Wreck at Wickhampton
Often I dream of that cold and storm-impassioned sea and a boat flitting behind the waves -- flitting and spectral with crippled sails -- flitting before the great drink took it. I dream a mad thudding blizzard of sheep, of a kiss soft and chill, of cliffs overlooking the Atlantic's beckoning pewter. How often I dream...
I am a man of medicine, neither charmed nor made fearful by tales fishermen tell of the sea and her mysteries. Surely, I admit that the Atlantic can be a thing of treacherous might, but until a certain night, some years back, I thought myself immune to superstitious fancy. At first I was amused when fishermen whispered of strange and marvelous creatures, of gigantic demon-squid and briefly-spied darkly glinting mermaids. Remnants of the barbarous 1600's one might think. Oh, I suppose there's something quaint, in an archaic sort of way, about gathering around a fire and speaking of strange aquatic lights and the ghostly voices of the drowned.
Having schooled in London, I found the village of Wickhampton a quiet, if not somewhat tedious, bit of earth. The locals farmed both the land and sea and seemed as content as can reasonably be expected. One could not easily -- without some long miles of travel, that is -- escape a feeling of isolation at times. Indeed, I wondered, were Wickhampton to slide off into the sea if anyone would notice?
The natives were good folk, by the large, though I was something of a curiosity to them. Some were suspicious of me and only slightly more accepting when I learned not to try replacing their familiar, long-standing folk remedies with my "city-learned ways", but to work alongside them. There's no loss of wisdom in compromising, I say.
Well, it was the dreary season of winter when the strange episode I am about to relate occurred. The days were short and grey; the rain beat down for nearly a week without respite. Not the bravest nor the foolhardy dared tempt the raucous sea. I was tucked cozily in my humble abode, lazily occupying myself with good books and poor brandy, when sometime between the hours of ten and midnight -- I can't recall with perfect clarity -- an eager knocking fell upon my door.
It was Harry Watkins, a gruff disheveled sort in his early fifties; a shepherd. The poor creature was near-drowned from the storm as he stood there shivering in a most violent manner. "Doctor Miles," he panted, "there's a horrid thing happened on the beach 'neath the cliffs..."
"What is it, man?" I asked.
"A wreck... oh, 'tis bloody awful. Bodies..."
I made quick for a lantern, my rain gear and bag, mumbling something about idiots going out on a sea in such weather. On our way to the beach, with a roaring wet wind shaking the carriage, Watkins described a frightful scene.
"I was in my cottage, when I heard the sheep out in the barn making a fearful commotion. I hurried out to calm them, thinking the storm had 'em spooked," Watkins explained. "All of a sudden, I heard a queer sort of whistling, not like any wind I ever heard -- it was almost like a voice. Put chills down my spine, I don't mind tellin' ya."
Watkins went on to describe how next he ventured outside and ran to the cliffs just west of his dwelling, following the sound. From that windy height, he viewed the churning sea. His voice dropped as he went on. "There I saw it -- a boat, not much bigger than a schooner, I'd say, its sails in rags. It was only seconds. I tell you, doctor, I felt a helpless man watching it flit in and out of waves near twice its height. Then it was gone, and that strange whistling sound came once more -- then it too was gone. That's when I headed down to the beach."
My sleep is disturbed by dreams of bone and wood breaking, of eyes as dark as the sea's cold floor. I cower in my bed and sweat. I see a boat eaten whole by a storm and a beach like a battlefield. Lonely hours embrace me as I cry fool tears in silence. I cower in my bed and tremble.
The beach stretched long where angry waves clapped. Watkins led me squinting against the gale, pointing to the soggy pale figures splayed across the sand, where the Atlantic had spit them. I knelt over the first, a woman, face down in the mud. Her full white dress seemed a film poured upon her, the ragged shawl like seaweed. I turned her over. It chills me still to think upon the sight. Mind you, I had seen the dead before, but to witness youth and beauty so pitifully disposed by the ill treatment of fate, was nothing less than obscene. Ah, a delicate thing she'd been. Lovely. There she lay with the numb gaze characteristic of one deceased, slack, with salt water pouring from her nostrils and mouth.
"There's more over here!" a voice yelled through the howling storm. I had not noticed that the local parson and a farmer by the name of Aldrich had also reached the tragic scene.
We made our way down the beach. Splintered bits of wood had washed up along with the bodies, of which we counted four. They were all young women clad in sopping garments of white, all with dark hair plastered, limbs thrown like a dropped dolls'. One was in a painful-looking tangle of lines.
