‘They pace outside our cage,
These tigers we have made…’
– ‘Cages’ by Maria Santa Cruz
The mist clings to the wharves like ropes of luminescence at this time of the morning, unravelling around her feet as she walks. The breakers out on the reef are talking to her again; they sing ‘safe’ and then, the very next moment, ‘risk’.
He will not come home in this, she knows. He cannot. So she turns and walks back up the narrow, steep street towards home and her sleeping son, thinking always of his father. Perhaps the boy has dreamt of a better future this time.
In late afternoons she haunted Widow’s Hill, watching for his vessel; Captain Decker home from the sea with his extraordinary catch. Lucy snorted to herself at the insane fantasy of a monster straight from the Bible – or from some undreamt-of Hell. He wouldn’t find it, she knew, even with the Bishop’s ‘magic’ symbols bedecking his boat. Yet any time at sea was filled with dangers. She couldn’t decide whether the Bishop was a fool or simply evil, but she cursed his name anyway.
From her vantage point high up on the hill, she could see the men rolling from the quayside to the taverns, never noticing as the stars wheeled into new patterns over their empty heads.
Isaac’s first boat, Friendship, had been wrecked in harbour by a vicious storm one Autumn night. Times had been hard for them while a new one was built. No catch meant no money, but the new boat promised a fresh start.
The Amis Reunis. The French name had been suggested to Isaac by Bishop Blackwood. Lucy disliked it and would have preferred something more traditional. “People will think you have ideas above your station, Isaac Decker!” she’d chided him. He’d sneered at what he saw as her petty concerns.
The boat was Isaac’s own design and had a remarkable turn of speed for such a small vessel. He and his crew were always at the fishing grounds hours ahead of the other boats and were always the first to head home. The other captains failed to hide their envy at every possible opportunity.
There were storms all that week. She dreamt each night, again and again, of black things crawling across desolate red places that were riven by deep gorges and punctuated with misshapen clusters of rocks. Every morning her belly ached as if it knew it would never feel her husband’s hot seed again.
Lucy often knelt and prayed that the Bishop would be stricken suddenly, or moved somewhere else by the church. She knew it was a sin and not the sort of thought a Christian woman should even have, but the Bishop had changed Isaac. He wasn’t the man she had met and married. He’d always had ambition, but now it was becoming nearly a mania with him.
He’d first met the Bishop when one of his men came to the village and demanded one of the boats supply them with fish for a feast to be held that week. Only Isaac knew where to find the sort that the Bishop called for, though he was puzzled why anyone would want to feast on a beast with such poor flesh. And one that had such a malign reputation.
When Isaac finally landed the catch and showed it to Lucy, she shuddered at the creature’s terrible mouth. It was all teeth, like a savage little circle of death. He told her the thing was called a lamprey and she said it was better off being left in the sea.
Isaac had delivered the fish in person. The Bishop’s palace lay a few miles inland, surrounded by a grand park. The driveway from the road to the palace was, as Isaac described it, lined with carvings of naked angels and other, less auspicious creatures. One entire tree had been stripped of its bark and fashioned into something quite awful to look upon, he’d told Lucy.
The Bishop had insisted on thanking Isaac in person. Ever since that meeting, Isaac had started to change. When the Bishop had bought more fish from her husband, he’d insisted Isaac always delivered it in person, and every time he seemed to return home more dazzled by what he’d seen and more discontented with his lot in life.
Lucy had never met the Bishop, but she heard plenty about him from Isaac. From what he said, the Bishop seemed far more worldly than a man of the church ought to be.
One day Isaac returned from a delivery to the Bishop’s palace with a bag of gold. Lucy gasped as he spilled it on the table and grinned at her. Suspicion crept into her voice as she asked “What’s that for?”
Isaac seemed unreasonably pleased with himself. “It’s to spend on the boat. The Bishop wants it in top condition when it goes looking for a very special catch.”
Lucy was baffled. The boat had only recently been out of the water to have the barnacles scraped off. And Isaac was a scrupulous master, never allowing his vessel to fall into the slightest disrepair. “What does the Bishop want, Isaac? What has he said to you?” She half-dreaded the answer.
“He showed me the Testament, that’s what he did. He showed me the Book of Job and told me about a huge beast that lives under the waves. He said a fisherman could catch the beast and chain him, and that it was an effrontery to the Lord and nature that it was still free. That’s what he told me, Lucy.”
