Asterisk Anthology: Volume IRound 2 Winning Story
Snowflakes in the Sea
© Zachary Von Houser
The moon dangled in the frigid air, washing the streets and fences in an equally cold shade of blue. Pulpy lumps of newspaper lined the gutters of empty streets with letters long since washed away by the early winter rains. In the silence of such vacancy, the sea could be heard on any corner of the island as it slowly ate away at the recently pummeled shoreline. Just past the breakers, a colony of seagulls bobbed with the gentle undulations of the swells.
The large valise, held tightly in his gloved hand, pulled without relent at James Montague’s shoulder as he hefted it down the dim block. He laid the bag down before passing the third darkened house and caught his breath, sweat building under his thick cap and sweater. Stretching his back he breathed deeply from the slightly noxious air that blew in from across the receding bay.
“Almost there, old man.”
After such a long drive, his muscles were sore before he even began the tedious, two block walk to the house. Ohio had passed pleasantly enough but the crawling and unpredictable traffic of Pennsylvania’s highways during rush hour had left him weary. It was well past the time that he had expected to arrive but, from his brightest youth into the darkest days, he was the type that waited for and rushed for precisely no one. He pushed the hat from his forehead and continued his off-balanced waddle down the street, the horn of a distant ship humming lightly at his back.
Half-sprawled over the curb in front of the house lay a seagull, its wing draped into the street like a passed out drunk. A large hole was bored out of its chest, feathers shifted and thick with dried blood, and James wondered what could have caused such a violent wound. As he turned toward the door a scrap of paper caught in the wind drifted across the bird’s milky eyes.
His knock sounded hollow and weak through the thick gloves and, as he stood in the cold, he questioned whether it had been heard at all. The dark green door, paint split around a brass knob, gave no indication whether anyone approached from the other side. His concerns were dispelled once the door swung open quickly and Mark Robertson’s well-known face was before him, even if at the moment it was not the pleasant countenance that he had expected to see. There was a slight sigh and Mark moved to the side, back pressed tightly to the door.
“How’ve you been?” James asked, with his case resting against the door jamb.
“I was better three hours ago when you said you’d be here.”
“I know… I just got caught up with things and traffic was a bit worse than expected.” He gripped his friend’s arm lightly. “If Lisa’s been on you about it just blame me.”
“Is James here now?” a twittering voice called from the kitchen.
“Don’t worry about it,” Mark said before turning. “Yes! Are you ready?”
“Of course I am. Get your daughter and we’ll go. Lord knows what time we’ll be getting in now,” said the well-formed silhouette which now stood in the doorway to the kitchen.
“I see nothing much has changed.”
“I was about to say the same to you.” Mark tapped his shimmering watch. “Anyway, let me run through things with you before we go.”
The pantry and refrigerator were both well stocked with soups and pasta, crackers and cookies, meats of the cured and uncured varieties, stocks, sauces, oils and a large selection of fruits and vegetables. Wine and spirits were readily available although, James assured, they would likely go untouched. He was shown to the massive woodpile which sat cured and covered along the back fence in case the power should fail. The lower level of the house, accessible only through a door in the back and a narrow circular stairway in a corner of the kitchen, held the boiler room and stored clothing and decorations. James brought his suitcase to his temporary accommodations on the third floor before seeing the family out.
“Again, I’m sorry for being so late,” he said, relieved to see a softening in Lisa’s creased forehead.
“Don’t throw any parties,” she said with a wink before closing the door.
He sat at the rough-timber kitchen table once he was alone and blew onto a spoon-full of chicken noodle soup that he had found at the back of the pantry. A dull slice of celery bobbed in the spoon as he held it, distracted for a moment by an inconsistency in his list of items to procure, until, just before it splashed over the edge, he brought it to his mouth. After pushing the bowl back, he ran his finger down the nearly completed list until he came to the line of his clear handwriting that simply said “Porthole (1)”. He was surprised to have made such an oversight by not putting the size or age that was requested but decided that it must have been in accordance with the others, which were all within forty years of each other. Even if he was mistaken, it wasn’t a large museum, so they would be glad to have whatever was available that held some history. Soft scratching could be heard through the wall as he washed out his soup bowl and spoon but, by the time he made his way through the door into the living room, it had ceased and James put little more thought into it. It wasn’t his house and, in turn, was not his pest problem.
