Snow blankets the forest floor. Every rock covered by a thick duvet of white, each bush stripped of green. Strong winds beat against the walls of the log cabin, rattling the icicles like wind chimes. It hisses through the cracks in the window and chills the two men inside, and even the orange glow of the morning light can’t warm them.
“There hasn’t been a hint of life for weeks, Jean. Probably longer.”
“Then they’re bound to be here soon, right? Everything happens when you least expect it,” the man replies through chattering teeth, “so help’s bound to knock on the door any minute.”
“Yeah... or death is,” Pierre says quietly.
“Shut up. You keep thinking like that and one day you’ll wake up dead. Stay p-p-p-p-positive.”
Pierre glares at Jean, but doesn’t press on; his lips crack and bleed every time he speaks. Cold claws at his throat each time he opens his mouth. He can hardly feel his hands, and hasn’t been able to feel his toes for days. At first they hurt him when he walked, but the pain has faded and been replaced by a lack of feeling entirely. He wants to make sure they haven’t gone black, but he’s afraid to expose them any more to the harsh winter than they’ve already been. His bones hurt from the ice he’s convinced has begun to grow on them, but worse is the pain in his stomach.
Neither he, nor Jean, have eaten proper food for longer than he thinks possible. He feels thinner and is sure he’s lost weight. Staring at Jean, he wonders if he looks anything like his nephew now does. With his sunken eyes, hollow cheeks, and thinning frame, Jean looks like a shadow of himself.
Game has been impossible to find since the storm hit. What few plants they’d found made them sick, and the bark they’ve torn from the trees is hard to eat and gives them little in substance. They ran out of water within the first week, and ran out of matches and dry lumber a week after that. Reduced to eating the snow to keep hydrated, along with whatever germs cling to it, Pierre can’t help but think the ever throbbing pain in his chest isn’t entirely to blame on starvation.
“That’s it,” Pierre says in a frail voice, “we need to get out. And when need to go now.”
“I’m not going anywhere. We just need to be patient, just a little longer, and then we’ll-“
“-die a slow death, trapped in a cabin.”
Jean pulls a pine needle from inside his coat pocket and slowly begins to gnaw on it. “It’s better than dying lost in a forest, or being eaten by starving wolves.”
“I’d welcome the wolves, Jean. At least then I’d have a chance to bite some meat off one of them, and die with a full stomach. Besides, the dogs had enough brains to get out of here a long while ago.”
“There’s still some. How else do you account for the howling outside our cabin all night?”
“The wind,” he shoots back dismissively.
“Or a wendigo,” Jean says quietly, in a voice a whisper.
“Wendigos. Mom used to tell me stories of how your father’s ancestors lived in these woods during the time of them. She said to me her, your, great grandfather was almost tricked into becoming one, but he saved himself from them in time.”
“My great grandfather-“
“Was almost a wendigo?” Pierre laughs bitterly.
“It’s true! Mom told me when he was a young boy he was tracking a moose with some men from the tribe, when he and his friend got separated from them. The moose lead them all through the woods, for many days, until both of them were lost and hungry. The moose tracks had disappeared days before and there wasn’t any game to hunt. They grew so hungry, that one day an evil spirit overcame him. Mom told me he was possessed by the urge to eat his frie-“
“I’ve had enough of you and your fucking wendigos. I’m sick of you blaming every twig snap, gust of air, or wild animal on them. They’re not real. They never were real.”
Pierre pulls his blanket closer to him. Despite the fire from his words, he’s shivering. His teeth chatter so hard that he worries they’ll begin to chip. He glares at Jean, who continues to silently chew his pine needle. His brow’s furrowed together and, like Pierre, he shakes with cold. His lips crack as he works to finish the only food he has.
Pierre looks away from his young nephew and out the window. He feels bad for being harsh with him, but the forest is frightening enough without him adding monsters to it. Legends of men hungry enough to eat their own families, then cursed by an everlasting need for human flesh. Men whose bodies have been twisted and contorted, men transformed into crazed beasts that hide deep in the woods feeding on blood and fear. Mythical beasts are nothing to worry about, not while winter hardship is at their door. Pierre’s grandfather hadn’t been told by a monster to eat his friend; he was possessed by the human need to survive. He’d been desperate, not possessed.
“We should leave now, while there’s enough daylight to,” Pierre suggests.
“I told you I don’t want to go.”
“I wasn’t asking if you wanted to do it. I was telling you what we’re going to do.”
