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Short story 23

Discussion in 'Off Topic' started by inayat, Jul 14, 2019.

  1. inayat

    inayat Head Game Master Moderator

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    I bought a camping backpack from an estate sale and found the following pages inside.

    There was a bundle of papers wadded in a deep pocket of the backpack, but I didn’t notice until after I got it home. I went back to the house where the estate sale was held, and a young woman answered the door. She couldn’t say who the backpack belonged to and had no interest in the papers. Her grandmother was the one who died (of old age, natural causes). Apparently, she was a bit of a hoarder, so I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to track down the source. The handwriting is tiny, and the pages are damaged. I’ll transcribe as faithfully as I can.

    Ruth

    September 5th

    The man on the trail is dead and will need to be moved. It is a more difficult task than I would have guessed, and nearly impossible for a 5’ 4” woman with no help and no gurney. I tried to drag him toward camp right after I found him this morning, but only succeeded in pivoting him and twisting his legs around each other horribly. Bodies look so wrong once they stop feeling pain. I never thought I would have so much experience with death, but I haven’t cried over the loss of someone since the lighthouse. This man shit his pants before he died, and moving him made the smell worse. It will bring the animals in. Still no sign of Ira or Bill.

    September 6th

    I used Ira’s foam sleeping mat like a sled to move the dead man. It still took me an hour to drag him thirty yards, and now the mat is so torn up that I’m questioning whether it was worth the effort.

    Gary Law. His driver’s license is in his wallet. He’s from Utah. I took the sight of him as a good sign at first. Another human on the trail might have meant we were close to civilization, but now I’m not sure what he was doing out here, or what it means. I can’t tell what killed him. No claw marks, no wounds on his hands. He’s stoutly built, but with a bagginess about his physique that makes me think he was starving. He died with his mouth open, every mucus membrane turned ash gray. I don’t think he was attacked. It’s a relief—if he had been missing pieces the logical thing to do would have been to move camp, but then Ira and Bill would have come back to nothing. I’m more afraid of being separated from them than I am of anything else. Still waiting on them both.

    September 8th

    I spent all day yesterday stripping and burying Gary Law. He was shorter in stature, but his clothes should fit Bill well enough. His feet were small, so I’m keeping the socks for myself. They’re almost brand new, thick, blue wool. I can tell he wasn’t an outdoorsman. Everything else was new too: new shoelaces, new cross-trainers, new windbreaker, none of it quite right for someone trekking this far out. And the pants are from Banana Republic, pleated, and with a neat sheen. These aren’t pristine like everything else, and were hemmed by a tailor. I washed them in the creek, but they still smell like shit and death. Everything does, actually, to the point that I think the smell might be on me, in me. I weighted the pants down on a stone near the ridge that gets full sun. I miss bleach. I put green boughs on the signal fire today, but there was no answering smoke. I’m more worried about Ira than I am about Bill. It was Bill who found this trail to begin with. He always finds his way.

    September 9th


    Bill came back today. He took his time coming through the trees, and I got so scared I almost fired the gun. But he clapped, and I clapped back, and he called out to say he was injured. It was the loose shale on the hill between camp and the cave where Lillian was killed. He got caught in a slide and wound up buried to his hips, and one foot wedged between boulders. He couldn’t get free until the rocks shifted again, which they did, that night, when a whistler came by. He’s sure it didn’t see him. He had to spend two days convalescing within sight of Lillian’s cave before he was well enough to hike back. Two nights alone out there.

    I boiled water while I listened to his story, and gave Bill some aspirin from the dead man’s backpack. His foot needed to be wrapped, but I don’t think it’s broken.

    “We should stop splitting up,” I said.

    He nodded and pushed his pack toward me. There was salmon and berries and some mushrooms I didn’t really trust.

    “We should think about hiking out,” he said. “Pick a direction and go. It’s been four weeks. We’ll only get weaker.”

    “When Ira comes back,” I agreed, but Bill pursed his lips like there was something he couldn’t say.

    “What?”

    But he only shook his head.

    It’s been ten days now since Ira left.

    September 11th

    I woke up this morning to a sound I thought was a whistler, but it was actually Bill, on his knees, crying at Gary Law’s grave. I yelled at him about it—about waking me up and making so much noise. He looked hurt, and I felt bad. I’m just worried about Ira, I think, and afraid. I don’t know what we’ll do when the weather starts getting colder. If we wait too much longer, hiking out won’t be an option. There hasn’t been any sign of rescue—no planes or helicopters, no smoke. No sounds but wolf howls and the distant whistling, like elk mating calls, almost. If Ira were here, he’d tell us a story to get our minds off things. He’s a registered nurse. He doesn’t panic.

    September 12th

    I apologized to Bill last night. He shook his head like it was nothing, so I put my hands on his shoulders and apologized again, because I needed him to really hear it.

    “Well I’m sorry you were alone,” he said. “We should never have left you alone.”

    He was looking into my eyes so sadly, and I imagined he was remembering all of the awful things of the past weeks, and feeling the same guilt I felt. It was our research that brought everyone here, our recklessness and curiosity to blame.

    Then he kissed me, and kept kissing me, and finally I kissed him back, because I was feeling something for once. Not even lust, really. More like homesickness. A little breakthrough of pain and wonder after all the bitterness and hardening and cold. We undressed each other and had sex in the tent. I don’t know why. I’ve never cheated on Ira before. Never even thought about it. This didn’t seem wrong, in the moment, but now it’s difficult to write down. It just felt like something we both needed. We didn’t say anything at all. Afterward he went outside to sleep by the fire, like he couldn’t stand to be so close. He spent this morning hauling water and wood, barely pausing to acknowledge me. I don’t think it will happen again. I don’t think either of us will tell Ira.

    September 15

    It’s late. We hear whistlers, just north of us, a chorus of them. Bill says he hears eight distinct tones, but I don’t know. It could be dozens. We put the fires out, and now we’re crouched in the tent with the knives and the gun. Bill reaches for me, puts himself between me and the sound when it crescendoes. I don’t think he knows why he does it. I don’t think it would make a difference. We won’t sleep tonight.

    September 21st

    Ira is back. His coat is in tatters, and his hat is gone. He isn’t speaking. I would call it shock, but he’s the only one with medical training, and I don’t really know what to make of him. He walks and moves fine. He doesn’t look at me. Doesn’t seem to see me.

    I feel so guilty. I’m the reason he’s out here. Now every time I look up I find Bill staring at me. He tries to communicate with looks, but all I ever make out is the fear and shame. Ira won’t eat. We zipped him into the dead man’s jacket and left him to sleep, but he’s been shaking and mumbling all afternoon. He seems exhausted, but he hardly closes his eyes. It’s my fault.

    September 26th

    Ira hasn’t improved much, although he is sleeping now, and eating some. I’ve only seen him sick once before, food poisoning on our honeymoon. He was so stoic about it, and didn’t want my help. Now he hasn’t got much choice. I walked about a mile north and shot a porcupine, and Bill is setting up an alder smoker so we can save the meat. He’s getting serious about us hiking out, but I’m not sure how we’ll manage it with Ira so sick. “He made it back here, didn’t he?” Bill said. “He’ll snap out of it.”

    Maybe so. Neither of us has speculated about what Ira saw. All we know is he was on the south side of the mountain. Bill has proposed we go west as far as the river, then follow it south. If he’s right about where he thinks we are, we’ll hit Red Hill before it starts to snow. There’s a lodge there, and a few permanent residents, or so the helicopter pilot said. If anyone is looking for us, they’ve certainly asked around in Red Hill. I’m glad we have meat now. I’ve been feeling weak.

    September 30th

    Ira is recovering, and not a moment too soon. I woke this morning with his arms around me, and the look in his eyes said he knew where he was, who I was, and was bursting with something he wanted to say but couldn’t. “It’s okay,” I told him. “Be patient with yourself.”

    We had a cold snap last night that left frost on the ground. All three of us cuddled together to sleep, Ira between Bill and I, and at one point Bill reached over to grab my shoulder. I think we’re done with the awkwardness. I think we both know we were just scared.

    We don’t have anywhere near enough food for the journey, but we’re leaving tomorrow anyway. Bill has a cold.

    October 3rd

    Third day of walking.

    I wish I could talk to Lillian about what happened with Bill. She was young, ambitious, and so funny. Plus, she had a whole hoard of birth control pills. She and Geoff were dating. I forget how many you take in emergencies, and how soon after it has to be. But the pills are in her pack, and her pack is in the cave with the whistlers and whatever is left of her. She had the maps. She had everything that mattered. The cave is miles behind us now.

    We built a big cairn by the stream. At some point, we’ll have to lead rangers out here, I’m sure. They’ll want to collect Lillian, and Geoff, and the helicopter pilot. I can’t remember his name. I hope one of us makes it out so his family can hear that it wasn’t his fault. He had three daughters, and was expecting a fourth. I can’t imagine what his wife is doing now. If anyone finds this: it was an electrical malfunction. He got us to the ground safe and sound. He was perfect, even fixed the problem, but then the weather closed in, and we couldn’t take off. Lillian knew the way, so we hiked to the lighthouse. And then the whistlers came.

    October 10th

    It has rained for two days. The dead man’s jacket is nowhere near warm enough for Ira, and too big, but we don’t have anything else. At least it’s waterproof.

    We hear whistlers every night now, just after sunset. Three or four of them, calling back and forth. Bill is convinced they’re tracking us. We stack rocks high around the fire.

    We’re following a new game trail now, instead of the river. The walking is easier. I didn’t think twice about it until last night. Bill leaned forward on his elbows at the fireside while the whistlers seemed to be circling us.

    “What if this isn’t a game trail?” he said, his voice a low murmur. “What if they made this?”

    I don’t have the energy to think about that. It’s simple: If we’re walking a trail they made, if their nightly whooping is urging us into a trap, we’re fucked.

    Ira curls up in a ball when the whistlers start calling. He writhes like someone is sticking him with pins. All he’s said so far is “Let’s go.”

    October 14th

    It hailed today, hard. We had to take shelter under a tree, and when dark fell there were no whistles for the first time in a week. The silence was somehow more eerie than the threat of the whistlers. Ira felt it too, because about fifteen minutes after dark he stood up and started whooping and whistling out into the rain, calling and screaming in a tone that didn’t sound like him. Bill yelled at him to be quiet, but he acted as if possessed, calling out to them at the top of his lungs with his eyes rolling back in his head. Bill tackled him to the ground and beat him to shut him up.

    “Stop it!” I said, at first, but when Ira didn’t stop making noise Bill looked at me, and I closed my eyes and nodded. He had to knock Ira cold to get him to be quiet, and he was sobbing while he did it, pleading with Ira to settle down. The wind was sharp, and I think it saved us. Every tree was vibrating and creaking and howling. The whistlers had likely all retreated to their caves.

    Maybe they hibernate. Maybe they’ll leave us alone soon.

    October 17th

    Ira was his old self this morning, as completely as if we had gone backward in time. He was up before either of us, heating water. He said he took so long to recon the south side of the mountain because the whistlers caught him in a trap.

    “It was a hole, clearly dug with tools.” He was shaking while he spoke. “They only came at night, and I didn’t get a good look at them. I could hear them, and see silhouettes, but nothing definite. It was too dark. I don’t know what they wanted with me. I got out. I climbed out. And I ran.”

    We’re well away from there now, finally reaching the end of the ridges and the start of a valley where everything is very green. I hope the change in biome means a decrease in the whistler population. Part of me wants to take steps to document as much, if it’s true, but all of our field notes were lost with Lillian’s gear, plus the night vision goggles and the cameras. My biggest fear is that we’ll all be killed, and our disappearance will inspire some other young researchers to come up here to solve the mystery for themselves. We’ll become just another line in the sick folklore that draws people to this cursed place. I would hate to be part of that cycle, knowing what I know now. The whistlers are very real, and they don’t want us here.

    November 1st

    I dreamed last night that I was pregnant with Gary Law’s baby. Nothing else happened in the dream. I was hiking endlessly with Ira and Bill, and all three of us knew that I had been with the dead man, and it bothered us, but we wouldn’t talk about it. I woke up with my period, thank God. I’ve never been so happy doing laundry.

    We’ve made camp by a small lake in the low point of the valley. It’s uphill from here to a distant saddle Ira thinks he remembers seeing from the air. It’s only about two miles away. Red Hill should be just beyond that, Ira says, but we don’t have the energy to push that far yet. We’ll rest today, and tomorrow we’ll move, and hopefully we’ll be drinking beer at the Red Hill lodge before dark.

    Ira is the best shot, so he took the gun to look for rock ptarmigan. We lit two fires and agreed he’s not to go beyond shouting distance, but I still worry. The whistlers don’t seem willing to attack when we’re in a group. Lillian and Geoff were both alone when they were killed. Besides, I’m not convinced Ira is fully recovered yet. He says nonsensical things in his sleep, cries out and scratches. That’s new.

    Bill and I went fishing after the laundry was done. It was stupid, doing it in that order. All we caught were minnows, and even that took hours.

    He was staring at me while we sat. The cold was seeping into my bones, making me irritable. I haven’t been warm in weeks.

    “What?” I said.

    “He’s not himself. You know it.” He meant Ira.

    “He’s better than he was. He’s okay. We’ll find him a doctor in Red Hill.”

    “What if Red Hill isn’t on the other side of that saddle? What if we get up there and we’re facing another week’s worth of empty forest? What then?”

    I realized my eyes were closed. I opened them, and the lake seemed oddly bright. Bill’s fingers were pressed against his brow.

    “We’ll worry about that when we have to,” I said.

    “I’m saying I don’t trust him like this, Ruth. He doesn’t remember the other night, after the hail. He can’t control himself.” He flexed his hands. “He could get us killed.”

    “He’s my husband.”

    “He’s my brother.”

    I nodded, but that was all I could do. I have known Bill longer than I have known Ira, and spend more time with him most days, back at home, since we work in the same department. He introduced me to Ira at a Christmas party. Six years ago, now.

    “What should we do?” I asked.

    “I don’t know. But I think we may need to be open to the idea of cutting the rope, at some point. If he gets any worse, it may come to that.”

    Bill started rock climbing on the weekends in college. “Cutting the rope.” It’s a metaphor for letting Ira die so we can live.

