This was published last year in a short story anthology called No Regrets. The copyright has reverted back to me. I hope you enjoy it!
Wendigo Problems : K.B. Spangler (2016)
As far as Breaches go, the one at Kuujjuaq is tiny. It’s barely large enough for a gnat to pass through, which is lucky for us: demons are only immortal from the perspective of mortals, and a gnat-sized demon lives maybe a couple of years before it crumples up and dies like any other bug.
Also, Kuujjuaq is cold. Balls-creeping frigid. I’ve asked the science team if the subarctic climate has any effect on a demon’s lifespan; they say yeah, probably, and it makes them less likely to consider us as a viable vacation spot. So we’ve got that going for us.
But every couple of decades or so, a warm front moves in and then we’re neck-deep in Wendigos.
You know how you kill a Wendigo?
Iron. Fire. Salt. Soil.
You know how you train someone to kill a Wendigo?
Rephrase: you can’t. But sometimes you get lucky.
I toss my cigarette on what used to be a high school student, and the body goes up in a cloud of oily smoke. The beast is dead—past dead—but the squealing sound of its burning fur is like one side of a sick conversation.
Fagan has decided that my old SUV is as close as he’s going to get to crawling under the covers. He’s in the back seat, a shotgun aimed at the windows. I’m not going anywhere near that inevitable accident, so I take out my phone and text him instead.
A long five minutes passes. Long enough for me to finish another cigarette and pull out my bag of rock salt. Then comes the slow squeak of my car’s window as Fagan cranks it down.
I’m barely able to hear him over the summer crickets, which is saying something mighty.
“Yeah.” I dump more salt over the corpse. It’s still dead and burning, but that’s never a sure thing.
“Can I come out?”
“There’s another one out here somewhere,” I reply. “So. Can you?”
Silence. Then, the unexpected sound of old hinges that have gone past the need for oil, followed by footsteps. The sharp scent of gunmetal shouldn’t be enough to cut through the fumes coming from the body, but Fagan is holding the shotgun too close to my face. I push the barrel aside and offer him a cigarette.
“Gave it up.”
“Start again,” I say, and hand him my lighter. It’s a silver Zippo, easily sixty years old. My name used to be engraved along one side until my thumb wore the letters away. I keep it primed and good to go, and it’s never let me down, not once.
Fagan’s face lights up from below. I keep thinking he’s younger than he is. He’s closer to thirty than twenty, his face scarred from his time in the service. His hands shake as he takes a pull on the cigarette, and then he spends a few minutes coughing until his body remembers the smoke.
I throw another handful of salt on the body. Sparks go up. The monster stays down.
A good night, so far.
Fagan manages to look anywhere except the body. “There’s no way that thing was a kid,” he finally says.
“Your unit took down a basilisk when you were with Task Force Arrowhead,” I say. “Thought you knew your monsters.”
“Cockatrice,” he snaps. “Not a basilisk. It started out as a fuckin’ chicken, Jack!”
“And this was a high school student,” I say as I nod at the ground beside us. “Do me a favor and stick it with the spear again.”
The lance lay where Fagan had dropped it. Truth be told, it wasn’t much of a spear. Wendigos come at you like a hurricane, and a man can’t stand against that. Best to brace the butt of a sharpened iron lance against a rock or a tree, and let the planet do the heavy lifting instead.
Before Fagan can reach the lance, the fire pops. Bones begin to crack as the last of the marrow boils away. He turns and runs back to the car. I hear him retch on the way.
I toss a last handful of salt into the fire, and go to retrieve the lance.
The blood burns off its tip as I prod the corpse. Fagan had stood his ground when it mattered, and that’s all I could ask from him.
The body is finally past the point where it could rise. I use the lance to crush its skull, and push the pieces around until they’ve become part of the earth.
I send another text to Fagan: One down, one to go. Headed out. Back before dawn.
I stomp out what’s left of the fire and turn over the soil beneath the ash. It doesn’t take too long. Say what you want about monsters, they burn damned fast. Then, about ten seconds before I give up and leave, I hear the car door open again.
Footsteps, hard in military boots, and Fagan joins me by the fire.
He’s still got the shotgun, but now he’s carrying a second bag of salt.
We head east, towards the wild marshes of Nunavik.
She’s left a trail through the woods that a child could follow, so we avoid that and keep a fifty-meter distance between us and the broken underbrush. Fagan turns out to be a pretty good tracker: he finds a spot where she’s doubled back around and gone up the hillside.
“Where’s she going?” he asks with barely a whisper, just loud enough to register in the range of human hearing. The government trains them well.
“She’s hunting,” I say, and I turn us back the way we came.
