Authors: Dennis Etchison
“You see, children? I’ve told you time and again: there is nothing to fear from what we cannot see, so long as we remain together as a crew. It’s only when one vainglorious hand ventures out alone . . .”
“Andy, you sure scared us! We thought—”
“What did you think? That it was a black mamba? A panther, perhaps? That the Ancient Ones had arisen at last from the eternal sleep of Davy Jones’ locker to seek their unspeakable revenge? Are you quite sure that this lad was the only thing you heard moving out there in the fog? Are you? Be seated, Andy.”
“What fog?” said one of the children. It was Tracy Cronenberg. “There’s no fog tonight. I’ve seen fog lots of times, though. I even walked all the way from school one day when it was—”
“Fog,” said the Captain ominously. He rubbed his crooked fingers through his foam-white beard, set his cap and laughed explosively. “So you think you’ve seen fog, do you? Do you really? Well, you haven’t seen the kind of fog I’ve known in my day.”
Andy squirmed into place next to Cheryl Spears and Jeremy, the boy who lived over on Clay Street. He propped his radio in the dirt and hunched toward the glowing embers, his eyes glued to the Captain’s face.
The old man swung his gold pocket watch and opened it elaborately. “Eleven fifty-five,” he announced. “Hardly enough time.”
“Yes, there is!”
“Enough time, perhaps, for one more story before midnight, to keep us warm. That is, unless you’d rather be hurrying home to the waiting arms of your
He pronounced this last word with a mocking disgust, as if he could not bear the taste of it in his mouth. As always, Andy felt that the Captain was speaking directly to him and to no one else, and for a moment he was ashamed. But then he recognized the twinkle in the old man’s eye and reminded himself that the Captain knew what it meant to be nine years old, truly he did, though he never ceased his mighty striving to conceal it. Andy had sensed it through the harsh grate of his voice and in the careful watchfulness of his glance those few times he had not known anyone was looking. Suddenly it seemed to Andy that the Captain must really be his very own father in disguise, or at least his grandfather. He so wanted it to be true.
“About the fog,” said Andy. “Please, sir?”
They all jumped when Machen snapped his watch case shut. He held it dangling by its chain, bright and bronzed in the firelight, and gazed into its shining surface as if it were the etched and timeless face of the moon, as if he meant to read its marks and find his story in the aged patterns recorded there.
“In five minutes,” he began, “it will be the twenty-first of April. One hundred years ago, on the twenty-first of April, a great tragedy befell our peaceful community, an event so dreadful . . .”
His eyes lowered. In firelight they appeared red-rimmed, bloodshot. Andy had never known him to hesitate before.
“Go on, sir.”
Machen shook himself out of his reverie.
A possum just ran over your grave,
thought Andy. That’s what Mrs. Kobritz said whenever—
“That night,” he continued somewhat uneasily, “out on the water by Spivey Point, a small clipper ship drew toward land. It was said that the twenty men on board were rich and carried a great coffer of gold. They had set course for Antonio Bay in search of a new home, and they had almost reached their destination when suddenly, from out of the night . . .”
Machen dropped his head, his stubbled chin catching in his turtleneck. The fire breathed its last, and then there was only the ticking of the pocket watch, magnified in the stillness.
“And then?” someone said.
“It’s time you knew,” said the Captain unsteadily. He cleared his throat. “From out of the night a fog rolled in, a thick, vaporous shroud that covered the ship and obscured the shoreline, where a fire still burned—”
“—A fire beaming like a lonely beacon through the night. And the fog.”
Now the ticking of the watch was drowned out by the beating of Andy’s heart.
“A fog that no man had ever seen before. A fog so deep, so leaden that it sat upon the ship’s masts and the shoulders of her crew like a mighty smoke from Hell itself, rolling and churning all around until they could no longer see their Captain’s eyes, let alone the lights of the coast. A monstrous fog that took away everything and gave back naught but dark, icy death. Do you know what it is like, children, to claw and choke for air, your lungs filling with blackness, your eyes open and staring into the face of unutterable evil?”
The fire hissed. A wisp of wood smoke laced the chill air.
“But I can say no more of what happened then within that impenetrable, Devil-spawned mist, what it held in store for the men of the
. . .
“I can tell you only that later the fog rolled away just as suddenly as it had appeared, lifting, receding back across the ocean, as if it had never existed. But the people of Antonio Bay, your grandfathers and great-grandfathers, they knew what had happened that night, and they never forgot. For the fog had spoken to them. ‘Sleep no more,’ it murmured from the rising of the breakers and the misshapen rocks by Spivey Point.
Sleep no more.
“It is said that one day the same deadly fog will surely return, and then the horror of that night will rise up once again to seek its revenge even unto the generations, bringing with it things for which there are no words, things that must come yawning up from the depths of a saltwater grave, things from which there is no earthly escape. Things that reach out of the shadows, closer and closer, until they have you by the
The children nearly jumped out of their skins as the silence was broken by the tolling of a bell. It was the bell of the old church a mile away. Its pealing split the sky and shook the trees.
“Twelve o’clock,” said Machen strangely. “April the twenty-first. One hundred years . . .”
He rose from his place on the log, checked his watch, nodded, folded up the collar of his pea jacket, and moved quickly to the cooling fire.
“Now away with you,” he said gruffly. “There’ll be time for more stories another night. God willing,” he added. “But first you must bury the embers.” He kicked impatiently at the damp dirt and crossed himself. “No one is to see us. Not this night . . .
The bell continued to toll.
Eight . . .
