After the graying of my body I learn finally of the Wendigo.
The Wendigo is ageless and works in the night. I am sure it is this creature snorting from the tree line. I can almost see the spray of its mucus in the sunbeams from where he sometimes crouches hidden from the light. But I have not seen it.
During the nights, I stay in a small cave near the top of a high mountain. I build fires and take my chances. Maybe fire kept me alive. Some nights, I hear it and the noise from its lungs becomes dark things flying through the valleys.
I watch for signs. Signs of an origin for this creature and for how it came to be here. It’s the only thing I’ve become curious about in this new wherever place that’s lasted so many years, so much longer than the frozen world or the fiery world or even the watery world when after my gray death other ghosts rose up as flowers through stone.
When I sleep, I dream of the Wendigo. When I travel, I place my feet in grooved tracks, spots where it may have walked. While eating the few mushrooms and wildlife I can find as I can find it, I hear my jawbones working and know that, when it is lucky, the Wendigo must hear a sound somehow similar. When I do all these things, the thing I don’t do is consider how I may be the Wendigo or how the Wendigo may have been me all along.
In my first dream of the Wendigo it swallowed the earth whole. I saw its full form, the emaciated body, skin so thin it could peel open in a breeze and pulled taut so the canopy of its ribs heaved out. Its legs were little more than jutting tangles of pulsing veins. In its hand was the swirling ball of the earth. Its eyes were sad, I remember, and vivid green against the black backdrop of the sleeping universe. And though its eyes shined sadness, the mouth was a horrible circle of tongue and teeth, the insides slickened wet. It yawned, stretching its boney face to a breaking point, and I saw the back of its throat throbbing with life, anticipation. It was as if its mouth cried on its own to be nourished, like an infant trapped inside the bleating face of a monster.
Then, in one slow gesture, the Wendigo cupped the earth with its shredded fingers and shoved the whole of the swirling planet into its mouth. As it chewed, its head swiveled on its neck in clear pleasure, and I felt the first spikes of pain in my chest. Each time it opened and closed its mouth the pain in my breastbone rose to a symphony of purified hurt. Pain crashed and swelled along every atom of my body, a seizure series, a wall of black water weighing tons upon tons. And the earth and all in it sprayed as star dust and rock from the mouth of the Wendigo.
When I did not dream of the Wendigo, it colonized my waking imagination. I imagined it gnawing the thick darkness of a plan in whatever place it stayed out of sight. I imagined its story like this:
Once human. Once not devastated by hunger never ending. Once not taboo among villages throughout the here and the there. It eats to grow taller so it can eat more. And it eats without light among forest trees and, too, by dark beneath the roots of the largest tree it can find. Here is a catacomb for its bed, where the sun comes only as a seeping warmth through the earth. It eats because that’s all there is left to do, and because while eating it cannot remember its before-life.
The last remnant of its before-life is a name. Adelard. It speaks only the one name. Everything else is grunts escaping between the staccato crunching of bones, the popping of balled flesh tucked away between its back teeth.
I settle onto a bed of pine needles. I tell myself that yes yes, this is the story of the Wendigo. I tell myself this:
It was a man once, maybe even a man in the same world I once lived. But then drought and then famine, yes. Surely it was famine that brought it all about. It, Adelard, would spend nights clutching his knees by a spitting fire, his children, his wife, sleeping in harsh and hungry rasps feet from him. Clutching at himself in this way he fought his mind to think of ways to feed them. At first. But before long, as one night became another and another, his thoughts settled longer each time on his own hunger, his starvation.
Crops were the only thing he ever knew. Early on he had tried to hunt and failed. Tried again, and failed. Each failure brought looks into his children’s eyes, his son and daughter. Their eyes asked why, and their tears sang dirges of the same. His wife, a wonderful woman who had, before the famine, always been quick with a smile, who went about her daily work and her nightly work with an air of contentment, now walked stiffly as a dying animal around their land. Her entire body mourned, and she never touched any of them, fearing anything and everything. Fearing that somehow her deep melancholy might be transferred, she drew into herself, leaving her children to huddle close to each other in their fear.
On the last night he spent clutching his knees to his chest, he started with his wife. She had taken to sleeping at the near corner of the dry-flopped wheat field, more than fifty feet from their home. He left the fire and checked on his son and daughter. They slept holding each other, as always. When they breathed their sides pulled so far inward their ribs drew into their stomachs. His son had wrapped his arm around his sister so that his arm created a barrier against her and anything that might disturb her sleep. This doomed man, Adelard, thought of this act of chivalry and was proud of his son. He could only manage to consider this for a moment and then left the doorway to be filled with moonless dark.
In the only other room of the house he had driven pegs into the wall above a wood stove. Here hanged various cooking utensils, among them a knife, its blade dulled and cold in the circling doorway wind. His arm reaching to pull the knife from the peg was as a phantom stirring past him, not a part of him, but something witnessed with a mouth closed tight.
He stomped withered crops as he went through the wheat field, feeling them crack and crumble underfoot like cleaned bones. The sound went straight to his stomach. His stomach saw and heard, nearly tasted evenings over the fire tearing at the wings and thighs of spit-roasted chickens that happened to stray into his crops and thus became an easy enough target even for him.
When he, the man Adelard who would become something wicked and unhuman, reached his wife, she seemed ready for him. She blinked twice, quickly, and motioned for him to sit with her. He sat beside her and produced the knife, holding it out from him as if displaying it for approval. His wife tried to smile, but her lips trembled and then she began to cry.
Unable to bear his wife hurting this way any longer, more unable to bear this hurt himself, he used his knife and was hungry no more for a time.
Sheldon Lee Compton is the author of The Same Terrible Storm and Where Alligators Sleep. He is the Founding Editor of Revolution John. He survives in Eastern Kentucky.