08 Jul The Whistlers: Ruth’s Account
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"The Whistlers: Ruth's Account"Written by Amity Argot
Estimated reading time — 54 minutes
I bought a camping backpack from an estate sale and found the following pages inside.
There was a bundle of papers wadded in a deep pocket of the backpack, but I didn’t notice until after I got it home. I went back to the house where the estate sale was held, and a young woman answered the door. She couldn’t say who the backpack belonged to and had no interest in the papers. Her grandmother was the one who died (of old age, natural causes). Apparently, she was a bit of a hoarder, so I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to track down the source. The handwriting is tiny, and the pages are damaged. I’ll transcribe as faithfully as I can.
The man on the trail is dead and will need to be moved. It is a more difficult task than I would have guessed, and nearly impossible for a 5’ 4” woman with no help and no gurney. I tried to drag him toward camp right after I found him this morning, but only succeeded in pivoting him and twisting his legs around each other horribly. Bodies look so wrong once they stop feeling pain. I never thought I would have so much experience with death, but I haven’t cried over the loss of someone since the lighthouse. This man shit his pants before he died, and moving him made the smell worse. It will bring the animals in. Still no sign of Ira or Bill.
I used Ira’s foam sleeping mat like a sled to move the dead man. It still took me an hour to drag him thirty yards, and now the mat is so torn up that I’m questioning whether it was worth the effort.
Gary Law. His driver’s license is in his wallet. He’s from Utah. I took the sight of him as a good sign at first. Another human on the trail might have meant we were close to civilization, but now I’m not sure what he was doing out here, or what it means. I can’t tell what killed him. No claw marks, no wounds on his hands. He’s stoutly built, but with a bagginess about his physique that makes me think he was starving. He died with his mouth open, every mucus membrane turned ash gray. I don’t think he was attacked. It’s a relief—if he had been missing pieces the logical thing to do would have been to move camp, but then Ira and Bill would have come back to nothing. I’m more afraid of being separated from them than I am of anything else. Still waiting on them both.
I spent all day yesterday stripping and burying Gary Law. He was shorter in stature, but his clothes should fit Bill well enough. His feet were small, so I’m keeping the socks for myself. They’re almost brand new, thick, blue wool. I can tell he wasn’t an outdoorsman. Everything else was new too: new shoelaces, new cross-trainers, new windbreaker, none of it quite right for someone trekking this far out. And the pants are from Banana Republic, pleated, and with a neat sheen. These aren’t pristine like everything else, and were hemmed by a tailor. I washed them in the creek, but they still smell like shit and death. Everything does, actually, to the point that I think the smell might be on me, in me. I weighted the pants down on a stone near the ridge that gets full sun. I miss bleach. I put green boughs on the signal fire today, but there was no answering smoke. I’m more worried about Ira than I am about Bill. It was Bill who found this trail to begin with. He always finds his way.
Bill came back today. He took his time coming through the trees, and I got so scared I almost fired the gun. But he clapped, and I clapped back, and he called out to say he was injured. It was the loose shale on the hill between camp and the cave where Lillian was killed. He got caught in a slide and wound up buried to his hips, and one foot wedged between boulders. He couldn’t get free until the rocks shifted again, which they did, that night, when a whistler came by. He’s sure it didn’t see him. He had to spend two days convalescing within sight of Lillian’s cave before he was well enough to hike back. Two nights alone out there.
I boiled water while I listened to his story, and gave Bill some aspirin from the dead man’s backpack. His foot needed to be wrapped, but I don’t think it’s broken.
“We should stop splitting up,” I said.
He nodded and pushed his pack toward me. There was salmon and berries and some mushrooms I didn’t really trust.
“We should think about hiking out,” he said. “Pick a direction and go. It’s been four weeks. We’ll only get weaker.”
“When Ira comes back,” I agreed, but Bill pursed his lips like there was something he couldn’t say.
But he only shook his head.
It’s been ten days now since Ira left.
I woke up this morning to a sound I thought was a whistler, but it was actually Bill, on his knees, crying at Gary Law’s grave. I yelled at him about it—about waking me up and making so much noise. He looked hurt, and I felt bad. I’m just worried about Ira, I think, and afraid. I don’t know what we’ll do when the weather starts getting colder. If we wait too much longer, hiking out won’t be an option. There hasn’t been any sign of rescue—no planes or helicopters, no smoke. No sounds but wolf howls and the distant whistling, like elk mating calls, almost. If Ira were here, he’d tell us a story to get our minds off things. He’s a registered nurse. He doesn’t panic.
I apologized to Bill last night. He shook his head like it was nothing, so I put my hands on his shoulders and apologized again, because I needed him to really hear it.
“Well I’m sorry you were alone,” he said. “We should never have left you alone.”
He was looking into my eyes so sadly, and I imagined he was remembering all of the awful things of the past weeks, and feeling the same guilt I felt. It was our research that brought everyone here, our recklessness and curiosity to blame.
Then he kissed me, and kept kissing me, and finally I kissed him back, because I was feeling something for once. Not even lust, really. More like homesickness. A little breakthrough of pain and wonder after all the bitterness and hardening and cold. We undressed each other and had sex in the tent. I don’t know why. I’ve never cheated on Ira before. Never even thought about it. This didn’t seem wrong, in the moment, but now it’s difficult to write down. It just felt like something we both needed. We didn’t say anything at all. Afterward he went outside to sleep by the fire, like he couldn’t stand to be so close. He spent this morning hauling water and wood, barely pausing to acknowledge me. I don’t think it will happen again. I don’t think either of us will tell Ira.
It’s late. We hear whistlers, just north of us, a chorus of them. Bill says he hears eight distinct tones, but I don’t know. It could be dozens. We put the fires out, and now we’re crouched in the tent with the knives and the gun. Bill reaches for me, puts himself between me and the sound when it crescendoes. I don’t think he knows why he does it. I don’t think it would make a difference. We won’t sleep tonight.
Ira is back. His coat is in tatters, and his hat is gone. He isn’t speaking. I would call it shock, but he’s the only one with medical training, and I don’t really know what to make of him. He walks and moves fine. He doesn’t look at me. Doesn’t seem to see me.
I feel so guilty. I’m the reason he’s out here. Now every time I look up I find Bill staring at me. He tries to communicate with looks, but all I ever make out is the fear and shame. Ira won’t eat. We zipped him into the dead man’s jacket and left him to sleep, but he’s been shaking and mumbling all afternoon. He seems exhausted, but he hardly closes his eyes. It’s my fault.
Ira hasn’t improved much, although he is sleeping now, and eating some. I’ve only seen him sick once before, food poisoning on our honeymoon. He was so stoic about it, and didn’t want my help. Now he hasn’t got much choice. I walked about a mile north and shot a porcupine, and Bill is setting up an alder smoker so we can save the meat. He’s getting serious about us hiking out, but I’m not sure how we’ll manage it with Ira so sick. “He made it back here, didn’t he?” Bill said. “He’ll snap out of it.”
Maybe so. Neither of us has speculated about what Ira saw. All we know is he was on the south side of the mountain. Bill has proposed we go west as far as the river, then follow it south. If he’s right about where he thinks we are, we’ll hit Red Hill before it starts to snow. There’s a lodge there, and a few permanent residents, or so the helicopter pilot said. If anyone is looking for us, they’ve certainly asked around in Red Hill. I’m glad we have meat now. I’ve been feeling weak.
Ira is recovering, and not a moment too soon. I woke this morning with his arms around me, and the look in his eyes said he knew where he was, who I was, and was bursting with something he wanted to say but couldn’t. “It’s okay,” I told him. “Be patient with yourself.”
We had a cold snap last night that left frost on the ground. All three of us cuddled together to sleep, Ira between Bill and I, and at one point Bill reached over to grab my shoulder. I think we’re done with the awkwardness. I think we both know we were just scared.
We don’t have anywhere near enough food for the journey, but we’re leaving tomorrow anyway. Bill has a cold.
* * * * * *
Hi all. I’m glad so many of you shared my enthusiasm about the first entries, though my enthusiasm has since twisted into something else. Yesterday, in the comments, I mentioned that I felt lucky for finding these pages at the estate sale. I don’t feel lucky anymore. I feel guilty.
This is going to sound crazy, but the more I read and transcribe, the more anxious I feel about the pages and the woman who wrote them. Her name is Ruth–that comes out in tonight’s excerpt. I still don’t know much about her–I have no leads to share about the young woman at the estate sale or her grandmother. Yet, I feel like Ruth is close. Like she’s aware of what I’ve done. Like she’s angry. I can’t explain it. It’s as if I can hear her. Whispers of disappointment rising along with my own pulse. I’m certain now that she never meant her words to be used this way–to be posted online with so little context, offered up as entertainment. I didn’t sleep well last night.
Still… I feel like we’ve started something now that needs to be finished. A few of you expressed interest in seeing Ruth’s original pages, but I think that’s where I should draw the line. It’s where I can redeem myself. I’m uncomfortable with the idea of photographing the original documents–her original words–and turning them into just another memento mori for the internet to have its way with. At this point, it makes no difference to me if you believe me or not. I guess that might seem selfish, but you can’t hear her like I can.
