Shuddersome Shorts

Tales of Eerie Terror

#40



Grief can be a powerful force, but for a University professor, will it prove irresistible...?

 
 

The Dead Are Lonesome

By D.K. Latta
About the author


"T'e dayd, b'y. T'e dayd."

"The dead?" I echoed, mentally deciphering his maritime Canada brogue. "What about them?"

He stared at me silently, mud-coloured eyes pushing forward against the folds of his lids, stringy white hair twisting about his head. He glanced quickly back toward the ocean, then at me again. "T'ey some lonesome, eh? T'ain't quite contented wit what t'ey got."

I looked to where the water lapped lazily at the Nova Scotia shore, smelling the scent of salt and fish and seaweed and something else that was more elusive. Feeling the breeze and its suggestion of coming winter deeper than I'd have fancied, I tucked my hands into the comforting pockets of my overcoat.

He was an old man, though not as old as I had first thought. With his black coat and wool cap and furrowed flesh he was the perfect picture of a seafaring man. At least the husk of one. He didn't strike me as a drunkard -- there being no tattle tale fragrance clinging to his words, and his eyes were clear if unsteady. A troubled man, perhaps, but a sober one. I had spotted him seated among the wet pebbles along the shore, staring out at nothing, at everything, and approached. Professional curiosity I guess.

I'd asked him why he was here and his cryptic remark had been his response.

"They make do," I told him after a moment, quietly. "The dead, I mean. We all make do, not having many options in the matter, and I suppose the dead have fewer than most." I tried to smile but found it wouldn't come. It was the cold, I told myself, that made my lips rigid, my cheeks unyielding. Nothing more.

He scratched at his stubbly chin and mumbled something.

"What's that?" I asked.

"T'ey ain't happy," he said firmly and backed away a step. Then he turned and walked back to stand at the very brink of the water.

I shrugged and, taking that as a close to the conversation, trudged across the shifting pebbles, past the rotted carcass of an old dock high up on the shore, until I met the road. I entered the little clapboard shop that was the last outpost of civilization before the no-man's land of the beach. A strange image, I know. Flannery Road terminated not more than a few dozen meters from the water, and if you could not quite throw a stone the distance, neither would it fall short by much. Yet it was the very briefness of the stretch that made it so desolate. Just a kilometer away, hidden behind a slight hill, the main harbour was choked with fishing craft. I wondered why then, in a town of fisher folk, would this piece of shore not be home to a boat or two as well, a broken down dory at the very least?

"Dr. Svobokan." Mary Green-Bricks smiled from across the counter as I came in, her plump arms emerging from a red checkered shirt. Her true name was MacDonald but she was dubbed Green-Bricks after a moldy tinge marking the south side of her house. There were more than a dozen Mary MacDonalds in town, most only distantly related, and they had to be distinguished somehow.

I nodded at her as I trod the hard wood, worn smooth from years of traffic. The little general store smelled thickly of wood and age, but a pleasant age; comfortable. And behind it all, lurking, was the tangy scent of the Atlantic.

"You're up early," Mary said. "First customer of the morning."

I glanced at a wrinkled old man leaning against the counter, a deer-stalker covering his head.

"Gus isn't much of a customer," she remarked wryly.

"Eh?" he said, placid eyes cloudy like an overcast sky. "What's t'at?"

"I was saying to Dr. Svobokan," she blared, "that you ain't much of a customer."

"What? Doctor? Who's t'at?"

She jabbed a finger at me. "Dr. Svobokan there."

"Sv -- Svo -- what? What sort o' a name is t'at, eh? Who's his fahder?" he queried in that standard small town way, as if everyone should be known to you, at least by their relations.

"Dr. Svobokan's from away, Gus," Mary explained patiently. She smiled at me. "Old Gus has been to sea all his life, the gales roaring in his ears. 'Bout all he hears these days, I guess...the wind." She looked at the old fellow kindly.

"You be a doctor t'en, b'y," asked Gus, his lips like an old rag caving in toward his throat. "H'ain't a doctor in town since t'at Chinese fellah moved west-"

"I'm not a medical doctor."

"What's t'at?"

"I'm not a doctor-doctor," I enunciated. "I'm a social-anthropologist." He stared at me blankly.

"You study people, right, Doc?" interjected Mary helpfully.

"That's right," I said. Then louder: "That's right! Cultures, folklore, that sort of stuff."

"Come to write a paper on our little ways for your University back there in On-tar-i-o," she mocked good-naturedly.

I shook my head. "I'm on-" I stopped, wondering for a moment why I was here, what it was supposed to accomplish. Then, before she could register the hesitation, I finished, "-on holiday."

"Mary Split-Tree says you've been grilling her about her family history."

