Morning came, and with it a slew of anxieties. Nash sat up slowly, prepared for his bones to scream at him, protesting at the treatment from the night before. But he felt good. A bowl of the fish stew sat on the bedside table, with plastic wrap over it. He was so hungry that he ate it cold, gobbling down bite after bite, almost choking on a tiny bone. The stew had thickened as it cooled, and he luxuriated in the taste of saffron and meat. When he finished, he set the bowl aside, and walked to the shower.
“Good morning, starshine!” Ariel was standing in the shower, grinning brightly, dressed in a pair of shorts and a tank top.
“Out.” He pulled the shower curtain aside. “You too, Gene.” Gene wore a shower cap with her overalls. The two of them frowned.
“Aw, come on! After you got all serious yesterday, you need a little cheering up! I don’t want you trying to kill anyone else in the town. So, what do you say? Shall I wash your back?” Ariel winked at him.
“So you two have decided to become my own personal traumatic hallucinations? For gods sakes, just give me a little privacy. Or at least turn invisible, or something!” Ariel rolled her eyes, and disappeared. Gene stuck her tongue out at him, and did the same. Nash watched the shower for a few seconds, and reached out, swinging his hand through the air. It remained resolutely intangible. “It’s not very nice to appear as an illusion to someone who’s been living with schizophrenia for most of their lives, you know.”
The room remained silent and slightly petulant. He began to undress, and straightened up immediately when he thought he heard a giggle. “That isn’t funny,” he muttered, face red as he stepped into the shower, and let out a breath as the hot water started pouring down. He showered quickly, hoping that maybe, if he didn’t linger, there would be fewer comments. And despite the embarrassment, despite the intrusion on his privacy, he smiled. Voices in his head that didn’t loathe him, that were kind and warm. That was a novel experience.
He studied through his closet. There was no sign of obvious stitching or patching on the clothes Heather had taken from him, but everything looked as good as new. They felt even better, as though they’d been taken in, fitted to his body. He wondered for a moment how she’d gotten his measurements, and decided he was happier without that knowledge.
He took out his cellphone. Coverage was bad, today. He could barely hold on to one bar. He sighed. Old Lady Wendigo was the name he’d been given. He got into the car, noting the small notches left by chitinous claws in the steering wheel, and the way the springs in the back seat seemed to have collapsed under great weight. He was going to have to visit Gene again. For now, though, he drove towards the small city clinic.
He had to take a roundabout route, avoiding the large dome that hung over the suburban area of the city. From time to time, he saw angry citizens striking its perimeter. The defense had been a desperate measure, and it was dividing the city. But from the expressions Nash caught as he passed, it was the only thing keeping the city from exploding in violence. On the far side, he pulled into the small gravel lot outside the clinic. A dozen trucks and cars were parked haphazardly, and the waiting room was similarly out of sorts. Cassandra Hirosata was pacing the chairs, talking with the injured, and bringing notes to Megan Smith. The doctor looked swamped.
He tapped her on the shoulder. Cassandra spun, and recoiled. “God! Why are you sneaking up on me?!” Her face was red as she avoided making eye contact with him. Megan Smith stepped forward, giving Cassandra a chance to regain her composure.
“Agent Nash. Taylor told me that you broke his hand.” Nash coughed with embarrassment, as Cassandra’s carefully marshaled poise withered, her eyes wide.
“It… He was the one who punched me, right?” He paused for a moment, and consciously refused to feel guilty.” It stopped the riot, didn’t it?”
“It certainly broke their resolve. You have a unique talent for terror, Mister Nash.” Megan’s eyes went down to Cassandra, who was holding the clipboard up to block the sight of Nash’s face. “You don’t look as though you’re injured, which tells me that you don’t need my help with medical matters. So, why exactly are you here? The city is a powder-keg, and I am the only doctor here, which means that I am horribly overworked. Young Cassandra here has been kind enough to help me tell who is maimed and who simply needs a good slap.”
“I need to find Old Lady Wendigo, and I need someone who can convince her to talk to me.”
“Have things really grown so dire?” Megan Smith was staring at him. “Why could you want to talk to… her?”
“I need to learn more about death. From what I was told, she knows death.”
The young doctor snorted. “Well, that much is a certainty.” She looked over at Cassandra, who was giving the two of them an odd look. “How are we doing?”
