A few years ago I took a crack at writing what felt like, at the time, a folk horror story. It was based on a vivid dream in which my wife and I, on vacation somewhere in England, met a beautiful, elegant couple who in a flash became our best friends. They took us to a kind of outdoor restaurant in the hills and then my wife simply walked away, possibly forever, with the man.
I had also recently just visited the Caribbean for the first time—the Turks and Caicos islands—and had been itching to capture, in fiction, my first impressions of a tropical landscape. All of that ended up in this story, which I can only classify as neo-folk horror, a folk horror story about folk horror, the power of old myths and older landscapes to overwhelm the present, and how myths become entangled in notions of authenticity, cultural appropriation, colonialism, modernity—the whole shootin’ match.
The story also poses the question: Where do the Old Gods go when their time in this realm is over?
“I love my wife.” Doug said it out of nowhere and from the bottom of his heart.
Everyone at the table beamed their approval: his wife Bev; their wonderful new friends, Daniel and Brenna; even the drunk Brit whose name Doug couldn’t remember toasted his glass to the sun setting over the bay.
Of course Doug loved his wife, but why the need to announce it to a trio of near strangers? It was if he’d been put on trial —just for a moment—and been forced to make an impassioned case for his love.
It must be the drink and the excitement of the day.
Bev cupped her hand over his, drawing him back into the warm stream of conversation. They’d spent the afternoon at an outdoor market with Daniel and Brenna. What a place! Handmade crafts, stands crowded with strange oversized fruit and fresh fish glistening on beds of ice. There were fortune tellers and musicians playing handmade instruments, even a storyteller with a monkey that shrieked when the villain’s name was mentioned. Then the four of them walked to an aluminum-sided rum shack in the green hills where they drank rum punch while Daniel played a lilting melody on a tin flute he’d bought in the market. It was probably some old Irish jig—or was it a reel?—but the tune still haunted Doug, stirring images of men in shining armour and helms shaped like animal heads—stags, bears, wolves—riding to certain defeat in battle, and maidens watching on aloof.
Daniel watched him from across the table, his eyes hooded with secret approval, as if he’d spied on Doug’s reveries. Daniel’s features were so fine, his skin golden and unblemished, glowing now from reddish light and warm island air. Beyond the beach, the bay was a plane of burnished metal as the sun touched down on the water. It was like something out of a poem—no, it was like being in a poem, every feeling sharpened and deepened, the unimportant details left off the page.
“Do they still memorize poems in England?” Doug didn’t know why he asked the Brit: it seemed important.
“In Xanadu did Kubla Khan/a stately pleasure-dome decree,” the Brit recited. “Where Alph, the sacred river, ran/through caverns measureless to man/down to a sunless sea.” The Brit waved away the applause. “It sounds like the opening of a bloody prog rock song.”
“It’s beautiful,” Brenna insisted, and who was going to argue with her? Doug didn’t like look at her for too long: his feelings would show on his face, and his face would not do those feelings justice. She took his breath away, then returned it scented with…
He was being ridiculous.
The Brit was talking now. He wanted to know where Daniel and Brenna hailed from. “For the life of me, I can’t place your accents.”
Daniel and Brenna—The Golden Couple, there was no other way to describe them—faced each other, a gesture that reminded Doug of swans gliding toward the same still point.
Brenna said they were from the Isle of Man
The Brit wasn’t convinced.
“We both have Welsh parents,” Brenna continued. “And we lived in Cork for ten years before we settled here in the islands.”
“The end result is a kind of pan-British Isles accent.” Daniel winked at Doug, his eyes revealing the contempt one feels for a fellow countryman whose let down the side in a foreign setting. Who cared where Daniel and Brenna were from? Who cared if they sometimes talked like a king and queen from a fantasy story?
After the Brit excused himself to use the toilet, Doug asked if he was the only one who couldn’t remember his name.
“He may not have a name,” Brenna said.
“He’s the Ancient Mariner,” Daniel said. “There is a Drunken Brit, that stoppeth one of three.”
