A loon called this morning, loud and clear in the cold hours before dawn, but it was not that which woke me from my sleep.
As I opened my eyes, the bay and the beach were wrapped in heavy blackness, invisible clouds shutting out any hint of starlight above. For a moment, I lay in my lean-to, breathing heavily under the shaggy bison skin blanket.
The back of my neck still tingled with the touch that had woken me—light and soft, like the caress of my wife when she wanted me to put more logs on the grate. But she has been gone these two years, and in that time there has been no other. I am alone here, and have been for months.
Out on the water, the loon called again—her high, mournful keening sounding like the weary howl of a lost wolf. I had thought the loons had all flown already, south to warmer climes. For here it grows colder every day, and soon winter will pin me to this chilly beach.
I do not know the exact date today, for I have not kept careful count, but it must be November by now. Neither do I know precisely where I am, save that I am far beyond any claims of Nouvelle-France, over the stabbing peaks of the Montagnes de Pierres Brilliantes in the watershed of some west-flowing Missouri of Nueva California, which I take to be the Rio Santa Buenaventura that the Spaniards have long sought.
I call this wide expanse of water Bais des Cedres, but it may yet prove an interior sea. If I do find an outlet, it will not be until spring. And then I will know at last that I have charted the rumored Mer de l’Ouest—that great bulbous basin of the sea which Nolin marked on the map he stole from De l’Isle, and which must be the last leg of my two years’ wanderings, the terminus of what will prove to be a Northwest Passage, which will lead me finally out, to die, on the océan Pacifique.
Moments later, the loon called several times more, rapidly and angrily, her voice sounding strange in the shifting curtains of mist—first near, then far, then near again. I have never heard a loon cry with such alarm, save once when my canoe chanced to separate a mother from her young, so I peered from my lean-to out into the biting air of the night, watching for intruders.
There was nothing save the dim white tops of the low waves as they rolled in from darkness and obscurity. Wave after wave, lapping in regular beats, just as it has always done, in all the months I have stopped on this beach.
But then there was something else.
On the tip of a prominence to the west of my camp, something moved. At first, it was barely visible through the screen of trees that crowded the spit. But soon, it had rounded the point into open view, and was sliding down the near side toward me, following the contour of the beach where it met the waves.
I could see it clearly enough now, but still it had no form or shape. It was simply a glow—simply the glitter of the sand and the mist where some light or energy passed, bright and eerie enough to raise the hairs on my neck as I watched. On and on, the patch of light crept along, cold and quiet, rapidly spilling across the flat beach and up toward the treeline above, until even the sand at the opening of my lean-to began to glitter, a mere arm’s length away.
Then, with swift suddenness, a sharp ray of light pierced my eyes from the inky bosom of the bay, dazzling and half-blinding me.
Dark again, the sharp ray gone—but its echoes still blotting out everything in the darkness. I could not be sure of what I saw, could not be sure of the long black shape that seemed to pass in the water below my lean-to, trailing close after the light. But my ears were not dazzled, and plainly I heard the faint dribble of water as a paddle broke the surface of the water—then the creak of a bowstring, and the soft low hiss of a hunter who spies his prey.
The light had moved some distance down the beach, and had caught the yellow-green glow of a deer’s eyes. There it hung as the animal stood transfixed to the spot, a silhouette in black shadows and red fur above the still-glittering sand.
Then something dark and thin shot through the light, and the animal staggered suddenly as if struck by a blow. Foundering to its knees, it disintegrated into thrashing hooves and arching neck. Splashes followed and something dragged the dying deer out of the lantern glow toward the bay. For I understood everything now—the light was a lantern on a canoe, shined by hunters to dazzle deer and wapiti that strayed close to the shore.
For an instant only, I saw the hunter himself as he bent over the stiffening legs of the deer—a black shadow, hunched and distorted in the dim yellow glow, but the shape plainly, incongruously visible all the same.
And as I watched, I knew—whatever it was, it was not a man.
Instead, my eye followed the lines of the shape, and clearly I saw the head and neck and wings of an enormous prowling heron, seven feet tall at least, towering over the carcass of the deer amidst the flickering lamplight, and glaring down the beach—head and eyes leveled coolly in my direction.
