The Music at Sea

In the late summer, before the storms began to roll in, Mary Antoinette Athelard drowned herself, or so the police said and the newspapers reported. And, as far as the rest of the world is concerned, that is what happened.

In the small hours of the morning when the world is darker than our forgotten nightmares and old fishermen are drunk in the tavern by the docks, the oldest of them tells a very different story. It is a much darker story and one that reaches back to the entwined roots of the oldest family in Blackpool Bay and the beginnings of the town itself.

Many years later and a world away, I write these words in my diary as a cautionary tale. You may or may not believe me, but trust me when I say that you should fear the music at sea.

***

I had schooled with Edward Junior Athelard, who had convinced me to spend summer vacation with him at his family home in Blackpool Bay. Both him and I had a fascination with diving, having done some scuba and spelunking around various places, and he had convinced me about the fascinating underwater ruins dotted around his ancestral shoreline back home.

Junior was the youngest of two siblings and the last in a line of Athelards stretching back to his great-great-grandmother who built both the family fortune and, arguably, their home town. He rarely mentioned his father or what had happened to him; the Athelard family was interspersed with tragedy in each generation and he tended to gloss over many other aspects of his family. Years later, these seemingly innocent omissions make my skin crawl and I find my ears straining to hear if there is any hint of music in the wind outside.

Junior had, though, spoken fondly of his elder sister. They had been a key source of companionship for each other growing up in such a small, isolated town penned in by a dark, brooding ocean on one side and the Old Mountains on the other. With the curiosity of children and the leisure of the wealthy, the two of them had spent many hours looking through these self-same underwater ruins that he wanted to show me and, thus, our first trip to Blackpool Bay was born.

Once we had jumped off the creaking, old boat at the smelly docks, we grabbed our bags and wandered up into town. Residing at number 2 Main Street, the Athelard family home was a wonderful old Victorian house that had probably seen better days but still carried itself well in this quaint setting.

A decrepit, piscine-looking butler with slightly bulging eyes opened for Master Edward and me, taking our bags and showing me to my room. Dinner was served shortly after that and, in this old wooded and quaint Victorian setting, I first met Mary. It would be the first of many times as, all those years ago, we grew close in our innocence as Junior, Mary, and I all explored those ancient, silent ruins so far below the brooding, stormy waters of Blackpool Bay.

We would spend weeks swimming around vast crumbling ruins of strange rock, carved in strong, flowing lines. There were pillars running in the deep from ancient times and for forgotten reasons with architectures intimating a great city with vast buildings and roads that ran up and through the town–if you knew where to look and what to look for–towards the darkest part of the Old Mountains where the bizarre Black Pool is rumored to lie.

We would throw around wild theories about the ruins and, on more than one occasion, I could swear that I had heard strange, haunting music in the wild wind or vibrating through the waters far below the surface. But, I am uncertain whether I have merely fabricated these memories, as those eerie, crumbling, seaweed-infested ruins played on one’s minds long after you left them, as did my subsequent experience.

After all, those crumbling ruins were the strange, foreboding structures that distant, alien hands had lade while chiseling dark, twisted decorations with warped fish-like human forms amongst other horrors, all writhing through and around a great civilization whose very name has been forgotten to our mild, modern history books…

***

Those years flew by, but Junior ended up at a different college to me, though I hear that he dropped out after only a year and returned home. Not just the distance but also as he grew older I sensed him pulling away from me and, perhaps in hindsight, the rest of the modern world as he slipped back into the dark, isolation of Blackpool Bay.

For a while, Mary and I also maintained sporadic communication, but slowly, the dark, mysterious ruins below the waters Blackpool Bay receded into my memory and the Athelards receded back into their old Victorian home with all their secrets, money and isolation.

Slowly, slowly, I forgot the old, crumbling ruins and their haunt visage and horrific carvings. Slowly, slowly, I forgot the music I thought I heard sometimes in the howling, bitter ocean wind or vibrating deep underwater…

If only this had stayed that way. But, alas, the distance was shattered when the phone rang late one night and, on a crackling line, Mary’s voice breathlessly whispered out three short, panicked sentences before the line cut:

“Come, James, come quickly! It is happening to us again. It is hungry and I am not sure how long I can keep Junior safe!”

***

Less than a fortnight later, I was walking out to the docks with a pale, thin, babbling Mary pulling my hand and pushing me into one of the family boats. Junior was gone and I was too late.

Too late for what, I recall wondering?

I was shocked at how much Mary had aged and how empty their home felt. The old, fishy butler was gone and shadows lurked everywhere in that building. As she cast off from the docks and we plowed her family boat through stormy swell and cutting, bitter wind against the dark sky and hateful sea, she told me the strangest, most disjointed tale I have ever heard:

“James,” I still remember Mary, her voice edged with hysteria and her eyes wide with fear as she called above the sound of the boat, the wind and the water, “James, we Athelards have been here since the beginning. Did you know that? Did Edward tell you that we were the beginning? They made–we made a deal with them and it has a cost. I did not know, but the butler did–I think he is one of them. I think he keeps cutting the phone lines. Oh, god, James, what a cost! One every generation is taken. They never forget because they have to feed it. It began with Great-great-nan’s husband. He was the first to pay the cost. Some of the townsfolk are them, you know? They sometimes breed, but we–no, no, god, no, we are pure and just, just, just… You see, James, they took Junior and we have to get him back We have to get him back, and I found the old map in Great-great-nan’s old room and we are going to where the pillars end and their city starts and, god, James, how are we going to get him back? Nan’s says the music calls them but how? Why? God, James, god…!

At this, Mary broke down crying and I jumped up and put my arms around her. I took over the boat’s steering–though I had no idea where we were going–and let her sit down, burying her face in her palms and sobbing.

