by Rita Oakes
Geerit shifted Miroslav’s weight across his shoulders. The Czech RAF pilot gasped in pain and muttered something—perhaps in English, perhaps in Czech—Geerit couldn’t be sure. Geerit shushed him and crept, hunched over by his burden, from shadow to shadow.
The Flemish village of Diepven was small, virtually unchanged from when Geerit fled more than ten years ago. He’d been so eager to escape from the wide-eyed stares of his fellow inhabitants and the endless stink of rotting fish. How he hated fish.
The presence of barbed wire and sentry points upon the roads and docks, the hulking shape of a kubelwagon parked at the harbor master’s house, and drunken voices singing Lili Marlene drifting up from the single tavern, proved that the Germans had swept through to even this forgotten and insignificant slice of coastline.
Damn it. Now what?
The last safe house had been compromised. Mischance, or more likely, betrayal, meant that half the agents in the network had been shot, if lucky. Or were in the hands of the Gestapo. Geerit had been fortunate enough to avoid the trap, but not before his “package,” Miroslav, had taken a gunshot wound to the leg as they scrambled out of the top floor of a farmhouse window.
Three days they had been on the run. Geerit had given Miroslav a hasty bandage, but the man urgently needed a doctor, not to mention food and a warm place to rest. And a fishing boat to rendezvous with an Allied vessel in the North Sea, since the southern route to the Pyrenees was now out of the question.
Therefore, Geerit had turned his steps toward the last place he ever expected to seek out again. Diepven. The Cursed.
His stomach tightened as he surveyed the once familiar shoreline. You’re not a scared boy anymore. Get hold of yourself.
Miroslav roused. “Where are we?” he whispered in accented English as Geerit eased him to the ground, where a hummock of marsh grass provided concealment.
“Nowhere,” Geerit said. “I need to reconnoiter.”
Fretful in the way of a proud man unused to depending on others, Miroslav said, “I’m sorry to be so useless.”
Shot down over Lille, Miroslav had spent weeks evading capture, passed from one agent to another, until arriving in Geerit’s hands. And useful enough in a fight before taking a bullet.
Heat radiated off the injured pilot. Fever. If he didn’t get medical attention soon, Miroslav would lose that leg. And possibly his life.
In their short time together, Geerit had come to like the pilot, waging war in a foreign service to free his homeland—and all of Europe—from the German yoke. Every fighter returned to the Allies was another strike against the invader.
“Just shoot down another German plane or three for me when you get back in the air,” Geerit said. “Wait here while I check things out.”
Miroslav clasped his hand, hard. “That is—what is the phrase? —a deal. Yes.”
* * *
The church was Geerit’s first choice of a hiding place. It squatted on a rise overlooking the village—unused almost from its construction 800 years ago. He would listen rapt as Bompa, his grandfather, told him tales of how the village had resisted all efforts to convert them from the worship of a forgotten sea goddess to that of a Bethlehem carpenter. After all, he would say, as gnarled fingers worked to repair fishing nets, “We can see the sea, feel her fury in storm and spittle, even on the calmest days. The sea gives and the sea takes.”
Though Diepven did not repudiate the representatives from Rome, they never embraced them. The priests tried by cajoling and by the fires of the autos da fe, but ultimately left the residents to their own devices. Or drowned when the ocean boiled in anger.
Geerit used to play in the cool shadows of the abandoned church, heedless of the stares from the cracked and flaking portraits of saints upon the walls. As the highest point in the village, he never worried about being snatched into the restless waves while inside—an unreasoning fear that gave rise to many childhood nightmares. And not a few adult ones.
The church would make an excellent temporary shelter for Miroslav, and then Geerit could fetch a doctor. And see about smuggling the pilot onto a fishing boat.
He crept to the church, tracing his hand over damp stone slimed with moss, froze as he heard German voices from within. Damnation. They’re billeted here.
The bicycle shop. Less ancient than the church, for certain. Another tale his Bompa relished in the telling: an enthusiastic Belgian from Wallonia had thought to make a success with his two-wheeled marvels some eighty years ago, but the residents of Diepven simply goggled at the contraption and went on about their business. The sea had no need for bicycles.