Jean swallows the last of his pine needle and coughs hard. “I said no. Yves tried to find the way back to the main road and he never came back. Francois left to try and find Yves and he also never came back. There’s something out there, I don’t care what you say. Doesn’t matter if it’s a wolf, or a wendigo, or a big hole in the earth sucking everyone one up. There’s something out there and I don’t want to die. The whiteout is making it impossible to find anything! And you want us to not just find the dirt road we took to get here, but tell it apart from the other ones? Yves was the one who brought us here, and he was the only one who knew how to get back!”
They stare at each other, until Jean’s eyes dart nervously away and focus on the rising sun outside. The light, slowly finding its way into the room, begins to brighten the corner where they huddle together. Jean’s skin, illuminated by the sun, looks sallow. His blue eyes look dead and dark, while the deep wrinkles carved into his skin make him look years older. Although he’s young enough to hardly be a man, he looks old enough to be a father.
Looking at him, Pierre’s filled with regret at letting Jean come hunting with them. He’d never fired a gun in his life and hadn’t spent enough time in the wild to know how to be unafraid of it. Still, Pierre had hoped this trip would make him less anxious in the forest, possibly even encourage a liking for the great outdoors. Pierre had always taken it upon himself to try and keep an eye on him after Jean’s father had walked out on him as a boy. Pierre had wanted to inspire a love of nature in Jean. He’d figured a trip to Yves’ hunting cabin would do the trick. Now he’s sure that if the two of them make it home alive, Jean will spend the rest of his life within the town borders.
But it’s a very big ‘if’.
“If you stay here, you’ll never see home again. I promise you that. If we stay here, someone will find us. But it won’t be until they’re sure the whiteout’s over, and probably weeks after that. And do you know what they’ll find? Two men, huddling in a corner, their bodies thin and broken with their mouths hanging open. They’ll find two men who spent their last moments begging for food, or water, or death.”
Jean closes his eyes, and rests his head against his bent knees. He trembles with fear, both at the idea of leaving and that of staying.
“We don’t even have water, Jean. We’re eating dirty snow, and getting sick from it. I know you can feel it too. So if we don’t die of starvation, it’ll be from something we ate trying to keep from dying of thirst. And if it isn’t that, then it’ll be the cold.”
Jean sniffles, his frail body quivering. His muffled crying slowly fades to silence. Jean wipes his eyes, though the tears have already frozen to his face.
“Ok,” he says quietly, “but if we find nothing by late afternoon, we come back here. I don’t want to be out in the night, when there’s nothing but the stars to light up the woods.”
Pierre nods, and begins to stretch out his limbs. He rubs his muscles awake, and tries to ignore the screams of protest from his stiff joints. He can’t feel his feet, and his legs hardly support his weight. He wants to fall back onto the floor, but survival keeps him standing. Jean’s even slower to his feet than Pierre and rocks unsteadily once he’s finally up. Jean leans against the cabin wall, legs shaking, and Pierre wonders if making Jean leave is the right choice. Perhaps his reluctance to go hasn’t been entirely out of fear, but from his inability to walk.
Pierre wraps his blanket tightly around himself, making sure it covers as much of him as it can, and holds the loose ends close to his chest. His fingers tingle, erasing any doubt about leaving; tingling was the first thing his toes had done before all sensation had left them. He’s sure the skin’s dead or dying, and has no intention of losing his fingers too. He opens the door to the wooden cabin and snow hurls itself inside the room with them, coating the floor in white. While Jean shuffles his way to the door, Pierre begins to fight his way through the snow.
The forest floor is a sea of white that reaches to his knees and sucks out what little warmth his legs have. Each step’s laborious, slow, and tells him to go back. Except he can’t go back, not when his stomach’s so empty it threatens to eat itself. Not when Pierre’s so cold his heart pumps slush through his veins instead of blood. Pierre forces himself to clear a path through the snow, ploughing a trail for Jean to follow. It’s slow work, and takes them a long while to get past their hatchback.
The truck’s coated in a thick layer of ice, the chipped red paint hardly showing through. The gas line froze the first night of the storm, leaving the car a useless piece of metal. They’d torn the car apart after the first week, stripping it of anything that could be useful. They’d used what gas they could extract to keep their fires from dying, but it hadn’t been enough. The interior had been stripped of any leather they could find, which they’d boiled to eat. When the dyes in the upholstery had begun to make them sick, they’d wrapped themselves in the leather scraps to keep warm. Yves had left with the last of them.
