It happened many years back, in a Canadian village bearing the mysterious name of Anjikuni... I have quite forgotten... look at the calendar: today is January 19, 1930...
“So they are again trying to test my power?!” shouted an old man with a gray beard. Kneeling down, a young European-looking man, long-haired and with a newly-grown beard, tossed an armful of recently gathered brushwood closer to the fire.
“When I was collecting brushwood, I listened to what people were saying. I can’t say I understood everything exactly... But it seemed to me the people in the village are against you. They say that White Shaman is more powerful. He says he has more rights to be a shaman. And the village cannot afford to keep two shamans. The elders say one of you will have to leave...”
As if confirming his words, the wind threw aside the curtain shielding the entrance to the hut, bringing to those inside the nearby singing and monotone sounds of drums.
“Pfff, these people are so stupid! They would blame anyone for their misfortunes. Were it somebody else in my place, they would throw stones at him, too. That damned Andjunda the White Shaman, he is the one who is to blame. He tries to harm me in everything I do! He kills those whom I cure, brings to an icy desert those to whom I send hunting luck, drills holes in the kayaks I bless... That is why people have begun to think that I’ve become too weak and feeble. They think, “How can you be a shaman if you are unable to cure a sore tooth?” If only I could, I would throw his body to the wolves. Sometimes I see it so clearly. He is bound to an old pole. His eye-sockets are empty, pecked out by the hungry vultures.”
“Perhaps we could move deeper into the white man’s territory, just you and me?” Joe Labelle, his disciple, crouching in front of him, suggested. “Surely nobody will be able to find us there. And even better, let’s go to my native land, a town called Toronto. There you will live among the people of my tribe.”
“Do you suggest running away?” the old man answered without hesitation. “No, that’s not for me. And what will happen to the village? Try to understand, I may be old, but I am not so angry, even with those who drive me away, giving neither brushwood, nor meat. This shaman tries to capture power over the village because he wants to devour all the people living in it. In this way he will extend his life, strength and power by a thousand years. He will be drinking their souls slowly, every day, every hour. Do you think that he got his knowledge from our gods? Nooo... Do you know how he wheedled the secrets of magic from me? He was constantly following me around, trailing behind me day and night. Once I gave up. I don’t know what affected me then, probably my old age. You were not here then, Joe, and, you see, every shaman, be he bad or good, cannot die until he passes his experience onto a man of his choice. So I chose Andjunda as my successor, but now this coyote has turned against me.”
Joe nodded. The son of a lawyer from Toronto, he had just started his practice and took up a couple of cases in far-off taiga towns when unexpectedly the wild beauty of the North captured him, overflowing his soul, and he began to spend more and more time hunting with his gun. He abandoned his budding practice and went to the woods, prospecting for gold for some time, then becoming a hunter and finally, meeting the old shaman in the lakeside Eskimo village of Anjikuni, became his chronicler, annalist, almost his disciple. Almost, but not quite. He had never managed to get further than “almost.”
“They are wrong,” said Labelle. “Today I reminded Uak how you had saved the life of his daughter. I know what you really are. But Uak only laughed and said that his daughter had simply been too long with her period...”
“Hmmm, now none of them want to remember the good things I did... Oh stupid people. I have helped everyone, but now... Now they would listen only to White Shaman. And I have become their worst enemy. Can you hear their wild cries? I know for sure that now all of them wish to see me dead.” The blizzard howled outside. The next moment a gust of wind stirred the leather curtain, bringing in glittering cold snowflakes.
“You must leave at once,” Black Shaman’s voice brooked no argument. “Andjunda will soon be here. I do not want to see your death.”
“No ‘buts’. The dog sledge is ready outside. Take this charm, it will help you in your hour of need.”
The old man stretched his hand palm forward. A thin leather belt hanging from his index finger held a strange contraption: interlacing thin leather straps, twigs and stones. “This will be your guarding charm. Take it and leave. And do not try to return to the village too soon. North Ghost, a creature of White Shaman, will be here presently. Leave now and do not say a word to me, hurry and do not turn back, whatever you may hear behind... or...”
