The Croak—Ellen Forkin

I soar as the world turns to winter. The heather is purpling, like swathes of velvet upon the green, grass-tufted land. The thistledown’s catch the wind, the docks and cow parsley have turned to rust. The bogs are dark, muddied, treacherous. The harvest fields, golden, gleaming, rippling a whispering wave of barley. I pecked the fields when they were sown, stabbed my dagger beak into the sweet earth. I strut among them still, catching glimpses of mice, voles, a hare, its startled eye as brown as a hazelnut. I am safe amongst the whispering ocean. 

It was not always so.

I was human, a dozen lifetimes ago. A little uncanny. Braided hair and haunting songs, sharp eyes and quick fingers. Unmarried, untethered. Some said unsafe. Hag, crone, witch. Names thrown like stones, hard and sharp, through spitting teeth. Men with books, accusations – then neighbours, villagers, townies, friends. Yes, she knows her poisons. Yes, the Devil knows her name. 

I crouched amongst the barley, barefoot and fingers trembling. I crouched until I took flight. 

I soar. The sky and sea are two mirrors of grey. I fly alone, skimming the islands’ edges with their speckled sand, their dark tresses of seaweed, the tang of it carrying on the salted wind. I wheel down, stretched feathers warm in the amber sunlight, and flap gently, lower and lower. My leathery feet alight on a moss-furred fencepost. I cling to it, needle claws scratching the weathered wood. There are perhaps fifty like me, black and sharp-beaked and beetle-eyed. Each on their own fencepost, we sit, we gather, we know. We croak over the murmur of barley, grass, heather. We talk of juicy bugs, earthy grains, the warmest roosts and wildest winds. We reminisce about nimble fingers, breath-catching dances, soft, cooked meat. We caw and croak and sing until the full moon sits heavily in the sky. Then we fly home, as quietly as we came, soaring under a night of pinprick stars.

Ellen Forkin is a chronically ill writer living in windswept Orkney with her semi-wild rook. You can find her work and upcoming publications in The Haar, The Alternative Stories Podcast, Northwords Now and New Writing Scotland

photo by Mark Timberlake (via unsplash)

In a manor—Rebecca Dempsey

She broods alone on the cliff, an old house frowning toward the lines of breakers and beyond, to where the sky submits, kissing the restless face of the vast ocean. The building’s weathered features sag and creak in the cold, briny wind, waiting for her owner. And she does return: in the evenings with the new moon. With her presence, the dark, colossal dwelling is transformed. The old mansion shakes off the dour expression and greets the visitor with gaping smiles from its broken and jagged leaded windows. Light and mist and orchestral music spill out from the cracked front door, across the wrecked porch into the decaying yard, flowing over the edge of the subsiding cliff, colours falling and flowering in the sunset, and then lost in the roiling, inky swell below. 

Inside, candlelight flares to play with the shy shadows lurking in the corners, scurrying from room to room at her heel, as the guest paces with gracious mien through the webbed and empty corridors. She chooses to return, and everything forlorn is glad once more.

The visitor glides silently down the central staircase, crosses the leaf-scattered atrium and enters the parlour. Muted laughter and piano music float through with her measured footsteps. Heavy moth-eaten velvet curtains drift in salt-scented drafts. Her light sparkles through dusty cut crystal chandeliers. Grey coiffed ancestors gaze down from flaked and darkening antique portraits, their dulled glares reflected in gilt-edged mouldering mirrors.

In the parlour, a fire blazes and crackles at the guest’s approach. She takes a glass of glowing ruby red from the mantle and surveys the room as she takes a sip. Everything is as it should be. The visitor sets her glass down, smooths her gown, and sweeps back her tresses. The music, echoing throughout, takes up a statelier tone as she makes her way to the great hall. The French doors open for her, and even before she sees him she’s walking to where he’ll be standing: breathless, expectant, but to attention, in full dress uniform. 

