Home > Dreadful Skin(8)

Dreadful Skin(8)
Author: Cherie Priest

It echoed loud through the boat, in that omnipresent way that refuses to tell you where the source originates. We both jumped, startled and afraid, as it pealed and rang and roared. I clapped my hands over my ears, but the nun held her ground—eyes narrowing and hands clamping up tight into fists.

The kitchen girl, Laura, came running in, hands over her ears also. The sound—it wouldn't stop! It followed her and surrounded us, filling the room and the decks and the sky.

The girl looked at us and we saw our own fear reflected there in her round, brown face. "It's nothing," I tried to tell her—I didn't try to tell the sister, though. She was already steeled against it. "It's only the mud drums. They're blowing out the mud drums down below, by the boiler. It makes a sound, it's terrible, I know. But you hear it sometimes when you ride these things a long time."

"I know what the mud drums are you fool-headed man," she told me—in a panic, forgetting her place, I'm sure. "I've heard them before and I know what they mean. But this ain't that, and you know it sure as I do."

We were shouting to each other. We had to. The hoarse, unending blast was filling us and swallowing us whole. It was drilling into my skull, past my ears and under my scalp, into the meat of my brain.

There was thunder, too—though you could hardly hear it.

Sister Eileen released her death grip upon the chair and fled the room with a determined sort of stride that I would not have cared to interrupt. I called after her anyway, because it seemed that someone must. "Sister—stay here. Stay with us."

She paused in the doorway, one hand grasping the frame as if to hold herself in place while she spoke. "You stay here—both of you. Get into the galley and stay close together. Get the cook, too. Wake him up. I've seen him, he's a big man, like you—Christopher. Grab the biggest knives you find and stay low."

"Sister!" Laura reached out like she might grab her, but the small nun was faster than she looked. Her skirts swished fast behind her and she was gone.

Laura and I stared back and forth between ourselves, hands on ears, wishing for the terrible roar to subside and shaking as it failed to do so. "Maybe you should—" I started to say, but she knew the rest already.

"I'll get the cook," she nodded, and she was off. A moment later she dashed back past me, into the galley. She emerged holding a great carving knife; she held it point down, by the handle, and her wrists were as tight as leather.

I wanted to tell her that I thought this was unnecessary, that it was too much. I wanted to tell her she was going to frighten someone, but I was already more frightened of the warbling howl than I was of this strong-boned black girl.

Still, as she dashed past me I thought that she did not look like a creature to be trifled with. I wished her all the luck in the world. She was gone. And abruptly—with a gurgle and a gasp—the sound stopped altogether.

IX.

You wait as long as you can. You hold onto it, you bite it back and you sit on it, you stuff it back down. You press it back as far as it will go, and you ignore it. You pretend it isn't there. You tell yourself it only has to hide for a little while more—a little while more. Just look up and see the sky, and you know it's coming. You know you don't have to shut it down for long. You only have to last a little while more.

But God sets Himself against me.

You should have seen the sky that night, the way it was covered and hidden and the way it was gray-not-black or speckled with stars. Grey gloves of clouds entwined themselves above me. Veins of lightning split them, parted them briefly, and vanished—leaving the ceiling of heaven bleak again. Leaving me bereft. Leaving me hungry.

If I could have only looked and known. Even if what I saw told me nothing good—if I could have only looked and known.

It's madness, I know. My father knew it too.

Everyone who meets me comes to know it. Everyone who sees me wonders, and every one of them is right to wonder. It is a dread of difference they smell. It is an old fear I inspire. It is the fear of being chased, and caught, and eaten.

I knew the moon was full and fat, and I knew there was little to be done. I knew I could not fight her, but if I could see her I could appeal to her—I could ask her for one small reprieve, for one small night while a storm kept us trapped in the water.

The moon might have heard me. She might have granted it. After all, I was making the voyage for her.

I was content to be her creation, and to have her as my mistress. I was ready to be whatever she wanted of me—if she wanted me an animal, not man, I was prepared to let her have that. It was why I left England, and why I left New England, and why I wandered west and south in the new colonies.

I understood that out west there were few people—and most of those were savages. If I could not hide myself from man, at least I would hide from civilization. But some of these savages were a knowing, noble people, or so I had been told. In lieu of avoiding them, I hoped to consult with them. I might find a shaman, or a witch doctor who practiced a magic like the one that consumed me, and drove me.

