They say that the fear of the water is an irrational one, but I have never agreed with that. It amazes me that people can see water as just another thing, to be held or seen or imbibed. Water is something wholly other to me, as other as the outer reaches of the darkest space. It is a dimension of itself—an ethereal, alien force that is both damning and essential. Without it, we would die—but make no mistake, it is no boon to humanity.
We are allergic to it, water. Like mercury it slides over and engulfs us, fills us, swims over our eyes and pushes the air out of our lungs. Its surface is a gateway into another world in which we are unable to live—in which demonic, other beings thrive through murder and destruction. Scaled and toothed and clawed, parasitic and poisonous or behemoth and incomprehensible, these beasts have nothing in common with humankind. There is nothing for us beneath the waves.
No, I do not think that the fear of water is an irrational one. I never did, in fact. But more so now.
Shortly over a year ago, a friend of my fiancée invited us to his family’s beach house for a New Year’s celebration in New Jersey. The house was separated from the ocean by only a single street, in a quiet little town that was almost completely deserted for the cold winter months.
That New Year’s Eve night is one I will never forget, though I pray that the memories of those hours in the just-birthed year will somehow prove themselves false—that their vividness will fade over time, and that I will someday convince myself that I saw nothing that night, that there is nothing to fear in that ocean.
The party was wholly alive in that little house. People danced and sang and drank and laughed. I laughed as well, with my arm around a beautiful woman I would soon call my wife, drinking red wine and listening to the songs filling the room.
It was a new moon that night, and the country had made an event of it. A New Moon for the New Year. Drinks were toasted to that empty sky. My fiancée and I stood on the balcony of the house overlooking the shore. The air was cold and biting but we didn’t mind. Dressed warmly, arm in arm, we stood looking up into the star-speckled ether.
“What is that?” She pointed up, at a glowing red orb that hovered over the rolling ocean.
I shook my head. “I don’t know. Mars, perhaps?”
And it’s true, it was.
At that moment a girl slid open the door to the balcony and peered out, giggling and drunk. She asked for my fiancée, who went to her. The girl whispered to her, and my fiancée returned to me.
“It seems Sarah’s had too much to drink,” she said. “I’m going to go help her.”
I nodded, and took a sip of my wine. “Take your time.”
She disappeared with the girl back into the party, and I was left alone in the dark and cold, with only myself and my stinging sweet drink. The silence of the air was encompassing, and for a moment, I thought, embracing as a lover. Eventually though the calming effect of the quiet passed, and it began to feel like a burden on my soul instead. It felt as if an invasion were occurring, rising from the silence into the back of my mind, clawing and scraping against the inside of my skull.
And then, in a moment, the silence was broken. A movement on the shore, noticed only by some animal part of my senses, and then—a scream. A man’s scream. And when it was silenced, the sound of something dragging along the sand.
I turned to the shore, but it was too dark to see. I could only make out the faint, black, crashing waves.
I considered staying there on the balcony, ignoring the sound and waiting for my fiancée to return. But the scream ate at my conscience. It echoed in my ears and shook in my heart. I could not ignore it, that constantly-sounding screaming in my head. So I left my glass of wine on the balcony ledge, clutched my coat to my chest, and left the party. As I walked through the house I looked for my fiancée, but could not find her. I asked several men there if they would be willing to go with me, but most were too engaged in their merriment to pay me any heed. So I left alone. I did, however, grab a flashlight from a drawer by the door to light my way.
The dim flashlight guided me, bobbing like a willow-wisp towards the beach on that dark January morning. I held that cone of safety and light before me like a crucifix as I made my way to the black shore. I crossed the damp wooden bridge, over the dune that separated the beach from the town, and when I made it to the other side I felt as if I had entered another realm. The stars shone against the night like crystals embedded in tar, while that bloody orb cut a path through the sky. The rough hush of the waves against the sand filled my ears, drowned out all sound. It seemed as if I was alone in a steadily shrinking room.
I took a deep breath, and scanned the shore with the short beam of the flashlight. I saw nothing.
I began to wonder if perhaps my mind had played a trick on me, but I walked to the water regardless. I marched along its edge, brushing the sand before me with the light.
When I came upon it there, kneeling in a cavity dug in the dark, wet sand, I could not scream. It looked up at me with those black eyes, irradiant in the light of the torch, and did not make a sound—no hiss nor cackle nor croak came from its piscine maw. In its arms—yes, scaled and black and blue, iridescent with slime, but arms—it held a man. Blood bubbled from his chest, through gaping holes deep in his flesh, and he mouthed a silent plea. But I did nothing. One scaled hand rose up the man’s side. Claws like white teeth brushed across the man’s pale blue lips and slid into his mute and screaming mouth.
The creature in the sand looked at me a moment longer, until a wave came in and knocked me off my feet.
Freezing water covered my burning heart and set me into panic, a molten steel quenched and bent. I fell beneath the force of the wave and hit the sand so hard I dropped my flashlight. I was in the water with it. I kicked and screamed and saltwater filled my mouth and nose—the taste of salt and iron like life-force on my tongue. Rumbling in my ears was the dawn of the world, and when I opened my eyes I saw nothing but black and shining beacons of light. I was weightless beneath the waves, floating out in the cosmos far from Earth, far from anything I knew or could love. And then my head broke above the water, and I was back in deafening silent and terrestrial sky. I could see nothing in the dark of the new moon but I could feel my body settling into the sloped and sliding sand, and I grasped about for my flashlight. As I reached out blindly into the water, I felt it one last time—the scales brushed against my skin like the back of a blade, and the mucus wrapped around my arm in a weak grip and then was gone. I screamed, finally, for the first time, and crawled frantically from the wave as it receded back into the ocean, taking the man and the creature with it to slither back into the sea.
Water wiped blood from the sand, and even the deep ditch was quickly filling with rushing crystalline grit.
I ran from the waves. I ran, my boots and clothes soaked through, water streaming from my hair over my face and into my mouth—wanting to scream but unable to, my throat raw and full of salt while the cold night air chilled me through. I ran back to the party, and while the attendants laughed at my disheveled demeanor I paid them no heed. I went straight to my bedroom, and I did not speak a word of what had happened to anyone.
I did not join my fiancée in bed that night—I slept sporadically in the dry tub, the bathroom door locked tight. My soaking clothes hung from the curtain bar, dripping onto the tile like sporadic rain, or blood.
We left the shore the next morning.
I never spoke to anyone of what I saw that night. I see little use—was anyone, unlikely as it is, to believe me, what could be done of such a thing? I would rather carry this burden myself. But now I know why I have always feared the ocean, and why the water is something to be looked upon with anguish. It is a portal, indeed, an ether out of space. In the postnatal hours of the new year I saw it birth forth something horrible and vicious.
Try as I may, I will never forget that creature, that traveler from some void untouched by God.
But I pray that it will forget me.
Zachary Woodard is a writer and gamer outside of Philadelphia. He enjoys fantasy, horror and weird tales, and has a fascination with tabletop games and game design.