The men laughed, sealing their friendly conspiracy. It had been like this since they met, Daniel taking Doug’s side and matching him joke for joke like an idealized older brother. And Brenna: well, she was so…fine. A pale yellow orchid, but not delicate or fleeting, and just as you couldn’t pin down her accent there was no word to describe her eyes. Pale aquamarine? The gold-red sun revealed hairless honey-coloured skin on her high cheekbones—her arms were like that too, hairless.
Daniel caught Doug staring at his wife but he only winked and the men laughed again.
The Brit was back at the table, and hearing the laughter asked how long they’d been friends.
“We met less than twelve hours ago,” Doug said.
“You did not meet this morning.”
“It’s true! Bev and I were late to the buffet, and Daniel invited us to their table.” Or was it the other way around? It didn’t matter. They’d shared a wonderful day , and Daniel hinted there were more to come.
“Here’s to new friends.” It was the first time Doug had proposed a toast since their wedding.
The charter boat slapped across the waves, its glaring white decks and laminated seats pushing against Doug’s headache like a stranger’s unwelcome hand. They’d ditched the drunk Brit and gone to an after-hours disco on the beach until four a.m., a dance floor that opened onto the beach, where Brenna danced with him in the local style, her body moving against his with the weightless grace of a sea creature. Somehow the four of them ended up at the water watching the moon rise, he and Breanne holding hands and rubbing faces while Bev wandered off with Daniel—harmless stuff, so that Doug felt only a rush of protective affection as he watched them go, like a father on his daughter’s wedding day.
He squinted at the unbroken line of whitecaps a half mile away, trying to temper his elation with sensible self-talk. Was he really doing this? Dancing all night with a beautiful women, and now heading off to scuba dive, an activity he would normally undertake only at gun point? He’d been fascinated with the ocean and all the creatures that dwelled beneath its waves since he was a child, collecting facts on ships and storms and sailors’ tales, and he’d watched dozens of ocean documentaries, but for all that, he was terrified of the water itself. Yet here he was, three hours of scuba training in the resort’s pool under his belt, speeding to the white line of foam that divided the shallow bay from the six-thousand-foot drop to the ocean floor beyond the reef. Bev stood in the sun beside Daniel and Brenna, practically dancing with enthusiasm, as if she’d been waiting her whole life for an invitation to plumb the ocean depths. Maybe she had, and he’d been too wrapped up in his over-scheduled, cautious life to notice.
He checked his watch. Still plenty of time for him to get back to the resort to catch the afternoon seminars.
“You’re on island time now, brother.” Daniel and Brenna stood before him, their bodies nude but for thin bathing suits of shimmering, green material. What would you call their skin? It was too pale to be golden, but they weren’t fair.
“You’ll have a great time,” Brenna said. There was a lilting quality to her voice, a suggestion of a chant. Maybe it was her childhood accent asserting itself, like when he’d kissed her the night before—yes, they had kissed—her voice keeping time with a drum only she heard.
“I warn you, I may cling to the side of the boat like a barnacle.”
Doug got a big laugh, and Daniel, responsive to his new friend’s needs, volunteered to play diving buddy.
As the boat slowed, a cold draft up went up Doug’s back. The door to the air-conditioned cabin was half open, but he was wearing a diving suit. A more likely explanation: the old fear of drowning and what that fear represented, the loss of control, of crossing into a realm where his meager weapons—his intelligence, his technical knowledge, the loyalty of his wife—had no power.
He watched Brenna cross the deck, and as if she sensed him watching she glanced back. Beautiful: green eyes wide and slanted, high cheekbones, full lips cut into the thick strong flesh smiling now, and hairless it seemed, every inch of skin he could see. The boat engine revved down, and as if from far over the waves came the memory of Daniel’s playing his flute in the rum shack, and those helmed warriors marching gladly to certain death across the white-laced waves. The boat passed through the last stretch of aquamarine into a break in the corral that opened beneath them like a indigo doorway into the deep water.
