Though they sink through the sea they shall rise again

Though lovers be lost love shall not

Dylan Thomas

 

When late stern Neptune points the shaft with death:

To the dark grave retiring as to rest,

Thy people blessing, by thy people bless’d!

The Odyssey

 

August 1833. I’d never considered writing. I surfed Bells. Wrote up lab work. However, this is something different, because I am someone different. Likewise, I was never a reader. That was Issy, the English teacher, but her stained copy of Ulysses, rescued from the wreckage, remains my touchstone, despite needing its precious pages for my letters.

Issy, through that book, taught me that one person’s story is worth telling. That and my circumstances compel me to attempt this because I, like Ulysses, long for home.

There are no gods to rely upon for my return, but I hope there’ll be a reader.

Having made it thus far through this vague introduction, you’re owed an explanation. Furthermore, should you be reading in the appropriate circumstances, you will find it commensurate to your own understanding. Should you find this, and deem this fanciful, then overlook its crudities and paradoxes as whimsy. Then, I beg you, come to it with older eyes. Or leave it to your heirs.

From where I am, this is as complicated to explain as I’m finding difficult to experience. There is time and distance between us. Nethertheless, my name will be Rod and my wife will be Issy. This will be, and yet it also has come to pass, when I was Rodrigo and she was Isabel.

I apologise for the tenses and language. Your understanding will be proportionate to the age in which you live. To wit, to you, I might have not been born yet, so, should remind you once more, I am not the writer of my family.

In another life, I was a scientist; then a Portuguese ship’s doctor, wrecked in time, with a tale taller than those told by the sailors in the tavern of a winter’s night. In 1833 I am an apothecary in this whaling outpost. Without my skills I would be a pariah, even amongst this coarse assortment. And here, my means are few: this unnamed settlement is famed only for the Antarctic winds that whip up the stench of carcasses from the bay, beyond which lies the treacherous ocean that extends to the Pole.

Despite understanding logic and hypothesis, I say treachery with cause. Science is indifferent, but since my entrapment in someone else’s experiment, there’s only suspicion and superstition. The sailors jeered as I wept over their whales. Either their beatings inured me to their ways, or I’m losing what formerly defined me. Writing by the light of whale oil, all are infected with death. Thus, I can describe what happened to me and trace the changes in me through the scars left.

It will begin in October 2011. Rightly, I should be in 2016, but for this curse, I’m writing this in Portuguese, English and in the benighted settler patois of 1833. This is the seventh letter in English, and I keep going, in small script, using as little paper as possible. I cast my precious jars from the wharf as the ships come in, trailing carcasses in bloody wakes. My letters bob up and down in the red water. When conditions are right, I bribe sailors to take the bottles beyond the breakers.

In 2011, Issy was tricked. Perhaps, like others before her. Soothsayer, Isabel was told, psychic. Fortune teller. No. Our medium wasn’t a card reader or palmist. She was a thief.

It was the last day of my life. I remember it clearly:   

I didn’t know what I expected of her shopfront or whatever such people call their workplaces. But this was like a small town general store after a big supermarket opened: a study in shabby anachronism. Dusty glass bottles lined shelves and I couldn’t tell if their contents had decayed. Towers of hard covers in foreign scripts formed walls, while a fringed curtain hid closed doors. I was examining the ornate cash register when Issy closed the door, the bell jingling behind her. She said we had to sit at the dining table. She smiled and beckoned me over; I pulled up a chair, crossed my arms and waited.

I remarked about how hard they’d worked to make it authentic. With a shake of her head Issy shushed me. She knew the ways of these places.                  

‘Fact is,’ whispered Issy ‘it’s not like movies; they don’t dress like Gypsies and call themselves Madame. Mediums don’t need to, they’re just people.’ Isabel was nodding, head tilted. I didn’t respond. Issy forgives the depth of my scorn, and yet encourages me to follow her – even here – when I’d rather be surfing. Gritting my teeth, I squeezed her hand.

Issy’s medium pads in, pulling her brown cardigan tight, nods at her assistant, and steps bow legged around a circle of salt. Incense is burning. Arranged around the circle is stereotypical gear: a dagger, a large flat stone, an undressed branch, lichen still green, and a candle, with its plumed glow reflected in metallic surfaces. The assistant closes the curtains. I cringe at the crassness of the affair but am careful Isabel doesn’t see my expression.

Isabel and the assistant are each caught up in the magic. Always a believer, Isabel’s fallen for angels and UFOs. Everything New Age is sacred to her. This was her idea to distract me after mum’s round of chemo. I struggle to understand how we work sometimes – we’re opposites – but we do. She readies her phone to record. I smile; I’d told Issy I was here in a professional capacity as a control sceptic.

Eventually, Isabel, the medium and the helper are ready. And nothing happens, Issy fiddles with her blouse button and winks at me. The lights dim. There’s sulphur as the matches spark to light yet another candle.

