In the dark wild woods of our past, people lived in fear. This new land was harsh with its acid ground, its unpredictable seasons, and its strange natives.
The threat of these natives clung heavy to the place, heavy on these settlers. The lore of their cruelty became the backbone of their mythology and the stories took hold, their claws in as deep as the roots of the oak. It pressed them, their clothes stank of it. Their churches were dim and claustrophobic with it. Bound within their skin was a legacy of fear, and along with it came cruelty of their own.
It was during this time of hatred that three men discovered an Indian squaw alone in the thick forest. She was small and terrified, crouched down against the floor of rusty leaves and downy evergreen needles. Tucked up against her–their eyes wide, heads swiveling together like two owl chicks–were her children. They were ten and six, but the men would never know this. Once they found she was not bait in a trap, they descended on her.
When they were done, the men decided to keep the three stored in a barren pig shelter, tight in its stones by Puritan work ethic. The woman sat, still sheltering her children, as they closed the wide doors and fastened them. Her face was swollen, her hair matted, her legs still bloody. Even as they locked them in with no food, no water, no hope of survival, the woman spread her arms to protect her brood. One of the men thought he saw, for an instant, the imprint of a raven, its talons flared, the great arc of its wings curved towards them, as if it were collecting future strength in the boldness of the freezing air.
The chill of autumn was just wafting through the air and Abigail Wyvern wrapped herself tighter in the nubby afghan she had pulled off the back of the couch before they had come outdoors. She watched the wind tangle her mother’s hair as they walked across the fading herb beds and to the edge of the thick moat of forest that ringed their acres.
“Slow down, Little Beast,” her mother called, laughing as she gathered up her long skirt to better follow Abigail. Tucked beneath one arm, Mother held a tattered, handwritten book. A precious diary that traced their lineage back to the earliest settlers. A legacy Abigail’s mother cherished. She did not give up the name when she married Mark, Abigail’s father, and hoped Abigail would do the same someday.
Here, Abigail is only ten and romantic entanglements were far from her mind. The things she loves are time with her mother and the stories told at the edge of the woods, the trees and the wild, plump rustlings of its creatures only enhancing the telling. She often wished they could step across the black threshold between their cleared land and the trees’ mysterious atmosphere, but her mother forbade it.
“Not now, Little Beast,” she would whisper, her arms around Abigail, their faces close. She always seemed seconds away from revealing a secret.
The hard caw of a crow startled Abigail from her memory. She stood inches from the hard line of the coppice, the blanket around her had faded to subtle grays, her mother dead seven years from cancer. Abigail was now seventeen and the scented herbs had given way to neat, ornamental beds, the preferred look for her new stepmother Cassandra.
Abigail wanted to linger in this holy copse, but she knew she had to return to the house before anyone realized she was gone. They had taken to keeping a close eye on her. If anyone had seen her flying back across the lawn she would have seemed a little witch in her blanket cape, her bare feet unbothered as she navigated the rocks and crags.
Inside, her father came fumbling forth to grope his way to the coffee maker. His hair was sleep-stirred, his eyes dulled with waking confusion. The house, once a cluster of small, closed rooms meant to trap in warmth, had been ripped open. Abigail cried when they had returned to the renovated house. Even the dust of her mother had been chased away from her ancestral home. Cassandra often stood in the center of its new openness, breathing in heavily, as if she had been freed from some haunting weight.
“Good morning, Abigail,” Cassandra said, plodding down in her silk pajamas and matching robe. Her hair was neatly smoothed and tucked behind her ears. Plodding behind her like two evil ducklings were Abigail’s twin siblings, Thomas and Margaret. They were as blonde and fair as their mother, like some cosmic balance against the dark mystery of Abigail, whose short, spiky hair was blue-black, her skin perpetually stained by its richer molecules.
Cassandra looked pointedly at the old afghan. Against the sleek couches and carefully selected vases it was a solid anachronism and she wanted it gone. Abigail, without bothering to shed it of leaves and needles, folded it into her arms and brought it to her room.
