Monday, July 16, 2007

Crow River, Part 4: The Letter

Part 1 Here
Part 2 Here
Part 3 Here

My great, great grandfather asked one more question of the Medicine Man, "Will you tell me how to kill the Wendigo?". The native just stared back, occasionally blowing puffs of bitter scented smoke into the air. As much blood as the Wendigo had spilled, white men had spilled so much more...

My ancestor returned to his farm and spread word of what he had learned. He was scorned to his face as a blasephemer but everyone knew he spoke the truth. The blood on the riverbanks was proof enough.

Years passed, people died. Slowly a pattern was noticed. Four people seemed to satisfy the beast in the water, often for a full year. The water of the Crow River was refreashing and filled with fish. People would secretly hope that four would be taken early, rendering it safe for the rest of the year. Small towns can be that way. In their selfishness they'd hold their tongues if they saw a stranger along the river...

It was a rare year when the Wendigo would it take more than four. If winter left early or the summer sun baked the river down to a trickle it was safe. But if the winter was long and cold, if the summer was cool and rainy, then the Wendigo in the river would feed on eight, even twelve people.

I turned twelve on Easter Sunday that year, but my birthday was lost to a blizzard. Winter had come early the previous Fall. A skim of ice had already formed across the Crow River on Thanksgiving. By Christmas the snow was waist-deep. Snow still remained on the shadowed side of the church the day school let out for summer.

The fouth whistle tone sounded in late April. School was still in session but by the end of the day we all knew the Wendigo had fed. We were glad though as this meant the river would be ours to play in when the summer heat arrived. Our elders knew better. They knew the Crow River would run deep that year. Deep and cold.

School had been out only a few days when the whistle sounded again. The sun was getting warm but along the shaded bank the smear of blood steamed in the river-cooled air. A single fisherman had waded into the water to try and retreive a snagged lure. He wasn't from the area, though those watching from across the bank were...

The rescue boats put on their show of searching. They probed and dragged the river but we all knew it was just an act for the fisherman's family. No one was suprised when the two rescue divers the family hired a week later never made it back to the surface.

We were a little suprised when the family hired a fourth diver. We weren't suprised when his head was found. It had been stripped of skin.

The summer got warmer and warmer as it tends to do even in Minnesota. But the Crow River stayed cool and deep. It couldn't seem to shake the winter's chill. And it stayed hungry...

In my closet is a box of childish treasures from way back then. A plastic Boba Fett, a Pete Rose baseball card, assorted Boy Scout patches, trinkets from family trips...and a letter. It's brittle and faded now, I'm afraid it's too fragile to handle. Had I been smart I would have been afraid to handle back when it showed up in grandpa's mailbox. I had been sent to retrieve his mail (I spent my summers working on the farm). I knew grandpa wrote many letters to assorted tribal leaders, but the responses always came back from the desks of the government agents assigned as caretakers to the tribes. Those responses were always typed on paper with a light green tinge. My grandfather would read them, curse, then throw the crumpled letter away. One day I retrieved one of these letters. Out behind the pumphouse I smoothed it out to read. The crisply typed letter stated that such fairy tales will be ignored and if further contact with the tribe is attempted my grandfather would be thrown in the nuthouse.

Government officals were much more direct back then.

The letter in my treasure box wasn't from some uppity government agent. The envelope wasn't light green with crisp typing. It was hand-written in a spidery, almost illegible script. The return address was smeared but I could just make out that it was from South Dakota and that, judging from the name, the sender had to be an Indian! I peered at it, hoping somehow to see through the envelope. I wanted to open and read it but I knew the whiping I'd get. All I could do was run with the letter across the farm to where grandpa was cutting hay. I don't think I've ever run as far or as fast as I did that day. Grandpa was angry at first that I interupted his work but when he saw the envelope he grabbed it from my hand.

When grandpa opened the letter a scrap of leather fell out. I reached for it but his foot slammed down to cover it. I could see there wasn't much written on the paper. It took him just a few seconds to read but afterward he didn't move. He just stood there tall and motionless as a light wind fluttered the paper and his hair. I remember the taste of dust and chaff as I stood staring at my grandpa who was staring at something I couldn't see.

He reached down and plucked the scrap of leather from the dirt. Then he pulled out his pipe, lit it with a match flicked alight with a horny thumbnail, and turned his eyes to me.

The next week...was not pleasent. There was lots of yelling and quite a few tears. I'd lay on the bedroom floor upstairs and listen to my parents, aunts, uncles and grandpa fight. One night even the priest came over and joined the fray.

It took the deaths of eight more people to stop the fighting. An inner-city youth group had come up from Minneapolis for a canoe outing...

A week later grandpa and I were heading west in his old Galaxie 500. We had left early in the morning. Windows open to catch the cooling wind, cans of pop and bags of cookies open between us. The smell of grandpa's pipe... In his shirt pocket I could see the letter. I knew the peice of leather was tucked safely in his tobacco pouch. At noon we stopped at an A&W Drive-in and he got me a corndog, onion rings and a root beer. We stopped again in Pierre, South Dakota. I thought maybe we'd get a motel room there but he only filled the tank with gas and bought some sandwiches. We parked at a scenic viewpoint overlooking the Missouri River to eat. While eating he pulled the letter from his pocket and passed it to me. When I finished reading he took it back. Without a word he started up the car and headed down to the long bridge over the Missouri river.

