07 Mar The Coldest Day
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"The Coldest Day"Written by
Estimated reading time — 12 minutes
Bitter cold was nothing new for Northern Alberta, especially not for January, and the cacophony of wind that tore through the woodlands was nothing if not wholly familiar and almost comforting to the one that huddled in the tree line, obliterated from vision by the pitch of night and the swaying arm of evergreen trees. The figure stood there for a time and simply watched, waiting, head canted ever so subtly to the left and listened, staring into the dullness of the dimly illuminated window no more than fifty feet across the crisp layer of hardening snow that stood without a single scar, nothing to mar its pristine surface. Much like other homes throughout the reserve a family was nestled within and the figure could smell the promise of stew and bannock, could feel the sudden violent clench of hunger from the depths of its belly and touched the length of flesh that gurgled so very audibly that it was near impossible to ignore and the being halted peering still through the window to see if they had heard the noise, the ominous growl of need its traitorous body had emitted. Life continued as per normal within those heated walls, a family sitting down to dinner. A family blissfully unaware they were being watched… evaluated.
From the window it appeared as though the house was the same as any other, that the people inside were just like every other family. However there was something different about this family. A sense of dread and impending doom so thick that the Grandmother naturally assumed she could not only smell it in the air but see its lingering webs in the shadows of her home. Six families in the last month, six that were missing with little more than a struggle and vitae born finger painting that had decorated the walls and there was no one on the reserve that wasn’t talking about it. Six families to each bag a deer from the very interior of the forest. So far into the interior that the most experienced of hunters avoided it not to mention the average white man but times were tough and the pickings were slim. With so many out of work it became harder and harder to feed families and those with the proper knowledge and hunting rights were not about to let their own family let alone people of their community starve; such was the Aboriginal way of life. The issue however was not in the hunting so much as what happened within a few moons of the original kill. The deer caught and cleaned and then brought back home to be butchered and divided among those that needed it most. It was the third night after this when those that lived in the home went missing. Elders, parents, children and grandchildren… No one was accounted for and thinking of this caused the old woman to shudder. “Kokum? You okay?” A small voice asked and the woman turned her attention down to the small child standing by the family table and nodded, forcing a smile and patted the girl on the head.
“You go on my girl,” She said, not feeling nearly as confident as she sounded. “Everything is just fine and we have some time before dinner is ready. Go watch your show.” It was with a gapped tooth smile that the girl kissed her grandmother’s hip and fled, braid bouncing in the air behind her and in that moment the grandmother knew true fear. The ominous air felt positively heavy as did the heart that beat in frantic rhythm in her chest. “You’re sure about this?”
“Not in the slightest but what else can we do? Six whole families? What else could it have been?” Her son replied setting plates upon the table as his wife entered behind him with silverware and glasses. The table itself was filled reminding the woman of the last meal allowed to a prisoner before their time in front of The Creator. “You said yourself that something had to be done.”
“I didn’t realize that we’d be keeping the children here instead of sending them to your wife’s family.” In that moment fear sharpened her tone, anger causing her hands to tremble. “They shouldn’t be here.” The wife looked from mother to son, swallowing and set the utensils upon the tabletop.
“We had no choice and you know it.” She began slowly. “It waits for the most bountiful haul of meat it can take in one hunt, what were we supposed to do? Allow another family to disappear? At least we’re prepared. The others certainly weren’t.”
“That’s not the point!”
“It doesn’t matter what the point is, it’s too late.” In that moment her son ended the conversation and went back to the kitchen. It was time to bring food to the table for what could possibly be the last evening they would ever spend together.
In the treeline hungry eyes watched the three converse among themselves, the ever present gurgle of its belly becoming all the more impatient. It didn’t want to wait for the family to eat, the grandmother was plump and the children would be tender, succulent. It moved, taking a half step forward and could taste something bitter in its mouth with a rush of saliva. Vomit threatened to rise up, a sudden reaction the ravenous hunger that pulled at the creature’s very being. Its soul if it could be argued that the beast still had one. For a moment there was a sudden rush of dizziness and its hand rested upon the tree to its left, allowing it the briefest second of respite. A moment to shake away any other thoughts that weren’t related to the hunt and it was hard to focus on anything else. Ordinarily the beast would have allowed them to dine first but tonight would be different, the last family had been sick and the meat worthless. The creature starved and could not think strait, could not consider a thing beyond the next meal presented to it. Tentatively the first step came, foot breaking through the pristine layer of hardened snow with a subtle crunching and it paused for just a moment while cast in the darkness of winters early evening and when nothing else stirred it was followed by another and yet another. It crept closer still, impatient.
They sat at the table, said their thanks and began to eat. The deer was delicious but was hard to swallow for the old woman was not hungry but could not alarm the children whom ate with gusto. “Kokum? Kokum!” Cried the small girl. “You’re not eating.” The child frowned and to set aside her worry the old woman took a larger mouthful of potato that tasted no better than dirt in her mouth and chewed pointedly. The child watched her steadily seemingly now suspicious of her meat and leaned forward to sniff her dinner.