Abigail’s room was the only one that was spared the remodel. Her father had given her that much after he had brought this strange, sterile woman into their lives. Its lines were simple, the wide, gray wood of its floors were worn to a glow. It had no closets, just a wide runner of peg rail for Abigail to hang various garments from. The rest were simply piled, clean and wrinkled, into a laundry basket near her nightstand.
The room was nearly empty, aside from its large, spindled bed. The was no TV, no video game console, no normal teenage tousle. Instead, a large wooden bookcase held court over one side of the room. In it, neatly and lovingly arranged, were Abigail’s mother’s books. Abigail never entered the room without touching them, without running a hand along their spines. Some of the books were very old, legacies from their deep past. Others were collected by her mother in her childhood, or her later years in college. Her mother had studied anthropology, never straying from her deep love of the legends of New England.
Aside from these, Abigail had other books. She had found them in a secret floorboard cubby that she and her mother had used for secret notes when she was alive. Upon learning that her mother’s ancestral home would be torn away and altered, Abigail had opened the hiding spot one last time before it disappeared. She had found a bundle of books tied together with red ribbon. Now those books were carefully held behind the bookcase, the only hint at their existence a tiny, worn curve worn into the floor when Abigail carefully nudged the bookcase back and forth to retrieve them.
For days, the men left the mother and her children in the barn. Their screams and desperate attempts to escape had entertained them. They often sat at night, drinking and passing hard smiles around as they listened to the panicked, worthless struggles that their actions had incited.
It would be recorded later, in the diary of Nathanial Wyvern, owner of the pig barn, that there was a small area the size of a smoot hole that had been scratched out of the foundation, perhaps enough to reach one tiny hand out of. There was blood on the surrounding stones and fingernails were found in the soil.
After a few days, the noises stopped.
The noise of her siblings interrupting would send Abigail into a rage. Once, she had hit Thomas, a full backhand slap across his pasty face. He had screamed and run to his mother, the red ghost of Abigail’s hand blooming across his cheek.
They had talked of sending her away. Her father had a great aunt who could use some help around the house. Instead, they had gone to therapy, Abigail sitting between them, the image of sorrow and regret.
“I see right through you, fucking little liar,” Cassandra had hissed at her as soon as her father was out of earshot. “You don’t fool me for one minute. Touch my children again and I will be rid of you no matter what it takes. I knew you would be a psychopath just like your sainted mother.”
Abigail knew that Cassandra and her mother had known each other since they were children. The curse of a small town. Her hate had solidified when Abigail’s father had chosen the deep mysteries of her mother over the tiny, neat package of shining wifelike material that Cassandra had presented him with. Abigail’s mother had left notes in the margins of her grimoires that she suspected Cassandra of cursing her with the brain tumor that would eventually kill her.
Abigail had known her mother had been attracted to all that was taboo, her dark, rich looks echoed the shadows of her thoughts. The lump of cancer that had nestled in her brain had allowed her to sink deeper, its ganglions focusing the intensity of her thoughts. She had sheltered her daughter under this dark wing, the air of its bones held aloft by the whispers of stories she shared. Stories of secrets in those woods, stories of cruelty, of revenge, of all the things Abigail would need to gather to protect their legacy.
They might have simply left them there to decompose, but new pigs had arrived and the barn was needed. All three men were there when the door was opened. They had climbed the hill to the structure after a lunch of bread, heavy cheeses, and bitter ale. They were winded by the weight of their fattened bodies and had to catch themselves a moment, feeling somewhat fettered in the air, desperate and smothering. Hastened by this feeling, the men gathered together to open the heavy doors, their hands shaking.
“Wait,” said one man, grabbing the wrist of another before he could lay back the bolt. They stilled, none of them daring to break the silence as they strained to hear even the faintest sound of movement inside that barn.
