Leslie Le Mon is an author and consultant. A graduate of Mount Holyoke College, Leslie lives in Los Angeles where she is a member of the Book Publicists of Southern California. Her books include Cold Dark Harbor and Other Tales of Ghosts and Monsters, the collection from which “Windigo” appears, the YA fantasy series Sircus of Impossible Magicks, and the unauthorized Disneyland Book of Secrets 2013. Visit www.leslielemonauthor.com for more.
Ten years ago, in 1955, my husband and I lived in a cold water walk-up in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. It was at the top of an old house on the waterfront, circa 1700, which sounds picturesque, but it just means the building was falling down around our ears, that we froze in the winter, and broiled in the summer, and that the smell of salt and fish and tar marinated our three small rooms year-round.
Ernest had graduated from Bowdoin with a degree in literature. He didn’t want to teach; he didn’t want to pursue a graduate degree, and he didn’t want to work in advertising. He wanted to write the great American novel–not a great American novel, but The Great American Novel. That meant he pounded on an old Corona typewriter all day and night, and sent queries to the big literary houses in Boston, New York, London, and Paris.
Ernest was very earnest, and so was his novel, but no one on either side of the Atlantic was interested. Polite rejection after polite rejection landed in our mailbox. Worse, they were boiler plate rejections–absolutely impersonal.
“Some grade Z stooge wrote this,” Ernest fumed. “Some grade-school, grade Z drop-out who wouldn’t know Pushkin from Proust!” I often wondered if Ernest’s difficulty in writing The Great American Novel was due to his fondness for Great European Literature. He let me read a few pages of his work, now and again, and I found it impenetrable, such a dense forest of ideas and themes and high-flown language that only a Ph.D. could begin to untangle it.
When I mentioned once, quite hesitantly, that Great American Novels were known for precision and clarity and a breezy flow, Ernest glared at me over the Corona. He didn’t deign to comment.
I worked as a cashier in the drug store on the ground floor of our flat. That was our only source of income. When I suggested Ernest might want to take on something – part-time of course – to supplement our bank book, Ernest was horrified. How could he write The Great American Novel, he demanded, if he was dragged down by petty proletariat concerns like washing dishes or serving customers? Didn’t I want him to succeed? Did I want to kill his soul?
That was the first year of our marriage. I hated it. I grew to hate Ernest. He’d seemed so dazzling before we married, so full of earnest genius. Now he pounded on the Corona all day and night, and barely grunted at me, and the apartment smelled of salt water. I waited on difficult matrons and shrill children at the drug store. It didn’t seem right to me, that Ernest shouldn’t have to work, because it would kill his soul, while it was acceptable for me, with my Pembroke College art degree, to have my soul killed every day as I rang up change behind the cosmetics counter.
After a year, “Why don’t you try short stories?” I suggested. It seemed to me one of his chapters might be adapted to the type of self-satisfied, cryptic, highbrow story the New York magazines printed – although I was careful not to phrase it that way.
Surprisingly, Ernest listened to me. He sent out short stories to the best New York, Boston, and national magazines. Rejection after rejection hit our mailbox again – boilerplate rejections.
“What do these chimpanzees know?” Ernest asked. “Trust fund morons reading the slush piles – mis-reading the slush piles! I have to get my literature to the head men. To the top men.”
“You can do it,” I’d say encouragingly, as I ironed a shirt or toasted a slice of bread or mopped the floor. I was always doing something to keep our hideous little hell-hole livable, and to keep body-and-soul together. My encouragement sounded more rote, more perfunctory, with each passing month, but Ernest not only didn’t care, he didn’t notice.
By the end of 1956, I’d had enough. My father, who despised Ernest, was offering to put me through university again, this time for a graduate degree, if I would divorce Ernest. It was a tempting offer. I’d been planning to pursue my Ph.D. when Ernest proposed. I’d wanted to be an art professor. Being the wife of a dazzlingly brilliant, up-and-coming young writer had seemed much more glamorous, but as I rinsed his socks in the bathroom sink, I was fed to the teeth with reality. A retreat to academia sounded like salvation.
I was writing a letter to my father, accepting his offer, when Ernest banged into the apartment, arms full of paper bags. “Here ye, hear ye!” he said, pulling a bottle of wine and a chocolate cake and a carton of Lucky Strikes and a couple of thick steaks from the bags. “Who has the most wonderfully brilliant husband on the east coast?”
“Ernest – ” I said – just his name, in a deeply disappointed tone. He didn’t drink much, because he couldn’t hold his liquor. The way his eyes were shining and his face was flushed, he looked lit. And the wine and steaks and cigarettes, all the goodies he was unloading on the card table in the kitchen/dinette, looked like they’d cost one week of my salary.
“I’m not stoned,” he said cheerfully. “Haven’t touched a drop. I’m high on the winds of praise from Mount Olympus.”
As you can imagine, this flowery statement only reinforced my suspicion.
“Here.” He reached into the breast pocket of his only good suit jacket, pulled out a folded sheet of paper, placed it on the card table in front of me. I smoothed it out. It was an acceptance letter. A gushing acceptance letter. Ralrey Press, the most prestigious – and lucrative – of the New York publishers, was honored – honored! – to publish Ernest’s dull, impenetrable, pretentious novel (my paraphrase, of course – not Ralrey Press’ actual words).
I was stunned. To be honest, I examined the letter carefully. Ernest smiled at me, thinking I was treasuring every word, I suppose, but I was really trying to determine if Ernest had typed the letter himself. Had he gotten wind that I was planning to leave him? Was this a desperate ploy to keep me with him?
The check that arrived via special messenger two days later was no ploy. It was an immense sum, and we deposited it into our bank account. Ernest, who had hardly left the apartment in almost two years, went out and immediately bought a sporty little Studebaker Champion, the ’53 Starlight Coupe, in a sparkling wine hue.
More checks followed. In the wake of his novel’s publication by Ralrey Press, magazines suddenly wanted to publish his stories, the top magazines, at the best prices. And then his dreadful novel was a runaway best seller, and the royalty checks rolled in, and then, of course, the movie offers; Hollywood wouldn’t rest until his dreadful novel was a dreadful film.
By the late spring of 1957 we were installed in a beautiful five-bedroom house along the cliffs near the lighthouse in the priciest precincts of Yarick, Maine. Black stone cliffs literally sheered away from our back porch, plunging into the Atlantic. Our neighbor on the left was Yarick’s Town Commissioner. Our neighbor on the right owned half the timber in Maine.
It was so much, so fast. Elvis’ “All Shook Up” was all over the radio that May, and I felt pretty shook up myself. Ernest took to the money like a duck to water. He gave me carte blanche to decorate the house – “Just make sure it looks ‘mod meets old money’” – and drove off in the coupe, rarely making an appearance. Where once I could hardly coax him out of the apartment, now I could hardly draw him home to our fabulous abode.
I interpreted “mod meets old money” as best I could. The results, I think, were decent. I installed, for example, a gorgeous old Victrola in the music room, as well as a jukebox, and framed jazz album covers on eggshell walls.
Ernest was constantly driving down to New York and Boston for meeting with his publishers. His novel was hot, his short stories were being praised by the prickliest of literary critics, and now he was writing articles. He was interviewed by the press, by radio personalities, even by television personalities. I saw him one Sunday night on our black-and-white set, being interviewed by Steve Allen. It was surreal.
Yarick was an odd conjunction of fisher folk, farmers, and millionaires. Fishermen and their families dominated the south harbor; the farmers labored inland; the millionaires lived in the magnificent cliff houses along the northern harbor, and ran the library and town hall and churches and businesses – everything, essentially, in the quaint village center.