On the way back down the hill, Andy became separated from Jeremy. Alone, he stopped and glanced through the trees at the silvered sea that stretched clear and unmarked to the horizon.
As he watched, he saw or believed he saw a white, wispy ribbon begin to drift across the glassy surface. It was still miles away.
I’ll be home in a few minutes, he told himself. Mother will close up at one o’clock, and then she’ll come home. And then I’ll be sure. For now—
He lifted his radio and clicked it on.
“And let me be the first to wish Antonio Bay a very happy birthday,” said the reassuring voice of Stevie Wayne, “and many happy returns . . .”
Out on the water, on this side of the leading edge of whatever was drifting against the sky, something formless broke the surface, looming larger as it headed inland, and then was swallowed completely by the fog.
“. . . It’s all of four minutes past midnight and this is your very own nightlight, hanging around until about one o’clock . . .”
Alone in his office, Reverend Malone heard the radio from the bell tower, the blatantly sensual voice of that Wayne woman creeping down the steps and insinuating her presence throughout the church. She had gone on in those same husky tones throughout the sounding of the bells and now, the last resonance of the great iron clapper still ringing in the stones, her voice seemed louder, again dominating the quiet of his quarters.
It was the boy Bennett Tramer who always brought her with him wherever he went, as if she were some kind of surrogate lover. Couldn’t he put her on hold, or at least modulate her pearly tones a bit while seeing to the bells?
But why bother?
said the omnipresent voice within him.
Where’s the harm? I do despair to see you becoming so rigid, my boy, now that you’ve entered your most productive years. You must learn to transcend the petty strife of this world and pass on with some dignity to the real work for which you have been so long prepared. Soon you are to be made pure in His sacred fire. Soon now, soon.
Always the same. There was no way to please it. Whatever his position, the voice took the opposite tack.
Of course he knew it to be the voice of his father, the Reverend Tom Malone, pastor of Antonio bay for sixty-seven years, may the Lord rest his soul, world without end, amen. But knowing that did not make it any more bearable. He hadn’t left the parish when he passed on to his reward—could it already be thirteen years ago? The real Reverend Malone, the genuine article, was still very much here, chiding his son whenever he in his wisdom saw fit. His presence would always be felt here, as he had no doubt felt the presence of his father before him, within the masonry and the leaded windows and the rosewood pews, so long as this church continued to stand where it had been hacked out of the glorious wilderness a century ago.
And still here, even more inescapably, within my own muddled soul, he thought.
He poured himself another glass of wine and sat sipping it at his desk, hearing but trying to ignore the scrape and creak of young Bennett with the bell rope, the very same rope he himself had tied to the same hook in the same wall for so many years. The wine was a good vintage, from the Cresta Blanca vineyards to the north. He took a long swallow, half emptying the glass.
The boy’s footsteps descended the tower stairwell, and with them the sound of her voice, soft as cream sherry and as warm. It seemed that the boy’s heavy shoes, so impatient, were chipping the stones, sending yet another ubiquitous hairline crack down the walls and into the foundation.
Lately he had caught himself watching the walls each time the bells were rung—and was that a tiny pile of pulverized rock he now noticed on the floor next to the bookcase? Perhaps the bell was too large, its vibration too powerful for such a humble church. It had not been built to withstand that and the pounding of the surf on the bedrock and the roar of the traffic on the highway and of the supersonic jets flying the coastline. Not all that and the pounding in my head and the insistence of Stevie Wayne, as well; not all that.
Ought to put the wine away, he supposed. But why bother? The boy had smelled it on his breath enough times.
“. . . Even if you have something to do, keep me turned on for a while longer, will you, lover? And I’ll try my best to do the same for you . . .”
The radio clicked off. That’s decent of him, he thought. At least he respects my quarters.
“I’m all through, Reverend.”
He was aware of the boy standing there, shifting his weight awkwardly. He turned slowly and gave the boy a sleepy smile, rotating the stem of the crystal wine glass in his fingers. Should I offer him a drink?
A little wine for thy stomach and thy infirmities.
But Bennett had no infirmities, not yet. No, that would be too much.
“That’s fine, Bennett.” His tongue was thick and wouldn’t work right. He wiped the wine from the corners of his mouth and discovered that his lips were numb. “I won’t be needing you till four tomorrow.”
Bennett put his transistor on the table and took his jacket from the hanger in the corner. Reverend Malone noted the angular energy of his shoulders. Surely he must have a girl of his own, he thought. Why, then, does he need that Wayne woman? Some sort of security blanket, perhaps. It’s dark out, he thought. No one else out there will identify themselves.
“I was wondering, Reverend.”
Come on, boy, out with it. You’re not afraid of me, are you?
“Reverend, um, I was wondering if I could get paid.”
“I’m afraid it will have to be tomorrow.”
“It’s been two weeks, and I sort of had plans for the—”
Don’t sound so cold, he told himself. You were his age once, though in those days you certainly didn’t have time of your own for anything but studies.
“You—you’d better be getting on home before your parents start to worry.”
He watched the boy go to the door, his face grim with disappointment. I wonder what he calls me behind my back?
“Oh, and Bennett?”
The boy half turned.
“You may as well make it six tomorrow, instead of four. The whole town will be over in the square celebrating at least until then.”
The boy let himself out.
Reverend Malone shook his head in the dim lamplight. Everything tomorrow, he thought, and reached for the glass.
He noticed that Bennett had forgotten his portable. It rested there on the desk, silent at last, the green reflection of the bottles slanted across the dials like moonlight through stained glass. He pushed himself from his chair and started out of the office.