Bogleech.com's 2016 Horror Write-off:
When Wheel-of-Five-Spokes was a young woman, she fell off her father's trawler and was lost at sea.
The trawler was a very small boat, with a crew of three: Wheel-of-Five-Spokes herself, her father, and her uncle. They worked mostly in silence; Wheel-of-Five-Spokes listened to the creaking of the hull and the noise of the surf. Intermittently, she would stand up straight and stretch her aching back. While she did, she looked out over the sea: off in the distance, she could see other boats, alive with tiny figures - the other families of the village doing their day's work. If she turned towards land, she could see the lonely coast, where the huts of the village dotted the land.
It was a familiar scene. Wheel-of-Five-Spokes had helped crew her father's boat ever since she was a little girl; the vessel required three people to operate, and her mother had caught a chill and died when Wheel-of-Five-Spokes was only five years old. Since then, she had grown into a solemn, sinewy-strong young woman. She resembled her uncle, with his thin build, more than she did her barrel-chested father.
That day, brooding clouds lurked on the horizon, and around midday, the wind changed. Wheel-of-Five-Spokes, helping her father haul the net up, closed her eyes and felt it whip against her face. Then she said: "There's going to be a storm."
Her father eyed the dark clouds and said, "Aye."
"We ought to get back to shore," Wheel-of-Five-Spokes said.
The two of them gave the winch a final heave, and the net broke the surface. Wheel-of-Five-Spokes swung the wooden spar until the net hung above the deck, dripping seawater. She could tell immediately that the yield was poor, and this must have irked her father, because he said: "We keep working."
Her uncle, Sail-Full-of-Wind, chimed in: "I agree with Spokes. Them clouds look nasty." With such an auspicious name as his, it was surely no wonder that Uncle Sail was such an unrepentant pessimist. This time, though, Wheel-of-Five-Spokes found herself in agreement with him.
"We keep working," her father repeated firmly. He was the captain of the vessel, so his word was final, father or not. But Wheel-of-Five-Spokes kept her eye on the gathering clouds with a growing sense of unease, and she could tell that her uncle was wary as well.
After some time, Wheel-of-Five-Spokes heard a shout behind her, from the direction of the shore. Some distance away, she saw one of the other boats. On the bow stood a tiny figure - too far off to tell who it was - with its hands cupped around its mouth, hailing them. Further in the distance, nearer to land, the other fishing boats were heading in to shore. Some of them had already landed, their crews dragging them further up the slope of the land and turning them upside down in the stony sand.
Wheel-of-Five-Spokes couldn't hear what the figure in the boat was saying, but she gathered that it was about the storm. She turned around and looked at the towering clouds. Then she looked at her father, who was gray-faced, and who clearly knew he had made a great mistake.
The waves had turned choppy, and not far away, Wheel-of-Five-Spokes saw hazy columns of rain connecting the sea and the sky. Her father turned to her uncle in the stern, and Uncle Sail turned the rudder, and the wind caught the sail. The boat lurched towards the shore. Then, a sudden gust filled the sail to its breaking point, and it ripped down the middle; the boat lost its speed, and the waves tossed it roughly from side to side.
Wheel-of-Five-Spokes, keeping her balance with one hand on the winch of the net, saw that the crew in the other boat was rowing towards them, fighting against the waves; before they could reach them, though, the vehement rains started coming down and there was a deafening roll of thunder.
As in a dream, Wheel-of-Five-Spokes watched the shore, where villagers stood like tiny specks and watched. It must not have been much of a drama, she reflected, watching two indistinct little shapes get flung about by the angry sea. Then, a tall wave caught her boat and pitched it forward, and Wheel-of-Five-Spokes lost her balance, and the two fishing boats collided with a juddering knock of wood on wood. With a yell, Wheel-of-Five-Spokes was thrown overboard, and disappeared beneath the waves.
