The snow fell in voluminous silence–burying, freezing, killing. The season of long night had crept upon them. Months of noiseless darkness and cold, where the sun itself was a bleak and pale smear in a gray sky for what blamelessly little time it stayed in that dreary heaven.
The black-green mass of the looming pines stood an unnaturally quiet vigil beyond the wooden palisade of Fort-du-Eaurouge; within their vexing boughs hid crowding skeletal legions of white birch, whose barren spears peaked above the ragged tree line.
Jacques stared and shuddered, wishing he had returned to the south with the rest of the company, for with each passing winter day the silent menace of the trees seemed to grow–they seemed to slowly creep closer, threatening to drown the fort in their dark branches and swallow it up forever.
Less than a dozen of the company remained to winter the Fort, though they were well-stocked with supplies. At least he hoped they were. The gruesome tales of men whose supplies had run out too quickly flit through his brain, stories of hauntingly empty wooden edifices littered only with the scattered bones of the dead. Scattered by wolves who had gotten in and ate what meat remained off the starvation-emaciated corpses…so it was supposed.
Christof had told him the region’s natives had similar stories about men found devoured in the winter, but they said the culprit was a devil that crawled into a man’s heart, turned it to ice, and made him hungry.
With another shudder, he turned away and tried not to dwell upon such bleak tales. Though some few furs would still be traded-in over the winter, brought by members of the local Chippewa bands, the trade season would begin again in full only once the rivers melted off their winter ice. Then there would be fresh supplies, steadily restocked, and new faces and stories and songs, as well as old ones, insects buzzing in the woods and noisy birds chattering in the trees…
…instead of this endless loneliness, all noise swallowed and dulled by the thick pine boughs and pillowing drifts of snow, and only the same people to talk to for interminably empty months.
Some men went mad from the isolation, he had heard. So he and his companions kept themselves busy with songs and games, with whittling and beadwork and leather sewing, and chores of course. Yet every day the silence pressed down upon them harder until songs died in their throats and conversation was but muttered snippets that offended the deadening air.
Then came the drums.
They began one night two weeks after the first snow, during the darkest hour, continuing until just before the first light of dawn. Their noise was far distant, reverberating with an unnatural, aharmonic rhythm of a vaguely threatening nature. Those who could sleep through the distant thrum were haunted by disturbing dreams of shapeless hunger that left them more exhausted than those kept sleepless by the incessant bass murmur.
On the third day of the drums, through the loose powder of the bone-white drifts, one of the Chippewa they traded with during the summer months arrived. His name was Follows Red Deer, he was wrapped in thick furs and leathers, and had an empty look in his dark eyes. He called out to let him in–that he came to warn them.
About the drums.
Christof, an old man long experienced trading with the various tribes in the unsettled Superior region, translated the Indian’s pidgin of French and Chippewa for the rest of the company.
The drums were evil, some kind of devil in the woods. Some other tribe. Not of the Chippewa or their enemies the Dakota. Who they were he would not say, only that they should keep a careful watch and not trust any strangers. Watch the sky. That it would be safe at night.
When he heard Christof say ‘night’, the Chippewa shook his head and repeated himself. He and Christof went back and forth for a moment. ‘After the sun was dark.’ Christof looked uncertain of his translation.
Follows Red Deer left almost immediately after the conversation, quickly making only one small trade for a bottle of strong spirits. Normally talkative, he remained unusually quiet and reticent, and his gait upon striking the snow beyond the fort’s walls was careful yet hurried. Jacques could see the Chippewa had already uncorked the bottle he had purchased.
A week passed and tempers grew as short as sleep. They did not speak to each other unless necessary, they avoided each other and stayed hidden in their own separate places as much as possible. They drank, and locked their muskets and weapons away in a shed during a sane moment amidst an inexplicable mistrust that rose with one another.
For every night there were the nightmare drums.
Every day the forest seemed to loom blacker and higher, hiding the sky, the snow-weighted pine boughs almost brushing the palisade walls. Jacques wondered, had they been that close before? The fort itself had seemed to shrink, its broad yard becoming a tiny square with not enough room to breathe. Jacques shivered uncontrollably now, and his hands would not stop shaking.
It was an angry and drunken Tomas who broke into the shed wherein they had prisoned the arms and emerged waving a musket around in a fit, suggesting and then demanding they seek out the drummers and put a stop to the devil’s noise. Were they not God’s men in this heathen land? The Lord would keep them safe from any pagan arrows!