Anyway, here’s the rest of what I’ve transcribed so far…
* * * * * *
Third day of walking.
I wish I could talk to Lillian about what happened with Bill. She was young, ambitious, and so funny. Plus, she had a whole hoard of birth control pills. She and Geoff were dating. I forget how many you take in emergencies, and how soon after it has to be. But the pills are in her pack, and her pack is in the cave with the whistlers and whatever is left of her. She had the maps. She had everything that mattered. The cave is miles behind us now.
We built a big cairn by the stream. At some point, we’ll have to lead rangers out here, I’m sure. They’ll want to collect Lillian, and Geoff, and the helicopter pilot. I can’t remember his name. I hope one of us makes it out so his family can hear that it wasn’t his fault. He had three daughters, and was expecting a fourth. I can’t imagine what his wife is doing now. If anyone finds this: it was an electrical malfunction. He got us to the ground safe and sound. He was perfect, even fixed the problem, but then the weather closed in, and we couldn’t take off. Lillian knew the way, so we hiked to the lighthouse. And then the whistlers came.
It has rained for two days. The dead man’s jacket is nowhere near warm enough for Ira, and too big, but we don’t have anything else. At least it’s waterproof.
We hear whistlers every night now, just after sunset. Three or four of them, calling back and forth. Bill is convinced they’re tracking us. We stack rocks high around the fire.
We’re following a new game trail now, instead of the river. The walking is easier. I didn’t think twice about it until last night. Bill leaned forward on his elbows at the fireside while the whistlers seemed to be circling us.
“What if this isn’t a game trail?” he said, his voice a low murmur. “What if they made this?”
I don’t have the energy to think about that. It’s simple: If we’re walking a trail they made, if their nightly whooping is urging us into a trap, we’re fucked.
Ira curls up in a ball when the whistlers start calling. He writhes like someone is sticking him with pins. All he’s said so far is “Let’s go.”
It hailed today, hard. We had to take shelter under a tree, and when dark fell there were no whistles for the first time in a week. The silence was somehow more eerie than the threat of the whistlers. Ira felt it too, because about fifteen minutes after dark he stood up and started whooping and whistling out into the rain, calling and screaming in a tone that didn’t sound like him. Bill yelled at him to be quiet, but he acted as if possessed, calling out to them at the top of his lungs with his eyes rolling back in his head. Bill tackled him to the ground and beat him to shut him up.
“Stop it!” I said, at first, but when Ira didn’t stop making noise Bill looked at me, and I closed my eyes and nodded. He had to knock Ira cold to get him to be quiet, and he was sobbing while he did it, pleading with Ira to settle down. The wind was sharp, and I think it saved us. Every tree was vibrating and creaking and howling. The whistlers had likely all retreated to their caves.
Maybe they hibernate. Maybe they’ll leave us alone soon.
Ira was his old self this morning, as completely as if we had gone backward in time. He was up before either of us, heating water. He said he took so long to recon the south side of the mountain because the whistlers caught him in a trap.
“It was a hole, clearly dug with tools.” He was shaking while he spoke. “They only came at night, and I didn’t get a good look at them. I could hear them, and see silhouettes, but nothing definite. It was too dark. I don’t know what they wanted with me. I got out. I climbed out. And I ran.”
We’re well away from there now, finally reaching the end of the ridges and the start of a valley where everything is very green. I hope the change in biome means a decrease in the whistler population. Part of me wants to take steps to document as much, if it’s true, but all of our field notes were lost with Lillian’s gear, plus the night vision goggles and the cameras. My biggest fear is that we’ll all be killed, and our disappearance will inspire some other young researchers to come up here to solve the mystery for themselves. We’ll become just another line in the sick folklore that draws people to this cursed place. I would hate to be part of that cycle, knowing what I know now. The whistlers are very real, and they don’t want us here.
I dreamed last night that I was pregnant with Gary Law’s baby. Nothing else happened in the dream. I was hiking endlessly with Ira and Bill, and all three of us knew that I had been with the dead man, and it bothered us, but we wouldn’t talk about it. I woke up with my period, thank God. I’ve never been so happy doing laundry.
We’ve made camp by a small lake in the low point of the valley. It’s uphill from here to a distant saddle Ira thinks he remembers seeing from the air. It’s only about two miles away. Red Hill should be just beyond that, Ira says, but we don’t have the energy to push that far yet. We’ll rest today, and tomorrow we’ll move, and hopefully we’ll be drinking beer at the Red Hill lodge before dark.
Ira is the best shot, so he took the gun to look for rock ptarmigan. We lit two fires and agreed he’s not to go beyond shouting distance, but I still worry. The whistlers don’t seem willing to attack when we’re in a group. Lillian and Geoff were both alone when they were killed. Besides, I’m not convinced Ira is fully recovered yet. He says nonsensical things in his sleep, cries out and scratches. That’s new.
Bill and I went fishing after the laundry was done. It was stupid, doing it in that order. All we caught were minnows, and even that took hours.
He was staring at me while we sat. The cold was seeping into my bones, making me irritable. I haven’t been warm in weeks.
“What?” I said.
“He’s not himself. You know it.” He meant Ira.
“He’s better than he was. He’s okay. We’ll find him a doctor in Red Hill.”
“What if Red Hill isn’t on the other side of that saddle? What if we get up there and we’re facing another week’s worth of empty forest? What then?”
I realized my eyes were closed. I opened them, and the lake seemed oddly bright. Bill’s fingers were pressed against his brow.
“We’ll worry about that when we have to,” I said.
“I’m saying I don’t trust him like this, Ruth. He doesn’t remember the other night, after the hail. He can’t control himself.” He flexed his hands. “He could get us killed.”
“He’s my husband.”
“He’s my brother.”
I nodded, but that was all I could do. I have known Bill longer than I have known Ira, and spend more time with him most days, back at home, since we work in the same department. He introduced me to Ira at a Christmas party. Six years ago, now.
“What should we do?” I asked.
“I don’t know. But I think we may need to be open to the idea of cutting the rope, at some point. If he gets any worse, it may come to that.”
Bill started rock climbing on the weekends in college. “Cutting the rope.” It’s a metaphor for letting Ira die so we can live.
Yesterday, while Ira was still out hunting, we heard three shots in the woods. Two too many to take down a rock ptarmigan, and Bill and I stood, staring, tense, for just a moment before we hurried to put out the fires and pack what we could into our bags. Ira came running into camp, breathing so hard he couldn’t say what was wrong. He had no gun and no bag, and he grabbed my arm as soon as he was close enough and pulled me through the grass, up the valley, toward the saddle. Bill looked alarmed. He caught up to us and pried us apart. He yelled at Ira and handed me my haphazardly stuffed pack. All our clothes were still wet, torn from the line, and Ira’s eyes were wild. He stared off behind us, toward the woods he’d run from.
“It’s a warning,” he said. “I understand it now. It’s a warning.” Bill tried to talk him down, but then we heard the whistlers’ eerily musical voices. I’ve never heard it during daylight, and never so close as this. I followed Ira’s gaze into the trees, and stared, and listened. I couldn’t move my legs. I couldn’t even draw breath. I held onto my pack straps with a stony grip, like it was attached to a balloon that might whisk me out of harm’s way any moment.
Ira took my arm again, and now Bill was helping him, pushing me along the trail until I could run, until we all were running as fast as we could. The trail led straight into the open, and we all reacted differently, ducking through alders or sweeping wide from the trail to be closer to the cover of the hemlock. Ira took the shortest path, straight through the matted grass of the game trail, and soon he was far ahead of me, and it was all I could do to keep my eyes on him and my legs moving as fast as they would go. He was the first to reach the hill covered in scrub, the saddle between two jagged peaks. He ducked low as he ran, and I lost sight of him.
Bill’s bad foot and pack slowed him down, and I saw him stop and crouch, wide-eyed, beneath the trees, after we’d been fleeing for ten minutes that felt like fleeting seconds. Ira’s vanishing sent panic straight to my toes. It took me no time to decide not to wait with Bill. I had to catch Ira. I kept running until I reached the ridge, my lungs burning, but once I arrived there was no sign of him, no trail to follow. I lumbered to the crest of the saddle, clapping frantically, looking back over my shoulder for Bill, who was also gone. From so high up I could see the forest beyond, and the river, and a flat brown bay at low tide. No town. No Red Hill. I clapped, but neither of them clapped back. I was so exposed, but the whistling was distant now, and in fact I couldn’t pick it apart from the wind with any certainty. I walked closer to the trees, and built two fires with my firesteel and shaking hands, the second in the open of the hilltop, big and smoky. The hemlock makes for thick cover. There was plenty of dry tinder.
We left the tent behind, and the sleeping pads. Bill had the stove and the cooking pots. Ira had the gun. I have the hatchet, the firesteel, the wet laundry.
I made a lean-to with a small roof of boughs, and sat through the evening with my back tense against a thick tree, and waited, and slept fitfully. I did the same today, and kept the fires alive, and now it’s getting dark. I should walk back down into the valley to collect the tent, but the sound of the daytime whistle is stuck in me like a splinter. I can’t face the creature that made that sound, even after years of looking for it. I never believed the stories, not really. We came here to research the folklore. To listen to elderly trappers and hunters tell the outlandish stories they grew up with, to record them for posterity. We should never have come here.