She smiles, and the light from her is reflected in him. He bows and, taking her gloved hand in his, leads her to the centre of the space. They wait, poised, and then the music changes tempo again, to match their slow circles. As they dance across the scuffed parquetry floor, their movements add further swirling patterns over the broken timber. Eyes lost in each other’s gaze; time stands still. The dance slows. At the centre of the old hall, this night, she leans her head upon his chest as he clasps her close. She can’t see his shining tears, as he buries himself in the scent of her raven hair, haloed in the starlight. He holds her even closer: they incline towards one another always, caught in each other’s gravity. They cling to each other now, waiting. 

A tremor runs through the building, almost like a sigh. The couple’s light dims. Flames flicker and go out in the breeze. Finally, the music drifts away on the tide as the spray of stars tilt slowly lower, before fading as they dip below the horizon. 

This is how it is, since it happened, for the couple, for the old house. Since the raucous parties at the cliff top mansion fled, and passed onto other shores, once and for all. 

Yet, she returns, a promise fulfilled. 

For years, people pull up in determined convoys following old stories, rumours and superseded maps, studying the area for remnants of the mansion’s crumbling façade. Each attempt meets failure, and those lines of vehicles full of sight seers, history buffs, and treasure hunters hurtle back along the wrecked and overgrown coastal road in the night. These travellers, frustrated and confused, start determined, and then they dwindle. Each passing decade with no results. Wayward tourists occasionally buy postcards of the infamous manor from the nearby village, until they stop printing them, for lack of interest. The last of picturesque cards remain in the local history museum, fading under glass. 

Late some nights, surfers, or gaggles of city students partying in camps further up the coast, fooled by the echoes of happier times, swear they see lights pouring across the ocean from the broken building. Some suggest they hear music and shouts of laughter over the incessant waves. Bemused locals shrug at the stories told out front of the grocery store: they’ve heard it all before, the legends. 

The stars, the coast, can play tricks, they tell the young people, tapping their heads. Perhaps a bit too much to drink last night, they suggest. Or smoke? 

Students and surfers laugh and leave, moving onto more carefree adventures up the coast, happy to abandon the locals to their mysteries. 

The residents, too, take care to point out it’s a new moon. 

Of course, they explain, you don’t understand what it’s like here

Older residents shake their heads, their smiles fixing as they avert their gazes, lost in the past. Some, when prompted, offer their excuses before shuffling away, unwilling to share secrets, leaving searchers thwarted. 

There are days though, some rare days, when town folk are roused from reflection to more willingly refer travellers to the fading articles collected in the corners of the library window. Others point towards the old display in that ignored museum, open every third Saturday of the month. 

Dutifully following directions, curious visitors shudder as they read about the grandeur of the lost manor house. These tourists, quest complete, shrug into their jackets, chilled after they’ve learned about the newly-weds, the famed heiress celebrated for her charitable works, and her husband, the dashing Great War veteran. They drive off, eager to abandon the little village, tense and overcome, contemplating the beautiful couple, and how, on the night of their fifth anniversary, they disappeared with their shining home on the promontory in the devastating landslip after the biggest storm of the decade, in 1922.

And this is how it continues. 

Rebecca Dempsey’s recent works are featured in Provenance Journal, The Ekphrastic Review, Electica Magazine, and Ink Pantry. Rebecca grew up in rural South Australia, and lives in Melbourne. She can be found at WritingBec.com.

photo by Annie Spratt (via unsplash)

Before Us—Marisca Pichette

Once there were no dragons. From Boston to San Francisco, the horizon was empty. Once, fires only happened when you started them. Once, houses were built only to weather time, never considering that a cloud was not a cloud. 

Once, they called us earthquakes.

In the far off past things were different. A girl might walk along a road, cars speeding past her on every side. She is making her way to school (they attended school then) or the library (they hoarded books then) or perhaps the home of a relative (families were spread thin, oh so thin, then). She carries nothing, but maybe a bag. What is in the bag doesn’t matter.

She is alone, walking in a noisome world. The sky is empty and bare, coldly shining down on her tangled hair. When she gets to her destination, she puts down her bag (if she has one), and goes into her destination, be it school (a place of education in society of those times), or library (for keeping all the books away from the people who might try to hoard them), or home (separate from her own). Then she will open her mouth in the old custom, and speak.