The old man hesitated for a second. “Or what?” asked Joe nervously.
“Or you will die. You will be killed by my magic. I’ll try to stand up against Andjunda. I’ll summon the demons of the tundra. Only they can fight against White Shaman!”
Joe Labelle silently stretched his hand to take the talisman. Looking up, the old man was muttering something hardly audible under his breath. It was not difficult to guess that at that moment he was casting some protective spell. Then he carefully put the ancient artifact on the hunter’s palm and with all his might gave three loud coughs. The next moment something flew out of his mouth, looking like a tiny white angel with purple wings. It made two mad pirouettes in the air directly in front of the amazed Joe, and disappeared without leaving a trace.
“What was it, my shaman?!” Labelle asked quietly.
“Be not afraid, I’ve only summoned your guarding spirit. It will help you during your difficult trip across the snow-bound tundra... And remember: sometimes it is better to fall than to remain standing.”
The last phrase was not clear to Labelle, and he cast an inquiring look at the old man. But the shaman was paying no attention to him, sorting out some pots, stones, bunches of strange-looking charms. After three years spent living with the Eskimos Labelle realized that he was at the very first stage of understanding their world, myths and psychology. He could probably become quite a good shaman himself, but only when he reached the age of Black Shaman.
Labelle cautiously went outside. In pitch darkness the snowstorm dominating the frozen tundra was sweeping away with its wild broom everything that happened to cross its path. Joe briskly pulled up the high collar of his dog fur coat setting out to the place where the sledge stood. But for his keen hunter’s intuition, he would probably have lost the way. But the experienced hunter smelled the stale scent of the half-wild huskies which were nervously pawing the snow eager to leave the strange place behind as soon as they could. The hunter approached the dogs and patted the leader. The huge coal-black cur named Black snapped in answer digging the loose snow with all its paws. A mild ground wind was rising to accompany the blizzard.
“High time to get away from here. And fast,” thought Labelle and getting onto the long sledge gave a loud shout: “Yo-ho-ho-yo!” The dogs, hearing the welcoming signal to start, immediately broke into a run. Joe almost fell off the sledge. Luckily he managed to grasp the wooden rim of the sledge and immediately saw a blinking gleam in front of him, or rather a reflection of the gleam. The cause of the strange light was something happening behind him, where the hut of Black Shaman stood. He both knew and felt that he was by no means to look back. Should he fail in his resolution and he would immediately — the consequences of such imprudence were hard to overestimate — he could be turned into a salt pillar, go up in flames, be struck by lightning... Sometimes the shaman was capable to concentrate enormous forces in his hands. Labelle used to think that one day he would write a book about all that. Joe shouted several more times at the dogs and settled for a long, wearisome journey across the snow-bound Valley of Death. About an hour later he glanced at the compass and saw there was something wrong with its needle. It was madly spinning around the axis, stopping not for a second. Suddenly...
The hunter looked back, having heard someone’s heavy breathing. Nothing. No, he must have imagined it because of the fatigue gnawing away at all his extremities. There was nobody behind him. Feeling somewhat relieved, he again looked at the dogs. And noticed with horror that instead of five huskies now there ran only four. The leader Black had disappeared. What could have happened? Had it broken loose? Fallen into an ice-hole? Labelle, feeling something was dreadfully wrong, stretched to get his backpack, in which there was a charged long-barreled Colt. Groping, he pushed his hand into the opening and immediately felt the cold metal of the deadly weapon.
“Whoever you may be,” thought the hunter, “you will first have to make acquaintance with the lead pellets which my friend here will be happy to spit at you.”
He firmly grasped the handle in his hand. But here... The next second the team, as if picked up by an invisible wave, flew up high into the air and...
Joe felt that if he did not let go of the reins, he would be dragged down into an abyss suddenly gaping open before his team. He unclenched his hands, was thrown out, hit his head on something hard and lost consciousness for a spell of time.