“Eat your supper.” The girl’s mother chided. “There are plenty of people in our community who have nothing to eat tonig…” It was then that first crack sounded, far louder than the sound of a car back firing and the child screamed in terror, grabbed by her grandmother and brought under the table with the command to hide with her younger brothers soon joining her. Two small children and a baby hiding in plain sight while their father jumped from the table and all but flew to the door pausing only to grab the hunting rifle that lay propped up by the frame their grandmother unable to ignore the sound of her own terrified heartbeat in her ears.
The creature had all but sprinted across the snow when the noise came, gunfire – a single shot. In that moment the beast froze and turned sharply, a figure in the darkness with two illuminated and pallid blue eyes that all but glowed in piss poor light. Darkness was the friend of this creature and over cast evenings were favored for this very reason and there while it stood hunched its head lifted and a single wet snuffling sound filled the deafening silence that had followed the shot. Gasoline. It had been so eager to feast that it hadn’t bothered to scent the air around it and had been trapped. In that moment a horrific, beastly roar filled the air before the sound of gasoline catching from a single match could whisper through the interrupted stillness. In that very moment it was as though the temperature dropped further from a considerable cold to something both bitter and angry when the line of fire began to close in in rapid succession. The beast bolted and howled when the circle of flames closed around it, illuminating the beast that stalked with rapid purpose in its trap glaring hatefully at the men that emerged from the woods with their guns and lights. The promising meal was stolen from it and rage tore at its breast, ripping from its throat with anger so great it staggered the men save for one… One that sang, a deeply and throaty sound accompanied by a painted hand drum that seemed to drive the beast back to the very edge of its prison. Rage seemed to give way to fear and this bolstered the men into believing that perhaps their shaman could keep the creature at bay with nothing more than song, the Creator and his magic.
The children were terrified, clinging to one another and sobbing their mother climbing under the table after them to soothe and hold them. Afraid to take them from the house to the safety of the car and a house far, far from this one in which they lived. “Stay here.” The grandmother was soon moving to follow her son though at a much slowed pace. The rear of their house and the field behind it were nothing if not surreal for the shadows dancing from flame and the figure that twisted itself from the man working his medicine. She moved closer to it yet, holding her heart through her breast and willed as best she could for the pace to finally slow when she came around her boy and looked upon the face of the beast. “…The family that disappeared last winter?” She was the only one who spoke while he sang and the others looked to their elder in surprise. “White family,” She spoke as though distracted, looking with pity upon the beast. “Husband, wife, and young boy if I remember correctly. The Sheriff came to borrow some of our people to find them in the woods. All we could find was the car, we said prayers for them.”
“I wonder which of them she ate…” Said one voice.
“Could have been both.” Another chimed in.
“She must have been the reason that party of hunters went missing a few months ago, hungry girl.”
“They’re always hungry.” The old woman was bitter, the men realizing their impropriety in that moment and falling silent as she moved forward and cocked her head to the side. The woman, at one point, had been a dark haired beauty. One that had had her son later in life and had been easily in her mid-thirties with her husband who was still yet older and a son no more than three at the time. “If they were lucky they died before she ate them.” A frown formed upon that wrinkled mouth, deep set ebon eyes meeting the frigid blue of the emaciated bestial version of this woman. Twisted and malnourished, fingernails little more than claws and teeth broken so they could tear meat that much more effectively, gone was the pallor of humanity in her flesh and instead it was replaced with a grey that was reserved usually for mushrooms only. An impressive sight even as it began to lie in the snow, covering its ears and whimpering as best an abomination could it was strange to feel pity for the beast that had killed so many but it too had once been human, had once been loved and for that the old woman could feel pain and look at the creature with tears obscuring her regard.
“…Well I think we need to discuss what to do with it.”
“What do you think we do? We kill it!”
“Yeah, seems like the only way to know for sure that it’s gone.”
“We can’t kill it.” The son interrupted, sighing. “It’s not the flesh we need to fear, that only holds the spirit. You can’t kill the Wendigo, the spirit lives forever and is always hungry. If we kill it then it will go free and torment another.” He looked to his mother, resting a large and calloused hand on her shoulder. “It will go with the others.” It was then the tears fell, the old woman crying openly and turning from the thing before her, turning away from her son, and fled to the safety of the house behind her. The others had fallen silent in that moment, out of respect for their elder and looked to one another.
“Do we even have room for another?”
“Just this one, we need to build another place to house them.”
“Jesus Christ, Frank. We can’t keep them caged. Someone is going to die when they get loose.”
“If they get loose.”
“It doesn’t matter. We’re trying to end the spirit here.” The man, Frank, said sounding as though exhausted and watched his mother enter the house to be with his wife and children. “Damn woman wouldn’t listen when we told them not to go that way. We were just stupid Indians that didn’t know as much as her GPS and now she learned the hard way and we have to clean up her mess.” Headlights could be seen from the front of the house, someone arriving at the house, and feet crunching in the snow while another elder emerged carrying a cast iron collar on a length of iron wood. They would collar the creature and lead her much like cattle. A secondary staff was in his left hand fashioned with a hook that would secure to another loop in order to have two men lead the exceptionally willful and quick beast to where they wanted it to go.
