To pass the wet hours crammed in his bottle, Aitch counts cylinders.
Tonight, only those he can actually see get tallied: not the darkened hurricane lamp dangling on its chain, not the perforated lid screwed tight on his jar. With some effort Aitch can tilt his head back, turn it side to side, but down is impossible with bent knees wedged under his chin. No points for his short thighs, his shorter shins, his cramped toes. He looks forward, left, right. Starts with what’s closest. An easy ten: thin shadow fingers lifted out of the brine. Bobbing on the breath-rippled solution is another: a sealed, thumb-length leather tube, strung from a cord around his neck. Aitch worries the pouch in his cold grip, its familiar squish comforting. The caul that had helmeted him at birth is preserved inside—to protect him, Mother had promised, from drowning.
To the left of his container, moonglow floats in from the room’s ocean-side porthole—the round window itself too high to view—illuminating a bank of bookcases lining the curved walls. On the floor, six glass vessels are now limned silver-blue: replicas in everything but size, perfect cylinders with threaded brass caps. Each slightly bigger than its predecessor, the largest slightly smaller than the one in which Aitch is currently squeezed. Seven in all.
Seven he’s counted a hundred, hundred times.
Seven months, or more, in each—he’s sure, he remembers—and he’s seven years old, at least.
The eighth will no doubt be coming soon, the rate he’s growing.
On the shelves, a regiment of forty-six candles are snuffed, stiff wax digits raised against shushing lips. He double-checks the number, though he played this game yesterday, and the day before that; the amount hasn’t changed since. The Aunts are frugal with supplies, stingy with any light but the one beacon they shine every night out to sea.
Sometimes Aitch adds that bright beam to his total.
Always, he includes the lighthouse.
He fidgets, as much as possible, a squirming heave in his guts, imagining the view from the Aunts’ lantern room above. The sheer drop from storm panes to ocean. The rocks below, jagged fangs primed to impale. The water’s maw stretching wide, frothing and lashing. Basalt waves gnawing the headland. Salt talons steadily gouging the cliffs, grabbing, yanking . . .
It’s hungry, he remembers saying, staring at the roiling expanse between the lighthouse and reef. Unblinking. Soon after, the Aunts stopped bringing him upstairs. It wants to swallow us.
Don’t be ridiculous, they’d answered, referring to charts on a counter girding the great spinning lamp, marking currents and tides. Eyes filled with stars and swells, ever vigilant. It’s bland as milk out there. Linen-smooth sailing. Every seafarer’s delight.
Aitch didn’t think so, but the Aunts still hush him whenever he mentions it. They see calm where he sees squalls. Fair winds instead of hurricanes. Sweet gulls in place of carrion crows. When he’s unbottled and playing in his small chamber, they say he’s at work. Now his tools are scattered on the bare wood floor, next to the washstand: four sticks of brown conté and nine violet pastels to replace the set he’s scribbled to stubs. These are toys, he tells them, not tools.
It’s like they’re not even listening.
When he draws his dreams, the Aunts interpret squares from his circles. Arrows and directions from houses. Submarines, they say, not the intended sharks. Chevrons and triangles and rampant squiggles—the language is his, he knows its true meaning, but the Aunts read into it whatever they want.
Quietly, Aitch wonders when Mother and Father will come to collect him.
Soon, the Aunts once assured him. Soon enough.
So many cylinders later, he has stopped asking.
Behind him, the door opens. Weird shadows stretch across the floor; yellow light catches in Aitch’s bottle, blinding. Bright semi-circles precede two identical women, tall and black as wicks. They totter in tight-buttoned boots, lanterns balanced on dull pewter salvers. Stovepipe hats erect on slicked heads. Ankle-length skirts binding legs close, blouses buttoned to the jaw. Aitch squints and blinks, following their progression. At a little table beside the narrow cot he rarely sleeps in, they stop and set down their trays.
“What a treat we have for you,” says the one on the left. Seventy? Seventy-one? Aitch has lost count, as he does every night at this point. Perhaps she’s cylinder seventy-two?
“A real treat,” agrees maybe-seventy-three. She retrieves a canteen from the bedside, pulls the cork, then thunks it down on Aitch’s lid. A few seconds later, a long straw scrapes through a puncture overhead; the Aunt pushes it, scratching his temple and cheek, down to his mouth. He drinks greedily, though the tea is weak and tastes of mud.