“Sometimes they get a full set of instincts,” I explain, once we’re a decent distance down the trail and out of earshot. “I think she’s one of those. Comes through the change knowing how the woods work, and gets smarter each time she eats.”
Fagan mutters an atheist’s prayer, all curses and foxholes.
I nod. “Can’t sneak up on her, not when she’s got the high ground and the wind’s blowing towards her.”
“Bring her down to us?”
We reach the car. I’ve got a cadaver’s leg stashed in a cooler, as fresh and bloody as I could find. We carry it between us; Fagan’s lashed a plastic strap around its ankle to serve as a handle, and I’ve got my fingers deep in its meat.
“Is that safe?” he asks, as the car’s headlights show reddish trails running down my hand.
“For me? Yeah,” I tell him. “I’ve been doing this a long, long time.”
We set up a portable stand in a pair of black spruce, the leg dangling over a snare trap. Fagan tells me that no self-respecting predator would fall for such an obvious setup; I remind him that this is no bear.
“She’s been cursed,” I say, as I wipe my bloody hand on my jeans. “They’re compelled. Once they know there’s human flesh around, they can’t stop until they’ve eaten. The young ones are usually dumb about it, and relentless.”
That takes a moment to sink in. Once it does, Fagan glares at me.
I shrug. “We killed her mate. She was already after us.”
Fagan and I settle down in the stand to wait. He tells me about the cockatrice, and the Breach near Andover. “Beautiful place,” he says. “Like here. Woods, not a lot of people.”
“They know,” I say, as I point my nose towards Kuujjuaq. It’s twenty kilometers away, but there’s still a murmur of machines in the air. “They know, and they try to stay away from the dark places. Mostly.”
“There’s an old mill at Andover,” Fagan says. “This guy I met over there? He was British SAS—he told me an actual wizard closed the Breach back in the Middle Ages. They built the mill over it to keep the seal closed.”
“What happened?” I see a flock of ptarmigan take to the night sky: she’s circling, getting closer.
“Bunch of cultists tried to reopen it. Blew up the mill in 2002. The Brits got it resealed, and rebuilt the mill on top, but…”
We’re quiet for a while. I listen; Fagan’s got a strong heart, and its drumbeat drowns out any sounds of the beast in the brush.
“Anybody try to close your Breach?” he asks.
I nod before I remember that he can’t see me. “Can’t find it,” I say. “It’s too small. Besides, nothing crosses over except bugs. Kuujjuaq ain’t nobody’s priority.”
“They say that’s what happened in Andover,” he tells me. “Insect-sized demon slips through a crack, infects a chicken. Two, three months later, it’s a cockatrice.”
“Same thing here,” I say. “Except with humans.”
Fagan unbuttons a flap on his jacket and pulls out a black tube. A night scope: it hums as he turns it on and peers into the forest.
“You won’t see her,” I tell him. “She’s part of the woods now.”
“Caught her boyfriend easy enough.”
“He was …” I grope around for the right word. “… unfinished.”
He scans the forest until he’s satisfied. The tube stops humming and goes back into his pocket. He’s slow and quiet for another hour, all conversation going on in his head as we wait.
The sky loses its stars and goes gray.
“Do they sleep?” he asks.
“They get something like sleep,” I say. “They have a den and hole up during the day. They close their eyes. But they don’t slow down, and they’re twice as mean once cornered.”
“You can’t trap them in their den?”
“I’ve tried,” I reply. “Chased them inside, and threw fire after them. Never ends well. They need to be broken before they can burn.”
“Grenades?” That military mind of his is ticking. “Maybe bury some landmines…”
“Happy to try again,” I said. “Got any landmines on you?”
Not on him, no, but in town was a storage unit full of equipment the Canadian Armed Forces had provided for their intrepid young Wendigo hunter. We pull down the stand and the cadaver leg, and walk back to my SUV.
She kept pace with us the whole trip, tracking us through the trees. As we drove away, she howled loud enough for Fagan to hear, and the smell of his fear rose within the car.
Kuujjuaq’s a nice enough place, if all you need to get by is coffee and cold. I don’t go there much. I’ve got a little cabin outside of town. I hunt for myself, mostly, and Amazon and my post office box set me up for anything else. Twice a year, a man from Ottawa flies out to see if I’m still alive. He always brings money: someone’s decided I deserve a salary.
This new government pays me to hunt monsters. I’ll laugh and cry about this until my dying day.
Food before firearms. I point Fagan towards the only diner in town. As we go inside, tired faces turn towards us. Beside the door is a bulletin board, plastered in layers of old paper. Near the top are flyers with black-and-white photos of the missing.