No sign of Ira or Bill.
The rain came through my pine shelter last night, but at least I can say it broke me out of my trance. I tightened the hip belt on my pack, added a few hours of wood to both fires, unsheathed my knife and taped it to my hand. Bill told me to do this, a long time ago, if I knew I might have to run and fight at the same time. I’m walking back north, toward the place where I saw him fall. Toward the place where the whistlers surprised us.
Whistlers aren’t the only things to worry about in these woods. There are bears, wolves, coyotes–fearless predators that encircle our warm camp at night. Conventional wisdom is to make noise when passing through denser growth. Avoid surprising a carnivore. Yet, I have long suspected that noise lures the whistlers. Prey species don’t announce themselves. They pass in stealth. After what happened to Lillian and Geoff and recently Ira, I have no doubt that we are prey.
I resolved to go quietly along the margin of the hemlock. Keeping the game trail to my right, the signal fire’s smoke squarely at my back, I walked carefully, keeping low, whispering for Bill whenever the wind slowed, pausing sometimes to listen hard. After nearly an hour of creeping and murmuring fruitlessly through the trees, I lost my caution.
“Goddammit, Bill!” I shrieked, and seconds later his clap came, two shocks of sound.
I clapped back, and he did too, and then I found him, damp and chilled to the bone, slumped against the base of a tall spruce tree not thirty feet from where I’d yelled. The needles where he sat were soft and dry, and I sat down right beside him, overcome. I tore the tape off my hand and held his face in my palms. His eyes were alert, despite everything.
“Where are you hurt?”
He lifted his ankle. It was still wrapped, but swollen now, risen like bread dough. It must have been fractured all along, and our sprint across the valley was the final straw.
He was quiet, but grimaced as I wrestled off his sock and the inadequate wrappings. I held his foot against my thigh, feeling the mess of swollen tissue. There was deep blue bruising all across the top of his foot. He took my hands before I could do anything more.
“Where is Ira? I smelled the smoke from your camp.”
I shook my head. “I couldn’t catch him. He didn’t have a pack to weigh him down, and he’s such a fast runner to begin with. He was over the ridge before me, and once I got up there he was gone. If he saw my smoke, he hasn’t let on.”
“He left you? He had no gear.”
I focused on the foot, knowing I would need something tight and sturdy to wrap it in if I had any hope of moving Bill up to my camp. I took the dead man’s blue wool socks from my feet. They were small for Bill, and worked like a compression bandage. I rolled both of them onto the one foot, and there were tears coming down his face before I was done.
“I’m sorry,” I whispered. “But you’re lucky. I don’t think it’s broken all the way through. Just badly fractured. Ira would know.”
He stared at me after I said this, but I avoided his gaze. I cast about until I found a dry branch straight enough to make into a crutch. Bill is just over six feet tall, so it was awkward walking a mile uphill with half his body weight on my shoulder. I could see he was in tremendous pain, but we made the trek without stopping, and it wasn’t until he had collapsed beneath my pine shelter that I paused to let myself wonder if I had pushed him too hard. It didn’t matter now, I reasoned. We were as safe as we could hope to be. I fed him the last of the dead man’s aspirin and elevated his foot.
There is nothing else—no food, and nothing to catch food with. I’ll worry about that tomorrow. Tonight, it’s all I can do to keep the roof intact and the fires burning. Ira will see the smoke and come to us before Bill is ready to walk again. He will. He has to.
The swelling has gone down on Bill’s ankle. I killed a bird—a grouse?—by throwing rocks. That seems like a new low. Rock-throwing is part of a deeper tier of human desperation we should never have had to access.
While sitting immobile, Bill has made a bow. He’ll use the bird’s feathers for arrow fletching, and maybe for fishing flies. He saved the longest tail feather out for me. To use as a quill, he said, in case my pen dies.
We need to scout the area before we move again. I could hike to the top of one of the peaks, but I can’t justify leaving Bill alone that long. Not that he’s helpless, but the awful truth is we’re both down to the last of our endurance. If we get separated, if I wind up alone again, I don’t think I’ll have it in me to keep going.
It’s bothering Bill, not knowing what happened to Ira.
“The whistlers were behind us. He was ahead,” he keeps saying. “If they were hunting, they would have caught me. So, they weren’t hunting. What did they want? Why didn’t he stop?”
At night, we hear them in nearly every direction, but they keep their distance. They aren’t circling closer like they usually do. It’s as if they want us to know we’re within their boundaries, trapped within their home turf. If we sleep, we sleep in shifts.
No news. The weather is dry, but much colder than last week. Winter is late, and I worry that when the snow finally comes it will fall all at once, burying us and any points of reference. I built a wind break and improved our shelter. Caught a rabbit. Helped Bill bathe. I keep catching him putting weight on his foot, rushing things. No sign of Ira, and not much sleep.
It snowed overnight, at last. Just as I predicted, it came in a big rush, a great dumping of powder and then a sunny morning. The signal fire on the hill was smothered, but Bill wouldn’t let me go out and re-light it.
“He would have seen it by now,” he said, meaning Ira. “Save the dry wood.”
He made a second crutch and uses both to humor me, but he says he can’t be idle anymore.
“It seems such a risk,” I said, “to move on in this weather, with you hurt.”
“If we stay here, we will die,” he replied.
He’s talking about building a sled once the snow is thick enough. I can’t listen. I’ll take the bow to the top of the hill. Scout our path. Look for game.
Nothing much to see from the high ridge yesterday. No snow has fallen yet around the bay, and it occurred to me that we might just follow the coastline south. We could set a new fire every day on the beach, leave it smoking. Maybe a plane will pass. Maybe Ira will see us from wherever he’s hiding. Maybe the whistlers don’t swim.
Bill says we’ll leave tomorrow.
“What about Ira?” I said.
He shrugged, looking exhausted. “Don’t know which way he went. Don’t know where to look. Don’t know how he is.”
“If we leave, we will never see him again.” I started to cry, and Bill walked away to the shelter and curled up like he was going to sleep. He turned his back to me. I looked out across the saddle and the valley and tried to keep my tears quiet. It was just dusk. No distant fires. No smoke. If he’s nearby, he is cold. He is dying, and I’m helpless.
It’s full dark now, and for the first time in weeks the whistlers haven’t made a sound.
Bill woke me up at dawn. He had hot water and a scrap of rabbit for me. I’m saving the bones and feet in a plastic bag. I don’t know if they’ll be any good for soup, but soon they may be all we have. He lifted my pack for me to put on, then put his hands on my shoulders.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I don’t know what else to do.”
I looked back at him, watched while he got into his own pack and kicked snow and dirt over the fire’s embers. I thought of leaving a note for Ira to follow, or some kind of sign, but the snow is falling again in pellets. Every trace of us will be obliterated soon.
The hiking has been easier since we got below the snow line, but the weather is following us. The coast is icing over. We’re making good time, and I think we’re both relieved to be off the game trail. Aside from mud and rough gravel the terrain is much easier here along the beaches than it was up in the trees. It’s been five nights now since we heard the whistlers. Maybe they don’t like the cold, or maybe we’ve finally left their natural range. Even the smallest hope is agony.
We had some luck with fishing yesterday—an enormous trout was stuck in a low pond after the tide went out. Probably sick. Probably already dying. We spent the whole day gorging on it, and cutting strips to smoke.
I found Ira’s gold watch in my pack. I gave it to him for our second anniversary. He had a habit of taking it off whenever he worked with his hands, and must have stashed it in my bag to keep it safe. I asked Bill if he wanted to wear it, but he said no. There’s no point looking at the time, I guess. I buried it near the fire, built a cairn over top, said some words, like a funeral. Bill didn’t say anything. I had to. I had to do something in order to keep moving. I don’t feel certain Ira is dead, but I can’t fathom what it means if he’s out there and we’re leaving him behind. The most horrible thought is that he’s the reason the whistlers are gone. Maybe he’s leading them on a chase away from us, or maybe they were hunting, and they caught him, and their hunger is satisfied for now.
“Don’t think like that,” Bill says, but I know Ira is in his thoughts too. Bill is a folklorist, like me, but that’s not what drew him here. He wanted to see the whistlers with his own eyes, like Lillian did. He wanted to document them, their habits. Describe them, as a species, for science.
“Everything that’s happened so far fits the stories,” I said.
But I don’t stop, because he knows the stories even better than I do. He knows we’re just like all the other characters now. Hunted. Doomed. “They pick groups apart. They separate people. They take their prey one at a time.”
“You don’t believe the stories. You never believed them.”
I opened my mouth, but the words were delayed. “I believe we’ll never see Ira again.”
We sleep a little bit apart despite the bitter cold. He’s always up before I wake.
Bill says he recognizes this coastline, and there’s a pinnacle to the east he calls Phanfone Point.
“I’d say we’re eight days north of Red Hill, if we stick to the coast.”
I’m not getting my hopes up.
