Red, by Christina Ortega Phillips
Everyone thinks they know my story, and by extension, me. They don’t. They know a story, but that story is not mine. Thanks to lies, exaggerations, or simple disbelief, my story has been changed and boiled down to yet another one where the female needs help from a male. That was not the case. But since the wrong story helps to keep my secrets safe and the misconceptions help me to be able to keep doing what I do, I’ve let it continue to go around. Until now. It’s time for people to wake up and realize what is really happening out there and for that to happen, people need to open their eyes. So I will share my story, my real story:
First, let me tell you that it was somewhat true that my grandmother was sick, but she was not suffering from a simple cold or flu. We thought she was mentally ill, suffering a slight break from reality after the loss of her son, my father. She insisted on staying in the cabin her husband had built, the one she had once shared with my father (that is, until he met my mother and moved out) but each time we visited she was full of stories that we assumed were the products of an old woman going senile.
She told us she heard voices. Sometimes they were voices of neighbors who had not lived near her in years. Sometimes it was the voice of my father. Either way, the voices she heard calling out to her could not have been real.
She told us of seeing a wolf-like creature attacking her neighbors. She said she had seen a really large human with yellowish skin and claws snap Mr. Baker in two and then carry off the corpse, but it had moved too fast for her to see the direction in which the creature traveled. When asked, Mrs. Baker said that Mr. Baker had gone off hunting and that he would be home soon. She was not worried by his absence.
Grandmother told us that the woods smelled like rotting flesh or rotting meat. She said she could only get a whiff of the awful stench depending on the way the wind was blowing.
There were other symptoms, but you get the point.
A second true thing was that my mother packed up a basket of goodies for me to take to my grandmother one day. Since we had assumed my grandmother was going senile, we tried to help her out so she would not have to cook and risk leaving a fire going or other injuries she could have in the kitchen. So every week my mother would cook a week’s worth of meals for my grandmother and send me off with the food. My mother couldn’t visit my grandmother. She said it was too depressing to hear her talk about my father, which was often the topic of conversation. So it was up to me to visit my grandmother and deliver her food.
There was no drama on the way to my grandmother’s house. I did not run into a wolf and talk to him and if I had, I would not have been stupid enough to tell him where I was going. Talking wolves exists, of course. They are called lycanthropes; they prefer this, their proper name, as they fully embrace both the human and wolf sides of their dual nature. They would rather split themselves in two than pick one term to describe them. They mostly live in the woods, as they have to hide their wolf-like nature if they live among too many humans. They can also be quite friendly if they are old enough to control themselves. If you come across a younger lycan, especially around the time of the full moon, you had better watch out or run. Running would be better. Actually, defending yourself would be better since they could outrun you. But I digress.
I made it to my grandmother’s home with no problems along the way: human, animal, or otherwise. As usual, she was grateful for the food. And as usual, she invited me to stay for a spell. I did. I liked spending time with my grandmother; I liked hearing stories of my father, and I also liked staying away from home for as long as possible to avoid chores. So I ended up staying too long.
By the time I was ready to head out, a horrible storm was brewing. I wouldn’t be able to make it home before the storm started, so I decided to stay the night there. And this is where the true story begins.
Just before nightfall, I heard the voices my grandmother had been telling us about. I heard my father calling to me, asking for help with firewood. Against my better judgment, I stuck my head outside. I didn’t really think about it. I heard my father and before my brain could remind me that he was dead, I moved to respond to his call. But my father was nowhere in sight. Instead, thanks to a gust of wind from the incoming storm, I, too, got a whiff of rotting flesh. I didn’t tell my grandmother; I didn’t want to upset her.
Instead, I sat with her by a fire I had built and chatted as if nothing were amiss. While she talked, I nodded and smiled, but my mind was reeling with possibilities. I knew that she was not crazy, but what could explain the voices and the stench? I briefly toyed with the thought that my mother had put something in my grandmother’s food. If grandmother were poisoned and were to die, there would be more food and money for us. Mother had been complaining about the cost of taking care of her. But was my mother capable of murder? Eventually I crossed off that idea and tried to think of others.
I didn’t have time to think of other possibilities, though. My grandfather’s voice came in through the cabin riding with the next breeze. I tried to stop my grandmother, but she insisted she needed to go to him. She was out of the cabin before I could even stand up.
