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Thirty years on …

Thirty years on …

Thirty years had passed since the Reverend Crackstone’s disappearance. The only person who knew the exact circumstances of his demise was Betty Butterow. Her dark hair by now was shot with silver but she was as beautiful as ever and still working as a barmaid at The Squid and Teapot. Although the fog-bound landscape had changed little, much had happened on Hopeless in those intervening years, as you will see.

 

Soon after Crackstone’s disappearance Betty and Joseph, the Passamaquoddy trader, set up home together in a small cabin in Creepy Hollow. At the time of this tale Joseph would be seventy years old, or more but still sprightly and continuing to ply his trade between Hopeless and the mainland.

 

Isaac Lypiatt had taken over the role as landlord of the inn following the death of his parents, Sebastian and Madrigal. Sebastian’s last couple of years had been spent in retirement, reminiscing in the snug of the Squid with his friend Bill Ebley, who was also Isaac’s father-in-law. It had come as something of a surprise to both families when Isaac proposed marriage to Mildred, a girl twenty years his junior. With their marriage, however, a valuable link was forged between the inn, the Ebley Brewery and the distillery (you may recall that Mildred’s mother was Costanza Gannicox).

 

You may remember, in the tale of ‘The Wendigo’, Randall Middlestreet had been thrust into the role of a full-time Night Soil Man within weeks of his leaving the orphanage. For all of his adult life this job was all he had known and it was beginning to take its toll. When, at the age of fifty, he had asked at the orphanage if there were any likely candidates to be his apprentice he was sent a a surly young man with a decidedly selfish streak. His name was Jarvis Woodchester. Randall was not confident that he would get on particularly well with his new assistant but hoped for the best; he was glad of all the help he could get.

Five years slipped by and to everyone’s surprise Jarvis became as competent a Night Soil Man as any who had gone before him, lithely scrambling over the rocky headland with his bucket on his back. It was with some relief that Randall relinquished many of his duties to his young protege, whom he trusted implicitly. He had spent over forty years of his life surrounded by stench and darkness, forced into celibacy and, save for necessarily distant communication with Joseph and Betty, virtually friendless. The role of Night Soil Man was considered to be a job for life but Randall Middlestreet was contemplating the unthinkable –  abdication.

 

Few people had seen Randall in daylight but news of his abandoning the position as Night Soil Man had spread like wildfire. This behaviour was unheard of and one or two of the more conservative islanders disapproved of such a flagrant break with tradition; Randall’s mind, however, was made up. It took several days of diligent scrubbing to remove the trademark smell of his calling completely, but with the aid of Joseph and Betty – who were thrilled at his decision – Randall was completely deodorised, dressed in some of Joseph’s old but scrupulously clean clothes and ready to be integrated fully into Hopeless society for the first time in his adult life. The house at Poo Corner and all that it contained was now the exclusive property of the new, young Night Soil Man, Jarvis Woodchester.

 

When Randall walked into the bar of The Squid and Teapot the place fell silent. Randall paled, convinced that he was being ostracized for his decision. Then someone started clapping. The applause became contagious. Even Lady Margaret D’Avening, the ghost who haunts the privy of the inn, popped her head out to see what the fuss was about. Regular readers will recall that Lady Margaret’s head was detached from the rest of her, so when I say she popped her head out, I am speaking literally. As it was not a full moon and being something of a stickler for tradition, she was loathe to manifest totally. Isaac Lypiatt handed the newly liberated Randall a foaming pint of ‘Old Colonel’ and the keys to the old attic room, which long ago was occupied by the young Betty Butterow. It was now his for life, if he so wished. Randall was overcome with emotion. He had no idea that anyone would do such a thing for him.

 

This new way of life required quite a bit of adjustment. To be able to walk and talk with others, to share meals and enjoy  convivial evenings in the Squid were pleasures most took for granted. For Randall each one of these things was a novelty. The only downside was his vulnerability. In his role as Night Soil Man the less friendly denizens of the island had given him a wide berth. It was the one advantage of the stench that had perpetually surrounded him. These days, however, he had no such protection and had to remember to exercise caution when out and about.

 

When, a few weeks later, Joseph asked Randall if he would like to join him on a trip to the mainland, the ex-Night Soil Man had no idea how to respond. The chance of a glimpse of the wider world was as terrifying as it was tempting. He agonised over making a decision for days on end. Eventually curiosity overcame fear and, with no small amount of trepidation, Randall found himself gingerly scrambling into Joseph’s canoe.

