Arthur Mountfort winced as an acid ooze of dyspepsia escaped his stomach and scorched its way up into his chest. He was under no illusion as to what was in the white envelope that had appeared on his desk while he was out at lunch. He’d been expecting it for years now.
They might at least have spelt my name properly.
But then people had been getting it wrong since he started work four decades before. It was not so much the unwanted D at the end that irked him, it was the fact his name was handwritten and that the letters were so badly formed. It looked as if they had enlisted a chimpanzee to do the job – all fingers and thumbs and blubbery lips.
“Resists change,” his pipsqueak of a boss had entered on Arthur’s yearly assessment form. Despite the well-cut suits and designer boots, the multiple mobile phones and accusatory spreadsheets, this particular lad was a skunk. Arthur referred to anyone under the age of 45 as a lad. Or lass. Arthur would rather have stuck his nose in a urinal than inhale the cloying fragrance that emanated from the lad. He must bathe in the stuff. It was surely he who was behind the envelope stunt.
“You’re such a wimp, Arthur,” the pipsqueak had said, “going forward, we have to push the envelope. At the end of the day there’s no room for people like you who don’t add value.”
Arthur flipped the envelope over a few times. He stared at the articulations of his fingers as they manipulated the white oblong with its uncouth label. He saw the folds of skin bunch up as the knuckles straightened then stretch white as the joints jack-knifed. He tossed away the envelope and remained motionless for a moment, studying his pointed fingernails. Why hadn’t they just sent him an email?
Fingernails. They were the first thing he’d noticed about her.
There is no denying he looked like a wimp. Not the kind of person who would grab your attention were he a character in a story. He had no distinguishing features to speak of, he might have worn glasses but you wouldn’t have remembered, he never got into arguments and he wasn’t exactly what you would call eccentric. Ordinary. Plain. Rheumy-eyed. Johnny no face. You might manage the first dozen lines of a book about Arthur but your eyelids would soon begin to droop. To look at him, Arthur Mountfort was a two-paragraph man at most. The rest was yawns and threadbare suits. A wimp if ever there was.
Then again, in the bottom drawer of his desk Arthur kept a collection of letter knives.
And I am here.
Arthur ran a fingernail along the ugly blue rivulets that bulged across the back of his hand. The years had certainly taken their toll on his hands. The fresh freckles of his youth had coagulated into ugly liver spots.
“Here you go, Arthur.”
A warm plastic cup appeared from behind the large flat screen which, because they wanted him to embrace change, now adorned his desk.
A freckled female face followed the plastic cup and smiled at him.
“I got you a latte.”
How they’d laughed at him the day they found him standing nonplussed before the new vending machine which had been installed across from the lifts, slotting nicely against the wall between the ladies and the gents. “Does it do plain coffee with milk?”
“Could you take the lid off it for me?”
Arthur was sick of burning his tongue when sipping through a sipper. He couldn’t get the hang of it. Neither was he much good at getting lids off without hitch. More than once he had anointed his old keyboard with coffee as the plastic at first resisted his prising before exploding off when he wasn’t expecting it.
“You’re so fucking clumsy Arthur!”
Ipse dixit Pipsqueak.
They said fuck every other word these days. The pipsqueak wore swearwords on his smelly pink shirt like a row of badges. No doubt they made a man out of him. Along with the Going Forwards, the Proactives and the Synergistic Visions.
The lass with whom he shared an office was the best of the bunch really. She always offered to get something for him when she went to the vending machine. Too kind. She has such ugly fingers. Mostly these were all he saw of her since their desks had been equipped with the latest ultra-wide, high-def, glare-free monitors.
“Look at the pixels on that thing, Arthur! Way out, the amount of real estate you get with these screens!”
Arthur inserted an HB pencil into the little silver sharpener he always kept to hand and began to twist. The motion comforted him while he was trying to fathom out what the devil they were on about. He knew exactly how much pressure to apply to the pencil to obtain a clean point and a single continuous shaving. He was good at peeling apples, too. And potatoes. The secret was a good, sharp blade. And knowing how to use it.
“The letters are too small, I can’t read them,” said Arthur, placing the sharpened pencil alongside the others in his collection and carefully aligning them.
“Fuck you, Arthur.”
A volcano of acidosis erupted in Arthur’s entrails, as if something was trying to get out.
Desks had next to nothing on them in the days when Arthur had first gone up to work in the City. A few books and files, a blotter maybe, writing pads, a plastic template and other stencils. And pencils, although in his younger days Arthur lined them up less assiduously than he did now. No desktop computers in the way, so people used to talk to each other. Four to an office. Tell jokes. Argue politics. Make fun of Arthur. Watch him avert his eyes.
