Hurricane winds mixed sea with sky and slammed the earth. Lightning ripped the night, burst brightness through every crack in the besieged houses. Thunder slapped the ears of tiny, shivering shore creatures. Dogs cowered with masters no more sentient than they, huddling beneath fragile roofs, awake to each flurry and blast, human and animal praying wordlessly that they might hold on until the sun returned. Ten thousand pounds of airborne sea burst shutters, slashed rattling panes to splinters, inundated kitchens and bedrooms, washed away in an instant the careful accumulations of years of rough toil, sweeping from sight whole fishing fleets, deep sunk piles, heavy dock-works, great metal chunks of cannery in a confusion of wind and sea and land.
A lone survivor clung to a broken pallet tossed in the surf, limbs locked to the life-giving boards until he heard, at last, the storm’s titan steps pound slowly off into the distance, saw it trail its dark clouds behind, receding until at last the milky sun could seep through morning fog.
The ocean’s rage temporarily assuaged, the swells beneath the makeshift raft softened to unnatural gentleness. Lying spent across the drifting pallet, the numbed survivor gazed at the wreckage around him.
Distant shapes shifted along the shore. Blinking water from stunned eyes, the survivor saw fishermen peep cautiously from their hiding places, slowly regaining their ability to think, to take stock of what it would cost them to build anew from whatever flotsam Nature had left in their grasp. All who had not been swept away came down to salvage what they could of broken boats and floating gear.
A rowboat sculled near the pallet and the floating man found himself gazing into the wizened face of a boatman. The boatman looked back at him, eyes narrowing till they disappeared in lines carved deep by time and weather and too much work. Beside the old man, a younger, scruff-bearded oarsman said something in a language the survivor could not understand.
Scruff-beard and the older man looked out at the fragments of shattered town bobbing about the harbor. Bloated fish with shapes never before seen floated on their sides amid window frames and doors. Great tentacled hulks distorted by the lighter pressure of the surface realm drifted among writhing masses of strange-smelling water-plants — all wrenched up from the dark unknown depths beyond the reach of a normal storm. The bodies of townsfolk the sea had released again from its hold, twisted slowly, laved by the gentle waves.
The two boatmen turned their eyes from the broad wrack to the man drifting on the bit of wood. Disbelief showed vivid on their faces. What man could have lived through such a cataclysm?
The man on the raft shivered. He managed to move his head enough to see his own naked body gleaming fish-belly white, piled across the broken pallet like the night’s catch. His last strength gone, he drifted helpless on the gentle swell, arms and legs dangling over the rough wooden frame.
The scruff-bearded man muttered unhappily, lowering his oar to scull away, but the old sailor snapped at him in a voice cracked from decades of breathing sea-salt. The younger fisherman grumbled, but shipped his oar.
The survivor understood well enough. Fisher-folk are not a trusting or altruistic lot. But a seaman always pulls in survivors, as he hopes to be pulled in himself when his time comes.
The wizened man reached out a boat-hook, securing the battered pallet to the rowboat’s side. The survivor’s cold flesh felt the grip of hard, calloused hands, then the world lurched crazily and the two fishermen lifted his limp body over their gunwales, plopping him into the green bilge at their feet. Scruff-beard looked down into the survivor’s eyes, then away again, shivering slightly and pulling angrily at his oar.
The dock being nothing now but a tangle of twisted lumber, the two men beached the small craft and carried the survivor into a house. There the two boatmen did the rough things that sailors do to force water from saturated lungs and thump life back into a half abandoned body.
Wrapped in blankets, hard liquor burning his throat and belly, the man from the sea shook dripping black hair again and again at their questions until the fishermen understood that their language meant nothing to him. Then they offered him clothing left behind by men lost at sea. The stranger clothed himself solely in black.
When he could walk, the man from the sea moved into an empty house. Some of the fisher folk gave him fish and bread and crude wine to keep him going while he repaired the place with salvaged storm wreckage. The fishers did not care to live among ruins and it was only right that someone cast up by the sea should repair what the sea had half dragged down.
