Myk Pilgrim © Copyright July 2014
Standing in the darkness on the ship’s bow, Dean could see them bobbing in the black water. At first he had thought them to be some kind of bio-luminescent jellyfish floating in sickly yellow pairs. However when the wailing had become audible, Dean’s fleeting illusion about jellyfish had gone out like a candle in a hurricane. He fumbled into his pocket, hoping that the feel of the old watch would somehow lighten his unease. His thumb traced the familiar indents on its closed lid, instantly conjuring a perfect image of the etched tree on it’s surface into his mind’s eye. It made him think of better times, although he was not sure when exactly.
The sounds had quickly evolved into a chorus of obscene gurgling. The sound a horde drowning children might make as their lungs filled with water. Then without warning, the yellow orbs disappeared beneath the black water, taking the baying with them. Dean’s hand clenched tight around the watch.
It had been a pretty ordinary day.
She’d eaten a late breakfast at the driftwood table that her great grandfather had built during his housebound winter years. Rain was the only thing that broke the grey silence. It had been a long night, the pale blisters on her fingers could attest to its productivity. The work kept her busy; it stopped her from brooding on her loneliness in the ever-present damp. Deep set dark eyes glanced up from the wooden bowl to a pile of newly woven baskets neatly stacked in the corner. She often wondered why they needed so many. After dumping her empty bowl in the sink, she picked up one of the fresh baskets, supporting it with both hands. The girl fiddled open the door latch with her elbow & after kicking it closed shambled down the cracked cobble street.
Dean coughed, choking up shards of jagged grit as the coating of salt water burned through his nasal passages like napalm. Grains of sand ground across the surface of his eyes. Frigid cold seeping into the marrow of his bones like some kind of waterborne parasite. Eyelids strobing his view of the desolate beach, each fresh flash of light tearing into his retinas like knives. The world began to come back into focus.
The pale girl appeared, in between blinks. In his disorientation Dean hadn’t even heard her approach. She regarded him in silence with the biggest eyes he’d had ever seen. Her understated face soft and hard all at the same time. Dilated pupils drank him in as if she were seeing the sun for the very first time. The girl brushed a thick strand of dark hair behind her ear causing something to jingle. A flash of queer gold disappeared back up her sleeve like a frightened mouse. Dean moaned unable to get the words out. The girl glanced over her shoulder, when she turned back to Dean a smile had spread over her face and into her eyes. She bent down to help him to his feet. Her touch was gentle, but not gentle enough. Hot pain crawled through the deep slashes in his torso. For a moment Dean relived the angry barnacles and hungry rocks that had bitten at him as he’d dragged himself through the night water. It had been a long crawl towards the shore. He gritted his teeth and tried not to wince as she helped to support his weight. He focused on nothing but putting one foot in front of the other.
Only when he felt the sharp cobble stones under his aching soles she stopped to let him to rest. Dean looked back over the almost endless beach and beyond the breaking waves. He saw the black rocks of a reef which jutted out of the water like ragged teeth. It made his already clammy skin crawl. She squeezed the crook of his arm softly and led him up on.
A rank stink of old fish hung about the street, something not uncommon in fishing towns. It seemed to cling to his skin as it overwhelmed his remaining senses. They passed a building that must at one time have been painted a hideous yellow. Leaves of leprous paint flaked from it, coating the ground like old dead skin. He looked to the girl hoping for some kind of explanation, she only coaxed him onward. It was not much further before they stood in front of a tattered door.
The silence within the house was deafening. The girl helped him into a chair and then disappeared like a ghost before he could even thank her. Dean could hear shifting footsteps above as he scanned the front room, his vision still anything but clear. It must have been grand a long time ago, before the contagious decay had set in. Even beneath the rot, the front room was still charming. An aged clock sat silent on the mantelpiece stopped at twelve minutes past three on some night long forgotten.
Panic pierced him like a wad of porcupine quills. Dean scrambled through his pockets knowing already it was far too late. They were empty, except for wet sand. He slammed a fist on the table, sending a fresh spike of pain through its joints. The crash perforated the room like a burst eardrum. He imagined the watch embedded in silt far below the light of the surface, another casualty of the unknown deep. Dean gritted his teeth and held his breath in an attempt to stave off the rage. The tears stung.