I sat in the seat with my knees pulled up to my chest. The sun went down and we drove on. Eventually I fell asleep but my dreams were rough and sour red. The hum of the road was the growl of a beast and it chased us. Grandpa and I ran! We ran so hard I thought his heart would burst like grandma's had done years ago. I pulled away from him as he faltered. I yelled to him to hurry, but a white shape appeared behind him. Claws lashed out and grandfather's head flew from his shoulders. It bounced and thumped along the ground with a hollow sound...

I awoke with a scream as grandpa turned off the car. The hollow thumping sound could still be heard faintly in the dark.


We had arrived.

To be continued...

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Not enough candles

I know, I know. Y'all are waiting to hear what happened next. Unfortunately, I'm swamped with work and family responsibilities right now. You know that 15-cent increase in gas prices in the last few days? That translates into a whole lot of extra work for me. Sometimes it sucks to be a super-duper oil well roto-rooter man.

I'll write again soon, I promise.

The story needs to be told.

Sunday, July 01, 2007

Crow River, Part 3: The Binding

Part 1 Here
Part 2 Here

Slaughter came that hot summer's day with a skin of ice. Despite the heat, frost rolled off the Wendigo and caused the bloody ground to steam. The braves stared in shock at the icy beast that was once a man. It stood ten feet tall with skin the color of winter sky. Cadaverously thin, each rib jutted from the thing's chest. At the end of each long, ropey arm it's hands ended in claws as long and sharp as a winter's night. To the braves, it's mouth looked too big for it's head and was filled with an impossible number of teeth. It's breath turned to frost as it exhaled each fetid breath.

With a roar it attacked the warriors.

Two hundred and fifty six braves died that day. The future of four tribes was lost to the claws and teeth of a nightmare from the dead of winter. The ground turned to a mud of dirt, blood and entrails. Where the Wendigo stepped this foul soil froze, trapping the men in place, ripe for harvest. The Wendigo feasted and all would have been consumed by it.

But, the river and the weather that had shielded it as a man now turned on this abomination. Blinding rain began to fall and lightning split the sky. Around the Wendigo this rain came as sleet, but slowly the heat of the summer rain began to cut into the Wendigo. It bellowed and then slew another ten warriors as it sensed itself weakening. "Flesh! I must eat flesh!" was the only thought in it's head as it whirled around in the rain looking for another to eat.

Through the rain a new enemy appeared to the Wendigo. His old Medicine Man stood across the river, chanting a prayer to the Great Sky God. In the man's upraised arms was a thin branch cut from an ash tree.

Bloodrage filled the Wendigo! No imaginary man in the sky would have power over him! He was the Great Chief, Slayer of All. The Winter Devourer!! Had he not just slain fifteen score warriors?! Swatting away those that still struck at his sides and back, the Wendigo entered the river. ALL WOULD BE EATEN!!

The Medicine Man entered the river from his side, still chanting and holding the stick overhead. He made it to the center of the river and stopped. Above the roar of the storm his chanting couldn't be heard, but above him lightning intensified. Trees exploded on both banks as they were hit. Thunder hit with the force of hammers. And the Wendigo came closer.

But it was having trouble. The water seemed to burn and tear as it flowed past. The Wendigo even stumbled once and when it broke back to the surface it had become smaller. With a whoop three braves rushed in to attack the weakened monster. But what does weakness mean when you are a beast? The three where slain as easily as the first.

Distracted by the three, the fourth struck and he struck with lightning!! The Medicine Man lept upon the monster's back, and with a final screaming prayer, thrust the ash stick high into the air.

The sky was split by lightning! It flowed down the ash rod, though the Medicine Man and into the beast. The storm winds howled along with the Wendigo. The Medicine Man screamed as he burned by the lightning he had called down! Those still alive on the shore were made blind by the flash and deaf by the thunder. They moaned and huddled as the storm's fury grew and grew!!

Then, broke.

As sight and hearing returned, the rain and wind dwindled down to a soft summer's sprinkle. Covered in gore, surrounded by carrion that was once their brothers, the last warriors could only stand dumbly and stare at the river. There was no sign of the Wendigo but on the far shore lay the blacked remains of a man, steaming in the light rain. Then the charred figure twiched and a moan escaped past burnt lips and shattered teeth. The stump of an arm flailed...

Seeing this, one of the braves rushed to cross the river to aid the shattered Medicine Man. Four steps into the water the warrior screamed and fell. Blood boiled up from the spot and slowly dispersed downstream. Silently, one of the remaining warriors nocked an arrow and with sure aim let it fly. The twitching of the charred man was stilled as the arrow peirced his skull.

The tribes left. In their haste the dead were left behind and became a feast for crows and wolves. The place was cursed and none would go to it willingly. The land remained empty of people until the white man came.

Here the Medicine Man stopped his tale. From the glow of the Indian's pipe my grandfather's grandfather watched the old man in silence, thinking about what he had heard. The combined might of four tribes were unable to kill the Wendigo. All they managed to do was weaken it and bind it to the Crow River...

To be continued...