One day, the Walloon simply disappeared. Perhaps he drowned himself in the North Sea, Bompa said. Or perhaps he left to try his hand at a more favorable town. The shop remained, brooding and silent, paint eaten away by the implacable salt air and wind.
The wooden door of the bicycle shop was easy enough to force. The sea wears away the stoutest wood over time and takes an even greater toll on iron. And men.
Inside, the air was a stale mix of old mouse droppings, decayed rubber, a hint of machine oil. The contents of the shop had long been plundered—most likely for the war. But it was dry and apparently forgotten. It would do until he could arrange for a boat.
* * *
Miroslav had lapsed into unconsciousness by the time Geerit deposited him onto the floor of the bicycle shop. Geerit switched on the torch, set it on the ground. Miroslav’s face gleamed with sweat. A check at the base of his neck revealed a thready pulse. He unwrapped the bandages about Miroslav’s calf to reveal swollen flesh and an oozing wound. Angry, red streaks had crept to the knee. Geerit did not need medical training to know this was a serious development.
The darkness was near total, due to blackout and the glowering clouds. Geerit made no sound as he left the shop, pushing the door closed behind him. Miroslav needed attention, but the village, at least at the time he had left, was too small for a doctor. The residents tended to be self-sufficient. But he could perhaps at least liberate supplies.
Geerit made his way, reluctantly but unerringly, to his childhood home. Dread slithered in his stomach like a basketful of eels. Never had he thought to return. But now he had no choice. The old smugglers tunnel ran from the house to the sea and if he could manage a boat, he could use it to complete their escape. Assuming the Germans had not discovered it. Or that it had not been damaged in the years he’d been away.
But he would bet a hundred francs that the tunnel was intact. Other than the presence of Germans, the inhabitants of Diepven stolidly resisted change. So had it been for centuries; so it would continue. Until the sea rose and swept them all away in its cold and watery embrace.
The tunnel. His palms slickened with sweat at the memory. You’re not a child any longer. You don’t even know what you saw. And whatever it was must be long gone.
The house was shuttered and silent. Were all abed already? Well, fisher folk were early risers. And he could avoid awkward conversations with his parents and sister. Just a quick look to ensure the tunnel was still viable and grab food and supplies. It wasn’t stealing if it was family, was it? Best for their own sake not to let them know he had been here.
Geerit retrieved the key from its place under a potted geranium He let himself in, wincing a bit at the creak of iron hinges.
Eyes long adjusted to the dark, he stepped soundlessly to the kitchen, where a banked fire in the stove cast residual and welcome heat. How strange to be back.
A sweater draped over a rack gave off the rank and yet somehow pleasant scent of damp wool. The rough-hewn table and benches where he had laboriously copied his letters as a boy stood unchanged, surface marred and stained from decades (centuries) of cleaning and filleting fish. His grandfather, his bompa, used to give the discarded fish bladders to him and his younger sister, Marjean, to play with.
The piscine smell hung in the air like the torn remnant of a dream.
That’s enough. You’re not here to revisit childhood memories.
He reached for a kerosene lamp hanging from the low rafters where it had always hung. He lifted the glass, lit it with a match from his pocket. As the lamp flared to life, he replaced the globe, lifted the lantern to survey the china cabinet and its odd collection of driftwood, pottery shards, and bits of scrimshaw—all gathered by generations of beachcombers. And smugglers.
On the middle shelf lay an item Bomba used to tell him was the horn of a sea unicorn, very ancient and precious, twisted lines of pink and gray spiraling round and round to the sharp tip. He remembered being allowed to hold it and marveling at the smooth luster.
Of course, when he grew older, Geerit realized it was no magic and mythical relic, but merely the shell of a large gastropod. It was a betrayal well-meaning adults often visited upon children, akin to tales of St. Niklaas.
Pulling open the double doors at the base of the cabinet, Geerit found the first aid kit as expected: a rusty and battered tackle box. He pulled it out, froze as a scent drifted from the back of the cabinet, coated his nostrils and tongue. Something of brine and the tang of a marsh at low tide and something of cold and darkness and a fleshly touch and—he stood up abruptly. Memory unremembered surged over him like a storm-driven wave. His flesh prickled and suddenly clammy hands nearly let the tackle box slip from his fingers. He sucked in a breath and fought down inexplicable panic.
