Hunger: Part 2 of 2
This is Part 2 of a short story called Hunger. For Part 1, click here.
We will rejoin Louis's story momentarily, but I'd like to mention ahead of time that at the end of the tale I offer a couple of links to some background on the folklore and legends that inspired the story. It's stuff I find incredibly interesting, and if you like this story you might, too. At the very least I think it's good to know where the story is grounded.
Okay, time to put the kiddies to bed. We are heading to dark places. On to the conclusion of Hunger.
Part 2: Never the Same
Louis’s fingers scampered in all directions across his computer’s keyboard, a dexterous blur of activity. There was always so much to do, and for whatever stress that brought, he attacked his work eagerly. He could not abide idleness, and he took great pride in his competence, his ruthless, pragmatic competence.
But he was also distracted, his mind not as keen as usual. Louis was beginning to make mistakes, his attention to detail slipping, his work becoming sloppy. His immense willpower was nearly exhausted.
Resist, you old fool. You have not earned your treat. Not yet.
The problem he couldn’t shake, the reason he could not keep his mind on his work where it needed to be was simple: he was so blasted hungry he could think of nothing but eating. The constant hum of hunger made him feel weak, and there was nothing he hated more than feeling weak and hungry.
The cold has crept deep into his bones. They are little more than dried, brittle sticks seeking any excuse to snap, to shatter. His legs and back ache, held too long in the same misshapen form. He managed to remove his snowshoes, but it made for small relief. For a time, he struggled against the thick weave of the netting, searching for some weakness, some flaw, but there were none to be found.
Daylight has begun to bleed away, the sun retreating behind him and throwing long menacing shadows through the forest. The distorted shapes of tree branches cast on the snow curl and twist like the mangled arms of terrible creatures. Whatever hope his day began with is long gone and some part of him is ready to accept the fate he knows awaits him. He cannot see it, cannot prove it. But he knows.
Something is coming for him.
He feels it deeply. It’s as if the fading sun is not simply giving way to evening as it has millions of times before but instead fleeing from the creeping dark. He knows he should fear it, and he does on some level, but it’s hunger he feels most. Hunger and boredom, and his mind can do nothing but imagine what it would be like to eat again.
When his parents first left, the rumbling in his belly came and went like the ebb and flow of the tide. But now? Now it is constant and unwavering. He hungers not just in his belly but everywhere. HIs creaky fingers tense, gripping a piece of rabbit that is not there. He grinds his teeth, imagining them rending flesh. He smells the cook fire, the burning wood and charring meat.
And then at last, the sun heads over the horizon, and the forest grows dark. But a crescent moon has begun its countervailing ascent and from its light the snow glows an opalescent blue and white. It’s a boundless, otherworldly plain stretching into the darkness. The forest remains still and silent, not even the slightest breeze to disturb it.
Until he hears it, and he knows his time has come. From somewhere out in front of him, he hears the crunch of snow underfoot. Its procession is slow but steady. Consistent. Patient. It’s a moment he’s been waiting to come for hours, and he’s surprised when his first thought is not fear or panic. It’s relief.
He squints as he searches the trees for the visitor, sweeping his vision across his periphery. The footfalls grow closer and he is finally able to locate their source. A figure emerges from where the shadows of tree trunks give way to a sliver of space where the moon sparkles off of the snow. From the distance he can only see a thick, amorphous shape coming ever toward him.
Only when the creature is but a few remaining paces away can he begin to make out the shapes that comprise its face and he sees it is just a man, like any other. A fur hat covers his head, leaving his eyes barely visible. He is bundled in the heavy coat of a bear with a pair of pants to match, cinched about the waist with a belt like his father’s, the belt of a trapper. A rush of hope comes over him. Perhaps his sense of foreboding and dread was misplaced? Perhaps this was all a mistake and his accidental captor will be his liberator as well?
The man in the bear coat pauses and looks up at him, his head tilted to the right and regarding him with some confusion.
“You are just a boy,” the man says, his voice a raspy hiss, as cold as the night around them. It is a statement, not a question.
The boy goes to speak but his voice falters. His lips are cold and cracking in the dry winter air. He licks them back to life and swallows a small amount of saliva. “Yes,” he is finally able to say.
“You are alone. Why?”
“I went in search of my family. My father left, to fish I think. But he did not come back. Then my mother went looking for him, and she didn’t come back either.”
The man nods, considering the boy’s story. His eyes are sunken in his face and take on the yellowed glow of moonlight, or perhaps that is their true color?
“And so you went after them?” the man asks.
The man traces his upper lip with a serpentine tongue, thinking. “And now you are in my trap it seems.”
After the dull emptiness of the hours spent held captive and dangling in the forest, the next few minutes rush by in a blur. The man cuts him down from the trap, helps put his snowshoes back on. Though he is grateful, he is still wary. But the man promises him food and fire. Plus, he tells him he may have seen his parents some days past. What else can he do but go with him? Home is nothing to him now.
And so he goes with the man. His legs are aching and feeble as he walks, and he must pause several times. The man’s patience is tested. He scolds him and tells him to keep moving, and so he tries as best he can. At last he falls over in the snow, and the man throws him over his shoulder like a grain sack, carrying him the rest of the way. His vision swims in and out of focus. He is tired and weak, and his body is trying desperately to sleep, perhaps forever.
