As a kid, whenever Charlie had misbehaved, Grandma Ahnah always had a cautionary tale ready to convince him to stay in line. 'Listen to your parents, or the Qalupalik will rise up out of the sea and steal you away!' 'Don't go out on the dock without a grownup, or a Tizheruk might snatch you into the water and drown you!' 'Don't stray too far from the lodge at night, or the Keelut might stalk you and devour you!"
The only legendary boogeymen of Grandma Ahnah's that had ever made a particular impression, though—had, in fact, given him many a nightmare and actually made his breath catch at the slightest noise in the bush—were the Tornit, because the Tornit were basically people. They were as smart as people. They could be as nasty as people, if the mood struck them, and according to the stories, it often did. Where they differed from people was the hairiness, the stench, the couple extra feet of height and the couple hundred extra pounds of muscle. Take all the worst things about a bigfoot, but give it human intelligence, and you had a Tornit.
Charlie had once asked Grandma Ahnah if she'd ever met a Tornit. She had nodded, with a shudder. "He was abominable."
Despite his irrational fear, though, in forty-plus years of living in Alaska's Chugach Mountains, in thirty or so years of helping his parents run their family ski lodge, and with nearly a decade under his belt as its actual proprietor, Charlie Tukkuttok had never once seen, heard, or smelled an actual Tornit.
One night, though, as Charlie was gassing up the Snowcat so that it was ready to take skiers up the mountain the next morning, his son Chris, who'd been manning the equipment rental hut near the kennel, sprinted up gasping that the dogs were going nuts. These were sled dogs, raised with discipline, so it took quite a bit to spook them. As it was well after sunset, Charlie guessed some predator had gotten in, and he grabbed a hunting rifle before he went to check it out.
He wasn't prepared for the particular predator that lurked there.
The kennel was a field of individual doghouses, one for each of their dozens of sled dogs, each with their own space and their own food dish. The first thing he noticed on approach was a wall of stench, and it was unreal—a mix of rancid meat and wet skunk. Eyes watering against the smell, he pressed forward, until he could see, ahead of him, a spot where the huge chain link fence surrounding the yard had been torn open, the metal curled away as if a truck had driven through it.
Charlie tightened his grip on his rifle.
He could tell roughly where the creature was, because all the dogs were straining at their lines, trying to get away from it. In the darkness, it could have been a bear…but bears didn't crouch.
Amid the cacophony of barking and whining, the creature picked out the sound of Charlie's footfalls and scuttled around to face him. It had been hunched over, apparently eating dog food out of one of the dishes.
What he saw looked like the stereotypical bigfoot from the tall tales, if an arctic version: huge and apelike, with long, lanky limbs and tufts of shaggy white fur hanging off its body, yellowed and stained in some places, and tinged with mold in others. The face was surprisingly human.
It looked at Charlie, then at the barrel of his rifle, then at Charlie again, and spoke.
"This stuff's awful. Got anything better?"
Charlie was still trying to wrap his head around the living, breathing legend as he led it to the back door of the lodge's kitchen—an offer he had extended almost automatically when the creature first spoke, but was now certain had been a bout of temporary insanity. He glanced up at the creature, easily eight feet tall, but so far it had given him no reason to reach for his rifle again, save a vague feeling of uneasiness Charlie got from watching muscles like a miniature mountain range ripple under a carpet of snowy fur.
"No one ever told me you guys could talk," Charlie said awkwardly.
"Sure, we talk." Though its grammar was fluent, its accent was slightly guttural. "You guys just never actually want to."
"Oh." There was a long pause. "Well, I'm Charlie."
Once they reached the kitchen door, Charlie went inside and filled a plate with anything they had ready to serve in the lodge's dining room. He brought it out to the Tornit and sat with it for a moment while it ate, still fascinated.
"Where do you guys live? I've never even seen you."
"Oh, we try to stay out of you people's way. Traditionally, we haven't gotten a very warm welcome."
"Well, that's a shame. You seem like a pretty pleasant guy."
Qumli grunted, his mouth full of food.
"How do you survive out there?"
The Tornit looked solemn. "Oh—we forage what we can, find shelter where we can. It's a difficult life, and though we've lived it for thousands of years, I can't say there aren't nights where I wish I had a plate of hot food before me." Qumli gazed wistfully into the distance.
Charlie still couldn't believe this was happening. He needed someone else to witness this, to testify that it actually happened. "Would you excuse me for a moment? I'll be right back."
Charlie ran in through the lodge kitchen, out into the dining room, and continued to the lobby, where his wife, Libby, was staffing the check-in desk.
"Lib," he said breathlessly. "Come with me."
She raised an eyebrow at him. "I can't," she said. "One of our reservations just arrived, and I have to give them their keys—"
"They can wait," he said, grabbing her by the wrist and dragging her through the dining room.
"Something better be on fire," Libby grumbled.
When they reached the kitchen door, she jumped and screamed when she saw the Tornit, but Charlie put a protective arm around her to calm her down.
