08 Jul The Whistlers: Bill’s Account
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"The Whistlers: Bill's Account"Written by Amity Argot
Estimated reading time — 33 minutes
Publisher’s Note: This story is the second of a two-part arc told from the perspective of two individuals, Ruth and Bill, via their journal entries. For the best experience, we recommend you read the first half of the story, told from Ruth’s perspective, before reading Bill’s Account. For Ruth’s Account, please click here. To see a list of all stories in the series, click here.
The person who brought Bill’s journal to my attention has asked not to be identified. He insisted on giving me transcripts, not originals, so in this case what I’m showing you is exactly what I received. As before, neither I nor my source makes any claims about the veracity of these documents.
I’m sure many of you will want to know more about the documents themselves, but unfortunately, my source was not forthcoming. When I asked him how he acquired Bill’s account (I did so many times) his only response was: “I didn’t.”
I wish I had more insight to offer you. I’m afraid these new passages raise at least as many questions as they answer.
* * * * * *
I’ve got calluses on my hands from burying my brother. If we’re rescued today, I’ll have to explain that to someone. Some search-and-rescue trooper, some forest ranger, will hold my palm to the light of a chopper window and want to know how I managed to rub the heel of my hand raw.
I practice, sometimes. I practice what I’ll say to people when we get back home. Dr. Harmon, the department head, will need to know how I got Geoff and Lillian killed doing what was supposed to be straightforward field research. They were both his students, hand-picked for great things, led astray by the man who wrote his dissertation on the Russian Yeti, who taught a cryptozoology class disguised as a folklore survey. I got bumped off the tenure track for that. Harmon talked over me in meetings. Like I wasn’t there.
Ruth was on the floor with Ira for days after he died. Wouldn’t speak. She was holding his dead fingers and fussing to wash all the blood away, crying soundlessly with her mouth open, more like a wheeze. I had to do something, so I picked up her journal. Flipped through, all the way back to that night in the dark, the full moon rising and Ira down in a hole.
She isn’t documenting the whistlers anymore. I’ll see her in the corner by the stove sometimes with her notebook open and the pen just hovering over a page, not actually making words. She’s thin as a scarecrow now and her lips are cracking. I wonder about the things that she doesn’t write down. There are entire days she didn’t see fit to make note of. Then there are other things, little details, that I don’t remember at all. Things I don’t remember saying. This is the whole problem with the work we do. Incompleteness. Hearsay.
Two tonight, to the north, for about an hour after sunset. They separated, seemed to be approaching the lodge from either end of town, then abruptly moved further away. Nothing concrete but the tracks outside and the marks on Ira. They don’t seem willing to bother us inside, but we know that’s temporary. They took Sam, the helicopter pilot, right out of the lighthouse kitchen. Something broke the window above the sink. It was pitch black and he yowled like a cat. Ira had the rifle ready. It was dark and rainy and he aimed for the pilot, for the back of the head.
Still no reception. You listen to static long enough and it starts to sound like something, so we keep the lounge radio off. Food running low.
Mom will be at the airport when we’re rescued. She’ll ask about Ira before she asks about me. I’ll have that hanging over me for the rest of my life—that the wrong brother made it out of the wilderness. Cain and Abel, but he was the marked one. I can already see the disappointment in her eyes, hear the weepy sighing.
I am sorry he’s dead. Not as sorry as I should be. He didn’t scream the way Geoff did, didn’t scratch and bite like Lillian. He just stared up at me through the blue darkness, stared as if to concede that the order of things didn’t matter, that it could be either of us in the hole and the outcome would stay the same. The day we’re rescued I’ll have to find some way to keep the truth under wraps. Those eyes.
Ruth isn’t on her feet yet. When I got back from scavenging today, she was at the freezer door again, crying. There’s a woman in there, a chef, dead. She’s all the evidence we have about what happened at Red Hill. Not enough. We should dig a second grave, but the ground is even harder now.
Our bodies are broken. Little wounds, cuts and scrapes, twisted joints and tight muscles. Nothing gets a chance to heal. It’s just pain on top of pain, and hunger beneath it all.
I went back through the houses today, looking for anything we can use. Pointless to write an inventory down. Nobody had supplies to overwinter in Red Hill. Seems even the chef was planning to head south once the weather came in.
Three, maybe four whistlers around tonight. Very distant, north of us. We’ve got every lantern gathered in the lounge, all of them hanging from the antler chandelier along with tendrils of dust. It’s bright enough to read by, almost enough to feel truly safe. They’ll pick their night soon, I imagine. Only heard them briefly, but clear as a bell, so it was disturbing when I commented on it and Ruth said she didn’t hear them.
Lillian’s research centered on self-delusion. No two descriptions of the whistlers are exactly alike. There are similarities between accounts, sure, but she thought every victim was complicit, somehow. That you go so long fearing something you can’t see, and eventually you decide what it looks like. You decide what you believe. And then you see what you want to see.
Ruth woke me up later to say she heard the baby. She kept saying my name and begging me to listen, her nails digging into my arm, her face not an inch away from mine. Katherine’s birthday is tomorrow. I didn’t say anything. I was afraid of making her cry. Instead I held her like she was mine, my lips to her forehead. She went back to sleep.
I’m not sure how much more of this we can take. I think of the Survivor Theory all the time, the different permutations of it. If I shoot myself, will they leave Ruth alone? I remember Kirker Farley, the first trapper I ever interviewed, said the whistling stopped altogether once his last companion was dead. Said he walked out of the woods unmolested and found help. I’d want to walk for at least a day first. Make sure she wasn’t hassled with burying me. That’s how Ira said he would do it. Take the gun and go for a walk. What did he tell her? Rock ptarmigan. He was never supposed to come back that day. I guess he never really did.