Then the deer was pulled away into the water, and the lantern blinked out, and all was dark again.
In the first light of morning, I followed the waterline and saw none of the splay-toed marks of heron’s feet I expected. But instead, cut sharply into the frosty sand, I found a single smooth oval—unmistakable for what it was, the fresh and clear print of a man’s leather moccasin.
If my reckoning is true and December has now come, then it is now the second winter since I shook the wretched dust of Lac Supérieur, the canting voyageurs, and the Compagnie de la Baie d’Hudson all from the soles of my feet.
For had I not come back from laying the company’s traplines to find my wife, a Salteaux Chippewa, fled into the forest with my infant son? Did I not follow her along the trail that led to her father’s village among the Anishinaabeg until I found her bones strewn among underbrush, where wolves and worse had thrown them?
But enough. That memory does not bring her back. And here, though I have fled far enough from the lying tongues of men, I fear I may have found things even more damned instead.
I made the discovery as I entered a wide clearing, at least two hundred yards across, empty of all trees except a sparse collection of ancient thick-trunked oaks. A carpet of dead, brown ferns as high as my knees covered the ground below, dried leaves bowed under the light falling of snow that dusted them.
The place was charming in its way, or at least different from the endless woods of wrinkled red cedars and lichen-spotted hemlocks that otherwise ringed the bay. Rattling my snares loosely in my hand, I crossed—eyes alert for the million little disturbances that mark the trails of hares, of foxes, of mink.
But only ten yards across, my foot kicked something under the ferns, and it rolled end over end to stop among the roots of an oak. Bending to pick it up, I found myself holding the ribcage of a small deer. Smooth white ribs showed through the accumulated dirt and patches of still-clinging fur. Carelessly, I threw it aside.
The woods are full of such things, and more than once I have squatted on a trail, only to slowly realize that the last remains of some animal are splayed horrifically about me. It all eventually blends with the earth itself—dirty bones, patches of fur, hooves, antlers, teeth.
But there, in that oak clearing, I was not squatting on the remains of one deer. Instead, looking about, I saw there must have been a hundred animals slain there—a thousand—more! I had only to put my foot into any clump of ferns to turn up some grisly remnant of the slaughter.
I kicked up beaver skulls and shattered turtle shells, far from any water. Then disintegrating rabbit skins, the fur falling out in great tufts. The parts of small deer were everywhere—the usual leftovers after the crows and the ants have done their work. And then there was what, with a sudden flash of horror, I realized must be the still-articulated bones of a human child’s arm.
I dropped that with a cry, waves of shock suddenly transforming the place around me. Then I looked up to the sky.
My eyes followed the trunk of one of the oaks up to the bare branches that spread against the white winter sky like cracks in the firmament. And there, silhouetted in black, I could see the loose ovoid webs of nests balanced precariously—herons’ nests, in tree after tree, everywhere surrounding me, two dozen of them in the clearing or more.
But the nests were wrong. They were large—much too large by an inconceivable factor. Where there should have been four or five in each tree, only one or two seemed to fit.
By now, all charm had drained from the clearing. It felt instead like some ceremonial place, with the litter of sacrifices strewn about my ankles. No living bird could have built those nests—they must be the handiwork of depraved men.
I loosened my rifle and unscrewed my powder horn, but nothing stirred in the woods around me. There was no sign of men. Then I saw, at the base of an oak, a huge contorted shape. It was a feathered neck, as thick as my own upper arm, curving up from a crushed riot of feathers and then back down to earth again, where lay the terrible head—the long slashing beak, the hollowed and rotten eye sockets, the obscene bulge of its gullet.
Shivering, I stepped closer, but the bubble of the nightmare refused to burst. With trembling hand, I plucked a feather from the wreckage. It extended the length of my forearm and longer—and this was a baby, some fledgling that had fallen from its nest above before it was able to fly. I stepped back and looked again from tree to tree, then at the remains of the dead animals around me.
Instinctively, I crossed myself—but the evil-feeling chill only deepened.
