The dream always starts the same way.
Nyeli comes to the door in a ripped shift. Her little eyes are watery, her bottom lip quivers, but she is brave. Sidon answers the door like he always does, gatekeeper and watchman. His broad shoulders could almost be wider than the girl is tall. Nyeli has the high features of the Shishalh, accented by her long eyes. She’s such a soft thing, looking every bit the orphan. Sidon does too, in his own way, that of the mean streets and hard knocks. Eli is in his room, knowing why she’s come and waiting for the dog to come and kiss him on the hands, summoning.
“It’s in the woods,” she says, and Eli knows she means the wendigo.
Sidon looks at his master, his stand-in father and mentor and sage. “Will you go?” he asks, and Eli nods. Cherub, the Bernese Mountain Dog, opens her mouth in a grin. The little girl loves the dog instantly, the way children do.
“Stay put,” Eli says to Sidon. The younger man nods and closes the door behind the much, much older. Eli’s white beard blows in the midnight wind, sand on a bleached shore. Nyeli reaches up to clutch at the beard and Eli smiles. It’s a hard thing to smile when you go monster-hunting, but the wonder of a child is a magic all its own. Eli gently pulls Nyeli’s hand away from the wool on his face and holds it. “Will you take me to the wendigo?” he asks. Nyeli nods, pushing her blue-black hair behind her ears with the other hand.
They go into the woods, the dark part, where the bad things live.
Despite all the stories, Eli knows what they go to see is not the wendigo. The wendigo is an old yarn from the First Nations, rare in the Pacific Northwest but more common as you move east. It has other names—Sasquatch, Yeti, Bigfoot, Abominable Snowman, New Jersey Devil—but they are all just made up folklore and fairy tales. Maybe the origin of the stories comes from the extravagance of movie stars like John Wayne, who once purchased an island in the San Juans and stocked it with African game so he and his friends could hunt. Maybe a gorilla got loose, or an orangutan. Or maybe there was just a guy who lived in the mountains that happened to be seen at the wrong time, in the right light, and looked like something else.
But there’s no such thing as a wendigo, and no one knows this better than Eli, for he has lived in the mountains longer than any and has walked trails even medicine men have neglected. Even here, in the dream he’s having for the hundredth time, he knows the wendigo isn’t real.
But Nyeli doesn’t know, and the dark part of the woods incites the dark part of her imagination. These three—little girl, old man, massive dog—traipse through the underbrush making no effort to conceal themselves. “Make noise, sweet,” Eli says, “it keeps away the wolves.” Nyeli grips the old man’s hand that much tighter. Her fingernails would likely have penetrated his nut-brown skin if not for his faded flannel cuff hanging unbuttoned on his wrist. Eli is simply dressed, just jeans and boots, backpack and unbuttoned shirt, plain old clothes for a plain old man. He thinks of a story to tell, then decides against it. That’s a rare thing, he says to himself and smirks. Cherub woofs and looks up at him. “You believe it, girl?” he asks the dog, though both girls look at him for clarification. “Here I am, a storyteller with no tale, a raconteur with nothing to recount.”
Cherub races a few paces ahead, sniffing the ground excitedly. “What you got?” asks Eli. “Eh? What is it?” Eli skips a step or two to get closer, careful not to drag Nyeli behind him but willing to rush her more than she’d like. When they get close, they see that the dog has found a skeleton.
“What is it please, Mr. Eli?” asks Nyeli.
“Don’t waste your ‘mister-y’ on me, sweet. I’m old, but I’m just Eli.” Nyeli takes her hand away from the old man to hesitantly wipe her tears. The moon can barely penetrate the tall evergreen canopy, and the brush presses in close underneath it.
“What is it, please?”
“Kodiak,” he says, and in the dream he remembers finding this giant bear. The skeleton was nearly as white as his beard, having been there a long time past when the maggots and flies found use of it. It had been picked, plucked, puckered, and left in perfect shape.
“Was it the wendigo?” Nyeli asks, and Eli almost laughs in response because the wendigo isn’t real. He doesn’t laugh, though, because the thing that is out there, the thing Eli and Sidon and Cherub know is worse than a wendigo, could have killed ten kodiaks. Maybe not at once. Maybe.
“Not the wendigo, sugar,” he replies. “Best keep moving.”
The old man of the mountain goes deeper into the dark part than he has dared in a long time. He does not want to, but for the girl’s sake he knows it is right. The timing is right to end an old evil, older than almost any remaining. How it came from Persia no longer seems to matter. After all, in the age of cell phones and Skype, transatlantic aircraft and Venusian landings, it hardly boggles the mind. Mostly Eli just feels foolish for not tending to this earlier. Sidon had shamed him once, and he’d been looking for this chance to make it right.
Eli had been looking to make things right for a long time.
Lycanthropes, as a rule, don’t come near the First Nations peoples. “Maybe they’re afraid of the wendigo,” Eli says out loud but without any humor.
“Pardon, sir?” asks the girl. Eli grunts in return.
In truth, only a handful of the creatures had ever existed. They were always the offspring of sorcery, always the refuse of hate. Eli knew of only three for sure, though his friends at the Inn at the Edge of the World said there had been more. Thank God he hadn’t had to deal with the rest. Three was enough.
Let’s hope four’s not too many.
“I have a story to tell, now, sweet. If you’d hear it.” Eli’s voice is loud in the woods, whose sounds have diminished without either he or the girl noticing.
“No thank you,” she says.
