Fear is who we are.
Cork’s old friend Henry Meloux had told him that. Though not quite in that way. And it was only part of what the ancient Ojibwe Mide had said. These were his exact words: In every human being, there are two wolves constantly fighting. One is fear, and the other is love. When Cork had asked which of the wolves won the battle, Meloux’s answer had been: The one you feed. Always the one you feed.
In his own life, Cork had known more than his share of fear. He carried scars from multiple gunshot wounds and was scarred, too, in ways that never showed on skin. He’d lost his wife to violence, lost friends in the same manner. More than once, men whose hearts were black holes of hate had targeted his children, and he’d come close to losing them as well. In all this, fear had sometimes been the wolf he’d fed. But as Meloux had wisely observed, love also shaped the human spirit, and it was this element of his being that Cork had consciously done his best to feed. In far more ways than fear, this wolf had shaped the man he was.
There were different kinds of fear, Cork knew, and some had nothing to do with violence. They were sought out purposely, sought for the sake of excitement, an adrenaline rush—a roller-coaster ride, for example, or a ghost story. When he finally began his investigation, Cork discovered that it was the desire for this kind of fear that had brought the three boys to the cursed place the Anishinaabeg called Windigo Island.
When they set out that moonlit night, this was what the boys knew, what all the local kids knew: On Windigo Island, death came in the dark. It came in the form of an awful spirit, a cannibal beast with an insatiable craving for human flesh. Sometimes the beast swept in with the foul odor of carnage pouring off its huge body and a bone-chilling scream leaping from its maw. Sometimes it approached with stealth and wile, and in the moment before it ripped your heart from your chest, it cried your name in a high, keening voice. It could be unpredictable, but one thing was certain: to set foot on Windigo Island in the dead of night was to call forth the worst of what the darkness there held.
They’d shoved off in their kayaks a few minutes before midnight from the marina on the shore of Lake Superior. It was late July, hot, and there was not a breath of wind. A gibbous moon had risen over the Apostle Islands. The water of Kitchigami was black satin, smooth and shiny. Behind them, the lights of the reservation town of Bad Bluff curved along the shoreline of that greatest of the Great Lakes, and the three boys paused in their paddling and turned back to admire the sequined hills. Then wordless, because it was night and an excursion that called for silence, they pushed on, following the path the moonlight burned in silver across the water.
Ahead of them rose the island. It wasn’t much to look at in daylight. A rough circle a couple of dozen yards in diameter, all of it broken rock, an island so tiny it appeared only on detailed nautical charts. From its center rose a tall, ragged pine, a tree that had somehow managed to put down roots in that humping of stone and had held to it tenaciously through season after season of November gales. The Ojibwe believed the pine was a lightning rod of sorts, a beacon attracting the evil spirits of Kitchigami to that cursed island. Not just the windigo but Michi Peshu, too, a monster that lived in the depths, a creature with horns and the face of a panther and razor-sharp spikes down its back and, some said, the body of a serpent. To the boys on that night, the tree looked like a black feather rising stiffly from the head of a skull almost completely submerged. They approached in silence, the only sound the
dip of their double-bladed paddles and the burble of water as they stroked. They came at the island from the west and eased their kayaks up to the rocky shoreline. They disembarked one at a time, drew their crafts out of the water, and laid them carefully across the broken stone. The moonlight was intense, casting shadows of the ragged pine boughs across the boys like a black net, and they stood a moment, caught in the eerie mystique of the island.
Then one of the boys farted. The long, low growl broke the spell, and they laughed, released from the grip of their own fear.
“Dude,” one of them said. “You let the windigo know we’re here.”
“Dude,” the offending boy replied, “that was to keep him away.”
The third boy waved a hand in front of his face. “If that smell doesn’t drive him off, nothing will.”
“Okay, what now?” the first asked.
The third boy reached into the opening of his kayak and brought out a knapsack. From it he pulled a can of white spray paint. “We find the biggest rock that faces town.”
Which they did. It stood a good four feet high and had a nice flat vertical surface. In the daylight, it would have been dull gray, but in the shadow of the pine that night, it was as black as char.
The third boy knelt in front of the rock, as if praying, gave the can a good shake, then carefully sprayed his message: KYLE B + LORI D.
“How’s she going to see it?” the second boy asked.
“Binoculars, dude, binoculars. I told her I was going to come out here to do this thing and the hell with the windigo.”
The first boy stood back and admired the other’s work. “Awesome. Totally.”
And that’s when the wind hit.
On a lake like Superior, weather can develop suddenly. That night the wind came out of nowhere, sweeping in from the vast open water. The limbs of the pine began flailing wildly, and waves rose up and crashed against Windigo Island and ate the rocks. No
storm cloud obscured the stars or the unblinking eye of the moon, nothing to account for the phantom torrent of air that carried with it a frigid cold churned up from the depths. There was something in this wind that was terrible, something unnatural, and the boys could feel it. They stood frozen, feeding the wolf of fear suddenly prowling inside them.
“Hey, you guys,” the first boy hollered over the cry of wind. “Did you hear that?”
“What?” the third boy shouted.
“I heard it,” the second boy called back. His voice was a high screech because, in his terror, his throat had closed nearly shut. He stared wide-eyed at the third boy. “Your name. It called your name.”
The third boy turned from his companions, turned his face into that furious wind, and listened. He didn’t hear what they’d heard, but he saw something that made his blood run cold. In the black roil of the lake, just beneath the surface, a figure, luminescent white under the glare of the moon, swam toward them.
“Oh, God,” the first boy cried. “Michi Peshu!”
He spun and fled, stumbling over the broken rocks toward his kayak. The second boy was close on his heels. The third boy turned, too, but caught his foot in a crevice between two stones and his ankle gave in an agonizing twist. He went down with a cry of pain that was snatched away by the wind. His companions didn’t hear. They were already on the water, already digging the blades of their paddles into the swells. The boy cried out for them, but they didn’t look back.
Then he heard it. What they’d heard. His name. His name called in a high, keening voice that was carried inside the howl of wind. And he saw the white form sliding toward him in the black water, the monster Michi Peshu coming, and he watched it slither onto the rocks, and he knew a fear such as he’d never known before.
The wolf inside him opened its hungry mouth and prepared to feed.