The boy’s father was a strong, hard but kind man named Joseph, who built the cabin over ten years ago with his father and brothers. The last shingle was nailed to the cabin’s roof shortly before the boy, whose name was Michael, was born, and Michael’s sister Amber was two years old. Joseph built the cabin for hunting, fishing, and trapping. It sat amongst the pines along the shore of the lake, a full three hours drive outside of town. In the summer, Joseph and his friends and later his wife and family would stay at the cabin for days at a time. During the day they fished trout and pike out of the lake. As evening came they sat on the front porch and watched the sky grow red over the darkening forest, and listened to the loon calls echo off the water. At night, they gathered around the fire pit and cooked sausages over the flames, the children drank steaming cups of hot chocolate with marsh-mellows and Joseph took sips of Scotch whisky from his flask. In the autumn, Joseph came out to the cabin with his younger brother and his father for the moose hunt. They paddled around the lake in the wooden canoe and searched for sign, going ashore to look for fresh scat and tracks. When the sun went down, they retired to the cabin where they sat around the table by lamplight and shared drinks and memories and told jokes while playing cards deep into the night, before laying down to sleep on their cots. They returned to town after a few days, usually with a cow and a calf or two, enough meat to fill two whole freezers. In winter, the water on the lake would freeze over, and Joseph went up on ice-fishing trips. He built a small shack which he dragged out to the middle of the frozen lake, and there his best mate Karl and he hunkered down with poles and hot coffee and moose jerky, and they talked about their families and hockey and growing old, and caught the occasional trout or pickerel. Winter was not the best time to make family trips to the cabin, but the years went on and, as the children grew older and became strong enough to carry a healthy load on their backs and learned to walk with snowshoes, Joseph brought them up to teach them how to ice-fish as well.
The winter before Michael turned ten years old, Joseph brought him to the cabin alone. It was a very special thing and Michael knew it. He always came to the cabin with his sister and his mother, but never alone with his father. He knew that it was because he was growing older and becoming a man. Joseph and Michael spent the first day driving the two and a half hours on the highway, followed by another half hour along the turkey trail leading off from the paved road toward the cabin. The road was plowed of snow, though only roughly, and it proved a challenge for the SUV. Joseph parked at the road’s end, and from there they strapped on snowshoes and walked the rest of the way to the cabin, carrying their supplies in large packs on their shoulders. The walking path was nearly a kilometre long, it required two trips from the SUV to the cabin and back again to carry all the supplies. Michael carried a heavy back pack on his shoulders on each trip and it was hard, but his father showed him how to hold on to the leather straps which hung down from the top of the pack, pulling them down and forward to take the strain off of his lower back. Michael sweated from the tiresome effort, but refused to stop and rest, even when Joseph suggested so. When the second trip was completed, Michael peeled off his wool hat and mittens and removed his parka and collapsed in the chair on the porch, thin steam rising from his sweating body when he unzipped his parka. Joseph smiled at the sight, and he let the boy rest while he unloaded the packs of provisions onto the shelves of the cabin’s pantry. They took the bedspreads and pillows and blankets outside to air on a line, and they beat the dust from the mattresses. They checked for sign of mice and other vermin in the cabin, and set fresh traps using peanut butter as bait.
I thought mice loved cheese, said Michael.
That’s just on TV, said Joseph.
They cooked a big meal of steak and potatoes on the cabin’s wood stove in the evening. Then father and son played Go Fish by lamplight, Joseph taking nips of whisky from his flask. He poured a small taste of the whisky into a cup and offered it to Michael who smelled it and wrinkled his nose.
I know, Joseph said.
It smells like gasoline, Michael said.
Don’t hold it in your mouth, just tip the cup back and swallow quick. You’ll feel the inside of your throat get all hot, so then you make like you’re going to whistle and take a deep breath in, like this… You’ll feel a nice cool feeling all down your throat and then you’ll taste the whisky.
When they laid their heads down at night, the silence of the cabin was as thick as the darkness. Only dim moonlight through the dense pine forest, and the sound of the wind.