Nobody else from the village perished in the storm, though Wheel-of-Five-Spokes' father's boat filled with water and sank. The next day was cold and still, and the shore was thick with debris. They spent the day ranging up and down the coast, in case Wheel-of-Five-Spokes had been washed to shore, and trawling along the seafloor, in case her body lay there. But no body, living or dead, was recovered. The next day, the villagers had a little funeral service, and buried an empty casket in the little plot of land further up the road which they used as a cemetery. Wheel-of-Five-Spokes' father screamed and cried so, and clutched the casket as if the corpse of his daughter really was within, until the men of the village had to drag him away and give him brandy to drink until he calmed down.
The day after that, the fishing boats resumed their work, though with one vessel less in their fleet. Winter would be coming on soon, and they still needed much more salted fish if they were to survive the lean months. Work carried on, accident or no accident - though they were many who couldn't quite bring themselves to peer into the depths, in those few days before Wheel-of-Five-Spokes returned.
It was a chilly morning about a week after the storm, just before sunrise, when one of the village elders went out for a walk. He was an old man, and too frail these days to work on one of the fishing boats, but he liked to keep his body in trim. That morning, he walked along his customary route, down between the houses until he reached the gray stone beach; it was there that he caught sight of the woman kneeling in the surf.
At first he called out, hurrying on his steps. The woman sat limply, head bowed deep as if in worship, and the old man was certain she needed help. But her hair was caked in salt and long and black, like Wheel-of-Five-Spokes', and the tragedy was still fresh in the old man's mind, and there were stories about creatures in the deep sea which took the bodies of drowned sailors and walked the land. He stopped, too timorous to approach, and glanced up towards the houses of the village where the others would soon be waking.
When the others came down to the shore, led by the old man, their voices made the kneeling woman stir. She raised her head and looked around, as if she wasn't sure what she was seeing or where she was. And someone cried out in astonishment, for it was Wheel-of-Five-Spokes' face - hollow-eyed and sick, but alive. And someone else said, "She's alive," as if they couldn't quite believe what they were seeing. And someone else still said, "It's a sea-maid wearin' her skin - cut its head off and throw it back in the sea!" And then there were shouts of outrage at the suggestion, but shouts of assent as well; and then there was a voice which, though ragged and hoarse, managed to silence them all.
The crowd parted as Wheel-of-Five-Spokes' father pushed past. He stumbled forward, still unsteady on his feet after last night's drink, and sank to his knees in the surf, nose all runny and eyes rimmed with red. "Spokes," he finally managed, though it was not much more than a breath. The woman - if it was Wheel-of-Five-Spokes, or just a duplicitous sea-maid - watched him dully. And the villagers, seeing her father's expression, suddenly could not bring themselves to think about the suggestion to cut off her head any longer.
They put her in her own bed, and washed the salt out of her hair, and tended to her as best they could. She was running a terrible fever, and for many days nobody knew if she was going to survive or not. (This convinced some people that she was not a sea-maid, because it stood to reason that a sea-maid could not catch a chill from the sea.) Her father remained by her bedside, keeping tireless watch, sober for the first time since the storm. Then, early one morning, the fever broke and Wheel-of-Five-Spokes sat up in her bed, weak and weary but lucid.
"Father?" she asked, her voice hoarse, and her father woke from his fitful sleep in the chair next to her.
"Aye," he said breathlessly. "Aye, I'm here."
Wheel-of-Five-Spokes tried to speak again, but her throat hurt too much, so her father lifted a cup of freshwater to her lips and let her drink. When the pain of swallowing became too great, she lay back against her pillow and looked up into the ceiling. "What - how did I get here?" she asked.
Her father told her the story of how the old man from the village had found her, kneeling in the surf, insensate. Wheel-of-Five-Spokes listened impassively. When she spoke again, her words made a chill run down her father's spine.