I didn’t feel at home with any of the locals, so I stayed housebound most of the time. I made one of the little rooms on the top floor, with its broad skylights, my art studio. I looked out to sea and painted canvas after canvas of the Atlantic Ocean. I didn’t kid myself that they were more than daubs. But painting them passed the time.
I didn’t miss Ernest. He had become an insufferable boor when he was a failure, and he was an insufferable, if largely absent, boor as a success. But I was lonely rattling around our palatial “mod meets old money” house on the cliff. On the rare occasions he was home, he needed me to host fabulous dinner parties. We grew even further apart.
With unusual insight, Ernest seemed to sense my loneliness. During a rare visit home, he presented me with a slim, silver-handled cane of exquisitely carved wood. The surface of the cane was etched with minute leaves and branches, and little fairy creatures peering forth from them, not unlike the famous Elfin Oak in London’s Kensington Gardens.
“It’s English,” he said importantly.
“It’s lovely – but what is it for?” I asked him.
“I know I’m a terrible husband,” he said. He paused. “WIFE OBJECTS HERE” a script would have said. But I did not object. He was a terrible husband. Ernest laughed. “Well,” he smiled, “I admire your candor, Agnes.”
“You give me a stick and say you’re a terrible husband – is it for me to beat you with?” I asked.
He laughed again. “It’s an English lady’s walking stick. You need to start rambling, sweetheart. You can’t bury yourself in this big old mausoleum. The house is for entertaining, it’s a status symbol. You can’t hole up here like it’s a home.”
“I must,” I said drily, “since it’s the home with which you’ve provided me.”
“Damn sight better than the old walk-up,” he said pointedly. “You can go back to that, if you want.”
“I’ll get back to you,” I said.
He sighed. “Look, I’ll revisit my original statement – I’m a terrible husband. I can’t even seem to give you a present, a peace offering, a token of my gratitude, without upsetting you. Because I am grateful, Agnes. You have no idea. It’s down to you that I’m successful. It’s all you, sweetheart.”
It was extremely unusual for Ernest to give me any credit for anything. I wasn’t sure what to say.
He held up one hand. It was soft, I saw, and manicured. Ernest was going Hollywood, and the negotiations for the novel’s movie rights weren’t even concluded.
“No need to thank me,” he said. “But I want you to promise me you’ll walk every day. Along the cliffs. Down to the village. Out to the orchard, if you can make it that far. Don’t rot away in here, sweetheart.”
He was off for New York the next morning – a meeting with “Truman,” he told me with studied nonchalance. “He’s having trouble with some novella about a lunch. Or a dinner.”
“Dinner’s depressing. Tell him to make it a breakfast,” I called after him …
For the first week after I received the walking stick, I stayed in the house. It was sheer contrariness. Ernest suddenly wanted me to walk? I didn’t leave the property.
He’d been gone for a week when I received a phone call from the post office in Yarick Village. There was a package for me from my father. It was oversized and I had to sign for it and pay the extra postage.
It was very unlike my father to do something so inconvenient. But it was, possibly, a painting he knew I’d like, or a package of books. It was certainly worth a walk to the village to find out.
I pushed a little wire hand-cart on wheels, so that I could cart home whatever father had sent, and I carried the walking stick in my other hand.
The cliff road was bordered by deep woods all the way down into the village. I don’t like woods. I was raised in Providence, and attended Pembroke. Woods are too wild for me. I never even cared for summer camp. There are animals in the woods. There are shadows. There are poisoned mushrooms. And with all the trees and shadows, you can’t see what’s watching you, let alone what’s coming toward you.
I was the only person walking along the road, gorgeous manors dominating the cliffs on my left, deep woods on the right. Can you guess I walked next to the houses? From time to time I heard strange sounds from the woods. Cracking twigs and chirpings and warbling. I felt hot predatory eyes fixed on me. My imagination, no doubt, but I walked faster.
Soon I reached the outskirts of the village, with its quaint white wooden Victorian and Colonial buildings. There was a post office, sundry shop, grocer, cobbler, a toy maker who specialized in carved wooden tops and choo-choos and dolls. It was early autumn, but there were still a handful of tourists in the village, buying sundaes at the seasonal ice cream shop that would close in another week.
The tallest building in town was the Methodist church, on a slight rise, its spire piercing the deep blue sky. Next door to it was a much more modest white frame structure that housed the town offices and the police station. A single black-and-white cruiser was parked outside. As far as the eye could see, beyond the church and the town building, stretched the cemetery, green lawns freckled with granite gravestones.
Entering the village from the cliff road, the first little white house you passed on the right had a large, homemade sign nailed to the porch post: “Mademoiselle Zulethena – Fortunes $5”. Under the letters was a large, rather crude painting of a hand, palm outward, with rays of yellow light emanating from it.
I’d never seen Mademoiselle Zulethena, but once in awhile you saw people waiting on the porch, waiting for their turn to learn their fortune.
As I passed the porch on that particular day, I saw an elderly woman sitting there in an ancient rocker; she was rocking gently and fanning herself with a folded newspaper. She had deeply bronzed skin, dark and flashing eyes made up like Cleopatra, and suspiciously dark hair coiled atop her head and fastened with a gold serpent hairpin. She wore a voluminous black dress and cape, decorated with dark sequins and gold piping and gold hieroglyphs. Her makeup and attire were hardly the norm for Yarick, Maine. She could be no other than Mademoiselle Zulethena herself.
The few tourists still in town were queued at the ice cream shop down the street at the heart of the village; apparently none of them wanted their fortune told that day.
I didn’t acknowledge Mademoiselle Zulethena as I passed; my opinion of fortune tellers was one notch below blood-sucking horseflies. But as I passed she had the nerve to call out to me.
“Don’t go into the woods,” she called.
I ignored her. Nice Providence girls who graduate from Pembroke do not converse with fortune tellers on the main street.
“He’ll push you and push you,” she called after me, “but don’t go into the woods.”
I could only assume she mistook me for someone else, a tourist or local who’d enlisted her services.
As I strolled to the post office, pushing the little wire cart and carrying the smart walking stick, the locals and tourists I passed gazed after me. I was a little bit of a local mystery, as I learned later – the pretty young wife of the famous young writer who’d just moved to town. My smart cherry-red coat and Revlon “Fire and Ice” lipstick were the talk of bingo and bridge groups, church suppers and the PTA.
At the post office, the girl behind the counter told me that there wasn’t any package for me.
“But you called,” I said. “Why would I walk all the way here if there weren’t a package?”
I insisted that she search, and search again. It was the same result – no package addressed to me or to my husband.
“And I didn’t call you this morning, ma’am. I’d remember if I did, with your husband so famous. I’m afraid someone was playing a trick on you.”
It certainly was a silly and pointless trick.
I stormed out of the post office, irritated and feeling rather foolish. Since I was in town, I stopped at the grocer’s and placed our order for the next week. I stopped at the sundry store, which, I learned to my chagrin, did not stock “Fire and Ice” or “Love that Red” lipstick.
Walking home, I had to pass Mademoiselle Zulethena’s again. She was still rocking on her porch, fanning herself with what appeared to be a foreign newspaper; the headline read something like “BYKRFYTKRG”. It certainly was not English.
“Don’t go into the woods,” she called. “It’s waiting for you.”
I ignored her and continued north along the road.
It was strange; Mademoiselle Zulethena’s little house was just at the edge of the woods, and not a minute after I left the fortune teller’s house behind, I began to hear those twig-snapping and chirping and growling sounds from the trees. I had that sensation of eyes watching me from the shadows.
