Drown Me, Deep and Softly
I've decided that I want to start sharing some of my own writing here. Not content written for clients, but writing I did for myself that I am particularly proud of. I imagine most of it will be fiction and poetry, but there are a few essays I wrote at university that I wouldn't mind dusting off. We shall see. For now, enjoy this spooky, dark fantasy short story.
CW: gore and violence
It was a foggy, rainy Monday morning in October when they found the body. This was, in itself, not unusual for the coastlines around the Prince William Sound and Alaskan Gulf. A catastrophic oil spill in the 80s and then the U.S. Navy’s ‘Northern Edge’ military exercises from 2015 had left the beaches littered with bodies - fish, sea birds, families of sea otters. After ‘NE15’, there had been 18 whales found dead out near Kodiak Island.
So, for Carla and Kerry, a dead creature spat from the sea, mangled and pathetic, was not a new sight.
Kerry pulled the ear flaps of their hat further down around their ears. “Seal?”
Carla, her long black hair whipped by the freezing wind coming off the water, sidled closer. She took out her knife, the neat silver switchblade a gift from her father when she turned sixteen. She always took it to the beach on the off chance they discovered an animal tangled and trapped, like the sea lion Gerry Fallow had found wrapped in a fishing net three years ago.
Skirting the top of the mouldering pine log shielding the body’s full form, Carla took a sharp breath.
“Is it messy?” Kerry asked, poking at a dirty lump of ice wedged by their feet.
“I don’t know what it is,” Carla said. “I think it’s a…person.”
If it was a person, then it looked as if they had been dead for some time. From the long, lean thighs to the narrow, hunched shoulders, the skin was mottled hues of chilled blue and sickly green; the hair, frozen into obsidian-like slivers, was laced with seaweed and shells and grains of gritty grey sand. The body was on its side and, although entirely naked, sex was impossible to determine.
Kerry, now standing by the body’s feet, peered closer, nose scrunched in disgust. There was a strong smell, it was true. Something dank and arctic and fishy that made Carla think of the boats tipped upside-down for the winter, their slimy green hulls like noxious, swollen stomachs.
“Holy fuck, I think it’s breathing.”
Kerry motioned for her to look closer and, sure enough, they both watched the tidal rise and fall of its ribcage and the twitching spasms of its legs.
“How?” Carla could taste salt as she straightened up and took a steadying breath.
Kerry shrugged, most of their face hidden in the hood of their North Face jacket. “We should go and get someone. A seal carcass is one thing. A person is a different problem.”
She leant closer again, taking in the hooked black nails, how the legs looked so thin they were almost atrophied. Using the tip of the knife, she flicked back some strands of sodden hair to better see the face. “I can’t tell if this guy is dead or not–”
At her voice, much closer than before, the eyes snapped open. The whole of the eyeball was the shimmering grey-blue of fish scales, sharply contrasting with the horizontal, golden pupil slicing across the eye like a tooth. It was mesmerising…
With a raw shriek, it grabbed for Carla, impossibly long fingers flailing like an octopus’ tentacles.
With a scream of her own she lurched back, landing on her ass on the sodden sand. “Not dead! Definitely not dead!”
Hissing like sea spray against rocks, it writhed and bucked, fingers showering sand as it searched for purchase.
Kerry, who had leapt away at its first movement, dodged around the struggling limbs and hauled Carla to her feet.
They staggered back several steps, their bodies fizzing with shock.
“It’s not going anywhere fast, is it?” Carla said, voice shaking.
It was true; the creature had barely moved. As if realising its weakness, it made a thin, grating sound in its throat, surging up to sit before crashing back, exhausted.
Kerry shook her firmly by the shoulders. “We need to call someone,” they said, taking them both back an extra step just in case. “Whoever or whatever this thing is, we can’t deal with it. We need someone who can.”
Carla tucked in close under Kerry’s arm and the two of them looked down at their strange discovery.
It took a while for someone to get out to them. The black sand beach out on Barry Arm was isolated (which was half of the reason they’d chosen it for their kayaking trip), and a boat from Esther Island was the only way in or out.
Kerry packed up the tent and supplies, but Carla found herself drifting along the beach again toward the creature. It didn’t frighten her so much now; it could barely move anymore, only the long fingers and skeletal legs twitching now and again.
She squatted a safe distance away from its head, her knife held loosely in her hands. “Where have you come from?” she murmured.
Those eyes flickered open again to fix her with a depthless stare, golden pupils swelling like larvae. From deep in its chest built a low hum Carla felt in the knot of her breastbone, like a strong bass beat at a concert. Pressure built around her head, as if she were being slowly crushed, but she couldn’t look away.