She is very thin, and very tangled. Her mind is tangled, her thoughts are tangled, her clothes are tangled. She walks on tangled paths and looks at a tangled future, thinking about how she will further her education (going to another, larger school), and find employment (payment for labour of almost any kind). She rarely thinks about the sky, or the earth. Walking in between, she is concerned only for what she might easily touch.

Now, we know more than this girl. But we cannot fault her for her reaction when earth and sky closed together, meeting in darkness. We cannot fault her screams as light flickered before her eyes and all the ancient devices of humanity tumbled into the abyss. Libraries cracked open like eggs, spilling their hoarded knowledge over the ground. She took cover behind a bookcase, and watched the coming of dragons.

Fires ignited in our minds, eradicating everything that came before. All that was new and old fell back, leaving only what is eternal. 

No one knows if that girl lived or died—the girl of memory, the girl of the past. We have her cowering before us, unable to move her lips to the rhythm of ancient speech. No one knows if she existed at all, a hundred years ago, when we were trapped beneath the crust. Perhaps her tale is only an anecdote of the wasted past.

Once, there was a girl (or not). Once, there was a world she lived in (or not). Once, she thought she might be happy one day.

(Or not).

first published in Daily Science Fiction (July, 2020)

Marisca Pichette is an author of magic and monsters, living in Western Massachusetts. Her work has appeared and is forthcoming in Strange Horizons, Fireside Magazine, PseudoPod, PodCastle, and Fusion Fragment, among others. She is on Twitter as @MariscaPichette and Instagram as @marisca_write. Website: www.mariscapichette.com

photo by Alyzah K and Zarif Ali (via unsplash)

Feather Its Nest—Aleks Wittkamp

Potato pancakes, tomato soup, sweetbread—Jamie’s favourites. You set the table for two and you take your seat. You hold out hope that Jamie will come, right up until you hear the wings beating.

The first time it came, it flew in through the kitchen window. The next, it strutted in through the garage. You considered locking the house up, but you’d never. 

Jamie needs a way in.

This time, it slips in through the open skylight and alights opposite you at the table. It screeches once. It tears strips off the pancakes, stands in the soup, and shits a white-black streak onto the bread. Its eyes like black beads reflect your kitchen, but warped, dirtied—your own face appears drowned in tar.

You don’t look away. You invite the tar onto your cheeks, into your lungs, and throughout your veins. You shiver at the thought of thick black blood clogging your heart.

It screeches again, knocks the bowl off the table, and, with a flapping of its wings, darts forward. The tip of its beak catches the tender skin of your cheek. Then it’s gone, back out through the skylight.

You put a hand to the cut. Your breath catches in your throat. A blush warms you.

It’s a lie that you set the table for Jamie anymore. You set it for the crow.

Aleks Wittkamp writes when he writes, and he doesn’t write when he doesn’t write. It would be silly to write when he doesn’t. He lives his unsilly life in Toronto.

photo by Karen Sewell (via unsplash) and Nika Akin (via pixabay)

This is the Place—David Hartley

This is the place. Right here. Where the wizards drowned the village.

Look at the lay of the land. Look at how it sweeps and how it curves. Something’s not quite right. You feel a tad dizzy. As if you suddenly can’t trust your organs. Any of them.

This is no place for a lake. That’s what’s wrong. The lake should not be here.

The wizards put it here. And down in the depths there are a hundred and eighty-six skeletons. 

Taste the water. Go on. Scoop some up and have a little sip. It is crystal clear and as pure as a mountain spring. That’s no way for lake water to be. You should not be able to drink this water without feeling sick. But you don’t feel sick. You feel revived. You weren’t even that tired, but now you’ve perked up.

The wizards were trying to create a story. It went like this: there were these greedy villagers who turned away a hungry beggar. The beggar knocked and every door was slammed in his face. Not a scintilla of sympathy from any of these rich folks. The lake was the beggar’s revenge. So say the wizards. As if they were there.

