Black Petals Issue #86, Winter, 2019

Next Stop-Napper's Holler-Chapter 7-Gills

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The Sump-Fiction by Anthony Lukas
Tingles-Fiction by Kenneth James Crist
Winter's Gnome-Poem by Janet C. Ro
Saucer, Schmosser-Four Poems by Richard Stevenson

gills.jpg

Gills

(From the Journal of Edwin Thomas, Schoolmaster)

 

 

     “The adversary you cannot see, Edwin, is to be feared more than the one you can see,” began Father Joe, rubbing his chin in a way that I knew indicated a parable to follow.

     Outside, winter had come early to Napper’s Holler, and the wind almost drowned out Joe Murphy’s words. We sat, more like brothers than friends, at his cozy fireside in well-worn leather armchairs, our dogs at our feet, his brindle cat curled upon the rug, ignoring us and our dogs. Our cups of herb tea spiked with moonshine had mellowed our mood. Good fellowship settled itself upon our weary shoulders and gray heads. The upright housekeeper had long since retired to her nearby cottage, and no doubt snored away her cares under several layers of down.

     Although the practicing Catholics in Napper’s Holler could be counted on the fingers of one hand, as could the number of my students who had made it beyond the fourth grade, I knew why Joe’s tiny chapel was always full on Sundays. Ever ready with an entertaining yarn and a sympathetic ear, he asked no other recompense than the chance to share them.

     “Is what you’re about to tell me, Joe, somehow connected to your reason for coming to this isolated spot?”

     “That it is, Edwin. The Lord in his wisdom saw fit to send me as far inland as possible, and for his sending I shall always be grateful.”

     I shook my head in negation. “I hope my exile here by the county board of education will at least subtract from my purgatory time. Even they admit the Holler is, if you’ll excuse my phrasing, Joe, a godforsaken place.”

     “There are worse places, my friend.”

     “You don’t mean the Old Country where we both grew up, do you?”

     “Heavens, no! I was thinking more along the lines of the water which separates the shores of this New World from the one I left behind.”

     “Old salt that I am, Joe, I’ve always respected the ocean and her moods. Only injuries at sea put an end to my youthful career and set me on a scholarly course.” I knew that as Joe took in my serious tone he saw beyond the visible scars I bore. What frightened off all hope of female companionship served to give me the upper hand with my students. I let them embroider my drab past with the crimson hues of imagined piracy. Not one of them had seen the sea, and all feared my association with it.

     “The sea holds enough secrets to satisfy a man’s thirst for them till the end of time.” Joe smiled sadly, and then continued, “But not all knowledge is likely to edify the spirit. In fact, it was intimacy with what I came across that put me close to damnation.”

     He paused again, and we crossed ourselves. The cat stared at us oddly as we did so, as if she could not fathom a creature considering curiosity to be harmful. “I was tempted, my friend, to the point where it is difficult for me to even mention the temptress without gagging on the memory of her perfume’s salty tang.”

     “How different we are, Joe, for when I think of the cleanness of open water, as opposed to the stench of land, I could weep for missing it. I doubt anything you say will change my mind. You’re not just dwelling on how seasick you were on your journey?”

     Joe shifted his tack in his usual moral direction, “What is an occasion of sin for one person may lead another to salvation. The trick is to discern correctly.”

 

     I countered with science, feeling I must come to the defense of my former mistress. “At some stage in forming within our mothers, we human beings are fish and have gills. It has been proven.” I watched Joe start and blush, but chalked it up to his celibate state.

     “You may not, then, be shocked by what I relate. If I didn’t know better, I’d believe you to be a mind reader, Edwin.”

     “My students think so.” Feeling smug, I composed myself to listen and not interrupt.

     “Like so many of my countrymen, I came over in steerage aboard a tall ship. We must have been midway in our voyage, when a series of storms hit us. The confusion which followed reminded me of the time Jesus fell asleep in Peter’s boat on the Galilee Sea, and they lost faith. Even seasoned sailors were ill and in despair. Several died in accidents, some of exhaustion and one of heart failure. I was newly ordained and raw in my training, but did a tolerable job of ministering to the sick, including giving the Last Rites. I trusted it was God’s hand protecting me from seasickness and serious injury.

