The fight became a blur. The Wendigo screamed, and so did Jack. The sky and earth changed places, tree branches whipped across his face, the overpowering breath of the monster dried his eyes and entered his mouth. His hand was hot with blood and the slick touch of insides. Though he still held the knife, he could no longer feel his hand on the grip, as if he and the blade were bound together.
He thrust, slashed, and stabbed, rolling across the bloodied snow that layered the ground, and feeling the land shift around him as he darted left and right, squatted down, leaped. He used the solidity of the wilderness from which to launch fresh attacks, and at one point—minutes into the fight, or maybe hours—the Wendigo’s scream came again, this time sounding different.
Somewhere in there, Jack heard fear.
He increased his assault, fury and rage giving way to a brutality he had never known existed within him. He was a wild man for a while, defined only by the present and giving no thought to the past or future—he was not Jack London, he had no family, and tomorrow was an unknown place.
At some point, Jack realized that the screaming and screeching had stopped. He was still moving across the damp, warm ground, stabbing and ducking away again, and it took him a while to realize that the ground was not the forest floor. He was soaked with sweat and blood. He could smell a fresh death. And he stood upon the tumbled corpse of the Wendigo.
Jack gasped and stood upright, looking all around. He was standing on the monster’s chest, left foot in a puddle of thick, dark blood. Around him were splayed the thing’s limbs, all of them slashed and flayed, one hand almost severed at the wrist, its fingers clasped around a tree trunk and digging into the bark. To his left lay the thing’s head, thrown back with its monstrous mouth open. Steam rose from the mouth. Steam also wafted from the ruin its throat and neck had become.
Something whistled, bubbles burst, and Jack heard the Wendigo’s final breath.
I can be myself again now, he thought, but he was not certain of that, because things still did not feel right. His heart thundered in his chest, and his hand refused to drop the knife. And that smell…
The stench of rotting flesh was gone, and in its place the mouthwatering aroma of fresh food. Something was cooking—he could smell its sweet, meaty aroma, the tang of sizzling fat—and beneath that, the subtler scents of roasting root vegetables. He sighed and sank down, closing his eyes, transported back to Lesya’s clearing, where he watched her preparing and cooking the kill of the day. Every breath he took brought in a richer smell, and his mouth watered uncontrollably.
“I thought I was no longer hungry,” Jack whispered, but the smell of food all around him exposed the lie in that. He must have been hungrier than he had ever thought possible. Perhaps Lesya had been starving him as well as teaching him her earthly tricks? Maybe she had only planted the suggestion of food in his mind, stripping away layer upon layer of his fat as the days went by, seeking the hollowed core of him….
All around him, the sounds of the forest started up again. There was richness in the birdcalls, and an exuberance to the rustlings and whines of small mammals from the undergrowth. Insects flew, flies buzzed, and Jack was starting to feel like the center of everything. He saw several birds perching on branches snapped during his fight with the Wendigo, and he tried to listen to the song they were singing. He stretched his mind, seeking to join in their harmony, but something dark loomed before and around him, blocking his senses and denying contact with anything outside.
“I’m Jack London,” he said, but the words seemed to hold little meaning. His stomach rumbled and roared as if in sympathy with the terrible hunger he had sensed in the Wendigo. His throat was parched. Flesh will serve my hunger, he thought. Blood will quench my thirst.
The ground was shifting beneath him, trees growing all around. He looked about in confusion for a while, and then he saw that the corpse of the defeated monster was shrinking. Flesh and skin wrinkled and fell away. Blood pulsed from the raw meat as limbs contracted, the chest and stomach caved in, and the thing’s head tilted to one side.
Soon, whatever was left of the Wendigo would be gone. Jack would have to set snares and traps, hunt a rabbit, skin and gut and cook it, and before he could do all that, maybe the hunger would take him, and he’d die an ignominious death beneath these wild skies.
But not if…
He fell from astride the shrinking corpse, reached out with his right hand, and cut a flap of bloody flesh and skin from the thing’s chest. Holding it up to the light, he examined the meat. It was heavy and dark, and still dripping with rich blood. He put it to his nose, just a finger width away from his nostrils, and inhaled. It smelled sweet; uncooked, but its rawness held no dangers.
