Jim Carlyle dropped the handful of empty shells he had been sorting and turned to stare at Tom Daniels as the big waterman pulled up the long wooden handles of his oyster tongs over the rail of the workboat. Framed against the twinkling sapphire waves of Tangier Sound, the two halves of the tong looked like skeletal clamshells. Amidst the oily, dripping ooze and oysters was a human skull, leering inanely as mud trailed from the eye sockets and nasal cavity. The bear-like Daniels gave out another sharp curse and shook the contents of his shaft tongs back into the water, dunking the ends repeatedly until the foulness was cleared from them.
Jim examined his captain closely as the burly man slammed his tongs onto the bottom of the long, low workboat. The weather was good for October, with a light breeze coming off the Sound. Daniels was dressed for much worse, his hooded blue coat contrasting sharply with the whitish, cerulean sky doming the Chesapeake Bay. Black rubber insulated gloves covered his hands, and a Johnson Motors cap was stuck firmly on his head, allowing only a few curling wisps of ginger-colored hair to protrude. To Jim, Tom appeared to act almost palsiedly, and his roundish face appeared to exhibit genuine agitation. He stared at the tongs as if they would turn to snakes and strike at him, chin lost in pink rings of flesh that quivered gently.
"Reg!" Tom bawled out, more rings forming about his jowls as his mouth came agape. "Fire this bitch up and get us the Hell out of here!"
Jim then faced Reggie Phillips, who was shoveling over the side, the mud and empty shells that Jim had been sorting. Dark and rangy, Reg crouched catlike, the shovel gripped tightly in his red
hands. An expression of bewilderment came over his narrow, wolfish face. Throwing a last load over the side, he stowed the shovel in its rack and went aft to the big blue and white Johnson outboard motor, firing it without hesitation.
"Where to, Cap?" he called back.
Tom rubbed his blubbery chin for a second with one shiny glove and studied the washboard surface of the Sound. He stabbed out a blunt finger West, toward the Bay and away from their dock at Deal Island.
"Get us out there, where the water's clean," Tom told him.
The long boat swung around in a large arc and headed west. Tom went forward of the little cabin on the boat and got out a ceramic and metal pipe, filling it from a tin of Prince Albert and firing it with a butane lighter. Jim finished sorting out the good oysters from the junk and went over to his boss. Confusion raced through Jim's mind. He had only been part of the crew of the Katy D for two weeks, and this was the first time any unusual occurrence had marred the drudgery of oyster tonging. Jim took off his USS NIMITZ baseball cap and scratched his thick blonde hair. This situation had its eerie side, he thought as he edged forward. I mean, you just don't tong up skulls and then throw them back and sail off.
Adjusting his cap, Jim stood just behind his boss. A fine spray was coming up off the bow of the workboat, forming dark spots on the jackets of both men, but Tom seemed oblivious.
"Uh, Captain Tom?" Jim began, uncertain how to proceed.
"Yeah, Jim?" Tom didn't turn around, and the wind delivered his words to Jim.
"Ain't we going to radio the marine police? I mean, you just tonged up a skull, and its got to belong to somebody."
"No, by Gawd, we ain't." A vibrating coastal twang had crept into Cap'n Tom's voice, clashing with Jim's warmer tones. A life shuttling from naval base to naval base as the son of an officer had modulated Jim Carlyle's Eastern Shore accent, but he could pick it up on cue.
"Well, why not?" Two tours in the Indian Ocean aboard the huge carrier Nimitz had ingrained a sense of duty into Jim, and any deviation from procedures demanded explanation.
"Cause, that weren't no ordinary skull. It were an Injun skull."
"You mean it belonged to an Indian? How did it get into Tangier Sound? And how did you know it was an Indian?"
"We ain't doing nothing else, Cap'n, unless it ain't none of my business."
"I guess I best tell you." The wide, rounded shoulders slumped somewhat and were replaced by the ginger haloed moon of a face. Tom's blue eyes looked as vacant as the Sea of Tranquillity, the pipe venting like a new volcano. Blue smoke speeded past Jim's shoulder in wobbling streams as Tom began his tale.
"I guess hoppin' all over the world with yer dad kinda made you miss out on a lot of history about the Eastern Shore," he said. "I ain't no college professor or nothin', but we all hear tales, and
stories get passed down from one generation to the next, some of 'em a lot scarier than anything you'll get out of any book. Now, what do you know about soil conservation?"
