I spotted a solitary figure on the beach, just beyond the boats by the sudden drop to the turmoil of the tide pounding the rocks. His back was towards me, but he turned as I approached him, outlined by the ocean behind him, and a murky band formed by a group of filthy coloured clouds on the horizon.
The man was wearing a weather-beaten great-coat that matched his grizzled face. One eye was covered by an eye patch, the other half-concealed by wrinkled flesh. Most of his face was hidden by a frumious silver beard. He wore a sailor’s cap, from beneath which spilled wild locks of grey hair, and one of his legs had been replaced by a wooden peg.
“Mister Ted?” I asked, cautiously.
“Ayuh, Mistah. Ole Ted is what they-ha call me round hee-ha. And who might you be?”
“I’m Ned Twyner, from England. May I ask you a question?”
Ole Ted sighed deeply. “I reckon I know what the question is, and tis hahd tellin’ not knowin’, if you catch my drift.”
“Mayhap you could tell me why it’s still high tide? I don’t recall any sign of low tide all day.”
I could see he wasn’t expecting that question, for he looked surprised, before answering – with a shrug –: “Tis always highish tide hee-ah in Mewton, just a couple a times a month that it ain’t and it ebbs somewhat.”
“But…how is that even possible?”
“On account of it bein’ lowish tide most of the time…elsewheah.”
“Hopeless?” I asked hopefully.
Another forlorn sigh, before he shook his head and began to say: “Now listen, Mistah. You cahn’t git they-ha from…”
“…from heehaw. Yes, I’ve been told.”
I can sigh as well as the next man, so added a weary one of my own. “Them that asks no questions, isn’t told no lie.”
“Now why would you be sayin’ that?”
“It’s something we say back home, in Sussex. Mostly to inquisitive strangers.”
“Ayuh. Well you know how things stand then.”
Suspecting that Ole Ted could talk in endless circles forever and longer, I decided on a different approach. I dug in my trouser pocket, found what I was looking for, and fished it out. I held out my hand to show him a dull, iron coin, with a prominent skull raised in its centre, around which were written the words Memento Mori. The coin had no monetary value…but was priceless nonetheless, when shown to the right people in any port around the world. I just hoped that applied to Mewton as well, isolated as it was.
“An Owler’s Ducat!” Ole Ted exclaimed. “Now wheah’d you git that?”
“My gaffer skirred under Captain John Hawkeye, on The Salty Mew,” I said with suitable pride.
“Ayuh. We’ve heahd of Cap’n Hawkeye, even hee-ah in the boondocks. Do you know what the coin means?”
“Yarr.” I agreed in Owler’s lingo, before reciting:
Tis the wayward life.
Tis Free Trader’s strife.
The Joy of the Owler’s soul.
“Ayuh. But you don’t look like much of a smugglah to me, Mistah.”
“Not smuggler. Free Trader,” I corrected him automatically. “My Gammer wanted me to pursue a different career. She said there were enough Owlers in the family.”
“Theah’s wisdom in that, Mistah. Now your ducat be obligin’ me to help you, but I feel I’d be helpin’ you most by tellin’ you NOT to go to Hopeless. See that building they-ha?”
He pointed at the grim building on the slope.
I nodded, and he continued speaking. “You evah stop to think why a village this size would have a sanatorium lah-gah than its school? They-ha’s always some folk showin’ up, hell-bent on getting to Hopeless, you’s not the first. A few even make it back. But nevah the same, Mistah, nevah the same…” He tapped his gnarled index-finger against his temple.
“I want to go, regardless,” I insisted stubbornly.
Ole Ted shook his head with dramatic regret. “Now why would a young man such as yahself be wantin’ to go to Hopeless? Ain’t nothin’ they-ha that’s healthy, nor wholesome.”
“I am a journalist. I was sent by my paper, the Brighton Gazette, to interview someone who lives there, one Salamandra.”
“HER?! They-ha say she’s a powahful witch of sohts. A wicked bad idea, Mistah. I figuh-ed you were smahtah, that’s just numb, if you don’t mind me sayin’ so.”
“The Owler’s Ducat,” I reminded him.
“Ayuh. I’m bound to it, and so must help you. And I will. Be hee-ah at dawn. They-ha’s a crew goin’ kyte huntin’. They-ha’ll take you if I tell ‘em to.”
Ole Ted shook his wizened head again. “You’ll be unthankin’ me soon enough. Just know this, anything that befalls you on that cuh-sed isle is beyond my control. I can git you to Hopeless, and do my utmost to git what remains of you off the island again. That’s all.”
“It’s a deal.”
§ § § § §
I barely slept that night, exhilarated by the knowledge that I would finally reach Hopeless. Upon the chime of midnight, however, that sense of triumph began to be replaced by other feelings.
I paid little attention to the screaming at first, assuming that the seagulls, whose cacophonic mayhem had ceased when darkness came to Mewton, had discovered something to excite them.
My attention was roused when some of the repetitive screeches began to sound like words – unmistakably English words.
Something, somebody… other than seagulls…screaming into the night.
Tentatively, I got out of bed and walked to the windows. I drew open the curtains, and then opened one of the windows, now clearly hearing the haunted howls, shrill cries, and plaintive wailing. My eye was drawn to the building on the slope…the town’s sanatorium.
I was close enough to see the barred windows, and – unfortunately – close enough to see dark shadows clutching those bars with pale hands, or else sticking their arms through it, hands clutching frantically at the air.
I dare confess that their screeches filled me with some trepidation.
“…The eyes! The eyes!! THE EYES!!! The eyes…”
“…Don’t DRINK me! PLEEEEEEEEAASE…”
“…I FEAR I FEAR I FEARIfeArIfEaRIfeArifearifearifear…I FEAR!”