The Dark

New Ghost Stories

Edited by Ellen Datlow

Tor Books

THE DARK
THE TRENTINO KID
JEFFREY FORD
 
 
 
 
 
 
WHEN I WAS SIX, my father took me to Fire Island and taught me how to swim. That day he put me on his back and swam out past the buoy. My fingers dug into his shoulders as he dove, and somehow I just knew when to hold my breath. I remember being immersed in the cold, murky darkness and that down there the sound of the ocean seemed to be inside of me, as if I were a shell the water had put to its ear. Later, beneath the striped umbrella, the breeze blowing, we ate peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches, grains of sand sparking off my teeth. Then he explained how to foil the undertow, how to slip like a porpoise beneath giant breakers, how to body surf. We practiced all afternoon. As the sun was going down, we stood in the backwash of the receding tide, and he held my hand in his big callused mitt, like a rock with fingers. Looking out at the horizon where the waves were being born, he summed up the day's lesson by saying, "There are really only two things you need to know about the water. The first is you always have to respect it. The second, you must never panic, but always try to be sure of yourself."
Years later, after my father left us, after I barely graduated high school, smoked and drank my way out of my first semester at college, and bought a boat and took to clamming for a living, I still remembered his two rules. Whatever degree of respect for the water I was still wanting, by the time I finished my first year working the Great South Bay, the brine had shrunk it, the sun had charred it, and the wind had blown it away, or so I thought. Granted, the bay was not the ocean, for it was usually more serene, its changes less obviously dramatic. There wasn't the constant crash of waves near the shore, nor the powerful undulation of swells farther out, but the bay did have its perils. Its serenity could lull you, rock you gently in your boat of a sunny day, like a baby in a cradle, and then, with the afternoonwind, a storm could build in minutes, a dark, lowering sky quietly gathering behind your back while you were busy working.
When the bay was angry enough, it could make waves to rival the ocean's and they wouldn't always come in a line toward shore but from as many directions as one could conceive. The smooth twenty-minute ride out from the docks to the flats could, in the midst of a storm, become an hour-long struggle back. When you worked alone, as I did, there was more of a danger of being swamped. With only one set of hands, you could not steer into the swells to keep from rolling over and pump the rising bilge at the same time. Even if you weren't shipping that much water and were able to cut into the choppy waves, an old wooden flat-bottom could literally be slapped apart by the repeated impact of the prow dropping off each peak and hitting the water with a thud.
At that point in my life, it was the second of my father's two rules that was giving me trouble. In general, and very often in a specific sense, I had no idea what I was doing. School had been a failure, and once I'd let it slip through my grasp, I realized how important it could have been to me moving forward in my life. Now I was stuck and could feel the tide of years subtly beginning to rise around me. The job of clamming was hard work, getting up early, pulling on a rake for eight to ten hours a day. There was thought involved but it didn't require imagination, and if anything, imagination was my strong suit. Being tied to the bay was a lonely life, save for the hour or so at the docks in the late afternoon when I would drink the free beer the buyers supplied and bullshit with the other clammers. It was a remarkable way to mark time, to be busy without accomplishing anything. The wind and sun, the salt water, the hard work, aged a body rapidly, and when I would look at the old men who clammed, I was too young to sense the wisdom their years on the water had bestowed upon them and saw only what I did not want to become.
This was back in the early seventies, when the bay still held a bounty of clams, a few years before the big companies came in and dredged it barren. There was money to be made. I remember certain weekends when a count bag, five hundred littleneck clams, went for two hundred dollars. I didn't know many people my age who were making two to three hundred dollars a day.
I had a little apartment on the second floor of an old stucco building that looked like a wing of the Alamo. There was a guy living above me, whom I never saw, and beneath me an ancient woman whose haggard face, half obscured by a lace curtain, peered from the window when I'd leave at daybreak. At night, she would intone the rosary, and the sound of her words would rise through the heating duct in my floor. Her prayers found their way into my monotonous dreams of culling seed clams and counting neck. I drove a three-door Buick Special with a light rust patina that I'dbought for fifty dollars. A big night out was getting plastered at The Copper Kettle, trying to pick up girls.