"Not a damn thing," Jim admitted.
"Well, I ain't no expert, but the story is that hundreds of years back, when the first white men settled here on the Eastern Shore, the Injuns, they lived on tumps o' soil out in the marshlands,
catching fish and eatin' oysters just like we do today. They sailed up and down the bay in canoes and had a right peaceful culture. Now, erosion ate away the marshlands, and pretty soon the Injun villages on the coast just fell into the bay. Somewheres about the time of the Revolution, all the Injuns packed up and went to Virginia. Last ones, as I recall, was the Quindocquas, down past Crisfield. Stories come down that they got along real good with white folks, mainly 'cause some sort of white men had come over here from Europe or England 'way back about the time of the fall of Rome. 'Course, shit, I guess that don't answer your question."
"Nope. I still don't know why you don't take that skull in. It's an antique -- might even be worth money." Jim turned around to look at Reg Phillips. The lupine oysterman was leaning forward as if he was trying to listen in on the conversation, but Jim thought the roar of the big Johnson would drown out anything but shouting.
"You see, like I say, them Injun villages sank underneath the Sound. Right where we dredged up that there skull, that's a damn Injun cemetery!"
"That means there's more. So, why not bring it in?"
"Ain't no waterman from Tangier Island clear to Cambridge put a tong or carpet within a half a mile of this spot if they know they're anywhere near it."
"Because --" Tom pulled his pipe out and looked at it, realizing that it had gone out, then turned back to Jim, his blue eyes suddenly hard and crackling -- "the goddamn place is cursed."
"Cursed?" Jim's mind didn't absorb any connection between the skull and curses. "That don't make no sense. This thing's got some historical value. We might even get our pictures in the paper."
"I said it's cursed, every bone and bracelet of that muck, and I ain't touchin' none of it."
"C'mon, Cap'n, you don't mean cursed -- like they curse them mummies in Egypt?"
"Cursed is what I said. Didn't they teach you nothin' about listenin' in the Navy?"
"Yessir." Jim suddenly became worried about losing his job over this matter. "I don't mean to poke at you so, but I have a hard time, swallowing something like this. I thought curses were old
"A young man like you might think so. You been sailin' round the world on that big aircraft carrier, snug amongst all that technology and nuclear power. Here, it's different. The roots of life here on the Eastern Shore are fast and deep. There are family lines here as clear as any in Boston or Providence, though they ain't none so rich. Like any growin' thing, life here has its share of problems and rot. You say you don't believe in curses, but I say that the jury's still out. Let me tell you about magic. I ain't talkin' about parlor tricks or illusions, neither. There was a black man workin' for me about ten year back that had a wife who was grabbin' and domineerin'. One time she thought her husband was gettin' too sassy. I heard talk amongst the rest of the black fellows about the oyster house where I sold my catch that this woman was a'goin' to Baltimore (he pronounced it 'Ballmer') to get a spell cast on him by a voodoo woman. I'll be goddamned if the next day he didn't come crawlin' in meek as a lamb. Couldn't get a lick of work out of the bastard after that. Had to fire him. How can you explain that? You have a robust man in the prime of his life, then you have a bee with no sting. You hear about that shit comin' out of Haiti, but let me tell you, it's all around."
"This good?" Reg hollered from the stern. Jim thought that his voice had a contrary tone to it. Maybe he felt left out.
"Yeah," Tom called back. "Drop the anchor and we'll have a bite."
"You hadn't finished, had you?" Jim queried, his curiosity in full gear.
"Just about." Cap'n Tom knocked out his pipe and refilled it, big red hands working deftly as he talked. "It always had come down about that spot bein' a graveyard. There was a story that a crew tried to dig it up with a dredge about a hundred years ago. They never was seen again. Some folks said it was the Injun curse, 'n' others said it was a storm. My granddaddy, he was there, right at the harbor on Deal Island. He told me you couldn't ask for a prettier day when that dredge was lost. You can't even tong normal there. I got a tongful about ten years past, and the insides was black as hell and stunk twice as bad. The place ain't clean, I tell you. We tried havin' it marked with a buoy, but the marine police just laughed at us. And as the coastline changes, it changes, too."