"Libby," he said, with a grand, sweeping gesture, "this is Qumli."
He caught Libby as her knees went weak.
Charlie genuinely never expected to see another Tornit in his life, but the next night, just after dusk, while he was clearing new snow away from the equipment rental shack, who should emerge from the trees but, not one, but two Tornit.
They looked indistinguishable to Charlie, except that one of them greeted him. "Charlie!" Qumli called out. "This is Iteq." He gestured to the Tornit next to him, who gave a jovial wave. "What's on the menu for tonight?"
Charlie was completely taken aback. "Uh—follow me, I can get you something," he said, leading them toward the kitchen door.
I can't believe it, he thought. I'm actually friends with the Tornit! Grandma Ahnah would flip her lid! This is historic!
The next dusk, Charlie was already beginning to anticipate a visit from his mythical new friends as he headed out to the fire pit, carrying an armload of wood. To his surprise, he was nearly trampled by a small crowd of guests moving quickly in the opposite direction.
When he reached the fire pit, he saw why. It was deserted, save for a single Tornit, roasting a small, mangled animal over the flames on a stick. The smell of Tornit was particularly overpowering.
The wildman raised an eyebrow at Charlie as he approached, making him hesitate. "Are…you Qumli?" Charlie called out carefully.
"That jerk?" The Tornit replied. "Nah. I'm Aarnga." He scowled, his massive, hairy brow overhanging his eyes. "Qumli said this place was nice. This place is a dump."
"…Oh. Well," Charlie said, determined to win Aarnga over, "I think I can change your mind. If you want a hot meal, you don't have to cook it over the fire. You should try the food we serve here. Come with me and I'll get you some."
Aarnga shrugged, tossed his dead animal into the bush, and followed Charlie to the kitchen door.
When Charlie arrived, he saw that Qumli and Iteq were already there, and so, to his great anxiety, was his younger son, Hayden.
He broke into a reflexive run when he saw the five year old sitting with the two Tornit, especially when he heard Hayden make a loud, high-pitched noise…
Which, as he got closer, he recognized as laughter, not a scream. He let out a breath he hadn't realized he'd been holding.
Qumli was waggling his tongue at the boy, who was doubled over in gales of raucous laughter. "Dad, the Bushmen are so funny!" Hayden told Charlie when he arrived.
"Hey Charlie," Qumli greeted them. He glanced over Charlie's shoulder and noticed the other Tornit, seeming unsurprised, and gave him a brief wave. "What's on the menu tonight?"
The night after that there was a heavy snow and high winds, and Charlie wasn't sure the Tornit would brave the weather. Still, just after dark, right on schedule, they appeared at the kitchen door—four of them this time, their fur frosted with rime.
As Charlie brought out four plates loaded with kitchen scraps and leftovers, a gust of wind seeped through his parka, scattering the snow that had begun to accumulate on the Tornits' fur.
"Sure is cold tonight," Iteq commented as he dug into his plate. "Gonna be hard to find a shelter that's warm enough."
"We'll survive," Qumli began, looking wistful again. "We've always survived. We are accustomed to a rough life, surviving on the edge, making do with what the bush provides. We should savor this luxurious trace of warmth while we can."
"A trace is all we deserve," Aarnga added dramatically. "How kind of this noble man, to give us this gift of warm food to comfort us wretched Tornit as we eat it in the cold winds, out of sight of the people, in the back with the trash cans."
Charlie felt a pang of guilt. These guys aren't abominable, he thought. They're just misunderstood. If I really want to befriend them, why am I treating them any differently than any of my other guests?
Later, he was taking a team of sled dogs back to the kennel when Libby found him. She looked furious.
"What the hell, Charlie?"
"Why are there four abominable snowmen sitting in my dining room?"
"Don't call them that!" Charlie said defensively. "They're people too. There's no reason they can't eat in the dining room."
"Yeah, there is," Libby said. "A BIG reason. The SMELL. It seeps out into the lobby! All the other diners asked to be moved as far away as possible! Plus, they keep going up to other tables and asking people if they're going to eat their empty crab shells or if they can have them. Get them out of there!"
"Wh—I can't kick them back outside!"
Libby made a frustrated growl and stalked back to the lodge.
The next morning, Charlie was giving a safety demonstration to a group of ice climbers when Chris interrupted, pulling him aside.
"Dad, you're gonna think this is nuts—but these guests came running up to the equipment shack, totally freaked out, saying a couple of giant, hairy monsters came out of nowhere and stole their kayak. They wouldn't calm down, even when I offered them free skiing for the rest of their trip."
The Tornit? Charlie thought, dubiously. That didn't sound like something they'd do—at least, they'd been totally polite so far. Was it just a misunderstanding? Maybe they didn't know they couldn't just take stuff? He decided he'd take it up with Qumli that evening.
When darkness fell, no less than five Tornit strolled directly into the lodge lobby, their stench announcing their presence.
"Listen, Qumli—" Charlie began. "Today, a couple of kayakers—"
Qumli held up a hand to reassure him. "Yeah, yeah, don't worry, we'll give the boat back when we're done with it."
