The Curse of the Wendigo
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* Reproduced in the front matter of this book.
“Logic sometimes breeds monsters.”
“FOR THE PANIC OF THE WILDERNESS HAD CALLED TO HIM IN THAT FAR VOICE—THE POWER OF UNTAMED DISTANCE—THE ENTICEMENT OF THE DESOLATION THAT DESTROYS.”
“What Am I, Will Henry?”
I do not wish to remember these things.
I wish to be rid of them, to be rid of him. I set down the pen nearly a year ago, swearing I would never pick it up again. Let it die with me, I thought. I am an old man. I owe the future nothing.
Soon I will fall asleep and I will wake from this terrible dream. The endless night will fall, and I will rise.
I long for that night. I do not fear it.
I have had my fill of fear. I have stared too long into the abyss, and now the abyss stares back at me.
Between the sleeping and the waking, it is there.
Between the rising and the resting, it is there.
It is always there.
It gnaws my heart. It chews my soul.
I turn aside and see it. I stop my ears and hear it. I cover myself and feel it.
There are no human words for what I mean.
It is the language of the bare bough and the cold stone, pronounced in the fell wind’s sullen whisper and the metronomic drip-drip of the rain. It is the song the falling snow sings and the discordant clamor of sunlight ripped apart by the canopy and miserly filtered down.
It is what the unseeing eye sees. It is what the deaf ear hears.
It is the romantic ballad of death’s embrace; the solemn hymn of offal dripping from bloody teeth; the lamentation of the bloated corpse rotting in the sun; and the graceful ballet of maggots twisting in the ruins of God’s temple.
Here in this gray land, we have no name. We are the carcasses reflected in the yellow eye.
Our bones are bleached within our skin; our empty sockets regard the hungry crow.
Here in this shadow country, our tinny voices scratch like a fly’s wing against unmoving air.
Ours is the language of imbeciles, the gibberish of idiots. The root and the vine have more to say than us.
I want to show you something. There is no name for it; it has no human symbol. It is old and its memory is long. It knew the world before we named it.
It knows everything. It knows me and it knows you.
And I will show it to you.
I will show you.
Let us go then, you and I, like Alice down the rabbit hole, to a time when there still were dark places in the world, and there were men who dared to delve into them.
An old man, I am a boy again.
And dead, the monstrumologist lives.
He was a solitary man, a dweller in silences, a genius enslaved to his own despotic thought, meticulous in his work, careless in his appearance, given to bouts of debilitating melancholia and driven by demons as formidable as the physical monstrosities he pursued.
He was a hard man, obstinate, cold to the point of cruelty, with impenetrable motives and rigid expectations, a strict taskmaster and an exacting teacher when he didn’t ignore me altogether. Days would pass with but a word or two between us. I might have been another stick of dusty furniture in a forgotten room of his ancestral home. If I had fled, I do not doubt weeks would have passed before he would have noticed. Then, without warning, I would find myself the sole focus of his attention, a singularly unpleasant phenomenon that produced an effect not unlike the sensation of drowning or being crushed by a thousand-pound rock. Those dark, strangely backlit eyes would turn upon me, the brow would furrow, the lips tighten and grow white, the same expression of intense concentration I had seen a hundred times at the necropsy table as he flayed open some nameless thing to explore its innards. A look from him could lay me bare. I spent many a useless hour debating with myself which was worse, being ignored by him or being acknowledged.
But I remained. He was all I had, and I do not flatter myself when I say I was all that he had. The fact is, to his death, I was his sole companion.
That had not always been the case.
He was a solitary man, but he was no hermit. In those waning days of the century, the monstrumologist was much in demand. Letters and telegrams arrived daily from all over the world seeking his advice, inviting him to speak, appealing to him for this or that service. He preferred the field to the laboratory and would drop everything at a moment’s notice to investigate a sighting of some rare species; he always kept a packed suitcase and a field kit in his closet.
He looked forward to the colloquium of the Monstrumologist Society held annually in New York City, where for two weeks scientists of the same philosophical bent met to present papers, exchange ideas, share discoveries, and, as was their counterintuitive wont, close down every bar and saloon on the island of Manhattan. Perhaps this was not so incongruous, though. These were men who pursued things from which the vast majority of their fellows would run as fast as their legs would carry them. The hardships they endured in this pursuit almost necessitated some kind of Dionysian release. Warthrop was the exception. He never touched alcohol or tobacco or any mind-altering drug. He sneered at those he considered slaves to their vices, but he was no different—only his vice was. In fact, one might argue his was the more dangerous by far. It was not the fruit of the vine that killed Narcissus, after all.
The letter that arrived late in the spring of 1888 was just one of many received that day—an alarming missive that, upon coming into his possession, quickly came to possess him.
Postmarked in New York City, it read:
My Dear Dr. Warthrop,
I have it upon good authority that his Hon. Pres. von Helrung intends to present the enclosed Proposal at the annual Congress in New York this November instant. That he is the author of this outrageous proposition, I have no doubt, and I would not trouble you if I possessed so much as a scintilla of uncertainty.
