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Treacherous Waters

by Grove Koger

The nearby point had once been the site of a lighthouse, and wreckers had gone about their heinous trade on the shoals in earlier centuries. Those bare facts, plus the apparent lack of any links nearby, were all that Smith knew about the area. Golfing he could not abide, but angling was a different story, and he had brought his rod with the understanding that the cottage came with fishing rights to a nearby stream.

Well, it did — come with the rights, that is — but, as the owner’s portly young agent informed him after meeting him at the station that morning, the area offered indifferent prospects in that regard: “We have no salmon here, and no sea trout, and that’s the truth of it.” He moved on to explain that a man from the village could be engaged to deliver supplies, and his wife, to cook a few meals.

No links and no fish! No wonder the fortnight’s lease had been so reasonable. But in any case, the cottage proved to be satisfactory. Smith would have liked a view down to the sea, but that side of the property was planted thickly with scrub oak, and the windows that looked out in that direction were small.

An hour’s walk later that morning proved that at least he had the closest habitable property to the shore. Stone foundations and stunted fruit trees marked what had once been the sites of more seaward dwellings.

The slope of the shingle beach was shallow with shoals and reefs stretching far out to sea, and the water might be warm enough for an afternoon bathe. The view itself — an overarching sky of palest blue reflected and refracted below in a broken pattern of racing water — was breathtaking. Smith thought it ironic that he should be the only one enjoying it; you grew as used to the breathtaking as to the banal, he supposed.

But a moment later he realized that he was not alone after all. A few hundred yards up the coast an old man was seated on a section of stone wall. He seemed to be watching Smith rather than the sea. Smith raised his arm in greeting, and after some hesitation the man did the same before turning away.

After a time Smith retraced his steps and spent a lazy afternoon unpacking and arranging his belongings. An overgrown garden lay on the lee side of the cottage. He sat beside it in an old wicker chair as the shadows lengthened, and he thought the kind of thoughts that overgrown gardens bring to mind.

He had found a collection of ghost stories by one of the Benson brothers at the back of the closet, and after a time he carried it out along with a lamp and the bottle of Scotch he had brought with him and settled down to a peaceful evening, serenaded by crickets and the faint susurrus of the sea.

* * *

A few hours’ casting the next morning suggested that the agent had been right about the fish. Yet it was a fine day, and the fresh air and unaccustomed exercise left Smith hungry, so he followed a wayward path into the village for lunch at the pub he had seen the day before.

Although his gear attracted the attention of two old duffers seated in a corner, his comments about his luck drew only blank stares. But a few remarks about the weather, coupled with the offer of a round, broke the ice, and he spent a pleasant time eating a pasty at the bar and soaking up what he would call “atmosphere” when he described his holiday to friends.

Smith returned to the cottage along the coast walk, again admiring the panorama of sea and shore and sky. As he approached the hillock where he had stood the previous day, he glanced up the coast and was somehow not surprised to see what appeared to be the same old man in the same attitude. This time Smith did not raise his hand but simply returned the gaze for a moment.

* * *

The next two days passed uneventfully. He walked for hours, surveying handsome vistas here and passing through narrow lanes there. Both days he saw the Watcher by the Shore, as he was coming to think of him, but paid him no heed.

By the afternoon of his fourth day, however, Smith had grown tired of his own company and returned to the pub for a pint. Some time after he sat down, the Watcher entered, and Smith realized that he was not so old after all. The man was clearly a regular, as the publican immediately reached for a small wine glass and what appeared to be a bottle of sherry.

The Watcher nodded to three other customers in the room, placed a coin on the bar, took his glass, and only then saw Smith in the corner. Smith raised his chin, and the man walked over.

“I’m Smith. Staying in a little cottage by the shore. I believe we may have noticed each other.”

The man considered, sat, then replied, “If I were Jones, we could have quite a laugh. But I’m Hodson, actually. And yes, we have noticed each other. I understood you were at the cottage, by the way.”

Smith nodded. “I’ve got the fishing, but it seems there are no fish.”

“None. I was born here, and there have never been any in my lifetime.”

“Strange.” Something about the man struck Smith as being hollowed out, but he couldn’t have said why the words had come to mind or even what they might mean.

“They’re anadromous, you know — or would be. Hatch in the streams, spend their lives at sea and then return upriver to breed. But... predators... if there were enough predators offshore...” He shrugged.

“You’ve spent your life here, then?”

“Went away, came back. The sea, you know.”

Smith didn’t know, but continued, “This is a farming community then?”

“Yes, particularly in recent years. Of course, there have been other activities.” He hesitated once more. “There’s no harm in telling you, I suppose, that this was once a community of wreckers. These are treacherous waters.”

He looked Smith in the eye. “Treacherous waters. You’ve seen the reefs, and the fog can come up surprisingly fast. Once there was a light on the point, but there were problems with maintaining it, and it was never replaced after the gale of ’49 — that’s 1849.”

Smith nodded and replied, “The guide I read suggested as much, but there were no details.”

Hodson took a sip and seemed to consider the matter. “You won’t find much outside of court records, but stories get handed down. Dozens of ships went aground here in the last century alone. I daresay most houses here still have a stick or two of furniture picked off a wreck, your cottage included.”

Hodson turned to the back of the room. “If I’m not mistaken, that bar comes from an 1853 wreck. Along with a dozen barrels of brandy.” He took a sip. “Of course our people rescued the men they could reach... But you must forgive me, I’m not generally so loquacious.” He rose.

“If I may ask you one more question — How long did the wreckers...” He wasn’t sure of the right word, but Hodson understood.

“As a matter of fact, the 1853 wreck — that was the Eagle — was nearly the last. By then the sea lanes had shifted north, which is why the light had not been rebuilt. Of course it was a dangerous business, and not just in a legal sense. Now I really must go.”