You’re not a child, anymore. Get hold of yourself.
He set the lantern and tackle box on the table, flipped the metal latches to open the box and check its contents. A roll of gauze, some rubbing alcohol, tweezers, an assortment of needles and horsehair sutures, and a flashlight. It would have to do. He should find food, too.
Instead of prowling the kitchen, he rubbed the fleshly base of his right thumb absently. As a boy, he’d gotten a fishhook snagged there. Bomba used this very box as he teased the hook free while Geerit did his best not to flinch or cry while Marjean goggled at him with somber eyes. The twin scars that remained had faded to two pale bumps that looked almost like a healed snakebite.
Bompa. He’d had gentle hands for someone so gruff and no-nonsense.
The strange smell from the cabinet lingered. How much was real and how much memory, Geerit couldn’t say. He retrieved the flashlight and switched it on. He closed the kit and returned to the china cabinet, sliding his fingers along the back to the hidden button. Lower than he remembered, but he supposed he’d been considerably shorter in those days. He pressed it and the cabinet swung away from the wall—far more silently than the front door.
The smell, faint enough from inside the cabinet, now intensified. Wet stone. Rotten fish, something sulfur-like. The sea.
His heart sped up. He swept the tunnel with the flashlight, his hand clutching so tight his knuckles ached. Something had devoured his bompa in these tunnels and made a barely twelve-year-old Geerit flee Diepven, for what he thought would be forever.
Not devoured. Dissolved.
Geerit damped down panic. He wasn’t a child any longer.
He descended narrow steps into the tunnel.
The smugglers’ tunnel was rough-hewn, but straight, heading toward the sea, where it would emerge amid a jumble of rocks to the narrow beach. The floor gleamed with wet stone and small pools, indicating the tide was going out. He could bring Miroslav here then down to a waiting boat.
If only he had a boat.
And if the thing which had killed his grandfather was dead or asleep in the ocean depths.
Geerit froze as a hand reached from behind and pressed something sharp to his throat.
“Any reason I shouldn’t cut your throat and feed you to the fish?” a voice said, low, angry.
He should not have left the lit lantern on the table, or the secret door open. Careless. Too many days on the run and not enough sleep had made him stupid. “No reason at all,” he said. “May I turn around? I’d like to see my executioner.”
The blade withdrew and he turned to view a woman by flashlight. “Marjean?”
His little sister. Not so little now. She was as tall as he, and round in the fashion of his kindred, her arms well-muscled from hauling nets and barrels of wriggling mackerel and herring and eel. Her face was weathered beyond her years. Sun and salt and wind will do that. She had the wide forehead and goggle-eyes common around these parts, humorless and stubborn.
“It’s me. Geerit. You’re not going to cut the throat of your own brother, are you?”
She did not change expression. “Well, well,” she said. “I just might.” She studied him a moment before lowering the knife. “I suppose you’ll want coffee. Come back inside.” She turned her broad back and retraced her steps, pace solid and filled with restrained fury.
“If you have it.” He followed.
“It’s ersatz. No sugar.”
He suspected she had black market sugar. Fisher folk generally had no prejudice against smuggling in hard times. And times were hard indeed.
“That’s fine,” he said to her rapidly retreating back.
Marjean grunted something that might have been an acknowledgment—or a curse, he couldn’t tell. They re-entered the kitchen and Marjean pushed the cabinet back in place with an emphatic thump.
She busied herself, filling the pot with water, lighting the burner on top of the stove, measuring whatever passed for coffee—acorns or chicory root or something more creative.
He pulled out a chair and sat at the table. “How are mama and papa?”
She turned, fixed him with an unblinking stare as cold and gray as a shark circling prey. “Do you care?”
“If I didn’t, I shouldn’t have asked.”
“They have verandered. That should have been your responsibility, but you left me to deal with on my own. Thank you for that.”
He didn’t know what that was. He should have. If he hadn’t fled while still a boy, he supposed the word would make sense. There had been whispers, of course. Something mysterious and vaguely scary, like sex before you understood it. Something that made Diepven oppressive and secret and . . . cursed. An omnipresent, suffocating secret. Whatever it was, certainly it left Marjean more aggrieved with him than seemed entirely justified. “I’m sorry.”
