Tidal bores occur when a wide, flat estuary surges upstream against the natural flow of the river’s current, causing the incoming tide to form a breaking or undulating wave. There are only around sixty of these phenomena in the world, eleven of which occur in Great Britain.
Glencaple, Dumfries and Galloway County, Scotland
A cold month of September. Late afternoon, and darkness was already descending outside the church. Like strobe lights, dust swirled before the sconces on the walls as I stared glassy-eyed at the casket.
Reverend Kilgore, pale skin, lined and dry like parchment, cleared his throat. Thick, black-framed glasses perched on the bridge of a large hooked nose. The minister shuffled papers on the lectern and several strands of his greying hair fell down across his forehead, betraying the extent of his comb-over.
Please, let’s just get this over with, I thought.
Mother, dead. My mother, dead. She had been acting out of sorts long before she killed herself. Growing up, I remembered her as a completely different person from the emaciated creature who wasted away toward the end of her life. Mum had started having monstrous nightmares, but when she tried explaining them to anyone, we thought she’d gone insane—and you could hardly blame us.
“Finn,” she would say, “have you ever felt fish scales moving under your skin?”
I would say, no, Mum, fish scales can’t get under your skin.
“You’re wrong, love. Every woman can feel them. Sometimes they soothe you, sometimes they prickle you so hard you want to scratch yourself until you bleed.”
In the church, the Reverend paused. The silence brought in the noise from outside. My little town was in a deluge gobbing out giant, reversed teardrops with the size and resistance of Kalamata olive pits. Through the rose window, I could see steam around the gloaming streetlamps, rising from the river below. Something about the weather made everything unreal.
I sat in the front row between my father and Daniele, my little sister. My father’s grief showed with the downturned corners of his mouth. So embarrassing. Old people shouldn’t display their feelings like that. Weakness didn’t match his hatchet-carved face. Despite the abyss of time, his features were weirdly similar to mine; but Dad was a sketch of existential helplessness. So unlike me. Certainly, my gothic appearance was out-dated, and some found my cool disaffection tedious, but at least I had the resilience of character to keep my emotions in check for the sake of family.
Dad brushed forefinger and medium against my elbow. The rough texture of his fingertips made me shiver. I wished I hadn’t picked this three-quarter-sleeved black dress. I wished I were already wearing my thick coat. The air smelled of moisture and damp mushrooms even indoors. Walking into the church, I’d had the impression of wading in the river.
I pictured myself surrounded by tossing waves. Maybe, if you opened your mouth and swallowed the Nith River’s salty water, scales could crawl inside you. After a minute, things like tickling feathers would come to the surface, just under the deeper layer of derma, and move toward your heart. Because the heart pumps your blood like the moon pulls water, and tidal rivers are strong, conflicted, and secretly violent.
Mum lashed out when no one would listen to her rambling. At some point she began to paint wiggly tattoos all over her body—strange, complex symbols and cyphers. We asked her to explain what these drawings were, but she simply couldn’t answer.
“It’s a feeling, it’s just a feeling, in here…in HERE…” she’d repeat again and again. By this stage Mum had completely retreated from our affection. It wasn’t long before she was dead.
Mum said they’d come for me next…
The minister was reading from his notes, passages from scripture that failed to penetrate my inner world.
If my mother’s death still seemed unreal, the cause was perhaps even more so—suicide. Mum had gone from being the bedrock of my life to a black hole that could never be filled. But the dreams were the worst.
Reverend Kilgore droned on, his words a series of formless intonations. To me it seemed I was removed from the scene, as if an invisible divide separated the man in the pulpit and me. I started, afraid I’d been sliding off to sleep, but it made no difference. The minister’s words continued to melt the moment they left his mouth, decaying in transit until they reached me as formless blobs of sound. I glanced at my sister’s wide, teary eyes and then Dad’s sad grey face.
I felt removed from them too, the only one who couldn’t hear the words. And I didn’t care. The Reverend reminded me a little of the voices from my dreams who talked about cosmic beings, both celestial and abysmal, until I sensed the creatures peering out at me from between the creases of a watery dimension. The incense smelled sour.
After the confined atmosphere in the church, the raw wind engulfed me like a cape woven of icicles. Billy was waiting, but I wasn’t in the mood to deal with him or his shifting habits—one minute he loved me, the next he didn’t want to commit.
Fuck that shit.
Billy reached in to hug me, introducing the lingering smell of rain onto my black frock, something that only succeeded in irritating me further. My tongue lapped at an imprint of carcinogenic toothpaste he’d left behind.
Judging by his dishevelled appearance, he’d been drinking. Again. I only wanted to swallow icy water.
Billy, dragging his flaccid fringe back into the mound of dark shag, adjusted his tie (but only made the knot looser, messier), and tried to get all the words out of his mouth before I could walk away from him.
“I’m sorry,” he stammered.
I glared, waited a moment, and then collapsed into his arms like a boneless corpse. Ten steps away, the river was preparing to kiss the sea. Billy held me close repeating that he was sorry, over and over.
Dad came out of the church with Daniele. Mr. McNail was a great heap of a man, eyes scored through with memories of the clandestine military operations he’d been constituent to. He didn’t approach me, for which I was grateful. Dad didn’t like to see me around Billy, despised the boy; a stranger would think this thoughtful father allowed me to have my private moment grieving with my boyfriend. As if I’d confide in that unstable young wreck. Truth is my father only wanted to keep his little girls away from other men.
The sky had gone from grey to a hot silver; quarks of daylight broke through. Once the rain had ceased, the road that ran parallel to the Nith River was left like a shallow torrent, like a sickly younger brother to the greater river. The surface of the Nith trembled, announcing the surge from the sea.