“Everyone’s stable. I think things have calmed down in town. The most anyone else needs is a bandage, or a painkiller. Take your phone, I’ll call you if anyone comes in with an emergency, alright?” The doctor nodded, grabbing a long cigarette holder and a cellphone from behind the desk. Cassandra was still refusing to look in Nash’s direction.
“What do you see in my face that frightens you so much, Miss Hirosata?” he asked, as Megan gathered her things.
“Nothing, Mister Nash,” she responded, as she scribbled something on the clipboard. Nash sighed, and walked out of the front door with Megan, as the two of them made their way into the street. The doctor seeming ill at ease as the car started.
“You need to understand something. Old Lady Wendigo is Algonquin. I’m Lakota. We are, technically, allies- but it is out of necessity. I can introduce you, and implore her in my position as the Maiden of this city, but she has no respect for authority. You are going to have to convince her on your own.” Nash nodded.
“And on a personal note, I do not like her. She is a spirit of darkness. She is one of the nightmare things spawned by a people who have great hardship to fear. She is not evil because she is a cannibal. She is a horror because of what she represents. The idea that a single sin, committed in the desperation for survival, could corrupt a desperate soul into a monster.” The doctor pulled her coat a bit tighter, despite the bright summer sun.
Nash gave her a brief glance. Clearly a sore subject. “How did you wind up in this city, Doctor Smith?” he asked, hoping to change the subject. The woman looked rather surprised by the question.
“Oh? Well… I suppose that it was a coincidence, really. I heard about the founding of Zion through friends. I had been traveling through the United States, from reservation to reservation, for decades. There were few spirits among them, and those that remained were dying. Few still believed in them. The world is experiencing a famine of belief, and they suffer for it. Most of those who could manage it made their way to the cities, to go to the other side.”
“I heard that a large number of spirits of the people of the plains, the great lakes, the northwest, were settling here. So I decided to see.” She ran a finger down her cheek absently. “I was the second oldest among them, so I was chosen as leader. You are about to meet the oldest.” She laughed softly. “They wouldn’t have accepted her as our representative, but the question never came up. She didn’t want to lead. She just wanted to eat.”
There were three buildings together in a line across from where they parked. On the right was a sushi restaurant. The front window had been shattered, and an extraordinarily unpleasant message had been spray-painted on the door. On the left, a small furniture store had been vandalized. Display models were missing from stands, and the front door hung off its hinges. In the middle of the two, the deli stood. A large, open, inviting place, there was no sign of damage or vandalism. Despite this, no customers were visible through the glass window.
The two of them stepped in. The sleigh-bells hanging from the door handle rung softly. An old woman, with gray hair, wrinkled but merry features, and skin the color of bronze stepped out of the back. Her eyes brightened when she saw them. “Oh! Wendy, Wendy! Miss Smith is here! And a nice young man!” She wore an apron, a loose shirt, and a pair of breezy shorts, completing the ensemble with a pair of sandals that looked just like the ones that Nash had been wearing the day before.
She held her hand up to her ear, apparently listening to a voice that neither Nash or Smith could make out. “Oh, it’s not that warm today! Come out of your freezer!” She held her hand up again. Nash concentrated. He could hear a voice, barely raised above a whisper. It drifted through the large metal door, past the small . “Oh, you can wait a little bit to field dress the deer!” Another whisper. The woman sighed. “Oh, she’s so stubborn. Would you mind joining her in the freezer? It’s the heat, you see. It does bother her bones, nowadays!” The old woman smiled, and lifted the deli counter, providing a space for Megan and Nash to slip by her. “Just in here, dears!”
The large metal door of the meat locker opened ponderously as Nash hauled at the handle. Inside, frost glistened on every surface. Massive slabs of meat hung from hooks, swaying slowly. It was a lot of storage space, especially for a small town.
Megan stayed close behind him as he led the way. The lights were dim in here, and the carcasses of deer, pigs, and cattle crowded around them. He saw someone, tiny, not even five feet tall, hunched over a deer’s corpse. A bright red patch was visible in the deer’s brown-furred chest. The figure was tying a rope around its throat, caught behind the antlers. The other end of the rope was hanging from the rafters. Nash stepped forward to offer his help as the figure finished tying, but with two easy pulls, a hundred and fifty pounds of deer rose into the air as though it weighed nothing at all. Nash stared as the figure tied the rope to a rack, and took out a hunting knife. Then she turned around.