“The depths await.” Daniel was beside him, his face lost in the white glare off the suddenly choppy water. “We’re going to swim with the mantas.” Daniel might have been reading a line of poetry, summoning Doug from the worn paths of habit and down into the blue depths.
The boat captain reminded them to avoid the bends and stay together, then Doug was trying to wring enough saliva from his mouth to spit into his mask. He turned to wish Bev luck, in time see her and Brenna’s flippers highlighted against the bleached blue sky as the women tumbled backwards into the deep.
They were really doing this.
Doug plunged into a warm net of bubbles that dispersed to reveal a living wall topped with corals the colour of birthday icing, and below, a sheer cliff that plunged into night depths that registered as pure terror in Doug’s testicles and the backs of his legs. He followed Daniel down because there was nothing else to do, and then he saw them, rising from the dark like a flock of prehistoric birds from the planet’s collective memory: manta rays skating the current. Magnificent. Daniel watched him, his mouth smiling around the air nozzle, and when he pointed down to where the where the manta rays hunted, Doug followed without hesitation.
When the two couples, the four new best friends, met for breakfast again, Doug still raving about the manta rays.
“We were this close to them!” he said, Bev and Daniel and Brenna laughing generously at what had become their first in-joke. The sunlight and a few nips from Daniel’s silver flask of rum punch chased away the hangover earned at a club on the eastern island, where they’d spent the previous day and most of the night. Daniel rented a boat to get there, and they’d berthed in a little cove Doug didn’t see until it was upon them, and then they’d explored the island’s famous caves, Daniel guiding them past the interpretive signs and the bored guide to an off-limits cavern as high as a cathedral hung with stalagmites twinkling with phosphorescence, his flashlight illuminating blind albino frogs and misshapen fish in the cold pools. They drank from Daniel’s flask and then he’d played his flute while Brenna told stories passed down to her from a great-aunt back home, tales of doomed love between men and the fey creatures who haunted the hills. Doug couldn’t remember the details, but her words still thrummed inside him as if his ribs were the strings of a plucked harp.
“You don’t really have to go today,” Daniel said to him, winking at Bev.
“He doesn’t. Not really.”
In twenty minutes Doug was expected at the keynote address of a symposium on the future of cloud computing. The conference, which his bosses were paying him to attend, was the only reason he and Bev could afford this resort, but he wanted Daniel and Brenna to talk him into joining them on another mysterious day trip.
“Are you presenting?” Brenna asked.
“I see where you’re going with this. Please, keep leading me down the path!” In some distant life back in the city he’d looked forward to networking with his fellow CIOs. Now the thought of perusing the wares of technology vendors, capped off by an evening Mix ‘n Mingle, made him feel like a sullen boy at the end of Christmas break.
“I’ve got a plan!” Daniel motioned them closer while casting comic glances around the terrace. “Spend the morning with the tech boys, eat the terrible curried chicken lunch, then slip away with us. You’ll be back in time for the Mix n’ Mingle, where your presence will be noted, allowing you to skip everything until Friday’s closing ceremonies.”
“Yes!” Bev’s recklessness that frightened and excited Doug. She looked at least fifteen years younger. Doug hadn’t known her at nineteen but today he wished he had.
Daniel laid his hands open on the table. “It was supposed to be a surprise, but we’ve booked a private catamaran trip out to one of the deserted islands. Our treat.”
Brenna was watching him, her full lips pulled back but holding back the smile in its stable.
“My hands are tied,” Doug said.
Doug stopped at the edge of the gravel path, his attention fixed on the regal dignity that Daniel and Brenna seemed to rest on their shoulders like an invisible mantle, reducing Bev to the status of a tenant farmer receiving the Lord and Lady of the Manor on harvest day. Doug must appear even more motley next to the beautiful couple. It begged the question: Why were Daniel and Brenna showering so much lavish attention on them? There were lots of exotic, rich ex-pats on the main island. What did he and Bev have that they lacked?
