Source: Dark Warm Heart | Tor.com
“Dark Warm Heart” by Rich Larson is a horror story about a woman whose husband returns from the frozen Canadian North Territories, obsessed with texts he discovered there.
The bite mark was wine-red on anemic-white, crenellating Kristine’s bare shoulder. She moved the strap of her nightgown when Noel stumbled into the kitchen, drawn by the sizzle and clank of the frying pan, so he would be sure to see it.
“Morning,” she said, sliding the sausages onto a paper towel.
“Hey.” Noel stopped short, still scratching at the wiry hair up his belly. He frowned. “Did I do that?”
“No,” Kristine said dryly. She dabbed at the grease. “Somebody else. While you were gone I cheated with a…a hyena.”
Noel came closer, whispering one finger along the ruined skin. Shook his head. “Shit,” he said, wrapping her waist. “Désolé. I didn’t mean to.”
“Good,” Kristine said. She tipped her head back for a kiss. “I don’t mind it,” she decided, plucking at his hand. “See? We match.”
“Yes. Lucky.” Noel held up his broad hand, two of the fingers still scarred purple from frostbite. “What do you call it? An accent color?”
Kristine laughed, and gave him a small shove towards the white table. Noel sat down in his old spot, like he’d never left, while she doled out sausages and toast with margarine. The small kitchen was still crammed full with gleaming wedding gift appliances.
“So finally you had someone to laugh at your jokes?” Noel asked, sawing with his knife.
Kristine smiled. “What?”
“Hm. Yeah.” She watched Noel sniff at the sausage, like he’d been rescued off some island instead of from the YEG airport late last night. “And he always ate the leftovers.”
Noel laughed, warm like an electric blanket, and she wished she’d told him the night before. But there had been no space for words, just skin and sweat in a bed that had been too big for too many weeks, and she’d waited this long, hadn’t she?
“I’m going to start on the transcription today,” Noel said, chewing.
“Already?” Kristine asked. “You aren’t going to, I don’t know, warm up for a day? Relax?”
“It’s not so warm here either, Krissy.” He nodded towards the sliding door, half frosted over, and the pinwheeling flakes beyond it. “It’s snowing.”
“Warmer than your igloo in NWT,” Kristine suggested. “I have to run a few errands. Unless you wanted me to stay and help you. With, you know, the bilabial sounds.” She leaned forward and pressed both her lips against his. They felt dry.
“I didn’t sleep in an igloo,” Noel said when they broke, but grinning. “All right. I’ll wash up. Leave the plates.”
Kristine went to the pristine bathroom, which would not be pristine for long now that Noel was back. She’d almost missed seeing his bristles in the sink. She turned the shower on, hot. The mirror fogged fast. She retched a few times over the toilet, but nothing came up, so she stepped inside the shower. After, while the curling iron was heating up, she rummaged a tube of concealer out of her vanity drawer. She shook it as she eyed the bite mark, debating.
She put the concealer back. The mark was somehow like a checked box, a reminder that Noel was real and he was home and he loved her to death, and it was nothing like the cuts up her legs she’d hidden in high school.
When she passed through the kitchen, keys jangling in her fingers, Noel was already swallowed up between Bose headphones, the noise-cancelling kind. His face looked thin and sharp and his eyes were tracking across the laptop screen, left, right, left, right.
“Don’t work too hard,” Kristine said, once she’d tugged one of the headphones down.
“I would never,” Noel said. “Thank you for breakfast.”
He brushed crumbs off his lip before he kissed her good-bye, but the sausages were still sitting on the plate, uneaten. Kristine handed him a Tupperware container on her way out the door.
Her shoulder throbbed while she was getting cash from the ATM. It throbbed when she pushed through the Grade 5/6 portable doors to pick up the worksheet she’d forgotten to photocopy, it throbbed when she shivered in the meat section of Superstore, trying to remember if Noel liked minute steaks, and it throbbed when she returned home to find him still at the table with his face sickly awash in laptop light. He’d forgotten he cooked Sundays.
