In the Shadow of Adirondack
Written by Bron James | Artwork by Matilda Dawes
We tell ourselves that the horrors of old folklore tales are just that. Tales. Superstitions. Myths. We convince ourselves that these monsters couldn’t possibly exist.
They’re just stories, after all.
But I’ll never forget what I’ve seen this night. This was something born of darkest legend; a nightmare given form.
It was after a long day’s hunt with the boys. We’d bagged a handsome collection of game: grouse, rabbits, and the most prized trophy of all; a stunning buck, with proud and powerful antlers. The kind of trophy any hunter dreams of mounting above his fireplace.
We celebrated our day’s triumphs back at the cabin. We were like kings at a banquet, sitting outside around the campfire and gluttonously indulging our appetites until we were satisfied, drunk and bloated. Nothing marks the end of a successful hunt like a few beers and feasting on the fresh meat of something you’ve just hunted, killed and skinned yourself.
It must’ve been past midnight when we decided to turn in. Billy had stumbled off into the nearby treeline to relieve himself – neither his brain or his bladder could handle his drink. He’d been gone for a little while, but as time continued to wear on and he still didn’t come back, we decided to go looking for him.
We assumed he’d simply forgotten his way back, or we’d find him passed out in a bush somewhere. But that was when we heard the screams. Terrible, agonised cries rang through the forest. And something else. A deep, guttural roar, unlike anything I’d heard before. It was unearthly, the kind of sound that stops your heart and turns your blood to ice. Couldn’t have been a mountain lion… A bear, perhaps?
And then Billy’s cries fell silent.
We hurried deeper into the woods. We should’ve known better, but drunk on beer and the pride of our hunt, we pressed on. Our flashlights danced about the dense forest, illuminating nothing but trees and undergrowth.
Then we saw it. Billy’s jacket, torn and bloodied, dangling from a nearby tree.
We called out for him, but no answer came. Only the oppressive silence of the night.
The cold, dark claws of fear clutched my chest. I could feel my heart pounding, my lungs tight, and I gripped my flashlight solidly. We had to continue. We had to find him.
The further we ventured into the dark depths of the forest, the more a thick aroma filled the atmosphere. It was like the foul stench of decay, a foetid and festering rot which permeated my very being. It stuck in my nostrils, hot, wet and bitter, with the sting of iron. Christ, the stench was enough to make my eyes water. It was nauseating.
A retching sensation caught in my throat. I felt my stomach lurch, the acrid burning of bile at the back of my mouth, and I leaned against a tree to vomit.
As I spat the last of it and looked up, what I saw before me shall forever be burned into my mind.
Amidst a thicket was a figure. It was tall, at least twice the height of myself. Its body was hunched, gaunt and gangly, its long and slender limbs like the gnarled branches of a diseased tree. A distended gut protruded, bloated and bulbous, from its emaciated frame.
Its skin was ashen and dead, almost wax-like. Tattered and taut flesh stretched over its skeletal frame. Fragments of bone punctured the skin, piercing the desiccated flesh from within. Its head seemed to be that of a large deer’s skull, with long and proud antlers which reached up into the branches above.
In its twisted, clawed hands, it clasped something I wish I’d never seen. A leg. Billy’s leg, still wearing a boot and the shredded remnants of his khakis. The horror was feasting, slovenly devouring through flesh and bone, gorging itself on what had once been my friend.
I bellowed in anguish, and it was then that it set eyes on me. Time slowed to a standstill as the monster turned. Fresh, wet viscera dangled from beneath the skull. It dropped the leg to the forest floor, and with two blood-stained hands it reached up to its antlers, gradually lifting the skull from its head. Whether it wore the skull ceremoniously, or simply to mock or scorn us, I do not know. But beneath this bony helm, it revealed a nightmarish image.
A face, almost human, warped and corpse-like, leered at me. Sickly yellow eyes, sunk deep in hollowed sockets, cut eerily bright through the darkness. Blood smeared around its torn lips, which cracked as its mouth contorted into a twisted smile, revealing sharp and glistening teeth.
Terror shot through my heart. I turned, and I ran.
My feet pounded through the undergrowth as I barrelled through the trees, not stopping to look back or pause to get my bearings. I heard Jimmy and Chuck call out, but I couldn’t wait for them. If that thing was coming for us – for me – I couldn’t hesitate for even a second.
It’s only by blind luck I made it back here to the cabin, but still I fear what may be stalking out there between the trees.
The natives of this land had stories about this being. They said the monster was the embodiment of greed. An evil spirit which preys on the selfish vices of man; a baleful guardian who punishes us for our arrogance and wanton excess.
They called these spirits “wendigo.”
The first tribes would honour the game they had killed, only hunting that which they needed for food and pelts, and would make offerings to their gods and spirits in thanks. An acknowledgement, a gesture of gratitude, for that which they had been given. Living in harmony with man and land and spirit would keep the wendigo at bay.
We made no such offerings. We claimed our hunt with nothing but our own self-aggrandising triumph. We paid no heed to the legends, to the spirits of the land; the unseen forces which protect these woods. We didn’t believe in them.
After all, these things were just stories, right?