Dark Flow

A sense of monstrous guilt was upon the land, and out of the abysses between the stars swept chill currents that made men shiver in dark and lonely places.
Howard Phillips Lovecraft, “Nyarlathotep”

They say the whole Universe is falling, as entire nebulae are carried into the void by the force of the black rapids. It will take the science of another age to confirm this ghastly truth, but I knew it as a young man, fresh from the horror of the trenches.

It was February of 1919, barely three months after the Armistice, when I travelled north to my ancestral home. In the islands I would become the last of the Seabrooks, heir to a line that reached back into the shadows of antiquity. It was not a position I had ever sought to obtain, but it fell to me regardless when my uncle died without issue, and it was a legacy I felt determined to uphold. Though you might suspect the trappings of the lordship were my only motivation, the truth is that I planned to put as many miles between myself and the blood-drenched fields of Ypres as I might; here, at the cold and storm-wracked northern edge of Britain, the salt air might yet wash clean the stench of phosgene and mustard that still assaulted my senses upon waking.

I was greeted at the port of Scrabster by my new man, an islander named Ogilvie. He seemed genial enough, although a fondness for liquor was apparent by the reek of his breath. He wore thick woolens over his portly frame, and his awkward gait suggested rheumatism. I estimated his age to be fifty, and it was obvious he was not in the best of health.

“Charles Seabrook,” I said, offering my hand. His palm was greasy, but his grip was firm.

“M’lord,” he replied, and that was as much as I got out of the man all day.

Ogilvie had found rooms at Scrabster’s best inn. The food was plain, although the line-caught fish of the northern seas require little in the way of embellishment. The ale was thick and malty, and lay heavily upon my stomach. The journey from London was long, and north of Inverness the rail had suffered a fault that left us shivering in a damp carriage for most of the afternoon. I was wounded in Ypres, gassed and shot, and although I recovered swiftly – which the doctors considered a minor miracle – the chill seeped into the healing scars and laced my flesh with pain. Nevertheless I considered myself fortunate. Perhaps one man in ten never returned from the trenches, and so many minds were broken by shell shock. I was lucky to return mostly sound in body and retaining my sanity, though I cannot speak to the condition of my soul. That night I slept heavily in a garret room, and when I woke the next morning I found myself heady with excitement. At last I would set eyes upon Seabrook House, my family home and ancestral seat.

The waters of the Pentland Firth were grey as lead, racing through the narrow channel between Caithness and Orkney. Ogilvie’s boat was an old clinker, and the diesel engine choked and spluttered for the length of our crossing. I resolved to spend the first of the Seabrook wealth on a more seaworthy vessel, for at any moment I expected to be cast beneath the storm tossed waves. We passed Scapa Flow, where the German fleet lay interned. An hour later we moored to a jetty at the main island’s northwest point, and within moments of reaching shore I set eyes upon the manse.

It stood alone on the crest of a lonely headland, facing into a wind that blew across the ocean from the frigid northern wastes. Following Ogilvie ashore, I saw that the headland was in fact another island, connected only by a thin ribbon of causeway. The concrete causeway was old and broken, slick with green algae and wriggling with tiny sea creatures. The tide rose around our feet, and we walked the last hundred feet with cold brine around our ankles. From there we climbed a steep switchback to the point where the manse crowned the island. Seabrook was vast, a mismatched pile of curious architecture, broken by windows and speared by tangled chimneys. The great gate was huge, an oaken portal twice the height of a man. Ogilvie swung it wide, and I stepped into the hall of my ancestors.

I was confronted by decrepit grandeur. A sweeping staircase climbed to the upper floors, while doors led from the great hall to the main residence and the servants’ quarters. Beneath the stairs, a door led down the cellars. Paintings lined the walls, but there was space for many more. The last was Reuben, my uncle. Reuben was born in 1832, and he was already a man of twenty one when he served the Empire in the Crimea. By the time his younger brother – my father – was born, the war was long over.

I only met Reuben once, when he stayed with us in Richmond. I was a child who knew nothing of war, and he must have been an old man by then. One morning I ran into his bedroom to share some childish news, and I saw the long healed craters stitched across his belly. I asked him what they were, and he called them his medals. I never understood what he meant. My mother said God had spared him at Sevastopol, granting him the fortitude to survive where weaker men fell, but my father was silent.