“Hey, Mister Linguist, have you even moved?” Kristine asked, opening the fridge freezer. Cold billowed out as she put the steaks in, then fished for an ice tray.
“Buy me a catheter,” Noel said. He gave a wan grin. “This is great shit, Krissy. Come. Listen.”
“I don’t speak Inuktitut.”
Noel laughed, and said it wasn’t Inuktitut, and then the room was quiet except for the crack-pop of ice cubes into a ziplock. Kristine wrapped the bag in a wet cloth, still watching Noel watching the screen, and held it against her shoulder.
“All right,” she said. “Show me.”
“Come.” Noel slipped the headphones from around his neck and held the ice against Kristine’s shoulder while she put them on.
The feedback volume made her jump.
“Sorry.” Noel dialed it down with a practiced finger. Kristine repositioned the headphones and listened. It was a low guttural wail, broken up by a sort of huffing. When she listened harder she could hear an uncanny melody.
“Nice. What is it?” She looked to the screen, where the spectrogram was showing the noise slither along, pitch black, undulating through the grayscale background. It made her think of ultrasounds.
“Throat-singing,” Noel said. “Beautiful. I tried it, when I was up there. Very difficult.” He turned the volume up slightly. “This is just the icing, though. You know, for when I get tired of the interviews. There are so many stories. Some of them, never heard in English. Never.”
Kristine watched him maneuver the mouse through his crowded screen, over IPA charts and reference logs. He pulled up another audio file. The throat-singing was replaced by an old man’s voice and a dialect that Noel said was all but extinct. She sat in his lap and they pushed their heads together, each using one side of the headphones, and listened.
Noel’s cheek scratched her cheek and his arms ended up around her, but with the ice trickling on her shoulder she couldn’t feel warm, and it wasn’t the time.
It happened in the night. Noel’s knee was keyed between her knees, his arm was over her arm. They’d fucked again, not so frantically this time, and Kristine was still awake when Noel plucked her hand out from under the covers. She turned in the dark and saw his eyes were not quite closed.
“Hey,” she said, moving back against him.
He didn’t say anything, didn’t make a noise. He brought her hand up to his face slowly, deliberately, with his thumb at her wrist. In the quiet Kristine could imagine the sound of her pulse against his skin. He opened his mouth and kissed his way along her arm, teeth skimming her, making her shiver.
Kristine half-smiled. “What are you doing?” she whispered.
“Whatever I want,” Noel mumbled into her skin. He gnawed at her wrist-bone, tickling her.
“I’m so glad you made it home,” Kristine said. “I’m just. You know. I was scared shitless, when I heard about the storms. When you called.”
Noel bit down, playful.
Kristine winced. “Easy, boy, I don’t need another one.”
Noel’s teeth pressed harder, deeper, so she could feel each individual crown.
“Noel, stop. You’re getting spit on me. Stop.”
Noel pulled back a moment, tracing the indented skin with his finger, and then he bit down again, not playful, a sudden sharp snap like an animal.
“Ouch!” Kristine jerked away. “Noel! Don’t!”
“Don’t what?” Noel asked thickly. Kristine slapped the light on, exposing the purple bags under her husband’s eyes, the sharpness of his cheekbones somehow more pronounced. “I just want…” He trailed off.
“Can’t you leave the transcription for like, a day?” Kristine demanded.
“Everything’s still fresh,” Noel said. “I’m, you know, I’m zoned.”
“You’re being weird. Really fucking weird.”
“You’re being dramatic.”
Kristine went to the bathroom, flicked the light on. She ran cold water over her arm. Her reflection in the mirror looked pale and sick. She prodded her stomach.
“Come on,” Noel groaned from the bed. “You don’t need a Band-Aid, Krissy.”
“Can’t you shave?” Kristine demanded, coming back. “Unpack? Call your dad to tell him you’re back so he doesn’t call me again?” The fresh mark was blooming on her arm, and when Noel saw it his expression was something she didn’t like. Kristine put her other hand overtop to hide it.