Although he can’t see into the truck, he knows there’s a bright yellow tennis ball that belonged to his hound still in the backseat. He feels a stab of regret; after the last of the food, and with no signs of game to hunt, Pierre’s dog had been the next thing to go. He hadn’t wanted to do it. He’d wanted to wait for Francois and Yves to come back, but it had been so long since they’d left. Even though he’d raised that dog since it had been a pup, Jean had been so weak and hungry, and Pierre had vowed to watch over him. He’d held his dog quietly through the night, and come sunrise he snapped its neck. He made sure they’d used everything. The fur, the meat, they’d even boiled the bones more times than they’d been good for. The only thing left of his dog was a pile of gnawed on bones and the bright yellow tennis ball.
As Pierre forces himself onward, he comes to a tree that has been badly damaged by the storm. Its branches, weighed down by the ice and snow, have broken off and fallen uselessly around it. Its furthest branches blown off by the wind, lying on the ground like useless limbs. He turns back towards Jean to warn him to watch his footing once past the truck, only to find his friend much farther behind him than expected. Jean takes slow and small steps, trying to walk where the snow’s already cleared, but finding himself too weak to manage the same large steps as Pierre. His lips are bleeding sluggishly from the small cracks, and the skin on his face is chapped red. Pierre picks up two of the longer branches and makes his way back to Jean.
“Thanks,” Jean says, but his words are rushed away by the wind before they can be heard. Leaning on the branch, and with one hand on the back of Pierre’s shoulder for additional support, they continue into the woods.
By late morning a thick coat of snow has gathered on their blankets, freezing the thick wool stiff and solid. They move at half the speed they left at, making remarkably little progress along where they imagine the road to be and into the forest. Although the cabin’s out of sight, they can feel it in the distance watching them carve a path to where they hope to find safety and warmth. From somewhere in the depths of the land comes a low and long howl.
“There it is again,” Jean says weakly, “it’s following us. It knows I’m going to die, doesn’t it?” he asks, voice thick with panic.
The wind came to a stop a while ago, but flakes of ivory continue to fall lazily. Jean’s arm is slung across Pierre’s shoulders, leaning heavily on his friend to help keep him standing. In his other hand he clings to the branch, putting some of his weight on that to help lighten Pierre’s load. Jean’s lips are tinged blue and his stomach aches.
“You’re not g-g-g-going to die.”
“Why is it following us?”
“Maybe it’s not following us. Maybe it’s leading us to the road,” Pierre says encouragingly, “or to food! I’ve heard stories of wolves, or stray dogs that help lead people to safety in times of need” he says excitedly.
“You said all the wolves were gone.”
“I guess I was wrong.”
“Or it’s not a wolf.”
As if on cue, another howl cuts through the air. It’s louder this time and much closer. Jean begins to shake hard, from cold and from fear, and walks with more urgency. They come to the edge of a snow hill and, deciding that they will spend as much effort going over it as they would going around it, begin to climb. Trusting Jean to keep himself standing for a minute, Pierre begins pushing the snow to the side with his hands, uncovering dark red stains beneath the surface in the process.
“What is that?” Jean asks, already knowing the answer.
“Blood. Maybe there’s a dead rabbit, or fox, maybe even a doe, under here that we can eat,” Pierre says excitedly.
He pulls fistfuls of snow off the mound, hoping that what’s underneath will be worth this time and effort. It seems large, but not big enough that it can be a deer. His mind feels foggy, his appetite urging him to dig deeper. As he moves another pile of white to the side, he’s rewarded with a tuft of dark brown hair. A second heave reveals more brown hair. A third reveals a pale blue forehead. A fifth and he’s face to face with the dead body of Yves.
His friend’s eyes are wide with terror, mouth agape in a frozen scream. The left side of his face is torn to shreds, muscle and flayed tissue hanging off bone. A pool of blood that has collected in his open mouth, and that coats his skin, is frozen solid.
Behind him comes the dull thud of Jean falling to the ground, followed by the sound of stomach acid being heaved into the snow. The acrid stench of bile cuts the air as another howl calls out.
“Leave us alone!” shouts Jean.
Pierre continues to stare into the eyes of his friend, his reflection shown back to him in the frozen blood gathered on Yves. His full, fat, meaty cheek hardly touched by famine. Pierre can’t help but think that if his face still looks full, then the rest of him is sure to still be carrying some meat. Unless whatever’s torn off part of his face has taken other parts with it. Except Yves had been missing for weeks and he’s frozen to the core, so Pierre’s sure that whatever’s left will be impossible to-
He stops his brain before it can finish that thought. His heart beats loud as the realization of what he’s considered sinks in. How calculated he’s been, trying to figure out what can be used, what can be rationed. Although he tells himself those thoughts are just his way of coping with the discovery of his deceased friend, the growling in his stomach and the spit coating his tongue say otherwise.