    November 2nd

    Yesterday, while Ira was still out hunting, we heard three shots in the woods. Two too many to take down a rock ptarmigan, and Bill and I stood, staring, tense, for just a moment before we hurried to put out the fires and pack what we could into our bags. Ira came running into camp, breathing so hard he couldn’t say what was wrong. He had no gun and no bag, and he grabbed my arm as soon as he was close enough and pulled me through the grass, up the valley, toward the saddle. Bill looked alarmed. He caught up to us and pried us apart. He yelled at Ira and handed me my haphazardly stuffed pack. All our clothes were still wet, torn from the line, and Ira’s eyes were wild. He stared off behind us, toward the woods he’d run from.

    “It’s a warning,” he said. “I understand it now. It’s a warning.” Bill tried to talk him down, but then we heard the whistlers’ eerily musical voices. I’ve never heard it during daylight, and never so close as this. I followed Ira’s gaze into the trees, and stared, and listened. I couldn’t move my legs. I couldn’t even draw breath. I held onto my pack straps with a stony grip, like it was attached to a balloon that might whisk me out of harm’s way any moment.

    Ira took my arm again, and now Bill was helping him, pushing me along the trail until I could run, until we all were running as fast as we could. The trail led straight into the open, and we all reacted differently, ducking through alders or sweeping wide from the trail to be closer to the cover of the hemlock. Ira took the shortest path, straight through the matted grass of the game trail, and soon he was far ahead of me, and it was all I could do to keep my eyes on him and my legs moving as fast as they would go. He was the first to reach the hill covered in scrub, the saddle between two jagged peaks. He ducked low as he ran, and I lost sight of him.

    Bill’s bad foot and pack slowed him down, and I saw him stop and crouch, wide-eyed, beneath the trees, after we’d been fleeing for ten minutes that felt like fleeting seconds. Ira’s vanishing sent panic straight to my toes. It took me no time to decide not to wait with Bill. I had to catch Ira. I kept running until I reached the ridge, my lungs burning, but once I arrived there was no sign of him, no trail to follow. I lumbered to the crest of the saddle, clapping frantically, looking back over my shoulder for Bill, who was also gone. From so high up I could see the forest beyond, and the river, and a flat brown bay at low tide. No town. No Red Hill. I clapped, but neither of them clapped back. I was so exposed, but the whistling was distant now, and in fact I couldn’t pick it apart from the wind with any certainty. I walked closer to the trees, and built two fires with my firesteel and shaking hands, the second in the open of the hilltop, big and smoky. The hemlock makes for thick cover. There was plenty of dry tinder.

    We left the tent behind, and the sleeping pads. Bill had the stove and the cooking pots. Ira had the gun. I have the hatchet, the firesteel, the wet laundry.

    I made a lean-to with a small roof of boughs, and sat through the evening with my back tense against a thick tree, and waited, and slept fitfully. I did the same today, and kept the fires alive, and now it’s getting dark. I should walk back down into the valley to collect the tent, but the sound of the daytime whistle is stuck in me like a splinter. I can’t face the creature that made that sound, even after years of looking for it. I never believed the stories, not really. We came here to research the folklore. To listen to elderly trappers and hunters tell the outlandish stories they grew up with, to record them for posterity. We should never have come here.

    No sign of Ira or Bill.

    November 3rd

    The rain came through my pine shelter last night, but at least I can say it broke me out of my trance. I tightened the hip belt on my pack, added a few hours of wood to both fires, unsheathed my knife and taped it to my hand. Bill told me to do this, a long time ago, if I knew I might have to run and fight at the same time. I’m walking back north, toward the place where I saw him fall. Toward the place where the whistlers surprised us.

    Whistlers aren’t the only things to worry about in these woods. There are bears, wolves, coyotes–fearless predators that encircle our warm camp at night. Conventional wisdom is to make noise when passing through denser growth. Avoid surprising a carnivore. Yet, I have long suspected that noise lures the whistlers. Prey species don’t announce themselves. They pass in stealth. After what happened to Lillian and Geoff and recently Ira, I have no doubt that we are prey.

    I resolved to go quietly along the margin of the hemlock. Keeping the game trail to my right, the signal fire’s smoke squarely at my back, I walked carefully, keeping low, whispering for Bill whenever the wind slowed, pausing sometimes to listen hard. After nearly an hour of creeping and murmuring fruitlessly through the trees, I lost my caution.

    “Goddammit, Bill!” I shrieked, and seconds later his clap came, two shocks of sound.

    I clapped back, and he did too, and then I found him, damp and chilled to the bone, slumped against the base of a tall spruce tree not thirty feet from where I’d yelled. The needles where he sat were soft and dry, and I sat down right beside him, overcome. I tore the tape off my hand and held his face in my palms. His eyes were alert, despite everything.

    “Where are you hurt?”

    He lifted his ankle. It was still wrapped, but swollen now, risen like bread dough. It must have been fractured all along, and our sprint across the valley was the final straw.

    He was quiet, but grimaced as I wrestled off his sock and the inadequate wrappings. I held his foot against my thigh, feeling the mess of swollen tissue. There was deep blue bruising all across the top of his foot. He took my hands before I could do anything more.

    “Where is Ira? I smelled the smoke from your camp.”

    I shook my head. “I couldn’t catch him. He didn’t have a pack to weigh him down, and he’s such a fast runner to begin with. He was over the ridge before me, and once I got up there he was gone. If he saw my smoke, he hasn’t let on.”

    “He left you? He had no gear.”

    I focused on the foot, knowing I would need something tight and sturdy to wrap it in if I had any hope of moving Bill up to my camp. I took the dead man’s blue wool socks from my feet. They were small for Bill, and worked like a compression bandage. I rolled both of them onto the one foot, and there were tears coming down his face before I was done.

    “I’m sorry,” I whispered. “But you’re lucky. I don’t think it’s broken all the way through. Just badly fractured. Ira would know.”

    He stared at me after I said this, but I avoided his gaze. I cast about until I found a dry branch straight enough to make into a crutch. Bill is just over six feet tall, so it was awkward walking a mile uphill with half his body weight on my shoulder. I could see he was in tremendous pain, but we made the trek without stopping, and it wasn’t until he had collapsed beneath my pine shelter that I paused to let myself wonder if I had pushed him too hard. It didn’t matter now, I reasoned. We were as safe as we could hope to be. I fed him the last of the dead man’s aspirin and elevated his foot.

    There is nothing else—no food, and nothing to catch food with. I’ll worry about that tomorrow. Tonight, it’s all I can do to keep the roof intact and the fires burning. Ira will see the smoke and come to us before Bill is ready to walk again. He will. He has to.

    November 6th

    The swelling has gone down on Bill’s ankle. I killed a bird—a grouse?—by throwing rocks. That seems like a new low. Rock-throwing is part of a deeper tier of human desperation we should never have had to access.

    While sitting immobile, Bill has made a bow. He’ll use the bird’s feathers for arrow fletching, and maybe for fishing flies. He saved the longest tail feather out for me. To use as a quill, he said, in case my pen dies.

    We need to scout the area before we move again. I could hike to the top of one of the peaks, but I can’t justify leaving Bill alone that long. Not that he’s helpless, but the awful truth is we’re both down to the last of our endurance. If we get separated, if I wind up alone again, I don’t think I’ll have it in me to keep going.

    It’s bothering Bill, not knowing what happened to Ira.

    “The whistlers were behind us. He was ahead,” he keeps saying. “If they were hunting, they would have caught me. So, they weren’t hunting. What did they want? Why didn’t he stop?”

    At night, we hear them in nearly every direction, but they keep their distance. They aren’t circling closer like they usually do. It’s as if they want us to know we’re within their boundaries, trapped within their home turf. If we sleep, we sleep in shifts.

    November 10th

    No news. The weather is dry, but much colder than last week. Winter is late, and I worry that when the snow finally comes it will fall all at once, burying us and any points of reference. I built a wind break and improved our shelter. Caught a rabbit. Helped Bill bathe. I keep catching him putting weight on his foot, rushing things. No sign of Ira, and not much sleep.

    November 12th

    It snowed overnight, at last. Just as I predicted, it came in a big rush, a great dumping of powder and then a sunny morning. The signal fire on the hill was smothered, but Bill wouldn’t let me go out and re-light it.

    “He would have seen it by now,” he said, meaning Ira. “Save the dry wood.”

    He made a second crutch and uses both to humor me, but he says he can’t be idle anymore.

    “It seems such a risk,” I said, “to move on in this weather, with you hurt.”

    “If we stay here, we will die,” he replied.

    He’s talking about building a sled once the snow is thick enough. I can’t listen. I’ll take the bow to the top of the hill. Scout our path. Look for game.

    November 13th

    Nothing much to see from the high ridge yesterday. No snow has fallen yet around the bay, and it occurred to me that we might just follow the coastline south. We could set a new fire every day on the beach, leave it smoking. Maybe a plane will pass. Maybe Ira will see us from wherever he’s hiding. Maybe the whistlers don’t swim.

    Bill says we’ll leave tomorrow.

    “What about Ira?” I said.

    He shrugged, looking exhausted. “Don’t know which way he went. Don’t know where to look. Don’t know how he is.”

    “If we leave, we will never see him again.” I started to cry, and Bill walked away to the shelter and curled up like he was going to sleep. He turned his back to me. I looked out across the saddle and the valley and tried to keep my tears quiet. It was just dusk. No distant fires. No smoke. If he’s nearby, he is cold. He is dying, and I’m helpless.

    It’s full dark now, and for the first time in weeks the whistlers haven’t made a sound.

    November 14th

    Bill woke me up at dawn. He had hot water and a scrap of rabbit for me. I’m saving the bones and feet in a plastic bag. I don’t know if they’ll be any good for soup, but soon they may be all we have. He lifted my pack for me to put on, then put his hands on my shoulders.

    “I’m sorry,” he said. “I don’t know what else to do.”

    I looked back at him, watched while he got into his own pack and kicked snow and dirt over the fire’s embers. I thought of leaving a note for Ira to follow, or some kind of sign, but the snow is falling again in pellets. Every trace of us will be obliterated soon.

    November 18th

    The hiking has been easier since we got below the snow line, but the weather is following us. The coast is icing over. We’re making good time, and I think we’re both relieved to be off the game trail. Aside from mud and rough gravel the terrain is much easier here along the beaches than it was up in the trees. It’s been five nights now since we heard the whistlers. Maybe they don’t like the cold, or maybe we’ve finally left their natural range. Even the smallest hope is agony.

    We had some luck with fishing yesterday—an enormous trout was stuck in a low pond after the tide went out. Probably sick. Probably already dying. We spent the whole day gorging on it, and cutting strips to smoke.

    I found Ira’s gold watch in my pack. I gave it to him for our second anniversary. He had a habit of taking it off whenever he worked with his hands, and must have stashed it in my bag to keep it safe. I asked Bill if he wanted to wear it, but he said no. There’s no point looking at the time, I guess. I buried it near the fire, built a cairn over top, said some words, like a funeral. Bill didn’t say anything. I had to. I had to do something in order to keep moving. I don’t feel certain Ira is dead, but I can’t fathom what it means if he’s out there and we’re leaving him behind. The most horrible thought is that he’s the reason the whistlers are gone. Maybe he’s leading them on a chase away from us, or maybe they were hunting, and they caught him, and their hunger is satisfied for now.

    “Don’t think like that,” Bill says, but I know Ira is in his thoughts too. Bill is a folklorist, like me, but that’s not what drew him here. He wanted to see the whistlers with his own eyes, like Lillian did. He wanted to document them, their habits. Describe them, as a species, for science.

    “Everything that’s happened so far fits the stories,” I said.

    “Don’t, Ruth.”

    But I don’t stop, because he knows the stories even better than I do. He knows we’re just like all the other characters now. Hunted. Doomed. “They pick groups apart. They separate people. They take their prey one at a time.”

    “You don’t believe the stories. You never believed them.”

    I opened my mouth, but the words were delayed. “I believe we’ll never see Ira again.”

    We sleep a little bit apart despite the bitter cold. He’s always up before I wake.

    Bill says he recognizes this coastline, and there’s a pinnacle to the east he calls Phanfone Point.

    “I’d say we’re eight days north of Red Hill, if we stick to the coast.”

    I’m not getting my hopes up.

    November 28th

    Ten days since I wrote. It all blends together. This bit of shoreline looks just the same as what we saw days ago, the water just as flat and gray. If it weren’t for Bill and the compass I would assume we were skirting a large lake, not an inlet of the Pacific Ocean. I would assume we were going in circles. We do have Phanfone Point to navigate by, and the stars. The weather has cleared. Winter is hesitating again. I worry I’ll never see leaves on trees again, or flowers opening up in a field of grass. I worked all the time. Ira and I didn’t take a vacation last summer. I squandered so much.

    Some days, Bill and I don’t speak a word to each other. We stop walking. He assembles the shelter, I build the fire. He unpacks the food, I hang our damp clothes. We eat. We sleep. And in the morning we walk.

    December 1st

    I saw Red Hill first. Our strip of shoreline was getting rocky, so we went up into a stand of cedar and found a steep bear trail. We haven’t heard whistlers in weeks, so we beat pots and shouted every few steps, and something about us using our voices made us giddy. Bill started singing a camp song I’d never heard. Something from when he was a child, I guessed, full of rhymed bodily functions. He laughed while he sang it, laughed until tears rolled down his face. He had to stop to catch his breath, and I walked a short ways onward, because it seemed he needed a moment alone. It seemed he was finally realizing what I realized when we left our camp near the saddle: that we had abandoned Ira to an unknown fate. That he might have died a preventable death because we were too scared and broken to search for him. I walked toward a break in the trees with Bill hyperventilating at my back, and saw a straight line far away, and a clearing where lighter green grass vibrated amongst dark evergreen. We were on a bit of a ridge, and could look down into the distant orderliness of a miniscule town, just a lump of weedy brush and granite rising out of marshy lowlands. Now I was crying. There was a water tower, a long split rail fence. Distantly, some low buildings and power lines were visible against a curtain of trees.

    I called to Bill, who ran up beside me and stopped and stared. He wrapped his arms around me in his relief, squeezing me hard against his chest. I kissed him without thinking first, and he jerked his head away, exhaling shakily into my hair, but not releasing me from his arms.

    “I’m sorry,” I said.

    “I don’t know how to…” he began, but didn’t finish. I eased myself out of his embrace and gestured for him to follow me down the hill. It started snowing.