“Sometimes it is better to fall than to remain standing.” Labelle woke from a strength-draining pain in his chest. He slowly opened his eyes. Who could have said it? There was nobody near him. The storm had not yet completely abated, though it had become slightly less severe. Fighting a sharp pain, he pushed himself up by the elbows and tried to look around. The overturned sledge was lying at some distance, and under it...
The hunter had seen plenty in his life, but never anything like this. It made him sick. Clearing his throat, Joe coughed and, grasping a handful of crisp snow, immediately swallowed it. What had once seemed an abyss to him actually was a simple shallow gully. An ordinary narrow hole which his team could easily fly over. But suddenly something moved in it... Four huskies were lying under the sledge in the snow liberally colored with blood.
“Oh, hell... “ whispered Joe. It looked like all hell had broke loose there. As if a huge meat grinder had suddenly opened in the ground and started to grind alive the unfortunate animals. Labelle rose and cautiously, so as not to fall into the snow, approached the terrible place. The dogs were lying in a heap, as though drawn into a whirlpool. The first thing Joe noticed was that all of them had neither heads, nor paws.
“It cannot be, no, it cannot be,” he whispered, crouching near the corpse nearest to him. The hunter touched the reddish mess. It was still warm. There was no doubt that he had been unconscious not so long as he had thought before.
“My Colt should be somewhere here,” Labelle thought.
Bending down, he looked under the sledge. Less than two feet away he saw the handle of the weapon half-buried in the snow.
“I’ll get you before they get me,” hissed the hunter and stretched to get the gun. Inch by inch, slowly, like a tired snail creeping up a steep slope, he pushed forward his hand under the awful heap of corpses and pieces of the broken sledge. In just a moment he would... He had already touched the cold handle of the weapon, when suddenly...
Somewhere behind his back he heard a ferocious lingering roar. Joe had never heard such a sound. It was neither the roar of a wolf, nor that of a bear. It was something altogether different. But what?
“Shall I turn?!” thought the hunter.
“No, I am not ready to take the risk yet. Perhaps I could reach for the weapon? And what if I have no time...”
The roar was repeated again and again. For a split second Labelle seemed to have stopped breathing. It seemed his lungs would never have enough air.
“No, I won’t manage to get the weapon now. What if...?”
He recollected the parting words of the shaman when he bade him farewell: “Be not afraid, I’ve summoned your guarding angel. It will help you during your difficult trip across the snow-bound tundra... help... help... help... “ And then: “sometimes it is better to fall than to remain standing.”
Carefully, so as not to attract the attention of the SOMETHING standing behind him, Joe pushed a shivering hand into an inner pocket of the fur coat. A second later he felt the wooden charm warming his frozen palm.
“Here he is, my guarding spirit sent by the gods. Now you are all the hope I have,” thought the hunter, dragging the magic artifact from under the heavy fur coat. The next instant Labelle felt the heavy breath of a stranger behind his back — a stranger who seemed to be getting ready to attack him.
“So be it!” shouted the hunter and, jumping up, he turned around.
Before him was the team leader sitting on a coiled tail — the huge old Black whom he had lost some time back. The dog gave the man a good- natured and somewhat guilty look. Its greenish eyes hid a hardly perceptible sorrow or comprehension of its personal guilt. Only what it was guilty of remained a secret.
“Hey, come here, quick,” Joe called the dog. “Come up, don’t be afraid. When did you manage to get lost?” When the dog ran up to him, the hunter closely examined it. There was a broken leather strap hanging loosely from the dog’s neck. There was no sense in remaining at the broken sledge, and Labelle, calling the dog, began to walk forward, having first collected some of the things he could find necessary for the track.
He could never tell how long they walked, but as soon as it began to grow dark, the man decided to stop for the night. He took out a large skin from the backpack, stretched it between two wooden poles like a canopy and began to make a fire. In this he was aided by an old gnarled tree which somehow found itself at the place of his camp.
