It’s “Fargo,” with phantoms.
Audie Johnson lives in a small town in northern Minnesota in the early 1960s. Like a lot of teenagers, he feels his is a family of outcasts (“Cain’s Clan,” to borrow a line from Seamus Heaney’s Beowulf.) His father, a renegade pastor, is also an amateur archeologist who believes the Vikings were early visitors to the area.
One day Audie uncovers a bone carving of an “elk man,” which his father believes was left by the Vikings. Ingvard Sunset, an old man who keeps a backwoods museum, asserts that it’s actually a Native American objects, and that it depicts a powerful shaman in animal form. Sunset also has a younger Ojibwe wife, Dale, to whom Audie feels a strong attraction.
One night Audie sees a figment of this elk man outside his window. He steals the family station wagon to return to Sunset’s to steal a journal that might hold the clue to the elk man’s origin. He also hopes to meet Dale again.
The deeper Audie delves into the origins of the elk man, the more he is torn between the lure a dark legend, and the safety of those he loves.
The supernatural elements of this novel are taken from local stories recorded in the WPA manual for Minnesota, and the border between what is real and imagined is subtle and shifting. The tension between “Native” and “Norse” world views is also a theme. The novel will appeal to readers who like their supernatural suspense rooted in the world of the ordinary.
Here’s a preview:
The cellar was dark and damp, a safe enough place for the changing. He ground his cigarette against the wall and threw the butt on the dirt floor. Then he hacked into his handkerchief and took a long draw on the bottle. Tea, she called it. And it didn’t take long. At first things were foggy, the drawings on the walls just smudges of light. Slowly, though, the dancing shapes came into focus, pulsing like fireflies. This was the first effect. He draped the smelly skin over his shoulders, lowered the flappy fur mask over his face, and felt the strange puckering as it welded to his whiskers. Then he stretched and flexed, and reached for the bone on his throat. Ah, yes. Quickened, he clacked the antlers for luck, and crawled up the coal chute, into the night.
Once outside he mounted the crown, then sniffed. There was a kaleidoscope of scents. Burning stubble. Apples strewn on the wormy ground. And something else, ripe for the picking. He turned that direction. There was an old tarpaper shack at the edge of the school grounds, a streetlight beside it. Too bright. He swung into the woods to the west, to avoid it. There was an old deer trail. It went down it, two-legged.
And paused at the edge of a garden. The scent was coming from the tall house on the hill with a light in the window upstairs. Shaking his heavy head, he picked his way through the patch, pumpkins and corn stalks crunching under his hooves. Close to the porch he paused again. They were just inside, sleeping.
He clattered onto the creaking boards.
And all of a sudden they were on him, snapping and barking. Distracted by hunger, he hadn’t noticed the dogs circling in from behind. He turned. There were four of them, the Rottweiler in the lead. He charged, shaking his antlers, and the Rottweiler rolled onto its back with a yelp. The other dogs scattered into the garden. He watched them retreat, then went the other way, over the road and into the pit.
The Rottweiler rounded up the pack and chased after the loping creature. There it was, on the top of a gravel hill, its head swinging, the hair on its shoulders bunching up straight. The dogs circled. The creature circled. The Rottweiler lunged for the shaggy throat and the screen door in the house on the hill banged open.
“I got a gun!” a man yelled.
Crack! A dog flipped into the air, snapping at the spot where the bullet had severed its spine. The Rottweiler turned on the gunshot mongrel, slashing its throat, then spun around and raced for the railroad tracks, the other dogs streaming after.
At the second shot the creature tumbled off the hill, galloped over the road, then back through the garden and into the woods.
“Dritt i buksa!” The man lowered his gun. “You’re the big one, gud faen!”
The creature reached the old deer trail and turned north. It cantered across the school grounds, leaking a trail of blood behind. At the back of the school it paused, then broke for the woods where its wife was waiting.
“That’s a pretty impressive rack,” Snorri Johnson said. He was staring at the elk antlers nailed above the door.
Grandpa Nohre, sitting next to him on the ramshackle porch, nodded. “Took it up around Gatzke, last month. Quite the beast, eh?” He took the pipe out of his mouth and pointed with the stem toward the gravel pit, across the road. “And I tell you. Was another one, last week, right through my garden. The hounds cornered it, top of that pile. Antlers, that high!” He held his hand level, over his head.
“An elk, in town? Did you shoot it?”
“Nay, but I got one of them dogs.”
“Butch Dog? Belongs to old Teigen?”
“Nay.” Grandpa Nohre shook his head. “I’m not that good, with a gun.”
Snorri looked toward the gravel pit where his kids were playing. “Wonder whatever possessed it?”
“Ticks, I’ll tell you. Makes them crazy. It’s happening to the moose, too. You didn’t notice none of that?”
“Can’t say that I did. What’d you do with that dog, you shot?”
“Buried it, in the woods. Won’t be roaming no more, that shaggy bitch.”
“Good. Some of them, they could have the rabies. Should complain to the Mayor.”
“The Mayor.” Grandpa Nohre chomped his pipe. “And that’s another good one. A joke, I mean.”
“Why, what’ve you got against old Lunke?”
“Ever shake the man’s hands? Six fingers on each. Ain’t natural, I tell you.”