Ten days since I wrote. It all blends together. This bit of shoreline looks just the same as what we saw days ago, the water just as flat and gray. If it weren’t for Bill and the compass I would assume we were skirting a large lake, not an inlet of the Pacific Ocean. I would assume we were going in circles. We do have Phanfone Point to navigate by, and the stars. The weather has cleared. Winter is hesitating again. I worry I’ll never see leaves on trees again, or flowers opening up in a field of grass. I worked all the time. Ira and I didn’t take a vacation last summer. I squandered so much.
Some days, Bill and I don’t speak a word to each other. We stop walking. He assembles the shelter, I build the fire. He unpacks the food, I hang our damp clothes. We eat. We sleep. And in the morning we walk.
I saw Red Hill first. Our strip of shoreline was getting rocky, so we went up into a stand of cedar and found a steep bear trail. We haven’t heard whistlers in weeks, so we beat pots and shouted every few steps, and something about us using our voices made us giddy. Bill started singing a camp song I’d never heard. Something from when he was a child, I guessed, full of rhymed bodily functions. He laughed while he sang it, laughed until tears rolled down his face. He had to stop to catch his breath, and I walked a short ways onward, because it seemed he needed a moment alone. It seemed he was finally realizing what I realized when we left our camp near the saddle: that we had abandoned Ira to an unknown fate. That he might have died a preventable death because we were too scared and broken to search for him. I walked toward a break in the trees with Bill hyperventilating at my back, and saw a straight line far away, and a clearing where lighter green grass vibrated amongst dark evergreen. We were on a bit of a ridge, and could look down into the distant orderliness of a miniscule town, just a lump of weedy brush and granite rising out of marshy lowlands. Now I was crying. There was a water tower, a long split rail fence. Distantly, some low buildings and power lines were visible against a curtain of trees.
I called to Bill, who ran up beside me and stopped and stared. He wrapped his arms around me in his relief, squeezing me hard against his chest. I kissed him without thinking first, and he jerked his head away, exhaling shakily into my hair, but not releasing me from his arms.
“I’m sorry,” I said.
“I don’t know how to…” he began, but didn’t finish. I eased myself out of his embrace and gestured for him to follow me down the hill. It started snowing.
Darkness fell when we were still about a mile outside of Red Hill. The terrain was difficult, thorny and muddy. I struggled with my dimming flashlight, focusing intently on my feet and the ground ahead, but Bill grabbed my arm as the moon was rising. He stopped me.
“Look,” he said.
I looked ahead to Red Hill. I could see the water tower clearly still, an armored dome high above everything. It was silhouetted against the sky. “What?”
“There are no lights.”
I blinked, searched, but of course he was right. As night fell, nothing had come to life in Red Hill. There were no porch lamps, no glowing windows, no blinking red beacon atop the water tower. The place looked abandoned, as still and dark as death.
“We can’t stop here in the open,” I said.
“Can you make it without your light on?”
My flashlight was nearly dead, and the moon was rising anyway. I switched it off, and we continued, not struggling as urgently as before. I was aware of the sound my boots made in the soggy ground. Bill’s voice dropped to a whisper, was thick with caution.
“We’ll knock on the first door we come to,” he said. “We’ll lead with the fact that our chopper went down.”
“What do you think is wrong? What are you afraid of?” I was terrified, but I wasn’t sure why.
“I don’t know,” he said.
The moon was directly overhead by the time we reached the split-rail fence we’d seen from the ridge. Caution and fatigue had made that final stretch of our journey seem endless. There were sounds in the woods nearby—not whistlers, maybe wolves—but I was more concerned about people. Lillian had warned us about the residents this far out, in these isolated stretches of forest. The lighthouse keeper had held a rifle to her forehead once when she surprised him after a few weeks away.
We passed through the split rail fence, and walked across a flat expanse of dirt stuck with poles–tetherball poles. It was a schoolyard. There were no children to be seen, no people, no signs of life. I turned my light back on, and Bill did the same. He had a headlamp, brighter and whiter than my little incandescent torch, and walked ahead of me through the yard, up toward a chain swing set and a few low buildings that looked like houses. The street between them was hard dirt scattered with rough quartz gravel that glittered in the light.
He was bold. He walked up the low porch of the first house we leveled with, and rapped sharply on the front door. “Anyone home?” he called. “Our helicopter went down. We need help!”
All was silent. I looked around while he stared at the door, hoping the noise might draw movement elsewhere in Red Hill. No luck. We went house to house, knocking and calling at eight buildings on that lonely street. We ended at the lodge, a sort of multi-purpose building that contained rooms for rent, a post office, and a meeting hall. It was deserted like the rest. My flashlight flickered and died while we stood on the front porch. Bill tested the handle and found the lodge unlocked.
“I can’t see how anyone would object,” he said, tipping his headlamp beam downward and looking at my face. We were both shivering.
“The pilot said people lived here year-round.”
“He must have been mistaken.”
Inside, Bill felt along the lodge’s wall for a light switch, but there was no power. I found a full kerosene lamp on a bookshelf, and a book of matches in an ashtray on a table in the lodge’s dining area. I lit the lamp and breathed a little easier. Bill walked around the Lodge’s rooms with his headlamp, getting his bearings, but I sat at a table with the lamp, holding my head and trying to feel grateful for the shelter.
He came back, wiping his hands on his pants. “The breaker didn’t do anything. There’s a generator back in the utility room, looks like it’s got a little fuel left, but I’ll wait until morning to try it.”
When I didn’t respond, he came to sit across from me at the table. “Abandoned or not, we’re going to have to winter here.”
“We’ll get our hands on a radio, as much food and fuel as we can find. We’ll hole up and wait it out. Someone will come for us.”
I nodded again, but couldn’t look at him.
“All you need is rest,” he said, softer now.
He led me toward the bedrooms and opened a creaking door for me. The room had a double bed with a pretty cream-colored quilt, a closet with accordion doors, and a wide window that looked out on blackness.
“Is there a room without a window?”
He looked at my reflection in the dark glass, then looked at the real me. I carried the kerosene lamp, and my unsteady grip cast eerie shadows.
“Course,” he said.
He ushered me into the room directly across the hall. It was adjacent to a doorway that led away toward a lounge full of deer trophies and enormous television screens. It had skylights, and the moon was showing through. The bedroom was nearly identical to the first, except the bedspread was blue patchwork and the window was replaced with a hanging tapestry of sweet pea blossoms.
I nodded, set my backpack down, and placed the lamp on top of the dresser so it cast light on each of the four walls. I unzipped my jacket, but Bill stayed in the doorway.
“I could take the room across the way.”
“Don’t be silly.”
He gave me a serious look, but put his pack down beside mine and came to get in bed with me.
“Suppose it’s too cold to sleep apart,” he said, taking off his boots and settling rigidly under the covers.
“Why is it different from sharing a tent?”
“It just is.”
I thought I would fall away into the deepest sleep of my life, but the wind picked up, and the lodge creaked and shuddered around us, and I thought every other sound was a footstep or a human whimper. At one point I woke Bill up, dead certain I’d heard a baby crying.
He stroked my hair and listened for a full minute, then pressed me against the mattress by my shoulder before lying back down himself. “Back to sleep,” he mumbled.
But I didn’t sleep. Instead I took the kerosene lamp to the chair in the corner and wrote down this strange day. Bill is motionless in sleep, one arm slung beside him in the place I left. It is different, just the two of us sharing a domestic space. What will become of us, during months of isolation? What will we look like to whoever finds us?
I hear it again now: a wailing that is certainly not the wind. The doors are locked, but that’s hardly any consolation. If the whistlers are real, what else could be living in this place? A banshee? Wendigo? Or something even stranger?
Bill sleeps through the sound. He won’t believe me in the morning.
I woke up in the chair where I fell asleep writing. The lamp’s wick was low, and had burned down far too much of the kerosene before snuffing itself out. There’s a spare can, but it won’t last long. I’ll have to be more careful. Bill was gone when I awoke. He had covered me with the quilt from the bed.
I found him in the lounge inspecting the mounted moose heads and elk skulls. There were books, field guides and old almanacs, scattered on a coffee table. The wood stove was blazing, ticking with heat, but Bill wasn’t relaxed. He greeted me in a whisper and moved tentatively through the room. I had nearly forgotten about his injury.
“Let me have another look at your foot,” I said. “You should rest in bed for a few days, now that we’re safe,”
He shook his head. “We’re not safe. Come look.”
He led me through the lounge and onto the porch at the front of the lodge. There is no snow or ice on the ground outside, but the road is muddy, the ground soft enough to hold indentations. From the porch steps, we saw the street and its quartz gravel, the small ruts we made walking from house to house in the dark last night. But now our steps are not the only marks in the road. There are other prints, too, evidence of pacing steps and sliding gashes where the gravel has been scraped completely away. It could be the tracks of dozens of pairs of feet, or just a few, going around and around the lodge while we slept. The footprints form an unbroken circle around us, evidence of the stalking, pacing, night watch of the whistlers. They have retreated now, apparently, but how far?
In the moment, I could scarcely breathe. I staggered back against the lodge’s front door, my body crumpling down and heaving.
“In the stories, the whistlers don’t leave tracks,” I whispered.
Bill shrugged and kept a stoic face. “They look human to me. Like a grown man dragging his feet.” His voice was low, tired.
“What’s wrong with you?”
