Randy stumbled under the weight of the camping gear, grabbing at shrubbery to keep from tumbling down the hill.
I looked back at him, sighing softly before I made my way over to his tiny frame, sliding over brightly colored leaves.
Reaching around him, I attempted to grab the strap of one of the packs, beginning to lift it from his shoulders.
"Here. Let me take-"
His brown hair, the same shade as his brother's, masked his eyes as he shook the pack violently, displacing my grip.
"I can do it myself!"
I frowned slightly, my hands still poised above the strap as Randy straightened the pack on his shoulders.
"Randy, you should know better than to let a lady carry the weight,” a deep voice called from behind us.
Randy and I both turned to see Kyle, clucking his tongue in disapproval, as he pulled himself forward by a small tree that shook under his weight.
"Now go on up the hill. It's not that heavy. You're thirteen now, a man. So I don't want any complaints."
Randy nodded vigorously, flushed face steeling itself as he continued on.
"He's not one of your pledges Kyle. He’s your younger brother."
"Chelsea. I'm just toughening him up a bit. There’s no harm in it." I folded my arms across my chest, pursing my lips in disapproval.
Jack laughed from behind Kyle, bear crawling up the remainder of the hill before pulling two beers from his pack and offering one to me.
"Lighten up, Chels. We're just messing around."
I eyed Jack warily before taking the beer and popping the tab. A loud thud echoed from the peak of the hill, the three of us turning to see Randy on his stomach, uprooting a small bush as he attempted to clamber to his feet. Jack and Kyle threw each other a smirk before racing up the remainder of the hill, shouting commands at Randy as they went.
Running my hand through my hair in exasperation, I turned my eyes to the sky as I meandered forward, surveying the stars and full moon.
It was amazingly bright that evening, a perfect night for camping. I’d always been fond of the woods. Throughout my high school years, I was prone to disappear beneath the looming branches, failing to resurface for hours at a time.
They had been my safe haven, offering sanctuary from the most tiresome of tests and petty high school struggles, but that night, that night… something was off. I couldn’t help but feel small, vulnerable in the vast expanse before me. It was as if on that evening, the wind bit just a tad harder, the trees rustled just a decibel louder, and the shadows danced just a bit more wildly.
“We’re here!” Kyle exclaimed, as Randy threw the gear down, bending forward to rest his hands on his knees and spitting onto the muddy ground.
The tree before us had been massive, its roots creeping over the surrounding earth, twisting over its surface before diving back beneath the hard clay. Its size, although impressive, was merely an afterthought to the tear that extended directly down the center of the trunk, the bark an ashy black along the edges of the now gaping hole. The split itself was big enough for at least two people to stand in comfortably and, somehow, had managed to not pose much of a detriment to the tree as its branches stretched forward, leaves golden and red.
“So this is it? An old tree?!”
Jack laughed, shaking his messy blonde hair in disapproval.
“There’s a good story—”
“Save it Kyle. Nature’s calling. I’ll listen to your horrifying story later.”
Jack waved his hands in mock terror before slinking into the expansive greenery before us, disappearing into the abyss.
I finished my own beer before setting it down on a rock, wandering over to where Randy stood, tussling his hair affectionately as he shot me a smile.
“Alright, well since Jack seems to feel like being a dick tonight,” Kyle raised his voice slightly on the last three words, turning to look behind him with a smirk, “I guess I’ll just tell the two of you.”
I rolled my eyes at Kyle’s dramatics but felt Randy straighten up a bit, leaning in.
“Many, many years ago, there was a tribe of Indians that lived in the marshlands. Now, there have been many tribes to come from the southern marshes, but this specific tribe was of particular note. It wasn’t because they were the best warriors, the most adept at survival, or even had the best folktales. In fact, compared to the surrounding tribes, they were rather historically insignificant as a whole. No, this tribe is only known because of one thing and one thing only: this tribe was cursed.
It was plagued by a disease that turned men into murderous beasts that stalked the night in madness. Such curses are hardly happened upon and when those, who were brave enough, would ask about the origin of the curse; the only response from the other tribes was that there had once been a violation of nature, so perverse and so heinous that men were forced to wear their transgression in the form of a transformation. Although the original perpetrators of this crime against nature were run off or had mysteriously vanished many years ago, the curse lived on, claiming men from the tribe and those who took their women. It was never clear who the curse was going to afflict, but it followed the tribe like a shadow, always lurking behind them as they walked through the centuries.
