my little finger hung over the lower lip, still attached at the root. This the shredded tongue that had sung the words “J’ai fait une mâtresse y a pas longtemps.” These the frozen lungs that had given the words breath. This the icy heart that had given them meaning.
“Will Henry, what the devil are you doing up there? Come down at once. Snap to, Will Henry. Snap to.”
I dropped the rope down to him. Arduously slow was my descent to earth. The sergeant’s was much faster—a hard yank on the rope, and the body dropped, as fixed as a statue, to land faceup with a muffled whump! in the snow. The doctor went to his knees beside the fallen man. He wanted to examine the body before the light failed. He may have been looking for similarities between Hawk’s injuries and those of Pierre Larose. I cannot say for certain, for he did not communicate his intent to me. He may have simply been curious in the professional sense. I’d seen enough, so I did not watch. High in the tree, I had also seen something else, something that was almost as exhilarating to me as a corpse was to a monstrumologist.
I had turned my head to follow Hawk’s “gaze” and had seen it, painted a glimmering gold by the dying sun—a broad lake in the distance and, upon its far shore, Wauzhushk Onigum, the town of Rat Portage.
He had kept his promise, high in the tree that the Haudenosaunee tribe called the Tree of Great Peace. He had shown us the way home.
It was our last night in the wilderness and it was our worst night in the wilderness. The temperature plunged with the sun; it could not have been much higher than zero, and we had no means to make a fire. We piled snow around the tent to help insulate it before crawling inside, though the doctor left me for a while alone with Chanler, whose condition deteriorated with each passing hour. His face had turned the color of ash, and the only signs of life were the tiny explosions of breath condensing in the frigid air. I feared all our hardships had been for naught. I feared John Chanler would not live out the night.
Warthrop had told me to stay with him. That order I disobeyed. The doctor was gone too long. After all, something had killed Pierre Larose and Jonathan Hawk.
I found him standing ankle-deep in the snow, contemplating the staggering profusion of stars, their gift a silvery infusion of light, transforming the forest into a glittering jewel.
“Yes,” he said softly. “What is it?”
“I didn’t know what happened to you, sir.”
“Hmm? Nothing happened to me, Will Henry.”
Sergeant Hawk lay where he had landed, with arms outstretched, as if he had frozen while making a snow angel.
“Except that somewhere along the trail I misplaced my good sense,” the doctor continued. “Why didn’t I think to climb a tree to have a look around?”
“Is that what you think happened?”
“Well, he didn’t fly up there, I’m nearly certain of that.”
“But why didn’t he come down again?”
He shook his head. He pointed at the sky. “See there? Orion, the hunter. Always has been my favorite. . . . Something prevented him, obviously. Perhaps some predator. He ran off without his rifle, the fool. Or perhaps he was afraid of heights, and froze in terror. ‘Froze.’ Well. That’s a poor choice of words.”
“But what could have torn him open like that?”
“Postmortem injuries, Will Henry. From the buzzards.”
I took a moment to think—always the best course when talking with Pellinore Warthrop. He made you pay when you didn’t.
“But he wasn’t holding on to anything. He was facing out, and his arms were out, like this, like he had been . . . hung there.”
“What are you suggesting, Will Henry?”
“I’m not, sir. I was asking. . . .”
“Forgive me. It is quite cold, and sound carries differently in the cold, but I did not hear you ask anything.”
“It’s nothing, sir.”
“I suppose you meant to observe that his position does not fit the premise that he climbed the tree, for whatever purpose. I would argue the observation is irrelevant, since the only way he could have gotten up there is to have climbed. I was right all along. He left our camp looking for the way out—and found it. Just in time for us—and too late for him.
“The more important question is what killed him. The damage from the scavengers makes that question a bit difficult to answer, so for now my guess would be exposure. Sergeant Hawk froze to death.”
I bit my lip. No living man would have turned around like that. None but a madman would have hung himself in such a manner forty feet from the ground. And that observation seemed entirely relevant to me.
That was the night it came for us, for we had offended it. We had taken what it had claimed for itself.
It came for us, the one who came before words, the Nameless One given countless names.
The monstrumologist was the first to hear it. He nudged me awake, and pressed a hand over my mouth. “There is something outside,” he whispered, his lips brushing my ear.
He released me and slid toward the opening of the tent. I saw him crouching a foot away, and I saw the shape of the rifle in his hand. I heard nothing at first, only the far-winding lamentation of the wind high in the trees. Then I heard it, the distinct sound of something large crunching through the frosted snowpack.
It could be a bear, I thought. Or even a moose. It sounded much too large to be a man. I leaned forward, trying to locate the sound’s origin. It seemed close at first, perhaps no farther than a few feet in front of us, and then I thought, No, it is way off in the trees behind us.
The monstrumologist motioned for me to come closer. “It appears our yellowed-eyed friend has returned, Will Henry,” he whispered. “Stay here with John.”
“You’re going out there?” I was appalled.
He was gone before the question was done. I scooted into the spot he’d vacated and watched him ease carefully toward the trees, the outline of his form exquisitely distinct against the pristine snowbound backdrop. Now the only sound was the doctor’s boots, breaking through the thin upper crust of the snow. That and the excited respirations of John Chanler behind me, like a man after a long uphill trek. I squinted into the silvery light, scanning the woods for the yellow eyes. So complete was my concentration, so utterly focused was I upon the task that I thought nothing when Chanler began to mutter in his delirium the same nonsense he’d been droning off and on for days. “Gudsnuth nesht! Gebgung grojpech!” My heart quickened, for the doctor had drifted completely out of sight, leaving me with only the sound of Chanler’s gurgling drivel for company. If he would only be quiet, then perhaps I could at least hear the doctor! I glanced behind me.
He was sitting up, the top half of the old blanket pooled in his lap. His gray flesh, slick with sweat, shone in the semidarkness. The eyes were open—grotesquely oversize in his emaciated face, and bright yellow, the pupils as small as pinpricks—from which dribbled ocherous tears the consistency of curd.
My first instinct, rooted in our recent past—the outcome the last time our eyes had met—was to run, to put as much distance between us as possible, certainly a response the doctor would not have approved of, given the circumstances. What I might have been running toward might have been far worse than what I ran from.