I didn’t set out to write the strangest zombie-apocalypse-flyfishing story you ever read. It just came to me in a dream.
If you find this, I can only imagine you are in the South Seas. I hope it not only hubris that you may have heard of me, for once I was a man whose name people spoke, and I only invoke it now that it may add some weight to the tale I am about to tell. I remember a white picket fence and a beautiful woman. Kids, I think I have spawned on green lawns. They will not speak well of me. I hope this tale redeems me somehow.
Some will call me mad; I have never denied it. Rather I have embraced that flicker that separates me from other men into those special brotherhoods on the long roads which wind around. I was once a mogul, a family man. Industrious. I have been a drunkard and sought my vices like fish in the dark of night. I have been a wastrel. A trout fisherman.
I say it again: I have been a trout fisherman and other low things. Drunk on trout. They lead me here. And I beg you: do not fish. There are many black things under the bright sun which your white picket fences and honey-do lists protect you from.
There are bright days and dark nights recounting them over scarred wood in bars which run together, less memorable than beats on uncounted streams. Over time the tug of a fish on a line does not satisfy certain men, men who need ever larger fish on remoter shores. These are the men whose tales you can believe because they are not satisfied with lies, but seek the truth that only they have experienced out there in uncharted waters. They listen more than they talk, filling in maps with myths, mysteries, and rumors; only tossing in enough of their own tales to season the soup. Certain of these certain men, hard from youth, will track these rumors down and slay these monsters like dragons in forgotten caves, then come back to find what remains unknown in the world, and know it. And you might envy them their rootless lives, but first listen to the tale of the Black Sun.
Davey and Chris were two such certain men. Too jaded to stay put, too addicted not to fish whatever water was around. Spies don’t have as many esoteric third world passport stamps as they do. When they drifted through town we would have a few, and I was one of the envious men. A few years ago, Chris left for the South Seas: Aitutaki, Rarotonga, Kiribati, and places long left off maps. Occasionally we would hear from him, a post card, disjointed rum-soaked letters, the off word from another traveler, but as the distances got greater the reports got rarer.
On his next visit Davey mentioned he might go looking for Chris and asked if I might come along. I was well down in my spiral by then you see, far outside the picket fence, and opted that a change of scenery might be just the thing for me.
Through Chris’s letters we tracked him by charter flight and tramp steamer, sailboats under alien constellations. We left for a season and were gone for an age. And yet we kept following him. A story in a bar, a post card that would catch up with us if we stayed put too long. We hopped from one chain to the next, living off of the sea, and eventually, finally forgoing maps, letting the winds and tides rule our fates.
We had adventures which even now I dare not speak for fear you would not believe me. We ate from the long pig. We were the guests of pirate kings. That was there I lost my fingers. I only tell you this story because if you could see my hand, you would believe me, and maybe believe the rest I have to tell. We sailed to them, as guileless, as poor, as humorous as lambs in an old black fishing boat with a red sail, the Black Sun. Whence it came from, I remember not. The winds had blown us to the lions’ den. Since we had nothing to steal and stories to tell they feasted us and kept us as one might a brace of fools. It was a paradise where the women chose the men and the rum flowed like lies.
That is, until one night one of the woman chose me. Dark hair, full hips, I think I might have paid the price of the fingers up front, though after I had to learn after to strip line with my off hand.
A man came at me with a knife. Davey laughed and saved my life, otherwise I would’ve been cut down before I could become disentangled from her arms. Enraged, the pirate turned on Davey, “What are you laughing at fisherman?”
You cannot lie with beasts without a fight. Eventually you will be tested. “Just that you will need a bigger knife. He has never lost a fight.” True in it’s own way, as I’d never been in one. Not a knife fight. I stood slowly and looked around. The entire island had gone quiet. I brushed sand from my thighs. “There are,” I swept my arms around, “a lot of women. I did not seek offense.”
“You drink our wine and sleep with our women, but you do not prove yourselves. Tonight, you must earn your spoils, as we all have.” And he spat on the ground between us.
A large curved dagger with a hooked tip arced through the firelight to land at my feet. Despite Davey’s lie, I felt I might have one slight advantage: we partook more liberally of the women than the rum, and I might be more sober than my foe. You count slim things when your breaths are winding down. I bent to pick up the knife and he rushed me. I stood up empty-handed and blocked with my left hand, losing the first two fingers, and jammed my right thumb rigid into his eye, felling him instantly. I stood over the body, blood coursing from my hand. I sucked the brains from my thumb, then spat them on him, only then taking his head scarf to bind my wound.
I looked around again and cheers went up. My woman had a friend, the night got very long. Before dawn Davey woke me and I took my clothes outside the tent to dress. Our little boat was tethered behind one of the speedboats at the docks. Without a word, he got into the boat and I cast off the moment it started up. We went as fast as we could through the atoll as lights came on behind us.