"Surely you can't base all this just on one incident and a tongful of bad oysters."
By now, Jim had finished his lunch out of the cabin and joined the others sitting on the oyster baskets.
"You talkin' about the cursed hole?" Reg asked, a trifle eager for Jim, but he couldn't blame him. He was eager, too.
"Yes," Tom admitted, giving the hunching Reg a bile-stuffed look usually reserved for dead fish and other unpleasantries, "we was talkin' about the cursed hole."
"No disrespeck," Jim remarked, falling into his old accent, "but I ain't sure I'm convinced yet. Boats've vanished for no reason before, and disease gets into oysters all the time."
"Whyn'cha tell him about that Bowen feller?" Reg demanded as he attempted to envelop half of a sandwich with one full-lipped gulp.
"You heard about Zachariah Bowen, about ten year ago?" Tom asked Jim curtly, as if this entire business were getting distasteful.
"Unh-uh." Bowen wasn't an established Eastern Shore family, but Jim had heard about a tiny island by that name not many miles from where they were presently anchored.
"Well, seems this here Bowen fellow had read some old colonial documents about the rites that the Injuns performed. Now, each race and religion has its own peculiarities, but this Bowen, he
found a certain sort of strangeness about what he read. And when he read what John Wesley had writ about Deal Island -- well, sir -- 'course that weren't the island's full name. Anyhow, he hired Orin Webster -- I know you know him -- to take him out on his skipjack and dredge around the graveyard. Now, Orin knew about the curse just as much as anybody, but this Bowen, he paid him a whole heap o' money to take him out. Tongin' being what it is, he let his need overcome his fear, and took Zachariah Bowen out to that damned spot. This Bowen, he had a book that he told Orin was given to Randall Revel, one of the first settlers, by one of the Indians that lived in that village. The book was bound in some kind of hide that Orin couldn't place. It almost looked like human skin, but it had a scaly texture to it. Bowen opened up the book and tried to show it to Orin, but Orin could barely read English, much less the Latin shit that was in there."
"Latin? Indians don't speak Latin."
"Dammit, that's what I'm trying to tell you. This book came over with whatever boatload of white folks came from Europe a thousand years before John Smith put his hairy ass on a boat and sailed over here. All Orin could remember was that it was stained, like with blood, and its title had Necro in it, and there were some god-awful pictures inside. This Bowen said that the book came from the village, and that it was the key to the Indians' secrets. Orin and his boat weren't never the same afterward."
"But, Cap'n," Jim protested, "I seen Orin just yesterday, and him and his skipjack looked okay to me."
"You didn't look too damn hard." Jim felt put down by that remark, but he kept silent. Tom's breath whistled between his spatulate teeth as he stuck the pipe back in his mouth again for a good draw. He removed it quickly. It had gone out again. "That day, Orin Webster's hair was as coal-black as Reg's. Weren't a month later it was white as snow. Orin never did say exactly what this Bowen found, only that he heard a noise, a shrieking of some sort, and some gobbling sounds, and when he turnt around, this Bowen was overboard, and never riz to the surface, not even onct."
"Didn't nobody try to rescue him?"
"Orin called the marine police, and they used divers, a 'course, but they didn't find ary piece of this Bowen. He was gone. The police said something about strong tidal currents in the Sound
dragging the body out into the Bay, but they'd have to be the fastest and strongest currents to come through this Sound since Hurricane Hazel swept up here in the fifties."
"That it?" Jim asked.
"That's it." Tom replied.
"What you think, Reg?" Jim wondered what Reg's opinion was, since he was about Jim's age, combined with the fact that he had grown up here on the shore while Jim had traveled around the Pacific. The narrow-faced crewman wiped his mouth with the back of his hand and looked Jim right in the eye.
"Well," Tom blew out a long breath, pushing himself up with both hands, "you got a greedy streak. Ain't nothing sacred to you if you can make a buck off'n it. You've heard both sides of it,
though Reg's took a lot less time. Just as well, we got a livin' to make, and I don't imagine the oysters'll jump into the boat. Let's go."
