He hears the call, a long, low wail like a loon calling across the grey water.
The Kelpie is restless. The Kelpie has sat with him on long nights, soothing his hot, teary face with its cool tendrils. Its dark form will creep up on the beach again today, because he has been neglecting it. He’s been with his girlfriend now almost two years to the day, and she’s been the one to sooth his tears, wrap her arms around him when his shoulders shake.
But the Kelpie has been there always. He owes it. It is restless and eternal, vast and unending, a constant low murmur in his ear, like the sea. It is lonely, hungry. So now it calls him back. Calls him to make his choice.
“Not really the best day for the beach, is it, hon? This is the kind of day you might see a Selkie. Or a siren. We could be shipwreck survivors for how empty this place is.”
He doesn’t hear her. The train passing above their heads, deep and loud like the ancient voice of a dragon, drowns her out.
The stubbly brown hillslopes are stained yellow with mustard blossoms and spined with purple lupines. The thick grey mist clings to the sides of the hills, like the breath of a large, half-formed fantastical monster lying in wait.
She follows him down the twisting band of black road, the cracked pavement path ahead blurred by the mist. Down to the railroad bridge. Framed between its two arches, she can see the grey ocean, turning over and foaming itself into the thick bubbly tops of waves, and white spray throwing itself upward against the rocks. Everything is grey today: mist, road, rocks, sea, the concrete pillars of the bridge, the silver streak of the train that is just rounding the bend and slipping into the mist once again. The ocean is only fish-and-salt smell. Too far still for it to be more than a low rushing voice. With the rumble-clack-rumble of the train gone, she tries to speak again.
“Are you sure you want to go for a beach walk? You Californians are crazy.”
He glances at the dewy dead grass beside the road. She sees shame on his face.
He mumbles, “It’s our only chance.” She’s been out here visiting for a week and every day’s been like this, wet and dreary, the kind of weather she thought she’d be getting a break from. “Just one more day before you go.”
But she’s laughing at him. “No, I really want to see it, hon. That white sand. Even if it’s cold.”
Laughing, but she can feel the mist on her arms, the dampness crawling under her shirt, like the hot humid summers she’s used to, when the days are like swimming in warm soup flavored with flowers and lawn clippings. This is more like a cold shower.
The longer her visit has gone on, the more distant and quiet he’s become. Like standing here, she thinks, where she can suddenly see the ocean, but can’t penetrate its icy iron surface, never see the vast menagerie of alien life it holds inside itself.
He steps off the road. “Here.” The road curves away to the right, wrapped around the mountain like a boa constrictor, but he leads her to the crumbling edge of the cliff, which is studded, jewel-like, with gold and sepia sandstone. She takes a small step off the pavement. He starts to walk down the steep slope, skids a little; finds his balance as it evens out.
She teeters on the edge of a decision to follow. Below him, she sees a rusty web of barbed wire, a sharp net that will catch him if he falls. “Are we supposed to go down here?”
A short laugh escapes him. It’s the most human sound he’s made today, the lightest. It’s like sunlight. Like a flash of silver glitter on the steely ocean surface. “Not really. But my brothers and I cut the wire years ago. You can crawl.” He slips a little more, then grasps a root growing out of the hillside, grips the wire between barbs, opens a portal, and she can now see a narrow path, steps formed from rocks and roots.
She hasn’t heard him talk fondly of his brothers much. He must have been very young; back then, she’s gathered, they were closer. They must have formed this path with weaker hands and feet. It must be safe.
She follows. Showers him in dust and small stones, darkening his sun-tanned skin. He grasps her hand, balances her. They move on.
“So you’ve been coming here your whole life?” She tries to imagine him small and beach-browned, wearing the mischievous smile she used to see on him so often, breaking rules with his brothers.
“Did you bring friends here?”
“I’m special, then.”
“Hmm.” His face is flat. The ocean’s voice is louder now, and he has walked back inside himself and closed the door.
She steps ahead of him to hide the tears that sting her face. Maybe he’ll break up with her down here, site of his childhood revels. Maybe he would prefer to stay here forever. Doesn’t he know she would stay with him here, stay with him anywhere? She would follow him to the bottom of the sea.
He sees her form outlined against the pale grey ocean light. It’s almost like moonlight, that light emanating from the sea; the soft glow of an ever-changing face. Yet it is flatter, wilder. More remote than the stars.
It’s strange to be here with another flesh-and-blood. After his brothers formed separate lives, with soccer teams and clubs, friends and girlfriends, he came here alone, before he met his only companion. He would race here after school; after all those hours of agony…she is the first person who saw him. His first real friend. He was afraid of the change at first, afraid he would mess it up, but no: it was she who suggested the visit, who has made it clear she’s here to stay.
He can see her high shoulders, the brown waves of hair falling down her back, the curve of her hips. He can see her yellow and purple sundress—so out of place in this frigid drizzle—blown out to her left, and tight against her body on her right. She is warm and real and close. In the desolate seascape, rocks and bridge and water, she is the only color.
Yet a call older than his soul and even than the rocks below his feet whispers to him; moans to him; reminds him of his debt. There is only one stay against loneliness: it. It is eternal. It is changeless. And now it reaches its tendrils out, beseeching him.
He must have only one loyalty. He lets her step farther away.
She is under the bridge now. Then she is out, on the rocks above the sand strip. Some of the rocks are stained black, rough black ripples as hard as rock. He told her these mountains were once volcanos…perhaps she stands on lava. Below her the dark wet strip is scarred with white shells—never the whole, bright shells like in picture books, but shards, the shrapnel of the sea—and strewn with brown seaweed and ash-colored driftwood.