Have a little swim. Go on. Take a dip. Swim out as far as you like. Further. Go on. All the way to the middle. Try drowning yourself. You can’t. No-one can drown in this lake. Some get close and pass out. But they always awaken on the shore soon after. There are no undercurrents. Some unseen force will always push up anything that tries to sink down. The spirits of the dead far below who simply cannot sanction another death. No room left in their underworld.

They wanted a local legend. The wizards. This place had no myth. Intolerable. A lack of myth starves the aura needed for magic. The wizards pooled their powers and created their own fable.

But it didn’t work. Consider that tale. 

Wait. 

Turn your back on the lake first. Look out over the rolling fields. Look at that radio tower on the hill in the far distance. 

Now think about the story. Think hard. The beggar. The village. The wizards. The lake. It doesn’t quite chime. Doesn’t quite sit well.

And here’s another strange thing. You can’t hear the lake anymore. You have no sense at all of a body of water just behind you. Listen. Nothing. You’ve grown thirsty again. And your hair has dried. Consider: was it ever actually wet? Are you sure?

Now walk. Don’t look back. Keep going. Do not be tempted to turn or glance. Just keep walking. Keep heading to that radio tower. Don’t stop. Don’t stumble. Don’t try to catch a glimpse in any reflective surface. 

Trust us. Keep going.

Go on.

One foot in front of another.

Keep your head forward.

Eyes up.

Don’t turn around.

You really don’t want to turn around. 

Trust us.

You really don’t want to see what’s actually there, waiting.

David Hartley is the author of many weird and wonderful tales about things that hover in the back of your mind and the edge of your vision. His latest short story collection is Fauna (Fly on the Wall Press), a menagerie of bizarre tales about animals described by Lucie McKnight Hardy as ‘fiercely original’. His work has appeared in Ambit, Black Static, BFS: Horizons, Structo, and The Shadow Booth. He holds a PhD in Creative Writing from The University of Manchester and tweets at @DHartleyWriter. 

photo by Ian Keefe (via unsplash)

When the Dust Whispers—Chelsea Thornton

My sister is sleeping just behind this door. My hand trembles. Ripples undulate in small circles within the glass of water I hold onto as my knuckles pale. The door looms in front of me. I hate this room. I’ve hated it ever since my sister went to sleep.

The door beneath my palm is cold. I knock, even though I know my sister won’t hear it. I swallow and push. A rush of stale air assaults my senses, and it’s like stepping outside on a wintry morning. I step into the room, and the darkness envelops me as I tread over the line into shadow. The dim light from the hallway is barely enough to see by. I grasp around for the empty glass, nearly knocking it off the nightstand. I steady it and take it up, replacing it with the full one. My attempt at resistance fails, and my breath hitches in my chest as I peer over at my sister slumbering in her bed.

I falter and stumble backward. Dust escapes the armchair as I sink into it. I stare through the dense cloud. Sofia may appear to rest peacefully, but I can imagine her nightmares.

It’s been months since Sofia first went to sleep. There’s an empty glass and a full one because she wakes just enough to keep herself alive. The bare minimum. Eats, drinks, showers. We only know she does these things because of the evidence she leaves behind—empty cups and plates, damp towels. When she’s not doing those, she sleeps. And since our mother has been away, it’s my responsibility to make sure Sofia has what she needs.

I can’t bring myself to come into this room more than necessary, so a layer of dust has fallen over everything like a fine blanket. My reflection in the small television set across the room stares at me. I wait for the television to flicker on, to pull my sister or myself inside of it like in a particular Murakami novel. To be trapped in an inescapable room of white that feels as though it’s in the bowels of a ship rocking nauseatingly on the seas might be a kinder fate than this.

While I’m staring at the television, shadows move somewhere in my periphery. My gaze snaps to Sofia, but she remains motionless. There’s movement in the room, but I can’t pinpoint where it’s coming from. Not until I spot the shadows on the walls.