He approached his wife and friends, fighting a nagging feeling that he’d forgotten a set of keys . The catamaran’s massive starched sail seemed to extend, like a magic handkerchief, from Daniel’s bleached shirt, rippling up into a sky of magic blue crystal. Brenna stopped to let him catch up. She seemed to cultivate a fertile silence whenever he stood close to her, as if his body’s proximity silenced her into secret considerations. He let himself be drawn closer, let her fingers brush against his as they followed Daniel and Bev.
“Island time,” Daniel said, and the friends laughed as two wiry Rastas unwound ropes from the mooring posts. A massive man in a captain’s hat and bleached white T-shirt and shorts watched from the deck, his face betraying a hint of disgust and desire as he eyed Brenna.
The deck was covered by a white awning that shaded two cushioned benches and a fisherman’s chair, and a net was strung between the twin hulls at the back of the boat, forming a massive hammock over the water. There was a bar behind the cabin, champagne bottles on ice, but no sign of scuba gear. From hidden speakers, The Platters’ “Only You” played as they pushed off from the dock, and first champagne cork popped as the catamaran left the harbour, the chorus of “The Great Pretender” carried with it on the breeze, Bev dancing with Daniel, Brenna too close to Doug, her hips and feet moving to the bittersweet songs.
“Don’t think so much,” Brenna whispered, her voice lilting and breathless. “Dance,” she said, and it seemed that he could.
Several hours later, Doug watched his fellow CIOs and IT managers crowd around the snacks table in the banquet hall. He didn’t need to be here, didn’t want to, but he’d come anyways. To gloat? Maybe. Which of those men angling for cheese cubes and thawed shrimp had ever touched a woman as beautiful, as wild and pure in feeling as Brenna? And who’d ever had a friend like Daniel?
None of them had.
Doug posed a more challenging question: what would these men say if he tried to describe the day he’d spent with Daniel and Brenna and Bev? All they’d experienced and all they’d felt together? How they’d landed on a bushy coral island ringed with pink sand and drank champagne, and there was something—hash or opium—in Daniel’s homemade punch that still made Doug’s body buzz, and he and Brenna had kissed under a palm tree while Bev and Daniel wandered off, Brenna speaking to him in a vowel-heavy, keening language familiar to his memory if not to his ear, a language learned and lost in early childhood perhaps, but that was impossible. And there were the iguanas, dozens of them gathered around Daniel in a clearing by a waterfall, Daniel mesmerizing them with that sad flute tune so that they walked on their back legs like trained seals, and then Daniel pitted the two biggest lizards against each other, eating the winner’s heart and sharing the prize with an all-too-willing Bev?
What would they say, these men in no-wrinkle office shirts and khaki cargo shorts ironed so flat they suggested a paper doll’s outfit? That Doug was drugged. That he hadn’t slept in at least two days. True, but what was their point?
He leaned against the bar. He felt drained and invigorated, ready to embrace any sensation save for the drudgery of this Mix n’ Mingle. Sumanth, a friend from the convention circuit, seemed to be building up the nerve to come over and say hello. He was the CIO of a rival mid-sized insurance firm, but Doug smiled at the word “rival,” which in his current mood evoked images of warriors decked in tartans and blue body paint, wielding axes and chipped swords, IT warriors fighting for the honour of their corporate clan leaders.
It could only be an improvement.
“Enjoying yourself?” A man too stylishly dressed to work in IT had planted himself beside Doug. He introduced himself as Austin. “I’m part of the tourism board. You work in IT?”
“I do, but I can’t fix your Internet.”
Austin laughed. “And I can’t get you a discount on a room!” Two multi-layered shots appeared and the men toasted, drank and slammed down the glasses.
“Where are your friends tonight?” Austin glanced around the room like a bad actor projecting his movements to the back rows. “That beautiful couple from—England? I can’t place the accent. They own a place on one of the outer islands.”
“I thought they were staying at the resort.”
“Who can be sure?”
“They love the climate.”
“Many do.” Austin spoke in a wry voice. “They’re probably tax exiles. Why pay taxes in England when you can keep your money safe in a Caribbean bank?”
“Is it illegal?”
“The laxness of our legal institutions attracts a certain demographic.” Austin ordered two more shots. “People who can devote time and money to their pleasures. People who push the boundaries.”
