Lost Souls

Black Water Rising

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Black Water Rising

by Anthony Ferguson

I suppose the whole thing started when I found the floater near the school when I was seventeen. I always took the shortcut through the woods along by the Black River, past the rows of old factories lining the shores. For as long as people cared to remember the river had been the lifeblood of the town, especially so in the days before road trains when trawlers were the main method of transporting the kind of necessities an isolated but growing community needed to prosper.

Naturally enough, the town shaped itself along the winding path of the water, and the industries lining the shores reflected the needs of the times. Tanneries, boat builders, sail makers, fishing trawlers, all made their home there at one time or another.

My old man worked in a shipyard for many years in the period just after the Second World War. Right up until the point where the drink finally got the better of him, and he was no longer reliable. I was only a kid myself back then, but I was aware enough to realize that the decline of my old dad somehow mirrored the decline of the central importance of the river to our way of life. The great mineral boom saw to that. Maybe I got out just in time. Not that I had a choice in the end, after the troubles. But we’ll get to that presently.

It was probably a mistake to come back here now, after all these years. But sometimes we are inescapably drawn to a place because it just feels like we belong, same as we are to certain people. It’s been weeks since I returned now, and I knew it would all come flooding back when I got that first taste of it in my nostrils, that last dark winter.

Perhaps it was something to do with the fleeting glimpse I caught on the train before it pulled into the station. I’d put it to the back of my mind in the flood of memories that had subsequently engulfed me. Even though I know I’ve changed immeasurably, there’s always a risk in a familiar place that someone will remember an old face, so I kept my head low all the same, just trying to fit in, wondering if I still belonged.

I did wind my way up the hill to my old place though. Curiosity got the better of me there. I felt a bit of a tug at the old heartstrings to find the house a great rambling ruin. Guess that was inevitable after the family abandoned it. Probably nobody else really wanted to live in it I’d imagine. What with the stories and all. A tree born crooked will never grow straight.

Bits of it were still standing, though the bulk of it looks like it’s been torn open from within and exposed to the howling winds. Desiccated stumps of wood and brick were jutting out of the foundations like chipped and rotting teeth. Thankfully, for me, the shed out back was mostly intact, and I found it accommodating enough for my immediate needs. Most of the other houses in the street were in a similar state of decay, or at least of those that were still upright, I got the distinct impression they were empty, that the people inside had died or gone way, so there was little chance of anyone encountering a ghost from the past here. I made sure to do most of my probing in the hours of dawn and dusk too, just to be extra careful.

Further nocturnal investigations proved that the rest of the town seemed to be infected with the same wasting disease that had claimed my former home. A stroll along the riverbank indicated that most of the factories had closed down, usurped by new industries like road and rail as expected. At a glance it appeared like the whole place was slowly dying. It was almost as if the waters that had once spawned life had now grown old and weary, lost patience and were now determined to suck it all back in again. Maybe one day this river will give up its dead, and they will rise from the depths like ciphers.

But I digress. I was going to tell about the body I found in the river that morning on the way to school back in my youth. Like most adolescents, I was in no particular hurry to get to my destination on the day in question. I was day dreaming, staring into the water, almost like I was wishing something to happen when it surfaced, about fifty metres out and directly in front of me. The tide brought it relentlessly closer. I was transfixed. At first I didn’t believe it was what it appeared to be, but the increasing proximity erased all doubt.

It was the body of a woman, as she drew nearer I shook off my hesitancy and entered the shallows and made my way toward her. I turned her face up so she stared wide eyed at the heavens. Blue swelling around the throat suggested she had met foul play. She was a peroxide blonde, deep black roots showed through the ghostly white mane. Her eyes were an emerald green and one would say that in life she would have been attractive. I felt a twinge of guilt at my arousal, for as I said, she was beautiful in a certain way. Much older than me, in her thirties at least, but even in my tender years, I was not entirely ignorant of women.

Perhaps she had been submerged a while, for her features had already been got at by fishes and her body gave off the first hint of decay. I couldn’t help but notice the red panties visible through the wetness of her short cotton dress. I knew I shouldn’t handle the corpse, and yet I was drawn to touch her. Something was lodged in the pockets of the flimsy blouse trailing from her shoulders. On examination it transpired they were stones. Someone had weighted the body down with stones and somehow enough of them had been dislodged, by the motion of the tides, to bring the body to the surface.

The thing that really struck me about it, all I could think about was how when we were kids every summer we would swim in the mud and the muck of the river. Oddly enough in the exact same spot where the body surfaced and floated toward me, several years hence.

I have this recurring dream. In the dream I’m a murderer but my killing days are done. All that’s left is an immense almost overpowering sense of guilt. It weighs upon me so heavily that I am genuinely relieved when I wake to discover that it was only a dream, and I am not a killer. But here’s the thing. In the dream it is not remorse for the commission of these evil acts that is my burden, but rather the fear of being caught. The horror of people knowing what I really am. That is a truly terrifying thought, the removal of the mask of sanity.