Lucy picked up the sheet of paper that her husband had laid down on the table. Something in the intersection of the lines and looped shapes made her blood run cold. Here and there were suggestions of almost bestial faces. “I’m no scholar, Isaac, you know that, but I’m not stupid either. These are no Christian symbols! I know enough to know that …”
Isaac had glowered at her then. “Hold your tongue, Lucy. You can’t know what you’re saying. The Bishop himself drew those out on the paper for me before my very eyes. They came from some great old book.”
Lucy narrowed her eyes then. “Book? What book? Not the Bible then?”
Seeming unsure, Isaac thought a while before answering. “I think he said it was in Greek. But the Bible isn’t the only Christian book, now is it … written by Christian men?”
Lucy grunted, unconvinced. “But what are you to do with these symbols?”
He grabbed the paper from her and studied it. “These must be painted along the planking of the boat, wife. And down the sides of the sail. The Bishop says it will wake the beast, draw him to us. And they’ll make him weak so we can ensnare him more easily, he says.”
Lucy shook her head, lowering her gaze. “It all sounds like superstition to me,” she muttered.
It was a freezing cold morning when Lucy and Samuel had stood on the quay, saying their farewells to Isaac. Mist curled around them.
The captain patted his son on the head, then pulled his wife close to him. “Don’t worry about me, my love. I’ll be safe,” he said and loosened his coat a little.
Even in the weak milky light, Lucy caught the glint of gold. “What’s that?”
Isaac reached in and pulled forth a metal object, careful not to let his crew see. It was about four or five inches long and was fashioned like an elaborate staff. Curious whirls and designs covered it, with unsettling shapes clustered around both ends. Each tip finished in a strange, star-like shape with five points.
Lucy had shuddered at the sight of it. “This is unholy, Isaac!” she hissed, not wanting Samuel to hear her.
“The Bishop says that this will protect me in any struggle, lass.”
Lucy’s mouth twisted down in a grimace of despair “Strugg …?”
Isaac clutched her even closer. “Hush! Hush, now. When I return we’ll be rich, my little Lucy. We can leave this place for good.” Then he was aboard and the boat cast off, soon swallowed from sight in the soft, clinging morning mists.
Though he never showed himself at the quayside, Lucy heard the unmistakable rumble of the Bishop’s conveyance as it receded along the misty village’s main street.
One night, exactly a month after Isaac had sailed, Lucy heard her son sobbing from the next room.
She rose and took a light to Samuel. She found him curled up, trying to disappear into his blankets, sobbing into the thick wool. He flinched slightly when she put her hand on his head and made soft noises.
He sat up and she took him into her arms. “I -I had a … dream, Mummy. It was about a tree. There was a … huuuge tree. It was walking about under the sea. It knew what it was doing.”
Lucy hugged Samuel, rocking slightly, murmuring to him. “It’s just a dream. It can’t hurt you.”
The boy wriggled round in her arms. “Dad – Daddy was there.” Lucy felt herself stiffen slightly at the mention of Isaac.
Samuel looked up at her. “He was trying to talk. He tried. But his mouth was full of water and things. And the tree stopped him.”
“Hush, now. Hush.” Gooseflesh crept across Lucy’s scalp as she held Samuel’s head and hugged him close. She wanted to press his flesh into her body, make him one with her, to protect him – but also to silence him.
Samuel’s dreams came more frequently as the weeks passed. Soon he became afraid to sleep, and Lucy felt obliged to keep him away from school.
Finally she decided to send him to stay with her sister, who lived inland. She hoped that putting a greater distance between the boy and the unquiet waters that lapped at the shoreline would put a stop to his nightly trials.
With Samuel gone, loneliness closed in around Lucy and she prayed long and hard every night for Isaac’s safe return. Once he was home there would be no cause for Samuel’s bad dreams; she wanted her husband and her son back.
For several nights past, Lucy had buried her face in her pillow and stopped up her ears. Before retiring to bed, she made certain the door was bolted tight and the shutters were secure.
She needed to feel safe in here, locked away inside, while unknown figures passed by in the street. She tried to close her ears and mind to the sounds of something pressing wetly against the door in the small hours, and of the shutters being tested again and again.
Lucy hugged the cross to her, knowing she would lose her senses if she heard the obscene black prayers to foul deities being whispered through the keyhole, breathed through the cracks in the woodwork.
In the rain-washed mornings that followed, the other wives would mutter among themselves. They questioned each other for even the smallest morsel about the visitors who walked through the village while they were all abed. They never spoke to Lucy about the matter; not wishing to upset her, she supposed. Or maybe they simply did not trust her.
For, although no-one had ever seen them, there were rumours that it was the Bishop’s men who stalked at night. And they all knew well her feelings about the Bishop and his business.