Doug didn’t like being cast as the imperialist exploiter to Austin’s trodden-upon native. “What are you trying to tell me?”
Austin dropped any affectation. “Life is lived closer to the bone on these islands—closer to the gut. Watch yourself.” He pointed at Doug. “And watch your wife. You don’t want to step too far off the garden path.”
Doug felt his body recoil without actually moving. He looked across the banquet room to the square of light in the lobby doorway and saw a silhouette, an idealized male physique that could only be Daniel. The figure nodded meaningfully, a gesture Doug understood as a summons. “Come to me,” Daniel beckoned, “and bring that man with you.”
Austin took them to a bar in an old plantation converted into a hotel—thick corral-rock walls plastered with lime, dark mahogany ceiling beams and a polished teak bar, the room crowded with linen suits and designer dresses. The three men were crowded into a booth drinking rum cocktails, Austin not quite charmed into submission by Daniel, who was toying with him like a bored carnivore.
“Austin, you don’t have to play the good government soldier with us,” Daniel said.
“You’re right, man—I could tell you stories. These islands…”
“I love a good story,” Daniel said. “It’s why Brenna and I always come back— the stories, the songs, the echoes of old ways in the drums and storms,” Daniel was saying. “A heartbeat in the pull of the tides.”
The pull of the tides—Doug felt it, beneath Daniel’s words, a gentle but persistent beckoning to let his body be pulled out to the warm sea.
“Where we come from,” Daniel said, that unnamed place sounding ancient beyond anything written in books, “they’ve forgotten the old ways. They’re deaf to the stories once passed from father to son and grandmother to granddaughter. Songs and stories have a life, and if that life is not fed…” Daniel’s eyes were inexpressibly remote. He could have been a king exiled from a homeland now ruled by barbarous invaders.
Austin offered a professional smile. “I think I need some of your jungle juice to get me in the spirit.” He examined the flask. “It’s old.” Then he took a short pull. “Listen, Daniel, I want to apologize for my rudeness last week.”
Last week? So they knew each other.
“When I saw you and your wife a few days ago it was like seeing a pair of ghosts.” He rubbed his short hair as if to warm his brain. “You’re the spitting image of a couple who lived near my village when I was a boy.” The background roar of drunken voices dropped away. “They were bad people. Things went on in that villa—parties, ceremonies. An entire family disappeared.”
“That was must have been thirty years ago.”
“Too right, Daniel, too right. Like you say: the old superstitions.” He was openly studying Daniel’s face. “The spitting image!” He gave them a nod and stood up. “Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got to work the room, fluff them high rollers.”
Daniel’s eyes followed Austin’s progress to the bar, where stood next to an elegant man in an expensive pale summer suit.
“Do you know who he is, our friend Austin? The Deputy Minister of Culture. The Creole especially loves a high-sounding title,” Daniel said.
Creole—a word out of the old plantation days, but that was just Daniel’s old-fashioned way of speaking.
“And that man he’s talking to? The Director of Security Services. Two titled men talking about us.”
It was true: the two men were looking over at their table.
“Do you know what the islanders call themselves? Belongers.” Daniel’s mouth had a way of curling up, making his lips disappear while exposing his fine teeth. “As if these islands could belong to the mongrel offspring of slaves, indentured Irishmen and syphilitic plantation masters. The spirit of these islands is as alien to them as it is to the tourists. They don’t hear the land’s heart beat, the breath of the ocean, and they can’t see the spirits of the trees and lizards that walk in the early morning light. Have you seen them, Doug?”
Doug thought he could see them, a procession of beings neither human nor animal, but blended of limbs and wings and fins and hands, beautiful, their misshapen like hieroglyphs expressing elemental truths that dissipated as his thoughts returned to his dreary cubicle back home, his pinched colleagues, the daily rounds of home and work and home growing tighter like a noose.
“Do you want to really see, Doug? See the spirit of the islands.” Daniel’s eyes were shining.
“It will cost you.”
