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THE BEAUTY OF DEATH
Vol. 2 – Death by Water
Edited by Alessandro Manzetti and Jodi Renée Lester
Copyright (Edition) ©2017 Independent Legions Publishing
1° Edition - November, 2017
Joanna Parypinski, Lucy Taylor, Dona Fox, Eric J. Guignard, Lucy Snyder,
Stephen Gregory, Daniel Braum, Simon Bestwick, Peter Straub, Lisa Mannetti,
Daniele Bonfanti, Ramsey Campbell, Gregory L. Norris, Michael Bailey,
Marge Simon, Caitlín R. Kiernan, Frazer Lee, Paolo Di Orazio, Dennis Etchison,
John Palisano, Brian Evenson, Michael Hanson, Edward Lee, Tim Waggoner,
Gene O’Neill, Jonah Buck, David J. Schow, Anthony Watson, Bruce Boston,
Michael A. Arnzen, Adam Nevill, John Langan, Alessandro Manzetti, Clive Barker,
Lisa Morton, Jodi Renée Lester, Jeremy Megargee, Nicola Lombardi, Adam Millard.
THE DEEPEST PART OF THE OCEAN ©2017 Joanna Parypinski
YOU WILL COME TO NO HARM IN WATER ©2017 by Lucy Taylor
WALKING ON WATER ©2017 Dona Fox
A JOURNEY OF GREAT WAVES ©2017 Eric J. Guignard
ANTUMBRA ©2014 Lucy Snyder (*Reprint)
THE DROWNING OF COLIN HENDERSON ©2017 Stephen Gregory
THE FOURTH BELL ©2017 Daniel Braum
THE TARN ©2017 Simon Bestwick
THE BALLAD OF BALLARD AND SANDRINE ©2011 Peter Straub (*Reprint)
THE DOUBLE LENS ©2017 Lisa Mannetti
THE GORGE OF CHILDREN ©2017 Daniele Bonfanti
RAISED BY THE MOON ©2001 Ramsey Campbell (*Reprint)
DROWNING ©2017 Gregory L. Norris
UNDERWATER FERRIS WHEEL ©2012 Michael Bailey (*Reprint)
THE OLD WOMAN AND THE SEA ©2017 Marge Simon
IN THE DREAMTIME OF LADY RESURRECTION ©2007 Caitlín R. Kiernan (*Reprint)
TO TAKE THE WATER DOWN AND GO TO SLEEP ©2017 Frazer Lee
PERISCOPE OF THE DEAD ©2017 Paolo Di Orazio
WET SEASON ©1965 Dennis Etchison (*Reprint)
WINGS MADE FROM WATER ©2017 John Palisano
COME UP ©2017 Brian Evenson
BORN OF DARK WATERS ©2017 Michael H. Hanson
THE SEA-SLOP THING ©2015 Edward Lee (*Reprint)
EVERY BEAST OF THE EARTH ©2017 Tim Waggoner
NIGHTHAWK AND LONE WOLF ©2017 Gene O’Neill
SIREN ©2017 Jonah Buck
GILLS ©1998 David J. Schow (*Reprint)
THE EVERLASTING ©2017 Anthony Watson
RIVER WATCH ©2006 by Bruce Boston (*Reprint)
FRESH CATCH ©2017 Michael A. Arnzen
HIPPOCAMPUS ©2016 by Adam Nevill (*Reprint)
A SONG ONLY PARTIALLY HEARD ©2017 John Langan
BY THE SEA ©2017 Alessandro Manzetti (*Reprint)
SCAPE-GOATS ©1984 Clive Barker (*Reprint)
THE WASH ©2017 Lisa Morton
JUST WATCH ME NOW ©2016 Jodi Renée Lester (*Reprint)
THE HIKER ©2017 Jeremy Megargee
EVEN THE STARS FALL
In each of these stories from some of greatest writers of horror and dark fiction, water plays the dual role of accomplice and executioner. With accidental drownings, irresistible calls of sirens from the deep, strange whisperings from household plumbing, faces of the dead in droplets of water, rabid fish, leviathan monsters, and more, these thirty-nine tales of death by water will make you think twice about taking that long-awaited cruise, going for a midnight swim, or taking your next shower.
WHEN I looked up from my algebra homework, I saw him standing in the dining room—barefoot, dripping a steady plink, plink, plink of rainwater onto the hardwood floor.
He acknowledged me with a shaky wave and a raise of his mad Einsteinian eyebrows, stretching the jowls of his sourdough face, which ran wet with tiny tributaries winding through his wrinkled cheeks, while his sodden flannel shirt clung to his bird bones and melted into the antediluvian brown trousers that ended high above his bare ankles, above the gnarled and hairy feet daggered with fungus-yellow toenails that stood in the puddle he had created.
“I almost had her this time,” he said with a shake of his fist, the gesture of foiled conquest.
He yanked the golf cap from his head and waved it irritably, scattering drops of water like shards of glass, said, “The mermaid,” and took a step away from his little puddle, succeeding only in dragging it into a river that followed him toward me, and “I saw her in a raindrop.” He paused, his eyes flickering with revelation, looked down at his small puddle on the floor. “Hallo, are you in there?”
I thought if I ignored him he might wander off—after all, it wasn’t my job to babysit Grandpa—and I was very much concerned at the time, as most teenagers are, with the bare minimum expectations of my familial role. Instead he came up to my couch, pushed my legs off one end, and sat down, soaking the cushion beneath him. He smelled like mildew.
“Hey!” I said, “I’m trying to work, here!”
“Emily, dearest. Don’t you ever play outside anymore?”
I snapped my textbook closed, careful to leave my pencil in the right spot, too anxious to lose where I was. “Not when there’s a tsunami outside.”
“Pah. You never seen a tsunami,” he said. “Where I grew up, we had real tsunamis. Great terrible waves that roared out of the ocean like dragons. Houses knocked down like cards. This? This is just a little rain.”
I looked out the window, at the flag whipping into a frenzy as rain turned to television static, as a flash of lightning burst like a migraine.
God, I hated this weather.
