Story by Casey Rae-Hunter
Illustration by Andy Paciorek
I did not set out to discover anything, least of all what “makes me tick.” At no point in my average-length career in the field of property insurance did I once have the inkling to explore what psychologists and chemically addled reprobates might call “the periphery of consciousness.” I’m certainly well read; retirement spent in the provincial seaside bosom of
My daughter, on the other hand, away at a liberal arts university not terribly far from my own unostentatious Northern accommodations, always had an instinct for personal
revelation; at least the kind approved by the bohemian professors she so desires to impress. I never faulted Emily for these tendencies. After her mother died, seeking meaning became her primary pursuit. I hadn’t the heart to tell her that, in my estimation, there is positively no sense to be made from the myriad banal activities that comprise our time on this planet. Nor is there any consequence to our search for significance in our own lives or the lives of those around us. It is merely chance and biology that sets the course of our brief existences, whether we ascribe metaphysical significance to the crushingly mundane or accept our lot as fleeting nonentities in an utterly cosmic trifle.
When I say that I am retired to this coastal community, I exaggerate. Only summers are spent at this salty idyll; during the colder seasons I — like all but those blasted birds that squawk mindlessly as they scour the shores for aquatic carrion — migrate to more hospitable climes. This year, however, I’ve stayed longer than usual, partly because of the balmy weather, but also due to my increasing fondness for wandering the long stretch of beach, which becomes significantly more traversable as the tourists depart to wherever it is from which they came. In September, for example, I practically have the entire coastline to myself. Often, I find myself strolling along the water’s edge well into the evening, my galoshes making obscene sounds as they connect with the clumps of soggy vegetation that threaten to overwhelm the sand.
Yet I am not the only lingerer as summer’s sultry hollows are subsumed by the chill of encroaching autumn. The flea market just outside of town is still open, its garish trinkets glinting as its unpleasant merchants move indolently among the wares. I must confess a persisting obsession with this grubby bazaar, though I had never actually wandered along the makeshift display tables dug haphazardly into the pebble-speckled sand and wispy sea-grass. That is, until a couple of weeks ago.
On that day, having walked my bicycle to Toby McMullen’s repair shop to resolve a persistent problem with the derailleur, I decided to venture to the flea market while my ailing ten-speed received its wrench-and-oil remedy. After all, it was only a couple of miles down the road from the bike shop, just a few clicks past the sign marking the approach to our sleepy burg. Toby had some other repairs ahead of mine, and he told me that my chariot would likely not be ready until late afternoon. So, with my army surplus rucksack dangling from one shoulder and my trusty water bottle in hand, I made my way to that vulgar emporium which had, for unknown reasons, captured my interest.
I’m not going to say I wasn’t disappointed by the flea market; it was hard not to be.
Dusty videocassette tapes of films no one had ever wanted to see were crammed into milk cartons alongside dog-eared books and Popular Mechanics magazines from an era when transistor radios were novel. As the lone soul perusing the tables that day, I was significantly outnumbered by the sallow-faced merchants who stared blankly into some imperceptible distance and spoke to one another, only occasionally, in a language I could not discern. After strolling mutely through row and row of commercial detritus, I came across a small assortment of jewelry, all clearly handmade. The items ran the gamut from unsightly to grotesque, yet I found myself transfixed by their peculiar allure. One piece was not as unseemly as the rest; in fact it could be considered handsome in its own queer way.
A dragonfly pendant, delicately carved out of some kind of metal that may have been a relative of pewter, but whose obsidian surface reflected the afternoon light in an uncanny manner. With its bulbous eyes fashioned out of what appeared to be twin rubies and a protracted tail that came to a meticulous point, the object betrayed artistry utterly at odds with the rest of the merchandise on offer. For some reason not entirely known to myself — but in no way a product of that chimera of modern psychology, the subconscious — I immediately thought of Emily. Perhaps it was my daughter’s penchant for flitting from one obsession to another, or maybe the fact that she owned precious little jewelry that didn’t once belong to her mother. No matter the association, I knew immediately that this curious object d’art was meant for her. I hastily purchased the dragonfly from a swarthy-looking fellow who took my bills, crumpled them and shoved them in his ratty sweatshirt pocket, after which I abruptly left that abysmal market to pick up my bicycle.