Instinctively, I hefted the slim walking stick Ernest had given me. If an animal did leap out of the forest, I had something with which I could defend myself. Perhaps Mademoiselle Zulethena was warning passers-by of a wild dog, or escaped prisoner, hiding in the Yarick woods.
I reached home without incident, and called the police station. Had they received any reports of wild dogs, or foxes, or bears, or escaped prisoners or lunatics, who might be hiding in the woods north of the village?
“No,” the officer on duty said. “Do you want to make a report?”
I did not. I hung up without giving the officer my name. The last thing I needed was to be tagged as a local crank or hysteric.
Ernest was home that evening. I cooked us steaks, rare, and he mixed us martinis. It was warm enough to eat on the balcony off the lounge. The salt air was bracing. The waves dashed the base of the cliff that sheared away below the balcony. To the south, over the water, the little lights of the harbor and the village twinkled on.
“Well,” said Ernest, lighting a Lucky Strike after dinner, “this is a pretty far cry from that dump on the wharf.”
“It is,” I agreed. And, because fair is fair, “Ernest, I think you know I haven’t been happy. For a long time. But wherever we go from here, I am happy you’ve found success.”
He blew smoke rings. He didn’t look directly at me. He looked out over the sea. “Agnes, I want this to be a new chapter for us. Don’t give up on me yet.”
“It’s not giving up on you,” I said. “It’s giving up on us. I’m not happy with you. I wasn’t happy when we had nothing. I’m not happy now that we have everything. And I’m bored here. I’m bored to death.”
“You need to get out more.”
“Out to do what? Should I hire myself out to swab the decks of a fishing boat?”
He winced. “Don’t try to be witty,” he said. “You only sound bitter.”
“I am bitter. Listen, Ernest, it’s been a bad day. There was a prank about a package, and there was some strange animal in the woods that almost attacked me.”
Ernest scoffed. “There aren’t any wild animals around here. Squirrels. Deer, maybe.”
“Well something was in the woods.”
“Nothing you couldn’t brain with that stick I bought you,” he said.
“I’m not rural,” I said, “and I’m not domestic. I want to go back to school, Ernest.”
“And Daddy will foot the bill – right? If you leave me.”
“As I learn more and more each day,” I said coolly, “my father is a very wise man.”
“Look, I won’t keep you buried here forever,” Ernest said. “Once I’m firmly established, once we know I’m not a nine-day wonder, we’ll get a place in New York. Nice apartment on Fifth Avenue – what do you think of that? This will be our summer place.”
“I don’t know why you can’t set me up in New York now,” I said.
“Sweetheart, I’m in and out of meetings and interviews all day. I’m here, I’m there. I’m running from New York up to Boston, and back again. And when I do have a few quiet moments, I have to write. I can’t be distracted.”
“I don’t need to see you,” I said bluntly. “I’d just like to be in New York. You could put me up in a hotel.”
“Do you know how fast that would burn our money? What if I am only a nine-day wonder? Where will we be then?” He stubbed his cigarette on the edge of his plate. “Just wait a little longer. Six months. Try to make it work here. Once I’m sure we’re solid, I’ll buy us that New York place. You can pick it out,” he said rashly. “You can decorate it any way you like.”
“Ernest – ”
“Just sleep on it. OK? Don’t do anything hasty.”
The next morning I cooked him eggs and potatoes and ham.
“See,” he smiled. “This will be nice, when we have our place in New York. You’ll make me breakfast, and we’ll have all of Manhattan at our feet. Some view that will be!”
He still didn’t understand, I realized. Somehow, however glamorous our address, the pinnacle of my day was supposed to be cooking his breakfast.
“I’m driving back to New York this afternoon,” he said.
“Can’t you take the train? I can drive you to the station, and then I’ll have the coupe.”
“You don’t need to drive anywhere here,” he said. “That’s the beauty of a small town. You’re supposed to walk. You need to walk. Open spaces, fresh air – that’s my prescription for you.”
“I had more than enough fresh air yesterday,” I said, thinking of the strange sounds in the woods.
“Your skin is looking a little rough,” he said.
My hand went to my face immediately. My skin is, I admit, one of my vanities.
“It’s not in the least rough,” I said defensively.
He shrugged. “If you say so. But in another week or two, sweetheart, it’s going to be prison pallor. And why? Because you insist on being a shut-in. All you have to do is take a nice walk in the woods every day. Best thing for your complexion.”
“The woods frighten me,” I said.
“Oh, well – if you’re going to be a child about it.” He shrugged in that irritating, superior manner of his. “Of course, if you have skin like sandpaper, that’s going to be a problem. The more famous I get, pretty soon they’ll want to photograph you. The ladies’ magazines. But when they see your lousy complexion – ”
He laughed. “OK, maybe I’m exaggerating. But the magazines are going to be interested in you. And you’ll kick yourself if you’re not looking your best.”
“I’ll walk on the beach,” I said. “Clean, bracing ocean air.”
“Ha! Sea breezes are full of salt. Do you know how abrasive that is? Woodland air – sweet, piney breezes – that’s the thing for your beautiful complexion.”
“You should sell Avon.”
“If this movie deal doesn’t pan out, I might have to. Cross your fingers for me, sweetheart …”
After he left, I went up to my studio and painted. The trees were just staring to burn orange and yellow beyond the harbor. I tried to capture that smolder on my canvas, as a counterpoint to the green-grey waters. I didn’t succeed – not really.
I wandered through the big house, from top to bottom. It was a nice place. I’d decorated it beautifully. It would make a nice change to come here in summer, provided our main residence was in Manhattan. Ernest had painted a tempting picture. A New York apartment. Financial stability. Actual wealth. That would mean plays, and concerts, and restaurants, and jewelry even finer than my mother’s. And photos in magazines. Photos of me. It would be so easy, with that kind of fame, to sell my paintings …
In the guest powder room just off the lounge I gazed critically at my reflection. My skin did not look rough. Not very rough, anyway. Ernest had been exaggerating. But if I stayed indoors every day, for the next sixth months, during the dry, cold winter season … What would my skin look like then?
I pulled on my cherry-colored coat and took my walking stick from the umbrella stand by the door. A short walk along the cliff edge – what harm would that be? It might even clear my head.
Just as I was leaving the house, the telephone rang. It was a man – at first I thought it was Ernest, but this man sounded older, his voice was deeper. He said he was a policeman and Ernest had been in a car crash in the village.
“But he left for New York hours ago,” I said.
“He must have stopped off somewhere,” said the man. “We’re treating him at the station and an ambulance has been called. He’s dazed, but he keeps asking for you. Can you come?”
It was just like Ernest, I thought, to crash our expensive new car in the stupid little village on his way to negotiate a big deal. If his sudden success had seemed surreal, this was like a cold splash of reality. This was the failure I knew, the man for whom nothing went right.
“Of course,” I said. “It so happens I was already on my way out when you called. I’ll see you in a few moments.”
The sun was already setting when I hurried past the woods toward the village center. I didn’t even glance toward the trees. This time, when I passed, I distinctly heard growling in the woods, and branches breaking, and a panting sound like a dog needing to be watered. I gripped my walking stick tightly and walked faster.
Mademoiselle Zulethena’s porch was sunk in shadow, which is why I didn’t notice her until she spoke. Her voice came out of the shadows and made me jump; I stifled a shriek.
“Don’t go into the woods,” she said. “It’s waiting for you.”
“I beg your pardon,” I said coldly, hurrying past her porch.
The street lamps were just winking on in the village. I had expected to see some kind of commotion, some type of activity. My husband had crashed his car. The coupe should have been wrapped around a lamp post, there should have been shards of glass and slivers of shrapnel on the street, there should have been a knot of curious locals gathered near the crash site, muttering, and an officer taking notes and keeping the curious at bay.