“Can I come out now?” Aitch asks, already knowing the answer. It hasn’t been long enough, they’ll say, only a few days. “Please?”
“A few minor aches now for an eternity of joy.”
Through the holes, the women slip eight, nine, ten tiny pellets (eighty-one? eighty-two? eighty-four?) and wait for Aitch to consume them. The things bloat almost instantly. Yesterday, it was bloodworm capsules. The day before, it was kelp and compressed carrot. Other times, squid meal. Chaff and shrimp. The Aunts’ idea of delicious.
Despite himself, Aitch submerges as far as he can and begins to eat the sodden pills. Mid-chew, he presses his face to the glass, distorts his features. Bugs his eyes. Squashes his nose until snot oozes. Scrunches his brow. Splays hands beside his cheeks and stretches his tongue until it hurts. Gobbets tumble from his mouth, plopping into the brine. If he is hideous, he thinks, the Aunts will no doubt see beauty. Maybe he’ll even earn a laugh, or a smile.
The Aunts watch and wait, and do not laugh.
They never tell him he’s special, the way he’s sure, he remembers, Mother and Father did. They never give him red wine in etched crystal goblets. They never bundle him into handsome four-in-hands, never let jolly horses clip-clop him along to the mayor’s very own private soirées. They never dress him in long satin robes, robes that match theirs, robes that shimmer like precious gems under starlight. They never sing nor dance around him on the shoreline. They never tell him tales, drunk on midnight and comets, of frolicking in a May-Eve sea.
Now that Mother and Father are many months and many train-rides away, Aitch recalls them through the green-tinted glass of his container. Features warped, wide-set eyes with no lids, pinprick nostrils, drooped and toothless mouths . . . Not quite what they had been, what they are. But he still feels the gentle trace of Mother’s fingertip along his caul-scars. The feathered breeze of her breath as she kissed the stripes and ridges along his hairline, the raised dots beside his ears. The salmon-sharp tang of her skin.
We won’t be long after you, Father had said, obviously using the Aunts’ definition of soon.
What skies were above when you were born, Mother had said, voice thick with pride. Such old constellations! Such perfect alignments.
Draping the lucky talisman over his head, she’d promised he wouldn’t drown.
You are so special, she’d said, then sent him away. You are so special, Aitch.
No, he thinks, chill water splashing as he shakes, realigning his thoughts. No, she didn’t call him by letter. That’s his guardians’ method of address. Aitch. The initial a reflection of distance, a refusal of intimacy. No names, they’d said. They were the Aunts; he was barely a fragment of himself, a snippet of prayer uttered in syllables, sputters and remote stops. Nonsense jumbled together, he thinks. Nonsense kept apart.
Aitch had been complete with Mother and Father. He had made sense.
He’s sure, he remembers, what that was like.
Underwater, Aitch’s heart beats loud, a deep thrum-thrumming to accompany the chanting.
Satisfied that he’d eaten, the Aunts had withdrawn measuring tapes from their skirt pockets, held them up against the tank. Muttering, they’d made notes, given instructions, the routine now stale as the stench of his fish breath. Stretch, stretch child, extend that spine; Aitch had straightened until crown scraped lid, cropped blond hair poking through perforations. Lower those shoulders. Expose that neck. Show us those hands. Turn— painfully—this way and that.
Once they’d finished, pencils and implements and lamps and stern heels had retreated. Within minutes, the air in Aitch’s quarters had thickened with a familiar hypnotic drone. Unintelligible words repeat from above and, it seems, from below. The endless chorus building, echoing, spinning out of the lighthouse while he weeps, cramped and shivering. Marinating in dark noise.