The Athelards are a sturdier bunch than most old minted families, and soon she stood up, pushed me away from the wheel, and took over. Her eyes narrowed, jaw clenched and all she did was to point to the open maws of the Bay where the open ocean started with its wild, primordial water and say:

“That’s where we are going, James, that is where we are going.”

***

From this point, a lot of my tale becomes a blur, though I will try to recount it as accurately as possible.

Once we arrived at what appeared to be a very specific place, Mary took out a strange, metal whistle or flute and, amidst the howling wind and sea spray, she blew deeply into it. Perhaps it was growing on me, perhaps it was an old memory blurring with the strangeness of the present, or perhaps it was truly happening, but suddenly I became faintly away of that self-same haunting music hidden in the hateful wind howling around us.

Gradually, I realized–and recognized!–that there was a strange, high-pitched melody in the wind. The waves pounding against the boat became or were caused by drum beats; bass-filled echoes that the haunting, ethereal notes pitched and rolled against out in that vicious sea. It was growing louder and clearer, and my old memories came flooding back to me.

I recalled the strange, foreboding structures far below and around us that distant, alien hands had placed while carving dark, twisted decorations of fish-like horrors, all writhing through and around a great civilization whose very name has been forgotten to our shallow, self-centered history.

My head lolled back and I recall closing my eyes. The music was around me and filled me with unexpected thoughts and alien feelings from a forgotten place. Somehow the inhuman music reminded me of places I had never been and secrets that I did not know. Its darkly evocative and elusive melody was coursing through my vanes and the wild wind, waves, and stormy sky all fell away as I lost myself in it…

“James!”

The cry snapped me back to reality. My mouth was open and I had been singing or humming–or chanting!–and realized that my arms were outstretched for some reason with palms facing up like I was worshipping something.

James!

The second cry snapped me into action and I opened my eyes.

Mary was clutching me, shaking and pointing and I was hit by a sickening stench of rotting fish. I had no idea how they got there, but standing in the boat, facing us were two of the most bizarre terrifying beings I had ever seen. While certainly humanoid in shape, their thin, gaunt forms were covered in glistening slimy scales with webbed, wicked-looking claws on both hands and feet with fins running down parts of their bodies. They stood a little taller than me, though their builds were slight and they looked less comfortable on land than I suspect they would be underwater. All these details receded into the background when presented with the cold, fish-like faces that rose up from their gilled necks. Cold, unblinking inhuman eyes of uncalculatable intelligence stared at the two of us from across a gulf that my reason and all my knowledge could not cross without going insane.

These were the fish-men carved into the ruins we had dived through as children. And then it struck me, the ruins were not merely carved with their ancient, wicked forms, but the ruins themselves were the fish-mens’ own! At that moment, I knew as I know now, these ancient abominations from the depths of the sea were the builders and architects of those crumbling, eerie ruins through Blackpool Bay.

But, before I could do anything or speak, Mary darted forward and bowed before them, laying the strange metal fluit at their feet. The haunting, inhuman music on the wind was crescendoing as drums in the deep pushed out like the heartbeat of some giant horror awakening far below us where even the light of the brightest day does not reach.

“Please, please,” Mary begged, “Please can I have my brother James back. Please! Take me instead!”

“Now wait!” I remember shouting at Mary, stepping forward to stop her, but it was too late. The music at sea was crescendoing hellishly as the waves were getting bigger and a lightning bolt suddenly flashed from the blackening heavens, “Now wait, you, stop! Don’t touch her!”

I recall screaming, my voice lost in the music at sea as a fish-man grabbed poor Mary and I lunged at it. The one fish-man–surprisingly strong–batted me off like some buzzing insect while the other scooped up a sobbing Mary and leaped smoothly from the boat into the dark waters of where Blackpool Bay meets the wild, primordial open-ocean.

What happened then? This is a question that I struggle with.

I do not know but, in the darkest hours of the stormiest nights when I sometimes think I hear that strange, inhuman music on the hateful wind, I sometimes recall flashes of images from the moments following this.

I recall struggling with the remaining fish-man but being flung aside like I was nothing. My head hit something and the world began to darken. But something large and dark–sometimes I recall tentacles and teeth but sometimes it is worse–rose from that wild water and towered over the boat and me. I recall Mary screaming and the horrors of the cosmos itself reaching out with the hunger of countless millennium, the hunger of cold, inhuman space and the black depths of the ocean’s hidden floor…

And then I recall being woken by an old, weathered fisherman who helped me steer my listlessly drifting boat back to shore. The wind was silent again but I swear I could feel dark drumbeats rolling in the depths far below those primordial waves.

***

The Athelard family is no more but this is old news. After Junior’s reported disappearance, a piscine-looking policeman with bulbous eyes ruled that a grief-stricken Mary had thrown herself into the sea and drowned. This was despite my protests to the contrary. The newspapers had then reported her drowning, and the old family estate and the rotting town around it had receded back into isolation and brooding silence.

Years later, I write these words from far inland on another continent. Even this far away, I sometimes worry that the inhuman music at sea still lingers on the wind around here, its reach far longer than we can ever imagine. The fish-men and their horrors still haunt my waking dreams as I move towards the same fate that befell the Athelard family.

I am dying and am not long for this world. Junior is gone as is Mary and the entire Athelard family line. Soon, I will be too, though for more mundane reasons. One day, I think–or hope!–that Blackpool Bay will also rot away and disappear from our world.

But, I suspect, the strange, crumbling ruins of the ancient, inhuman civilization that lies below the dark waters of Blackpool Bay shall remain. The fish-men with their wicked, webbed claws and unblinking eyes shall probably slip from our age into another and, perhaps, even another, taking their secrets with them as well as their need to sate that nameless hunger that resides far below and at the center of their twisted lives and at the heart of the music at sea.