No one believed old Suggers’ claims that it was merely vagabonds from the broken farms in the hills above the village. They dismissed it and left him to get back to his bottle. The man had once been the village priest, and it pained Lucy to see him brought so low.
She wasn’t sure how much credence to give the stories about Suggers – that he was driven mad by his dreams after an audience at the Bishop’s Palace, or by something he’d seen from Widow’s Hill one night – but she was always careful to treat him with more courtesy that the others did.
While shopping one morning, Lucy happened to glance across the sea wall. There was something unusual on the beach next to the harbour that claimed her attention, so she walked the few hundred yards and picked her way carefully across the shingle.
A knot of men stood around the object, nets that needed mending neglected in favour of this shocking arrival from the sea. Lucy pushed her way through the group, afraid of what she might see but desperate to see it anyway.
Recognising the skiff from the Amis Reunis, she choked back a sob. The boat was filled with debris, bits of broken wood and the detritus the sea no longer wanted. Small molluscs crawled everywhere, blowing bubbles, shocked by the sudden landfall.
A few of the men were pulling aside the rubbish piled into the boat. “I’m surprised it stayed afloat,” said one, heaving aside a tangled mass of rope and cloth. There at the centre of it all, lay the figure of a man, as still as stone. “It’s John Cornish,” yelled Lucy. “Oh God!” The mate of the Amis Reunis looked as though he belonged to the sea and had never been a man at all.
He clutched to his chest a square of sail that had been cut out roughly with a knife. On it was one of the bizarre talismans that Bishop Blackwood had insisted Isaac emblazon the boat with. Lucy suspected John had used the symbol in a doomed bid to try and ward off the evil that had obviously claimed him.
She leaned closer, intending to take the cloth from his dead grasp. As she did so, the parched, cracked lips moved. “He’s alive,” hissed Lucy, moving her ear close to the salt-rimed mouth. “Risssk. Risssk. Rissssk …” He repeated the word over and over, like the surf rushing up the shingle on a desolate shore only to retreat, defeated for the moment. She caught the scent of the deep on his faint breath.
Desperate now, Lucy grabbed at his clothes. “John! John!! Where is Isaac?! What about the boat?” Seaweed and filth fell from his hair as his head lolled back, his breath rasping out.
Lucy relinquished her grip at the doctor’s arrival seconds later. Tiny crabs scurried away as he put his ear to the man’s chest and called for quiet from the assembled men. When he raised his head again he shook it from side to side. “He’ll not live long,” he muttered before turning away to crunch back up the beach.
Lucy stared down at the man as the others pulled him free of the boat, carrying him to the nearest tavern. She picked up the square of discarded sailcloth and stared at the unearthly hieroglyph painted on it. Isaac had painted the sail himself, not trusting any of the others to get the design right; he hadn’t wanted any mistakes. Everything had to be exact. The Bishop had been quite insistent, he’d said.
She dug her fingers into it and wound it around between her fingers. This might be the last thing of Isaac’s that she would ever possess. The boat sitting on the beach in front of her was a messenger, a survivor of a tragedy that had taken him from her, returning alone from a place of darkness and death with a cargo of wrecked humanity.
Isaac was lost. She gathered up the remnants of her heart, walked back up the narrow street to her cottage and closed the door tight.
That night sleep came hard and what there was of it was shallow and haunted by awful dreams.
Isaac was there again, in the room. He stood next to the bed and whispered that he’d be home again soon. But his voice had been changed somehow. When she awoke fitfully she could still hear his voice like breakers sighing up the shingle. “Ssssooooon. Ssssssssooon.”
Lucy drifted off once more, her dreams taking her far from shore. And there were black things beneath the writhing sea, the waters running ahead of them in great waves, as if trying to escape their malign touch. At first she saw her husband walking across the waves, feet mere inches below the surface, as if making his way along some submerged paving. But with each step he sank farther and farther, the waters rising first up to his thighs, then over his waist. Soon Isaac bobbed in the water, cursing and holding tight to the strange gold object the Bishop had given him. His words were strange and oddly twisted, the syllables strangling one another in a desperate battle for meaning.
Suddenly she found herself sitting half awake, hugging her knees and rocking back and forth. “Cath-uh. Coth-ollh …” When Lucy found herself muttering the strange words from the dream, she started fully awake. Lighting a candle, she reached for the Bible that sat beside her bed and read till the dawn chased the night out, desperately trying to forget the unclean words that filled her head.