He shook his head. “It doesn’t matter. Doesn’t matter if this is a game the whistlers are playing, or if the people of Red Hill reappeared last night to make these marks, to mess with us. Doesn’t matter if it’s aliens or mole people or fucking Lillian and Geoff back from the dead. We can’t stay here now.” He opened the front door and nodded me back inside. “We’ll gather what we can and keep going south until we find another town. There’s a closet with some gear–a good tent, tarps, lanterns, a stove. You start getting things together, and I’ll see if I can find a vehicle that runs.”
I stopped in the doorway. I was breathing so hard I could taste blood. “No. We can’t split up. We’re no safer during the day than we are at night. We can’t make that mistake a second time.”
He paused. “Fine. I’ll take what we need from the closet. You have a look for food in the kitchen, then we’ll pack up and scout out a vehicle together. Agreed?”
I nodded, but was not completely reconciled with Bill’s plan. How long can we run before hunger stops us, or the cold, or the harsh unknowns of the landscape? We saw this region from the air, saw the dead-end logging roads and ghost towns surrounded by miles of wilderness. We both know Red Hill has no outlet. The single road leads west, to an airstrip and a dock that freezes over every January. The mail comes by boat, and only in the summer. Bill knows there is actually nowhere we can run. Maybe the whistlers know it too.
* * * * * *
One task at a time. Food. I walked into the dining area, back beyond a buffet table waiting for chafing dishes, into the kitchen. It is thoroughly modern, with wood veneer cabinets and a walk-in freezer with a gleaming door. Someone put a lot of care into this kitchen. Perhaps they photographed it for brochures. Bear tours have become popular among the wealthy and well-armed.
The cupboards are nearly bare, as one would expect them to be at the close of the season. There is a bin with a few cups of stale flour inside, a bottle of rancid oil, a gallon-sized can of fruit cocktail, a box of crumpled tea bags, a canister of powdered milk, a stuck-together brick of sugar cubes. I opened the refrigerator, but the stagnant air behind the door poured over me, making me reel and gag before I forced it shut. I glimpsed molding vegetables, rancid meat, obscure plastic wrappings dotted with black mold. I must have gagged audibly, because soon Bill was at the kitchen door, eyes wild and shining like he’d been sprinting.
“What’s wrong?” he said.
“The fridge is full of spoiled food.”
He frowned. “That doesn’t make sense. They would have cleaned everything out before closing the place up for the season.”
“But it wasn’t closed up,” I said. My voice was shaking. “The front door was unlocked. The tables and chairs are still out. The TV cabinet in the lounge was wide open. The curtains weren’t drawn in the bedrooms.”
“Gas in the generator,” he said, nodding. “Nothing winterized. Like they left in a hurry.”
The back of my throat had gone dry. I walked to the freezer and yanked against the long steel handle, preparing myself for another wave of pungent odor, but deciding that spoilage in the freezer could be the final piece of evidence that proved the emerging theory: that something had gone very wrong for the residents of Red Hill.
Bill stood at my shoulder, watching with a wary hand over his nose and mouth as the door’s hinge creaked. The food on the shelves of the walk-in was actually better contained than what had been in the fridge. There was spoiled meat wrapped in paper, looking sunken and gory. The ice and ice cream had all melted within confined containers, as if power outages were routine. Besides a deeply musty, almost rubbery smell, at first I thought the freezer, though abandoned, was benign.
“Ruth,” Bill said, behind me, his hand creeping shakily along my shoulder, trying to turn me back toward him. “Don’t look, Ruth.”
“What?” And now I looked squarely to the back of the freezer, where a pair of rounded shoes was visible behind a pallet stacked with sunken bags of frozen vegetables. The steel floor beneath the pallet was shiny with dried fluids that had leaked from the bags, maybe days ago, maybe weeks.
“Don’t,” he repeated, but I kept looking, following the shoes to a scrawny pair of legs, bent knees, the pleated black pants and white coat of the lodge’s chef, a middle-aged woman with wiry white hair and a shriveled, gray face. I took a step toward the dead woman, felt my bare feet sticking in the mess on the freezer’s floor. Bill’s grip tightened on my shoulders.
“Look at me,” he said. “Look away.”
“What happened here?” I breathed.
He pulled me away, out of the kitchen, through the lounge, all the way back to the bedroom, where he gently shut the door and put me to bed, wrapping me tightly with the quilt.
Just as sleeping beside Bill is different out of the wilderness, so death is freshly strange within the confines of the lodge. The dead chef makes less sense to me than Gary Law or the lighthouse keeper. She died indoors, in a place where the beds were still made, where the refrigerator was filled with food. She should have been safe.
“Why would they leave her here?” I said.
He knelt at my feet with a bottle of water and a washcloth, scrubbing the freezer’s sickness off of them. I had left my shoes at the front door. Ages ago, it seemed.
When he spoke, his voice shook. “What exactly did you hear last night? You woke me. You heard something.”
“A baby. It sounded like a crying baby.”
“The lighthouse keeper… he said he sometimes heard the whistlers laughing, laughing like his parents in the reception hall after church on a Sunday. They’ll get inside your head. They’ll lure you in. You can’t let them, Ruth.”
I was dazed, and couldn’t speak, so Bill kept talking.
“I imagine they were already here, in Red Hill, before we arrived. Spooked the residents. The power must have failed already, before she went in there. There was a parka on the hook outside. She didn’t take it. Must have been a panic. She went in there to keep herself safe. Maybe people started leaving and she couldn’t get out. It was all an accident,” he said, rubbing my leg reassuringly. “They didn’t realize she was trapped.”
“There’s a bell,” I said. “An emergency alarm. Her fingers, Bill. Her fingernails.” They were scraped bloody on the door handle. Torn up.
“So maybe there was no one left to hear the bell. Maybe everyone else…”
But I sat upright on the bed. I couldn’t calm down. “That night, when it hailed. You would have done anything to make Ira quiet down. They got inside Ira’s head, didn’t they? Maybe they got inside hers too.”
“You think her own people locked her in there?”
I tried to speak reasonably, tried for academic composure.
“There’s a story, isn’t there? One of the old ones. A story about the people the whistlers don’t kill? There’s one in almost every group. Every story. Someone… susceptible. Who succumbs to a kind of madness. Tearing at their own flesh, losing their minds, killing their companions. Lillian thought it was a kind of Stockholm syndrome.”
Bill nodded. He told me the story of the family who lived in the outpost north of the lighthouse. It was years and years ago. Mother, father, three children. The father sent a dispatch one day to say he had killed his wife and his kids. Strangled them. He had received a warning, he said, so he killed them all. When the rangers arrived, the residence was empty. There was no sign of any of them, no sign of struggle. As if they had vanished over the rocks and into the sea.
* * * * * *
Bill told me to lie down for the rest of the afternoon, but I couldn’t.
“I’m ready to go,” I said, and we wasted no time. We packed our bags in a mournful silence. I was greedy, and overstuffed my pack, taking the quilt from the bed, spare batteries, candles, matches, mouthwash from the bathroom, and the remaining kerosene.
Bill found a handgun in a locked drawer, plus ammunition. He had braved the freezer a second time, discovered the drawer’s keys in a pocket of the chef’s coat.
“She wrote something,” he said, when he returned.
There was a clipboard mounted on the inside of the freezer, an inventory log and a pen. The chef had scrawled a desperate message on the blank backside of a page:
“I understand it now, after all these years, all these long winters of hearing those damned things howling out there in the woods. The whistlers stand with their backs to us. They stand between us and something terrible. They’ve been protecting us, all these years, keeping it at bay, whatever it is. They were warning us, all this time. And now it’s too late. Too late by far. It’s come to Red Hill at last.”
I’ve copied it verbatim. I can’t stop thinking about it.
“You were right,” Bill said, shaking his head once he was finished reading. He crumpled the page and left it on a table. “Stockholm syndrome.”
I was wrapping the end of a fireplace poker with duct tape, but slowed and looked at Bill now, considering the chef’s words.
“They caught Ira in a trap.”
“Yes,” he said.
“They didn’t kill him. Didn’t hurt him. He was well enough to find his way back to us.”
“He escaped them.”
“I don’t want to hear it, Ruth.”
I nodded, and practiced swinging the poker against fire logs.
Even now, all we have to go on are other people’s words. We came all this way to conduct our own research, and the only thing we’ve learned is fear. We hear the whistlers, but have not seen them. We fear the unseen, but what if that’s a failure of imagination? Perhaps there’s something else to be afraid of, some reason the stories are so few and scattered, some reason there are so rarely any survivors, some reason Bill and I have made it this far. Some unknown.
* * * * * *
We wrote a note that we left on a side table near the front door. Our names and the date, contact numbers for our families back home, an apology that we didn’t do more for the woman in the freezer. We couldn’t spare the time and energy it would take to bury her.
I put the kitchen parka on over my jacket and pants. Bill layered his clothes under Gary Law’s. We took gentle steps away from the lodge, across the barrier line of whistler tracks, listening hard. In the light of day, it was clearer that Red Hill had been evacuated in a rush. There were split logs stockpiled beside every structure, potted plants drying out on porches, a garage door left open, its contents in disarray.
“Not many vehicles,” Bill said, as we walked to the far side of Red Hill, out toward the skinny dirt road that led out of town.
