Cold Waters, Blood Sand

 

Roger A. Jurack

 

Part I: The Circle And The Shore

First powered by sinew and paddle, then sail, steam and finally diesel engines, the "Ghost Boats" sail in the dead of night providing the last transport for the dead and the mourners. It's a stark reality on the islands that the boats bring everything--and everyone--full circle. Evil is not an exception.

The northern islands where the ghost boats prowl are haunting lands with cold, rough shores. On the beaches, scavengers might occasionally find a colorful agate hiding in the pale drifts of stone. Even more rarely they might discover something else: that some of the bleached lengths wedged in the rocks aren't wood.

Part II: The Legacy

Eduard Carvel arrived on the packet from Ashland in the summer of 1844. Outwardly, he was unremarkable from any of the hundreds of rough adventurers who came to the northwoods pursuing fortunes in timber, copper, and blood-red iron. But Carvel didn't lust after the clean smell of sawn timber, the warm gleam of copper, or the rich red of the iron. What he savored held the cloying taste of fear and instilled a dread of the dark.

* * *

Eliza stepped quickly through the evening, alternately treading on the rough board sidewalk and sand clay turned muddy by the day's snowmelt. The cold lake wind bore smells of hardwood and chimney smoke, and its clean bite foretold the coming of winter storms. She was a miner's widow. Brought reluctantly to the harsh northland, she'd been deprived of her comfort and her status by the collapse of a mineshaft. After her husband's death, she'd supported herself by taking in laundry, but the costs of winter shelter and the few comforts available in the north demanded more than she could earn at the washtub. No matter--there were other things for which a lonely man might pay.

Turning into the dark of the alleyway, she was met with a dull flash of silver; heavy impact spun her backward. Warmth spread quickly down her chest. Dazedly, she touched herself and held her fingers to her eyes. She saw the blood and felt herself begin to sink--to endlessly sink. Then began the horrible tearing--cold and complete violation--and a last guttural word: "Harlot!"

* * *

Murder was scarcely a novelty to the settlement, but the brutalized condition of Eliza's body shocked even the roughest of its citizens. Instead of covering cleanly white, the overnight snow had congealed dark crimson at the edges of her wounds. Her eyes were permanently fixed in a wide and supplicating stare. Her mouth gaped in frozen readiness for the scream that might have saved her life. She was eviscerated.

As the season deepened, several more women were murdered. All were unmarried. The manner of death and the grisly desecration of their bodies duplicated Eliza's in every detail. The ghost boat repeated its grim voyages, taking the victims to the graveyard on Paupers' Island. Slurring in his cups, the vessel's master reported that the island inhabitants had quietly begun to leave, fearing that the spirits of bodies so violated would never rest.

The town convened an emergency council and it was agreed to petition the army fort at Copper Harbor for help. The army approved the petition, but before the small detachment arrived, the season turned from fall to winter. In suspense of horror, the settlement bolted its doors and shuttered itself against the cold, the wind, and the darkness. In the dead of winter's night, the breakers on the lake boomed against the rocks like ghosts pounding on the door.

* * *

The coppery smell of the blood pleased and excited him. He buried his arms in it until his fingers closed around that which he prized. He held it tightly, and in the dim light watched the life fade from her eyes. With the last frenzied beat of her heart came his renewal--his revival! He felt stronger! He felt--immortal. Her lungs expelled a last choked sigh.

In the tavern, the sergeant ended his indecision and pushed away the mug. The barmaid had intimated there was warmth to be had in this Godforsaken place, and he was long overdue. He shouldered his way through the smoky room and stepped out into the wind. Driven by a rising gale, sleet announced itself with sharp pinpricks to his face. He gathered his collar around his neck and turned into the alley. She'd told him the doorway and landing would be unlighted; apparently discretion had its place even in this rough town. He opened the door and eagerly mounted the stairs. In the murky darkness he nearly went sprawling over the figures slumped at the top of the landing.

The sergeant was a battlefield veteran and instantly recognized the smell of death. He groped for his pistol. Something darker than the night scurried away, and footsteps thudded down the stairs. He regained his balance and began pursuit, shouting the alarm as he descended the stairway.

His quarry had left the outer door swinging in the storm, and the sergeant burst headlong through it. His shouts had attracted the attention of the tavern's customers and, bearing torches, they ran with him as he followed bloody footprints into the night. It was a short pursuit.

Crouched in a corner of the tool shed, Carvel faced them. His lips drew back in a grimace of something blacker than hate. He held his dagger in one hand and his cutlass in the other. Blood stained his face, and the front of his cloak was caked with gore. Fighting his rising gorge, the sergeant leveled his pistol at the horror.

"Let go the steel you bastard, or I'll send you straight to hell!"