Her hair was white as snow, and her eyes were milky white, filmed over, though she seemed to have no trouble locating them. She smiled cheerfully with a face like a dried apple. Bright white teeth, sharp canines all the way back, were twinkling in her mouth. “Why, hello!” She wore a large overcoat, although it was hung slightly open. An emaciated stomach was visible underneath. “How impolite of me! Megan, how good to see you. And the FBI agent, I’ll wager, who’s been raising such a stir!” The old woman winked, and took out a large bowl. It was filled with deer hooves.
“Snack?” she asked, smiling politely. “No?” She raised one to her lips, and crunched down on it, breaking the hoof in two and chewing with obvious relish. “Mmmm. Doesn’t taste as good as manflesh, but not nearly as guilt-inducing! And the old ball and chain doesn’t give me any trouble for it!” She cackled, and the sound was less like the howl of wind and snow through a world without sun, and more like Great-Aunt Cacky after she’s had just a few too many glasses of brandy, and is preparing to hit on the waiter.
“I’ve heard such things before,” Megan Smith said, her voice as icy as the frost currently forming on the back of Nash’s neck. “I am not inclined to believe that simply because you have settled down with a human means that you’re not driven by your hungers. We both know that it doesn’t work that way.”
Wendy snorted, taking a seat, nibbling on the hoof delicately, now. “Oh, Smith. Always so eager to judge. I made the choice, all those years ago, to live rather than die. And how I suffered for it. Now, I choose to not eat flesh.” She smiled, reaching into the coat, and took out a small bronze token. “Intervention from a higher power. Five years sober.” She studied the two of them. “Now, why have you come to see me, after forty years of avoiding me like the plague? You never come over for Christmas dinner. I’ve been inviting you since I met Nooky. I was feeling rather hurt, at this point.” To Nash’s great surprise, Doctor Smith’s face was turning red, her arms crossed.
“I came because Nash needs answers to set the city right.”
“Did you take Dean Constantinou’s body from the police station morgue?” Nash asked, his tone firm. Wendy raised an eyebrow.
“Do I look like I have the strength necessary to tear open a building like that? And what would I even want with such a body, hmmm?” She smirked. Nash looked up towards the deer carcass.
“I’m learning not to judge based on appearances.” He smiled. “Over five years’ sobriety. That’s an impressive feat, Old Lady Wendigo. You’d have to be a strong person to manage that.”
She nodded slowly, smiling. “My fifth anniversary was last week. Every day is a struggle, but I realized, eventually, that I would rather be hungry and have control than be hungry and have no control.” She laughed again, and locked her milky white eyes with his. “I did not take his body from the morgue, and I have not seen the delicious young man.” He took a breath. She was telling the truth, more or less. The scent around her was sharp and full of frost, but to his surprise, there was something pleasant about the scent. Megan Smith frowned disapprovingly.
“You’d use a ritual that humans made? That Europeans made?” The expression on her face was unpleasantly close to a sneer.
“Why not? It helps. Did you forget that charming holy man from your tribe? ‘I will follow the white man’s trail. I will make him my friend, but I will not bend my back to his burdens. I will be cunning as a coyote. I will ask him to help me understand his ways, then I will prepare the way for my children. Maybe they will outrun the white man in his own shoes. There are but two ways for us. One leads to hunger and death, the other leads to where the poor white man lives. Beyond is the happy hunting ground where the white man cannot go.'” Wendy smirked at Megan, whose eyes had opened wide for just a moment.
“The way to paradise is forward, not backward, Smith. That’s why this place was called Zion, and not Eden.” A flush rose briefly on the doctor’s cheeks, and she turned sharply on her heel, stalking out of the meat locker. Wendy turned towards Nash. “So, is that all you wanted?”
He shook his head. “There’s the stink of death all over this case. It’s made me wonder a lot about stories. About the afterlife, and about the paths between death, and life.”
Wendy stared at him for several long seconds. Then her face splintered open in a smile. “Really? Why do you think I would know everything about that? There’s no truth for you to find, boy. Truth isn’t why we believe. Every person has their own beliefs about the afterlife, after all. It takes different shapes, and even if I told you what I know, I couldn’t promise it would help you.”
“I know that. But- This isn’t about The Truth.” The capital letters came easy to him. Probably because he hadn’t taken his medication in too long. “What I want is Your Truth.”