In my first summer working the bay, I did very well for a beginner, and even socked a little money away toward some hypothetical return to college. In my spare time, in the evenings and those days when the weather was bad, I read novels--science fiction and mysteries--and dreamed of one day writing them. Since I had no television, I would amuse myself by writing stories in those black-and-white-marbled notebooks I had despised the sight of back in high school. In the summer, when the apartment got too close, I'd wander the streets at night through the cricket heat, breathing the scents of honeysuckle and wisteria, and dream up plots for my rickety fictions.
That winter the bay froze over. I'd never seen anything like it. The ice was so thick you could drive a car on it. The old-timers said it was a sign that the following summer would be a windfall of a harvest but that such a thing, when it happened, which was rare, was always accompanied by deaths. I first heard the prediction in January, standing on the ice one day when some of us had trudged out a few hundred yards and cut holes with a chain saw through which to clam. Walking on the water that day in the frigid cold, a light snow sweeping along the smooth surface and rising in tiny twisters, was like a scene out of a fairy tale.
"Why deaths?" I asked wrinkle-faced John Hunter as he unscrewed a bottle of schnapps and tipped it into his mouth.
He wiped his stubbled chin with a gloved hand and smiled, three teeth missing. "Because it can't be any other way," he said and laughed.
I nodded, remembering the time when I was new and I had, without securing it, thrown my anchor over the side in the deep water beneath the bridge. The engine was still going and my boat was moving, but I dove over the side, reaching for the end of the line. I managed to grab it, but when I came up, there I was in forty feet of water, my boat gone, holding onto a twenty-pound anchor. The next thing I saw was old Hunter, leaning over me from the side of his boat, reaching out that wiry arm of his. His hand was like a clamp, his bicep like coiled cable. He hauled me in and took me back to my drifting boat, the engine of which had sputtered out by then.
"I should've let you drown," he said, looking pissed off. "You're wasting my time."
"Thanks," I told him as I climbed sheepishly back into my boat.
"I only saved you because I had to," he told me.
"Why'd you have to?" I asked.
"That's the rule of the bay. You have to help anyone in trouble, as long as you've got the wherewithal to."
Since then, he had shown me how to seed a bed, where some of thechoice spots were, how to avoid the conservation guys, who were hot to give tickets for just about anything. I was skeptical about what connection a frozen bay had to do with death in the summer, but by then I had learned to just nod.
Spring came and my old boat, an eighteen-foot, flat-bottom wooden job I'd bought for a hundred and fifty bucks and fiberglassed myself, was in bad shape. After putting it back in the water, I found I had to bail the thing out with a garbage can every morning before I could leave the dock. Sheets of fiberglass from my less-than-expert job were sloughing off like peeling skin from a sunburn. I got Pat Ryan, another clammer, to go out with me one day, and we beached the leaky tub on a spit of sand off Gardner's Park. Once we landed, he helped me flip it, and I shoved some new occum, a cottony material that expands when wet, into the seams and recaulked it.
"That's a half-assed job for sure," Pat told me, his warning vaguely reminding me of my father.
"It'll last for a while," I said and waved off his concern.
Just like the old-timers predicted, the clams were plentiful that spring. There were days I would have to put in only four or five hours and I could head back to the dock with a count and a half. It was a season to make you wonder if clamming might not be a worthy life's work. Then, at the end of May, the other part of their prediction came to pass. This kid, Jimmy Trentino, who was five years younger than me (I remembered having shot baskets with him a few times at the courts in the park when I was still in high school), walked in off the shore with a scratch rake and an inner tube and a basket, dreaming of easy money. A storm came up, the bay got crazy very fast, and either weighted down by the rake or having gotten his foot stuck in a sinkhole, he drowned.