“I didn’t know he called you,” Noel said.
“I’m going to sleep in the study. Just for tonight.”
“I’m sorry. Look. I’m sorry.”
“You hate the hide-a-bed.” Noel rolled up and out of the covers. He scratched at his neck. “I’ll go,” he said. “Are there pillows?”
“In the linen closet,” Kristine said.
She stopped to get them on their way to the study, and then held them against herself while the hide-a-bed unfolded with a creak and a clunk. Noel took the pillows without smiling. He tossed them onto the bed.
“Good night,” he said.
Kristine needed a swim, so she left early in the morning with the sky still dark and didn’t even open the study door, just exchanged a good morning/good-bye with Noel’s half-asleep voice. Exhaust was billowing on the cold roads like a fog as she drove, one hand on her swim-bag. She dialed her mother at a stoplight. A voice thick with sleep or Valium answered on the fifth ring.
“Hi, honey, what is it?”
“Hi, Mom.” The light lanced green through the clouds of exhaust and Kristine drove. “I just had a question about the thank-you notes, I’m still finishing up and—”
“Noel’s back, isn’t that right? Give him my love. Hugs. How’s his frostbite?”
“I will,” Kristine said. “The thank-you note for Uncle Carrow, I can’t remember his girlfriend’s name. Was it Sheryl?”
“No. Carol? No. Hell, I can’t remember either.”
“Noel’s acting different.”
There was a staticky pause, and then her mother’s voice came edged with a sigh.
“What do you mean?”
“Just, I don’t know,” Kristine said, and she didn’t, not quite. “Doing weird things. Not eating. Yesterday after breakfast he didn’t eat anything all day. He’s, like, he’s obsessing over his transcription. Won’t talk to me.”
“Well, he’s driven, you know—”
“Not like that.” She dropped her indicator and turned into the Glenora parking lot, still mostly empty of cars.
“—and it’s a good thing. It really is.” Another pause. “A lot of things might be or look a little different now. All those little things that were nice, you know, endearing, a lot of those things look different when you realize it’s for the rest of your life.”
“It’s not a honeymoon is over thing, Mom,” Kristine said, putting the car into park. “It’s been over for a while.”
“I mean, your father, my God. He had his days. Weeks. Years. But it was all worth it. I never once thought of leaving him. And Noel’s a good man. A really good man. It’s all about compromises, isn’t it? People thinking marriage is supposed to be easy? Makes me laugh. It’s all about sacrifices. There were things I wanted to do, plenty of things…”
“I’m not talking about leaving him, Mom, I’m just saying he’s acting funny and I don’t know why.” She turned off the engine and fumbled the key into her coat pocket. “This thing with the storm…”
“Sharon. It was definitely Sharon, and half his age, too. Maybe a prostitute. Look, honey, just stop worrying. He hasn’t even been back for a week. Go for a swim, you’ll feel better.”
“Thanks,” Kristine said, hefting her bag. “Bye. Love you.”
She swam longer than she’d meant to, churning up and down the lane until the water felt bathtub warm, and so she went to the school with her hair still hanging wet wires and the toothed trace of swim-goggles around her one eye like a sucker scar. But she did feel better, even though Elijah and Braden had to be sent off to the principal for the third week running.
Noel didn’t answer her text, or the second one. She tried not to worry about it. She fixed a smile to her face as she climbed the stairs to the apartment, went down the hallway that always smelled like weed and Febreze, and keyed open their door. It was dark inside again. Kristine flicked on the lights and checked the bare sink. No dishes. She opened the fridge. Nothing touched.
“Hey, Mister Linguist!” Kristine called. “Where are you?”
No reply. Kristine remembered the noise-cancelling headphones and went looking. She was barely even surprised when she heard the computer hum from behind the study door. Cold was seeping out from the bottom of it. She eased the door open.
Noel was hunched over the laptop like an old man. The shadows hollowed out his cheeks and for a moment his eyes looked like black holes. Then he looked up with a bleary grin and pulled the headphones down around his neck.