Though I had hoped never to see them again, the hunters of last November have returned. Indeed, I would rather never have thought of them at all—or of that terrible oak clearing. I had hoped to spend the winter minding my traplines in quiet solitude, and then to depart alone again in the spring.
It is February now, I think—not yet spring. And in the past months, even I could not escape noticing what I know is wrong about these woods. It is nothing definitive, and all easily ignored by a pigheaded man who wants to be blind. But there is the profound emptiness and quietness, the absence of so many smaller game animals, and the strange scratchings on stumps that I know are not the work of bears or cougars.
Having seen all that, it should have been no surprise to me that the hunters would return.
They came by canoe, and my first sight of them was out amid the mist of the bay—that same great heron shape, head cocked in hunting stance, standing terribly in the prow of the canoe as it silently glided past the tip of the prominence in the golden glow of sunset. And the unnatural size again—man-sized or more.
My heart turned to ice but still I looked, and I saw the canoe was paddled by four other figures—apparently herons themselves. It was in looking at those four, who moved so much like men, that finally the illusion was broken and I saw that the heron was not any real heron at all, but rather a man in monstrous bird dress, worn for God knew what reason.
How long had it been, before today, since I had seen another man? Six months, at least—but for two full years now I have avoided all as much as possible. That I knew now I had to deal with humans and not some monstrous birds was not, to me, much of an assurance or improvement.
If my rifle had been at my hand and charged, I would have shot over their heads at once. But it was in my lean-to, and I sat on a stony hillock above my camp. All I could do is watch as the canoe came to rest against my beach and the man in the bow leaped nimbly out.
The intruder called up to me, his voice sounding strange after so many months of hearing no talk. He spoke some jargon unknown to me, very different from the Indian languages of Haute-Louisiane. Grudgingly, I called back in Spanish, French, and Chippewa. I tried fragments of other languages I had learned, but by the time we stood face to face at the foot of the hillock, it was clear we could not understand each other.
My relief at this remains immeasurable.
Night has fallen and the canoe has departed, but the man is with me still. Despite all my signs of indifference and even unfriendliness, he insisted on teaching me his name, which is seemingly Ololkolt, and then in interrogating me by signs.
At first, I merely ignored him, and instead stole glances at his strange costume. I am no longer surprised that I was deceived by the night hunters into thinking they were not men, for even in daylight the illusion is very convincing. These men wear gray tunics and cover their arms and faces with streaks of silver mud. They carry heavy capes that they can throw into a remarkable semblance of wings, and affix long wooden carved herons’ heads to their own shaved skulls.
But more than all this, these heron-men also have a curious way of standing that causes them to disappear almost entirely into their costumes. As soon as they strike the correct pose, the human melts away and the monstrous avian appears.
With this evidence before my eyes, I wonder now if the creature I thought I saw in the oak clearing was not really some such fabrication as well. Tomorrow it seems I will have a chance to find out—for Ololkolt insists on my accompanying him to that cursed place. Or so, at least, have I gathered from his signs.
I regret to say that I made the mistake of recognizing a sign he showed me—a circular collection of overlapping sticks that I knew at once must be a heron nest. But no sooner had he noticed my understanding than he began making sign after sign. He had guessed what I had seen, and he inquired about their size, number, distance, and location. Now he will not leave me, staying even after sending the canoe away, and it is clear he means me to take him to see the nests tomorrow.
God preserve me. That dead creature in the clearing is real, and more horrible even than I had thought.
I gave my wife all the money I had when I left to lay the company’s lines with the voyageurs. This was two years ago at Lac Supérieur. I want to write this in case I do not have another chance.
As I said, I left her my money, and it should have been enough. But while I was gone, the wild rice turned spotted and feeble, and the knockers could harvest no berries, no matter how they brushed the grass. Then, one of her lying neighbors swindled her out of half the money. Another pressed collection of an old debt. A third refused her credit, even against my salary. A fourth promised to help, then left the village without doing anything. A fifth demanded offensive terms.
I learned that she fled into the forest on the trail back to her father’s village—hungry and friendless as she found herself at the trading post, it had seemed the only course. As soon as I heard, I followed. But all I found were half of her bones, and none of my son’s.