No. I can see the logic, say the words, but I can’t do it. Ira wasn’t the only coward in these woods.
Ephraim Defoe was the first whistler scholar to describe the Survivor Theory. He wrote a paper about it—the idea that the whistlers are in some way dependent on humans and so will always leave one alive. A living human begets more humans. A survivor tells the story, excites curiosity, leads to more expeditions, more idiots in the woods. It implies long-term thinking on the part of the whistlers. Planning. A cycle of sowing and harvest.
Ruth doesn’t believe this part of the mythology.
“Obviously every story has a survivor,” she says. “The incidents without survivors don’t become stories. They don’t make it into the record.”
But I think about Kirker Farley. Gray mutton chops and a crumpled stetson, knuckles like oak bark. He was a Korea vet who retired to the wilderness once he got home. Took a vow of poverty. He spent a winter stranded and snowbound with six other people, all ex-military, all skilled and tough as nails. The whistlers picked the group apart one man at a time over the space of a month, and finally Kirker was left alone with his best friend, and that man started to lose his mind, started howling at the moon. Kirker killed him, his best friend. A knife, while he slept. Gentle as can be.
Everyone I’ve ever told the story to said that’s the answer right there: Kirker is just a murderer with a story to cover up his own wrongdoing. Maybe his case really is that simple. At the beginning, Ruth suspected all cases were that simple. I asked Kirker, though, when we sat down together, “Knowing they only take one at a time, why kill your partner and isolate yourself? Why not just stay together? Why wouldn’t the whole group stay together, arms locked, one impenetrable unit?”
He smiled the strangest smile. And he said: “A whistler ain’t a hound chasing a fox. He’s an angler waiting for a shark. Patient, patient, patient.”
We’ve been out here for months now, and I still don’t know what he meant. I do know I didn’t have the nerve to follow my own logic. I couldn’t sit idle and let the whistlers dictate terms. No whistlers tonight. When they come back, they’ll come in force. They’ll be insistent. I made my brother a promise, and I’ll keep that promise. But not today. Not yet. There’s still the coast.
Today we found Gary Law’s luggage in a cabin behind the lodge. It’s nice knowing this is where he came from. It helps put a date on whatever scattered the population of Red Hill. The man brought enough pleated slacks out here to start a catering company. Navy and Khaki, cufflinks and polo shirts. He’s got bear tour brochures and a receipt for a seaplane charter. It’s as if this was his first time outside an office. He’s got the look of someone they’d send search-and-rescue for, but we haven’t heard anyone flying over.
I’ve heard that’s something the whistlers can do. They can change what you hear, when. Mask what’s true and plant what isn’t. Lillian tried to record the whistles one night, but didn’t pick anything up. All we get is static on the radio. I wonder.
No idea how Gary Law made it so far north by himself, on foot. Why on earth he picked that direction to begin with. Ruth gathered up his plane ticket and put it with his ID. It’s documents. Worthless documents. We don’t have anything of Ira’s, but we’ve got a whole damned library on Gary Law. I never actually saw the man’s body. It was strange timing. I came back to Ruth burying a man hours after I’d left Ira to die. But he didn’t die. Didn’t speak except to say that we were wrong. It was a warning, just a warning, he said. The whistlers didn’t kill anybody.
Neither did I, I guess.
There’s a book in the lounge on traps and snares. I know exactly two traps, from scouts: the one where you make something heavy fall on your prey—a deadfall—and the one where you funnel your prey down into a hole. They’ve each got their drawbacks. There are knots and nooses in this book, diagrams for cornering bigger game. Ira was a damned Eagle Scout. Ruth likes to remind me of the things he knew that we’re both useless for.
Today I left her washing the bedsheets in water so hot it turned her arms red. She saw a tick on the carpet, she said. I probably brought it in on my socks. I would help, but I get the feeling she doesn’t want me around the lodge.
There was good rope in the Jeep. I made three different leg snares and one neck snare that I don’t have high hopes for. The book’s got instructions for small elk, boar, bear, and porcupine. I’d be glad to have any of those for dinner, but what I’m more interested in is what might happen if a whistler stumbles across a trap, or what they might do to a tethered animal in distress.
The academic part of me hasn’t frozen to death yet. Unlike Ruth, I haven’t forgotten why we’re here.
I found a pair of pole climbers in the closet. I stopped halfway up a mossy spruce and watched the forest for a good long time once the snares were set. I picked a little clearing where the ground is spongy, not a quarter mile behind the houses across from the lodge, but well-hidden. Half the noises of the woods come from the trees themselves. Creaking and swaying and whispering like they do. From my perch I could see the roofline of the lodge, smoke from the stove, and endless green in every direction. There are hills between here and the coast.
I heard something just as I was returning to the lodge—a low rumble, a growl. I looked back and saw what looked like a dog streaking away from behind the houses and disappearing into the woods. We freed a brindle mutt from one of the houses. He’s been following me in and out of the woods, doesn’t like me getting too close to his house, the gray shack right on the edge of the opening in the trees where I usually hike in. He runs with low shoulders and a mean little snarl. I’m sure he’s starving. If he finds himself in one of my traps I may put him down. If I brought him home, Ruth would want to feed him, name him. Can’t afford that.
After dark, there had to be twenty whistlers around the lodge. It was deafening, the sound of them, and all in the direction of that gap between the houses, the place where the forest opens up, where I set my snares. I didn’t tell Ruth this. Maybe it occurred to her anyway, that their activity might have something to do with my time alone out there. I piled wood into the stove and made her put on a pair of socks.