"Call it a busman's holiday, then. If someone has an interesting story to tell, I can't help listening." Which is better than listening to yourself, I thought. I gestured with my thumb toward the door. "I saw an old fellow out there I thought might have a couple of colourful tales to spin, but he-"

"Out where?" Mary asked pleasantly.

"By the water."

Her smile vanished.

"Do you know him?" I asked.

She glanced at Gus who, though oblivious to the words, seemed to have sensed the change in the air. "No." She shook her head for emphasis and looked away. "No, I don't suppose I do."

I could hardly credit in a town this size her not knowing everyone, particularly the local eccentric. "An older man?" I pressed. "Just sitting on the beach like he was waiting for the tide to come and carry him away."

"No one goes down that way, Doc," she said quietly, thoroughly absorbed by a splinter on the counter. "The road stops where it stops and no one sees much reason to carry on past it."

"Surely boats are launched from there-"

"Currents from all over meet out there, dragging flotsam from north and south. It's treacherous. The water's just no good for boats."

"There's what's left of a dock."

She twisted the splinter free and flicked it away. After a moment, she looked up. "That was built long ago, before people knew-" She stopped.

"Knew what?"

She shook her head. "Like I said, no one goes down there."

"The fellow I spoke to did."

"Well, maybe I do know him, know his type at least. Not from town though, not usually. Maybe he's just someone you should be wary of."

I nodded slowly and said, "I'll try and remember that." I left without making a purchase. Outside, I glanced toward the ocean, but the old man was gone.

* * *

Ranjit's voice crackled through the receiver. "How's the salt air?"

"Fine," I told him, sitting upon the quilt bedcover in my room at the Bed & Breakfast. "Cool, but nice. The town's nice too."

"I don't even know how you found the place, or why. Talk about the hind end of nowhere."

"I'd heard good things about it," I lied. In truth, once I had decided to voluntarily take time off, rather than be ordered, I headed east. I drove for three or four nights until roads, and dry land itself, disappeared. Then I found a town, and a room.

The line was still for a moment as my colleague, my friend, sought some new topic of conversation, something else with which to push aside the silence. There was a tenseness in his voice and in the awkward, too casual questions he asked. A caution as he sought to probe a scar without actually tearing it open. Not that some wounds ever heal.

I could picture him, as if sitting across from me. Picture his skinny legs with the cardigan socks that never hung right stretched across his paper strewn desk. Picture him shifting the phone nervously from shoulder to shoulder. Finally, he asked the obvious. "How are you?"

"Fine."

"No, I mean it: how are you?"

I dragged my fingers through my hair, not wanting this conversation, knowing it was unavoidable. "I'm getting lots of interesting stuff. Might even have enough for a book."

"You're supposed to be on holiday. That was the idea, remember?"

"No, that was your idea."

Silence.

"You were the one who told me to get away. Said I needed time off. You were-"

"All right," he interrupted, wearily. "But you should have seen yourself. You weren't...well. You haven't been for three months."

A flash in my mind's eye. An oval face, dark hair flowing upward, upward, as she sinks. I try to grab-

"And then splitting up with Katherine like that. I know it's hard on a couple when they lose a child-"

"We needed time apart," I told him, wanting to hang up, wanting to tell him to mind his own damn business. "It was better that way, too many recriminations."

"No one blames you but you."

"Has Katherine called then?"

Again, silence traveled to me from some fifteen hundred kilometers away. "Uh, no. But I'm sure she just wants you to make the first move."

"Sure."

"You don't sound good," he announced suddenly.

"Regretting telling me to get away?"

After a moment, he said, "You tell me."

* * *

Mini-cassette recorder in one pocket, pad of yellow legal paper in the other, two pens and a freshly sharpened pencil distributed about, I returned the next day to the beach. The old man was seated upon the shore, knees up, arms draped across them, staring out at the foam flecked waves. I settled down beside him, but he seemed not to notice. Following his gaze, I stared mutely at a trio of seagulls over the water, rolling and flipping through the air, their forlorn cries reaching us faintly.

