The winds of January howled in great displeasure, battering the winding road with mountains of snow. Shivering in equal parts cold and terror, Becky Ohcitaw clung to the leather seat of her husband’s Ford Mustang as it careened northwards over mingled asphalt and ice.
“Slow down, Jim,” she roared, slamming a fist onto his arm.
But Jim Fiddler was a man of indomitable will. He had set his sights on reaching the park by nine o’ clock, and he would make that time, storm or no storm. Jim pressed his foot against the gas pedal, hands glued to the steering wheel, grey eyes locked on the road. Neither the roars of the storm nor the pounding of Becky’s fist could cause him to slow.
Who vacations in a blizzard? Becky couldn’t help but wonder. Around them, white-coated trees slowly advanced towards the road, hemming in on all sides as they entered the forest. There was a crack like thunder as a tree began to fall. With a squeak of dismay, Becky ducked down into her pile of blankets, shutting her eyes to the storm. She waited with frozen breath for their car to strike the tree, no doubt throwing them through the windshield, ripping them into a thousand bloody pieces.
The blow never came, but Becky didn’t poke her head out. I should never have married this suicidal maniac, she snarled to herself. Becky could still hear her mother’s voice in her head. “He won’t bring you any joy. He won’t even make good babies.” She still remembered how her mother had pushed her glasses up the bridge of her nose, frowning at her. “Mark my words.”
The trouble had begun when Becky had refused to change her last name. “What’s wrong with Fiddler?” Jim had demanded for the seventieth time. This particular fight had come on their wedding night. What was supposed to be an evening or romance and desire had swiftly devolved into a shouting match.
“Ohcitaw is a proud name,” Becky retorted. “It’s a name my forefathers bore.” Her family had descended from the Cree tribes of Canada long ago, before her great, great grand-father had come to America. “I’ll wear it to my dying day, and so will my children.”
“No daughter of mine is going to be mocked for bearing that mouthful,” Jim had protested, undoing his white bow tie. Becky hated bow ties.
“As if your name doesn’t have any negative connotations,” she scoffed from atop the bed.
Jim threw his hands up into the air, “What’s wrong with Fiddler?”
Becky frowned at him. “You really don’t see any issues our daughter might encounter with a name like that?”
“It’s a musician’s name!” He roared.
“It’s a schizophrenic’s name!” It was the name of restless minds and idle hands. “Idle hands lead to trouble,” her mother whispered.
And so, they had remained Mr. Fiddler and Mrs. Ohcitaw for the next seven years. Their marriage had been pock-marked with countless fights, late nights at work and periods of bankruptcy, until that fateful day -January 1st, 1960- when Jim Fiddler had suggested they go on vacation.
“What a vacation it will be,” Becky murmured into her blankets, once more riding down the slippery roads of Canada towards a place she’d never heard of before.
Jim had waved the brochure in her face three days ago. “Wood Buffalo National Park,” he said, wearing that cheeky grin that she’d first fallen in love with. “I immediately thought of you, Becky. Your kind used to live there. Won’t it be cool to see where your ancestors were born?”
Becky had taken one look at the map and sighed. Her people hadn’t lived anywhere near that far north. But she hadn’t said anything, only smiled and nodded. Fool that I was.
Flurries of darkened snow danced across the sky, reflecting the headlights of the lonely car as it sped forward. “Please tell me we’re almost there,” Becky hissed, finally poking her head up out of her shelter. She glanced at her husband, still hunched over the steering wheel.
He finally glanced towards her. “Hold your horses. We’ll be there when we’ll be there, and not a moment before.” He loved that mantra. It had become the theme of their entire marriage. We’ll be there when we’ll be there. The only problem was that there was never a ’there’ to find.
This life is as endless as this road, as this storm. Becky leaned against her door, feeling suddenly hot. She pushed her blankets off of her, beads of sweat culminating on her forehead. I need to get out of here. “Can’t you give me a timeframe?” There was no answer. There was a pressure in her skull, pushing against the front of her head. “Jim?”
He glanced at her. “We’ll be there when we’ll be there. Don’t worry yourself, I’ve got this under control.” The storm thundered its disagreement.
Becky was cold again. She retrieved her blankets, bundling herself up as lightning decorated the windswept sky. This vacation is going to be the death of me, she knew. If we make it to this place. She still had no idea where she even was.
The morning did not come with light. Though the wind died, and with it the snow, great grey clouds hung fat and heavy across the sky. Becky was only half-awake as Jim drove them past a sign that read, “Welcome to Wood Buffalo National Park!”
She breathed a sigh of relief and thanked the Lord as they pulled up to a guard’s station. A yellow-and-black beam blocked their passage forward. Becky leaned towards her husband expectantly as he lowered his window.
A brief moment passed, and no one greeted them. “Good morning?” Jim called, a trace of doubt in his voice. He gave the greeting again, and Becky felt compelled to echo it. At the third calling, a man appeared in the guard’s hut, and Jim breathed a sigh of relief. “Thank goodness for that,” he murmured.