Closing her eyes to avoid that stare didn’t stop the sensation. Instead, the backs of her eyelids became cold green water riddled with silver bubbles and flecks of ocean debris. Floating in the cold, she could hear a rumbling chorus, carried by an insistent thunder that made her think of shattered ships and boulders ground to sand. She could see a great, churning wall of water rushing through the ocean beaten on by those voices, that roar filled with such rage–
Suddenly she was blinking and staring up at Kerry. “What is it?”
“The boat’s here. They say they’ve got a net.”
She glanced back to the creature, noticing the livid red slices running down its neck from below the jaw to the collarbone. For a moment, they seemed to ripple, flashing open and shut. Not wounds. Something else.
“Do you think a net is really necessary?”
Kerry gave her the pinched expression they used when they couldn’t tell if she was entirely serious or not. “It tried to maul you.”
Carla could see three men striding up the beach, a heavy net spread between them. “I guess it would be safer with the net.”
“Yeah, no shit.” Kerry beckoned to the three.
Just before the net went down, Carla felt the hum start up again, sharply cut off as the creature was wrapped in layers and layers of diamond-pattern twine. For some reason, she felt ashamed as the creature was bundled up, trying to ignore that among the hissing and flailing, there was a sound very much like human weeping.
The wind and sea spray were bitter. Carla huddled down by the bulwarks, coat fastened up to her chin, a scarf wrapped across her whole face except her eyes. On the opposite side of the boat was the creature, ropes crisscrossed across the nets and lashed to the deck.
The boat hit a larger swell, sending a mist over Carla. She wedged herself deeper between some nets and the secured bundle of her and Kerry’s gear.
Being out on the water felt eerie, somehow unsafe. It was an unfamiliar sensation, seeing as she’d been kayaking since before she could walk, but now the open water made Carla staggeringly aware of her smallness.
“We should be back in a few hours.” Kerry stood over her, their eyes narrowed against the wind. “You alright?”
She hummed a noncommittal answer and they slid in beside her, tucking her under their arm.
“This news is too big for us to break on our travel blog,” she said after a while, eyes still on the occasionally twitching bundle. The creature twisted and she caught another glimpse of those red, fluttering gashes.
Kerry pulled back the corner of her hood to see her eyes. “What do you mean? It’s a crazy story that could pull in a lot of views.”
She looked up at them. “It’s the beginning of a new era. Our reality and fiction are colliding.”
They glanced at the creature and back to Carla. “You can’t seriously believe that it’s a–”
“Why not?” She shrugged off their arm, turning to face them fully. “Every seafaring culture in existence has merfolk lore. We know so little about the sea, Kerry. Who’s to say they haven’t been hiding from us all this time?”
Kerry tucked a wisp of auburn hair back into their hood. “You can’t be serious.”
“Because mermaids aren’t real, Carla. They’re the ancient wet dreams of sailors. That,” they pointed to the creature, “is not a mermaid. It can’t be.”
Carla gave them a level stare. “Why not?”
Kerry crossed their arms, shoving the pile of nets so they could move away from her. “It’s going to be someone with some kind of radiation poisoning or disease, or it’s going to an undiscovered kind of marine life.” They saw Carla’s coming argument. “Not a mermaid.”
The boat’s engine sputtered and gurgled before plunging into silence.
The sound of the open water was thunderous.
The captain and his two companions shuffled and muttered in the small cabin, peering at gauges and pulling on levers.
“What’s happened?” Carla called, pulling herself up by the railing. Her legs were cold and cramped; she couldn’t feel her left foot.
“Likely something got trapped in the propeller,” the captain said, grabbing a metal-handled broom from inside the cabin and treading toward the stern.
As he leaned over and began prodding down into the water with the handle, Carla felt the tension rise in her chest again.
“What?” They took in her blanched face. “What?”
On the deck, the creature began to wail, a chilling sound of desolation. The wavering notes were magnified by the seascape until every wave shaped the call and threw it back, magnified.
Clinging to the railing, Carla caught glimpses of elongated, skeletal forms churning under the boat. In the grey water, they were streaks of faded scarlet, periwinkle, jade, violet. Patches of bodies, swathed in peeling scales, broke the surface here and there, bringing with them a scent of putrid rage.
The captain was stabbing down into the water with his broom pole but no longer searching for trapped weeds. “There are dozens of them!”
The two other men burst out of the cabin, one clutching a loaded rifle.
“Dad, what are they?” one yelled, his premature attempt at a scraggly beard making him appear even younger.
His father rushed to the side, pointing the gun down at the water. “Whatever they are, we need to scare them off before they swarm us.” He let off a shot into the water, aiming for a smear of bronze flashing parallel to the boat.