I ran to the doorway just in time to see a blur of green skin and claws snatch her up and head off into the woods. Despite the impending storm, I ran after the blur that had taken my grandmother.
When I was younger, my father used to take me hunting, so I knew how to follow tracks. I didn’t know what the hell that thing was that had taken my grandmother, but I knew I had to try my damnedest to get her back, so I looked for tracks.
It took me what felt like forever to find any because it didn’t leave normal tracks on the ground. I was able to find scratch marks high up on trees. The trees were marked in a way that made me think the creature had been jumping from tree to tree. Fear was starting to lessen my resolve to find my grandmother, but I pushed it away. I couldn’t lose her.
I continued to follow the clawed trees, looking up while walking and forgetting to look at the ground, which is how I literally ran into Hunter.
“Oof!” I cried out. “I am so sorry.”
He responded with a dirty look. “What are you doing out here all alone? It’s nearly dark.”
I rolled my eyes. Great, a sexist. “I am perfectly capable of being out on my own after dark,” I snapped, straightening my cloak.
He made a derisive noise. “Look, kid, these woods, they ain’t safe, especially now. I suggest you run along home to your momma.”
It was my turn to make a noise. “I am not a kid and I am not going home.” I turned on my heel and continued to try and follow the marked trees, but the noise behind me made me turn back; he was following me. “I should warn you I am not unarmed.”
“Good. You’ll need it if you get attacked.”
“Is that a threat?”
“Not from me.” He looked up at the marks I had been following. “Do you know what made these?”
I half-shrugged and moved my head. I couldn’t say for sure yes or no. I wasn’t even sure what I had seen, it had all happened so fast.
“You have no idea.” It wasn’t a question. “Look, kid, if you know what’s best for ya, you need to turn around now.”
It was his turn to walk away and my turn to follow. He appeared to be following the tracks, too.
“But you know, don’t you?” I asked, increasing my pace to keep up with him. “You know what made these marks?”
He ignored me and kept walking. Hunting.
“Are you…are you hunting whatever made me these marks?” I asked.
I know, I know; earlier I said that I would not have been stupid enough to talk to a strange wolf. But this guy, he seemed like a hunter who knew what he was doing and I desperately wanted to save my grandmother, so I took a chance.
“Kinda hard to hunt with you makin’ all this noise,” he grumbled.
I followed silently.
He stopped suddenly, causing me to run into him yet again. “Look, kid, ya gotta get outta here. It ain’t safe.”
“That thing,” I said, “took my grandmother. I was trying to follow its tracks to find her.”
He cursed under his breath. “I was hopin’ to catch that damn thing before it kilt again.”
My heart skipped when he said “kilt.” “Are you saying my grandmother’s dead?”
“I can’t say for sure,” he said. “Sometimes these things just store food for the winter. Could be she’s still alive.”
“You said you wanted to catch it. That means you know what it is. Can you tell me? Can you help me?”
He crossed his arms in front of him and looked me up and down. I could feel him looking for something so I just stood there trying not to let all the fear show in my eyes. Whatever he was looking for, he must’ve found it because he finally gave me a sharp nod.
“Alright,” he sighed. “Here, take this,” he said, handing me what looked like a gun.
“This is a flare gun,” I said after taking it in my hands.
“A normal gun won’t hurt it a bit,” he said, motioning for me to follow him.
“What is it?”
“It’s a wendigo.”
“A wendigo. You saw it, right? Looked kinda humanish and wolfish?”
I nodded. “Greenish coloring, long claws, sharp teeth,” I added.
“They eat humans. Legend has it that they used to be human themselves, who knows if it’s true or not. What is true is that they’re nearly perfect hunters. And they stalk their prey, sometimes makin’ ‘em crazy before takin’ ‘em to their lair. They’ll keep ‘em alive for a while, depending on how much food they have stored up.”
I listened intently, trying to save all the information he was sharing. “My grandmother said she heard voices.”
“It can mimic human voices.”
“She said she smelled death.”
“Legend says they smell like rotting flesh from eating humans. Like when you drink too much and the smell oozes out your pores?”
“Kinda like that. They’re really strong, too.”
“So…do we have a plan? And how do you know all this?”
“I’m a hunter.”
“My dad and I used to hunt together.”
He shook his head. “Not that kind of hunter. I hunt…things like this, things you don’t even know exist.”