Francois reminded Tomas the Indians had guns, not just bows. They traded for them. Tomas called him a coward and aimed the musket at him, shouting incoherently. Somehow the rest of them managed to wrest the musket away without anyone being shot, with only a few bruises and a bloodied lip to show for it. Tomas they tied up and put in one of the unused tanning buildings to sober, where his angry shouts were muted.
The guns they gave to Jacques to keep safe, by reason that with his hands shaking so badly he could never fire one accurately, nor even load for that matter, and thus presented no danger even armed. Jacques hid them in the moldering hay of the unused stables, and though he briefly considered placing one of Christoff’s pistols beneath his coat, he abandoned the idea as pointless for the same reason he had been given them to watch over.
For the first time in days, they ate together that evening, the tension of the day having instilled some sense of renewed, yet cautious, camaraderie. Partway through the muted supper, the other Francois, whom they had all taken to calling ‘le Lapin’ over his unfortunate tangle in a rabbit noose that summer, raised his head and froze for a few moments, bringing the entire table to tense stillness with him.
Though Tomas had been yelling and kicking things nearly all the day through–they were all the devil’s men, they were possessed, Christ would come to save him, his bonds hurt, it stank in the tannery, he would behave, he was cold, he was hungry–they had easily ignored these noises given the far worse intrusion the unholy drums had oppressed them with for weeks. They realized almost at once what had drawn le Lapin’s notice–it was too quiet.
All together the men rushed outside to the tanning building where Tomas had been jailed, but all they found within were the loose, bloodied coils of their fellow’s bonds, showing no signs of having been cut or broken. A quick search of the fort, in twos, found no sign of him. The gate seemed undisturbed. Jacques quietly checked the hidden weapons, which lay still untouched.
They had planned to feed Tomas his stew at the end of their own supper, but now it sat cooling on a table with ghostly wisps of steam vanishing off its surface. They agreed to a broader search in the morning. In the light. In the quiet.
All lay down uneasily in the dining house with the door shut-and-blocked by a heavy table. Seemingly closer now, the terrible, unsettling pounding of the unearthly drums began after midnight, as always, their booming echoes louder in the men’s ears.
The cacophonous rhythms ceased just before the sun cast light upon the sky; the unsleeping men stared around at one another, not daring to open the door until it had risen full above the tree-tops. Though they knew not the source of this fear, through the dim morning they took turns staring out the frost-hazed windows at shadows in the snow-smothered yard.
The short day passed all too slowly under the pale gray light of winter day. The chill air hung full of unrealized menace as despite an even more thorough search of the fort and the dark crannies of its numerous buildings, neither Tomas nor any evidence of where he had gone was found. Christof shook his head repeatedly, troubled at the lack of sign.
Another sleepless night passed in the barricaded dining hall, the fire kept low but the ashes stirred so the coal might warm the room from the biting winter just beyond the door.
In the morning, eyes peering from sunken black circles in skull-like faces, Louis, Alec, and Jean-Baptise drew the shortest set of straws and so, armed with three Trade Guns from the hidden cache, crept out to search beneath the towering pines for any sign of Tomas. They circled around the fort once and Jacques watched them disappear into the trees.
The quiet became interminable. Jacques strained his ears, he glanced at the other men watching over the wall with him. They glanced back with haunted, questioning eyes. There was no faded crunch of snow or muffled snapping or swishing of twigs and branches. Trembling again, Jacques called out for the three over-and-again, his every shout feeling as if it offended the silence, such that the trees now stared hatefully down at him and his voice faltered a moment. He gave a few more stuttered calls but there were no replies.
Fear now of what lay outside the fort grew such that with only a few words the remaining company decided to trust Francois with another of the rifles, and the quiet, soft-cheeked Daniel with Tomas’ musket. Jacques retrieved them carefully and invisibly from what remained of the cache in the stable.
Yet even so armed, none was daring enough to leave the fort to search for the three. They merely stood atop the wall and stared at the growing darkness within the thick branches of the forest. With the setting of the sun, the remaining company slunk indoors once more and spent the long night staring at each other, terrified words left unspoken, hanging in the air between them, tangled with the vaporous spirits of their breath.
A sudden thunderous pounding at the door caused everyone to leap to their feet, and for a moment Jacques thought it the drums come in bodily form to take them and bury them all in that awful cacophony.
The door shuddered again and Francois braced his gun, ready to fire, then came a voice demanding to be let in, cursing at them and the door both to be taken by the devil. Christof and Jacques stared at one another for a long moment, then heaved aside the table blocking the way. Tomas burst in, wild-eyed and haggard-looking.
