The Curse of the Wendigo
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Warthrop started to speak, and von Helrung cut him off.
“Don’t, Pellinore. It is not John who speaks now. It is the beast.”
“You don’t believe me,” said Chanler. “You haven’t bathed in it yet, that’s all. The minute it sullies your unadulterated ass, you jump into a river, don’t you?”
He coughed, and thick green bile broiled in his mouth and bubbled over his lips. His Adam’s apple bobbed as he swallowed it back down.
“You disgust me,” Chanler said. “Everything about you is repulsive—nauseating—you sickening mealy-mouthed piece of snot.”
The doctor said nothing. If he remembered that he himself had spoken these words before, he did not show it. But I remembered.
“Pellinore, Pellinore, being perfect is such a chore! Do you remember that one?” Chanler asked.
“Yes,” answered the doctor. “One of the kinder ones, as I recall.”
“I should have let you drown.”
Warthrop smiled. “Why didn’t you?”
“Who would I have played my jokes on, then? It was all for show anyway. You didn’t really mean to drown yourself.”
“How do you know?”
“Because I was with you, you stupid bugger. If you’d really meant it, you would have waited till you were alone.”
“An error owing to inexperience.”
“Oh, don’t worry, Pell. You’ll get there. One of these days . . . all of us . . . suffocating in shit . . .”
His eyes rolled toward the ceiling. The lids fluttered. The doctor looked at me and nodded. He’d heard enough. He pointed toward the door. We’ d crossed halfway to the exit when Chanler called out in a loud voice, “It won’t do any good, Pellinore! He’ll finish me before the ambulance leaves the gates!”
The doctor turned. He looked at von Helrung, and then swung his eyes in Skala’s direction.
“What do you think he’s got in his pocket, hmm?” Chanler said. “He’ll have it in my heart the minute you close that door. He pulls it out when nobody’s around and cleans his nails with it—picks his teeth—scrapes the crud off his crusty bunghole.” Chanler was grinning ghoulishly. “Amateur!” he sneered at the stoic Bohemian. “Don’t you know anything? That’s a job for the ogimaa. Are you ogimaa, you stinking immigrant monkey?”
At the use of the Iyiniwok word, Warthrop stiffened. “How do you know that word, John?”
Chanler’s head lolled upon the pillow. The eyes rolled back in their sockets. “Heard it from the man old, the old man in the woods.”
“Jack Fiddler?” asked the doctor.
“Old Jack Fiddler pulled on his pipe, stuck it up his arse, and gave it a light!”
“Pellinore.” Von Helrung touched the doctor’s arm and whispered urgently, “No more. Call the ambulance if you like, but do not push—”
Warthrop shrugged off the hand and strode back to John Chanler’s side.
“You remember Fiddler,” he said to him.
Grinning, Chanler answered, “His eyes see very far—much farther than yours.”
“And Larose? Do you remember Pierre Larose?”
I heard a snatch of the same nonsense he’d spouted in the wilderness, “Gudsnuth nesht! Gebgung grojpech chrishunct.” In a loud voice Warthrop repeated the question, adding, “John, what happened to Pierre Larose?”
Chanler’s demeanor abruptly changed. A look of profound dismay—eyes welling with tears, the fat lower lip quivering like a child’s when confronted by inexpressible loss—transformed his vaguely bestial appearance into one of heart-wrenching pathos.
“‘You don’t go doin’ it, Mr. John,’ he told me. ‘You don’t go peekin’ up the Grand Lady’s skirts. You don’t look in them woods for the things that’re lookin’ for you.’”
“And he was right, wasn’t he, John?” asked von Helrung, for Warthrop’s benefit more than his own. My master shot him a withering look.
“He left me!” Chanler wailed. “He knew—and he left me!” Blood-flecked tears trailed down his hollow cheeks. “Why did he leave me? Pellinore, you’ve seen them—the eyes that do not look away. The mouth that cries on the high wind. My feet are on fire! Oh, good Christ, I am on fire.”
“It called your name,” murmured von Helrung encouragingly. “Larose abandoned you to the desolation—and the desolation called to you.”
Chanler did not reply. His mouth, its sores ripped open by the contortions of his despair, glistened with fresh blood. He stared vacantly at the ceiling, and I remembered Muriel’s remark, He is there . . . and he is not there.
“Gudsnuth nesht. It’s cold. Gebgung grojpech. It burns. Slow down . . . For the love of Christ, slow down. The light is gold. The light is black. What have we given?”
His hand emerged from beneath the covers. His fingers seemed grotesquely long, the nails ragged and encrusted with his own filth. He reached desperately for the doctor, who gathered the withered claw into both his hands—and it was with utter astonishment that I saw tears shining in my master’s eyes.
“What have we given?” Chanler demanded. “The wind says it is nothing to say nothing. In the center, in the beating heart—the pit. The yellow eye unblinking. The golden light black.”
