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It was late September when I traveled north to the Great Lakes. It was one of the last stops for the last chapter of my book, starting with the eastern most part of Michigan and slowly making my way up to the Canadian border of Minnesota learning all I can about the Ojibwe people. My journey started in Tennessee to Kentucky and up into Ohio a bit, and up until I made it into norther Michigan the only things I had to fear were snakes and skin walkers.
The first few chapters of my book, though extremely informative, were very emotionally draining for me. Having a reprieve once I reached Ohio was so nice. To be able to sit and enjoy the scenery for a week or so before continuing on- it was much needed. As I traveled north and west I heard the stories I’ve heard hundreds of times so far. Peaceful tribes forced to abandon their home and assimilate to the whitewashed “culture” of settlers until all that’s left is a blind elder with an old war bonnet and a few arrowheads.
While the Saulteaux have a blighted history much like other tribes, there is a story told to me by a man from the Rainy Lake band that I will never forget, because it was the experience I had afterwards that turned my lighthearted journey for information into a terrified need to teach others. I learned very quickly that superstition older than written language tends to be rooted in reality.
It was late morning when I drove into the reservation near Red Lake, and met with a man named Waatese. His eyes were bright and welcoming, and his skin shimmered in the hot summer sun. His tight braid was being blown about by a soft wind as he talked to what looked to be a bit of an older man standing to his left. The older man is standing at a strange angle that I can’t quite figure out.
I parked over by a small cluster of trees on a stretch of gravel and grabbed my laptop bag and headed towards the two men. They both turned to smile as me and I waved.
“Hello!” I said, grinning and stopping a few feet from the. “I’m Wyatt, the man you spoke to over the phone a few days ago! Are you… Wa—Waatese?”
The younger man smiled at me again and reached out one hand for me to shake, and he nodded as he spoke.
“I am, and I remember your voice. I’m glad to see you’ve arrived so early, myself and Ziibi are very excited to be able to tell first hand stories to someone wishing to truly inform others.”
I look at the older looking man and he nods, but hasn’t yet spoke. I nod slightly in agreement and I’m let into a comfortably sized suburban looking home. The smell of savory food and smudging sage is heavy in the air, and makes it feel warm, while the openness of the home it is almost a tad unsettling.
The chairs at the kitchen table are pulled to one side and the wood of the table face is almost totally hidden by papers in various states of yellowing. The two men sit at the table and beckon for me to sit as well. I set my lap top up and take a deep breath to ready myself for the emotional roller coaster I knew I was about to go through.
“I’ve traveled through quite of Ojibwe land so far, and while much of what I’ve learned has been pretty similar to what other tribes have told me I do have a question about something I’ve heard others mention under their breath,” I begin, looking between the two men carefully. Their eyes shift from mine to each other’s as I speak, and the tension in the room begins to show. “I’d like to hear about Moguai.”
Waatese and Ziibi both hold their breath for a moment before the older man whispers something in what I can only assume to be their native tongue, and then the younger man speaks up.
“We will tell you, but you mustn’t say his name.”
Ziibi pulls a few of the papers together and hands them to me, and as the papers touch my fingers he bins to speak. His voice is soft and heavy with an accent that I can’t quite place- slight French? – and full of warning.
“He is the Maw of the Forest, He who eats.”
There’s a pause, and I take this moment to read through some of the notes. Some are in Gojijiwininiwag so I’m unable to read them, but there are a couple in English. The ones in English are the newer papers, less yellowed with age.
Waatese speaks up now. “He took a life last year, so for now he does not hunger. I can show you where he lives, if you’re interested, but I cannot promise your safety.”
I stare down at the papers in my hands and skim a few of them before looking up at the younger man and smiling. “I’d love to, a nice hike could help me add some extra information about the terrain.”
They look at one another again and Waatese gets up and leads me to the door, while Ziibi stays seated, but pushes his chair back. There is the slight sound of metal against metal, and it’s then that I notice Ziibi has a fake leg. That is why he was standing at a strange angle while standing on the gravel pavement.
I tear my eyes away from his prosthesis and follow Waatese out the door to the edge of the woods. The sun is blotted out by the thick canopy and the temperature drops a few degrees. I follow close behind him, with one of the notes in hand to refer to as I ask questions.
“What did you mean by ‘He does not hunger.’? Does The Maw not kill everyone who comes into the forest?” I keep my voice soft due to the echo from the trees.
Waatese lays one hand against a tree and stares into the forest for a moment before turning to me.
“Do you see these mushrooms here?”
I look just above his fingertips and eye the fungi growing from the tree trunk. They are a muted beige and very thin, curving slightly. I blink and take a step closer to get a better look. They are short and instead of growing in clusters thee is a line of them growing from the middle of the tree trunk up to its leaves.
