Estimated reading time — 17 minutes
It began with the disappearance of Edwin Huntington, a pimply, bookish boy, whose only notable feature, if gossip held true, was his last name. He was sixteen years old and until that day showed no promise in any ventures, commercial or academic, even despite the plentiful assistance from his own family. But that really is quite enough to go on about the boy. You see, the Huntington family ruled over Dimwater. Whatever they pleased to have or wished to be, their swollen wallets made it so. And that is merely a statement of fact rather than a dim-witted judgment, for the Huntingtons have improved our sleepy, harbor town in ways beyond count or measure. So it follows, when I was summoned – and of course I was summoned. There is no greater detective for miles in any direction – I came running.
A week had passed since Edwin was last seen. Neither his parents Regis and Clara, nor his brothers Laurence and Kenneth had talked to him at the time. It was a servant boy that spotted Edwin. The two were kindred spirits, solitary and tight-lipped, due to which they never communicated beyond a subtle nod or curt smile. One such nod was shared that fateful night, after which Edwin was never seen again. The servant boy couldn’t remember what the young Huntington was wearing or where he was off to. Now that he thought about it, he couldn’t remember anything useful at all. It was rainy. The wind was in the trees. He had eaten a slice of brown bread. There was mold on the crust. Yet, as it pertained to Edwin, he could think of nothing.
Once at Huntington Manor, I was escorted to the boy’s room by his mother Clara. Even in the autumn of her years, she was a stunning woman with ruby lips as full as her bosom, which was quite full indeed. Already I had taken several ganders. It was neither the time nor place for such thoughts, and I being a gentleman did not want to conduct myself improperly. However, rumors had reached my ears about the loveless nature of the Huntingtons’ relationship, and I had only just lost my wife to illness four months prior. Clara was alone in her marriage, and I was alone without my own. Though I suppose we are each alone in our own manner, so the matter was neither here nor there.
As we progressed through the sprawling estate, whose halls were surprisingly dim and dusty, Clara shared all significant details of her youngest and least favorite child. There wasn’t much. That is he did say something of a lighthouse guiding him to safe shores, and the call of women in the sea. But the darling Clara dismissed it as the melodramatic ravings of a sexually frustrated boy, who, unlike his brothers, had never learned the importance of duty or responsibility. This was a rebellion, and some deluded dream of sexual exploration. No doubt, she said, he was off somewhere with his nose up some tavern girl’s skirts. The idea was not entirely improbable or unpleasant.
Yet, as if in the same breath, Clara recalled how Edwin was a pious boy whose only friend was God himself. Most nights he lay awake for hours praying and reading of the lord’s mysteries. Once, perhaps a year ago (or was it two?), they sent him to the Dimwater library to study their collection of religious texts. He returned home with a veritable tower of books. Since then, they assumed, though surely they had never asked, he was in the process of reading through the vast hoard.
Thus, I had a confused image of the missing boy. According to his mother, Edwin was a devout Christian and a sexually frustrated fiend in the midst of rebellion. An odd description, though not so uncommon as you would think, even among the clergy.
Edwin’s room was bare but for the heaps of books that crowded his desk. White walls, fogged windows, and films of dust. That was the lonesome dwelling he called home. The large, vacuous chamber was also situated far and away from the rest of the manor’s inhabitants. I supposed the boy felt abandoned and outcast. Judging by the thickness of the dust, even the cleaners didn’t pass that way.
Centered on the desk, next to a rusted inkwell, was a leather-bound book. “Ah…his diary,” Clara said with a dismissive wave of her hand. She must have seen him with it before.
“Have you read it?” I asked.
“No. I am afraid I didn’t bother,” she said. She batted her eyelashes at me. “I presumed to leave that to the professional.” And leave she did. It seemed her curiosity and concern were muted at best. If this was how Edwin’s parents related to him, I felt for the boy.
To her credit, however, the boy’s diary was a sleep-inducing stream of melodramatic drivel. “Dimwater is a prison,” the first page read. “There is no more company in Huntington Manor than at the bay before the boundless, salted sea. I have no companion, no lover. No hand to hold, no arms to embrace. Every day passes empty and quiet.”
I pocketed the journal. Sooner or later I would have to read the diary in its entirety, but I was not currently in the mood to read someone else’s troubles. I had my own. Reading about another’s problems didn’t distract from my own. Rather, I felt them double in weight.