Instead, I found – nothing.
The village center was quiet. Some of the little shops were shuttered, some were in the process of closing. The cobbler, a cheerful-looking, heavy-set man, was locking his door.
“Pardon me,” I said, “did you see the accident?”
He lifted his bushy salt-and-pepper eyebrows. “The accident?”
“Yes. The accident. Did you see it?”
“Was it … Something on a TV show?” he asked, puzzled but polite.
I sighed. Really! The languid stupor of the town and its inhabitants!
The officer on duty at the police station was a grizzled, efficient-looking man. I glanced around the lobby of the little station – no sign of Ernest.
The officer smiled at me. “Can I help you, ma’am?”
I won’t bore you with the exchange. You can guess what I’m going to tell you. Ernest wasn’t at the police station. No ambulance was on the way. No accident had occurred. The officer hadn’t called me.
Another prank. First the phony package, now a phony accident.
“I wouldn’t take it to heart,” the officer said kindly. “Your husband is famous, ma’am. You’ll have to expect some pranks, from time to time.”
“Well it’s in very bad taste,” I fumed.
“You might want to change your telephone number,” the officer suggested.
“Why should I?” I demanded.
“It’s not fair,” he conceded, “but it might be the practical thing to do.”
“I want to file a complaint against these pranksters. The woman yesterday, and the man today. They’re probably in cahoots!”
“Very likely, very likely. And I’m happy to take your complaint. But just so you know, it isn’t likely we’d ever be able to catch them.”
“Why am I not surprised?” I asked.
“The next time you get a prank call,” he said, “try to keep the caller on the line and gather as much information as you can. What do you hear in the background, for example? What does the voice sound like? And so on. Take notes, and bring them to us.”
“Officer, I am not Nancy Drew, girl detective. I am the victim of these pranks. I leave the investigation to you.”
I did file a formal complaint, though I doubted it would bear any fruit.
It was dark when I left the police station. The street lamps along the main street were widely spaced, and not particularly bright. I picked my way along the sidewalk carefully, avoiding cracks and frost heaves.
As I approached Mademoiselle Zulethena’s house at the edge of the village, I saw a small glowing circle of red on her dark porch. For one wild second, I thought it was some monstrous glowing eye – then I realized it was the fortune teller herself; she was smoking a cigar.
It was a good quality cigar; I could tell by the aroma. It smelled like one of the cigars my father sometimes smoked in his study. The fortune telling business paid rather well, apparently.
This time when I passed the porch, Mademoiselle Zulethena didn’t speak. My heels sounded very loud on the sidewalk. I passed the porch and drew abreast of the dark woods. This time I heard it, distinctly – a deep, animal growl. And a red flash of eyes, but not low to the ground, like an animal’s. About seven feet off the ground, the level of a very tall man’s eyes.
I froze. The eyes vanished. There were rustlings in the brush. Another low growl, a little further back.
“It won’t attack you on the road,” said Mademoiselle Zulethena. She had crept up beside me in the dark.
“What, what is it?” I asked breathlessly.
“It is Windigo,” she said. “An abomination. Hurry home now. Keep to the cliff side of the road. I will visit tomorrow. I will tell you what I have seen.”
She receded back into the dark.
I crossed to the cliff side of the road, and almost ran home past the grand, widely set mansions. I hadn’t run so fast since my days – not so long ago, I suppose – as a sprinter for the girls’ track-and-field team at college.
I don’t need to tell you that I slept badly that night – who could have slept soundly? I had the most terrible dreams. I was wandering in the woods, stalked by a giant thing, not a man, but man-shaped, with corpse-pale skin, sunken ribs, a face so gaunt as to be skeletal, and a mouth full of pointed teeth. Its eyes were the eyes of a wolf, animal, cunning, hungry.
When I woke at dawn I woke with a scream. The sheets were damp with sweat, and my head was hot. When I took my temperature, the mercury read 102 degrees. I took a cool bath and dosed myself with Bufferin and Coldene.
When the doorbell rang at 10 a.m., I was feeling slightly better. I received Mademoiselle Zulethena in my house dress and polka dotted kerchief; I was darned if I was going to dress up for a fortune teller. I was glad to see that she had had the good sense to wear a normal dark blue dress, rather than her fortune telling regalia, for her visit.
“I’m sorry you had such a long walk,” I told her, offering her a seat in one of the chrome chairs in the foyer. “As it is, I’m very ill with a cold today, and can’t entertain.”
“I am here,” Mademoiselle Zulethena said gravely, “to warn you about the Windigo.”
“I suppose I should thank you,” I said, “for your kind words yesterday evening. I’ve been having some difficulties with a prankster, and this cold came on so suddenly, that I was a little overwrought.”
“You were not overwrought,” said Mademoiselle Zulethena. “Or, if you were, you had reason. The Windigo stalks you. I have heard it. I have seen it. I have smelled its foul funereal stink on the wind.”
“You are a young person,” she said. “You have a long life ahead of you. A self-centered, rather foolish life, perhaps – but every life is precious to God.”
She snapped open her large, midnight-blue hand bag, reached inside. Inwardly I groaned. A mystical religious tract, no doubt – she was going to push some Holy Roller nonsense on me. Perhaps her fortune telling was a front for a Holy Roller church.
From her purse she withdrew not a pamphlet, but a white candle.
“Burn this,” she said. “Burn it this evening and say the Lord’s Prayer five times. Do this every night for a week.”
“And how much does the candle cost?” I asked knowingly.
“Nothing,” she said. “My gift to you, young lady.”
“Then how much is this house call going to cost me?”
“You are too young,” she said, “to be so cynical. You don’t know what it is to be cynical yet. Take the candle. Come on. Take it.”
Reluctantly I took it from her. I set it on the octagonal table between us.
“Promise me you’ll burn it,” she said. “Every night for five nights. And say the Lord’s Prayer five times.”
“What exactly have you seen in your crystal ball?” I asked, curious despite myself.
“What I see, I see in my cards,” she said. “I saw a young woman in danger. Stalked by the cannibal beast.”
“Sounds like one of those silly pictures on the Late Show,” I said lightly.
“You were brought here to be a sacrifice,” she said.
That brought goose bumps out on my arms.
“Windigo, wendigo – they are the starving demons. They are foot soldiers of Satan. One who has made a pact with the devil can make payment by feeding victims to a Windigo. My dear foolish young lady,” she leaned forward in her chair, “has your husband not had an astonishing run of good luck this last year?”
I couldn’t answer for a moment. I was literally speechless.
“You will not want to believe it,” she said. “It is too terrible to believe. Yet it is true. I saw a young lady in my cards, I saw her greedy husband, I saw a bargain with the dark one, and a payment promised. And then the Windigo came. It is an old one. It lives usually deep in the cold northern woods and feeds on hunters and unwary timber men. It has come south, here, to receive payment. You, my dear.”
“If you’ll … pardon me for a moment.”
I rose from my chair on numb legs, made my way to the kitchen. My head was swimming. When I regained my wits I was sitting at the kitchen table, a cup of coffee in front of me. I drank the coffee and regained my composure and returned to the foyer.
“I have a fever,” I said calmly. “I’m not well.”
“What you saw in the woods last night was not an hallucination – I promise you,” said the fortune teller. “Every time the Windigo feeds, it grows stronger. It devours the qualities of those whom it consumes. Because it dines primarily on hunters and timber men, it is a cunning tracker, and very strong. You have a charm, young lady, that it would be most happy to acquire. With such charm, it could more easily entice its victims.”