It was another cold morning when old Suggers hammered on Lucy’s door. She opened it to meet the man’s bloodshot gaze, mere inches from her own. “C-Ccaptain Decker. It’s … it’s him!” Lucy took a step back, waving away the stale stench of drink on Suggers’ breath, before realising what he was saying.
“Where? Where is he?” She grabbed the man by the arm. “Show me … now!” She took her shawl from a chair-back and steered the drunkard down the street, as his shaking arm indicated the beach. Their breaths clouded before them as they went, becoming one with the light mist still clinging to the air.
Ahead she could see others gathered on the beach, alerted by the news of the arrival. As Lucy and Suggers began to crunch across the beach, the old man began to moan and struggle in her grip, like an old dog sensing danger. Tiring of his restlessness, and spotting something out on the water, Lucy released him. A shape was approaching out of the milky opacity.
It was his boat. After all these weeks. Hot tears of gratitude rolled down her cheeks as she ran down to the very water’s edge, ignoring the surf as it roiled up her shins.
But something wasn’t right. The boat was coming in too fast, yet no sail was raised. And it was headed straight for the beach instead of towards the safe haven of the harbour. Soon the boat was close enough for her to see Isaac in the wheel house, though he stood stock still as if turned to stone. Her heart leapt. Surely he could see the shore approaching? Hard-a-starboard, man, hard-a-starboard …
She took several steps back from the water’s edge, retreating from that which she had awaited for so long, fearing a wreck. Then Isaac rose up from behind the wheel. His head shattered the rotten timbers of the wheel house as his body ascended rapidly.
At first her eyes refused to tell her the truth. Then she noticed that Isaac was being held somehow by a huge rope of dark, mottled flesh. It waved him now from side to side like some obscene puppet. And she knew, from the way his head lolled loosely about, that his neck must be broken. Her beloved Isaac was dead. But he was coming ashore.
The vessel still came on and at a speed that seemed impossible. Everyone gathered on the beach began to retreat to the supposed safety of the village streets, just yards away.
The sea rushed up the shore, eager to deliver its cargo, it seemed. Men yelled out as the Amis Reunis slammed into the shingle, sending pebbles flying high as it crunched home. Lucy gasped and fell back as the boat stopped just yards away from her.
The planks split open as if rotten from years under the ocean. As the craft was rammed into the pebble beach, the hull tore apart like a ripened gourd, splinters flying far and wide. From within burst a confusion of mottled grey-green flesh, born either in the deep oceans or a place far stranger.
From behind her she could hear shouts of “Devil fish! Devil fish!” But she knew it was no fish.
A huge trunk of flesh stood upright, waving the remains of Isaac far above the beach before tossing the figure high into the air. It spiralled up for second after second before crunching back down with a sickening sound. Isaac’s body lay among the pebbles, partly melting into them, his captain’s hat still stuck firmly to his emptied head, the golden talisman clutched in what remained of his fingers.
Lucy covered her mouth so she would not scream. She took a few steps towards where Isaac lay, then fear forced her feet back. The very air seemed polluted by the alien presence on this familiar shore. Her eyes darted between her husband’s body and the foul thing that curled and reared at the water’s edge.
As she stood and stared, the unnatural mess – its limbs reaching perversely upwards like tree roots seeking nourishment from the sky instead of the earth – seemed to turn over on itself and slide back under the water, beaching the shattered remnants of the boat as it went.
Lucy stepped towards Isaac, sobbing, and the tiny crabs pouring from his empty eye sockets seemed to scratch out a secret cypher of emptiness as they scurried away across the pebbles.
The woman dropped to her knees beside her dead husband, her hands waving over his body in a semaphore of despair. Those still gathered on the beach clapped their hands over their ears as Lucy’s anguished cry was drowned out by an unearthly, rage-filled keening from across the mist-topped waves.
Mark Howard Jones was born in South Wales on the 26th anniversary of H P Lovecraft’s death. His 2006 novella The Garden Of Doubt On The Island Of Shadows (ISMs Press) drew praise from Ray Bradbury, among others. He is the author of the collections Songs From Spider Street (SD Publishing, 2010) and Brightest Black (SD publishing, 2013) and the editor of the anthology Cthulhu Cymraeg: Lovecraftian Tales From Wales (SD Publishing, 2014).
His latest Lovecraftian fiction appears in the anthologies Black Wings III (PS publishing, 2014), The Madness Of Cthulhu II (Titan Books, forthcoming), both edited by S T Joshi, and Gothic Lovecraft (Cycatrix Press, forthcoming), edited by S T Joshi and Lynne Jamneck. He lives in Cardiff, the capital of Wales.
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Story illustration by Steve Santiago.