"Looks like we've got the pilot here," Watkins noted, poking at the next corpse with the toe of his boot. The only male among them; he was bald, not terribly older than the others, I should think. There was a gory hole perhaps an inch and three quarters wide punched in the upper left region of his chest, no doubt a sorry consequence of the wreck. He was sprawled, his clothing weighted with mud, a wooden mallet still clenched in one hand -- I imagined that he had attempted a desperate repair effort.
"That's five," I said.
"Dear Heavens!" the parson exclaimed as he stood over number six. He clapped a hand across his mouth and stepped away, cold spray drumming on his hunched shoulders.
She lay face up, dressed in black, her beautiful head resting on the inky pillow of her own wet hair. Never had I, nor have I since, seen eyes so dark. How I've wondered what it would have been like to gaze into them when they were filled with life... if ever they were.
"What do you make of that?" Watkins asked, pointing to the three brass-colored metal spikes protruding from her forehead.
I could only shrug. I was at an equal loss for words when asked my opinion concerning the shackles about her wrists. The chain, which had apparently linked the bands, was broken.
"There's one more," Watkins yelled above the hiss of surf and wind. I jogged over and knelt and was much relieved to find that this last form was not a body after all, but a wooden figurehead. A curious thing it was, too, rather like an upright serpent, or eel of sorts, with a woman's proud breasts and a spiked crown on its head. The face was of a most malignant character, the eyes set deep and the mouth a snarl.
"What do we do now, Doctor?" Parson James asked me.
"Might I suggest we take them up hill to Mr. Watkins' and rest them in the barn until morning. We'd be wise not to attempt traveling all the way to the village in this tempest. Would that be acceptable to you, Mr. Watkins?"
"Aye, Doctor. You're all welcome to stay," the shepherd said.
We hefted the soggy bodies one by one onto Mr. Aldrich's flat-bed cart and took the winding path up to the ledge high above the beach. From there it was a short distance to the Watkins place, an unpretentious, one might even say cozy assemblage of stone and thatch.
The fever of cruel memories ravages my brief hours of sleep. What a cold and soulless wind it is that fills the sail of my unguarded mind! I dream of a flitting boat, of men mad and dying. I hear the drumming of rain and hooves, and feel silent breasts against my own enraged heart. How I dread the curse of sleep! The past hammers such dreams to my skull!
We crowded about the fire, damp to the bone, our emotions drained. There was nothing more we could do that night. Dark and bitter ale was poured.
"They were not of these parts," the parson, a man of middle age, said.
"Probably foreigners lost in the storm," Watkins suggested.
Much of the discussion concerned the lass with those three dreadful spikes pounded into her head. Apparently she had been a prisoner of sorts. Why had someone put nails in her, though? I found it rather disquieting to realize that the most beautiful woman I had ever laid eyes upon was a corpse.
Watkins studied me, his weathered face under-lit by the fire. "Doctor Miles, what do you make of them nails, then? They're like no metal I've ever seen."
"Nor I," Aldrich echoed.
Of course I had no explanation. To this day I wonder. "I'm not sure," I said. When first I had seen the spikes, there on the rain-swept beach, I had assumed they were brass, or even gold, but after laying the bodies on the straw-floored barn, I bent to better inspect them. I can not say with any certainty that the objects were metal. Although there was a golden quality about them, I recall there was a translucence as well, not unlike that of amber. Yet they were not stone and they were not quite metallic. They were a substance utterly unfamiliar.
The parson flinched as kindling snapped.
Watkins wondered aloud, "Perhaps the metal is of great value..."
"I wouldn't venture to guess," said I.
These dreams feast upon my drowning sanity! I see bodies on a beach, a naked woman drooling chains! I hear that shrill steam-hissing shriek! Sleep, I fear you! God save me from the plague of dreams! I see that cursed boat flicker and vanish. A woman of wood with a serpent's head!
I fail to find words accurate enough to thoroughly describe the sound that woke me, as I lay huddled in a blanket on the floor by the fireplace. Such a strange dream had visited me! I fancied I had risen and walked out into the stormy night and gone into the dark stone barn, past the sheep bunched together for warmth, a fluttering candle my only guide.
In this slumberous adventure, I approached the shadowy recess of the barn where the bodies from the beach had been stored. I stood looking down at them... figures pale and slack, vague in the dimness. I could hear the rain washing down the outer walls and the heavy breathing of the sheep.
The lovely one with the coal-black hair and features so smooth and gentle, was slumped across a work bench. The three spikes glimmered strangely; almost, I dare say, beckoningly. She smelled damp and salty and I found a trembling hand reaching to touch her clammy ankle. Ah, a chill through me! How odd, though -- the hand did not look like my own; it appeared to be that of an older man, more rugged, more like that belonging to Watkins. Still, in that dream, I peeled her dark, wet dress back and fumbled greedily at the layers until each cool and colorless inch of her lay bare before me, only warmed by the candle's tepid flickers and my hands' tremulous caresses.