“How were the little terrors today?” Noel slapped the laptop shut.
“Good,” Kristine said. “Fine.”
“That little boy, that Elijah, he didn’t make trouble?”
Kristine cracked a smile. “Yeah, he did. A little bit.”
“He’s trying to impress you,” Noel said, scooting over on the rolling chair. “He has a crush.”
“That’s why I make trouble.” Noel caught her wrist, the not-sore one, and folded both hands around it. “I’m sorry about last night,” he said. “I don’t know what’s in my head, sometimes.”
“You scared me a little,” Kristine said. She gave a smile. “It’s okay. It’s nothing. Really.” Noel’s hands felt like ice. The frostbite was ugly. “Why’s the window open?”
“The laptop has been overheating,” Noel said. “I thought, maybe, if it’s colder in the study, maybe that helps.”
“I found something in the fridge,” Noel said.
Kristine stiffened. “No, you didn’t.”
“You didn’t take anything out of the fridge,” Kristine said. “You didn’t eat anything, did you? You’ve been in here all day.”
“I got something at the Second Cup,” Noel said, but he let her pull her arm away.
“Your shoes were still where you left them yesterday.”
“You’re a detective or something?” Noel was still smiling, but only with his mouth. “You photograph where in the closet I put my shoes?”
“Why are you lying about this?” Kristine snapped. “Are you on a fucking hunger strike or something? Why are you acting like this?”
“Like what?” Noel asked, still prone in the office chair, still not angry. Kristine wanted him to stand up so she could shove him back down. She felt hot and sick all over.
“Was there somebody else up there?” she asked.
“What do you mean?” Noel asked, and now his eyes were finally narrowing.
“I mean, did you fuck somebody while you were up there?” Kristine demanded. “You called once the whole time, and now you come back, you won’t talk to me, you’re acting so fucking weird—”
“Of course not.” Noel was up, teeth bared. “Of course I didn’t. Did you?”
“Oh, my God, Noel.” Kristine gave a shaky laugh. “Just shut up, Noel.”
They stood frozen for a long moment, Kristine’s nails digging crescents in her palms. She watched Noel’s face work until the grimace smoothed over.
“Maybe I have a bug,” he said slowly. “My stomach doesn’t feel right. I didn’t want you to worry.”
Kristine nodded. She rubbed her eye with the heel of her hand.
“What happened in the storm?” she finally asked. “Do you even remember calling me? They had a satellite phone in the infirmary, and you called me in the middle of the night.”
“I remember calling,” Noel said, cautious.
“Do you remember what I told you?” Kristine asked, remembering how she’d gone to the bathroom, flicked on the lights, pulled out the test again just to be sure. That was before she’d realized how late it was, that something was wrong.
“I don’t.” Noel shook his head. “I don’t. I don’t remember what I said, either.”
“You were delirious,” Kristine said, wrapping her arms around herself. The bite on her shoulder throbbed again. “You told me how you got stranded, right? Between the station and the village. One of those storms that comes from nowhere.”
“Worst they had seen in years,” Noel said. “They told me that later. Yeah.” His voice had an unsteadiness Kristine was unused to hearing, and somehow it drained all the anger out of her. “What else did I say?” he asked.
“You said the wind felt like teeth.”
“Like death,” Noel said.
“The Ski-Doo broke down, so you tried to walk back to the village.”
“Went the wrong way. They told me later.”
“You said the mucus in your nose and the spit in your mouth were so frozen up you couldn’t breathe, and the wind was like teeth.” Kristine paused. “You said you lost your hands, then your feet. Like being disembodied. Like floating.”
“Should’ve died,” Noel muttered. “Should’ve frozen to death.”
“They told me that, after they took the phone away from you,” Kristine said. “I mean, it’s a miracle you’re all right.” She shrugged helplessly. “Doesn’t this feel better?” she asked. “To talk about it? Isn’t this what’s been bothering you?”
“What else did I say?” Noel probed.
“I don’t remember,” Kristine said. “You were fevered. You know, delirious.”