Silhouettes take shape in dancing forms with no discernible source. They’re hazy like television static or a piece of black and white artwork done in pointillism. It’s as though they’re cast by the very dust in the room, and I can almost make out wisps of clouds made from the particles.

I peer past them to see the shadows forming into imposing figures on the wall. Fists. Angry, sharp curves of faces. Open, furious mouths. The shadow figures float over my sister’s bed, screaming down at her with silent foul words, their lips moving around vulgar promises. The shadows of those demons coalesce with hers, the movements violent and obscene. Sofia remains perfectly motionless except for the faint frown and the furrowing of her brow.

I can’t take the sight any longer. I snatch up the empty glass and tear from the room. After I slam the door shut, I lean against it, needing something solid to ground me. I feel a tear slip and slide down my cheek.

I couldn’t save my sister from those monsters. Now I can’t save her from their ghosts.

Chelsea Thornton is a writer from Texas. She is a reader for The Forge Literary Magazine, an MS warrior, and a tea addict. Her short fiction has been published in Maudlin HouseBewildering StoriesIdle Ink, and elsewhere. You can find her on Twitter @chelseactually or online at chelseathornton.com.

photo by DAVIDCOHEN and Jr Korpa (via unsplash)

As the Blood Moon Burns—Kristin Kozlowski

She didn’t hear the gentle yip of the coyotes. She didn’t hear the cicadas vibrating against the cold trees behind her. She didn’t hear the mournful owl before he left his branch and swept past her like a silent train engine. She was too busy watching the spirits hovering above her broken body, wisps of smoky gauze, apparitions of mountain legends and conjured myths. She was too busy separating from her skin, pulling apart like honey from a hive, releasing her soul into the night air, leaving trailed blood and bent bone behind. She was too busy asking the stars for directions, holding out her weightless hand, and trying to find her way home.

Kristin Kozlowski lives and works in the Midwest, US. Some of her work is available online at Lost Balloonmatchbook, Longleaf Review, Pidgeonholes, Cease Cows, and others. Her piece, “Salty Owl”, will be included in The Best Small Fictions Anthology 2021. In 2019, she was awarded Editor’s Choice from Arkana for her CNF piece, “A Pocket of Air”. If you tweet: @kriskozlowski. 

photo by Jr Korpa and Chantal & Ole (via unsplash)

Phantom Queen—Emma Louise Gill

The crow girl sits on top of the phone box, tossing pennies at the loch. Flip. Pitch. Splosh. Copper frisbees catch the afternoon sun, sink beneath murky water.

“You trying to bait Nessie?” I ask, slinking up beside the old, red booth. “You’ve got the wrong loch, if you are.”

She snorts. “I’m not an ijit.”

“Right.” I stuff hands deeper into my school trousers; she throws another coin. “Whatcha doing, then?”

“None of your business.”

I look up, but her straight, dark hair hides most of her face; all I can see are brown eyes watching the water. Her jumper is tattered, the sleeves chewed, and her skirt flutters in the wind. School shoes and white socks lie on the gravel at my feet. 

Her name is Morrigan. Only three weeks she’s been here, but it feels like forever. 

A glint: sea glass and fallen coins lure me down the slope. I scramble over rock, picking precious treasures from the shore like a housewife at market, choosing only the best, the brightest. Only shiny will do for her. The air smells like rain and grey gathers over the hills on the far side of the lake. 

“Here you go.” I hand up my offerings to the goddess on her pulpit. 

She pulls her head in, eyebrows dipped, and when she leans down a minnow squirms in my chest. “What’s that?”

I draw back my hand, checking. A marble: blue-green, perfectly round. Half-scratched so it’s like a cloudy eye. 

“A witch’s bead,” I say, holding it out, looking through the blue to blue beyond. “Like a crystal ball can see the future, this’n knows the past. You can tell it anything, and the glass will hold your secrets until it can’t see any more. Then it crumbles into dust.”

I hand it up. 

She smiles. “A rare find.” 

On pale feet she stands, wobbling only a little, toes gripping the slick roof. She winds back her arm like a bowler, and throws the marble in an arc that whistles through the sky before the water swallows it without a sound, like dreams washed away in the evening tide.