“Well, old chap,” said the hunter, looking at the dog lying in the snow, “What about supper? You must be hungry, the same as I am. I know, I know, everybody wants to eat...”
Soon he had a rather impressive fire burning brightly quite close to them. Its sparks picked up by gusts of wind flew high up into the air and, twirling in a mad dance, soon disappeared from view.
“If I were you, I would not be too sorry for your dead friends,” said the man to the dog. “That’s life, old chap. We are not to know what awaits us around the next corner, under the mountain slope or in the river. Your kin were not killed by man. Isn’t it good? They were murdered by some mad beast woken up from its dream by a no less mad White Shaman. Perhaps even now it is still prowling somewhere near. So be on your guard.”
Here Joe stroked the barrel of his Colt.
“Of course, I shouldn’t judge people, but... Black Shaman, as far as I know, is a good man. Only he cherished a real snake in his bosom, and once it got sufficient power over the forces of darkness, it tried to turn them to its advantage. You are a leader, you know that there can never be two leaders in a team.”
The hunter made a short pause and with a heavy sigh looked up. “Don’t think that people have left the animals too far behind them. They live by the same principles. The only thing that differs them from you is cunning. You are unable to betray each other, you cannot tell a lie, you do not... Oh, what’s the use of words? You are many times better than people. And what for did the gods create man? For me it will remain a riddle.”
The dog raised its head and gave a lingering whine. It seemed to the man that the animal, lying before him, understood everything. The following instant the dog pricked its ears, as if listening to something not heard by Labelle. Twitching its nose the husky jumped on its feet sniffing downwind.
“Damnation,” whispered Joe, “d’you smell something?”
The dog was behaving rather strangely. The man, feeling the approach of an invisible hazard, stretched his free hand to the fire and pulled out a burning branch. And then... A warning growl was heard somewhere behind them. The dog, as if struck dumb, made a step back, but in a moment roared with rage. Joe raised the branch higher pointing it towards the source of the strange sound. He stared into the darkness, allowing his eyes to get accustomed to it. These were... wolves. A whole pack of wolves!
In the morning the hunter, accompanied by the husky, set forward, trying to get onto the road leading to large settlements. But to his surprise the path brought him to Anjikuni. Something seemed to have made him return again to the place he had left only the day before. Making his way through the snowbound woods on the bright cold morning to the village spread along the banks of lake Anjikuni, the hunter Labelle suddenly felt a weird horror. He took out the compass and looked at it. The needle kept spinning so that it was rather difficult to understand where the North was, and where the South had gone to. Usually the rather large village housing more than two thousand inhabitants would be boiling with life, but this time...
Not a sound came from it. Even the dogs, well familiar with the hunter Joe, for some reason did not meet him with a cheerful and loud barking. It seemed that for some inexplicable reason the area had sunk into oblivion. The spaces between the houses, wide enough to allow two sledges to pass side by side, were covered with a thick layer of snow. No smoke rose from the pise chimneys. Several hunting sledges lay overturned on the tops of high snowdrifts, as if left to the mercy of fate by their owners.
“What could have happened here?” wondered the man, walking to the lake. Coming closer to it, Labelle noticed boats securely tied to poles and wind-torn fishing nets flapping around them.
“Could Anjikuni have become the battlefield of the two powerful shamans?” the thought flashed in Joe’s mind.
The unpleasantly weird silence reigning in the settlement seemed rather strange to the hunter. Quickly passing from one house to another, with the gun ready to fire, he saw no one, only some household items scattered at random. Everywhere he was met by strange and cold silence.
Inside each house he looked into Labelle came across abandoned knives and guns. It was a bad omen: weapons were the most cherished possession of a Canadian Eskimo. None of them would ever leave their home without a rifle or a knife. Pots with congealed food hung above long-gone-out fires.
Damn! Could Black shaman have been right, after all? Near one of the houses Labelle saw half-darned clothes, with a couple of sewing needles and a ball of thread left beside. However, in the whole settlement the experienced hunter detected neither a living being, nor a dead body.
