Monday, February 10, 2020

Isle of the Windigo by David Claerr

Art by David Claerr

This is a guest post short story by researcher, artist and writer, David Claerr.


Isle of the Windigo

This is a tale that needs telling. I still can't bear to speak about it openly, so I'll set down this account in hope that I can sort out the remembrance and get some measure of peace.

I never really did like my stepfather. Like anyone, I suppose he had his good points, but a hard driving macho type really can be hard to take, when you're talking day-in and day-out. So when he and Mom decided it would be a real character-building adventure for me to go with him and his two buddies into the wilderness for an "expedition", I wasn't exactly thrilled, though I must admit the idea of exploring uncharted terrain intrigued me enough to agree to go.

My step-dad, Bret, had a map spread out on the table and was pointing to a vaguely defined area. "As I made the second flyby, I noticed the compass spin around like a pinwheel. It was right when I passed over a dark mass of vegetation in this quadrant. Now you know as well as I, Chuck, that was probably a mass of iron ore or some ferrous material - and a big one at that."

His buddy, Chuck, nodded. "But the map here says this is marsh or water, Bret."

"Yeah, I know, but the vegetation on that spot had the color of tall timber, and these maps aren't all that accurate when you go so far north. My guess is it's solid ground. I think it’s worth investigating, besides, a little hunting and fishing on the side wouldn't hurt none, either."

The other buddy, Tom, a guy I actually did like, said, "’This swamp looks oddly circular, like maybe a filled-in meteor crater? Meteors, meteor fragments can be worth millions, even a small piece if it’s a certain kind.” Did you already check the mineral rights?"

"I looked into it - public land, open rights. Might have to split some small percent with the Indians, nothing drastic."

They carried on with the conversation, but most of the rest of it was over my head, since I was only fourteen at the time. After a few months went by they had it all planned out: by train to Hudson Bay, sea-plane to an inland lake, local guides and canoes to our destination.

By the time we were all packed and ready to go, Mom almost seemed to be ready to change her mind. On the station platform, she really teared up and told me; "Dan, now you stick with the others and don't wander off, even a little ways."

That's when Tom stepped up and said, " Don't worry, Meg, he's going to hang with me, the buddy system, you know. Look out for each other and all that."

I could tell Mom appreciated that, and it suited me fine, since Bret was too much of a charge-ahead guy and Chuck was somewhat on the brash side, too.

The train ride was a bit long, but OK; the plane ride would have been better without the fog and cloud cover. Things got real interesting when we met up with our guides.

They were from the native tribe in that area. I was fascinated with their long, raven-black hair, coppery skin and chiseled features. Their dress was a mix of lumberjack shirts and jeans with beaded belts and some kind of boot-length moccasins. I caught a glimpse of beads and amulets strung about their necks, tucked inside their shirts.

Tom and Chuck unloaded the plane, and Bret and I went into the trading post with our two guides. As we discussed the journey, I noticed a man sitting quietly by the fireplace with his back to us. His hair was long, even more so than the others, but seemed to be almost white. I picked my way slowly around the racks of goods to get a glimpse of him from the side. I could see him in profile, his sharp features and white hair giving the impression of an eagle. At first, I thought he might be asleep, but then he turned his face toward me and fully opened his half-lidded eyes. I felt myself almost mesmerized by the dark, seemingly fathomless depth of his gaze.

I was struck by the odd appearance of his eyes, which seemed entirely black, with almost no white showing around the iris.

But I was soon distracted by Bret, as I called my step-dad. He was raising his voice irritatingly, addressing the native guides.

"What is this, are you telling me you'll take me there, or not?"

You want to go to the middle of the swamp?" asked one of the Indian guides.

"Too many blackflies, mosquitoes this time of year. Not much fish to catch, the big lake is much better."

"Look," said Bret. "I want to go to - Okay, its like this. I flew over something that looked like an island with tall trees right about here," he said, poking the map." I want to go check it out. Maybe some big game there."

The two guides looked at each other hesitantly. Just then the elder Indian by the fire spoke out.