“Nothing worth having is free, as my dad used to say.”
“A wise man. Wait for me.” Daniel rose, and carrying his shoulder bag he stepped nimbly around the dancing bodies, leaving their courses undisturbed as he walked toward the hallway that Austen had walked down. Doug took a long drink from the flask, feeling the need to both accelerate and calm the sensation of impending danger, not to his body—he was safer at that moment than anyone on the island—but to something more precious. He wished he could find the words, wished he knew more about the old way so that he could articulate the feeling building inside him, like a tsunami about to drag the old plantation building out to sea and down to the sea bottom.
Daniel was back at the table, his face shining down at Doug.
“Will you come with me?”
Doug nodded—of course he would.
“I need you to say it.”
“I’ll come with you.”
Were they really doing this? They were, and at full speed, racing to the open sea in a stolen speedboat, Daniel navigating without lights or instruments, pushing the roaring engines as if they were a team of horses through the shallows and corral heads. A stolen speedboat! The most luxurious one in the marina, the engines hot-wired by Daniel, who’d justified the theft by saying, “When we see a pretty thing, we must have it. But we always leave a fair exchange.” And what was the boat worth to Daniel? He’d left a single piece of polished red corral the size of a broccoli floret, a pretty bauble for a pretty bauble.
Doug sipped from the flask, the sweet liquors and flower essences dancing on his tongue. Austin had said it tasted like orange juice—he must have no sense of taste. Doug spoke into Daniel’s ear. “What did you say to Austin in the men’s room?”
“I didn’t say anything. But you knew that.”
Daniel turned the wheel, bringing the distant island lights into view on their left side. “You knew exactly what I was going to do.”
He did. Austin was a petty company man who could cause a lot of trouble for Daniel, a man who had shown more loyalty and trust to Doug than anyone he’d ever met.
“You wanted me to do it. Didn’t you, Doug?”
Doug didn’t know the details and he didn’t want to, and he had nothing against Austin, but yes, some part of him had wanted a man like Daniel to get his own back on a man like Austin. To even the score against the dreary world and its ministers of power.
“I knew the moment we met that you and Bev were with us.” Daniel hadn’t moved from the steering wheels but his voice in Doug’s ear. Daniel eased the engine down and shut it off.
“Brenna felt the fire in Bev.” Daniel’s face was a pool of moonlight. “In you, the water element dominates.”
“But I’ve always been afraid of water.”
“That’s because your true nature was buried by the noise and false glamour of R——.” Daniel spoke a throaty multi-syllable word whose meaning floated just beyond understanding. “Now you have who you are and your place in the old orders.”
Doug watched the moon’s reflection dance on the waves while Daniel spoke of many things strange and fleetingly familiar, of distant times, of battles between the Great Houses, of the ceremonies of the new year, and great hunts over misty grasslands: “The white stag is down! Hail the white stag!”
How long Daniel spoke Doug could not say, for he seemed to slip in and out of dreams of glittering halls beneath the hills, and red and indigo and gold banners flying over the sons of the Founding Clans, and bodies dancing in the moonlight to wild, droning music, and a woman singing a haunting melody in that strange tongue. And then Great Houses entered their long decline. There was a failing of the spirit across the lands, and the abandonment of ancient strongholds to the new gods and new ways, and the commencement of a bitter exile over the seas.
Feeling Doug’s gaze on him, Daniel smiled. “You are a good listener. That, too, is one of the lost arts.” He laughed. “I have something for you, a great gift, but one you must win yourself.”
He produced a fishing rod and tied to the leader a lure that shimmered emerald green and gold in the moonlight.
“Let out the line as far as it goes.” He handed Doug the rod. “We’re on the edge of the reef, so it will go deep.”
Doug obeyed, letting the lead sinker carry the lure down hundreds of feet until the line was played out. Hearing the reel catch, Daniel leaned over the boat and softly hummed the song he’d played on his tin flute, his voice almost Eastern in its droning pitch and undulating scales.
The rod bent and was nearly pulled from Doug’s hands.