Arthur blew into his plastic drink and took a sip. It tasted of sweetened machine innards and it had a disturbing effect on his stomach juices. This time the dyspepsia was not only painful; there was a pounding in his chest he’d not experienced before.
In former times offices had tea ladies. Arthur remembered portly Rose who pushed the tea trolley on his floor. Her hair was thin and wispy, of a mangy nicotine colour that matched both the stains on her fingers and the liquid gushing from her office-sized pot. One side of her face was inhabited by an ugly mole, the centre of which was transpierced by a single grotesque hair, growing wiry and white. Yet the chink of her cups was cheerful and people were glad when they heard her trolley clattering along the corridor and smelt her brew.
I don’t recall what Rose’s fingers were like. No matter, their flesh was long rotten, withered like the rest of Rose. Unlike her fingers, the most beautiful Arthur had ever seen, the only ones that had ever touched him there.
Tea ladies opened your office door and asked you what you wanted. Rose could carry four cups at a time. “’Ere you are, darlin’,” she’d say to everyone except Arthur, of whom she seemed wary. His room-mates attributed her reticence to his foreign-sounding name.
“Mountfort with a T,” they teased, with a pout and a dab at the hair.
Then came Arthur’s most treasured memory.
It was May 21st. A Monday. I never used to forget details like that. The day hadn’t begun well. Sleet was falling, fat and slobbery, a typical London spring day, colder than February and clad in double grey, one for the clouds and the other for his mood. His room-mates were arguing over the infiltration of women into the workplace. One pink-faced blurter with a neck like an ostrich was almost apoplectic over the matter. Arthur took no part in these exchanges, preferring instead to fiddle with a paper knife. Arthur calculated that, even allowing for the unusual size of blurter’s Adam’s apple, which he could see bobbing up and down like a ball-cock as the man gabbled, if you inserted paper knife at its apex you could push it right through to the other side and it would emerge just beneath the hairline and you’d still have an inch of blade to spare. No need to go in up to the hilt.
“Penny for your thoughts, Arthur?”
“What? Sorry, I wasn’t listening.”
“You’re a spineless blighter, Arthur. You want to watch it. One day some fancy housewife with hands as soft as Fairy liquid will take your job.”
Arthur balanced the paper knife between the forefingers of each hand and lifted it clear of the desktop and onto his knees beneath the desk. Applying pressure, he felt a soothing prick of pain.
“Yes,” he said vacantly, “I must remember that.”
Arthur the jellyfish. Handshake like a sock full of wet porridge. A weakling in their midst.
To blot out the taunts Arthur hummed tunes from the New World Symphony. By concentrating on the sombre bits he was able to conjure up images of his tormentors’ funeral processions.
They sent him fake messages to see the boss and chortled when he fell for it. They got a girl to play up to him and when he asked her out she humiliated him. “You? I’ll never be that hard up, Arthur!” They took the shreds of grated cheese from his morning sandwich and added soap shavings in their stead.
Arthur continued humming to himself. The largo from Dvorak’s magnum opus was his favourite.
“You’re more slippery than a bar of soap, Arthur! Faceless.”
It was all suds of a duck’s back. That said, at lunchtime he went to the stationers and bought himself a new paper knife. A longer one. Thinner.
They were at it again in the afternoon. This time the argument was over homosexuals. Arthur concentrated on his flowcharts. In those days he was good at tasks which required logical thought. He liked inevitable outcomes and unavoidable consequences. Imprison a fly and a wasp together in the same jam jar and the result was a foregone conclusion, the fly would die. He’d tried it often enough to be sure. One of his wasps had got so mad it bit the fly’s wings off at the root and then, one by one, all its legs.
“You’re daydreaming again Arthur. Isn’t it time to change your nappy?”
The blurter could not abide passive ponces like Arthur at work; at a pinch he preferred women. As the rattles and chinks of the tea trolley approached Arthur drifted off again. He was conducting the Minnesota Orchestra with his thin new knife for baton. In robes of ermine they were bearing her to her final resting place. With the smell of snow in his nostrils and Hiawatha’s anguish in his mind, Arthur laid down his baton and opened his eyes as the final notes dissolved away. The strangest of sights beheld him!
There, right under his nose, was most exquisite of hands, fingers perfectly formed, fragrant like the tinkle of running water amidst the forest hemlocks. Not a blemish on them, pointed and curved like the talons of a falcon. Bearing a cup of tea and entirely, majestically, incredibly black.
“Et voilà pour vous Monsieur Mountfort.”