There’s not much you can do about it, though, when you live in San Francisco, and the rain drones on relentlessly as an army, and you can’t hear your own thoughts rattling around over the tempest that batters and bruises your raw nerves—when the sky is a seething black mass of artificial night. God. I’m all strung out again thinking about it, here in the darkness. My anxiety was bad before, worse after Grandpa’s stay with us, after what happened, but I’ll get to that.
Sad thing is, I’m not even calmed anymore by the whispery exhalations of the tide. Back then I could stand and listen to the waves, the sea, the sound of the midnight oracle portending moonlit movements and crashing elegies against the broad-shouldered beach, but now I know what might break the surface (so I’ve taken a preemptive strike instead, gone below).
A while later, my mother burst inside in a whirl of rain and wind behind the shield of her umbrella, her typically coiffed hair fallen in spidery disarray over her face. “Poseidon’s fury,” she grumbled, then spotted us. “Dad! You’re getting the sofa all wet. Emily—how could you let him sit there?”
She forced him to go change his wet clothes, at least, before he caught his death. He ambled dutifully up the stairs, and my mother said, “Come on, Emily. Help me out. Can’t you look after him when I’m not here?”
“He’s an adult, isn’t he? I can’t tell him what to do.”
My grandfather had come to stay with us not long after my grandmother died. Heart failure. She’d been a lovely, tiny lady, the daintiest person I ever knew, with pinprick little eyes, but she was surprisingly strong, able to lift heavy flowerpots and muscle her way through stirring thick dough. She was always there, a solid presence, until one day she wasn’t, and we could feel the very physicality of her absence—not just a lack but the inverse of a presence. Mind you, Grandpa didn’t take it well, or at least my mother told me he wasn’t well, and so he came to stay with us.
“He’s forgetful,” she said, sounding somehow ashamed.
But he didn’t seem forgetful to me—odd, fanciful, full of whimsy, but not forgetful. He told me stories of his childhood as sharply as if they had happened yesterday, not sixty years ago.
I couldn’t help but be contrary. What else do you expect of a fourteen-year-old girl? Even when I agreed with my mother, I simply felt compelled to argue. “What happened to respecting my elders?”
She looked at me sharply, then more softly. “Respect is more complicated than that.”
DO YOU want the truth? I couldn’t stand to see my grandfather like that. Here he was, the man who had raised my mother, who had dozens of stories about life in the tiny Japanese village where he grew up, making mischief with his friends, getting drunk on fishing trips, his brief stint as a naval officer. You could see the sea in his eyes, hear the roar of the coast in his voice. Now he was reduced to a rambling senior wandering around barefoot, purposeless, and in the way of selfishness I worried less about his mental state and more about me, about what would become of me when I was too old to tie my shoes—would I, too, someday become such an obsolete creature, force my grandchildren to look after me like a child myself, void of dignity?
So I tried to avoid him, tried to avoid the thought of impending mortality—turning antique, toothless. Hah. What did I know of growing old? What did I know of death? What did I know of the deep loneliness that comes when you’ve been ripped away from your partner of more than half a lifetime?
MY FATHER always came home in the middle of the night. He worked odd hours, so I got used to hearing the creak of heavy footsteps ghosting down the midnight halls—the shadow outside my bedroom door—his indistinct presence, there without a face. On weekends, he materialized on the couch as if he had always been there, feet propped on the ottoman, a bowl of chips perched on the slight bulge of his stomach, a bottle dangling from one hand over the edge of the armrest. Our conversations weren’t really conversations back then: he would eye me skeptically, suspiciously, and ask how school was going with the tone of a mildly curious interrogator, and whatever my answer, he would nod slowly and return to the television.
“It’s because he has no imagination, the poor bastard,” my grandfather told me once. “That’s why he’s always in front of the tube.”
Was the problem, I wondered, that my grandfather simply had too much imagination? Was it that he could no longer quite disentangle the threads of reality from his own woven works? I couldn’t imagine my father going senile—he was simply too matter-of-fact. And you know what? He never did go senile. He died at sixty-eight, still doing puzzles and answering Jeopardy! questions with lightning precision, when a swift-moving cancer swept through him like the tide, sweeping him away before my eyes.
For a while I was terrified of my own mind, which was already prone to flying, dancing, skittering lizard-like from one horrible possibility to the next—an anxious mind. “Getting away from me,” that’s what my mother called it: “Your imagination’s getting away from you again, Em.” Maybe that. Maybe it’s overcoming me. In the end, though, I couldn’t keep it contained, and I guess it didn’t really matter.
A lack of imagination won’t save you, either—in the end.
THE SWEET sleepy silence that falls in the wake of endless rain is like a cool wash of balm easing over shattered nerves, those tender spots like spoiled fruit, and in that wake a gleaming bepuddled world, puddles slick and gray and gathering at the edges where the road dips down to receive the curb. Amid that dreamy lonesome after, after the storm, I couldn’t find my grandpa anywhere, and here I was supposed to be looking after him.
When I did find him—which wasn’t that hard, mind you, he was just down the street—he was standing in a puddle up to his knees. A puddle that should only have been a few inches deep, a puddle nearly flush with the ground. A whisper of a puddle.
But there he was, up to his knees in it. Like he was in a hole, and the dull light made him strange, colorless, sunken.
When he saw me, he pointed—“She’s down there! I saw her!”
It’s amazing how quickly the mind accommodates impossible things, for in a moment I was no longer contemplating the spatial disparity (where oh where were his legs, were they gone, were they gone?) but instead worrying over what a neighbor might think if they looked out their window right now and saw us standing in the drowned street like fools.
He looked up again to see me gaping at him like a fish, and when he looked back down he seemed disappointed. “Oh, cock and balls,” he said. “I think we’ve scared her off.”
Have I mentioned that my grandfather was delightfully crude? Every time he swore, it was with such imaginative gusto, you could hardly blame him for being profane around children. He made curse words sound as wholesome as apple pie.
He stepped out of the puddle, drawing one pale leg, saggy and dripping, from the inch of water that could not conceivably have contained it, that had swallowed it into some elsewhere, and planting his bare foot on the pavement. His trousers were rolled up to his knees. He didn’t unroll them until we were inside, and when he did they were ribbed with angry horizontal lines.