No. A better distraction was the looming wall of literature Edwin had amassed in his dusky chamber. To my surprise, only a few of the books pertained to religion, and what religion it was I could not say. The entire collection was a trove of occult wisdom. I remember such titles as “Morello’s History of the Supernatural,” “The Veiled Ladies Beyond,” and “The Daemon’s Grimoire.” In all the margins, Edwin had scrawled frantic notes, arcane symbols, and images of bulging eyes behind stretched skulls. More by chance than intention, I scanned some of the words written in those dusty tomes and felt shivers roil in my spine.
Then, in that cold, isolated chamber, I heard a voice. A woman’s voice. “Are you alone?” it said. “I can fix that.” The voice was clear and quiet as though whispered just behind me. Yet, it echoed as well, as if sounding from some far off place beyond reach or sight.
“Clara?” I said, whirling around. “Lady Huntington?” But there was no one there.
I chuckled to myself. It was a noticeably nervous chuckle, if anyone was there to notice that is. My mind was playing tricks on me. It yearned for company and crafted its own. Nothing more. Nothing less.
Speaking of which, I wondered where the young Edwin had chosen to find company. At the time, I still entertained Mrs. Huntington’s theory that the boy had run in search of peasants’ skirts. All this occult nonsense was troubling, though most probably nothing more than an obsessive pastime.
Given the maritime references, I could only presume the boy’s desires brought him by the sea. Specifically, he had mentioned a lighthouse, of which there was only one in Dimwater. A pathetic structure it was, standing a pitiful five meters atop a scraggly hill beaten to bedrock by the murky waves. At such a height, it could scarcely call a boat safe to shore, let alone a pubescent boy equally lacking in sense and sex. Besides, it is common knowledge that a lighthouse is no place for a female. While a boy might revel in the pleasures of booze and salt-soaked labor, there is nothing there to attract the gentler sex as it were. It may even be considered dangerous as a young lady to fraternize with such rugged folk, those drunken keepers of the light.
That is all to say I had little hope finding my missing person among our own folk. Edwin had departed Dimwater to see what else the world could offer. After all, he had mentioned “women in the sea.” Women plural. The poor wretch did not even have a specific girl to fix his loathsome eyes upon. “In” was a peculiar choice of preposition, though not peculiar enough to occupy considerable real-estate in my head. But I digress. The investigation led inevitably to the docks, where someone must have seen or known what became of the Huntington boy.
Indeed, it did not take long to track down the boy’s trail. The harbor was a vacuous assemblage of eroded planks and barnacle-encrusted sailboats. A stench of rotten fish pervaded the air, though it had lost its vigor. Nothing more than a memory at that point, and an unpleasant one at that. Though, I was glad to sense some substance, good or bad, in an otherwise empty environment.
Almost without notice, the fishing industry had died in Dimwater. I remember running down the docks as a boy, sifting through the day’s catches, curious to find the most freakish of creations the ocean had to offer. And then as a man, watching the ships set to sea with my dearly departed. Already I could scarcely recall the sweetness of her voice and the softness of her lips. Perhaps she was just a dream I had dreamt on my own.
In a hut by one of the only boats in port, I found a pair of men toking on a pipe. Their teeth were few and yellow, and one had a crazed look in his eyes as though age had begun to addle his mind. I could scarcely say he was present in the room. The other man, a weathered fellow with a bushy beard was aware enough at least to acknowledge me with a nod of his head.
“I am looking for someone. A boy,” I said.
“Aye. The Huntington welp,” the bearded man said. “Figured someone would come by.” He took a long drag of his pipe and coughed up a puff of blackish smoke.
“You’ve seen him?” I said. He nodded. “Where is he?” The bearded sailor kicked his colleague to elicit a reaction, but to no avail. He was unresponsive.
With a grumble, the bearded sailor spoke in his stead. “He’s been like this ever since. The kid came looking for a boat to some island out in the sea. ‘There’s nothing out there,’ we told him. ‘Naught but the waves.’ But he waved around some money, so we saw no sense in arguing. Had some X marked on his map. Eddy took him out there.”
“Why did he want to go there? Did he mention some women?” I asked.
“That he did. But there wasn’t no women out there,” the sailor said. “Eddy came back claiming unseen things dragged the boat against the current. Silhouettes roiled in the deep, storm winds and fog blanketed the inky waters. There was the stench of bilge and bile.” Still silent, the other sailor started to tremble. His eyes darted up and down and around. He took one last toke of his pipe and bolted outside to breathe the foul, fishy air.
“What happened to the boy?” I asked.
“Believe it or not, there was an island out there. Just a flat patch of land amid the waves. But the boy babbled about ladies in the mist and a lighthouse.”