“Morning, folks,” said the man in the stand, a look of brief surprise fluttering across his face. He was a Mountie, dressed in the characteristic bright-red tunic, black pants and wide-brimmed hat, which he tipped towards them in greeting. “I’m Oliver Gretzky, and this is the Wood Buffalo National Park.” He gestured to the surrounding woods, and then frowned. “Though I suppose you know that already, don’t you?”
Jim nodded to the officer. “I’m Jim Fiddler, and this is my wife, Becky. We heard about this place in your brochure; it’s twenty dollars per night, right?”
Oliver frowned at them, scratching his head. “You’re not thinking of staying here, are you? It’s the heart of winter.”
“Of course we are,” Jim said, raising one of his eyebrows so high it merged with the long locks of blonde hair on his head. Becky hated when he did that. “The park is open, isn’t it?” Her husband asked, frowning back at the uniformed man.
“Sure it is,” Oliver replied, “officially, anyways. But no one ever comes here mid-winter.”
Becky snorted. “You’re here, aren’t you?”
With an irritated flick of his wrist, Jim silenced her without a backwards glance. “We’ve plenty of food, water and clothing. We’re not going to freeze or starve to death in three days.”
A shadow passed over the young Mountie’s face. “Aren’t you afraid of the Wendigo?”
Jim and Becky exchanged a look. “Wendigo?”
Oliver leaned his head out of the window, his hat scraping the sides of the concrete frame. “Never heard of it? The Wendigo’s a monster,” the Mountie’s voice fell to a confidential whisper, but he sounded more excited than scared, “a throwback from the old days, when Canada was a savage land.”
“What is this thing?” Becky asked from around her husband, slightly nervous. “Some type of wolf?” She hated wild animals, especially those with long teeth and a liking for red meat. Her mother had often recounted her harrowing experience with a grizzly bear.
“It was standing outside of my window, perched on two legs. I thought it was a man, I did, until it got closer.” Her eyes had grown distant then, remembering that ancient terror. “The bear came right up to my window - silent as a shadow - but I could see it. I dove under my covers, hoping that it would go away if I didn’t look at it. But when I poked my head out again, the bear was still with me, a monster blotting out the starlight. I could feel its eyes on me, watching and waiting for me to move. I dared not. I don’t remember when the bear left, only that come morning, the shadow was gone.” Her mother shuddered, before taking another sip of tea. “Sometimes I think it never left. I can still feel it watching me, on cold and dark nights.”
Becky had always feared encountering her own bear, or else some other beast that would gladly have its fill of her flesh. She didn’t like the sound of this Wendigo.
Oliver, however, shook his head. “Wolf? Definitely not, miss. The Wendigo was a human once. His name was Swift Runner, a normal person like me or you, who lived a hundred years ago. Legend has it that once he traveled across the wild with his wife and five children. There was a terrible blizzard at the time, and food was low. So, guess what Swift Runner does? He kills and cooks his whole family, eating them all.” Becky gave a squeak of dismay, which caused the young man to grin. “And the worst part? There was a supply camp not twenty-five miles from his position, and Swift Runner knew it. He ate his family because he wanted to, not because he was starving.”
Becky shied away from the grisly tale, but Jim seemed fascinated. “What happened to this man?” He asked, matching Oliver’s tone of wonder.
The Mountie was more than happy to oblige the question. “He was brought to Fort Saskatchewan and told the police that the spirit of the Wendigo made him do it. No one believed his tale, so he was hanged and buried. But that weren’t the end of it; in these sacred lands, any who willingly indulge in cannibalism are forced to become the Wendigo, cursed to an eternal existence of starvation and desire for human flesh. Swift Runner soon returned from the grave, no longer human.”
“Oh goodness, stop talking,” Becky moaned, feeling her insides twist at the thought of the disgusting legend. “I think I’m going to be sick.”
Jim consulted his maps. “That fort’s a long way away. What’s Swift Runner got to do with this park?”
“Well it’s one of the last wild places, isn’t it?” Oliver gave them a cheeky grin. “Where else could the Wendigo be? Can’t be around people, otherwise we’d kill it. But it’s got to feed somehow; hence this secluded forest, populated only by foreigners and tourists.” He gave them a knowing nod. “Easy meat.”
Becky wrinkled her nose at the Mountie. “Are you allergic to business, Mr. Gretzky?”
“Don’t be such a spoil-sport, Beck,” Jim chortled, waving a dismissive hand. “There’s nothing wrong with a good legend to spread the excitement of a vacation.”
Oliver nodded his agreement. “Of course, except this one’s no legend.” He gave them a huge wink. “I’ve seen the Wendigo myself. Terrifying, it was. Nearly ate my face off.”
Jim returned the wink. “Sure you’ve seen it, lad. I’d wager we will too. Now, how much for three nights?”
Money changed hands, and the two men continued to laugh as the checkered barrier was lifted, leaving the road ahead free. Oliver gave Jim instructions to find the cabin they’d be spending the night in, deep inside the park, as well as a key for the building. Becky clung to her blankets, watching the dark trees of the forest. She could not see far into them, as wood and snow mingled into an indistinguishable miasma of grey nothing. Anything could be hiding in that murk, she decided. I don’t want to be here. But the car began moving again, dragging her further and further into the dark.