He begins to nod. Skull clunks against glass; he wilts forward, then clunks back again. Cold leaches, lulls. Dreams beckon him down, down, further down. Ancient fishhook voices snag Aitch’s untethered, innermost self and jerk it from his fragile, prune-skinned shell. They haul so quickly he can’t resist the vertiginous whoosh. Bubbles scream past his ears; he plummets into a realm of coral-toothed beasts, razor-edged fins, pearl-eyed hunters that track by vibration, by liquid scent. Powerless, he is zipped around streets paved with sailors’ bones. Weed-strewn buildings, barnacled castles, fossilized carcasses. Down, down into caverns crawling with neon cilia, through steam-spewing pipes, along an eel-path, a sculpin-trench, a giant isopod ravine. Further down, the canyon gaping before him, night after night, seemingly boundless, and yet pressure builds as he draws closer, lung-crushing, bone-breaking pressure, he can’t swim, he can’t move, he is confined in infinite space, he is suppressed, held under, release me, suffocating, he needs to break free . . .
The bottle rattles as Aitch jolts awake. Pulse choking, whole body trembling. Runny nose dangerously close to the brine.
I won’t drown, he thinks, necklace seized in fist, head cocked. The chant is still tumbling from verse to verse, the Aunts’ voices fervent but steady. Lately, they’ve kept him jarred for longer and longer, until he is grey and blue, the pinkie between his legs completely retracted. Not a peachy little boy anymore, not a good boy. A salamander. A jelly-limbed axolotl. A creature designed to crawl.
He waits, listens.
The song’s crescendo is hours off yet.
Plenty of time, Aitch thinks, feeling numbly overhead for the hole he’s worked at for months, the one widened with leather-sheathed determination. There. He grins, shoves his baby finger up, wriggles it through to the first knuckle, hooks, and pushes.
Metal screeches against glass as, slowly, the jar’s lid turns.
He’s learned not to climb too soon after flopping onto the floor.
It takes some maneuvering, just sliding out, placing the lid silently; then the monumental effort of getting up. Bending at the waist. Trying not to slip, water sluicing down his arms, his naked gooseflesh. Waiting for the blood to rush, the spots in his vision to clear. The pins and needles in his rump, legs, and feet to stop stabbing. The burning ache in his joints to ease. A puddle dries around him as Aitch stretches tip to toe, luxuriating in the sensation of being long.
Time, however, is short.
When it’s safe—raw feeling returned, limbs pliable, balance more or less restored—he creeps across the room to collect his crayons and a sheaf of blank paper. He stops frequently to catch his breath. To listen. Through the roar and hiss of nausea, he hears the Aunts singing, their rhythms redoubled in the wind outside.
He can’t scamper the way he did years ago, but follows the same route up the bookshelves now as then. There’s no ladder, though the cases are more than twenty feet high. No matter. Aitch is small, a flimsy wool boy, shrunken and felted from too much time in the water. The mahogany boards are sturdy enough.
At this height, dust blankets every surface. He could feel, but hadn’t quite realised, how long he’d been bottled. Chalk and pastel powder shows through the thick layer of grey. Sticks of color await Aitch’s touch. Around his secret drawing-place, beneath the moonlit porthole, favorite volumes are splayed, spines cracked, pages well-thumbed. On hands and knees, he shuffles from the top of one case to the next, careful not to knock any books to the floor. He tries not to, can’t help but, look down. From here, his glass prison looks so tiny.
Halfway around the room, he stops below the round window. Steels his nerve and peers out.
Chimneys dominate the landscape, near and far. Cold scratches point skywards from village rooftops, leading his eye to the refinery’s smokestacks, a dozen or more thick pillars spewing clouds of ink between the stars. Closer, to the right, a breakwater describes the harbor. Aitch drops his gaze quickly, avoids taking in the reef, the ever-churning sea.
Don’t be frightened, the Aunts told him, long ago, when they used to promenade through the fish markets on the wharves, Aitch by their side, harnessed and leashed.
Born liquid-breathing, as you were, one began.
Encauled, interrupted her sister.
Shrouded in brine, the first went on, inhaling the most profound essence of life—
A natural water-baby—
You should feel, said the Aunt—and Aitch remembers the moment stretching then, as he’d stopped on the rough jetty, the splinters in his bare soles forgotten, chest swelling with pride and hope and the memory of love, of Mother calling him special, believing, suddenly, that the Aunts thought so too, that they wanted him, that he was special—but they weren’t looking at him at all. As she’d continued, the Aunt’s gaze was unfixed, irises full of the deeps. You should feel—
An affinity, supplied the double.