Wind ran along the gentle hills of sand and through the planted embankment of grass onto the boardwalk a few blocks away, a cold humidity that leeched through the thickest jackets. James walked down the lonely boardwalk early in the day, closed shutters to one side and empty sand to the other, equally desolate in their own way. Occasionally he would pass an open store but, after the fourth one, he avoided meeting the desperate stares of owners too stubborn to close for the season. The boards were rough and sitting uneven, with sand-filled grooves and half-buried cut nails that wouldn’t be hammered back until the end of spring. A rusted out trashcan leaned on a folded leg and he could feel how hollow the island really was.
Taking a break, with his hand resting on the surprisingly rough, gray rail and the sea crashing ahead, a plump seagull landed on the handrail to his right and eyed him passively. It teetered for a moment before falling into a slow rocking motion, its bulbous body appearing to hold only a tenuous balance on such thin, orange legs. The bird gave a brief snort and opened its thin, dirty-orange beak to expose, behind a string of thick spit, a slimy barb of a tongue shaking as it cawed.
James gave the rail a hard rap and continued his walk down the boardwalk, work, and hunger competing for the apex of his thoughts. In his preoccupation, he failed to notice the distorted V-shaped shadows beginning to circle around him, the ring solidifying as he passed the rusting dumpsters and vacant delivery docks that sat next to each ramp back to the sidewalk. A sharp call brought his attention back to the frosted, sandy world and he looked above to find dozens of gulls circling around him, a dark gray halo against the flat background of a lighter gray sky. Having spent enough time in seaside towns, he knew that to hold food in the open was to invite those flying pests but, with empty hands, he couldn’t begin to figure out what they intended to steal from him.
Against the soupy clouds a massive bird dove into the floating colony that hypnotically circled, frightening them away with its size or, if they refused to scare, clipping them as it swooped down. With a startling plummet, the bird came so close that James was forced to duck, holding his hat as he squatted there, before soaring upward once again, the smell of sea and grease falling from its pumping wings. After he had straightened, noticing that the last gull had retreated, a large, morbidly dark cormorant landed on the rail across from him, staring with stark blue eyes. The grotesque form of its snake-like neck and growth covered flesh along the beak was alien enough to repulse him, the deep gray scar which ran beneath seemingly unblinking eyes along the one side of its face was simply a fortification of those feelings. The oily feathers of its chest sparkled in the wind with each slow, forceful breath.
Sharp laughter broke the hypnotic hold that those eyes held and urged him to continue on his path. Farther down the boards, he looked out across the beach and saw a group of children running through the sand around some large protrusion, circling and falling and all the while wrapped in joy. He leaned slightly over the rail and squinted until able to focus on the sharp peak of a wrecked ship’s bow jutting up from the sand, warped and barnacle covered. Once he had realized what it was he began to notice the debris scattered all across the sand, half buried and half destroyed; blocks and planks littering nearly to the boardwalk.
James removed his shoes at the top of the stairs and walked down onto the beach. The cold sand chilled his feet and the cold continued to work upward along his legs, bitter grains caught in the wind ramming the exposed skin where he had rolled up his pants. The children ran away long before he reached the wreck and left him alone with the sea and one of its treasures. He rubbed his hand along the hull and felt a near softness that had formed over years submerged and helpless to currents and tides, at the far end he spotted the point where it had broken clear from the rest of the hull. It was a ship that would have been antique long before his extensive life had even begun, a piece from before the days of steam when only chance could help your journey and must have sat sunken for decades. It seemed a shame that it would surely sit there and molder until, after lonely months or even years, nothing remained. A gull cackled and he walked back toward the boardwalk.
Lettuce crunched as the tines of his fork sank into its brittle flesh in the small restaurant half a block from the sea. He sipped at his water, a thin slice of lemon floating among the crushed ice, and watched the pieces of litter chase each other across the parking lot in the wind. An opossum ran from car to car with its hairless tail dragging lazily in crushed glass and in front of the far building a psychic dragged her wooden sign toward the boardwalk.