“Grandpa,” I said, “Look. I know you’re older than I am, and all, but I really don’t think you should be walking around like that. It’s not cool, you know?”
What? You expected an eloquent speech? Give me a break; I was fourteen.
We sat at the dining room table where a lightbulb in the overhead fixture had burned out, leaving us in an uneven half-light that crawled eerily over my grandfather’s face.
“May I tell you about her?” he said.
He hitched up his pants and said with a shrug in his voice, “It would be a lie if I said I’d never loved anyone other than your grandmother.”
“What?” I was appalled—I didn’t want to hear it, this mocking of his marriage, this reminder that he wasn’t just a stock grandfather with stock stories but a real human being.
“Before I ever met her, I fell in love with a mermaid.”
“It was after the worst storm I’d ever seen. Ripped and raged through that piss-little fishing village, bringing the sea with it. A nasty bitch of a wave caught me and threw me, tossing and tumbling. I nearly drowned. Eventually I found myself a bit worse for wear on a flooded road, and that’s where I found her, stranded. At first I thought it was a corpse, but bodies tend to bob to the surface—she floated just below. When I looked down, damn it all to hell and back again, I saw the most beautiful creature staring back at me. Black hair like silk, face pale like the moon, eyes deep as the ocean, breasts— ”
He put up his hands in surrender. “Well, she was beautiful. With a silver tail and everything, though I couldn’t see where it ended. It was long, I’ll tell you that. She said she had come from the deepest part of the ocean. I was smitten. If you haven’t felt those pangs of desire yet, Emily, you will soon I’m sure. Well, we had ourselves something of an adventure, swimming through the debris-ridden road to get her back to the ocean where she belonged. When we got there, damned if I wanted to let her go! I knew we couldn’t be together, but I imagined building a great wonderful fish tank, big enough for her to live in, big as a house!
“Instead, she told me to follow her. Down.
“I’ll tell you this: I considered it. But in the end, I couldn’t do it. What an ass was I, Emily! I let her go. But I came back to see her a few times more. We met at the beach, and sometimes I told her stories, and sometimes she sang songs that could tear your heart out—hypnotic songs. Hers is a voice I’ll never forget. It haunts my dreams.
“Have you ever been in love, Emily?”
Love? There I was, talking to my grandfather about love, something I never talked about with my parents, with my friends, with anyone, really, and my weird old grandpa who smelled like a pungent cheese, limburger perhaps, who put the paper against his forehead in the morning to pretend he could divine the day’s news telepathically, who tottered around with his arms akimbo and asked me if he was a good dancer when I played my music through the television speakers, was asking me about love, the deepest and most precious, most secret feeling in the world to me then. I would have been less mortified if he’d asked me about my period. Anyway, what did I know of love? I didn’t even realize at the time that there are different sorts of love—not just the romantic kind, the mermaid kind, but the peculiar type of fondness you feel for your wacky grandfather, that you don’t even understand until he’s gone.
“Okay, Grandpa. How could she survive in the deepest part of the ocean?” I said. “And how does she see? It’s like pitch black down there.”
“I’ll tell you this—I’ll be damned if she wasn’t imbued with her own inner light,” he said, a smile coming over him from across the ages. “Like you in that way.”
LUCKY FOR me, I was due for another obsession right about then. I was always prone to pendulums of obsession and apathy, between studying a new subject fervently for hours, insatiable, mad-minded, and then spending an entire Saturday on the couch watching my dad flip channels. My previous interests had been magic, astronomy, butterflies, and detective stories, each one giving way to the next. While I didn’t know it at the time, I had finally found an obsession that I would never grow out of.
“The abyssopelagic zone is aphotic, meaning no light penetrates that deep,” I read to my grandfather from the book I had checked out at the library. The cover was faded and soft with wear, the pages filled with illustrations of the ocean, of alien creatures, horror movie creatures: dragonfish, vampire squid, goblin shark. Fish with teeth. “Imagine if you could swim down with her and see all that.”
“She comes from a very different world than we do, I’ll tell you that,” said Grandpa, wagging his finger in a way that told me he was about to impart some old-man wisdom. “We must always try to meet people from different worlds. If you don’t, you’ll never learn anything new.”
My grandfather, too, seemed to come from a different world—one that I could never visit, an irrecoverable world, and he was right, because he taught me about things, like love, even if he taught them sideways.
“What are you two reading about?” my mother asked as she peered over my shoulder in a way I always hated, like she was spying on me.
“Where the mermaid lives.”
I’ll never forget the way she yanked me away from the dining table, up to my bedroom, put her finger in my face, and told me sharply I was not to listen to my grandfather’s stories. “If you indulge him, he’ll only get worse. I know your imagination gets away from you, but you can’t believe his nonsense.”
“What if it isn’t nonsense?”
She looked at me scornfully.
“It is nonsense. He’s an irrational old man who barely knows up from down, and I won’t have you follow him down that rabbit hole. Stop enabling him.” It was only later that I understood the crack in her voice. Here I thought she was just being a cold bitch, but really, when I look back now, I realize her voice was so hard and brittle because she was terrified that more and more of her father was going to slip away into the ether, that she would lose him before he was physically gone. I know because that’s how I felt, years later, when my mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. Gradually she forgot my name, lost track of where she lived, looked around familiar places with childish bewilderment. It was a slow, cold, remorseless metaphysical death. But of course I didn’t comprehend that when I was a kid. All I felt was the fire of teenage spite at adults who behave callously because they can, because they’re adults, not because they’re human beings with their own complex inner lives that I couldn’t yet fathom.
THE FOLLOWING Monday was gray and oppressively humid; a fine mist of almost-rain hung suspended in the air, and Grandpa had gone out without me.
I thought he might include me now that he had told me the truth, for I believed at that point that it must be the truth after all, no matter what my mother tried to convince me, and, thinking we might go out mermaid hunting together, I actually geared up—put on my rainboots, teased through my jackets to find one that was waterproof. But Grandpa went out on his own, leaving as surreptitiously as the wind, so what did I do?
I followed him.
I followed him into the sodden, heavy afternoon, keeping enough distance between us that he wouldn’t turn around and see me.