As she stares, it seems the mouselike qualities of the medium gradually become less evident, she takes several deep breaths and seems to pale or perhaps it is the candle flickering in a draft. Her long, black hair moves like a separate entity, crackling with static electricity. Her parlour tricks don’t fool me; her fingers tense and tap: nervous? Or, communicating to her assistant? But then she sinks and loosens up. Issy relaxes with her. In the gloom the woman’s skin is translucent, tinged blue around her lips and eyelids. Breathing exercises – a yogi trick. She can’t keep at it, and her breathing evens.

Without warning, the sinews in the medium’s neck and hands go taut, her mouth gapes and water gushes from her throat as if from a dam breach. We recoil, but remain stunned into silence. The flood stops like a tap is turned off, and the medium, rigid no longer, slumps to the floor in convulsions.

There’s screaming. In my periphery vision Isabel is shaking, camera in hand. The assistant lunges forward, while motioning us to keep back, like we’re disturbing her.

A briny odour fills the room and I retch. The assistant props the medium against a chair. Her eyes are closed, but her hands float fish-like through the air.

The medium’s voice, once quick, quiet and staccato is throaty and low: ‘Shafts of moonlight sheaved our bodies in silver as we sank, heavy with terror, down and down. I grasped through the silence while I watched the last globes of life rise from my mouth and break the surface above. I locked into his eyes as my lungs burst. I gulped down salty death, eyes seeing no more.’ The medium shudders and a soft gurgling sound comes from her throat. ‘Now I am summoned from the deep to answer your demands?’

Abruptly, the medium sits up, opens her eyes and stares at each of us without recognition. Were her eyes a different colour? They’re silver-grey I’d thought they were green. ‘You who want to fathom the secrets of my grave: treasures, minerals and rare beasts. I am dumb with saltwater and seaweed. The ship went down. No one heard my silent screams.’ Her eyes glitter as she speaks. ‘My spirit drifted the cold wastes.’

The medium shivers as this new voice continues: ‘I search for my Rodrigo, my lost Rodrigo.’ She pauses, eyes closed, and her hands clench into white fists. ‘You summon me, but I am here to raise him. Rodrigo, where are you?’ The medium sways. She points at me. ‘Rodrigo is you.’ I can’t move. She floats toward me; her damp hands seize my shirt. In one motion she pulls me up and forward out of my chair. She kisses me with her bitter blue lips. As a reflex I push her away, but the life has gone out of me. I trip over my chair, hitting my head. The medium swings around and I hear her arm knock Issy’s phone. The assistant pulls the medium back. Isabel looks from me to the medium: shaking her head. I sit up, winded. ‘Rodrigo?’ Isabel mouths.

The medium shrinks to the floor, whimpering, ‘Rodrigo,’ before she snatches the dagger from the circle and draws the blade over her the palm of her left hand. I wince at the droplets clinging to the knife’s edge. She clenches her fist and blood oozes between her fingers. It trails down her white arm, and mingles with the pool of salt water, which begins to bubble. A white mist rises. Amid the incense and smoke, I’m dazed.

Issy is shaking her head. The assistant flaps and whispers around the medium. But the mist grows thicker and the spirit is not leaving. She shrieks and raises the knife once more. She pushes her assistant back and crawls out of the mist towards me. She yanks my right hand and draws the dagger across my palm. The wound stings of salt water. She smiles with pale blue lips and presses her palm to mine. She chants: ‘I bring Rodrigo forth.’ My hand throbs, but her grip doesn’t lesson. I see grey waves in her eyes. My hand and heart ache in time to the rhythm of her words, as our blood runs together. All fades with her smile: Issy scuffling with the assistant, the incense, the room, everything but grey waves. The candle flickers, and a gust from somewhere blows it out.

 

That was my life. It was the last time I saw Issy. We are candle flames, we flicker and die out – sometimes the flame is passed on. The medium passed me on. It wasn’t my choice, but I made it. But nothing is linear.

Every night, I relive the arrival, a water birth into full awareness. I’m at the edge of somewhere familiar. Waves lap with kitten tongues at a shelf of black rock that runs in broken leaps to the ocean. Waves leave white salt traces of their kisses upon this rock, only to return to wipe them away. Further up, shallow depressions capture circlets of sky staring unblinkingly. Occasionally, there’s a splash, and then tears in runnels make their way down the face of the black rock. Each time the language is the same.

In my dream, despite the shrieking wind there’s no air. Clouds hunch brooding over the tide. The shelf’s sand hillocks are blasted apart by crashing waves. With seagulls fled inland, the shelf was alone, until successive waves heaved broken timbers of my foundered ship up onto the rock.  

Coins in shallow pools adding glint to the scene as dark materials dripped in shreds from splinters and nails. Broken barrels spilled over the stone, only to be washed clean. Canvas, iron and wood were thrown up to decay. Waves rolled a form in. Edges of her dress trailed with the tide. And then, from above I watched him – me – head bloodied, hair and beard matted, facing the sky, a shoe missing. I see me and I knew my wife drowned, as the medium said.