“No, you’re not.” She thumped a thick ceramic mug of steaming ersatz coffee on the table. “Why have you come back?”
He picked up the mug, drank in the scent of toasted non-coffee and something briny, like dried seaweed. It was terrible, but it was warm. “I need your help.”
She did not laugh outright, but he sensed the struggle. She poured herself a cup and sat at the table across him. “You need my help? That’s rich.”
“It’s not for me.”
He drew a deep breath. “I need to get an Allied flier out of the country.”
She eyed him over her cup, irises a fathomless slate grey. Only a tightening at the corners of her eyes betrayed surprise. “So, you’ve gotten yourself mixed up in that, have you? I’d have figured it was something less heroic, like gambling debts.”
Geerit made a conscious effort not to rise to the bait. “He’s injured. In need of food and medical attention I haven’t been able to give him on the way.”
She took another swig of the awful coffee. “You do realize we are Occupied, don’t you?”
“I heard the Germans singing in the tavern. They’re drunk.”
“Not all of them. And not all the time. You ever hear of a place called Lidice?”
“Of course. The Nazis destroyed it in retaliation for the murder of Heydrich.”
“Not just destroyed. Annihilated. Some of those men are here now. You can tell them. The ones who served in the East. Their eyes are . . .”
“We need to beat them, Marjean. Every flier we return to the Allies is another flier who will be dropping bombs on Berlin.”
She snorted. “So, you left the family a coward and return a patriot? “
“You never saw it. The thing that ate Bompa. You can’t know!”
She scowled at him. “I have seen a great many things since you abandoned us.”
Geerit rose, scraping his chair against the floor. He met her gaze without blinking. “I’m not going to debate my failings with you. I should not have come. Give my best to your German overlords.”
“Oh, sit the hell down,” she said. “What do you expect from me? Hugs and a big kiss?” She picked up a knife and began sawing furiously at a loaf of bread. “There’s no butter. And the bread is half sawdust, but I figure it’s been a while since you’ve eaten. You want some smoked herring?”
“You know I can’t abide fish.”
“Beggars can’t be choosers. Though, to be sure, fish don’t taste as they used to. There’s always a hint of diesel nowadays. All those U-boats, I suppose.” She wrapped the rest of the bread in a cloth and seized a bottle of aqua vitae from underneath the sink. Thrusting both at him, she said, “Well, take me to your airman.”
He blinked at her, unsure if he had heard correctly.
“Well, come on. Or are you going to dither until the man dies of old age?” Marjean extinguished the lamp. She eased the front door open and peered out. “Follow me and for god’s sake be quiet. I don’t want to be arrested for violating curfew. Bring the kit.”
The wind had freshened. The rain, once a mere mizzle, drove into them with icy fury. Good, Geerit thought. It might keep the Germans inside. And if not, the sound of rain plopping against German greatcoats would alert them to any approaching soldier.
Geerit took the lead, keeping to the shadows and mixing up the route so no direct line of mud prints would lead directly back to the cottage. With any luck, the rain would wash away traces of their passage, but he would take no chances.
At the bike shop, Geerit tugged the door open. Marjean slipped inside and he followed. He closed the door and Marjean re-lit the lamp. The knelt on either side of Miroslav, who muttered something unintelligible, but did not rouse. His stubbled face shone wet with sweat. Heat radiated from him.
“In for a penny, I suppose. Best bring him to the house while we have the advantage of bad weather.” She re-bandaged Miroslav deftly, rose. “Well?”
Geerit hauled Miroslav over his shoulder. Marjean thrust the supplies back in the tackle box, snapped it shut, and blew out the lamp.
They made their way back toward the cottage. The rain had slackened. Mud made the footing treacherous and Geerit found himself sweating despite the chill in the air.
“Halt! Wer da?”
Geerit froze, tensed. The voice came from behind. And close. Where was Marjean? Burdened as he was, he could neither flee nor spring to attack. Going for his knife would likely get all of them shot. Had not Marjean said these men were veterans of the Eastern Front? They would have no compunction against summary execution.
With any luck, Marjean, at least, had time to slip away unseen. “Ja?” he said, turning slowly.
The soldier was a dim shape in the darkness, but tall and solid. “It is past curfew. Where are you going?”
