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The Eater of Lost Souls

Linda Falorio 1990

 

There was an unearthly chill in that first Grey light of dawn. As if countless numbers of the damned moved soundlessly upon the morning mist that rolled out to the sea from those deserted coastal lowlands. Sea purslane, and sea grape, the cypress growing low and twisted with the snake-tailed winds that wracked the shores, were thickly shrouded with a living mist that clung to dew wet branches, assumed fantastic visages . . . faces, a distended arm, the writhing motions of tormented bodies . . . then wrenched in one swift motion to the sea; pounding, pounding relentlessly on the broken shore.

Nathan had watched, these three long nights before the Moon's full face would look upon the shining waters . . . helpless, and fascinated. Weirdly moved by a call no human ear might hear, save for those unfortunates locked far away from the sight of good, God-fearing folks; those unfortunates who scream and beat the walls in their insane asylums each month as the Moon comes to the full.

He had changed these last few days, inexplicably. Gone overnight from a robust, out-going sort to one indrawn to his own bizarre thoughts, drawn into an inner world fraught with some new strangeness. He was drawn to the forbidden thresholds of experience, filled by obsessing daydreams, sinister, macabre; taunted by what perverse thing he little knew.

"Nathan, are you alright?" Sheila called to him, her voice still thick with sleep. "Nathan ?"

"Fine," he replied almost too quickly, his voice feverish and strained. He ducked into the dew wet tent, pulling flaps and zippers closed behind him. "Just went out to take a piss . . . It's really strange out there . . . "

"What?"

"The fog . . . come see. . . . " He undid the flaps and zippers and in a moment he was gone.

"I'm coming . . . " Sheila mumbled, muttering to herself as she pulled her damp bluejeans beneath the covers in an attempt to get them warm. Everything was damp, with that peculiar waxy texture always imparted by dense salt air, Sheila reflected with a faint discomfort as she slithered into the jeans beneath the tangled covers, then struggled to her feet. Her tennis shoes were just inside the opening, and full of sand . . . but then so was everything.

"Weird," Sheila murmured as she ducked outside the tent and looked around. The late Autumn campground was littered with debris of the Summer folk, all long ago departed to schools and jobs, to bake-sales at their church bazaars. Something about the desolation ate at her. It was nothing quite distinct, nothing to give voice to, just the simple uneasy feeling of the absence of people where once were people, where people ought to be. Nervously, she fingered the little thing of mace she kept in her pocket with her keys.

"Kind of creepy," she shivered, taking a long look across the barren dunes carved by the relentless coastal winds, though at that moment they were still, as was their habit just before dawn. Then once again they would whip the weathered shore. That perhaps was the oddest thing ... that the winds that drove the pounding surf were absolutely still, as if they waited for some nameless Thing. And the brooding mist lay thick upon the wind-wracked vegetation and the dunes, devoid of life.

"The wind is calm, let's look at the ocean before she kicks up again," Nathan said as he turned away to climb the dune behind the tent, tucked there against the harshness of the wind. Sheila clambered quickly after him, unsettled, suddenly not wanting to be left alone.

The sea was opaque, seemingly as thick as paint as the bright eye of the morning sun broke the Grey horizon, red as the wounded eye of Egyptian Set ...Satan...hot-breathed demon of the blistering desert sands.

"Oh look, something jumped!" Sheila cried, catching a flash of light against gun-metal blue.

"Look there," she pointed, watching, waiting for another sighting. "There! "

"Pretty big," Nathan replied, catching a glimpse of a Grey and monstrous body as it breached the surface of the water. "Look at those split tail fins ... looks like an albacore. Something pretty big must be after it to make it jump like that, clear of the water!"

"You mean it's not just jumping for the fun of it ...? That something's after it ...?"

Nathan shook his head, then pointed, his arm stiff and straight as the barrel of a gun. "Look." There was a sudden turbulence, then four, five, no six evil-looking fins cut through the water.

