Eldritch Endings (2011)

“Roadkill” by Acrasis
“Sweet Zinge” by Lynn Bush
“The Spanish Derelict” by Kit Russell
The Quest to Azathoth by Borrowind
The Fifth Portrait by Paul Anderson

Note: Titles with links are hosted elsewhere.

Roadkill
by Acrasis

Lovecraft ForestI remember those drives home – when I’d have to decide whether to take the short way (Kingsville Drive) or the scenic route (Mill Road).  I was a scenic-route kind of person back then, and what could be nicer than green forests, hilly farms with cows, and a meandering brook? Yet I had a hard time warming up to the scenery.

It’s hard to remember how I was back then.  I had just moved to Maryland from California, having been transferred from one army base to another, and I found something disturbing about so much green in the summer.  Especially that year, with the rainy spring.  Summer to me meant everything going brown and sere, patiently holding out until the rains came again in the fall.  In Maryland the fecundity of the landscape was overpowering, especially (perhaps due to the brook) on Mill Road.  If you turned onto the road, it was like entering a green tunnel: the tree trunks rose like gray columns and the foliage met up above the road and merged into an impenetrable mass of leaves and vines. You drove through it as you would an enormous Gothic arch, for those were tall trees, as high as the nave of a cathedral. It was dim even at noon and 10 degrees cooler than on Kingsville Drive. Sometimes as you drove you’d see an owl fly by during the day. In spring there were ghostly white croziers poking through the dead leaves.  These were, I knew, Indian pipes, pale fungous plants without chlorophyll that parasitized other plants for nutrients, growing in drifts as dense as wildflowers.  Mind you, this forest only extended for half a mile, but it seems endless.  At last you’d pass out of the tunnel and into the wide green meadow, driving past several farms with placid staring black & white cows. Mill Road curved right and left, went up hills and down, but was always parallel to the brook, a meandering waterway that looped and curled and sometimes passed under the road and then passed back.

Despite this Grandma Moses-like assemblage of barns, bridges and cows, I was never comfortable on Mill Road, always distracted, worrying about practical, unquaint things like running over a nail, pitching off the top of a big hill that had no guardrail, or slipping on ice in winter and skidding through rustic split rail fences.  I wasn’t used to ice, coming from California, and did in fact crash through a split-rail fence a few months after moving here. It was awkward dealing with the farmer, who charged me double the reasonable price for wood, but since his grandfather had put up the fence, and I imagine no one knows how to make them nowadays; I just paid him.  He and his wife lived in a large modern house and bred Cairn terriers and had a giant pickup truck with air-brushed flames on it and seemed like people you might want to be on good terms with if a tornado struck, so I paid for the fence. I drove carefully after that.  The locals, in their four-wheel-drive pick-up trucks and SUVs, drove at comfortably breakneck speeds, roaring past me crunching branches and rocks and animals.  Nothing seemed to bother them, but possibly that was because they didn’t look where they were going.

I was a naturally curious person back then. It bothered me that I couldn’t identify those tall trees (although I can be excused for that, being a Californian and given that the leaves were so high up one couldn’t really see their shape).  The locals had no such excuse: they just didn’t care. Trees were trees, except conifers, which were “pines” no matter if they were spruce or fir trees.  I had plant identification guide books.  I had a birdfeeder and I had bird identification books.  I was interested in all facets of the natural world. The locals didn’t feed birds or even notice them and when they drove they seemed to take special glee in smashing a snapping turtle or squashing a snake.  Well, I had a prejudice against people who drove SUVs. I guess I felt superior, even though I didn’t have a four-wheel drive vehicle, couldn’t repair a fence, and needed to call a plumber to change the water filter.

But I liked animals, and it irritated me to see all the roadkill.  Especially on Mill Road, where I often saw killed animals I couldn’t recognise.  For all I knew, they were some endangered or rare animal like a fisher or marten.  Well, probably not fishers or martens, but what were they?  Woodchucks?  Muskrats?  I had a field guide to North American mammals, and they didn’t look like anything in the book: too dark for a woodchuck and with too stubby a tail or a muskrat and nothing like a nutria. Of course, I had never gotten a really good look at one, since I was too squeamish to stop and stare at flattened fauna.  So I told myself they were especially dark woodchucks. On the army base, we had herds of deer roaming on the old chemical waste dumping-grounds that were all sorts of colors from chocolate brown to pale ivory.  Someone had told me that because the deer had no natural enemies on the base, they didn’t need to be camouflaged to survive.  In fact, the squirrels on base were the same way: we had pure black ones and pure white ones.