She’s been biting her nails down to nothing and talking in her sleep. I listen to her through the night. I don’t sleep much myself.
Ruth isn’t eating. She thinks I don’t know how little food there is, thinks I don’t notice her pretending to chew an empty spoonful of that yellowish fruit cocktail. When she’s rescued, people at work will make a fuss over how thin she is, how hard her arms and legs are now. It sickens me, the way we take our bodies for granted, the way we would sit at desks and count calories and deny ourselves a beer after work.
Damn, I’d like a beer tonight.
I said it to Ruth just now. She’s between me and the stove, braiding her damp hair. She laughed a little.
She’s pitying me my lack of imagination, maybe, or maybe she’s hoping I won’t ask for the other thing I want.
Checked the snares today—caught some kind of fox, dispatched it with Ruth’s hatchet. It was gamey and tough as shoe leather, but we ate it anyway, chewed like jackals till our jaws were sore. There’s plenty of salt and pepper, which didn’t help as much as you’d think. Nothing in the other traps. The neck snare looked disturbed, but the wind might have pulled it off the branches. Hard to tell.
Ruth keeps telling me to take it easy, rest in bed, get off my bad leg. I can’t bring myself to tell her that keeping still sounds like a death sentence to me. If she had her way, we’d curl up under the blankets together and wait for spring. Spring would come, but we wouldn’t see it. The only way any of this matters is if Ruth makes it out alive.
When she sees me going to the front door she asks me to stay where she can see me, stay within shouting distance. I cross the lounge to give her a kiss before I go, but there’s no give, no return. She’s my sister when she chooses to be. When they come to rescue her, that’s what she’ll say. That I was her brother-in-law, that I looked after her, that I was a decent help to her in Ira’s absence. That I tried.
It’s hours after dark. I just made it back. Ruth saw me limping and chewed me out, says I’m walking too far, putting too much weight on my bad leg too soon. She doesn’t know what I do all day. She assumes I’m still going through houses, finding matchbooks and hard candies lost behind sofa cushions.
I’m trying to finish it, but I didn’t even get the damn noose around my neck. Impossible to reach a good branch on these evergreens. It had to be high up so they could see me, so she could see me, so she’d know it was over. It’s how we did Geoff, Ira and I. Took him hunting. Tied him to a tree, waited until we heard them closing in, until his screams were drowned out by the whistling, and the other thing, the screeching and deep growling and the snapping of bones.
I had every intention of watching them take him, but in the end I didn’t have the nerve. I was sprinting away at Ira’s side, deciding the horrific din meant only that we’d done our jobs well, that the whistlers deemed the transaction acceptable, that they would leave us alone for a few more nights. We got back to camp and told Lillian we saw the whistlers attack him, and she believed us because they were silent for a long time after that. Almost two weeks.
Ira didn’t know the stories well, but he was convinced it was the right thing. The lighthouse keeper was certifiable, but he pointed out, rightly, that the only way to survive the whistlers is to play by their rules.
“They take one at a time,” he said, the night the chopper crashed.
We were all around his hearth with him, nodding. We all knew it was true. They take one at a time and they leave one alive. That one alive was going to be Ruth. We agreed, Ira and I, whispered the plan together. It had been years since we’d agreed about anything, but our decision about Ruth was mutual and urgent. He didn’t hate me for loving her then. He needed my help. The whistlers make the rules, but we decide the order.
We heard them closing in that night and dragged the lighthouse keeper from his bed. He was an old man, no trouble. We didn’t wake the others. In the morning, we told them we saw him walking off on his own, babbling about sparing the rest of us. We all remembered the pilot screaming about his wife and kids; we were all spooked by then. All willing to believe anything. Geoff marked an empty grave with a broomstick and Lillian cried and called the man a hero. We camped in the woods that next night, thought we might hike out of whistler territory before anybody else had to die. But we gave them Geoff next, then Lillian, and then we were down to just us three. Just us three. And suddenly all I had in common with my brother was that I wanted to live, and wanted Ruth to live.
I fell out of the damn tree before I even found a branch. Banged my leg up good.
Patient, patient, patient. That’s what I keep hearing, kept hearing, as I scraped away the soil and deepened the hole, as I grabbed roots and hauled away stones. It was already there, a collapsed burrow of some kind, so convenient, a receptacle for my darkest instincts. Ira had poor night vision, wore contacts. It was easy, in the dark, to get him where I wanted him. To scare him into the trap. My hands were freezing. He was a sacrifice, but unaccepted.
He was mute when he came back to camp, and even when he could accuse me he didn’t. Why? Why did they march him back to our door?
He opened his mouth to say something before Ruth fired. In my dreams, I give him words. An accusation. A condemnation. A warning.
* * * * * *
This will be my last update for a while. I think I owe you all a recap of what’s been happening for me in real time since I began posting these journals.
When I first met the man who gave me Bill’s entries–let’s call him Mr. H–I was struck by his stoic, resigned way of sharing them. Even though he was a bit territorial about the originals (to date I have not seen them) he was determined about the idea of sharing the story with a broader audience. I felt silly for the way I’d personalized the narrative earlier on. Talking to him, I stopped feeling like I had harmed anyone by posting Ruth’s journal. I didn’t feel as conflicted about it as I did at the beginning.
I had one last meeting with Mr. H before posting the first transcript of Bill’s journal online. Yes, the man lived near me. He was grizzled, older but not elderly, used a wheelchair but could walk short distances.
I found his company a little frightening at first. He wasn’t a creepypasta reader, as you might guess. The backpack I bought from the estate sale actually belonged to him. He was a family friend of the grandmother who died, and she had been keeping a handful of his old things in storage. The granddaughter sold his belongings without realizing what she was doing.