"I know the place you speak of. Very small island. No game, no fish." Then he turned to the two guides and said something in their native tongue. The guides looked a bit startled.

"Look, dammit, we're going there with or without you." said Bret. 

"I'll throw in an extra hundred bucks for each of you, and that’s final. You understand?"

The guides turned to the elder. He spoke again in his language; they listened carefully and nodded.

"We do not need more money. We will take you to the edge of the island, but no further. To our people it is – very bad luck - we do not go there."

"Of all the superstitious..." Bret began, then: "Alright, alright, It’s a deal." 

We went out and began packing the gear into the canoes. In the morning we would leave on a four day journey through the lakes, swamps, and streams. That night I went into the trading post again. I felt drawn to the elder as if some kinship existed between us that I couldn't explain. As I approached the fireplace, he gestured to the other wooden chair, inviting me to sit. We sat in silence in the fire glow, and I studied him. His eyes were half closed, his ancient face deeply lined and creased. After a while, I felt comfortable enough to ask the question he seemed to know I had.

"The island... why is it bad luck?"

He turned to me slowly. "It is maybe worse than bad luck. Among my people it is called the Isle of the Windigo. Perhaps it is only a legend, but we do not go there because it is said the Windigo, a Twisted One, a powerful spirit that has only hatred in its heart lives there. Long ago, the Windigo roamed free across all the land, causing harm to everyone in its path. It can drive a man to madness- some say it can take over their soul. Then, finally, a Man of Greatness worked with the Spirit Over All to imprison the Windigo on the island."

He paused and studied my face. "I have been there only in my dreams, he continued. "Once a man from my village went there. He was later found in the swamp, no longer in his right mind. But, here, I have something I want to give you."

He reached into his shirt pocket and took out a leather pouch. Reaching inside he pulled out a leather thong, tied in a loop, that had an amulet hanging from it. It seemed to be carved of bone or ivory and was shaped like a snowy owl, with a rounded head and large amber eyes. I looked closely at the eyes. They looked like big glass beads set into the bone sideways, with a shiny black substance set into the string holes. It had a clever, life-like effect.

"The owl is a companion of the great Spirit Over All. It is said that sometimes the Spirit itself is seen by men in the form of a white owl. Take this carving with you, it is yours to keep. It has strong power against the Twisted Ones."

I stared at the image, and for a moment, had the illusion that the eyes were those of a living being, looking back at me.

The elder stood. "That is all I have to say now. I must leave, but we will be watching over you on your journey."

As he left, I felt a bit dazed, confused and frightened. I wondered if he was sincere, or crazy, or what? His presence felt reassuring enough, and he seemed to believe what he was talking about, but what was that about "we will be watching over you?" Who is we?

I slipped the amulet's corded loop over my head and tucked it into my shirt. Over the next few days I looked at it only when no one was around. The eyes always had a spooky effect on me.

I said nothing of my strange encounter with the elder. I could imagine how scornfully Bret would react. One night I stayed up a little later, and when I was alone with one of the guides, I asked him what he knew about the island. He turned slightly away from me and said, "There are many legends about places around here, folk tales, mostly. Can't say if I really believe any of them, but sometimes you do see strange things you wonder about. Now, I've never been to the island, and we still respect the wishes of our elders. I, for one, will not stay on it for very long."

I rode with Tom in the canoe. We paddled the lakes and poled through marshy terrain. It was rough going, and fortunately, tall, burly Tom made up for my lack of strength. We were so occupied during the following days that I rarely thought of the elder's tale.

When we were portaging the canoe one time, the amulet slipped out of my shirt. Tom caught sight of it and said, "Hey, let me see that! Say, this is a fine piece. Where'd you get this?"

I saw him blink twice when he looked at the eyes.

"The old Indian guy at the post gave it to me," I replied.

"Well I'll be. This is valuable - don't lose it now."

