Meet My Imaginary Friends: Wapiti in The Wilds
The background for all of my Marienstadt stories is where I grew up in Elk County, Pennsylvania, famous for its elk herd. One Native American word for "elk" is "wapiti." The part of Pennsylvania that was my home is known as The Pennsylvania Wilds and every year people come from all over the world to spend time in The Wilds and in hopes of seeing the growing elk herd there. This story is based on a popular legend. In this excerpt from Wapiti in The Whiskey Bottle in the Wall, Oliver Eberstark tells a friend a story about his grandfather, Thaddeus, who, as a boy, went mushroom hunting on a winter day.
It was mid-November and the weather had been mild. Back then most people were fair at predicting the weather but when a cold front came out of nowhere it took everyone by surprise.
Thaddeus was having a good afternoon foraging. He'd found some large Hens-of-the-Wood and was filling the rest of his bucket with chestnuts as it started getting dark. He knew that it was also getting colder but he was a kid and, like most kids, he could ignore the cold when he was busy having fun. Then the snow started. He said it came so hard and so fast that he was nearly blinded by it. He was a good little woodsman but he was not prepared for the storm that was bearing down on him. In the cold and the dark he was soon confused, and terrified, and a very long way from home.
He knew he was in big trouble. He was slipping and falling. He lost his bucket and all its contents. Thad knew that the only hope he had of staying alive was to find some place safe, out of the wind, to try to weather out the night. He crawled under a hemlock tree and huddled up against its trunk. The wind wasn't as bad there, and the snow wasn't stinging his face, but it was a lot of hours until it would be light again. He was freezing and certain he was going to die.
Then he heard something coming through the woods. He knew enough to know the sounds of a woodland creature from those of the storm and he began to tremble in genuine fear. The only thing worse, he thought, than freezing to death, would be to be eaten alive. He was quite convinced that any bear or coyote, who happened to be out wandering around, would be happy to find a nice, juicy boy – even a small, skinny one – to feast on. For the first time since the storm blew in, he began to cry. He buried his head in his arms so he didn't have to see what was coming for him and wept. He heard the animal drawing closer, snuffling through the branches of the trees. He knew they had found him when he felt the heat of a body – two bodies – one on either side of him. But nothing happened. No claws raked him, no teeth bit him, just two large, furry, and rather unpleasant smelling bodies pressed gently against his. He lifted his head and, though he could see little more than the shape of them, he recognized two female elk. They settled down quietly, sheltering him between their warm bodies.
At first he could not stop shaking as he waited for them to notice him. He waited for them to turn and take a bite out of him. He'd never heard of an elk eating a human but he was by no means sure they wouldn't. Slowly, as he nestled there in the warmth of them, he began to relax. He could feel their soft breathing and it comforted him. They stayed still and he found himself growing so limp and tired that he dropped off to sleep. He said it was one of the most peaceful nights of his life.
It was barely light when he was jostled awake by their movements as they stood up. The wind had stopped and he watched in astonishment as the two cows rose, ducked out from under the branches, and plodded off into the woods. He quickly scrambled out of the nest and got his bearings. He had not gone more than a few yards when he heard his oldest brother calling his name.
“Here,” he called, running toward the sound. “I'm up here.”
His entire family had been out hunting for him since the first light. Thad told his family the story of how he made it through the night.
“Come on,” he said grabbing his father's hand and pulling him toward the hemlock tree. “You'll see.”
He said that they didn't believe his story. When they got to the hemlock tree he pulled the branches aside. There in the snow were the unmistakable imprints of a boy's boots and bottom between the enormous hollows created by a pair of five hundred pound creatures resting in the snow. Until the day he died Thad's brother called him “Elk Boy.”