The following is another short story that I wrote recently as part of an ongoing writing prompt exercise with a fellow writer. The purpose of the exercise is to give us both a chance to practise writing prompts and stories. The original prompt text is in bold.
This week, things get a little bit Lovecraft…
“Listen carefully,” she said quietly, willing her voice to be as discreet as possible. “How can you not hear it?!” The girl was terrified, paralysed by a consistent, eerie sound; the sound of…
To be fair they’d come on this sailing holiday to get away from it all. Just the two of them. In some ways silence was what they wanted.
Her husband looked at her, confused, chewing the last mouthful of dinner, a two-week beard clinging to his chin like seaweed to a hull.
“That’s why we’re here, isn’t it?” he asked, eyebrow raised, not quite getting it.
Sophie looked at him irritably, stood up and climbed out of the cabin. Josh shrugged and continued to chew.
The sun hung low on the horizon, smouldering red like newly smelted iron in the quartz pink sky. Around their tiny boat, the Mediterranean was still. No wind blew, no waves lapped. The waters seemed almost frozen, like a perfect shard of crystal, their boat a trapped and dirty imperfection.
Sophie walked around the edge of the yacht, checking that everything was ok, her motion rocking the boat and finally disturbing the calm of the sea. The sea anchor was still down, the sails were still lowered, all seemed fine. Yet there was something unsettling about the eerie calm.
Josh finally joined her one deck.
“Oooo, becalmed,” he said in a dramatic voice, looking around.
“It’s not funny,” Sophie scolded him, “it’s creepy.”
“Relax Samuel Coleridge,” said Josh, rolling his eyes, “this isn’t Rime of the Ancient Mariner, we have a little something called an engine.”
The engine, as it happened, had ceased to work.
“Well, that’s a bit of a mystery,” said Josh as he emerged from the engine hatch thirty minutes later, wiping his oily hands on his shorts. He was stripped to his waist and glistening with sweat.
“Should we radio for help?” wondered Sophie, scanning the horizon. They were a long way out, deliberately so. There was no land in sight, and no ships either. She found the latter a little odd. This was the Mediterranean, they weren’t exactly in a backwater.
“Nah,” said Josh, clearly unwilling to be defeated by an inanimate object, “we were going to anchor out here for the night anyway. I’ll take another good look at the engine in the morning. If I still can’t get it to work then we’ll probably have some wind by then anyway and we can sail back to Sicily.”
Josh jerked his thumb over his shoulder to indicate the direction of Sicily.
“Sicily is that way,” said Sophie quietly, indicating the opposite direction. Josh’s brow furrowed for a moment.
“Oh yeah. Well, my point still stands.”
They both paused for a moment, silently reflecting on this new development. The sun was just thinking about dipping its toe in the ocean. High above, a fingernail of a new Moon scratched the velvet shroud of the darkening sky.
“Shall we call it a night?”
Josh had made overtures to her as they lay in the narrow bed, but she wasn’t in the mood. She didn’t want to rock the boat; it seemed like disturbing the Mediterranean in its calm reflections would have been disrespectful.
So now, an hour later, Josh was snoring into the back of her neck as Sophie stared into the darkness. Sleep eluded her, and eventually she gave up the chase. She eased herself out of the bunk. Josh gave a short snort and spread out, filling the space she had vacated like the incoming tide, but he did not wake.
Sophie climbed back up on deck, hoping to feel the gentle breath of the wind against her bare arms, but still all was calm. The stars stared down at her; ancient Polaris, watchful Antares, cunning Sirius.
She was the reason they were there. Sophie was a Classics professor. She had asked for this busman’s holiday, sailing the ports of the Mediterranean. She was right where she wanted to be.
And yet…something felt wrong. It was like the world was on pause. Holding its breath. Was this what the Romans had warned of; why their ancient custom forbade ships to sail out of sight of land on the eve of a new moon? Was this what the Etruscans had whispered fearfully of in the long watches of the night? Was this what the Minoans called the ‘Siren Sea’, when the old gods emerged from their deep homes below the waves and sung songs that were written when the world was young?
Sophie shuddered, and it had nothing to do with the chill of the cloudless night. She was letting her imagination get the better of her. Now that her eyes were adjusting to the dark, she scanned the horizon for the lights of passing ships.
It was then that she saw them, in the middle distance. Was the wind picking up at last, was that anaemic moonlight glittering off tiny waves, stirred to life by a new breath of wind? Or were those lights coming from beneath the ocean? A natural phosphorescence; the bio-luminescence of algae? It had to be that right? Or was it something much less benign?
No, that was silly she told herself. This was the twenty first century. Pagan gods held no sway here. And yet…who was to say what year it was beneath the waves? Who could dare to guess the calendar of elder things who danced and sang beneath the light of a new moon? What strange rituals did they keep and what antediluvian festivals did they hold sacred?
Sophie knew she should go back into the cabin, close her eyes and pretend she was asleep. That’s definitely what she should have done, but she felt like she was rooted to the spot. Just another few moments, Sophie told herself as the glow grew gently brighter, and the subtle notes of conch shells drifted out of the darkness.
In the morning, Josh awoke to find himself still without an engine, and now also without a wife.