I returned the backpack and Ruth’s pages to him, though he wouldn’t tell me how he came by them or why he’d given them to the grandmother for safekeeping. This was on Sunday, before I posted the first half of his transcripts. It seemed like the right thing to do.
Yesterday I went back to Mr. H’s house. I went to ask if I could take some final pictures of both of the journals together, and the backpack. I know I told you I wasn’t interested in proving anything, but it seemed the final record would be more complete if I could offer at least one photo that encapsulated all of the material. Even comparing the age and color of the paper would be edifying.
When I arrived, there was no answer at the door. It was unlocked, though. We live in a small town. I knocked loudly before letting myself in.
I found him in his living room, hanging from a beam, a toppled stepladder on the floor. I’m in tears as I write this. I had never seen a dead body before. Reading about the horrors Ruth and Bill faced… I think none of it was real to me until now.
I don’t know what he did with the two journals and the backpack. I didn’t see them in his house while I waited for the police to arrive.
Do I suspect that Mr. H is Bill? A few of you have implied as much. I’m afraid I can’t answer the question now. I never asked him point-blank.
All I can do is leave you with Bill’s version of events.
We begin on the fourteenth of December, the morning after Bill attempted suicide in the woods beyond the lodge…
* * * * * *
I’ve talked to a few eyewitnesses over the years who swear whistlers look just like people. A little paler, maybe. Dead behind the eyes.
I spoke to an old woman, Wilma Derren, a goat herder, who said they can look however they want to look. Like a goose or a sheep or a human being. It’s when they open their mouths that you hear the truth, and then they change back to their natural form. She wouldn’t describe what that was.
She was convinced she’d seen one walking across her field one night, all alone, looking like a young man with torn clothes. She brought him inside, fed him dinner, and he didn’t speak a word to her. She turned away from him for a moment when she was clearing plates, and when she looked again he had gone from the table, sprinted silently through the front door. That night, the whistlers came. They trampled her fences in the dark and she lost half her herd. Found a doe torn to pieces by something. The rangers dismissed her story out of hand. Game warden had some explanation for her about bears. There was no sign of a bear though. No prints. Nothing interesting about the dead doe.
I wonder now if they weren’t half right. Ruth has said she thinks the whistlers could be protecting us. That we are not sharks, but more like sheep. Sheep at the mercy of wolves, and the whistlers our shepherds. I don’t know now. I don’t know what to believe.
* * * * * *
The dog’s house has the best angle on the woods. I went in through the kitchen door and looked through the back windows. I wonder if they’re out there now, having a laugh about my abandoned noose. I’m brave inside my own head, brave on paper, but I haven’t checked the snares today, and likely won’t. I’m thinking, actually, that it’s about time we made our way to the coast. It’s our last option now and I’m sick over it. Dead if we do, dead if we don’t.
The leg is killing me. I’m eating Tylenol and aspirin like candy. We have more medicine than food left, but nothing helps much. The worst pain doesn’t come from the leg anyway. It comes from the ticking clock, the whistlers at night, Ruth’s face. From knowing I’m a coward and a failure. Knowing she knows.
Tonight she drew me a bath and sat on the tub’s edge to wash my hair, her legs against my back, her feet in the hot water. We didn’t talk, but I rested my head against her thigh and she sort of stroked the back of my ear. That’s enough for now.
Damn dog came for me today while I was siphoning fuel from the van. Out of nowhere, but luckily Ruth saw and came running. She tried to scare the little bastard back into the woods, but he wouldn’t go, just stood whining at the trees, backing away from the swing of her stick, whimpering but refusing to flee.
Geoff had a theory. Called it the Symbiosis Hypothesis. He didn’t study whistlers much, but he was big on cryptids in general. People always ask: given that ecosystems only function because every organism plays a cooperative role, how is it possible that a tertiary predator could go unnoticed? A population of any sustainable size has a measurable appetite. His answer was that there must be larger blind spots to account for elusive species. He thought cryptids must exist in pairs, like a clownfish and an anemone. The anemone shields the clownfish from the outside world, protects it with poison that the clownfish is immune to. The clownfish helps the anemone by maintaining it, giving nitrogen, managing parasites, luring in prey. In this way they operate at a remove from the rest of the ecosystem. They cooperate, and might survive when logic says they shouldn’t.
Ruth was shouting at the dog, shouting toward the woods, backing up to me, to shield me. We heard something out there, as her voice echoed. Something called back to her. A scream. I’d heard it before. I’d thought it was a different part of the whistler’s repertoire. A screech. A new inflection that comes over them when they go from stalking to attacking. It’s what we heard the night Geoff died. The same gnashing, shrieking. It echoed out of the cave where we left Lillian.
Lillian. Lillian with long red hair and adoring eyes for Geoff. She almost got away from us. She fought. Ira shot her in the leg. We told Ruth we were firing on the whistlers when she asked about the sound. Said we could see them, like hard shadows, moving in the depths of the cave. Lillian wore the night vision goggles. I imagine she saw them more clearly than anyone ever has before. We didn’t see anything, only heard them. We heard this sound. A shriek like a wildcat. Like a deranged woman. The whistling came after, came second, came from a different part of the woods and closed in.
Now the dog was whining, and then it cowered out of sight. And Ruth turned to raise me to my feet. We were urgent to move, but we weren’t pursued. I can’t explain the shift, like a drop in temperature, a slackening of the wind. The whistlers were not there for us, but there for it. The whistling overtook the shrieking, and then everything hushed at once. They left us alone.
Ira said it. Said it in a clear voice in the days after I thought he’d lost his mind. “It’s a warning,” he said. “The whistlers didn’t kill anyone.”
