A cedar canoe slipped through the steaming lakewaters, its bow noiselessly cleaving the roily surface. The figure aboard cringed as the fog wormed its sodden fingers through his hair, down the collar of his garments, along his beveled spine. He gripped the oar tightly, though the current urged the canoe without his guidance towards the bleak coastline which lay outstretched like a sleeping giant. The oily waters swirled in hypnotic circles. A hazy moon spied on him through a peephole in the swaddling mist. A tiny point of light was visible beyond the coastline, the ochre flame of a bonfire wavering in mad dance.
The man in the canoe was very pale, with coal eyes and a scowling mouth. Hair the color of dead bark curled over his damp forehead in an unruly tangle. His black navy coat was several sizes too large for his wiry frame. His breath formed wispy ringlets in the torpid air. The fog churned in gloomy mantra patterns. He felt adrift in a great brewing cauldron, the ominous lapping of waves against the hull the only sound to reach his ears. His attention kept returning to the skittish flicker in the distance.
He heard the caw of a great black gull, which came swooping in from the direction of land. It maneuvered through the swathes of fog until it reached the canoe, where it orbited overhead.
“We’ve been waiting for you,” spoke the black gull in a voice not unlike the whistling wind. “I’ve been sent to welcome you.”
“Sent by whom?” asked the man.
“I have no friends.”
“You do. They await you now on the shore.”
“They could be murderers or thieves.”
“Come now, there’s no point in being tenacious. The current will guide you to shore. We have plenty of food and drink to share with you. Our fire is warm and soothing.”
But the man’s suspicions were not so easily deterred.
“What makes you think I need your help? Perhaps I’ll find an uninhabited island for myself.”
The black gull shrugged its wings. “You’ll find there is nothing out there for you. In time the ache of loneliness will bring you to us.”
“Do not attempt to trick me.”
“There is no need for tricks.”
“Be off. I have no use for you here.”
But the great black gull lingered overhead. The man rose in the canoe and thrust his oar upwards, missing its wings by inches. The man swung again but the black gull climbed above his reach. It thrust open its beak and vomited sulfur down on the man. The man dropped his oar and shielded his face with his hands. The sulfur burned rivulets in the flesh of his arms. The great black gull soared high in the air and headed back towards the distant campfire, its caw mistakable for dark laughter.
The man leaned over the canoe edge and thrust his tortured arms into the murky waters. The surface bubbled with life and he drew his arms back swiftly. A shoal of gurgling fish surrounding his canoe, their mouths faltering in rubbery gulps. The fish were joined by a cluster of eels, twisting with a devious playfulness, a giggling labyrinth of motion.
“Come swim with us,” beckoned the fish and the eels in tinyvoiced unison.
The man shook his head. “My clothes would get wet and chill me to the bone.”
“You can warm them afterwards by that fire on land. Come, join us. Look how relaxing the water is.” They pirouetted in formation to demonstrate.
But the man refused. Offended, the fish sought to capsize the boat by striking it en masse with their bodies. He gripped the gunwales tightly to prevent himself from being pitched overboard. He swung the oar at his attackers, but they were elusive and it was like swatting at a cloud of flies. Just as he succeeded in decapitating one of the eels with the oarblade, the fish, in one great rush of force, tipped the canoe and the man plunged into the water. He broke the surface, gasping and thrashing wildly. The fish swam away, appeased. Sputtering, the man clung to the upturned canoe with icy fingers. Drawing on his every ounce of strength, he was able to right the canoe and pull himself aboard. He lay on the canoebottom, panting from the exertion, shivering in his wetclung clothes.
The fog was a swirling witchbrew. Through it the droll moon mocked him from its lofty alcove. The man lay spellbound by the waves’ rocking motion, listening to the vast engulfing nothingness. His reverie was jarred as something brushed against the boat. He lifted his head and peered over the gunwale. Gnarled strands of kelp rose out of the lake and coiled around his craft’s bow, clawing around the cedar ribs, burrowing through the hull. He brandished his oar like an axe, severing through the thick tangles of seaweed.
But for every strand that broke, several more took its place. The kelp, like a living fishing line, reeled his boat through the waters towards shore. He heard the harsh grind of sand against the keel as the water shallowed and the canoe ran aground. He leapt out of the boat and, feet sinking deep in the silt, trudged to shore. From the grey beach he spied the bonfire far above on the dense hillside. He was cold and hungry, but also afraid. He crouched down in the sand with his knees drawn up to his chin. A tortoise crept out of the dark waters, its shell encrusted with gleaming jewels. It hobbled over to him and spoke in a muddy voice.
“You needn’t stay on this forlorn beach. They will gladly welcome you to sit beside their fire and share their food.”
“Perhaps I’ll start my own fire,” said the man through clenched teeth. “And have you for my meal.”
“You have nothing with which to start a fire,” replied the tortoise. “As for me, I’m afraid you would find me quite distasteful.”
“We shall see.”
The man lunged forward and grabbed the edge of the tortoise’s shell with the intention of flipping the tortoise helpless on its back. But the tortoise’s angular green head twisted and its jaws clamped around the man’s wrist. He howled in pain until the tortoise released its grip. As the man sat clutching his throbbing hand, the tortoise returned to the undergrowth.
Razorsharp gusts swept in from the lake like a scythe and the windstung man huddled into a ball, his teeth chattering violently. He felt sick from hunger. He craned his head and glanced up at the everburning beacon on the hill. The tortoise had been right. He rose to his aching feet and started into the woods. It was a difficult climb and his weakened legs struggled to support him. His feet stumbled on unseen debris. He snaked through brambles and leering trees, their limbs reaching forth like anguished spirits. Guided only by the flame above, he forced himself onward, his clothes and flesh ripped by thorns. At last he reached the outskirts of a clearing from which the bonfire blazed. He felt the beckoning heat on his cheek.
Surrounding the crackling pyre were a dozen or so shadowy figures. They sat evenly spaced, gazing into the fire as though in worship. He could see no eyes, just deep recesses. He thought perhaps they were wearing cloaks, which would account for their shadowy shapeless forms, but he couldn’t be sure.
“Come,” motioned one of the figures, rising. “Warm yourself.”
The man stepped hesitantly into the circle.
“We have a bowl of stew here for you,” said the figure. Even in the fireglow his features could not be distinguished.
The man took the clay bowl which was offered him and sat before the fire, among the others, to eat. Greedily he gulped down a spoonful of the warm stew, partially shutting his eyes as it warmed his bitter insides. Why had he resisted for so long? Why had he remained out in the cold and empty when he had been welcome here beside the fire all this time?
Within minutes the bowl was empty and he ran his tongue along the rim to collect the last drops of stew. He set the bowl beside him on the ground and leaned back to feel the warmth of the fire against his skin. The circle of figures, which had until now been silent and motionless, now stood on thin ghostly legs and surrounded the man. Before he could react they set upon him. They tore his flesh to pieces and devoured him until nothing was left but bones and sorrow.
Rob Hill lives in New York City. His work has appeared recently in Armchair/Shotgun, Akashic Books, Eunoia Review, Scrutiny, Polychrome Ink, and the ubiquitous elsewhere. He occasionally posts rags and bones at hellospider.wordpress.com.”