This story is by Richard Thomas and was part of our 2023 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Dwayne had been following the tracks for some days and his food was running low. A shame, he thought, that Gabriel was not around. Gabriel, was a research assistant and guide at the Northwest Fauna Research Institute, through which Dwayne was completing his fieldwork for a PhD. Gabriel knew the woods and its resources and could probably help Dwayne to continue for a little longer. Dwayne was anxious that nothing should disrupt his work; if he were forced to abandon the trail now and go back to replenish his supplies, he might have difficulty locating the tracks again. There was also the worrying possibility of the tracks being obliterated by a sudden downpour.
At least, he had been able to refill his water bottles from a stream, clear and slow flowing, with water that tasted pristine and untainted. But to his annoyance and frustration, he had come upon this same stream twice — and realised that the tracks he was following had led him in a full circle.
Dwayne was an American, a recent graduate with a first in anthropology from a respectable UK red brick university. He had returned to the USA to complete a PhD in Kwakiutl cultural mythology, which was rife with tales of terrifying supernatural entities.
He had chosen his field of study carefully. Dwayne was intelligent, but fundamentally lazy, and wanted a quick and definitive result. Not for him any complex analyses of myth and embellished folk memory associated with unknown or extinct creatures. He wanted to establish a simple link between myth and a known, living animal. He was at least honest enough to admit to himself that his primary objective was to gain an enhanced academic qualification with minimal challenge.
He had chosen the myth of Bukwus as the subject of his researches. In Kwakiutl legend, Bukwus is a savage, humanlike, shape-shifting spirit that inhabits the coastal rainforests of the Pacific Northwest. A ghost associated with drowning victims, Bukwus has a fearsome appearance, sometimes longhaired and emaciated, sometimes appearing in the form of a decaying, drowned corpse. Also known as Wildman of the Woods and Chief of Ghosts, Bukwus attempts to persuade unwary travellers to eat ‘ghost food’ in order to turn them into spirits like itself.
Dwayne had mapped out his research project clearly in his mind. His objective was to demonstrate a clear connection between the Bukwus myth and a living animal — probably a bear. He was confident that he would be able to manipulate his findings into the result he desired: to process the Bukwus myth into fact in the form a known animal. It would not be that difficult, surely. Then he could add ‘PhD’ to ‘BSc’ on his CV and calling card. It would do his future prospects no harm at all.
Finding that particular set of tracks was heaven-sent — everything seemed to be playing into Dwayne’s hands. The long line of impressions was variable: very clear where the ground was soft but not saturated, ranging to virtually indistinguishable where the terrain changed to firm and rocky. In cases where the ground impressions were clear, they were humanlike, suggesting five toes, and from which a double muscle-ball and low arch could perhaps be inferred. But these could not be naked human footprints because clearly visible in the substrate were the impressions of claws. Dwayne took photographs and detailed measurements. The size of the prints pointed to an animal somewhat larger than a big male human — but certainly no massive Bigfoot-type creature. He took video recordings, walking along, following the line of prints looking for all the world like the tracks of a two-footed creature, a biped.
Dwayne could scarcely contain his delight, because he knew that the tracks of quadrupedal animals can easily be misidentified. There was an already established precedent: that of claimed yeti tracks found in the snows of the Himalayas. Many examples of such tracks are now believed to be have been made by quadrupeds, where fore and hind limb impressions overlap, giving the appearance of tracks made by a large bipedal creature. So, all Dwayne had to do was follow the apparently bipedal tracks until he came into contact with the quadrupedal bear that had made them. He did not feel in any danger. Black bears are relatively timid creatures, and he knew he would not be in trouble unless he had the misfortune to come between a sow bear and her cubs. What he was following were the tracks of a single animal, he was reasonably confident of that.
But he was running out of time. It was infuriating that he might be forced to turn back with his task incomplete. When he came upon the stream a second time — and realised that his tracking had led him in a fruitless circle — anger and exasperation swept over him. ‘Goddam,’ he muttered; then he felt a moment of unease at the sound he heard behind him. It was with relief that he recognised Gabriel, who was ambling casually through the forest.
Gabriel was a stocky young man with a broad, friendly face; he was of part Native American descent himself, although you would never know it at first glance. With his preference for jeans, sweatshirt and trainers, he looked like any other young man with a liking for the styles of understated, casual fashion wear.
A bit of luck at last! Dwayne thought. Gabriel knew the woods and the creatures that lived there. He had taught Dwayne everything he knew about the forests and inlets of the Pacific Northwest coast. Gabriel drank, smoked dope, liked hard rock, and showed little interest in his shared cultural heritage. He was uncomplicated, hedonistic and instinctively disrespectful of everything mainstream, but not unkind by nature. He knew the woods like the back of his hand and had acted as a guide for Dwayne on numerous occasions.
‘Hey, man,’ Gabriel said, ‘I can see you’re on a track here!’ Dwayne thought he detected a note of mockery in Gabriel’s voice.
‘I am,’ Dwayne replied, ‘but seems like I’ve been going round in a circle. This is the second time I’ve come to this stream. But look, the tracks carry on over the other side.’
Gabriel’s expression changed with the hint of a wry smile. Yes, there was no doubt in Dwayne’s mind: Gabriel was mocking him.
‘I’m not doing this for fun!’ Dwayne was touchy about his research. Ever conscious of his academic status, he could be condescending towards the young guide who knew the woods but did not have a college degree.
‘Hey, man,’ here’s some food, take a bite and maybe you’ll feel less confrontational,’ Gabriel said, holding out his hand to Dwayne.
‘What is it?’
Dwayne was hungry, his food stock nearly exhausted. He almost accepted Gabriel’s offer, but annoyance and arrogance combined to prompt him to decline petulantly.
‘Look, I’m onto something here. These bear tracks look at first sight like the tracks of a biped. I’ve taken measurements, photos, video — I just now need to find clear evidence of this damn bear to complete the record. This is an important part of my research!’
‘I know,’ Gabriel said, ‘but calm down, buddy. I’ll help you.’ His placid courtesy caused Dwayne to experience a twinge of mortification.
‘Well, maybe some food would be good,’ Dwayne said, chastened. He took the pizza from Gabriel’s outstretched hand. ‘It’s good, thanks,’ he said.
‘Yes, that is good.’ Gabriel replied.
‘Come on, let’s get going.’ Dwayne felt invigorated, but Gabriel did not move.
‘Your search is over,’ Gabriel said.
‘What d’you mean, my search is over — let’s move on … now!’
A wave of nausea swept over Dwayne, and his senses began to reel.
Dwayne saw what he held in his hand — not a half-eaten slice of pizza, but something formless and dark that pulsed and slid between his fingers.
Through unfocused, disbelieving eyes, Dwayne looked at Gabriel as a horrifying transformation occurred … until there were no fashionable trainers, only naked, skeletal feet, covered in sparse grey hair and long talons on each toe. Dwayne became aware of a strong smell of seawater and decay; fluid began to seep from Gabriel’s face and neck, coursing down his body, which took on the appearance of something that had been dead in the sea for quite some time.
Dwayne staggered, attempting to flee, but Bukwus sprang on him and held the young man’s head below the surface of the stream until he ceased to struggle.