The Wendigo, as they called those who were afflicted with this curse, was a beast that tore the flesh from its victims and bathed in their blood. It was even known to enjoy the putrid delicacy that was rotting flesh, unearthing the dead when it felt the need, leaving nothing but scraps in its ravenous wake. It was rumored to have dug up hundreds of the surrounding tribes’ graves and taken many more live victims, and the curse impacted all those who came in contact with the tribe. Because of this, these people were feared and rejected by all.
This isolation, draw up by the chieftains of old, allowed the neighboring tribes to live without incident for many years, until white men entered the land with small pieces of thin, flexible cloth with red wax on them, declaring that the natives were now on someone else’s land and needed to relocate.
When the wars had been fought and the white men had defeated the tribes’ warriors, a truce was drawn. In the truce, there was a single condition which the Chieftains demanded be met if the white men wished them to leave peacefully: that their tribes were to be relocated before the white men made contact with the tribe on the furthest edge of the marsh. Amused by the superstition of the Chieftains, the white men agreed, keeping their word and allowing the tribes to leave before they made their way to the edge of the marshlands.
The white men entered the marshes in the dead of night, and, after many days, found the tiny tribe living on a small plot of land. The men descended on the natives, demanding that the chieftain of the small tribe move his people from the marshes to a newly plotted reservation.
In an attempt to appeal to the white men, the chieftain gave his only daughter to the leader of the group, Thomas Ditny. When Ditny looked upon the beautiful woman, her black hair held tight with intricate braids, eyes as dark as the night sky, lips as red and full as the wild rose petals she wore about her neck, he fell madly in love with her. He immediately drew up a truce with the chieftain, marrying the girl the next morning.
With the truce, the people lived in harmony, often trading and socializing with one another. They threw raucous parties during the harvesting season and banded together in the bleakness of the winter months.
The tribe was happy to have been accepted into the world again, and the white men found that the natives knew much about the land, including survival skills passed down through the tribe for centuries. All was peaceful, and, perhaps, this was one of the most amicable encounters between Indians and Americans for years to come.
This unity, however, ended late one August evening, when the beautiful Indian wife of the newly appointed Governor Ditny, ran screaming into the white village.
Many of the villagers attempted to calm the woman down as she babbled on about an ancient curse. Her fit of hysteria continuing for nearly an hour before her face turned deadly pale and she dropped dead onto the square.
Ditny, so broken by the sight of his dead wife, her once tanned face now pale and cold, was driven to the brink of sanity, forbidding anyone to move her body for burial.
The men of the village tried to talk sense into the Governor but he persisted, stating that the next person to attempt to move the body would be given a death sentence.
After his outburst, the Governor locked himself in the upper room of his home, refusing to speak to a soul, and seeking comfort for his grief in solitude. The villagers would only see him at the first light of dawn, when he would slowly make his way to the body of his wife, laying a bouquet of wild roses in her hands before the sun had fully risen, scampering back to his home when done, running from the light as if the sun’s rays would sear his very flesh. This continued on for a week, and, when the sun had set on the seventh day, the killings began.
Men, women, and children were found slaughtered every night, stripped of flesh and devoid of blood. Even corpses began to be torn from their graves, bloated bodies missing rotting flesh. The villagers started to talk as the body in the square ripened, flesh peeling from the woman’s bones in thin, crusted layers. They wondered, at first, in silence, why a dead body, laying in the open, would be left untouched by this creature? Certainly it would be easier to take a body in the open, rather than dig in the earth for one?
As the days passed and more bodies were found, the townspeople began to wonder aloud, accusing Ditny of the heinous crimes. It seemed to be the only logical explanation. The untouched corpse had been his wife after all, and it was obvious that he’d been driven to insanity by her death.
Soon, the town’s people showed up at Ditny’s doorstep, demanding an answer, but they received none. They banged on the door until a frightened servant boy answered, his frail body being thrown aside as the men of the village assailed the house, searching for the absent Governor.
The people searched Ditny’s home, overturning sealed government documents, and rummaging through his stores of rancid food. Blood covered the walls and, when the villagers had finally pushed their way into the upper room of the house, bodies laid strewn across the floor, their tongues swollen in their mouths as empty arteries looked angrily up at the men before them. Maggots littered the floor, crawling in and out of the bodies, the lifeless mounds undulating with the maggots’ excursions. The flesh and muscle of the corpses had obviously been cleaved from the bone. The oldest bodies seemed to have been dismantled more methodically, done with a knife, each slice done with the skill of a surgeon. The fresher kills were done with much more haste, their limbs were torn in thick chunks, which dotted the room, thick gouges that seemed, almost, to have been done by powerful swipes of large claws.