The day it happened, I had gotten to the dock late and seen the clouds moving in and the water getting choppy. John Hunter had told me that when the wind kicked up and the bay changed from green to the color of iron, I should get off it as quickly as I could. The only thing more dangerous was standing out there holding an eight-foot metal clam rake during a lightning storm. I got back in my car and drove to the Copper Kettle. Pat Ryan came in at dinnertime and told everyone about the Trentino kid. They dredged for a few days afterward, but the body was never found. That wasn't so unusual, given what an immense, fickle giant the bay was with its myriad currents, some near the surface, some way down deep. As Earl, the bartender, put it, "He could be halfway to France or he might wind up on the beach in Brightwaters tomorrow."
A week later I was sitting on an overturned basket, drinking a beer at the dock after having just sold my haul. A couple of guys were gathered aroundand Downsy, a good clammer but kind of a high-strung, childish blowhard, was telling about how this woman had shown up at his boat one morning and begged him to take her out so she could release her husband's ashes.
"She was packing the fucking urn like it was a loaf of bread," he said, "holding it under her arm. She was around thirty but she was hot."
As Downsy droned on toward the inevitable bullshit ending of all of his stories, how he eventually boffed some woman over on Grass Island or in his boat, I noticed an old Pontiac pull up at the dock. A slightly bent, little old bald man got out of it. As he shuffled past the buyers' trucks and in our direction, I realized who it was. The Trentino kid's father was the shoemaker in town and had a shop next to the train tracks for as long as I could remember. I don't think I ever rode my bike past it when I was a kid that I didn't see him in the window, leaning over his work, a couple of tacks sticking out of his mouth.
"Hey," I said, and when the guys looked at me, I nodded in the old man's direction.
"Jeez," somebody whispered. Pat Ryan put out his cigarette and Downsy shut his mouth. As Mr. Trentino drew close to us, we all got up. When he spoke, his English was cut with an Italian accent.
He stood before us with his head down, his glasses at the end of his nose. "Fellas," he said.
We each mumbled or whispered how sorry we were about his son.
"OK," he said, and I could see tears in his eyes. Then he looked up and spoke to us about the weather and the Mets and asked us how business was. We made small talk with him for a few minutes, asked him if he wanted a beer. He waved his hands in front of him and smiled, shaking his head.
"Fellas," he said, looking down again. "Please, remember my boy."
We knew what he was asking, and we all said, almost like a chorus, "We will." He turned around then, walked back to his car, got in and drove away.
We were a superstitious bunch. I think it had to do with the fact that we spent our days bobbing on the surface of a vast mystery. So much of what our livelihood depended on was hidden from view. It wasn't so great a leap of imagination to think that life also had its unseen, unfathomable depths. The bay was teeming with folklore and legend--man-eating sharks slipping through the inlet to roam the bay, a sea turtle known as Moola that was supposedly as big as a Cadillac, islands that vanished and then reappeared, sunken treasure, a rogue current that could take you by the foot and drag you through underground channels to leave your body bobbing in Lake Ronkonkoma on the North Shore of Long Island. I had, in fact, seen some very big sea turtles and walked on an island that had been bornovernight. By mid-June, the Trentino kid's body had, through our psyches and the promise made to his old man, been swept into this realm of legend.
Almost daily, I heard reports from other guys who had seen it floating just below the surface only twenty yards or so from where they were clamming. They'd weigh anchor and start their engines, but by the time they maneuvered their boats to where they had seen it, it would be gone. Every time it was spotted, some mishap would follow--a lost rake head, a cracked transom, the twin-hole vampire bite from an eel. The kid was soon understood to be cursed. One night, after Pat Ryan got finished relating his own run-in with the errant corpse, Downsy, who was well drunk by then, swore that when he was passing the center of the bridge two days earlier, he'd seen the pale, decomposing figure of the kid swim under his boat.
"Get the fuck outa here," somebody said to him and we laughed.
He didn't laugh. "It was doing the god-damn breast stroke, I swear," he said. "It was swimming like you swim in good dreams, like flying underwater."
"Did you end up boffing it on Grass Island?" somebody asked.
Downsy was dead serious, though, and to prove it, took a swing at the joker, inciting a brawl that resulted in Earl banning him from the Kettle for a week.