Jack sighed and opened his mouth, closed his eyes, tongue lolling.
His stomach rumbled so intensely that it hurt. He groaned and inhaled, and the sick stench of rotten flesh hit the back of his throat. Before he could prepare, he vomited, falling aside and dropping the handful of bad flesh. Vomiting again as he rolled away, Jack felt his hand open, and he discarded the knife at last. He came to rest against a tree, gasping at the sky, blinking, and then he sat up and looked around the blood-soaked clearing.
The Wendigo lay dead at its center, and its rot was accelerating. A million flies seemed to buzz around the corpse as its flesh turned black, its skin withered, and it returned horribly to the shape of a man.
Jack had no wish to go closer and see who the man might resemble, so he scampered back to the bear cave, trying not to dwell upon what he had almost done…and almost become. He picked up the rifle and loaded saddlebags, groaning at the ache that had set into his muscles during the fight. The rifle was a reassuring weight again now that the Wendigo was dead, because the dangers he might face would be much more natural. He needed a drink. There was a splash of water in his canteen, and back down the hillside he’d fill up again at the river, and perhaps he’d be able to take a few shots at a rabbit on the way, skin and gut it, cook it this afternoon….
He fell to his knees. I almost ate! If he’d eaten the flesh of the Wendigo, he would have become one himself, a spirit cursed to haunt these wilds and prey on the innocent flesh of future travelers. His hunger would be forever, his suffering eternal, until he met someone brave and strong. Someone with a knife.
Jack had never known himself to be as wild and brutal as he’d been during his battle with the Wendigo. At the time it had felt so right, but afterward that wildness had almost led him to eat the flesh of the vanquished. Something had stopped him, some vestige of humanity, and for that he would forever give thanks.
“I’m Jack London,” he said aloud, “and I’m a human being.” The forest answered him with a brief silence, but as he went back downhill toward the river, it returned to life. Normal, unhindered life.
The storm lessened as he came to the river, and he could still see his footprints in the light snow covering from where he had been fleeing the Wendigo. It felt like weeks before, but he guessed it must have been only hours. He could see the Wendigo’s prints as well, and that gave him pause. Already the chase and fight seemed like a nightmare, and to see physical evidence here of the creature’s existence was shocking all over again. He looked at the blood coating his hands and trapped beneath his fingernails and wondered what would happen were he to swallow some of that. He began to panic. He could feel the crust of drying blood across his face and throat, too, and he must have taken some of it into his mouth, must have, when it was spraying and splashing so liberally back there in the wood.
He fell to his knees at the edge of the river and scooped up handfuls of freezing water, splashing it over his face and head, gasping in shock at the cold but also welcoming its cleansing effect. Diluted pink splashes of blood speckled the snow around him. He washed, scrubbing his hands, scooping beneath his nails with his knife, scrubbing so hard that wounds opened in his skin. He kept washing until his own blood flowed; then he headed back along the river with his belongings, desperate to find somewhere to camp for the night that would give comfort and warmth. He needed to rest, and he needed to dry his clothes. This was not winter—not yet—but if he was to march from the Yukon before true winter did fall, he needed to get moving.
“I’m Jack London,” he said aloud.
He enjoyed putting distance between himself and those woods. Back there, Lesya haunted her forest, and closer to him the corpse of the Wendigo still lay. Perhaps it was rotted down to nothing by now, but there would still be bones, and the ghost of its hunger would always haunt the spaces between those trees.
Feeling that his adventure here was over, Jack once again walked back to the ruined camp where he had seen the Wendigo kill so many. And before darkness fell, he uncovered the fire pit with his foot and went about rebuilding it.
OUT OF THE WILD
JACK WARMED HIS HANDS against the flames, and the darkness was held at bay. This fire felt clean and fresh, and this darkness, though filled with the sounds of the wild he knew so well, carried no threat. He had faced the worst that these lands could throw at him, and he had survived.
Yet he felt no real sense of victory. Right then, he felt nothing at all. He was an injured animal licking its wounds, and shock still held him in its sway.