I asked my neighbors on either side about these mysterious animals, but they had no idea.  To them things were “snappers” or “snakes” or “critters”.  The idea of having a guide book for mammals or trees was alien to them, even though most of the families on Kingsville Drive seemed to home-school their kids.  I couldn’t imagine what they taught them. They seemed to distrust knowledge: the less you knew, the less things could confuse you. No one on Kingsville Drive except me appeared to subscribe to a newspaper.  There was nothing to have a conversation about except the weather, and even there you needed to be careful, because the neighbors thought global warming was a communist delusion.

But weather was still an inexhaustible topic, because the winter had been so snowy and harsh, and the spring so wet.  Global warming. I couldn’t help thinking it, although I wouldn’t say it out loud out of politeness.  The neighbors were devout Protestants and  stark Mennonites. I didn’t discuss religion with them, but there were always pamphlets stuffed in the door when I came home.  About repenting before it was too late, or letting Jesus into my life.  I got the idea the neighbors believed that if Global warming really did exist, God would figure it out and fix it, or else it was a sign of the End Times and if so, they had better things to worry about.  After one tremendous storm, when two inches fell over the course of an hour, I drove down Mill Road to see what the stream level was.  The road was just passable, but the pastures were flooded and the herd of cows was up to its ankles in water and dozens of heads stared balefully at me as I drove by.  I reached the point where the stream passed under the road and then back again.  The water had obviously once been above the level of the road and it was now covered with a thick layer of mud and twigs.  There were a couple of muddy lumps that seemed to me must be the bodies of animals.  This time I slowed and lowered the window. I could smell the mud: the pungent stench of anaerobic bacteria, the tang of unearthed chemical waste, the sickly odor of decay. The lumps were clearly large rodents, fur caked with mud.  I could see the short tail, unlike that of a muskrat, and the bulbose body, similar to a woodchuck’s.  I could see indentations where the eyes would be and the muddy bumps of slime-coated ears.  I could see long whiskers that seemed as thick as spikes due to the coating of mud.  But I couldn’t make out a mouth on either body.  It must have been the mud, but it was unnerving.  I rolled up the window and continued on my way.

The days went by, but the stream level didn’t drop.  Every day I drove on Mill Road to check.  I sometimes saw dark projections in the water, leaving triangular wakes.  Rocks?  The heads of animals?  Every day I saw more. Not rocks. Animals. I asked the neighbors, but they didn’t know what I meant.  The brook?  On Mill Road?  What about it?

I convinced myself these animals were otters: what else could they be?  And yet how could there be so many of them?  Dozens in the water, dozens on the banks busily doing something.  I frequently saw them run across the road and once almost hit one. Each day the water level rose; some days the road was flooded and I had to turn back.  The meadows were incredibly lush and green; some days I couldn’t even see the cows.  Finally the road collapsed where the brook passed under it and then back again. A road crew came, but only to put up a barrier that said “Road Closed”.  I stopped and talked to them, but they shrugged and said the state didn’t have the money any more for road repairs. I asked the neighbors about the dairy farms – how were they getting the milk out?  How was my neighbor with the flame-covered truck faring? They had no idea. Milk?  Farms?  They didn’t seem to care.  They drove their SUVs on Kingsville Road with reckless abandon, crushing squirrels and turtles and rabbits, but the crushed animals seemed to be nothing stranger than that.  However, by then, I stopped looking at roadkill. The weather had gotten so bad I had to buy a bigger car, and just getting to work took all of my attention.  And with all the lay-offs and base closings and the economy and everything, I had to work long hours and usually came home in the dark.

I still live on Kingsville Road, but I like to think I’ve become a more tolerant person. Live and let live, that’s my motto.

Sweet Zinge
by Lynn Bush

From the Commonplace Book of H. P. Lovecraft:
2 Inhabitants of Zinge, over whom the star Canopus rises every night, are always gay and without sorrow. [x]

Three Canies woke up last week. If this pace keeps up I’ll have to bring in another liaison officer to help the formerly blissful blend back into what is left of this vale of tears. When the wakers start seeing Zinge as it is, the smart Sister calls us early, while they’re rejoining us, instead of waiting ’til trouble starts.

I met #3 in the housekeeper’s rooms where he was listening to her stories as he ate stew. I mostly answered questions about what Hattie had been telling him.

“So the ones that broke out were matter like us, although possibly multidimensional or anti or something, while the ones that stopped them seem to be what used to be called dark matter or dark energy.”

“Apparently.”

“Most of us still can’t see or image them, nothing showing up on any instruments humans made? We still aren’t sure how much of our space/time universe is left, or really much of anything?”