When the stranger was too tired to patch the roof or nail new shutters over paneless windows, he walked by the restless breakers, trying to remember from whence he had come. The sea gave up no answers. Yet strangely, it gave him what the townsfolk could not — a sense of kinship.
Night fell and still he walked by the sea. Not far from the shore he saw a squid-boat shining shockingly bright lights deep into shifting emerald waves to draw up unwary denizens of the depths. Strange things moved in the stranger’s own deeps, yet no light he cast on them could lure them up to his nets. Finding a sheltered place in the dunes, he curled in soft sand, hoping to find in dream the identity he had lost awake.
A gray day dawned, and the stranger rose stiffly, shook sand from the folds of his heavy coat and walked the lonely beach, refreshed by having slept so far from the toiling fishers.
This day the wind thrilled him. This day the smell of fresh kelp and the salt in the air roused him, and the rumble of the loose, rounded rocks rolling each against the others in the retreating surf was a voice that beckoned.
Deep within himself he felt something respond. He felt some living thing rise in him like a prehistoric monster asleep for millennia and waking at last, felt it crane its long, coiling neck from his blackest depths to touch the sky. It cried out through his throat.
A sound — no human sound, but something primordial — welled up in him and he opened all his floodgates, let it forth, and sang to the sea. Strange keening cries echoed up from the wellspring of his being, sounds like whale-song, utterance as passionate, urgent and wordless as an opera sung by a tongue-less man.
And the sea responded. It mourned when he keened. It rejoiced when he hummed joy. Waves leapt or calmed in accordance with his tune. He spread his arms and turned slowly, his mouth full of song, rejoicing for the first time since he had come to the shore. Joy poured through him with a shockingly palpable power — and impossibly, unthinkably, a great, glassy column of green water rose from the surface of the sea, whirling up into the pale sky in a gleaming waterspout, until the note he was singing faded, and the column dissolved back into the waves.
It could not be, thought the stranger. But he knew, even as he thought it, knew with the deepest kind of knowing, that he had touched some elemental part of his cloudy soul — proving to himself that he had a soul, that he was as real as the solid fisher folk among whom he drifted like a ghost.
When the song had found its close, the stranger walked back to the half-empty town. The able men were all at sea, the women toiling in the small houses. Only a few crippled men wandered the narrow, stinking streets, scavenging their way through one more day. The stranger spun in circles in the street, face upraised, for the first time fascinated by the shapes of the houses, the flapping of the clothes on the lines, the cries of the cats quarreling over fish heads in the alleys — all of it now beautiful in its very squalor.
The stranger saw a young woman watching him from just outside a shop; saw her take in the smile on his usually expressionless face and the foggy breath puffing warm and moist from his parted lips. He pictured the unaccustomed glow within him expanding to engulf her, too.
The young woman glanced from him to a nearby scavenger, old before his time, rummaging through a slop barrel. The man from the sea followed her gaze. To him the crippled man seemed thick and heavy, like all the men here, beaten into compact, dense shapes by the relentless pounding of the sea. The glow seemed to pour from the stranger and sweep around the bent sailor with no effect upon him, like an incoming tide flashing to either side of an aged oak, the tree’s gnarled shape bent and twisted by past storms, yet its broad trunk unmoved by present waves.
The young woman turned from the ruined sailor, her wide eyes drinking in the stranger’s glow and the man from the sea saw a spark flash behind those green eyes. He thought perhaps she had glimpsed something in him, had recognized something from Outside. Suddenly the staring woman looked thin and hungry – yearning – wracked with impossible yearnings…
The stranger sat with the young woman on a blanket, leaning against the shattered hulk of a rowboat, far from the rebuilt wharf. He liked this quiet place where they could smell sea and not dead fish. A stump of candle fluttered between them. They looked at the full moon just rising from the distant curve of the sea.