The man has clearly gone mad. I care as little about that as I care for the man, but my fear is not unjustified, I think. I consider his insidious argument a genuine threat to the legitimacy of our vocation, with the potential to doom our work to oblivion or—worse—to doom us to sharing space in the public mind with the charlatan and the quack. Thus, I vouch it is no hyperbole to aver that the very future of our discipline is at stake.
Once you have read this offensive tripe, I am certain you will agree that our only hope lies in delivering a forceful Reply upon the completion of his Presentation. And I can think of no better man to contest our esteemed president’s alarming and dangerous disquisitions than you, Dr. Warthrop, the leading Philosopher of Aberrant Natural History of his generation.
I remain, as always, etc., etc.,
Your Obt. Servant,
A Concerned Colleague
A single reading of the enclosed monograph of Abram von Helrung convinced the doctor that his correspondent was correct in at least one regard. The proposal did indeed pose a threat to the legitimacy of his beloved profession. That he was the best—and obvious—choice to refute the claims of the most renowned monstrumologist in the world required no convincing on anyone’s part. Pellinore Warthrop’s genius included the profound insight that he happened to be one.
So everything was put aside. Visitors were turned away. Letters went unanswered. All invitations were declined. His studies were abandoned. Sleep and sustenance were reduced to the barest minimum. His thirty-seven-page monograph, with the rather unwieldy title, Shall We Doom the Natural Philosophy of Monstrumology to the Dustbin of History? A Reply to the Hon. President Dr. Abram von Helrung upon His Proposal to Investigate and Consider as Possible Inclusions into the Catalogue of Aberrant Species Certain Heretofore Mythical Creatures of Supernatural Origin at the One Hundred Tenth Congress of the Society for the Advancement of the Science of Monstrumology, went through multiple revisions and refinements over that frantic summer.
He enlisted me in the cause, naturally, as his research assistant, in addition to my duties as cook, maid, manservant, laundryman, and errand boy. I fetched books, took dictation, and played audience to his stiff, overly formal, sometimes ludicrously awkward presentation. He would stand ramrod straight with his lanky arms folded stiffly behind his back, eyes focused unerringly upon the floor, chin tilted downward so that his otherwise compellingly dark features were lost in shadow.
He refused to read directly from his paper, so he often “went up” in the parlance of the theater, completely losing track of his argument, thrashing like King Pellinore, his namesake, in the dense thicket of his thoughts in search of the elusive Questing Beast of his reasoning.
At other times he fell into rambling asides that took the audience from the birth of monstrumology in the early eighteenth century (beginning with Bacqueville de la Potherie, the acknowledged father of this most curious of esoteric disciplines) to the present day, with references to obscure personages whose voices had long been stifled in the Dark Angel’s smothering embrace.
“Now, where was I, Will Henry?” he would ask after one of these extended extemporaneities. It never failed that this question came at the precise moment when my mind had wandered to more interesting matters, more often than not to the current weather conditions or the menu for our long-overdue supper.
Unwilling to incur his inestimable ire, I would fumble a reply, blurting the best guess I had, which usually included somewhere in the sentence the name of Darwin, Warthrop’s personal hero.
The ploy did not always work.
“Darwin!” the monstrumologist cried once in reply, striking his fist into his palm in agitation. “Darwin! Really, Will Henry, what does Darwin have to do with the native folklore of the Carpathians? Or the mythos of Homer? Or Norse cosmology? Have I not impressed upon you the importance of this endeavor? If I should fail in this, the seminal moment of my career, not only will I go down in humiliation and disrepute, but the entire house will fall! The end of monstrumology, the immediate and irrevocable loss of nearly two hundred years of unselfish devotion by men who dwarf all those who came after them, myself included. Even me, Will Henry. Think of that!”
“I think it was . . . You were talking about the Carpathians, I think . . .”
“Dear Lord! I know that, Will Henry. And the only reason you know that is I just said it!”
As hard as he threw himself into the task of his oral presentation, more assiduously still did he labor over his written reply, composing at least twelve drafts, each of them in his nearly illegible scrawl, and all of which fell to me to transcribe into readable form, for, if the reply had been delivered to the printer’s in its original state, it would undoubtedly have been wadded up and hurled at my head.
Upon the conclusion of my hours of toil, hunching over my desk like a medieval monk with aching ink-stained fingers and itching, burning eyes, the monstrumologist would snatch the product from my quivering grip and compare it to the original, hunting for the slightest error, which, of course, he would invariably find.
At the end of this Herculean effort, after the printer delivered the finished product and there was little left to do (and little left of the monstrumologist, for he must have lost more than fifteen pounds since the project had begun) but wait for that fall’s convocation, he fell into a profound depression. The monstrumologist retreated to his shuttered study, where he brooded in a gloom both actual and metaphysical, refusing to even acknowledge my halfhearted attempts to alleviate his suffering. I brought him raspberry scones (his favorite) from the baker’s. I shared with him the latest gossip gleaned from the society pages (he held a strange fascination for them) and the local doings of our little hamlet of New Jerusalem. He would not be comforted. He even lost interest in the mail, which I arranged for him, unread, upon his desk, until the desk’s surface was covered as thickly as the forest floor by the leaves of autumn.