“Those are God’s Flesh,” I mumble, half to him and half to myself “these shouldn’t grow this far north.”
The man looks me in the eyes and motions to the note. “The Maw of the Forest creates anomalies to mark his territory- his hunting grounds. These forests, all the way up until the ice caves, are arranged into a grid.”
He chews at his lip for a moment, and I smile.
“I know about the grid, actually. There are legends of odd things like faceless men and strange stairs. The internet loves to tell spooky stories about the woods.”
He frowns and shakes his head.
“I know of the stairs and the hikers, but those are the least of your worries out here.” He turns back to the trunk of the tree. “These mushrooms, we do not call them God’s Flesh. To us- my people- they are niibaabatoo. Run At Night.”
We are silent while staring at the little mushrooms, then I speak up again. “I’ve only seen these in Central America. They grow in mossy forest beds where it’s humid and damp. To have them this far north is nearly impossible.”
He gets a faraway look, then speaks softly “The Maw uses these mushrooms while he hunts. He crushes them between his paws and mixes them with the water from the river to create a thick syrups. He coats his claws in this liquid to make you see things- things that aren’t there. It is only then that he will show himself to you.”
I blink at him and open my mouth to speak, but then he nods and takes his hand off the tree trunk and gestures to the note. “Read while we walk, there isn’t much sunlight left and if you wish to stay and experience Him it’s best to start before the sun falls.”
I unfold the note and see that it’s written in blue ink, and the paper is crisp but there are little reddish brown stains and smudges of ink. Skimming it quickly I notice that it’s written in English and despite being on lined paper the words bend up and down and shake. It begins rushed and gets more and more urgent as it continues, and as I read I stopped walking.
The note reads as follows-
I am dying. I’ve made it to the ice caves, but He will find me. It’s been nearly a week and I can feel myself getting weaker. I am his first kill in 89 years, and he will not return for many many decades, but this does not mean you are safe. Do not venture past the mushrooms. Do not wander where the rocks are wet. I’ve given myself to him to keep him away from my home, but he still revels in the hunt. Once you feel his scratch it’s too late. Do not go past the mushrooms. When you find my body, save this note. Give it to Waatese to keep with the others. I have placated He Who Eats.
I look up from the note and with a slightly shaky voice ask “Why had it been so long since the last death?”
“He hunts every few years,” Waatese says, cold as if explaining a math problem, “but he only takes a life when the last two years have been added together. So, since my friend was killed after 89 years of dormancy, it will be over a century before he kills again.”
I nod, unsure what to say, and fold the note back up and stuff it into my pocket and trot to walk closer with the native man until we come to a clearing. There are a few patches where grass has not grown in a while, as well as small rings of those same mushrooms. Waatese stops and spins around and looks me dead in the face.
“Do you want to learn about The Maw, Wyatt?” He asks, his voice low and very serious. For a moment I thought he was going to pull a knife on me, but he doesn’t move as I stand there in silence. I can feel that he isn’t done speaking. “He will hunt you, and while you are guaranteed to survive you may not want to by the end of this. He is evil, Mr. Jones.”
I clear my throat and search his face, but there isn’t a threat in his voice or his eyes. He’s being sincere. “What do you mean? Are you trying to tell me He is real?”
Waatese laughs a great laugh and crosses his arms, puffing out his chest just a bit.
“Have you ever noticed that deep down we all have the same fears? Every horror movie or ghost tale plays on the same terror- Shadow figures, beasts with white eyes and no face. Fear is an evolution for survival, so there must be beasts our ancestors fought off for us to fear those traits. The Maw is one of those beasts.” He looks to the now orange sky and grabs a lighter from his pocket, flicking it open.
“The Mississippi river is to the west, and the caves are to the north. There will come a moment that His poison will wear off, and you will need to remember to watch which way the bird are flying. That is the way to safety, because by the end of this you will wish for death, but you will live if you can make it to a hospital.” Waatese kneels down and lights a small fire in the center of one of the small rings of mushrooms. “No one is coming to save you. Call his name, and the hunt begins. When this is over write about Him into your book. Maybe that will keep people out of our forest.”
He walks back into the forest very quickly and there is a small swirl of wind that kicks my hair around. I watch the small fire grow to the edge of the circle of mushrooms, but it does not spread. My throat is suddenly dry and there is a knot in my stomach.
“Moguai!” I call into the nothingness of the sky. All sounds of birds stop, and the slight buzz of gnats leaves the air.
“Moguai, the Hunter!” I call again, watching the trees.
