He hadn’t planned on becoming a ghost hunter, but that’s what Mordem Letac felt like now. A trained naturalist, he’d come to the northern reaches of the Yukon Territory earlier in the summer to study migration patterns in the face of ecosystem collapse related to rapidly accelerating climate change.
In some ways studying ecosystem collapse prepared him for becoming a ghost hunter because the once-thriving tundra he was surveying and cataloging had turned into something of a ghost town. Most of the native species had disappeared leaving little but the harsh winds of a bleak winter to come.
And now he was hunting for a ghost. In his own mind, Mordem felt he was humoring a few of the locals from Old Crow, a town of a little over 200, mostly Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation. Many of whom who’d said, privately, that if he wanted to know what had happened to their caribou, foxes, hares, ermines, musk oxen and even wolves, grizzlies and polar bears, he needed to talk to the Silent One.
Evidently, she was a legendary spirit who at catastrophic times appeared near an ancient stone-ringed berm a couple miles outside of Old Crow. Atop the wide berm was the battered remains of a homestead. Mordem had been told that an outsider, a French trapper, had built it a hundred fifty years ago. The trapper didn’t last long. After a particularly electric aurora borealis, he hightailed it through town, eyes wide and as distant as the moon. Didn’t say a word. Just bolted.
A few of the townsfolk had gone out to the trapper’s place. His house looked afire, but as they got closer, it was as if the aurora borealis was emanating from the homestead. The Silent One stood at the doorway. Unspeaking. Unsmiling. Uninviting. No one in Old Crow ventured near the berm for many years after that.
Mordem didn’t out and out dismiss the townsfolk and their tales of the Silent One. He knew the world was a deep, strange place, and he believed the locals believed what they believed. Even their whisperings of other-worldly creatures appearing near the berm.
One of the town elders, Dinjii Zhuu, had confided to Mordem that, upon occasion he’d seen some of these strange creatures on the outskirts of Old Crow. Mordem idly wondered if these sightings coincided with festive drinking occasions. Until Zhuu roused him early one morning after an unseasonably early frost. “Come, Professor,” was all he’d said.
Mordem wasn’t a professor, but that hardly mattered to Zhuu. He didn’t argue and followed Zhuu who took him straight towards the Silent One’s berm. About halfway to the berm, Zhuu knelt in the frost near a slight ridge. With the flat dawn light and the crusted frost creating a sharper contrast, Mordem realized that the ridge was actually circular and the berm in the shy distance was sitting in a shallow depression. Not quite a bowl, though maybe thousands of years ago it’d been a much more pronounced dip.
Zhuu motioned to tracks in the frost that would soon be gone as the sun rose higher. The elder said nothing, but his gaze around the ridge and back towards the berm where the tracks led was a dissertation.
Mordem quickly had his phone out and began taking pictures, asking Zhuu to put his hand near the tracks to provide scale. It wasn’t so much the size of the tracks. Yes, they were largish tracks, polar bear largish, but it was the shape. Web toed, like a frog or platypus or some other amphibian, but big as a scuba diver’s fins. Not something he’d ever seen or heard of on the Canadian tundra.
They followed the melting tracks to the surrounding rocks at the base of the berm. The bleached and battered homestead looked like the remains of a ten thousand year old mastodon. Mordem couldn’t help thinking that mastodons had been done in by climate change—and humans. Two relentless forces of nature.
Zhuu didn’t follow as Mordem trudged up toward the forlorn structure. Mordem understood. Zhuu had more respect for spirits than he did. If figuring this out meant talking to the Silent One, he decided he would. He’d be a ghost hunter.
Turned out Mordem wasn’t much of a ghost hunter. He didn’t have to be. The Silent One was there when he sidled into the structure through some missing clapboards. She was as grey and grained as the floorboards she was hunched over. She was painting figures in a bright red paint. Paint that Mordem quickly realized was blood.
The blood came from a large carcass off to her right. A carcass that Mordem couldn’t identify: big, aqua-marine hued, with crocodilian jaws and massive webbed claws. A trail of blood led from it to the Silent One’s brush.
Strangely relaxed by the unreality of the tableau, Mordem approached and squatted to examine the figures being meticulously brushed. He immediately recognized the painted shapes: caribou, foxes, ermines, wolves, grizzlies, musk oxen, polar bears. With sweeping strokes the Silent One was creating wave after wave of them in parallel and convergent motion. It was mesmerizing and beautiful.
And then she brushed a larger figure at the rear of all the others: the croco-frog-carcass thing but with snapping jaws and slashing claws bearing down on the other creatures.
A hunt. An uber predator on the prowl.
It hit Mordem like forty degree water: the Silent One was painting a pattern he was very familiar with: migratory routes. And the predators that followed the migration. Whatever that hideous carcass was, it was likely responsible for the disappearance of the area’s mammals.
Mordem took out his phone and began snapping photos. The Silent One ignored him. He tried to process what this all meant. An obviously alien species was preying upon the creatures of the Canadian tundra. It was surreal, but not frightening to him. As a naturalist, it made sense. Not the alien species, of course, but the migration and the predators.
And whatever the Silent One was, she was a match for the croco-frog thing. Mordem realized he was going to have a story and the research leverage to write any ticket he wanted. For a moment he let himself daydream down that heady road.
He snapped out of it when the Silent One moved and started painting another figure behind the croco-frogs. It was three times the size of a croco-frog and even more vicious looking. Mordem moved for a closer look, and the Silent One met his eye for a moment.
Her eyes were primordial, bright, rich like nebulae ready to give birth to suns. She gave him a very knowing look. And then she was gone. Vanished before his eyes. Only her blood-stained brush remained. Mordem looked down at the drawing she’d just finished. It was terrifying to behold, but what paralyzed Mordem was what she’d painted in the creature’s fists: a wicked-looking weapon. Unmistakably, some kind of firearm with missiles flaming forth.
Deep down, Mordem, like every other predator in the wide, wide, wide universe, feared a new alpha predator, another top dog with teeth bared, hellbent and hungry for conquest.
He saw clearly, as the Silent One saw, that it was time to get moving.
He just didn’t know where the human race could go.