Then one man laughed, breaking the spell. As if to show them how little he feared, he stepped in and threw the bolt in a smooth motion, throwing open the doors in a graceful swoosh.
An infernal sight awaited them inside.
When Abigail went away to college, she brought only the secret books with her. She would read them deep into the night, their words a connecting thread between herself and the beloved woods she had left behind. She met friends of her mother, they told her more stories. They brought her into their circle, a place of belonging for the first time in Abigail’s life.
Her father had called her, at first, left messages as long as her phone would allow.
“The twins are doing well in school,” his voice would tell her. “They won the fifth-grade science fair,” or “Cassandra got a promotion at work.”
Abigail left them unanswered. She would occasionally call and leave her own message to him.
This was their story until Abigail came home to attend her father’s funeral.
The door caught at the edges due to the tufted grass and thick weeds that had sprung up around it. The tumbling of light that had entered the slice of its opening was more than enough to illuminate the scene beyond. The noise had disturbed some avian thing in the rafters and it had swooped down at the men, shrieking loudly at the interruption of its slumber.
It wasn’t until they had stepped into the barn that they were able to fully survey what lay before them. It began as a huddled, wet mass in the center of a storm of buzzing flies, then solidified into a horrifying vision of what remained of the Indian squaw.
She was almost exactly where they had left her. At first, the men thought she had somehow wrapped herself in a red blanket, but the light revealed that her skin had been stripped away and what they were staring at was her now-bared systems of bone and gristle.
Her eye sockets were empty and the men could see the complicated levers of muscle that had been the structure of her lovely face. A sweet, almost inviting smell rose from her stagnant corpse and one man stumbled back outside the barn to vomit.
The other men remained, their eyes adjusting to the darkness that still lingered in the edges of the structure. They noticed there wasn’t a drop of blood anywhere, as if the corpse had been neatly drained. Her legs and arms had begun to curl in the rictus of decomposition, shrinking back into the compact barrier of earth. The bones in her fingers were arched and delicately open, as if she were offering something. The men could see, upon closer inspection, that large portions of muscle had been torn from her bones.
In those lethal, shocking moments as they surveyed the coda of their actions, they had forgotten to wonder what had happened to the children.
Her father’s funeral was a large affair. Full complement of flowers, Abigail’s stepmother crying daintily on the front pew. Abigail arrived late and slipped into the back. Everyone turned to stare at her and she heard more than one clicking tut as she settled into the creaking curves of the bench. She stared back at each of the turned heads, hands folded in her lap, her face stoic and solid. Fuck them.
She visited her mother’s grave when the service ended. She had no interest in standing in the rain as her father was lowered into the ground.
Her mother’s stone was wide, half of it left blank and meant for her father when he passed. Now he had his own stone with a blank half. It would be Abigail that would fill the ground next to her mother, the roots of the yew tree twining them together.
Her hand on the stone was as lightning, it loosed so much memory. Her mother baking cookies, all of them laughing together in the sugared air; reading scary tales aloud by candlelight for Halloween. She remembered her father’s deep laugh, her mother pushing him away when he brushed his unshaven face against her. He used to gurgle Elvis tunes while he brushed his teeth, her mother humming along with him as she made their bed. All before the cancer had come.
Abigail turned to see her stepmother and the twins coming across the hill to the gate of the cemetery. Cassandra stopped, but did not set her leather pumps off the path to come closer.
“Abigail,” she called over the short distance, “come back to the house with us.” The twins, now tall and full, nodded in unison, adding their approval to the invitation. Abigail said nothing and nodded back. She felt her mother’s approval settle over her like that puff of a ghost. Felt it settle on her back until she was hagridden.
It wasn’t long until after the entire funeral party had disappeared that Abigail began to descend to the place she had lived.
The children were there, hidden in the corners with the bat shit and spider webs. The men heard them before they saw them; their low growls, the rasp of their dragging feet.