"I remember... I woke up in a dark place," she said, still staring up at the ceiling. "I saw houses, huge stone houses with huge dark holes for windows and doors. Everything moved slow. There were... people there, but I couldn't see their faces. They all wore veils that flowed and rippled. That's when I understood I was underwater. And beyond the houses, in the dark water, I saw much, much bigger shapes moving."
She spoke as if describing a dream, and her father could tell that she was replaying the memories in her head as she described them.
"I could remember the storm, and falling off the ship, but it all seemed so... far away. The people were talking, but they weren't talking to me, and I couldn't understand what they were saying. It sounded like they were arguing. Then I felt something curl around me and hug me close, and I felt... safe. It was... her. She brought me there."
She shuddered and fell silent. Next came the memory of the face coming out of the darkness, free from veils. The face of her savior - but she didn't want to describe it to her father. When she thought about it, here in her old familiar bed, she felt a pang of loss. Her father wouldn't understand. None of the other villagers would, either. They all thought of the sea-maids as bloodthirsty monsters.
The face, with its huge, blank, bulging eyes. With its rows and rows of teeth like needles.
Her father watched her in silence for a long time. Then he said: "A dream. A dream from the fever, that's all." Then he said: "You mustn't tell anyone else about this. Do you understand? If anyone asks, tell them you don't remember what happened."
So she didn't. She wasn't interested in telling anyone, anyway, and the villagers were so glad to see her safe and her father sober that they didn't wonder much about how she had survived. By and large, Wheel-of-Five-Spokes settled back easily into the patterns of her life. But most nights, when the lights had gone out in all the village's huts, she would slip from her bed and walk down to the shore, and stand there and watch the dark sea churn. Other times, she would sleep and dream of the underwater city of the sea-maids, too deep for sunlight to reach.
No matter what her father had said, she knew that it had not been a dream. She could remember it all so vividly: the feeling of slow weightlessness, and how it felt so odd at first that she hadn't needed to breathe. The distorted voices of the young sea-maids, and the distant, mournful ululations of the huge, old ones, who circled their brood-city in an endless dance. How she had tried so hard to understand what they were saying. How she had understood that, with one of them, there was no need for words.
But a human could not stay in the deep sea for long, even protected by a sea-maid's witchery. This much Wheel-of-Five-Spokes understood; she had been below the surface for just under a week, and the resultant fever had nearly killed her. She'd had to return to her old life, no matter how much the separation from her beloved pained her.
The other villagers saw none of her pain, and they soon stopped talking about the storm and about her disappearance. That is, until her belly began to grow big with child.
All of a sudden, Wheel-of-Five-Spokes was no longer quite so popular among the villagers. They eyed her suspiciously and whispered among themselves; once or twice, one of the more confrontational ones said something to her face, or spat at her feet. The villagers even began ignoring her father, even though most of them had known him for most of their lives.
Wheel-of-Five-Spokes kept her pride, even as the people of the village gossiped about her. She kept her head high and pretended not to hear; she went about her days, and helped with the construction of her father's new trawler, though by the time it was ready to launch she was too pregnant to crew it. Instead, Uncle Sail called in a favor, and filled out the crew of three with a reluctant friend.
The baby came too early, on a rainy spring day. The old midwife, though she had gossiped like the rest, agreed to help deliver it. She found Wheel-of-Five-Spokes in her bed, shrieking in pain and clawing at the mattress. The birth was not a pretty affair, and when the midwife felt the dead weight of the baby in her hands and saw its curious deformities, she screamed and dropped it on the floor.
It was a pitiful thing, dead in the womb, with ragged wounds like gills in its sides.
They took it away from Wheel-of-Five-Spokes, who was too weak to protest. They buried it unceremoniously that same day, just off the burial plot.
It took Wheel-of-Five-Spokes some days to recover from the ordeal. Once she trusted herself to walk again, she slipped from her bed in the middle of the night, while her father and her uncle slept. Armed with a spade, she hiked up the hill to the burial plot, and searched by weak moonlight until she found the little patch of freshly turned soil where her child had been buried. The grave had a simple marker, but the marker had no name.