By afternoon, Jim was ready to quit, his shoulders aching and his hands stiff and chilled from sorting the mud, dead crabs, and undersized oysters from the specimens exceeding the three-inch limit. Sitting on the unpainted bench behind the cabin, Jim stripped off his rubberized canvas gloves and chafed his puckered hands. The sun was lowering in the sky as the long, low workboat slid into its berth alongside the weathered pilings of the Deal Island dock. Jim and Reg secured the craft to its moorings with practiced ease. Cap'n Tom clambered to the dock and began to fill his pipe once more.
"I'll see you boys in the morning," he told them as they finished mooring. Without another word, he turned on a booted heel and strode off to his house. Jim began to head for his car when Reg's growly nasal interrupted him.
"Why'ncha come on over to the Lounge tonight?" he invited, big shaggy head cocked to one side.
"I dunno ..." Jim's cash was tight, it being the middle of the week.
"C'mon. I'll buy." Reg grinned like he'd just gotten off, long yellow teeth gleaming in his windburned face.
Jim tried to hide the surprise. Reg was usually tighter than a deer tick. Up to something, he decided. I'd best play along and find out just what it is. Jim took off his hat and smoothed his hair, trying to feign indecision then replaced it firmly.
"I'll be there about eight," Reg offered. "Later."
"Uh-huh." Jim got in his battered Chevette and drove off, still wondering what Reg was up to.
The moon was up, bright and gibbous, as Jim Carlyle zipped the burnt umber Chevette into a parking space between a van and a souped-up '66 Mustang. Save for the stained jogging shoes replacing the lack gum boots, he was dressed similarly to when he had been at work, except for the fact that the flannel shirt and jeans were fresher by several wearings than his work clothes, which were so dirty that they probably had a life of their own by now.
Feet crunching gravel, Jim crossed the parking lot of the Island Lounge bar and entered the establishment. The Island Lounge was a typical small town bar, cramped and smoky. Jim found a vacant barstool in the rectangular room and placed his forearms on the cracked padding of the bar. Reg was not in evidence, but Jim had enough cash for one beer, anyway. He ordered, turning his attention to the sparse selection of female pulchritude inhabiting the Lounge at midweek. The beer arrived with its attendant glass. As Jim reached for his wallet, he felt a heavy hand grasp his shoulder.
"I told ya I'd buy," came a voice like the gravel coating the parking lot. "His money ain't no good here." This was obviously directed to the bartender, who grunted and smiled Neanderthally.
Jim looked around to find Reg standing over him, dressed resplendently in a carmine rayon shirt and powder blue cords. Jim fought the urge to rub his eyes in amazement and settled for a smile
of welcome. Reg grabbed a barstool to Jim's left and made a show of producing a twenty-dollar bill to pay for Jim's beer. He ordered another for himself, tipping his glass to Jim's.
"To success," he toasted, throwing back his leonine head and draining the glass with long, adams apple pumping gulps.
Jim preferred to sip his contemplatively, waiting for the other shoe to drop. Reg was building it up, trying to foster some suspense.
"You believe that stuff you heard today?" Reg asked abruptly.
"I guess not -- not really, " Jim admitted. "Lot of strange things have perfectly rational explanations. It was an interesting tale, though."
"Like I said on the boat, it's all horse shit, pure and simple."
"So," Reg leaned in conspiratorially, showing off those long, carnivorous teeth of his, "why don't you and I go out there, to that spot, and see what we can dig up? Like you said, it could be
worth money. Now, I ain't no expert on Injuns, but I've seen lots of pictures of pots and jools and whatnot that Injuns out west've made, so I figger that we could get pretty lucky."
"I'm not sure that these Indians did all that, " Jim protested. "From what I've been told, they were hunters and fishers, not a big organized group like out west."
"Don't matter. They had to have some kind of shit. You heard what Cap'n Tom said. They traded with white folks way back afore John Smith was dribblin' out his daddy's dick. Who knows what they got buried out there? Maybe even gold."
"So what? How we gonna get out there? We ain't neither one got a boat, and even if we did, it's not marked." Jim took another pull at his beer. Reg appeared to be all talk, and stupid talk at
"We'll ask Tom for his." Simple as that, Jim thought. He finished off the beer, annoyance blossoming within him. I should have known better than to come here.
"Tom needs his boat to work in, " Jim pointed out.
"Not at night. I know the route we take by heart. I can find the spot we tonged with my eyes
closed. I checked the distance from shore the second Tom pulled up that skull. We'll go tonight. Get it over with."