The girl came first. Her hair was matted with blood, her lower jaw was covered as well. Her nails were black with it as if she clawed her way from some gory womb. She looked taller and thinner, stretched–a sapling tree wintered over into age. Her fingers were long and grotesque, resting on the ends of arms that hung nearly to the dirt floor of the barn. Saliva had dug tattered lines around the gore of her mouth, the skin of her face was pulled shiny with hunger.
The boy, too, was blood soaked and afflicted. His jaw worked up and down like some grim farming tool looking to lay waste to whatever was before it.
The men took a step back, unsure as to what these children had become. They were still small, thin, and starved, but the men could feel their desperation, some old strength coiled in them like a dark spring.
The girl was shambling towards them. One man reached for a rake leaning against the weathered boards of the barn wall. He raised it, ready to strike, and stared at her as she approached. He was enthralled and disgusted as his brain assembled the truth: to stay alive the children had eaten their mother.
The girl stopped. She was smiling, the curved bow of her little mouth stretching into something obscene. The men held still, made loose by the horror of it and, in doing so, they had forgotten about the boy.
Cassandra was cleaning when Abigail finally arrived. Before she even opened the door, Abigail could hear the sound of dishes being scraped and loaded into the dishwasher. Abigail’s mother had always washed their dishes by hand, their old, crazed surfaces too fragile for the hardness of modern machinery. Abigail could see Cassandra’s bent outline through the sheer curtains as she traveled back and forth from the large dining room table that had only hours before been loaded with funeral meats. Even though it was nearly dark, Abigail could hear the sound of the twins talking while they sat on their old swing set.
Abigail took a deep breath and opened the door without knocking.
The children would have liked to have killed the men slowly, but they were too hungry. It tore at them, painful in their cores like cancer. Their long arms wrapped around the men like roots. They had flanked them, bested them in the hunt, and now they held them still so they could feast on their white skin, their muscles, and blood.
The third man, lingering outside, had tried to run but the children had overtaken him easily. No longer held to the rules of men, they could travel like wind and strike as the damned. Their strength was from the filthy hollows between legends. They were wild, hungry things.
When they had taken what they could of the men, they went back to the barn and stood over the remains of their mother. She had carved into herself to feed them her blood, her flesh, perhaps not aware of what it would make them.
If they still had hearts they would have mourned her. As it was, they had been hollowed to create emptiness inside them, and after only a moment the hunger came roaring back in.
Abigail knew her stepmother had not waited to even bury the father before she had sold the woods. Condos, someone had whispered approvingly at the funeral.
“Do you know what it will cost to send the twins to college? What it costs to upkeep this house?” Cassandra shouted at Abigail now that she had confronted her. “Those woods don’t matter to anyone. Maybe now I will have some decent neighbors, some friends, in this desolate hellhole.” She had stopped only to take a long pull from her sweating wine glass.
Abigail had stood, silent and wondering about the ancient things that were laced and layered into that vast gathering of trees. Things that needed protecting. Anger flared inside her, and once it began it was unstoppable.
“You shallow bitch,” Abigail stated, not even bothering to raise her voice.
Without hesitation, Cassandra stepped forward and slapped her, its sound endless in the cavernous belly of the house. Abigail, unfazed, took the opportunity to grab the fashionably slim shoulder of her stepmother and throw her to the ground.
Wine soaked and exhausted, Cassandra fought to find purchase for her kitten heels and failed. In the end, she collapsed further in on herself and whispered, “You really are as crazy as your mother.”
Abigail reached out, feeling for the marble rolling pin she knew rested on the stand behind her. She watched as her tiny stepmother was, at last, able to rise and smooth out the front of the black blouse she was wearing. She tucked her sleek hair behind her ears, carefully erasing any signs of their physical exchange. She opened her mouth to speak, but Abigail would never know what it was she was about to say. She swung the rolling pin, its cold curve meeting Cassandra’s head with a muffled whump. Abigail stood a moment with the rolling pin still hanging from her hand, nearly touching the floor, and enjoyed the sheer beauty of the silence.