The second day was spent on the lake. Joseph showed his son how to test the ice for trouble spots, air pockets, cracks. Michael helped drill the hole through the thick ice and helped his father set up the fishing shack. Joseph drank coffee but Michael preferred hot chocolate. He said he didn’t feel like having any marsh-mellows though, saying they were for little kids, which made Joseph smile. It was a good day. They each caught a fish and both were decent size. The fish they cooked that evening and ate with peas and corn and carrots from the garden back home, and beans in maple syrup from a can.
That night as they sat around the wood stove, Michael asked Joseph to tell him a story. Michael loved hearing his father tell stories of ghosts and monsters and heroes with magic stones and silver bullets, stories about a monkey’s paw or a mad man with a hooked right hand. Joseph was quiet for a minute, thinking about a story to tell his son. He took a deep drink from his flask, breathing in to cool the whisky in his throat. He began his story, and the only sound in the night besides his voice was that of the logs in the fire softly popping and crackling.
The native people, Joseph said, have many legends passed down from generation to generation and from one tribe to another. I’ve told you some of those legends before, like the story of the Sea Lion out at Sibley.
He was Nanna Bijou’s pet, right? Michael asked.
That’s right, his pet and best friend. The Ojibwa legend says that when the Thunder Bird became jealous of the Lion he attacked him and Nanna Bijou. Nanna Bijou thought he’d been betrayed by his friend the Lion and punished him by turning him to stone, where he still stands to this day on the shore of Lake Superior.
I remember you also told me the story of Nanna Bijou being put to sleep.
Yes. He was turned into a great mountain of rock when he allowed the white men who came to this country long ago to find the great silver mine, which the Spirit of the Earth wanted to keep secret.
I like those stories. Did you hear them when you were up north?
Most of those old stories I heard from my father. He grew up in Biscotasing at the time when Grey Owl was still a young trapper throwing hatchets at boxcars, and he knew a lot of Ojibwa people. But yes, I did hear a lot of stories from the folks I met and traveled with up north, and of all those stories the ones that made my heart pound the hardest were those about the wendigo.
The story of the wendigo is not easy to tell because no one for sure knows how it first began or from where these creatures first came. Some elders say they were evil spirits that possessed magical powers, and often took human form to prowl the earth for victims. They were cruel and violent spirits, and the people feared them in the long, dark winters when times were at their hardest. Others didn’t believe they were magic spirits at all, but normal men who became transformed into terrible, blood-thirsty animals.
Like werewolves? asked Michael.
In a way, said Joseph. But a werewolf is usually made when a man is bitten by a wolf. As some legends tell, a wendigo is made when a man eats the flesh of another man. Some believe that when a man eats another, he inherits that man’s power, giving him superhuman strength. Their senses would grow stronger too. They were said to have been able to see in the dark, to smell and hear your breath from a mile away, and sneak up on you with the quiet quickness of a wild cat. The more people a wendigo kills and eats, the stronger it gets. As it becomes more powerful it also becomes more greedy, and it begins to hunt only the strongest, quickest, wisest and most skilled warriors in a tribe, so that it can eat their flesh and gain their power. Do you know about medicine men?
Yeah. They’re like sorcerers or magic men, right?
Yeah. Every tribe has a medicine man, and they all possess magical powers. Now, some legends tell of a wendigo eating the flesh of a medicine man and gaining his magical powers. These become the most dangerous wendigo of all, since they could turn themselves invisible, or walk on air, or change into an animal like a cougar or a bear or an eagle. There are tales of famous warriors who battled these powerful wendigo to protect their villages. Some of these were told to me by men who were told the stories by their uncles and fathers and grandfathers and granduncles, and I’ll tell them to you sometime. But tonight I think I’ll tell you a different story. I’ll tell you the first story I was ever told about the Wendigo, and I think it’s fitting if it’s the first story you hear too.