She dug until she had uncovered the body, bundled up in sackcloth. The sight of it made her want to weep, but she steeled herself. She refilled the grave, so no-one would suspect what she had done; then, she gathered the little bundle up in her arms.
Gods of land and wind cannot help a child of the sea. Wheel-of-Five-Spokes hurried back down the trail, through the village, and to the shore. There, she waded into the shallows, and the surf lapped about her knees. In that instant, with the village sleeping and the big black sea all around, she might have been alone in the world. She stood for a moment, drew a deep breath, and carried on.
She waded until it got too deep to wade, and then she began swimming. She swam until she could hardly see the huts of the village, and the deep was yawning like a giant's mouth under her. Treading water, she let go of the bundle in her arms. It sank beneath the waves.
Wheel-of-Five-Spokes waited for a few moments, but nothing more happened. She nodded the herself, and began to swim back to shore. It's a terrible thing for a young woman to lose her first love so soon, but now, at least, her child would find true rest, with the sea embracing it as it had embraced her.
That's a story I was told as a child, of Wheel-of-Five-Spokes the fisherwoman and the sea-maid whose child she bore. It's a popular legend, but these days, I think, nobody puts much stock in it. It sounds like a fairy-tale, and in my experience, if it sounds like a fairy-tale, it most likely is a fairy-tale.
I can't say if Wheel-of-Five-Spokes' story is true or not, but some years ago I saw something odd while on a trip along the Reprobate Coast. I am a cartographer by trade, an unglamorous line of work to be sure, and I often find myself trekking in the loneliest of places, with the intent of committing them to paper.
The Bitter Sea was not always bitter - there used to be good fishing there, especially by the shelf just off the Reprobate Coast, where the seafloor drops abruptly into a deep undersea trench. But these days, the water has soured, and most of the fishes have died, and the ones that still live are sickly and poisonous. Because of this, the settlements that once dotted the Coast have all but died off. It is a ghostly thing to follow the Reprobate Coast - a few days of walking will invariably lead you into a smattering of empty, run-down cottages.
My map of the Coast was coming along nicely, but the silence and my constant view of the desolate sea was taking a toll on me. I wanted nothing more than to be home. I don't know what was worse - the wildness of the nature or the eerie silence of the depopulated settlements. I was lonely. I hadn't talked to another human in days.
Imagine my surprise, then, when I met the old priestess.
I had entered another village that I thought to be completely empty, and was sitting down on the overgrown step of one of its huts for a rest. That was when the wind carried a sound to my ears. At first I thought it was the lonely call of some sea-bird, then I thought it was my imagination. I stood up from the stoop and headed down the slope of the land, until I could see past the huts to the shore below.
There was a figure down there, clad in a moth-eaten old dress, facing the sea. The figure had long, brittle, white hair which danced uneasily in the sea-breeze. Other than its hair, though, the figure stood so still that I first mistook it for a scarecrow or an effigy. But, no - it was a human being. I could hear its voice: deep and hoarse and old, but with some power still, snaking along ritual melodic lines. There were words, but they were in a dialect I couldn't understand.
When the figure turned around, I could see it was an old woman, and that her eyes were milky white and blind.
She began walking up the shore. So as not to frighten her, I hailed her from a distance. She lifted her chin at the sound of my voice, listening, dead eyes staring at nothing. I explained who I was and why I had come, and she resumed her careful trek up the beach. There was a path, a groove in the stones, as if she had walked the exact same route every day for many years.
Far from being suspicious, the priestess welcomed me with great hospitality. She showed me to her hut, which stood among the others and looked just as weather-worn on the outside. On the inside, though, there was a well-kept hearth and sturdy wooden chairs to sit in. I sat thankfully, resting my weary legs, while the old woman kindled the fire and put a kettle on it to boil.