“Did I say what I saw?” Noel’s eyes were wide. “Kristine. Tell me.”
“Yeah. You did.” Kristine swayed, foot to foot. “You thought you saw someone else in the storm. An old man.”
Noel shut his eyes now, breathing quick and shallow. “What did he look like?”
“Tall,” Kristine said. “Taller than the trees. Skinny like those starving kids they show on UNICEF ads. And he was naked.” She stopped. “People see things. You know. Your brain was practically, it must have been practically shutting off.”
“He didn’t have a face,” Noel said. “Just a big dark mouth. Big black hole. I still remember it so clear. Clearer than what actually happened.”
“I think you might have PTSD or something, Noel. I’m worried.”
“It’s nothing like that.” Noel’s voice was strained. He opened his eyes. Blinked. “I haven’t been myself. I know. I just need to get this transcription done, and then I’ll be done with it all. I’m looking for this one story. I know it’s in there somewhere. Just give me the week, Krissy. Be patient for me.”
“Of course,” Kristine said. “I get it. Really.” She put her hand against Noel’s hip. It felt sharp enough to cut.
“Yeah. I mean.” Kristine paused. “If you need to get through this transcription so you can be done with everything, storm included, and just stop thinking about it, then yeah. I get it. And then you’ll be yourself again. I get it.”
They embraced, and it felt like all angles. Kristine wasn’t sure, but she almost thought her hands could make out the nodes of his spine under his thin wool sweater.
He said he didn’t want to pass on whatever bug was in his stomach, so Noel slept in the study again. They pretended it was a sort of game, and reminded each other of the weekend Noel’s French Catholic parents had stayed with them, back during the engagement, when they’d had to rearrange all their things so it looked like they slept in separate rooms.
On Tuesday Kristine stayed late at the school with her lesson plans, hoping she’d come back to find Noel antsy and missing her, something simmering on the stove, maybe his sketch-pad out on the coffee table or a comedy queued up on Netflix. That didn’t happen, so on Wednesday she stayed late at the school to minimize the time between arriving home and going to sleep alone. She pretended she was married to a genius, consumed by his latest work, and she was making sacrifices.
That night, Kristine woke up cold. The shadows in her room were Baltic blue and when she nudged her phone the screen read 3:42 AM. She pulled her feet back under the sheets, coaxing a static crackle, and rolled over.
The apartment door thunked.
Kristine sat up, clutching her phone. Half of a dream was fogging the inside of her skull. She padded into the hallway on bare feet, navigating by the light of her screen, and felt the cold coming from the study. The door was wide open. So was the window.
She hauled it shut with both hands, breathing an icy cloud, wondering about the pipes, how long it took for them to freeze in this weather. Snow was blowing in drifts off roofs and balconies, through the bony branches of a tree where a black garbage bag fluttered.
Someone was in the stairwell, feet slapping the plastic-capped steps. Kristine left the study, checked the bathroom, hoping but knowing better, and then found her jacket and keys. Her inchoate dream was dancing in the back of her head. She locked the door and circled down the four flights that had made moving such an ordeal and such a triumph. She trailed her hand on the nick they’d left with the corner of their big stupid couch.
“Noel?” she called.
The reply was the click and catch of the exterior door opening, closing. She went quickly down the last flight, zipping her coat up to her neck. The forecast had been for an overnight drop down to minus thirty, cold enough to make metal burn. Kristine felt a thrumming under her skin as she came to the glass door. Outside, the lampposts spilled yellow pools on the lumpy ice street. A disconnected shadow was crossing the empty road, going towards the park, the playground Kristine had wanted nearby even though it had seemed too early to think about kids. She opened the door and the cold bit her hard.
“Noel!” she shouted, feeling ice rasp her throat, freeze her nostrils. The shadow didn’t turn around. Kristine pulled up his number by muscle memory and called him as she followed. She held her phone up like a torch, listening to the soft chime, peering into the dark. There was no pick-up, but she hadn’t expected one, and now anxiety was gnawing at her stomach as she reached the park, rounded the corner of the half-painted gazebo.