“Right”

Tommy (he kept the name he finally remembered) had mostly enjoyed working IT for a multinational, thought he might enjoy reconstructing the technology that might answer some of our questions about our new reality. After a day or two he might go to the the Geeks, had a real chance to fit in and be both useful and content.

“Mattie told me 3 sleepers woke this week. How are the others?”

“I don’t talk much about the wakers but I will say the first one this week chose the name Dandelion and moved into The Farm, will grow your food and maybe churn your butter if the cows do well. A lot of the wakers think themselves lucky after a while, prefer their real lives to the ecstasy of the sleepers, although I will say some have significant problems with no obvious solutions.”

We chatted awhile, decided he’d stay at Mattie’s for a few days then make some choices for longer-term. Mattie’s suite is just far enough in Zinge that he still felt some residual contentment, no hurry to leave the warmth and comfort, while far enough from the core to let a human see the actual world instead of the spaces the sleepers occupied.

After we said goodnight, I walked deep into the Garden of Release and stood under Canopus. I saw again the second waker this week, an ecstatic little man in a blue room chanting praises to the ones who had broken through, offering the sweet sisters to the dark deep ones if they took him with them, felt again the joy we shared as I wrapped my cord around his neck and set him free.

Then, as I frequently did when leaving Zinge, I sat on the bench outside the walls and wept for a while before off to file my weekly reports, before I rejoined the humans who still could weep and wail our joyful horrible fates.

The Spanish Derelict
by Kit Russell

From the Commonplace Book of H. P. Lovecraft:
202 A monstrous derelict—found and boarded by a castaway or shipwreck survivor.

Now that the formalities of the Admiralty’s court have been resolved, though not to my perfect satisfaction, I find myself at liberty at last to unburden my soul and tell at length what I only alluded to in my testimony. Had I made these memories public beforetime, I would have called into question my own sanity, and given ammunition to the cause of the mutineers’ defense.

My readers will, of course, be familiar with the story of His Majesty’s Ship Trafalgar; both the responsible and irresponsible papers have carried the story. But though the more sensationalist papers exaggerated the story to grotesque proportions, even they missed the true tale of the horror that was visited upon those of my men who remained loyal to me.

I begin the story after that wild interregnum, where Mr. Edwards and others of my crew had seized control of the Trafalgar. They gave me, in the name of mercy, a chance to survive — one of the ship’s boats and enough water and food for a week’s rowing. Then we were put over the side with neither pistols nor swords, though Mr. Jeffrys, the navigator, did give us a compass and a current heading by which we might make our way safely to some friendly port.

So many times during the days that followed, I doubted that heading we were given. The matter is, of course, only one of speculation now; sometime in the long, insensible hours and days, we lost all notion of our own heading.

We were drifting in the heat, too exhausted by the sun to row, when Lawry, who had the watch, raised the cry. “Ship ahoy!”

Immediately the crew cast aside their lassitude in favour of a desperate hope.

Mr. Curtis took off his shirt and waved it frantically, wit no thought to personal dignity. I will admit a temptation to that same desperate excess, such was my mental state! But a Captain must be in control of himself at all times, and so, I quashed the urge.

But though we hailed the ship with all the voice left in our parched throats, there was no answer.

I ordered the men to the oars, where they rowed with all the strength that desperation could muster. I feared, though, that it would not be enough, and that we chased only a madman’s hope of rescue.

Gradually, I perceived we were gaining ground. It was only then that I realized that the ship was adrift, pushed more by the current within the sea than the air above it.

I wished, then, for the spyglass my perfidious first mate had stolen from me, along with everything else. But all I could do was wait and hope that when we reached the ship, her colours would show her to be friendly, or at least neutral, to Britain. Even an honourable enemy, who would ransom our return, would be a better fate than the hellish thirst and half-starvation that was our current condition.

The only thing I truly feared was that the ship would belong to pirates, who would make a horrid and fatal sport of Mr. Curtis and myself, and force my men to choose between death and a life of piracy.

Fool that I was, I imagined that was the worst fate that could befall us!

But even as we drew closer, I could discern neither colours on the mast, nor motion on the deck. I was unnerved by the last; the masts were standing and, as much as I could see from my distance, in good repair. The sails hung from the spars like so much laundry, though the ship was rigged for sail. There should have been no reason why even the most indifferent sail-handling should not have coaxed a fair amount of speed from her.

A new fear hit me then — perhaps the crew had fallen ill. Illness can spread through a crew like wildfire.

If that were the case, did I really dare bring my own crew aboard, to risk their health and lives in such a plague?