Not too long ago, maybe around the time when grandpa was growing up in Biscotasing, two trappers were holed up in their cabin. They were young men, brothers, and they would spend half the year at the cabin way out in the woods, once in late summer and once in late winter. They set out their traps and hunted and fished, whatever they caught they ate and skinned. They stretched the skins on wooden hoops in their workshop and hung them to dry, and made the meat into jerky to tide them over. After three months or so, they would load up their canoes with animal pelts and paddle back downriver to the small city where their families lived, and there they would sell their furs in the market and that’s how they made their money. The times of the year they spent at the cabin were the best for hunting and trapping the animals, but it wasn’t always easy, as you know, because of the weather. In the summer, the flies would eat the brothers alive, and the sun would beat down on their backs, cooking them like bacon in a skillet. Their skin would turn so red that people thought they were natives by the time they came back down the river. But the winters were worse. The temperature here is cold, I know, but this was much further north than we are here. The nights would last a long time. It could get as cold as minus fifty degrees and the wind blew the frozen snow on your face so hard and sharp you’d swear the air was full of razor blades. But they would hole up in their cabin, which was as well built as ours is here, and they would stoke up the fire and bundle up in their furs and keep fed on good meats, and they would laugh and tell stories and make it through all right. When their time at the cabin was done and they had all they could carry, they would load their pelts onto a sled and pull it down the frozen river back to the city, back to their families.
One of these cold winter nights the brothers were holed up in the cabin having a helping of jerked meat and hot tea with home made potato vodka on the side. They weren’t in too much of a talking mood that night and were content to watch the flames in the fireplace and listen to the soft howling of the wind outside. Sometimes they would hear the crack of a branch when an owl was perching or taking off, or the light crunching footsteps of an elk stepping through the forest. As you know, it can get deathly silent out here in the middle of winter. When something in the forest does make a sound, you really take notice. They noticed just such a sound coming from off in the woods, tiny and far off. It was a kind of ga-runching sound, like a foot stomping down through deep snow. Ga-runch. Ga-runch. Ga-runch.
Every time Joseph made the sound ga-runch, he stomped his booted foot on the floor of the cabin. Michael jumped a bit when he did this at first but recovered, rapt in his father’s tale.
One brother asked the other if he heard the sound and when he said he did the brother asked what he thought it was. Ga-runch. Ga-runch. It sounds like a bear. Ga-runch. But a bear doesn’t walk like that. Ga-runch. A bear has four legs and it walks more carefully. It sounds, the brother said, more like the way a man walks. Ga-runch. Ga-runch. The sound was steadily growing louder, closer. Not just that, said the brother, it sounds like a man walking without snowshoes. But who would be walking way out here without snowshoes? That’s just crazy. Shhh, shut up a minute, the brother said. Ga-runch, ga-runch, ga-runch. It’s getting real close now. It was really close, sounding louder and louder with each crunching step. Ga-runch, ga-runch, ga-runch, ga-runch, ga-runch. What ever man was walking through the deep snow in the middle of winter in the dark with no snowshoes was going at a pretty good rate, the brothers thought. You would think a man would struggle, maybe even pause to collect his strength after each step, gather the energy to pull his frozen foot out of the knee-high snow before crashing it down again like a lead weight. But this man out there whoever he might be was going along in a steady, strong march. Ga-runch, ga-runch, ga-runch. He must be seven feet tall, one brother said. Ga-runch, ga-runch, ga-runch. With legs made of iron, said the other. Ga-runch, ga-runch, ga-runch. He’s going along the riverbank, one brother said. Ga-runch, ga-runch, ga-runch. He’s coming right by here, said the other. Ga-RUNCH, ga-RUNCH, ga-RUNCH! Grab the gun, one brother said.
They opened the front door of the cabin and looked out at the clearing that sloped gently down to the edge of the river. In the dim moonlight and the warm glow which poured from the cabin, they saw the white blanket of twinkling snow spread out across the clearing and across the river to meet the dense line of dark pine forest on the other side. Above the blackness of the forest, the jagged tops of the pines ended and the sky began, distinguishable from the forest only by the faint glow of the moon and stars. Ga-RUNCH! Ga-RUNCH! Ga-RUNCH! The footsteps were very close now. They came from the brothers’ left, which was north, which was upstream, which was hidden from their sight by the trees that lined the riverbank. The brother held his gun tightly, not raising it yet, but making sure he was ready to if needed. GA-RUNCH! GA-RUNCH! GA-RUNCH! GA-RUNCH! GA-RUNCH! They saw the man now. He came into view from behind the trees, walking down the frozen river. The brothers exhaled with relief, but were also a bit puzzled.