So for one reason or another I’d put it off, the inevitable return to my old stomping ground. I had shuddered at that first glimpse out the window of the train. But my subsequent investigations had confirmed it. The school had closed more than a decade ago, and now it too was a hulking ruin. Now only rot and decay dwelled within those walls, and another major part of my youth was being willfully emasculated.

I waited until dusk, then managed to find a hole in the fence somewhere near the ravaged courtyard. I guess I’m not the first curious visitor on the site. The thin mist of drizzle covering the remains seems somewhat apt as I survey the wreckage. Some of the buildings are hanging on by a thread, but mostly it looks like a bomb site, piles of rubble, brick, mortar and plaster, lying around in stagnant pools of water.

I climb the stairs to the second level on the east wing to get a better view. I’m trying to remember which class was where, and under what teacher. I can only recall some of it. It’s all a fog like I’m sharing someone else’s memories. It’s crazy, not like I should even want to remember it. I hated the crowd, even then, hated their shiny shoes, their perfect teeth, their ordinary dreams. I think of them now, sitting at home with their fat wives in front of the fire, while the rain beats down on the window. And their wives hate them, and their kids hate them. The mortgage payment is late and the hair is falling from their heads, but they still got the dream.

They say youth is wasted on the young. We used to laugh at them, but we didn’t understand. How could we anticipate at that age things like desire and regret? We just roll the dice and play the game. You can never go back, and wishing just makes it ache worse.

Yet somehow now that it’s gone, I’d give anything to have it again. It’s not people or buildings I really miss of course. It’s my youth that I’m missing. I spent enough time sitting in my own stink in rundown bed-sits, drunk out of my mind, to realise this, but it’s sad all the same.

It all floods over me as I walk down the corridor on the upper level. Looking over the balcony you can see the pile of bricks that used to be the gym, and across from that, I think was the canteen, though I don’t recall ever eating there, as we were too poor.

Across the other way, over sports fields now under attack by marshlands, a lone sepulchral goalpost sprouts obliquely from the earth, like a skeletal finger pointing up at the blood red moon. Beyond it through the massing clouds I can just make out the river. The smell of it drifts across pervading everything. I can tell from my elevated position that it is much wider now than it used to be. A lot of the bush and scrub must have been reclaimed by the encroaching waters. It somehow seems so much closer now.

The sight of the water reminds me of something I’ve been trying to forget for a long time. The image forces itself up from my subconscious. Julie, the dead end kid I took under my wing in that last year of school, poor Julie with her pudgy face and pale fleshy body.

I didn’t really like the girl that much, but I felt sorry for her. She needed someone, so perhaps it was symbiotic in a way. I treated her kindly at first, then I took advantage of her. I wasn’t the first. She got the sense of belonging she must have craved. I got the adulation I needed, something like that. I was haunted by her dependency. Perhaps I still am. By all of them, daughters of broken homes, misfits and vagabond women, all with one thing in common. The submissive mentality, bending to my will like a reed in the shallows bends to the tide.

Julie had no mother, the poor bastard. I don’t know why, never thought to ask. Did she die, or did she just piss off and abandon them? Who knows? I can appreciate now that what she was searching for all along was someone to nurture her. Thinking back on the aura surrounding her, it all makes sense.

Her bedroom, with its cavalcade of plushy toys, redolent of childhood rather than a girl approaching maturity. Then the surreptitious sex, her father and siblings always in the next room. She had this quirk of not letting you totally remove her panties. You had to gently lift them to one side, like she was continually afraid of being caught. It was as if she was partaking of some deep forbidden secret. I guess she was. I think even her father knew what she really was. You could tell by the hateful way he looked at her. Baleful it was. Because it occurs to me now that his too was an anger tinged with desire.

Later on when I got my license I would sometimes take Julie parking down by the river. I would deliberately stop right across from the place where I found the body, and delight in pointing it out to her as I eased her into the back seat of the car, reveling in her repulsion at my macabre habits. I would laugh and tell her how I read that the whores in the East End of London are regularly asked by their clients to take them to the Ripper’s actual murder sites to conduct their business on the very spot. After all, there’s no accounting for taste.

He was a clever one that Ripper, I would tell her. He never got caught. A professional learns from his mistakes. He gets better at what he does.

Now, as I look out across the rippling waters it comes back to me, the thing I’ve been trying to bury for all those years. The incident that drove me away from this town, pushed me inland, down into the bowels of the earth, into the mines. I realize now that I was literally removing myself as far away as possible from the coast, from any body of water. It was probably why I never even used a bathtub, always took showers.