Wendy nodded slowly. “Well, then. This is the story that they told in my tribe. About the land of the dead, and those who returned from it. Imagine, if you will, that someone shone a light on our world, casting it in stark relief against the wall…”
Shadow puppets. Nash remembered playing that game as a child, although he’d never been any good at anything except Deformed Rabbit. An entire afterlife, made up of the shadows cast by life. Not the real thing, but close enough. There was the same geography, and the same animals, and the same people, all rendered in varying shades of darkness. Men hunted animals, for an eternity. Some might consider that a form of hell. But…
A place where you will never starve, where there is always plentiful game, and where you can practice your hunting day in, and day out. Where there was no war over resources, where there was no jealousy, where men could simply exist. And imagine what animals might be there, for they were the shadows of every animal that had ever existed. An eternity of testing oneself, and living only in the moment. You could go forever without having to think about tomorrow, simply enjoying what was in front of you at the moment. There were worse fates for the dead. Nash even forgot about the cold while he listened.
“We didn’t talk about people coming back from that. Anyone who didn’t want that as an afterlife wasn’t worth bringing back, after all. If you were unhappy with your life among the shadows, then how could you be any good to your fellows when you came back?” She smiled.
“Nonetheless, one thing that was certain was that if you ate of the shadowy beasts, you remained there. It hung like an anchor in your belly, replacing your flesh with shadow, so that you could never again go out under the sun, lest you burned away. It was said that brave men could find the place in the darkest thickets, where the shadows grew so deep they became solid. If you walked those paths as the sunlight died away, then you could find yourself among the dead, ask them questions, and be reunited with them.” She studied him. “What questions do you have to ask the dead?”
He shook his head. “I don’t know, exactly. But someone out there does. Someone was trying to raise Dean Constantinou from the dead. He was…” He shuddered. “He was screaming, when they tried. I’d never heard something so awful.”
Wendy was silent for a few seconds. Then she shook her head. “I suppose that three possibilities spring to mind. The first is that wherever the boy’s soul was, it was in agony, such that it had been driven mad. It might not even have known life was being restored. Second, perhaps it was so happy where it was that the idea of being brought back to this world, with all its strife, its pain, its monsters, was too much for the boy.” Nash nodded. The thought had occurred to him.
“Or, perhaps, it was the transition. Perhaps the strain on his soul was too great. It is a problem here. Where beliefs mix and clash, it is so easy to forget the gulfs that exist between us. My power is great, and I might even be able to drag the souls of one of the dead back from that shadowed hunting ground, if there was a good reason, and they were willing. But I could not drag someone from the Meadows of Asphodel or from Yomi’s dark grip. Certainly not without the help of the rulers of those places. They are jealous keepers, and not fond of heroes.” The woman smirked.
“I’m not a hero,” said Nash.
Wendy was quiet for a few moments. “You are weak, Agent Nash. Even with the gifts you have been given, you are nothing compared to some of the heroes here. Why do you think that you have a chance of success when no one else does?”
Nash looked her in the eye and read the answers in her cold gaze. “Because I am not a story, or a myth, or a legend, or a cautionary tale. I am a human, and I am not fated to fail.”
Wendy laughed, and the sound was much less friendly this time. “Give me your right hand, Agent Nash.” He frowned, and held it out. “Hold out your index finger.” He did so, somewhat more reluctantly, as she took his hand. “The knowledge I have to offer you comes with a price. Are you prepared to pay it?” He swallowed. Her teeth gleamed like icicles as she smiled at him.
“I will have to start over again. It will not be the first time. But I cannot change the fact that there is a price. Will you pay it?” He swallowed again. The loss of his finger. She wouldn’t, would she? But… she was a monster. A flesh-eater. He thought of what it must be like. To crave the taste of human flesh for so long and to give it up willingly. To be a creature defined by its hunger for the flesh of men and to get a taste of it after years of deprivation. Was Dean worth it? Was anyone in this place worth what he was about to give up?
Of course they were. It was the index finger on his right hand. Nothing good had ever come from it. Just a dead woman. He nodded softly to her, and she wrapped her lips around his extended finger. He felt the sharp points pressing against his skin. He braced himself for the pain, as her jaw tensed.
There was a sound like a drain disposal, and she released his finger, dripping drool. “Mmm! Delicious.” She looked up at him. “What? It’s alright if I just lick, that’s not breaking my oath. Just like an alcoholic can sniff as many wine corks as they like without breaking their oath.” She smirked. “My darling Nooky taught me that you can have an awful lot of fun just licking people without biting them.” She cackled as he pulled his hand back, trying to make the movement nonchalant. “Sticking your finger in a Wendigo’s mouth! You’re not powerful, but you’re not weak, either, are you?” She smirked.
“I have fought Echidna, you know.” He knew his tone was defensive. Wendy smiled kindly.