I take down the one of a boy in a hockey jersey.
A woman sobs and leaves. Everyone else falls about in relief.
A waitress with the high color of the Naskapi brings us two mugs and a carafe half-full of hot coffee. “Thank you, Mr. Fiddler,” she tells me.
I nod at Fagan. “He’s a natural,” I tell her.
She smiles at him, her eyes a little warmer than when she looks at me. She rests a hand on his shoulder. “Thank God,” she says, and walks away.
He finishes his coffee before saying, “She meant that.”
“Yeah.” I point to the crucifix over the diner’s front door. “Big believers up here.”
“Hard not to be,” I admit. “They’ve got answers, and this life doesn’t offer too many of those. I love their version of the soul, too, like a tiny second self inside of you, and any choice you make can help or hurt them both. But I’m none too easy with what they did to my people.”
“Oji-Cree. We live down near the Lakes. I’m up here because…” I tap my fingers on the photograph of the boy.
Fagan turns the flyer towards him. He studies the boy’s face, and his pulse rises a little, but all he says is, “Real shame.”
The poster for the kid’s girlfriend is still hanging by the door. I get up and retrieve it, bringing the thumbtack along so I remember to put it up again on our way out. I slide the flyer across the table to Fagan.
He pretends to watch something happening that only he can see. I wait him out. Eventually, his eyes drop and he can’t help but read the flyer.
“Seventeen,” he says. “An art student. And barely seventeen.”
“There’s plenty of taboos against going into these woods,” I tell him. “But if you’re seventeen and looking for a place to fuck without getting caught, taboos can work for you.”
He starts to laugh. “Oh, no,” he says. “Oh no! Tell me I’m wrong—tell me they killed and ate some poor hiker to catalyze the curse.”
“Nope.” I shake my head. “Once those demons infect you, catalysis is easy. Chew your nails, bite your own tongue—”
“Or go down on your girlfriend,” he says, rubbing his face with his hands.
“Happens all the time,” I tell him. The food arrives: his pancakes thick and swimming in butter; my omelet mostly meats with another side of meat. We shut up until the waitress finishes another round of smiling at Fagan and leaves. Then, I pick up where we left off. “It’s a warm spring. A demon comes through, infects a couple of kids getting it on…”
“I’ve been wondering about that,” he says, digging into the pancakes with the enthusiasm of a man who has expended several thousand calories in a pitched battle against a monster. “The briefing said most Wendigos show up in the dead of winter.”
“That’s the thing,” I tell him. “They don’t start out like what you saw. The curse might grab your mind, but until you take a human life for the purpose of eating the body, it won’t grab your soul.
“Starts small,” I continue around bites of bacon. “The craving. You barely notice it those first few weeks. You think you’re just extra horny, maybe, or you pick up the habit of gnawing on the inside of your cheek.
“Maybe you let it get so bad you start grave-robbing. That’s okay. Nobody’s using that body anymore, so you’re just a ghoul. Nasty, yeah, but not a danger. You can sleep in your own bed at night.”
Fagan’s head snaps up. He looks around the diner, at the people chatting and smiling, and then back to me.
“Can’t be helped, not living around here. Just something we deal with. Maybe one in fifty are infected, but we know to watch each other pretty close, just in case.
“And there’s me,” I add. “If you know you can’t control it, if you know things are about to go bad … you know where I live.
“But say you and your girlfriend are just kids. You got no real self-control yet,” I say, pointing my fork at the flyers. “You get infected, give into the cravings. Or maybe you can’t stomach grave-robbing, but killing a hiker? That’s fine by you. Once that hiker’s soul enters your system, you lose your own.
“The fangs come first,” I say. “All the better to eat you with, right? If they keep killing, their bodies start to change. They twist all tall and lanky, nothing but bones. By the time there’s frost on the ground, they’ve gone full-blown Wendigo, fur, claws, and all.
“But,” I say, as I wave the waitress over for more coffee. “If you’re strong enough, you’ll take those cravings and shove them down. They’re an itch in your system. Nothing more, unless…”
“…unless you and your family get snowed in during a bad winter,” Fagan finishes. “And there’s nothing to eat.”
The waitress’s hand shakes a little as she finishes topping off my cup. This time, she hurries away without flirting with Fagan.
We’re not asked to pay; Fagan leaves the cost of our meals, plus a big tip. I return the flyer of the art student to the bulletin board, the thumbtack going back in its hole.
Then Fagan takes me to his storage unit.
It takes me a while to remember to shut my mouth.
“You expecting a war?” I finally ask.
