The Wendigio is a supernatural, cannibal creature of Native American folklore, said to prowl the deep Canadian and Alaskan forests. In the southern United States, its counterpart, the legendary Rougaroo, combs the swamps for victims. On the western plains, it is known as the Camp Eater, devouring whole villages and tribes. All three possess incredible strength and speed, and the hunger of a werewolf. There is no escape for those who run afoul of such a beast.
This tale takes place in the frozen Alaskan wasteland, where an Aleut tribe has always known such monsters exist. They stand ready to kill anyone tainted by the curse.
The unfortunate young girl’s name was Akkilokipok; in the Aleut language this meant soft snow. And when Soft Snow became pregnant, she swore she had been with no man.
“How can this be?” she beseeched the tribal shaman.
The two knelt in the tiny igloo, while the old man consulted the spirits. He finally spoke in a tense whisper, “You are not with child. You are with Wen-di-go!”
Soft Snow gasped, “My baby is a monster?”
Hot tears ran down her cheeks as she recalled the ancient legend about the creature who was born in ice caves and emerged to prowl the vast expanses of snow, searching for human flesh. A shape-shifter, the beast would appear as a man, able to unlock doors and turn knobs to gain entrance into homes. And then as he crept upon his sleeping victims in the darkness, he became the flesh-devouring Wendigo.
Once he was in his true and terrible form, there was no escape. The more flesh the Wendigo consumed, the more he had to have. And the beast was smart, gaining all the knowledge each of his victims had stored in their lifetimes, including that contained in books and maps.
Soft Snow remembered that, according to legend, the Wendigo and his siblings were born in a remote ice cave and there was only one such monster abroad in the land at any given time. Should it happen that any human was able to best a Wendigo, one of the fallen monster’s brothers would emerge from that cave to take his place.
“A Wendigo has been slain in a neighboring village 20 miles to the east,” the shaman told the girl, his voice breaking into her tortured thoughts. “The prophecy must be fulfilled. The cycle will continue.” He added sadly, “It is part of Nature and there is nothing we can do.”
And then the elder betrayed the child by warning their village. Upon hearing the news, everyone turned his or her back, shunning the one who was no longer welcome to live among them. Soft Snow’s tearful pleadings fell on deaf ears and, when she approached her mother, the older woman spat at the girl’s feet. “How could you have brought this upon us?” the mother accused and then she, too, turned her back on her only living child.
And so it was decided that Soft Snow must be sent far from the village without food or other means of survival. It was their hope she would perish somewhere out on the great, white expanse without bringing the beast within her to term. But the child kept hobbling back, begging to stay, to be allowed to live with her tribe, the only family she had ever known. It was not until some of the hunters angrily stamped their boots and threatened her with spears that she finally backed away.
As the others watched with narrowed eyes and cruelly curved mouths, the desperate child headed out into the swirling storm. Never to be seen alive again.
Since there was no place to rest, Soft Snow wearily stumbled along, trying to avoid hungry predators. And just as she collapsed onto the tundra and was about to perish, she saw lights glittering brightly, like tiny stars, and the exhausted girl crawled in that direction before realizing it was reflected light bouncing off the icy face of a cave.
Soft Snow managed to crawl inside the opening, grateful for any shelter, and curled in a corner. She soon drifted off to sleep and did not wake until the storm had passed. As her eyelashes fluttered open, she whispered, “I’m still alive! And my baby is alive!”
Then Soft Snow remembered a strip of dried walrus inside her pocket, tucked there that very same morning before she had sought the shaman's advice. Before her mother and the entire village had shunned her.
Ruefully, she realized her people had done their work well as they’d taken her knife and
anything else she might have used to survive. Soft Snow began chewing the dried flesh slowly, trying to make it last.
Then she gasped as a sudden pain ripped through her middle. The baby! It’s coming, she thought in horror. But there were no women of her tribe to soothe her with their words or bring her broth to keep her strong. No one was here to guide the baby into this world or offer prayers that he would be a good man and a strong hunter. Alone at this terrible time, far from any help, Soft Snow fervently whispered prayers to her totem, to Raven and Fish, to preserve her and the child.
And so it was that the girl everyone had condemned to death managed to give birth to her fearsome child in the shelter of the ice cave. Afterwards, when she’d wrapped the babe in her parka, Soft Snow cradled the boy to her chest.
“The others made a mistake,” she cried aloud, her voice ringing through the recesses of the cave. “He is not a monster. Only a child, like any other. A perfectly beautiful, tiny human.” And so, Soft Snow decided to name him Atoinartok, after the God who descended from the stars to live on the land.