Minnehaha! A vision of polite perfection. Arthur was still unmingling his conscious thoughts, it took him a moment. It was incongruous that she should be black and speak a foreign language. She had pronounced his name in French so beautifully that he wondered if it was intended for someone else. He looked up at her and surrendered to her smile.
Arthur shivered when her fingers grazed his as he accepted his tea. Looking around the office he saw his room-mates gawping. The blurter had turned beetroot and was silently choking on his custard cream, the others merely taken aback. That the new tea girl was black there was no doubt. Now then, here was a topic that would knock the homosexuals off their perch on the agenda! They would have to go and preen themselves elsewhere as the office sages delivered their verdict on this new outrage.
The black tea girl was as elegant as Rose was gauche. Her face was smooth and serene, her bearing regal. Her neck was made for diamonds only, not even the finest pearls were good enough. Arthur had not imagined Minnehaha like this, but it was her, of that he was sure. She had spoken to him, to him only. In French. It was the happiest moment of his life. It was May 21st. A Monday.
The blurter hailed from Westcliff-on-Sea, a full Daily Telegraph crossword puzzle away from where he worked.
It was said that a body entering the Thames estuary at the end of nearby Southend Pier might bob and drift for days, even weeks, before coming ashore anywhere along the coast up to five miles in either direction. The currents in that stretch of the river are unpredictable and only boatmen with local knowledge of the fogs and the meanders should navigate it for fear of being pinned against a sandbank by tide or wind. A corpse might hit a snag and tarry there for days before floating off on a North Sea swell, minus the tribute it will have paid to pecking beaks and things that nibble from beneath the water line.
Nobody thought much of it when the blurter failed to turn up for work. It was odd that someone with his principles didn’t phone in but there was no real concern until a week later when the whole department was called to a meeting attended by police officers. The blurter’s wife had reported him missing. He hadn’t been seen since the evening he took his dog out for its late night walk along the sea front.
Arthur sat through the meeting thinking about the black girl. She had smiled at him again several times that week. It bristled the hairs on the back of his neck. He shook his head absent-mindedly when the policeman asked him if he had noticed anything unusual about the blurter the last time he saw him.
“He looked a bit ill, I suppose.”
They heard no more for weeks. Some people thought the blurter had walked out on his wife, others were afraid he had met with an accident. The dog was missing, too.
Arthur wanted to meet the black girl outside work but could find no way to approach her out of earshot of the sneerers. Until one day she saw his newest paper knife acquisition sitting on his desk. The knife itself was rather plain but alongside it sat a sheath made of shiny beads arranged in tribal patterns.
“I love your Indian sheath,” she said, although she stumbled over the last word. “I ‘ave a turquoise ‘ead-dress, would you like to see it?”
She was African and her name was Minnie and Arthur was in love with her. She wore multi-coloured dresses that billowed brightly. She moved so lightly she might have been a champagne bubble. She smelt of the plains and the wide open skies, her feet flew over London’s rain-dampened kerbstones and made them glisten, and Arthur heard the gutters awash with laughing waters. Then they were together in her room and she wore the head-dress for him, a broad band of zigzag beads of many colours, topped by rows of turquoise nuggets set in leather braids that criss-crossed over the crown of her head and down over her ears, each braid bearing at its root a perfect feather, two dozen of them in all, the sum of which rose at first earthen brown then flaming blue, a froth of fluorescent pride fit only for a princess fleet and free. Minnehaha!
Females. They wear dresses not head-dresses.
The next time the police came they entered Arthur’s office and closed the door behind them. Two officers and a sniffer dog. Arthur, two room-mates and the blurter’s empty seat. They asked about this and they asked about that and the dog sniffed here and then there. It lingered at the blurter’s desk, snuffling into the folds of upholstery in the missing man’s chair and then toured the room. Arthur’s fingers curled about the hilt of his paper knife as the animal’s snout came near. Its blue eyes matched the feather tips of Minnie’s head-dress, the cunning of the snow wolf gleamed in them.
As if in answer to a call, Minnie pushed open the door. “Oo wants tea?”
The sniffer dog looked from Arthur to Minnie and back again. I know who you are.
In the intimacy of Arthur’s mind a sapphire needle landed smoothly onto the black thirty-three groove at the very point where Dvorak’s dirge sang Hiawatha’s pain.
“Are you alright, Arthur?”
As the pain in his chest began to recede, Arthur’s brain resumed its meandering across the prairie, until a group of sharp wigwams appeared before his eyes. Had Hiawatha passed this way on his journey home? Wild-eyed Doctor Dvorak was seated in their midst, now bent double and furiously scribbling crochets and quavers into a notebook, now gazing rapturously at a maiden before him, her black hair parted down the middle; as straight as the furrow between the lines of a stave of music. The sweet aroma of three sisters being made into succotash filled his nostrils.