She turns to me. Meets my disappointed frown. “The most marvellous things belong to the world; don’t you think?” 

Her arms sway. She could be flying, up there. 

I nod. 

“Someone else will find that, years from now, enjoy its beauty just as we did.” Her gaze returns to the water. Mine cannot move. “The loch will look after it for us.”

I’ve nothing beautiful left to give her. 

“Help me down?” 

Her voice breaks my inward stare. I stammer and stand, awkward now, teenage hands trembling on cold skin. Morrigan’s arms in mine are soft, pale and pink, and I’m reminded of the candy in my bag, twists of rainbow marshmallow that melt in the mouth.

The crow girl leans in, and takes a kiss. Her eyes are dark pools in which I drown.

“Another one for the water,” she says.

Emma Louise Gill is a British-Australian writer, cat herder, and coffee addict. Her most recent short stories appear in Curiouser Magazine, Etherea Magazine, The Piker Press, and longlisted at Reflex Fiction. She blogs at www.emmalouisegill.com and procrastinates way too often on Twitter @emmagillwriter

photo by Aleks Marinkovic (via unsplash)

Embla’s Ages in Love, Observed—Hanne Larsson

4

I’d never seen you cry before; I didn’t think fathers cried like that, but you did when she left. Even then I knew she was the love of your life but she’d made you choose between your two girls. It was me: the fire-scarred one, the human one. I tried to wipe away your tears from your granite cheek, but they turned to diamonds, so I hid them under my pillow. I already know what power troll tears possess; you’ll need them returned. 

10

They bully her. They bully her for being fearless of the sun and she stands there bathed in the warmth because she knows they can’t touch her there. She wishes her best friend could stand beside her, and she looks over to see how he has made a coat of pine branches and mud that casts a shadow for him so that he can stand beside her. He reaches for her hand, stretching out from the shade, his warm grey fingers blistering almost as soon as the sunlight finds them. She beams at him, for the love he’s shown.

17

I dream of you although your face is fuzzy and your voice mute. I’ve never seen a human boy before, but I wish for pinkish skin and brown hair like the bark of my favourite tree. You would be as warm as the river stones I dry my clothes on. Your skin covered in hairs will sweat when I touch it. My mind goes damp when I try to feel you kiss me. I do not know what to expect, I’m surrounded by greys and granite shapes that love me but can never be my same softness. We shall be so happy together.

28

Da holds it out to me – this proof he’s finally found, the answer he knows his only daughter has been searching for, been so angry for – the proof I’ve needed above all else, and I just want to envelop him and apologise. I thought nature would answer all my questions, but instead it’s in nurture I should have looked.

30

You came into my life mewling and crying, and I thought I had known what love was until this moment. Caked in me and already disappointed with the winter darkness I named you Aska and squeezed you until I feared you would break. Your father will not acknowledge either of us, but I will love you doubly, and your grandfather will love you with the strength of mountains behind him. You will not want for love, my daughter. 

42

I still think of revenge for the way in which they treated you: a returning hero faced with the death squad or Old Sten’s way. The troll law was savage in its ruling. I have gathered an army even though I can hear your voice begging me not to come, but it’s too late, Da, they cannot be alive for this. You would always excuse them, transcending above their pettiness but I cannot let them sully who you are and the love you bore me, for this.

54

The blood spills from my gut in waves and each breath is full of retch and bile, and I turn my face to the sun hoping that Old Sten will turn me to stone like he did you. I don’t care whether we lost or won. Softly I begin to whisper the words creeping onto my tongue – the trollsong rising from mumble into rumbling – as your diamond tears cut blood into my hands, as I stare up into your gnarled face. Come back unchanged; tell me you’ve forgiven me. You gave up everything for me once, now I return the favour. Old Sten will understand my love for you, even if his priests say a human could never understand his stony ineffableness.