The man was no giant. He appeared, in fact, a touch smaller than the smaller of the two brothers, but it was dark and he was still a good distance from them. He stopped his forward progress when he arrived at the clearing in the trees. He turned towards the light from the cabin and raised a hand to the brothers in a wave. The man was not wearing snowshoes. When his feet plunged into the snow, his shins all but disappeared into white drift up to his knees. The pack on his back was very large and must have weighed a ton, and the brothers silently reckoned it was the reason those footsteps sounded so heavy. He’s no giant, one brother thought to himself, but he must be strong as an ox carrying that thing.
The brothers did not leave their doorway out of caution, but they also did not raise alarm or the rifle. The strange man abandoned his path along the river and approached the cabin across the clearing. The brother waited, choosing to trust the feeling in their guts to tell them what course of action to take.
The man stopped shy a decent twenty feet from the front steps, which placed him in the light from the cabin door, but too far away to do any harm. There, he planted his feet and pulled the hood back on his head. He turned his head up to the brothers. His face was thick with a beard that bore so much snow and ice one might think it was white, but the man looked not much older than the brothers. His skin was red from the cold, but beyond that they could see he was a white man. He appeared exhausted but in good health. His eyes showed no flicker of the insanity that had a tendency to touch those who spent a long time alone in the wild.
You know how I told you about the wild mountain men before?Joseph asked.
Yeah, said Michael.
Well, I don’t really have to tell you that not all of them were wild before they went up into those mountains. A man has to be a bit more wild than you or me to go and live up in the high woods, just like we’re a bit wilder than the average guy who thinks it’s an adventure to put on rubber boots and paddle up a river for an afternoon, or sleep in a tent, or eat a fish they caught themselves. Being a bit wild is what makes life interesting, but being too wild will make you into something else, something dangerous to be feared and kept away from. Any time a strange man walks through the forest and approaches your cabin, you treat him like a bear until you know the cut of his cloth.
The brothers knew this because they were a bit wild themselves, but they had good sense too. They had wives and families back home in town, and they took care to make sure they made it home to them, whole and healthy and with all their marbles. The strange man looked all right at first glance, and so far their guts weren’t tightening up to warn them of something off or rotten. One brother raised a hand in greeting and the other, who was holding the rifle, likewise nodded.
Hey there, one brother said.
Hey yourselves, boys, the stranger said. He said he was happy to see a warm cabin, and even happier to see friendly faces. He told them he had walked down the river for an age, and he had quite a ways to go yet. It would make the rest of his journey a lot easier, he said, if he could rest a while and warm himself.
Now, the brothers were no fools. They were capable and cautious boys, not prone to making bad decisions. They were also kind of heart. Lots of people would be wary to let a stranger into their cabin so late at night and with so much uncertain. They’d never even consider such a thing. There are some people who don’t trust a man as far as they can throw a stone, and choose to believe that every person walking around in this life is only out to better themselves, even if that means causing harm to you or me to get what they want. They walk around with fear in their hearts and suspicion in their eyes. I like to believe that your average person is decent enough and deserves a bit of trust. I tend to think that if you think the best of people then more often than not that’s what they give you in turn. Do you understand?
The brothers decided to go with their guts, which hadn’t given them a good reason not to extend some trust to the stranger, and let him come inside. The stranger was gracious and polite. He let his heavy pack down on the porch and hung his thick coat on the wall by the stove where it could dry. Since the cabin had only one chair for each brother, he happily set himself down on a fur blanket in front of the warm, crackling fire. One brother offered the stranger some of their moose jerky but the stranger kindly declined, producing some dried strips of meat of his own from a leather pouch kept inside his shirt. He did not, however, decline an offer of potato vodka, which he sipped and savoured and thanked the brothers for their hospitality.
One brother asked the stranger where he was headed.
The stranger told him he was following the river south back home. He said that he’d been staying and working with a small tribe at their village a few days journey north. The brothers were aware of the village and about where it lay, but neither had ever traveled that far north before. The cabin was already over a two days journey from their homes, and they had no need to stray further than that. As long as the fishing and trapping stayed good here, the brothers figured they would never have to wander.
Wanting to make friendly small talk, one brother asked about the hunting around the village up north.
The stranger replied that it was fair, but the tribe was struggling.
When the other brother asked why, the stranger grew a bit, well, strange. A stiff silence sat between the three men in the cabin. The fire crackled. Finally, the stranger responded to the other brother’s last question with a question of his own: Either of you ever heard about the wendigo?