“A lighthouse?” It was just as Clara had said.
“Aye. He saw a lighthouse out there, but Eddy swears there was nothing. No houses or town or even a hut. But Eddy had no intention to see the island closer. Whatever lurked in those cursed waters wanted them to go there he said. Eddy pulled the boat back, but the boy. He goes out swimming. And that’s the last we saw of him.”
“So he’s still on this island?”
“Aye. If he hasn’t starved already. That was well near a week past. Damn near forgot about the boy myself. After what Eddy saw, we both tried to.”
By this point, I wanted to forget as well, but the Huntingtons paid to get their boy back. A seafarer’s story would not suffice. And if I am expressing the utmost sincerity, I will admit the strange undertakings had piqued my interest. I had heard stories of hermits and shut-ins, whose minds had turned to madness without care or company. But for someone of such youth and status to deteriorate like so… Perhaps Edwin had always been ill, and in his state of neglect, no one had noticed. Or perhaps there was something substantive to his desperate behavior. A woman worth drowning for? A home worth running from? Something…more?
Standing on the docks, I heard a whisper on the wind, one of the feminine variety. It was breathy and quiet, so only the most focused of ears could hear. Yet, it was of a caring and kind quality, the likes of which aroused undeniable desire and longing. It was a voice to lay down in, folded in arms warm and wanting, tight against a hot breast, motherly almost. All that was quite a lot to hear in an ethereal trick of the ears played by the ever-present breath of the sea. But the simplest of sounds plays on the tenderest of hearts. And so it was, I concluded Edwin was not entirely out of his mind.
“I need to see this island,” I told the sailor. His furry brow wrinkled.
“Not with me or Eddy you’re not,” he said. “If you go, you go alone.”
That was fair enough as fair goes. I would go alone as so often I did. Using the handsome advance given to me by the Huntington family, I bought a small ship and a map marked with Edwin’s island in mind. My father, a crabber, had taught me how to handle myself on the sea. He himself had vanished there one stormy Sunday, along with his crew. It was a fate that awaited most seafarers so long as they kept to the career. Nonetheless, he was gone enough as it was, so Mother had already grown accustomed to the widow’s life. And, on the point I was coming to, I had learned enough from the man to hold my own that day.
In my humblest of opinions, the sea is a lonesome expanse. Despite the words of poets and romantics, there is naught but water for miles in all directions. Once you drift far enough, it is all you see. No land or bird or beast. Just the surf and its mind-numbing babble. Men had lost themselves to less.
While the wind held steady and the course held firm, I took the time to read more of the boy’s diary. The shift from melodrama to madness was a subtle one, though not lacking in a logic of sorts. That is to say I sympathized with Edwin. I saw how the tense turnings of his isolated mind could twist into the beliefs there forming. It was a warning for me and for many how simply sanity could drift when left to wander astray.
In the first pages, I saw the ramblings of a boy bereft of love and a life worth living. Somewhere along the way, however, his writings turned for the stranger. “The more I pore over the tomes of old,” he wrote, “The more the veils of reality peel back. Unseen paths and hidden beacons point the way to the Ladies of the Mist in whose embrace no longer will I feel so.” A fog rolled in, but the ship was steady for a time. I read further. Something prickled inside me. “A form is shaping of something higher, but my eyes are not enlightened enough to open. Whispers I hear from beyond the seams that bind us, but there is more to learn before the way is free. And I will find it there, where the lighthouse beckons.”
Something shifted inside me, something that can only be described by means of comparison rather than by language itself. It was like skin peeling from weathered limbs. I was breaking free from a shell I never knew I had. Something in the sensation sparked pleasure, but it was washed away swiftly by a rush of fear.
It was not only me that changed, but the waters as well. The sky had darkened and the waves were tossed. The puny boat that I had purchased bowed against the frothing waves. At once, I felt so small and insignificant amid that great and powerful ocean, helpless even. Yet, I could not turn back, for beyond the curtains of fog I spied an island. I prayed only that my puny vessel could carry me to shore.
As if in irritated reply to my prayers, something jostled the boat. And I do mean something because I could not think of any specific terminology to describe what I saw beneath the waves. They were shadows of a formless sort, a displacement of light without body or weight, silhouettes as the sailor had described. What matterless beings they were that lurked in the depths I could not ponder. They would not give me the time or breath. The creatures, whatever they were, knocked against my pathetic vessel. Borne atop the waves, they bashed into the hull, tipping it over with ease.