Hanne is a Swedish-British national who longs for the 95% humidity and hawker centre food of her childhood and is still wondering where home is. Her stories are fed by environmental science topics, moss-covered rocks masquerading as trolls and what-if scenarios. Her words can be found in Ink, Sweat and Tears, The Common Breath, Lunate Fiction, The Drabble and STORGY, and in anthologies by Green Stories and Hammond House. She is a member of Dahlia Books’ ‘A Brief Pause’ cohort for 2021 and lurks on Twitter: @hannelarsson

photo by Jaanus Jagomägi and Hao Zhang (via unsplash)

Widow of the River—Nick Petrou

Despite the humidity clinging to the timbers of the port, my bones were numb and my hairs stood as stiff as ship masts. We lay in Isabella’s bed, and I rested my head on her breast, certain she held in her all the warmth that was left in the world. Our shadows shuddered in the candlelight, which flashed silver before returning to the colour of mead. My ring finger was starting to go dead.

“John, my love, you will never leave me, no?”

“Leave you?” I said, my words exiting my mouth in whorls of steam. “Isabella, you know I must go home. But I will return, as always. Why are such thoughts on your mind?”

“Tonight, the moon is full,” she said. “Always I think of the Widow of the River when the moon is full. You know this story?”

“Yes,” I said, pulling the blanket up to my chest. “But will you tell it to me anyway?”

She paused. The city was quiet. Sailors did not stagger past the house jesting about fish and the red-light district. Nor did ponies rap their shoes on the cobblestone. Even the bedrooms above and beside us were without their regular commotion. There was only a faint, rhythmic splashing I could not place. I felt uneasy, as if I were on the sea after a year on land. Above my wedding ring, my finger was completely dead. I twisted the ring until it came off, then I reached over Isabella and put it on her nightstand.

After what seemed an eternal silence, she said, “There is a castle on the river and a lady in its tallest tower. She sings out from her window when the moon is mirrored and full. She sings for her husband, who left her for the other family he had made at port. Her voice is a lighthouse. Everywhere else is cold and dark. Can you hear her, my love?”

Isabella started humming a beautiful melody, vibrating my skull like a church bell. Through her rose perfume, I could smell the canals — slightly putrid, as if choked with algae.

“I think this is a different story,” I said. “Was her husband not claimed by the sea?”

Isabella’s humming somehow continued as she said, “This is the story as it was. You must listen, my love.” She rested her arms around my neck. “Her husband has yet to come home. Maybe he never will — who knows? But the lady does not surrender to death, even though she is just hair and bones in a dress. Her desire is strong, and men like her husband must be stronger to escape it.”

Isabella’s arms shut like a pillory around my neck, but I feared to fight her, lest I forfeit her warmth.

“They row to her island on nights as tonight. Their eyes are open, but they see only a dream. Their bodies are… What is this word? Puppet? Yes, something like this. The boats of the men who rowed before them clutter her shores, stinking of bilge water. There are hundreds of them, and as many wives back home, singing for their own loves lost.”

The candle stuttered. The rhythmic splashing grew louder, more determined. I looked out the window and did not see the cobblestone streets nor the ruby brothel glow but a round stone tower with the full moon socketed in its battlement like an imperfect gem.

The candle went out. Moonlight poured into the room, washing away the ceiling and walls. When all that remained was the bed, which somehow hovered over the river, I could see the castle in full, down to the boats and muddy shore. I fell against the headboard. Isabella was gone, her warmth absorbed by the warmth which poured from the tower. A woman’s silhouette stood in the tower window, hair swimming in a dark aura around her shoulder bones. Just below the surface of the river, the mud snaked out towards me, clasping my boat and dragging me to shore. I dropped my oars into the rowlocks and floated gaping-mouthed into the gravity of her voice.

“John, my love, you will never leave me, no?”

“Leave you? I could not.”

Nick Petrou works as a freelance writer out of Perth, Western Australia, where he likes to read unsettling fiction and complain about the sun. His short fiction has been (or will soon be) published by PseudoPod, The Arcanist, Ghost Orchid Press, and others. You can find out lots more about him at nspetrou.com and reach out to him on Twitter @nspetrou.

photo by Pine Watt (via unsplash)