One brother, the older, said he’d heard mention of the word, but that he couldn’t recall exactly how it came up or who had said it or why. He said it hadn’t made enough of an impression to stick out in his head. The younger brother just shook his head. He had heard a lot of talk about wind and about people go-ing places, but as far as something called a when-dee-go he had never heard mention.
The stranger took a deep breath in and sipped on his cup of vodka. He bit into his jerky and chewed it silently, appearing to be rolling something over and over in his mind. The brothers got the feeling he was gathering words together like sticks scattered on the ground to make a pile with which to light a fire – that is, to tell a tale. They patiently gave him the time to do so.
When I first arrived at the village months ago, the stranger said, the people of the tribe were wary of me to the point of being afraid, even though it was the sunny days of summer and I didn’t look half as rough as I do now. I barely even wore any beard back then. No matter how politely I spoke to them, or how honest my intentions were, it still took some time before they trusted me. I could see they were a damaged lot, people who’d been through something terrible and were now trying to put the pieces back together. But I did win them over, and they gave me a place to stay, and they shared their food and let me hunt and fish with the men. We all became friends over the autumn. When the snows came, I set my sights on returning to my family’s home, south down the river. I tied together as many furs as I could carry to bring back and sell, thanked the good people for their kindness, and wished them good fortune – better at least than the fortune they’d already gotten. They certainly deserved it.
What terrible thing happened to them? the brother asked, then sat back and waited for the stranger to tell.
When they finally came to trust me, they told me one night around the fire about another man who’d come upon their village some time before I did. It was in the dead of winter, and the strange man showed up one night in an awful state. He was barely alive, the people told me. His coat was torn and tattered and he had wounds all over his face and body like he’d been in a fist fight with a wild cat. He had no mitts or boots, even though he seemed to have been wandering around in the cold for days, and his feet and hands were near black with the bite. They brought him inside and laid him by the fire to warm. They cleaned and dressed his wounds as best they could but they took him for a goner, bad as he was. He had long, wild hair and a grey beard. They said he looked maybe fifty or so, and was skinny as bones. Didn’t die that night, though. Didn’t die the next day, or the next night either. The people kept him warm and cared for his wounds, and they were amazed that by the second night of the stranger’s coming he was almost completely healed, even though the cuts on his body were deep as death. The people were confused and curious about the nature of the stranger’s wounds, but the stranger never woke up, so they had to keep wondering. The only sounds he made for days was the ragged breaths he took in and let out, and sometimes he’d moan a word. It was the same word over and over. Wendigo, he would say.
What is wendigo? A brother asked the stranger.
The stranger said, The people knew the word, but they wouldn’t talk about it. Far as I could tell they believed the word was the name of some thing. Some thing that was evil, and they didn’t seem to like the idea of thinking about it or remembering what happened, let alone talking about it. I didn’t ask them any more because I could see how it upset them, but I did ask them what happened next. They told me that on the third day after he came to them, the stranger disappeared from his bed. A woman from the village was going in to check on his wounds and bring him water in the morning, and found the bed they had made for him empty. No one had seen him leave in the night and they found no tracks in the snow, and the people were even more puzzled. The wise man said that the man was taken in the night by spirits, and the people should be thankful. Since the stranger arrived the wise man had spoken of it as a bad omen, as an arrival of evil to their village. That he had vanished without a trace was a good thing, and the best thing for the people to do was move on and forget the stranger ever happened upon them. Of course the people couldn’t just forget, and some of the people couldn’t help but feel concerned for the poor man’s condition. He’d been next to dying when he came to them after all. So, a few of the people went out to look for him. Those people did not return when it got dark, and were never seen again. The stranger came back, though. A couple of men from the village followed the tracks of those who’d gone out looking and never returned, and they met him out in the forest. The stranger wasn’t weak and near death when they met him this time. Instead, he was very alive and very awake. Although still skin and bones, and still without boots, mitts or a proper coat, the stranger didn’t seem to feel the cold at all. He was covered in blood all down his front. The blood-stained fingers on his hands seemed longer than normal, and his fingernails were like claws. They could see his pink teeth which looked long and pointed like the canines of a wolf. His eyes were yellow – dull, but still seemed to glow in the dim light. This was what the two men said they saw, and the the rest of the people believed them, and so I believed it when they told me. The people did not seem like to type to lie. Didn’t strike me as the type with anything to hide. Anyway, after the two men saw the stranger that night, all yellow-eyed, wolf-toothed and long-clawed, he disappeared into the woods so fast they didn’t even catch what direction he went. The people still think he’s out there somewhere, roaming around like a wild man in the forest. They don’t venture too far from the village to hunt, and they never go alone, and they never go when it’s dark if they can help it. The story sort of got to me, and neither did I while I was staying there with them. Maybe it was just the telling. A good story, whether its true or not, can sure make you uneasy.