What did he see from down in the hole? He said he saw tool marks. He said it to Ruth, but looked at me, wanted to make sure I knew I wasn’t forgiven. I used a folding spade. I thought we were a day’s walk from Red Hill then, maybe two. You have to give them something if you want to get away. It’s what the lighthouse keeper said, it’s what the stories say. You play by their rules, you live. Or, you have a chance. I gave them Ira. I would do it again.
I kept thinking I should have told Ruth everything. Here she was standing in the street with a stick of firewood and no idea what’s out there. I hit my head, I wasn’t much use, but I heard it again: the shrieking sound, and a rumble beneath it, atmospheric, eerie like thunder. Then the whistling. The dog was gone by then, but I can’t help thinking he’s part of it too. The hair was spiked on his neck. Eyes wide. We humans, we’ve got a way of personalizing things. Of assigning motives, emotions. Help or harm. Patient, patient, patient.
Ruth took me inside and cleaned my wounds, stitched up my leg. I’m bruised everywhere from my fall from the tree. She didn’t ask about that. Maybe she assumed it was old bruising still, or just more evidence that I’ve been pushing myself when I shouldn’t.
We shared the last of the gin. It’s battery acid, but somehow I couldn’t get enough. I could see it getting to her as the evening got dark. Not the gin, but the fear. The screech we heard, the anxiety in the dog’s eyes. The feeling that the longer we’re out here the less we know. A very final sort of despair. Like she might collapse and never get back up again, even after everything we’ve done. I couldn’t have that, so I rose and took her in my arms, and held her, and when I realized there was no way to tell her it would be all right, I kissed her. And she let me. I heard her sighing, and felt the weight of her against me, letting go. There was something tight in her face, more like desperate resignation than love. Maybe that was my own pain getting in the way. My need.
I brought her to the lounge and pulled her down with me on the bed, hurting everywhere and not caring. She undressed us both. I wonder, now that she’s asleep, if she’s dreaming of me or him.
It’s funny. I’m not afraid of death tonight.
I’m going to get Ruth to the coast. I decided this morning. Red Hill is a death trap, slow or fast, we’ll die here if we stay. And we have the Jeep. Maybe we’ll go fast enough that the screeching thing won’t follow us. Maybe the whistlers will close in on it once we’re gone. They’ll kill it. That’s what Ruth thinks. She thinks it’s a monster, something old and unspeakable, something the people of this region have been conflating with the whistlers since time immemorial. She thinks the whistlers are on our side. That they’re keeping it at bay.
Time is a factor. My leg is in bad shape. The bite needs antibiotics, and we don’t have them. She tried to get me to stay in bed, but I won’t. There’s too much work to do.
I got the fuel and gear loaded into the Jeep, then in mid-afternoon I decided to walk back out toward the snares. I heard her yelling for me not to go too far, but she doesn’t understand. I can hear the whistlers all the time now. It isn’t just at night, and it isn’t just when they’re putting on a show. I can hear them talking through the day, hear their conversations out under the trees. They get clearer and clearer every minute. Soon, I think the whistle tones might turn into words. Something I can parse.
It’s a relief to be inside my brother’s mind like this. Ira wasn’t afraid of them. That night it hailed. I have nightmares about that night. They marked him out for understanding, and now they’ve marked me, and I’m grateful. They’ll leave Ruth alone. I went back out to the snares because I was ready, at last, to give them their opportunity. I’m limping. Easy pickings if I’m wrong. I went as far as the hanging tree and got the pistol ready.
Hope feels like madness. I want to see them. The whistlers, the shrieking thing. I want to see them for myself before I die. That’s not too much to ask, is it?
The murmurs became chatter, became whistling. They were calling me out of the clearing where I’d set my snares, away, into the trees. I followed them with measured, trusting steps. Somehow I knew they wouldn’t leave me behind. They were leading, not fleeing. The snow had an icy crust, and soon I wasn’t just following sound and emptiness. I was following tracks. Dog prints. And I looked ahead and I saw the dog, the same one, standing in a treeless space where the woods ended. It was the edge of a cliff, snow and granite and scraggly trees. I could hear moving water, and the dog was staring at me, into my eyes, like he was possessed of a human mind.
“Are you one of them?” I said.
And the dog turned his back to me. He wagged his tail once and ran straight ahead, ran straight off the face of the cliff. And the whistlers, they were closer than I knew, their voices erupting behind me and ahead, from down in the gully and right at my back.
And what I don’t know—what I can’t know—is whether he jumped for me or for them. Whether they were making noise over his death or my witnessing it. Whether Ruth and I matter any more or less to the whistlers than the hares and foxes and birds we’ve hunted along the way. I walked to the cliff’s edge as a matter of reflex. It was a very long way down, a sheer granite face with icy lines of runoff. I didn’t see the dog. I saw cars. A dozen? Maybe fewer. Cars and trucks, driven clear off this cliff face, crashed and mangled, blackened where they’d burned.
It happened before we reached Red Hill, but not long before. It was a graveyard, a fresh one. Here lies the whole population of Red Hill, a sign might say. It’s one thing to be backed against an edge. It’s another thing to drive clear off it. There weren’t many bodies in view, but the ones I could see were removed from the vehicles. Thrown? Dragged? It’s hard to say.
Ruth got a paper published in a good journal a few years ago on the subject of mass hysteria. When a group of people panics all at once, they become like a single organism. They might see things that were never there, remember events that never occurred. Everybody defers to the loudest voice and suddenly the whole herd is spiraling to some terrible end at once.