Francois did not lower his weapon and demanded to know where the missing man had been. Tomas proclaimed only that he had been hiding from their madness, in a place he would not give away to them. But he was hungry and the drums…he could not bear third night alone listening to their damning rhythm.
After an angry, whispered conversation, while Francois continued to hold his rifle steady and hatefully upon Tomas, they decided to let him in and left him to sit muttering in a corner with his hands clapped over his ears. They watched him like wolves the rest of the night, guns hung in their hands like waiting fangs. The distant, broken drone of the nightmarish drums hummed and twitched in their ears.
But once the drums quieted in the morning, Tomas fell into a fitful sleep and the rest of them stumbled forth from the dining house to climb up and stand on the wall, watching the terrible forest, hoping for signs of the three who had disappeared.
Two more days–interminable, endless days–passed in this manner, the drums growing louder, they thought, growing closer. Snow fell thickly both night and day. The courtyard drifts reached their knees. They did nothing but stare out the windows and listen to the silent white world.
Despite some internal warning clamoring that he was being foolish and would give away their location, Jacques slipped away to check and count the hidden weapons again-and-again, fearing Tomas had found the cache and would soon try to murder them all, but foundation was never laid to those fears.
Then, at mid-day, three days after Tomas had returned from whatever still-secret spot he had crawled into, the snow ceased. They again emerged to watch the threatening forest over the walls–le Lapin yelled a warning only a moment before they all heard it: footsteps swiftly crunching through the snow, out in the trees beyond the fort.
They gathered together on the wall by the gate as a terrified Indian woman burst through the clutching trees, their branches weighted with new snow. She stumbled and fell through the drifts in a panic, yet only finally calling out to them when she reached the gate and pounded upon it. They just stared at one another for a moment while her plaintive cries struggled upwards through the chill to reach them.
In a low voice, Christof informed them she was begging to be let in, that she sounded terrified. The latter was unnecessary, for they all had ears.
When the question was raised, Jacques answered he recognized her as Red Deer’s woman. But Tomas would have none of it, said she was a devil sent by the drums to trick them. He angrily grabbed at Daniel’s musket, promising to kill the woman where she stood. But when Francois jammed the barrel of a rifle into his back he quickly begged off and contented himself with quoting dire Biblical verse about the shapes of the devil.
Jacques alone noted the bundle held tightly to the woman’s chest–a tiny child!–and for a moment his humanity burst through his fear. He clambered quickly down the ladder and forced the gate open against the piled snow with hands that for one moment did not shake, letting the woman in amidst angry shouts.
Shouts which died when he pointed out the child.
She sobbed uncontrollably as they led her to the dining hall. The most Christof could get from her before she stopped talking entirely was that something had happened to her husband. To Red Deer. Nor would she let go of the tightly wrapped and tightly held bundle in her arms to let even one of them check on the child. A fearful unease settled into Jacques’ heart at this.
As darkness fell, Tomas, reeking of alcohol, began shouting and cursing about the woman. Fists flew and only guns kept the brawl from becoming worse than bloodied lips and black eyes again.
The Indian woman huddled and shook in the corner, and Jacques kept a protective and supportive hand on her through the commotion, though it too trembled and shook.
Tomas snarled at them all and threw aside the barricade, disappearing out the door and into the night and snow drifts, promising them all they would regret their foolish mercies when the devil’s drummers came!
Daniel and Jean scrambled to slam the door shut and heave the tables back into place. They all stood staring at one another for a while. Jacques suggested darkly that they shoot Tomas the next time any of them saw him. If there was disagreement, none gave it voice.
Soon enough the drums started again, no longer muffled, sounding now almost as if they were just beyond the walls of the fort itself.
The Indian woman wept and rocked weirdly out of time with the drumming…then Jacques realized, or perhaps remembered, it was not the woman but the drumming that was weirdly arrhythmic. The woman’s motion only threw it into stark contrast, and watching her brought a sharp pain into his forehead such that he had to turn away. And yet…his own trembling hands seemed to pound unevenly with the drums.
The others buried their ears with their hands and fur caps, blankets and pillows where they could, yet could gain no respite from the cacophonous beat…for it thrummed in the floor and the walls like an erratic pulse, and down into their very bones. By morning, Jacques thought, they would all be mad.
Still, they again survived. Except for Jean, who they found had beaten his own brains out against the wall in the night, the sound unnoticed and buried by the awful pounding of the drums. Too numb and exhausted by the night’s ordeal, and the weeks of sleeplessness before that, they left his body where it lay and stumbled outside into the terrible quiet of another gray and overcast morning. By noon, a cold blue sky and bright sun mocked them.