“Thank you for visiting,” I said. “It was very kind of you to check on me since you saw how unwell I was yesterday evening.”
Mademoiselle Zulethena shook her head. “You do not want to believe,” she said. “But you will. Burn the candle. Say the prayers. This will not save you. But if the Windigo catches you, your soul will be prepared for God. My advice is this: Leave this town, and your husband, and never go again into a wood.”
After she left I lay down to rest. My fever was 103 degrees. I wondered if I should call the local doctor. For a time I slept, but I was tormented by more nightmares about the starving creature with the icy flesh and the face like a living skeleton.
Ernest was gone for several days. I avoided the village. I stayed in the house and painted, but my mind wasn’t on my work. My seascapes were nightmarish, the waves too large, out of proportion, colored a strange mixture of purple and green.
When Ernest returned, he was in gleeful spirits.
“We’re getting closer to closing on a film deal,” he said, sweeping into the foyer, with a bottle of champagne under each arm, and a pink-and-black striped hat box held between his hands. “I’ll know in a few days. And I’m writing the screenplay – that’s non-negotiable. That’ll be a nice pay day.”
“And ‘hello’ to you too,” I said.
He took in my house dress and kerchief and high color.
“You look awful.”
“Thanks,” I said. “I’ve had a cold and fever. I’ve been very ill.”
“Well, you look like you’ll live,” he teased. “Here. Grab the bottles before I drop them.”
I took the bottles of champagne. They were so cold they burned my fingers.
He set the pink-and-black striped hat box on the octagonal table.
“Got a surprise for you,” he said.
The lid of the box was moving, rising up and down erratically. There was a low, grumbling growl within the box.
“What’s wrong with you, Agnes? For crying out loud,” he tore the lid off the hat box, “it’s only a little surprise.”
A cream-colored terrier poked its head over the edge of the hat box. It growled again.
“He’s very friendly,” said Ernest.
“I can tell.”
“He’s just growling because he’s in a new place. And because I had him squashed in the box. Here, boy,” Ernest crooned, reaching down to pat the terrier.
It barked and lunched for his hand. Ernest snatched his fingers away just in time.
“Why you dirty little so-and-so,” laughed Ernest. “He’s just high-spirited,” Ernest said to me. “He’ll love you. He’ll keep you company when I’m away.”
Was this a man, I wondered, who was a devilish master-mind, who had made a compact with the prince of darkness? Ernest couldn’t even bring me a present without it going wrong! And if he was truly planning to sacrifice me to a demon of the woods, why would he bring me a dog? Surely that was a sign he expected, even wanted me to be around for a while. It seemed like one of his typically inept tokens of affection …
“I’ll open the champagne,” I said. “We can toast the film deal.”
“Oh, the champagne’s not for us,” he said. “Pop it in the fridge. I want us to throw a party tomorrow night. You don’t mind, do you? You’re not so terribly ill, are you?”
I sighed. Yes. Classic Ernest.
“What’s the party for? What should I serve? Whom do we invite?”
“I want to show you off to the neighbors,” he said, smiling. “Invite all the swells up and down the cliffs. My agent is driving up, and my publicist. You’ll like them. We’ll have a photographer snap a few shots, the neighbors get to see what a great girl you are. It’s good for everybody.”
“We won’t need anything too fancy.”
“Are you serious? With your agent and publicist and photographers and all the swell neighbors?”
“Consider this a test run for New York,” he said. “Pretend you’re throwing a party in Manhattan. Because I really believe, no, I know,” he took my hands, “that this movie deal is going to go through. I’m on my way, Agnes. You believe in me, don’t you? You want to help me?”
I brought the champagne into the kitchen.
The next morning I walked down to the village. I brought the dog with me, fastened to the little leather leash Ernest had bought with the dog. It didn’t try to bite me. It seemed to dislike Ernest, and barked at him at every possible opportunity.
I kept to the cliff side of the road. “It was all my imagination,” I told myself. “There’s nothing in the woods. It was the fever coming on.”
But there it was–a low growling sound that I could hear even across the road from the woods. And out of the corner of my eye I saw a flash of red eyes, high in the trees. Nothing and no one could be that tall. It must have been crouching on a high branch, looking down at us …
The little dog sensed something in the woods. He barked loudly, hopping about my feet and almost tangling my legs in the leash. He lifted his muzzle toward the woods and sniffed the air. He seemed to smell something, and barked again. I smelled something too. A sour, rotten smell. One summer at camp, when I was a little girl, a rat had died in the walls of our cabin. This smell from the woods was like the smell of the dead rat, but much more powerful.
“Come on,” I said, all but dragging the little dog behind me, as it continued to bark and snarl at the woods.
Mademoiselle Zulethena was sitting on her porch, playing a hand of solitaire.
“Well,” she said, smiling at the dog, “you seem to have found a protector and champion.”
“He’s a gift. From Ernest,” I said meaningfully.
“Very nice,” she said. “I suppose you’ll have to walk him. Where do you think your husband will want you to walk him, my dear?”
“Good morning,” I said with finality. The dog was showing its teeth to the fortune teller in a friendly manner, and tried to scamper on to her porch. “Come on, dog,” I said, pulling its leash.
As I expected, the grocer didn’t have anything on hand that I really wanted, but I made do. I’d serve little sausages, cheese and crackers, celery with cream cheese, olives, and deviled eggs. The important thing was to have enough liquor on hand. I ordered gin, vermouth, whiskey, and soda water in large quantities; the grocer’s boy would deliver it to the house in the early afternoon.
On the way back to the house, I snubbed Mademoiselle Zulethena, though she was still on her porch playing solitaire or some other card game. Maybe she was “reading” her cards. I walked on the cliff side of the street. The dog kept straining at its leash, wanting to cross the street to her house.
“Are you burning the candle?” Mademoiselle Zulethena called to me. “Are you saying the prayers?”
I ignored her.
As the dog and I passed the woods, I heard growling again, and branches snapping, and I saw flashes of red eyes. I came to a decision. I was not going to be suckered into a lot of superstitious nonsense.
“I’m under a strain,” I told myself. “I’ve been ill, and I’m still adjusting to Ernest’s success, this new town, this new life. These hallucinations will pass. They aren’t even hallucinations. They’re tricks of the light, tricks of the wind.”
I was almost at the house. The snapping of branches and guttural animal sounds had followed the tree line, keeping pace with me. The dog barked at the woods.
“The dog senses my disquiet,” I told myself. “It’s being protective. There’s nothing supernatural in that.”
As I turned into the driveway, someone (something?) in the trees called my name. It sounded like Ernest’s voice, but slightly deeper, and drawn out, as if he were calling from a great distance away.
The dog froze in its tracks. Its hackles rose.
My name came again, rising and falling in a pleasant sing-song that ended in a hiss.
I pulled sharply on the dog’s leash, but it wouldn’t move. It bared its teeth at the trees.
I scooped it up with one arm, and hurried into the house. I set the brown paper grocery bag on the counter, unpacked it, put the cold items in the refrigerator.
Ernest was upstairs in the music room, listening to the jukebox – “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes”. He was already wearing his dark trousers and a new white shirt, but the shirt sleeves were rolled up, and his feet were bare. His dark suit jacket was draped over the back of his chair. He held a bottle of Rheingold beer.
He didn’t hear me because of the music.
When I walked in, I startled him; he dropped the bottle and it shattered on the floor, a dozen jagged brown pieces of glass sparkling in a sea of beer and foam.
He stood up, and for a second – just a second – he looked frightened, but the next instant he looked angry.
“What do you mean barging in here?” he demanded.
“Barging into my own house?”