As we drew near the isle, we labored to pole through reeds taller than a man. I could see why there hadn't been an accurate survey. Clouds of mosquitoes harassed us, and the tiny, infuriating blackflies crawled into our scalps and socks, leaving stinging sores. I fairly soaked myself with repellent before I got any relief.

The isle was ringed by about twenty yards of brackish, open water and was covered with tall fir and pine trees. It was strangely quiet; no bird calls, or rustling in the brush. Even the mosquitoes thinned out suddenly as we landed ashore.

I noticed that our guides seemed hurried and anxious, glancing about as they helped unload the gear. I saw Chuck watching them with disdain.

"Look at these 'skins, man," he muttered. "Practically shaking in 
their boots. Somethin's really buggin' them." 

"I know," said Bret. "Imagine that old guy trying to throw us off  track with some cockamamie line about unlucky turf. Probably knows there's somethin” valuable here."

The guides planned to camp on the other side of the marsh and return in two days. 

As we set up camp, Tom was looking around and said, "Y'know, something about this place gives me the creeps."

I nodded in agreement. It seemed as though there was a pall of "felt" watching me.

Bret and Chuck obviously could not wait to get off and explore the isle. Tom laughed a little and told them to go ahead while he and I finished setting up camp and getting the grub started. They grabbed their rifles and miner's hammers and set off up the slope through the thick trees.

I was glad to stay. As we set up the tents, Tom was driving a tent stake in when it struck something hard. He pulled it back out; it was bent badly at the tip.

"Hey, gimme that shovel." he said. Then he dug out a chunk of purplish material. He turned it over, examining it. "I think old Bret might be right about an iron deposit. This is nearly solid iron, and these greyish-silver streaks here are nickel. Kind of like from an iron ore outcropping."

We built a campfire and started the water boiling. Suddenly the
eerie quiet was shattered by a gun blast.

Tom looked up. "I hope they're bringing back fresh game.

I'm getting tired of this freeze-dried stuff."

It began to grow dark. we waited some, then started cooking enough food for Tom and I, not knowing when they might return. Just as I was about to take my first bite, we heard two rifle shots followed by the crack of a pistol.

"Now both of them are shooting at something," Tom said. "That was Chuck's pistol."

I felt queasy and realized I was feeling for the amulet under my shirt. I couldn't eat. Tom saw me set the plate down.

"You're white as a sheet, boy. What's ailin' you?"

"The Indians call this Windigo Isle," I stammered." A monster or something is supposed to live here."

"Windigo monster? Aw, they were just trying to spook ya. Well, bullet-proof monsters exist only in the movies, son."

Just then we heard a strange sound, like a vague low rumbling. It seemed to be surrounding us. It gradually got louder and higher in pitch until it rose into an ungodly, unbearable shriek. I was literally paralyzed with fright, every muscle tensed in a rigor-mortis-like spasm. It was a full minute before I could manage even to gasp for breath.

Tom froze also. I could see him roll his eyes around, and he looked in my direction. He recovered from the shock sooner than I, and instinctively reached over to me. He spoke in a hoarse whisper.

"That was...that was bobcat, maybe, or cougar, they sometimes..." he drifted off and started glancing around. "Stay close to the fire with your back to it. I'm getting a gun."

He stiffly scrambled over to a supply crate and pulled out a rifle and ammo pack. He rejoined me at the fire, standing by my side.

"Pile some more wood on that fire. Man, that was one hell of a yell. Did you see anything?"


"I thought I saw a dark shape or shadow pass by right out here," Tom said.

Dry brush crackled behind us. Tom wheeled around with the rifle.

"Don't shoot, don't shoot!" Bret cried in a raspy voice. He was half dragging Chuck, who stumbled alongside him, smeared with blood. As they got closer, I could see a gash on Chuck's forehead. 

"What the hell happened?" Tom asked.

"Chuck bashed his head falling off a rock ledge," Bret croaked hoarsely. "We kept seeing something in the trees - maybe a big blackbear - like it was stalking us or something. It didn't run from gunfire. Chuck panicked and ran off. Went right over the ledge."