“We need to go,” says Pierre quickly.
“We need to go back,” shoots Jean.
“We can’t go back now! Do you know how long it took us to get here? There is no going back,” he yells, helping Jean to his unsteady feet. “We keep going forward.”
Jean nods slowly, his whole body trembling with fear, but his eyes full of determination. Together the two of them make a path around the body of their friend and towards where they pray the main road will await them.
But by late afternoon Jean begs Pierre for them to take a break, and he reluctantly gives in. They take their rest against the trunk of a maple, its wide trunk helping to shield them from the wind that begins to pick up. When Pierre suggests they resume their course, Jean’s unable to support his own weight. He can’t lift himself onto his feet, and once Pierre gets him up, his legs buckle underneath him. His breathing’s slow and ragged, teeth chattering hard together. His lips have gone from pale blue to a much darker shade, and his eyes look wild and empty. As Pierre encourages Jean to fight, a howl in the distance is carried to them on the wind.
“Don’t let it get me,” coughs Jean, his voice frail and ragged.
“I won’t, but we have to keep moving.”
“Promise you won’t let the monster get to me,” he begs.
“The wendigo! Don’t let it get me, Pierre. Don’t let it get me, please.”
“I won’t,” he promises.
Jean grabs his hand tight, his thin body shaking under thick clothing and a thinning sheet. He coughs, trying to catch his breath. “Don’t let it get you either,” he whispers quietly.
Jean nods and leans back against the tree, closing his eyes. Pierre watches as his nephew’s chest softly rises then falls, each breath getting slower. Pierre’s still holding his hand when Jean’s chest falls for the last time. He sits waiting for the small intake of air that will never come. He looks at his face, the thin and patchy beard of a boy trying to be a man, the soft skin of someone too young. How childlike his face is in death. He looks like he could be sleeping, his chin resting softly against his chest with his lips parted slightly. He’s a portrait of innocence dead in the snow.
Pierre’s breath catches in his chest, and his throat feels too tight. His body’s tired, and wants to lie down beside Jean and drift away into the winter frost with him. Except he can’t. The howling is too loud and too close. The expanse of forest around him is bare of pine trees, and even though he can hear the relentless howls, he can’t see the animal making them. Although he wishes Jean were alive, the thought that he’s escaped is a comfort.
Pierre’s eyes water, and he pulls Jean’s body closer to him. It’s an empty shell now, he knows that, but he wants to hold onto what little of him there is left. He’s failed him, let him die deep in the woods. His mother will have no one now, no one except for Pierre, and he doesn’t see how she’ll ever be able to look at him again. How can his sister ever see him as anyone other than the man who let her child die? How can Pierre ever face his own children now, knowing that if it had been one of them that had come along with him, they’d be dead in his place?
Pierre will be dead soon too. He knows it, he can feel it. Jean shouldn’t have worried about a monster getting him; not when nature would. Jean would have wanted him to find a way to survive, to find some way to keep going, but exhaustion had sunk its claws into Pierre long ago. He wants to give up.
Pierre stares at Jean’s emaciated body. It’s half the size it was when they left town, but there’s still some meat clinging to bone. He may have been cold from the snow, but he’s not yet frozen through. He can feel saliva creeping back into his mouth as he slowly slides the blanket off his friend. He quivers as his body compels him forward, animal instincts egging him on, his brain begging him to stop. Picking up one of Jean’s arms, he rolls back the sleeve and examines it, pleased to see there’s more than just skin and bone. Jean would have wanted this. Jean would’ve wanted him to go home, to be a father to his children. Jean’s death means Pierre’s survival. His whole body shakes with anticipation as he brings Jean’s arm close to his mouth, closes his eyes, and sinks his teeth deep into unfeeling skin. Blood trickles into his mouth, and Jean’s final words hang in the air.
Don’t let it get you either.
His eyes shoot open, and he lets go of the arm. He spits out the chunk of flesh, and quickly rinses his mouth with a handful of snow. He swirls it in his mouth, letting it melt over his palette, before spitting the remaining blood out.
“Never,” he tells the woods. He lifts himself from his spot on the ground, covering Jean’s body with his own blanket on the way up. Without looking back, Pierre continues to force his way through the snow and ice.