    Darkness fell when we were still about a mile outside of Red Hill. The terrain was difficult, thorny and muddy. I struggled with my dimming flashlight, focusing intently on my feet and the ground ahead, but Bill grabbed my arm as the moon was rising. He stopped me.

    “Look,” he said.

    I looked ahead to Red Hill. I could see the water tower clearly still, an armored dome high above everything. It was silhouetted against the sky. “What?”

    “There are no lights.”

    I blinked, searched, but of course he was right. As night fell, nothing had come to life in Red Hill. There were no porch lamps, no glowing windows, no blinking red beacon atop the water tower. The place looked abandoned, as still and dark as death.

    “We can’t stop here in the open,” I said.

    “Can you make it without your light on?”

    My flashlight was nearly dead, and the moon was rising anyway. I switched it off, and we continued, not struggling as urgently as before. I was aware of the sound my boots made in the soggy ground. Bill’s voice dropped to a whisper, was thick with caution.

    “We’ll knock on the first door we come to,” he said. “We’ll lead with the fact that our chopper went down.”

    “What do you think is wrong? What are you afraid of?” I was terrified, but I wasn’t sure why.

    “I don’t know,” he said.

    The moon was directly overhead by the time we reached the split-rail fence we’d seen from the ridge. Caution and fatigue had made that final stretch of our journey seem endless. There were sounds in the woods nearby—not whistlers, maybe wolves—but I was more concerned about people. Lillian had warned us about the residents this far out, in these isolated stretches of forest. The lighthouse keeper had held a rifle to her forehead once when she surprised him after a few weeks away.

    We passed through the split rail fence, and walked across a flat expanse of dirt stuck with poles–tetherball poles. It was a schoolyard. There were no children to be seen, no people, no signs of life. I turned my light back on, and Bill did the same. He had a headlamp, brighter and whiter than my little incandescent torch, and walked ahead of me through the yard, up toward a chain swing set and a few low buildings that looked like houses. The street between them was hard dirt scattered with rough quartz gravel that glittered in the light.

    He was bold. He walked up the low porch of the first house we leveled with, and rapped sharply on the front door. “Anyone home?” he called. “Our helicopter went down. We need help!”

    All was silent. I looked around while he stared at the door, hoping the noise might draw movement elsewhere in Red Hill. No luck. We went house to house, knocking and calling at eight buildings on that lonely street. We ended at the lodge, a sort of multi-purpose building that contained rooms for rent, a post office, and a meeting hall. It was deserted like the rest. My flashlight flickered and died while we stood on the front porch. Bill tested the handle and found the lodge unlocked.

    “I can’t see how anyone would object,” he said, tipping his headlamp beam downward and looking at my face. We were both shivering.

    “The pilot said people lived here year-round.”

    “He must have been mistaken.”

    Inside, Bill felt along the lodge’s wall for a light switch, but there was no power. I found a full kerosene lamp on a bookshelf, and a book of matches in an ashtray on a table in the lodge’s dining area. I lit the lamp and breathed a little easier. Bill walked around the Lodge’s rooms with his headlamp, getting his bearings, but I sat at a table with the lamp, holding my head and trying to feel grateful for the shelter.

    He came back, wiping his hands on his pants. “The breaker didn’t do anything. There’s a generator back in the utility room, looks like it’s got a little fuel left, but I’ll wait until morning to try it.”

    When I didn’t respond, he came to sit across from me at the table. “Abandoned or not, we’re going to have to winter here.”

    I nodded.

    “We’ll get our hands on a radio, as much food and fuel as we can find. We’ll hole up and wait it out. Someone will come for us.”

    I nodded again, but couldn’t look at him.

    “All you need is rest,” he said, softer now.

    He led me toward the bedrooms and opened a creaking door for me. The room had a double bed with a pretty cream-colored quilt, a closet with accordion doors, and a wide window that looked out on blackness.

    “Is there a room without a window?”

    He looked at my reflection in the dark glass, then looked at the real me. I carried the kerosene lamp, and my unsteady grip cast eerie shadows.

    “Course,” he said.

    He ushered me into the room directly across the hall. It was adjacent to a doorway that led away toward a lounge full of deer trophies and enormous television screens. It had skylights, and the moon was showing through. The bedroom was nearly identical to the first, except the bedspread was blue patchwork and the window was replaced with a hanging tapestry of sweet pea blossoms.

    I nodded, set my backpack down, and placed the lamp on top of the dresser so it cast light on each of the four walls. I unzipped my jacket, but Bill stayed in the doorway.

    “I could take the room across the way.”

    “Don’t be silly.”

    He gave me a serious look, but put his pack down beside mine and came to get in bed with me.

    “Suppose it’s too cold to sleep apart,” he said, taking off his boots and settling rigidly under the covers.

    “Why is it different from sharing a tent?”

    “It just is.”

    I thought I would fall away into the deepest sleep of my life, but the wind picked up, and the lodge creaked and shuddered around us, and I thought every other sound was a footstep or a human whimper. At one point I woke Bill up, dead certain I’d heard a baby crying.

    He stroked my hair and listened for a full minute, then pressed me against the mattress by my shoulder before lying back down himself. “Back to sleep,” he mumbled.

    But I didn’t sleep. Instead I took the kerosene lamp to the chair in the corner and wrote down this strange day. Bill is motionless in sleep, one arm slung beside him in the place I left. It is different, just the two of us sharing a domestic space. What will become of us, during months of isolation? What will we look like to whoever finds us?

    I hear it again now: a wailing that is certainly not the wind. The doors are locked, but that’s hardly any consolation. If the whistlers are real, what else could be living in this place? A banshee? Wendigo? Or something even stranger?

    Bill sleeps through the sound. He won’t believe me in the morning.

    December 2nd

    I woke up in the chair where I fell asleep writing. The lamp’s wick was low, and had burned down far too much of the kerosene before snuffing itself out. There’s a spare can, but it won’t last long. I’ll have to be more careful. Bill was gone when I awoke. He had covered me with the quilt from the bed.

    I found him in the lounge inspecting the mounted moose heads and elk skulls. There were books, field guides and old almanacs, scattered on a coffee table. The wood stove was blazing, ticking with heat, but Bill wasn’t relaxed. He greeted me in a whisper and moved tentatively through the room. I had nearly forgotten about his injury.

    “Let me have another look at your foot,” I said. “You should rest in bed for a few days, now that we’re safe,”

    He shook his head. “We’re not safe. Come look.”

    He led me through the lounge and onto the porch at the front of the lodge. There is no snow or ice on the ground outside, but the road is muddy, the ground soft enough to hold indentations. From the porch steps, we saw the street and its quartz gravel, the small ruts we made walking from house to house in the dark last night. But now our steps are not the only marks in the road. There are other prints, too, evidence of pacing steps and sliding gashes where the gravel has been scraped completely away. It could be the tracks of dozens of pairs of feet, or just a few, going around and around the lodge while we slept. The footprints form an unbroken circle around us, evidence of the stalking, pacing, night watch of the whistlers. They have retreated now, apparently, but how far?

    In the moment, I could scarcely breathe. I staggered back against the lodge’s front door, my body crumpling down and heaving.

    “In the stories, the whistlers don’t leave tracks,” I whispered.

    Bill shrugged and kept a stoic face. “They look human to me. Like a grown man dragging his feet.” His voice was low, tired.

    “What’s wrong with you?”

    He shook his head. “It doesn’t matter. Doesn’t matter if this is a game the whistlers are playing, or if the people of Red Hill reappeared last night to make these marks, to mess with us. Doesn’t matter if it’s aliens or mole people or fucking Lillian and Geoff back from the dead. We can’t stay here now.” He opened the front door and nodded me back inside. “We’ll gather what we can and keep going south until we find another town. There’s a closet with some gear–a good tent, tarps, lanterns, a stove. You start getting things together, and I’ll see if I can find a vehicle that runs.”

    I stopped in the doorway. I was breathing so hard I could taste blood. “No. We can’t split up. We’re no safer during the day than we are at night. We can’t make that mistake a second time.”

    He paused. “Fine. I’ll take what we need from the closet. You have a look for food in the kitchen, then we’ll pack up and scout out a vehicle together. Agreed?”

    I nodded, but was not completely reconciled with Bill’s plan. How long can we run before hunger stops us, or the cold, or the harsh unknowns of the landscape? We saw this region from the air, saw the dead-end logging roads and ghost towns surrounded by miles of wilderness. We both know Red Hill has no outlet. The single road leads west, to an airstrip and a dock that freezes over every January. The mail comes by boat, and only in the summer. Bill knows there is actually nowhere we can run. Maybe the whistlers know it too.

    * * * * * *

    One task at a time. Food. I walked into the dining area, back beyond a buffet table waiting for chafing dishes, into the kitchen. It is thoroughly modern, with wood veneer cabinets and a walk-in freezer with a gleaming door. Someone put a lot of care into this kitchen. Perhaps they photographed it for brochures. Bear tours have become popular among the wealthy and well-armed.

    The cupboards are nearly bare, as one would expect them to be at the close of the season. There is a bin with a few cups of stale flour inside, a bottle of rancid oil, a gallon-sized can of fruit cocktail, a box of crumpled tea bags, a canister of powdered milk, a stuck-together brick of sugar cubes. I opened the refrigerator, but the stagnant air behind the door poured over me, making me reel and gag before I forced it shut. I glimpsed molding vegetables, rancid meat, obscure plastic wrappings dotted with black mold. I must have gagged audibly, because soon Bill was at the kitchen door, eyes wild and shining like he’d been sprinting.

    “What’s wrong?” he said.

    “The fridge is full of spoiled food.”

    He frowned. “That doesn’t make sense. They would have cleaned everything out before closing the place up for the season.”

    “But it wasn’t closed up,” I said. My voice was shaking. “The front door was unlocked. The tables and chairs are still out. The TV cabinet in the lounge was wide open. The curtains weren’t drawn in the bedrooms.”

    “Gas in the generator,” he said, nodding. “Nothing winterized. Like they left in a hurry.”

    The back of my throat had gone dry. I walked to the freezer and yanked against the long steel handle, preparing myself for another wave of pungent odor, but deciding that spoilage in the freezer could be the final piece of evidence that proved the emerging theory: that something had gone very wrong for the residents of Red Hill.

    Bill stood at my shoulder, watching with a wary hand over his nose and mouth as the door’s hinge creaked. The food on the shelves of the walk-in was actually better contained than what had been in the fridge. There was spoiled meat wrapped in paper, looking sunken and gory. The ice and ice cream had all melted within confined containers, as if power outages were routine. Besides a deeply musty, almost rubbery smell, at first I thought the freezer, though abandoned, was benign.

    “Ruth,” Bill said, behind me, his hand creeping shakily along my shoulder, trying to turn me back toward him. “Don’t look, Ruth.”

    “What?” And now I looked squarely to the back of the freezer, where a pair of rounded shoes was visible behind a pallet stacked with sunken bags of frozen vegetables. The steel floor beneath the pallet was shiny with dried fluids that had leaked from the bags, maybe days ago, maybe weeks.

    “Don’t,” he repeated, but I kept looking, following the shoes to a scrawny pair of legs, bent knees, the pleated black pants and white coat of the lodge’s chef, a middle-aged woman with wiry white hair and a shriveled, gray face. I took a step toward the dead woman, felt my bare feet sticking in the mess on the freezer’s floor. Bill’s grip tightened on my shoulders.

    “Look at me,” he said. “Look away.”

    “What happened here?” I breathed.

    He pulled me away, out of the kitchen, through the lounge, all the way back to the bedroom, where he gently shut the door and put me to bed, wrapping me tightly with the quilt.

    Just as sleeping beside Bill is different out of the wilderness, so death is freshly strange within the confines of the lodge. The dead chef makes less sense to me than Gary Law or the lighthouse keeper. She died indoors, in a place where the beds were still made, where the refrigerator was filled with food. She should have been safe.

    “Why would they leave her here?” I said.

    He knelt at my feet with a bottle of water and a washcloth, scrubbing the freezer’s sickness off of them. I had left my shoes at the front door. Ages ago, it seemed.

    When he spoke, his voice shook. “What exactly did you hear last night? You woke me. You heard something.”

    “A baby. It sounded like a crying baby.”

    “The lighthouse keeper… he said he sometimes heard the whistlers laughing, laughing like his parents in the reception hall after church on a Sunday. They’ll get inside your head. They’ll lure you in. You can’t let them, Ruth.”

    I was dazed, and couldn’t speak, so Bill kept talking.

    “I imagine they were already here, in Red Hill, before we arrived. Spooked the residents. The power must have failed already, before she went in there. There was a parka on the hook outside. She didn’t take it. Must have been a panic. She went in there to keep herself safe. Maybe people started leaving and she couldn’t get out. It was all an accident,” he said, rubbing my leg reassuringly. “They didn’t realize she was trapped.”

    “There’s a bell,” I said. “An emergency alarm. Her fingers, Bill. Her fingernails.” They were scraped bloody on the door handle. Torn up.

    “So maybe there was no one left to hear the bell. Maybe everyone else…”

    But I sat upright on the bed. I couldn’t calm down. “That night, when it hailed. You would have done anything to make Ira quiet down. They got inside Ira’s head, didn’t they? Maybe they got inside hers too.”

    “You think her own people locked her in there?”

    I tried to speak reasonably, tried for academic composure.

    “There’s a story, isn’t there? One of the old ones. A story about the people the whistlers don’t kill? There’s one in almost every group. Every story. Someone… susceptible. Who succumbs to a kind of madness. Tearing at their own flesh, losing their minds, killing their companions. Lillian thought it was a kind of Stockholm syndrome.”

    Bill nodded. He told me the story of the family who lived in the outpost north of the lighthouse. It was years and years ago. Mother, father, three children. The father sent a dispatch one day to say he had killed his wife and his kids. Strangled them. He had received a warning, he said, so he killed them all. When the rangers arrived, the residence was empty. There was no sign of any of them, no sign of struggle. As if they had vanished over the rocks and into the sea.

    * * * * * *

    Bill told me to lie down for the rest of the afternoon, but I couldn’t.

    “I’m ready to go,” I said, and we wasted no time. We packed our bags in a mournful silence. I was greedy, and overstuffed my pack, taking the quilt from the bed, spare batteries, candles, matches, mouthwash from the bathroom, and the remaining kerosene.

    Bill found a handgun in a locked drawer, plus ammunition. He had braved the freezer a second time, discovered the drawer’s keys in a pocket of the chef’s coat.