“Close. This isn’t here for me,” Fagan says, as he squeezes past black plastic crates filled with more weaponry than I’ve ever seen outside of a movie. “This is all for you, for you to train me and whoever comes after me. Once I’m up to speed, they’re gonna reassign me five hundred kilometers away, and one who comes after me will get reassigned five hundred kilometers in another direction…” As he talks, he’s lifting crates and covers, showing off bazookas and missiles and things I can’t put a name to but smell like cold metal death.
“Why?!” is all I can think to ask.
“Climate change,” he says, as he hands me a shotgun’s bigger, meaner brother. “Those damned bugs are covering more ground before they freeze ‘n’ die. It’s not too bad today, but twenty? Thirty years from now?” He places a case of landmines on top of the nearest crate. “Gotta be proactive, man. Said so yourself—that’s the only way to handle Wendigos.”
“Why the fuck didn’t you show me all of this before I took you hunting?”
“Needed to see how you do it old-school,” he says. “They told me you know everything there is to know about killing these things. Sometimes the old ways are best.
“Or,” he adds, with a thrust of a knife to a rather tall space of empty air, “can be improved.”
I get myself moving. I don’t recognize most of what’s in the storage unit, so I grab as many user manuals as I can find, a little light reading to learn what the Canadian Armed Forces has managed to sidle into my possession. Fagan talks me through the gear he thinks will work for fighting a Wendigo in her den. Classic pineapple grenades, with their cast-iron shells; we pull the pin, throw, and run. Flechette sabot ammunition for those mutant shotguns, in case the grenades don’t work. Antipersonnel mines, in case she comes after us in a red rage and forgets to watch her feet.
We load up my SUV with enough arms and armor to take out Kuujjuaq, or maybe Montreal, and drive out to where we left the boy in ashes. We’ve got iron, fire, and salt in spades; the earth always provides itself, and I don’t think the Department of National Defence can improve on that.
My lance rides on top of the pile.
When we reach the burned-out body, I tell Fagan to stay in the car so his too-strong heart doesn’t drum out what I need to hear. I walk a kilometer or so through the woods, hearing nothing, smelling nothing … That doesn’t mean she’s gone, mind, or even gone to bed. It just means she’s good.
I return to the car to get Fagan, and we set out to find her den.
We walk in silent circles for most of the morning. At noon, I catch her scent, and guide us to the edge of the Koksoak River. There’s a timber fall down a shallow slope; she’s nesting in a tangle of water-broken trees.
We scout the routes: nope. If she had denned in a cave, there’d be one way in and one way out—I’ve never met a Wendigo that could claw its way through solid rock. Wood is a whole other story. Catching her by surprise won’t work, either: if we try to get close, she’ll hear us coming as we rattle our way over the dry branches.
Fagan and I backtrack, getting most of the way to the car, before he says, “There’s a rocket launcher back in town.”
“Hmm.” Worth considering. Shoot a rocket into the timber and let the explosion flush her out…
Except the river runs straight through the center of town.
I tell Fagan no, we can do better than risk setting an enraged Wendigo on the good folks of Kuujjuaq, especially if she’s injured and on fire besides. We go north again, to a little place I know, a hollow at the end of an old timber road. It smells of campfires and beer: the local kids sneak out here on the weekends.
Fagan curses as he takes in the signs of teenage habitation. “Sorry, Jack, but your taboos aren’t doing shit.”
The hollow is nestled against the side of a cliff, and screams of human beings. I’ve used it as a box trap for Wendigos before. Not recently, and I hope it’s been long enough: I can’t smell death here anymore, but she might.
I text a few friends in town, tell them put out the word to lock up the teenagers for the night, and Fagan and I get to work. It takes us a few round trips to the car to bring all of our gear. A storm’s moving in, fast and heavy, and we set up what we can before the sky breaks apart.
There’s a rusted-out husk of a logging truck at the back of the hollow. Fagan and I make a damp camp under its leaking roof. I can’t hear or smell anything with the rain drumming down, and the lightning plays hell with my night vision, so I ask Fagan to pull out his shiny night scope and keep an eye on the road.
“Can-not believe you let the kids come here,” he mutters.
“Sex and drugs beat cannibalism, every time. The infection rate’s too low to make the threat stick.”
His focus doesn’t leave the road, but I’m pretty sure that if he wasn’t a stone-cold military man, he’d be rolling his eyes.
“Taboos only work if you believe in them,” I add. “Kids don’t believe in much except themselves.”
“That’s fair,” he mutters.
The rain keeps coming. Lightning strikes a nearby tree; Fagan hisses as his night scope hits him in one eye with all the bright it can throw at him. I pull the collar on my old leather coat up, tuck my hat down, and take my turn keeping watch over the cadaver’s leg we strung up in the middle of the hollow.