“Our house,” he corrected. “My house, if you want to get cute about it.”
“What’s mine is yours and what’s yours is mine. Remember that little ceremony a few years ago?”
“So, you do want to get cute about it.”
“All I want is to clean up this mess. We are having a party in here in a few hours.”
He stood there in his bare feet, glaring at me. The beer trickled, pooled around his feet.
This was not a man, I decided, who had made a compact with the devil. I went down to the kitchen, got the dust pan and mop …
When I finished putting on my face later, Ernest appeared behind me in the vanity mirror. He put his hands on my shoulders.
“Sometimes I could strangle you,” he said to my reflection.
“Sometimes, Ernest, I wish you would.”
“I’m sorry I got so frosted. All right? You just startled me.”
“If you spent more time at home, you wouldn’t be so surprised to see your own wife walk through the door.”
He pushed a hand through his hair. “Agnes, let’s forget the last couple of hours. This party’s going to be wonderful, and everything will be coming up roses soon.”
“I keep hearing about roses. I keep getting thorns.”
“Don’t be in a mood tonight, sweetheart. Please. We need to impress these people.”
“A little more notice might have helped with that.”
“For what? The food? Your food is always great. All I’m worried about is, please don’t fight with me. Please don’t run me down, like you do. So much is riding on this.”
I smiled at his reflection, a brainless smile I’d perfected at Pembroke when I was dating Brown boys.
“That’s more like it,” he said happily.
Despite the outrageously short notice of the invitations, many of our neighbors did attend our little soiree. They were nice enough, but as dull as I’d feared. They were much older than Ernest and me. They’d been born with money, or made their money, and now they were relaxing and enjoying their golden years. There was a lot of talk about old books, and golf, and sailing, and hunting. The only topic I found interesting was a new exhibit coming to the Portland Museum of Art next spring, but as soon as that thread of conversation died out, I was bored again.
The jukebox was a big hit; everyone selected songs, and music played from beginning to end of the party. During the (frequent) lulls, I listened to the music and smiled the brainless smile I’d perfected at Pembroke.
Ernest’s publicist Violet was a toothy woman in her forties, very heavily made-up, and very overdressed for our soiree. She would, I theorized, hate living in the countryside even more than I did. She spent most of the evening snapping photographs of Ernest. Ernest at the bar. Ernest pretending to crank the antique Victrola. Ernest leaning pensively against the jukebox. Ernest conversing with his agent.
“He has such a face,” Violet told me. “That must be why you married him. That face. Anything he does looks interesting. His expressions are so alive. You have a face like that, too. You’d look interesting doing anything.”
“Sure,” I said. “You should have seen me rinsing out Ernest’s socks in the sink at our old walk-up.”
Violet was oblivious to sarcasm. “Brilliant,” she said. “That domestic touch. Kitchen sink stuff!”
Ernest’s agent, Nick, was possibly the most beautiful man I ever met. He had blond hair, a little long but combed back neatly from his face, which resembled the face of one of Michelangelo’s sculptures. Nick’s face – that was a face. But Violet studiously ignored Nick. (“They’re divorced,” Ernest told me later.)
Nick was taller and broader than Ernest, pleasant and perfectly at ease. He said little, but spoke quietly to Ernest from time to time. Mostly he nursed a gin and tonic and looked beautiful standing in front of the mantle.
“Well, well,” said old Mrs. Baker, a little tipsy after her last gin sour, “who ever thought we’d have a famous author on the cliff road?”
“Here, here,” said Mr. Baker, raising his glass in Ernest’s general direction.
“He’ll have to do a book signing at the library,” said old Mr. Graine.
“Here, here,” agreed the other neighbors, all lifting their glasses to Ernest.
Violet kept snapping photos. Flashbulbs popped. We were all intermittently freeze-framed in the harsh strobe of the camera flash.
Nick, I noticed, did not toast Ernest. He regarded Ernest with the slightest of smiles. The way Nick was turned, the way the shadows fell across his face, his blue eyes looked almost black.
“Freshen your drink?” I asked Nick.
“No thank you. I’m not much of a drinker.”
“I thought New Yorkers drank like fish.”
“I work in New York,” he said, “I live in New York, but I’m not a New Yorker. I was raised not far from here. In the northern woods. My father was a lumberjack.”
I raised my eyebrows.
“How does a lumberjack’s son become a literary agent?”
“My mother ran the store at the logging camp. I believe,” he smiled charmingly, “my entrepreneurial strain was passed down by my mother. Whatever situation I find myself in, I always seem to want more.”
“Nothing wrong with that,” I said, glancing at Ernest. “Ambition drives civilization.”
“It does, however, take a toll,” said Nick. He followed my glance. He frowned slightly. “Nothing is free. Prices must be paid. What happens to civilization if debts are not honored?”
“What indeed?” I agreed. “Nick?”
“Why did you publish Ernest’s terrible novel?”
“I’m not a publisher,” he said. “I’m an agent.”
“You know what I mean. The novel is awful. It will make an awful movie. His short stories are pedestrian too, and his articles.”
“Plodding and pedestrian,” smiled Nick. “Don’t forget the ‘plodding’.”
“So you’re not literarily tone deaf? You know his work is soporific?”
“His works could drive Veronal off the market.”
“Then why are you helping him to publish them?”
“Because,” he looked directly into my eyes, “I always want more. As, I suspect, do you. But your husband,” he tilted his head toward Ernest, without looking at him, “is running up an enormous debt. He doesn’t seem to be able to pay it.”
I gazed back at him. It was odd; sustained direct eye contact with a virtual stranger is typically uncomfortable. But looking into Nick’s eyes, I felt I was addressing an old friend.
“I wonder,” Nick said, “if you could assist me with that?”
I sipped the gin and tonic I’d been sipping all evening. It never does for the hostess to get sloppy.
“Nick,” I said, “when you lived in the north woods, did you ever hear about the Windigo?”
He dipped his chin, once.
“Your husband tells me you’re an artist,” Nick said.
“A dedicated amateur,” I said.
“Your husband tells me you have expressed an interest in becoming a professor of art history.”
“That’s a possibility. I don’t really know what I want to do.”
“Naturally. You’re still very young. But you know what you do not want.”
“I don’t want to live in a village where they don’t stock ‘Fire and Ice’ lipstick.”
He smiled. “Agnes, you know your color charts?”
“What color are my eyes?”
“Have you ever seen eyes so perfectly Cerulean Blue?”
“No.” They were flawless, and precisely on shade.
“Would you believe I was born with gray eyes? Unremarkable gray eyes.”
“No. Like water in a dish pan. I always wanted Cerulean Blue eyes.”
“And now you have them.”
“Now I have them.”
I couldn’t believe we were having the conversation I thought we were having. Was it this easy? Was it this casual, selling one’s soul? What had seemed melodramatic when Mademoiselle Zulethena described it seemed perfectly natural when Nick intimated it.
“I didn’t know,” I sipped my drink, “I didn’t know they could change eye color.”
“It depends on who ‘they’ are. But there was, of course, a price.”
“And you paid it.”
“I always pay my debts. And see that others,” he glanced at Ernest again, “pay theirs.”
That night, I didn’t dream of the monster in the woods. I dreamed of an ancient palace of crumbling stone as warm and golden in the sunlight as a glass of champagne. I walked in the palace, and Nick walked ahead of me. He looked back over his shoulder, and smiled.
Ernest paid the next morning for his over-indulgence at the party. He covered his head with the pillow and whimpered like a child. I let him sleep the morning away.
I put the dog on a leash and walked it across the street, to the edge of the woods. I stood there and waited. I didn’t have to wait long. Branches broke; there was a growling, and what sounded like the gnashing of dozens of spiky teeth. The smell of death, putrid and ancient death, wafted to us.