But, I realized, I had no choice. My men would die without fresh provisions. They knew that as well as I, but even so, they began to mutter uneasily as we pulled into the boat’s shadow. Superstitious lot that they were, they felt the misgivings I would not admit to myself.

To this day, I wish that I had listened to them, even if it had meant perishing in an agony of thirst!

But I was determined to save us all — those few of my men who had remained loyal despite both temptation and fear. So we approached the ship’s ladder and I sent up the powder monkey, Givens, with a rope to tie us up, and return immediately.

When the boy returned, his face looked pale despite the burning of the sun. “There’s nobody up there! Nobody at all, Captain!”

“Then there is nothing to worry about,” I said, with a heartiness I could not feel. I did not dare let their superstitions run away with them, or we would all find ourselves lost. As an example, I climbed up the wooden ladder and stepped across the railing.

If the ship’s wooden deck felt hollow beneath my boot-heels, I told myself, it was only because I had been on a row-boat for so long. Thirst and hunger might also be distorting my hearing.

“Ahoy!” I called, and stepped away from the railing. The cry vanished into the air as if swallowed.

The Marines’ sergeant, a stout Warwickshireman named Beale, followed me over the rail. He looked singularly uncomfortable without his musket, but I knew that he could do more with his bare fists than most men could do armed.

Beale was followed by five other Marines. Those half-dozen had been on watch during the mutiny; the others, the reader will recall, had all had their throats cut as they slept.

I sent Beale and his men below to search for any signs of trouble, and Mr. Curtis with two men to search for supplies. The latter party returned sooner than the former, and with better news; though the supplies were low, there should be more than enough for our small party to reach land.

The Marines’ news was more puzzling. They had found not a single living soul, nor any corpses. There were no signs of a struggle, it was as if the men had simply vanished. If they had, though, many of them would have been dressed only in what they had been born in; quite a few of them had taken the trouble to lay out their clothes on their hammocks.

Troubled as I was by this development, I had the crew to think about. I ordered water and ship’s biscuits brought up on deck, and the men of my small command broke their involuntary fast.

While we ate, I considered the situation. The ship was derelict; by the laws of the sea, she was a legitimate prize. Though we would be short-handed, it would be possible to sail her, if at less than optimum efficiency, with the crew I had.

I would have to press Beale and his Marines into service for unskilled labor, and Givens as well. But it could be done.

Indeed, I thought that it would be the only realistic chance of survival. On the boat, we had been at the mercy of the wind and the waves. With the ship, we would once again become the masters of our own destiny.

Now the men were finishing their meal, and sprawling out on deck. I couldn’t blame them, after a week in the cramped confines of the boat, but neither could I allow the lapse in discipline.

I ordered the men aloft to check the rigging for any sign of damage, and went to the captain’s cabin to check the heading.

It was there that I affirmed the identity of the ship; the papers were all written in Spanish. However, as I had Latin, I was able to make out the charts and determine the ship’s last position, as well as the heading I’d last taken from the Trafalgar. With the information, I could estimate our location, at least enough to determine the course we should take.

I turned from the chart table and headed above to give the heading to Mr. Curtis, who had the wheel. I trusted him with the task, so I took the reports — there was nothing wrong with the ship. That only added to the mystery, but I refused to let my odd foreboding run away with me.

Once the course was set, I sent two of the Marines to see what was in the hold. I will not lie; I was hoping for some prize I could return with; my men could use the morale boost. But instead, the men returned, looking vaguely discomfited.

“What is it?” I asked.

They exchanged a troubled look, and one said, “Perhaps you should come and see, Captain.”

I consented to follow them below, into the depths of the hold. I was surprised to see there were what seemed like pearls, but as long as a man’s arm and thick as his thigh. But when I touched one of them, it was not hard and slick, but gave sickeningly beneath my fingertips.

I was reminded unconsciously of maggots; not a pleasant association, but one I could not quite shake. I rubbed my fingers against my breeches, until the gelid outer covering was gone.

Looking at the things, I soon discovered that many of them had a slow, pulsating motion to them, though none was in rhythm with any other. It was, I will admit, a most disturbing sight. Yet it was in its way hypnotic — it was only when one of the Marines dared touch my shoulder that I realized that he had been shouting my name. I shuddered awake like a sleeper from a nightmare, and turned away from the sight.

“What do you think they is, Captain?” asked the Marine who had startled me from my reverie, but I could only shake my head in mute horror. I slid the bolt home to lock the things in, and hurried to the deck for some more wholesome air.