It was an evening in early winter in our final year of school. We were walking by the river, me and her. We were arguing. Maybe it would have been different if I had been older, more mature, but probably not. I was only half listening to her I recall. In fact I had long been neglecting her. I grew weary of her constant neediness, and to be honest, there were others by then.

She threw an accusation my way and I verified it just as the first few drops of rain pattered down. The tears came readily then, followed by the recriminations. The truth tore at the heart of her. Or was it because I so dismally failed to understand her loneliness, her desperate need to fill the empty void within, and conversely, her inability to express it in words? Being manipulated and violated by men, people who should have known better. Should have comforted her and protected her, not pushed and pulled at her like a toy, pawing and feeding their animal need, then passing her along.

It was the last thing she said to me that did it, that I didn’t know what love was, because there was always some other little thing I had to do. I don’t know why those words cut so deep, maybe because it was the first and only time she ever reached me. Then she was in the water. Did I strike her or did she just fall? I really don’t remember. It doesn’t matter now. She floated down there for an instant, looking straight up at me. Eyes wide open, unblinking, like the one I found before. Then sinking fast like a stone into the black water. It all happened so quickly, before I had time to react.

I recall looking around to see if anyone had seen us, but the storm was breaking now and nobody in their right mind would be out in it, especially not in an unlit spot like that, where the poplar trees overhung the water. My animal instincts told me to flee, and this I did, hunkering down in my jacket, pulling it around my ears and over my head as best I could.

I followed the story in the newspapers in the ensuing weeks. Thankfully, nobody saw us together that night. She used to slip out her bedroom window to meet me, and it transpired that there were several other men with whom she had been seen around the time. But it didn’t stop the rumours, what with Julie and the blonde woman before her in the river. That was pretty much it for me in the town. From that moment on I was cursed to live in a Hell of my own making.

To this day I still don’t know why I froze. I can’t explain it, I just did. I could swim really well, but I just didn’t move. I’m not a hero. Jesus, you don’t just allow yourself to drown like that. You’re supposed to struggle. She didn’t, she just let the water swallow her down. Almost like something had seized her from below. I recall reading somewhere that there are certain bodies of water which habitually claim victims in a sacrificial manner. Nobody can explain why it happens, it just does.

In my nightmares, I leap into the water screaming her name. I dive down further and further through murky depths, but the river seems bottomless. It has no end. In the worst of these dreams, as I claw my way desperately back to the surface to greedily suck in the air, something reaches up from down there and grabs hold of my ankle.

The river definitely seems nearer to the detritus of the school now. It’s impossible of course, an optical illusion created by the fading light and this shitty weather. Yet I swear I can see the water lapping at the edge of the rubble.

As I turn away down the upper corridor I hear it seeping over the pavestones of the courtyard. A constant drip dripping of water patters off the drainpipes to the flagstones below. I pull the heavy sliding door across and walk inside an old classroom. With some initial resistance it yawns slowly to admit me.

I drag one of the ancient chairs away from a desk. It screeches on the concrete floor, now accessible through the decaying carpet. There’s a smell of mold in the air. Dampness abounds all around me. Things are scuttling and scraping inside the walls. The building gives off its own feeble protest at an unjust demise. There used to be so much life here, within these walls. But everything rots eventually, especially when it’s unloved. It’s just the way of things, this inevitable putrefaction. I imagine for a moment that I hear footsteps approaching down the corridor outside, the wind paying tricks. But there’s something not quite right about them. They are wet heavy steps, advancing in a slow shambling rhythm, like something that has been left out too long in bad weather.

I slide the door shut upon the rain and the ghosts of memory and approach the blackboard. Miraculously, a single piece of withered chalk still sits in the runner beneath the board. It shrieks appallingly at first as I draw it along the black surface, and then, as if remembering its purpose, begins to flow smoothly.

The wind howls down the corridor now and over my shoulder I hear the creaking door move of its own volition, another trick of the storm. The crumbling architecture makes it sound like footsteps again. Dank, fleshy, irresolute, they slide inexorably across the floor toward me.

The trouble with memory is that it fades, all too easily, like a sepia toned photograph. Rather, memory flits in and out of focus like a series of images, clipped together, struggling to form a cohesive narrative. You have to try and fill in the gaps yourself.

We all make sacrifices. We sacrifice our youth and beauty to the appalling wisdom of age. But what is lost can never be broken. I glance across the dimly lit room and I see that someone has nailed the windows shut. It seems a futile act, oddly out of place. Somewhere in the distance a siren wails forlornly, before it too fades into the oblivious wind.

As I scrawl my message of contrition on the blackboard I finally realize what drew me back to this Godforsaken place. As the door slides shut I don’t have to turn around to understand that we have both finally come home. Just for a moment I consider flight, but soon discover that I cannot move, because my pockets are filled with stones.

Copyright Anthony Ferguson 2007

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