"Sharks in a feeding frenzy."

"Couldn't they be dolphins ...?"

"No. Sharks. The dorsal fins are unmistakable. And dolphins turn, and breach, and play. These guys mean strictly business."

"Oh ..." Sheila shivered, suddenly cold. "I think I need some coffee." Already she had turned away, sliding down the cold wet dune as she struggled toward the tent.

"What's wrong?" Nathan asked as he fired-up the Coleman. "You seem kind of edgy." The orange-blue flame ignited with an explosive rush; and glinted weirdly in the deep obsidian of Nathan's shielded eyes.

Sheila shuddered: "I don't know. Just a bad night, I guess."

"Oh...?" he replied, distracted, as he fiddled with the knob to adjust the guttering flame.

"Nothing really. Just strange dreams I can't quite remember. You know how these things happen in your dreams? And even if you can't remember what it was, it leaves a weird feeling for a while. It's hard to shake off."

The muscle in his jaw tensed involuntarily: "What did you dream about?" His attention was riveted on her response, behind the shielded eyes.

"I don't know ... something dark was after me ... I don't know what it was, but it really terrified me. I woke up and my heart was pounding like I was having a heart attack." She stared at the little bubbles of gas rising in the pan of heating water: "How did you sleep?"

"Fine," he replied, seemingly distracted by the careful rolling of his morning cigarette: the paper placed across his thumb and index finger; the tobacco placed precisely so; then flat thumbs deftly roll, and a final twist.

"But you weren't in the tent when I woke up in the middle of the night ..."

"I slept just fine. Just went out to take a piss, I told you "

"I wish you'd stop smoking those damn things," Sheila snapped, frowning. There was a knot of apprehension gnawing in her stomach that made her want to retch. "Are you sure that you're alright?" Suddenly she wished she had never agreed to his wild plan to come here this time of year, when all lay dead and lifeless.

"Why do you keep harping on it? I told you I was fine!

Suddenly the wind gusted, swirling clouds of sand into frightful dust devils that curled and skittered crazily away across the empty campground. The ceaseless wind had picked up once again, whipped furiously against the dunes, making that eerie lost and haunted sound as it whistled through the hollow tent poles, as the Coleman sputtered fitfully. There was a mournful quality, an all-pervading sense of desolation that brooded on their lonely camp; and the barren brightness of the sun only intensified the sense of bitter loneliness. As if human creatures were not wanted here, had never been: an alien sea beat against the shore in thunderous waves that tore maliciously into the sand to sweep it back into the lightless ocean depths.

Nathan tossed the remains of his coffee onto the sand. "Come on, Sheila, let's get out of here and take a drive. It's too windy for the beach today anyway." And before she could object, he had already jumped into the four-wheel drive, turned on the ignition, and sat, waiting impatiently. Sullenly, Sheila climbed aboard beside him.

They were strangely silent as they beat down the deserted highway, heading out for Manteo at the cross-currents of the wind. The sight of summer cottages, awash with the encroaching sea, had set their dismal mood. The old Life Saving Station, posted with its signs of "Danger - Closed", its weathered cedar shingles mournful and untended, exuded a pall of unhuman malice not affected by the brilliant morning sun.

Sheila had felt increasingly uneasy as the endless days had passed, with no sounds but the inhuman screeching of the wind, and the great uninterrupted silence of the sea. While Nathan, who once had reassured her by his simple presence, became alien, remote, as if some new and frightful creature inhabited his soul. He seemed an utter stranger, awash with undercurrent, terrifying and dark. His moods were unfathomable as the restive tides, as dark as the caverns of the sea.

"Where are we going?" Sheila asked at last.

"I thought we'd visit the Lost Colony."

"The what?"

"Lost Colony. Sir Walter Raleigh, and all that."

"I think I remember that from school. No one knows what happened to them, right?"

"Exactly. They just disappeared without a trace. When their ship came back a year or so after it had left them off, they didn't find a soul alive or dead!"