With a mixture of excitement and anxiety churning within him he wondered what adventures might be waiting on the other side of the treacherous channel that would take them to the coast of Maine.

 

Once on dry land Joseph’s first point of call was the home of his cousin, Samuel. Joseph’s heart always dropped when he re-visited the reservation. The poorly built wooden shacks, often with earth floors and no sanitation, were far inferior to the simple but comfortable conical birch-bark wetus, or wigwams, his people lived in when he was a boy. Unemployment was high and living standards low. Samuel was one of the more fortunate ones, though. For years he had made a precarious living as a trader to providie for his large family. Today Joseph was interested in a supply of beaver pelts that Samuel had obtained. He knew that his cousin would drive a hard bargain, even for family, but he was happily prepared to haggle. What he was not prepared for was the news that Samuel could not wait to impart.

“There’s been a woman here asking after you.”

Joseph raised his eyebrows quizzically.

“She was old,” said Samuel. “I mean, really old. Older than you, even.”

Samuel was Joseph’s junior by only ten years but he never missed an opportunity to tease his cousin about his age.

“Who is this woman?” asked Joseph, faintly irritated.

“A Mrs. Spillman. From Baltimore, I think. Said she knew your parents, years ago.”

Joseph shrugged.

“And where is she now?”

“ We knew you were due to show up sometime soon, so the Sakom said his family could put her up for a night or two, seeing she’s old, and that. They’ve got the best place on the reservation but it ain’t up to Baltimore standards, that’s for sure.”

The Sakom is the elected governor, or chief of the tribe. This was a generous thing for him to do. Joseph decided to waste no time and see what the woman wanted. Having nothing better to do, Randall tagged along. To Joseph the reservation was downtrodden and commonplace. Randall thought it was the most exotic place that he had seen and was keen to look around.

 

The Sakom, holding Mrs Spillman’s arm, led her gently out of his home and introduced her to Joseph. The old lady was small and her back bent but her eyes flickered with a mischievous fire that belied her age. She reached up and stroked Joseph’s face.

“Joseph. Dear Joseph,” she smiled. “Is it really you?”

The Indian drew back a little. He had no idea who she was, or how she knew him.

“ Mrs Spillman, ma’am, forgive me but I don’t know who you are.”

“No. I guess you don’t remember. It was a long time ago and you were a child. But hey, where’s your manners?” she laughed brightly. “Who’s your friend, there?”

Joseph blushed faintly.

“Sorry, ma’am. This is my good pal Randall Middlestreet.”

The colour drained visibly from Mrs Spillman’s face, as though she had seen a ghost. Her bottom lip began to tremble.

“R… R… Randall Middlestreet?” she stammered.

Suddenly, with surprising vigour, she fell forward and threw her arms around a very surprised Randall, hugging him tightly.

He could feel her frail body racked with sobs as she clung to him.

“My son. My son,” she cried. “My beautiful boy…”

 

To be continued…

Art by Tom Brown

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The Wendigo

The impressively named Joseph Dreaming-By-The-River-Where-The-Shining-Salmon-Springs was one of the very few people who actually visited Hopeless regularly and of his own free will. A Native American of the Passamaquoddy people, twice a year he would load his canoe with furs and woven blankets and brave the treacherous ocean and dense fog banks to trade with the islanders. In the past there had been little on Hopeless worth bartering but in the last few years, Since Solomon Gannicox had opened his distillery, things had improved. Now, with the very recent imposition of prohibition laws in the United States, Gannicox ‘Fire Water’ had become a precious commodity on the mainland.

Today, however, he was puzzled. Standing on a hillside, overlooking Creepy Hollow, Joseph was convinced that he was witnessing some arcane religious ceremony. A small band of worshippers, men, women and children, formed a loose circle around two combatants, each carrying a club. A third combatant would occasionally hurl a missile at one of the other two, who, in turn would wave his club feebly at it. This usually resulted in a small bundle of sticks disintegrating behind the club-wielder, who was immediately banished from the arena, only to be replaced by another. This continued for some time until the throng were joined by a wild man. This strange character was alone in managing to hit the missile and send it towards the ocean, to devastating effect. It was then that Joseph suddenly realised what was going on. He was witnessing an invocation ceremony. These combatants had summoned a great undersea god, who astonishingly, and not without creating a certain amount of terror in all who witnessed the event, took the wild man as sacrifice. Joseph shook his head in amazement. The ways of the white skinned people would never cease to surprise him.