And he did.

* * *

The fifth morning broke, like the others, bright and clear, but the afternoon turned muggy. The sky was pearly and the heat stifling. Exasperated, Smith packed a bathing costume and a towel in his rucksack and took the path that led southward past the point. The day before, he had sighted a cove nearly cut off at its mouth by a sandbar, and he intended to take advantage of the find.

Now besides being a good swimmer at university, Smith was no fool. He remembered Hodson’s comment about “treacherous waters.” But he had also spent an hour watching the cove from the cliffs, and had seen only the most languid of currents disturbing its surface. It was an ideal spot for bathing.

In the years ahead, he would relive that afternoon countless times. A sudden hush, an unaccountably warm draft, a haze obscuring the face of the sun — any of these might send him back to that sullen afternoon when he stepped gingerly into the sea.

The water was refreshingly cool, and just deep enough for Smith to half-float, half-swim. He moved lazily, glancing occasionally back at the cliffs and occasionally past the sandbar, nearly mesmerized by the gentle tug of the sea. The lack of fish was puzzling, he mused, and it occurred to him that there were few seabirds about. Surely the sandbar ought to have attracted gulls, but...

Smith found himself underwater, twisted onto his stomach and raked roughly across the rocky bottom. The sea roiled about him, and in his panic he tried to scream and water filled his mouth and throat and something cold and soft gripped him and pulled back his head and — He knew in some corner of his brain that he was drowning, but that couldn’t be — He twisted his body wildly and pushed himself off the bottom with his left arm and might have reached the surface with his right, but something pushed him back down and something pulled back his head again and put its face against his and—

Something squeezed his chest and pain shot through his ribs and he vomited. He tried to breathe and vomited again. His stomach was convulsing and he couldn’t stop. He was squeezed again and he screamed at last, loudly and frantically. He had never—

“Damn you, you fool! Shut up!”

Smith shut up.

* * *

Then, after a time, he realized that he was sitting huddled in a blanket in the wicker chair in the garden. Hodson sat beside him on a stool. The sun, now low in the western sky, had broken through the haze. He had a glass in his hand and he saw that Hodson did too. He drank and the liquid burned his throat and he coughed. Hodson refilled his glass from a flask that he took from his coat.

“What happened?” He felt like an idiot for asking.

“They nearly took you. I’d ask you what on earth you were doing, but it was perfectly obvious. Do you by any chance remember yesterday’s conversation? If I hadn’t started wondering why I hadn’t seen you today...”

There was nothing to say.

“Well, at least you deserve the whole story now. You’ve earned it in your idiotic way. But before I start, do you have something else to drink? This is gone.” He patted his pocket.

“The pantry...”

After Hodson had refilled their glasses, he began.

“The damned things haven’t always been here. They seem to have appeared about a hundred and fifty years ago. As I told you, I believe, our people saved whomever they could when a ship went aground. Whatever else they were, our people weren’t completely callous.

“But as time went by, there were fewer and fewer survivors. And fewer bodies. We began losing some of our own people, too, and no one could explain it. Oh, there was talk of demons, but that was no explanation.

“The shipping was falling off anyway. The routes... I mentioned that yesterday. In any case, our people simply gave it up, left the things be. And whatever they are, they don’t come ashore. Apparently the fish are enough for them.

“Once we petitioned — this would have been when I was a child — petitioned our Member of Parliament to ask someone to look into the matter — someone knowledgeable, you see. Well, the man must have been daft, or thought we were, because one day a sad old couple — I have most of this from my aunt — anyway, this pair showed up with some device for recording our folk music!

“Christ! There are these things out there waiting to — God knows what, just waiting! — and these birds want to record our fiddle tunes and our tales of life in Merrie Olde Englande! They stayed there, above the pub, the night, and next day we sent them packing.” Hodson nearly spat but apparently remembered himself.

“Well,” he continued evenly, “they meant no harm, surely. But after that we kept our own counsel, got used to the horror of it. And turned to the land. There’s decent soil, despite the rock, and a decent season. We eat mutton and potatoes now. And try to keep an eye on strangers...

“Once again I’ve talked too long,” he resumed after a pause. “I’d better leave you to your peace.”

Smith’s arm ached, but he held out his hand and Hodson shook it briefly and started off into the gathering darkness. He had reached the corner of the cottage when he stopped and turned. “That wasn’t the whole story, actually, and I said I owed you the whole story.”

He walked back slowly, once again the old man Smith had seen that first day, and sat down. “There was a boat hook that had washed ashore and that’s what I beat them away with. You’re going to have some awfully bad bruises, by the way, and... I caught a glimpse of those things years ago, never mind how, and again today, while I... They’re our size and... pale. Much like... I say, I think I’ll have some more of that.” He picked up his glass and poured and sat silently before continuing.

“Two decades ago a girl and her boyfriend disappeared. We looked everywhere, meaning everywhere but the shore, as we just didn’t go there anymore. Everyone had avoided it for years, or so we thought. But we finally checked, as a last resort — several of us together. And sure enough, we found their clothes laid neatly on the rocks. They must have thought it would be a lark to strip and go for a swim. That was bad enough in itself, of course. We never found their bodies, and I suppose I’ve never stopped...”

Hodson was silent for several minutes, and seemed to have shrunk into himself. “The girl was my sister, and I think I saw her again today.”

Smith couldn’t bear to look at him.

“Now I really must go,” Hodson said at last. And he did.

* * *

Although he could scarcely move without crying out, Smith managed to pack up his belongings early the next morning. Shortly before boarding the train, he slipped a note under the agent’s door explaining that while he had found the cottage perfectly acceptable, certain events made it necessary to return home immediately — which was, after all, the truth.

Copyright © 2013 by Grove Koger

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