Her dark hair swirled in the wind around her tan face, a silk dress pressed tightly against her once-fine figure. It was a sad sight to observe, the irony of a psychic futilely dragging a sign to an empty boardwalk was not lost on him and, with a sigh, he turned back to his lunch.
He tentatively picked through the dressing-soaked vegetables. “Three seventy-five for a salad, no wonder it’s empty, and only five wedges of tomato. Highway robbery.”
The restaurant was indeed empty. Besides himself, the only other person visible was a waitress that sat in the corner and stared from under low bangs at a small crack in the ceiling which had grown discolored with the moisture that had developed it. James scrapped the last of the dressing and lettuce shards that blanketed the plate and, once cleaned, crossed his fork over the knife upon it before finishing the last of the water in his glass.
He turned his head away from the gritty wind which left his skin feeling both caked and sensitive and noticed a salt-worn sign that read ‘ANTIQUES’ in battered, pale letters. Inside sand was strewn across the floor deeply enough that it had grown above the carpet fibers, spilling over as the pressure of his feet pressed it down. Dust covered everything within the store due to, as the proprietor’s red-veined nose indicated, an abundance of winters floated on a glass of alcohol.
Most of the items lining the shelves were cheap reproductions of aged collectibles, dust nearly making them appear legitimate to one untrained, but deep in an unwelcoming corner of shipyard junk sat a porthole. He brushed off the fittings and found them to be of an older caliber than even he had assumed at first glance, the glass, once cleaned, held the strange sheen of lead glass. James brought it to the front counter and paid, negotiating how much extra it would cost to have it sent directly to the museum and, in turn, alleviating the work required to carry it back to the house.
He went through the phone book once the sun went down, copying addresses of antique shops and consignment stores, the night surprisingly clear and mild for that time of year in the area, or so he had heard. Thus far, besides the winter breeze coming off of the water which never seemed to abate, the weather couldn’t have proven more amicable to someone with his proclivities. Seated in the living room, he had a clear view through the open passage of how the moonlight washed over the sun-room, staining everything in a slightly wavering blue. The contrast in tones between the two rooms made him feel a protected comfort that relaxed muscles which had tensed into rigid knots in the more than half a century that he had lived. His eyes itched and he thought of retiring to bed shortly even as sleep overtook him, his head drifting slowly to the back of the couch.
The guttural clamor of metal against stone jostled him awake from a dream of icy snakes wrapping around his throat, cold scales pressing against his windpipe and stifling any chance for a scream, fiery fangs digging into the back of his neck. The collar of his shirt, still tightly drawn by his tie, had twisted violently in his sleep and he yanked it back into line mid-stride to the front door. A breeze caught the door and flung it open as he stepped onto the cold brick steps, pulling an arm tightly to his chest. The streets to either side were just as lonesome as he had come to know them, reminding him of a long forgotten movie set, though down at the base of the landing an old aluminum trashcan rocked back and forth like a vagrant cradle. James walked slowly down the dogleg stairs and onto the small patch of grass below, easing his worn knees with a hand against the wall. Still, the can rolled and vainly attempted to catch the moonlight on its pitted sides.
He watched expectantly for the shimmering eyes of a raccoon or opossum, edging closer and closer until, just close enough, he gave the can a quick kick. It spun wildly, though the kick was quite weak, and rolled around the corner, revealing a patch of fence which had formerly been obscured. At the base, ruffling in the wind, sat a barely recognizable pile of white and gray feathers and flesh splattered with chunky blood, punched with holes like a diagram of the galaxy; a webbed foot, curled in on itself, sat limply next to the remains. One light gray feather, dotted with three small spots of blood, dangled in the chain link, fluttering in the wind like the plume of an old cattail. A deep grunt called to him from the left and, perched upon a fence at the edge of a circle of light, sat the cormorant staring blankly at him. Its pale scythe of a beak unapologetically wore the dripping evidence of its recent assault. He shooed loudly from the corner of the yard, incensed that it had pointlessly attacked a much smaller gull, until, realizing the spectacle he may have been creating, he slunk back into the house.
