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“As the Wolf keeps count of the Deer so there is one that keeps count of Man.”
– the Repokan
In the winter of 1683, a frontiersman of Swedish descent sits in the light of a tallow candle, a raven feather dipped in ink quivering in his axe-hand above the open pages of his journal.
His winter home is warm with firelight. The wet hide bootprints on the cabin floor track the broken routine of a lone black-powder huntsman, his flintlock musket at hand leans poised against the sill-timber of a window. His bear skin coat, from a charging adult male, hangs from the eye-teeth of its staring trophy head.
A brooding old man of forty odd, he had ditched the boat of homestead, good woman and heir to travel inland on foot and steed, many years ago, heeding the call of a solitary life.
He reads the last of his entries, reacquainting himself with the life he knew only a season before, but he no longer recognises in it the tone, the God-fearing faith or the hope:
October 21st, 1682.
I have scouted the area for the better part of 2 months now and have settled on building a permanent shelter here in the Blue Ridge Mountains, on a somewhat narrow plateau, roughly 600 metres from the crest line and a 2 day trek east down to the trading post of Foeblood on the Delaware River. I pray this is a wise decision. I share the bounty of these mountains with the Repokan, the native people of these areas. Though we respect each other from a distance I have had opportunities to learn a little of their language and have no reason to think they are not appreciative.
Let me apologise now if I am a little lax with my journaling in the forthcoming days. There is much work to be done and these moments are a guilty pleasure.
December 30th, 1682.
January 1st, 1683.
Lord, I pray this year will be a good year and the Winter will pass without incident.
January 6th, 1683.
The storm has been unrelenting for 4 days now. I am thankful I finished the cabin and had 3 days of peace in which to enjoy my labours before it set in. I am still hopeful this year will be good to me and Sleipnir.
January 13th 1683.
Nothing sleeps this Winter, Not even the black bear.
January 16th, 1683.
I now truly understand why the Repokan call the winter winds The Hungry Wolves. Mauling and wiry, they twist and turn their snowy coats over all the fat of this land. I have dug out my traps from 3 feet of snow and reset them. The deadfalls can wait, I will see to them upon my return. Though they are getting bolder, there will be nothing here for the black bear but my stink. Yes, I have decided to venture down to Foeblood for supplies and a hot soak in the bath house, even a splash in the river if i dare!
In his head, he sees and hears another story. A story he does not want to tell but needs to. Hesitating at first, he exercises the stiffening reluctance from his hand and begins:
January 21st, 1683.
If I am to read this, far in the future, then let this be a happy reminder but if you are reading this now then let it be your warning.
I have returned from Foeblood, more tired than I ever expected. My stores are intact, my cabin as I left it. I will log what I have earned and spent after this entry, if sleep allows but suffice it to say that it has been a worthwhile trip, at least in this regard.
I should be more elated but I have sat heavy in the saddle for 2 days, weighed down by something more, it seems, than the load poor Sleipnir has carried back.
Nothing out of the ordinary happened on our way to Foeblood. Laden with 13 beaver and 19 otter skins from the southern and northern tributaries of last Summer, we camped on the first night under a moonless sky, at our usual spot above the lowland trail. The insects were biting but the fire kept most of them away and any lurking predators. We slept well, refreshed for the journey onward which started at first light. Making good time, we entered Foeblood as night fell, our first visit in 5 months and that was when I first registered an uncanny feeling of unease. I could not be sure whether it was a consequence of my isolation or if the icy stares I received would have made anyone nervous but I did not let it distract me from my mission, and I sold all my skins within the hour to my compatriot Mans Fleming. It was during that hour that he told me a story I would even now dismiss as incredible if not for the proceeding events of that night and the following day.
He would connect, into an eloquent tale, a number of rumours and opinions that attempted to explain strange happenings in Foeblood in recent months. I had initially thought he must have had a great deal of practice refining the story by regaling the many trappers and hunters with cruder versions over the many weeks I had been away but it transpired that I was the first he had seen in more than 2 months. I was about to joke that it may have had something to do with his miserly rates for skins before he offered me an astonishing 90 florins for my coat and three times the price I was expecting for my beaver pelts and otter skins. I thought he was fooling me but his surprising weight-loss since I had last seen him and his sickly complexion drew a deathly sincerity from the eager tones of his voice.
He saw my awakened curiosity and turned to a pile of ragged clothes in the corner and shouted at it sharply in something other than Swedish and to my amazement it shuddered before scurrying through the door of a closed backroom. As it shut the door it turned to me, my eyes finding the narrow opening in the hooded cloth as the shadows from the meagre light made more hideous the deformity of a face i had seen before. It belonged to the Repokan woman I was already aware he employed from my previous visits but she had been so quiet and still I had not noticed her.
