Thirty Days to Halloween, Day 27: Ghost Fires: The Windigo of the Cree

Thirty Days to Halloween, Day 27: Ghost Fires: The Windigo of the Cree

The Cree Indians of Canada have one of the most horrifying legends of horror–the Windigo. Because of this story, I was the 1998 Grand Prize Winner in the Ernest Hemingway Short Story Competition. In addition to the prize money, I was able to fly to Sarasota Florida and meet the Hemingway family. This trip was definitely one of the highlights of my writing life.

“GHOST FIRES” by Rickey Pittman

Sheridan leans against the large conifer to catch his breath and seek relief from the icy, septic claws of the wind.  Whenever the wind changes directions, he moves around the tree adjusting to the new attack.  As the nylon surface of the Eddie Bauer down parka rubs the tree’s rough surface, Sheridan, blank-faced, watches the brittle bark crumble and fall to the indifferent snow.  The relentless, moaning wind pushes him in a circular dance around the tree, and a cloud of swirling snow powder engulfs him.  He holds the microcassette recorder close to his mouth so that the wind-sounds do not overpower his voice.  The metal and plastic surface of the recorder scrapes the bristles of a new beard
and a sore on his frostbitten face.  The ghost fires of the Aurora borealis dance above him, dance sadly, and the iridescent colors evolve and twist into eerie, chaotic patterns, images that disturb and distract him.

Sheridan holds up the recorder and stares at the slowly turning reels through red and watery eyes.  He shakes his head, lowers the recorder to his mouth, and resumes his diary.  How did he get here?  Sheridan strains to remember, and wills himself to talk, to sift through layers of jumbled memories.

* * *

He was a history major in the graduate class of his favorite professor, a beautiful Chippewa, who taught Native American literature at the University of Minnesota.  Sheridan thought her incredibly intelligent, and a striking lady, especially when she pulled her straight, shoulder length black hair behind her ear, crossed her arms, and leaned against
the wall in her favorite lecture position.  The silver jewelry she liked to wear jingled softly whenever she gestured and sparkled when light hit the rings and bracelets at the right angle.  In class, she frequently flashed a smile Sheridan’s way, and would often thank him for his comments.  She lectured with intensity as her dark eyes searched the faces of her students and challenged their apathy and ignorance of things Indian.  One day Sheridan  flipped through a Reader’s Digest coffee table book on the Indians of North America and he came upon a word that caught his attention.

“Can you tell me anything about the Windigo?” he asked after a class lecture about the Cree.

“Many Cree today still believe in the Windigo,” she said.  “These spirits are invisible, and the most terrifying creatures of the northern forest.  The Cree describe them as superhuman beings, thirty feet tall, with slavering, lipless mouths, and hearts of ice.  These spirits have an insatiable appetite for human flesh.  No man-made weapon can destroy them, and only the most powerful of shamans can provide protection against them.  The Windigo begin stalking the forest in search of lone hunters at the onset of winter and flee north at spring.”

A week later Sheridan met with his instructor in her office. “I’m considering writing a thesis on the Cree legends.  And to help my research, I’m going to take a winter camping trip to northern Saskatchewan. I’ve always wanted the winter experience of the northern lights, and I think the solitude will lend perspective to my writing about the Cree myths.”

“I’m impressed, Sheridan.  It’s really quite a creative idea. A trip like that should be quite illuminating and give you many insights into the Cree hunter’s mind. I’d like for you to share your experience with the class when you return.  It is a good quest.”

Quest.  The word hit one of Sheridan’s mental buttons, and he saw himself as a man on a quest and even imagined writing a best seller based on his experiences and research entitled,  A Hunter of Legends in the Land of the Cree.  The next day, his instructor shared Sheridan’s idea with the class.

When the class took a break, one student said, “So, you’re going to search for the wily Windigo, Sheridan?”  He said this loudly, and the slobber he allowed to run down his pocked face added to the effect of his sarcasm and the other students in the class howled with laughter. he said, “Sheridan, you are such a brown noser.”