I’m in my body and a metallic tang taints the beach. I touch my head and my hand is bloody. My lips crack with each breath battling in my chest. I crawl to her, pushing back a veil of matted hair. Her face is blue and her pale eyes are open, vacant.

It’s too late.

Though lovers be lost.

This Isabel is dead. But she’ll wait; we’ll meet. Our lives and deaths are entwined, they ebb and flow and encircle our world like the ocean. Therefore, I hope, even at the limits of the world.

On quiet afternoons I go to the cemetery. There, by your stone, this sceptic prays. I pray to my one and future Issy: come find me, my wife yet to be born, so we can rise again. And I pray, thief of all my lives: uncurse me, enchantress of the changing eyes. Or, fatal Siren, whenever you are, curse this marooned madman further to forget the pain of a future foregone because though lovers be lost, love shall not.

Many mornings I wake choking, prayers unanswered to return to the vain toils of letter writing. Then I comprehend. Reader, perhaps it is not up to you, because of Isabel. I opened the book to the pages I needed. Luckily I had not used them.

It took weeks to beg, trade, buy and steal everything required, and month before I found the location. It was remote, where the sand dunes petered into black earth. The sailors shunned it, refusing to say why. I suspected blood was spilled. I waited for the full moon and using the book. I dug a trench, poured in milk, rank tavern wine, and spring water, just like the instruction. Then, I sprinkled flour I compelled the dour travelling priest to bless.

The difficult part was not overcoming my fear it wouldn’t work, or fear of the unnumbered dead I was about to invite, but the sacrifice. I’d stolen the old cutlass from the tavern, sharpened the blade and bought an old ewe from a squatter. It was huddled in a rough pen I’d built a few days earlier, doped on one of my preparations. I grimaced, imagining the drunken taunts of those ill-favoured whalers. Or would they string me up for witchcraft?

With a swig of rum, I take the sheep by its halter, and with the short sword, slit its throat over the trench. The sheep struggled and was still as the blood pooled, glinting in the moonlight. I dragged the poor creature back up, after some time, and heaved its body on branches I’d built into a pyre. The old me would not recognise this version of myself. I dare not consider if the dead will.

Sweating, and faint, I returned to the trench, where something disturbed the air. Even then, after everything, I trembled as I drew the bloodied cutlass. My voice nothing more than a croak, I held back spectres of the long dead, until the one I needed came forward.

As my eyes adjusted, the dead made themselves known. I saw my mother, Andrea. I wept, yet for all my grief, I suffered her not to draw near to the blood. Then I saw Issy and cried out. But she shook her head. My heart broke and she died another death in silence.

The witch appeared. I drew up my sword. Through her bloody smile she said: ‘thou art asking of thy returning, and through many troubles ye may come home, if thou take a ship to find Helios at night. Yet, I foreshow ruin for thy ship and its men. Though thou shalt thyself escape, late shalt thou return in evil plight, and thou shalt find sorrows. The sea again shall end thee. This is sooth.’

Before I could question her, she disappeared, and my mother took some blood. I tried to hold her but she shook her head. ‘You were lost. My heart couldn’t endure the cancer treatment.’ I fell to my knees.

I looked up as Isabel approached again. The light of the moon shone through her blue eyes, and there was the faintest odour of salt water. She smiled as I attempted to brush her cheek. She said we will be together. I dropped to my knees but believed her, whoever we were and will be.

Others came forward, but I had not the heart to hear them. Benumbed, I filled in the trench, lit the pyre, gagging at the odour of seared wool and eucalypt. Spirits disappeared into the smoke. Once the fire was spent, burying the remains took up the rest of the night.

With a hint of daylight making my steps easier, returning home was a dream. I startled at my own hollow laugh – home. Even here, I was changing: time’s flotsam, apothecary, raiser of the dead, and villager.

The fog burned off as I neared the bay. The whalers would head out. The scar on my hand throbbed as I made for the jetty.

I was going out with the dark-prowed ship as my witch instructed. The captain rubbed his brow, accepting my coins. With that I had the freedom of the deck, as long as I didn’t interfere.

The ship headed east, as my witch predicted. Despite low clouds on the horizon, we kept on, towards a pod the captain seemed sure about from the helm. The wind increased, and I grabbed some rope. The swell whipped up and the ship’s tempo changed. Harpoons were abandoned for rigging. The coast disappeared, and all our ways darkened, yet by my reckoning it was midday. I lashed myself to the mast as clouds and sea merged. Rain pelted into the canvas as the vessel pitched beyond control. Visibility was nothing as cresting waves ripped timbers apart. Thunder cracked and at a higher pitch, so did the mast.

I was again in the nightmare I fell into. I cackled at the storm in this genial hour. I would survive this shipwreck. I will rise.

With what’s left of her book against my heart, I see her, us together. Hand in hand, sun darkening the freckles sprinkled across her nose and haloing Issy’s yellow braids, as we head up from the surf.

I screamed her name.

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