Tipton, IA – October 20, 2012
Sitting in a farm-house in the middle of Iowa seems like an odd place to tell a story I heard on Isle Royale, but the story is a good one on the eve of a close election, at a time when we may need reminders about what being part of a community means. I think the story comes from an Ojibway legend, but I’m not sure how true my telling of it is to the origins.
Windigos are tall and thin, like a man’s shadow stretched over the ground. Every rib is visible under their skin. Their face is sunken in with hollow cheeks and their eyes peer out of dark sockets. The only color beyond their grey, ashen skin is the hint of red around their mouth, blood from where they’ve chewed away at themselves, biting their lips ragged with hunger.
But they don’t eat deer or berries or corn. They don’t eat fish or bread or rice. They don’t eat anything but human flesh.
With every bite, they grow bigger and stronger, harder to kill, and their appetite grows too, building, never satisfied, becoming more insatiable each time they feed. Eating is all they live for.
They were people once, just like all of us. They played games, loved one another, laughed and cried, but one day, perhaps in a cold, hard winter, perhaps only because they had the chance, they took a bite of a fellow human being and became windigos.
Cannibalism used to be a real threat in long winters. People told the windigo story to fight against the thought, to warn against the horror that would befall anyone who ate another person, to hold communities together until spring.
“Don’t turn windigo,” people said.
It’s hard to imagine windigos in a world of electric heaters and grocery stores open 24 hours a day, but how narrow is your definition of cannibalism?
Lying, cheating, stealing, taking more than your fair share, there are lots of ways to eat a person without digging your teeth in.
And windigos have always been hard to hunt down. They’re shape-shifters. One moment they’re in front of you and the next you are staring at a tree or a rock or something else entirely.
Sulfide mines that trash the water supplies, companies that treat employees like disposable tissues, a person tossing empty soda bottles onto a highway, a bully making himself feel big by making others feel small, they’re all just windigos in disguise. Turn your back, ignore them, pretend they aren’t there, and they’ll snatch you up to eat.
And every bite makes them stronger and hungrier for more.
Look into the mirror, look in those moments of selfishness, in those bites we all take from each other, every one a bit easier to swallow than the last. Look and notice and be aware.
Don’t turn windigo.