    “She wrote something,” he said, when he returned.

    There was a clipboard mounted on the inside of the freezer, an inventory log and a pen. The chef had scrawled a desperate message on the blank backside of a page:

    “I understand it now, after all these years, all these long winters of hearing those damned things howling out there in the woods. The whistlers stand with their backs to us. They stand between us and something terrible. They’ve been protecting us, all these years, keeping it at bay, whatever it is. They were warning us, all this time. And now it’s too late. Too late by far. It’s come to Red Hill at last.”

    I’ve copied it verbatim. I can’t stop thinking about it.

    “You were right,” Bill said, shaking his head once he was finished reading. He crumpled the page and left it on a table. “Stockholm syndrome.”

    I was wrapping the end of a fireplace poker with duct tape, but slowed and looked at Bill now, considering the chef’s words.

    “They caught Ira in a trap.”

    “Yes,” he said.

    “They didn’t kill him. Didn’t hurt him. He was well enough to find his way back to us.”

    “He escaped them.”

    “But…”

    “I don’t want to hear it, Ruth.”

    I nodded, and practiced swinging the poker against fire logs.

    Even now, all we have to go on are other people’s words. We came all this way to conduct our own research, and the only thing we’ve learned is fear. We hear the whistlers, but have not seen them. We fear the unseen, but what if that’s a failure of imagination? Perhaps there’s something else to be afraid of, some reason the stories are so few and scattered, some reason there are so rarely any survivors, some reason Bill and I have made it this far. Some unknown.

    * * * * * *

    We wrote a note that we left on a side table near the front door. Our names and the date, contact numbers for our families back home, an apology that we didn’t do more for the woman in the freezer. We couldn’t spare the time and energy it would take to bury her.

    I put the kitchen parka on over my jacket and pants. Bill layered his clothes under Gary Law’s. We took gentle steps away from the lodge, across the barrier line of whistler tracks, listening hard. In the light of day, it was clearer that Red Hill had been evacuated in a rush. There were split logs stockpiled beside every structure, potted plants drying out on porches, a garage door left open, its contents in disarray.

    “Not many vehicles,” Bill said, as we walked to the far side of Red Hill, out toward the skinny dirt road that led out of town.

    “So this road must lead somewhere,” I said, hopefully. “They got in their cars and took this road out of town.”

    Bill didn’t seemed encouraged. “To a dock, to an airstrip, maybe. I’m sure a town this size has emergency evac procedures. We could follow this road and end up at a dead end. Still, it’s better than not knowing. It’s better than planting our feet here and waiting to starve. Or worse.” He tugged on his coat and squinted against the bright white sky.

    We looked into the houses along the main street. Most front doors were left unlocked–one had keys stuck in the knob, dangling. We found a loaded revolver stashed under a mattress and a dog trapped inside a bare kitchen pantry. It was a mutt, shaggy, pissed off. We opened the door and it shot away into the woods, didn’t look back.

    Even that brief scouting wore me out. Bill kept looking over his shoulder, tightening his grip on the gun and staring around at every sound. My shoulders were aching under the pull of my pack’s straps.

    At last we found two worthy vehicles, each with slightly less than half a tank of gas, one a smallish van and the other a Jeep with studded tires and the keys sitting on the dash. Bill leaned his hands on the Jeep as if it meant we were saved, but I stood apart, unable to shake a sick feeling and the conundrum of the chef’s final words.

    “What if we don’t leave?” I said.

    “What?”

    “You said yourself there’s nothing certain at the end of that road. We could drive to the coast and get stranded. We could end up on foot again. In the woods. Exposed.”

    “We’re exposed here. Did you not see those tracks?”

    “I did. They surrounded us last night. They were everywhere. And yet here we are, standing in the street. Alive. For months the whistlers have been on top of us, but we’re still breathing!”

    “Tell that to Lillian and Geoff. Tell it to Ira!” He was yelling now, panting. Our faces were red, close.

    I was blinking away tears, but I wasn’t upset, just overwhelmed.

    “One more night indoors,” I bargained. “Let me wash, and be warm, just one more time. I’m so tired, Bill. So tired.”

    He didn’t agree, not explicitly, but while we stood with the Jeep it started snowing, just the lightest veil falling between us. We returned to the lodge. He moved around with a sort of quiet, powerless violence, locking and barricading the doors, drawing curtains, checking and re-checking the guns. He parked the Jeep in front of the lodge and loaded the back seat with gear and tools, as if to remind me that our present comfort was necessarily temporary.

    We dragged the bed into the lounge, close to the stove. We moved the lounge’s couches and tables toward the windows, then made the bed, almost reflexively, shaking the quilt out between us and draping it over the neatened sheets. Night was falling by then.

    “We’re getting out of here at first light,” Bill informed me.

    “I’m going to boil a kettle and take a bath,” I said.

    He softened, just a little. “I saw towels in the closet.”

    * * * * * *

    The water pressure is low, but the faucets still work, drawing from the water tower, I assume. I only needed a few inches of cold water anyway. I didn’t want to dilute the heat. I was eager to be cleansed of the dead chef, and Gary Law, and even Ira. Eager to get the smell of the forest off of my skin and start forgetting the things we’d done to stay alive.

    I took my hair down while the water dribbled into the tub. It had grown long, and had coalesced into oily tendrils since the last time I washed it. There were split ends and strands of gray. Ira always liked it long. I thought about cutting it off with my pocket knife, thought of how light and unencumbered I would feel once the oily heft of it was gone. I think about getting clean the way I think about eating and drinking. It’s a need I can’t imagine anyone taking for granted—that feels like it may never be completely satisfied.

    I hadn’t added the hot water yet when I was interrupted by the sound of Bill barreling through the hallway. He opened the bathroom door, saw me halfway undressed and with my hair down, and closed it abruptly. He spoke through the door in a rush. “It’s them.”

    * * * * * *

    We’re away from the windows, in the front hallway, listening to them, the howl, high-pitched, nasaly, throaty? It’s so hard to define. The terror is not just something I remember and have learned to feel, but innate. I experience the fear of the sound on some deep, unconscious level. It is a warning, clicked into the deepest part of my mammalian brain. Danger.

    Bill held my fire poker and both guns, gave me my choice. I took the revolver, only four bullets left in the cylinder. He took the handgun and its full clip. He rested the poker and the hatchet against the wall and stood behind me near the doorway, pressing his body against my back, his mouth to my ear.

    “At least four of them,” he murmured, “close enough I could hear footsteps.”

    The sound came from every direction.

    The whistles were like car horn blasts, so loud the tendons in our necks tensed. The porch steps creaked, but our angle was awkward. I could barely see the front windows from where we cowered, and the low light from the stove and the electric lanterns barely reached the door.

    “We could go out through the kitchen exit,” he whispered between hard breaths. “To the furthest cabin. No lights. Run for it.”

    It was a fine plan. The whistlers might be attracted to the light and heat of the stove and the lanterns, might not notice us slipping away. Yet, at that moment, I didn’t have it in me to flee again. If they drove us from the lodge, who was to say they wouldn’t drive us from a cabin, and back into the woods? We couldn’t survive being out there again, not in the looming snow, not just the two of us. I thought of the washline and tents we abandoned the day we lost Ira, and how our flight across the valley had cost us.

    “No,” I said. “Not again.”

    I charged away from Bill, straight toward the front door, where the whistlers murmured. I threw open the door despite Bill’s warning cry, and saw only one figure beyond it: a dark, lanky shape on the bottom step, swaying listlessly, skeletal shoulders hunched beneath a head of shaggy hair. I was blinded by fear, and I raised the gun as I stepped out onto the porch. I fired. I saw his face in the flash, a swollen lower lip, empty eyes, hair clinging wetly to a fevered forehead. He fell like the wind had blown him down, instantly dead, and a moment later I was with him, laying my body on top of his, crying against his face and asking for forgiveness.

    I couldn’t hear anything, but Bill told me later that there were no whistles, no sign of them, just Ira, just his blood and footprints on the walkway and the steps. Bill carried us inside, first me, then his brother. He lay Ira on the floor and I lay down with him, pressing my face to his stone-quiet chest while its warmth ebbed away, asking him weeks’ worth of questions whose answers we can never know now.

    December 5

    Bill left me there, with Ira, that night. He shut the doors of the lounge and slept in the bed alone. I have kept Ira’s body for three days, trying to comprehend it. His right arm is missing, torn away, the wound crudely cauterized somehow, but deeply infected. He was barefoot, feet frostbitten, his eyes riddled with broken vessels, hair missing in patches, the nails of his left hand grown and worn like claws.

    “He wouldn’t have survived the night,” Bill keeps saying. “Don’t blame yourself.”

    I shaved Ira’s face, but it didn’t help. Didn’t make him look any more human. I could hardly see him anyway, through the tears.

    “The moment you opened the door, it stopped,” Bill said.

    “I’m so sorry,” I said.

    “Are you listening? The whistling. It stopped all at once. I didn’t see any of them out there. I didn’t see anything but you and him.”

    “I saw his face,” I said. “It’s all I saw.”

    The prints circled the cabin, and Ira walked among them. We know that much. Since that night, we haven’t heard the whistlers. Not once.

    December 7th

    Bill dug Ira’s grave today. It snowed hard the night before, and the topmost crust of soil was frozen, and digging was punishing work. It took hours. I thought we were desensitized to death, but I found him sitting on the edge of the hole when it was done, his legs dangling down, sobbing into his hand. I didn’t know what to do, so I sat beside him. Ira was inside the lodge still, rolled in a pale yellow sheet, wrapped up so we couldn’t see his face. We sat there together for a long time, both of us pretending we were safe and he was alive and the hole was anything other than a grave. I felt the cold in my joints like shards of glass.

    “Why don’t we lie down with him?” Bill said, meaning down in the hole.

    I stroked the back of his head. I couldn’t think of a good answer. It seemed to me we’d been offered plenty of chances to die and declined them until now. I looked into the dark of the hole, whose bottom was settling with tiny snowflakes that didn’t last. The snow would fill the grave over us, eventually, preserve our bodies from the whistlers until the residents of Red Hill came back at start of the dry season. I’ve heard freezing is a gentle death, like falling asleep.

    Bill left my side, carried Ira’s body to the grave, hefted him down and then came up again, standing and pulling me up beside him, taking me away.

    “I’m sorry,” he said, though I still hadn’t spoken a word. “Don’t listen to me.”

    December 9

    We had a baby, Ira and I, five years ago today. She was born with a heart defect and didn’t live long, didn’t ever leave the hospital. I have scars. Her name was Katherine. Ira left town before the funeral, went to a medical conference two states away. But Bill was there. He got drunk and cornered me in his mother’s living room.

    “She should have been mine,” he said, so close I could smell the whiskey.

    It’s why Bill doesn’t believe me when I say I hear an infant’s cries on the wind. He knows it’s Katherine’s birthday. He thinks about her too.

    I hear her wailing in the early evening, often just before the whistlers start to howl. An overture, a prelude.

    We’re out of food. Each night, we build a fire in the stove and sit before it with shaking hands, with cups of tea. There is snow on the ground, snow to reveal that the whistlers haven’t circled close since Ira died. There are no tracks but our own.

    I’ve started asking myself the question, in practical terms. If I have some choice in the matter, how would I like to die? Would I chose to go as Katherine did, swaddled and sedated, in my mother’s arms? There was a time when I thought I wanted to die fighting, my knife in my hand, knuckles red from the cold. I’m not sure anymore. I’m not sure I have the patience for that.

    Everything is different since we buried Ira. The difference is between us, yes, and in the atmosphere of Red Hill. Bill doesn’t bustle around the way he used to, doesn’t sit vigil at the windows and watch the distant trees. There is something, we’ve discovered, beyond fear. A separate emotion, a detachment. All that matters is the heat of the fire, the weight of blankets. We hardly speak anymore.

    December 13

    Bill leaves the lodge every afternoon now to look for food. He says he wants to go alone, and I don’t argue. He’s made a few good finds: popcorn, instant coffee, noodles, dried parsley, half a bottle of bad gin. Each day he circles a little further out, stays away a little later. Last night he didn’t come back until an hour after dark, until I’d already heard the mournful chorus of two whistlers, far away, in the woods. I thought of walking out to them, in my desolation. I want to see their faces. Want to know my tormentors.

    When I try to envision them now, all I see is Ira, Ira at the end, his gaunt face and yellowed eyes. Do they suffer, as he suffered? Would I recognize their faces?

    When Bill came back, he pressed a pack of chewing gum into my palm and went straight to bed. He was limping on his bad foot. He had walked too far.

    “Why were you out so long?” I asked.

    But he rolled over against his pillow. Pretended not to hear.

    December 15

    There are about six inches of snow on the ground. I spent the day stacking firewood on the porch. Bill stayed close, at my insistence, wandered through town like a tiger in a small cage.

    There is nothing left to eat in Red Hill, and no game nearby, nothing but coyotes and wolves.

    In the early evening, he walked across the road with a gas can, siphoned fuel from the van, which is parked outside a gray house just up the street. I watched him from the porch. He looked up from his work to look back at me, to meet my gaze through the falling snow.

    We might go to the coast after all. For all we know, there’s a radio out there, a phone, some other means of contact we’ve overlooked. Maybe the coast guard will send a patrol. Maybe someone has been looking for us all this time.

    Bill stopped staring. His head turned suddenly, toward the woods behind the houses, like he’d heard something—a snapping of twigs.

    “What is it?” I called, but he didn’t answer. He walked a few steps toward the woods, craned his head, but then a streak of brown and black emerged through the trees, went straight for him.

    There was a deep growl, a scuffle of motion, and Bill’s strangled cry. A dog. The dog we’d released from a pantry days before. I sprang from the porch with a stick of firewood in my hands, but was too late: Bill had slipped in the ice, fallen hard against the edge of the van’s bumper. The dog tore into his leg, but released it as Bill fell, lunged for his face. I swung the splintered edge of the firewood squarely at the poor beast’s skull. He was like us, starving, a skittish mutt made savage by the cold.

    Bill was dazed, scraping for purchase in the snow behind me, trying, in vain, to stand. The dog cowered away from me, and it seemed cruel to swing a second time. So I screamed instead, at the top of my lungs, shouted at the dog to run. And he did. He turned, he lowered his body and went slowly toward the woods close by, cowering deeper, like he didn’t want to go back into the trees. But I was full of adrenaline now, and yelled a second time, so loud that my voice echoed off the houses—and something answered me.