“Piss on you, Brad.  I don’t know how a moron like you could even get into a graduate program.  Try being serious about something for once.”

Sheridan prepared for the trip carefully.  He read every book he could find on winter camping and studied several issues of Backpacker Magazine. John, a friend who owned a sporting goods store, sold him his equipment, taught him to use a compass and topographic maps, and demonstrated how to walk in snowshoes.  When Sheridan explained his thesis idea and how he wanted to view and experience the land through the eyes of a lonely Cree hunter, John frowned thoughtfully but nodded as he placed a red, plastic, square sign on the store’s stuffed grizzly, its mouth frozen in a permanent snarl.  The sign advertised a sale on wilderness survival kits.

“Well,”  John said, “You’ve picked a harsh area to camp in. Going alone, you’ll experience the loneliness–and more.”

Sheridan flew into Prince Albert in northern Saskatchewan and rented a four-wheel-drive Subaru station wagon.  He drove to the Canadian police station on Highway 905.  From the station, he planned to go north until he reached Lake Deception, then trek southwest until he reached an abandoned Hudson Bay outpost, then he could circle back to the highway. He estimated the total distance of his trek to be no more than ten miles.  He guessed one could walk at least five miles a day on snowshoes, and concluded he could easily complete the trek in a week.

No one was at the station.  After waiting for two hours in the gravel parking lot, he assumed that the Mounties were out on business.  He left a note on his vehicle which detailed his itinerary, loaded up his red toboggan, and hiked north from the station into the Canadian forest toward Lake Deception.

Hiking on snowshoes was much more physically demanding than he had expected, and the thrill of adventure quickly waned.  After only a few hours of walking, his legs ached and cramped, his eyes were irritated from the caustic wind, and his head hurt. He stopped for a moment to jot down some notes. He pulled his small writing pad and pen out of his parka pocket. When he removed his mitten, his hand stiffened immediately in the icy wind.  When he tried to write, he discovered the cold had thickened the ink, so he tossed the useless pen into the snow.  He dug around in his pack until he found a pencil.  After he had written a couple of lines, the point broke. He opened his pocket knife, but his hand shook so badly that he couldn’t sharpen the pencil. He gave up on the idea of writing anything and walked on.  Everything, even the smallest of tasks, seemed so complicated here–in the hungry land of the Windigo.  An hour later, exhausted, he pitched his tent, climbed in his sleeping bag, and fell into a deep sleep.

After six hours of hiking on the second day, he neared a creek bottom and heard an approaching snowmobile.  As the black Skidoo topped a hill, Sheridan observed how it sped along smoothly over the same snow he had fought with to the point of exhaustion.  The snowmobile carried two passengers and towed a toboggan bearing a large buck.  A young boy sat behind the adult driver.  A white dusting of snow covered their red wool coats.  When they spotted Sheridan, they drove into the creek bottom and killed the engine.  The moaning and whistling sounds of the wind quickly replaced the sewing machine noise of the two-stroke engine.  The pair lifted their arms in greeting and waited patiently for Sheridan to trudge down to them. By their dark hair and skin, Sheridan thought they must be Indians.

“Hello.  You are far from the road.  You are hunting also?”  The voice of the father sounded warm, and the English  better than Sheridan had expected.

“Not a hunter of animals. I am doing research for the University of Minnesota.”

The father nodded and said, “My son and I were going to stop and build a fire.  We would be happy to share our food with you.”  The Indians stared at his snowshoes and toboggan.

“Thank you,” he said, panting. “I am ready for a break myself, and I could use some company.”

The father took the Remington bolt action rifle slung on his back, laid it on the snowmobile, turned to his son, and said, “Gather some wood.”

The boy made two trips to some nearby trees and broke off armfuls of dead branches which he brought to his father.  The father removed his mittens, stacked the sticks in a teepee shape on an exposed rock, and used a cigarette lighter to start the fire.  He stood up, dusted some snow from his ragged wool coat, and nodded to the boy who kneeled down and steadily fed the small fire larger sticks until they had a good bed of coals.  The father then stepped to the snowmobile and picked up a burlap bag from which he removed a square foil package.  He unwrapped it and dropped the frozen square into a pan which he placed on the coals.

