He hadn’t been in any sort of hurry nor on any particular mission. He was just wandering on a nice day, enjoying the good humor of his youngest son. The boy was finally old enough to go on a long walk, enthusiastically, without whining.

The boy was in the lead, scuttling under stiff branches, hopping over downed logs, clambering over and around great broken stumps. It was Nanaboozho who was left behind, by the difficulty of maneuvering his sheer bulk through the dense woods. Where the boy scooted under without thought, the man maneuvered restlessly far to the right or the left, way around and then back again. His son had found a magical, semi-open slope to trip his way down, while the father thought well about the labor that would be involved in bringing an exhausted child back up the steep incline.

At a slight upgrade, the boy stopped to rest, in the openness of acidic non-growth under a hemlock’s sprawling arms. He let a spider crawl from one open-fingered palm to the next, as Nanaboozho approached. There was, at that moment, a cracking high above the ground, in the slight valley nearest them. Nanaboozho became aware of the wind, high up in the trees, off to the west, making its way toward them. And then, there, directly in their line of vision, where their eyes had followed the telltale sounds, an immense maple broke in two. It cracked with a violent pop, and its red-green budded top fell full-belly to the ground. It did not grasp outward and catch in the nearby treetops. It was a marvelous sight, as the downed treetop shuddered and bounced slightly, coming to a sure and solid rest. The broken trunk angled thirty feet into the air, hung in place by residual splinters of white wood.

“What a treat to see that!” Nanaboozho cried out.

He zigzagged his way carefully toward the area where the tree fell. He wanted to make sure that nothing else would fall, that he and the boy would be safe. There, he saw it, on an opposing ridge, at his own height. The tree had merely lost a giant fork, thirty feet up from the ground, immense as a tree itself, splintered away from an old wound that had weakened the great, growing thing over the span of a full decade. Now the tree stood taller, straighter, and healthier than ever before. This was the work of his father, the West Wind. Nanaboozho knew—his healing and culling of the forest itself, for miles in any direction, was a powerful, invisible force that howled out its name after it was too late to run for cover. Nanaboozho found comfort in this, in knowing that his father was always with him, wrapping himself like a cocoon around his environment, following him about on long forays, not unlike his relationship with his own boy today. And it could be years, even lifetimes, before the boy himself understood that his own grandfather had been there that day and had gifted him with the downing of that particular fork of a tree.

And so, the grown man let the child lead him on through the woods, into the places that were out of his normal routine of work and pleasure, to places he’d scarcely visited since he was very young and less of a workaholic. Lifetimes had piled their indiscretions upon his beloved forest, and ancient, fully mature mixes of hardwoods softly gave way to pine barrens, like the ones he knew from the most windblown escarpments of the Great Lakes. Naked white sand hung loosely about the shallow roots of these stunted and unhealthy trees. But unlike the dune trees, they were all the same size, the same shape, and suffered from the same malnutrition and illness. He had only seen anything this absurd back during his childhood, when a slightly older half-spirit sibling had toyed with the idea of creating his own landforms. Those trees, too, were evenly spaced, identical, and void of the scars and benefits of individual interaction with the myriad life forms of any forest. Those trees, too, had failed to reproduce and stood like living stumps, hungry for sunlight, on naked soil with no clinging underbrush to hug and lovingly humidify their parched and scaling bodies and roots.

How could Nanaboozho have wandered so far from home without noticing, so far away from the mature woods where he felt comfortable, far from the well-known paths and countryside, so familiar that he felt powerful in their midst? In his own home territory, he knew the path of every tiny bird, the swelling and recession of every rivulet. He knew every dip, where every bee had sought respite from various hilltop breezes and influenced the pollination of patches of wild strawberries. But here, here, among the stunted, poorly-tended plantation-pines that humans had cultivated to compensate for over-logging, Nanaboozho felt small, like a bug in a cornfield. He sat, awed, among the desiccated pine needles of the harsh forest floor. He combed his own mind, to get back his bearings. Nothing worked, and he rose to follow the crackling of twigs and the convoluted singing that would lead him to his playful young boy who had run ahead.

But there, on the deer trail ahead of him, between himself and the sound of the distant boy’s safety, was the Wiindigo. For all of the horror stories he had heard about these cannibalistic sociopaths, Nanaboozho was surprised to see that the Wiindigo was no bigger than he was. He was large of stature, but lean and filthy. His clothing was graying and frayed about the wrists. The forearms protruded far beyond the sleeve-remnants of the shirt, and the wrists bore prominent, protruding joint bones with pale, crisscrossed scars from the scratching grasp of thousands of dry undergrowth branches. The hands, too, were too-large and bony, painfully scarred and mounded with callouses from pawing through sterile soil in search for sweet tidbits of roots. The eyes were sunken and looked only generally in his direction, like those of a beaten dog.

