By Valerie Assinewe
What woke her up?
She lay there listening. There was nothing but the soft sounds of the country night. The gentle swaying of the branches of the oak tree, a stalwart presence close to the house, the rustling of the mice in the attic and, in the distance, the hoot of an owl. So different from the city, where there was always noise, even in her quiet suburban neighbourhood—the constant hum of vehicles on the streets, the distant keening of sirens, and occasionally the chattering, shattering sound of raccoons breaking into a neighbour’s garbage can.
She raised her head from the pillow and listened for the sandhill cranes that were nesting in the field down the hill near the lake. There was no soft crooning of protective parents from that quarter tonight. If there were something outside, then Jacky, the family’s vigilant and territorial collie, would be barking. He was getting old, and increasingly struggling to get up and down the steps into the house, but he was still the unquestioned guardian of family and home.
Satisfied that all was well, she turned over, fluffed up the pillow and snuggled deeper into the comforter to sleep.
Then she saw what had awakened her. It was a light, a dim, reddish glow, pulsing under the door.
She lay there looking at the light. She was sure there was no night light in the hallway, and had there been one it would be a small glowing angel, or a happy face, something kid-shaped and friendly. Not this dull, throbbing red. Not the bathroom light, either. No one ever left that on.
The bed was firm and the duvet, made from feathers, was soft and warm. Dawn was still hours away. No need to get up and check. The house was fine. Everything would be safe. The kids were all asleep. The kids…
Reluctantly, she slid from under the covers, stood for a moment shivering in the cool darkness, and stepped carefully, silently through the bedroom to the door and into the hall.
All was quiet. Not like it had been earlier that day. Family get-togethers were always a joyful riot of noise, laughter, and conversation. And with kids just back from university and a couple of new boyfriends on the scene, tonight’s dinner had been even more raucous than usual; the huge family dinner, aunties chatting in the kitchen, nieces and nephews all talking at once, brothers and sisters catching up on all the family news and gossip since the last visit. Afterwards, the best part of the visit: the kids safely tucked in bed and the adults relaxing in the old family living room, telling their favourite stories from their childhood. Happy tales and sad ones too, lovingly recalled and retold every time the family gathered. The best stories got even better with every telling; as the eldest, she was frequently called on to referee the facts.
The faint red glow suffused the hall. She listened, half hoping that one of her brothers or sisters would emerge from their rooms to check on the sounds of her movement. They’d tease her and show her the glowing red number on the face of their digital clock, and send her back to bed smiling, and next year, the family would have a new story.
But there was no sound. If any of her siblings had heard her moving, they had most likely checked to make sure their kids were still in their cots and gone back to sleep. There was no light from beneath any of the doors, no sound from any of these rooms. She was the only one up. The only one watching the light, pulsing from the stairwell.
She walked down the stairs from the second floor over the garage, descending slowly into the oldest part of the house, pausing to listen at every step. Maybe one of her brothers was kidding around with her. They all knew her fears. She loved many scary movies—Aliens, Terminator, and even Tremors—and could watch them again and again. But those supernatural thrillers that her brothers and sisters seemed to like so much—that was a different story.
She remembered a time, before any nieces and nephews, when she and her Uncle Niksaan were having tea at the kitchen table, trying not to pay attention as her brothers and sisters chortled and guffawed over Pet Sematary.
Hands grabbed her shoulders from behind. She screamed. Whoops of delight came from the living room. It was her brother, Peter; a year younger than she was, but still the oldest of her seven brothers, and thus endowed—he thought—with a special right to tease his eldest sister. He was not like the others, who considered her much too serious. Peter was leading the laughter, but when he realized she was shaking, nearly crying, he became instantly contrite. He hugged her, shushing the others, and turned off the horrible video.
That had been many years ago, but she still could not watch films like Dawn of the Dead, The Shining, The Haunting—any of those creepy ones where something evil prowls through your home in the night, in the dark, out to get you…and your family.
And why, she thought, am I thinking about that NOW? Idiot. Shaking her head to banish the images from her mind, she stepped slowly, quietly, into the large, empty kitchen.
She knew the room in darkness—God knows she had tiptoed through it often enough in the middle of the night as a teenager, hoping her parents were sound asleep. But this was not her kitchen, not her space. It was a strange room, bathed in a soft red glow and beating like a heart, dreamlike.
The throbbing red light was coming from outside.
She moved carefully across the room. “God gave us shins so we can find furniture in the dark,” her mom used to say. She reached the picture window, shins unscathed, and peered out into the night.