“Haven’t had the pleasure. He doesn’t come to church much.” Snorri glanced up at the antlers again. “You take a lot of animals like that? Poaching?”
“You the pastor, or the damn ranger? Got it all butchered, down in the locker. You’ll be taking some, I hope? Even with Esther, we can’t eat a whole elk.”
“Sounds like a bribe, but sure. How long did you leave it hanging, this time?”
“Two weeks. Seasons the meat, I tell you.”
“Rots it, more like it.”
Grandpa Nohre’s face crinkled. “We do like our game on the ripe side. Anyway, next time you’re in locker, take your pick. Just leave me some of them brains.”
“You eat them?”
“Best part. Esther, she makes it to headcheese. You’ll have to try some.”
“Sure, someday.” Snorri looked toward gravel pit again. Trouble was brewing. Jack, the youngest, had climbed to the top of Castle Hill and was waving a stick at his siblings. “Time to go,” he said. “See you in the funny papers.”
“More like the obituaries,” Grandpa Nohre replied.
“I’m the King of the Castle!” Jack, waving a stick, called from the top of the gravel pile. “And you’re all dirty rascals.”
“You asked for it,” Audie, his older brother said. He scrambled to the top of the pile, dodging the willow whizzing over his head. “You little rat!” Audie yelled, then clawed through the gravel, looking for a weapon of his own. He felt something hard and knobby and shook the sand from it. Turning the lump in his hand, it looked like something you’d find in Mom’s knick-a-knack case.
Jack lowered his guard. “What you got there, some bugger?”
“I’m not sure,” Audie said. “Looks like a carving or something.”
It was then that Snorri Johnson, pastor of the Nazareth True Lutheran, arrived on the scene. He looked at his sons at the top of the hill. “What’d you say it was?” he asked.
“Just some bugger,” Jack said.
Lily, the youngest daughter, was standing at the bottom of the hill, next to her father. She looked up at her brothers. “Oops,” she said. “You’d better start running.”
“Too late.” Snorri staggered to the top of the hill and grabbed Jack by the arm and gave him a swat on the butt. As he had left the razor strap hanging at home, this wasn’t so bad, less than a seven on the scale of wrath.
Jack squeezed his taut withers. “Ouch, Daddy! You hurt me!”
Audie stood like a reluctant archangel beside his fierce father. “You shouldn’t have spanked him.”
Snorri turned on him. “You saying I should just let him talk that like?”
“I’m just saying you use that word, yourself, all the time.”
“What word?” Snorri raised his eyebrows.
“You know. That one, that’s just an expression,” Audie said.
“Just an expression, huh? You think that’s what it is?”
Snorri looked down at Jack. Nine years old, the boy was dressed in a striped shirt with a Mickey Mouse logo on the left breast. You could pick up an outfit like that at Penney’s for two-ninety-nine, but it was still a challenge, keeping them clothed on a pastor’s pittance. “Stop crying or I’ll give you something to cry about.”
“I already got something to cry about, Daddy. You spanked me, remember?”
Snorri turned to Audie. “Let’s see what you found, was worth your brother taking a licking over.” Snorri weighed the object in his hand. Just a hunk of old bone, far as he could tell. He was about to throw it away when he felt the curved edges. He rubbed the scurf with his thumb, the sand flaking away. Then he held it up to his good eye again. God dammit. God dammit it all to hell anyway. “Where’d you find this?” he asked.
Lily noticed the tone in her father’s voice. “Why, Daddy, what is it?”
Snorri studied his daughter a moment. She was looking more like her mother every day, right down to that wave in her pretty brown hair. He knelt beside her, cradling the bone in his hands. “This bugger. It could be something real special after all.”
“See what I mean, about that word?” Audie said.
Snorri looked up at his eldest son. Audie, now he’d be a lawyer, he had that kind of categorical mind. Too bad he was so damn dreamy—a real sleepwalker. Snorri looked down at the thing in his hand, then shook his head. “You’re right, and I’m sorry.”
“That’s okay,” Audie said, surprised. “What do you think it is, Dad?”
“I think it’s a bone, some Viking carved.”
“Cause it’s got antlers, there in its hand. This could be Freyja, the fertility God.”
“What’s ‘fertility’ mean?” Lily asked.
“Oh, you know, when you fertilize corn,” Snorri said.
“What’s that, in its lap?” Jack asked.
Snorri held the piece of bone to his good eye again. “Some kind of ball, maybe?” Then he put his lips to the top of the object and blew. Sand came spurting out the other end.
“You just made it poop!” Jack cried.
“I was demonstrating how this old bone is hollow. Scraped out the marrow, the buggers did.”
“Can I have it back then?” Jack asked.
“You?” Audie said. “I found it.”
“Now, now, no need to fight.” Snorri reached into his pocket and gave Jack a shiny new nickel. “There you go, a finder’s fee.” He handed another nickel to Lily. “You might as well have one, too.” He glanced at Audie. “I hope you weren’t expecting one two, a kid your age?”
Audie looked at the ground. “No,” he murmured. A nickel would buy you a Milky Way bar at Engen’s Cafe. He looked up at the carving in his father’s fat hand. “What’re you going to do with that?”
“Don’t know, but it’s too late to bury again. Fat’s in the fire, for sure now.”