And his wounds were many. Once he had settled down and lit the new fire, Jack took the opportunity to examine his body in detail for the first time, and he was amazed at what he found. His hands were badly lacerated and bruised, some of the cuts possibly from his own blade, others ragged tears from thorns and snapped wood. He spent some time picking splinters from his flesh by the flickering light of the fire, and some of them were half the length of his fingers. The pain was bright and stark, and he did not hold in his groans of discomfort.
One side of his face felt stippled with scabs, and never before in his life had he wished so much for a mirror. He could trace the wounds with his hands, but trying to place them on the face he knew so well—young, impetuous, confident—was all but impossible. His skin felt so much older, and he knew that his expression must appear likewise.
His arms and legs were badly bruised, three of the toes on his left foot were turning dark, and most of his toenails had fallen off. His stomach rumbled. His ribs ached, and he thought perhaps he’d broken a couple. He coughed into his hand and examined the spittle beneath the firelight, taking some time to convince himself there was no blood there.
As the moon revealed itself and the stars came out, Jack at last began to shake from shock. He wrapped himself in the few blankets he had found around the ruined camp—dried as best as he could before the fire—and knew that he would never be able to fall asleep.
Moments later, though, he drifted away, his head resting on the saddlebags full of gold. And as if that mystical yellow metal informed his dreams, he found himself back in better times.
He knew that he was dreaming, but he had no control over the rush of images that nursed him through sleep. They were recollections from his past, and stuck here bleeding and injured in the wild lands of the north with the cold season rapidly approaching again, he recognized them as some of the most important moments of his life. Here he was walking the roads, riding the rails, and exploring America from the underbelly up. He was poor but happy. He had little but missed nothing. He met some hard people in his dream, and a few who were plain cruel, but Jack always came out the other side wiser and older, and knowing humanity more. Knowing himself more. This was all about growing up.
The sea rolled beneath him as he left America for the first time, venturing out into the Pacific hunting seals, blood and guts up to his knees, the clear sky glaring down at the hunters’ brutal deeds, and the boys and men around him were a quiet, vicious breed. Jack kept to himself but watched them all, and in his dream he could identify each and every one of them: Jeff, the quiet man who would surprise him later with his knowledge of books; Peters, the European who only admitted to speaking English when it suited him; and the man who called himself Graybeard.
People shouted as they hunted him down, his sloop filled with poached oysters, and he knew that when they eventually caught him he’d go over to their side and hunt oyster pirates himself. Perhaps that was a darker part of his history, and this memory—riding the waves as he dodged the fisheries officers and plied his piracy through sea fogs and channels known only to him—was the finer, more honest side.
He dreamed of other things, other places, and every memory made him feel better. He was reliving a harsh life well spent, filling himself once again with knowledge from beyond the wild Yukon, and in a way he thought this was his mind preparing himself for the return.
And then his dreams moved on, and he saw more. Defending the boy Hal in Dawson City. Watching in terror as the Wendigo slaughtered friends and enemies alike in the very camp where he now lay dreaming.
Jack shouted himself awake before the last of the dream, not wishing to reach the end in case there was no more. His life up to now had been remarkable, but there was plenty more to live, and a million places yet to see. He would not lie here and let his life play itself out across his mind, marking relevant points here and there until it reached its end. There was no end, not yet, and he would fight and rage against the darkness as long as he could.
He sat up and stared across the moonlit landscape, dreading the approach of death but feeling more alive than he had in a very long time. The last time he’d felt this invigorated had been that time at the top of the Chilkoot Pass, when Merritt and Jim had first sat with him and shared coffee, with the golden future stretching out before them.
Jack piled more logs onto the fire, stood, and howled at the moon. He did not use Lesya’s teachings or the traces of her magic to find his inner wolf voice but rather let it rise of its own accord. It was an exhalation of pure freedom and joy, and when it was answered from somewhere far away, Jack paused and sank slowly to his knees. There you are, he thought, because he recognized the voice in that reply. Wounded his spirit guide might be, but so long as Jack still drew a breath, it would always be waiting for him out here in the wild, and he needed no magic to find it, only his own heart.