“So this road must lead somewhere,” I said, hopefully. “They got in their cars and took this road out of town.”
Bill didn’t seemed encouraged. “To a dock, to an airstrip, maybe. I’m sure a town this size has emergency evac procedures. We could follow this road and end up at a dead end. Still, it’s better than not knowing. It’s better than planting our feet here and waiting to starve. Or worse.” He tugged on his coat and squinted against the bright white sky.
We looked into the houses along the main street. Most front doors were left unlocked–one had keys stuck in the knob, dangling. We found a loaded revolver stashed under a mattress and a dog trapped inside a bare kitchen pantry. It was a mutt, shaggy, pissed off. We opened the door and it shot away into the woods, didn’t look back.
Even that brief scouting wore me out. Bill kept looking over his shoulder, tightening his grip on the gun and staring around at every sound. My shoulders were aching under the pull of my pack’s straps.
At last we found two worthy vehicles, each with slightly less than half a tank of gas, one a smallish van and the other a Jeep with studded tires and the keys sitting on the dash. Bill leaned his hands on the Jeep as if it meant we were saved, but I stood apart, unable to shake a sick feeling and the conundrum of the chef’s final words.
“What if we don’t leave?” I said.
“You said yourself there’s nothing certain at the end of that road. We could drive to the coast and get stranded. We could end up on foot again. In the woods. Exposed.”
“We’re exposed here. Did you not see those tracks?”
“I did. They surrounded us last night. They were everywhere. And yet here we are, standing in the street. Alive. For months the whistlers have been on top of us, but we’re still breathing!”
“Tell that to Lillian and Geoff. Tell it to Ira!” He was yelling now, panting. Our faces were red, close.
I was blinking away tears, but I wasn’t upset, just overwhelmed.
“One more night indoors,” I bargained. “Let me wash, and be warm, just one more time. I’m so tired, Bill. So tired.”
He didn’t agree, not explicitly, but while we stood with the Jeep it started snowing, just the lightest veil falling between us. We returned to the lodge. He moved around with a sort of quiet, powerless violence, locking and barricading the doors, drawing curtains, checking and re-checking the guns. He parked the Jeep in front of the lodge and loaded the back seat with gear and tools, as if to remind me that our present comfort was necessarily temporary.
We dragged the bed into the lounge, close to the stove. We moved the lounge’s couches and tables toward the windows, then made the bed, almost reflexively, shaking the quilt out between us and draping it over the neatened sheets. Night was falling by then.
“We’re getting out of here at first light,” Bill informed me.
“I’m going to boil a kettle and take a bath,” I said.
He softened, just a little. “I saw towels in the closet.”
* * * * * *
The water pressure is low, but the faucets still work, drawing from the water tower, I assume. I only needed a few inches of cold water anyway. I didn’t want to dilute the heat. I was eager to be cleansed of the dead chef, and Gary Law, and even Ira. Eager to get the smell of the forest off of my skin and start forgetting the things we’d done to stay alive.
I took my hair down while the water dribbled into the tub. It had grown long, and had coalesced into oily tendrils since the last time I washed it. There were split ends and strands of gray. Ira always liked it long. I thought about cutting it off with my pocket knife, thought of how light and unencumbered I would feel once the oily heft of it was gone. I think about getting clean the way I think about eating and drinking. It’s a need I can’t imagine anyone taking for granted—that feels like it may never be completely satisfied.
I hadn’t added the hot water yet when I was interrupted by the sound of Bill barreling through the hallway. He opened the bathroom door, saw me halfway undressed and with my hair down, and closed it abruptly. He spoke through the door in a rush. “It’s them.”
* * * * * *
We’re away from the windows, in the front hallway, listening to them, the howl, high-pitched, nasaly, throaty? It’s so hard to define. The terror is not just something I remember and have learned to feel, but innate. I experience the fear of the sound on some deep, unconscious level. It is a warning, clicked into the deepest part of my mammalian brain. Danger.
Bill held my fire poker and both guns, gave me my choice. I took the revolver, only four bullets left in the cylinder. He took the handgun and its full clip. He rested the poker and the hatchet against the wall and stood behind me near the doorway, pressing his body against my back, his mouth to my ear.
“At least four of them,” he murmured, “close enough I could hear footsteps.”
The sound came from every direction.
The whistles were like car horn blasts, so loud the tendons in our necks tensed. The porch steps creaked, but our angle was awkward. I could barely see the front windows from where we cowered, and the low light from the stove and the electric lanterns barely reached the door.
“We could go out through the kitchen exit,” he whispered between hard breaths. “To the furthest cabin. No lights. Run for it.”
It was a fine plan. The whistlers might be attracted to the light and heat of the stove and the lanterns, might not notice us slipping away. Yet, at that moment, I didn’t have it in me to flee again. If they drove us from the lodge, who was to say they wouldn’t drive us from a cabin, and back into the woods? We couldn’t survive being out there again, not in the looming snow, not just the two of us. I thought of the washline and tents we abandoned the day we lost Ira, and how our flight across the valley had cost us.
“No,” I said. “Not again.”
I charged away from Bill, straight toward the front door, where the whistlers murmured. I threw open the door despite Bill’s warning cry, and saw only one figure beyond it: a dark, lanky shape on the bottom step, swaying listlessly, skeletal shoulders hunched beneath a head of shaggy hair. I was blinded by fear, and I raised the gun as I stepped out onto the porch. I fired. I saw his face in the flash, a swollen lower lip, empty eyes, hair clinging wetly to a fevered forehead. He fell like the wind had blown him down, instantly dead, and a moment later I was with him, laying my body on top of his, crying against his face and asking for forgiveness.
I couldn’t hear anything, but Bill told me later that there were no whistles, no sign of them, just Ira, just his blood and footprints on the walkway and the steps. Bill carried us inside, first me, then his brother. He lay Ira on the floor and I lay down with him, pressing my face to his stone-quiet chest while its warmth ebbed away, asking him weeks’ worth of questions whose answers we can never know now.
Bill left me there, with Ira, that night. He shut the doors of the lounge and slept in the bed alone. I have kept Ira’s body for three days, trying to comprehend it. His right arm is missing, torn away, the wound crudely cauterized somehow, but deeply infected. He was barefoot, feet frostbitten, his eyes riddled with broken vessels, hair missing in patches, the nails of his left hand grown and worn like claws.
“He wouldn’t have survived the night,” Bill keeps saying. “Don’t blame yourself.”
I shaved Ira’s face, but it didn’t help. Didn’t make him look any more human. I could hardly see him anyway, through the tears.
“The moment you opened the door, it stopped,” Bill said.
“I’m so sorry,” I said.
“Are you listening? The whistling. It stopped all at once. I didn’t see any of them out there. I didn’t see anything but you and him.”
“I saw his face,” I said. “It’s all I saw.”
The prints circled the cabin, and Ira walked among them. We know that much. Since that night, we haven’t heard the whistlers. Not once.
Bill dug Ira’s grave today. It snowed hard the night before, and the topmost crust of soil was frozen, and digging was punishing work. It took hours. I thought we were desensitized to death, but I found him sitting on the edge of the hole when it was done, his legs dangling down, sobbing into his hand. I didn’t know what to do, so I sat beside him. Ira was inside the lodge still, rolled in a pale yellow sheet, wrapped up so we couldn’t see his face. We sat there together for a long time, both of us pretending we were safe and he was alive and the hole was anything other than a grave. I felt the cold in my joints like shards of glass.
“Why don’t we lie down with him?” Bill said, meaning down in the hole.
I stroked the back of his head. I couldn’t think of a good answer. It seemed to me we’d been offered plenty of chances to die and declined them until now. I looked into the dark of the hole, whose bottom was settling with tiny snowflakes that didn’t last. The snow would fill the grave over us, eventually, preserve our bodies from the whistlers until the residents of Red Hill came back at start of the dry season. I’ve heard freezing is a gentle death, like falling asleep.
Bill left my side, carried Ira’s body to the grave, hefted him down and then came up again, standing and pulling me up beside him, taking me away.
“I’m sorry,” he said, though I still hadn’t spoken a word. “Don’t listen to me.”
We had a baby, Ira and I, five years ago today. She was born with a heart defect and didn’t live long, didn’t ever leave the hospital. I have scars. Her name was Katherine. Ira left town before the funeral, went to a medical conference two states away. But Bill was there. He got drunk and cornered me in his mother’s living room.
“She should have been mine,” he said, so close I could smell the whiskey.
It’s why Bill doesn’t believe me when I say I hear an infant’s cries on the wind. He knows it’s Katherine’s birthday. He thinks about her too.
I hear her wailing in the early evening, often just before the whistlers start to howl. An overture, a prelude.
We’re out of food. Each night, we build a fire in the stove and sit before it with shaking hands, with cups of tea. There is snow on the ground, snow to reveal that the whistlers haven’t circled close since Ira died. There are no tracks but our own.
I’ve started asking myself the question, in practical terms. If I have some choice in the matter, how would I like to die? Would I chose to go as Katherine did, swaddled and sedated, in my mother’s arms? There was a time when I thought I wanted to die fighting, my knife in my hand, knuckles red from the cold. I’m not sure anymore. I’m not sure I have the patience for that.