Carvel straightened and his arms fell to his sides. His mouth twitched with mirth."You'd send me home, good sergeant?" His weapons thumped dully on the wooden floor. He spread his arms wide, and the unsteady torchlight cast a dark-hooded and gibbering shadow against the rough wall. "Then so be it."

They fell on him.

* * *

"Never mind the knot; cut him down!"

The knife was dull: it took two slashing strokes before the rope parted and Carvel's body dropped heavily to the dock. One leg quivered. A soldier kicked and spat on it."Lie still you heathen bastard! You'll be no more trouble in this life!" With his booted foot, the sergeant rolled the corpse onto its back. Carvel's violet-hued sightless eyes stared into the throng. The facial muscles were contorted in a rictus of death. Some of the onlookers crossed themselves and took an involuntary step backward. The sergeant squatted and held his knife blade near the open mouth. No trace of breath clouded the polished steel. He stood and surveyed the crowd.

"Who'll be responsible for him then?" As one the crowd drew back. He shrugged. "I've done what I was sent here to do." He sheathed the knife and stepped away.

"You can't leave him there! It's an abomination on the town!" Voices murmured assent.

He faced them and snorted. "Tales for fishwives! He's dead and that's the end of it!" He looked out over the harbor "Besides, the devil himself couldn't get him to Paupers' Island tonight--not in this storm!"

"He needn't make full passage..." At the sly suggestion, other voices rose.

"Sink him!"

"Drown him!"

"Let the fish feed on him!"

The sergeant raised his arms. "QUIET!" He looked around. "And what does the ferryman have to say of all this?"

The master of the ferry stepped into the center of the torchlight and craftily judged the opportunity. "It's mor'n a man's worth to make the passage tonight, but me an' my mate's willing--seein's how it's only half the trip--if the money's right."

The deal was quickly struck. They wrapped Carvel's body with lengths of chain and roughly loaded it--noose trailing from its neck--onto the waiting sloop. With sails slatting, the boat moved away from the pier onto the lake. The crowd melted into the darkness and the storm.

The ghost boat never returned. In the days following the storm the bodies of its crew were found impaled on driftwood that had been borne ashore by the gale. And while it was publicly agreed that the wounds were caused by the action of the waves and the rough shore, in dark and lonely privacy the townsfolk pondered uneasily why the corpses were split from belly to breastbone.

Carvel's body had been claimed by the deep cold waters. In the century and a half that followed, the settlement languished and died, and with it the tales of Carvel's butchery. On their deathbeds, old men whispered that he rode the fall gales and vengefully haunted the place of his execution, but the stories were dismissed as dementia and soon forgotten. There are no places for ghosts in the twenty-first century.

Part III: Resurrection

Cyndi Meerman was quietly ecstatic. Beach weather on Lake Superior in late September was rare, but they'd arrived on the heels of a storm and she and her son had been blessed with nearly a full week of blue skies and moderate temperatures. She leaned back in the canvas beach chair and began to read, looking up from time to time to keep track of Chad. Each day since their arrival, her son had tirelessly patrolled the empty beach, searching for whatever treasures the lake might have given up since the previous day. She hoped the beach and their time together would begin to mute the pain of the divorce.

* * *

Chad looked into the clear waters of a Lilliputian harbor enclosed by the gnarled roots of a half-buried tree. Sunlight lent a shimmering silver polish to objects at the bottom of the pool. He excitedly reached into the water and brought up a shining blade. The water drained off the piece, revealing it to be white and porous rather than metallic. His excitement began to fade, but as he turned it over in his hands, sunlight flashed white gold on its wet surface. His imagination transformed it to pirate silver and he held it up, poised to strike. It was silver! A fiery tingling ran down his arm.

"Mom! Look! I found something! Pirate stuff!" Holding it aloft, he turned to show her.

Cyndi had turned her chair to take best advantage of the sun. She pushed her sunglasses down and craned her neck to look at Chad. Another piece of driftwood! He'd converted half the wood on the beach to inventions of his imagination! Still, the counselor had told her that his strong imagination would be a good antidote to depression and should be encouraged.

"Great, kid! Yo-ho-ho! Let me know when you find the bottle of rum!" She returned to her book.

In an expression of frustration belying his seven years, Chad shook his head. Sometimes his mother said the dumbest things! Like when she said Daddy wouldn't be home anymore. She had to be fooling with him again! The tingling grew stronger and hotter, like the time the dentist had put that needle of stuff in his mouth. Pain! She'd sent him to the dentist. Pain! He looked toward her and it was as if he was looking through a tunnel. No Daddy anymore? Pain! She'd always been the one to hurt him.

(Are you strong, Chad?)

"Yes," he answered aloud without realizing it. His feet carried him woodenly toward the back of his mother's beach chair. The bone (dagger?) reflecting light in his upraised hand.

(Are you strong enough, Chad?)

