The Grim Reaper of Frozen Hell

Thanks; that mug of hot cocoa is most welcome. Preferable to the weak, sweet wine I was expecting. Sorry, bad joke. This is the first time I’ve felt warm in days. Those days in Alaska chilled me to the bone, especially the last one. I didn’t think I’d ever feel warm again. It was a total whiteout — a face freezing blizzard coming out of the north east. Our thick coats and gloves kept us comfortable, and our goggles stopped our eyelids freezing to our eyeballs. But the roar of the wind and the hailstones pummelling against our bodies slowed us to a crawl. The Wrangell-Saint Elias Wilderness has glaciers and rocky terrain so vast that the most experienced explorer would be crazy to trek through it alone.

We kept moving, silent; unable to hear each other above that dreadful din. All I could think of was the mug of hot soup laced with gin waiting for us back at the hut. That and the thick, coarse blankets warming over the stove. My heart pounded in my chest, and my breath was punishing my lungs. But those thoughts of warm comforts kept me going. Trudging over the hundreds of yards. Until that black, wedge-shaped block of redwood greeted us in the heart of deep, Alaskan winter. Hours seemed to have gone by since we abandoned our snow cat. Stupid of us to decide to trek on foot. Rather than wait for the others to come out in the other cat and rescue us. In reality, it was no more than thirty minutes. Had to be, because more than an hour in that blizzard, and we’d be dead. There was no way of telling how long it would be until we finished scrunching our way through the drifts. And emerged into the moonlight, a short walk from our base and safety.

And then I saw it.

It took minutes to make it out. The first thing I saw was a big, black, shapeless shadow moving rapidly ahead of us. It’s difficult to gauge size in a blizzard, and at first I thought it was a man in a long fur coat; a man with a skull like face. I didn’t think it was a bear, because it was too angular, and it walked with a spring in its step. Then, I saw its fierce, blazing eyes and vicious looking teeth. Its long, reptilian head was white and fleshless so that the bones of its skull showed through. It was only when I saw what was in those teeth, that I got the scale of the thing. From its jaws hung a caribou. At first I thought it was only a baby, then, I saw the antlers on it and realised it was a full sized adult. Those beasts are big. The thing holding the caribou must have been huge, much bigger than a bear — bigger than a bison. When I realised it was bigger than the snow cat I said: “Saints preserve us,” under my breath and dropped down flat on my belly. I hoped Fairfax was doing the same. Whatever it was, it was over ten feet high.

“What the hell’s that?” said Fairfax, crouching by my side.

“Quiet!” I said, as loud as I dared. “I don’t think it’s seen us. Whatever it is.”

Up until then it was the blizzard saved us. Snow blinded, the beast didn’t see us. Otherwise, it might have dropped the caribou and made a meal of us instead. Predators gorge themselves, then sleep it off. And, I guessed that was no less true of the thing we saw.

God knows where it came from. There are things hidden in the mountains of Alaska that we’ve never seen. I’m certain of that. Well, I am now.

We’d gone to investigate cries for help on the Canadian border, following on the quake the day before. We discovered we were leaking gas and had to stop. Fairfax suggested making it back on foot. If only we’d sat tight. Green and Pauli would have picked us up soon enough. And then we’d never have seen that — thing. I must have lain there several minutes, hoping Fairfax had stayed put too. And in those minutes, I saw it again. It had changed direction and was lumbering back, tossing its skull like head in the air, swinging the caribou, and dropping it to the ground so bits shredded off. It picked the carcass up again again, repeating the process. Swallowing new chunks of flesh every time.

That could have been me it was swinging around. It could have been either of us. Hell, it could have been us both. The classic, flesh eating dinosaur — with little hands in front no bigger than a man’s. But the creature’s ass was impressive. A massive tail, swinging left and right — like a giant’s club. It could fart in your face and bash your brains out in one move, that beast.

“I know what to do,” whispered Fairfax in my ear, “ You freeze, you don’t move. I saw it in a movie.”

“You’re nuts,” I said. “I saw that movie too, and you’re nuts, I tell you.”

“No, it’s true,” he went on. “It can only see moving prey. It can’t see you, if you’re not moving.”

The beast loped forward. Seen head on, there was a weird foreshortening of its long, white skull, and that’s why it looked almost human. And the rest of it, black and shapeless, hung from it like a long black cloak. The beast was nothing more nor less than a huge grim reaper, hurrying towards us through the blizzard. Messortorva nix, I thought, absentmindedly naming my discovery. The Grim Reaper of the Snows.