“My friend is drunk,” Geerit said, spouting the first thing that came into his head. “I was taking him home. His wife will give him an earful when he wakes up.” He kept his voice light, with a jocular “we’ve-all-been-there” tone.
Which must have failed to convince, for the soldier’s weapon made an ominous metallic snick in advance of firing. No time for fear, just empty resignation. This is it. We’re going to die.
The soldier dropped to his knees, gurgling. Something wet and warm sprayed into Geerit’s face. Through a haze of red, Marjean stepped from behind the soldier. Geerit blinked blood from his eyes. The man pitched forward, twitching.
“Come on,” Marjean said. She hoisted the dead German over her shoulders, straightened with a soft grunt.
* * *
Back in the cottage, Geerit lay Miroslav on the horsehair couch and drew a quilt over him.
“Open the tunnel door,” Marjean said, a bit breathless from hauling the German’s corpse so far.
“What are you going to do with him?” Geerit asked, stepping aside so she could brush by with her burden.
“Give him to the sea. The sea gives and the sea takes. Clean yourself up.”
The sea gives and the sea takes. Yes. Geerit bent over the kitchen sink, grimacing at the icy water as he scrubbed dried blood from his face. Unlike Miroslav, he had no stubble from lack of opportunity to shave. During their time on the run, Miroslav had commented on Geerit’s beardlessness more than once–with something approaching envy, as the Czech complained daily about the itchiness of his own growing stubble. At least, he had before getting shot.
Facial hair was almost entirely absent from the fisher folk of Diepven.
Geerit wiped up where he had splashed water and sat down at the table. A maddening itch started between his fingers, which he worried at until exhaustion claimed him.
Miroslav stirred, groaned.
“Go check on him,” Marjean said. “I will make a tea for his fever.”
Miroslav was awake, more alert than he’d been in a long while. “Where are we?”
“Safe, for the moment,” Geerit said. “How are you feeling?”
“If one wakes in the morning with no pain, he must have died in the night. I fear I am very much alive.”
Geerit snorted, squeezed Miroslav’s shoulder. “Can you sit up? There’s porridge and tea.”
* * *
When Marjean went to market, Geerit left Miroslav dozing on the sofa and ventured upstairs. The stairs creaked in the familiar places. He opened the door to his old room only to find it abandoned, the feather mattress rolled up and tied, rope supports sagging in the bedframe. The air was stale. The only relic remaining of his youth was the collection of folktales his grandfather used to read to him, cover faded and dust coated.
As if I’d never existed.
He stood on the threshold of Marjean’s room. Small and free of dust, the room seemed stark as her personality. The open window let in sea air. He could hear the waves in the distance. The ancient quilt on the neatly made bed provided the only color.
Geerit closed the door without entering and crossed to his parents’ bedroom. He turned the knob and entered.
Dust furred the furniture. The air held an off smell, like the lingering hint of cabbage days after cooking. The bed, like Marjean’s was neatly made.
Downstairs, the door slammed. “Geerit!”
Marjean’s voice had a note of impatience, almost of panic.
Her feet pounded up the steps. “You need to take your friend and get into the tunnel. Now!”
He gestured at the empty room. “Where are mum and dad? When are they coming back?”
“There’s no time. You need to hide. Now. The Germans are conducting a house-to-house search. Seems they’ve missed their soldier and didn’t fall for the idea he might have deserted. And I think they’ve been alerted to escape and evasion activities in the area.” She scowled at him. “Don’t look at me like that—I certainly didn’t inform on you. Now hurry.”
Miroslav blissfully asked no questions as Marjean ushered both of them through the secret entrance. He clutched the quilt wrapped about his shoulders and sat on the second step with his bad leg straight down before him. Geerit crouched beside, drew his pistol as Marjean slid the china cabinet back into place. Already the Germans were pounding at the cottage door, the noise only slightly muffled as darkness enveloped them. At least worrying about the Germans takes my mind off this damned tunnel.
Which was not entirely true. If he were honest, he’d rather face a dozen Germans than whatever thing had taken his bompa. But that was a long time ago. Surely the creature had slithered back to whatever watery hell it had come from.
Voices. Guttural. Angry. But the sound was muffled, so he couldn’t make out the words. Another voice. Female. Uncharacteristically patient. Marjean attempting to mollify the soldiers, he supposed. A crashing. Breaking crockery.