    It was a strange roar, a rumble like a rock slide mixed with an animal scream, like a panther. It came from the woods where I had driven the dog, and now I heard the mutt whimpering, the screaming and the whimpering and Bill’s muddled murmuring behind me, and I found myself backing toward him, through the snow, almost senselessly, until a new sound erupted and overcame the others: the whistlers.

    Their voices rose, familiar now, surrounded us until I couldn’t hear the shrieking roar, the whimpering dog, couldn’t hear Bill’s exhausted breathing or my own beating heart.

    I turned, suddenly focused, and grabbed his hand. He had been holding his pistol, aiming it unsteadily toward the woods. I took it now, and heaved him upright.

    He was woozy, bleeding freely into the snow. Gary Law’s khaki pant leg was soaked red. There was blood on his head, too, a scrape from a bolt on the van’s bumper, not deep. His eyes were half-closed.


    “Stay awake,” I said, grabbing Bill’s chin more roughly than I meant to, yanking him toward the lodge. The whistler’s cries were harrowing, but helpful now. They seemed to propel us onward, made us focus on the fear, the imperative of flight.

    The dog had bitten Bill’s bad leg, the one already weakened by his twisted ankle. He could walk, but he was shaking. I helped him across the street, helped him up the porch and into the lodge’s dining area. He collapsed into a chair, leaned his body against a table. He was grimacing horribly, and we were losing daylight fast. I cut away his pant leg with my knife.

    “You’re going to need stitches,” I said. The dog bite was an arc of puncture wounds, with a deep gash torn near his shin. The wound on his head was bloody, but not horribly deep, not as bad as it looked—a scrape only, a shock. And now the blood was seeping slower. I set an electric lantern on the table, but it still wasn’t enough light.

    “Headlamp’s in the lounge,” he said. When I went for it, I remembered the bottle of cheap gin.

    “Find it?” Bill called to me. There was pain in his voice. I made myself hurry.

    There was alcohol hand sanitizer in my pack and a spool of surgical silk and steel needles. Ira had put the first aid kit together with his own skill set in mind. I poured water on the wounds, washed the blood away and watched more take its place.

    “Are you okay?” he asked.

    “I don’t know what I’m doing.” I wiped sanitizer on a needle and then doused the gash on his leg with it. He reeled where he sat as the alcohol burned.

    “I’m sorry.”

    He shook his head. “You’re doing fine.”

    I handed him the gin bottle before I started stitching. It was half-full, and Bill took grateful swigs before nodding at me to get on with it. The skin was harder to pierce than I expected, but Bill seemed able to center himself amid the pain. He closed his eyes and only grunted a little each time I pulled the thread through. He kept saying it was okay, that I was doing fine. Finally, I tied off the thread and taped a square of gauze over my work.

    I sat at the table afterward, sweating inexplicably, exhausted, feeling there was more I should do, replaying the noises in my head, the sequence of events, the whistlers and the thing that had answered my shouts. Bill walking toward the woods, the sound, the dog. What came first? It was jumbled already, the memory. I’ve recorded it here the way that makes the most sense. The moon was rising, and we leaned into each other, both of us looking away at the deepening shadows, looking through the windows for signs of life, finding the night remarkably, horribly, quiet.

    He drank from the gin bottle again, then handed it to me. It was harsh and cheap, but I took more than one burning gulp.

    “Suppose the dog was running from it?” Bill asked.

    I shrugged, but something dreadful was welling up inside of me. I stood up, and turned in a useless circle, and felt hot tears falling, felt the desperation and spoiled hopes of the past weeks rolling over me. I was collapsing, and leaned toward the table to steady myself, but Bill caught me before I could. He stood and held me against his chest, one easy movement, one hand against the back of my head. He was breathing in the same uncontrolled gasps that had overtaken him on the trail before we saw Red Hill, when he was balancing between despair and a kind of jovial release. He pulled my hair down, smoothing it between his hands so my head tipped back, so I had no choice but to look up at him. My vision cleared, tears stopped, and then we were breathing together, our eyes locked and bodies reacting like two leaves tugged down by the same current, deciding what came next. He shook while he lifted my shirt over my head.

    “Bill—”

    He kissed me then so I couldn’t speak, and he was right to. There was nothing whatsoever to say.

    I followed him to the lounge, to the bed. He sat back and pulled me on top of him, wincing as he leaned against the cushions, but still holding me with a tense grip, still saying yes. It didn’t seem the stove was pumping out much heat, but I took everything off, wanting him to see me and the body so much walking and hunger and fear had made, wanting to feel tangible and whole on this night when our existence was impossible to take for granted. He kissed my neck while he made love to me, and whispered that we would make it, make it through the winter, make it to the coast, make it home.

    I have to believe him.

    December 17th


    Bill was pale the next morning, weak, but he wouldn’t stay in bed when I asked him to. He hobbled around the lodge, gathering more gear, hauling it out to the Jeep, dragging the gas can up from where we had abandoned it in the road. I made him some broth, but he wouldn’t eat, and in the afternoon he walked away toward the woods, toward the place where the dog ran and the roar sounded. He walked toward the trees and stopped and stared, and when I hollered from the porch, he didn’t look back at me. I tried to follow, to fetch him, but it seemed, even limping, he took two steps onward for every one of mine. He went on until he was in the trees, out of sight, and as much as I wanted to, I couldn’t make myself follow. I stood in the frozen road and shouted for him, but I didn’t have it in me to enter the woods.

    I lay in bed through the night with open eyes, hearing the whistlers, soft, far away. Like a lullaby. I heard Katherine on the wind. The tears come much easier when I’m alone.

    I found him this morning, sitting on the porch steps, facing out, with ice in his beard. I touched his neck and he held my arm. He seemed alert. He looked into my eyes.

    “What happened to you?” I was nearly crying, but he didn’t respond. He just rubbed my arm and let me lead him inside, watched me through saddened eyes.

    Later, once he was warm, he said he had gone to the woods to listen to the whistlers. He said he could understand them now.

    “Don’t say that, Bill.” I cried into his shoulder, pressed my fingers to his lips, but he was calm.

    “It’s okay, Ruth. We’ll go to the coast tomorrow. You’ll be safe.”

    We’ll be safe,” I said.

    He nodded, and held me tighter.

    December 18th

    It was sad, pulling out of Red Hill, watching it shrink behind us until it was closed off by a ridge of granite and a curtain of trees. It felt momentous, almost like this was the beginning of our journey again, like we were grad students, me with my love of reading and him with his lust for the outdoors. I had married his brother, and he always wanted to get closer, and one late night in the office, grading papers, we had a crazy idea. I wrote the grant application, he planned logistics. Ira took a sabbatical, volunteered. I met Lillian at a conference. All we saw was how our interests aligned. We went out for drinks, the whole group, all together. Talked about how much fun it would be.

    We were barely in the Jeep forty minutes before we ran out of road. Our path terminated in a wide lot of pale brown gravel. There was no airstrip, just a rutted lot with puddles that had turned to slush, a floating dock slick with ice, and a boathouse with two broken canoes inside and a rusted hole in its roof.

    I was driving, because Bill was ill, leaning against the window. His leg hurts him. It’s badly bruised, and the scrape on his head isn’t healing. He stared straight ahead, once we were parked, stared through the windshield with tears forming in his eyes. I don’t know what he was expecting. It was hard to see that we were at the edge of the earth now, out of options.

    “You know,” Bill said, sniffling and wiping his nose. “In the olden days, people would… they would walk into the sea. To kill themselves. There’s something poetic about it.”

    “Not in real life, I don’t suppose. I’ve never seen anything poetic in a dead body.”

    He reached for my hand across the gear shift. “I’m not going back to Red Hill, Ruth. I can’t. Not now. I can’t look at Ira’s grave again. I can’t walk through the kitchen and pretend there isn’t a corpse in the freezer. I can’t.”

    “What else is there?”

    He shook his head. “There’s the rub.”

    I pulled my hand away and got out of the Jeep. It was impossible, holding my thoughts together. I wanted to stop struggling, but not to die. Wanted Bill to stop feeling pain, but not to be alone. Wanted to end both our suffering. Wished I had said “yes,” days ago, when Bill laid Ira in his grave, when he asked if we should lie down too.

    It was windy at the coast, so cold my cheeks burned. I walked down toward the dock, but couldn’t go far without risking my footing on the ice. Bill was watching me from inside the Jeep, waiting, I suppose, to hear me say I was ready to give up too. But I wasn’t ready. I closed my eyes, felt the embrace of the wind, and deep within the hush of it I heard the cry again, my little Katherine’s cry, and a voice, a man’s voice, Ira’s, singing to her.


    Bill got out of the Jeep and looked toward the sound.

    “Whistlers,” he said.

    “Is that what you hear?”

    I walked toward it.

    “Where are you going?” Bill called.

    I waved that I was okay, and walked around the useless boathouse, up a low hill of sliding gravel. At the top, the wind was stronger, swirling with tiny snowflakes, and I could see more gray water up the coast, could see distant glimpses of shoreline segmented by trees, and low surf, and a bobbing shape, white and blue, lodged against a spit of dark sand.

    I rushed back down the hill toward the Jeep, sliding in the gravel, panting hard.

    “What is it?” Bill asked.

    “There’s a boat,” I gasped. “Get your pack.”

    * * * * * *

    It was impossible to take the Jeep directly up the beach. There was too much loose gravel, too many jutting black rocks in our path. We had to wind in and out of patches of forest, had to boost each other over boulders, had to trudge through coarse sand. I was relentless, forcing myself onward, climbing every dune to confirm the boat was still in sight, still a small blue and white Ketch with bare masts and an enclosed cabin. The sound led me onward all the while, the sound of Ira and Katherine, the sound Bill kept pausing to warn me of, the sound he said was whistlers, luring us into a trap.

    “It looks abandoned,” Bill said, once we were near. He was clutching his leg, holding the place where I was sure his bite wound had opened. I never offered to stop, to slow down, to do anything but press onward. I felt certain about the boat, that it was waiting for us, destined for us, our salvation. We slid down a final scree slope and reached the gray-pebbled beach where the boat was moored. Or, not moored, exactly, but stuck. It was surrounded with driftwood and other debris.

    Bill looked exhausted, unimpressed.

    “It’s a death trap, Ruth,” he said.

    “The tide is coming in. Come on, help me get inside. The tide will take us out, and the coast guard will find us.”

    “The coast guard will not find us. This area will be iced over in a month. It’s suicidal. Do you know anything about sailing?”

    “My dad owned a Ketch. We didn’t go out much. I wish…”

    But as I spoke Bill turned away from the boat and stared into the trees. He was flexing his hands, trembling.

    “Do you hear that?”

    I did hear it. Snapping twigs, the moaning bend of a branch. Then, the whistling, deep in the trees, coming closer. Bill was breathing hard, backing toward the boat, keeping me behind him. As the whistling rose in front of us, so the wailing rose behind, the crying, the singing, summoning me backward, summoning me into the boat. The tide was already rising, the boat bobbing in water that was almost deep enough to whisk it away.


    “I hear Ira,” I said.

    “What?” Bill gave me a bewildered, almost angry look.

    “I hear him singing. I hear Katherine.”

    He looked sad for me, and reached for me, but I backed away, into the water. It rose over my shoes and soaked my socks, icy cold.

    “Don’t, Ruth,” he said.

    “I’m getting on the boat, Bill.” There was a ladder down one side of the hull. I could wade to it and pull myself inside. I didn’t need his help. “You said you wouldn’t go back to Red Hill. This is what’s left. This is the other choice.”

    The whistling in the trees grew louder, and every second the beach felt smaller, more like a trap.

    His face changed, and the wind rustled his hair. “Yes,” he said, strangely. “Yes, you’re right. Get on the boat, Ruth.”

    I turned and waded toward the ladder, telling myself he would follow, telling myself all would be well. “Why can’t you hear it, Bill?” I said, as I reached the ladder, as I pulled myself up onto the weathered deck. “Why can’t you hear Ira singing?”

    But when I turned around, Bill was halfway up the beach, looking small, facing away from me, his skin white and his arms rigid.

    “Bill?” I called. The boat was creaking in the deepening tide, and the wind was rushing across the sand. The boat jolted beneath me. Something dark appeared beyond the tree trunks, something I could barely see. It was moving, a shadow independent of the shifting needles and swaying branches. A shape, a being, taller than a man and deliberate in its movements. I raised my revolver in shaking hands, I fired, more than once, but there was no reaction. The sound was lost among all the others, the screaming and gnashing, the howl of the whistlers. Bill was close to the woods now, he had to see it, but he was paralyzed, as straight and immovable as the trees. I screamed for him, wishing he would look at me, but he didn’t move, and beneath me the boat shifted again. I fell, hit my head on the icy rail, and once I had scrambled upright again Bill had fallen.

    He was collapsed on the sand, and the creature was looming closer to him, coming through the trees, crouching down.

    The whistling hushed, suddenly, almost completely. Even the wind seemed to ease.

    It takes its prey one at a time.

    I couldn’t hear Katherine anymore, or Ira, but I could hear the whistlers, the softest warning tone, intelligible now, almost like words, telling me to close my eyes.

    There is always one survivor, always someone spared. The wind pushed the Ketch away from the shore, and the darkness closed over Bill.

    I don’t remember anything else.

    December 22nd

    My name is Ruth Gattiger. Please bring my body back to Oregon, if you can. My driver’s license is in my wallet. This account of events is for the families of the deceased—for the helicopter pilot and Lillian and Geoff, for Bill and Ira’s mother and the chef we found in Red Hill. I don’t want it published. I don’t want to be one more link in the chain of juvenile curiosity, another mystery in the big book of stories that sends people like us to places like this. To die.

    We had so many opportunities, over the years, to drop the question. To live with the unknown. We called ourselves folklorists, but we imagined we were adventurers, righteous explorers, exposing a mystery. We imagined we had the right.


    I never thought the whistlers were real, before coming here. I thought they were a dark side of the human psyche, just one of many predictable byproducts of human life in cold, isolated, untenable conditions. I wanted to sit around a fire with shifty-eyed fur trappers and remote homesteaders and listen to their spooky stories, like a tourist. We didn’t satisfy our curiosity, coming here, didn’t pick apart the tangled lore. We only satisfied the hunger of the thing that stalks this place. It’s been here a long time, the chef thought, at war with the whistlers. How long have they kept it at bay? It doesn’t even have a name. At this late hour, I find I can’t put a description into words. And I don’t want to, because I realize now there are some things we don’t deserve to know. There are stories we shouldn’t tell. Unknowns that should remain unknown.