Noel was ankle-deep in the snow, back turned toward her, and he was naked. In the fluorescent light from the gazebo his skin looked wax-pale, all but translucent, bruised with cold blue shadows. Kristine’s eyes traced the cavities of his body. His spine looked sharp as scalpels. He was not shivering, not moving. Kristine was trembling all over.
The dream was coming back to her now. She didn’t want him to turn around, because she knew what she’d see: a raw-red throat like a subway tunnel, gnashing teeth, no eyes. Her fingers were going numb at her sides.
“Noel, this isn’t…funny,” Kristine said, halting. “You’re going to freeze to death. You’re going to get more frostbite.”
Noel turned, and it was Noel’s face, heavy with sleep. He gave her a confused look. He looked down at his purple-scarred fingers.
“You’re sleepwalking.” Kristine took a hesitant step, then another, crunching through the snow. “Come on. You’re going to freeze. Come on. You’re sleepwalking, like the time in Calgary. At the hotel.” She gripped his hand and tugged. He followed, stumbling slightly, red feet battered by ice. Kristine tried not to look at his ruined toenails.
They walked slowly, slowly, snow peppering their faces and searing their lips. They passed the creaking playground with its rubber swings, the ones they’d sat in, dragging circles in the snow with their boots while they looked up at the apartment complex and invented such big beautiful dreams. She tried to picture Noel pushing a tiny body, bundled in a parka, red-cheeked, but didn’t manage it.
The wind picked up as they crossed the road, and by the time they reached the door it felt like teeth on Kristine’s bare face.
In the morning, Kristine left before Noel could wake up and wonder about the bathtub full of lukewarm water, or the towels wrapped around him and under him on the couch. Kristine had played with the thermostat before and after eating breakfast, but the apartment was still cold. She needed the pool, the chlorine warmth of it, the lactic acid in her arms and shoulders. She threw up before she left.
She dialed her mother at the yield sign.
“Hi, honey.” The voice was faux-cheery. “Sorry, I meant to return your call yesterday, it completely slipped my mind. I was over at the Blackstocks’, you know how she talks.”
“I don’t really remember them,” Kristine said. “I was, um, I was out walking last night, and I noticed some vacancies in the apartment down the road.”
Kristine’s nails drummed the wheel. “Well, I was wondering if you’re still thinking about that. You know, about moving. We talked about it in the summer, remember?”
“Too cold up there. Did we talk about that?”
“You said you wanted to be closer,” Kristine said. She bit her lip. “Grandkids?”
“Honey, do you have news?”
She thought about telling her for a second, imagining how her mother’s voice would turn instantly to sunshine. “No, no,” she relented. “I just meant, you know, for the future.” She could hear a disappointed breath on the other end.
“Too cold, honey, and besides, you know I wouldn’t be able to leave this place. Not after all the work your father put into it. So much of himself, he put into it. It just wouldn’t feel right.”
“I thought you said the upkeep…?”
“I can manage, honey. I’m sturdy. Besides, you don’t need your mother hassling you all the time. You and Noel have each other now. It’s normal to be, I don’t know, to be overwhelmed a little at first, trying to make it as a young couple, especially with him doing the doctorate. But I know you can make it work. You’re a good girl.”
An SUV honked from behind and Kristine realized she hadn’t moved from the yield sign. She pulled away, ending the call without saying good-bye, and wiped at her stinging eyes.
When she got home from the school she went straight to the study, rumpled card clutched in her palm. She could hear the laptop hum from under the door. She opened without knocking.
“I made you an appointment,” Kristine said. “With this counselor. It’s through the university.”
Noel glanced up. His face was still swallowed between headphones and his eyes were strangely cloudy. He tapped something out on the keyboard.
“Aren’t you going to ask about last night?” Kristine said softly.
Noel said nothing. The window was shut, but he was shirtless. His collarbones had grown a new geometry, skimming up like shark fins. Sweat was beaded under his hairline.