I feared for my life, not least because of the perilous sea. The inky black shapes circled around me with predatory intent, though I could see no jaws or fins or tail. I was as good as blind in a lion’s den waiting for the teeth to tear my flesh. Instead, however, I felt hands, gentle but firm, buoy me above the seafoam, pushing me as if in suggestion, though I doubt my choice was considered.
Carried like a child through the billowing fog, I saw a pearly structure bare its fiery head against the twilit sky. A lighthouse. At no less than a hundred meters tall, it was not the sort of building one could miss even at first glance. Also perplexing, as the silhouettes ferried me to safe shores, the island itself was approaching. I had little frame of reference to verify this was the case. Nonetheless, I was certain the island was calling me, and I calling it.
To my momentary relief, the formless shadows dropped me off on the island’s rocky coast. I say momentary because I realized there was no further means for me to return to Dimwater. Even if I found Edwin on the island, I could not hope to bring him home.
Moreover, I made the grave mistake of looking back. Where once I saw shadows wade through the sea, I saw then an ebony hand of gargantuan proportion slip below the surface. Bristly hairs lined its skeletal fingers, which were crooked and bent as if arthritic. I could not see what the appendage connected to, though the curiosity in itself was enough to stretch my skull.
Shaken to no end, I returned my attention to the lighthouse, whose lumbering height dominated the taciturn sky. The structure was composed of white, stone scales that curled in random degrees of concavity and convexity, giving the building the appearance of an unpredictable instability, for which reason an ambient, inescapable fear penetrated my bones.
Upon closer inspection, I noticed runes etched into the lighthouse’s surface. But they were not of any origin, ancient or otherwise, that I could recall. They encircled the bestial tyrant of a building from root to flaming tip. I could not say what for the builders covered their creation so painstakingly in that arcane language. Yet, I would learn nothing if I did not enter.
In place of a door, the lighthouse had a gaping maw lit sparsely by lantern fire. I proceeded with cautious and deliberate steps, uncertain what secrets lurked in the heart of that drifting patch of land. However, the entry chamber was remarkably nondescript. It was deceivingly small, though the boundless ceiling gave the sense of sinking beyond sight or memory. Lights shone from high above, but I could see no lift or stairs to lead to them. The only way open was a twisted stairwell that spiraled into the cold earth.
A girlish giggle sounded from below. As it resounded against the pallid stone walls, the noise deepened to a harsh growl. Against my best judgments, I followed the laughter down the sloped steps, which spiraled deeper into cramped halls and abandoned chambers. The path split once and twice, straying to impossible depths. A sickly, yellow light followed me there, casting vision on warped corridors, whose lacquered walls peeled at the seams.
In time, the way concluded on a forgotten room enveloped in mold and dust. At the far end of the chamber was a coarse slab of rock, and atop it an inkwell. I called for Edwin. I called for anyone. Yet, there was no reply. I was alone.
I approached the slab on which rested the well of ink. For the time being, it was the strongest hint of human occupancy I had come across. A coagulated crust covered the reservoir of ink, so I knew it had been some time since the substance’s use. In addition, I saw no papers anywhere near. Carved into the rocky surface, however, was a whole story like the Greek friezes of classical antiquity. The scenes showed a man with his back turned to a trio of women. Their faces were shrouded, and his was wrought with misery. The ladies reached out, and the man lifted his head to hear. Books surrounded him, and scrolls sat at his feet. He pored through them until each was open and unfurled. Only then did the man see the ladies and enter into their embrace.
Above the carving, though I had not seen it before, was a sequence of slanted sentences. I read them aloud even as my voice trembled in my throat. “Lonely eyes seek but cannot find. To their cries they harken and in literature learn. Enlightened then, the doors will open and worlds reveal, where never again will they lonesome feel.”
Dizzy-eyed, I peeled my sight from the carved slab. There upon the walls, where nothing before was seen, hasty words were smeared in ink. “My eyes are open. There is no way back.” I whirled around. Every surface was marked black in warning. “The worlds are open. Mine is shut.” And on the ceiling, “Alone I wish I was.”
Out of the corner of my eye, for a second so brief it might well have been a trick of the mind, I noticed a figure in the doorway. It watched me with unblinking eyes, pink and protruding like swollen pustules. The creature slipped away as soon as I turned. The last I saw of it were three gargantuan hands, which tenderly clung to the doorway with seven willowy nails.
