“Do you think it could be tonight?”
A cold breeze, a shuddering of the sails.
“What happens if we see it?”
“We kill it.”
“How will we prove we killed it?”
“Dead things float. Even a dead Colossus would float.”
“You see anything yet?”
“It’s as dark as soot, boy. The finest captain of the Queen’s Royal Navy wouldn’t be able to make heads or tails of these waters.”
“But… the lanterns—”
“They’re so it can see us.”
“Ah, for Christ’s sake, boy, don’t soil yer breaches.”
“I shouldn’t even—I’ve never… I was supposed to be trained on horseback, you know. To be an officer. With real weapons like rifles, not this barbaric thing.”
“I don’t care what it’s called. This bloody affair is—Did you feel that?!”
“Just the turning of the tides, Officer. You’ll know when it’s coming.”
A tense silence.
Waves slapping the hull in a steady rhythm. And then, a mercy: “How ’bout I tell you a tale?”
“You’ll coddle me like a child then, too? Fine, tell your story.”
A clearing of the throat. “Many years ago, on a night like this one—a near unnatural calm overtaking the ocean, no birds harping, no harsh winds, and clouds covering the sky so even the stars’ light was blanketed—a young man was stranded at sea. He was a mighty sailor for his years, the best navigator and spear-fisherman you’d ever laid eyes on, could cinch a bowline with his teeth while trimming the sail with one hand and clutching his ale with the other. But misfortune had befallen him days before—marauders had plundered his small boat, leaving his sails torn, his goods ransacked, and his mates slaughtered. They left the young man alive. Wounded, and lost, and good as gull fodder, but still breathing. Marauders oft do that; leave one man breathing so he can share their reputation with his fellows. Black sails on the horizon! You know, that whole spiel.”
“Is this supposed to put me at ease?”
“Oy, we’re getting to the good part. So here’s their one man, laying on the deck for days and days, his boat listing starboard, too in want of water and patching for his wounds to do nothing but drift and pray. He thinks it’s the end of the line for himself, starts begging any god that’ll listen. Starts with the regular one, o’course, but once he’s delirious, starts begging anything out there — Balder and Odin, Druid priests, the ghost of his own grandmother, any greater power would do.”
“So now he’s both dying a painful death and has fallen into heathenism. I’m feeling much more relaxed now, thank you ever so much.”
“And something hears him. Oh aye, something hears his pleas, you can’t invite in that much of the world and not expect something to answer. A forgotten, ancient thing. Answers with a sound that goes straight to yer bones. Something unholy, caught between a banshee’s wail and the Earth itself cracking apart. And it comes up from the deep.”
“What in the hell are you going on about? And did you feel that?!”
“Just a school o’ herring running alongside us. Now boy, our stranded fisherman is looking eye-to-massive-rolling-eye with God itself. Or the Devil itself. Or maybe just one deity ’mong countless, but a deity nonetheless. The Sea’s Keeper, as it were. The lanterns only cast so much light, and many had already run outta oil, so all the young sailor sees are slick, writhing tentacles, enormous beyond belief. And it rises from the swells, great and terrible and hungry, but… curious, too. Hasn’t been prayed to in a long, long time. Has been forgotten about by men. And so it strikes a deal,”— a turning of the sails, a gathering of speed, a ripple in the night — “The Keeper of the Seas will guide his bow, fill his sails with naught but the most favorable winds, ensure that fish leap to be caught in his nets, ensure safe anchor—but these spoils require a blood price… And God has always had a taste for human blood.”
The wind ceases. The boat lulls. A sharp intake of breath. A tightening grip. A manic grin.
“Did you—did you… hear that?”
“Aye boy, I heard it.”
Evelyn Maguire is pursuing an MFA in Fiction at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. She is the Editor-in-Chief of the literary magazine Overheard, and her fiction can be found or is forthcoming in The North American Review’s publication “Open Space,” The Foundationalist, and Sink Hollow.