Some focus returned to Arthur’s pupils; the wigwams turned back into the sharpened pencil tips over which he had slumped. He sat up and took a sip of vending machine brew. It smelt of Pipsqueak.
“Asleep on the job again, Arthur?”
Arthur plain and meek. Not mission-critical.
Mists gathered about the wigwams. At the maiden’s invitation, Doctor Dvorak retired to a bear skin she had laid for him upon the wigwam floor. She scrutinised the stillness of the dusk as she stood unbraiding her hair in the entrance to the wigwam. The mournful calling of the loons floated up to her ears from across the lake on which by day she canoed. Sadness veiled her eyes as she unfastened the blanket and drew it across the opening. Minnehaha is dying, Hiawatha comes too late.
A timber wolf ran alone, cast out from the pack, Arthur knew not why. His eyes were grey; the enamel of his fangs was cracked from many kills. Kill. It’s the only way.
Minnie black, Minnie belle, speaking French. Ran away with Arthur to the china clay mines of Cornwall, wore her turquoise head-dress for him, four finger-swipes of white kaolin daubed across her sable cheeks, bewitched Arthur, circling about him. Slipped out of his grasp, came near, touched him there. They lived in a granite cottage in Indian Queens, Arthur drew flowcharts and coded in Cobol for the China Clay Company.
Minnie foreign. Minnie married. Minnie naturalised. Minnie moaning. Time to split, thank you and goodbye. The deal is done. I touched you there. I must go.
Pipsqueak now leaning over Arthur’s shoulder, his ear within biting distance. The fires in Arthur’s chest burning anew. Hahgwehdaetgah’s breath is upon me. Why had they spelt his name wrong? Why had Minnie betrayed him? Pink-faced, pop-eyed, Adam’s apple ripe to bite, why had the blurter begged for his life at the end of Southend Pier? Who am I?
“Hey Arthur, you’ve not opened your notice.”
And that pink man’s smell, cloying, annoying.
The timber wolf had once been fierce and infallible. He had ravaged the small creatures of the forest and taken down an elk unaided. He had fought a bear and pierced its snout; he had leapt in the air and captured an eagle. But as his prowess waned he wandered deeper into the forest and there he learned the ways of the wendigos and saw how they used knives to cut up their kills. The wendigos taught him how to savour human flesh, as sweet as any hog.And twice the fun to hunt. The spirits were coming for him, he could feel them dancing inside his chest, brandishing a pouch of white cloth before his eyes. Upon it was picked out in coloured beads his name. He knew what was in it; he’d been expecting it for many moons. And they had spelt his name wrong. One more meal. One last kill.
Mud flats black. The Devil’s Reach. Silence in the silver sun. Mounds of clouds up over Maldon way, water seeping through the reed beds, droplets lining up on fronds of eel grass, notes of music, remote and cold. Do not swim the creeks. They found the blurter floating there, grey and bloated, snagged against a clump of sedge, upon which stood an evil-staring heron, pecking him eyeless. Quite how the body had reached there no-one knew. Channels and tides, things that live in dark slime and make sucking noises in the mud. No flesh at all remained on the neck. It had been eaten clean to the vertebrae, giving the impression that the head did not belong to the body. The dog was never found.
So the policemen returned to Arthur’s office and, finding him fiddling with his knife, took him in for further questioning. Fools. The wendigo bites to kill, it never cuts. It was concluded that the blurter had committed suicide. His wife cried copiously yet her hidden heart sang to see the back of him. Such are the ways of your people.
A pool of turquoise, deep and Cornish. Sheer sides, wire mesh fence around. Rust and sag, climbing ivy binding its links. Pure white bells for her lifeless form, pinch their green base and out they pop, thank you ivy. Her once warm body sinks, wrapped in a sheet, chains about, granite blocks at foot and neck, she will never come up. Bubbles and ivy bells. White or black, women must not wear a red man’s feathers. Take her scalp. Feast on her heart. For I, wendigo, was once a brave.
Arthur the wimp. Mind like pumice, soft and porous. I make this my home.
And Dvorak’s finale plays, a fitting dirge to which to die.
Eat the smell. Drink the dread like wine.
Arthur’s teeth are bared, yellow fangs cracked yet sharp. His lungs are burning, they have no air. Something is clawing its way out.
One last kill and this one’s done.
Now Pipsqueak pinned. Head snapped sideways, hard flat against the desk.
“Fuck off, Arthur!”