My father and his brother left us in Richmond, traveling north to the islands and Seabrook. I never saw Reuben again. When my father returned, months later, he was a different man, and I knew the change even as a child. Whatever part of himself my father left behind upon those windswept northern shores was the part bearing love for my mother and I. He lived with us another year, and in that time I felt no warmth or human feeling from the man who’d once lifted me upon his shoulders. When the year was over, he hung himself from an attic beam, and his feet swung limply above the dusty toys of my childhood. My mother found his body, and by then my father’s face had turned livid purple from the noose. By the time war swept through Europe once again, the young woman I’d known had grown older than her years, and I know that it was the corpse in the attic, not influenza, that carried her to the grave.

Ogilvie retired to the kitchens. I resolved to look into the hiring of staff, for while Ogilvie seemed a competent seaman, I doubted his ability as a chef. In the meantime I explored Seabrook. The heart of the house was ancient, and I gathered the site was settled in the neolithic, when savage pre-humans first staked their claim upon this shore. The house itself grew around that antediluvian kernel, used by lairds and nobleman alike, until my family secured their hold in the seventeenth century.

Evidently my ancestors had an affinity with the sea. The house was decorated with intricate filigree that lovingly detailed all manner of sealife. When I lay in bed that night, I looked up at a ceiling crawling and slithering with scenes of urchins and anemones.
I woke one moonless night to the sound of waves. I walked to the window and looked across the causeway. The tide covered the causeway and the main island was a featureless mass of darkness, but in the distance I saw lights. The lights had the look of aurorae, which I had heard might be seen this far north, but they swam near the ground like mist.

Come the morning I asked Ogilvie about the lights, but he was as unforthcoming as ever. I set him to clearing the causeway of sealife, donned a thick coat and a stout pair of boots, and made for the source of the lights. Perhaps five miles from Seabrook I found the henge, on a strip of land between two lochs. One loch was salt water, one fresh, and the henge looked out over both. The henge was the size of Avebury. Within the circle formed by the henge there were forty rough-hewn megaliths, overgrown with moss and lichen. There was no sign of anything that might have caused last night’s display, but I felt sure the aurora originated in the henge. Perhaps the stones themselves gathered or generated St Elmo’s Fire, harnessing electricity from the air like the masts of ships.

When I scraped away the moss, I found the stones thick with graffiti. Some of the marks were recent, and I saw dates from the middle of the last century. Perhaps Reuben had scrawled his name here, before he went to Sevastopol. Other inscriptions were worn away to nothing by weather and time. I walked across the heather and found the central stone. It was seven feet long, three feet high and equally broad, a slab of ancient granite. The top was smooth, as though polished by countless centuries of use, and the surface was stained with a curious patina.

As the days grew long I explored much of the island. Kirkwall, the largest town, was a warren of closely packed, dull buildings under slate-grey roofs, huddling together against the northern storms and clustered around the stack of a medieval sandstone cathedral. Kirkwall supplied most of Seabrook’s needs, but the rest of the archipelago was sparsely populated. I could spend entire afternoons wandering the beaches in melancholy solitude, letting the sea air blow away the memories of Ypres. I watched seabirds nesting in the stacks of Hoy, and seals breeding on the long sandy crescents of Sanday. I met crofters and their families, and encountered children foraging for crabs and cockles amongst the tide pools. I found dry stone barrows piled with bones older than the pyramids, and the ruins of peculiar temples that led down into the rock. Some contained what I took for drowning pools, where antediluvian priests once sacrificed innocents to their unspeakable gods. But nowhere felt as ancient as the henge. Those forty stones possessed an aura of unspeakable age, and over the spring nights the colors became a frequent spectacle. I watched them in the witching hours, because my sleep was still broken by dreams of Ypres. In blood-soaked darkness I smelled mustard in the air. Dead trees rose splintered from the quagmires of Passchendaele beneath a sky turned black by smoke. Horses wept and foamed as the gas took them; the rats dug their own trenches, and survived only to feast upon the carrion. Shadows walked the duckboards across waters soured by human flesh, and their marching beat was the thunder of distant artillery. I felt the Vickers shake in my hands, the filth beneath my feet, the grating of steel on bone. In Seabrook the colors of the night became my comfort and my lullaby.

The mornings held their own promise. We obtained produce from the local crofters, and every few days a young woman from a nearby farm arrived with fresh milk and a dozen eggs. Her name was Bethany Hawthorne. She was a charming and delightfully pretty girl with hair the color of heather honey, and her merry laughter never failed to raise a smile in return. Though she was a slip of a girl, she carried our goods across the causeway and up the switchback with youthful ease. I looked forward to her visits, and I dared to think she came to Seabrook more often than her duties required.