"You ain't got the sense God gave a dead rat." Jim began to rise, but Reg clamped one corded hand on his upper arm.
"Now, hold on. At least wait until I've asked him."
Jim shook him off. "He ain't gonna let you have that boat, even at night. Not if you tell him what you want it for. He believes in that curse."
"Shit," Reg spat out, "nobody believes in that curse but Tom. Ask anybody. Hey, Deke," he gestured at the bartender, who lumbered over good-naturedly, "come here. Yeah. Look, Deke,
you're a growed man. You don't believe all that bullcrap about the cursed Injun cemetery out in the Sound, do you?"
"Hell, yeah, I believe it," Deke swore unhesitatingly. "You ain't gonna catch my ugly ass anywhere near that place. They say something dragged Zachariah Bowen right over the side of Orin's skipjack. Something that moaned and gibbered."
"Yeah, yeah, we know, Deke we know," Reg muttered, waving the bartender away. "Well, almost nobody believes in that curse. Are you with me?"
"No, I don't think so," Jim decided. "There ain't no use in jeopardizing my job over it. You'll have to find another partner."
"Shit, you're just yellow." Reg got up swiftly as he saw the look in Jim's eye. "Okay, don't get up; I don't need your help. I'll do this by myself. And I'll split it with myself. See you later."
Jim was so pissed off, it took another beer bought with his own slender reserves to cool him down. How dare that shaggy-skulled, rug-lipped, fuzzy-faced bastard call him yellow? He bet to himself that Reg hadn't been ten miles out in the Atlantic, while Jim had ranged all over the Indian and Pacific oceans, from Diego Garcia clear to Tokyo. Death, in the form of prowling Russian killer subs, had followed the super-carrier Nimitz the whole way. Yellow! Jim could have been consumed in a nuclear fireball from one atomic-tipped torpedo while Reg was talking about a milk run in coastal waters. Shit!
A full half-hour had passed since Reg had stalked off. Jim looked at his watch, a hot Rolex Submariner that he had picked up in Subic Bay along with a dose of the clap. Time to head home and watch the tube before turning in. Jim lived with his aunt and uncle while he saved enough money working on the water to supplement his G.I. Bill so he could go to college.
Untouched by the two beers, Jim strolled out into the cool October night. Light fog had filtered into the area, giving the air a greyish, velvety feel. Jim dug out his keys as he approached his
Chevette and slid into the seat. He never locked it. Who'd want this bomb? It had over a hundred and thirty thousand miles on it and ticked like a Swiss clock. Jamming the ignition key into its slot, he turned it over. With a sizzling sort of groan, the Chevette shuddered slightly, then was silent. Jim tried it again, switching the key with all his might, as if the strength of his muscular frame could force the car to start. A light buzzing resulted, and a sweetish burning odor came to him. What the hell?
Jim popped the hood release and got out. Wrenching the hood open he was assailed by a cloud of noxious white smoke. In the uncertain light, Jim could see that the positive cable of his battery was smoldering. Evidently it had shorted for some reason. Savagely, Jim slammed down the hood. It was over a mile to his uncle's. Jim took off his cap and smoothed his hair. What to do? Tom's is just up the street near the dock. I wonder if he'd lend me a flashlight and some tools to get this bucket of bolts back home? Save me havin' to call Uncle Ted and havin' to explain this. Set with this course of action, Jim hiked over to the gabled two-story belonging to Tom Daniels.
Lights showed in the curtained windows like rectangular yellow eyes as Jim's feet clomped hollowly on the oyster-gray planks of the porch. The screen door covering the main portal rattled thinly as he rapped on it. After a few seconds, the interior lights were obscured briefly and Jim could hear fumbling at the door. Suddenly, a pale light snapped on above him, illuminating the porch with an anemic radiance.
"Tom?" he could hear a thin, female voice. "Is that you?"
Shit, where was Tom? Jim wondered, moving slightly sideways. His foot encountered an obstruction and he turned to regard it. Amazement churned Jim's handsome face like a propeller in water as he recognized Cap'n Tom lying sprawled on the deck of the porch Tom's hat was lying in one corner, and the incandescence of the overhead light revealed a dark, shiny patch of blood matting Tom's usually fluffy hair.
"Miz Daniels!" Jim called. "It's Jim Carlyle. Call the cops. Your husband's been attacked.'"