That’s true, said one brother.
Nothing more was said for a long while. The telling of this story had set all three of the men ill at ease. The wind howled softly outside and the fire in the stove crackled and popped.
The brothers and the stranger shared another cup of potato vodka and made a bit more small talk before they all agreed it was time to turn in for the night. The stranger had another long day of travel ahead of him and told the brothers he would not bother them in the morning before he left. The brothers were good hosts, and they insisted he have breakfast with them. The stranger agreed. The fire roared with fresh logs as the lamp was blown out. The three men drifted off, and the cabin filled with the heavy quietness of sleeping breath.
One of the brothers woke in the night to a noise in the darkness. The fire had died down to a dull orange glow. The brother looked around but could see no movement in the cabin. He saw his brother lying on his cot a couple metres from him wrapped in furs. He appeared not to have woken to any disturbance, and the brother began to wonder if the noise had merely been in his head. He looked to where the stranger had hunkered himself down beside the wood stove and saw nothing but empty furs. The brother became suddenly scared. His eyes searched the dark of the cabin but saw only shadows, no sign of the stranger anywhere. There were no sounds, not even of breath. The brother quickly but carefully crept from his cot and went to his sleeping brother. He gently shook his brother’s shoulder but he didn’t wake. The brother shook him a bit harder, not willing to make a sound yet. He grew more anxious by the moment and he still saw only shadows around him in the cabin. The stranger had not left, not for good; his fur blankets, his boots and his burden were still sitting against the wall beside the wood stove. He was still here, but not somewhere seen, and that set the brother on such an edge that he began to sweat. His brother’s face was turned away from him and hidden in darkness, so the brother couldn’t see whether he was awake and listening closely or whether he was still wrapped in sleep, so the brother kept shaking him and now began to whisper urgently.
In his growing anxiety and preoccupation with the stranger’s unknown whereabouts, the brother had not taken notice of a fact which now began to dawn on him; his brother was not breathing. He stopped shaking his brother’s shoulder and turned him over in his cot so his face was lit by the dull glow of the stove’s embers. The brother looked at his brother’s face. The air froze in his throat. His eyes were unable to blink. His brother’s neck was a mess of blood and gore. The furs on his bed were soaked through with dark blood. The wound had stopped bleeding, and it was clear he was dead. His face was held in a stiffly gaping expression of horror.
The brother heard a noise from the far corner of the cabin. At first he saw only darkness, but then a figure emerged forth from the shadows. It was the stranger, and at the same time it was not. He stood there, hunched like an animal with shoulders rounded and arms held out. Yet even hunched, he seemed to stand taller than before, like he had grown in size. His mouth was stained with the blood from the brother’s wounded throat. The stranger’s teeth were fangs, his outstretched hands were tipped with sharp and curving claws. His eyes glowed yellow like those of a timber wolf.
Wendigo, the brother whispered.
A moment of stillness, and the creature which had until recently been the stranger leaped at the brother with impossible speed. The brother could not move, could not scream. He simply closed his eyes and waited to feel the claws ripping at his face and chest.
He was roused from sleep by his brother shaking him by the shoulders and saying his name. He came to in a frenzy, gripping his fur blankets close to him and sitting bolt upright on his cot. He scanned the cabin and saw the two them were alone. There was no stranger, no creature with yellow eyes and fangs. There were no strange boots by the front door, or coat hung by the wood stove. They were alone. The stranger had never come. It was all a dream. As this reality settled on his head, the brother calmed down and looked at his brother, who looked back with worry in his eyes. The brother told him he was all right, and told him all about his terrible dream, about the foot steps in the snow and the stranger who told them a story about a tribe up north, and finally about waking up to find the blood and horror.