You know why I didn’t go up to him, why I followed in secret? Because he didn’t invite me along. The pain of betrayal unfolded in me like a ripe flower, and I followed, feeling small and inadequate.
He paused to peer in every puddle, in every puddle finding nothing, and we continued in this way for, oh, maybe an hour, weaving through marshy grass and narrow winding switchback streets that sloped into rainwater seas, before he stopped at a dirty creek on the edge of a wooded hill. At one end, the gaping black mouth of a sewer outfall disgorged a slow stream of brown water into the abysmal brook.
Rolling up his pants and removing his shoes, Grandpa waded into the shallow water, which came up just over his spider-veined calves, and made his way to the dark orifice, gateway to an underground realm of sewage, decay, and magic.
He called echoingly into the dank throat of the tunnel. By now I was cold and tired. The light gray of afternoon was sinking into a darker, duskier gray of secret twilight. It was time to bring Grandpa back, I thought—or, my anger having long since chilled to a wet, muddy, dull and uncaring resentment, maybe I should just leave him here, leave him to rot in the sewers.
Then she arrived.
At first she was just a dark shape swimming out of the tunnel, swimming from darkness into the muted tones of overcast evening: a woman rising slowly out of the water, long black hair like seaweed struggling down her shoulders, naked from the waist up—water glistening on her pale, almost silvery breasts. They embraced. Grandpa’s back hitched and shuddered with tears of grief, joy, relief, and when her bony arms twined around him, caressed his back, I saw long pointed fingers like crab claws, the skin turning silvery-black as the talons tapered to their points.
They were too distracted to notice me creeping closer, close enough to see her face—pearlescent, with cheekbones sharp enough to cut flesh.
“I knew it! I knew it, I knew it was you. But—why did you have to abandon me?” Grandpa croaked. “I looked everywhere for you.”
“I was waiting,” she said in a dreamy voice like sunshine sparkling on seashells, like dark music. “Waiting for the right time.”
“Thank God you’re here,” my grandfather murmured. “You’re real. I thought I was going—crazy.”
She began humming rather than reply, and the sound took on ethereal tones, warbled as if coming through water. I might have closed my eyes and fallen asleep to the tune but that she stopped suddenly, leaving us with harsh silence. What made her stop?
She had seen me.
From over my grandfather’s shoulder, her eyes snapped to me: two round silver fish-eyes, cold with blank inhumanity. Slowly her black lips peeled back in a wide curved expression that looked like a grin but wasn’t—no, it was an inverted grin, upside-down and terrible—to reveal rows of jagged needle-like teeth that reminded me of the stupid hungry mouth of an anglerfish.
Still holding on to him, she began to sink into the water, bringing Grandpa with her, and what was even worse, somehow, was that he didn’t fight; he let her drag him down; perhaps he wanted to go with her into the dark forgetful depths where he could pretend not to remember the love he still felt for my grandmother, the pain he still felt over her absence. Together, they disappeared into the murky water.
After tearing off my rainboots and throwing my jacket behind me, I waded in after them. The creek should have been maybe three feet at its deepest, but when I looked down I saw them far below me, maybe ten feet down, vanishing into an impossibly vast greenish abyss, the mermaid’s arms still wrapped tightly around my grandfather.
The dirty water burned my eyes as I fought my way down. If words could travel through water, I would have shouted for my grandfather to break him out of the spell she had over him, which was not love, I could see that now, it was love’s wicked cousin, the bastard child of jealousy and lust.
My chest ached, desperate for breath, suffocating, and still they were too far below me, and still the burn in my eyes, this time from tears, and still the belief I could catch up to them if only—if only I could swim faster—but we were deep, too deep, and I would have to retreat to the surface soon, which was high above now, nearly lost in the darkening water.
The last glance I had of my grandfather—finally he looked up and saw me swimming above them, a moment that seemed to clear his head, and he tried to swim up to me but the mermaid gripped him more tightly, still grinning that cavernous sharp-toothed not-grin, and for the first time I noticed her tail, long silvery and slimy, tapering slowly but never quite reaching a point, a tail that vanished into the abyss far below them, impossibly long, and in the moment after my grandfather and I locked eyes for the last time and I saw the apology within them, and the fear, a great dark shape rose up from the end of the mermaid’s tail, a behemoth of darkness that unhinged its monstrous jaws to envelop the two creatures sucked quickly, now, toward it, sucked away into the mindless ravening abyss.
WHEN I broke the surface, gasping and shuddering, I stood in the creek for long moments sucking rotten air, deliriously convincing myself I would dive back again as soon as I caught my breath. But when I did, I discovered that the creek was only a few feet deep; even in the middle, it came up only as far as my waist. There was nothing down there. He was gone.
In the years that followed, I always kept an eye out for him, just in case—in fish tanks, in puddles, in ponds. Still, I knew I wouldn’t find him. I knew where she had taken him: to the deepest part of the ocean.
So that was where I went.
As you can guess, that particular fascination, obsession, call it what you will—it never left me. Lately I’ve been studying abyssal zone ecosystems in a submarine stationed 20,000 feet below the surface of the Pacific, where there is no light and nothing remotely familiar, only the freakish bioluminescent creatures that glide through the somnolent deep.
A few hours ago I saw something outside the window of the sub…something familiar. Something that’s got me all strung out again.
It was my grandfather. Pale, his nearly translucent skin glowing with ghostlight, made visible in the black emptiness—floating dreamily past, gazing in at me with round silver eyes, his pale fleshy legs replaced by a long, long tail.
I shouldn’t have done it, I know, but I put on a diving suit and went out against protocol, swam out into the black silent abyss, the weight of thousands of tons of water crushing down on me. He drifted out of sight, and I followed deeper, surrounded by the pale snowfall of the deep sea, the excretions of the world above falling forever.
When I looked back, I couldn’t see the sub anymore.
He had lured me out into the vast darkness of the ocean with only the small light on my helmet to guide me through the nothing, with only the light of his luminous skin to draw me forward like an untethered astronaut floating through space. But I had to see him again, to know that he was real, to know that I wasn’t going—well, crazy.