The children became legend, of course. A story told to warn little ones not to wander into the dangerous wood. The versions would be toned down or amped up as the audience dictated, but the outcome would always be the same. The Wendigo children would haunt those woods knowing nothing but the biting desire to quell the deep hunger that existed inside them.
People would disappear and never be found. Newspapers would tell their stories, scant of clues but loaded with meaning. The town would shiver and hunker down, all its inhabitants would speak in whispers of what may have happened to those few lost souls.
Abigail and her mother knew. It was written in the books, in the diaries. It was witnessed by the cold, hard ring of toppled stones at the edge of their property that had once been a pig barn.
“I can’t help but be happy for those children,” her mother would say. “They are together out there, forever. They fight to survive, to exist whatever way they can. Everything they do,” she would lecture Abigail, “is in sweet and loving justice for their mother.”
The twins had the unnerving aura of nervous, vicious birds. They were small and seemed hollow like their mother. The whiteness of their skin glowed under the emerging flow of the moonlight. Abigail could still see the stark red of their lips, set and greedy in their starched faces.
“Hello, weirdo,” Margaret sneered when they saw her emerge from the house. The words were meant to be hard, cruel, but they were skittered by the lilt of childhood still lingering in her throat. Abigail simply stopped a few feet away from them and said nothing.
“What do you want?” Thomas asked when the moment became anxious. He stepped closer to his sibling, both glancing in unison up to the house, looking for their mother.
The twins barely knew Abigail, but they were interested in this dark girl who was half like them, half some wild woman their mother ranted about.
“I told you one day,” Abigail began, “that I would take you into the forest and tell you all the secrets my mother told me. I promised to show you all its magic.”
They had been children then, and Abigail knew the first instinct of the twins would be to laugh. She stared harder at them, knowing the want lay still and smooth underneath, gnawing at their bones.
“Mother is selling the woods,” Margaret said boldly, breaking from their near-trance at Abigail’s promise. “Soon they will be gone, and no one will go there ever again.”
“Oh, but they will,” Abigail said, stepping forward, close enough to touch them. “Even if you slay those wilds they will still exist in its wood, its soil. Its curse will only be spread. It will follow you, hunt you, unless you come to peace with it before it is gone.”
“Mother told us never to go in there,” Thomas began. It was meant to sound bold and solid, but it came out a squeak.
“Your mother,” Abigail said, “is resting and she will never know.” Abigail turned and began walking to the tree line, turning only to repeat, “I made you a promise.”
The twins looked at one another, then began walking behind her, one or the other of them whispering, “Mother will be so angry,” but neither of them slowed. Even in the dust and mold of years of hatred and distrust, the twins wanted to impress her. Abigail smiled. She never had to look back again to see if they were following.
It is said that the forest still howls with the lust for sacrifice. That when the air is right you can still hear the anguished wails of those lonely children.
They cried in the end, like cowards. Abigail imagined the squaw biting back her pain as she shaved the flesh from her bones to feed her children. The twins had hesitated at the sharp edge between the lush grass of the lawn and the tree line, as if they felt it was a place between worlds. They could feel the weight of what was about to happen, but Abigail herded them like sheep nonetheless. Abigail felt excitement, a knotted barb in her breastbone.
Their skin was sleek, fat. It was gristle in her mouth and she choked a bit on it, gagged, before it slid inside her.
From deep in the woods there came a sound, distant at first, but moving, coming closer. It was fast and its progress seemed uninhibited by the thickness of the branches or the stones that may have gotten in the way. It never slowed.
Jennifer Ihasz is a historian who began her writing life as a poet, then was tempted into the darker side of horror writing. She is currently pursuing her MFA at Stonecoast, a low-residency MFA through the University of Southern Maine. Her work has appeared in Mastodon Dentist, Down in the Dirt, The Penwood Review, The MacGuffin, and Poetry Quarterly.