"What happened to the people who lived here?" I asked her.
The answer was as I had guessed: "They left, long ago. Bad fishing here." Her voice had a strange lilt: they lef', long 'go - bad fishin' here. At the very least, the archaic dialect in which she spoke was more comprehensible than the language in which she had sung down before the sea.
I nodded, then realized she couldn't see me do so. "I see. And, if you don't mind my asking, why did you remain?"
She sat down in the other chair, gingerly. I caught a grimace of pain flashing across her face. Arthritic. "Old cemetery a ways up the road," she said. "We used to bury our dead there. Away from the sea, for gods of land and wind to watch o'er. The sea is always respected, oftentimes feared. Never loved."
I waited for her to continue, but she fell silent. I didn't understand her answer, so instead I said: "I heard you singing, down on the shore."
"Aye," she said, and nodded. "Old sea-hymn. Sailors used to sing it, to keep the sea calm."
I nodded again, but to myself this time. That was it. "You're worshipping. You're a priestess?"
This made her smile, and she folded her hands in her lap. Her fingers were old and knobbly, like gnarled tree-branches. "No, friend. Ain't anything of the sort. A priestess leads a flock. I'm naught but a... devotee."
Then, the kettle boiled, and the old woman brewed two mugs of sweet herbal tea. I enjoyed it immensely, and when my mug was empty and my stomach full I felt a great calm come over me. The old woman told me about her father, who had been the only person left in the village other than her when the rest of them left. He was very old, and senile at the end, and since he died she had been alone. That was why there were two chairs, then, even though she lived alone; and why, when the night came and she bid me to stay, she had a spare bed.
I had to be getting on with my journey in the morning, but that night, I relished the prospect of sleeping in an actual bed. I drifted off the second I pulled my blanket over myself, certain I wouldn't stir until morning.
I woke in the small hours of the night, with the distinct feeling that something was wrong. I could hear a distant noise - faint, but somehow immense. In the lands along the Reprobate Coast, during summer, the sun never quite sets, even at night; the light that poured through the window had a gray, shadowy quality. I pulled on my clothes and hurried to the door.
The door hung open. Once again, I saw the ghostly sight of the old woman from behind, with her shock of white hair. She stood immobile. I looked over her shoulder, and this is what I saw:
I saw the gentle slope of the land, dotted with the huts of the village. Beyond the dry grass roofs of the huts, I saw the desolate expanse of the Bitter Sea. The sea was churning, as if it was boiling.
Something was coming out of the water.
I stood still for a long moment, transfixed by the sight of the huge shape I could just about make out beneath the surface. Then fear seized me again and propelled me forward, and I grabbed the old woman by the shoulder. "We need to get to higher ground! I'll lead the way! Quickly!"
But the woman wouldn't budge. Now that I was closer, I could hear her mumbling to herself. I couldn't make out the words, but I supposed it was another one of her sea-prayers. Perhaps she was trying to calm the sea. Right then, though, I didn't set much stock in a geriatric fisherwoman's outdated superstitions. "Come on!" I yelled, shouldering past her. "We need to go!"
When I turned to face her, I could see that she was smiling. Her smile was serene, and a little sorrowful. Her blind eyes seemed to be gazing out to sea. Without turning her head, she broke off her mumbling and said: "I'm fine where I am."
I gaped at her, then whipped around - but now that I had stepped out of the hut and down onto the ground, the sea was obscured from sight. I turned back to the woman. Perhaps I had misjudged her; perhaps she was senile, or insane. "Something is coming," I said desperately. "Something big. Please!"
But once again, all she said was: "I'm fine where I am."
I remained in place for a moment, hesitating. Then terror won out, and I hissed in frustration and left the old woman where she was. Scrambling up the hillside, I quickly put the village and the noise of the sea in turmoil behind me. After a minute or so, there was a crash behind me, and the ground below me shuddered, and I turned around. Aghast, I took in the sight.