No inch of my personage lacked in the overwhelming sensation of dread and horror that struck me then. My throat could not even mutter a word of distress before I backed myself into the corner. Cowering against those inked walls, whose despairing warnings had come far too late, I wondered what lurked in that lighthouse and when it might return. Due to the latter concern, I watched the door and waited for immeasurable amounts of time until courage surfaced from the unknown depths of my heart.
Ever so slowly I crept out of the chamber and into the hall. Small, curious creatures crawled across the walls. They resembled sea cucumbers of a deep, crimson hue with short tentacles at the end of their bodies. They used these slick appendages to pull themselves along and also, it appeared, to look around, for when I passed by, they bent towards me like flowers to the sun.
I followed the stairs back to the surface, every so often glancing behind me, painfully conscious that I was not alone in that arcane structure. While my feet raced to the freedom above, my mind searched into the shadows, conjuring images of that monster I had but briefly witnessed. So focused was I on that fearful thing that I forgot all about the Huntington boy, whose parents had entrusted me to find him.
And it was then I did find him. His body lay at the center of the entry chamber, stinking of rot. Those tentacled cucumber creatures dragged their fleshy bodies over his decaying mass and lapped up his coagulated blood. I knew then to near perfection what ills had befallen the poor boy. In his state of loneliness and neglect, voices spoke to him. Thinking them of feminine origin, he heeded their call. Guided, no doubt, by the false ladies’ hands, he studied the mysteries of this ill-begotten world. Knowledge led him to the island and to enlightenment. Only then did he see the truth.
But I still could not say what these ladies were in fact. Nor did I know the precise manner of the boy’s death. These puzzling questions caught me in a state of bewilderment, from which I could not move. It was the perfect opportunity for something to approach from behind.
“Do not be afraid,” a woman’s voice sounded from the steps. “He was afraid. He did that to himself.” A knife lay beside the boy. Although I suspected it was correct, I could not bring myself to face what spoke to me.
“What do you want from me?” I asked.
“To care,” the creature said. “You are hurt and alone. Let me fix that.” Its voice drew closer, and I had not yet surrendered to the ever nearing certainty of my demise. So, I forced myself to face the threat, all the while clinging to my fleeting sanity.
The Lady of the Mist was an eldritch monstrosity of many limbs grafted one on top of the other. Her ribs, lengthy and discolored, protruded out of her abdomen and curled in on themselves like a basket. For a face, two distended and inflamed eyes sat above a gaping slit of a mouth which recalled something more than vaguely sexual. It was an abomination by any description, and to think, it instructed me not to be afraid.
There were two sensible decisions to be made. Edwin made the first, and I made the second by sprinting out of the lighthouse. I would swim back to Dimwater if necessity demanded it. What I saw, however, confounded my meager intelligence and struck me of all hope. Outside of the lighthouse was a world of realities stacked and woven one through the other. Cobblestone paths led over the sea through cities of glass and stone. Forests drenched in shadow lay below, where fish swam unaware of the earth hidden on top of their own. One of these ways might have led back to Dimwater, but for the life of me, my feeble mind could not guess which to choose.
Even so, it was a non-issue. I would never make it. To my unrivaled terror, every square foot was occupied by the Ladies of the Mist. At once, they saw me like a tourist lost among their city streets. Some rushed towards me, assuring me I, a lost soul, would be lost no longer. Others were satisfied in themselves. Grasped among their ribcages were yellow sacs filled with fluid. And inside people swam with fraught faces begging for freedom, yet too weak to pierce the membrane that bound them. They were small, weak, and wasting away. In distressed tones, they begged to be alone. But the creatures caressed their prisoners and cooed as would a mother to her child.
I ran back into the lighthouse, where my lady waited for me. She watched with her bulbous gaze and let me pass, knowing no action could change my fate now. I fled to the room marked with ink, and barred the door with the rocky slate. I pulled out the boy’s journal and began writing this account. She is outside now, waiting patiently for me to come to terms with the truth. To be clear, this is my method to cope, not a warning, for if you are reading this, you are already far too gone to help.
The ladies are everywhere. They have always been there, in every city and town, in every empty expanse of salt and sea. Now that I have gained this knowledge, I cannot unsee them. The more I see, the more I learn, and the more I learn, the more I see. My brain is expanding and slipping out of grip. I feel it pressing against the inner confines of my skull, fracturing it and bubbling forth like steam between the cracks.
She comforts me. Together we will not know neglect or isolation. Never again will I suffer the silence of lifeless rooms and the hurt of departed relations. My horror is a phase to pass. But she cannot see the truth that something has already taken the place of fear. She cannot understand the comfort of quiet and self-company, of which I will never know again.
Credit: Andrew Layden
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