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"This is stupid!" Sheila complained, feeling edgy and perverse as they jumped down from the four-wheel onto the blackened sand of Roanoke. The mist about was thick with the decaying dampness of the swamps and bayous that stretched for a hundred miles in three directions. Why would anyone want to come here... and all the way from England! They must have been completely nuts! " she complained, pulling her sweater close about her.

"Here, look at this," Nathan said, preoccupied, excited. He seemed to feed upon the brooding silence of Fort Raleigh, huddled at the southern end of Albemarle Sound, protected from the crashing, pounding sea. He pointed to thing lying on the sand.

Sheila picked it up impulsively, turned it in her hand. The thing was leathery, with needle sharp grasping projections at the front and back that s like sinister, forbidding hands.

"What is it? Some kind of seed?"

Nathan laughed abruptly, with an odd glitter in the darkness of his eyes. "You might say that. It's a shark's egg case."

"Oh! " Sheila dropped the thing back onto the sand. "How disgusting! Why don't we go," she pleaded.

"No ... really ... they're quite beautiful," he soothed, picking the thing from off the sand. "Wonder how it got into the Sound ... maybe a freak tide." Thoughtfully, he tucked the thing into his jacket pocket.

"Nathan, let's just go," she pleaded once again, feeling suddenly lightheaded, as if her legs would not support her.

"Not yet ... This place has an interesting atmosphere ... Know what I think?"

"Oh, please."

"I think the Raleigh colony was eaten by cannibals!"

"Nathan! How horrible! You've been reading too much weird shit lately. I think you've finally lost it!"

"But I'm interested. Don't you like a mystery? Where's your sense of curiosity?"

"You know what they say about curiosity," she warned, not liking where this all was leading.

"Then you tell me! What happened to them all?"

"They probably got bored and threw themselves into the sea! Which is what I'm going to do if we don't get out of here!"

"Wait, Sheila, look at this!"

"What is it?"

"Some kind of track. Look, it's really wide, comes right out of the water onto the shore, like some giant snail or something. And look, here's a huge dead fish with a bite taken out of it the size of a football!"

"Probably just carrion birds dragged the thing up on the beach to eat it. Come on! Let's go I've had enough!"

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The wind whipped furiously as they cooked their evening meal back at the campground, screeching through the hollow tent poles like the ancient Banshee; though as the reddish disk of sun sank into the western swamps and bayous, and a bright gold moon rose up from the waves, the wind abruptly died.

"Let's go watch the Moon", Nathan suggested, handing Sheila another opened beer. They clambered up the sand dune that towered protectively above the tent; and soon they found a hollow between the brittle, deadened sea oats from which to view the rising moon.

Its reflection on the restive waters was like crystal shimmering from limitless ocean depths, her golden light grown brighter with the waning of the sun; the waves grown thick with darkness, the sky translucent purple night.

"That's the direction of Atlantis," Nathan remarked, motioning toward the open sea.

"If you believe in that sort of thing," Sheila scoffed, suddenly becoming nervous, despite the slightly tipsy sensation from the second beer.

"The Atlanteans were very advanced," he continued, musing; noticing her discomfort, he cracked them each another beer. "They were into sorcery, they say ... could do some really amazing things. And no one knows what happened to them either ... just swallowed by the sea, I suppose ... "

There was a listless moaning of the wind, though nothing stirred; and Nathan listened, seeming once again to hear the call from the restless, crashing sea. A darkness then fluttered above their heads, like so many reaching hands; as if fingers of the dead, stiff and cold, had brushed them: beckoning.

"Wouldn't it be fascinating to know what really happened to them?" Nathan wondered, excited, overwrought. "You know, they were supposedly involved with aliens, creatures from a strange dark planet. Some kind of Fish People "People of the Night who come from the other side of the Sea", they called them. The aliens taught them how to transform themselves into mermen and mermaids "

"That's just fairy tale stuff," Sheila objected, unaccountably fearful at the twist of conversation; as if by their very words they would invoke that nameless Thing.