Even after half a lifetime of studying, I realize, in the end, that I still don’t know anything. What do I really know of the mysteries in the endless deep? What do I know of death? All I have is you, whoever you are, the person in my head, my imagination, and who knows where that will lead me this time—what dark impossible corridors of madness might lie at the bottom of the sea where the hungry giants live?
“LILLIAN, WE’RE going to miss the plane.”
Martin Wallace tapped his Rolex while his wife perused a display case in Bobby Twin Elks Loan and Pawn just west of Albuquerque. “That one, please,” she said to the elderly Navajo behind the counter, “let me see it.”
The old man rummaged in the case and handed her a white medallion with a hole drilled near the top to accommodate a leather cord. Lillian asked what it was made from.
“Bone. Whale maybe.”
She turned it over several times, her face rapt with the kind of child-like delight Martin had once found charming.
He paced the aisle. “Lillian, we have to leave.”
“Just a moment.”
He was starting to wonder if she were actually trying to make them miss their flight and what other evasive tactics she might use to spoil their trip. His trip, really. An idea of a second honeymoon to renew the spark in their rocky five-year marriage and forestall any ideas of divorce she might secretly be harboring. He’d found the number for a high-priced divorce lawyer and some incriminating texts from same. The discovery had shocked and angered him; he’d thought Lillian too needy to instigate divorce. And though he said nothing, this changed things, made him rethink his long-range plans for their marriage.
Now, as she dillydallied, he clenched his fists in frustration. How she vexed him, this handsome woman with vivid azure eyes, a foxy face and, in his astute opinion, an insufficient chin. Her habitual expression of uncertainty put him in mind of some small prey animal peeking fearfully out of its den with an eye to predators. One of those women requiring a male escort through life, who felt the need of a man to protect and cherish her. That he’d been chosen for this role he found a source of never-ending irony.
Now she flashed a winning smile he made no effort to return and showed him the medallion.
“It was meant for me to find here, don’t you think?”
“Undoubtedly,” he said. “You should buy it.”
And although he found the object singularly unattractive, he understood why his wife, who had a superstitious bent, would want to own it. On one side, inked into the bone in the manner of scrimshaw, was written in ant-sized script a promise Lillian would probably like to tattoo on her heart, “You Will Come to No Harm in Water,” and on the reverse, a primitive rendition of a fish skeleton against a background of an ever-narrowing spiral. Above the curved lines representing ribs, a single bulbous eye stared out with malevolent intent. Unlike the skeleton it belonged to, the eye seemed alive and menacing.
He gave the item back to Lillian, then wiped his hand discreetly on his jeans.
She put the medallion around her neck and trotted over to admire herself in a mirror. An unease crept over Martin that he tried to dispel with the sound of his own voice. He asked the Navajo how he came to acquire the piece.
“Pawn,” the old man said, regarding Martin as one might a poorly made reproduction of an ancient Anasazi pot. “Spanish girl come in, said her grandpa was a fisherman in the Gulf and wore this all the time. When he died, she found it in his tackle box. Told me she’d come back for it one day, but that was years ago. I knew she never would.”
“Gramps didn’t drown, I hope?” said Martin as Lillian shot him a look. He slid his arm through hers, guiding her toward the door and into the bright, scalding day. Over her shoulder she called back to the shopkeep, “You don’t know what this means to me! I’m terrified of water and where we’re headed is in the middle of the ocean.”
WELL, NOT exactly the middle, but close enough, he thought, when they were belted in, the Southwest jet taxiing on the runway while Lillian death-gripped the armrests. He pried one hand loose, squeezed it reassuringly and put her fingers to his lips. Her skin smelled of lavender hand lotion, yet somehow, beneath the fragrance, a subtle foulness clung, the faint stench of rotting sea life.
When he forced himself to kiss her fingers, he felt his stomach clench. “It’s going to be a wonderful trip,” he said, more to himself than her. “A new beginning for us both. You’ll see.”
Her eyes were tightly shut and she didn’t respond. He felt an unexpected flicker of desire as the old, eroticized resentments rose in him along with his cock.
He’d been in love with her once, he was sure of it. When they’d met at a New Age church in Santa Fe—her seeking the kind of solace some find in sex or spirituality or a lurid combination of the two, his ambitions simpler, to find an easy mark—he’d recognized her name and experienced an almost orgasmic shivering. The heir to an ice cream empire, her family name was plastered on tubs of Marsha-Mellow and Chunky Cherub around the world, her father a sickly octogenarian unlikely to last out the year. And she, a made-to-order prize beset with wealth and phobias.
But now the bloom was off the Chocolate Cherry, frail zombie-Daddy still clinging to shreds of life, their marriage more a series of staged skits between bouts of heavy drinking on Lillian’s part and cruel, covert punishments on his. Nothing so vulgar as physical violence, of course. He preferred a more nuanced approach, tormenting her with silence, making her fret and guess about how she had displeased him. With the threat of divorce looming, however, he’d decided to reverse course and become again the loving spouse, to deluge her with hot sex and mindfuckery, to unbalance her completely. To that end, he’d found a jewel of a tropical island, one of those semi-private ones frequented by the über-rich where Lillian was most at home. Add to that a barge-sized bed, strong drink spilled into goblets the size of cannonballs, and bouts of mad, inebriated sex. How better to reignite marital passion and regain her trust.
But her fear of the water was a minor problem.
She’d confessed this fear soon after they were married, when he’d suggested a South Pacific cruise. Wishing to explore her weaknesses for later use, he’d peppered her with questions. “Did you watch someone drown or almost drown yourself? Parents pitch you into the deep end of the pool?”
Her answer had grated on his patience because, like Lillian herself, it was both nonsensical and vague. She’d told him that, as a young child, her parents took her to the tony resort of Sea Island, Georgia.
“We went out in a glass-bottomed boat,” she’d said. “At first I loved it. Seeing all that underwater life, the bonefish and the barracudas, the bright blue mahi mahi with their big, domed foreheads. It all seemed magical until it changed, and I saw something different. I realized the ocean I thought I knew was only a disguise, a camouflage for something unimaginable and awful, an endless nothingness, a void. I only saw it for a second—that’s all it would allow—but for that instant, it was like looking through a telescope at a secret universe that despises us and means us only harm. I realized this is why the oceans were created. To conceal what’s really underneath. An ocean of the dead.”