After throwing the day’s clothes into a pile next to his suitcase, James laid in bed that night and stared at the streaks of peeling that ran across the wallpaper in numerous places above, wondering why Mark had let it fall into such disrepair. He sank further into more vague ideas, rubbing the painful line where his collar had sat until sleep deemed him welcome once again.
Morning was far from a comfort as James awoke but, as the years had slowly carved away their own routines and eccentricities regardless of his state, he was awake and could do nothing to prevent that. He stretched his arthritic wrists, rubbed his knees and eased into the slippers that he had left to the side of the bed. Mucus was cleared from his throat with a loud hack as coffee brewed in the kitchen, his elbow resting weighty on the counter top. He looked through the window and saw that, in the night, the weather had sunk and the twilit grime of an overcast day lined with dark clouds awaited him.
Outside, seated on the fence ahead of him sat the cormorant, its waterlogged scar plump and threatening to burst, which, in his already bitter mood, was unacceptable.
“Get out of here you ugly bastard!” he shouted to no effect as he walked down the stairs.
The lack of response sent him looking about until he spotted a hunk of branch lying on the ground. Taking aim, which he was never very skilled in, he promptly hurled the hefty chunk at the bird. It barely grazed the creature’s wing but was a great enough impact to knock the bird off balance. A look of shock came over its face and it danced rapidly before taking flight down the street and up between the gangling branches of two trees. He passed through the gate and walked toward the beach, feeling quite satisfied and whistling a soft tune.
‘If that vile bird was going to find someplace to attack smaller creatures, it won’t be here.’
Although he could see that the businesses slowly petered away, he still chose to go in the opposite direction down the boardwalk that day. The wooden slats looked different in the more diffused light, shadows grew weak as the light came from every side and seemed to meld into each other. Small houses sat higher than he found necessary on impossibly thin pikes, beaten shacks with no other value than their view. He watched the muddy-green sea rolling with little white dots of bobbing gulls, clearly oblivious to the temperature and motion.
Behind the counter, at the first address, James had jotted down, stood an impressively broad chested man. The sleeves of his cable knit sweater were pushed up onto sturdy forearms, revealing a pair of barely clothed pinup tattoos, their faces just under the cuffs. Hearty wrinkles had developed in the corners of his eyes and mouth but the life exuding from his green irises suggested that the wrinkles came more from contact with the harsh weather than years. As James walked along the counter the man gave a big smile, showing a gap where the far right incisor was missing from the top row.
“How can I help ya?”
“I see that you have some fine pieces up here, though I was wondering if you happened to have anything a bit older?” James tapped his finger on the glass case.
“Possibly, is there anything in particular that you’re looking for?”
“I’m not quite sure, though pre-twentieth century would be preferable.”
The man took James past shelves of sand art and dolphins carved from driftwood, a long succession of ships in bottles and miniature spyglasses followed until they crossed through an entryway and into a moderately sized room in the back. Lined with hardwood shelves behind locked glass doors, the calm light of a study illuminating the objects, the room looked more of a museum than a seaside shop.
“Everything in this room has been authenticated to the year as well as, if not the ship, then the class. If you’d like to have a closer look at anything, I’ll be up front.”
“Yes, yes. That would be fine,” he said.
He took a few steps toward the door before stopping and turning back to James “By the way, I would get that scratch on the back of your neck checked out, it looks pretty infected.”
“Oh, thank you,” he said, tapping the tender flesh and checking his fingers for blood.
Cowl and door vents, fishing scales, cleats and pulley blocks were carefully arranged, the prices staggered in a way that highlighted the reason for fluctuation. He paused for a moment in front of a beautifully crafted figurehead and considered the price before seeing a small mark on the card which indicated that it had been refurbished. Jotting down notes in the small book kept in his jacket, he stepped slowly down the length of the room until, nearing the far wall, he came across the gnarled, iron shaft of a harpoon. Something about its beaten and sturdy form spoke to him. Even in its utilitarian simplicity, it was a symbol.