The pre-cooked venison stew quickly thawed, and the aroma made Sheridan’s mouth water.  The spoons scraped the side of the aluminum bowls as the stew filled and warmed Sheridan’s stomach, and he thought it tasted much better than the MRE’s, oatmeal, and granola bars in his pack.  The sun vanished, and they found themselves under the stars of a beautifully brilliant Arctic sky.  Orion, the hunter, majestically dominated the portion of sky in Sheridan’s frame of vision.  The stars sparkled in the clear sky and reminded him of the silver jewelry on his professor’s arm which flashed with every gesture in the warm, sunlit classroom.

After the meal, the boy fetched a battered Stanley thermos and tin cups, and poured each a steaming cup of coffee.  Sheridan reached into his pack and pulled out a fifth of Crown Royal he had brought along for special moments.  He poured a good dose into their cups, then turned on the microcassette recorder. He thought the moment a perfect opportunity to gather information about Indian legends.

“Tell me about yourselves.  Where do you live?  How often do you hunt out here?” he inquired.  He drank down his coffee quickly, and the edge of the tin cup burned his lip and the coffee scalded his tongue.

“We are Cree, and we now live on the reservation.  Sometimes my family lives in Prince Albert when there is work.  Some of my cousins are steelworkers and have moved to New York.  During the winter, my son and I often take hunting trips.  I have never seen one . . . like yourself–walking and camping alone in the winter.  Where are you going?”

“I am looking for Lake Deception. Do you know if  I am close?”

“There are many lakes in Saskatchewan, but I do not recognize such a name. You should go back.”

“Maybe you know the lake by an Indian name?”  Sheridan was puzzled; the map showed the rather large body of water to be somewhere in this locale.  Sheridan was also somewhat disappointed in the Indians.  Not only because they didn’t know their geography, but they did not resemble the image of Indian hunters his professor had created in class.  Much too modern.  Sheridan briefly took a mental side trip and imagined the same father and son living as the Cree did a hundred years ago: when they spoke Cree instead of English; took long hunting treks across the subarctic to return with bundles of furs which they would trade to the Hudson Bay outposts for guns, beads, and whiskey; when the Cree families lived in smoke-filled birch bark homes; and gnawed leather in the worst winters because there was no food.  He served himself and the father more whiskey.  After the Crown kicked in, Sheridan questioned the father about the legend of the northern lights which flashed and swirled above their heads.

“My ancestors believe these lights to be the campfires of lost spirits, doomed men who died in battle or alone on hunting trips.  Now, these warriors–sad, lonely, and lost–are nomad spirits who must forever travel the dark skies above the cold land of the Cree.”

Sheridan was impressed with the eloquence and heartfelt emotion of the father’s speech.  His son nodded to his father’s words as he occasionally added another stick to the fire.  Sheridan, excited, stared at the northern lights as the father spoke, and for a moment imagined he actually saw a Cree warrior spirit on the border of the horizon stumbling and weaving his way toward them.

“Tell me about the Windigo,” he said.

“It is bad luck for hunters to talk about the hungry spirits. If you even mention their name, they come hunting for you,”  the Indian whispered. Something in his tone changed.  The Indian swept his arm toward the shadow-filled forest.  “There are many of them, and they feed on lone hunters.  Sometimes one can hear them fighting among themselves in the woods.  The trappers have left, our people now live on reservations, only the hungry spirits remain.  We need to return home now.”  He glanced nervously toward the woods, abruptly turned to his son, and spoke sharply in an Indian dialect. Without another word to Sheridan, they packed up and sped away on the snowmobile, the buck in tow, his frozen legs straight up in the air.  Sheridan stared at the fire as the sound of the machine faded and its lights vanished in the darkness. As the boy had done, Sheridan fed the small fire an occasional stick.  He realized that he must have committed a faux-paswhen he asked the Indian about the Windigo. Nothing like ruining a good
conversation. Their reaction revealed how slowly Stone Age superstition dies. Maybe later he could take a trip to the Cree reservation and arrange some interviews with the less reticent and more enlightened of the tribe. Sheridan put up his tent, crawled into its protection, and slept.