The girl returned with a blanket & looking at him curiously she tucked it around him as if he were a child. Dean didn’t resist. The warmth was slow in coming back to his limbs, it brought with it fresh waves of hungry pain. She dusted flecks of sand off his cheek with the back of her hand. Her bracelets tinkled sweetly with each brush. She crossed the room and after a moments clattering at the counter she returned with a wooden bowl in one hand and a spoon in the other.
Dean could smell the fish soup long before she sat down beside him. Spoon by spoonful she fed it to him cold. An acrid tang coating his senses. Too famished to care and too broken to argue Dean choked it down until at last she put the bowl to his lips for him to drink. Afterward she helped him up a flight of decrepit stairs and into a small wooden bed.
In the days following, Dean fell in and out of fits of unconsciousness. His waking hours felt more like sleep than any dreams he could remember and his dreams were not at all peaceful.
His visions of black water were scattered with countless pairs of gelatinous eyes, overlaid with a horde of gross voices that were not really voices at all. Dean would awake clawing through the dark for the comfort of the watch. His quivering fingers always returning empty.
Sometimes when the night air shifted he was sure that he could hear odd things in the distance. The throb of drums or wailing or screaming would rouse him even from the nightmare into a waking that he couldn’t escape. Those were the longest nights.
Occasionally his tainted sleep was broken by the girl’s pale face and the soup that she brought. The broths’ rancidness had not lessened, but the chance to admire her as she fed him all but took the sting out of its taste. The girl had affectionately taken to calling him her ‘broken soldier’. Dean had yet to learn her name but not through lack of trying. Every time he asked, a rotten silence would fill the small room. If he was lucky and she didn’t disappear down the stairs, it would be hours before he could coax her back into conversation. So Dean held back his questions, choosing instead to wallow in the peaceful ignorance; which would undoubtedly be shattered when the real world caught up with him eventually. On his more lucid days Dean told her stories of his travels. Sometimes she even laughed at his jokes, but not as often as he’d have liked.
One night he woke to find her dozing beside him on the tiny bed. Her head rested softly on his chest. She smelt like saltwater and dried wildflowers. The pressure of her body was a welcome distraction. Dean shifted a little in an attempt to lessen the pinch on his unhealed wounds. The girl stirred, raising her head to face him. Hungry eyes latched into him for the longest moment before she vanished down the stairs, where dean could not follow. He shouted after her until long after his voice gave out, but she did not return.
The air shifted again that night, carrying with it the repugnant throb. Dean could do nothing to stop his mind as it formed and re-formed hideous shapes from the sounds in the wind.
His pillow did little to drown it out. He could only grit his teeth and pray for the wind to change. Dean was glad for the silence of the next day.
Shadows had already begun cluster thick in the corners of the room when Dean heard her footsteps coming up the stairs. He could smell soup and there was something else too, fresh bread? His mouth watered at the thought. A thin film of wet glazed her eyes as she carried in a bowl of hot soup in one hand, a loaf of green bread hung at her side. Not a word passed between them, but Dean was relieved to see her again, he thought he saw the same in her.
She broke the odd bread into chunks and used it to mop up the soup. It tasted unlike any bread he’d ever eaten, strange, but having not eaten since the previous evening, he ate thankfully.
When he’d finished, the girl hastily planted the empty bowl on the floor and jumped under the cover beside him. She nuzzled her still damp face into the crook of his neck and Dean wrapped his arm around her. They lay there well into the darkness. She lit no candles, switched on no lights. Only the faint luminescence of the moon filtered down through the window above, while the world beyond burnt away to ashes in their shared warmth.
Dean allowed himself to imagine a future, far from this putrid place of silent cold. He saw her walking barefoot on an ivory beach, hair curled to immaculate ringlets from the saltwater. She rested a single hand on her belly, swollen with the fruit of their love. Dean kissed the top of her head, he sighed deeply before sleep stole him away into silence.
It was the thud that woke him. Dean lay still, reaching deep within himself for his wits and having trouble finding them in the dark. The girl hadn’t woken. Another thud erupted from downstairs. Splintering of hollow old wood. Something heavy was pushed over, Dean felt the vibration as it collided against the floorboards. Shattering glass. Dean tried to sit up. He couldn’t. Hands refused persistent instructions to move. Fingers barely twitched. Hearing the voices, the girl clung more tightly to him. They were climbing the stairs. Dean shut his eyes taking breath in. No solution came. The door flew open and faceless shapes slipped into the darkness. The reek of aged fish filled the ever shrinking space, sticking to the walls like globs of far flung snot. They were on him.