“I sugared all of their tanks. They will put up a good chase for a bit and then we will be able to get away.” This was good news as pulling the little boat was not going to let us out run even a Zodiac and bullets were already throwing up random gouts around us. Behind us boats roared to life, then sputtered and coughed. About a mile outside the atoll, we jammed the speedboat’s throttles open and let it run east, while we got into the Black Sun t and started tacking around the island to the west in the dark.
“Sorry about the hand,” he said.
“It might’ve been worth it,” I replied. “Looks like I’ll have to stop reeling traditionally, though.” And that is the last we ever spoke of it.
But that is not my story. My story begins one day after we had drifted long in the doldrums, the lapping of the waves stirring lethargy into the dust of our blood where the heat baked it in, so that we could barely raise our heads to look for shorebirds flying over. We had seen no fish for days, although we scanned the horizon greedily, our rods at the ready. Gradually, the sky had descended upon us and our world became smaller as the haze thickened into a paste we could barely see through or breathe. It was like being inside of a pearl as it coalesced from milky oyster blood to jewel.
Something stirred me, perhaps the ocean sounded a little different. I roused myself from my slump near the tiller in the stern. At first I saw only dark shapes in the fog, they could’ve been tricks of a mind gone lonely for thoughts after day upon day of gray. But slowly, as sight coming back to a man who has long lived in the dark, the fog gave way to a wondrous sight. It was a city of islands.
The water acted like streets around myriads of small hummocks, each crowned with crumbling ancient, almost alien, structures. It must once have been beautiful. Alabaster spires still reached for the heavens amidst the ruins of crumbling palaces. The boat moved slowly forward like a side show ride, and then ahead on the largest and best kept island, we spied a crumbling wharf. By now Davey was also sitting up and looking around, occasionally glancing at me as if to verify that I too was seeing these wondrous things.
We tied the boat up and walked up a crushed coral path to a small, but intricate palace. The palace and outbuildings looked like they had been architected and built by a fairy race. Every surface was twisted and carved, as if some great heat had warped but not broken the city. Towers and minuets everywhere pointed to the sky like beseeching fingers. It was beautiful and terrifying all at once.
We saw no signs of inhabitation, but we continued on to the logical choice of the palace. I use that term for wont of a better. It was about one hundred feet square and about forty tall, not counting the towers, many of them too small to hold a human, but still with windows. Everywhere were strange features pushing up, or out, or in, with no real sense to them, not even ornamentation. It was so complex the eye could not follow it. It folded in upon itself like a complicated pastry, the incomprehensible surfaces hinting at unknowable activities performed within.
There were, however, intricately carved gates standing open for us to pass through into the courtyard. On the far side were steps leading to the palace proper, and there at the top of them was the thing we had traveled so far to find, Chris dressed like a djinn in loose flowing pants of turquoise, green satin slippers, and a black leather vest laced tight over his torso that had been turned to mahogany by many days in the sun. His arms were crossed and his name died on our lips as he scowled down on us.
“What are you doing here?”
“That’s a fine way to greet two old friends who have come half way around the world south and so far west it might as well be east, not all of it in comfort I may add,” and I waved my mangled hand at him.
He smiled, but I noted it did not reach his eyes, and when I looked at Davey I saw them looking at each other the way two hunters look, knowing that one of them may just have become the prey.
“Forgive me,” said Backyard, “it is a long trip, and I am not used to company. Come in, meet our host, have some food and be refreshed!” He turned aside to unblock the door and waved us through. “I bet we have some stories to share.”
“And this time,” said Davey, “the truth is stranger than fiction.”
“I could use a beer,” I piped in cheerily.
The hallway wound through the building like a meadow stream. The floor shown of inlaid gold and the walls were rich brown covered in brocades and paintings. It was too dark both in the hallway and on the canvases to clearly make them out, but there seemed to be a common theme or history recorded here. I was curious to view them, but Chris and Davey pushed on ahead with purpose. At the end we came to what I can only call a throne room, and there on the dais was both the most beautiful and the most curious woman I have ever seen. She was lithe and well formed, but all white. Her hair was white, her skin was white. She sat like a marble statue on her marble throne and only her eyes gave away her mortal form. They were a grey that burned so brightly I would call them silver.
“And here perhaps you might understand my absence.” Chris gestured with a wave that became a bow. “My Queen. My Erodite” The last he said with a rueful twist to his lips.
When she looked at me I knew she was also my Queen, my Erodite, and the dark corners of my soul began a slow tarpit bubbling of jealousy and lust as I looked across at my two best friends.
She stood, as graceful as a heron and extended her arms to us. “Friends of Chris! Welcome. We have a feast for you.”