After an oatmeal breakfast and cups of tea, Sheridan broke camp. He marked his estimated location on the topographic map, set his compass, and waddled and shuffled awkwardly through the snow.  Sheridan did not understand why he could not find Lake Deception.  Maybe the lake was covered with snow and he had unknowingly walked over it. Perhaps he had figured the compass declination incorrectly. If he had made a significant declination error, he might not even be close to where he wanted to go.  His stomach churned.

Sheridan decided to return; the trek had nothing more to add to the thesis.  He had experienced the harshness of the Cree’s land sufficiently to write with understanding and empathy.  The decision made, he set his course south, hoping to find the way back to his
starting point at the Mountie station or at least to the highway.

Sheridan walked on until exhaustion set in. He set up the Eureka four-season tent and for comfort more than warmth, built a small fire on an exposed rock. He heard wolves in the distant darkness in between the roaring gusts of the demon wind. Sheridan crawled into his tent and slept an hour until the silence awoke him. He glanced outside the tent and saw that dark clouds had rolled in and the air felt warm and humid.

Before long, the snow began. Big flakes drifted slowly to the earth. Sheridan unzipped the top section of the tent door and wrapped in the down sleeping bag, watched the snow fall for a half-hour. As the snowfall thickened, visibility shrank to a few yards.  Sheridan decided to wait the storm out. He zipped up the tent door but left a small bit
open for ventilation. The heat of his butane lantern made the tent almost comfortable.  He lay down and had just dozed off when he heard some growls outside the tent, followed by snapping, popping sounds.  Sheridan guessed that some wolves fought over supper–a deer, rabbit, or some other unlucky creature of the northern woods.  Maybe the wolves were fifty yards away, but distance and location were difficult to measure with certainty in this country. A man from Ontario once told him that pilots often crashed in the north country in whiteouts or even on the gray winter days because there was no clear horizon.  Unable to distinguish between the ground and sky, between what was real and what was hallucination, the pilots lost their bearings.  Sheridan opened the flap of the tent, and strained his eyes to scan the area around the tent and thought he saw the dark shadow-shapes of wolves move through the tree line on a nearby ridge.  Sheridan lay down, slept, and dreamed of the warm Louisiana swamp he once hunted and camped in as a young boy.

When Sheridan awoke again, so much snow had piled up that he had to leave the tent and use a snowshoe to dig away snow from the top and entrance of the tent.  Finally, the snow stopped, but gale force winds followed.  When Sheridan went to his food bag which he had hung in the branches of a nearby tree, he found it on the ground, most of its contents eaten and trampled.  He thought he had put it high enough to keep animals out of it.  Frustrated and hungry, Sheridan poured the last of his fuel into the stove and lantern, finished the bottle of Crown, and realized he didn’t have many moments of heated comfort left.  The wind steadily grew in intensity, and angrily whipped the tent with its gusts, as if it were a creature that wanted to rip through the thin fabric.  Even with his lantern’s heat, the cold seeped deep into his bones, and his teeth chattered constantly.  Some lines from Milton’s descriptions of hell flashed in mind. “Beyond this flood a frozen Continent. . . Thaws not. . . all else deep snow and ice. . . cold performs th’ effect of Fire. . . fierce extremes. . . to starve in Ice. . .”  Sheridan cursed his luck, cursed the weather and recorded some ideas for a personal essay entitled: “My Journey into the Hell of the Cree in Search of the Windigo.”

When he heard more growls and cracking noises, Sheridan again looked outside the tent, but could see nothing.  He decided to break camp.  The station and highway could not be far away; he resolved to walk until he reached something civilized.  Sheridan dug his frozen tent from its icy vault and loaded it onto his sled.