Savoring the candlelight that rounded her smooth cheeks and glinted from random strands of her hair, he poured more of the stale, sharp wine. She clacked her tin cup against his and sipped. Gazing into her pale green eyes he felt a pang like a plucked harp string. Not sure what note had sounded within him, he said, “Thank you.”
“For what?” she laughed. “This wine? It’s not very good.”
“For teaching me your language.”
“Well,” she said, “we might have a few lessons yet to go, but at least you can talk like a person. You know,” she dug her bare toes into the sand, brushing aside bits of sharp shell and broken wood, “that’s important to me.”
“Free time isn’t cheap, here,” he replied. “Why spend yours teaching me?”
She turned her head a little to the side, peeking up at him through dangling lengths of candlelit hair. “Because I’ve been dying to ask you…”
“What can I tell you?” he asked, suddenly uncomfortable.
“Well…why do you always wear black?”
She fingered the cuff of his simple, sturdy seaman’s coat. He shrugged, saying,
“Anything but black is a burning – a glare – a lie. Sometimes…” He shook his head.
“Please,” she enticed softly, the tips of her fingers barely touching his sleeve, “tell me.”
No one had ever cast a net into his waters before — had ever acknowledged there might be more of value to him than another pair of arms that should be tugging at the oars. He found himself struggling to express to her what he had thought inexpressible.
“Sometimes,” he said, “these clothes almost — almost — convince me that I am who people see. Yet when I look into a pool of water, I never see this pale face reflected, I see only the storm.”
“When I look at you,” she said softly, “I see raven-black hair and clothing, skin pale as the moon, eyes dark as a hundred fathom depth. I see…”
She gazed up at him, candlelight in her eyes. A sudden current pulled him, drawing him toward her like the riptide that drew him to the seashore each day.
“You have to find a way to live,” she sighed. “You could do anything. Tell me, why won’t you work on the squid-boat? That’s a good job for someone starting out — at least, as long as you’re single.”
“Fish till I die?”
She shrugged. “It’s what men do.”
He stared out across the water at the full moon half-risen from its wavering reflection.
He said simply, “I could not die a traitor.”
Surprised that she seemed to understand, he gazed wide-eyed at her profile in the soft light.
She sipped her wine, then whispered, “You felt a call, didn’t you?”
“That’s why you can’t fish, why you…. I know what it’s like,” she confided, sinking onto one arm and tilting her head back in the wild waves of guttering candlelight. “I feel the call, too — the drive to find something better than this miserable little town. Something real. Something lasting. Something…”She shivered a little. She leaned in close, eyes wide and sparkling in the wavering light. She urged gently, “Tell me something.”
He found himself saying, “Anything.”
“Where do you go, alone on the beach?”
He shook his head, able to say only, “To the sea.”
She tossed her hair from her face and tried another tack. “Don’t you want to go inland? To a city? A real job? A real future with people who aren’t all broken down from storms and endless work? See beautiful things? Be more than all this?”
He stood and flung a stone into the surf. It vanished with a barely heard and invisible splash. He said, “I can’t exist away from the sea – storms and all. The ocean holds me like iron chains.”
“Like a lover,” she breathed.
“Like a distrusted lover one can’t imagine leaving,” he replied. “Like the other half of a sundered soul. There is no inland for me — there’s only here at the edge of the sea. Yet I don’t know how to wring a living from it and still live with myself.”
“That’s why the fishermen are so disgusted with you. They don’t understand that you have some connection.”
Her face was close to his, her eyes glowing. He felt a surge of strange, sudden kinship with her as he recognized the struggle behind those eyes, realized that something deep within her could wait no longer, was feeling its moment and forcing its way to the surface. A crease of determination appeared at the corners of her lips. The rising tide bore her beyond safe harborage and she asked him what she really wanted to ask — what she had not meant to ask so soon: “Take me with you — when you go to the seashore tomorrow.”