There’s a whistler story that takes place after a shipwreck. Twenty people get stuck together on the same beach. It was a fishing boat, so they’re orderly people. They’ve got a hierarchy. Everyone’s got a job. But they realize there are whistlers near, and the captain starts telling them stories from when he was a boy. Stories of how the whistlers will take the group down one at a time. How their minds will be compromised, they’ll turn against each other. So they draw straws and choose an order, and with great efficiency every third night they send one man out into the woods with a torch and nothing else. They assume they’ll be rescued in a matter of days, that each sacrifice is for the greater good, buying the group just a little more time. The chosen man never comes back, and the group never gets attacked by the whistlers.
Confirmation bias, Ruth said.
The rescue boat never comes, and they continue in this way until the captain is the only man standing. It happened like clockwork, each man thinking his sacrifice was keeping the others safe. That it was all a matter of practicality and fairness, and maybe that their own strength would keep them alive when it was their turn in the wild. Who knows what they saw in the darkness? Maybe the whistlers called them onward, showed them paradise. Maybe the people who drove off this cliff saw a road, a neat suspension bridge.
Something happens in the mind. Ruth hears her baby at night.
The captain did the talk show circuit for a few years, then killed himself. Ruth says this is the most damning part. The captain knew it was just a story. He knew the whistlers weren’t real. A little sleight of hand, he picked the order.
I picked the order.
I think it was a message. The dog, the whistling. There was no shrieking sound, no sign of danger. Just me and the fallen bodies and the cliff’s edge. The whistlers were daring me to take matters into my own hands, keep my promise.
Ruth is driving us to the coast. Things changed for me, this morning, when I realized we were really going. The weather was good, foggy, but not snowing. When we get there, it’s over. The coast is the last place we can go where we might get help, where we might find someone living who can get us out of here.
She looks tired. Her hands are tight on the wheel, windshield wipers squeaking as they clear the condensing mist. I’ve thought so much, over the years, about what she deserves. Not me. Not this.
She knows how I feel. She’s known since the night Katherine died. It was just mom and me in the hospital waiting room, late, drinking scorched coffee and pretending to read magazines. The doctor came to say the baby had passed away, and then they wouldn’t let me into the room with Ruth.
“Only the father is allowed,” the nurse said. “Wait until visiting hours.”
I raged at the woman with her pinned-back hair and sickly pink scrubs. Mom kept asking what had gotten into me. I told the truth. I broke down crying and said I was in love with Ira’s wife. I didn’t realize until that moment that I was jealous of him. Jealous and angry. He was the only person allowed in that room with her, and he wasn’t there. He vanished to Tuscaloosa or somewhere to listen to drug reps lecture about catheters. Too chickenshit to be a man when it mattered. Right up until the end.
I told that nurse I was the father. “Ira Douglas Gattiger,” I said, poking my finger into her clipboard. We all knew I was lying, but Ruth said to let me in. It was so late at night and I held her in the hospital bed, with all the tape and gauze and an IV in her arm. Katherine came by emergency c-section, so it was a double trauma. She was stuck in a recovery bed for Katherine’s entire week of life. And there was so little I could do.
Maybe I was taking advantage. I don’t know. My mom looked in on us that night, saw us. She’ll have her own ideas about this, once Ruth is rescued. She’ll be fascinated to know why I let my brother die.
* * * * * *
The drive was short. I closed my eyes against the window, and opened them, and we’d arrived. Gray sand and the pale sun in the sky. An icy dock. There’s a boathouse, a shack, and enough trash in the bushes to say people have been here, but not recently. Not since the corruption came to Red Hill.
The corruption. That’s what Kirker called it as he told me the story. It was a separate thing, something the whistlers brought with them. A corruption in the hearts of men. Was he talking about fear? The ordinary fear of the unknown, and what it does to a person?
Ruth saw me crying and walked out to the dock. She can’t look at me. I think she knows how badly I’ve failed. She knows this could be over for her if I was man enough to be steady with the noose. No. She doesn’t know. Doesn’t expect me to be the one who dies. Doesn’t know what I’ve done to keep us safe this long. She’s a good woman, virtuous like the long-suffering mother in a fairy tale.
If I told her the truth, we’d have an argument about whether it was necessary. Whether I am not just as bad as whatever lurks under the trees. I might be. I have my reasons. But now she’s run out of hope. She doesn’t think either of us will make it out alive.
She turned her face into the wind, sharp, started walking up the beach.
“Do you hear that?” she said. I listened. It was faint, but there: whistlers. Whistlers coming for me, the man who picks the prey. But they didn’t want Ira, didn’t take him. Or, they took his mind, but not his body. What about Lillian? What about Geoff? What was really happening beneath all that screaming?
“Don’t go, Ruth,” I said. She was walking up the sand, going to where she could see across the beach. But she wasn’t hearing whistlers. She was hearing the baby again. I don’t remember Katherine crying. She was too small, too weak, didn’t have time.
“There’s a boat,” Ruth said, looking winded, maybe happy. It was something to do, an option to try. I told her I couldn’t go back to Red Hill. I intended that she should go back, keep warm, wait for rescue. She could make it once I was gone. In any of the stories, she would make it.
But we dragged ourselves toward the boat on the unforgiving coastline. The sand became craggy basalt, became forest, weedy and thorny and near impenetrable. She clambered onward almost like an animal, on all fours up boulders, always moving forward, always toward the boat.
And every step brought us closer to the whistlers. I could hear them, growing louder, hiding in the trees. Dozens? At least. The hollow howling, but everything else too: the clicking of teeth, the shifting of weight. Yes, there are bodies beneath the voices. A strange corporeality, something I may never succeed in defining.