We walked together in silence until we neared a cave. We hid behind some bushes. It looked like he had been using this place to spy on the wendigo for a while: leaves and such were arranged to hide us from view, there were some scraps of food on the ground.
I opened my mouth to ask him how long he had been hunting the wendigo, but he put a finger to his lips. He pulled a journal out of his jacket pocket, turned to one of the last pages and wrote: “They also have excellent hearing.”
He wrote, “We’ll wait here a bit to make sure it’s not home before going to see if your granny’s in there.”
I nodded again.
While we waited, I got bored. It was why my father didn’t take me hunting too often; I couldn’t stand the waiting. Hunter gave me his journal while we waited. He kept an eye out for the creature and I flipped through the book, which was full of information about creatures I had either never heard of or never thought really existed: vampire, spectre, djinn, and even chupacabra. I skimmed the entries, but stopped when I got to one marked “wendigo.” I took the time to familiarize myself with the creature whose home I was about to invade.
“It’s not here,” Hunter whispered at last. “Kid, you ready?”
I nodded, tucked the journal into my cloak and gripped the flare gun.
“We’ll go in, find your granny and then haul ass outta there,” he instructed. “No matter what, just go. Take your granny on home.”
He headed towards the cave before I could question him.
Inside, well, it was like a cave: dark and chilly. And it reeked like human waste and rot. As we went deeper into the cave, I could see that wendigos could be wasteful: bits of skin and bone littered the floor.
I suppressed the urge to gag and kept following Hunter. As I was looking around, taking in the wendigo’s abode, Hunter stopped, making me run into him for the third time.
“Kid, go. Just turn around and run.”
I didn’t listen. I peered over his shoulder to witness my grandmother hanging by her wrists and an over ten-foot-tall creature with greenish skin eating her. It turned, showing us its yellowish teeth covered in my grandmother’s blood, its eyes equally bright red. I gasped. We were too late.
It let out a loud shriek and leapt at us. Hunter was in front of me so he took the full force of the attack. He fought the wendigo and I tried to get out from underneath. When I was out, I backed away, but not very far. The wendigo was busy with Hunter and I had the flare gun, so I took aim and shot.
It howled in pain as the fire from the flare gun spread across its body and across Hunter’s body, too.
“Run, kid!” he screamed as he caught on fire.
I didn’t hesitate this time.
I ran. As I ran, the storm finally started, but I didn’t let it stop me.
I ran and I didn’t stop until I got home. I was shaken up and grieving and knew my mother wouldn’t believe me, so I lied and made up something about an attack. When my mother ran to my grandmother’s home (I tried to stop her), she talked to Mrs. Baker, who told her about attacks that had happened to other neighbors. Mrs. Baker told Mother that they weren’t sure yet if the attacks were done by wolves or young lycanthropes but a hunter (the normal type, a hunter of deer and such) was trying to track the culprit down. So Mother pieced together her own story: something about a wolf claiming my grandmother as a victim and a local kind hearted hunter saving me. Whatever.
I didn’t want anyone thinking I was crazy or worse, a coward, since I had failed to save my own grandmother. Hunter had warned me that while people could accept the existence of some creatures (lycanthropes), they just weren’t ready to believe in other beings. So I kept my mouth shut.
Whenever I can, I read Hunter’s book. It has taught me a lot about the creatures that are out there and how to take them out. When I come across one not in the book, I have to figure it out on my own, but I always write about them afterwards. You never know who will read the book next and what information could help save their life.
And there you have it. My story, my true story. I do wear a red cloak often; hence my nickname. Before, the cloak was nothing more than protection from winter. But now, it’s so much more: I have stitched symbols into the lining to help protect me from demons and witches (yes, those exist, too). I have also sewn in multiple pockets to carry my weapons and keep them concealed. Of course, one of the first weapons I added to my arsenal was a lighter. There’s no telling when I’ll come across another wendigo.
Christina Ortega Phillips was born and raised in northwest Indiana. A graduate of Valparaiso University, she received her BA in English and Psychology and an MA in English Studies and Communication and an MA in TESOL. She is an ESL teacher by trade, but a writer and geek at heart. She has contributed to Being Latino in the past. Her work has also been published in River Poets Journal and Infective Ink. Her writing group, Blank Slate, has published two anthologies, Midnight Oil and Night Light, both of which are available at Amazon. To keep up with Christina and her writing projects, visit her Facebook page.
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Tags: Christina Ortega Phillips, fairy tales, family, supernatural