I asked John Hunter the next day, as our boats bobbed side by side off the eastern edge of Grass Island, if it was possible the kid's body could still be around.
"Sure," he said, "anything's possible, except maybe you raking more neck than me in a day. My guess is that you wouldn't want to find it at this point--all bloated and half-eaten by eels and bottom feeders. Forget the eyes, the ears, the lips, the belly meat. The hair will still be there, though, and nothing's gonna eat the teeth."
"Could it be cursed?" I asked him.
He laughed. "You have to understand something," he said. "If I was talking to you on dry land, I'd think you were nuts, but this is the bay. The ocean, the bay, the waters of the world are God's imagination. I've known wilder things than that to be true out here."
The image of what was left of the kid when John Hunter finished his forensic menu haunted me. At night, while I was trying to read, it floated there in my thoughts, obscuring whatever story I was in the middle of. Then the words of the rosary threaded their way up from downstairs to weave an invisible web around it, fixing it fast, so that the current of forgetting couldn't whisk it away. One hot midnight at the end of June, I couldn't take thinking about it anymore, so I slipped on my sneakers and went out walking. I headed away from The Copper Kettle, to the quiet side of town. I'd been burnt badly by the sun that day and the breeze against my skinmade me shiver. For an hour or more I wandered aimlessly until I finally took a seat on a park bench next to the basketball court.
I realized it was not chance that had brought me to that spot. They say that when you drown, your life passes before your eyes in quick cuts like a television commercial. I wondered if in that blur of events, the kid had noticed me passing him the ball, getting the older guys to let him play in a game, showing him how to shoot from the foul line. What before had been a vague memory now came back to me in vivid detail. I concentrated hard on my recollection of him in life, and this image slowly replaced the one of him drowned and ravaged by the bay.
He was a skinny kid, not too tall, not too short, with brown silky hair in a bowl cut. When I knew him, he was about ten or eleven, but he had long arms, good for stopping passes and stealing the ball. He was quick and unafraid of the older guys who were much bigger than him. What I saw most clearly were his eyes, big round ones, the color green of bottle glass tumbled smooth by the surf, that showed his disappointment at missing a shot or the thrill of playing in a game with high-school-aged guys. He was quiet and polite, not a show-off by any means, and I could tell he was really listening when I taught him how to put back-spin on the ball. Finding him in my thoughts was not so very hard. What was nearly impossible was conceiving of him lifeless--no more, a blank spot in the world. I thought about all the things he would miss out on, all the things I had done between his age and mine. Later that night, after I had made my way home and gone to sleep, I dreamt I was on the basketball court with him. He was shooting foul shots, and I stepped up close and leaned over. "Remember, you must never panic," I said.
Come July, the bottom fell out of the market, and prices paid for counts went way down due to the abundance of that summer's harvest. Not even John Hunter could predict the market, and so although we'd all made a killing in May and June, we were now going to have to pay for it for the rest of the season. We'd all gone a little crazy with our money at the bar, not thinking ahead to the winter and those days it would be impossible to work.
I started staying out on the water longer, only getting back to the dock when the sun was nothing more than a red smudge on the horizon. Some of the buyers would be gone by then, but a couple of them stayed around and waited for us all to get in. I also started playing it a little fast and loose with the weather, going out on days that were blustery and the water was choppy. In May and June I'd have written them off and gone back to bed or read a book, but I wanted to hold on to what I had saved through the flush, early part of the season.
One afternoon, in the last week in July, while over in the flats due south of Babylon, I had stumbled upon a vein of neck, a bed like you wouldn'tbelieve. I was bringing up loaded rake heads every fifteen minutes or so. After two straight hours of scratching away, the clams were still abundant. Around three o'clock, in the midst of my labor, I felt the wind rise, but paid it no mind since it invariably came on in the late afternoon. Only when I had to stop to rest my arms and catch my breath an hour later did I notice that the boat was really rocking. By my best estimation, I'd taken enough for two count bags of little-neck and a bag of top-neck. While I rested, I decided to cull some of my take and get rid of the useless seed clams and the chowders. That's when I happened to look over my shoulder and notice that the sun was gone and the water had grown very choppy.
