a western folktale

Updated: Jul 19, 2021

TW: domestic abuse, gore


Our town was built on miners’ blood. Folks found their way to our hills en route to California, a halfway stop on the road to the gold rush. caught in the veins of copper and ore that pulsed through the high Rockies, we churned and heaved with the blood and guts of the mountains. My mother used to say you gotta be made of strong stuff to stick it out in these woods. While the men sank like hot coals into the snowy mines, the women worked to keep us afloat above the glacial drifts. Come June most of the snow had melted, but the white peaks of the distant hills pierced the sky like teeth.


The first real summer day that year was Sara’s wedding day. Sara was a year older than me, and therefore, endlessly wiser. We spent our childhood rambling like wild things around these hills, tumbling through fields of sagebrush and dandelion, knocking our dusty knees together on the front porch. She told me the stories my mother didn’t want me to hear, about girls raised by wolves and men turned to monsters in the depths of the mine. I remember her fearless confrontation, many summers ago, with a rattlesnake aiming for my calf. I was distracted by a murmur of birds overhead when a shriek echoed across the valley, and I turned to see her, all hair and guts and fight, piercing the snake in two with a skillful jab of a shovel. Blood spattered her white frock and she looked up to me, startled, but already with a subtle smile of pride starting to spread across her face. It would’ve killed you, she warned me. I didn’t have a choice.


I can’t help but think of that moment now, recalling her wedding. I can see John, another relic of my childhood, on the steps of the church, foolishly dressed up in a suit that no doubt was his father’s. Sara, in her mother’s wedding dress, re-tailored for the occasion. No need to waste a perfectly good thing. Children playing grown-up. It wasn’t a romance, this marriage - they were the right age, from similar families, and attractive enough - and what else is there for a girl from the hills to do but marry a boy who carves them open from the inside out? But before you know it, they become a gutted woman and a man with an ax.


After the ceremony, we drank gin distilled from Rocky Mountain juniper and listened to the Carter boy play his fiddle. While the elder women ate fresh berries and roots, careful of the life crushed between their teeth, us young folks tore through jerky like famished vultures, our eyes glistening with indulgence. Maybe the hunger gets pressed out of you as you grow older, like wrinkled sheets flattened by an iron. I remember Sara had been starving herself for weeks - waiting for the youthful fat of her girlish body to slip off, to shrink until she fit into the dress tailored for her. I watched her, slender and gleaming, apparently ignorant of the steaming feast below her nose. She looked beautiful, all shine and pearls, but she didn’t look like Sara. She seemed transformed into some wife-like creature. I wondered if John knew his bride had a history of putting snakes in their place. Neither of them had looked at each other all day.

We barely saw Sara after that day save in church each week, though she had never been much for God before. She vanished into marriage like a magician’s assistant, and I imagined her sinking into a trapdoor, the floor falling out beneath her. In the back pew, her skin hung off her bones, a woman deflated. It had a soft grey quality to it, and it felt as though I could see her ribs through her dress. His knuckles were white on her wrists, and I remember wanting to bounce quarters off of them until they bled. I thought of the three of us, with the rest of our young brood, drinking and playing quarters in the blue nights of August. How entertaining the boys found us, drunk with smoke-filled eyes - each shot we missed a chance for them to pepper us with metal until our hands bled. I remember the older girl who, seeing my eyes tear up at my bloody knuckles, whispering to me if you cry it’s not fun anymore.


The hauntings started the way all hauntings do in towns like these. The livestock started to die. Well, to put it more accurately, they were being massacred. I remember on a misty walk one morning, I could smell the air go sour. The bad taste hung in the fog like a bitter ghost, and I rounded the corner to the barn to see the neighbor’s old milk cow, Stella, mauled and torn open, the hay hot and crimson with blood. The steam smelled like bile, like Stella had been rotting for months, even though I had seen her grazing the day before. She was hardly even shaped like a cow anymore, just a pile of blood and bones, and you could see where her flesh had been torn apart by teeth. It couldn’t’ve been a wolf - we’d hunted them out of these woods a decade ago - plus, that was an omnivore’s bite. Soon, mules and horses started to follow suit. Fear settled on the valley like an October snow, and the men took to patrolling the town at night. I remember my father standing with steel eyes in the door of our barn, a rifle pressed against the spot on his shoulder where my head used to go.


It wasn’t long before the hunger grew, and barnhouse blood wasn’t enough to satisfy this thing with teeth. It was a month later, when I went out at dusk to check the rabbit traps, that I saw for myself what had grown to haunt our town.


John was lying on the snow convulsing, the life in him draining fast. He looked more meat than man. It was as if the ground itself was bleeding, and the foul stink clotted and congealed in the air. I stood paralyzed, watching in horror as the stuff he was made of spilled onto the forest floor, steaming and sinking into the snow. Around me, I heard a crackling, and that foul scent, like sulfur and bile, thickened and curdled around me.


I looked up and saw her, anchored by a thousand shadows in the trees. Though she had grown, and stood damn near 15 feet, she looked more starved than ever ,and her bones strained agitatedly against her grey skin. Her eyes were sunken coals in her cracked and weary face, and her chin dripped with her husband’s blood. She was starved to nothingness, and yet, the hunger had sharpened her teeth and steeled her gaze. She had been consumed by wanting, crushed into herself, until the darkness pushed its way into her bones. Her lips were cracked and bloody, her mouth a raw wound she kept licking. She held me in her hollow gaze, and it wasn’t difficult to see my girlhood friend - the girl who killed a snake for me, teller of ghost stories - in the eyes of the beast. For the briefest of moments, we were two girls, in the woods with a boy, in over our heads. Then, John let out a last desperate gasp clogged with blood, and with a vicious snarl, she turned her back to me and vanished into the woods.

There are many names for the flesheater of the forests. The Ojibwe, keepers of these woods and their stories, will whisper to you of the wendigo. The face of famine. The horrid twisting of human wanting, left unmet and unheard. Starved into silence and submission, the body stretches and contorts in hunger, its desire a poison that turns the flesh sour. Flickering faces around the campfire murmur of the monster who lives in the woods, and Sara has become more myth than woman. She and John disappeared into legend, nothing more than whispered rumors.


It’s all the work of a season in the mountains. One day, the snowdrops start emerging cautiously from the frozen soil, and, in its slow surprise, spring manages to find its way to us again. My mother has begun to talk to me about marriage. She shakes out her old dress from the cupboard, and, wrapping a measuring tape around my waist, warns me to start eating less meat. She suggests I might start sucking on stones instead, if I hope to shrink in time.


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TW: ED dear girl, have you eaten enough today? don’t you know there are starved nations in you, rivers run dry, war zones, forests, burnt and broken? what crumbles will you accept and call yourself fu