Arthur? Who is he? The white wimp is no more. My wendigo hungers.
Hold down this head, open this draw, here are knives. Which one to use? Yes, this one in its pouch, traded for furs in the age of the braves. It belongs to the Lakota; by rights it should not be here. Smell the blade. Make it stand erect, see it glint, place the point on the white boss’s temple, see how it throbs with fright. Lick the flesh first, the salty taste of the scared. Make a slamming fist, hard and cruel.
Ha! Hear my cry. Mightier than a thousand tomahawks!
One. See this. Soft and precise. It enters like a needle into a walnut. Oh, listen to this. The gorgeous shrieking! It fills the air. Savour the moment. Crack! it went, the cranium, like a hard boiled-egg beneath the spoon, now it oozes brain and blood. Suck it up.
Two. Smoothly through the thought jelly, so soft and wobbly, until the blade meets the other head wall, no need to twist. The beautiful fear, it is everywhere.
I am here, a wendigo was my steed. Carried me in a chieftain’s head-dress that a black squaw stole.
Three. A hammer blow to shatter the skull on the other side.
Four. The final blow, mightiest of them all, drive the blade into the good wood of the white man’s table. Skull skewered, legs in spasms, arms ajerk. And oh, the look in the eyes… Eat now wendigo, taste the good flesh you crave! Yet ever hungry you shall be!
For I am Hahgwehdaetgah!
The Earth Mother died as I burst free from her womb. My twin brother Hahgwehdiyu banished me. What he makes I destroy. But now a fresh warm brain I need. A mind in which to lie in wait. Feed on thoughts, like picking kernels from an ear of maize. Until there remains a husk, like this wendigo’s home, Arthur as you called him. See the wendigo sup upon the pink meat and the gushing blood.
Hello, what is this? I smell more fear in this room. Where is it? Let me leap up on this table, swipe away the picture machines with my claws, sniff this delightful aroma of terror. Aha, there it is! A white squaw, juicy and so afraid, cowering in a corner, whimpering, eyelids wide. Come closer, pretty brain, hear my thoughts. That’s it, tremble. Stay still, little maiden, like the rabbit before the snake, there is no escape. Hold my gaze gazelle, I am in your imagination, I am swimming in your terror.
What are you doing, wendigo? I give you meat and you seek to knife me? Hahaha! I have a million eyes in the dark. I am within you wendigo, I am your evil heart and your sordid mind. That’s the way, wendigo, howl in pain. Spread the fear. Now do not distract me from the torment of Hahgwehdiyu’s little angel. Oh dear, oh dear, she pants her final breath! I only existed in her mind but she has died of fright. Her soul I donate to my spirit henchman but first let me etch a ghoul-fright look in her eyes, a terror message to her kindred and to my brother. You banished me but I am here, risen in a land of ghost pale faces.
Now this room is empty, let me enjoy the chill of death that has settled upon it like a spider on its prey. Three bodies, cold and crooked, hearts smashed. I feel good. Yet for succour I need brain cells and this squaw is cold. I must sniff for others.
They are cowards all. Yet wait. Yes! Amid the silence I smell a presence. A mind is here, I can sense its thoughts.
Oh yes, I see it now. It is reading, mispronouncing my name: Hahgwehdaetgah. My talons I anchor inside its brain, my tentacles about its ventricles I entwine, I secrete the bile that dissolves the neuroglia on which I feed. It is trapped. The victim’s name is known.
It is YOU, reader! Too late, I am already entrenched in your imagination. Hahgwehdaetgah. Do not spell it wrong or you shall rot sooner, for you cannot escape, the story of Arthur has snared you, Mountfort with a T and not a D, indeed! I am already eating your brain, there is no hope. I am the wasp that stings the tarantula’s body fat and wet. A warm host for my spawn to devour from the inside out.
Go on now, tell yourself this is only a story that you are reading. Put it down and all will be forgotten? How wrong you are, reader, your fate is sealed. I am a worm in your imagination, you will not forget me.
Do you imagine you know the author of this story? But it is I, Hahgwehdaetgah, who grips this writer’s wrist and guides his pen. I own the wendigo and direct his jaws, the narrator bends to my will, and all the warm creatures that lie within are destined to die at my bidding.
All your sorrows I will direct, your pain is my delight. Remember that treacherous Longfellow, writing lies? Did I not in agony burn his wife to death? Then I slowly consumed his brain, until from his poet’s pen dripped the words “I am inwardly bleeding to death”. How he moaned. So shall it be with you. Hahgwehdaetgah. Stoop and beg, reader, feel the crushing wrath of the Indian Nation.