The girl screamed wildly, sounding more animal than woman as she was wrenched away. A prisoner in his own body, Dean could barely make a sound. His throat gurgled in frustration. Something hard hit him in the face, spraying his mind with a brilliant bright white before the blackness took him.
The unseen moon rose high above the dark reef like an anaemic pupil while Dean’s vacant mind throbbed with the noises of the night. He opened his eyes to the blackness within a sackcloth bag which had at some point been used to carry something fairly unpleasant. Flecks of crusted blood cracked off as he licked his dry lips. His body clenched in protest against the hours spent lying on what felt like rough planks. His hands were bound tightly behind his back with something that was not just wet but slippery. The pinprick sensation in the tips of his fingers suggesting strongly that blood that wasn’t getting to the places it should. A mumbling very much like voices surrounded him, but despite being close to their source he could not make out a single word. More than a few of them were arguing back and forth, or at least it sounded like arguing. Dean could make out the crash of waves nearby, even under the smothering fetid bag he could smell the salt spray. Was he lying in a boat? He could hear water lapping at its sides like hungry dogs. An occasional hollow thunk as a swell tipped it against something solid. Dread began to pool rank around him like cold urine. What had happened to the girl? Had they taken her? Morbid images stabbed his brain. His stomach turned over as the fish soup re-asserted itself within him. Dean held his breath in an attempt to keep it down. Bitterness burnt in the back of his throat like he’d gargled with acid.
Corpulent hands yanked him up towards the chorus of voices. Dean tried to struggle despite the unwilling softness of his dangling limbs. He planted his feet on the ground and feebly kicked in an attempt to push his attacker over. Slipping from the fingers, Dean flew through blind space until the roof of his skull collided with solid wood. A hot oozing pulse flowed from the wound and down his neck, as he was pulled from the boat. Forced to the ground, rocks chewed into his knees with hungry teeth. Heavy liquid blotted his eyes as the gabble of voices unified into a chant. Ragged words he couldn’t understand were screamed at him in tongues he didn’t know. He could feel the heat of their rank breath.
Then it stopped. A cold silence took hold. Only the waves whispered as they sent their salted sprays skyward. Looking up, Dean could make out the moon through the coarse cloth. He realised he was crying. The hands still held him tightly, one on each shoulder, long nails gnawed into his skin. His shirt was torn from him, buttons pinged and popped as they bounced and landed. Dean had no more struggle left to give.
He was forced to his feet as the cries resumed. Something sharp split the skin under his ribs. First his right then left. He gritted his teeth. Another cut in the crook of each arm. The backs of his knees. Each new incision an exaggerated paper cut that demanded his attention more than the last. Bare footed he was pushed blindly forward. Each tripping step finding more serrated rocks between his toes. Dean felt heavy wet air as the screaming crescendoed.
Then forced sharply forward, the ground beneath him gave way to air. He fell the blood climb back up his veins as if to escape the impact. Cold punched him in the throat, stopping his breath before everything was swallowed by water. Something scraped at his face taking some of the sackcloth with it as it gashed his cheek. In between gulps of salted liquid, Dean could make out flashes of bulbous yellow eyes cutting through the dark water. The things slashed at his body under the waves. Water forced itself into his throat filling his lungs like concrete.
The sun shone faintly through clouds but the morning was cold, colder than she remembered it being for a long time. Frozen fingers clung to the empty basket as if it might try to escape her grasp. Eyes still burning with the remnants of tears, Asenath made her way over the grey beach to the small cove just beyond the rocks.
She found the usual bundle of gristle and tendons, cleaned to unnatural whiteness by countless teeth. This morning however, the fresh pile was adorned with something that glistened in the rare sun. The pocket watch boasted a flawless etching of a blooming tree on its lid. Despite the pieces obvious age, it was magnificent. She picked it from the top of the pile and after wrapping it in an old piece of cloth she tucked it carefully into her apron. She wouldn’t tell her father about it.
Old Ephraim Waite was not known for his fondness of woman or their weakness. Asenath had cleaned out the attic as he’d instructed, she imagined he would be back any day now.