“Do you want to hear of what I’ve seen tonight, young one?” the man said, gazing at me with black octopus eyes. “I’ll tell you for a pint of whisky or whatever else your heart and your purse can agree upon ... What say you?”
I hesitated, sensing that wasn’t something he offered or asked for easily. Knowing that he wasn’t just an old drunk earning his booze with storytelling.
A clumsy elbow in my spine – without intention, no doubt - pushed me against him and, as I heard a muttering of excuses in my back, I cringed at the repulsive contact. The old man reeked of decomposing fish, of harsh tobacco and even cheaper alcohol. The smell of the sea – heavy and deep - was imprinted on him like his own, repugnant to me yet strangely enticing.
“Of what walks out there... in the mist,” he croaked.
He watched me with a mix of anticipation and wariness, a half smile wrinkling his parchment like cheeks.
I had nowhere else to go. And he was right. That’s what I was there for. That’s why I had cut my hair, and sold my books, and lied; why I’d left my studies, and robbed sweet Mrs. Cliff, and sailed this far north. There was no going back for me. Maybe only death awaited me in this savage place this close to the Arctic Circle but I had to find out. About what he’s seen in the mist.
My eyes slipped to what he was holding tucked tightly under his left arm. It was a package wrapped in dirty fabric and tied with hemp string. My heart fluttered frenziedly. A book, I hoped.
He must’ve noticed the hunger in my look for he smiled, a gap opening on his face in guise of a toothless smile, a black crevice rebounding of a dubious goodwill, of a perverse acknowledgement of our newly acquired familiarity.
“Konrad Gessner,” he croaked. “He knew about them, about all of them.”
“Is it the Historiae Animalium?” I stammered. “Is it? The true one?”
He silenced me with a sharp gesture, a passing spark of anger in his eyes.
What did he fear in here? No one would’ve known. This was a sailors’ tavern, the only place that was open on a fog night, crammed by those who had no place of their own, the outcast, the transient, the careless. All the good people, all the God-fearing men and women, huddled behind their doors and shutters, praying for the fog to go away. To take with it whatever it was bringing from the sea.
“You’re a stranger,” he said. “Moreover, a young girl disguised as boy. No one would have taken you willingly to this forgotten island, therefore you must’ve cheated your way here.”
I signalled to the barkeeper and ordered his best whisky for the two of us. I had never drunk whisky before but that seemed like a better time than most. The old man grabbed his glass with arthritic hands and took a careful gulp. I swallowed down half of mine, only by mistake. It descended with a fiery fist deep into my stomach.
“How did you know of me?”
I pursed my lips. I was feverish with curiosity, half-drunk already, and eager to drink more. Anything to remove the slimy chilliness the fog had left on my skin. The putridness that lingered in my nostrils. But that was not the only reason the room had acquired the peculiar smell of which I was sure it wasn’t only the mix of stale and fresh tobacco smoke. I was certain the fog insinuated its wispy fingers at the windows’ corners. Still I waited for him to talk.
“Ah, my brother…,” the man mumbled. “You were one of his students. One who listened. One who could grasp the true meaning behind his words. Too bad, I pity you my child.”
It was curious how despite his decrepit state he bore a deep resemblance with his brother, the elegant scholar, the pedantic cryptozoology professor, my doctoral advisor.
“He put all this in your head, young lady. People have gone mad for knowing this…”
“Have you seen them?” I begged. “Would you tell me?”
He had his glass refilled, then spoke.
“They’re all out there, all the ones described by Olaus Magnus, by Sebastian Münster, by the master, the great Konrad Gessner. In the past, everybody believed in them, not anymore… But they are real.”
“Have you seen them?”
“The fog brings them out of their watery lairs. I don’t know why. It is the air saturated with humidity, maybe, that allows them to breathe on land for a short while. I saw them coming out at the old fishermen’s dock not an hour ago, their bulky shorn heads bobbling on their deformed bodies.”
I shuddered. That was only one street away from where I’d taken a room in old Mrs. Krag’s boarding house. We could’ve crossed paths too easily, and then what? My firsthand experience would have also been the last.
“What are they?” My eagerness was too apparent, but I didn’t care. I had no time to waste. His white eyebrows formed a bushy V of resentment, maybe at the image he was conjuring in his mind.
“Sea monks!” he scoffed. “Sea bishops! A whole, obscene clergy of the deep! Surely just like the creature caught in the Øresund and brought to the court of King Christian of Denmark five centuries ago. They wear the black clothes of a monk, all tangled with seaweed, and torn scales, and rotten ship wood. Their skin is white, with a dark circle on top of the head, like a monk who’s been recently tonsured. But they have the mouth and the jaw of a fish.”
He stopped, looking fixedly at his drink, which I took as a sign to have it refilled. “The worst,” he continued with a heavier voice, “is when I recognise one of them. Tonight, tonight even, I saw, I think I saw Connor McAuley, the one we thought had drowned last Michaelmas…”
“They took him with them? And he’s not dead?”
The old man snorted, half contemptuously. The other half was a sigh of ugly sadness, which he quickly hid in his glass of whisky.
“By some ghastly miracle, he’s not, although I’m sure he wishes he were. He was much like them, very much… I could barely recognise him. His eyes, his eyes were still his, and that’s most of what was left of that brave handsome man.”
His voice faltered, as if the burden of his words was too heavy for his heart. “They take a few people every time, those who were unfortunate enough or foolish enough to cross their path in the fog.”
I felt a bitter indignation swell up in my throat.
“Human flesh is what they like the most…”
Without warning, nausea came to reinforce the indignation.
“Then, they need to reinforce their ranks…”
“Why are you hiding in here?” I said. “It seems they don’t harm you…”
He shook his head, then spat somewhere over his right shoulder, surely a gesture of disgust not of superstition.
“You might as well ask why I drink. I can’t take it anymore. They’ve harmed me enough. They have nothing else to take from me. My flesh they don’t want. I can walk at their shoulder, and curiosity will be their only intrusion upon me. But they want to touch me – God knows why - and their touch has become insufferable to my skin, their stench a gangrene to my soul…”
He stopped abruptly. The fear that he would not continue climbed into my heart.
To be continued...