"Fished t'e seas," he said suddenly, his voice hoarse, eyes still fixed upon the waves. "Fished t'e seas -- man an' b'y -- for forty-nine years. A long time, my son. Had some right good times, I c'n tell you. My missus sailed wit me often. A good woman she was." He dragged off his cap, looked at it in his hands for a moment, then placed it back on his balding head. His gaze returned to the horizon. "Our boat was t'e Anna Marie, named for my grandmot'er. A sturdy old girl, t'at boat had lived t'rough more rough seas t'en I care to remember. But everyt'ing has its time, my son. T'e Anna Marie's time was one October night, blacker t'en t'e insides of a fish's belly. And cold. Sweet Jeezus was she whipping some cold t'at night. I don't know rightly what we hit, sometimes you never do. You just feel her give a bump and a groan an' you know. In your heart, you know." He stopped there for a moment, his eyes darting across the water, as if he thought he'd seen something. Then he continued. "Barry Walsh an' his brot'er Andy started freein' t'e dory when t'e Anna Marie gave a terrific list an' bot' boys pitched over. T'ey called out, but it was too dark to see where to t'row a line, an' too cold an' wavy for 'em to be callin' long. So it was just me an' my missus an' I took her hand in mine an' I said, 'Woman, I won't let go o' ya. God as my witness, I won't let go o' ya an' we'll see it t'rough.' I knew it didn't matter much, we being a couple o' miles from shore, and the wind like it was, I figured we were both goners. But I held her hand, tight. T'en t'e Anna Marie just gave up all she had an' kinda collapsed in on herself an' we was t'rown over. I landed in t'e dory which had somehow come loose. I don't know where my missus went. In bein' t'rown, I'd lost my grip on her hand." His voice trembling just a little, he said, "I called, 'Woman! Woman where are you?' and I t'ink I heard her call my name, just once, but I don't know." His eyes fell to the pebbles at his feet. "T'e coast guard found me in t'e morning. Just me."

His story stabbing deeper than he could possibly realize, I said nothing.

"Aye," he continued, and I realized he was, for the first time, staring at me. "You know what I'm talkin' about, don't ya? I could see it in your eyes yesterday. T'at's why you're here. Like me. Waitin'."

I looked at him for a long moment, smelling the salt and that other scent, the one I couldn't place. "Waiting for what?"

"T'e dayd, b'y. T'e dayd."

I looked at the water that no boats plied, the beach that no villagers walked, and I knew this was why I had come looking for him. Folklore. The stories, the myths of a people. The fears. I didn't know what he thought I'd come for, there being no way he could know my profession, but it didn't matter. I knew why I was here. "Why does no one come to this beach?"

"Scared."

"Of what? The, uh, dead?"

"Maybe," he conceded. "Maybe t'ey're scared o' t'emselves just a little bit too. It's a dark, fearsome place at night, my son, when t'e wind howls like a dying animal, and t'e temperature drops, and t'e smell wraps itself around everyt'ing-"

"The smell?"

"-and t'e dayd come, in bits and pieces, lookin' fer t'ose what loved 'em, an' love 'em still."

A ghost story, then, I realized. I'd heard a hundred similar tales, but I shuddered nonetheless. "And when do they come? The dead?" Strangely, my tape recorder, my pad, were left unremembered in my pockets.

"T'e moon's full, so I figure it'll be soon, eh? I heard how t'ey come wit' t'e moon. Weren't last night, t'ough I waited. Tonight, maybe."

"Heard from who?"

He grinned, showing ill-matched teeth. He shook his head. "It ain't a secret from t'ose what lives around here, b'y." He squinted at me. "You'll come."

I stiffened. "Maybe," I said, not sure if I would. My speciality was recording beliefs, not debunking them.

"You'll come," he said confidently.

* * *

My footsteps sounded oddly as I walked past Mary MacDonald's store, and then cut off abruptly as I stopped where the road ended. It was almost midnight and, though I had a flashlight in my pocket, the moon sprayed the earth with enough of a vaporous glow that it wasn't really needed. I had spent the better part of the evening wrestling with different emotions, listening to CBC Radio, reading an old paperback, and talking myself out of this very thing.

I set one foot upon the beach. Then another.

What the old man did with his time, what fantasies he entertained, were nothing to me. The fact that he believed, the fact that the town's folk gave this unremarkable strip of land a wide berth, was the only matter of consequence. I could write a paper and be done with it.

The pebbles crunched beneath my shoes.

But why the old man? What set him apart? Why, to use his words, were others scared to come, and not he? What did he hope to find and what comfort could he extract from this dark dream of ghosts and walking dead? Had it something to do with his tale of the last voyage of the Anna Marie and his letting slip the hand of his wife? This then, I convinced myself, was why I was here. Folklore is not just the stories people tell, but the why of the telling.

The tide having claimed some of the beach, I stopped near the rotted old dock and pressed my arms tight to my body. It was damnably cold, the wind howling as it whipped about me, tearing at the flaps of my coat, chilling my cheeks, and throwing the ocean's smells at me. The ocean's stenches, more like. I knew the scent of salt and seaweed and the odour of fish, but there was something else, something more pungent than it had been earlier. I could almost place the smell, but not quite.

Overhead, the watery eye of the moon stared down, like a marble, cold, distant, bathing the beach in a washed-out imitation of light. Strangely, in the open, it seemed darker than it had in the streets of the little town. My teeth clattered as I glanced about. Perhaps I was late, perhaps I had missed him.