Everything is different since we buried Ira. The difference is between us, yes, and in the atmosphere of Red Hill. Bill doesn’t bustle around the way he used to, doesn’t sit vigil at the windows and watch the distant trees. There is something, we’ve discovered, beyond fear. A separate emotion, a detachment. All that matters is the heat of the fire, the weight of blankets. We hardly speak anymore.
Bill leaves the lodge every afternoon now to look for food. He says he wants to go alone, and I don’t argue. He’s made a few good finds: popcorn, instant coffee, noodles, dried parsley, half a bottle of bad gin. Each day he circles a little further out, stays away a little later. Last night he didn’t come back until an hour after dark, until I’d already heard the mournful chorus of two whistlers, far away, in the woods. I thought of walking out to them, in my desolation. I want to see their faces. Want to know my tormentors.
When I try to envision them now, all I see is Ira, Ira at the end, his gaunt face and yellowed eyes. Do they suffer, as he suffered? Would I recognize their faces?
When Bill came back, he pressed a pack of chewing gum into my palm and went straight to bed. He was limping on his bad foot. He had walked too far.
“Why were you out so long?” I asked.
But he rolled over against his pillow. Pretended not to hear.
There are about six inches of snow on the ground. I spent the day stacking firewood on the porch. Bill stayed close, at my insistence, wandered through town like a tiger in a small cage.
There is nothing left to eat in Red Hill, and no game nearby, nothing but coyotes and wolves.
In the early evening, he walked across the road with a gas can, siphoned fuel from the van, which is parked outside a gray house just up the street. I watched him from the porch. He looked up from his work to look back at me, to meet my gaze through the falling snow.
We might go to the coast after all. For all we know, there’s a radio out there, a phone, some other means of contact we’ve overlooked. Maybe the coast guard will send a patrol. Maybe someone has been looking for us all this time.
Bill stopped staring. His head turned suddenly, toward the woods behind the houses, like he’d heard something—a snapping of twigs.
“What is it?” I called, but he didn’t answer. He walked a few steps toward the woods, craned his head, but then a streak of brown and black emerged through the trees, went straight for him.
There was a deep growl, a scuffle of motion, and Bill’s strangled cry. A dog. The dog we’d released from a pantry days before. I sprang from the porch with a stick of firewood in my hands, but was too late: Bill had slipped in the ice, fallen hard against the edge of the van’s bumper. The dog tore into his leg, but released it as Bill fell, lunged for his face. I swung the splintered edge of the firewood squarely at the poor beast’s skull. He was like us, starving, a skittish mutt made savage by the cold.
Bill was dazed, scraping for purchase in the snow behind me, trying, in vain, to stand. The dog cowered away from me, and it seemed cruel to swing a second time. So I screamed instead, at the top of my lungs, shouted at the dog to run. And he did. He turned, he lowered his body and went slowly toward the woods close by, cowering deeper, like he didn’t want to go back into the trees. But I was full of adrenaline now, and yelled a second time, so loud that my voice echoed off the houses—and something answered me.
It was a strange roar, a rumble like a rock slide mixed with an animal scream, like a panther. It came from the woods where I had driven the dog, and now I heard the mutt whimpering, the screaming and the whimpering and Bill’s muddled murmuring behind me, and I found myself backing toward him, through the snow, almost senselessly, until a new sound erupted and overcame the others: the whistlers.
Their voices rose, familiar now, surrounded us until I couldn’t hear the shrieking roar, the whimpering dog, couldn’t hear Bill’s exhausted breathing or my own beating heart.
I turned, suddenly focused, and grabbed his hand. He had been holding his pistol, aiming it unsteadily toward the woods. I took it now, and heaved him upright.
He was woozy, bleeding freely into the snow. Gary Law’s khaki pant leg was soaked red. There was blood on his head, too, a scrape from a bolt on the van’s bumper, not deep. His eyes were half-closed.
“Stay awake,” I said, grabbing Bill’s chin more roughly than I meant to, yanking him toward the lodge. The whistler’s cries were harrowing, but helpful now. They seemed to propel us onward, made us focus on the fear, the imperative of flight.
The dog had bitten Bill’s bad leg, the one already weakened by his twisted ankle. He could walk, but he was shaking. I helped him across the street, helped him up the porch and into the lodge’s dining area. He collapsed into a chair, leaned his body against a table. He was grimacing horribly, and we were losing daylight fast. I cut away his pant leg with my knife.
“You’re going to need stitches,” I said. The dog bite was an arc of puncture wounds, with a deep gash torn near his shin. The wound on his head was bloody, but not horribly deep, not as bad as it looked—a scrape only, a shock. And now the blood was seeping slower. I set an electric lantern on the table, but it still wasn’t enough light.
“Headlamp’s in the lounge,” he said. When I went for it, I remembered the bottle of cheap gin.
“Find it?” Bill called to me. There was pain in his voice. I made myself hurry.
There was alcohol hand sanitizer in my pack and a spool of surgical silk and steel needles. Ira had put the first aid kit together with his own skill set in mind. I poured water on the wounds, washed the blood away and watched more take its place.
“Are you okay?” he asked.
“I don’t know what I’m doing.” I wiped sanitizer on a needle and then doused the gash on his leg with it. He reeled where he sat as the alcohol burned.
He shook his head. “You’re doing fine.”
I handed him the gin bottle before I started stitching. It was half-full, and Bill took grateful swigs before nodding at me to get on with it. The skin was harder to pierce than I expected, but Bill seemed able to center himself amid the pain. He closed his eyes and only grunted a little each time I pulled the thread through. He kept saying it was okay, that I was doing fine. Finally, I tied off the thread and taped a square of gauze over my work.
I sat at the table afterward, sweating inexplicably, exhausted, feeling there was more I should do, replaying the noises in my head, the sequence of events, the whistlers and the thing that had answered my shouts. Bill walking toward the woods, the sound, the dog. What came first? It was jumbled already, the memory. I’ve recorded it here the way that makes the most sense. The moon was rising, and we leaned into each other, both of us looking away at the deepening shadows, looking through the windows for signs of life, finding the night remarkably, horribly, quiet.
He drank from the gin bottle again, then handed it to me. It was harsh and cheap, but I took more than one burning gulp.
“Suppose the dog was running from it?” Bill asked.
I shrugged, but something dreadful was welling up inside of me. I stood up, and turned in a useless circle, and felt hot tears falling, felt the desperation and spoiled hopes of the past weeks rolling over me. I was collapsing, and leaned toward the table to steady myself, but Bill caught me before I could. He stood and held me against his chest, one easy movement, one hand against the back of my head. He was breathing in the same uncontrolled gasps that had overtaken him on the trail before we saw Red Hill, when he was balancing between despair and a kind of jovial release. He pulled my hair down, smoothing it between his hands so my head tipped back, so I had no choice but to look up at him. My vision cleared, tears stopped, and then we were breathing together, our eyes locked and bodies reacting like two leaves tugged down by the same current, deciding what came next. He shook while he lifted my shirt over my head.
He kissed me then so I couldn’t speak, and he was right to. There was nothing whatsoever to say.
I followed him to the lounge, to the bed. He sat back and pulled me on top of him, wincing as he leaned against the cushions, but still holding me with a tense grip, still saying yes. It didn’t seem the stove was pumping out much heat, but I took everything off, wanting him to see me and the body so much walking and hunger and fear had made, wanting to feel tangible and whole on this night when our existence was impossible to take for granted. He kissed my neck while he made love to me, and whispered that we would make it, make it through the winter, make it to the coast, make it home.
I have to believe him.
Bill was pale the next morning, weak, but he wouldn’t stay in bed when I asked him to. He hobbled around the lodge, gathering more gear, hauling it out to the Jeep, dragging the gas can up from where we had abandoned it in the road. I made him some broth, but he wouldn’t eat, and in the afternoon he walked away toward the woods, toward the place where the dog ran and the roar sounded. He walked toward the trees and stopped and stared, and when I hollered from the porch, he didn’t look back at me. I tried to follow, to fetch him, but it seemed, even limping, he took two steps onward for every one of mine. He went on until he was in the trees, out of sight, and as much as I wanted to, I couldn’t make myself follow. I stood in the frozen road and shouted for him, but I didn’t have it in me to enter the woods.
I lay in bed through the night with open eyes, hearing the whistlers, soft, far away. Like a lullaby. I heard Katherine on the wind. The tears come much easier when I’m alone.
I found him this morning, sitting on the porch steps, facing out, with ice in his beard. I touched his neck and he held my arm. He seemed alert. He looked into my eyes.
“What happened to you?” I was nearly crying, but he didn’t respond. He just rubbed my arm and let me lead him inside, watched me through saddened eyes.
Later, once he was warm, he said he had gone to the woods to listen to the whistlers. He said he could understand them now.
“Don’t say that, Bill.” I cried into his shoulder, pressed my fingers to his lips, but he was calm.
“It’s okay, Ruth. We’ll go to the coast tomorrow. You’ll be safe.”
“We’ll be safe,” I said.
He nodded, and held me tighter.
