Monday, June 04, 2007

Crow River: Part 1

wanna see something really scary?
-Dan Ackroyd in Twilight Zone: The Movie

I grew up in a tiny town in central Minnesota. To the north and east of this town was the forest, thick dark and old. On the south and west the Great Plains started and rolled on for hundreds of empty miles. The town had been settled well over one hundred years earlier. The original settlers picked this spot mainly because the local Native Americans didn't.

The town sat on a river which formed the boundry between ancient forest and empty prairie. The land around this river was dark, sweet and rich. Crops seemed to leap from the ground just days after planting. The original settlers saw that this land held great promise for them. The soil supplied them with food, acres of grain and vegetables. The river powered a mill to grind the grain. The river supplied them with fish from the water, cool breaks from the summer heat, a source of ice cut in the heart of winter and packed in sawdust through the summer.

All it asked in return was the occasional meal.

The settlers loved the land, loved their town. In the early 1880's they began building a beautiful church in which to give thanks and praise. Almost a hundred years later this gothic realm of stained glass and gold leaf would still be home for hundreds of worshippers. The town grew some in those hundred years, but not much, really. A little over 2000 souls lived in the town and maybe several dozen more around it. The mayor also worked in the butcher shop. My math teacher lived across the street. The volunteer fire/rescue team was made up of the parents of friends. The firehouse was just down the street from us and whenever the whistle blew on the watertower telling the vounteers to assemble I'd race to the window in hopes of seeing the big red trucks with their flashing lights and loud sirens blast past.

The whistle on the watertower had four tones. One called the fire and rescue crew to fight a fire, one warned a tornado was approaching (scary!), and one marked noon. The last whistle called the rescue crew to the river.

I remember hot Saturday afternoons sitting in mass. During the summer Saturday mass was usually filled so people could spend all day Sunday fishing, playing or farming. The priest would be talking but it was to hot to hear him. There was no air conditioning. It'd get so hot the statues of saints would begin to sway. I remember the feeling of my sweat on my back and in my armpits. I remember the air seeming to be all gold gilt and colored glass as the sun poured in through the stain glass windows.

I remember the fourth tone sounding from the watertower. I remember the murmer running through the parishioners. I remember the priest stopping to glare at us. He hated that fourth tone even more than town elders. He hated the one word that passed through lips as people looked away from him and looked at each other.

Wendigo.

He hated that word. He hated hearing his flock whisper it to one another in the church. To him the word was an afront to God and it was blasphemy to say it, to believe it in his church. In God's church.

He would stand up front and glare down at the congregation until the murmers stopped. He'd glare at the backs of the rescue team as they excused themselves from the pews and left the church. He hated knowing that as soon as mass was ended everyone would head down to the river.

He hated that everyone had such a strong belief in some damned indian ghost story but questioned God.

He wasn't from the town.

It's not unusual for people to drown on a river. Dozens of people would drown across Minnesota every summer. Almost as many would break through thin ice in the winter. Death by water is very popular in Minnesota. In all these cases the body would be found within hours or days. The gases formed as the bodies decomposed would cause them to rise to the surface, bloated and swollen.

Everywhere but our town's patch of river. The rescue crew would go out in boats and search the river with long poles and grappling hooks on ropes. They'd cross back and forth, poking and dragging the river bottom. A crowd would gather on the shore and watch. Newcomers to the town would ask why divers weren't set in. Most old timers would just ignore the question, but once I heard the perpetually drunk Mr. Lemison murmer, "Wasn't two days, weren't four victims" in response to the question. Someone else knocked him in the sholder before he could say more.

He was right, though. If four people drowned the divers would go in looking for the bodies. If it were three or less they'd stay in the boats.

The usual situation was two canoers or fishermen (not from town) would accidently flip their boat as they passed by the ruins of the town's old mill. Even with life preservers they'd go down. Maybe surface once or twice screaming, then disappear. On shore others would see the people floundering and dive in to rescue them. They too would disappear. No matter how much searching was done, the remains wouldn't be found for two days.

Remains. Not full, intact bodies. They would be missing an arm, sometimes a leg. Often the head was the missing piece.

But no one ever talked about that. The remains would be turned over to the families. The town would go back to ignoring the thing in the river. It had fed. It wouldn't be hungry again for quite a while. Sometimes a whole year would go by before the forth whistle tone sounded again.

The summer I turned twelve, the whistle sounded over and over. It was the summer the Wendigo seemed insatiable. It was the summer we fought back. It was the summer we killed the Wendigo.

To be continued...

2 comments:

Ursula said...

That was great! Can't wait for the rest! No wonder you and Rome are friends!!!!!

NightHiker said...

OUTSTANDING BLAST!!!

Although now I'm Jonesing for the next installment...