Many of the men became sick upon seeing the menagerie before them, letting loose the contents of their stomachs, mixing acid with putrid flesh.
Those with stronger constitutions located the servant boy, hiding in a kitchen cupboard, and dragged him out into the square, beating the boy until he found himself able to provide the village with a suitable answer.
It wasn’t long until the child began to fear for his life, and, through swollen eyes and lips, he lied to the villagers.
The boy could see the vehement anger on the faces of the men above him, as they spat and kicked him and, he feared that, if they blamed Ditny for the murders, he may be killed simply by association, if only to sate the towns anger.
For this reason, the boy told them that the old chieftain had put a curse on the town and had used his daughter to carry it through the woods with her and into the white village, setting up the house to make it look as if Ditny had done the crimes, murdering the grieving husband in the darkness of the night.
Appalled by this new revelation and the savagery of the natives’ ways, the villagers quickly assembled, leading an attack on the Indians.
They raided the tribe and captured the chieftain. The old man tried to explain that the beast that was hunting them was not under his control nor that of the tribe’s, but the town’s people would not listen and a battle began, raging throughout the night.
The white men emerged victorious and what was left of the tribe fled through the village, congregating in these very woods for safety.
“The first night the Indians set foot on this ground, that tree,” Kyle indicated to his left, turning on his heel and stalking over to tree, running a hand along its bark for effect, “was struck by lightning, the very moment a small boy, stabbed by one of the white men, died in his crying mother’s arms. The Indians, who had taken to cremating the bodies of the dead to avoid their taking by the Wendigo, took this as a sign that this was a tree of death and that the dead should be turned to ashes in its base.
As they burned both the bodies of the fallen warriors and the little boy, the crying mother, stricken with grief and covered in blood, walked to the outskirts of the woods, bringing with her an offering, and called out to the Wendigo.
Never before had any of the tribe reached out to the creature, but the mother was determined to seek the revenge that she alone, could not attain.
After several hours, the Wendigo appeared before her, its large figure casting her in what seemed to be an eternal shadow. In the darkness, the mother fell to her knees, offering it a single wild rose, taken from the few that she had laid in her dead son’s arms.
The miniscule amount of humanity that was left in the beast was moved by the mother’s grief, accepting the rose, and allowing her to speak.
The woman pleaded for the beast to avenge her son by killing all the men that had attacked the village and to protect this land from the white men, so that he could live on for centuries, immortalized in the tree that became his final resting place.
After the mother was sure that the Wendigo would keep its word, she bowed her head, knowing that no one who could ask such a creature a favor, would live to speak of it.
She waited in silence for a few moments before the Wendigo raised its mighty arm above her head, severing it from her shoulders with a single swipe!”
Randy jumped into me and Kyle looked back at us, smiling.
“At that moment, the ultimate payment had been made and they say that to this day, the beast still wanders these woods, protecting the little boy’s legacy, waiting for someone to desecrate the ground so that it can strike again.”
A rustling sounded from the bushes and Kyle spun around, his face going white.
“Wha-What is it?” Randy asked, wrapping his arms around my waist.
“Knock it off Kyle!” I yelled, rubbing Randy’s back soothingly, “you’re scaring him.”
Before Kyle could respond, a black figure jumped from the bushes, tackling Kyle to the ground.
He shrieked, “Randy! Randy run!”
Without question, Randy took off, sprinting into the woods and vanishing between the trees.
“Randy! Randy, come back!” I called, turning when I heard the sound of raucous laughter from the two boys rolling on the ground.
Jack pull the black hood of his sweatshirt down, slapping a breathless Kyle on the back.
“You see him run?!”
“Shut up! That was terrible!”
I clenched my fists before bending down, throwing leaves and sticks at the pair.
“Whoa…whoa! Chels! Calm down! It was just a joke. We’re less than a mile from my house. He’ll be fine!”
Kyle stood, pinning my arms to my side as he spoke, trying to avoid the assailing foliage.
He let me go as I covered my face, shaking my head.
“He’s just a kid, Kyle. You shouldn’t scare him like that.”
I felt exhausted, dealing with the two of them and their insensitive jokes was beyond tiring.
“Alright, alright. I’ll make it up to him…tomorrow… and I’ll call mom to make sure he made it home safe, ok?”
Kyle gave me a lopsided smile and I slowly acquiesced.
Jack stood, stumbling slightly before regaining his balance. I couldn’t help but chuckle.
“You finish the rest of the beer?”
Jack simply glared in response before the corners of his mouth turned upwards into a self-satisfied smirk.
“Not all, but that does remind me.”