"Aye, b'y, I knew you'd come."

I started, then watched as a dark blob pulled itself free from the greater mass of the dock. He waved me over. Disconcerted, I approached.

"You come just as I come," he said, the faint light suggesting a grin to his lips.

"Whatever you say," I told him, then gestured about us. "Uh, where...?"

"Won't be long." He gripped my arm painfully with strong fingers and nodded. "Won't be long at all."

I shook his hand off, suddenly angry that I'd come, angry with him, with myself. Suddenly it seemed so stupid. "They'd better hurry."

He looked a little crestfallen at the speaking of those words. "T'ey'll be here, my son, you know t'ey will."

"Do I?"

He nodded, firmly, then jabbed his chest with a thumb. "In here, you know."

I looked away. The wind screamed so loudly that I covered my ears with my hands, wishing I had gloves. Perhaps that was why his next words came to me as a muffled grumble. "What?" Before I could turn, his hand was on my arm, yanking me around. He pointed at the rolling waves.

"T'ere, b'y. Sweet Jeezus, t'ere!"

In the mixture of oil black waves, white-laced crests and moonlight the colour of boiled pork, I could make out something. The water churned, as though the current were swirling about submerged stones. But there had been no stones a moment before. Water spouted up, as if air bubbles from the bottom were breaking free. The wind rose to a maniacal shriek, screaming a protest of some unimagined violation. The old man's fingers dug into my sleeve and I felt my knees lock, as in a dream.

Something breached the water's breast, then another and another. Black bumps in black water, moving inland, rising as they came, becoming ovals perched atop shapes. Shapes that rose out of the water, arms swaying at sides; shapes that could hardly be taken for anything but the forms of human beings. Scores marched onto the shore in shuffling, staggering steps, and still more rose up behind. I could not make them out clearly, not in the tepid moon glow, but I could smell them, and now I knew the odour that plagued this stretch of beach. It was the stench of meat gone bad!

The dark shapes stumbled toward the old man and I, whispered groans or mumbles mixing with the wind and the crashing waves. He pushed away from me and started forward, his steps faltering. I made to grab him but already he was beyond my reach. The things that had risen flowed around him, seeming uninterested in the man as they moved erratically, as if unsure where to go or even why. Then I watched in horror as one of the shapes moved toward him, a macabre purpose to its step.

He saw it and stopped. "Juh-Jeannie?" he gasped.

The thing, strings of what might have been hair dangling from her head, let out a moan like wind escaping a cavern. She reached out and he let her touch him. She began pulling weakly but insistently, pulling him toward the water and the chilly depths. He did not resist. Others of the dark things came to her aid, clutching at him, guiding him. I felt my throat constrict and a knot twist my bowels. I wanted to scream out, but it would not come.

Then I saw him struggle, just as one booted foot plunged into icy water. He batted at the thing, at her comrades, and pulled free, they being too weak to offer any real argument. He backed away. "Forgive me, woman," he screamed. "Forgive me, I can't." He stumbled past me, eyes wide. "Forgive me!" I lost sight of him as he ran back toward town.

Then I returned my attention to the dark, human shapes wandering about, murmuring, bumping into one another. They seemed uninterested in me, and I remembered his words: 'Looking for those that loved them, and love them still.' I meant nothing to them because they meant nothing to me. I watched, my numb horror subsiding slightly as they slowly turned about, returning to their watery home.

One of them caught my eye. Though too dark to be sure, I somehow knew she was looking at me. Yes, she. One of the smaller ones; a child. I took an automatic step forward, then stopped. I backed away, watching her, watching that dark shape. Then I turned and ran toward the old road.

* * *

I wonder if there are other coastal towns with an empty strip of beach, where currents from distant places meet. And I wonder where do those who die in plane crashes go walking? And automobile accidents? Where there's a town of nervous people and a place best avoided, I suppose -- a farmer's field left unfurrowed, a road down which no local will drive.

It's almost midnight again and I'm preparing to set out. I have to know, you see, to be sure. If it's not her, as I'm sure it's not, then that's fine. If it is, well, I'll know that too and then I'll come home again.

I know their loneliness and why they come, what they want from us, from those who breathe still. But we don't have to go with them. The old man didn't and neither will I, no matter how much one loves or wants or misses.

As long as one has the will to continue, they can't drag you away.

* * *

To: J. Anderson, Vice-Principal, Dept. Sociology
From: Professor Ranjit Shankar
Re: Disappearance of Dr. Svobokan
Have arrived coast and met with local R.C.M.P. Will notify any developments.

The End




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The Dead Are Lonesome is copyright D.K. Latta. It may not be copied or used for any commercial purpose except for short excerpts used for reviews. (Obviously, you can copy it or print it out if you want to read it!)