Beside him, Miroslav tensed, as if he were ready to burst in, injured as he was, and come to the rescue of a damsel in distress. Geerit gripped Miroslav’s shoulder. An impetuous move now would get them all shot, Marjean, included. Besides, she was more than capable of handling herself. He hoped.
Behind, a wet, squelching. Geerit clenched his jaw. It’s nothing. My imagination, that is all. Please, God.
But God had very little to do with Diepven.
“What was that?” Miroslav asked, too softly to carry through to the Germans.
“There it is again. There’s someone in here with us.”
Icy sweat dripped along Geerit’s spine. So much for my imagination. “It’s the tide coming in. The tunnel distorts the sound.”
Skittering noises over rock, but at least the noise grew no closer. Crabs, Geerit thought. Only crabs from the beach. Damn, but his fingers itched. “Hold this,” he pressed the pistol into Miroslav’s hand. Geerit laced his fingers together and scraped them up and down in a futile attempt to scratch. Why did his hands feel like he had plucked fistfuls of stinging nettles?
After what seemed an endless time, but which was probably only a quarter of an hour, the house seemed quiet. The curio cabinet door scraped open. “They’ve gone,” Marjean said.
“Are you all right?” Geerit asked. A flaming red blotch had bloomed on Marjean’s cheek. She jerked away when he cupped her face.
“I’m fine.” She opened the china cabinet and took out the spiral shell. “The Germans have ordered everyone to assemble in front of the church in twenty minutes. If they don’t find their missing soldier—” she fixed them with an unblinking stare— “Or you two, they will start shooting civilians.”
“Just like Lidice,” Geerit said. We can’t permit such a thing. Miroslav and I will have to surrender.”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” Marjean said. “Go back inside the tunnel.”
She darted inside herself, the seashell gripped in one hand, a lantern in the other. She brought the pointed tip of the shell to her lips and blew long and hard. A high-pitched trill, distorted by the surrounding rock, set Geerit’s teeth on edge. “Come on,” she said, “Both of you.” She blew again.
Another trill answered from deep inside the tunnel. An echo?
Miroslav hunched against the tunnel wall, favoring his wounded leg. “Who else is in the tunnel?”
“No one,” Geerit said. “The rock and the tides distort sound.”
“Come on,” Marjean said.
“I don’t—” Geerit said.
“Yes,” said Miroslav, “Let’s explore this fascinating tunnel, shall we?” He leveled the pistol at them.
Geerit’s stomach clenched. He’s joking, surely. “You know better than to fool around like that.” Please be making a stupid joke. Otherwise . . ..
“He’s not fooling,” Marjean said, her face expressionless in the lamplight. “You’re not an Allied flier.”
Miroslav gave a modest nod. “No, I am not. My task was to explode the escapist line and I have done so.” He gave a rueful smile. “Getting shot was not part of my plan. I must thank you, Geerit, for your resourcefulness and determination to keep me alive. It will grieve me to see you publicly executed.”
For a moment Geerit forgot his dread of the tunnel. Every refuge, every safe house, they’d barely escaped each until Geerit’s only resource was to come home. Good people, brave people, dead or captured. Miroslav’s betrayal at every turn. And Geerit too dense to suspect. I should have known. How could I not have known? He tasted bile at the back of his throat.
“Bastard!” Geerit lurched forward, weapon be damned, but Marjean blocked him.
“Don’t be an idiot,” she said.
“Your sister continues to be wise. Perhaps she will be spared execution and only face deportation to Ravensbruck.”
Miroslav—or whatever his true name might be, gestured with the pistol—the very pistol Geerit had handed him earlier. Geerit ground his teeth in frustration. Marjean is right. I am an idiot.
“Let us explore this tunnel and return before my compatriots begin executing your neighbors. Another gesture with the pistol. “After you, fraulein.”
Another trill sounded from the far end of the tunnel. And other noises: an impossible mix of wet squelching and dry skittering in the distant dark. Geerit’s fingers itched abominably and dread prickled at the base of his neck.
“What’s this?” Miroslav asked, squinting past the two of them into the shadows. “More of your compatriots? Escapees? Perhaps black marketeers? Excellent.”