“You’ve got him!” Daniel called. “Take him! He is your fish.”
Doug began to reel in, visions of the white stag hunt before him as Daniel clapped and sang and plied him with more punch, and soon it was like they were riding together onto the grasslands, the hunter’s horns and the answering calls of the hound pack sounding in the morning mist.
“Bring him alongside.” Daniel was brandishing the net.
Doug pulled the fish closer until it was thrashing on the water beside the boat. Maybe it was the play of moonlight, but the fish, which must have weighted more than fifty pounds, seemed to pierce Doug with a defiant, hateful stare. Daniel reached down and hauled it into the boat with little effort, spilling the thrashing fish onto the deck. It was a hideous creature, trailing fins like torn lace, sharp spines the size of hat pins fanning its back, and a wide, thick mouth of uniformly sharp teeth biting pieces out of the night.
“Kill it!” Daniel cried. “Before it kills you.”
Daniel handed him a wooden club from his shoulder bag. The curved handle was carved with intricate grotesques of men and beasts and plants and ended in a heavy round knob the size of a billiard ball. Liquid had dried on the ball recently—dark liquid, copper smelling. It felt good in Doug’s hand, strong but limber, and he brought it down with a war cry on the fish’s head. Daniel stepped on the fish’s back fin to stop the thrashing, and Doug brought down the club six more times. in and pulled the fish free of the net, revealing more of those hideous lacy fins, and he pulled a long blade from the bag and slit the fish’s belly with a smooth stroke that spilled the guts onto the deck. He reached into the mess and pulled free a small black organ.
“You have the first bite!”
Doug bit into the cold, slimy mass. His mouth flooded with sour, briny juice, and the chewy flesh tasted like copper and sea-weed. Daniel crammed the rest into his mouth, chewed three times and swallowed, the he took off his shirt, gathered the guts back into the fish, and easily threw the great bulk over the side.
“Get undressed,” he ordered. “You don’t have much time.”
He was right. Doug limbs were feeling heavier with every movement, his senses starting to cloud as if he were underwater. He slipped out of his shirt and fumbled with his belt. He felt Daniel’s arms on him.
“You’ll feel better below.”
Daniel tossed him over the side, his cramping limbs uncoiling with a light spring as soon as he hit the water. When Doug opened his eyes it was like staring into a waterscape lit by the noon sun, the mob of fish feeding on the gutted catch flashing with light and colour, the long tendrils of blood snaking the water, Daniel’s naked golden body piercing the surface. Doug kicked out and moved with the speed of a shark, following Daniel down, his eyes spying every crag and predator nestling in the vast coral wall as it plunged into darkness he could barely penetrate, his lungs free of the need for air. Together they swam through a world of silent colours, their naked bodies catching the flow of tides and currents like a pair of sails in the wind. They followed a pack of manta rays setting off on the night’s hunt down the coral wall, riding the pack leaders’ backs, following the wake of the creatures’ underwater wings, and they felt the invisible currents of fear and awe that passed through the pack at the distant approach of a whale pod, its coming proceeded by a stately marching tune. And from far below, from the depth of the crushing darkness at the ocean’s floor, he heard other strange airs, the mournful songs of sailors and adventurers dashed on treacherous rocks and corral beds, or lifted high into the air by towering waves to be smashed to timber in the trough below. Doug listened and was afraid, and he felt the water’s crushing weight on his body, but then Daniel was beside him, his face radiant in the green light, and Doug’s heart sped again and his blood called, “To the chase! To the chase!”
Daniel drove the boat into the sunrise, bouncing the craft down a highway of bright light laid atop the waves, singing songs of the hunt and of battle, of sunken cities carved from coral and pearls, of the halls of battle lords clad in wolf hides. He mixed fresh punch in plastic water bottles they found on board, racing the engines until they whinnied, draining the reserve fuel tanks. Never mind the return journey—the chase was on. They saw boats in the distance, clipper ships at full sail, war boats rowed by men in light armour, until finally they came to shore on an island ringed by rocky shoals Daniel easily navigated.