“Looking for mushrooms, eh?” An arm crooked, a forearm raised up, and a dead-branchlet of a forefinger protruded from a longish hand that dangled from the jagged wrist. It was as though the Wiindigo could not quite raise an arm to point, or perhaps had chosen to save his last bits of strength for the certain kill. There was coldness in the paucity of motions, the watching without moving, with no waste of energy, no revelation of weakness or strength. The Wiindigo waited.

“Now, why does he wait?” Nanaboozho wondered. “Is he waiting for fate? Probably not. He’s waiting for me to move, to show him my plan of escape.” And so Nanaboozho found himself frozen, wasting precious moments, considering his options, fearing his lack of options. Changing into a tiny bird might be his best move. The Wiindigo would not be able to follow his quick movements among the brittle limblets of the sick trees. Fine for him, but what about the boy? For all his ability to transform himself, he could not change one creature into another with such speed and ease. It would be up to the boy to grow and learn to do these things himself. It was Nanaboozho’s job as loving parent to keep the child alive and guide him through learning processes. Although Nanaboozho was the son of the West Wind, his mother was human, and even he, Nanaboozho, had his limitations. His boy was vulnerable, due to his lack of life experiences. Nanaboozho chose to hold his ground and wait for the Wiindigo to reveal something about himself.

“So, do you want to flee?” asked the Wiindigo.

“Of course,” Nanaboozho answered, cautioning himself not to mention the boy—although there was no doubt in his mind that the Wiindigo knew about the boy. Singing and tripping, stopping to pound, clap, and jump, the child drew attention to himself. Every living thing in the woods knew he was there. Every predator knew he was there.

Perhaps Nanaboozho could distract the Wiindigo from the boy. Perhaps he might first test the Wiindigo’s reflexes. Nanaboozho snapped a naked, dry branch from one of the pines. It popped loudly. A chipping sparrow sprang from the tree, its small brown and gray wings whirring repeatedly. The Wiindigo did not startle. Smoothly, quickly, he raised his left arm, as the bird darted over his shoulder. The sparrow flew into the waiting palm, and the Wiindigo’s fingers curled around the prey. Aggressively refusing to succumb to traditional Anishinaabe cultural norms, the Wiindigo then stared directly into Nanaboozho’s eyes, smiling eerily, as he addressed him.

“You must know that I am not unreasonable, Nanaboozho,” began the Wiindigo. “I am hungry. There are no mushrooms here, no plump roots, few families of fat game at home here, only starving individuals who are, to their own misfortune, merely passing through.”

His breath was fetid. When the Wiindigo spoke, bits of rotting flesh dangled from his molars like stalagmites in a deep cave with a narrow, convoluted mouth; but the fragments swayed slightly and looked gummy, with not enough spit. He was not just hungry. He was dehydrated, too, like the sick trees among which he hunkered.

“I will give you an honest man’s chance, Nanaboozho,” rasped the Wiindigo. “I am only hungry. I am neither liar nor thief.”

The teeth were rotten, discolored and uneven. They moved freely in the swollen, sore gums of the Wiindigo’s mouth, as he spoke slowly and deliberately. At rest, the Wiindigo’s jaw hung open slightly, as he sucked air into his deprived and damaged lungs. As he spoke, he cupped the desperate sparrow between both palms, exposing long, fleshless fingers. Nanaboozho saw that the previous winter had been particularly hard on the beastly man, and that frost had split and scalded his fingers. He’d had no source of tallow to rub into the wounds of his sensitive fingertips. Nanaboozho wanted to feel sympathy for the man’s misfortune, but fear for his child’s immediate safety forced him to stay attentive and directed.

There, there, finally, Nanaboozho saw in those misshapen, large-boned fingertips, the slightest of quivers. So, this was it, the Wiindigo’s weakness—the challenge, the excitement of the gamble—all or nothing. Perhaps the Wiindigo was weaker than Nanaboozho had thought, for only moments ago, Nanaboozho had assumed that all was lost, that his fate had rested securely in the hands of the starving, cruel soul before him.

“Now, Nanaboozho, do you trust me?”

Nanaboozho did not answer.

“Your fate rests with the fate of this bird in my hands.” The Wiindigo’s narrow eyes swept slowly down and across the cupped hands he held before him like an evil offering. Nanaboozho could imagine the feel of the soft, desperate bird flitting against the constraint of the long fingers.  Finally, the Wiindigo’s gaze defiantly met Nanaboozho’s once again. “Guess if this bird I have in my hands is alive or dead,” whispered the Wiindigo. He accentuated every word with his loose and too-large lips, lips that fought for control. His stale breath wound hot and prominent among the dry tree trunks. Nanaboozho dared not narrow his nostrils against it.

He stood his ground and thought before he spoke: “I cannot tell you that I think the bird is dead, because I would be wishing for its demise to save my own skin. You know that I will not do that. And, if I tell you that the bird is alive, you will crush it to prove me wrong.”

Slowly, with deliberation, the Wiindigo shifted his prize to his curled left palm only, crooked the wrist toward himself, smiled hideously, and huskily mouthed, “You choose.”