He snaps back to consciousness in front of a fire, the light of the flames dancing behind his eyelids and eventually drawing him back to wakefulness. They are in a cave now, and it is warm and dry.
“Drink,” the man says, handing him a crude wooden cup filled with water, and he does. He drinks fast and deep, surprised at his thirst. He sits up on the ground and puts his back against the cave wall. The man sits across the fire from him, his forearms across his legs, resting on a huge log cut lengthwise to form a bench. The man has removed his hat and coat now, wearing only his bearskin pants and a shirt of wool. For the first time he sees the man’s angular features, his sharp jaw and harsh cheekbones. He sees long, wispy, white hair matted from sweat. He sees the man’s skin stretched thin and tight over his bones, and he thinks, perhaps, this man might be as hungry as he is.
“Thank you,” he tells the man. The water courses through him. He can feel it restoring his insides like some sort of magic. But his hunger remains, and he grows bold. “Is there…is there food?” he asks.
The man grins and retreats deeper into the cave and out of sight. The fire crackles and pops. Shadows dance on the walls of the cave playing out some ballet. He looks out of the mouth of the cave and into the night. Just steps from its edge is total black, as if this cave is the only place left in the world. And maybe it is, he thinks.
After a few moments, the man returns carrying something that he cannot make out, but his mouth begins to water just the same. He senses food, knows it’s coming. He licks his lips and his belly finds the strength to growl in anticipation once more.
“Here,” the man says, handing the boy a hunk of something covered in cheesecloth. “Eat.” An order, not an invitation.
He pulls back the cloth and reveals a smallish hunk of some nameless meat. It has been prepared for curing to last the winter, but not long ago. The process is not done, but he cannot care about such trivialities. The scent of it overwhelms him. He had thought he might never eat again, let alone eat good meat. His hunger takes full control and he tears through the flesh like the starved animal he is. It is salty, too much so under other circumstances. But not now.
“Better?” the man asks, an eyebrow raised.
He nods but does not stop. He devours the whole hunk, scarcely chewing it at all. He makes no effort to savor it, but he is certain it must be the most incredible thing he has ever eaten. The effort of it exhausts him, and he breathes heavy. He can feel his shrunken belly struggle to contain it.
“Thank you,” he says after he has finished.
“You are most welcome.” The man, once again seated on the log, watches him intently as if studying him. He wonders what will come next. He was so desperate for the most basic of needs he never gave a thought to what would come after warmth, water, and food. The man remains silent, and so he eventually works up the courage to speak.
“My parents. You said you might have seen them,” he says. “Do you think you could show me where?”
The man smiles thin and wide, leaning forward from his perch. “My boy, I have.”
He is confused by this. Is it some strange riddle? He has no desire to play at riddles now. His belly now full, he wants little more than to know what happened to his parents and, perhaps, to sleep.
“I don’t think I understand,” he says.
The man stands up. As he moves, he begins to change. His fingers elongate, and black claws emerge from their ends like keen blades. The taught skin of his face is stretched further, like the head of a drum. His grin grows impossibly wide and his thin lips recede, giving way to jagged jaws.
“I have brought you your parents,” he repeats. “And aren’t they delicious?”
Louis shoved away from his desk, and stood up. He put his hands on the desk and leaned hard against it. He felt his pulse thump in his neck, his hunger continuing to grow. It crawled up from his belly. It whispered secrets to him, tempted him, told him sweet lies he longed to believe. It wanted him to eat right now even though he knew he could not afford to do so. It was too soon. To do so would be impulsive. Undisciplined.
Wait. You can wait. You have waited before. You will wait again. You mustn’t rush your meals, Louis. It’s control that keeps you strong.
Sitting back down in a huff, he entered a keyboard command into his computer, calling up a camera feed. The image was grainy and dark due to low light, but it served well enough. Louis used the directional controls on his keyboard to swing the camera in his cellar around making sure everything was still in order, in its proper place.
Satisfied that it was, he hit another button, switching to a second camera in a spot that was darker still. A third command triggered a light. Its flash was blinding for a moment, a stark change from pitch black, and he watched a shadowed figure scurry away from it like a cockroach. He moved the camera to follow the figure as it fled. There were not any real places to hide down there, after all. The man hugged his bare knees and looked away from the light, burying his head into a corner, trembling and whimpering. A menacing smile spread across Louis’s thin, dry lips. His fingers stretched into long black talons, and his eyes flashed the haunted yellow of autumn moonlight.
Two more days, he thought. Just two more days.
Then he would eat.
Inspiration for the story
Hunger was inspired primarily by the folklore of creatures known as wendigos with some aspects of the characteristics of skin-walkers and shapeshifters. It's believed that part of the reason for the wendigo mythology was to reinforce cultural taboos against cannibalism. Which...yeah, I think they do a good job of that. For a little more detail on my particular inspiration for the wendigos in this story, read this.
If you enjoyed this story, check out Witness under my Stories page above. No one gets eaten, but it might do even more to keep you from getting to sleep tonight.
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