“Let my precious son grow to be a strong and brave hunter,” she prayed.
The infant made mewing sounds, rooting his tiny mouth about, seeking nourishment. Soft Snow laughed as she brought the boy to her breast, then screamed as the baby’s teeth bit and tore at her. A full set of very sharp teeth, she realized with terror, teeth that had not been there a moment ago.
Those of her village had been right in sending her away! Soft Snow knew that now. From the moment she was with child, she became part of the legend, and there was nothing anyone could have done. Fated to bring the monster into this world and then doomed to become its first meal, Soft Snow lay helpless and dying on the cave’s icy floor as the monster child ate its way inside her and then out again.
When it was sated, the Wendigo turned from the girl’s remains and went to the mouth of the cave. It set off across the tundra, wobbling along on its tiny, infant’s legs, slowly gaining strength. It continued on a true and steady course, heading for its mother’s village, where there would be plenty to eat. On the journey, the Wendigo child first passed a hungry wolf and then an ill-tempered bear, but both animals were clever enough to quickly set a distance between themselves and the monster. Atoinartok chuckled at this.
“Behold!” he roared after the fleeing predators. “Behold something more terrible than yourself!”
Then he raced after the pair, managing to catch and gobble down the wolf, although the bear disappeared quite neatly by dropping through an ice hole and paddling out to sea. Thanks to this extra nourishment, by the time Atoinartok reached his mother’s village, he was the size of a five-year-old. Waiting until nightfall, he crept into the village and curled up just outside his grandmother’s lodge. Knowing the old woman would not connect a five-year-old with a new baby, he whimpered until KuKax, the mother of his parent, came outside to see what the wailing was about.
Scooping up what she believed to be a poor, starving orphan and bringing him inside, the kindly old woman gave him a bowl of blubber and offered up a prayer.
“May this boy grow to be a strong and brave hunter.”
It was but a few minutes later when KuKax knew her prayer had been answered in a manner she hadn’t intended, for the boy flung aside the bowl and fell upon her. Before she could shout to the others, KuKax died with the warning on her lips.
“Wen … di … gooooooooo!”
Then he-who-had-been-blessed-by-many-prayers walked outside on his sturdy, ten-year-old legs to find the others as they slept. He traversed the frozen landscape as it sparkled in the moonlight, and there was no sound save the crunching of his own steps. Pausing long enough to crouch down, the boy shifted into a dark, animal shape before continuing on to the shaman’s lodge.
The old man had been dozing inside, tortured by visions, waking again and again. And now he sat bolt upright on his nest of warm furs, realizing that Soft Snow had survived. Survived long enough to take refuge in an ice cave.
Outside the shaman’s door, the creature raised its muzzle and howled in triumph, chilling the old man’s blood. Just as the shaman reached for his spear, something large and dark, with the strength of a storm, came crashing in on top of him. The beast ate itself inside the man with dazzling speed and was eating its way out again before its victim could summon help.
By now the others had wakened, while the hunters, fearing an attack by wolves or bears, ran about with their spears, searching for the source of the trouble. It was with great surprise that they glimpsed the figure of a naked, man, exiting from the shaman’s lodge. The hunters brandished their spears, but the stranger gave them an odd smile.
“Run away,” he warned them. “I have eaten all I can for this one night. Run as far and as fast as you wish, but know that I will come for you. One by one. Starting tomorrow night.”
As the villagers stood, staring, the stranger dropped down and his shape began to blur. It was a wolfish creature that sprang up from that spot, pausing only long enough to emit a bloodcurdling howl. There could be no doubt: It was the cry of the Wendigo!
At the sound, the villagers who had stood as if rooted to the spot now sprang to life, shouting their warning, “Wen … di … gooooooooo! Wen … di … gooooooooo!”
In desperation, each person scrambled in a different direction from his fellows in a mad dash to escape. In their haste, mothers abandoned their children and men abandoned their wives, while the Wendigo bounded off across the glittering, white expanse and was swallowed up by the darkness.
When I run short of food here, the beast mused, there are always the more populated areas to the south. His lolling tongue struggled with the pronunciation: Cah … nuh …duh!
AUTHOR'S BIO (90 words)
LOUISE ANN BARTON is a master storyteller from a family of Cherokee master storytellers. She is an author, an award-winning poet, and lecturer, with an MA in business education, a minor in law, and a Master Gardener certification. She has taught at the college level and writes both fiction and non-fiction, including articles, novels, short stories, plays, and children's tales. She edits musical CD inserts and is a ghostwriter. After a lifetime as a New Yorker, she retired to the haunted New Jersey Pine Barrens with her faithful feline companion.