    I should have done this in the Jeep with Bill. It would have been better, but not necessarily easier. To die in the back seat, in his arms, warm, staring out at the ocean.

    The boat ran aground on a sandbar, not far from where I lost Bill. I’ve been wandering down the coast. I made it back to the Jeep.

    There are no whistles to follow me now, nothing watching from beyond the trees. The snow is deep, and the land has gone quiet. For how long? I don’t know. I don’t know if I was spared, or if the evil that lives here is merely biding its time again.

    If you’ve found this—the backpack—thank you, whoever you are. I’m out of gas, out of food, and at night, no matter where I look, there are no lights in any direction. It’s cold. I’ll close my eyes for a little while. There is still one round in the revolver. I haven’t made up my mind....


    The person who brought Bill’s journal to my attention has asked not to be identified. He insisted on giving me transcripts, not originals, so in this case what I’m showing you is exactly what I received. As before, neither I nor my source makes any claims about the veracity of these documents.

    I’m sure many of you will want to know more about the documents themselves, but unfortunately, my source was not forthcoming. When I asked him how he acquired Bill’s account (I did so many times) his only response was: “I didn’t.”

    I wish I had more insight to offer you. I’m afraid these new passages raise at least as many questions as they answer.

    * * * * * *

    12/7

    I’ve got calluses on my hands from burying my brother. If we’re rescued today, I’ll have to explain that to someone. Some search-and-rescue trooper, some forest ranger, will hold my palm to the light of a chopper window and want to know how I managed to rub the heel of my hand raw.

    I practice, sometimes. I practice what I’ll say to people when we get back home. Dr. Harmon, the department head, will need to know how I got Geoff and Lillian killed doing what was supposed to be straightforward field research. They were both his students, hand-picked for great things, led astray by the man who wrote his dissertation on the Russian Yeti, who taught a cryptozoology class disguised as a folklore survey. I got bumped off the tenure track for that. Harmon talked over me in meetings. Like I wasn’t there.

    Ruth was on the floor with Ira for days after he died. Wouldn’t speak. She was holding his dead fingers and fussing to wash all the blood away, crying soundlessly with her mouth open, more like a wheeze. I had to do something, so I picked up her journal. Flipped through, all the way back to that night in the dark, the full moon rising and Ira down in a hole.

    She isn’t documenting the whistlers anymore. I’ll see her in the corner by the stove sometimes with her notebook open and the pen just hovering over a page, not actually making words. She’s thin as a scarecrow now and her lips are cracking. I wonder about the things that she doesn’t write down. There are entire days she didn’t see fit to make note of. Then there are other things, little details, that I don’t remember at all. Things I don’t remember saying. This is the whole problem with the work we do. Incompleteness. Hearsay.

    Two tonight, to the north, for about an hour after sunset. They separated, seemed to be approaching the lodge from either end of town, then abruptly moved further away. Nothing concrete but the tracks outside and the marks on Ira. They don’t seem willing to bother us inside, but we know that’s temporary. They took Sam, the helicopter pilot, right out of the lighthouse kitchen. Something broke the window above the sink. It was pitch black and he yowled like a cat. Ira had the rifle ready. It was dark and rainy and he aimed for the pilot, for the back of the head.

    Still no reception. You listen to static long enough and it starts to sound like something, so we keep the lounge radio off. Food running low.

    12/8

    Mom will be at the airport when we’re rescued. She’ll ask about Ira before she asks about me. I’ll have that hanging over me for the rest of my life—that the wrong brother made it out of the wilderness. Cain and Abel, but he was the marked one. I can already see the disappointment in her eyes, hear the weepy sighing.

    I am sorry he’s dead. Not as sorry as I should be. He didn’t scream the way Geoff did, didn’t scratch and bite like Lillian. He just stared up at me through the blue darkness, stared as if to concede that the order of things didn’t matter, that it could be either of us in the hole and the outcome would stay the same. The day we’re rescued I’ll have to find some way to keep the truth under wraps. Those eyes.

    Ruth isn’t on her feet yet. When I got back from scavenging today, she was at the freezer door again, crying. There’s a woman in there, a chef, dead. She’s all the evidence we have about what happened at Red Hill. Not enough. We should dig a second grave, but the ground is even harder now.

    Our bodies are broken. Little wounds, cuts and scrapes, twisted joints and tight muscles. Nothing gets a chance to heal. It’s just pain on top of pain, and hunger beneath it all.

    I went back through the houses today, looking for anything we can use. Pointless to write an inventory down. Nobody had supplies to overwinter in Red Hill. Seems even the chef was planning to head south once the weather came in.

    Three, maybe four whistlers around tonight. Very distant, north of us. We’ve got every lantern gathered in the lounge, all of them hanging from the antler chandelier along with tendrils of dust. It’s bright enough to read by, almost enough to feel truly safe. They’ll pick their night soon, I imagine. Only heard them briefly, but clear as a bell, so it was disturbing when I commented on it and Ruth said she didn’t hear them.

    Lillian’s research centered on self-delusion. No two descriptions of the whistlers are exactly alike. There are similarities between accounts, sure, but she thought every victim was complicit, somehow. That you go so long fearing something you can’t see, and eventually you decide what it looks like. You decide what you believe. And then you see what you want to see.

    Ruth woke me up later to say she heard the baby. She kept saying my name and begging me to listen, her nails digging into my arm, her face not an inch away from mine. Katherine’s birthday is tomorrow. I didn’t say anything. I was afraid of making her cry. Instead I held her like she was mine, my lips to her forehead. She went back to sleep.

    I’m not sure how much more of this we can take. I think of the Survivor Theory all the time, the different permutations of it. If I shoot myself, will they leave Ruth alone? I remember Kirker Farley, the first trapper I ever interviewed, said the whistling stopped altogether once his last companion was dead. Said he walked out of the woods unmolested and found help. I’d want to walk for at least a day first. Make sure she wasn’t hassled with burying me. That’s how Ira said he would do it. Take the gun and go for a walk. What did he tell her? Rock ptarmigan. He was never supposed to come back that day. I guess he never really did.

    No. I can see the logic, say the words, but I can’t do it. Ira wasn’t the only coward in these woods

    12/9

    Ephraim Defoe was the first whistler scholar to describe the Survivor Theory. He wrote a paper about it—the idea that the whistlers are in some way dependent on humans and so will always leave one alive. A living human begets more humans. A survivor tells the story, excites curiosity, leads to more expeditions, more idiots in the woods. It implies long-term thinking on the part of the whistlers. Planning. A cycle of sowing and harvest.

    Ruth doesn’t believe this part of the mythology.

    “Obviously every story has a survivor,” she says. “The incidents without survivors don’t become stories. They don’t make it into the record.”

    But I think about Kirker Farley. Gray mutton chops and a crumpled stetson, knuckles like oak bark. He was a Korea vet who retired to the wilderness once he got home. Took a vow of poverty. He spent a winter stranded and snowbound with six other people, all ex-military, all skilled and tough as nails. The whistlers picked the group apart one man at a time over the space of a month, and finally Kirker was left alone with his best friend, and that man started to lose his mind, started howling at the moon. Kirker killed him, his best friend. A knife, while he slept. Gentle as can be.

    Everyone I’ve ever told the story to said that’s the answer right there: Kirker is just a murderer with a story to cover up his own wrongdoing. Maybe his case really is that simple. At the beginning, Ruth suspected all cases were that simple. I asked Kirker, though, when we sat down together, “Knowing they only take one at a time, why kill your partner and isolate yourself? Why not just stay together? Why wouldn’t the whole group stay together, arms locked, one impenetrable unit?”

    He smiled the strangest smile. And he said: “A whistler ain’t a hound chasing a fox. He’s an angler waiting for a shark. Patient, patient, patient.”

    We’ve been out here for months now, and I still don’t know what he meant. I do know I didn’t have the nerve to follow my own logic. I couldn’t sit idle and let the whistlers dictate terms. No whistlers tonight. When they come back, they’ll come in force. They’ll be insistent. I made my brother a promise, and I’ll keep that promise. But not today. Not yet. There’s still the coast.

    12/10

    Today we found Gary Law’s luggage in a cabin behind the lodge. It’s nice knowing this is where he came from. It helps put a date on whatever scattered the population of Red Hill. The man brought enough pleated slacks out here to start a catering company. Navy and Khaki, cufflinks and polo shirts. He’s got bear tour brochures and a receipt for a seaplane charter. It’s as if this was his first time outside an office. He’s got the look of someone they’d send search-and-rescue for, but we haven’t heard anyone flying over.

    I’ve heard that’s something the whistlers can do. They can change what you hear, when. Mask what’s true and plant what isn’t. Lillian tried to record the whistles one night, but didn’t pick anything up. All we get is static on the radio. I wonder.

    No idea how Gary Law made it so far north by himself, on foot. Why on earth he picked that direction to begin with. Ruth gathered up his plane ticket and put it with his ID. It’s documents. Worthless documents. We don’t have anything of Ira’s, but we’ve got a whole damned library on Gary Law. I never actually saw the man’s body. It was strange timing. I came back to Ruth burying a man hours after I’d left Ira to die. But he didn’t die. Didn’t speak except to say that we were wrong. It was a warning, just a warning, he said. The whistlers didn’t kill anybody.

    Neither did I, I guess.

    12/11

    There’s a book in the lounge on traps and snares. I know exactly two traps, from scouts: the one where you make something heavy fall on your prey—a deadfall—and the one where you funnel your prey down into a hole. They’ve each got their drawbacks. There are knots and nooses in this book, diagrams for cornering bigger game. Ira was a damned Eagle Scout. Ruth likes to remind me of the things he knew that we’re both useless for.

    Today I left her washing the bedsheets in water so hot it turned her arms red. She saw a tick on the carpet, she said. I probably brought it in on my socks. I would help, but I get the feeling she doesn’t want me around the lodge.

    There was good rope in the Jeep. I made three different leg snares and one neck snare that I don’t have high hopes for. The book’s got instructions for small elk, boar, bear, and porcupine. I’d be glad to have any of those for dinner, but what I’m more interested in is what might happen if a whistler stumbles across a trap, or what they might do to a tethered animal in distress.

    The academic part of me hasn’t frozen to death yet. Unlike Ruth, I haven’t forgotten why we’re here.

    I found a pair of pole climbers in the closet. I stopped halfway up a mossy spruce and watched the forest for a good long time once the snares were set. I picked a little clearing where the ground is spongy, not a quarter mile behind the houses across from the lodge, but well-hidden. Half the noises of the woods come from the trees themselves. Creaking and swaying and whispering like they do. From my perch I could see the roofline of the lodge, smoke from the stove, and endless green in every direction. There are hills between here and the coast.

    I heard something just as I was returning to the lodge—a low rumble, a growl. I looked back and saw what looked like a dog streaking away from behind the houses and disappearing into the woods. We freed a brindle mutt from one of the houses. He’s been following me in and out of the woods, doesn’t like me getting too close to his house, the gray shack right on the edge of the opening in the trees where I usually hike in. He runs with low shoulders and a mean little snarl. I’m sure he’s starving. If he finds himself in one of my traps I may put him down. If I brought him home, Ruth would want to feed him, name him. Can’t afford that.

    After dark, there had to be twenty whistlers around the lodge. It was deafening, the sound of them, and all in the direction of that gap between the houses, the place where the forest opens up, where I set my snares. I didn’t tell Ruth this. Maybe it occurred to her anyway, that their activity might have something to do with my time alone out there. I piled wood into the stove and made her put on a pair of socks.

    She’s been biting her nails down to nothing and talking in her sleep. I listen to her through the night. I don’t sleep much myself.

    12/12

    Ruth isn’t eating. She thinks I don’t know how little food there is, thinks I don’t notice her pretending to chew an empty spoonful of that yellowish fruit cocktail. When she’s rescued, people at work will make a fuss over how thin she is, how hard her arms and legs are now. It sickens me, the way we take our bodies for granted, the way we would sit at desks and count calories and deny ourselves a beer after work.

    Damn, I’d like a beer tonight.

    I said it to Ruth just now. She’s between me and the stove, braiding her damp hair. She laughed a little.
    She’s pitying me my lack of imagination, maybe, or maybe she’s hoping I won’t ask for the other thing I want.

    Checked the snares today—caught some kind of fox, dispatched it with Ruth’s hatchet. It was gamey and tough as shoe leather, but we ate it anyway, chewed like jackals till our jaws were sore. There’s plenty of salt and pepper, which didn’t help as much as you’d think. Nothing in the other traps. The neck snare looked disturbed, but the wind might have pulled it off the branches. Hard to tell.

    Ruth keeps telling me to take it easy, rest in bed, get off my bad leg. I can’t bring myself to tell her that keeping still sounds like a death sentence to me. If she had her way, we’d curl up under the blankets together and wait for spring. Spring would come, but we wouldn’t see it. The only way any of this matters is if Ruth makes it out alive.

    When she sees me going to the front door she asks me to stay where she can see me, stay within shouting distance. I cross the lounge to give her a kiss before I go, but there’s no give, no return. She’s my sister when she chooses to be. When they come to rescue her, that’s what she’ll say. That I was her brother-in-law, that I looked after her, that I was a decent help to her in Ira’s absence. That I tried.

    12/13

    It’s hours after dark. I just made it back. Ruth saw me limping and chewed me out, says I’m walking too far, putting too much weight on my bad leg too soon. She doesn’t know what I do all day. She assumes I’m still going through houses, finding matchbooks and hard candies lost behind sofa cushions.

    I’m trying to finish it, but I didn’t even get the damn noose around my neck. Impossible to reach a good branch on these evergreens. It had to be high up so they could see me, so she could see me, so she’d know it was over. It’s how we did Geoff, Ira and I. Took him hunting. Tied him to a tree, waited until we heard them closing in, until his screams were drowned out by the whistling, and the other thing, the screeching and deep growling and the snapping of bones.

    I had every intention of watching them take him, but in the end I didn’t have the nerve. I was sprinting away at Ira’s side, deciding the horrific din meant only that we’d done our jobs well, that the whistlers deemed the transaction acceptable, that they would leave us alone for a few more nights. We got back to camp and told Lillian we saw the whistlers attack him, and she believed us because they were silent for a long time after that. Almost two weeks.