“Keep still, keep still,” Fairfax whispered, but I didn’t stay to listen to him. Panic seized me, and I ran. As I ran, I heard Fairfax’s voice going through my head. I knew he was right; yes, I’d seen that movie too, and reason told me to freeze and wait till the beast stopped sniffing at me, unable to get my scent in the freezing air. But the beast’s roar blasted my reason to the winds. I ran as I’d never run before; my chest aching and my throat on fire.

Then I heard Fairfax scream. I looked back and I screamed too. But that broke the spell. I got my second wind and ran harder than ever — terrified by what I saw. The movie was wrong. Movies often are. Ridiculously wrong. They tell things how they should be; how we want them to be. Wish fulfilment fantasies. Rationalisations. My panic saved me from misapplied reason. No; not panic — instinct. What I had seen in that brief backward glance was the beast’s teeth gutting Fairfax in a single movement, while its eyes fixed his with a heartless, cruel stare. It could see him all right.

And then all at once it was gone, swallowed by the whiteness.

And ahead of me, glowing with warmth and friendship was the hut, with the other snow cat alongside.

“What you say is impossible,” said Green, as I sat shaking and sipping my soup. “Apart from the fact that tyrannosauruses are way long extinct, dinosaurs were tropical creatures. No way could they live in this climate.”

“That’s what we assume,” I answered. “But that’s because we think of them as cold-blooded lizards. That thing’s blood was hot as hell. And as for being long extinct, maybe it’s from that deep fissure that opened up behind us. Maybe the quake flushed it out.”

“You’re sure Fairfax is dead?”

“His head went on screaming seconds after the beast ate the heart out of him,” I said. “But he’s dead all right. He coughed up blood, then…”

“Puh-lease!” said Green. “Spare me the details — at least out of respect for…”

“I respect him,” I said. “Of course I do. But he was wrong about the t-rex’s eyesight being based on movement. That’s all I’m trying to say. We need to let people know before anyone else comes up here.”

“Now wait a minute,” said Green, “let’s suppose it is a t-rex, which I doubt. It would be as good as dead…”

“And,” I said, “there are limits to doubt, and scepticism.”

Green shook his head. “There’s always room for doubt. I once saw a UFO, and it was a doozy! I followed it for a mile. Turned out it was a hot air balloon. Now you say this thing is a t-rex,” he chuckled. “My money’s on it being a bear. A big bear. Maybe a very big bear; but nothing to be too afraid of. Fairfax must have spooked it, and it went wild.”

“It was too thin and angular…”

“OK, a starving, angry bear. Bears look totally different when they’re starved half to death.

He’d not been there. He’d not seen it. “We’re talking,” I said, “about a bear big enough to carry off a caribou in its jaws.”

Green smiled a grim little smile. “You misidentified an adult caribou,” he said. “Easy done in these conditions. You saw something you couldn’t quite make out. And your brain filled in the gaps with stuff you’d seen in movies.”

Pauli took a swig of gin and considered. “I don’t know,” he said, “maybe you’re — kind of — both right. The Inuit talk about a creature; ‘angulalanuk’ or something. It means, ‘Bear of bears’ — or ‘big-bear’. This is angulalanuk country. No Eskimos comes near it. Maybe it’s time we civilised folk got down off our collective high-horse, and learned a bit of their humility.”

“There are more things in heaven and earth…?” I said.

“Exactly,” said Pauli, sipping gin. “Whatever the angulalanuk is, it’s not a bear. Not as we know bears. Eskimos saw these things and, ‘bear of bears’ was the nearest they could get to hanging a name on it. Their actual descriptions sound nothing like any bear I’ve ever seen.”

“But nothing like a t-rex,” Green insisted. “I’ll bet anything you like on that.”

“Well,” said Pauli, “just try to keep an open mind.” He walked over to the other side of the hut.

Outside, the wind whined and screamed. If it was the wind.

Away from the stove, Pauli’s breath turned to mist, reminding me of the cloud around the beast. I shuddered.

“I’ve got a book with a picture of one somewhere,” Pauli went on. He walked over to the little bookcase. There, after a brief forage, he pulled out a large volume and walked back. He held the book out to me, showing me the title-page. It was called: ‘Dinosaurs and Man’. And it was published by something called, ‘The Cryptozoology Press’.