Jim knelt down to the stricken Tom, peering at the head wound. It was ugly and torn, the ginger hair and pink flesh peeled back against the flow of blood. Crimson still seeped sluggishly from the abrasion, but Jim didn't think it to be very deep or serious.
"Cap'n Tom!" he shouted as he grasped the man by his shoulders. "Cap'n Tom! It's Jim. Snap out of it, please Cap'n Tom."
A bubbling groan passed through Tom's thick lips, and the breath in his throat made his pouchy jowls shudder. Jim pried up one of Tom's eyelids, revealing a suddenly aware blue convexity orbiting wildly in its socket. Tom began to thrash about unexpectedly, nearly knocking Jim over with a looping right.
"Bastards," yelled Tom hoarsely. "You won't scuttle me so easily. You coward! Where are you, Reg Phillips? I'll carve your gizzard for scrapple."
"He's not here, Cap'n Tom. It's just me -- Jim. I found you lyin' here on the stoop with your head busted open. I was hopin' you'd help me with my car."
"Damn yer car," swore Tom. "That hairy sumbitch has taken my boat, I'll swear to it. He came up here and gave me a line of shit about needin' my boat to go to Smith Island, then he changed it to Bowen Island, then he offered to buy the damn thing. Said he'd pay me next week, after he made a shit pot load of money. I knew what he wanted. He wanted to go out to the Indian cemetery and tong up the fucking dead. He wanted to stir up some shit, that's what. He's messing with things best left alone. Let sleeping dogs lie, I say. What time is it?"
"Near nine, Cap'n."
"Shit a brick! That dickless wonder's had half an hour's start on us. Come on, then, help me up. We got to get to the scow and stop him."
Clutching Jim's arms, Tom struggled to rise, wobbling, and he tried to steady his bulk.
"Where's my damn hat?" Tom demanded. Jim scooped up the battered Johnson's cap and handed it to Tom, who snatched it and jammed it on his head.
"Holy shit!" he cursed. "That bastard hit me good. Must have used a nigger-knocker or something. I'll get him! by God; I'll throw the sumbitch overboard. Come on, Jim, time's awastin', as the feller said."
"You sure, Cap'n?" Jim asked, uncertainly. "You took a good whack, and I told your wife to call the cops. Shouldn't we let them handle it?"
"Fuck 'em. This is between me and him." Tom began to rock down the steps, tottering slightly, but making good speed as he loped for the docks.
"Maybe he'll get lost in the dark," Jim offered as they walked.
"Not that bastard. He knows this coast inside out. That's the only reason I put up with the sumbitch. He could find his way around in the dark in a blizzard. Probably plans to dig up
any valuable shit and ditch the boat over in Virginia somewhere. We'll get him."
The whitish mist curled about them like a damp, gauzy curtain. Jim zipped up his jacket as the chill swept his frame, looking up at the blurred eye of the moon that peered through the fog. Tom was confident in his ability to find Reg, but what else was out there, waiting? At the dock where the Kady D's berth was ominously empty, Tom began to pull a black tarp from another vessel tied to the pilings.
A batwing's flash of the tarp revealed the low form of a sixteen-foot scow rocking gently at its moorings. Tom checked the red lozenge-shaped gas tanks and lowered the white enameled
propeller into the black water. Jim climbed into the scow alongside Tom, and began to cast off the moorings.
"Don't need no help," Tom told him curtly. "Between me and that bastard."
"I was the one told him about the money," Jim replied. "You ain't much with that busted head nohow."
"I can take that bastard."
"Well, in that case, I'll just keep the motor runnin'."
As if on cue, Tom yanked hard on the starting lanyard and the Johnson engine struggled to life. After adjusting the choke, Tom nodded to Jim, who found an oar and began to pole the scow away from the dock. The rugose moon cast a pathway east, paved with glittering wavelets. Tom throttled the motor and sent the scow out into this silvery way.
"That bastard ain't the only one knows this coast," Tom said. Jim resolved himself to hearing Tom call Reg "the bastard."
The fog closed about them as they puttered out into the Sound, folding in upon them with chilling, smothering curtains. As they sailed, the sharp ozone tang of the fog became infused with a miasmal stench like the smell of rotting vegetation that oozes from the marshy sludge of the wetlands. It's getting damn close out here, Jim thought as he pulled up his collar in a feeble defense against the growing assault of nature.