The dog was a valiant little fellow. He planted his small paws in the dirt in front of me, and barked heroically. But when the red eyes appeared, twenty feet above us, in the trees, looking down at us, the dog made a pitiful yelp and trembled. I picked up the dog and held it in my arms.
I looked up and down the road. It was almost October. Off season. Most of the neighbors were probably sleeping off sore heads from the soiree the night before.
“Let me see you,” I called to the Windigo.
That elicited a deep, liquid chuckling. The sound made me squirm inside my skin.
The branches screening its face were pulled down by a hand that was pale and taloned and had, I believe, six fingers. The face was in shadow, but I saw that it matched my nightmare. It was white as limestone, as if all the blood had been drained from it. The eyes were wolf’s eyes, with a lurid red light in their depths. There was no nose to speak of.
The thing smiled at me, baring its mouth full of needles.
I heard a car engine in the distance. It was getting louder. It was coming this way.
The Windigo lifted the branches, covering its face again. But it was still there, watching us. Waiting patiently.
The car didn’t pass us. It slowed and then stopped. It was a station wagon, bursting with fishing rods and reels and nets and woven creels.
The driver was old Mr. Graine. The one who had said Ernest should conduct a book signing at the library. Mr. Graine was a cheerful old man with a pink face and a white mustache. He had retired from banking. He had, I’m sure, a lot to be cheerful about.
“Wonderful gathering last night,” he said. “Delightful. Kind of you and the world-famous author to invite us.”
“We were pleased to have you,” I said.
Mr. Graine looked down at the dog. “Little fellow taking you for a walk?” he asked. He chuckled at his own joke.
“Yes,” I said.
“What’s his name, again?”
“I haven’t named him yet.”
“Well, not ‘Rex’ I suppose. He seems like a loyal little dog. ‘Fido’ maybe.”
“I’m going fishing,” he said. “You and your husband should join me some time. Nothing like the fishing off the wharf. Or at Yarick Creek. Do you fish?”
One of the things I liked about the people of Yarick was that, by and large, they kept to themselves and let others go about their own business. Mr. Graine, the jovial banker, was cut from a different cloth.
“I’m from Providence,” I said, as if that was an answer. “Ernest is from Hartford.”
“Everyone should fish,” said Mr. Graine. “It’s restful, but exciting. And you can do it anywhere.”
“Provided there’s water.”
“Ha! That’s good. ‘Provided there’s water.’”
I glanced over my shoulder, up into the trees. The smoldering eyes of the Windigo were still there. He was perched fifteen to twenty feet above the ground. I wondered, if Mr. Graine kept rambling on, whether the Windigo would lose patience, whether it would swoop down and haul the old banker out of his station wagon. The old fool looked like a fat meal. But, no. Mademoiselle Zulethena had seemed certain that the creature wouldn’t leave the trees.
Mr. Graine noticed everything. He saw my glance. “Is there a bird?” he asked. “I’m an avid ornithologist, too. There are some very large crows in this region. You should be careful with Fido. The crows around here can carry off a small dog.”
Very large crows. Not as large as the Windigo, though.
“I’ll be careful,” I promised.
“Good. Good. Well, I’m off to the wharf. Thank you again for the party. Tell your husband I want a signed copy of his novel.”
“I’ll do that,” I promised.
He put the station wagon in gear, and at long last drove off along the cliff road.
“Aaaaagnesssssss,” called the Windigo.
It no longer sounded like Ernest. It sounded like Nick now, if Nick had had some terrible injury to his vocal chords.
The Windigo had dropped to a lower branch while I was talking with Mr. Graine. It was only a few feet off the ground now. I could smell its rancid stink. I could count its emaciated ribs. Its face was still largely in shadow, and for that I was glad.
It lifted one bony arm and pointed toward my house with several of its talons. Slowly, it turned, pointing now into the forest. It cocked its head, like a curious dog. It wanted to be sure I understood.
“Yes,” I said. “I understand.”
It made a curious gurgling, grunting sound that I interpreted as an indication of approval. It crouched, as if preparing to spring upward to a higher branch, and then with a sound like rushing winds it was gone. I heard a creaking of boughs high, high up in the trees, maybe a hundred feet up. Could the Windigo leap that high, that fast, like a stone hurled from a slingshot?
I walked the dog along the tree line. I felt the Windigo’s eyes on me, from very high in the trees, but I knew it wouldn’t touch us. Because either it was a figment of my imagination, or it was real and I’d struck a deal with it.
The dog nosed piles of dead leaves that were drifting against the tree trunks. It barked at a squirrel, sent it scampering. The squirrel was the only living creature we saw or heard that morning. The presence of the Windigo had frightened away most of the forest’s natural inhabitants.
Mademoiselle Zulethena wasn’t on her porch. It was odd not to have her call out to me.
I stopped in at the police station. “I’m sorry,” the officer on duty told me, “but we haven’t been able to trace those prank calls.”
“Never mind,” I said. “It was a joke. I’m withdrawing the complaints.”
At the grocer’s I bought several cans of dog food and a bag of kibble.
“Isn’t he darling,” the woman behind the counter said, smiling at the dog. “What’s his name?”
“I haven’t named him yet.”
“Haven’t you? Well, you’ll want some of this.” She added a canister of flea powder to the bag.
“He doesn’t have fleas,” I said.
“And you’ll want to keep it that way.”
I paid the woman, and with the brown paper bag in one hand and the dog’s leash in the other, headed toward my house.
When I passed Mademoiselle Zulethena’s house, her porch was still empty. “Mademoiselle Zulethena – Fortunes $5” read the sign. Below it, yellow rays of light emanated from the palm of the crudely drawn hand.
I tied the dog’s leash to the stair rail. I climbed the porch. There was a large table on the porch, and comfortable chairs. A deck of cards sat on the table – playing cards, not Tarot cards – and an ash tray with a half-smoked cigar. Next to the ash tray was a pad of paper, covered with notes neatly printed in some foreign language full of consonants and seemingly bereft of vowels.
I knocked on the door. It seemed to lead to the kitchen. I knew Mademoiselle Zulethena was home – someone was home, anyway, because I could hear water running in a sink, and the clatter of dishes being washed and then set in a drying rack.
I knocked several times. Someone turned on a radio inside. Loudly. It was the new rock song, “That’ll Be The Day”. Buddy Holly and the Crickets.
I knocked louder. I rapped on the window in the door.
“Mademoiselle,” I called, “are you all right? Do you need assistance?”
The radio was turned down. The faucet was turned off.
The curtain over the window in the kitchen door twitched. Mademoiselle Zulethena’s dark eyes appeared in the glass. Her eyes were angry but damp, as she’d been crying.
“And now you know,” she said, voice muffled by the glass.
“Now I know what?” I asked.
“Now you know how banal it is.”
She twitched the curtain shut. The radio was turned up again, and the faucet was turned on, and dishes clanked in a sink, and I couldn’t get her to come to the door again.
I didn’t understand her attitude. I was only protecting myself. I was only turning the tables. Wasn’t she glad for me? It was she, after all, who had warned me. I hadn’t sought her out.
Ernest was awake when I returned to the house. I poured a plate of kibble for the little dog. I poured a cup of coffee for myself.
“You did great,” Ernest told me, sitting down at the kitchen table. He hadn’t shaved yet. He wore jeans and an old flannel shirt, and he’d dragged his fingers through his hair. “Everyone liked you,” he enthused. “Everyone could see why I’d be so crazy over you.”
“Eggs?” I asked him.