I did not believe I could be fixed, but I thought I might gain some control, or insight. I thought there might be some leash for the hunger and the madness. I would not find it among the white men, this much was clear.

West then.

But the small red-haired woman would not let me go. She would not let me leave. She followed—oh, how she followed! Tracking me, Mary's dog. Mary's lap-hound. Trailing behind me, through France and Germany as I went back to the Black Forest there, where the wolves are fearsome as nowhere else.

Back to India, where I was lost and useless, she tagged along a day's travel late. Through the north shores of Africa, and down to the jungles there, she walked in my wake.

I would lose her sometimes for weeks and think that I had lost her for good, only to have her find me again on the far side of an ocean—as if she'd never lost my scent at all.

For a long time she only watched. She wanted to learn, I imagine. She watched to see what I touched, and what I shunned. She observed me closely, as closely as she could come. I know what she was doing—she was stalking me. I know it when I see it. I know how the patterns work, and how the dance is stepped.

She was a clever little thing, but she was not dangerous to me. I was stronger. I was faster, and I was clever too. I would not give her any upper hand, because I did not need to.

From time to time I would think, "Perhaps I should speak with her." It wouldn't be hard. I could stop, and turn around, and there she would be—if I waited for her. I could sit her down and we could share a pot of tea. I would explain, "I know why you feel the way you do—I understand why you stalk and follow and chase. But I want you to understand, I am leaving now. I don't want to harm anyone, and I don't wish to be harmed. But I am what I am, and I'll do what I must. See? I'm looking to minimize this awful trial. I want to flee. I'm leaving to seek the wisdom of the savages, or maybe to kill them all. But better there, than here. Better a few, than many. Can't you see, I'm doing my best?"

I would prepare these words for her. I would write them down and line them up. I would consider leaving her notes, and then I would do so—never knowing if she'd find them or read them at all.

After Morocco, I thought I'd lost her for good.

And then I saw her on the Mary Byrd, and I knew that the game had changed. She wasn't following anymore. She was predicting. She was making me come to her, and that meant she was ready to strike.

X.

I took the kitchen knife and I held it like my mama showed me, ready to stab and cut if I had to. I was ready to hurt a man, or anything else that came my way.

I lived enough in thirty-five years to have seen and heard a lot of things good, bad, and otherwise. But I never heard nothing at all like that yowling yell the night we were anchored for the storm. The closest I could think to call it was to say, "It was an animal in pain," but if you asked me what kind of animal I couldn't have told you.

Whatever it was, it was big. Nothing small can make a noise like that.

And to think, that fool-headed gambling man tried to tell me it was the mud drums—as if I never rode on a boat before.

I didn't know what was making that noise, but whatever it was, it was mad and it was big. And I didn't want to meet it with nothing but my cheeks in my hands. It was coming from upstairs, I thought. Up on the hurricane deck, or maybe from one of the middle-deck cabins.

Just as I thought I had a good handle on it—just as I thought I could pinpoint it if I held still long enough and held my ears right—it stopped.

And there was nothing but the rain, and I was standing in it, holding that big kitchen knife. I stood there stupid, getting soaked to the bone. It wasn't cold; it was all right to be wet. But the wind was whipping up too, grabbing my apron and tugging it hard. The wind pulled at my scarf and untied it half a knot at a time. I used the hand that wasn't holding the knife to hold my hair down.

I stared up at the sky and saw nothing. I listened to the night around me, but I heard just the rain and sometimes, the thunder cracking high and hard—rattling the windows and making the deck boards shudder.

I thought about the captain and wondered if I shouldn't get to him and ask what was going on, but then I remembered he had a bottle of wine and I thought better of it. I'd said I was going after the cook, anyway. I'd go after the cook.

I wasn't sure what was going on, but I sure didn't like it.

The cook had a cabin down past the captain's, on the next deck down. I had to run past the captain's cabin to get to the stairs, so I ran. I was too wet to bother trying to jump between the raindrops, but it was almost worse when the howling stopped.

I mean it like this: while that howling sounded from stern to prow and deck to deck, at least you knew where it was—and it wasn't right in front of you. Whatever made that cry was someplace else. When the noise stopped, the monster could have been anywhere.

Before I reached the captain's cabin, even, I'd come to think of it as a monster. I just knew.

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