Dad glanced upward. “We’re having a new moon tonight.” He scrutinized the surface of the water, which quivered with wavelets, silver triangles on pitch black.
Since we moved from Glasgow to Dumfries and Galloway ten years ago, my father had been fascinated by the tidal bores. The highest tides occur during the phases of a full moon or new moon, when the gravitational force of both the sun and moon reinforce one another. I’d learned that the largest annual tides happen around the Spring Equinox in the month of March, and the Autumn Equinox, this very month of September. Right now. My skin itched.
Dad’s eyes shone with expectation. In his pupils I glimpsed the reflection of two sickles, the moon’s crescent.
As a child, I admired my father, but growing up I’d caught a strange expression on my mother’s face when she listened to his endless rants and explanations. Professor McNail, she would call him. I didn’t understand her animosity at first, until I met Billy and learned how, in so many ways, a man could disappoint a woman. But Billy at least was young, inexperienced. I was his first girlfriend, and I had to tell him what to do and how to do it, instructions which he followed by the numbers. Dad, though, had several lovers before meeting Mum, and—I’d grasped from veiled allusions—after their wedding, too. It was either egotism or a simple lack of empathy. Maybe these two go hand in hand. The McNail women were unlucky, is all.
I thought about Mum, what she was like before the transformation; remembered her shock of black hair. A vague portrait of her soft, warm features. What had broken her exactly, I did not know, but if I could have foreseen what would happen to her, I would’ve savoured her smile even more before it disappeared completely from her face. What if those slimy creatures really were out there weaving through the folds and creases of the water? What if everything Mum had said turned out to be true? Scales like feathers. Would she have still died for nothing?
Maybe this ‘sickness of the soul’ was an inherited characteristic that just needed time to gestate.
You’re daddy’s little girl, no one else’s. No one else’s…
I pulled my woolen coat tight around me.
“It’s here,” my father’s ecstatic voice whispered.
I stumbled down the short slope onto the riverbank. Small waves mussed up the water. The surge came rolling in, a meter high. I let myself slump down, my back against pebbles and stones. Somewhere behind me, Billy cried, “Gosh, it’s getting huge!”
The advancing bore front rose to double its usual height, but instead of carrying the murky colour of slime the water shimmered as if covered with a film of kerosene. The undulating ripples hurled forward at great speed and left the bed of the river to veer toward the bank.
“Finn, come away, come away!” Billy, again, his voice fading in the distance. Daniele’s muffled scream.
Closing my eyes, I waited.
The breaker knocked me out for what must’ve been a good few seconds. My mind retreated to a familiar place, back in my room. In my sanctuary. Safe. But it didn’t last. It couldn’t. I’m a McNail woman. We’re all destined for a tortured fucking existence.
The shadows came, dark, twisted bulges streaking my bedroom walls, bloating, growing limbs and retracting into hollows until the silhouettes coalesced into one single physical form. Now I was being cradled in the arms of some slimy sonofabitch. I knew then that there was no way it was Billy who’d come to my rescue. Arms roped into clusters of bunched muscle, pectorals tensely twitching with each step he took, he carried me with ease.
I knew his smell. Citrus and sweat. I’d known this scent since I was little. The big man had carried me that way all my life.
Before I knew what was happening, the stabbing muscle of a tongue penetrated my mouth and filled it with a saltwater tang. Heavy breathing through gill-slits. Fluid fingers worked my breasts, penetrated my cunt. The sheen of slime lubricated me, easing the entry.
The estuary opened around us. Webbed feet waded through the curtain of sea, down the narrow, steeply sided gorge. I was meat being delivered to starving monsters, the same starving monsters that captured my mother and raped her mind. A seagull cried out to the empty dome of sky, an unnatural and confused plea for something, probably the first time its endless hunger had been forgotten. Grey-backed salmon gasped for air on the shoal.
The stink of ammonia tattooed itself on my senses. A rotten womb of sky and sound. The man dropped me into the water like a trawler returning a net full of lost boots to the sea.
Flotsam. I swirled with the flood.
I sensed them before I could make out the silvery shapes. Eel-like creatures coiled around my legs. Smooth tentacles stroked me. Questing cilia probed my flesh. Silky flakes. Scales like feathers.
White sparks exploded behind my eyelids. The ocean roared in my ears and sang a cleansing tempest. My mind was left full of light.
The fish-god skin, which I accepted (and my mother refused), enveloped me—a steel-strong armour.
I leaned through the waves like the figurehead of a ship.
The tide hurled me upstream. I raised my arms and led the surge.
Gio Clairval is an Italian-born writer and translator who has lived most of her life in Paris, France, and now commutes between Lake Como, Italy, and Edinburgh, Scotland, followed by her pet, a giant pike. Her stories have appeared in magazines such as Weird Tales, Lightspeed, Galaxy’s Edge, Daily Science Fiction, and several anthologies, including Bestiary (Centipede Press), punkPunk! (Dog Horn Publishing), The Lambshead Cabinet of Curiosities (HarperCollins), Caledonia Dreamin’ (Eibonvale Press), Darke Phantastique (Cicatrix Press), and Postscripts (PS Publishing) among others. She can be found at KOSMOCHLOR and she regularly haunts Twitter as @gioclair
Chris Kelso is a Scottish writer, illustrator, editor and journalist. He has also been printed frequently in literary and university publications across the UK, US and Canada. His books include The Black Dog Eats the City, The Dissolving Zinc Theatre and Unger House Radicals.
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Story illustration by Heather Landry.