“It’s a story that will frighten the wendigo, and it may even frighten you, but I think it’s best.”
“No thank you,” Nyeli repeats, her voice sounding far away from Eli and from the woods. It is like a dream within this dream, that voice and plea. Cherub lets loose a low growl and pounces through the woods, chasing a rabbit perhaps. “Come back!” Nyeli shouts. “Won’t he come back?” she asks.
Eli ignores this. His story was important. “The prophet Daniel told of a great king, Nebuchadnezzar, who became proud and spurned God,” he begins. Nyeli reaches for his hand once more, and in the darkest part of the woods where there is no moon, Eli continues, penetrating the shroud of silence. “God was angry and sent the king into the woods to learn humility.”
“Please sir, what is humility?”
Eli smiles. “To know I AM.”
“What are you?” she asks.
“Less,” Eli replies. I’m just an old man, he thinks. Nothing special, really. Not an angel or a wizard. Just old. He stops walking then, kneeling down in front of the girl and taking both her hands into one of his. There in the dark, his knuckles could pass for roots and his face for bark. He is part of the forest and that is good. “I’m going to hide you away in this tree and then I’m going to walk a few steps there.” Eli points to a small clearing around which a ring of trees loom like a canopy of rakes. “I’m going to keep telling you this story, but you’ll hear it up high.” The old man, surprisingly strong for his twig arms and thin trunk, plucks the girl from the ground and sets her in a branch eight feet from the forest floor. Eli turns and wipes his hands on his denim pants and shakes the leaves from his steel-toed boots. He gets out a red kerchief and dabs his brow before stuffing it into the front pocket of his jeans. Then he thinks differently, and with a bitter mirth he pulls it out again and waves it in the clearing crying, “Toro, Toro, Nebuchadnezzar! Come skewer your man and choke.”
The part of the dream when the red kerchief falls is the beginning of the end, the worst part, and the truest.
Eli shuffles his feet and moves in a circle, like the shamans used to do, and he claps his hands together and slaps them against his chest to make a sound like the beating of a broom on a haystack. His words come out in rhythms and his voice rises in a chant, a moan, a call. “His pride sent him to the wood, to eat as an animal and grow fangs like a wolf,” he begins. Nyeli watches him from the tree, and in the dream Eli can still see her liquid eyes shining in the dark. “His back was feathered and his brow blunt,” he hollers now, furious. “All men were his enemies. In time, God removed the curse but some men like the taste of blood. Some would rather stay accursed, or even seek a curse again, than accept the peace of grace.” Eli stops his dance, bends over panting, then he stands up straight and yells, “Accursed, come now and be done!”
The trees bend to the side as the thing bursts upon the old man. Eli dives away to the right and rolls, miraculously, to his feet as Nyeli screams, “WENDIGO!” The beast is seven, eight feet tall, and one could call it either a feathered ape or a wolfish-bird, so great is the disparity between its many parts. Snout. Wings. Claws. Gambrels. The-thing-that-is-not-a-wendigo paws at the ground, shooting clods of dirt into the woods and baring great teeth at the millenigenarian. It crouches, ready to pounce, when in a second explosion from the forest Cherub tears through the woods and grabs the beast by its throat.
The two animals claw and scratch and writhe and shake and bite and snarl and ravage one another as Eli bolts away through the wood. “Stay in the tree!” he calls out to Nyeli.
“Eli!” she calls, her voice curdling and haunted. “Don’t leave me!” But Eli runs through the darkened paths back to the kodiak. He doesn’t like to do what he has now to do, but there it is. Lying on the bones, he intones a prayer. Some might call it a spell, but that would be a blasphemy. The bones begin to shake and to rumble, and the old man whispers one final injunction, “Take him to hell.”
Then Eli is off, racing through the wood and following the sound of Nyeli’s screams, which grow louder until the old man bursts through the bush like both the dog and the not-wendigo before him. He hadn’t considered that Cherub could lose this fight, not really, not even when he had measured the lycanthrope and all its soiled soul, but Cherub is on the ground with a badly bleeding paw all the same. The lycanthrope is bleeding too, but Eli has never seen Cherub’s blood. And there had been occasion for such a sight more than once.
“Get away!” Eli screams and the not-wendigo turns toward him once again, the dog forgotten. But there is no crouching this time, no preparation for a leaping attack, since close behind Eli is his conjuration and from the woods comes the skeletal-bear. Twelve feet tall, pneumatikos animata, it roars and the leaves blow from the branches. Nyeli screams again as the skeletal bear and the not-wendigo slam into each other, two titans of the supernatural, like rams. But the not-wendigo is overmatched and out-smarted, for Eli has not envisioned the bear as a contestant but as a cage. The skeletal-bear’s chest opens to receive the lycanthrope and closes to encapsulate it. A humming noise comes from within the skeletal-bear as the lycanthrope changes back into a man. Middle-aged, tired, middle-eastern, confused.
“Don’t send me there,” he begs Eli.
“I have waited longer than I should to do what I must,” says Eli, and then the old man bows his head and whispers once more. The humming noise increases, filling the clearing with the sound of a thousand, thousand bees in a swarm, ending in an eruption of light. Eli covers his eyes, as does Nyeli, and when they are again able to look, both the skeleton-bear and its prisoner are gone.
It is daytime and the dream ends.
Eli woke in his low-bed, sweating and crying and clutching the hairs of his best friend beside him. Cherub hardly stirred. The dream always bothered him. But never as much as when it happened that night in the wood.