Suddenly there is a burning pain in my left leg near my ankle, and I curse under my breath thinking the fire must have spat an ember at me. I rub my ankle and take my phone from my pocket to check my GPS. I turn until I’m facing north and begin walking.
I walk and walk, noting the oddity of silence despite extreme amounts of movement. I can feel my ankle swelling as I trudge deeper and deeper into the forest towards the ice caves. The sun has just barely sank below the horizon and there are shadows dancing in my peripheral vision.
The pain in my ankle grows and grows until I am sure it’s going to burst. I lean against a tree to pull up my pant leg and that was when I realized I was hallucinating, because I watched the skin of my leg sluff off in chunks, blackened and liquefied. My heart begins to race and I run. I’m not sure why I’m running, but I run, and I can hear footsteps behind me.
Let me tell you this, even if you know for certain that you are drugged, everything still feels so real, BUT those footsteps WERE real. I was being followed. I could feel the breath of whatever was following me, and I could feel its energy. I ran through nettles and crashed through bushes filled with thorns, but I didn’t care. I needed to get away.
I found a very old tree with a rotting trunk and climbed inside like a cat hiding from rain, and tried to catch my breath. The pain in my leg was now from my ankle all the way up to my knee and there was blood seeping through my jeans. I sat quietly with my hand over my mouth to stifle my gasping breaths and listened. The footsteps were all around me and there was no buzz of insects or calls of birds. Nothing living.
I waited in that tree until dusk, and then began to run again until I found the river. From there I only have to run north a little ways, but it wasn’t much a comfort. There, on the bank, was a single wet rock. It shimmered in the dull light of the setting sun and I felt a wind swirl around me until there was a horrible pain in my head. I fell to my knees and saw blood dripping into the grass. I touched my face and when I pulled my fingers away I could only see one of my hands- the other was covered in blood and goop.
My right eye had exploded in its socket.
I cried tears mixed with blood and clambered to my feet, looking up only for a moment to see a shadow in the water. A shadow with wings darker than the heart of a murderer and eyes brighter than the sun. He was hunting me.
I ran again, tears, blood and mucus streaming down my face, desperate to reach the ice caves and rest. I could see terrible things in my mind’s eye. All of the past men who have run through this forest, but haven’t survived. I screamed out my wife’s name, my daughter’s name, desperate to not forget that I was drugged.
But I wasn’t.
This was real.
Moguai was real.
And He was on my heels.
With only one eye my depth perception was off and I tripped over a small curve of the river, falling into the rushing waters of the Mississippi. Flailing about I couldn’t find the silt of the riverbed, so my head bobbed up and down through the surface of the water. My lungs filled with water and muck and I coughed harder than I ever have in my life. I called the name of the Maw, desperate to not drown, and suddenly I was smashed against the rocks like a boat against a cliff.
I felt every bone in my hands shatter and all I could do to pull myself from the water was crawl on my elbows. I’m not sure if it was Moguai who saved me, but I do know he wasn’t done hunting me.
I somehow made it to my feet and began to limp and hop through the trees again. The only thing on my mind was what Waatese said.
No one is coming to save me. I have to make it to the ice caves. I have to make it. If I can make it this game ends.
I don’t know how long it was that I ran. My lungs burned with remnants of water and my mouth tasted of mud and stale blood. My whole body caked in sweat and tears and drool, and my hair tangles with leaves and twigs. I could feel my broken hands dangling in their joints and my ankle bled constantly. I don’t know how I didn’t bleed out.
It was around mid-day that I tumbled down a steep snow bank, rolling head over heels and crying out as what was left of my vision rolled from snow to sky to snow again. I crashed into a pile of fresh powder and just laid there, gasping and crying. I had no more energy to run, but I hadn’t made it. It wasn’t over.
My vision was filled with blackness, but not darkness. It was that shadow I saw in the water. It was leaning over me, and when our eyes met I was filled with the most intense pain I had ever felt in my life. It started at my toes and slowly- very slowly- crawled up my entire body. I passed out around the time it reached my thighs, but according to the hikers that found me I never stopped screaming.
The doctors at the hospital told me they were in surgery for thirty-five hours, because all of my blood vessels from my toes to my navel had burst. Every single one of them. Just exploded like water balloons. One of my hands couldn’t be saved, and the other is bound tightly in a cast, my leg is gone from my shin down, and I now have a glass eye. I don’t know how I survived this; I can only assume this is the effect He has on you: to deny you death, even outside of his realm.
The hunt is over, and I’m back in Las Vegas with my family, but Moguai follows me in my dreams. He is in my nightmares.
I’m going to finish my book and send it to my publisher, then I’m going to go back into those woods and let The Maw consume me.
Even if you survive…
Death is favorable to how he leaves you.