Never had I seen a form of such lush beauty! How smooth the belly, how round her thighs, the plump soft of her brine-pale bosom. I bent to kiss the motionless belly and dreamed my tongue across her thighs and hips. Slowly I closed my lips about the puckered tips of her breasts.
Did my ears then dream a raspy moan or did the rain stealing through the old cracked walls mock my still lover's response? My mouth sought hungrily across her throat and on up to the sullen face. Never had I seen eyes so dark! I licked at the flat heads of her rigid crown of nails and languidly suckled the one in the middle. Her lips were cool against my own and the thick tongue she squirmed into my mouth tasted of the ocean's depths.
As I said -- the shrill whistle-like noise jarred me from my sleep.
"Dear God," I said in a shudder, getting up from the floor. The chill that racked me was partly due to my frightful dream and partly because the door to Watkins' cottage stood open, filling the place with damp wind. I looked about the room -- the others were not to be seen. I found a lantern, lit it and went out.
I called into the gale, "Watkins! Aldrich! Parson James!"
I staggered to the barn, the furious wind pounding against me. The door was open and a body was sprawled before my feet. It was Aldrich. He lay on his back, gawking at the low beams of the ceiling, his mouth in a wide blood-rimmed O.
What a fool I was! I should have fled, but I stalked deeper into the long stone barn. The livestock rustled restlessly, watching as I passed. The sound of rain and wind grew louder as I neared the spot where we had put the victims of the wreck. The rear door, apparently was not shut properly.
What horror! Watkins lay face down, his trousers about his ankles, at the foot of the workbench, which was empty but for a woman's damp discarded garments. He was not far from those who drowned -- the back of his head ruptured outward. In one hand he still clenched pliers, and something small and glinting poked from his other fist. I stooped and took it... one of those mysterious yellowed spikes.
The rear door swung wide as the wind howled in and I witnessed a scene most unnerving. The figures both looked grey and ghost-vague behind the flailing sheets of rain-- the parson, naked, flat on his back, straddled by the dark-haired corpse-woman who undulated rhythmically, the chains rattling from her wrists. She turned to stare at me with scalding black eyes and an ambiguous little smile while the mad parson looked over and broke into maniacal laughter.
How can I convey the utter fear and desperation that overtook me as I watched while the woman bent over the parson, opened her mouth, and launched a thick black eel straight into that poor fellow's throat? I turned to run as the tongue recoiled into her mouth.
I swooned with terror, I stumbled, drowning in the internal rush of my own maddened blood. The floor was slick with gore and straw -- I fell! Dear God, I thought, help me! I saw the woman bound in and kneel over Watkins. It appeared as if she whispered something close into his gaping mouth and then he sat forward and pulled himself upright! The woman repeated this action with those we had transported from the beach and they also became animated!
I scrabbled to my feet and sprang over the form of Aldrich, dashing out into the storm. Powered by panic beyond measure, I ran blindly, glancing back to see that dark-haired woman, now missing the middle spike from her forehead, chasing a flock of frightened sheep. Charging along behind her were the parson, Aldrich, Watkins and the others from the beach.
Had I been of clearer mind, or had it not been raining in so blinding a density, I would have made my escape in a different direction, for I realized, too late, that I was running directly toward the edge of the steep grassy cliff that overlooked the sea.
I turned, clutching that woman's spike as a blizzard of sheep bumped against and by me. The poor distressed beasts plunged onward, off the ledge, splashing and pounding below. Then I faced only the human stampede, if human is what those rushing sneering creatures were! I gawked as the eel-tongued woman led her wretched pack.
I turned away, no longer able to face my certain doom and in a final expression of panicked rage, flung that spike far into the tumult of waves. Once more the shrill whistling came -- closer and closer, seeming to issue from the uncorked hole in the corpse-woman's head. I turned in time to see the charging bodies closing on me in a wall-like formation, then, to my absolute surprise, they ran past me on either side, leaping off the cliff, dropping one by one into the wild surf below.
Often I dream of a ship flitting through steel-colored waves, of sheep raining and a banshee-wild whistling like a wind in my head! I dream a woman with a serpent for a smile! I am cursed to dream a sepulchral barn... of dead flesh 'neath my warm lips and blood racing and spilled!
Tonight I will sleep, yes, tonight it will end. Put this pistol to my head, for I will dream no more!
© Scott Thomas 1993, 2001.
This story was first published in Dead of Night,
and also appears in Scott's collection,
Cobwebs And Whispers (Delirium Books, 2001).
Delirium Books can be contacted at
PO Box 338 North Webster, IN 46555, USA.
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