It is a mysterious fact that in any village or settlement, there is always one going hungry, one shivering cold, one dying alone, one rotting in prison. Yet, despite all of this, there is never anyone found to be responsible for any of it.
And so I left and came west, looking for this Northwest Passage and death. Coureur de bois, the woodland runner, no longer having to do with any other man.
It was my wife’s touch that awoke me again this morning. But there was no loon and no night hunters—only the ceaseless lapping of the waves upon the beach. Still, I could not shake the dark premonition that called me from my sleep, and by mid-morning I saw the canoes round the tip of the western prominence.
Ololkolt has brought a dozen canoes with sixty hunters—all dressed in full costumes. Impassively, I watched them land from my hillock, filling up my beach with false heron-men. They could not want me or need me. I had already shown Ololkolt the way to the nests. It was their affair now.
But two hunters dashed up the hillside to me and dragged me down—not roughly, but not allowing any resistance. Ololkolt threw a tunic and a wooden heron head on the ground before me, and insisted by sign that I dress. He is young—or so he seems—but he is not a man to be defied. A moment later, I shivered as two hunters pressed cool silver mud to the exposed skin of my arms and face.
The ancient oak grove is as dark and baleful as I remember. Later in the year, the branches will fill with leaves, hiding the cursed nests from view. But for now they hang heavily above, large and thick enough almost to cast shadows on the clearing floor in the cold spring afternoon.
The march has taken almost half the day, but Ololkolt gives little time to rest—just enough to scribble these few words. And already he is striding actively about, dispatching his men in parties of two or three among the trees. Just as quickly, they begin to climb, ascending the thick trunks with dizzying speed. He has assigned me a tree as well—the same apparently as Ololkolt himself intends to climb.
I have no choice—I will be forced up. The oaks on every side of me are already full of warriors armed to the teeth with bows, axes, spears, and cudgels. If I were to resist or flee, it would be the work of a moment to cut me down, a thicket of arrows sprouting from my back.
All around me, squirrels fling themselves wildly out of branches, fleeing from the climbing warriors, but otherwise the woods are eerily calm. Even the breeze has died in the air, and the ceremonial feeling has returned to the place.
I cannot help but feel that something awful is about to follow.
The climbing was quicker than I expected, but still I found it difficult and was soon outpaced by Ololkolt. Long before, the other warriors had found perches high in the swaying branches near the massive nests, their legs wrapped around slim, springy limbs as they fussed with the weapons they had brought and traded low words with each other. Even so, I felt no special need to hurry myself, and I lingered several yards below the top.
Above, Ololkolt gestured impatiently from near the top. As I looked up for my next hand-hold, my foot suddenly slipped. Instinctively, I clung to the tree, the bark smell thick in my face as I scrabbled over the abyss, feet fighting for purchase. But no sooner had I fixed my place securely again than I felt a shift in the air. Looking around, I saw that the others had all braced their positions and were fitting arrows to their bowstrings.
My heart sank. Was this to be it? Here, helpless in a tree, was I to be shot down—never even to learn what it all meant? Even as I had climbed, I had suspected the whole horror of those woods—the clearing, the dead animals, the nests—must be some human evil, and I felt like a fool that I had not fought them at once, even if it had meant death.
But I was wrong. Ololkolt called low and pointed to the south, and then I saw. The fading afternoon sky was dotted by great terrible shapes, skimming the tops of the distant cedars, but gaining altitude with every second. I knew at once what they were, although they were still little more than spots above the canopy.
They were herons, and they were huge. And they were real.
As the birds closed the distance, they began to take form—their folded necks, long bills, triangular wings, and elegant trailing legs. I tried to count them as they approached, flying in a loose formation, a huge specimen leading the way. Twenty, twenty-five, at least thirty great birds bore down, over the tops of the trees toward the nests where we now clung.
At some silent signal, every bow in those treetops bent and released, and a cloud of arrows rose into the sky. Few found their marks, and the ones that did only caused the birds to falter—not to fall.