James brought the man back from the main room and stopped with him at the case, he couldn’t seem too intrigued.
“Now this is interesting but, for the life of me, I can’t figure out why it’s so expensive.” He tapped the glass with intentional absentmindedness. “I mean it’s quite beaten up.”
“Have you seen the piece of bow on the beach a few blocks away?”
“The shipwreck on the beach.”
“…I think I may have.”
“She sat under the waves for more than a hundred years, probably wedged into a rock crevice and near buried…” The man stared intently at the tool.
“That’s all well and good–”
“A year ago a storm hit. A nor’easter that everyone thought would be just like any other nor’easter, unfortunately, it must have picked up steam just before it struck.” He turned and looked James in the eye, the twinkle lost. “In the first day two dozen houses were ruined from falling trees and the whole island was under four foot of water. Power and water failed around midnight and anyone that didn’t have a wood stove or fireplace suddenly found themselves in freezing houses surrounded by rushing water. For days it kept up. Cars were dragged away into the marshes or bay, a lot of the older piling houses gave out with people still in them…
“Eventually the water receded and I walked down to what was left of the beach and saw a huge group of gulls circling this one point… Probably thousands. I never saw so many before and when I cleared a dune there she was, feeling the wind for the first time in all those years.” He pointed across the store. “There was a lot more left of her back then, probably the front third, before people started pulling souvenirs. So I climbed in and up toward the bow was a case, you can probably still see it in there… I popped the hinges pretty easy and there she was. The last one left on the rack.”
James tried to imagine it but had never seen the severity of a storm by the sea.
“I get her back here and see this…” He opened the case and carefully brought it under the light, pointing at the handle. “Captain and all the mates’ names carved in, still visible.”
“In light of that, I think it’s quite a good price…So long as you can give a written account for me.”
During his walk back to the house, just before turning off of the boardwalk, harpoon, and letter wrapped and held tightly under his coat, James looked out as the gulls took flight from the sea en masse and began to slowly circle closer inland. For a moment he considered how impressive it would have been to see thousands of those slender bodies flying in formation. The wind rose in one large burst and tugged at the legs of his wool pants. Light rain pleaded for his attention as it started to tap the delicate skin of his scalp through thinning hair, causing him to pull the coat together more tightly, fearful that one more drop of moisture would cause the harpoon to crumble. He hunched over, rushing down the street, and was glad to have made it indoors before the clouds tore and sheets of icy rain began to batter the streets.
The harpoon was placed in the corner of the bedroom next to his suitcase, he thought this would be a fine central piece with the items acquired from other beach towns along the coast. A bit of local history and heartbreak would sell attendance.
In the cramped, blue tile bathroom he gazed into a hand mirror which showed, reflected from the medicine cabinet door, four dark red, scabbing cuts along the back of his neck spotted with small white bumps. Lightning struck and a cold draft from the beaten window ran across his chest. After lighting a fire, he sat in the living room, rain running streaks of darkness through the outside light that mixed with the dim luminescence of the two lamps, and observed more torn strips that sullied the downstairs wallpaper as well.
“It must be this damned salt air. You should have ordered the proper glue, Mark…young haste.” He cut into one of the steaks that had been in the refrigerator and considered how foolhardy his friend could be.
In the bright flash of lightning, he jumped at the huge, black form of a gull painted onto the wall, chuckling to himself once he recognized the shape.
“Any port in a storm, little friend?”, he said to the bird, which had taken perch upon the windowsill under the overhanging roof. “I don’t blame you. Looks awful out there.” He had come to feel a true warmth toward the stoic birds.