Later that evening, I decided to mail the dragonfly to Emily at her college. There was a small box in which I’d been keeping thumbtacks that almost matched the pendant’s strange charm. A possession of my own grandmother, the box had traveled from
to this very coast sometime before the Great War. A suitable vessel for what I, in a moment of atypical sentimentality, imagined could become a new heirloom. As I reached into the plastic sandwich bag in which the flea marketer had so ungracefully deposited the dragonfly, a sharp pain immediately struck my thumb. I involuntarily yanked my hand back and shoved the wounded digit in my mouth. Blood. With the other hand, I gingerly dumped the dragonfly on the unvarnished conglomeration of wood that passed for my dining room table. Flipping the pendant this way and that with my uninjured hand, I searched for a razor-edge to blame. There was the pointy tail, sure, but as my fingers probed its tapered end, I felt nothing sharp enough to draw blood. Russia
At any rate, the wound was entirely superficial, and I was quite able to prepare the dragonfly (and box) to mail to my daughter with tomorrow’s post. Having accomplished this small task, I found myself unexpectedly fatigued, so I retired to my modest single bed, where I fell fast asleep.
To say that my dreams were bizarre would be an understatement. At one point in my troubled rest, I explored an oversized Victorian domicile at the center of which I was certain to encounter the savior of mankind, whose being it was my task to swiftly extinguish. I am in no way a religious person, but the experience was so palpable that I recall resisting that which appeared to be my destiny: to foreclose forever the possibility of human salvation. I drifted from this nightmare to another in which my lower half had been replaced with a heinous mass of pulsing tentacles covered in sensitive cilia that ached like a thousand papercuts. Huddled around my misshapen self were strange figures in gossamer cloaks woven from the silk of the spiders that lived in their toothless mouths. These ghastly characters set about the task of spooning into my own maw a pungent fluid the color of diluted motor oil and with the consistency of infant excreta.
I awoke to a bright wash of yellow light directly in my eyes and the sound of screeching voices and what might be termed music, depending on the relative sanity of the listener. The intrusive luminescence I immediately realized was from the disused lighthouse that protrudes like a narrow finger from a scraggy peninsula that intersects my bedroom window. In the three-and-a-half decades since I’d first visited this town, I had not once seen this ramshackle beacon illuminated. Strange as this may be, I was more disturbed by the terrible sounds that seemed to emanate from somewhere along the beach — how far from my home, I could not make out. I pulled myself out of bed, opened my window and craned my head like a punch-drunk mongoose. A blast of cool, briny air hit my face as I squinted against the harsh light that beamed directly into my eyes every ten seconds. The sounds were louder, but I still could not determine their origin. I jerked my head back inside and hurriedly closed the window.
My nearest neighbors were a quarter mile away, but surely they could hear the cacophony, too. That is, if they hadn’t already decamped back to
Dudley. Should I ring them? What time was it, anyway? I suddenly felt compelled to investigate the source of these perplexing sounds. This urge was in no way keeping with my typical behavior; my more rational self would have called the Myerson’s or simply taken a sleep aid and pulled the covers over my head. But in this odd instance I was gripped with the dogged desire to follow the racket to its source. And this is exactly what I did.
Armed with nothing but a flashlight and a sense of determination to discover what was going on out there, I scuttled down the wooden pathway leading to the beach. The sounds had increased in volume, though I still could not determine who — or what — was making them. Shrieks blended with the incessant thrumming of some sort of stringed instrument that rose and fell with the crashing of the nighttime tide. Somewhere within this discordant racket I thought I heard words, but their meaning was entirely unclear. Every so often, a concordance of voices would join together in a single utterance and then fall back into aural chaos. Once on the beach, I set off in the direction of the perturbing racket. After about a mile of trudging in the darkness, flashlight illuminating only a brief path before me, I realized I was no longer moving parallel to the sea. In fact, judging from the diminishing sound of the surf, it seemed that the sea was several dozen yards behind me. Nonetheless, I pressed on, mostly because the din became more defined with every step.
At some point, I found my flashlight’s beam swallowed by darkness blacker than that of the night to which my eyes had only recently grown accustomed. It took me a moment to realize I was pointing the thing directly into the mouth of what appeared to be a cave, or at least a hollow of some kind. I edged closer, reaching out with my free hand to better determine the particulars of this formation. I felt along the stony edges of a substantially large opening and plunged my arm forward into empty space. It seemed that the mysterious sounds were coming from somewhere inside. Although I’d never encountered anything resembling a cave in my many walks along the beach, I resolved to enter this Stygian aperture. Pointing the flashlight a few feet ahead, I stepped into the blackness.
The air inside the cave was dank and oppressive. My shoes crunched along small pebbles that had been spared being ground into sand by moon-maddened surf. I walked for maybe five minutes until my flashlight found accidental focus on the cave wall to my right. As the light glanced the granite surface, I caught my first glimpse of the sigil that would come to weigh heavily on my waking hours and beleaguer my already troubled sleep.