Green looked over my shoulder, groaned: “Cryptozoology — pseudo science!”

“Not necessarily,” said Pauli. “They keep finding new species around the world. But anyway, look…” He turned over a few pages. And there it was, as if drawn from life. The bony skull-like head. The shaggy black body with its tiny fore-legs. And, it walking through a snow covered landscape.

“They gotta be kidding,” said Green and rolled his eyes. “It’s the boogyman!”

The caption underneath said: ‘The angulalanuk, as it might appear in life as a large theropod dinosaur.’

Green laughed. “I don’t believe it,” he said. “Cryptozoology; dragons mammoths, and mastodons, and great sea serpents! Fairfax is lying dead out there, mauled by a bear of some kind — fact — and you two are swapping ghost stories! ‘Angulalanuk’ indeed. Go home Cryptozoology, you’re drunk! And so are you; the pair of you.”

The wind — if that’s what it was — howled louder outside. As much to take my mind off it as anything, I looked at the book.

“ No, look,” I said. “It says here: ‘The idea that dinosaurs may have braved the arctic snow and ice is not so far-fetched.’” I pointed at the paragraph. “‘Not now we know they were the warm-blooded ancestors of modern birds. They may well have been covered in feathers as depicted here. Some of the descriptions of the angulalanuk obtained from the Arctic Circle Inuit may…’” — here Green laughed — “‘just may even point to these creatures having survived into our times’. And that beast outside proves it.”

Green snorted his derision. “A dinosaur could not have survived being frozen for sixty million years — not even sixty thousand. Cooling it enough to preserve the body for that length of time — the tissues would have imploded.”

“Now hang on,” said Pauli. “I don’t buy that sixty million years crap. I don’t even buy sixty thousand years. Maybe six thousand years.”

“What are you talking about?” snapped Green. “There were no dinosaurs six thousand years ago.”

“You can’t prove that,” said Pauli. “There were mammoths found buried in ice in Siberia that had drowned in the Great Flood and frozen as the water turned to ice.”

Green gaped. “What? Are you crazy? Great Flood? There was no such thing!”

Pauli lit his pipe just so he could gesture with it, I guess. “People have believed in the Great Flood for thousands of years. There must be something in it.”

Green shook his head, “Oh my God!”

“That’s what Noah said,” Pauli observed, with a solemn, almost reverential nod.

“I’m prepared to go along with the idea that dinosaurs survived in some hidden valley up here,” I said. “But not that they were frozen.”

“Even that’s bat-shit crazy,” said Green. “What you saw was a bear. It must have been a bear.”

“It was too big for a bear,” I insisted.

The howling outside was louder now.

“In the snow,” said Green, with no reference points, you have no idea what size that thing was.”

“Maybe, they did survive in a hidden valley,” said Pauli. There are plenty of tales of dragons. Like the ones in the mountains of China, for instance. Then there are the dragons of Medieval Europe. And in the Bible too. Again, there are fossil dinosaur tracks in Arizona with human footprints right alongside them. That proves early man hunted dinosaurs in the beginning. We only think they’re a gazillion years old because we’re misled by the fossils we found. But those human footprints prove that they’re not. And, as any honest, up to date geologist will admit, the radiocarbon method of dating fossils is highly suspect.”

“I’ve never heard such mumbo jumbo,” said Green.

“Listen,” I said. “I think I hear something.”

“Just the wind,” said Pauli.

“No, the wind’s dropped.” And it had. Something else was out there.

“Can you prove dinosaurs are extinct?” said Pauli. “Can you prove your ‘millions of years’? No, I didn’t think so.”

“It’s getting louder,” I said.

“Science doesn’t work like that,” said Green, with an air of finality.

“Then perhaps it’s about time that it did — seeing as it’s not working at all right now.”

“Shhhh!” I said.

But Green ignored me. He held up his fingers and counted off the points, “One; folklore is not evidence — and that includes the Bible. Two; the radiocarbon method of dating fossils has been proven to work thousands of times. Three; the footprints you talk about are all dinosaur footprints — eroded dinosaur footprints. Either that or they’re forgeries.”