It was sad, pulling out of Red Hill, watching it shrink behind us until it was closed off by a ridge of granite and a curtain of trees. It felt momentous, almost like this was the beginning of our journey again, like we were grad students, me with my love of reading and him with his lust for the outdoors. I had married his brother, and he always wanted to get closer, and one late night in the office, grading papers, we had a crazy idea. I wrote the grant application, he planned logistics. Ira took a sabbatical, volunteered. I met Lillian at a conference. All we saw was how our interests aligned. We went out for drinks, the whole group, all together. Talked about how much fun it would be.
We were barely in the Jeep forty minutes before we ran out of road. Our path terminated in a wide lot of pale brown gravel. There was no airstrip, just a rutted lot with puddles that had turned to slush, a floating dock slick with ice, and a boathouse with two broken canoes inside and a rusted hole in its roof.
I was driving, because Bill was ill, leaning against the window. His leg hurts him. It’s badly bruised, and the scrape on his head isn’t healing. He stared straight ahead, once we were parked, stared through the windshield with tears forming in his eyes. I don’t know what he was expecting. It was hard to see that we were at the edge of the earth now, out of options.
“You know,” Bill said, sniffling and wiping his nose. “In the olden days, people would… they would walk into the sea. To kill themselves. There’s something poetic about it.”
“Not in real life, I don’t suppose. I’ve never seen anything poetic in a dead body.”
He reached for my hand across the gear shift. “I’m not going back to Red Hill, Ruth. I can’t. Not now. I can’t look at Ira’s grave again. I can’t walk through the kitchen and pretend there isn’t a corpse in the freezer. I can’t.”
“What else is there?”
He shook his head. “There’s the rub.”
I pulled my hand away and got out of the Jeep. It was impossible, holding my thoughts together. I wanted to stop struggling, but not to die. Wanted Bill to stop feeling pain, but not to be alone. Wanted to end both our suffering. Wished I had said “yes,” days ago, when Bill laid Ira in his grave, when he asked if we should lie down too.
It was windy at the coast, so cold my cheeks burned. I walked down toward the dock, but couldn’t go far without risking my footing on the ice. Bill was watching me from inside the Jeep, waiting, I suppose, to hear me say I was ready to give up too. But I wasn’t ready. I closed my eyes, felt the embrace of the wind, and deep within the hush of it I heard the cry again, my little Katherine’s cry, and a voice, a man’s voice, Ira’s, singing to her.
Bill got out of the Jeep and looked toward the sound.
“Whistlers,” he said.
“Is that what you hear?”
I walked toward it.
“Where are you going?” Bill called.
I waved that I was okay, and walked around the useless boathouse, up a low hill of sliding gravel. At the top, the wind was stronger, swirling with tiny snowflakes, and I could see more gray water up the coast, could see distant glimpses of shoreline segmented by trees, and low surf, and a bobbing shape, white and blue, lodged against a spit of dark sand.
I rushed back down the hill toward the Jeep, sliding in the gravel, panting hard.
“What is it?” Bill asked.
“There’s a boat,” I gasped. “Get your pack.”
* * * * * *
It was impossible to take the Jeep directly up the beach. There was too much loose gravel, too many jutting black rocks in our path. We had to wind in and out of patches of forest, had to boost each other over boulders, had to trudge through coarse sand. I was relentless, forcing myself onward, climbing every dune to confirm the boat was still in sight, still a small blue and white Ketch with bare masts and an enclosed cabin. The sound led me onward all the while, the sound of Ira and Katherine, the sound Bill kept pausing to warn me of, the sound he said was whistlers, luring us into a trap.
“It looks abandoned,” Bill said, once we were near. He was clutching his leg, holding the place where I was sure his bite wound had opened. I never offered to stop, to slow down, to do anything but press onward. I felt certain about the boat, that it was waiting for us, destined for us, our salvation. We slid down a final scree slope and reached the gray-pebbled beach where the boat was moored. Or, not moored, exactly, but stuck. It was surrounded with driftwood and other debris.
Bill looked exhausted, unimpressed.
“It’s a death trap, Ruth,” he said.
“The tide is coming in. Come on, help me get inside. The tide will take us out, and the coast guard will find us.”
“The coast guard will not find us. This area will be iced over in a month. It’s suicidal. Do you know anything about sailing?”
“My dad owned a Ketch. We didn’t go out much. I wish…”
But as I spoke Bill turned away from the boat and stared into the trees. He was flexing his hands, trembling.
“Do you hear that?”
I did hear it. Snapping twigs, the moaning bend of a branch. Then, the whistling, deep in the trees, coming closer. Bill was breathing hard, backing toward the boat, keeping me behind him. As the whistling rose in front of us, so the wailing rose behind, the crying, the singing, summoning me backward, summoning me into the boat. The tide was already rising, the boat bobbing in water that was almost deep enough to whisk it away.
“I hear Ira,” I said.
“What?” Bill gave me a bewildered, almost angry look.
“I hear him singing. I hear Katherine.”
He looked sad for me, and reached for me, but I backed away, into the water. It rose over my shoes and soaked my socks, icy cold.
“Don’t, Ruth,” he said.
“I’m getting on the boat, Bill.” There was a ladder down one side of the hull. I could wade to it and pull myself inside. I didn’t need his help. “You said you wouldn’t go back to Red Hill. This is what’s left. This is the other choice.”
The whistling in the trees grew louder, and every second the beach felt smaller, more like a trap.
His face changed, and the wind rustled his hair. “Yes,” he said, strangely. “Yes, you’re right. Get on the boat, Ruth.”
I turned and waded toward the ladder, telling myself he would follow, telling myself all would be well. “Why can’t you hear it, Bill?” I said, as I reached the ladder, as I pulled myself up onto the weathered deck. “Why can’t you hear Ira singing?”
But when I turned around, Bill was halfway up the beach, looking small, facing away from me, his skin white and his arms rigid.
“Bill?” I called. The boat was creaking in the deepening tide, and the wind was rushing across the sand. The boat jolted beneath me. Something dark appeared beyond the tree trunks, something I could barely see. It was moving, a shadow independent of the shifting needles and swaying branches. A shape, a being, taller than a man and deliberate in its movements. I raised my revolver in shaking hands, I fired, more than once, but there was no reaction. The sound was lost among all the others, the screaming and gnashing, the howl of the whistlers. Bill was close to the woods now, he had to see it, but he was paralyzed, as straight and immovable as the trees. I screamed for him, wishing he would look at me, but he didn’t move, and beneath me the boat shifted again. I fell, hit my head on the icy rail, and once I had scrambled upright again Bill had fallen.
He was collapsed on the sand, and the creature was looming closer to him, coming through the trees, crouching down.
The whistling hushed, suddenly, almost completely. Even the wind seemed to ease.
It takes its prey one at a time.
I couldn’t hear Katherine anymore, or Ira, but I could hear the whistlers, the softest warning tone, intelligible now, almost like words, telling me to close my eyes.
There is always one survivor, always someone spared. The wind pushed the Ketch away from the shore, and the darkness closed over Bill.
I don’t remember anything else.
My name is Ruth Gattiger. Please bring my body back to Oregon, if you can. My driver’s license is in my wallet. This account of events is for the families of the deceased—for the helicopter pilot and Lillian and Geoff, for Bill and Ira’s mother and the chef we found in Red Hill. I don’t want it published. I don’t want to be one more link in the chain of juvenile curiosity, another mystery in the big book of stories that sends people like us to places like this. To die.
We had so many opportunities, over the years, to drop the question. To live with the unknown. We called ourselves folklorists, but we imagined we were adventurers, righteous explorers, exposing a mystery. We imagined we had the right.
I never thought the whistlers were real, before coming here. I thought they were a dark side of the human psyche, just one of many predictable byproducts of human life in cold, isolated, untenable conditions. I wanted to sit around a fire with shifty-eyed fur trappers and remote homesteaders and listen to their spooky stories, like a tourist. We didn’t satisfy our curiosity, coming here, didn’t pick apart the tangled lore. We only satisfied the hunger of the thing that stalks this place. It’s been here a long time, the chef thought, at war with the whistlers. How long have they kept it at bay? It doesn’t even have a name. At this late hour, I find I can’t put a description into words. And I don’t want to, because I realize now there are some things we don’t deserve to know. There are stories we shouldn’t tell. Unknowns that should remain unknown.
I should have done this in the Jeep with Bill. It would have been better, but not necessarily easier. To die in the back seat, in his arms, warm, staring out at the ocean.
The boat ran aground on a sandbar, not far from where I lost Bill. I’ve been wandering down the coast. I made it back to the Jeep.
There are no whistles to follow me now, nothing watching from beyond the trees. The snow is deep, and the land has gone quiet. For how long? I don’t know. I don’t know if I was spared, or if the evil that lives here is merely biding its time again.
If you’ve found this—the backpack—thank you, whoever you are. I’m out of gas, out of food, and at night, no matter where I look, there are no lights in any direction. It’s cold. I’ll close my eyes for a little while. There is still one round in the revolver. I haven’t made up my mind.
Credit: Amity Argot
Publisher’s Note: This story is the first of a two-part arc told from the perspective of two individuals, Ruth and Bill, via their journal entries. To read the other half of the story, told from Bill’s perspective, please click here. To see a list of all stories in the series, click here.
🔔 More stories from author: Amity Argot
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