I stood up quickly and turned to look back across the bay only to see whitecaps forming on the swells and that the color of the water was darkening toward that iron gray. In the distance, I could see clam boats heading back in toward the docks.
"Shit," I said, not wanting to leave the treasure trove that still lay beneath me, but just then a wave came along and smacked the side of the boat, sending me onto my ass between the seat slats and into the bilge. That was all the warning I needed. I brought in my rake, telescoped the handle down, and stowed the head. When I looked up this time, things had gotten a lot worse. The swells had already doubled in size, and the wind had become audible in its ferocity. By the time I dragged in the anchor, the boat was lurching wildly. The jostling I took made it hard for me to maneuver. I had to be careful not to get knocked overboard.
"Come on, baby," I said after pumping the engine. I pulled on the cord only once and it fired up and started running. I swung the handle to turn the boat around in order to head back across the bay to the dock. Off to my left, I noticed a decked-over boat with a small, red cabin, and knew it was Downsy. He was heading in the wrong direction. I followed his path with my sight and for the first time laid eyes on a guy who was scratch-raking about a hundred yards to my left. He was in up to his chest and although he could stand, the walk back to the shallows by the bridge was a good four hundred yards. He'd never make it. Without thinking, I turned in that direction to see if I could help.
As I chugged up close, I saw Downsy move quickly back into his cabin from where he had been leaning over the clammer on the side of the boat. His engine roared, and he turned the boat around and left the guy standing there in the water. His boat almost hit the front of mine as he took off. I called to him, but he never looked back. I pulled my boat up alongside the guy in the water and was about to yell, "How about a lift," when I saw why Downsy had split.
Bobbing in that iron-gray water, trying to keep his head above the swells, was the Trentino kid. He wasn't the decomposed horror show that John Hunter had described, but his skin was mottled a very pale white andbruise green. Around the lower portion of his throat he had that drowned man's blue necklace. His hair was plastered to his head by the water, and those big green eyes peered up at me, his gaze literally digging into mine. That look said, "Help me," as clearly as if he had spoken the words. He was shivering like mad, and he held his arms up, hands open, like a baby wanting to be carried.
I sat there in the wildly rocking boat, staring in disbelief, my heart racing. What good it was going to do me against the dead, I didn't know, but I drew my knife, a ten-inch serrated blade and just held it out in front of me. My other hand was on the throttle of the engine, keeping it at an idle. I wanted to open the engine up all the way and escape as fast as possible, but I was paralyzed somewhere between pity and fear. Then a big wave came swamping the kid and slamming the side of my boat. The whole craft almost rolled over, and the peak of the curl slapped me in the face with ice-cold water.
The dead kid came up spluttering, silently coughing water out of his mouth and nose. His eyes were brimming with terror.
"What the hell are you?" I yelled.
His arms, his fingers, reached for me more urgently.
"Deaths," the old-timers had said, as in the plural, and this thought wriggled through my frantic mind like an eel, followed by my realization that what Downsy had been fleeing was the "curse." I took another wave in the side and the boat tipped perilously, the water drenching me. Clams scattered across the deck as the baskets slid, and my cull box flew over the side. I felt, in my confusion and fright, a brief stab of regret at losing it. I looked back to the kid and could see that he seemed anchored in place, his foot no doubt in a sinkhole. Another minute and he would be out of sight beneath the surface. I thought I'd be released from my paralysis once his eyes were covered by the gray water. I dropped my knife and almost thrust my hand out to grab his, but the thought of taking Death into my boat stopped me in mid-reach.