I looked at Davey and he at me. Then he shrugged and we followed them into an alcove we had not at first noticed. There was indeed a feast laid out, with many types of fish and fruits. We sat around the low table on cushions. There was no beer, but there was a golden-green wine that was both sweet and acidic, it went with everything and came out of goblets that never seemed to run dry.
We did not talk of our violent or sexual conquests, although we were sexual and violent beings. We spoke of fish. We told him of our adventures and listened avidly to his. In the end, they ran together and I can no longer tell who did what, caught what, or went where. The ocean was like a river taking all of us from spot to spot, but always our paths crossed because we were after the fish and the fish do what fish do without regard to men. They go down to the ocean-river pulling us along to the same islands and beaches, cities and sworhls. At each one we would hear of the next, the biggest, the rarest, the most copious and continue after snapping at their wakes. It was inevitable we would all end up here, we fish hunters and adventurers.
I woke up there in the morning. I was fed, rested, and still probably drunk. I decided to go fishing.
Davey and Chris were on the beach, in heated argument. “She may be the queen, but you are not the king of this little rock!”
“I am telling you – I am begging you – do not fish here, there is nothing worth catching, and it can be dangerous.”
“How can something dangerous, not be worth catching?” I quipped. They both looked at me and I could see some dark shift in Chris’s eyes.
“Only on the westward tide. And when it changes, the instant it changes, you need to return to the palace. Immediately. I cannot save you if you do not follow this. Promise me this.”
We looked at each other, looked at him shrugged, and went to the Black Sun to get our gear. “What is with that guy? He always kept the best to himself, but he’s just plain freaking me out.”
Davey was looking back up the crushed coral path, ever so pink in the dawn light. “It’s so damn weird; there must be something to it. Let’s just do what he says until we figure it out.”
We rigged up and started following the shore line. The island was a mound in a series of mounds, the water flowing between them like canals. They all had buildings, and often the channels were wadeable. In the half-light, I had no idea where the west was, which way the tide was flowing, or if it ever changed. Strange and various fish rushed through in shoals. Iridescent clouds with rainbow lightning. They rushed by like commuters, too scared to stop less they be late for work. We caught them on streamers, silver and black thrown in front of the school and stripped orthogonal to them. The bites were angry, slashing, vindictive. Most were torpedo-shaped with vicious teeth. Although there seemed plenty, we didn’t know which were worth keeping. Most of the time we didn’t retrieve the fly, but cut it loose, and it seemed wise not to stay in the water.
Without the light, it was hard to judge the time, but we worked hard and my hands, unused to their new jobs were awkward. One of the fish slashed at me, my wet bandage slipped and he opened up the wound. I grimaced, then squatted to wash it out. Things happened incredibly fast right then. I heard Chris scream “Nooooo!” and something I can only say looked like half a man, if that half was the head and torso shrunken by some native islander, and half a scimitar-tailed fish, burst from the water a mouth full of triangular teeth aimed at my face and taloned hands grasping for my biceps. Davey slapped it with a cudgel he kept on his belt for dispatching fish and I fell over backwards, scrambling upshore like an inverted crab. Chris and Davey dragged me a good ten yards up the beach.
Chris was shaking his head. “The westward tide, why couldn’t you follow that one simple rule?”
“What the hell was that?!”
He pulled a wicked blade from the belt of his pants. “I’m really, truly sorry about this. You should never have seen that. You can’t leave now.” He looked at Davey. “Why did you ever come?” I heard drums. And then with a flash as fast as an adder, he struck at Davey. Davey barely deflected it with his cudgel, and in that brief moment, forgotten, I balled my good fist and hit Chris hard behind the ear, dropping him momentarily. It should’ve killed him, but he had some superhuman strength. He staggered to his feet and faced both of us, murder in his eyes. And I realized I wanted to kill him as much as he wanted to kill us. To kill him and take what he had. A lust for his blood came upon me, and I forgot Davey entirely. Of we three, I knew only one of us would leave this beach.
“Stop!” With that one word, we regained our humanity, or what humanity we had started with at least. We looked warily at each other, but as angry friends, not as savages. The queen stood above us. “Come,” she said and spun away. When the drums had stopped, I couldn’t remember.
In the castle there was another feast at the low table. She sat there and did not talk.
“You will call me fool and liar, but listen to my full tale before you judge and I will prove to you every word I say is true,” said Chris. “The world here was once very different. The remoteness, tsunamis, wars have all hidden its history. Whole civilizations have come and gone, not all of them what we would call strictly ‘human.’” Based on what I had seen this afternoon, I was inclined to believe him so far.
“Erodite,” he nodded to the queen with the silk gut hair, “is from Atlantis.” He paused as if we would interrupt him, but we were good as our word. “Long ago, she was captured by pirates, for even then beauty like hers was worth a kingdom of riches in the East where fair women are still worshiped.”