It was in watching the arrows descend upon the advancing flock that I at last saw the birds’ true size. They were unbelievable creatures, wings eighteen feet across or more. It was all I could do to keep from trembling.
Meanwhile, the bows bent and released again and again, volley after volley raining upon the oncoming birds with hardly any effect. And at last, the herons were practically upon the trees themselves, the final volley discharged at point blank range.
Until now, everything had happened in complete silence, broken only by whistling of wind through fletching and feather, and the occasional squawks of wounded birds. But now the sickening creaking and pinioning of wings was in the air all around me, and the warriors let out an angry, noisome squawking of their own.
Striking their practiced avian poses, they assumed the shapes of herons themselves, acting as though the nests had already been occupied by a rival colony. At last I understood the purpose of the elaborate costumes—they were neither ceremonial nor decorative. They were simply practical, meant to frighten or confuse these monsters if the hunters should encounter them outside their village.
But there was no time for further thought. They were upon us.
The herons broke and wheeled away at the last sting of the arrows, angrily swerving in and out of the trees and past each other in a confusion of feathers and legs. Stiff feathers bristled against my shoulder as one of the birds dived in its maneuvers—that careless touch almost enough to knock me off my perch.
For a moment, I thought of reversing my climb and dropping out of the tree. After all, I had never invited these hunters to my beach, and had not asked to share their troubles. Simply by virtue of being their neighbor, they had pressed me into their fight. It could hardly be cowardice to go my own way.
But somehow, the sight of Ololkolt stayed me. He clung bravely alone by only his legs five yards above me. We had never—indeed could not—exchange a single intelligible word between us, but I felt that I had somehow given him my promise. Even now I can barely explain why I should have felt any obligation, but I did—and even when dealing with the worst of men, I had never been the one to break faith first.
The herons now made a tight turn, and dropped almost immediately back among us. With no arrows ready to oppose them, the birds grabbed clumsily onto branches near the occupied nests. I ducked my head as a shower of twigs and acorns dropped on my head, then looked up again in time to see the warriors now jousting with spears.
In horror, I watched as one bird impaled a man through his chest with its bill. The sharp point slipped in and out cleanly and easily, like a surgeon’s lance piercing a boil. Then the man’s grip loosened on the tree as the life drained from his body, and soon he was falling heavily through space.
Meanwhile, Ololkolt was engaged with two of the birds. They had landed one on either side of him, and lunged at him from both sides. With deft handling, Ololkolt managed to dodge the attacks, and struck back with the sharp bill affixed to his own head. Whipping around quickly, he brought the point of the bill down like the ball of a hammer, slicing a deep incision into the neck of the heron. But no sooner did one back off a step than I saw the other advancing.
It was then that I found my limbs moving automatically, unslinging the rifle from my back as I straddled a branch above the abyss. I had no thought for myself, though the whole tree now swayed at the push and pull of the two huge herons above. I was like a voyageur again, dumbly paddling with my comrades—my movements a part of the greater machine, hardly controlled by my conscious mind, but necessary enough for all that.
I charged my rifle with powder, then drove the ball home. Pointing skyward, I aimed between the shearing branches and squeezed the trigger.
The explosion almost knocked me from my seat, and for a moment my heart hung in the air as it seemed that either I or my rifle must take the plunge. But grasping the tree in one hand and the gun in the other, I at last came to rest safely prone along the limb, and slowly pushed myself upright again.
Around me, all was confusion. The shot had drawn the startled stare of every man and bird within earshot. And the men, quicker to recover from their surprise, had pressed home what advantage they could on the bewildered herons. Several were forced back into the air, and one or two dropped to the earth below, spiraling down at dangerous speeds on broken wings.
As to Ololkolt, I could at first see nothing of what had happened to him. I peered upward, sick at heart if I should have been too late. But then the gunsmoke parted, and Ololkolt’s face appeared in the gap, eagerly urging me to repeat the shot. One of the herons above now showed a bright red circle oozing blood from its breast, but both were still very much alive.
Tipping my powder horn, I charged and loaded the rifle a second time. Raising the gun again, I braced myself as best I could and aimed straight at the heart of the injured heron.