And above it, the dry sand could barely be called dry. She steps out from under the bridge and feels drizzle drops collect on her arms. White sand isn’t really white, she thinks, and not just because of the water in the air. It is trickier than that, soaking up the colors of the day. When she’s been to beaches in the daylight, the sun yellow soaks into the sand with its heat; at night, it is black; at sunset, rose gold. Today all is grey, and the sand is grey. Just like the bumpy cold gravel beaches at home where you have to wear a sweatshirt and the water is ice. Why is she here, then? No California beach fun for her, no letting the sun in. No sunburn, she supposes, but also no boyfriend. With him this might have been fun even with the dreariness.
There is no one for a mile around on land; it will be an hour before another train shakes the bridge. Even the freeway that traces the jagged path of the California coastline is oddly quiet. His brothers are gone today as usual. Perhaps the closest people in the world apart from him are the ones who work the oil rigs out in the channel. But even the platforms’ lights and the crimped shape of the closest island has been consumed by the fog.
He has brought her here today….why? It’s been grey and dark all week, and all the other days he was content to sit by the gas fire in the ranch house, and order in food from all the local restaurants he’s been saying for years she’ll have to try when she comes to visit. It’s been unlike him, but this is stranger. He is too quiet. As remote as the mountains.
Maybe…she shivers a little, half-glances back at him, suddenly wondering if she should let him see her while she can’t see him. She walks faster, knocking more sandstone bits as she climbs down to the beach. She can’t go back the way they came. There must be a house somewhere here, somewhere, if she can run fast enough—
His voice is suddenly close, and she stops. She’s lost a shoe somehow, and her right foot sinks deep into the sand. It’s colder than she thought it would be; cold as the stone flags in the unheated ranch house kitchen in the middle of the night. Cold like that but wrapped around her foot. Like it would suck her down into its depths.
“Hey, don’t run.”
The ocean is loud in her ears, like a sudden unmute of sound. Her throat is dry. Maybe he’s ready to open up; maybe she’s just afraid because she was taught to fear men the way she was taught to fear strangers. To fear being alone with them. Even him. How can she fear him? Never him.
“I’ll stay with you,” he says. “I promise.”
She stumbles forward, and she nearly screams because she’s standing in sticky ropes of something squidgy and cool. Her throat feels tight—but it’s only kelp, beached seaweed, innocent and brown.
Softened footsteps. His hand, warm and somehow still dry, curls softly around her arm. Dry, until it soaks up the mist chilling her skin.
“Get off me!” She jerks her arm out of his grasp; his nails scrape her skin, but he doesn’t move. She tries to move forward but the seaweed has entangled her legs; the pile is much deeper than she thought; she is immersed in slippery, ropy tendrils almost up to her knees. Her feet are cold, so cold. Her second shoe has been sucked away.
Panic prickles in her throat. She kicks but can’t disentangle herself. The harder she fights, the tighter the kelp ropes clench around her legs, fastening her body to the beach, to itself.
“Help! You didn’t tell me kelp could—”
His hand is on her arm again, now wet, but still warm. But he is behind her and she can’t see him. She tries to kick but she cannot. All the world is grey. Even the rocks are curtained off by the thickening drizzle. All she can feel is cold water and chill sand and clammy ropes of tightening kelp. It climbs up under her dress. Coils around her thighs.
Her panic is a scream in her mind: she’s going to die; there are so many things she wanted to say to him; sorry she didn’t trust him, even for a moment—but—did he know?
The only warmth is his hand. “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.” His voice rasps, tears. “I’m sorry.”
The kelp arms wrap around her waist, tangle like vines about her stomach; cool, slimy, strong. His hand holds her tighter, but the sticky tendrils are exploring her breasts, and she feels her nipples contract to hard knots—and now they are climbing up her shoulder blades in the back and over her shoulders in the front. Her breath comes short. The kelp is around her neck, pulling her hair, and she can’t breathe.
Her life wasn’t supposed to end this way. She wanted to go back to school. To see Paris and Hong Kong and Rome. To marry him, to raise children with him—
He is crying her name, but the roaring in her ears blends with the sea and his sobs. Finally the color changes: red tinges the grey, then everything is distant and black. She is drowning.
The warm clasp on her shoulder releases.
The sand slams into his knees as he drops. Brown kelp and brown hair are tangled; her arms and legs are bound and gone. There is only a scrap of her yellow dress showing; the edge of a tiny purple flower. The wet brown mass—the Kelpie—slides into the water. The white foam covers them both like a burial shroud.
What has he done? He screams at the sky, but the ocean is as unchanged as the hills. She is gone.
But it will return for him.
Image by Kieran Ryan from Pixabay
5 thoughts on “Beach Walk by Phoebe Mullen”
Such an engrossing story. It is a rare blend of description and action, an even balance. Also, the switching of POV between the characters is so well handled. Eerie and tense.
Ah the Kelpie – The only reason ever to go to Falkirk!
Brilliant story. I’m not that keen on too much description but when it is done this well, I must admit, I am in awe of the skill of the writer.
You controlled the pace and this became a beautifully unsettling piece of work.
Beautiful writing. A deft blend of reality and fantasy crafted superbly. Your descriptions are beautifully done also and your writing has a dreamy, esoteric feel to it that I really like – a sense of otherworldliness. Reminded me slightly of some of Ishiguro’s writing, particularly The Buried Giant.
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Creepy and effective. The scene was set very nicely & even knowing what was to happen didn’t diminish the horror – nicely done!
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I was afraid that would happen.