“What do you think has happened to him?” I asked.
“How am I to answer that, Will Henry?” he asked in turn, stuffing a piece of hickory bark into his mouth. Chewing it helped tamp down the gnawing aches in our bellies. “We may speculate until the sun comes up, and that’s all it would be. In the morning . . .” He did not finish the thought. He fondled the polished stock of the rifle lying across his lap, an effort to ease another gnawing ache. “I suspect he heard—or thought he heard—something in the bush and like a fool took off after it. Perhaps he has decided ‘to hell’ with us and now is seated comfortably by his hearth in Rat Portage. Though I doubt it.”
“He left his rucksack. And his canteen. He intended to return.”
Unless he did not leave of his own accord. That possibility the doctor did not give voice to. He chewed thoughtfully upon the wood; the firelight flickered in his eyes.
“We are lost,” he said matter-of-factly. “That is the only explanation. You observed his reaction to the suggestion yesterday. So at first light he struck out to pick up the trail again. Darkness caught him in the bush, and he’s waiting for daylight to come back for us.”
“What if he doesn’t?”
The doctor frowned. “Why wouldn’t he?”
“He’s afraid.” I remembered the wild look in his eyes, the spittle flying from his chapped and swollen lips. I did not offer the other reason—that he wouldn’t return because he couldn’t. I thought of Pierre Larose, impaled upon a tree.
“All the more reason to find his way back,” argued the doctor. Then, as if he had read my thoughts, he said, “I wouldn’t choose solitude in these circumstances, and I am one who chooses it in nearly every circumstance!” His jaw worked the shavings incessantly; his eyes shone. “Secrets,” he murmured.
“The reason I became a monstrumologist, Will Henry.” He lowered his voice, now whispery warm, as intimate as a lover’s. “She cloaks herself in mystery. She hides her true face. I would unmask her. I would strip her bare. I would see her as she is.”
He lifted his face toward the veiled heavens. He considered the treetops genuflecting to the high wind. “‘The wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh.’ . . . She is fickle and jealous and completely indifferent—and therefore completely irresistible. What mortal woman can approach her? What earthly maiden possesses her eternal youth or can inspire such rapture—and despair? There is something profoundly terrifying about her, Will Henry, and utterly seductive. In my lust to master her, I became her slave. In my rising, I fell. I fell . . . very far.”
Though I sat three feet from the fire, I shivered. I wondered if, like Sergeant Hawk, the doctor was coming down with a case of “bush fever.” If so—if I lost him, too—what would become of me?
He looked at me, shook his head, and laughed softly. “I warned you. I wanted to be a poet.”
“Was that a poem?”
“No, of course not.”
“It didn’t sound like any poem I’ve ever read.”
“You are a clever boy, Will Henry. That could be both a compliment and an insult.”
He pulled the gnarled bit of wood from his mouth and tossed it into the fire.
“Terrible! Like chewing on a chair leg. But it’s what we have. And we must learn to be satisfied with what we have, no matter how bland or bitter the taste.”
We were quiet for a moment. The fire cracked and popped. The wind whistled in the bowed heads of the spruce and pine. Behind us John Chanler moaned in gentle harmony.
“Did he feel the same as you, Doctor?” I asked. “About . . . her?”
“John has more the soul of a boxer than a poet. He never quite grew up, in my opinion. Monstrumology is a sport to him, like hunting fox or playing cricket.”
“He thought it was fun?” The idea that anyone could find the doctor’s business enjoyable was bizarre.
“Oh, he thought it was great fun.”
“Usually the part that brought him closest to the edge of ruin.” He laughed morbidly. “Got a little too close to that edge this time.”
“Mr. Larose went right over it,” I said. I could not chase the image of his skinless corpse from my mind.
“An interesting extension of the metaphor, Will Henry. Perhaps this affair has more to do with monstrumology than we first assumed.”
I was shocked. “You mean you’ve changed your mind? You think it could be . . .”
“Real? Oh, no. Not in the sense that you mean. Perhaps there is an organism native to this environment—something altogether natural—that gave rise to the myth. A bipedal predator with some of the Wendigo’s traits—cannibalistic, humanoid, able to scale these trees and traverse vast distances quickly. John was not the first monstrumologist to come here searching for the inspiration of the legend. I even found some references to it in my father’s papers—probably how the sergeant’s mother knew the name.”
“So there . . . there could be something. . . .”
“Oh, Will Henry, you’ve been with me long enough to know there is always something.”
“The One Useful Thing You Could Do”
He had spoken of it as one speaks of a lover. The eternally young, fertile bride; the ancient, barren spinster; the siren; the sibyl—she was all these things, all at once, his beloved, the one for whom he denied himself the companionship of mere mortal company, against whom even the breathtaking Muriel Chanler paled. His beloved called that night, but she did not call to him.
Her voice—the voice of the untamed wilderness, the secret voice that rides the high wind, the voice of abundant desolation and exhilarating despair, the voice the Iyiniwok had named Outiko—called that night, and John Chanler answered.