Again, the deafening report—again, the wild confusion.
From behind the smoke, I watched as the twice-shot bird leapt heavily out, its wings stretched in gliding formation, branches gyrating wildly as its weight was suddenly lifted. It flapped futilely once and twice, and then sank rapidly through the branches below, snapping limbs and plunging with a terrible screech to the clearing floor.
Only then did the smoke blow away from the treetop, and I saw Ololkolt gasping and straining, one entire side of his body covered in blood and gore. I leapt up, a madman now, covering the last several yards to the top of the tree in a careless scramble, where I discovered Ololkolt with a knife plunged elbow deep into the neck of the remaining heron, smiling in vicious satisfaction as gallons of the bird’s blood washed over him.
I told no one I was leaving, and no one saw me go.
Not knowing how far it would be to the outlet of the bay, I took enough food from the storehouses of Ololkolt’s village to last for a month or more—camas bulbs, acorns, roots, and a pot of oolichan oil. Fish I can catch as I go, and there are always clams for the digging. But meat I must forgo, for I have left my rifle, powder, and balls behind at the village.
Though the herons were driven off this spring, no one can say how far they went or when they will return. Ololkolt’s village will sleep more soundly this year, but in the future the rifle will do more good for them than it would for me.
From here, I will follow the coastline west, and scout the outlet to the océan Pacifique. After that—what more is there to do?
For the third time, I woke at what seemed to be the touch of my wife. It was dawn, the stars fading fast from the steel-blue sky. It was my first morning alone—the first since that battle with the herons that I had not risen to the sound of children laughing and women singing, or the smell of roasting vegetables in the fires.
I sighed softly, but then the feather touch came again. I rolled over and swatted my neck, and found Ololkolt squatting next to me, laughing as he brushed my cheek with the fletching of the arrow he held.
“Armistead,” he said, calling me by name.
“Ololkolt,” I replied, grinning in spite of myself.
He had seen the rifle I had left in the storehouse, and he had seen that my canoe was gone. All night, he had tracked me alone by lantern light, only to find my canoe overturned on this beach as the sun began to rise.
Even if we spoke the same language, I am not sure how I could have told him that I did not belong in the village—his or any other. Much as I had grown to accept the company of the people there, I could not remain among the cooking pots, the hearth fires, the raising of children, the talk of politics, the annoyances, the bickering, the reconciliations, the thefts, the gossip—in short, among the daily struggle and strife and joy of men and women living close to one another.
So I gave no explanation, and Ololkolt asked for none.
Instead, he placed a fine bow and twenty long arrows into my canoe, clasped my hand warmly in his for the last time, and left me alone to finish my journey.
When I found the outlet at last, after following hundreds of miles of westing coastline, I was surprised to see that I hesitated. To be sure, it was no easy road to the Pacific—it was in fact a tumultuous, rock-strewn channel, too narrow for the torrent of water that dropped through it on the way to the ocean.
Mountains towered on either side of the opening, and the water rushed through in a terrible roaring frenzy, twisted and corded into streams of white foam, and framed by dancing jets and sprays that leapt up toward the sky.
A more exhilarating ending I could not have asked for, but I paused a long while on the brink of the maelstrom. The channel was certain death, but it was the only way to finish the Northwest Passage I had begun. I knew that if I paddled but a little ways further, I would find myself pulled inexorably and finally down into the rapids until, some hours later, my body would wash out in the surf of the Pacific along with the fragments of my canoe.
All that was true. But then—why did I still hesitate?
Later that evening, as I sat in my camp still within earshot of the torrent, I took up Ololkolt’s bow and inspected it closely for the first time. I had never used such a thing, and had preferred to live on fish or clams for the past months. But as I turned the bow in my hands, a deer wandered dumbly across the beach, not fifty feet from me. Almost without thinking, I drew an arrow from the quiver.
The deer turned to look at me—a young buck, brazen and strong. He barely flinched as I rose and slotted the arrow’s nock against the string. The bow’s grip was warm, the arrow fletching light against my face.
And the arrow, when it flew, was true.
© 2013 by M. Bennardo.