Jack walked over to the tree before unzipping his fly. I made a noise of disgust before covering my eyes, burying my face in the chest of a chuckling Kyle.
“Let’s see how Mr. Beastie likes that,” Jack slurred slightly, walking over to his pack and picking it up with much more grace than I believed him capable of in his current state.
Kyle gently lifted my chin up with his index finger, looking into my eyes.
“Hey, there’s an abandoned house up the way a bit. Why don’t we sleep in there tonight, huh? A little bit more privacy?”
Kyle rubbed his nose against mine and I raised an eyebrow.
“I don’t think I’ve forgiven you quite yet.”
Kyle flipped his hair to the side, eyeing me closely with a grin. “Well, we’ve got all night now don’t we.”
The walk to the abandoned house was relatively peaceful. The wind rustled the trees and though the discomfort I felt had failed to settle, Kyle’s warm hand in mine grounded me, his thumb gently rubbing against my knuckles every so often.
Kyle finally called home when we’d arrived at the dilapidated house and, after a good berating by his mother, confirmed that Randy had in fact made it home relatively safe, although rather out of breath.
Kyle began to put down sleeping bags as Jack wandered around the house, picking at the peeling wallpaper, another beer in hand. When Kyle was finished setting up for the night, Jack coincidentally excused himself, disappearing out of the hole that had once sported a front door.
“Well, that was convenient timing.”
Kyle looked at me innocently, returning to his bag, searching for something in its depths.
“It really was, wasn’t it? Almost,” he paused, pulling a single red rose from his pack, eyeing me from over the red petals, “like we planned it.”
I smiled as he leaned in, pressing my lips against his as he slid the stem of the flower between my fingers.
We talked for nearly an hour as I fingered the soft petals of the rose, careful to avoid its thorns.
At first, we spoke of nothing, just little things about our time spent away at college, new friends we had made. It wasn’t until I had finished my story about a particularly nasty professor that Kyle attempted to shift the conversation.
“Listen, I know that we haven’t seen eye to eye lately,” he cleared his throat, “but I wanted you to know that I really do care about you and…”
A scream tore through the woods, echoing off the empty, graffiti covered walls.
Kyle and I froze, looking toward the entrance of the house.
“Jack?” Kyle called, his voice filled with trepidation as he reached for the flashlight next to us, turning the beam on with a click, and angled it out into the lawn.
We both waited for a moment, straining to hear Jack yell back a, slurred, sarcastic reply, but the only answer we received was the fluttering of an old shutter against the decaying drywall of the house.
“Jack, Jack this isn’t funny man.”
Kyle’s voice wavered slightly as he stood, making his way to the front steps.
I kept my eyes trained on Kyle until he disappeared from sight. A sickening feeling had spread deep into the pit of my stomach and the intense unease I had felt earlier began to return with renewed vigor.
I stood quickly, moving to a broken window, peering out to try and see Kyle.
He was sweeping the flash light back and forth, muttering nervously under his breath.
After a few moments, I made my way out into the overgrown lawn, stopping next to Kyle.
“Come on. He’s…he’s probably just messing with us…that or the drunken idiot’s fallen down somewhere.”
I nervously played with a thorn on the stem of the rose as we descended into the shrubbery, calling Jack’s name out into the darkness.
Eventually, we broke away from the brush, entering into a clearing, a road visible on the other side. There was a steep hill to our right and I turned to scan its surface, assuming that Jack had attempted to drunkenly climb it. The lights from a passing car flashed across the field and from the corner of my eyes, I caught the glimpse of something reflective. Kyle was still calling Jack’s name and had retreated back to the tree line to continue to search.
I stood still, surveying the hill as another set of headlights drew near, shining onto something scuttling up the hill. I narrowed my eyes, focusing on the creature while I moved closer. I made it to the base of the hill before I stopped, my heart dropping into my stomach as I attempted to swollen the thick lump that had formed in my throat.
The thing was easily six feet tall, hunkering close to the ground as it moved on all fours in a sweeping gate. I could make out the contour of its spine poking through its reflective skin, it ribs jutting out with extreme emaciation. As it slinked forward, its wrists twisted unnaturally, and its thin legs strained as it pulled itself forward.
I felt every hair raise on my skin, goosebumps spreading across my arms as I took an uneasy step backwards. My ankle twisted and I fell with a yelp, the thorns of the rose sinking into the firm flesh of my palm.
Suddenly, the creature’s head turned, empty sockets with an eerie yellow glow stared vacantly at me, as its mouth dropped open in what appeared to be a silent scream, taunt cheeks pulling inwards. I nearly shrieked, covering my mouth with my hands as the thorns of the rose pierced my face.