"…Okay, but you took it from some guests, who paid for it, and—"
"'Pay'?" Qumli repeated. "What's this 'pay' of which you speak?" He glanced back at the other Tornit for backup, who instantly supplied a chorus of dramatically confused noises and overly exaggerated shrugs.
"Well, they were really upset, so—"
"Ah, they'll get over it," Qumli said dismissively. "No need to get so hyper about it. Anyway, what's on the menu?"
Charlie felt like his message didn't quite get through.
The next few days bore out that feeling. Several of the sled dogs broke their leashes running away from a pack of Tornit strolling through the kennel area, and it took hours to round the frightened dogs back up. A furious Libby reported that two guests had run screaming from the ladies' locker room, ranting about a large, hairy monster barging in and digging through their clothes. One Tornit had decided to 'borrow' a snowmobile, lost control, and crashed through a window right into one of the guest bedrooms. And every night, there was an ever-growing number of Tornit dining messily and raucously in the lodge dining room. The stench was so bad that the room was rendered all but unusable until lunch the next day.
Every night, Charlie tried to start a conversation with Qumli about the damage they'd done so far, but Qumli just said 'sure, whatever' and continued stuffing his face.
"Charlie," Libby told him after several nights of this, "this has got to stop."
"This is important, Libby!" Charlie pleaded. "We're building a relationship with a species that has gone thousands of years trying to hide from humankind! Teaching them our ways is going to take time—"
"Time?" She repeated incredulously. "They're taking over the lodge! By the time we teach them manners, we'll be broke and ruined!"
Charlie sucked in a breath. "All right. Tomorrow, I'll tell them once and for all to shape up or stop coming around."
The next morning, as Charlie passed through the dining room as quickly as possible while holding his nose, he slipped on a puddle of liquid and went sliding to the floor.
When he looked up, the source of the puddle was immediately apparent: sometime between last night and now, someone had ransacked the bar. Broken glass and smashed bottles mingled with beer suds and wine dregs on the ground.
"Oh no," Charlie said.
He barely had time to register the destruction when Chris came running up. "Dad? You need to see this."
Chris led him to the equipment rental shack, the door of which had been forcefully removed. Splintered shards of skis and snowboards littered the floor.
"I think they wanted to try their hand at downhill sports," Chris murmured.
Hayden, who had never been allowed to play with any of this before, had taken advantage of the chaos to steal a pair of snowshoes and try them on, immediately falling on his face. "Dammit!" He said.
"Where did you learn that word?" Asked Charlie, aghast.
"From the bushmen!"
Charlie could feel a migraine coming on. "Well, never say it again, or the Qalupalik will take you away forever," he threatened vaguely.
Charlie's phone was buzzing in his pocket. "Did you already take the Snowcat out?" Libby asked when he answered.
"The ski group is here waiting—the Snowcat isn't."
Charlie and Chris dashed around the lodge to the Snowcat's parking space to see nothing but a zig-zaggy trail, leading off into the wilderness.
The snow was trampled with gigantic footprints.
"So….is it safe to say a bunch of abominable snowmen are driving drunk around the mountain with, essentially, an all-terrain snow tank?" Chris asked.
Charlie clutched his temples. "That's it."
As dusk fell, preceded by a truly nauseating stench and a cacophony of intoxicated hollering that echoed off the surrounding mountains, a pack of still-drunk Tornit finally staggered back to the lodge, on foot.
Charlie stormed out to meet them. "Where's the Snowcat?"
"Ran outta gas," Qumli slurred. "We left it onna mountain."
"This is the last straw!" Charlie shouted. "I've been nothing but nice to you, and all you've done is eat my food, destroy my stuff and steal from my guests! If you don't start acting civilized, you won't be welcome here any more!"
"We're trying our best!" Iteq interjected.
"Yeah!" Qumli said, making a drunken attempt at his signature wistful face. "We're trying our best, but civilized doesn't come naturally to us, living like we do…on the edge…you know, roughing it and stuff…" his eyes glazed over a bit as he tried to remember all of his usual pitiful descriptors.
"If that's what comes naturally to you, then you should go back to doing it!"
The silence was deafening as Charlie realized that he'd just screamed at a pack of mythical beings, any one of which could pick him up and launch him over a mountain one-handed.
After a long moment, Qumli finally spoke. "Fine. Jeez, why are you so uptight?"
"If you're gonna be so uptight about it, we don't wanna hang out with you anyway, loser," Iteq added.
"So long, loser," Aarnga called as the Tornit turned to go. "Your lodge sucks anyway!"
The Tornit disappeared into the bush, and Charlie never saw them again.
A few days later, the family was video-calling with Grandma Ahnah, who now lived in a retirement home in Anchorage.
"Great Grandma," Hayden announced gleefully, "we got to meet the Tornit!"
"Oh?" Grandma Ahnah raised a worried eyebrow.
"You were right, Grandma," Charlie said. "They were pretty abominable."