Outside, the streets had begun to flood, small crests of wave appearing whenever the rushing water happened upon a pothole or pile of trash lining the gutter. On the windowsill the gull cried out into the storm, a crackling shriek the pierced the window as though it hadn’t been there at all. Realizing that he had grown quite thirsty, James turned toward the kitchen but stopped a moment and looked quizzically at the large shadow that the bird cast onto the wall, at the heart of it a slight trick of the light seemed to build. Fluid and squirming, the black shifted and slid around within itself. He wondered how the conglomeration of light sources could create such a strange, nebulous effect and he walked toward the wall for a closer examination. As he neared the wall, just before his fingers touched the shadow itself in an attempt to see what effect adding his own would have, the edge of it began to bulge and quiver. The smooth curve of the bird’s chest jutted out in sharp points only to recede slowly into itself once again. James felt his heart beginning to race and turned back to the bird calmly standing on the ledge. He returned to the wall and marveled at the same amorphous creation fighting for birth over and over.
Finally, his jaw now slightly slack with amazement, there seemed to be a breakthrough. The points pushed through and thinned into a hideous shadow-caricature of a hand and forearm. Fingers tapered to a point, knuckles bulbous. He stared frozen as they dragged themselves across the wall, tearing at the wallpaper as they clawed against it with their four long talons. Gaining distance from the bird’s shadow in little strides with every grasp. A slow rumble began to grow from the shadow and James was finally shocked to the point of flight.
He rushed through the living room, into the sun room, carpet slipping under his bare feet, and to the front door. His shaking hand fought desperately with the key lock, each time it caught his ears opened to the sound growing in volume behind. He felt his knuckles pop against the pressure. Loud shrieks of the smooth plaster being scratched echoed in the dark room. The key began to bend. His knee started to give. As he felt himself choking on his breath, eyes shooting back to the growing hand on the wall, he twisted hard and felt the lock give.
The rain poured against his face.
The wind howled.
Before him, lining the sidewalk, dead-eyed and uncaring, stood a row of gulls. From beneath them, mad with life, their shadows extended. Forms, far beyond even the most nightmarish horrors that drug-addled hallucinations could create, dragged themselves from the depths. He watched, for the moment that shock allowed, as the shadow-halves of bodies that were free lifted themselves, still nothing more tangible than a lacking, from the ground into the air above. Corpses of night.
He didn’t recognize the moment that he was back within the warmth of the house but, once it did strike him, he ran toward the open bay of the living room and slammed the door shut, fighting the curiosity that wondered where the form was if not on the empty wall. The gulls began to caw loudly in a cacophony of orders and move vessels of dark malice landed on the sills surrounding him, hands growing from the shadows of flickering wings and heaving chests, tearing with high pitched squeals at the walls for freedom. In a moment of clarity he rushed toward the closest window and swatted at the bird, fearful of what might reach for his flesh in the shadow that it cast, and slammed the storm shutters closed, banishing what was chancing for admittance. He ran from window to window, casting himself into darkness, feeling an occasional burn slip across his forearms when they dwelled for too long in shadow. Praying that he wasn’t damning himself with each enclosure. With the last flicked lock he was blind, stumbling back until he collapsed to the floor, hunched over his knees. No breath was free of begging. Listening to the chipping of beaks against the wooden shutters and the slow, hard clomp of what could only be hooves on the hardwood floors coming toward him in the next room. The smell of sulfur slithered into the room, he pressed his palms onto eyes welling with tears. The cawing wouldn’t stop, it dragged on and on like the crashing waves.
The Robertsons pulled up to the curb of their house, dreading the thought that they would have to haul their belongings back into the house. It was a bright day, far better than the days-long storm that they had missed, as Mark put his key into the lock. Due to the severity of the rain, it had been more than half a week since James was scheduled to leave and he hoped that no perishables had been left out in expectation of their return. He looked back to Lisa, who was cajoling their daughter to hurry, and opened the door. The smell and darkness equally shocked him. Only the dim, ambient light which leaked in from the door illuminated the room but the smell of human flesh poured out. As he turned on the light, fearful of what it could be that he had vaguely seen crumpled at the far wall, a gull recklessly fluttered in and a crackling, hollow scream filled the room.
Zachary Von Houser is an author, illustrator, and tattoo artist, originally from the storm-wracked shores of Southern New Jersey, where he spent his days hiking through the desolate Pine Barrens and staring off into the turbulent gray waters of the Atlantic. He now resides reclusively with his wife in Philadelphia.