He then explained that last Summer was his best season so far with the arrival of new settlers from Europe. But in the Autumn the Repokan hunters and trackers disappeared overnight, decimating his business. The land on which their settlements had been were reclaimed by herds of rutting deer, as if they had never been. We have known of a horrific disease called the small Pox which has ravaged their numbers over the years but this could not explain this mass vanishing and it dawned on me that I too could vouch for not having seen even a single Repokan man, woman or child in over half a year, dead or alive.
What was more disconcerting was that he went into great detail about how, around the same time, many Dutch, Finnish and Swedish huntsman went missing on their expeditions; how some were found dead but untouched, eyes bulging from their sockets around the charred remains of their campfires, their dinners burnt to a crisp in their cooking pots; and others, even women, eviscerated for sport and mere bloodlust rather than food. I asked him what he meant by that and I then learned of reports that told of how the spilled organs, limbs, head and torso of each of those mutilated bodies were all accounted for but some were skinned from head to toe, their skins missing. I cannot forget how his face crumpled with unresolved concern when he mentioned that, from the tracks around the bodies, the wolves had circled the carnage widely, seemingly too afraid to get any closer but the black bears had crossed right through, bloodying the earth and snow with their paws.
From the black bears’ behaviour and with no other plausible reasons for it, many people, he said, had begun to believe the Repokan were using black magic to take the form of bears bent on killing settlers and older heads did nothing to discourage these rumours, stoking up fears by suggesting the black bear numbers in the surrounding areas had doubled in a day and that their natural instincts had changed.
I suggested it could be a rogue bear, a freak of nature in size and temperament which had somehow lost its fear of man. A killer that roamed while others of its kind slept their winter sleeps. It was not unheard of, after all I’d killed one similar only a month back, but my compatriot’s initial interest seemed to wane into a noncommittal silence.
I must admit, though they seemed far fetched, these purported facts, if any are indeed facts, began to have an effect on me. I started to feel, what I consider, my open mind gradually withdraw into darker recesses for an explanation until, I was again sitting by my campfire on that previous night in the rocky outcrop looking down on the valley and, without warning, I began to experience a tingling at the notion that the lurking predators I believed my fire had protected me from had actually been using its solitary light to watch me.
I dismissed it believing I was more tired than I knew and it was time for me to have a decent meal with my windfall and a long indulgent visit to the bathhouse.
However, like a good salesman, Mister Fleming must have spotted the subtle change in my disposition as I buckled under the burden of my imagination and, suspecting I had one foot out of the door already, offered me a parting temptation. He asked me if I wanted to know the name the townspeople had given this being they believed the Repokan had transformed themselves into. He asked me to promise not to speak of it to anyone. Intrigued, I promised him on pain of death and as he paused first in the paranoid hush that followed I readied myself to hear him whisper its name. But instead, he held me captivate a moment longer, confessing that the foolish Repokan woman in his employ had said her people were not to blame, that they stayed away to survive.
From what, I asked. From the one that hides but has no fear, he said. The one of ten thousand names of ten thousand lost lives. She says the bear is only part of the story, she says it hides in the bear not because it’s a bear but because it’s black.
It is strange how I still remember his feverish words. “Naked like a breath in all things, it is clothed in black. It comes from the black, from the darkest shadows,” he said. “Waiting in the black, in your black powder flasks, knowing who you are, disappearing into the blackness of spent campfires, biding its time, moving through the moonless night, until you call it and it comes for you.”
How do you summon it, I demanded. But he could not tell me. What does she call it, I asked. I wanted to know. I needed to know whether the settlers and the Repokan spoke of the same thing. Then with his quill he secreted the names on a scrap of paper he tore from the back of his ledger, telling me only to read it in the sunlight before stressing that I was to burn it afterwards without fail. This paper, I still carry in pocket now, unread.
I feel guilt for acknowledging this here but it was good to make my excuse and bid Mister Fleming an abrupt goodbye, leaving him to the worry that had eaten away at him and walk into the open air, its breeze seeming instantly to clear my mind.
After sating my appetite on turkey and potatoes, I quenched a nagging thirst with brandy and walked sluggishly to the bath-house, increasingly softened in demeanour and strength. If ever there was a hellish place that was so welcoming for my wretched soul then this was it. The hot stones glowed orange beneath the timbers, steam hissing from the gaps and rising in plumes, engulfing the glistening bodies, the dim light hinting at the nakedness. The hollows of my body burned with each breath and I felt alive.
The darkness seemed to shift around me and i sensed an emptiness open up on the bench to my left. I could not see who vacated their place though I braced myself for the sudden chill of someone leaving the room but no one did. I sat down, the backs of my limbs and body instantly branded by the narrow planks of pine. I had begun to feel the itch and tickle of perspiration as it beaded and dripped down my body and I leaned my head back, succumbing to the seduction when I felt a breath in my ear, hotter than any current of air before it. ‘So strong to the touch,’ it said, the voice assured and assertive. It shocked me but not nearly as much as the shock that seized me when i realised it was not sweat but fingertips that had been running down my body.