It wasn’t the only marking the cave wall, which was positively cluttered with a hodgepodge of what seemed to be a kind of hieroglyphic language along with primitive symbols. Some looked like crudely constructed mandalas, others betrayed a more advanced technique. The icon that I found my eyes drawn back to was somewhere in between; a rudimentary circle bisected by what looked like a numeral four and several smaller symbols that floated on the periphery like alien satellites around a geometrically perverted planet. The sigil seemed altogether familiar — where had I seen it before? As my mind was searching for suitable evidence connecting me to this unnerving emblem, I was jostled to attention by a disquieting wail, which sounded like it came from a woman. Newly motivated, I hurried through the cave towards that terrible sound.
Sometime during my harried flight through the darkness, I began to discern a faint glimmer of light ahead. As the edges of the cave wall came into definition, I noted the absence of markings along their surface. Several paces later, I found myself back under the starless sky, standing on a sandbank several dozen yards above the beach and the restless, inky ocean. Below me was the largest bonfire I’d ever seen in my life, around which danced figures that were illuminated only by the spasmodic flicker of towering flames, twisting in a chaotic dance of their own. I immediately dropped to the grassy dune, as not to be seen by the debauched revelers. I counted around thirty or so figures, all naked as jaybirds, many entwined in a mockery of romantic intimacy. Howls and shrieks accompanied strange chants of unknown province; at one point I was certain I saw a woman climb atop a man’s back as though mounting a horse, propelling both rider and steed into the roaring flames.
Transfixed by the scene unfolding before me, I decided to wend down the embankment for a closer view. From my new perch, a pair of school busses’ length from the bonfire, I could make out a bit more detail. There were shapes emerging from the water, slithering slowly up the beach like deranged amphibians. I couldn’t see much detail, but they were essentially slug-like, with elongated flipper-things protruding awkwardly all along their bulging, distorted forms. Every so often, a human dancer would leave the fire and lay prostrate on the beach, after which one of the beasts would wriggle upon them until they were covered entirely in a palpating mass of sea-flesh. The sounds that came from these creatures were truly horrifying, but it appeared that they received pleasure from the foul activity. I shudder to imagine what was experienced by those underneath.
At that point, I was altogether revolted, yet I could not tear myself away from the scene. The dancers twirled madly around the fire like an infernal maypole, coupling and decoupling, some diving headlong into the flames, others scurrying down the beach to be smothered by the slug-things. Just as I was about to scream or run, or both, my gaze fell upon one of the dancers, whose long blonde hair whipped behind her as she writhed and arched to the terrible music, the source of which I still could not determine. As she rounded the corner of the bonfire, her face was suddenly illuminated by the blaze. Emily.
Panicked, I found myself scurrying back up the sandbank, almost involuntarily. As I fled towards the cave entrance, I began doubting what I saw. It couldn’t have been my daughter — she was already well into her first semester; we weren’t scheduled to see each other until Thanksgiving at the earliest. Besides, it was terribly dark, and I couldn’t be sure of anything I saw — not the slug things, and certainly not. . . Emily. I raced through the cave, not stopping to examine the strange symbols I had discovered on the way in. I’m not sure how I managed to find my way back to my home, but somehow I did. And I know that I eventually managed to fall asleep, as I woke up the following afternoon with sheets still moist with sweat.
In the coming weeks, I spent much of my time scouring the beach for anything resembling a cave or the beachhead on which I witnessed the chthonic celebration. There was no evidence of either. Nightly, my sleep was disturbed by hazy remembrances of what I saw, as well as frustratingly incomplete flashes of that strange sigil I’d encountered in the cave. I was certain that if I could only manage to get that symbol on paper, then these vexing visions would cease. I spent long afternoons that would often bleed into early morning attempting to recreate this baffling sign. Yet the more I tried to delineate its geometry, the more its full configuration eluded me. Notebook upon notebook was filled with incomplete renderings, but in recent days I’d come tantalizingly close to rendering this uncanny insignia.
Close to Thanksgiving, I received a phone call from Emily. She wanted to join me for the holiday at my seacoast retreat. Though I was in no mood to entertain, I knew that my future time with her would be limited as her academic and social life took precedent over visits with her father. So I somewhat haltingly made my invitation. “Is there something wrong, Dad?” she asked with her typical composure. “Not at all,” I replied, trying to put the image of her face in flame’s flicker completely out of my head. At this point, I had mostly convinced myself that I’d merely imagined that it was Emily writhing around the mammoth bonfire. It was, in fact, all I could do to maintain something resembling composure.