“You sleepwalked out into the park,” Kristine said. “It was fucking forty below. You could have died.”
Noel gave a fractional shrug. His eyes returned to the screen, and Kristine could tell from the swipe of his finger that the volume was going up.
“I wish you had cheated on me,” she said.
Noel tapped his headphone to show he couldn’t hear. His smile was too broad, too many teeth, a Cheshire cat grin.
“I wish I’d cheated,” Kristine said, feeling a tingle up and down her back, something cold and angular in her gut.
Noel said nothing.
Kristine dropped the appointment card and left.
The next day she spent lunch-hour talking in circles with the health center. They mumbled at her about seasonal depression, flu virus. When it came time to teach ecosystems she begged someone out of the staff-room to watch her class watch YouTube clips about photovores and herbivores and carnivores. She went to the bathroom and speed-read through Wikipedia articles and WebMD links. She tried to throw up. A few people asked her if she was all right, and she nearly told them.
When she got home, the apartment was empty and Noel’s shoes were not in the closet. It seemed like the thermostat had finally kicked in, because she didn’t get goose bumps when she shrugged off her coat. Kristine hunted the bare counters for a note for a good five minutes before she gave up and put some Thai in the microwave.
Maybe he’d finished the transcription. Maybe if she went to the bathroom she’d find bristles in the sink, and then he’d be arriving back with clean-shaven cheeks, a bottle of white wine, take-out from the Mediterranean place they’d loved so much that first month after moving in. She would tell him she had news; he would already know. For a moment the image was so clear that Kristine nearly stopped the microwave and put the leftovers back into the fridge.
Instead, she went to the study. The door was wide open again, but the window was shut. Noel hadn’t taken the laptop with him. Kristine hesitated for a moment, then plucked it off the desk and sat down on the hide-a-bed with it. Her hand kneaded the sheets while it booted up. The password screen appeared, and Kristine put in her name, clacked the enter key. The affirmative chime made her almost smile.
The transcription window was already waiting, a block of IPA symbols. Kristine tried to remember the phonetics classes she’d taken; most of the sounds she’d already forgotten. One word seemed to be recurring: wɛŋdəgoʊ. She pulled up the next window, and saw that Noel had translated a section into English. At the top it was labeled audio48.mp3. Kristine clicked back to the sound files and pulled the headphones up over her ears. She started to read.
the wendigo is hunger, and hunger is the wendigo. a man travelled by night. he hunted the herd. the wendigo hunted the man. a man travelled by night and through the wood, and the [blizzard] snow drove him off his trail. the wendigo hunted the man, its arms were the cold and its teeth were the wind. a man had death inside [in stomach]. the cold kills, the hunger kills. hunger is the wendigo. a man lies down in the snow. his body is given to the ice. a man travelled alone. the wendigo came to him with [singing] open mouth. the wendigo has jaws as icicles. the wendigo gives to the man a dark warm heart of human meat. a man can die, or a man can eat. a man travelled by night. he ate the wendigo’s [offering]. the man lives, the hunger stays. hunger is the wendigo. a man travelled by night,
She flung upright, all her nerves sparked at once; Noel was inches away and his eyes were black as jet. The laptop crashed to the floor between them, Kristine’s heart hammered in her throat. His face was gaunt, stretched thin, canvas over bones.
“Why did you write that?” Kristine whispered.
“I didn’t,” Noel said. The glass Pyrex pan from the microwave was clutched in his one hand. He held it out between them, arm shaking slightly.
“Bullshit you didn’t. What do you mean? What do you mean you didn’t write it?” Kristine stepped back and felt the cold edge of the hide-a-bed against the bends of her knees. Noel’s pale face was slick with sweat.
“I translated it,” he said, voice wavering. “It was already there. I knew it was there. I just had to find it. Those old men had so many stories.” He held the Pyrex out again, still shaking, and Kristine took it so it wouldn’t fall.
“Why are you doing this?” Kristine demanded. The glass was cold again. “Why are you fucking inventing this?”