Before I knew it, I was straddled by what my heightened self sensed was a woman and we began to consummate an irresistible passion. From the reflected glow I saw her eyes, wide like open mouths devouring, their glinting whites like bloodied teeth. She tore at my flesh as if she had claws. I had no will to stop her but as suddenly as she possessed the gloom before me, she vanished.
I left the bath house confused and agitated but waited as long as I could to see who would follow me out. No one did. The chilling air offered no relief and hardened my muscle and mind to one thought: to return to my cabin and the isolation of the mountains. Forgoing sleep, I departed immediately.
No sooner had i left the outer limits of town that I heard the terrifying screams, of a voice at once familiar but one I remain unable to assign a name to. Not willing to find out, I kept riding.
There were eyes in the darkness escorting us as the distant fires of the settlement were eventually swallowed up by the silent night. As dawn broke the presence slipped among the pines and Sleipnir reared up as a stirring wind swept past us. I guided him on foot through the deep snow and progress was slow. And as the sun climbed, we climbed, until by chance I took a look behind us and my eye caught a grotesque silhouette birth movement in the tree line. Then I saw something extraordinary. A woman, raven haired, with eyes sunken into shadow and naked, her skin as pale as the snow around us. She stood as if frozen but as i skirted the very clearing her eerie stillness occupied she seemed to turn imperceptibly, tracking me. Had my eyes deceived me? We were half a day from the settlement. There was no way on earth she could have followed us on foot and survived these temperatures. Was she Repokan? Was she alone? I approached to get a clearer look but as I leaned around a tree that only interrupted my vision for the briefest of moments she was gone and only the snowy bark of a slender tree cast in shadow remained.
This was the first of three similar sightings before I reached the cabin. And as I sit here now I cannot know for certain if I really saw what I saw or if they were the tricks of shadow and light.
So here I am. A man still standing when my father’s Gods have fallen. I am settling this new world. I am a hunter. If the Repokan want me dead and this creature is real then it has had ample opportunity to attack. This fell creature? I almost forgot it has a name. I must open the piece of paper Mans Fleming gave me and know it before it is lost.
Its names, for posterity, are: the Foeblood Berserker, The Beast in Bare skin.
A noise, out in the wilderness, disrupts his thoughts, disappearing into the vacuum of silence it leaves behind. He flashes through his memory trying to match the source but he can’t. Weary, he takes a swig of brandy, pausing in the moment, as if to draw from it something more than its intoxicating spirit. A warmth spills over his tongue and trickles down into the pit of his stomach, diffusing through the emptiness of his body.
Eventually, he makes of it what he will so he can carry on. But the more he pushes the noise to the back of his mind, laying it bare, the more he pulls it closer, cloaking the hollowed night more darkly until the thickening air rushes in to fill the void; creaking the timbers around him, darting his eyes about the room. He doesn’t know it but something bad is coming.
He hangs his gaze on the empty hook idling among the tools of his survival suspended from the hewn timbers of his cabin wall; to its left the peavey, the draw knife and the adze; to its right the double-bitted axe, the felling axe and the timber carrier. If he knew what was coming he would never have left his broadaxe outside, out of reach, wedged in the bloody stump amid the splinters of young life he has chopped down.
A shadow grows on the carved handle but slips off, it has no use for an axe. It is itself a heartless killer. Unknowingly he conjures in the dark side of his mind a creature not wholly human nor wholly of this world because he can’t help himself. If he could, he would run. Now.
But instead, the only death he is concerned with is the death of his fire. He stokes the smouldering pit with an iron and places fresh logs on the flames. The fire crackles, the popping firewood masking the snapping twig that cracks under its advancing limbs.
If he could hear it now, he would have bolted the door and looked out of his window, finger on the trigger, for beyond the aperture he daydreams through, a nightmare comes.
But it’s too late. His head heavy with hopes of tomorrow, he goes to his bed and closes his eyes, hoping a short nap will stave off sleep, but he lies on his final resting place.
The clock’s hands clasp in prayer, worried for what is to come and the lament of midnight’s chimes wallow through his cabin, accompanying the steps already in his home.
If only he knew what he had done, he would have tried to turn back time, back to the moment he wrote down it’s name, summoning it through the inky black. But how could he have known? None of the dead knew in time, not even you.
If you did, you would not have begun this, you would not have ignored the warnings and carried on, saying it’s name, guiding it into your midnight home, inviting it to hide in that darkest of places, waiting for you.
Credit: Ahaa Jan