There was a shriek and blood bloomed in the water.
“Got one,” he crowed, mere seconds before a tar-black body broke the surface, propelled by a single, sinuous, ice-green limb.
The gun was ripped from his hands, disappearing into the roiling foam. He was taken to the deck by the black body, which was half in and half out of the water, hooked over the side like an eel.
Carla got an impression of a humanoid torso with the bare ribs of a sunken ship, the flash of golden eyes and white teeth, before blood jettisoned from the man’s neck.
The young man screamed, grasping for his father, but the creature wrapped impossibly long arms around its prize and slid them both back into the depths.
They all hung over the side, staring into the water, watching it darken as the creatures lost themselves in a feeding frenzy.
“Carla!” Kerry caught her around the waist and heaved her back just as another creature burst from the water, catching the young man by his head and pulling him over the side to join his father.
Kerry’s boots caught on a loose kayak paddle and the two of them crashed down onto the deck.
Carla’s head was ringing, the never-ending shriek disorientating her. Struggling to focus, she thought she saw the captain disappear over the stern, blood spreading like crude oil as black-nailed fingers stabbed through his shoulder. She felt a scream bubbling, but it wouldn’t leave her throat, held in place by acrid panic.
Flipping onto her belly, she crawled to where Kerry had fallen.
“Do not.” Each word surfed on a long hiss of breath.
Carla turned her head and, through the layers of net, locked eyes with the creature. Its blue-lipped mouth worked silently for a moment, followed by the same stertorous warning.
The boat tilted alarmingly to one side, then the other. Carla and Kerry tumbled across the deck, crashing together against their packs and kayaks.
There were now five of the creatures on the boat, six including the one under the nets. Carla clutched Kerry closer to her, patting their face until they groaned, their eyes focusing. Neither of them spoke, barely breathing, as the creatures’ tails with their tattered scales dried and hardened, splitting into two legs emaciated as drowned pines.
The creatures paid them no mind, tearing through the tough twine of the nets holding their comrade as if it were little more than dried seaweed.
Carla was shaking uncontrollably and Kerry curled themself around her, their own hands quaking.
One of the creatures, mottled rust red and brown, its eyes the same blue and gold as the others, took several unsteady steps towards the two of them. Carla closed her eyes with a sob.
The smell from before, that musky scent of dead things and the sea, became overwhelming.
The words set off that low throb in her skull, the tightness in her chest, and Carla’s eyes crawled open.
Its face was mere inches from her own. She could see the fine diamond-shaped scales, the ribbons of gills running down the side of its neck, each sharp bone trying to escape the skin.
It looked back and forth between Kerry and Carla, those golden pupils dilating and constricting.
The others were getting restless, rumbling and clicking and hissing among themselves.
The envoy made a low series of clicks deep in its throat, and Carla felt Kerry’s hands tighten around hers.
“You have starved us,” it hissed, its voice like desiccated flesh. “You have destroyed blindly.”
“Please…” Kerry whispered, but their voice died in their mouth, eyes going cloudy.
Carla, an instant later, felt the cold dark water again. As before, there was the wall of roaring water, but now she could see the creatures driving it on, their wretched bodies churning the tides, gathering from the decimated ocean floor the bones of sailors, desperate immigrants, and murdered slaves, de-finned sharks and tongueless whales, shipwrecks from every era and thoughtless garbage, great tornadoes of plastic and shattered torpedoes. She could taste the poison in the water: arsenic, lead, tungsten, crude oil, nuclear waste. It tasted like revenge.
She opened her eyes and found herself staring up at the bottom of the boat. Kerry was beside her, their hands tangled with hers. A creature swam either side, pulling them deeper. She screamed and her breath sailed upwards in pearlescent drops.
Above them, the boat was torn to pieces and dragged under. She turned to look at Kerry, clinging tighter to their hands. They smiled at her, despite the terror in their eyes, and surrendered to their lungs’ need, drawing water into their chest.
Carla wailed a siren-song of agony. Kerry struggled and jerked, mouth gaping, gasping in this unknown world until they went glassy-eyed and motionless. As she watched, the red envoy, so elegant and swift now, took them by the shoulders and raked three slices into their throat. The water turned pink, like a shoal of algae, and then, impossibly, Carla saw Kerry’s legs begin to move again, the two limbs slowly becoming one.
The green-blue creature from the beach, legs once again a tail, black hair waving in the currents, swam close, taking her head in its hands.
She looked into its eyes, felt Kerry’s hand grasp hers, and nodded.
It dragged its jagged nails down both sides of her neck, slicing deep. There was pain, startling, white-hot electrical pain. Then, she took a breath. Her first true breath.
Copyright: Elizabeth McIvor, 2022