Half A Tide - a tale for Halloween
A bony white arm and hand poked through the darkness and pinched the boy awake. He woke suddenly and bewildered.
“Sleeping!” a cracked dry voice scolded him. “Can’t you hear them calling.”
The ferryman, his master, stood over him; the ferryman was already dressed in his boating cloak. In the darkness, the boy could smell it, the river’s rankness filled the room.
The boy stared about him in confusion; it was still night-time and the darkness pressed in on his open eyes and something filled his nostrils and mouth. He gasped for air.
“It’s a Portsmouth Particular, good and proper”, wheezed the ferryman, “Well, don’t just lie there, jump to it.”
During the night, the fog had crept in on the city and stalked silently up river, stolen quietly over the boats and stealthily hidden the mud flats. It extinguished all light in its path. Little candles shivered and went out. People groped their way home through dark passages and once safely inside their houses shut their doors and did not come out again. The fog smothered or distorted all sounds; it took over the already monstrous darkness and gave it a fouler form.
“Can’t you can hear them?” insisted the boy’s master. “The Mud Larks” and now the apprentice could indeed catch the strange keening wails that rose from the nearby shore line. The boy’s breathing became loud and panicky. He knew the ferryman would go out. He knew the ferryman could not let anyone lie.
The boy got up and groped his way to the hut door. It opened out onto the estuary. Through the fog he heard the dark water coldly clawing the shore. He put one foot out to step into the…
“Whoa there! Another voice whispered. A second arm grabbed him and a hand pulled him back. “Haven’t you learnt anything from them?! Never walk out on the mud on your own.” Then raising his voice the stranger shouted into the hut. “It’s all right Gov’nor. I bought him to you this time.”
The boy’s heart nearly stopped. He recognised the man who held him. Everyone knew him-the Mud Walker. He was the only man able to cover the deep, wet flats to retrieve what ever was found or abandoned there.
The Mud Walker stepped into the hut, dragging a dark shape behind him.
“The Mud Larks called me out.” said the Mud Walker. He was huge in the hut. Black, immense and difficult to see. He opened his pockets and fetched out a small lantern. He lit it. The light fought against the fog and the night. It burned feebly and cast huge shadows.
He heaved the ominous mass up on a table. “Devils’ job to bring him in,” the Mud Walker explained. “Man walked out in the rising tide and the mud sucked him in. Drowned dead”
He tilted the body’s head back so it hung down over the table’s edge. Then he opened its mouth and out of its blackness something scuttled.
“Only lain there for half a tide and already the crabs found him, feasting and fattening”
Even the Mud Walker shuddered as he looked down on his find. Nothing else stirred on the corpse, other than the water flowing down onto the earthy floor.
“Enough money found on him for a quick drink, Gov’nor. Clear out the fog and our heads.”
“You’ll have to watch him then boy,” said the ferryman, “Wash him down, keep him company. Lonely thing being dead. They like company, the first night. They’re often restless the first night. I don’t like ‘em alone – give ‘em respect, eh.” He laughed and followed the Mud Walker into the waiting night.
The boy heard their footsteps splash away from him. The lantern glowed in the dark, exaggerating the shape on the table and lit up the gaps between the wooden planks. Through them, the boy could see the inky, glossy water lap around the hut. In the gloom he could just see a crab scuttle across the floor and out under the walls into the tides. A strange silence filled the room.
He took a bucket of water and started to wash the rigid corpse. He started at the wet, clay feet and worked up, cleaning the mud from the legs and waist, the clutching hands, the broad chest and finally the man’s head and face. The mouth was still bloody.
When he had finished, he took a dry cloth and worked down the body again. The boy paused and wrung out the rag. “What’s your name then?” The voice sounded high in the thickened air. The boy jumped, startled. He had spoken out loud.
Terrified, he waited for a reply but there was none. He crept to his rickety bed never taking his eyes off the table. The fog crept more closely into the room, the lantern started to gutter, soon it would go out.
A vile smell filled the room and through the fog the boy felt, rather than heard, a low groan. Petrified, in the failing light, he watched the body of the drowned man contract, stir and sit up, sightless in the fog bound night.
Author - Sarah Keen
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