It’s too windy. The leg wobbles back and forth on its line, a piece of a person still kicking on its own. It’s a type of gory I haven’t seen before, and watching it is beginning to turn my stomach.
I start talking.
“Ever study anthropology?”
Not the best way to start this particular conversation, maybe, but I’ve yet to find a better one. Fagan doesn’t miss much. I’d rather lay this out where he can see it than have him trip over it in the dark.
“What?” he says. “No.”
“You should start. It’s like smoking—it goes along with this job. I told this scientist once, he should go and make a map of where cannibalism is practiced, and where it’s forbidden. I told him we could chart what comes out of a Breach based on what the locals do to survive.”
“I’d like to think that cannibalism is a big universal no,” Fagan says.
“Human nature doesn’t work that way,” I say. “While back, I needed to lay low. Decided to go south. Folks in the north, we’ve got Wendigos, so our taboos? We don’t eat people. Ever. But down south, there’s this noisy rumor that eating a fallen enemy gives you strength.
“I kept asking around as I went, down through the States and past them. Kept hearing the same rumors from a hundred different kinds of people, that you should eat the heart or the liver of your enemies. You do that, you take on their powers. But it’s got to be a righteous victory—the enemy has to have been defeated in noble combat—otherwise, you’re just another monster.
“And me, since I know Wendigos, and I know that they get stronger each time they eat, I’m thinking there’s a different side of the curse at work. Kin to the Wendigo one, maybe, where cold murder makes you lose your soul. But if you win some of your enemy’s powers in a battle? Well, maybe that’s not so much a curse as much as it’s putting some balance back into the world—”
Fagan’s hand goes up in a fist.
I close my stupid mouth and start to listen. There’s an undertone to the storm, a hsss-hsss- hsss that doesn’t sound like any rain I’ve heard before.
I throw Fagan from the truck as the beast dives through its roof.
She comes in with her claws out, razor-sharp and ripping through metal to find my throat. The rusted steel leaves deep cuts along her arms, and her fur turns crimson. She tears out a decent-sized piece of my neck, and it’s down her gullet before I can do anything about it.
More claws and teeth, but now I’m fighting back, turning the truck against her. My throat’s already halfway to normal but she can’t come back from the sharp edges of the steel as quick. I’m laying into her with everything I’ve got, but what I’ve got is an old pinion shaft as a sword and a slab of the truck’s roof as a shield, and neither of these are cold iron.
A grenade flies into the truck and bounces off my shield, and I’m cursing out Fagan in every language I know as I hurl myself through the hole where a window used to be.
The truck goes up in a bright red cloud.
She’s howling now, one arm gone, but she’s just eaten so it rebuilds itself in a spiral of wet magics. I shout at Fagan to run—she’ll be twice as hungry after that—but my throat’s not fully knit and my voice is a frog’s croak. She comes at me, twelve feet tall and roaring.
The truck is burning, so I turn into the flames.
Somehow she knows where we buried the landmines. The ground around the truck is a kill zone she crosses like a dancer, long legs and clawed feet finding the safe spaces between the mines.
She keeps coming, straight through the fire, a demon grown from a young woman’s flesh.
More claws across my back. Leather rips. Something breaks, and my legs stop working. I’m thinking I might be done.
Hey, I had a long run.
I drag myself from the truck and fall in a useless heap onto the soggy earth. She stands over me, teeth barred and panting.
“Good fight,” I gasp.
Half of her head disappears.
Fagan throws me my lance. My spine’s nowhere near healed, but there’s no trick to doing what I’ve done a thousand times before: I sink the handle into the ground, and point the sharpened tip at her chest.
The second blast from the shotgun knocks her forward. All I have to do is hold the lance steady.
There’s not much light left in her remaining eye, but there’s enough to make us worry. Fagan shoulders her body into the truck, and sets out to grab what we brought to keep the fire going.
When he returns with kindling and three gallons of kerosene, I’m able to walk again. He finds me kneeling beside her body, a hunting knife in one hand and her heart in the other.
“Jack, what the hell?!” Fagan swears. “You didn’t do this last night.”
“He didn’t earn it,” I say, and place her heart into the small cooler that had held the cadaver’s leg, now rinsed clean by the rain. “He was just an unlucky kid. She was a monster.”
Fagan’s eyes go wide as his brain runs a marathon. He picks up my ruined jacket and sees the slashes across the back, with too much blood around them.
“Oh,” he says, and his knees give out so he sits down hard in the rain and the mud. “Oh.”
“It’s not for me,” I tell him. “Stick around for a few more hunts. If you decide you’re in this for the long haul, I’ll cook you dinner.”