Pauli has started shaking his head at point one. Now he said, “There you go again, changing the facts to fit your outdated theory. Folklore’s fine when it suits your case, like when Schleimman used it to locate the ruins of ancient Troy. And if something spoils your nice neat picture-book of the world, it has to be a forgery.”

“‘Nice neat picture-book of the world’?” said Green. “That’s rich, coming from a Bible basher like you!”

“Keep your voices down,” I hissed. “I’m telling you. I hear something.”

It is difficult to describe what I heard. There was a deep ‘Crump! Crump!’ that sounded like someone — or something — walking through deep, drifted snow. There was also something like a snorting breath, and a snuffling, deep and loud. And then there was the growl.

“That’s a bear!” Green said.

“Will you keep quiet?” I said, starting to panic.

“It’s OK!” Green insisted, “It can’t get in through the door.”

“You don’t know that,” I said. After all, I was the only one who had seen the thing. I was the only one who knew what it could do.

“It’s prowling around outside,” said Green. “When it realises it can’t get in, it’ll go away.”

It started moving again: ‘Crump crump’.

“Don’t forget the windows,” I said.

“The shutters are closed,” said Green.

‘Crump crump crump crump’.

Silence.

I was just about to suggest we turned out the light when the whole hut shook. Something had crashed against the wall.

We waited for the best part of a minute.

There was another crash.

“That’s no bear,” said Pauli.

And at that moment, with a terrific bang, the shutters on the window cracked from top to bottom.

“Definitely no bear,” insisted Pauli.

It was then something that none of us were expecting happened. There was another crash, the shutter broke away from its hinges, and — surreal though terrifying that it was — a huge, grizzly-bear’s head came through the gap.

“That’s a bear,” said Pauli.

It was dead; its fur matted with blood. We had scarce time to register it before the whole animal was lying at our feet. But none of us were looking at that. The huge, elongated skull like head of the beast was through the window and gazing at each of us. It had used the dead bear as a battering ram. Now it looked at us as if selecting us from a buffet.

“It’s a giganotosaurus,” said Pauli.

The giganotosaurus — if that’s what it was — uttered a low, growl. We were in a weird, dreamlike moment. Time stood still. Nothing seemed real. Toto, I don’t think we’re in Kansas anymore.

“But, but,” said Green, “it can’t be a giganotosaurus. Giganotosaurus was a carnosaur. And carnosaurs didn’t have feath…”

Whatever-it-was lurched forward and — with almost a studied air of nonchalance — bit Green in half.

Pauli stood there, looking around him in a panic, just like a little boy who’d been caught smoking. He backed away, whimpering. The beast watched him, curious, but only for a moment. Then, almost playful, it nudged him so that he fell over. His spectacles fell off too, and he let out a big wail. He was so short sighted, without his specs, anything more than a yard away was invisible. Maybe that was just as well for the moment. But then the beast opened its mouth and flicked its tongue along Pauli’s body.

Pauli screamed. And went on screaming.

I didn’t wait any longer. I opened the door and ran outside.

You know, life consists of a series of choices. If I’d taken my coat off when I entered the hut, I would have frozen when I went back outside. If we had not decided, at the last minute to only take one of the snow cats, we might never have encountered the beast. But more important: the other cat was waiting, fuelled-up and ready. And I was well insulated against the cold. At the back of my mind, was a movie. But not the same one that Fairfax had seen.

I had to put as much distance between myself and the beast — whatever they called it. I ran outside and got my first good look at its back three quarters. Most of its length was tail; a gigantic question mark of solid muscle arching high into the air. Its body was huge and covered in a long cape of black feathers. I supposed it was adapted to a colder climate. But I hadn’t time to wonder. For even as I tiptoed past, it jerked its head out of the hut and looked straight at me.

And Oh, the horror! It still had Pauli in its gaping maw — and he was alive. The beast was rolling him around on its tongue like a toffee, savouring the taste of his body. And as it did so, Pauli screamed, over and over.

When it saw me, the beast despatched Pauli with a single crunch that cut off his scream. And his head! It came rolling in the snow towards me. Hitherto the blizzard had blinded it. Now the blizzard was over, it saw me plain. I started to run and it turned round to give chase. I think I owe my life to the beast’s massive tail. It was like a Rolls-Royce chasing a scooter. In the short term, the little bike has the advantage. Before the beast had turned round to run, I reached the snow cat and wrenched open the cab door. The beast’s teeth scraped against the cab as I climbed inside. I tried the engine, but it stalled. And then the beast brought those shark like teeth down on the windscreen. I think the glass confused it. It must have never seen anything so hard yet so transparent. “Stay calm,” I said to myself. “Be ready to drive as soon as the engine starts.”