Gratitude, said the other Aunt firmly. To be forever submerged, to be reunited . . . A shimmer in her eyes then, a ripple of emotion as she’d turned, Aitch finally in her sights. Was it reverence in the quivering cast of her features? Jealousy? Disappointment?
Not admiration, Aitch had known, certain as the stone in his guts.
Be thankful, she’d said, breaking the spell. Soon you’ll always be in your element.
That’s where Nick Pierce’s family moors their dory, the Aunts had said that day, playing tour-guide on the wharves. Perched on his bookshelf inside the lighthouse, Aitch now draws absent-mindedly: the vista before him, the ghostly one superimposed in his memory, the landscape risen in dreams. That’s Luelly’s tackle and bait stall, the Aunts had said, pointing to an open-sided booth, boards reeking of worms and fresh paint. That’s the last of Marsh’s fleet. Over there is Southwick’s berth. The old seafarer himself had sat on a low stool, shucking shells into a pail. The sails on his brigantine had been tightly furled, flags limp on its masts. The haul more than half unloaded.
The scritch-scritching of pastels on paper intensifies; thoughts are channeled into images and signs, filling sheet after sheet.
Southwick had given him an oyster. The sailor had smiled at the face Aitch pulled when the slimy glob slid down his throat. Great black beard like a puff of steam, heaving as he laughed. Aitch renders it in charcoal smears and swirls.
He tries to write the captain’s name, but the letters come out all wrong, curves and crosses misaligning. After countless hours sneak-reading the Aunts’ books, Aitch has developed a strong sense for words . . . but, lately, they won’t stick in his head. On paper they’re moth-eaten, bad as initials.
Pictures arrive clear and fast.
Some he replicates, based on those tucked away in the Aunts’ library: pen-and-ink sketches of submarines, volcanoes, whales; etchings of distant islands, stone-carved idols, long-lost tribes; full-color anatomies, endless species of fish, barbed lures. Others he cannot explain. Images and lyrics appear full-formed in the darkness, as though projected into his mind. Urgently, he records strange hieroglyphs. Maps to as-yet-uncharted provinces. Constellations and moons never seen.
Tonight, he can hardly keep up with the onslaught. It’s been too long since he’s climbed, since he’s played; the pages practically fill themselves. Tidal waves and ships. Tunnels and caverns. Darkness scribbled in, claustrophobic, with bright sinuous streaks slithering towards the margins . . . Aitch draws and draws, arm aching and smudged to the elbow. Before one picture drifts off the ledge, floating to the floor, he has already begun the next.
He does not notice the quiet, until it is broken.
Key against iron, the bolt shunts. Hinges squeal as the door opens. Two sets of heels click-clack into the room. The Aunts skirt around the lidless jar, stepping over small puddles, mouths thin lines of disapproval. How can it have gotten so late, Aitch wonders, resisting an urge to look outside, to search for sunrise. Dropping pencil and paper, he freezes, vainly hoping to blend into the shadows. Below, the Aunts sigh, nostrils flared. They bend and retrieve the discarded drawings, each gathering a sizable stack. At first they afford the things little attention—but as the moonlight strikes the topmost illustrations, their glances linger. Studying the hurried doodles, they communicate with nods and clicks of the tongue. They flick through the papers. Quick, quicker.
Just when Aitch begins to feel the tension in his belly ease—they’ve overlooked him, surely—the Aunts cock their heads and squint at his roost. Brows furrowed in concentration, not anger.
“Aitch,” the one on the left begins. “You are—”
A gift, Father had said.
So special, said Mother.
“—not designed for heights. You are not a bird. Come now, child. Continue your work down here.”
Stomach churning, the boy lowers his supplies, reacquaints his feet with the ground. Booty in hand, the Aunts turn their backs.
“Goodnight,” he whispers as they retreat, bolting the door behind them.
The sun winks through the ocean-side porthole long before the boy stretches out on the cot, finally sure they’ve forgotten to bottle him.
Freedom survives line by line, page by page.
A week’s worth of sketches keeps Aitch occupied, earning him seaweed soups and a flat bed. First thing in the morning, his palms are mottled: brown and purple and navy. While he slept, the Aunts had visited his room—he’s sure, he remembers—and observed his slumber. They put sticks of chalk in his grasp, then watched figures and symbols appear, channeled directly from dream to paper. Clucks, glottal approval, whenever he gave his drowsy hands free rein. On his breakfast trays, new reams arrive.