The brothers laughed and felt the last bits of fear fade away. Neither felt exactly like going back to sleep right away, so they stoked up the fire and heated up some tea and sat a while.
That was when they heard a noise, far and away, coming south down the frozen river through the cold, still night air. It was the sound of heavy feet stomping through deep snow. Ga-runch. Ga-runch. Ga-runch.
Joseph ended his story at that last stomping of his boot on the wood floor of the cabin. He leaned back in his chair and sipped his whisky. Michael’s mind slowly ebbed back to the world around him from the land inside, the land birthed from his imagination and the words of his father. When he did, he realized how tightly he was holding his cup of hot chocolate, now tepid, and he set it down as collectedly as he could muster.
When he could finally put together words in his mouth, he asked Joseph all the questions which were accustomed to follow such a tale such as, Then what happened? and, Was it the stranger? and of course, They weren’t eaten by the wendigo, were they? Otherwise they wouldn’t be able to tell the story, right?
You’re a clever boy, Joesph said. You should know that a good story-teller always leaves you wanting more. Maybe the brothers did meet up with a stranger and maybe that stranger did turn out to be the mythical wendigo monster. Maybe they bested the creature and maybe they didn’t. Maybe one or both of them survived in one piece to tell the story as a warning to others. Then, maybe the story was passed on by the monster itself, as he continued to wander from village to village, taking advantage of the good will of poor, innocent people. Who knows?
You do! Can you tell me more?
Not tonight. It’s late and you need your sleep.
But Michael could not sleep for a long time. The story was a good one and his mind was too full of the poor, kind faces of the brothers and the wicked, yellow eyes of the wendigo. He kept expecting to see them glowing behind the glass of the window of the cabin, but all he saw was the reflecting flicker of fire-light and darkness beyond each time he dared to open his eyes and glance around. Middle of the winter night and all the world was silent except for the reassuring sound of Joseph’s snoring. Michael focused his ears on that sound, the sound of his protector, of his strong and kind father laying there with him in the dark. As he listened, he felt his mind growing quiet. The faces of the brothers and the yellow eyes faded into the ether of dreamy peace, and before he knew it he was drifting off to the soothing embrace of sleep.
He awoke to a noise that may have come from the dream he now could not recall, or it may have occurred in the waking world he now found himself. All Michael knew was that he was awake, and all the world was utter silence. A knot tightened inside of Michael’s stomach as he realized he did not hear his father’s snoring. He heard nothing but the faint crackle of the dying fire. The light inside the cabin was weak and he could see nothing but thick shadows around him. His eyes adjusted, and he was able to pick out his father’s cot and the shape of his father lying under thick blankets. The cabin seemed to be empty, but the image of the stranger with his curved claws and cruel fangs came back to his mind. He was instantly suspicious of each and every dim corner of the cabin.
Michael gathered together every ounce of courage in his body and made his move. Creeping on tip-toe across the wood floor, he came to his father’s cot. Joseph’s body was turned away from Michael and his face was hidden from sight. Michael took a last deep breath and held it in his small lungs. He reached a hand out to touch his father’s shoulder, but before he could, Joseph rolled over onto his back. Michael jerked his hand back with his heart in his throat. Joseph’s arm fell limply over the edge of the cot and hung near Michael’s leg, his eyes were shut and his mouth hung wide open, his head back. He inhaled and a thick snore rumbled from his mouth. He breathed out, and inhaled another giant snore. His breath caught in his throat and Joseph snorted a bit. Then his head turned to the side and he continued to breathe and snore more easily. Michael likewise let out a long exhalation, only his came in the form of a sigh instead of a snore. Joseph’s throat was not ripped out by the wendigo while he slept. All was well. For now.
Michael could not return to sleep. Instead, he went to the front door of the cabin and put on his boots and his coat and his mitts and quietly opened the door. Closing the door as carefully as he could so he wouldn’t wake Joseph, Michael stood on the porch looking out on the landscape. He saw the lawn covered with crisp, fresh snow. He saw the wide, flat blanket of the frozen lake extending far off into the night. He saw the pine branches all around, silent green and grey statues sagging under the weight of frozen fall. His eyes scanned this silent world and he leaned his body against the wall of the cabin, and he listened for sounds in the night which might be the crunch of heavy foot-steps.
~ The End ~