Directly in front of the kitchen window was a circular driveway that led through the woods to the main reserve road a short distance away. Her night vision was not as sharp as it used to be; once, she could have picked individual trees out of the shapeless dark mass. But no light was there, red or otherwise. Just the forest and the faint, pale shape of the road.
With her heart beating a little faster, she leaned forward and looked up into the sky. Was it just last week that those people in British Columbia and Alberta saw a huge, burning sphere streaking through the night sky? Then there were all those tales from the old people of the community about a shaman who could shape shift and travel through the sky as a ball of fire.
But no. Tonight, there was nothing up there to fear. Nothing but the calming stars, the enduring presence of the Milky Way.
Taking a deep breath, she looked to the right, toward the barn, filled with hay and cats, and the road leading down into the valley and their old homestead. She hugged herself with relief; thank God, there was no light from that quarter either. The valley of her childhood remained a safe place, nothing down there but the field of the quietly ruminating Herefords; the cranes at peace with the foxes and wolves for the night, the silent hunt of the owl, a place full of memories. Her first and happiest home.
She turned slowly to the left. Yes. The pulsing light was there, high off the ground but below the treetops, silhouetting the sugar bush with an eerie red glow and casting tree shadows like grasping hands reaching across the field toward the house. Toward the kitchen. Toward her.
And then everything went black.
She froze and backed quickly away from the window. Without the red pulse, she could see nothing at all. And that’s when it happens, of course, always. That’s when they come smashing through the window. Or crawling out of the basement. Or dropping from the ceiling. Or…
Stop. Breathe deeply through the nose then exhale slowly through the mouth. Again.
She calmed her breathing in the darkness, and focused on the silence, straining to hear. The house was still quiet. No sound from the yard and patio, the family’s gathering place for summer barbecues, the bonfire and music bathing them in golden light and sound into the night. Silence from the still, dark oak trees lining the driveway. Then a mutter, and she started—but it was Jacky, asleep on the straw outside the door, on guard even in his sleep. Nothing.
The snap of a twig.
She took a step back, away from the window. Why was she down here? What was she doing? Where were her brothers and sisters? Why wasn’t anyone else here standing with her?
Through the window, something moved at the edge of the forest, a blacker shape against the black backdrop of the trees. A shadow in motion, and then it was gone.
A scuffle of gravel in the driveway leading to the house.
Then she remembered Niksaan’s stories of wendigoes.
He used to talk about these creatures, usually late at night, but never when the kids were around. They were humans gone feral, living in the forest, coming out to hunt people and eating them alive. They were the dark and terrifying negation of family, of community, of humanity. She had always been afraid of the wendigo to the core of her being. She had smudged every house and apartment she had ever lived in with tobacco and sage. Most of her friends thought it was just a custom; only her husband knew how important the ritual to wendigo-proof their home was to her.
Her husband. She wished he were here beside her right now. Why did she come for this family gathering without him? Why…
She heard a fumbling at the door.
She backed up to the wall. Always keep your back to the wall: a defensive, defensible stance. Where did she remember that from? As her hand groped the wall, she felt a cast-iron frying pan hanging behind her and pulled it from its hook. Her hand gripped the handle so tightly she felt shooting pains through her arthritic thumbs.
For a moment, a lighter patch of darkness appeared where the door should have been, and she felt a breath of cold air. Then a faint creak, and the lighter darkness disappeared. The door had closed. Something was in the room. In the room with her. Mother of God, no. And, why was she praying? She didn’t pray. She turned away from all that years ago. Oh God! She was not able to run. Fight? What did she think she was going to do with this stupid frying pan? Oh God, please, the kids, those kids upstairs….
The kitchen lamp clicked on. Her father was standing there, a screwdriver and a pair of pliers in his hand. Dad.
He smiled. “Aanii,” he said, then glanced at the frying pan she was clutching to her chest. He cocked his head. “What are you doing there? How come you’re up?”
She tried to smile back. It wasn’t easy what with the tense body and the inability to breathe. “I saw the light,” she was able to gasp out.
“Ahhh”, he said. “It was the automatic warning light on the grader. I forgot to turn them off when I got home. They’re off now.”
He pointed to the frying pan. “And you got up to make pancakes for me in the middle of the night?”
She laughed. Then coughed. Then they both laughed.
He crossed the room and hugged her. “Still on guard after all these years,” he said, and hugged her again.
“We’re all safe. Go to bed.”