He wants to make the Aunts happy.
He wants to be dry.
So he draws, even after the nightmares have stopped.
From the shelf-top vantage, looking out over the village, Aitch lets loose his imagination. A raging ocean—yes, the Aunts appreciated those pastel-flecked swells. Bizarre golden treasure, twinkling on the reef; they’d almost smiled at that one. Misshapen creatures emerging from the deeps, gills fluttering in dank air, webbed fingers flapping. Hordes of spine-crested mermaids crossing the pebbled shore. Tentacled men bent on ascending the lighthouse. Oh, how the chanting had soared, the evening he’d produced that lurid vision!
Next day, the seas are calm as the Aunts have always pretended. The waters are clear and barren. Activity on the wharves is sedate. Finding little inspiration outside, Aitch scours the library’s collection of artwork. Displacing the cylinders he lately hasn’t needed to count, he copies imprints of fire-fueled airships soaring past the sun. Pyramids inscribed with illegible messages. Vines strangling strongholds. Crumbling ruins.
There’s no release in making these copies. No butterflies in his belly. No urgency. For a while, he abandons the crayons and simply reads.
Around dusk, the Aunts deliver a jug of metal-tinged water, a bowl of spirulina flakes, and a shrimp cake. One changes the chamber pot, the other the sheets. Toying with his pendant, Aitch stands with his back pressed to the farthest bookcase, as the latest batch of drawings is swept up and inspected.
A frown on the left. Expression neutral on the right.
“Have you napped this afternoon?”
Aitch shakes his head.
The Aunts exchange glances.
“So you’ve been sleeping well these past nights?”
“Yes, Aunt. Extremely well, thank you.”
Another unreadable interchange.
Unsure how to respond, Aitch shrinks under the tight-lipped scrutiny. Instinctively he inches away, stopping short as he collides with the largest empty jar. Glass resonates as it strikes the neighboring bottle; a solemn church bell summoning dawdlers inside. Aitch swallows hard, willing the sound to ebb.
Shhhhh, he silently pleads. Don’t remind them. His back is only now beginning to truly unkink, his ankles and hips barely straightening . . .
“I have been very good,” he says aloud, voice breaking.
“Indeed,” says the left, unconvinced.
“Indeed,” repeats the right, taking the latest sketches and her sister by the arm. “We expect no less, Aitch.
As if to reassure, this Aunt leaves a lantern—and the door unlocked behind her.
The Aunts aren’t impressed with the juvenile horrors Aitch has created. The haunted house with its gambrel roof, widow’s walk, broken panes of stained glass. Their hands twitch, ready to scrunch the bone-filled pits seething with rats. They sneer at the arctic tundra made by crushing white chalk over a dark ground. If they were prone to laughter, they would have guffawed at the giant penguin.
The Aunts do not laugh.
“You were right,” says one.
With the slightest nod, the other acknowledges her sister’s deferral. “Like attracts like, blood calls to blood, element to element. The message is meaningless if not spoken fluently, fluidly.”
“Agreed,” comes the reply. “His strength is undeniably liquid.”
Immediately, she reaches into the front pouch of an apron cinched around her gaunt waist. She pulls out a rag and a sloshing cylinder.
Against his will, Aitch feels the count starting anew.
One: the vial in their hands. Two: the Aunt dousing the cloth. Three: the Aunt pinning him with eyes, with hands, with nails. Two: the Aunt grabbing . . .Three: the Aunt holding . . .
“No,” he cries, attempting to wriggle free, thrashing. Arms throbbing in their brutal grip. Legs quivering. Piss dribbling. Backed against the seventh jar, he whips his head from side to side until it is trapped. Fingers gouge his cheeks, piercing flesh, turning his face. “No,” Aitch moans, pulse hot and throbbing. Tears stinging.
Cold wetness smothers him silent, fabric pinched around his nose, palmed against his mouth. Aitch tries to hold his breath, tastes bile. Scentless fumes seep between his lips, infiltrate his nostrils. His body sags against the gaping bottle.
“Mother,” he sobs, falling into the black nothingness of defeat.