    Ira didn’t know the stories well, but he was convinced it was the right thing. The lighthouse keeper was certifiable, but he pointed out, rightly, that the only way to survive the whistlers is to play by their rules.

    “They take one at a time,” he said, the night the chopper crashed.

    We were all around his hearth with him, nodding. We all knew it was true. They take one at a time and they leave one alive. That one alive was going to be Ruth. We agreed, Ira and I, whispered the plan together. It had been years since we’d agreed about anything, but our decision about Ruth was mutual and urgent. He didn’t hate me for loving her then. He needed my help. The whistlers make the rules, but we decide the order.

    We heard them closing in that night and dragged the lighthouse keeper from his bed. He was an old man, no trouble. We didn’t wake the others. In the morning, we told them we saw him walking off on his own, babbling about sparing the rest of us. We all remembered the pilot screaming about his wife and kids; we were all spooked by then. All willing to believe anything. Geoff marked an empty grave with a broomstick and Lillian cried and called the man a hero. We camped in the woods that next night, thought we might hike out of whistler territory before anybody else had to die. But we gave them Geoff next, then Lillian, and then we were down to just us three. Just us three. And suddenly all I had in common with my brother was that I wanted to live, and wanted Ruth to live.

    I fell out of the damn tree before I even found a branch. Banged my leg up good.

    Patient, patient, patient. That’s what I keep hearing, kept hearing, as I scraped away the soil and deepened the hole, as I grabbed roots and hauled away stones. It was already there, a collapsed burrow of some kind, so convenient, a receptacle for my darkest instincts. Ira had poor night vision, wore contacts. It was easy, in the dark, to get him where I wanted him. To scare him into the trap. My hands were freezing. He was a sacrifice, but unaccepted.

    He was mute when he came back to camp, and even when he could accuse me he didn’t. Why? Why did they march him back to our door?

    He opened his mouth to say something before Ruth fired. In my dreams, I give him words. An accusation. A condemnation. A warning.

    12/14

    I’ve talked to a few eyewitnesses over the years who swear whistlers look just like people. A little paler, maybe. Dead behind the eyes.

    I spoke to an old woman, Wilma Derren, a goat herder, who said they can look however they want to look. Like a goose or a sheep or a human being. It’s when they open their mouths that you hear the truth, and then they change back to their natural form. She wouldn’t describe what that was.

    She was convinced she’d seen one walking across her field one night, all alone, looking like a young man with torn clothes. She brought him inside, fed him dinner, and he didn’t speak a word to her. She turned away from him for a moment when she was clearing plates, and when she looked again he had gone from the table, sprinted silently through the front door. That night, the whistlers came. They trampled her fences in the dark and she lost half her herd. Found a doe torn to pieces by something. The rangers dismissed her story out of hand. Game warden had some explanation for her about bears. There was no sign of a bear though. No prints. Nothing interesting about the dead doe.

    I wonder now if they weren’t half right. Ruth has said she thinks the whistlers could be protecting us. That we are not sharks, but more like sheep. Sheep at the mercy of wolves, and the whistlers our shepherds. I don’t know now. I don’t know what to believe.

    * * * * * *

    The dog’s house has the best angle on the woods. I went in through the kitchen door and looked through the back windows. I wonder if they’re out there now, having a laugh about my abandoned noose. I’m brave inside my own head, brave on paper, but I haven’t checked the snares today, and likely won’t. I’m thinking, actually, that it’s about time we made our way to the coast. It’s our last option now and I’m sick over it. Dead if we do, dead if we don’t.

    The leg is killing me. I’m eating Tylenol and aspirin like candy. We have more medicine than food left, but nothing helps much. The worst pain doesn’t come from the leg anyway. It comes from the ticking clock, the whistlers at night, Ruth’s face. From knowing I’m a coward and a failure. Knowing she knows.

    Tonight she drew me a bath and sat on the tub’s edge to wash my hair, her legs against my back, her feet in the hot water. We didn’t talk, but I rested my head against her thigh and she sort of stroked the back of my ear. That’s enough for now.

    12/15

    Damn dog came for me today while I was siphoning fuel from the van. Out of nowhere, but luckily Ruth saw and came running. She tried to scare the little bastard back into the woods, but he wouldn’t go, just stood whining at the trees, backing away from the swing of her stick, whimpering but refusing to flee.

    Geoff had a theory. Called it the Symbiosis Hypothesis. He didn’t study whistlers much, but he was big on cryptids in general. People always ask: given that ecosystems only function because every organism plays a cooperative role, how is it possible that a tertiary predator could go unnoticed? A population of any sustainable size has a measurable appetite. His answer was that there must be larger blind spots to account for elusive species. He thought cryptids must exist in pairs, like a clownfish and an anemone. The anemone shields the clownfish from the outside world, protects it with poison that the clownfish is immune to. The clownfish helps the anemone by maintaining it, giving nitrogen, managing parasites, luring in prey. In this way they operate at a remove from the rest of the ecosystem. They cooperate, and might survive when logic says they shouldn’t.

    Ruth was shouting at the dog, shouting toward the woods, backing up to me, to shield me. We heard something out there, as her voice echoed. Something called back to her. A scream. I’d heard it before. I’d thought it was a different part of the whistler’s repertoire. A screech. A new inflection that comes over them when they go from stalking to attacking. It’s what we heard the night Geoff died. The same gnashing, shrieking. It echoed out of the cave where we left Lillian.

    Lillian. Lillian with long red hair and adoring eyes for Geoff. She almost got away from us. She fought. Ira shot her in the leg. We told Ruth we were firing on the whistlers when she asked about the sound. Said we could see them, like hard shadows, moving in the depths of the cave. Lillian wore the night vision goggles. I imagine she saw them more clearly than anyone ever has before. We didn’t see anything, only heard them. We heard this sound. A shriek like a wildcat. Like a deranged woman. The whistling came after, came second, came from a different part of the woods and closed in.

    Now the dog was whining, and then it cowered out of sight. And Ruth turned to raise me to my feet. We were urgent to move, but we weren’t pursued. I can’t explain the shift, like a drop in temperature, a slackening of the wind. The whistlers were not there for us, but there for it. The whistling overtook the shrieking, and then everything hushed at once. They left us alone.

    Ira said it. Said it in a clear voice in the days after I thought he’d lost his mind. “It’s a warning,” he said. “The whistlers didn’t kill anyone.”

    What did he see from down in the hole? He said he saw tool marks. He said it to Ruth, but looked at me, wanted to make sure I knew I wasn’t forgiven. I used a folding spade. I thought we were a day’s walk from Red Hill then, maybe two. You have to give them something if you want to get away. It’s what the lighthouse keeper said, it’s what the stories say. You play by their rules, you live. Or, you have a chance. I gave them Ira. I would do it again.

    I kept thinking I should have told Ruth everything. Here she was standing in the street with a stick of firewood and no idea what’s out there. I hit my head, I wasn’t much use, but I heard it again: the shrieking sound, and a rumble beneath it, atmospheric, eerie like thunder. Then the whistling. The dog was gone by then, but I can’t help thinking he’s part of it too. The hair was spiked on his neck. Eyes wide. We humans, we’ve got a way of personalizing things. Of assigning motives, emotions. Help or harm. Patient, patient, patient.

    Ruth took me inside and cleaned my wounds, stitched up my leg. I’m bruised everywhere from my fall from the tree. She didn’t ask about that. Maybe she assumed it was old bruising still, or just more evidence that I’ve been pushing myself when I shouldn’t.

    We shared the last of the gin. It’s battery acid, but somehow I couldn’t get enough. I could see it getting to her as the evening got dark. Not the gin, but the fear. The screech we heard, the anxiety in the dog’s eyes. The feeling that the longer we’re out here the less we know. A very final sort of despair. Like she might collapse and never get back up again, even after everything we’ve done. I couldn’t have that, so I rose and took her in my arms, and held her, and when I realized there was no way to tell her it would be all right, I kissed her. And she let me. I heard her sighing, and felt the weight of her against me, letting go. There was something tight in her face, more like desperate resignation than love. Maybe that was my own pain getting in the way. My need.

    I brought her to the lounge and pulled her down with me on the bed, hurting everywhere and not caring. She undressed us both. I wonder, now that she’s asleep, if she’s dreaming of me or him.

    It’s funny. I’m not afraid of death tonight.

    12/16

    I’m going to get Ruth to the coast. I decided this morning. Red Hill is a death trap, slow or fast, we’ll die here if we stay. And we have the Jeep. Maybe we’ll go fast enough that the screeching thing won’t follow us. Maybe the whistlers will close in on it once we’re gone. They’ll kill it. That’s what Ruth thinks. She thinks it’s a monster, something old and unspeakable, something the people of this region have been conflating with the whistlers since time immemorial. She thinks the whistlers are on our side. That they’re keeping it at bay.

    Time is a factor. My leg is in bad shape. The bite needs antibiotics, and we don’t have them. She tried to get me to stay in bed, but I won’t. There’s too much work to do.

    I got the fuel and gear loaded into the Jeep, then in mid-afternoon I decided to walk back out toward the snares. I heard her yelling for me not to go too far, but she doesn’t understand. I can hear the whistlers all the time now. It isn’t just at night, and it isn’t just when they’re putting on a show. I can hear them talking through the day, hear their conversations out under the trees. They get clearer and clearer every minute. Soon, I think the whistle tones might turn into words. Something I can parse.

    It’s a relief to be inside my brother’s mind like this. Ira wasn’t afraid of them. That night it hailed. I have nightmares about that night. They marked him out for understanding, and now they’ve marked me, and I’m grateful. They’ll leave Ruth alone. I went back out to the snares because I was ready, at last, to give them their opportunity. I’m limping. Easy pickings if I’m wrong. I went as far as the hanging tree and got the pistol ready.

    Hope feels like madness. I want to see them. The whistlers, the shrieking thing. I want to see them for myself before I die. That’s not too much to ask, is it?

    The murmurs became chatter, became whistling. They were calling me out of the clearing where I’d set my snares, away, into the trees. I followed them with measured, trusting steps. Somehow I knew they wouldn’t leave me behind. They were leading, not fleeing. The snow had an icy crust, and soon I wasn’t just following sound and emptiness. I was following tracks. Dog prints. And I looked ahead and I saw the dog, the same one, standing in a treeless space where the woods ended. It was the edge of a cliff, snow and granite and scraggly trees. I could hear moving water, and the dog was staring at me, into my eyes, like he was possessed of a human mind.

    “Are you one of them?” I said.

    And the dog turned his back to me. He wagged his tail once and ran straight ahead, ran straight off the face of the cliff. And the whistlers, they were closer than I knew, their voices erupting behind me and ahead, from down in the gully and right at my back.

    And what I don’t know—what I can’t know—is whether he jumped for me or for them. Whether they were making noise over his death or my witnessing it. Whether Ruth and I matter any more or less to the whistlers than the hares and foxes and birds we’ve hunted along the way. I walked to the cliff’s edge as a matter of reflex. It was a very long way down, a sheer granite face with icy lines of runoff. I didn’t see the dog. I saw cars. A dozen? Maybe fewer. Cars and trucks, driven clear off this cliff face, crashed and mangled, blackened where they’d burned.

    It happened before we reached Red Hill, but not long before. It was a graveyard, a fresh one. Here lies the whole population of Red Hill, a sign might say. It’s one thing to be backed against an edge. It’s another thing to drive clear off it. There weren’t many bodies in view, but the ones I could see were removed from the vehicles. Thrown? Dragged? It’s hard to say.

    Ruth got a paper published in a good journal a few years ago on the subject of mass hysteria. When a group of people panics all at once, they become like a single organism. They might see things that were never there, remember events that never occurred. Everybody defers to the loudest voice and suddenly the whole herd is spiraling to some terrible end at once.

    There’s a whistler story that takes place after a shipwreck. Twenty people get stuck together on the same beach. It was a fishing boat, so they’re orderly people. They’ve got a hierarchy. Everyone’s got a job. But they realize there are whistlers near, and the captain starts telling them stories from when he was a boy. Stories of how the whistlers will take the group down one at a time. How their minds will be compromised, they’ll turn against each other. So they draw straws and choose an order, and with great efficiency every third night they send one man out into the woods with a torch and nothing else. They assume they’ll be rescued in a matter of days, that each sacrifice is for the greater good, buying the group just a little more time. The chosen man never comes back, and the group never gets attacked by the whistlers.

    Confirmation bias, Ruth said.

    The rescue boat never comes, and they continue in this way until the captain is the only man standing. It happened like clockwork, each man thinking his sacrifice was keeping the others safe. That it was all a matter of practicality and fairness, and maybe that their own strength would keep them alive when it was their turn in the wild. Who knows what they saw in the darkness? Maybe the whistlers called them onward, showed them paradise. Maybe the people who drove off this cliff saw a road, a neat suspension bridge.

    Something happens in the mind. Ruth hears her baby at night.

    The captain did the talk show circuit for a few years, then killed himself. Ruth says this is the most damning part. The captain knew it was just a story. He knew the whistlers weren’t real. A little sleight of hand, he picked the order.

    I picked the order.

    I think it was a message. The dog, the whistling. There was no shrieking sound, no sign of danger. Just me and the fallen bodies and the cliff’s edge. The whistlers were daring me to take matters into my own hands, keep my promise.

    12/18

    Ruth is driving us to the coast. Things changed for me, this morning, when I realized we were really going. The weather was good, foggy, but not snowing. When we get there, it’s over. The coast is the last place we can go where we might get help, where we might find someone living who can get us out of here.

    She looks tired. Her hands are tight on the wheel, windshield wipers squeaking as they clear the condensing mist. I’ve thought so much, over the years, about what she deserves. Not me. Not this.

    She knows how I feel. She’s known since the night Katherine died. It was just mom and me in the hospital waiting room, late, drinking scorched coffee and pretending to read magazines. The doctor came to say the baby had passed away, and then they wouldn’t let me into the room with Ruth.

    “Only the father is allowed,” the nurse said. “Wait until visiting hours.”

    I raged at the woman with her pinned-back hair and sickly pink scrubs. Mom kept asking what had gotten into me. I told the truth. I broke down crying and said I was in love with Ira’s wife. I didn’t realize until that moment that I was jealous of him. Jealous and angry. He was the only person allowed in that room with her, and he wasn’t there. He vanished to Tuscaloosa or somewhere to listen to drug reps lecture about catheters. Too chickenshit to be a man when it mattered. Right up until the end.