The two men stood on a half-mile stretch of sand and palm trees, the only sign of habitation a small stone structure not far inland. They tied the boat to a tree and walked up the beach, the details of the structure clarifying as if a mist was lifting from the air. What had appeared to be a simple stone house was soon revealed as a high, narrow building that made Doug think of an Iroquois long-house, but made of stone and heavy dark beams. Above the massive wooden doors was a frieze of fantastic hunt scenes—tall, fair men on horseback following a pack of hounds in full chase after the white stag, its rack spreading like a strong young tree in winter. They entered the cool hall, and Daniel left Doug to stare in wonder at the fine tapestries draped across every wall, their patterns showing scenes from the very stories Daniel had shared before their dive with the manta rays. The tapestries rippled in the breeze through the open doors, and the fine figures and magical beasts woven with such care seemed to shimmer to life, enacting the glories depicted, the battles and the hunts and the romance between maidens and gods, and then the final pain of exile as a Great Magic paled and faded from the world. How many hours passed before he returned to his senses Doug could not say, but when he staggered through out the doors, the sun was setting over the water, and Daniel crouched on the beach cooking a young shark over the fire.
Another speed boat was tied next to theirs. Brenna and Bev were swimming not far from the boats, their naked legs flashing as they dove down to catch shellfish. Soon they emerged naked from the water, Brenna carrying a small net of oysters, her beautiful, marble-like body glistening in the setting sun. She came to him and kissed him softly on the mouth, and Bev did the same to Daniel, and after they all ate, they danced to music emanating from the open hall doors, that wild, rhapsodic drone and piercing melody of Daniel’s song. They danced until the stars came out, and they danced until the sun rose and chased the day across the sky, and Doug did not ask how many days he had gone without sleep because it didn’t matter anymore, he was fully awake for the first time, his senses tuned to the music of the wind and the tide and earth’s heart beat, the hum of the planets in their courses, like great stone wheels turning. They dived into the dark water, and they swam with the manta rays, and the manta rays knew them as brother and sister, and one night, how many nights later Doug couldn’t say, they sat in the hall listening to Daniel tell the tales woven on the great tapestries, while Brenna chanted along to musicians they could not see. At night he lay with Brenna while Daniel took Bev into the cool palm tree grove, but they did not sleep, for the chase was on, the white stag was loose, and there were riddles and games of chance, and contests of strength and endurance, and every night the call to dance beneath the stars and celebrate the old stories in the hunter’s hall. And one night after Daniel took Bev to the palm grove and Doug had lain with Brenna, she offered him a silver goblet encrusted with pearls and rubies and emeralds, and from the goblet he drank a cool draught of sweet nectar that finally sent down deep into the sea of sleep.
Doug awoke in the ruins of an old fishing station, four sagging walls barely supporting a collapsed roof, his hands clutching a tattered blanket and a battered tin drinking cup. His body ached and his limbs were raw with sunburns and bruises. He rose from the sandy stone floor with cautious care, the afterimages of vivid dreams fading—scenes of splendour, of beings that radiated the beauty and vitality of gods made flesh, in exile from their ancient lands. And where did he, a lowly human, fit into their schemes? How did he assuage the pains of their great exile? Doug couldn’t remember, or maybe the dream did not tell.
He found a shard of mirror on the broken table and lifted it to his eyes. Looking back from the mirror was the face of an old man—white beard, bloated red nose, watery eyes tinged with yellow. If there’d been the strength in his body, Doug would have cried out, but he could only moan as he staggered down to the beach. Where was Bev? Where were their beautiful friends? Nothing here but a rusted-out speedboat half sunk in the water, still tied to the palm tree by a frayed rope.
Doug waded out to the boat, the salt water stinging his battered legs, afraid that he’d find Bev in there, dead.
Empty. No, there, on the driver’s seat: polished red coral no larger than a broccoli floret.
A bauble for a bauble. Fair exchange to some.
Really enjoyed this, James.
So good! I really liked the imagery and the slow, winding (island time like) nature of your story, weaving in and out, hazy & dream like, at times.