Neither were there any traces of violence, struggle or some hints to show what might have taken place in the village. It seemed as if in the middle of a very ordinary day, approximately at midday, judging by the half- cooked meal, something had occurred to make the people drop all their occupations in a hurry. The life in the strange place appeared to have stopped at once. But where could the Anjikuni inhabitants have got to? And again... there were no traces; no hints to show where the bodies had disappeared.
There were no tracks found of people or hunting sledges, on which the villagers could have left their settlement. All stocks of food, gunpowder, warm clothes - everything remained untouched.
Joe sat down at the wall of one of the houses and closed his eyes for a spell of time. Before him, in his thoughts there stood Black Shaman. He was looking at the hunter attempting to tell him something, but for some reason not by words, but by gestures.
“D’you plan to remain here?” someone asked unexpectedly. Labelle opened his eyes. The speaker turned out to a police officer.
“Oh,” Joe passed his hands over his face.
“Honestly speaking, I don’t know. Do you know what happened to the inhabitants of Anjikuni?”
“OK, it’s up to you, but...”
The officer never finished his phrase. He turned around and stopped just a few steps later. Then he slightly turned his head towards Labelle, so that only a third of his face could be seen. A moment later the silhouette of the policeman began to fade. Still another instant and... in his place, in precisely the same pose stood Andjunda the shaman, dressed in some strange, shining clothes.
“I’ve heard Black shaman has managed to give you the guardian spirit’s charm,” he croaked. “Give it back to me, or else...”
Recoiling, Joe stared at the vision in horror. It was no longer the familiar Andjunda, imposing and arrogant in his clothes lavishly covered with beadwork. Joe had once seen such clothes at a feast of some tribe which later vanished, reputedly having died of hunger. Today the sorcerer looked badly beaten and injured, his clothes were torn and seemed to be oozing slime, large shreds of skin and muscle appearing to have been torn from his semi- naked breast and shoulders.
“He called large forces against me, but nevertheless I defeated him, and the coward ran away, leaving his tribe, to become deincarnated. Give this worthless one to me.”
“Deincarnated?” asked Joe, stunned.
“Well, yes, don’t you know that we can move into the body of any living being and take hold of it? Black shaman’s soul is vested in your charm, give it to me!”
Without leaving his place, the shaman suddenly seized the amulet hanging around Labelle’s neck and with a triumphant laughter tore it off. The same instant the huge black dog seized him by the neck and in a frenzy began to rip him, scratching and tearing his stomach with its powerful paws. The shaman issued a wild cry, which was cut short by two short booming shots from Labelle’s Colt. The black dog turned his muzzle spattered with blood to Joe and gave a melancholy wail. Labelle burst out laughing.
“You remember you said that sometimes it is better to fall than to remain standing? Eh? So you did just that, didn’t you? You gave me a charm with your soul and moved into the body of this unfortunate dog?
“And then you wanted again to use the charm to become a man once more, no? But you failed. Because this villain Andjunda broke your charm, yes? He did break it, didn’t he?”
Hysterically roaring with laughter, he fell face down into the snow.
Joe Labelle ended his days in a private lunatic asylum near Toronto. He spent days with no end fiddling with some interlaced twigs and leather straps, as if trying to braid some bizarre figure. Till the end of his days he was always accompanied everywhere by a huge black dog, closely observing all his manipulations.
Unable to believe that more than two thousand people could have disappeared for some reasons without leaving a trace, disappeared from the face of the Earth in just one day, the police took the only decision acceptable for them as correct and proper: they decided to expand the area of search. Gradually it spread to include practically the whole territory of Canada. The search for the missing people continued for several years. Seventy-one years have passed since the moment of the mysterious incident, but it still remains a mystery. The riddle of the village of Anjikuni continues to excite the imagination of many people studying paranormal phenomena.
Copyright © 2003 by Paul Gross