Défago had “seen the Wendigo.”Algernon Blackwood
By Michael Conroy
Tom had never wandered so deep into the woods before. His grandfather, who spoke in riddles, had warned him not to stray too far because Algonquian legends told of hungry spirits that brought out the worst in men. His grandpa worried too much. Besides, ever since his dad left, he’d had no choice but to make his own fun.
The rotted log cabin had only a single murky window without shutters. The chimney had crumbled long ago, and the roof sagged like it might cave in at any moment. He crept up the creaking steps to the leaf-strewn porch. An oil lantern hung from a nail hammered into a timber post.
Something chirped nearby, but he saw nothing through his binoculars. The pine trees stood tall and silent as the wind ran its fingers through the branches. There were all kinds of animals in the woods.
He gave the plank door a gentle push, but it didn’t budge, so he poked a twig through the gap and lifted the rusty latch. The air inside felt stuffy and faintly sickening, like entering a tomb. A sweet smell hung in the air. His eyes took a moment to adjust to the dim light.
The log furniture was blanketed with cobwebs. No one had set foot here since frontier times by the look of it. His blue sneakers left chevron footprints over the dusty floorboards.
A wooden bowl half-filled with mouldy remains sat on the small dining table. Empty tin cans with faded labels gathered on a shelf beside the window and a stiff old union suit lay draped over an unfinished wooden chair. A library of leather-bound books filled one shelf in the bookcase against the wall, but the spines were too dusty to make out the titles.
Looking down on him, a pair of long twisted antlers hung over the barren brick fireplace. Cobwebs and animal bones inside.
Tom passed through the next doorway into a long dark passage, knowing full well that it was impossible for cabins in the woods to be bigger on the inside, and yet he struggled to recall how big the cabin had looked from the clearing.
He wished for some matches to light his way. Clinging to the wall, he dragged his fingers over the smooth wood until he brushed fur and plunged his arm into a pitch-black void.
Snapping his arm back, he peered at the dusty bearskin hanging down over the doorway. The sweet smell bloomed stronger. More pungent. It was the odour of something rotting which had rotted away. His grandpa had once taken him hunting and they’d found a half-eaten deer in the woods. He recognised the smell.
Reaching out to touch the bearskin, he froze and panned down to his feet. It would have been no trouble at all for someone to reach out and grab his ankles. The thought sent an electric shiver running up his spine and down both arms. Then the floorboards creaked.
He tensed his arms and legs to keep from shaking as goosepimples popped up all over his body. He was certain something was standing behind the bearskin. SNIFF-SNIFF. It tasted the air.
He drew out each breath into a long slow pant and tried his best to ignore the whispers in his head. Nothing stirred as he crept back through the cabin. He lifted the creaky latch and opened the door, resisting the screaming urge to run as far and as fast as he could.
Stepping off the porch, he heard a metallic clatter behind him. The oil lantern was swinging from its hook beside the open door. Something had knocked it leaving the cabin. His palms turned clammy.
The porch creaked.
Tom sprinted through the tall trees, catching only a glimpse of the gaunt creature chasing him down. Its sunken eyes and protruding ribs were seared into his mind. The sight of that desiccated skin pulled tight over its lanky frame skulked behind his eyes.
He heard its light step through the undergrowth. The rustling of leaves and snapping twigs. His shoulders hunched under a great weight, as though its skeletal fingers were pressing down upon him. He felt its hot, stinking breath dampen the back of his shirt.
The gloom gave way to a blazing orange sky beyond the hill slope. He skinned his knees crawling through the hole in the wire fence, but the pale creature grabbed his foot and dragged him back. Rearing its head, it shrieked and bashed its antlers against the fence.
Slipping out of his shoe before the creature could drag him any further, he scrambled through the hole and fell flat on his back. Like smoke in a gale, the creature had vanished. Nothing stirred behind the fence. Not even the creaking tree branches.
His shoe was gone, his sock was in ribbons and his binoculars were cracked, but he’d escaped. He wiggled his toes. The scratch on his ankle looked nasty. He needed to get home fast. Heaving himself up onto his feet, he heard the creature sigh breathily from the other side of the fence – certain that it was watching him.
He found his bike at the foot of the hill and rode home as fast as he could. Streetlamps lit up the darkened street in cones of yellow light. Sirens sounded in the distance. He dumped the bike outside his grandparents’ house and knocked on the door. Nobody answered.
The passenger door of his grandpa’s car hung open. Broken glass littered the sidewalk.
He knocked again, then tried the handle and stepped into the house. All the lights were off except for the kitchen. A sweet, fermented smell hung in the air. He pulled off his shoe and limped to the kitchen.
“Hello?” he said.
His grandmother’s voice: “I’m in here, darling… I’m just making dinner.”
He found her bent over the stove. Her clothes hung off her like she’d lost weight. She looked taller. Thinner. Her bare feet were covered in dirt.
“Where’s grandpa?” Tom asked.
She didn’t answer.
He sat down. “What’s for dinner?”
“Steak,” she said and set a plate down in front of him.
Raw, bloody steak.
“Grandma, it isn’t cooked…”
She sighed breathily. “It’s rare, dear…” she said, drawing out each syllable.
He looked up into two glassed-over eyes behind thick square bifocals. Her face sagged like a mask that didn’t fit. She reeked of decay.
He pushed the plate away. “I’m not hungry…”
Her lips quivered and retracted over sharp yellow teeth.
Tom ran to the front door but, somehow, his grandmother was there waiting for him. He backed away and stumbled over the shoe he’d left behind in the woods.
Looming over him, the old woman salivated. “Let’s eat,” she said.
Header image from Pixabay.
Copyright © ‘Hungry Spirits’ Michael Conroy 2020