“The nightmares of an over-stimulated child,” he’d said with false assurance, for in truth he found her tale disturbing on so many levels, not least of which that she was clearly mentally unwell. “I know boats. My father had a Chris-Craft Commander he docked in Bimini.” (In truth his father was a petty thief whose entire knowledge of the ocean came from Sea Hunt reruns.) “One day I’m going to take you on a boating trip. It’ll be wonderful, you’ll see!”
Her face had taken on a ghastly sheen, as though he’d outlined his plan to sodomize the bogeyman with a sharp stick up the anus. It was that same look on an older face that he saw now, the scrunched brow and cadaverously pallid skin, the twitchy corner of her mouth, as she dozed next to him on the plane.
Inevitably, his gaze was drawn to the amulet around her neck. The rawness of the tiny pictograph, the gleam of the bone, even the promise of protection, all held a kind of primitive allure. Knowing how much it meant to her, for a moment he almost coveted it himself.
IN EMERALD Key, they spent the first week at the island’s posh resort—luxurious cottages and doting staff who knew when to be invisible, a helicopter ferrying guests to and from the airports in Nassau and Freeport. He made a point of spoiling her, praising her wit, her charm, her not inconsiderable talent for debauchery. Decadence was cultivated as an art, fine wine and Kama Sutra sex and rutting in the full moonlight, a cocaine-laced tryst with a unicorn from Melbourne whose cell number he obtained discreetly and tucked away for future use. The spell he’d cast when they first met was rewoven with strands of tenderness and cruelty and passion, and she gorged on it, grew bovine and louche feasting on the poison of his tainted adoration.
By week’s end, she was sufficiently compliant to let him rent a thirty-five-foot Viking motor yacht complete with lavish master cabin and well-appointed bar, lacking nothing except the convenience of a swim platform. But after all, he told her, neither of them was going in the water.
At first they only explored the coastline near the shore, but later he motored far out into the sea and anchored in deep water. Here, with Shakespearean aplomb, he professed remorse for his sometimes less than chivalrous behavior, a bravura performance that drew tears and promises of lifelong fidelity from them both. In fact, so real was the performance and delivered with emotion so apparently heartfelt, that later, when they tangled in a sweaty heap upon the deck, he experienced a moment of what might have been real love, as intimate and potentially lethal as the onset of an aneurysm. But love, he reminded himself, though sometimes as intense as lust, was also just as fleeting, and he regained his good sense in short order.
Now, while she showered, he leaned on the rail, dazzled by the sunlight on gleaming green swells. A wind was coming up, the water becoming choppy. Below he noticed something odd, a few pebbled, undulating patches, jellyfish perhaps or some detritus dumped into the sea by those indifferent to ecology. They clotted near the stern, slapping the hull with a sound like liver flipped into a pan. He found a mini-bottle in the pocket of his trunks, uncapped it, drained the contents, and flung the empty. Havoc ensued. What he’d thought to be a few distinct animals turned out to be an enormous school of tiny fish that, when the projectile struck, exploded into a chaos of seething, agitated life.
Repulsed, he turned away as Lillian came up from the galley, freshly dressed in cut-offs and a wisp of a red tee, the amulet starkly white against her sun-burnt cleavage. As she tottered across the deck, drink in hand, he noted that the severe lines in her face had softened noticeably—Bacardi, he thought, better than Botox.
She gazed toward the horizon, a blurred seam where sea and sky merged into a single chalky band. In the west, a band of clouds impersonated snow-clad peaks.
“Sip?” she said, lifting the paper cup toward his mouth.
“Aren’t you drinking today?”
He feigned dismay. “You make it sound like a moral failing. Don’t worry I’ll catch up. It’s our last night. I intend to drink my share tonight and more.”
She let her free hand rove down his chest. “Actually, it may be better if the captain’s sober, so he can navigate.”
“Right now all I want to navigate is you.”
She threw her head back, her smooth bare throat like something from a nature show, gazelle giving itself to a lion. A stimulating image—as if on cue, he hardened.
“My love,” he said and swept her up into his arms—she, laughing with delight at this show of male prowess, her gaze enamored, lips parted in expectation of a kiss—and in a move intended to be seamless, an action choreographed to perfection in the dungeons of his mind, he pivoted and tried to heave her violently out over the rail—her face a parody of passion, now gone rubbery with horror—as he opened up his arms. Instead of falling, she clamped her arms around his chest, so that, far from the graceful uncoupling he’d foreseen, they seesawed as a single off-kilter beast whose lower half pedaled air, piteously screeching, while its upper half engaged in a frenetic jig of thrusts and grunts intended to jettison the part unwanted.
Her strength was unexpected, terrifying. He raised a fist to batter her away, but doing so required him to take his free arm off the rail and lean far forward. He felt the fulcrum shift. His bare feet lift off the deck, a high-wire act gone hideously wrong. She lost her grip and dropped, but took with her the tipping point, so that he flipped and plunged headfirst. The water, already churning from her entry, gulped him down.
When he surfaced, she had made it to the anchor line, where she held on for dear life, screaming, “What did you do? What the fuck have you done?” until something even greater than his betrayal took precedence. She looked around frantically. “Where’s the ladder?”
He jerked his head in cold disdain. “Up there. You happy now? If you hadn’t pulled me over with your stupid stunt, I’d be up on deck and I could lower it down to you. This is all your fault.”
“What are you talking about? You did it! You threw me off the boat on purpose! You tried to kill me!”
“Prove it,” he said, “it’s my word against yours.” Then, out of habit, he added, “Anyway we both know it’s only your imagination,” and almost laughed, so ill-timed was the oft-used line, so absurd and awful their predicament. Without a swim platform or a ladder within reach, there was no way back onto the boat.
When he explained their only hope was for him to swim to shore, she wept and begged him not to go. “Don’t leave me here! You can’t! Who knows what’s in this water? What if there’re sharks?”
“Give them a swift kick in the snout and try not to lose a leg.”
The boat lifted on a swell. The anchor line grew taut, forcing her to reposition her hands, which he could tell were already slipping. She looked above her helplessly. “What if the rope breaks? What if it can’t hold me?”