We stood at the edge of shallow, gently lapping water. Suddenly she was an expert on boats and tides. It was a mistake, coming so far. The boat was a weathered shell of itself, flimsy and with tattered sails and frayed lines. It wouldn’t take her as far as she needed to go.
But she insisted. She said she didn’t hear the whistlers. She heard the baby and Ira. Ira singing, a phrase so foreign I can’t even imagine it.
She heard them behind her, on the boat, calling her to the false safety of the water. All I could hear was ahead of us, in the woods. I heard whistlers and their waiting jaws. I heard the danger that they were protecting her from.
And it occurred to me that maybe the whistlers were offering another bargain. Put Ruth on the boat, let her go. They were offering me a chance to die on my feet, pistol in hand. Yes, I was willing. I was willing if it meant, somehow, that Ruth would be safe.
I told her to get on the boat, moved like I was right behind her. Stopped. Turned.
I walked up the beach, toward the whistlers, toward the edge of the trees where they hid, where they called for me. And soon Ruth saw what I’d done. She saw I didn’t follow her onto the sailboat. That I was away and the tide was rising. That I was facing the whistlers, facing the end. She was screaming over the whistlers. So she could hear them now. She was screaming behind me, screaming about something I should see.
“Run, Bill! Can’t you see it? Bill!”
I saw it. The dog. Gray and brown. Sharp, forward ears. Dappled dark on the sides. I fell to my knees, thinking, like a fool, that I had them figured out. I was supposed to follow the dog, I thought. Supposed to give myself up. So I did. My legs weren’t working, and I crawled. I crawled over sharp stone and weedy gravel. I stared the dog in the eye. It was silent, like Wilma Derren’s young man. A whistler, I decided. Shade of the Woods, they’re called, further north. A whistler in the shape of a dog.
It was coming toward me, tentatively. I heard Ruth’s voice, a complaint high in her throat, harsh. My name. Screaming my name. But the whistlers drowned her out. Their voices rose, to screeching, to a din. And they descended on the dog right in front of my eyes. The dog that was not a dog, not a whistler. Something else. Something that died with a moan like an earthquake. They tore it apart. The effort went on for many long minutes, long enough for me to realize the dying thing looked nothing like a dog. Not in the least. It had long, black limbs. Sharp, angular, with joints protruding. Short, coarse hair that shone. It bled the same deep red of any mammal, long toes curled with black claws, flickering nerve impulses.
Part of my mind says it was a bear. Black fur, enormous stature, and that low growl, dark and strong in a way that grips your heart. It could have been a bear. It could have been any number of completely familiar things. There’s another part of me that knows it wasn’t a bear. Knows it isn’t something I’ve ever seen before, isn’t something I can describe.
And the whistlers took it down.
I got back on my feet, swayed once before falling again. The last thing I heard was the snapping of bones, and in my fevered mind they were Geoff’s bones, and Lillian’s, and Ira’s, and Ruth’s. They were Katherine’s tiny bones, and the whole misadventure was my fault. It is, isn’t it? I picked the order. It all falls to me.
I didn’t wake up until the following morning, and by then the woods were silent. Ruth and the boat were gone.
When did the dog stop being a dog? I don’t know. The wound on my leg refuses to heal. I can feel the pain of it in my entire body. An ache in time with my heartbeat.
Wilma wouldn’t tell me what the whistlers really looked like. There’s a reason for that. Good reason. They were drawing curtains in our minds. Letting Ruth hear her daughter again, showing me another pitiful creature alone in the woods. I don’t know, but I have my suspicions. I think we personalized the story when we shouldn’t.
They’re not protecting us. That much is obvious now. Should have been obvious a long time ago.
Anglers waiting for sharks. Ruth and I, we’re not sharks. Patient, patient, patient. We’re bait. I see that now. We’re bait for something bigger. Is that what they were doing with Ira? Keeping him on the hook? Something took his arm, but the whistlers kept him on his feet. Kept him walking. Marked him, and now they’ve marked me. Put my scent on the wind.
I couldn’t walk back to the jeep tonight. I got halfway, was hobbling. This leg is close to useless. I imagine Ruth’s hands on it, telling me to stay awake, to stare down the pain. When I find her, I won’t let us be separated again. We’ll fight our way out of this back-to-back. Keep moving down the coast. If they want one of us, they’ll have to take us both. That was her mindset, the right mindset.
We’re not the prey. I see that now. Human beings are collateral damage. No, I’m not certain. There are too many stories. Memories told by people with polluted minds. Corrupted.
I don’t see the boat. No lights or fires. I had to move further inland than I liked to find a trail.
She’s safe. She has to be. Safe in the boat, in the water. Safe because she’s a terrific shot and the toughest person I know. But is her mind safe? Is she safe when she closes her eyes? The whistlers were getting to her, planting lies. I couldn’t make a fire, but there’s no snow out here under the dense trees. Not yet.
It’s been a few days. I think three nights, since I saw Ruth. I reached the boathouse, but the jeep is gone. There are tire tracks to follow, down the beach, through the mud. I slept half the day yesterday. The pain is blinding. I was lost in the woods, turned around. It was further than I thought, and the trees all look the same once you’re off course, when every step costs so much.
Excuses, excuses, excuses. What will I do if she doesn’t make it? What have I done?
I froze overnight. Buried myself with moss. And this morning I realized I could just stay down. I regretted ever leaving Red Hill. A stove and blankets. If we were going to die anyway, why not die together? I was so sure she’d have a chance at the coast. When I find her, she’ll tell me what an idiot I was. She’ll tell me she loves me. She said it that night after the dog bit me. She was falling asleep, her cheek on my shoulder, my hand in her hair.