    I told that nurse I was the father. “Ira Douglas Gattiger,” I said, poking my finger into her clipboard. We all knew I was lying, but Ruth said to let me in. It was so late at night and I held her in the hospital bed, with all the tape and gauze and an IV in her arm. Katherine came by emergency c-section, so it was a double trauma. She was stuck in a recovery bed for Katherine’s entire week of life. And there was so little I could do.

    Maybe I was taking advantage. I don’t know. My mom looked in on us that night, saw us. She’ll have her own ideas about this, once Ruth is rescued. She’ll be fascinated to know why I let my brother die.

    * * * * * *

    The drive was short. I closed my eyes against the window, and opened them, and we’d arrived. Gray sand and the pale sun in the sky. An icy dock. There’s a boathouse, a shack, and enough trash in the bushes to say people have been here, but not recently. Not since the corruption came to Red Hill.

    The corruption. That’s what Kirker called it as he told me the story. It was a separate thing, something the whistlers brought with them. A corruption in the hearts of men. Was he talking about fear? The ordinary fear of the unknown, and what it does to a person?

    Ruth saw me crying and walked out to the dock. She can’t look at me. I think she knows how badly I’ve failed. She knows this could be over for her if I was man enough to be steady with the noose. No. She doesn’t know. Doesn’t expect me to be the one who dies. Doesn’t know what I’ve done to keep us safe this long. She’s a good woman, virtuous like the long-suffering mother in a fairy tale.

    If I told her the truth, we’d have an argument about whether it was necessary. Whether I am not just as bad as whatever lurks under the trees. I might be. I have my reasons. But now she’s run out of hope. She doesn’t think either of us will make it out alive.

    She turned her face into the wind, sharp, started walking up the beach.

    “Do you hear that?” she said. I listened. It was faint, but there: whistlers. Whistlers coming for me, the man who picks the prey. But they didn’t want Ira, didn’t take him. Or, they took his mind, but not his body. What about Lillian? What about Geoff? What was really happening beneath all that screaming?

    “Don’t go, Ruth,” I said. She was walking up the sand, going to where she could see across the beach. But she wasn’t hearing whistlers. She was hearing the baby again. I don’t remember Katherine crying. She was too small, too weak, didn’t have time.

    “There’s a boat,” Ruth said, looking winded, maybe happy. It was something to do, an option to try. I told her I couldn’t go back to Red Hill. I intended that she should go back, keep warm, wait for rescue. She could make it once I was gone. In any of the stories, she would make it.

    But we dragged ourselves toward the boat on the unforgiving coastline. The sand became craggy basalt, became forest, weedy and thorny and near impenetrable. She clambered onward almost like an animal, on all fours up boulders, always moving forward, always toward the boat.

    And every step brought us closer to the whistlers. I could hear them, growing louder, hiding in the trees. Dozens? At least. The hollow howling, but everything else too: the clicking of teeth, the shifting of weight. Yes, there are bodies beneath the voices. A strange corporeality, something I may never succeed in defining.

    We stood at the edge of shallow, gently lapping water. Suddenly she was an expert on boats and tides. It was a mistake, coming so far. The boat was a weathered shell of itself, flimsy and with tattered sails and frayed lines. It wouldn’t take her as far as she needed to go.

    But she insisted. She said she didn’t hear the whistlers. She heard the baby and Ira. Ira singing, a phrase so foreign I can’t even imagine it.

    She heard them behind her, on the boat, calling her to the false safety of the water. All I could hear was ahead of us, in the woods. I heard whistlers and their waiting jaws. I heard the danger that they were protecting her from.

    And it occurred to me that maybe the whistlers were offering another bargain. Put Ruth on the boat, let her go. They were offering me a chance to die on my feet, pistol in hand. Yes, I was willing. I was willing if it meant, somehow, that Ruth would be safe.

    I told her to get on the boat, moved like I was right behind her. Stopped. Turned.

    I walked up the beach, toward the whistlers, toward the edge of the trees where they hid, where they called for me. And soon Ruth saw what I’d done. She saw I didn’t follow her onto the sailboat. That I was away and the tide was rising. That I was facing the whistlers, facing the end. She was screaming over the whistlers. So she could hear them now. She was screaming behind me, screaming about something I should see.

    “Run, Bill! Can’t you see it? Bill!”

    I saw it. The dog. Gray and brown. Sharp, forward ears. Dappled dark on the sides. I fell to my knees, thinking, like a fool, that I had them figured out. I was supposed to follow the dog, I thought. Supposed to give myself up. So I did. My legs weren’t working, and I crawled. I crawled over sharp stone and weedy gravel. I stared the dog in the eye. It was silent, like Wilma Derren’s young man. A whistler, I decided. Shade of the Woods, they’re called, further north. A whistler in the shape of a dog.

    It was coming toward me, tentatively. I heard Ruth’s voice, a complaint high in her throat, harsh. My name. Screaming my name. But the whistlers drowned her out. Their voices rose, to screeching, to a din. And they descended on the dog right in front of my eyes. The dog that was not a dog, not a whistler. Something else. Something that died with a moan like an earthquake. They tore it apart. The effort went on for many long minutes, long enough for me to realize the dying thing looked nothing like a dog. Not in the least. It had long, black limbs. Sharp, angular, with joints protruding. Short, coarse hair that shone. It bled the same deep red of any mammal, long toes curled with black claws, flickering nerve impulses.

    Part of my mind says it was a bear. Black fur, enormous stature, and that low growl, dark and strong in a way that grips your heart. It could have been a bear. It could have been any number of completely familiar things. There’s another part of me that knows it wasn’t a bear. Knows it isn’t something I’ve ever seen before, isn’t something I can describe.

    And the whistlers took it down.

    I got back on my feet, swayed once before falling again. The last thing I heard was the snapping of bones, and in my fevered mind they were Geoff’s bones, and Lillian’s, and Ira’s, and Ruth’s. They were Katherine’s tiny bones, and the whole misadventure was my fault. It is, isn’t it? I picked the order. It all falls to me.

    I didn’t wake up until the following morning, and by then the woods were silent. Ruth and the boat were gone.

    12/19

    When did the dog stop being a dog? I don’t know. The wound on my leg refuses to heal. I can feel the pain of it in my entire body. An ache in time with my heartbeat.

    Wilma wouldn’t tell me what the whistlers really looked like. There’s a reason for that. Good reason. They were drawing curtains in our minds. Letting Ruth hear her daughter again, showing me another pitiful creature alone in the woods. I don’t know, but I have my suspicions. I think we personalized the story when we shouldn’t.

    They’re not protecting us. That much is obvious now. Should have been obvious a long time ago.

    Anglers waiting for sharks. Ruth and I, we’re not sharks. Patient, patient, patient. We’re bait. I see that now. We’re bait for something bigger. Is that what they were doing with Ira? Keeping him on the hook? Something took his arm, but the whistlers kept him on his feet. Kept him walking. Marked him, and now they’ve marked me. Put my scent on the wind.

    I couldn’t walk back to the jeep tonight. I got halfway, was hobbling. This leg is close to useless. I imagine Ruth’s hands on it, telling me to stay awake, to stare down the pain. When I find her, I won’t let us be separated again. We’ll fight our way out of this back-to-back. Keep moving down the coast. If they want one of us, they’ll have to take us both. That was her mindset, the right mindset.

    We’re not the prey. I see that now. Human beings are collateral damage. No, I’m not certain. There are too many stories. Memories told by people with polluted minds. Corrupted.

    I don’t see the boat. No lights or fires. I had to move further inland than I liked to find a trail.

    She’s safe. She has to be. Safe in the boat, in the water. Safe because she’s a terrific shot and the toughest person I know. But is her mind safe? Is she safe when she closes her eyes? The whistlers were getting to her, planting lies. I couldn’t make a fire, but there’s no snow out here under the dense trees. Not yet.

    12/21

    It’s been a few days. I think three nights, since I saw Ruth. I reached the boathouse, but the jeep is gone. There are tire tracks to follow, down the beach, through the mud. I slept half the day yesterday. The pain is blinding. I was lost in the woods, turned around. It was further than I thought, and the trees all look the same once you’re off course, when every step costs so much.

    Excuses, excuses, excuses. What will I do if she doesn’t make it? What have I done?

    I froze overnight. Buried myself with moss. And this morning I realized I could just stay down. I regretted ever leaving Red Hill. A stove and blankets. If we were going to die anyway, why not die together? I was so sure she’d have a chance at the coast. When I find her, she’ll tell me what an idiot I was. She’ll tell me she loves me. She said it that night after the dog bit me. She was falling asleep, her cheek on my shoulder, my hand in her hair.

    “I love you, Bill,” she said. And she closed her eyes.

    I just smiled, figured she already knew how I felt. Now I wish I’d said it back. I wish, in the darkness, I had more of that moment to remember. I love you, Ruth Gattiger. It’s the greatest pain in my life, but I do.

    12/24

    I made it to the jeep. It’s parked askew in a marshy area where the mud would be deadly if it wasn’t freezing over. Out of gas. She didn’t get far. I wonder if she was running the engine for heat. Couldn’t blame her. It’s raining a little. Freezing mist. I’m inside the jeep and she isn’t here. Her backpack is slumped in the back seat, her pens and journal stuffed inside a plastic bag right at the top of the pack. The revolver is here, empty. I found it a good five yards from the jeep, on the ice, but no Ruth.

    I’ve got three in the pistol.

    Her last journal entry is a suicide note, or, that’s how it seems. She figured I was dead and tried to drive south, then ran out of fuel. If she killed herself, she’d be here beside me. I suppose an animal might have dragged her away if she wasn’t in the vehicle. It says here: “Take my body back to Oregon.” She wouldn’t have been so careless as to do it out in the open. Not when she had the option. Not when she knew what was lurking close by.

    It’s too dark to go looking now. I’m exhausted in a way that feels almost soft, welcome. That’s the cold getting into me. It’s deep now, the chill. Setting into my bones.

    Maybe I’ll see Ruth tonight. Maybe I won’t wake up.

    12/25

    Christmas Day. Her body was dragged. It was easy to see in the light of morning. I stuffed her pack into mine and went looking. There are footprints in the mud, hers, leading toward where I found the revolver. No blood on the ice. A disturbance where she might have fallen, and then a smear in the mud where she was taken away, up across the ice and through gravel, through sand, inland, into the woods again.

    I followed the path without weighing the idea first. It seems we’re worth more to them alive. Ira. They kept Ira going for more than a month. He had a rifle the day he saw their true faces. The day the corruption got hold of him.

    If I had finished it sooner, Ruth would be safe now. She’d be walking south, wouldn’t she? Free to go. We’re worth too much to them, the whistlers. Too useful. That’s why they never finish us off. A survivor with a good story keeps the cycle going. Keeps the humans coming. Ruth understood that. The mystery is a hunting tactic. Our curiosity is what kills us in the end. That, and our companions.

    12/26

    Twice I thought I’d lost the trail, but I didn’t. The trail changed. It crossed the road from Red Hill and led through a brushy field, through snow.

    I almost turned to walk to the lodge. Pros and cons. Another day or two of this and I might drop. But turning away could mean losing the trail.

    Here, in the field, the drag marks turn into footsteps. Uneven, like she’s dragging her feet. Bare feet. Her shoes came off along the way. I found them, tied them to my pack. If she’s walking, maybe she got away. So, I’ll follow. I won’t stop. The tracks are obvious now, in the snow. As long as I can keep ahead of the weather, this will all be over soon. South. She’s leading me south.

    12/29

    The trail, the tracks, they ended today. I was walking in Ruth’s bare footsteps, the dragging strides, and suddenly they weren’t just hers. There was a second set of the same steps, and a third, all dragging, and running together, and I was so fixed on my feet, on the tracks, on picking Ruth’s tracks apart from the others, I didn’t realize I was walking in a circle. A circle high on a ridge, exposed, and the tracks leading me around and around a boulder, big and gray, marked with a vein of white quartz. There’s no path away from here, just a continuous loop of footprints, so many the snow has cleared, leaving mud and dead plant matter, leaving a ring like the one we found encircling the lodge on our first morning in Red Hill. Then, my instinct was to flee. To get Ruth the hell out of that ring if I could manage it, or feed myself to the whistlers, give them what I thought they wanted.

    Now the circle didn’t mean as much to me. I had no energy for fear. Ruth is walking among the whistlers. For how long? For however long she can stay on her feet. It’s not symbiosis. Whatever it is, it starts in the mind, in the head. Maybe they were all like us, once. Like Ira and Ruth. Maybe that’s why they always let one person go.

    Teller Rickson, a folklorist, that was his theory. He thought there was no cryptid in the woods, no separate predator species. That the whistlers themselves were just people, corrupted. Pushed so far by the harshness of the wilderness that they transformed into something else to survive. Pure need and fear. Hunting in a pack. Maybe deep down they have human hearts. Maybe part of them wants to see us survive.

    I climbed up onto the boulder, stayed inside the ring. It was late evening, and I figured they’d come for me. Maybe I’d see Ruth among them. That would be worth it. That, and the stars. I sat on the boulder and could see across the valley, the snow and the distant gray ridges, the sky turning purple and the opening eyes of the stars. But the whistlers never spoke up around me. They never came. And the longer I looked the more I saw across that valley. I saw a hard, unnatural line. A road. And before long there was a light on it, a moving light, headlights, winding up a neighboring ridge. And there were other lights—Christmas lights, window lights, the spangled glow of a small town. Another Red Hill, but this one populated. This one alive.

    Ruth left me her flint and steel. Paper. I started a fire, and they came for me the next morning. They came for me the way they would have come for Ruth if I hadn’t failed, in a chopper, with blankets, with ointment for my cuts and a splint for my leg. I might lose it, someone said. They might take it off at the knee.

    “What happened?” the ranger hollered over the chopper blades.

    “The whistlers,” I said, garnering myself a look of mixed pity and disbelief.

    “What are the whistlers?” he said.

    There’s no explaining what’s actually out there, and I see that that is by design. The ineffability is the trap. I shook my head the way Wilma Derren shook her head at me, all those years ago, and said the only thing that made sense at the time:

    “Patient, patient, patient.”
     
    Last edited: Jul 14, 2019
    Kefflar32 likes this.
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