“It holds a fucking five-ton boat. I expect it can hold you.”
She risked taking one hand off the rope to finger the medallion and, with that small gesture, he realized there was one thing left to do. He swam toward her. She cringed as though he were a monster, as though he meant to drown her here and now.
“I want this.” He grabbed the leather cord around her neck. “I’m the one who has to swim for miles. I need this this more than you do.” He expected her to fight him, felt disappointed when she bent her head so he could more easily remove it. “You’ve already taken everything,” she said, “my pride, my self-respect. You might as well have that, too.”
He slid the cord over his head, and the medallion dropped onto his chest, the skeleton and ghastly eye now nestled in his chest hair.
Lillian wiped brine and tears from her eyes. “You threw me off the boat, Martin. Why?”
For once he had the luxury of total honesty. “Because you’re rich. Because I could.”
MANY MILES into what seemed an endless swim, he wondered if this was why the swarms of sleek, incessant fish pursued him—because it was their nature, because they could. Or perhaps the current was merely sweeping them in the same direction and, like him, they obeyed the sea’s imperative. There were hundreds, thousands of the tiny things, glistening anchovies and spike-nosed ballyhoos. When, he dived below, they massed above his head in an inky, undulating carpet. Within their ranks, he occasionally glimpsed massive creatures, too, monsters cumbersome and massive whose shadows darkened the sea floor.
Yet nothing that he saw or thought he did was as terrifying as the changes to his breathing. The inhalations seemed sporadic and ill-timed. He barely needed to surface, but stayed below for far too long. When he came up, it was more to try to orient himself to land than to satisfy the urge to breathe.
As afternoon turned into dusk, he swam with grim determination, battling rising swells and hordes of hovering fish, until his feet brushed bottom and the water heaved him up onto a broad stretch of sand and coral. Before him stretched just what he’d hoped for—a beach deserted save for flocks of restless gulls and hillsides thick with vegetation. He’d come ashore on the lee side of Emerald Key, a few miles south of the resort. He flopped onto his back, content, as a pleasurable lassitude invaded him.
He decided to shelter among the trees that night and make his way at leisure to the resort tomorrow, where he’d report the tragic accident and help organize a rescue party for his wife that surely would arrive too late. He would be understandably vague about the location of the boat and was already rehearsing in his head the circumstances of their calamity. Love-making that led to some contorted pose he’d be too much the gentleman to describe in any detail, a tragic lunge or ill-timed thrust and both ending up in the drink.
She was probably already dead.
Although he wanted desperately to sleep right where he lay, the tide was coming in, the waves already lapping at his legs. He forced himself to his feet and staggered toward a group of palms, but only made it a few yards before collapsing to his knees. He realized the long swim amid the teeming fish had quite undone him. His breath was ragged, limbs quivering and cramping. Worse, several of the tiny fish, trapped in the lining of his trunks, were making frenzied efforts to escape and choosing exits not intended for that purpose. Maddening as it was, he couldn’t find the energy to remove them.
He lay half-conscious in the fading light, until the sound of a vehicle approaching jolted him alert. A jeep roared up the beach, passed him by at a rapid clip, then slammed to a halt, reversed. He recognized the resort’s gold diamond logo on the doors. The driver, a dark-skinned woman with sleek coils of braided hair, jumped out and ran to him. Behind her came an Asian speaking into a walkie-talkie.
The woman knelt and gazed into his eyes, her face maternal, oozing empathy. “Sir? Mr. Wallace? Are you Martin Wallace?”
Her voice was an exotic lullaby, reminding him how desperately he longed to sleep. He would have done so, too, except that suddenly, without warning, she slapped him hard.
“Stay with me, Mr. Wallace. We’ve called an ambulance.”
He tried to think what he must do, but he felt muddled, drugged, as though in the pristine ocean air wafted strange hallucinogens.
The man and woman got on either side of him and helped him to his feet.
“You’re a hero, Mr. Wallace,” said the man and moved as if to clap him on the back, then felt him trembling and thought better of it.
He tried to ask how they knew to look for him, but his best attempt produced only coughing and the wet rasp of a clogged gutter.
They leaned him up against the Jeep, then Lullaby, with the vicious right, was crooning in his ear, “We’ve great news, Mr. Wallace.” Her smile gut-punched him; it was too ebullient, a nightmare mouth full of teeth and tongue.
Her partner chimed in. “Your wife’s alive! She made it,” and caught Martin when his knees buckled.
He tried to speak, produced a gurgling wheeze. “What happened? How?”
“Your wife said after you two jumped in to take a dip— ” here Safari Hat looked away, embarrassed—“Hey, you forgot the ladder wasn’t down, you’d be surprised, it happens. But no swim platform on the boat, that’s a lawsuit waiting to happen, take my word. You swam for help, that took some guts, but you know what she did? Climbed the anchor line with her hands and feet. Said she fell back into the water a dozen times, her hands are cut to hell, but she got onboard and radioed for help.” He paused to draw a deep breath that Martin would have killed for. “Your wife has grit, Mr. Wallace. She told the guys who rescued her you were what kept her going, the reason she didn’t give up. She said you took something important from her, but now she has it back.”
He fought to breathe. A whistle warbled in his throat like the prelude to a death rattle.
“Sir, you’d best lie down.”
“Help. Me.” He wanted her to help him remove the amulet, but the leather cord had shrunken during his immersion and refused to stretch or break.
You will come to no harm in water (but you will suffocate in the air.)
The woman took his arm. “Sir, I know this is a shock. If you’ll just sit— ”
He shook her off. Only a few yards away, waves glossy as obsidian unfurled along the shore. He took off in a stumbling shamble toward the water. As he threw himself face-first, the sea rushed out to meet him, sucked him in with its long carnivorous tongue and mercifully dragged him under.
Where his starving lungs felt saturated, not with air or water, but the absence of requiring either, so his descent felt less like a languid dive than a violent spiral through the innards of an angry god.
Nor was he alone in his debasement, for swarms of fish accompanied his fall, darting so close he could feel the whisper of their gills and knife-like scales, the kisses of their red and puckered mouths. They fought over the tattered chum that swirled behind him, competing with each other for the soft organic morsels, racing to devour the juiciest nuggets: a crimson pinch of stubbled throat, a nipple or a lip (he couldn’t tell), eyelashes drooping from a toothy overbite like a surreal mustache.