He rouses in near-darkness. Chin on knees, feet twisted numb, joints screaming. Breath hollow in his ears, waves splashing. The slow rhythm of strange verses intoned. Inside the jar, the air is close, humid, and reeks of glue. Overhead, all the tiny stars in Aitch’s sky have been plugged, the metal lid sealed to its tracks. Through the glass, he sees the room blearily. Moonlight streaming. Bookshelves. No cot now, no table, no chamber pot. No tools. The door thrown wide, taunting.
No escape but into sleep.
I’m a good boy, he mumbles, the Aunts pulling him on his harness and leash, yanking him off the wharf, plunging into the water. Their spindle-fins clawing, clamping, dragging him down, down, further down. Diving, songs bubbling from their gills. Descending at a strangling pace. Flippers kicking, kicking for the ocean floor.
Release me, Aitch thinks, the silent cry echoed from the abyss stretching for miles below. Release me—
Busy singing, the Aunts don’t hear him. They don’t listen—he knows, he’s sure—they never have. They don’t believe he will stay if not forced.
The time has come, they seem to chant, alighting on the chasm’s precipice. Clouds of silt stir as they land, lifeless grit caught by the current, tossed out over the void. The time has come, they demand, but the words are crooned with a lullaby cadence, mesmerizing and slow. Wake, they say, leading Aitch to the precipice, slicing at his neck until it bleeds. Holding fast, binding him in long ropes of dead-man’s bootlaces. Wake, they repeat, floating the boy-bundle over the edge, pushing down as serpentine shadows writhe up.
Aitch flails, spasms shaking his body so ferociously the bottle quakes. He throws his head violently back, forward, back, smashing it again and again to rid it of the voice—that soul-rending voice!—still slicing through his sleep-fevered mind, still pulsating through his heart.
The jar pitches as he pounds his spine against its walls, as he huffs and grunts, using shoulders and arms and ribs and skull, his only weapons, his only tools. Thrashing and rocking, building momentum, leaning into it, tipping. An audible crack as glass meets floorboards, but it’s merely a weakening, not a break, not a shatter. Brine sloshes and for a moment he’s submerged, he’s back in the nightmare, he’s drowning. As Aitch gasps, sputters, sucks in salty gutfuls, instinct takes over. He contorts his torso, flexes, and flips. Mother’s talisman finds its way into his mouth; teeth clenched, he concentrates, holds his breath. Focuses on rotating, revolving, building up speed. Rolling, the bottle radiates great corkscrews of sound, faster and faster, like a fisherman’s copper coin spinning on the docks. Faster and faster across the planks, light refracting, a dizzying kaleidoscope of water. Faster and faster, until it smashes to a stop.
Candles topple from the bookshelf; wax cylinders crash onto glass, encouraging the jar’s new split to widen. Bracing with his forearms, the boy heaves. A high-pitched whine as the structure around him weakens, pinging as it cracks. With a sharp squeal, the container shatters. The water level and jagged shards fall, slicing and stinging. Aitch weeps as blood courses into his limbs—and out of them.
Lurching onto all fours, he grinds the pads of his fingers into the bottle’s wreckage until the red trickle becomes a steady flow. Without pencil or paper, he has no other means by which to record the vibrant images flooding his vision, the instructions, the dark mariner’s pleas. The Aunts will want to know every foreign word, every primeval beat. He smears every note, every glyph, every incoherent medley, until his head is light, his hands raw.
Taking a step back, Aitch considers what he’s made.
The Aunts are going to love it, he thinks. Hope and pride turn him toward the door, take him by the hand. Whispering the Aunts are going to love you, they lead him into the corridor, push him at the spiral stairs. Convince him to go and get them.
Alone outside the lighthouse’s lantern room, Aitch’s hands throb while his nerve shudders and dies.
Gas flames burn low within caged sconces, barely illuminating the narrow hallway. The ceiling is shadow-cloaked, held aloft by cobwebs and century-old beams. Darkness runs its fingers along Aitch’s bare back, tickling the nape of his neck. It ushers him across the short landing at the top of the stairs. He’d been so brave below, an artist drunk on revelation. Now he hesitates, facing a set of double doors that rattle as though desperate to break away from the jambs. Light pulsates out of two small circular windows centered at head-height, harsh yellow-white beams piercing the corridor, then fading. In the strange between-glow, Aitch feels exposed. He’s not brave at all. Not special. Just a barefoot boy in his smallclothes, dripping blood and fear.