The candle died. The stranger felt the full moon pressing against his back, gazing over his shoulder into her pale green eyes. He felt the swift current pull, swirl, rush him toward her shining stare. Yet, much as he longed to return to the deeps, some part of him distrusted the foreign waters of those eyes. He turned away, looked again at the reflected moon rippling on the dark, restless waters. The moon in the black sky just above it seemed too huge and too perfectly round to be real.
The man from the sea felt the young woman’s breath against his cheek.
She whispered, “Take me with you. Let me see what you do.”
The stranger let the undertow take him, let his hands cup her face as they longed to do, let the force that moved him bend his lips down to take hers, let the incredible softness, the unimaginable moist tenderness of her kiss astonish him. He floated in the sweet yet sharp sensations, the shivering delight of her smooth texture against his, the impossible warmth of her volcanic energy pressing back against his cool sea current. His hands and hers smoothed and stroked, marveled and trembled at the power of what they touched. The wine spun inside him, the world whirled up and away beyond them, as he was swept down the whirlpool toward her loveliness.
He knew something irrevocable was happening, something foreign, fraught with unseen shoals. But a man on a life raft must land where he can.
He lapped at her sweet shores, swam in her caresses. He had at last touched warmth and could not let go. He clutched her softness like a drowning man, afraid he would pull her down with him, but unable to unlock his limbs from hers, wrapped for dear life around her, their forms interlocked in one swirling, mutual descent. Desperately, he let himself drown, hoping against hope his own coldness would not chill her magnificent fire.
Whispering and sighing, the sea beat gently against the shore.
The man from the sea lay on his back in soft moonlight, nerves tingling, the flush of warmth suffusing them both, her light fingertips brushing across his chest.
She whispered, “Where are you from?”
Drifting between past and present, between consciousness and that ineffably sweet sleep that comes to a man only at such a time, he half heard, half felt her, his senses as confused and intermixed as their limbs were intertwined. Having no solid answers, he let what words wished spill forth.
“The storm was terrible,” he said softly. “Yet I remember little. High walls of water crashing down. A vast rage pounding the shore with shapeless fists. The storm took me from the world that was, to this. My memories are all aftermath.”
The lightest caress and the soothing voice asked as one, “Who are you?”
Shivering slightly at the sheer shock of her smoothness under his dreamily exploring hand, he said, “The man they pulled from the sea was me. And yet not me. I feel I am still floating with the debris in the ruined harbor. I float, and watch myself float, experiencing what comes and knowing nothing, but feeling that somehow, deeply, fundamentally, I am someone and something entirely different…”
Consciousness dimmed sweetly. Her fingers were a gentle insistence, waking him just enough to hear, “What happened to your memory?”
“My memories,” he murmured, hardly knowing what he said, “are with the town ruins at the bottom of the sea.”
“What are you, really – deeply – truly?”
“When I walk the shoreline,” he whispered, “I feel and speak — I don’t know how — the language of the deep. I am kin to the sea and can call forth its powers.”
Betraying his secret shocked him awake. He stilled further questions with his lips, pulled her halfway into his world with whispers and gentle insistence of his own. The ceaseless sea smoothed and rounded the soft dunes. Seals came close to shore and called to him. Luxuriant seaweed strands waved in the waters, and on the moonlit sands a thick-shelled crustacean dragged itself from the surf to stretch its primitive claws at the great unreachable moon.
The stranger sensed the moment of acceptance and knew the young woman felt and believed.
Within a week, the woman had become the stranger’s bridge to the fisher folk. She sold them his skill, his song. The woman told him when to speak to the sea and where to coax from it fair winds and good fishing, and the fishers who paid for his song profited.
As is sometimes the way with women and with men, the stranger and the woman came to be living in the same house and eating the same meals and sharing a communion of bodies with few words said. But he would not let her go with him to the ocean’s edge, for the songs came forth only when he was alone. She would smile in acceptance, yet he sensed the undertow that pulled the sand, grain by grain, from beneath her feet. He saw the forbidden fascinate her, and disturb her still waters. He felt her terrible hunger for his connection with the sea and watched her jealousy of it grow, and the wind began to rise.