“And if she’d been of a mind to kill you, really kill you, do you think you’d be talking to me right now? There’s no shame in being weak. You’re a human. Not a hero, not a monster. Despite that, you’ve been doing well.” She smiled. “You might want to listen when an Algonquin woman tells you about weakness. You might learn something very valuable.”
She took a seat, and he nodded, sitting across from her. The cold of this place was growing uncomfortable, but he was close now. “Now, you remember what I said to Miss Smith? About the ways of the white man?” He nodded. “Remember that. It’s vital. If you are weak, and others are strong, you need to learn why they’re strong. You need to learn from them, even if that means humbling yourself. Even if it means tolerating them treating you like a foolish child. Do you understand me, boy?”
He smiled wryly, and she laughed. “Good. The second thing is, nobody is truly strong if they’ve never been weak. Powerlessness is a fire that burns inside of you. In some people, it burns them into ash, and they become useless. But others are like steel. The powerlessness forges them, and makes them strong, so they are never at the mercy of others again.”
Her face grew hollow. “I was weak once, boy. I was sitting in a hut, watching my father’s corpse freeze over, feeling my body shrink. I was given a choice. I could die, slowly, painfully, in the cold, or I could become a monster. And then, many years later, I was given another choice.” Life seemed to return to her expression. “I could be a monster… Or I could be something more.” She looked him in the eye. “Is there anyone in this world, who you would die for?” she asked, and Nash was silent.
“I… don’t know.” he admitted, frowning. The woman nodded.
“Change that. If you don’t have someone that you’re willing to die for, you’ll never find your way to the afterlife.” She smiled. “If you want to change stories, you need to start with someone you love.”
“Who was it who said that? About outdoing the white man at his own game?”
The Wendigo smiled. “Oh, he was a Lakota man. A holy man. Very clever. Even if he wasn’t of my people, what he said made sense. So I decided to follow his example. I think that he would have approved of that.”
She stood up, and walked over to the deer. “Now, I need to get this dressed. Off with you, lad!” He turned around, quickly, as the sound of metal sliding through meat filled the air. He winced as he walked out of the locker and into the sudden shock of warm air. Doctor Smith was sitting at a table with a large sandwich. Watercress, avocado, and tomatoes. She looked up, a peevish expression on her face.
“Finished talking with her, then?” Nash nodded. “Good. Drop me off at the clinic, would you?” He nodded again. The two of them walked out of the deli as the doctor grazed on her sandwich. The drive back was quiet, and Nash felt compelled to fill the silence with a question.
“Why exactly are you so angry at Wendy? She seemed… Well, a lot nicer than I would have expected. She didn’t even bite my finger off, and I was certainly asking for it.”
The doctor was silent for a long time. She opened the window, and lit her cigarette. She took a deep puff, her fingers fastened tightly around the ceramic of the cigarette holder. Her cheeks hollowed, and her nostrils flared. Finally, after a minute had passed, she spoke, smoke streaming out the window. “We both lost so much. Our families, our tribes, scattered and broken. She was a spirit of dark things, and never well-liked by her people. I was a spirit of good luck, and prosperity. And where I have been set adrift in the world, with nothing, not knowing where to go, or what to do, she is improving herself. She takes the tools of Europeans, and embraces them whole-heartedly, to be better. And she fights her lust for flesh. I have to admit…”
She shook her head. “I am jealous of how well she adapts to the world. She doesn’t simply survive. She doesn’t hide. She is using the future. And I wonder to myself, is she betraying her ancestors and her people by adapting? Or am I betraying them by holding to my traditions?”
Nash was silent for a moment. He’d never been much good at comforting others. But if he didn’t try now… “Maybe neither one of you is wrong. Maybe you’re both doing something very important. if you both dwelt in the past, you’d never move forward. And if you both left it behind, you might not know what direction ‘forward’ is.” He sneaked a peek. She didn’t seem as though all of her woes had been dispensed by that one platitude, but she didn’t look as miserable, either.
The two of them pulled into the clinic. Megan smiled at him as she stepped out of the car. “I hope you found what you were looking for.”
“A start, at least. I’m still not even entirely sure what it is I’m looking for.” His phone rang, and he held it up as the doctor exited the car, walking towards the clinic. It was Pearl. “Hey, Pearl. I think I got a bit of guidance from Wendy.”
“Good. Meet me at the cemetery. Bring Cassandra. I’m going to initiate you into the Eleusinian Mysteries.”