“Being Atlantean, she is what you might call a ‘witch,’ but her power only works on the land. On the water she was powerless against them. The pirates didn’t know this, thinking her a mere girl and stopped here, an Atlantean outpost to raid and refresh supplies. During the time they were here, they let her come ashore to bathe, and her power returned.”
“She cast a spell upon them, turning them into what you see here, half men, half fish. Her power holds them here. But if they kill a man, that man becomes one of them, and with every bit of human blood that swells their numbers, her hold weakens. If that thing had bitten you, you would be one of them now, circling the islands, seeking escape.”
“What she didn’t know was that the curse of the pirate curse, strong as it was, was weaker yet than the curse of the fisherman: every fisherman must tell at least one man of his conquest.” I saw Davey nodding in understanding.
“If you come,” he whispered, “you cannot leave. ”
“Exactly so. It’s not that all fishermen lie, it’s that none of us can resist telling at least part of the truth. Eventually, you would tell somebody, and they would come here, and they would die, and the curse would weaken. And eventually the mermen would escape, a virus upon the world. I should kill you on sight once you have seen them.”
“But you,” I said. “You are here, you exist.”
“Yes. When I first came here, I was following dark rumors spoken by such men. But I met Erodite, and I fell in love. I promised I would not fish. I lasted a day, a week, a month, but eventually coming to the end of the world to fish, I could not change my ways. I fished, as she knew I would. By then I was already in love with her, so she offered me a choice.” He slowly unbuttoned his vest showing a long jagged scar down his chest. “She took my heart and put it in a jar.” He jerked his thumb toward a dark clay jar on a shelf. And here, it made sense. I believed his story. Any man would let a woman like her put his heart in a jar. “So here I am. I fish. I kill the mermen. I keep very quiet, as I always have. I am happy.”
“And us?” Davey leaned forward and looked Chris in the eyes.
Chris shrugged. “She believes that if you will give her your heart, she can save you. Her power is waning, theirs is rising. The battle must be won.”
“Chris, you can’t be serious. Our hearts or what?” I was looking around to see if there was some kind of a trap.
“There are others here. Servants. Those she saved from the pirates and who made her queen. You won’t leave.” He placed a piece of fish in his mouth with his fingers and took a swig of the wine that suddenly seemed far too sweet to me. “You can give us you decision in the morning.” He got up, extended his hand to the queen and they walked out of the chamber.
“The queen,” Davey said, “is a strange mix of child and god. I think she would like to add a few more hearts to that jar and believe that will fix it. Maybe even fix the merman problem.”
“And Chris,” I said, “Probably feels that jar is already full.”
We sat there in the low light of oil lamps burning down. After a while I said “I find the wine kind of cloying.”
“Yeah, me too. Let’s get a beer.”
We rose slowly, and found our way through the palace. At the door, Davey enjoined me to go to the boat while he took care of something. From long practice, the gear was stowed and the boat was in order. I shipped the oars and sat midboat as we had not felt a single breeze since entering the doldrums those many days ago.
Suddenly, Davey came running down the beach, shoved the boat into the water, and jumped in after it. I dug in with the oars and pulled out the way we had come.
“Row like you had demons after you man!” And I tried although blood was making the left oar slick from my wound. Dark shapes were pouring down the beach, and Davey stood in the stern holding up the clay jar, just as missiles began to rain down. “Stop, and save your own heart Chris!”
We heard Chris yell something indecipherable and the attack stopped. Davey moved forward and took a seat beside me. Hours after we were back on the open ocean, stars gradually shone through the cloud cover we’d been under for weeks. The moon painted the surface with light. In our wake I could see the boil the merman’s pursuit.
“South,” said Davey. “This is their chance, if they can get our blood, they can be free into the world. We can never escape them, but maybe we can pull them into the Antarctic waters, and kill them once and for all.”
“His heart is safe in the wine jar, where it belongs.” And despite myself, I laughed and laughed as we pulled into the night, our curse chasing us. I could see Erodite on the shore, the wind whipping her hair, and I realized she was calling down a storm at first I thought she meant to sink us, but I now think rather it was to speed us on our way, to better or worse be rid of the curse, and maybe make gentle love on the shores of her sinking kingdom, if even for just a while.
An uncommon curse, to tell lies and lies, except for that one kernel of truth that like a perfect hatch will lure other men on to the deeds you have done. The storm caught us, unrelenting, driving us before it, deeper and deeper south. We left too quickly to take provisions, and had been getting steadily weaker, hoping our pursuers were too. When I woke up this morning, Davey was gone. They must’ve taken him in the night. I race alone to the South, hoping to keep the plan alive. But if I should fail, I have written this tale and put it in Chris’s clay jar. If you should find it, do not do these things that we have done. Do not come. They are a virus and will take over the world. You cannot tell. If you do, I will have to kill you on sight.