Tom came forward after locking the wheel and searched in a little compartment built into the nose of the scow He dug into some supplies that Jim had a hard time making out in the dark, and came up with a big nine-volt spotlight which he handed to Jim.
"Shine this along the bow until we sight that bastard," Tom told him. "Make sure we don't hit a pole on the way out of the harbor."
Tom went back to the wheel and Jim turned on the light, shaking it a little until the beam lanced out into the gray fluffiness. Jim didn't see much help out of it, what with the fog closing in more and more, but maybe it would come in handy. The moon swiftly faded into the sky, turning to only a shiny glow above them. The damp blanket of fog lay just above the black water, and the putrid odor seemed to filter between the rolling vapor and the oily depths.
After an eternity that must have lasted at least fifteen minutes, Jim began to notice a luminosity to the fog, as if the diffusion of the moonlight had seeped into the white curtains of obscurity that flanked the little scow as it made its way. The pungency underlying the fog increased as well, swelling with the sourceless brilliance that lay in our path.
"Bad," Tom commented as the phosphorescence grew. "Ain't no light like this in these waters. Bad shit ahead."
"Could be a fire," Jim offered weakly.
"You smell any smoke?" Jim shook his head. "Me neither. Smells like some godawful shit, though. Godawful shit."
"We could go back."
"Like hell. I'm gonna get that bastard. I don't give a damn if Captain John Smith and fucking Pocahontas are there waiting for me, I'm gonna get him."
The chalky radiance increased constantly until Jim found no need to keep the battery-powered spotlight in operation. He didn't know how fresh the batteries were in any case, and thought he might need them later. He looked back at Tom, and trembled as he saw the roundish face of his captain glowing greenly in the mist. Tom's face appeared set, though, staring straight ahead into the cottony reek that oppressed them.
Dampness penetrated everything, chilling where it did not. Jim felt the cold arcing through him electrically, and his head hurt from the chilly air burning his sinuses. The moldy smell nauseated him, mixed as it was with something unfamiliar, a corrupt rottenness. Abruptly, Tom shut off the motor and grasped the long sculling oar.
Silence assaulted them, broken only by the lap of the mercury-colored waves against the side of the scow. Tom held the oar across his knees, and appeared to Jim to be listening intently.
"Can't see the bastard," he hissed to Jim. "Maybe we can hear him."
Jim began to listen, as well, shutting his eyes and reaching out with his audial senses. At first he heard nothing, then faintly, he could hear a mixed crunching and gurgling Something was making a distinct noise, but how far away?
"To the right," Tom whispered. "I knew I was in the right spot, but I didn't want to run into my own boat. There's a gaff in the floor somewhere. Pick it up, but slow! Too much noise and he'll catch on. I hope he didn't hear the motor."
With that, Tom dipped the oar overboard and began to paddle slow and quiet-like, straining visibly against the current of the sound. The nose of the scow turned slightly northwest. The serried ranks of waves passed under the flat bottom of the scow and the noisy bubblings became louder and louder. Scrape, gurgle, splash, scrape, slosh. The sequence was repeated, bewildering Jim. The appalling weight of the glowing fog bore in upon him, and he was startled when the regular rhythm of the splashings was punctuated by some growly curses in a familiar tone.
Then the noises became clear to Jim. They were very reminiscent of the sounds made by a pair of shaft tongs entering the water, being churned around by a waterman, then dragged along the side of the boat and dumped into the bottom for sorting. Jim followed the mechanical regularity, and could picture Reg handling the long shaft tongs, doing that muscle taxing ritual that Deal Islanders nicknamed the "Shaft-Tonging Blues."
"Diggin' away, ain't he?" Jim whispered.
"Damn right, diggin' his grave," Tom returned. "Now, hush, I think we're close. Gimme that light."
Jim passed the nine-volt spot back, having found the gaff He held the gaff crosswise against his body, feeling like a medieval pikeman. Tom gave the boat one more strong push and shipped the oar, waiting tensely as the scow glided over the water. Jim noted grimly that the surface of the usually choppy sound had suddenly become as smooth as if it were frozen, and he felt as if he were sliding across a pool of molten lead.