I had to leave or I'd be swamped and sunk just lolling there in the swells. "No way," I said aloud, with every intention of opening the throttle, but just then the kid made one wild lunge, and the tips of the green-tinged fingers of his left hand landed on the side of the boat. I remembered John Hunter telling me it was the rule of the bay to help when you could. The boat got slammed, and I saw the kid's hand begin to slip off the gunwale. I couldn't let him die again, so I reached out. It was like grabbing a handful of snow, freezing cold and soft, and a chill shot up through my arm to my head and formed a vision of the moment of his true death. I felt his panic, heard his underwater cry for his father, the words coming clear through a torrent of bubbles that also released his life. Then I came to and was on my feet, using my season-and-a-half of rake pulling muscle to drag that kid, dead or alive,up out of the bay. His body landed in my boat with a soggy thud, and as it did, I was thrown off balance and nearly took a dive over the side.
He was curled up like a fetus and unnaturally light when I lifted him into a sitting position on the plank bench at the center of the boat. A wave of revulsion passed through me as I touched his slick, spongy flesh. He'd come out of the water wearing nothing, and I had no clothes handy to protect him against the wind. He faced back at me where I sat near the throttle of the engine. There was a good four inches of water sloshing around in the bottom. I quickly lifted the baskets of clams and chucked them all over the side one at a time. I had to lighten the load and get the boat to ride higher through the storm. Then I sat down with those big green eyes staring into me, and opened the throttle all the way.
Lightning streaked through the sky, sizzling down and then exploding over our heads. The waves were massive, and now the storm scared me more than the living corpse. I headed toward the dock, aiming to overshoot it since I knew the wind would drive us eastward. If I was lucky, I could get to a cove I knew of on the southern tip of Gardner's Park. I had briefly thought of heading out toward Grass Island and beaching there, but in a storm like the one raging around us, there was no telling if the island would be there tomorrow.
I never tried harder at anything in my life than preventing myself from wondering how this dead kid was sitting in front of me, shivering cold. The only thought that squeaked through my defenses was, "Is this a miracle?" Then those defenses busted open, and I considered the fact that I might already be dead myself and we were sailing through hell, or to it. I steadied myself as best I could by concentrating on cutting into the swells. The boat was taking a brutal pounding, but we were making headway.
"We're going to make it," I said to Jimmy, and he didn't smile, but he looked less frightened. That subtle sign helped me stay my own confusion, and so I just started talking to him, saying anything that came to mind. By the time we reached the bridge and were passing under it, I realized I had been laying out my life story, and he was seeing it flash before his eyes. I did not want to die that afternoon with nothing to show but scenes of the bay and my hometown. What I wished I could have shared with him were my dreams for the future. Then I noticed a vague spark in his gaze, a subtle recognition of some possibility. That's when the full brunt of the storm hit--gale-force winds, lashing rain, hail the size of dice--and I heard above the shriek of the wind a distinct cracking sound when the prow slammed down off a huge roller. The boat was breaking up.
With every impact against the water came that cracking noise, and each time it sounded, I noticed the kid's skin begin to tear. A dark brown sludge seeped from these wounds. Tears formed in his big eyes, became his eyes, and then dripped in viscous streams down his face, leaving the socketsempty. The lightning cracked above and his chest split open down to his navel. He opened his mouth and a hermit crab scurried out across his blue lips and chin to his neck. I no longer could think to steer, no longer felt the cold, couldn't utter a sound. The sky was nearly dark as night. We fell off a wave into its trough like slamming into a moving truck, and then the wood came apart with a groan. I felt the water rising up around my ankles and calves. Then the transom split off the back of the boat as if it had been made of cardboard, and the engine dropped away out of my grasp, its noise silenced. One more streak of lightning walked the sky, and I saw before me the remains of the kid as John Hunter had described they would be. The next thing I knew, I was in the water, flailing to stay afloat amidst the storm.
I was a strong swimmer, but by this point I was completely exhausted. The waves came from everywhere, one after the other, and I had no idea where I was headed or how close I had managed to get to shore. I would be knocked under by a wave and then bob back up, and then down I'd go again. A huge wave, like a cold dark wing, swept over me, and I thought it might be death. It drove me below the surface, where I tumbled and spun so violently that when I again tried to struggle toward the sky, I instead found the sandy bottom. Then something moved beneath me, and I wasn't sure if I was dreaming, but I remembered my father riding me on his back through the ocean. I reached out and put my hands on a pair of shoulders. In my desperation, my fingers dug through the flesh and latched onto skeleton. We were flying, skimming along the surface, and I could breathe again. It was all so crazy, my mind broke down in the confusion and I must have passed out.