The doctor rubbed his hand, murmured his name. Shaken by the melancholic scene, von Helrung turned away. He crossed his arms over his thick chest and bowed his head as if praying.
“You must take me back,” the broken man pleaded. “Mesnawetheno—he knows. Mesnawetheno—he will pull me out of the shit.” He glared at the doctor with unalloyed animosity. “You stopped him. You stole me from Mesnawetheno. Why did you? What have you given?”
With that question lingering in the air, John Chanler fell back to the fevered dream of the desolation—that gray land where none can save us from the crush of the soundless depths.
Warthrop did not take him back to Mesnawetheno; he took him by ambulance to Bellevue Hospital, leaving me in the care of von Helrung, with instructions—as if he were boarding his horse—that I should be fed and given a proper bath before being put to bed.
“I will come by for him later tonight—or in the morning, if not.”
“I want to stay with you, sir,” I protested.
“I won’t hear of it.”
“Then, I’ll wait for you at the hotel.”
“I’d rather you not be alone,” he said with a perfectly straight face, the man who left me alone for hours—sometimes days—at a stretch.
“What Have I to Live For?”
I supped on warmed-over lentil soup and cold roasted lamb that night, sitting in the von Helrung kitchen with the butler, Bartholomew Gray, who was as kind as he was dignified, and who thoughtfully distracted me from my distress with a hundred questions about my home in New England, and with stories about his family’s progress from slavery in the Deep South to the great “shining city on a hill,” New York. His son, he proudly informed me, was abroad, studying to be a doctor. During my dessert of custard and fresh strawberries, Lilly appeared to rather officiously announce I would be sleeping in the room next to hers and she hoped I didn’t snore because the walls were quite thin and she was a very light sleeper. She still seemed miffed that she had been banished, whereas I had enjoyed an audience with the stricken John Chanler. I thought of her uncle’s gift and the glow in her eye at its macabre contents. I suspected she would gladly have traded places with me.
At a little past one the following morning, my fate caught up with me—the doom that demanded I be disturbed at precisely the moment I was drifting off to sleep. The door to my room opened, revealing the fitful dance of a candle’s flame, followed by Lilly in her dressing gown. Her voluptuous curls had been freed from their ribbons and cascaded down her back.
I pulled the covers up to my chin. I was self-conscious of my appearance, for I was wearing one of von Helrung’s nightshirts and, though he was a small man, he was much larger than me.
We regarded each other for a moment by the flickering candlelight, and then she said without preamble, “He’s going to die.”
“Maybe he won’t,” I answered.
“Oh, no. He’s going to die. You can smell it.”
“That’s why Mr. Skala is keeping watch. Uncle says we have to be ready.”
“Ready for what?”
“You have to be quick, very quick, and you can’t just use anything. It has to be silver. So that’s why he carries the knife. It’s silver plated.”
“What’s silver plated?”
“The knife! The pearl-handled Mikov switchblade knife. So when it happens—” She made a slicing motion over her heart.
“The doctor won’t let that happen.”
“That is very odd, Will—the way you talk about him. ‘The doctor.’ All whispery and fearful—like you’re talking about God.”
“I just meant if there’s any way he can help it, he won’t just let him die.” I confided to her the most striking thing about that most striking scene in the sickroom—the tears in the monstrumologist’s eyes.
“I’ve never seen him cry—ever. He’s come close before”—I am a mote of dust—“but it was always for himself. I think he loves Dr. Chanler very much.”
“Do you? I don’t. I don’t think he loves him at all.”
“Well, I don’t think you know him at all.” I was becoming angry.
“And I don’t think you know anything at all,” she shot back. Her eyes sparkled with delight. “Fell into the Danube by accident! He jumped off and nearly drowned.”
“I know that,” I said. “And Dr. Chanler saved him.”
“But do you know why he jumped? And do you know what happened after he jumped?”
“He got very sick, and that’s when Muriel and John met, over his sickbed,” I said with a note of triumph. I would show her who didn’t know anything!
“That isn’t everything. It’s hardly nothing. They were engaged to be married and—”
“I know that, too.”
“All right, but do you know why they didn’t?”
“The doctor is not constitutionally suited for marriage,” said I, echoing Warthrop’s explanation.
“Then why did he propose in the first place?”
“I—I don’t know.”
“See? You don’t know anything.” She smiled broadly; her cheeks dimpled.
“Okay,” I sighed. “Why did he propose?”
“I don’t know. But he did, and then the next day he jumped off the Kronprinz-Rudolph Bridge. He swallowed a gallon of the Danube and got pneumonia and a case of putrid sore throat, coughing up blood and vomiting buckets of black bile. He nearly died, Uncle said.
“They were madly, desperately in love. They were the item, here and on the Continent. He is quite handsome, when he cleans himself up, and she is lovelier than Helen, so everybody thought it was a perfect match. After Dr. Chanler fished him out of the river, she came and sat by his bed day and night. She called to him, and he called to her, though they sat right beside each other!”