Through Ogilivie I hired a dozen men. The island’s paths were overgrown with heather and bracken, and layers of moss grew on the shaded walls of Seabrook. As the year wore on, we began to restore the house to some semblance of its former glory. The islanders were solid workers, although I was surprised – if flattered – by the deference they showed me. Indeed, not one amongst them dared to speak to me directly. I made a point of greeting each, and all lowered their eyes as I shook their hands. They worked hard and showed admirable fortitude, but they were not a handsome group. All seemed stricken by various deformities, and the older men appeared to be suffering from unpleasant skin conditions. Ogilvie shared their affliction. Though it appeared unsavory I did not think it was contagious, and as I could not fault Ogilvie or his men in their labors, I spared it no mention.

I prowled the corridors of Seabrook, finding broken risers and flaking plaster, loose bannisters and crumbling brick, and I passed instructions for their repair on to Ogilvie. I explored the attic, but after a few yards they were impassable, choked by thick masses of cobweb.

Seabrook was a veritable gallery of paintings, murals, etchings and woodcuts. Some were the products of Reuben’s evidently fertile imagination, while others he had apparently acquired from dealers. The most recent was an oilwork by a young man named Pickman, a native of Boston. I found it most unpleasant. Other works were far older, and some had long since flaked and crumbled away with age. Some works reminded me of Impressionism, as strangely colored spirals and bubbles crawled and writhed across the canvas. The painting Yog-Sothoth seemed almost animate, and every time I examined the peculiar design I perceived different patterns in the chaos, as though the oils themselves were shifting and blending when I turned my eyes. Azathoth was an even more unfathomable work: it showed stars and nebulae streaming in a dark flow across the sky, tumbling into a cataclysmic maelstrom that resembled nothing so much as an enormous, gaping maw.

Finally I opened the door to the cellars, and I was surprised to see how far the spiral stairs descended. The gaslight from the great hall barely penetrated the gloom.

From Ogilvie I obtained a carbide lamp, and descended to the nether world. At first the stairs were neat brick, but within a few turns they were roughly hewn from natural rock. I lost count of my steps, but the air grew cold and dank, and at last the stair ended in a damp and dismal cavern. I explored the caves by lantern light, and found them open to the sea. Elsewhere, pits plunged down into the surging black waters, and wormholes spiraled into the stygian depths. My mind filled the caves with romantic notions of a secret family history, boyhood tales of piracy and smuggling.

The sea caves held a statue, but it was so corrupted by age I could not perceive its intended form. It was embedded in the rock, and impossible to move. On closer inspection I decided that even when new, the statue must have represented a protean shape or mythical chimera. Clearly it portrayed an obscure species of oceanic life, probably some denizen of the lightless depths, although the sculptor had taken many liberties with the creature’s anatomy. I was certain that no species of the deep walked upright like a man.

That June I watched the scuttling of the German fleet in Scapa Flow. Bethany arrived at Seabrook that morning, flushed and breathless on her bicycle, declaring that the Germans were refusing to hand over their ships and were sending them to the depths. We hurried to the harbor by cart and watched as our enemy’s proud vessels sank into the freezing northern waters, engulfed by the leaden seas in the course of a single day. There would be hell to pay for this, I thought, as dozens of interned destroyers and cruisers pitched and flooded. All but one of the capital ships went down. The last to fall beneath the waves was the Hindenberg. The huge Derflingger-class battlecruiser sank gracefully on an even keel, and I watched the Germans put off in boats. Our boys had killed her sister at Jutland, but the Hindenberg took her own life. I wondered how long she would lie in the harbor, growing slowly encrusted until her original form was no longer visible beneath the unstoppable fecundity of the sea. Bethany’s honey hair blew freely in the wind, and the salt air brought a healthy glow to her cheeks. Her hand welcomed mine, and her young skin remained unblemished despite the rigors of farm-work. I took her home in the cart, and when upon alighting she shyly planted a chaste kiss upon my cheek, her lips were warm and soft, filled with promise. The last time I was touched by a woman, I had never killed a man. The man was German infantry; he was younger than I was, and his eyes were full of terror. The woman was a French prostitute in 1916; she was twice my age, and her eyes were only blank.

Bethany ran back to her farmhouse with her skirts pulled high, slender and elegant as the most refined ballerina. Bethany was not educated, but she possessed a naive charm, and she knew the name of every plant and herb, and every creature that crawled or flew or swam around the islands. I had yet to meet any of her family, and I never even caught a glimpse of her relatives around the croft. Perhaps they hoped that their daughter might capture of the eye of the new laird, and were reluctant to interfere in our courtship. Nevertheless, I decided that the time would come when I should speak to her father regarding my intentions.