Suddenly, he could see a shape in the phosphorescent spume. Dimly, a struggling form could be made out behind the luminous curtain of fog. The noise of the tonging was very distinct, now, and Jim's grip tightened on the gaff. Then, the noise stopped.
"Now, you son of a bitch!" Tom bellowed, thumbing the spot.
The white-hot beam lanced through the shimmering curtain, diffusing and reflecting against the moisture-laden air. It illuminated Reg unevenly, lighting him from the back. The tall, lupine figure was stock still, the shafts of the tongs hanging loosely from his hands, their heads in the water. If he heard Tom, he gave no sign, his attention seemingly drawn to something past him.
Concentric circles of ripples rocked the workboat gently, expanding from beyond the low boat and its solitary occupant to make the scow sway almost imperceptibly. The scow drifted tangentially in relation to the workboat, heading past its stern. Jim, in the bow, could now see
what was causing the ripples in the chromey water. What he saw he soon wished he hadn't.
The leaden water seethed as if Reg's tongs were red hot. Bubbles combined with chunks of mud and vegetation boiled up in the growing fountain, some well-defined, others mere silhouettes in the dim light of the fog and the spot. The scow rocked harder now, and began to deflect away from the workboat. Something else was rising in that dome of water, something big.
Reg was still unmoving, and his face appeared ghastly in the abominable witch-light of the fog, mouth slack and gaping, eyes fast upon the rising -- something. The unknown shape seemed to build itself up from the depths, growing higher as the tumult in the water increased, until the ripples grew into waves, propelling the scow farther and farther from the epicenter. Jim noted that Reg had dropped the anchor on the workboat. He called, but the waterman gave no reply. Then, the thing from the depths appeared.
It was beyond anything Jim could ever have imagined. Gray, and black and foul, it rose oozing from the water, slime and multi-hued secretions sloughing off as head and shoulders came erect. Still, it enlarged, black mud falling off in clumps! and Jim could see that it was made partially from an aggregate of human bones, partially from the diseased vegetation of the bottom. Pieces of broken crockery flaked off like psoriasis, and metal gleamed from arm bones and torsos.
But that was not all. The shape was humanoid, yet vast, now towering over Reg's head. Clinging to its gargantuan shoulders were whole corpses, little more than skeletons after centuries of lying beneath the sunken muck of the Indian burial ground. Rotten strips of cloth and shriveled flesh adhered to the bodies, and jewelry glimmered dimly. The corpses seemed to be riding upon this titanic creature, directing it somehow. An eerie howling sprang up, and against its gibbering came a host of sounds, some chanting, others calling and hooting.
"Ia! Ia! Ohmab-Otun! Hie! Ohmab-Otun! Ay-mab Utor!"
Jim's mind reeled as he beheld this monster that had sprouted from the Sound, its roots deep in the now-desecrated resting place of the natives of this peninsula. Red globes of unearthly light burned in the bulbous head of the fiend, like eyes, Jim supposed, and a deep cavity appeared in the center of what can only loosely be termed the face of the thing. The grinning rictuses of the skeletons leered down from their perches, and Reg's mouth began to move, but no sound was emitted. Tears rolled down his hairy face, and his body began to tremble, but Jim was rooted to the spot unable himself to speak or act, or even to look at Tom. The scow was drifting farther away, and the workboat was again disappearing into the fog. Huge hands with fingers made from thigh bones, erupted from the water, hovering now as they wavered closer to the workboat.
The tongs dropped from Reg's nerveless fingers and bobbed buoyantly for a second, then sank from the weight of the heads. The awful, malformed hands of the thing canopied Reg's body almost tenderly, while the dead creatures on its shoulders seemed to laugh and gesticulate, but
maybe it was the thing's motion that animated them, Jim thought. Closer drew the paws, then,
too late, Reg screamed.
And Jim screamed.
And Tom screamed.
That's about as much as anybody ever got from Jim. The marine police found the scow up against the marsh near Raccoon Point. Jim was in there talking and gibbering to Tom, blond hair white as snow. Of course, Tom wasn't answering. He was stone dead from fright. Naturally, they never found Reg. They found the workboat full of water near Hooper's Island, but Reg wasn't in it, just a lot of stinking mud and weed.
And the Indian cemetery, you wonder? Oh, it's still cursed as ever. Just ask Jim.
Created: January 31, 1998; Updated: August 9, 2004