Geerit’s legs locked. Better a bullet in the back than to go further down the tunnel. But there was Marjean to consider. He had to admire her calm. For the first time he regretted having left home so young. He had missed the chance to see her grow into the remarkable woman before them.
“Come along, then,” Marjean said, and strode into the darkness, her lantern swinging gently, casting shadows, magnifying the darkness rather than dispelling it.
Miroslav shoved Geerit’s shoulder. Geerit forced himself forward. I deserve whatever fate awaits. Miroslav followed behind, hopping awkwardly on his injured leg, but the muzzle pressed into Geerit’s spine did not waver.
The tunnel floor was smooth, worn by tides and time. As they crept, icy water puddled about their feet. The stench of brine and rotting seaweed assailed them. Meager lamplight hid as much as it revealed, casting moving, unnatural shadows. Geerit’s stomach roiled. I’ve moved into one of my nightmares.
Something cold brushed against his ankle. Geerit clamped his lips tight against a startled outcry. The thing, whatever it was, coiled about Miroslav’s leg.
“What the hell?” Miroslav muttered.
Geerit took advantage of Miroslav’s startlement to jam his elbow into the man’s ribs. Marjean grabbed Miroslav’s arm. The pistol flashed. Light stabbed. The shot went wide, chipping stone.
The afterimage of an impossible tentacular thing seared Geerit’s retinas. Miroslav swore, struggled to regain control of the weapon, but by now the thing had snaked about Miroslav’s wrist.
Setting his teeth against touching the alien flesh, Geerit wrested the pistol free. He shoved it into Miroslav’s belly and fired.
Miroslav sank to the tunnel floor, groaning. The thing moved over him. Miroslav screamed, fell silent.
Marjean raised the lantern high.
The thing rose to tower over them, dark, bulbous, with eyes the size of dinner plates and a round mouth crowded with jagged teeth. And yet it held the general form of a man. If a man had tentacles for arms.
Geerit brought the pistol to bear.
Marjean put her hand over his, lowering the weapon. “You don’t shoot family,” she said.
A cold, but tentative caress with what used to be a hand, now melted into a muscular tentacle. The huge black eyes glimmered with intelligence and impossible familiarity.
Bompa? Unthinkable. And yet.
Verandered. Changed. How did I misunderstand so completely? “Bompa?” he whispered. He placed a diffident hand upon the strange flesh. He expected something unpleasant and slimy, but the skin, though cool, had a pleasing smoothness and strength. “Bompa,” he said, with more confidence. “I abandoned you.” His face warmed with shame. “Forgive me. I didn’t understand.”
“Come,” Marjean said. She led Geerit out of the tunnel to the beach, Bompa squelching alongside.
The sea boiled. Moonlight glistered on the waves like erratic strings of electric lights. Shadows poured out of the darkness—a great mass of beings that smelled of the sea, spume still clinging to wet flesh.
“They had to wait until I mapped the mines the Germans placed all along the beach,” Marjean said.
Writhing, lurching, slithering, chittering they came—pouring onto the beach and funneling into the narrow darkness of the tunnel. “Our kin will pour up into the village and feast well on the intruders,” Marjean said. Bompa made a fluting trill as if in agreement and with a final caress, joined the throng.
“How did I not know?” Geerit said.
“You didn’t want to know, my brother. But now you’ve come home.”
Home? Geerit examined his hands and the webbing that now stretched between his fingers. The itching had passed. How long before he dissolved into a creature like the others? And Marjean? Would she also change? There was so much he didn’t know; so much he might have learned had he not fled like the vilest coward.
Distantly, the first screams began, followed by scattered gunfire. But screams soon eclipsed the guns and the tide of the Verandered roiled on.
Yes. The sea gives and the sea takes.
Rita Oakes writes horror, dark fantasy, and historical fiction. A graduate of the Odyssey Writing Workshop, she enjoys history, travel, and Belgian beer–sometimes at the same time. Her work has appeared in Paradox, Aeon Speculative Fiction, and Beneath Ceaseless Skies, as well as in the anthologies The Many Faces of Van Helsing, Time Well Bent, and Zombies: Shambling through the Ages. In addition, she has a story collection titled Comrades-in-Arms from Lethe Press.