As the days grew short and little daylight remained to illuminate the islands, I turned to the library. Seabrook’s library was a labyrinth, filling most of the third floor and spilling onto the landing. Over the winter I read what I could. Most of the library was impenetrable, written in ancient dialects of what I took for Sanskrit or Sumerian. There were texts written in curious hieroglyphs that bore no resemblance to any language I had encountered at Oxford.

It appeared that Reuben was an accomplished linguist, and he had successfully translated many of the older works. He had corresponded regularly with academics in England and abroad, seeking their assistance with the more impenetrable volumes. I found many letters from scholars in Massachusetts. It appeared that Reuben was contemplating a trip across the Atlantic, first to Boston and then to the smaller town of Innsmouth. I found his final project resting on a desk in the library. The original book was huge, with thick sheets of parchment bound in peculiar leather. Reuben’s translation made little sense to me, and I could not tell how much of it was accurate. Evidently the grimoire to which Reuben referred as the Pnakotic Manuscripts was once held by the men of Lomar, and passed down through Hyperborea when the ice sheets advanced across that ancient continent, but its origin seemed lost in the unimaginable past. Reuben spoke of Yith, although I could not tell whether the peculiar word referred to an author, a people or a land.

The Pnakotic Manuscripts themselves appeared to convey some manner of primitive creation myth, speaking of unwholesome sea gods and creatures from beyond the stars. It was filled with bizarre and disturbing illustrations, and one sketch entitled Dagon resembled the peculiar statue beneath Seabrook. Another image struck me as particularly foul: a gargantuan, bulbous and tentacular form rose above a filthy marsh, surrounded by endless fields of what I took for worshippers or slaves. Reuben had created his own interpretations in pencil and charcoal, and Seabrook formed the backdrop to scenes of unspeakable depravity. In one of Reuben’s unfinished oils, the same monstrous behemoth loomed over Seabrook as the house sank into a putrid swamp. Amorphous young slipped from between the kraken’s legs, writhing and celebrating in the foul quagmire while all around the pitiful masses of humanity enacted the triptychs of Heironymous Bosch, rutting and feasting joyously amongst the filth. I was sickened to see that he had included an image of his nephew amongst the debauchery. I began to suspect that in his final days, Reuben grew deliriously insane.

As autumn turned to winter, and the storms from the northern wastes grew colder still, I detected a change come over Ogilvie. I did not know if he were sick, or if he drank more than his share of the local whisky, but he became even more withdrawn and taciturn that normal. The last time I saw him, he was sitting on the newly restored causeway, watching the breakers roll in. Ogilvie wore gloves now, and I feared the affliction spreading across his hands and arms had grown even more repellent. He had grown fat, and his hair was thinning by the day, and I thought he had lost several teeth over the summer. He sat on the causeway long into the night, staring a thousand yards into the sea, and in the morning he was gone. Perhaps he resolved to let the ocean take him rather than succumb to old age, like the Germans had let the sea take their fleet. I chose a groundskeeper and a caretaker from within the workforce, and I found my new men loyal but no more talkative than Ogilvie.

With trepidation I invited Bethany to Seabrook on the occasion of her birthday, and she accepted with a shy smile. She was born on the solstice, and together we would celebrate the turn of the year. I woke in the midwinter night, and my sleep was disturbed not by dreams of Ypres but by the anticipation of the dawn to come.

The strange colors rose above the henge, brighter than ever before, and I thought I heard voices, carried miles by the cool air. The night was moonless but I took no torch or lantern. The ground was frozen hard, thick with packed snow and ice. It was so cold that my lungs burned as I breathed, and my exposed skin grew swiftly numb. I walked the track to the henge beneath a shroud of frosty stars, alone and unseen, and took cover behind a megalith.