I felt his presence before I saw him. The hairs on the back of my neck stood up. I had the distinctly uncomfortable feeling of being watched. I looked over my shoulder. My breath caught in my throat. I touched the doctor’s arm, and he followed my gaze, both of us frozen for an instant in utter amazement at the sight.
John Chanler was standing at the tent’s mouth, his spindly bare legs spread wide, his scrawny arms hanging loosely by his sides, the yellow eyes that dominated his skeletal face seeming to burn with their own inner fire, and in those eyes there was the shock of recognition—not in him, but in me, for I had seen a pair just like them, floating in the forest gloom.
His mouth hung open, the lips swollen and shining with blood, ripped open by his incessantly gnashing teeth. The front of his undershirt was wet with it. It hung in tear-shaped droplets from his beard.
Warthrop jumped to his feet with a startled cry. His rifle fell, forgotten, to the ground. He took a small, hesitant step toward his friend.
Chanler did not respond. He did not move. He seemed to be regarding something high in the trees. His head, so disproportionately large next to his emaciated frame, was cocked to one side, as if he were listening for something—or to something. From his throat issued a noisome gurgling, like some foul spring bubbling up from the rancid depths.
Then this poor creature, who had for days barely clung to life, who was so weak my master had been forced to carry him like a newborn babe, who had eaten nothing for two weeks, suddenly exploded into flight, hurling himself past us with astonishing speed, a grotesquely hilarious whir of pumping arms and churning legs, leaping three feet over the fire and crashing into the bush with a bestial squeal. The doctor raced after him, calling frantically over his shoulder, “Will Henry!” I snatched up the rifle and followed a few paces behind.
Warthrop caught his maddened quarry by the scruff of the neck, his grip instantly broken by Chanler’s arm as he twisted around. The monstrumologist wrapped his arms around the narrow waist and pulled him into his chest. Chanler responded by whipping his head from side to side, his broken teeth uselessly snapping, his legs scissoring back and forth, seeking a foothold in the slick cover of rotting leaves. He seized Warthrop’s forearm and pulled it to his mouth.
The doctor cried out and stumbled backward. Chanler took off again, and Warthrop launched himself at his knees. The two men tumbled to the ground, the monstrumologist bringing his hands up to ward off the furious blows of his friend, whose goal, it now appeared, was to gouge out my master’s eyes. His long, crooked fingers clawed at Warthrop’s face. I rushed to the doctor’s side and brought the heavy butt of the rifle over Chanler’s exposed scalp.
“No, Will Henry!” Warthrop cried. He managed to grab hold of Chanler’s wrists and, pushing with his legs, gained the advantage over his undersized opponent. Warthrop forced Chanler onto his back and threw his body over his friend’s writhing form.
“It’s me, John,” the monstrumologist gasped. “Pellinore. It’s me. Pellinore. Pellinore!”
“No!” Chanler groaned back. His thick tongue struggled to fashion the words. “Must go. . . . Must . . . answer.”
The afflicted man was staring toward the sky, where the treetops brushed the underbellies of the stately advancing clouds. The high wind sung.
And John Chanler in answer wept. His tears were yellow, streaked with red. He curled into a miserable ball and keened, his gnarled fingers scratching fretfully in the undergrowth.
The doctor sat back upon his heels and lifted his smudged face toward mine. “Well, he’s regained some of his strength, at least.”
He went rag-doll-limp in the doctor’s arms, with not so much as a groan of protest while my master carried him back to the tent. Warthrop eased him down, covered him with the blanket, and washed his face with a handkerchief dampened with drinking water. Given the extremity of Chanler’s condition, it was a pathetic gesture, bringing no succor to his suffering, but it was not for the patient. Washing the detritus from his friend’s face, the last vestige, it seemed, of the wasted man’s humanity, brought some small measure of comfort to the monstrumologist.
I held the lamp while he gently rubbed the edge of the cloth around the suppurating lips, then paused to examine the half-opened mouth. He pressed the bloodstained handkerchief into my free hand and slipped his fingers inside Chanler’s mouth. I stiffened, expecting the jaws to snap shut as they had when I’d placed my fingers inside. Warthrop pulled a large wad of half-masticated greenery past the drooling lips—wolf’s claw that Chanler must have stuffed into his mouth as he lay upon the forest floor. The little tent filled with its loamy aroma and the smell of Chanler’s putrid saliva. The monstrumologist muttered the word “Mossmouth,” and I remembered the letter from Pierre Larose. The Mossmouth not going to let him go.
“The fire, Will Henry,” the doctor said wearily. “We mustn’t let it go out.”
I set down the lamp and hurried outside, relieved to make my escape from that claustrophobic space. The hungry embers chomped at the fresh wood; the flames reached with supplicating hands toward the sky. All was hunger, I thought. All was longing. After a moment the doctor dropped beside me and wrapped his arms around his upraised knees.