A day came when the wind from the sea blew cold and the stranger’s worn black pea jacket could not keep out its bite. He stood at dawn on gray sands, raising his arms to thick clouds, singing to the sea. Strange cries importuned from his throat, and a storm began to brew on the seaward horizon. He told himself he could calm the sea — should use his gift to protect the town — would safeguard his comfortable home — must protect his love and his life and his cold flesh with a song of peace and gold light shafting into green waters, a song of smooth sailing and azure skies on bright days. But he found there was no such song in him.
He tried to stop his unearthly singing, his inhuman tones. He tried to ask himself, “Why should I seek the storm again? I value what I’ve built. I have a home, a wife, a place in this world.”
Yet he could not betray the song that sang through him. It was a living thing. As the fishermen could not leave a man in the sea, the stranger could not leave the song adrift, unfulfilled — for all that the tune remained a song of desolation, of the stunned survivor hanging on, floating on a makeshift raft, moved by currents he could not outguess, awaiting the return of the only thing that could still feel real to him — the storm.
Again the stranger tried to stop the flow, to dam the river of sound, to build dykes against the turn of the tide, but his attempt was a lie and a treason and he could no more change the song and remain himself than he could haul in a net and pretend he was a fisherman. Afraid of the current that moved him, afraid of the rising storm, still he gave himself up to the song as the truest part of him, let the impossible tones vibrate through him, his flesh a plucked harp string. He felt his throat expand, opening a conduit to the other world. Each exhilarating wave of sound crashed louder, soaring higher into the sky and the sea grew dark and rough.
When the last cry burst through him and up into the roiling clouds and out into the thundering sea, the stranger turned back. Half spent from the power that had coursed through him, fearful of what he had summoned from the deep, he struggled to keep his worn black shoes on the rocky path, leaning against the buffeting wind, ears ringing and stinging with the wind-chill.
The house loomed before him and he hurried to the door. His hand on the latch, he glimpsed another man waiting nearby, huddled in his dark blue pea jacket, his collar raised against the wind, hiding his features but for a scruff of beard. Fishers avoided the house of the man from the sea, calling him a being from another realm, yet the scruff-bearded man stood his ground, and on glimpsing the stranger, turned his back and continued to wait. The wind worsened and the man from the sea turned away from the muffled sailor, pulled open the plank door and ducked in, shutting it quickly behind him.
The light from the hearth was still rich and leaping, the oil-lamps glowed a steady, homey yellow, yet a fatal chill lay on the room. The stranger shivered in the warmth as he had never shivered in the cold. He cast his eyes about the room seeking the source of his dread.
There she sat, small and quiet, waiting.
Before she spoke a word, before she even raised her eyes, he felt his heart sink, knowing he had lost her.
She looked up at him and spoke in a small voice about little practical problems, circumnavigating the devastating choice she had made while he was out. But he knew. Her salvage attempt had failed. She had neither rebuilt his hulk into a fit domestic partner, nor made her way to the powers of the deep by sharing her flesh with the man from the sea.
“I’m leaving,” she said and took the wind from his sails. His mouth moved soundlessly as he drowned like a fish in air.
“I found a man,” she said. “A man who can give me something of what I want. A real man. A man of the shore, with red blood in his veins, who has no voice like a sea-beast but makes a good living. I’m going inland.”
The stranger could not answer. The language she had taught him lay dead at his feet. He could only stand, dumb as a cod, as if she had told him the sun had sunk into the sea never to rise again.
Outside, he heard the surf boom as the storm broke against the shore. Wind whipped the little house’s eaves. Its timbers groaned. Hail lashed walls and windows. Surf pounded in the man’s ears. Around him he sensed the town battening down to wait and see who would survive this time. A howling gale yanked at the corners of the stranger’s dwelling.