     “I finally collapsed and slept where I fell, though not for long. A sailor younger than me shook me roughly awake. ‘Cap’n wants ta see ya, Sir, up on deck. Step lively now!’

     “The ship, rocking gently, was canted to starboard. We were becalmed in a night both black and starless. I assumed we’d taken on enough water to be in danger of sinking. But, when I reached the deck, I discovered our list to be caused by a massive glistening, pulsating object which weighed down the starboard stern. An eerie greenish glow came from it, providing the only light on deck.

     “The captain, whose name—Waters—I’ve never forgotten, turned to me. His eyes were inky holes in his face. ‘Dagon has promised to save us in exchange for twelve fertile virgins, and has discovered eleven, all female, among us. Have you been faithful to your vow of celibacy?’ I nodded yes. Waters motioned to his crew to disrobe me by force.

     “I looked to the deck before the nightmare creature he called Dagon, and saw eleven naked female bodies, each penetrated by a deflowering tentacle. Their scent was like incense as they bucked and writhed, splay-limbed, before their defiler, not in terror, but in ecstasy.

     “A tentacle tore the crucifix from around my neck, another pinned my limbs, and a muscular tongue within a greedy mouth worked its slick will upon the root of my fertility until I moaned and delivered seed. My initial disgust turned to deep contentment.

     “‘You are my son, Jagon. I am pleased with you. It is your duty to feed the mouths of these wombs I have made ready for you so that they may grow your sweet seed.’ Dagon’s voice was like a heartbeat, the rhythmic sound one hears when a seashell is held to the ear.

     “‘I cannot be your son. I am human. What you ask of me is sinful.’

     “‘Raise your arms above your head,’ Dagon urged, continuing, ‘Mary Murphy, the one you call mother, found you on the beach twenty-two years ago, and has cared for you as her own. Have you never wondered why you were an only child? Mary was barren.’

     “As I lifted my arms, I heard a tearing sound. My humanity fell away, exposing the green skin beneath. I exuded a spicy, fishy odor. Gills opened up under my arms. Webbing appeared between my fingers and toes. A finny ridge emerged from my back, and my hair dropped from my slick scalp. As my member sprang forth, oozing green slime, I felt a powerful urge to please Dagon in satisfying my loins, and then dive into the depths. But God’s spirit broke through.

     “‘I am at the mercy of your might, Dagon. Indulge a son’s small request and show true strength. Let all of my offspring be baptized in the name of the one true God as I was.’

     “At this, Dagon thrashed like a creature whose heart has been thrust through, but did not release its hold on us. I thought of how my Savior on the cross did not move when the lance pierced his side. I thought of Christian virgins defiled by Roman soldiers before they were fed to the beasts to entertain the Roman masses. I thought of heaven…

     “From its body folds Dagon drew forth a fish-shaped chalice. It drained my engorged organ therein, drew some into a needlelike appendage, plunged this into each of them, and finally gulped down the frothy dregs of red blood, green seed and yellow mucus with great relish.

     “‘None of these humans will remember this night as you will, my son. Your seed bearers are mail-order brides headed for a certain coastal village in the New World. In nine months’ time, if you can discover them, go to their village and claim your babes for your God. Do not expect a warm welcome from the new husbands of your brides. Your children will all bear a strong resemblance to you, but will become more like me as they interbreed. I will call you again into my service later. For now, Beloved Son, sleep.’

     “The last thing I saw was Dagon’s golden eye. Mesmerized by the eye, I drifted into its depths, only to awake fevered, empty and alone. My crucifix was clutched in my hand. I and the ship had survived storms both seen and unseen. Defilement of a few had spared many. I’ve not encountered Dagon since, but hear the call often, Edwin. Do you?”

     Suddenly, I remembered the entire truth of how I had acquired my own injuries. I buried my tentacle-disfigured face in my hands, weeping bitterly. And then we two prayed together.

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