 

As he made his way home, Elmer Bussage reflected that he had just experienced the most enjoyable and unusual day of his life. A few weeks earlier he had rescued the Englishman, Colonel Ruscombe-Green, from certain death and as a consequence had been invited to participate in the cricket match that the colonel and his valet, Ebley, had organised. For most of us this would have meant very little but Elmer Bussage was the Night Soil Man and invitations to social events were not so much rare as non-existent. From his fielding position on the far boundary Elmer had watched the team from The Crow fail miserably. Not that he had fared much better, being bowled out for no runs. None of this mattered, however. People had clapped him when he went into bat and applauded again when he was bowled out thirty seconds later. It had been a perfect day. Well, almost perfect; after all, Crazy Wally had been taken by a kraken and that did put something of a dampener on things.

 

Someone else who had been invited to play was Randall Middlestreet, a youngster who had, until recently, lived in the orphanage. Randall had an altogether different take on the day’s events. Due to the confusion that ensued because of his being unfamiliar with cricketing terms, he found himself at Scilly Point, a mile or more away from the rest of the team. Realising his mistake he decided to make his way back to his lodgings but could not help but wonder how the match had gone and if his ball was safe. He was not unduly put out by missing the game but Randall had lent the cricketers a prized baseball and was keen to get it back. The hope was always with him that the previous owner might come looking for it; after all, she had gone to the trouble of inscribing it with her name. In his mind’s eye Randall could picture her clearly, sleek and gorgeous; as seductively beautiful as her name suggested. His heart raced slightly.

“Babe Ruth, I love you,” he whispered quietly to himself.

He had virtually reached home when his train of thought was derailed by the noise of rocks being disturbed just over the ridge. He wondered if the delectable Ruth had finally tracked him down and come to reclaim her ball. Why she would want to disturb rocks to attract his attention was something of a mystery but ever the optimist, he went to investigate.

The sight that greeted him was far from seductive. A creature, skeletally thin and as tall as three men was making its way towards the small collection of low buildings that Randall had recently begun to call home.

To call this monster hideous would not do justice to the abject ugliness of its face – if face you could call it – and body,  Its red eyes caught sight of the boy and drool slavered from the cavernous mouth. A tongue, black and lanceolated, swept over the yellow, needle-like teeth. Randall was terrified and momentarily frozen to the spot as the creature lunged towards him. He screamed as an icy, gnarled hand caught him around the throat and roughly dragged him upwards towards the gaping, salivating maw. The air was thick with the stench of rotting flesh and poor dental hygiene; the troubling thought occurred to Randall that he was far too young to die. Suddenly a volley of rocks peppered the air, bouncing off the monstrous head. Randall felt every breath of wind knocked from him as, with an unearthly snarl, his cadaverous attacker casually discarded his frail body in favour of this new, more fierce, and frankly, better nourished, prey.

“Randall, get up boy. Get up and run.”

It was Elmer Bussage. He had little fear of this or any aggressor. Years of experience had taught him that nothing seemed to want to tangle with a malodorous Night Soil Man. Sadly for Elmer the loathsome creature was not aware of this and swept him up as easily as a child with a doll.

Randall watched in horror as Elmer was ripped to pieces before his very eyes. Every morsel of the Night Soil Man was stuffed quickly and greedily into the huge gaping mouth. The creature chewed and crunched its way through Elmer’s bones, flesh and clothing in a noisy and disgustingly rebarbative fashion. Meaty gobbets and streams of gore dribbled from the monster’s chops, macabrely decorating the rocks and greasing the puddles. If, by chance, any other dark denizen of Hopeless smelt the bloody feast and felt slightly tempted to join in, they wisely made a point of keeping well away, being more than aware that they would probably be next on the menu.

Coming to his senses, Randall, in blind panic, ran as he had never run before, knowing he had just witnessed the impossible. Nothing can kill the Night Soil Man, he told himself. Nothing. That is what Reverend Crackstone had led him to believe at the orphanage and that was what everyone thought to be true.

 

Solomon Gannicox was deep in conversation with Joseph Dreaming-By-The-River-Where-The-Shining-Salmon-Springs, when Randall crashed into him. Sturdy though Solomon was, the blow knocked him off his feet and on to his backside.

“Steady there, youngster,” he scolded. “There is no excuse for dashing around like that.”

“A monster,” wailed Randall. “A monster just chewed Mr Bussage up into tiny pieces.”