“I’m not,” Noel pleaded. “Krissy. Look.”
And she had to. He held up his spidery hand, so much more bone than she remembered it, wrists like doorknobs, and planted his teeth in the webbing between thumb and finger. With a wet tearing sound, he sheared through the flesh. Kristine’s lungs caught, she anticipated the spray of bright red blood, but there was nothing. Something thick and black glistened along the torn skin, and then suddenly the hand was back together again.
“It can’t be me,” Noel said. “I tried.”
“Oh, my God, Noel.”
His face contorted all at once and he lunged, his teeth suddenly canine; Kristine swung the glass dish in the same motion. It slammed against his temple with a thick crack: Noel was reeling off to the side, cursing in French, and Kristine was pushing past him, slamming the door, throwing herself against it. Her breath came in a wail. Noel’s body thumped against the door once, then twice, Kristine shoved back with her shoulders, and then he stopped.
“We’re going to call emergency,” Kristine said, when her heart was beating again. “I’m dialing 911. There’s something, I don’t know, some disease you picked up up there. I know this isn’t you. I know it can’t be you.” She couldn’t keep her voice steady, it slipped away from her between words.
“Oh, fuck,” came Noel’s voice, raw. “Oh, fuck. I drove to the university hospital. That’s where I was. Jacob. You remember Jacob. The med-student. He told me how they keep cadavers. I thought, maybe, I don’t know. I couldn’t get in. They called security.”
“This can’t be real, Noel.”
He went on like he hadn’t heard. “Then I thought, the morgue, maybe. Or, I don’t know.” He gave a broken laugh. “A graveyard. Maybe that. I have to know. I just have to. I’m going to die soon. If I don’t eat, I’m going to die.”
Kristine was muffling a sob in her hand, biting down as hard as she could. “A doctor,” she gasped.
“This can’t be for doctors. When you’re wendigo, you’re wendigo. Until you give in. That was what they said.”
“I don’t know. I’m sorry. I don’t know.” He stopped. “There are more stories. More transcriptions. Maybe if I keep going, keep looking. I don’t know.”
Kristine didn’t reply. She sat against the door, tears sticky on her cheeks, and waited for hours. Waited for Noel’s breathing to turn regular, shallow but regular, so she was sure he was asleep. She moved the bookcase in front of the study door, groaning and scraping. It was heavy. Her hands came away with deep red welts.
She was up early the next morning, wiping down the kitchen counters and stovetop with Purell so everything gleamed. When she popped the ice cubes out of their tray they skittered off the table and onto the floor. Her hands were shivering as she dropped them one by one into a plastic bag. She set her wedding ring on the counter and dialed her mother.
“Hey, honey, what’s up?”
“Call me my name?” Kristine’s voice came in a sob; she tamped it down.
“What’s wrong, Kristine?”
“It’s nothing,” Kristine said, toying with the ring. “I just remembered, that cousin you had, the farmer. He lost his hand in a thresher. He just wore it on the other finger, right? His wedding ring, I mean. He wore it on the right.”
“That’s right, yes. On the right. I think that might be how they do it in Europe, too.”
“Okay.” Kristine packed more ice around her left ring finger, waiting for the numb. “I was just remembering that.” She went to the counter, to the shiny Cutco knives, another wedding gift. She tried to remember the sharpest one.
“Was that all? I’m half-asleep, honey.”
“When dad died, you said you’d have traded anything, didn’t you?” Kristine asked. “Anyone or anything.” There was a long pause. Kristine looked down at her left hand, thinking of how it cupped when she swam, how the fingers all melded together and bit the water just so. She thought about the small warm thing growing in her belly.
“I don’t remember. I don’t remember exactly what I said.”
“Okay,” Kristine said, turning the stovetop on. “Bye, mom.”
Kristine held the ice around her finger and stared at the stove element, waiting for it to turn orange.
“Dark Warm Heart” copyright © 2017 by Rich Larson
Art copyright © 2017 by Samuel Araya