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.

Drums.

We had arrived.

To be continued...

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