“Sure. Over easy this morning.”
I made the eggs. He rambled on about the party, about how I’d really come through for him, and he’d never forget it. “Violet shot some wonderful stuff,” he said. “The photos will be in Life and Time and The Saturday Evening Post and The New York Times Book Review. Did you know the novel’s at number three now? Number three! Nick told me last night.”
“Bacon?” I asked him.
“Sure. Really crisp, will you? The way I like it.”
I threw a rasher of bacon into the pan.
Ernest leaned back, balancing the chair on two legs. He lit a cigarette and blew little smoke rings.
“Agnes, I wish I could find the words to tell you how much it’s meant to me, that you’ve stayed on and helped me, instead of running back to your Daddy. A large part of my success will be directly attributable to you.”
“Toast?” I asked him.
“Sure. Radiate it, will you? Burn it to a cinder, the way I like it.”
I dropped two slices of bread into the toaster, dialed the heat to the top setting.
After he’d devoured the bacon and the eggs, and sopped the burnt toast in the grease, and devoured it, he lit another cigarette and smiled beatifically.
“Good breakfast?” I asked.
“Can you think of anything else you’d like to eat?”
He shook his head. “Couldn’t eat another morsel. I like this sudden attack of domesticity. It suits you. It’s too bad – well.” He patted his stomach. “I should walk this off. What do you say – ” a sly, sideways glance at me; he didn’t know I was watching his reflection in the little mirror over the sink – “what do you say to a walk in the woods? You, me, and the dog.”
“I’d say you read my mind.”
“Good. Good.” He rubbed his hands together, pleased with himself, with my acquiescence, with the plan he believed was unfolding. “Just let me shave, and I’ll be with you in a jiff.”
“No need to shave, is there?” I asked. “I don’t think the squirrels will object to a touch of five o’clock shadow.”
He laughed. “True. All right. Let me get our coats …”
I walked the dog on the leash. In the other hand, I carried the English walking stick Ernest had given to me. It was, I realized, a kind of marker. It was, at least in part, how the Windigo had identified me. But that didn’t matter now.
The dog wouldn’t enter the woods.
“What a little goof,” Ernest said, clearly irritated, but trying to make light of it.
“I’ll carry him,” I said. I scooped the little dog into the crook of one arm, let it bury its face against my coat. It trembled but it didn’t jump out of my arm.
We walked into the woods. Moss and earth and dead leaves cushioned our steps. Rays of cool autumn light sliced between the pine boughs and the blazing branches of the deciduous trees.
“Isn’t this something?” asked Ernest. “Isn’t this beautiful?”
He was hearing what I was hearing – the unearthly quiet. No birds, no squirrels, no foxes or deer. Just the faint whisper of winds through the trees, and, every moment or so, a stealthy creak of branches high above.
“It’s beautiful,” Ernest repeated. “It’s almost transcendent. I don’t say divine. I can’t, as an agnostic. But transcendent.”
His eyes were feverish. Triumphant. He was rubbing his hands again, and he kept looking at me. This was it. The moment he paid his debt. The moment he sealed the deal, and all the fame and money and critical respect that he craved was completely, irrevocably his …
“Errrrrrnessssst,” called a voice high above. A woman’s voice. A terrible distortion of my voice.
Ernest froze. His mouth opened, but he didn’t say anything.
“Errrrrnesssst,” the voice called again, lower now, closer to the ground.
Ernest’s mouth worked. He stared at me. I saw that he understood, not the details, not the whys and hows, but the essential issue – the what.
A shadow fell from the forest canopy, impossibly fast. A flash of pale skin, bony limbs, gaunt ribs, a grinning skeleton face, sharp talons.
Ernest screamed as the pale form landed next to him. It clasped him in its bony arms. Ernest was still screaming when the Windigo launched itself up into the tree tops, Ernest clutched to its emaciated chest.
The scream faded into a distant shriek. I tilted my head back, craning my neck. I thought I saw movement, hundreds of feet up.
A single drop of red liquid fell to the ground, spattering a fern.
“Let’s go home,” I told the trembling dog.
There isn’t much more to tell. Ernest’s broken body was found by rangers deep in the woods. I had reported him missing; he had wandered off, I said, during an early afternoon walk. His body had been so brutally gnawed, so completely drained of blood, that it was assumed he was mauled and eaten by a family of ravenous bears.
The Windigo went back to the deep, north woods, and resumed its diet of hunters and timber men.
I inherited all of Ernest’s money, and property, and claimed a hefty life insurance policy, just as Ernest, if I had been the one the Windigo took, would have inherited my money and property, and claimed a hefty life insurance policy.
As his widow, I received the royalties of his novel and other writings. And the movie based on his novel was awful, as I had anticipated, but profitable; it turned out to be quite a cash cow.
I kept the house in Maine. Yarick grew on me. It was such a quiet and uncomplicated place, and I summered there every year.
I bought an apartment in Manhattan, of course, and that was my primary residence. New York in the late fifties was on the verge of its last grand era. And I was in the thick of it, one of the bright young things at the night clubs, and art galleries, and theaters.
Violet was my publicist. She made sure my photo appeared everywhere. I was Ernest’s widow; I was a bright young thing; I was famous not for anything I created or did, but only for being famous.
Nick and I married a couple of years after Ernest died. Nick’s wedding gift to me was to color my eyes violet–like Elizabeth Taylor’s. (I told the Yarick neighbors that I was wearing colored contacts fashioned by a fancy Manhattan optometrist.)
Mademoiselle Zulethena avoided me ever after. In the early sixties, she published a dream interpretation dictionary which became a staple among the spiritual crowd. Those were probably the notes I saw that day, on the notepad on her porch. The book’s popularity grew every year. Her success was earned, I’m sure, without any diabolical intervention.
We ran into each other in the Yarick grocer’s one morning, not too long ago. I followed her out, kept pace with her as she headed up the main street to her little house. The little terrier, which I’d never named, trotted along beside me.
“I never thanked you,” I told the fortune teller. “For warning me. It’s thanks to you everything turned out all right.”
Mademoiselle Zulethena shook her head. Her mouth was compressed, as if she wanted to say something, but she was holding the words back with her incredible will.
“Ernest got his just deserts,” I said. “My life is good. Everything worked out perfectly.”
The fortune teller shook her head. “There will come a day,” she said grimly, “when the bill will come due.”
“But I already paid,” I laughed. “Poor Ernest! I’ll never forget his face.”
“You don’t understand,” said the old woman. “When the Windigo took Ernest, that cleared Ernest’s debt. The book. The publicity. The money. Everything he enjoyed before you killed him. For you, my dear,” Mademoiselle Zulethena shook her head, “for you, my dear, the bill has yet to be presented.”
“Nick won’t let anything happen to me,” I said. “He loves me. We understand each other.”
“He understands you,” she said.
Which I found rather insulting. But Mademoiselle Zulethena’s getting on in years, and living alone in that little house at the edge of the woods could make anyone a bit peculiar.
“It’s just like you said,” I told her lightly. “I’m living a silly, superficial life, but it suits me. And Nick loves me. He has a surprise for me. I have to wait until the summer ends, and then he’s bringing it to Yarick.”
Mademoiselle Zulethena shuddered. We had reached her house. She wouldn’t look at me, but pointed her thumb and first two fingers at me.
“Agnes–go with God, my dear.”
She climbed her porch, and opened her kitchen door. She closed it behind her. I heard her draw the bolt and chain.
Nick has business in the city this summer. I plan to paint here in Yarick, and sun myself, and visit the neighbors. Mr. Graine says I’m getting quite good at fishing.
And when summer ends Nick will bring me the surprise.