I tried the starter again, and this time it worked. While I was revving the engine the beast was all over the cab. Now we exchanged roles. I was the cumbersome one. I had no choice but to move forward. But I couldn’t move until the engine was up to speed. The second the revs hit fifteen hundred, I knocked off the parking break and the cat lurched forward. The beast was startled, and moved to one side. I put the cat back in neutral and the beast looked down. It was working it out. Is it good to eat? Is it dangerous? Will it break if I bite it?

Now to drop the blade.

“That’s it,” I said out loud. “You’re curious; you don’t know what it is. You can see me inside, but you can’t get at me. Yes, you can climb on that blade and get closer. Closer. Closer.”

I raised the blade the minute the beast climbed aboard it. It overbalanced. For a moment I thought it was going to fall off. “No, don’t fall off — yet.”

The cat shot forward. Got to be quick, it could still jump off.

We hit the incline. It was all uphill from now on. The beast scrambled about on the blade as it overbalanced, and fell backwards. It let out its angriest roar yet. We chugged up the hill. Only minutes to the top. If it managed to swing its bulk to one side I was done for. The sides were the cat’s weak points. And the beast could outpace me, even uphill.

‘Chug chug chug’ went the engine. I couldn’t see past the beast, maybe I could risk a look out of the side window? I opened it and looked out. Yes: five, four, three, two one.

I dropped the blade, and the beast fell forward. But it grabbed hold of the blade and hung on. I put the tracks in reverse and they held. But the beast was climbing up on the front.

Only one thing to do.

I opened the side door, banged the tracks into forward. And jumped.

By some miracle, I managed to land safe by the fissure’s edge. Some foolish bravado made me stand, shake my fist and shout: “Go back to the frozen hell you came from!”

And for one awful moment, I thought the beast was going to climb over and get me. But at the very last minute, the snow cat with its monstrous burden rolled over the edge of the cliff into the deep fissure the earthquake had opened up. it disappeared from view.

But it was some minutes before I dared look down. I was nervous the edge of the precipice might give way. At last, I plucked up the courage to crawl over there, and look.

There was nothing there. It was too dark. But the snow cat and the dinosaur were both — to coin a phrase — extinct.

I stumbled around for hours and completely lost my bearings. Then, through frost bitten eyelids, I made out a dim ‘someone’ walking alongside me. As I turned to face him, he grabbed my arm and pulled me to the right. I looked at his face. And, to my amazement, I saw that it was Pauli.

“This way,” Pauli said. “It’s not far to the hut. Then you’ll need to radio for help.”

“I thought you were dead.”

“Nah! I wouldn’t die till I knew you were safe.”

“I killed it. I killed the giganotosaurus.”

“It wasn’t a giganotosaurus.”

“Oh? I thought you said it was?”

“I only said that to annoy Green.”

“What is it then?”

“It’s a do-you-think-he-saurus.”

“That’s a joke, right?”

“No, its vision is based on motion.”

“Isn’t that a myth?”

“No, ith a mythith. They’re all female. Like in the movie.”

“Well, I should name it,” I said. “I discovered it, the discoverer gets to name it, and I name it ‘messortorva nix’ — the Grim Reaper of the Snows.”

“Catchy!”

Our conversation went on in this inane manner for some time. I only remember fragments of it. At last we reached the hut. “I’ve got to go now,” said Pauli. “Look after yourself.”

And he walked off into the night; just faded away.

Nobody believed me, of course. They laughed when I said the dinosaur had feathers; said I was just trying to be trendy. And when I told them the bit about Pauli’s ghost helping me find the hut. Well that only made things worse.

So, they charged me with three counts of murder as, I guess, you know. They even threw in the theft of the snow cat. But they couldn’t make that one stick. And Alaska not having the death penalty, and Pauli coming from Texas, I was extradited and put on death row here in Austin.

So, your reverend, worshipfulness; here endeth the confession! And no, I will not retract one word of it. And, don’t try to scare me with hell. For you see, I’ve been there already.

And the angel of death and I are on very good terms.

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About Zoe Nightingale

I am a writer of short stories, novels, poetry and non fiction.
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