"But wouldn't it be interesting if it was true! Maybe some of them even survived, and are living now in the deep sea trenches ... you never know ... the inner space of the earth's deep oceans has hardly been scratched, we hardly know anything at all about what goes on seven miles beneath the surface."

"Have you ever seen an old-time movie," Sheila asked, her words slurred by the beers, "where these children go underwater and find a whole civilization under the sea? Really beautiful castles with fantastic spires, and palaces covered with precious stones and gems, ... inhabited by a race of people who can all breath underwater because they haven't lost their gills?"

Nathan laughed: "I used to dream there was a place like that when I was a young kid. I have a vague memory of something like that. I've even asked other people about it, but they can't remember the movie's name, or who was in it, or when it was made, or even much about the plot

"That's just like me!"

"I'm beginning to think it's really some kind of ancient racial memory, that recalls a time when men did actually live beneath the sea."

"Like one of the Jung's archetypes?"

"Exactly."

"But we didn't really ever live beneath the sea, did we?"

"A developing human fetus at a certain point is indistinguishable from a fish embryo."

"You're kidding! That's horrible!" Sheila shuddered, feeling more than a little drunk; her ears buzzing with the unaccustomed silence of the wind. She shivered, for the mist that rose at night from the western swamps and bayous brushed past them as it raced out toward the sea. And as it did it took fantastic shapes, as of bodies, people clothed in robes of mist, twisted and distorted shapes called forth by the longing of the sea.

"It's as if lost souls are called to the sea at night, all the dead for whom there is no heaven, racing to the sea ... Do you see it?" Nathan whispered, brimming with a strange excitement. "I've been watching it these past three nights, I was afraid to tell you ..."

A sudden rippling in the distant waves then caught their attention; at first, just a slight disturbance in the shifting violet darkness. Then it became more distinct, as if sharks fed in a frenzy close off shore. Sheila looked toward Nathan and began to speak; then suddenly she froze, and the life drained from her. She clutched Nathan by the arm as a Thing rose up from the waves, its shape hideously outlined against the rising Moon.

Nathan's eyes were alight with that strange, animating madness; and he shook her off him with frightening determination, though absent, as if a man walked in his sleep. And slowly he moved down toward the darkened shore.

Powerless to stop him, Sheila watched: pinioned by that same unyeilding force as Nathan moved inexorably forward toward the nameless Thing that loomed so horribly above the darkened, rolling waters a blight across the bright face of the Moon. The Thing seemed tentacled, yet somehow sentient, and human; and Sheila felt something in it searching, searching across the barren dunes for signs of life that small, warm life that belongs only to the creatures of the land. It's huge cold eyes sensing for some slight movement, as a snake would scan the night for living prey. The Thing then turned one baleful eye upon the sea oat dune, and sank once more beneath the waters of the crashing sea as monstrous albacores and sharks leapt frantically before it.

"Nathan," Sheila hissed; and the spell of it was broken suddenly. Nathan stumbled and fell, sprawled across the sand, lifeless as a doll.

"What happened?" Nathan slurred, as if he had been drugged.

"I don't know," Sheila breathed, fearful as one hunted. She helped him to his feet: "Let's just get out of here!"

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When the morning sun had burned away the fog, and with it most of the strange odors of the night, the two were gone. There was only a slithery trail, as if made by some monstrous snail. And the sun shone on the sticky trail of slime as it rose up from the sea and made its way across the crusted beach onto the soft sand of the dunes, as if searching, searching for warm life.

It ended where their tent had once been pitched, though there was no longer any trace that they had been there. And the insistent fingers of the loathsome wind tore at the weathered shore where humans were not wanted, never were. And it whirled in crazed dust devils across the desolation, lit by a brilliant, barren sun.

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The End

 

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