And even then he felt that parts of his anatomy still belonged to him, and these he hoped to salvage from the slaughter, for where he was going wouldn’t he need something of himself? It was the smallest fish and their savage cohorts, the jellies, that foiled his feeble efforts. The tiny ones sucked out marrow, bile, and eyeballs and scoured the creased and furrowed niches where the body held itself aloof, those private crannies meant to be exempt from excavation, while the jellies were more devious and savage, they impersonated beating hearts and pulsed imperiously inside his gaping chest. Still others, hellish creatures not of any world he knew, gave off a ghastly inner luminescence, the better to display the contents of their bellies—cunning, decorative items like teeth and tiny gall stones, a waxy smidgeon from a ruptured ear. In one, he spied an entire cerebellum, barely masticated, that might well have been mistaken for crenellated brain coral if not for the blooms of dark, arterial blood that still spewed forth.
When a disk of vertebrae drifted past embedded in a patch of flesh and chest hair and carved to imitate some kind of grotesque charm, he recognized it as something that was once his own and tried to reach into the mass of fish to claim it, this remnant from a familiar part of Hell. Toyed with by the memory of what it meant to have hands, he grabbed for it and missed and missed again, seizing only emptiness. His descent slowed but didn’t stop, his consciousness a tiny moon orbiting an unseen monster, eternal in this hidden ocean, never to be harmed.
GROWING UP on a farm, you learn that animals die. It hardens you up and prepares you for people dying. Readies you for all the death you’re eventually going to face. It’s not hard to watch a chicken, running around the yard, fluffing its feathers, scratching the dirt like an idiot one minute, getting its cold-eyed head chopped off across a bit of stump the next. You’d laugh along with me to see its body running in a circle as if looking for its missing head, loose neck flopping, blood splashing.
It’s a bit harder when the butcher truck comes to kill the pigs. Right there by the barn. You try not to remember their soft brown eyes. Eyes just like mine, as if a human was trapped in a pig’s body. No amount of pillows over your head can block their frantic squeals—they know what’s coming.
Harder to bear still, a quick glimpse in the dark often revealed Daddy, whiskey drunk for courage, staggering to the lake with a wriggling gunnysack and a hammer. Frantic, Annie would hunt for her pups for days. I never let myself know the litters so I could take it all in stride.
Old Blue had been my daddy’s dog, a collie. I learned to walk hanging on to his hair. Daddy said Old Blue deserved to go on his own terms. Blue chose his spot, in the shade under the holly trees beside the house, and watched us from there until he died. We buried him there.
Late the night we buried Blue, I heard Daddy stumbling down the stairs. He shut the door, as he did when he was drunk for courage, too hard for stealth, but there was no new batch of puppies to drown in the lake, no new batch of kittens to twist their little necks. I slipped out of bed and crept down the stairs barefoot meaning to follow him. Stepping carefully in the dark under the holly trees, I lost him.
I figured I’d go check the barn.
When I came out from under the trees that surrounded our house, moonlight lit the farm. Now I could see where I was stepping and I could see a line drawn in the dirt, a line that swayed from side to side as if a snake had passed there. I followed the curving path of the line and it led me to the barn.
Daddy hung from the pulley at the gable end. He was still swaying so he couldn’t have been there long.
I ran inside the barn and climbed up into the haymow. I reached out, pulled him in, and loosened the rope around his neck.
“Fuck off. Go to Hell.” It was the Daddy voice. The one I obeyed in fear, without question. The Daddy who killed.
He clawed his way to the edge of the open haymow door and slid back over the edge. I watched his body fall and jerk as the rope tightened around his neck again.
That was late Friday. He was still there when Jeffy and I went to school on Monday.
Mama was already gone by then so I told my favorite teacher, Miss Palmer.
THE AXE was under my mattress, ready for morning. I smelled fresh-brewed coffee as I crept down the stairwell. My uncle was pouring amber liquid into his thermos. His own blend of half-’n’-half as he had the job of raising us until Mama could be found.
I know she didn’t go far.
Now, out of eight, counting my daddy, there’s just my Uncle Bert, Jeffy, and me. Our three older brothers signed up for the service together laughing and joking. At least we’re in different branches, makes us safer, better odds they told Mama, like betting on different numbers. Uncle Bert says they haven’t written, he means sent money, for months.
I think Mama gets the letters instead.
Uncle Bert’s no farmer. All the animals had long been auctioned off, even Annie, though I’d considered her my dog. Uncle Bert said no sixteen-year-old girl wants a dog nowadays anyway. Shows what he knows.
“Will you be late tonight, Uncle Bert?”
He jumped, “What the hell, where’d you come from? Don’t sneak up on me like that.”
“Are you going to be late getting home?”
“Why?” He narrowed his eyes and I noticed how puffy his face had become. “Kids at school talking about the phenomena? The lights. Are you scared?”
“No. I’m not scared. They’re nothing new. I’m thinking about dinner. Should we eat whatever we can find, or what?”
“Yeah, yeah, I’ll probably have to work. You kids go ahead, eat what you want.” He looked around the kitchen, “There’s food, right?”
“Yeah, Uncle Bert, there’s still bread.”
“I’ll bring something. Yeah, I’ll swing by the store on my way home. And, here, just in case, I don’t know.” He pulled a few dollars from his pocket and tossed them on the table. “Just so you have some money, you know.”
I didn’t know. We don’t live anywhere near a store.
“Yeah, good. Thanks, Uncle Bert.”
He grabbed me and squeezed me too hard, too long. He petted my head so fierce it felt as if he were trying to pull me into his heart. We probably could have gone and lived in better circumstances with my favorite teacher, Miss Palmer. She’d helped me out in the past, and she told me, anytime, she would always be there for me, but times like this I felt he needed us. And this was our home, the last place I’d seen Mama.
I was afraid he was going to start crying again. He pushed me away, nodded, and slipped the thermos under one arm. He patted his pocket for his keys and stumbled out the door. He’d already had one cup of coffee.