Frank stepped away from the others and tried to block out the sounds of the captured creature being collared and ready for transportation through the woods to the cave where it would be kept from this day forward. The shaman stopped his song instead handing an iPod to the young man who would fit the ear buds into the ear of the creature to listen to songs that had been recorded for this reason exactly. It had happened so many times that now they could stop thinking, could simply go through the motions and for that Frank was grateful remembering the first time he had done exactly this. Back in those days the Shaman stayed and there was comfort to be had in that. “You alright, boy?” He was asked and looked at Paul. Paul had been there for his first and now looked so old.
“I will be, go stay with Mom and Nadine. I’ll be back as soon as I can.” He forced a smile, patted the old man on the shoulder and stepped away to take up the second staff and lock it into place. “Let’s go.” He nodded his partner ahead, taking up the left rear of the beast.
It seemed like they walked for hours in the frigid cold to the locked gate that sat upon a naturally formed cave. One that was dug clearly into the wall of the mountain and had no exit, hopefully still had no exit as no one could enter to check. A sigil was painted above the cave, a malformed skull of sorts with Cree glyphs painted along with it. She, the creature he corrected himself, recoiled from it as he opened the gate and released his staff from the lock. “Push it in.” It was easier if you didn’t think of them as being human once upon a time. Always easier. He took up the remaining staff with the other man and shoved hard, pushing this poor white woman through the cage door as shrieked and convulsed only to fall to the ground and begin vomiting a foul smelling bile upon the stone. Frank kicked the cell door closed and fashioned the lock into place. The warding would work for only so long before someday failing and when it did be damned if the reservation wasn’t going to have at least some time to evacuate.
“May the Creator ease your pain and forgive your mistake. Hunger does strange things to people.” He whispered, looking at the snow beneath his feet. “I hope it wasn’t your son that made you this way.” A growl was heard, weak from the depths of the cage. Another set of pale eyes staring from the darkness before the now desiccated creature moved forward and hissed lazily at him. A face much like his own if it had been born from a nightmare. “Hi Dad.” Thirty years almost to the day and the monster hadn’t aged a year. Not one year.
“I don’t know how you can manage to come out here every time. It’s like he knows you’re coming and is trying to figure out where he wants to bite first.” The other man – Trevor? – shuddered despite himself.
“Thirty years of starving, why else would it look like that at me? It’s not like he knew me, I was just a baby.” Frank shrugged; maybe this guy wasn’t named Trevor. He couldn’t really bring himself to care to be honest. “Now I’m just dinner. You accept it, deal with it and move on. Eventually they’ll die. Maybe. Who knows?” It was bleak to think about and even worse when he turned to look at his father, the woman now rousing herself and realizing what had happened almost instantly began throwing herself at the cage door with a shriek. Angry, fearful… Nothing that was new to him. “Just like they all do this. It’s like watching old shows; you know what’s going to happen because they never deviate. Never.” A shake of his head and he sighed, stepping back. “You know it shouldn’t bother me at all, I didn’t know the guy but it broke my mother. She still misses him; sometimes she comes to look at his face… I keep telling her not to but she does. Old woman is never going to learn but she says he was the love of her life. If it were Nadine I’d want her to move on, you know?” Frank rambled, he always rambled it was just how he coped with what he saw. With what he volunteered to do.
“Sometimes you just can’t fucking win, am I right or am I right?” He turned away then and saw the darkness on the snow first, brow furrowing in confusion. There was enough light to make sure that they didn’t have these shadows and they shouldn’t have appeared like splatter patterns. “Trev?” His eyes scanned ahead to the fallen man on the ground, his throat having been ripped out so quickly he hadn’t had time for a death rattle and upon his chest? A small figure no bigger than his own son of about two and a half, suddenly he felt sick and acceptance all at once. Frank was trapped; he would never be able to outrun this tiny creature that would likely tire him before he could make it that kilometer home. In this moment he knew he was done, he knew there was nothing he could do and the sound of hungry screams did nothing to lessen the blow behind him.
One cry however was almost… Joyous? Relieved? It was hard to describe as the female threw herself against the cage door to no avail time and time again. “…Well kid, I wish she had loved you enough to eat you.” The immortal wendigo child turned to him, a mouth full of blood and meat dripping from his small and broken maw while he stared at Frank. For a moment it was as though a stalemate began to declare itself and then… It pounced.
Wet slurping filled the cold night; the child ate like he had never eaten before. The meat was good. Healthy. It felt good between his teeth and sliding down his throat. He played with his meal as all children do, beaming at his mother when he turned to show her the puppet he’d made out of his second kills skull before pushing it forward with a soft croon, his mother whistling softly in the night to him. A lullaby that was for him only while trying to push a hand out from between the bars and found that she could not, so close and yet to so far from the son she’d kept alive for this long. The song turned sad and she found herself lying down, face pressed to the stone and her son soon mimicking the pose she held but out in the snow where she could not reach him. His tiny hand reaching for her but paused mere inches from her own and together they lay, singing softly to one another, waiting for the mark above the cave to simply wear with time.
Credit: Krys Rudderham
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