But having regained the sun and the air, it was easy to tell myself that I had been susceptible to fancies because of my earlier privations. If the Spaniards had been bearing the objects homeward, they must be of some value. I determined then that, as we were making good progress under Mr. Curtis’s able hand, I would return to the Captain’s cabin.

When I had come before, I had not ventured past the chart-table, nor stayed longer than was needed to get an idea of our bearings. It was not surprising, then, that I had not noticed the clothing draped over the back of the chair. Now, when I was searching for the manifest, I could not help but notice the oddity of its placement.

Whoever had laid the clothing out for the Spanish captain had not been a body-servant, for it was not piled with the layer closest to the body on top. Instead, it was laid out as if he could slip into it at once; the inner garments beneath the outer. Even the boots were below the table, though the hat had fallen to the floor and rolled idly beneath the chair.

I will not deny the frisson that went through me at that sight, though I could not quite identify its source. It took an act of willpower to touch the clothes and lift them as a body from the chair. They were oddly stiff to the touch, and as soon as I had deposited them on the bed, I felt an urge to wash myself clean.

Instead, I sat down and applied myself to the search for the manifest. I found it after not very long of a search, but it was less than useful. It listed the cargo as “items of a curious and possibly valuable nature.”

Perhaps, I thought, I could find more in the Captain’s log of the journey. I flipped through the pages, not trying to read all of them; my Spanish was not up to the task of translating the entire thing. But finally, I got to the entry which included the cargo that they had loaded on.

“Today, we loaded on what the explorers described as pearls. I was told that they were found inside strange mollusk-like creatures, which lived deep in the caves where once the Native people mined for gold, though they were abandoned due to superstition some years ago, and none of the local inhabitants will approach at all.”

Remembering the appearance of those things, I could hardly blame the locals. They certainly were unnerving. But neither was I willing to give too much credit to my own overstretched senses.

Not long after, I was given notice that another meal had been prepared, this one little more savory than the first; the ship’s cook had stayed with the mutineers. I ate quickly and then returned to my studies, because I was loath to spend the night not knowing what fate had befallen the Spanish crew.

It wasn’t until later that Sergeant Beale came to me, and said that one of his Marines had gone missing. It had been one of those who had gone below with me, to see the strange cargo.

Beale had gone to the hold, to see if the man was returned there; he was not. Yet clearly someone had been there, because the door had been left unbarred.

It was not long after that the missing man’s uniform was found, as if he’d vanished from his clothes whilst wearing them. The only damage was to the neck; it was as if someone had clawed at the clothing while the body was still in it.

Had the clothes been found in the hold, I would have given the orders to abandon ship at once. Would that I had given into the impulse, no matter how mad it might have seemed at the moment! Instead I ordered the hold once again barred, and ordered a search for the missing man. He could not have gone over the side, I reasoned; someone would have heard him. And no one could have simply vanished from his clothes; that was sheer superstition.

The most likely answer was the simplest one; that he had been unhinged by the long journey, the heat, and the thirst, though he had managed to hold himself together long enough to reach safety. I have seen such feats of mental endurance before; the collapse seems all the more shocking, but it does happen. And as to why he’d laid out his clothes, well, he’d seen that the other sailors had done the same.

But that left the unanswered question; why had the Spanish sailors left their clothes so? I could put it down to the excess of superstition that the Papist church encourages, but this did not seem like any of the Catholics’ beliefs.

Desperate for answers, I returned once more to the journal of the Spanish captain. Though it was a struggle, and my eyes blurred, I could make out the words.

But alas, it took me too long to understand what I read. By the time I reached the horrific ending, it was too late for Sergeant Beale, the poor young lad Givens, Archer, Collins, and McKee. Their deaths lie at my feet, for the simple mistake; I did not read the last page in the journal first, and so did not know the danger until the screams started.

We fled the ship within minutes, taking with us only the spare provisions that we had brought up on deck. I would have stayed on board to scuttle her, but as I had a wife and daughter to return to, Mr. Curtis was the one who took the open torch down into the powder-room, and did the deed.

It was another week before my much-reduced crew was picked up by a Dutch ship, and months before we returned home. Throughout that time, and the trial and hangings of the mutineers, I have held the secret close to my breast. But now, in these quiet hours, I can tell the story of the last words that the Spanish captain (God rest his soul) wrote.

“The things in the hold, they are not pearls at all, but larvae. And they are hungry. The fortunate are dissolved from the head down, and their suffering, though intense, is cut short.

“I am less fortunate; it has crept up inside my breeches and I can feel it dissolving its way up my leg and down into my boot, burning as it goes. Yet I must keep writing, to give warning to anyone who finds this … the burning agony … the screams of my crew … the screams …”

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