Up here the chant is chilling, louder than ever, underscored by a wild howl.
On tiptoe, Aitch approaches. He peers through the left-hand opening, flinching each time the lantern turns its glaring irises his way. Inside the round chamber is strobed, observed in snatches. Polished timber counters ringing the central lamp, strewn with parchments, maps, rulers and compasses. Leather volumes stacked on a trestle table, on ledges, on the floor. Dozens of specimen jars, labeled and lidded. A hard bench on the right, a pillow and grey wool blanket folded at one end. Too many cylinders for Aitch to count: telescopes on tripods; brass spyglasses; plinths topped with crude wooden idols; fat pillar candles, flames full and guttering. All around, from floor to vaulted ceiling, Aitch’s drawings are pasted in indecipherable patterns on the grand windows. The pages whip and curl in the gale; now black holes in the night, now constellations.
To the left, the room’s easternmost glass is missing; its salt-rimed casement admits a fierce wailing. Framed in the gap, the Aunts sway. Starkly illuminated for a few blinding seconds, then silhouetted against the waning moon. Hair unbound, long tendrils undulating, storm-tossed. Aitch gasps, glimpsing the robes fluttering from their shoulders like wings. He’s sure, he remembers, the silken sheen of that fabric, the way it shimmers on a starlit May-Eve . . .
“Mother?” he whispers, though he knows she’s not there. Not now, not ever. The lamp spins and Aitch blinks a second too late. When sight returns, the Aunts have shifted position; they’re performing an irregular dance, their song changed to suit, lyrics guttural as a seal’s bark. As they step back, the bottom ledge of the window is revealed: a plank juts like a parched tongue from the lighthouse’s side. A hemp rope is firmly fastened around the board’s outermost end. Spilling into the chamber, it forms an immense snake-nest on the floor, spooling and coiling, eventually attached to the vessel lying at the Aunts’ feet.
Unlike its precursors, the eighth jar is not cylindrical, nor is it pure glass.
Six-sided, it is not flat-bottomed but pointed and arrow-tipped. Its facets are smooth and oblong, smoked mirrors chased with lead; each pane absorbs more light than it reflects. Aitch whimpers. He has seen its like before in the Aunts’ books—but not on this scale, not for this purpose.
It is a fishing plummet.
And he is to be the weight.
An hour, at best, before the Aunts cease their invocations and find Aitch gone.
The sea is in turmoil as he flees. Legs pumping, he prays they didn’t hear the slap of his feet on the lighthouse stairs. The screech of the ground-level door opening, the thundering clang of it swinging shut. Breakers crash against the headland, spray soaking the pebbled path to the wharves, washing away the crimson trail spattered behind him. He looks down, always down, unsure which is more frightening: the ocean roaring, wild and vicious, or the roiling, boundless cloud-sea. The lighthouse, forever watching.
No matter how far he runs, Aitch feels the Aunts’ glare from above. At first their song keeps pace with his flight, but soon it outruns him. Picked up by many voices, the strange chorus is repeated, reverberating from reef to village and back. It surrounds Aitch as he sprints, urging him on, to break free—
I have, he wants to scream, but foul air burns his lungs, reeking of clams and grave-soil and rot. You are not a bird, he hears the Aunts say, clicking their tongues. You are not built for flying, but for swimming . . .
Whistling on the docks, a scattering of oil lamps flare to life. It is early yet for fishing, Aitch thinks, but takes some comfort in the men’s presence. The assured way they handle both oars and fire, rowing out to join their mates on the reef. Taking only their nets. Wearing flippers.
I’ll sail with them, Aitch thinks. They’ll take me away, back to the train, back to Mother . . .
“Help,” he breathes, dashing past stalls battened for the night. Too quiet, he tries again. Pitches his voice to out-sing the Aunts. “Help me!”