The thing let loose a sickening howl, its body contorting as it launched itself down the hill, barreling towards me.
I turned on the spot, blood dripping down my hands as I clenched the rose in my fist, sprinting through the woods, the beam of Kyle’s flashlight blinding me as I approached.
“What!?!What is it!? I found Jack. The drunk idiot fell—”
I felt something grab my jacket, slicing my back as it pulled me from my feet. I slammed into the ground, a sickening crunch echoing somewhere behind my eyes. My vision swam and small grey dots burst in intricate patterns as I attempted to steady my gaze.
It took me a moment to regain my sight and, when I did, I vomited onto my hands, the world spinning as tears began to leak from my eyes. I couldn’t see Kyle, but Jack… the creature had sunk its claws into Jack’s chest, hooking them between his ribs and violently pulling up. I saw the flesh of Jack’s chest burst as his ribs were pulled through the ashen skin. The ringing in my ears masked his scream as the creature plowed him into the ground. Its other clawed appendage slid downwards, easily slipping into the soft flesh of Jack’s stomach, his intestines falling from the gashes as he grabbed at them, attempting to pick them up and place them back inside the torn flesh.
The ringing in my ears finally dulled as I tried to stand but the world spun violently and I fell back to my knees. Something warm was rolling down my face and into my eyes. I tried to wipe it away but the harder I tried, the more there seemed to be.
I watched, horrified as a long forked tongue emerged from the creature’s mouth, stabbing into Jack’s jugular, gurgling noises emanating from the creature’s bobbing throat.
I pushed myself to my feet and crab walked away from the creature before falling into a ditch beside the dirt road. I landed on something soft and warm. I craned my neck to see the unconscious form of Kyle laying beneath me, his leg twisting at an odd angle.
I fumbled in my pocket for my phone, the screen flashing as I unlocked it.
Again, I heard a horrible howl as the creature swiped my phone from my hand, repeatedly slicing at it with its claws until the device turned black.
I could hear its wheezing breath and from where I was laying, I could clearly see it.
Its skin was like a metallic, magnetic fluid, reflective with little spikes rising here and there as it moved, flattening into a glass when it stilled. It had no nose and its mouth an empty hole that seemed to have no end.
I sobbed in abject fear as the creature turned to face me, its eyes swirling pools of electric yellow.
Slowly, it turned its head to the side, a single bloody, clawed appendage reaching toward me.
I screamed and it recoiled slightly before reaching out again, poking something in my hands.
Its claws lightly traced the flower before it leaned in, its shuttering breath lightly teasing my face.
Quickly, I was thrown to the side. I landed on my back against a tree a few feet away. I screamed as I watched the creature slice across Kyle’s chest.
“Please!” My voice was hoarse and my body shook with sobs, “Please…don’t…don’t kill him. Please.”
It turned its head to the side, much like a confused dog, before abandoning Kyle and approaching me again. Its face neared mine and I couldn’t help but look away, shaking with fear. I felt the tongue of the creature trace my cheek, sliding along my neck and down my arm. I whimpered expecting it to deliver a final blow, as I held my breath, clenching my eyes shut. Instead, I felt the creature wrench open my fist and pull the rose, its thorns still lodged in my palm, from my hand. My eyes open instinctually and our gazes met for a brief moment. Then, without a sound, the creature turned, darting into the oppressing darkness and disappearing beneath the shadowy veil.
The police say that a ranger found Kyle and I in the afternoon, two days later, unconscious and bleeding from several impressive wounds.
They found the body of Jack, nearly three weeks later and nearly 30 miles from the site of the attack. The rangers decided that he must have been dragged by the animal that had attacked us, although, the report was scarcely detailed and no particular animal has ever been identified.
Kyle, unfortunately, never fully recovered. The doctors said it was the trauma that made him lose his mind, ranting about a black creature that runs around the woods at night.
Of course, I believed him, but the medication and therapy made me rethink the entire experience, eventually, coming to the conclusion that it had, in fact, been a bear that mauled us and not something from an Indian folktale.
I returned to college in a year and my parents decided that we should move, to help me put the past behind me. I agreed and suggested somewhere in the city, far, far away from the woods. It wasn’t until I moved into my new apartment, now many years later, that I realized I would never forget.
As, even now, when I look out my apartment window and to the small patch of woods behind my complex, I can see it there, staring back at me, patiently waiting.
Because no matter how many variations of stories I read, or how many folklore specialists I consult, they can all say one thing for certain about the creature lurking among the trees: one never makes a bargain with the Wendigo and lives to tell the tale.