If he lived through this nightmare, Jacques vowed come spring he would leave these dark forests with all its demons and witchcraft and go south–back into civilization and out of the Territories–and never return.
Christmas was near…as he could figure. The solstice coming upon them soon. Christ’s birth. Today? Tomorrow? Yesterday? He whispered prayers to God and crossed himself with shaking hands, wondering if they were forsaken by the Lord.
They climbed the walls again, watched the forest…found shadows among the trees…never resolving…without true form.
Whether man or animal…silent and noiseless sometimes, at others accompanied by the brief crack of a branch or the crunch of a footfall…
They would not answer to hails nor questions, both of which became increasingly angry and erratic.
Uneasy, Jacques scrambled down and ran for the stables…the guns were gone! He was shouting, crying out foolishly and announcing the plight to any listening ears. There was a frantic search throughout the compound, while Daniel stood watch on the wall, visibly shuddering in terror as the shadows flickered between the encroaching boles of the snow-laden pines. At the end, all they had was the one rifle carried by Francois and the musket carried by Daniel.
Tomas, they thought, a thief.
They called out for him and begged their need, their fear and terror cracking the silence of the chill air, but he never appeared. Perhaps it hadn’t been him; perhaps, thought Jacques with a shudder, shaking hands cradling his cold face, it never had been.
Thereafter, the day seemed to move in fits and starts… unreal…arrhythmic…the sun stood still…it raced…a winter storm blew across the sky, burying the pale sky, hiding any trace of an early-risen moon…trees moaned and wailed in the wind, bowing and shuddering…
Daniel collapsed, fell from the wall and would not waken, though it did not seem he had struck his head, cushioned as he had been by the snow left to build in the fearful weeks since the awful drums began their assault. Le Lapin took his musket.
Someone spied shadows in the courtyard! None of the few left could remember why this terrified them so. They fled to the dining hall with its bloody smears of brain on the wall. Jean’s body and shattered face were heaved out into the snow…heavy tables slammed against the doors…not yet night, not yet the ever-encroaching drums…
The inconsistent sun finally fell, all too soon, to a suffocating night, the world beyond the windows devoured by a darkness now made complete, bereft of even stars by the clouds of the howling storm. None could bear looking out them long.
They huddled near the dim, flickering fire, listening to the wind scream down through the chimney like a prelude of devilish pipes. Then the drums began–their thunder immediately outside now–a deafening cacophony that drowned the storm and the wind with pounding, unsteady, ungodly aharmonic rhythms, shaking the bones and beating deep into the brain…
They staggered or fell to the ground, writhing in pain, some with hands clamped uselessly over their ears; Jacques could not control his ceaseless trembling enough for even that pointless gesture.
Red Deer’s woman gave a final, broken scream…the bundle she had clutched so close tumbled from her lap to the floor, protective blankets unwrapping…
…it was dead…it was a dead thing in a blanket…it stared with limp, pale eyes…
…the fire flickered low, shadows leapt from the dark around them, looming and shuddering against the log walls, grasping with black fingers jumping and twitching to the horrid pulse…
…Christof danced a heavy-footed jig amongst the inky, unstable silhouettes of nothing, his hunting knives buried to their hilts in his chest…jerked about like a ragdoll in an awful théâtre de marionnettes…
…the sound of le Lapin screaming…the deafening boom of a musket and the retort of a rifle…blood sprayed across the flailing shadows upon the walls…
…were the Francois firing upon the shadows?
…or upon each other, their teeth bared–glinting ivory fangs, like wolves?
…or had all that been only the mad dance of light-and-shadow and the deafening drums?
…fulgurating darkness leered down from impossible black infinities uncontained by ceilings or skies, pressing in now all around…the air turned to ice; the trembling fire cowered uselessly at the cacophony of screaming, stomping, pounding, booming…
Jacques shook, and shook, and shook…
…was all noise, all sense, all motion, just the unbearable, red, wild hammering which had driven Jean to crack open his own skull the prior night? That same all-devouring horror that swallowed them now…
…pounding…pounding…on the walls of the dining house…
Raven Daegmorgan is a many-tentacled pseudopod living in northern Wisconsin raising a variety of immature blastocysts. It writes, it draws, it fixes computational machines, it does tricks for candy. At one time it whispered across the deepest Minnesota night to thousands of unsleeping ears. Raven’s fiction has appeared in the Roll the Bones and The Writhing Dark anthologies.
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Story illustration by Nikos Alteri.