Clunking across weathered boards, he aims for the one berth he clearly remembers. An old sea-dog, an oyster, a puff of steam beard. “Captain Southwark,” he cries, startling a sharp-beaked carrion crow. The brig is moored midway down the jetty, a small fleet of rowboats ready at its stern. Under a tarp at the foot of its gangplank, a grizzled guard snoozes in a whiskey fug. Aitch thunders past him, halfway up the footbridge. Safety, he’s sure, awaits him on this ship. Fair passage, wind-bellied sails. The swiftest—the only—way home. “Captain—”
“Muffle it, swain. That screech of yers is fit to wake the dead. And far as I know, I en’t there yet.”
Aitch stops. Turns. Slowly descends and approaches the man emerging from under the mold-spotted canvas. “Captain Southwark?”
“Heard ye the first time, mate.” The old man stands and belches, then reaches up under his sweater to scratch his big belly. Plugging one nostril at a time, he leans over the railing and snorts into the water. Ablutions done, he pinches the bridge of his nose and speaks into his cupped hand. “What ye hollering for?”
For a minute, Aitch jibbers about tentacles and boy-weighted plummets and voices rising from the deeps. “The Aunts—”
“Always does things too fancy,” Southwark says. Clapping Aitch on the shoulder, his gaze drops to the talisman hanging round the boy’s neck. Thick, callused fingers inspect the leather pouch, then pat it gently against Aitch’s chest. “It’s their way or no way . . .Ye ken me, don’t ye?”
Aitch nods, relieved.
“Told them, didn’t I, to keep it simple. But those women . . . ” Southwark pauses, slants an eyebrow. “They’s got a different take on simple, don’t they just?”
Aitch’s cheeks tighten and twitch, caught somewhere between a sob and a smile. “Can you take me home? Please?”
“‘Bout time someone did.”
Grinning now, really grinning, Aitch makes for the brigantine, but again the captain stops him short. “Crew’s reveling,” he explains, steering the boy toward the last rowboat, guiding him under the railing and over the gunwale. “I’ll take care of yer me own self, won’t I.”
“Hurry,” Aitch says.
For a man of his bulk, Southwark is light on his feet. The dory hardly rocks as he boards; despite the choppy water, his stroke is smooth, their progress swift. Within moments the shoreline has fallen away, the wharves, the gold-littered reef. Southwark tilts his cap at the shadows chanting there, then puckers the billows around his mouth and begins trilling, picking up their funereal beat.
An icicle forms at the base of Aitch’s heart, stabs into his stomach. “I don’t know the direction,” he says, leaving bloody palm-prints on the crossbench. He looks back at the headland as the boat shoots past the breakwater. The lighthouse searches, searches, but he’s gone. He’s out of reach. Turning back to the old man he asks, “Is it far?”
Southwark glances up at the moon, gauging distance by the few visible stars.
“Fathoms,” he replies, locking oars.
With practiced ease, he pins Aitch with one hand, grabs the anchor with the other. A flick of the wrist and the sink-rope whirrs round the boy’s ankles. “This business don’t have to be hard, son,” he says, upending Aitch easily as emptying a pail of chum. Throwing him overboard. Aiming the weight at his surfacing head, tossing it. “See?”
Fluid hymns sing Aitch down, down, further down.
Limbs numb, ankles bent out of shape, arms waving ten little cylinders in front of his face. He grabs the leather tube strung around his neck, tears it open, wrings. His caul oozes out, unfurls, and is swept away by strong undercurrents.
Mother, he quails, voiceless. I’m drowning.
Tessellations spark around him as he exhales. Neon alphabets, pink and purple and green. Luminescent pictograms of algae. Jellyfish punctuation, bright tremulous sentences felt as fin-flutters. Paragraphs sketched in krill, tiny oxygen explosions. Entire stories swimming in syllables of elder seas.
All ushering him down towards—what? He can’t say.
All communicating things he can’t understand.
Aitch is not special.
He’s just a half-finished thought, sinking into the abyss. He’s an initial, merely one of the first. Many others—he’s sure, he foresees—will be thrown in as bait after him. On and on, until—when?
Soon, the Aunts would say, meaning, possibly, forever.
Meaning, We don’t know either.
At last, Aitch inhales.
A tentacle emerges from the darkness, latches on. Squeezes him for dear life.
Originally published in The Mammoth Book of Cthulhu, edited by Paula Guran.