Sheridan jerked the toboggan and began the monotonous and exhausting hike again.  His eyes burned from the brightness of the snow and the wind. Each time the malicious talons struck his face, he felt as if someone poked at his eyes with an ice pick.

The darkness of this land was surreal. It didn’t seem natural for the sun to emerge, skim the horizon, and then disappear so quickly. It unnerved Sheridan to see the few moments of light fade to an aberrant twilight and then shortly find himself dumped again into a choking and extended Cimmerian darkness. Sheridan had heard that a man can go nuts if he stays too long in the dark.

Sheridan felt his body weaken as he walked. He knew he needed food for energy and body heat.  Sometimes experience forces redefinition of terms.  Sheridan decided that hunger is not the minor discomfort one feels when a meal or two is missed.  Hunger, real hunger, is a creature with beaver-like teeth that hatches and gnaws constantly on your stomach.  He reflected on an article in the New Yorker about a doctor who said his experiences in Bosnia documented that one chocolate bar could add eleven more days to a child’s life.  And he thought about the Antarctic explorers he heard on NPR who said on their trek they ate a pound of butter of day.  . .

* * *

The recorder clicks and Sheridan lowers it from his face to his side. His arm and back are sore.  He rewinds the tape and plays it back, but after a few minutes of rambled journal entries, all he can hear is the wind.

Sheridan tries to count the exact number of days,  extending fingers one by one within his mittens, but his numb brain loses count.  He can’t recall the last time he had eaten or even what day it was.  What if he was late to class? What if he was lost? The wind changed directions again and bit his windburned face and snow blind eyes like a beast.

“This cold is eating my ass.  Christ, how could the Indians have stood this?”

Sheridan hears laughter and a loud hiss.  He peers around the conifer in the direction of the sound of crunching snow; he sees a large shadow-like shape streak through the trees a few yards away. Once again, the wind whips across his exposed face, and his eyes water and burn.  He concentrates and focuses his vision in the twilight.  In his peripheral vision he sees the shape again, only now it is much closer, within a few feet.  He jerks around; nothing is there, but he sees bloody footprints in the snow.  He pulls off a mitten and fumbles for his knife, his microcassette recorder still in his left hand.  The wind dies and Sheridan feels lost in the silence.  Another streak.  He wheels again,  still trying to find his lock-blade.  Again, he hears laughter.

“Playing with me, are you?”  He awkwardly attempts to run in the snowshoes. His right jaw suddenly explodes and the force of the blow knocks Sheridan on his back. A cloud of powdery snow flies upwards.

The stars swirl in a tracer-like pattern. He touches his jaw with his right hand; it is wet and warm, covered with blood.  Slow footsteps crunch in the snow.  More laughter.  An Indian, dressed in the old style of caribou skin garment worn by the Cree in the paintings he studied in school, towers above him, a bloody wooden war club in his
hand.  His lipless face smiles wickedly, and his eyes roll in blood. Sheridan sees the jagged teeth.  Hearts of ice,  she had said.  Sheridan closes his eyes to the hallucination.  Sheridan orders his tired and weakened limbs to move.  They won’t.  He can still feel his recorder in his left hand and he hears the tape turning.  He opens his eyes and can see the multicolored ghost fires dance brightly in the dark sky above him, and the sad, shadowy form of a Cree warrior, the horizon-walker, materializes.  He beckons Sheridan with his hand to join him at his campfire.  He whispers some words in an Indian dialect and points toward the horizon.  There is a sad, understanding tone in his voice.

As he comes closer, Sheridan sees a scarred face, and leather clothes torn and bloody as though a wild creature had torn and fed on his body. Something cold grabs Sheridan’s arm and drags him roughly out of the snowdrift. A large foot rests heavily on his chest, and huge, strong, claw-like hands rip off his parka.  The wind whips across his face, torn stomach, and exposed body.  Sheridan hears the tearing of his flesh and the crunch and snap of bones as the Windigo devours him. . . .