Tom wet a dishrag and pressed it on Chuck's head wound.

Chuck shuddered and moaned. "Don't let it get me! Red eyes! Don't let the red-eyes get me!"

"He's delirious," Bret rasped. "Dan, get that first-aid kit."

We patched him up while Tom stood guard. Then I piled more wood on the fire. It was pitch dark, with neither star nor moon visible through the dense canopy of the trees.

I squatted with my back to the fire, as close as I could stand the heat. Bret began to pace angrily.

"If this is some trick those Indians are pulling to scare us off, I'll have their hides nailed to that tradepost's outhouse door," he said, snarling.

As if in reply the low rumble began again. I pulled the amulet out of my shirt and clutched it in both hands. The shriek rose to a crescendo, so loud I could feel it in my teeth! I managed to turn my head and look over my shoulder. A large, vague, dark form loomed at the edge of the clearing. Again, I froze in fear and clutched the amulet. 

Bret began to mutter curses and shouldered his rifle."Damn you, I know it's a trick!" he bellowed. "Now knock it off or I'll blow you away!"

The dark form seemed to shift and solidify into a horrific shape, with a body like a monstrous, gangly bear and a head like a slavering, rabid wolf. I gasped in horror as it opened wide its eyes - they were glowing red, like smoldering coals. As it shuffled towards it seemed like the dark body was a substance like thick smoke, and beneath the surface there were flashes of red, glowing energy in turbulent swirls.

Bret began firing off shots and stepping towards the creature, yelling at the top of his lungs. The Windigo paused and shrank into a crouch.

Bret took a few more steps, emptying the rifle cartridge. Then, as Bret stopped to reload, the Windigo sprang from his crouch in a tremendous leap. It seized Bret, thrashing him with its claws all over his body, raking through the skin and causing severe pain, rather than lethal damage.Bret screamed in agony.

Then, suddenly, I saw a bright figure enter from the side. It looked like the Indian Elder, but the figure was composed of a luminous energy field that I could see through. He moved in swiftly, separating the Windigo from his victim with a sudden thrust of his arms. The Windigo howled in rage and attacked the Elder. As they grappled, the Elder was able to pin or immobilize the Windigo for a few moments before it shrieked and wrested free from his grasp. During one of these moments, Tom rushed in to drag Bret away. The Windigo broke loose and lashed out at Tom, tearing his claws across his shoulder.

"God help us!" Tom screamed.

As he spoke the words, I felt the amulet heat up with a surge of energy. I opened my hands and saw the amber eyes glow like fire, and the ivory light up with a silvery sheen. A brilliant shape expanded from the amulet, and the form of a gigantic white owl rose up and swooped swiftly down on the Windigo.

The Great Owl seized the Windigo in its talons and rose again, spiraling upward into the black sky. The Windigo howled and thrashed about, but was held fast.

When I looked back down, the image of the Elder stood before me, pointing out across the marsh. 
"Look there, help is coming to you, soon." 

I turned to the marsh. I could see torches above the tops of the reeds.

"There is little time," the Elder continued, "you must leave at
once." The figure shimmered and vanished.

The two Indian guides arrived in minutes, saying nothing. We threw our gear into the canoes and tended to Bret's wounds hastily. They were like razor cuts, all over his body. As we left the Island, I looked back, and I thought I saw the Great Owl spiral down from the sky and release the Windigo onto the island. We could hear shrieks of rage long after we crossed the marsh and made it to the river. We paddled downstream all night.

The next day we radioed in a medical evacuation on the first lake we came to. After several hours by plane, we were in civilization again.

Tom recovered with a badly scarred shoulder. He won't talk about what happened, either. Chuck can't remember a thing about the trip, but is subject to irrational fits and a nameless paranoia. Bret was in a coma for months, and he’s in the institution still, but he recently has been making some progress, they say. After all these years I still sometimes have problems sleeping, and the episode periodically replays itself in my brain.

At times, when I do sleep, I dream I am talking to the Elder. But when I wake up, I can never remember what we say.

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