“Don’t lie boy.” Solomon said dismissively. “You know as well as I do that nothing can harm the Night Soil Man.”

“ It did with its great big teeth. It shoved him into its horrible gaping cake-hole. It’s a huge walking corpse with stinky breath. A monster, if ever I saw one, Mr Gannicox, sir. It was awful.”

Something had obviously distressed the boy. Solomon rose to his feet and banged the dust from the seat of his trousers.

The face of Joseph Dreaming-By-The-River-Where-The-Shining-Salmon-Springs had become suddenly grim. He looked hard at the orphan.

“ You say this giant corpse ate Mr Bussage?”

Randall nodded.

“Take no notice, Joseph…” began Solomon but the Indian raised his hand for silence.

“Now tell me exactly what you saw,” he said to Randall.

The boy described everything about the creature that he could remember.

Joseph was silent for some time, then said quietly and to no one in particular,

“Wendigo. Wendigo has come and it is my fault.”

“Wendy? Wendy from Peter Pan?”

The orphans had been read Mr Barrie’s story several times but Randall could not quite grasp the connection between the monster and the heroine, Wendy, with whom he had long ago fallen in love. That was, however, some time before his infatuation with Babe Ruth had taken hold.

“No, Wendigo. Wendigo is The Windwalker, an evil manitou, a dark spirit known to my people. He has followed me to this place. I am the one he is here for.”

Solomon Gannicox paled visibly.

“But why…?”

“I stole from his food store. Wendigo does not always eat his kill. He will hang the corpses from trees and feed later. I stole some of those corpses from him… “

“But why…?”

Solomon’s usually rich vocabulary seemed to have been reduced to these two simple words.

Joseph looked away and he took a long time to answer.

“They were the last earthly remains of my wife and my mother. Now Wendigo wants vengeance… and so do I. I will go to him. ”

Despite the protestations of the distiller the Indian had made his mind up. So had Randall.

“ I’ll take you to where I saw him,” he said, bravely.

Solomon was about to object but Joseph cut him short.

“The boy will be safe, I promise. Wendigo is not – how would you say it? – not very bright. I have tricked him before. This time I will finish it.”

 

Wendigo had not moved far. He was sitting on a rock by the Night Soil Man’s cottage, half dozing and still digesting his meal, when they spotted him. On the way over the two had formulated a plan to get rid of the monster and with his still being in the vicinity, the conditions were as near perfect to ensure its success as either could have hoped. Randall slipped into the bunkhouse by the side of the cottage and, a minute or so later, appeared with an old rush mat rolled up under his arm. He gingerly made his way around the rocks, making sure that he gave the creature a very wide berth. After a few minutes Joseph began yelling and beating the wooden walls of the bunkhouse with a discarded cricket bat that he had found. He hoped that if all else failed, this religious artefact might allow him some protection against evil.

Wendigo immediately reared up and snarled angrily, recognising his adversary. Whooping and waving his bat Joseph taunted him. Nimbly avoiding the massive reach of his abominable foe, Joseph ran. He ran for his life. Wendigo was so close behind him that Joseph could smell his foul breath in the air around him. Just when capture and death seemed inevitable Joseph spotted what he was looking for; the bunkhouse mat lay incongruously on the earth before him. As he leapt nimbly over it Joseph felt Wendigo try to grab one of his long braids of hair but it slipped through the Windwalker’s gnarled fingers. Hot in pursuit the enraged monster stepped on to the rush mat but found no support beneath him. For the briefest of moments a look of confusion crossed Wendigo’s hideous features, then in an instant he was gone, tumbling down the narrow shaft to depths greater than anyone could imagine. It was fortunate, but unsurprising, that Randall knew of the sinkhole near the cottage and had used it to trap the monster.

It took only a short while for the shock of the events of the previous few days to recede sufficiently for the island to return to its default state of mild panic rather than abject terror. It was then, in a simple ceremony witnessed by Solomon Gannicox and Reverend Crackstone (who had been Randall’s guardian before he left the orphanage) that Joseph Dreaming-By-The-River-Where-The-Shining-Salmon-Springs made Randall his blood-brother and member of the Passamaquoddy tribe. And so, Randall recently apprenticed and dreadfully unprepared, became the next Night Soil Man and bore the distinction of having the longest name of any of his profession: Randall Blood-Brother-Of-Joseph-Dreaming-By-The-River-Where-The-Shining-Salmon-Springs.

Babe Ruth would have been proud of him.

Art by Clifford Cumber