When next I was fully aware, I was stumbling through knee-deep water in the shallows off Gardner's Park. I made the beach and collapsed on the sand. An hour passed, maybe more, but when I awoke, the storm had abated and a steady rain was falling. I made my way, tired and weak, through the park to Sunrise Highway. There, I managed to hitch a ride back to the docks and my waiting car. It was late when I finally returned to the Alamo. I slipped off my wet clothes and got into bed. Curling up on my side, I quickly drifted off to sleep, the words of the old crone's rosary washing over me, submerging me.
The next day I called the police and reported the loss of my boat, so that those at the dock who found my slip empty wouldn't think I had drowned. Later on, when I was driving over to my mother's house, I heard on the radio that the storm had claimed a life. Downsy's boat was missing at the dock. Ironically enough, they found his body that morning washed up on the shore of Grass Island.
A few days later, it was also discovered that the storm had left some interesting debris on the beach at the south end of Gardner's Park, close to where I had come ashore. Two hikers came across pieces of my boat, identifiedby the plank that held its serial numbers, and a little farther up the beach, the remains of Jimmy Trentino.
I went to two funerals in one day--one for a kid who never got a chance to grow up, and one for a guy who didn't want to. Later that evening, sitting in a shadowed booth at the back of The Copper Kettle, John Hunter remarked about how a coffin is like a boat for the dead.
I wanted to tell him everything that happened the day of the storm, but in the end, felt he wouldn't approve. He had sternly warned me once against blabbing--even when drunk--about a bed I might be seeding for the coming season. "A good man knows when to keep a secret," he had said. Instead, I merely told him, "I'm not coming back to the bay."
He laughed. "Did you think you had to tell me?" he said. "I've seen you reading those books in your boat on your lunch break. I've seen you wandering around town late at night. You don't need a boat to get where it's deep."
I got up then and went to the bar to order another round. When I came back to the booth, he was gone.
I moved on with my life, went back to school, devoted more time to writing my stories, and through the changes that came, I tried to always be sure of myself. In those inevitable dark moments, though, when I thought I was about to panic, I'd remember John Hunter, his hand reaching down to pull me from the water. I always wished that I might see him again, but I never did, because it couldn't be any other way.
AFTERWORD
My favorite ghost story is "The Phantom Rickshaw" by Rudyard Kipling. It is a story of a young woman who wastes away and dies after being jilted at the altar. The protagonist, the man who caused her demise, begins seeing her after she has died, passing him on the street in a rickshaw. There is a quiet beauty in the haunting, and an eerie resignation in the man's realization that her ghost has come from the grave to claim him. I read it when I was eight, and it is the only ghost story that ever really scared me.
TANITH LEE was born in 1947 in North London, England, didn't learn to read until she was eight, and started to write when she was nine. "Having," she says, "virtually wrecked, single-handed, the catering world with her waitressing, the library system with her library-assistance, and all types of shops with her mishandling of everything," she was set free into the world of professional writing in 1975 by DAW Books.
Tanith Lee lives with her husband John Kaiine by the sea in Great Britain and is a prolific writer of fantasy, science fiction, and horror. Her most recent books include A Bed of Earth, Venus Preserved, and Piratica, a children's book. She is currently working on Metallic Love, a sequel to The Silver Metal Lover, and also a new fantasy trilogy. Her dark fairy tales have been collected in Red As Blood, or Tales from the Sisters Grimmer. Other stories have been collected in Forests of the Night, Women as Demons, Dreams of Dark and Light, and Nightshades, a novella and stories. Lee has won the World Fantasy Award for her short fiction and has had stories reprinted in several volumes of The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror.
Copyright © 2003 by Ellen Datlow