When my daughter arrived, I immediately noticed something was different about her, though I could not place what it was. She’d always been an independent person, even as a young girl. Certainly, more so after her mother’s passing. She greeted me with winsome aloofness, and our subsequent conversations were a bit trivial, yet hardly unusual. Such is to be expected when you haven’t seen someone in a while. Besides, it’s not as if I wasn’t distracted. As we ate our Thanksgiving meal, I found myself obsessing over that sigil. Perhaps I could find time after dinner to open my notebook and work on solving this agonizing riddle. I was certain I’d captured the symbol’s general orbit, and the lines were more or less accurate. But there was still something... off about my rendition.
I put it out of my mind, deciding that it was time to present Emily with her gift. I never actually mailed the dragonfly pendant — other. . . things. . . had come up. So as we sat by the small fireplace, I handed her the antique box. I hadn’t thought about it until that moment, but the night I pricked my thumb on the dragonfly was the same night that I’d witnessed the fiendish gathering. Yet only a fool would imagine a connection. A fool or someone whose grip on reality had become compromised. Was I cracking up? I banished the thought and concentrated the best I could on Emily’s reaction to the gift.
“The box originally belonged to your great-grandmother,” I explained, my voice sounding smaller than I had expected. “You never met her, but I’m sure she’d have wanted you to have it. Anyway, it’s not about the box — go ahead and open it.”
Emily did as instructed. I’m not sure what I expected her reaction to be, but whatever it was did not transpire. Her eyes did not grow large; she did not let out a little gasp or an “Oh, my God!” — instead, she gazed at the dragonfly with a subtle look of knowing, one corner of her lips turning up in an off-putting hint of a smile. After a period of silence, she simply said, “It’s lovely, Daddy.” I felt no desire to solicit any further opinions about the object. In fact, I felt somewhat nauseous.
Outside, it was raining heavily. When Emily declared that she was going out for a while, I was stunned. “Where would you be going on Thanksgiving night in weather like this?” I asked. “Well, I thought I’d go downtown and maybe see if the bookshop is open.” I knew she knew it wasn’t. “Are you sure?” I responded meekly. My stomach was doing flip- flops. “I won’t be long,” she answered. “Just need to stretch my legs.”
“Well, if you’re going out, you need to put on some boots. You should still have a pair in the closet.”
“I know where they are.”
“I’m still not sure it’s very smart to go out in this weather. Can’t it wait until tomorrow?”
“OK, OK. Just. . . be careful.”
Emily pulled one of the rickety kitchen chairs closer to the now-opened closet and rolled up a pant leg. As she slid on an oversized boot, her long blonde hair fell in front of her face so that I could no longer see her features. So I simply stared mutely at the legs of the chair as she reached for the other boot. She rolled up her second pant leg. And then I saw it.
The sigil was tattooed on her pale white ankle. I could distinguish all of the angles clearly now. I knew what was missing from my sketches. At that moment, thoughts of anything but completing my illustrations completely evaporated. I stood up abruptly and walked to my study.
“Um, OK, Dad. . . I’m going out now.”
I’m sure I answered in some fashion, but by the time the front door closed a thousand miles away, I had already opened my notebook to the unfinished symbol. I knew exactly what needed to be done. I rolled my decrepit office chair closer to my desk and hurriedly sat down. Just a line here. . . and one there. . . and there was that slight hook on the part that looks like the numeral four. . .
I completed my work in short order. I stood straight up and stared intently at the symbol that had caused so many sleepless nights. Now, things could get back to normal around here, I thought. I just need to lie down for a while. I attempted to make my way to the bedroom, but the wooden floor was suddenly slanted at such an angle that I found it difficult to reach the door. I felt dizzy, and grabbed for the edge of my desk to steady myself. But what I touched was most certainly not my desk. It was much older and more ornate, with grotesque carvings all across its colorless surface. There were new pictures on the wall. Only they weren’t pictures at all, but rather bizarrely shaped holes that seemed to spontaneously assume strange new angles. Within them were swirling distortions of faces, illuminated by a sickly, unnatural light. Somehow, the windows had disappeared. And the walls were no longer met by ceiling, but instead extended into what looked like obscure infinity. I found myself being pulled by some strange force ever closer to one of those twisted shapes in the wall. Soon, I was inches away from the warped orifice.
As the room began to sway around me, I heard the strains of that infernal instrument whose source I could not discern. The walls were no longer walls, but throbbing organs whose terrible pulse achieved a maddening cadence with the music. I heard laughter, screams and deafening ripping sounds, as though the very fabric of my physical apprehension was being rent to ribbons. At that moment, I knew I had no choice but to submit, to tender my resignation to reality. I thought briefly of Emily, and then I leaned forward into that heinous opening. I felt the entire world dissolve, and accepted my hellish providence.