By nightfall he feels battered and bruised, but as lost as ever. Jean had been right to suggest they wait for help to find them. He can feel something watching him, waiting for him to die so it can sink its teeth into him. Jean was right about it all. With each second the sun falls, so does the temperature. Pierre can feel his body shutting down. His breathing is hard, each exhale long and strained, each inhale short and sharp. His heart beats faster than it ever has, and he can feel the blood moving under his flesh with each pump. As he pushes through the snow heaps, he prepares himself for death. He braces himself for his vision to slowly turn to black, sound to be suddenly muffled and his light extinguished from the world.
As the forest grows darker, Pierre notices a small ball of light flickering in the distance. A sound somewhere between a whimper and a woot escapes him, and he finds his legs moving quicker now that survival’s more than a distant dream; it’s a flame calling him home. He pushes his way through the snow, branches cutting his face as he forces his way between the saplings and into a clearing.
There’s no fire. The rays of the sun, as it tucks itself away for the night, bounce off the small snow hills in the empty expanse of land. The reflection of the sun glimmers on the snow, giving an illusion of fire. Pierre stares at winter’s mirage and is filled with a hopelessness that seems endless. His body hurts, and he’s tired of fighting. He sinks to his knees and stares into the clearing, his eyes focused on a spot on one of the snow mounds that bounces the light back at him. Dragging himself to his feet, he wades through the thick white cover on the forest floor. With each step the ground crunches underneath him.
A small sliver of metal peeks up from the mound, and he dusts off more snow revealing a butane lighter. He huffs in excitement as he flicks it, praying for a spark. After several tries it ignites, and he silently cheers at the small stream of heat coming from the tip. He scans the forest for the owner of the flame, knowing that they couldn’t have passed by here more than an hour ago. He searches for footprints or signs of nature disturbed, but finds nothing but trees and more snow hills crowded together.
Like the one Yves was buried in.
Directly behind him, a small howl pierces through the thick silence. Pierre turns around, slow on his feet, his mind shutting itself off from the world. He sees its pale blue skin, bloated stomach, elongated fingers and what looks like a human face being stretched and contorted by a wolf’s skull. Its snout long and lined with sharp teeth, framed by torn human lips pulled wider than nature should ever have allowed possible. Crossing the distance between them, it stops inches from Pierre. It’s so close that its breath, rank with the stench of meat, ruffles his hair.
The wendigo’s smile is so much like Francois’. Pierre falls backwards into the snow, screaming. The creature moves closer, watching him curiously. He doesn’t seem to understand Pierre’s fright, and bends his face close to Pierre’s. The wendigo reaches out a clawed hand towards him, and Pierre acts before he can think. He swings his branch against the monster’s temple, sending it crashing to the ground. Pierre throws himself on top of the creature, finding strength in the terror. The wendigo is screaming as it thrashes beneath him. Pierre raises his branch high above his head, and the beast watches with wide eyes as he brings it down hard on his skull, again and again. There’s a sickening crack.
Pierre’s face is splattered in the wendigo’s thick red blood. He breathes heavily, and his muscles hurt from the fight. He watches as the blood trickles from the broken body into the snow around him. There’s movement in the distance, as something pushes its way out of the forest across from him. Another one.
Another monster coming to kill him. It’s holding a flashlight in one of its clawed hands. This beast isn’t as big as the last one, or as quick. It moves closer towards Pierre hesitantly, then screams. It must be calling for more of them to come. He doesn’t think, he doesn’t have time to. He runs towards the monster, chases it through the woods. His legs threaten to buckle underneath him with every step, but he needs to catch the wendigo. He needs to kill it for Yves, left dead in the ice, and for Jean, who died scared under a tree.
He catches up to the monster, and throws himself at it. They fall hard to ground, and Pierre pins the creature under him. It screams, panicked now. Its wide eyes stare at Pierre, horrified. It thrashes underneath him, trying to buck him off, but he stays on. He won’t let this monster stop him.
“This is for Jean,” he hisses.
“Jean! What have you done to Jean? Pierre, what have you done? Jean!” the beast screams in his sister’s voice.
He grips the monster’s throat tightly, squeezing the life out of it. The wendigo claws at his hands, trying to throw him off. He squeezes harder, watching the creature’s eyes roll back in its head. He stays on top of her, panting, his hand locked around her throat for what feels like a long time. He stays like that until the other monsters come looking.
He can hear noises and voices coming from the forest, along the path he’s been following for so long. They talk loudly, calling for someone. Stray rays of light cut through the trees near him as they search for their dead friends.
Pierre smiles to himself and runs to face them, howling into the night.