"YES!" This time he shouted his answer and Cyndi turned. She looked up into his eyes with the curious violet hue--saw the descending weapon--and screamed for the rest of her life.

* * *

Summoned by the resort's hysterical staff, law enforcement and the coroner arrived within half an hour. For Cyndi Eve Meerman, that was twenty-eight minutes into eternity. Chad surrendered the bloody weapon--identified by the coroner as a portion of a human forearm bone--without resistance. The deputies carefully bagged, sealed, and labeled it. When evening fell, dense fog rose from the lake and prevented the Coast Guard helicopter from airlifting them to the mainland. The ghost boat came to do its duty.

* * *

The steady throb of the boat's engine and the relentlessly intruding shock of the murder's savagery had a soporific effect on the deputies and coroner. Only the boy seemed unaffected. Quietly smiling, Chad sat on the mid cabin bench between two deputies. An innocent observer might have been deeply moved by the pathos of a seven-year-old boy so caringly protected by the deputies taking the ghost boat back to the mainland. It was presence of the plastic restraints on his wrists that destroyed the sweet poignancy of the image. That, and the long plastic bag lying on the deck.

Neither the ferry's captain or the helmsman ever saw the drifting log--in fact its impact was barely felt. But the wreck began when the tree, tumbling submerged along the hull, jammed the rudder hard over. The Madelein heeled sharply as it responded to the damaged rudder. The master and helmsman fought unsuccessfully to keep the ship inside the channel. In the passenger cabin, the body bag slid on the deck and the deputies staggered against the windows. The boy never moved--or stopped smiling.

Madelein struck Asaph's Ledge at full cruising speed. Stone tore through the hull and it began to sink. Water cascaded over the main deck and as the ship heeled further over the passenger cabin began to flood. One of the deputies smashed a window and began to help the others escape. As the last person scrambled through, he turned and extended an arm to the boy who was chest deep in the rising water.

"Take my hand son--take it!" But the cold violet eyes never blinked and Chad refused the outstretched hand.

"For the love of God, take my hand! Save yourself!" Water was up to the boy's neck and metallic creaking announced the breakup of the Madelein.

Chad began a laugh that was far older than the body that spawned it. "I already have!" The water covered him.

Eight months later the distraught deputy wrote that the boy had never struggled or made any effort to save himself. He wrote too, of the eyes reflecting violet that had stared unblinkingly into his own while the water rose over them--and he couldn't reconcile the fact that no bubbles had risen from the drowning child. Why it affected the deputy so terribly was never fully understood.

It was a suicide note.

Epilogue

"Skinny dip? In Lake Superior? In October? You're out of your mind, girl!"

She laughed scornfully and began shedding her clothes. "Yeah, Mr. Chicken, but just think how we can warm up! Now **come on!**" She ran down the beach to the water's edge, a pale and tantalizing wraith in the evening light.

"Well...hell!" He loosened his belt. The prize would certainly be worth the effort. Minutes later, fully exposed to the cool lake air, he stepped gingerly over rocks into the water. It was warmer than he'd expected.

"No warm-up unless you get wet all over!" She sat down in the water, back to him, taunting.

"Yeah, yeah..." He looked down and saw a pale, irregular shape in the water. He stooped and picked it up. A throbbing began in his hand and wrist. He hefted the object and tested its balance. The throbbing was in his arm now, spreading powerfully toward his chest. He swung the white bone in a vicious arc.

"I'm w-a-i-t-i-n-g!" She arched her back and let her head fall backward, looking at him upside-down. Passing waves alternately exposed and covered her breasts; she saw him look.

"Harlot!" His voice was coarse and alien.

She turned quickly to face him. "What did you say?"

He came at her with eyes glinting deep violet. "I said: 'I found a cutlass...'"

 

 

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Author Bio

Roger writes from broad life perspective, having earned a living in several diverse fields: Naval aviation for 22 years (now retired); Foreign Service communications officer in the Middle East; a Montana law enforcement officer; a commercial pilot and flight instructor, and a long-haul professional driver. He even drew a paycheck once for 'bucking' hay bales (at ten cents apiece) on a Montana ranch! He wryly comments that writing fiction is his latest attempt at starvation.

For many years Roger's writing appeared in military and governmental technical publications, but he has only recently forayed into the world of fiction. His work has been published in Alien Skin magazine, Nocturnal Ooze Magazine, Twilight Times, and Anotherealm.

He writes and resides with his wife (and staunch critic) Carolyn, on Michigan's Upper Peninsula, surrounded by Lake Superior and his much beloved Springer Spaniels.

Read another story by Roger:
"Artificial Horizon"
"Downhill"
"The Writer's Block

 

 


 

 

 

"Cold Waters, Blood Sand" Copyright © 2004 Roger A. Jurack. All rights reserved.
Published by permission of the author.

 

This page last updated 10-26-04.

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