“I love you, Bill,” she said. And she closed her eyes.
I just smiled, figured she already knew how I felt. Now I wish I’d said it back. I wish, in the darkness, I had more of that moment to remember. I love you, Ruth Gattiger. It’s the greatest pain in my life, but I do.
I made it to the jeep. It’s parked askew in a marshy area where the mud would be deadly if it wasn’t freezing over. Out of gas. She didn’t get far. I wonder if she was running the engine for heat. Couldn’t blame her. It’s raining a little. Freezing mist. I’m inside the jeep and she isn’t here. Her backpack is slumped in the back seat, her pens and journal stuffed inside a plastic bag right at the top of the pack. The revolver is here, empty. I found it a good five yards from the jeep, on the ice, but no Ruth.
I’ve got three in the pistol.
Her last journal entry is a suicide note, or, that’s how it seems. She figured I was dead and tried to drive south, then ran out of fuel. If she killed herself, she’d be here beside me. I suppose an animal might have dragged her away if she wasn’t in the vehicle. It says here: “Take my body back to Oregon.” She wouldn’t have been so careless as to do it out in the open. Not when she had the option. Not when she knew what was lurking close by.
It’s too dark to go looking now. I’m exhausted in a way that feels almost soft, welcome. That’s the cold getting into me. It’s deep now, the chill. Setting into my bones.
Maybe I’ll see Ruth tonight. Maybe I won’t wake up.
Christmas Day. Her body was dragged. It was easy to see in the light of morning. I stuffed her pack into mine and went looking. There are footprints in the mud, hers, leading toward where I found the revolver. No blood on the ice. A disturbance where she might have fallen, and then a smear in the mud where she was taken away, up across the ice and through gravel, through sand, inland, into the woods again.
I followed the path without weighing the idea first. It seems we’re worth more to them alive. Ira. They kept Ira going for more than a month. He had a rifle the day he saw their true faces. The day the corruption got hold of him.
If I had finished it sooner, Ruth would be safe now. She’d be walking south, wouldn’t she? Free to go. We’re worth too much to them, the whistlers. Too useful. That’s why they never finish us off. A survivor with a good story keeps the cycle going. Keeps the humans coming. Ruth understood that. The mystery is a hunting tactic. Our curiosity is what kills us in the end. That, and our companions.
Twice I thought I’d lost the trail, but I didn’t. The trail changed. It crossed the road from Red Hill and led through a brushy field, through snow.
I almost turned to walk to the lodge. Pros and cons. Another day or two of this and I might drop. But turning away could mean losing the trail.
Here, in the field, the drag marks turn into footsteps. Uneven, like she’s dragging her feet. Bare feet. Her shoes came off along the way. I found them, tied them to my pack. If she’s walking, maybe she got away. So, I’ll follow. I won’t stop. The tracks are obvious now, in the snow. As long as I can keep ahead of the weather, this will all be over soon. South. She’s leading me south.
The trail, the tracks, they ended today. I was walking in Ruth’s bare footsteps, the dragging strides, and suddenly they weren’t just hers. There was a second set of the same steps, and a third, all dragging, and running together, and I was so fixed on my feet, on the tracks, on picking Ruth’s tracks apart from the others, I didn’t realize I was walking in a circle. A circle high on a ridge, exposed, and the tracks leading me around and around a boulder, big and gray, marked with a vein of white quartz. There’s no path away from here, just a continuous loop of footprints, so many the snow has cleared, leaving mud and dead plant matter, leaving a ring like the one we found encircling the lodge on our first morning in Red Hill. Then, my instinct was to flee. To get Ruth the hell out of that ring if I could manage it, or feed myself to the whistlers, give them what I thought they wanted.
Now the circle didn’t mean as much to me. I had no energy for fear. Ruth is walking among the whistlers. For how long? For however long she can stay on her feet. It’s not symbiosis. Whatever it is, it starts in the mind, in the head. Maybe they were all like us, once. Like Ira and Ruth. Maybe that’s why they always let one person go.
Teller Rickson, a folklorist, that was his theory. He thought there was no cryptid in the woods, no separate predator species. That the whistlers themselves were just people, corrupted. Pushed so far by the harshness of the wilderness that they transformed into something else to survive. Pure need and fear. Hunting in a pack. Maybe deep down they have human hearts. Maybe part of them wants to see us survive.
I climbed up onto the boulder, stayed inside the ring. It was late evening, and I figured they’d come for me. Maybe I’d see Ruth among them. That would be worth it. That, and the stars. I sat on the boulder and could see across the valley, the snow and the distant gray ridges, the sky turning purple and the opening eyes of the stars. But the whistlers never spoke up around me. They never came. And the longer I looked the more I saw across that valley. I saw a hard, unnatural line. A road. And before long there was a light on it, a moving light, headlights, winding up a neighboring ridge. And there were other lights—Christmas lights, window lights, the spangled glow of a small town. Another Red Hill, but this one populated. This one alive.
Ruth left me her flint and steel. Paper. I started a fire, and they came for me the next morning. They came for me the way they would have come for Ruth if I hadn’t failed, in a chopper, with blankets, with ointment for my cuts and a splint for my leg. I might lose it, someone said. They might take it off at the knee.
“What happened?” the ranger hollered over the chopper blades.
“The whistlers,” I said, garnering myself a look of mixed pity and disbelief.
“What are the whistlers?” he said.
There’s no explaining what’s actually out there, and I see that that is by design. The ineffability is the trap. I shook my head the way Wilma Derren shook her head at me, all those years ago, and said the only thing that made sense at the time:
“Patient, patient, patient.”
Credit: Amity Argot
🔔 More stories from author: Amity Argot
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