A huge crowd clustered in this ancient site to reenact some pagan rite. In Oxford I had heard rumors of witch-cults in the far north, but I never imagined those sects might survive into the modern age, or that they would still enact ceremonies such as these. There were perhaps a hundred people in all, and some I recognized as villagers from across the islands. A few were men that Ogilvie had hired, men I had on more than one occasion invited into Seabrook. One was evidently their master, although I could not see his face: he slumped at the edge of the circle, huddled in his robes while the acolytes whirled and chanted around him. Their speech was barely recognizable as human language, and in the darkness I could make out a hideous chattering, as if huge insects waited in the gloom.
The stones rose huge and pale against the night, coated with a layer of frost that seemed to grow before my eyes. Here within the henge itself, the cold was brutal. Constellations and nebulae stared blindly down on Earth, and I recognized none. The air around the ancient stones was alive with sickly phosphorescence, an unwholesome corpse-glow that rolled and slithered over the gibbering masses as the stars wheeled overhead. To my shock I saw a young girl on the altar stone. She lay prostrate and naked beneath an alien sky, her arms behind her head, and her honey blonde hair spilled across the stone. The girl was shapely and strikingly beautiful, and even in the starlight it was clear that her fair skin was unblemished by the diseases that afflicted so many islanders. At first I thought her a willing participant in this blasphemous ritual, but then the veil of sanity ripped wide, and I accepted with horror that it was Bethany. Her wrists were crudely shackled above her head, and yet I am ashamed to admit that I gave no thought to rescue. I told myself that for an unarmed man, any attempt at heroics would have been futile.

The repellent chattering grew stronger, and at last the huddled form I’d mistaken for a man shambled out of the darkness and threw off its robes. Mercifully, I was far away and the night was black as pitch, but I knew the thing was not fully human. It examined Bethany with lascivious curiosity, pawing at her flesh as she whimpered in what must surely have been terror beyond human comprehension. Perhaps some horrific throwback walked among us, cursed to relive the Pleistocene in the modern age. In my hiding place behind the megalith I felt helpless and impotent, wishing only for a rifle and the courage to use it. The subhuman monstrosity took Bethany roughly as she writhed and strained against the altar, and in the still winter air her screams must have pierced the night to Kirkwall and beyond. I prayed to whatever gods might still be listening that she would lose consciousness as the abnormal creature sated its unspeakable lust upon her flesh. The men and women in the circle roared their approval, and the chattering around us grew to an ecstatic pitch. I sobbed in despair and put my hands to my ears, not to stifle the hideous chattering but to muffle Bethany’s desperate, unceasing cries as they carried across the lochs and echoed back from distant hills. The sickly phosphorescence of the stones grew bright, flooding the abominable scene with unearthly light.

The pitiless stars stared down from immeasurable black gulfs, turning around the ancient henge for what seemed like aeons. The deformed creature howled in triumph, a wet and sickly roar, and rose at last from its revolting act. Only then did I see its blasphemous visage, as the capering minions moved to slake their own thirst. I ran, heedless of who or what might see my flight, leaving Bethany helpless on the altar stone, knowing only that I had to escape the horror. I stumbled and fled, blind with terror, until the henge was lost in the darkness far behind me and the causeway was beneath my feet. I ran through the great gate and fell upon the tiles, shaking and weeping like a child. If the vile thing I had seen was a throwback, it was a relic from an age undreamed of, for its skin shone grey and greasy in the witchlight and its huge head was that of a hideous, blank-eyed fish.

Hours later I woke in the great hall, shivering and frozen. Seabrook’s doors stood open to the night, and what little warmth remained fled into the abyss. While I lay in a stupor on the tiles, I had received a guest. Shapeless, muddy footprints led across the hall to the cellar door, and the stairs to the sea caves loomed wide. Should I have run then, back to London? Perhaps, but I had already seen too much. All I required was the same knowledge that granted my father his final resolve. I lit the carbide lamp and descended the stairs to the chthonic depths below. Once again the air grew chill and damp around me, and when I stepped into the sea caves they were filled with the sound of thunder.

The creature from the henge was waiting for me. It was the size of a man with pallid, grey-green flesh, but its head was huge, with bulbous eyes that never closed. It was amphibian, but cursed with some foul, unblinking intellect. The creature’s gills palpitated and its long, webbed paws opened and closed. The eyes were black pits, utterly devoid of emotion. I could taste its stench now: the ghastly, carrion smell of fish on the harborside, heavy and ripe. I saw the puckered scars stitched across its swollen white belly, old wounds that would have been fatal to a man. The scars were distorted by the creature’s transformation, stretched into rippled canyons of flesh, but I recognized them all the same: they were the same scars I had seen as a boy, the medals my uncle won at the siege of Sevastopol.

The creature had planted its unspeakable spawn within the vessel I had chosen, and now it came to greet its kin. I ran then, with hot piss spilling down my sodden pants. I ran until my legs could carry me no further up the slippery, winding stair from the sea caves and I crawled upon the rocks, gibbering and laughing and weeping, knowing what my father learned, knowing my true heritage at last.

Dark Flow by MichaelJWatkins is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.