27 December, 2016 by katelaity
‘It was the fifth year of my time in Moose Factory. I had not only adjusted to the wild world there but had grown very keen to explore as widely as I might between my duties as a doctor. It was the coldest winter yet that I had experienced. There is a phenomenon which heavily affects the cold season in that part of the world.
‘As you know, the settlement lay at the southernmost part of the James Bay, itself an offshoot of the great Hudson Bay. From there one can follow the Northwest passage until it opens up to the frigid waters of the Arctic Ocean, and from there go right up to the pole.’
I could not help shivering. ‘More whisky if I am to survive this tale. I feel as if the arctic blasts were in this room.’
‘It’s quite warm enough,’ Tansy scolded. ‘The fire is cheerful too. My friend is a little too inclined to fancy.’
‘No matter,’ Rae said with magnanimity, reaching over to pour out another generous measure of the amber ambrosia for me. ‘I take it as a compliment that my story brings a chill, for at the time I could not contemplate a more terrifying story myself, even if I had to live it out will I or n’ill I.’
‘So this is not a tale you were merely told?’ Tansy’s eyes glimmered in the failing light. I had forgotten just how far north we were that it should be so. My friend had an unhealthy interest in tales unexpected and uncanny, that I thought most unbecoming especially when he was she. Women should be delicate things so we can feel manly beside them. A woman like Tansy was, well, she flummoxed me often.
‘No, indeed. I heard it first as a tale, which I discounted being an ignorant colonialist. But I saw with these very eyes the truth of the matter, though it was rather different than even that strange tale suggested.’
Rae refilled all our glasses for the chill in the air persisted despite the crackling fire. I shall never forget the leaping golden light as it flickered across his features. Though an old man now, you could see in the play of the firelight the brisk young man who had struck out for the wilds, who championed fairness in an unfair world and who dared much without fanfare because he had a heart of matchless courage.
‘I had wandered north during a quiet time to see a family I had become friendly with. I often grew tired of the squabbling folk who inhabited the Moose Factory, Europeans who were there to loot the land, and unoccupied in the cold months, turned to gambling and gossip and abusing the Cree and the Algonquin who traded there despite the hostile climate. To relieve the tediousness of their company, I often wandered abroad getting to know the wilderness, meeting the other folk who lived there. It is a harsh life but one of great beauty if you like wildness. Being Arcadian I have a taste for places others might find lonely.
‘Though I had headed out with no particular aim to my steps, I found they led me to the home of the woman Paskus. She had a large home in the woods with her two sons and their wives and children, a snug house as ever they made, though with rather more people than a house usually held. It was tribute to Paskus that her family was so strong that they could well take care of one another.
‘The northern lands are harsh and there is no room for sentimentality. You pull your weight in the home or you do not remain in it. When the snow is particularly heavy and the animals hunker down to wait it out, food can be hard to come by. No food means death as surely as a noose.
‘I had idled along enjoying the peace of the woods, but I could tell there was a storm brewing and that it would be a very bad one. I had been seeking a cave where I could hide myself like a bear for a few days when I happened upon Paskus’ house and bartered my way in with assurances that I carried more than enough food for myself.’
‘Would they have turned you away otherwise?’ Tansy asked, perhaps as horrified as I was at the cold-heartedness of it all.
‘If it came down to it, quite possibly. As I said, winter is a harsh time and survival can hang by the thinnest gossamer. Though I must say, as I came to know Paskus and her family, I found that she embodied a hopeful kind of optimism that offered a willingness to be generous—though her sons were much more untrusting of a foreigner like me. As it turned out, however, the hostility they showed had another source, quite unexpected.’
‘The Wendigo,’ Tansy said in a voice filled with far too much unhealthy curiosity.