Out of the water, out of the sour sea, a giant creature was clawing its way up the shore. Even from a distance, I could see that its skin was pocked with sores. It had a vaguely humanoid torso, but the anatomy was all wrong: its arms were multi-jointed, and ended in hands which had too many fingers. Huge, bulging eyes stared out of its fish-like face. The gills on its sides were encrusted with thick blood and bile. They worked uselessly in the air.
I knew then, somehow, that this creature had come ashore to die.
Its hands scrabbled desperately for purchase, dragging its fearsome bulk up on land. It looked more than sickly - it looked ruined, deformed. I think, in retrospect, it must have been something from the deep sea. It was no wonder its body couldn't support itself on land. And yet, it dragged its way out of the water with singular purpose, even as it died.
I don't know how - surely no breath could have remained in its lungs - but from the creature's mouth issued a long, lonely howl. It was an awful, deafening sound, and I clasped my hands over my ears and moaned in pain until it subsided. After that, the creature was silent.
It had reached the point where the land met the shore now. With a crash of splintering wood, one of its massive hands came down on one of the abandoned huts. Nothing but debris remained of the old domicile. More of the huts met the same fate as the creature's torso flopped heavily on top of them. Now, I could see that its upper body segued into a wild snarl of fronds and tentacles, which trailed into the water and disappeared.
The creature's movements were growing ever more laborious. Every time its body crashed to the ground, I thought it would not have the strength to continue; every time, it found the strength to drag itself another few feet. From where I was standing, I could not see the sea-facing step where the old woman presumably still stood, but the dying creature must have been closing the distance rapidly.
Despite my awe and my terror, I had to see how this turned out. Keeping my eye on the creature's bulk, I circled around, down from the foot of the hill to the village's eastern edge, where I would be able to peek between the huts and hopefully catch a glimpse of the woman.
The ground shook as the sea-creature's weight landed heavily once again. Even at this distance, even knowing that it didn't have the strength left for any burst of speed, I was frightened. Still, I drew closer, until I could look around the corner of one of the huts. There she was, the woman, as peaceful as ever; there, just inches away from her face, was the creature's gaping maw.
I could see more details now. The creature's skin was not scaled like a fish's, but smooth and gray, like a whale's; in its open mouth, I saw its ranks of dagger-teeth. And it stank, overpoweringly, of rot and sea.
I made a strangled noise of alarm, but I could not force myself to rush forward to the woman's aid. Rooted to the spot, I merely watched, as the sea-creature seemed to expend the last ounce of its strength to stretch its neck towards the woman; I saw her blind eyes close, I think; I saw her lean her forehead against the creature's monstrous face. The feeling that washed over me was profoundly unreal. There was peace on the old woman's face. There was peace, too, as far as I could tell, on the creature's.
Then, something imperceptible left the sea-creature's ruined body. It went still. It was dead.
After long and silent minutes, I dared to approach the carcass. My ears still rang with the noise of the huts being destroyed. When I drew close, I saw that tears were rolling down the woman's cheeks, though she still smiled her secret smile. I opened my mouth, but could think of nothing to say. She spoke instead: "It is done, then."
I gathered my things, and soon left the old woman in the ruined village, alone with the corpse of the sea-monster. That day, as I walked, I could not help but replay the memory in my mind. Most of all, I wondered at the sight of the woman and the beast coming together, like lovers reuniting. At some point, I connected the event to the story of Wheel-of-Five-Spokes, which I had not heard since I was a child.
It's foolish, of course. The legend of Wheel-of-Five-Spokes is an old one. If she were somehow still alive today, she would be hundreds of years old.
After that strange day, my work went smoothly, and I was on my way home within the month. On my map, I included landmarks and notable features, as is customary. I did not mark out the abandoned village where I met the old woman and saw the sea-creature die.