Rudderless, derelict, he stood staring at the woman.
“You see?” she said, to convince them both. “There’s no expression on your face. You’re not human.”
Cut adrift, he clutched at a waking dream — saw himself surrender utterly to passion, every floodgate in his soul bursting open, letting her see the full power rage through him, pure and elemental, unalloyed with human pity, flinging down a vast tidal wave to crush his rival, deluge the town and drag its shattered timbers far out to sea. He saw her as the survivor, naked, helpless, exhausted, clinging to debris floating in the wrack-filled harbor — saw himself rise waist-high from the waves beside her raft, smiling calmly down on her, lovingly guiding her back to the shore. No word would ever be spoken about the destruction he had wrought because she would know that she must accept him as she must accept any force of nature. He saw their little house, always warm, and the blond girl-child that would be born to them, and upon whom so much love and devotion would be lavished that one day he would turn his back on the sea and try to live as other men lived… Then he saw the woman stand again at the door, holding her child’s hand, saying, “I’m leaving. I found a man.”
The sharp images shattered. The stranger was flung back into the present by the hollow crash of moored boats thrown one against the other in the harbor below. The chimney moaned with shocking loudness, fluttering the fire to embers and whirling ash around the room. He tasted it in every breath.
The woman pulled her knit cap tightly about her ears, wrapped her cloak about herself, and unlatched the door. Wind slammed in and snuffed the lamps, sparks flew up the chimney and the fire died. She made her last statement simple and true. “You can destroy this town, but I’m leaving anyway. There’s nothing for me here.”
She walked out into the storm and shut the door behind her. The catch clicked, loud and firm. The door planks were solid and irrevocable in the dim light.
The gale roared over the huddled houses, pounding shutters, slamming gates, wailing through every hole in every wall, a cataclysm great enough to sweep away the stranger’s house, the town, the life he had accepted and that had never really been his — great enough, perhaps, to sweep him back into his native element.
The man from the sea stood in the empty house staring at his hands, still pale as a dead fish’s belly above sleeves black as the dark side of the moon. The hail pattered to silence. The chimney ceased to moan and the curtains to toss. The crashes stilled in the harbor below. The panes stopped rattling. The wind soughed back to silence. The night grew quiet but for the pounding surf, regular as a heartbeat.
The man from the sea stood expressionless in the empty house, once again cast on an alien shore. He stared at the pool of rainwater just inside the shut door, but could not see his own reflection. His shocked senses groped through the dark waters within himself, struggling for a finger-hold on his own reaction. His hands came up empty. What he felt was simply too big. He could never grasp the sea.
Yet he felt the weight of the emotion that would come in its own time, sensed it hanging unseen over his head, as a sailor senses a great wave rolling up behind his fragile bark though he is too busy with his lines to turn his head and look upon his doom.
At the same time, the stranger felt he had suddenly lost all the heaviness that had come upon him when first he was plucked from the sea and set upon the barren earth. His legs gave way beneath him and he sank into a chair. Motionless, he stared blankly at the walls.
From every plank, from every windowpane, from every separate seam of the walls and roof around him, drops of water began, one by one, to weep. To wash him clean.
“The Black Crow Calls” appeared on-line in The Druids Egg (Vol. 8 #1 Samhain-Yule 2009).
“When The Road Calls Your Name,” came out in The Druids Egg (Vol. 10 #1 Samhain-Yule 2010).
“Dead City,” “Severance,” “Tiwrnach’s Cave,” “Gladoens Knight of the Rock,” and “Souterrain” appeared in Cover of Darkness (Sams Dot Publishing) under my usual pseudonym Ross.
I have had scripts produced at the GroveMont Theatre (Monterey), Pacific Repertory Theater (Carmel), The Western Stage (Salinas), Actors Collective Media Entertainment (Monterey County) and elsewhere.