Obadiah had forty different words for fog. From his fishing shack on the waterfront, he watched various fogs come and go, ebbing and flowing around the town. He needed every one of the words to describe the varied types that ran their blurry touch over the island.
There was the mist, the slight tendrils of cloud just barely wrapping around the houses. That one was so omnipresent that folks rarely even bothered to note it. Most of the town was mist-touched at any given time. The moments where you could see clearly end-to-end were the real rarities. Obadiah had no word for that kind of weather. It had never seemed worth it.
There were the pea-soupers, the thick deep fogs that ate the sound and blocked out all sight more than an arm’s length away. They rolled in on the regular, removing the rest of the town from view and giving Obadiah the impression that he lived on an island the size of his three rooms. If the windows weren’t sealed it was even less than that, as the fog seeped in through cracks and hid even the corners of his own house from him.
In between the two extremes were the mousters, the corrywinders, the bell-smiths and dozens more. Obadiah knew every sort of fog the sea could cough up and had names for them all. Seventy years of waterfront living would do that to a man.
Which made this fog all the more unusual. It wasn’t like any other he’d ever seen. It crawled along the ground in slow waves, gently rolling along paths and around corners like it was looking for something. It didn’t spread out evenly, either, but clumped together in great dense folds. Parts of it were nearly transparent, while others seemed almost solid.
Despite its intermittent thinness, it muffled sound as well as the thickest fog Obadiah had ever seen. The whole house felt wrapped in cotton batting. The lapping of the sea, the creaking of the dock, the mournful calls of the birds—all of these, the background of Obadiah’s life, were gone. It was this sepulchral silence that kept him staring out the window. He told himself he was just casually watching, but the truth was that he needed to keep an eye on the world to reassure himself that it was still there.
A booming knock sounded at the front door. Obadiah startled from his chair, the sudden sound no less concerning than the silence that had preceded it. He craned his neck to try to see along his front porch, but the drifting fog and awkward angle kept him from getting a good view.
The knock came again. Obadiah headed for the front door, taking up his stout oaken stick as he did so. If it was a neighbor who needed help outside, he’d be happy to have the extra support to keep his footing in the thick fog. And if it turned out to be someone who meant him ill, he could still hand out a pretty good wallop.
A third time: the knock. “I’m coming!” called Obadiah, his voice abnormally loud in the silent house. “Who is it, anyway?”
“Me, Obie,” came the muffled reply. He cocked his head. Sounded a bit like Isabel, the neighbor woman. Nice woman, lovely young mother, but not the sort to just drop by randomly. Especially not in weather such as this.
“What do you need?” he asked, opening the door. To his surprise, the battered wooden porch stood empty. The rocking chair creaked gently next to the door, but only the wind was stirring it.
“Your help.” Isabel’s voice drifted up from the bottom of the steps. Obadiah squinted into the fog. It was swirling thickly here, obscuring even the railing posts beside the stairs. He could make out a humanoid figure, but no more.
“What is it, Isabel?” Maybe she needed his help finding a lost animal. Maybe she’d gotten lost herself. “You need to come in?”
He took a step back, holding the door open, but the fog-shrouded figure shook her head. “No. I need your help. Can you come down here?”
Obadiah hesitated. Something was off about her voice, though he couldn’t quite put his finger on what it was. Still, if she needed help, he wasn’t about to turn her down.
“Let me get my coat,” he said.
“You don’t need it. Please, hurry.”
The air was chillier than he liked, but if Isabel was that desperate, he could handle the discomfort. Surely she only needed him for a short time if she was encouraging him to go out coatless. With a sigh and a shrug, he stepped onto the porch and closed the door behind him.
The fog had thickened again. Everything was a uniform shade of grey. Even the bottom step was hidden from view now. Obadiah gripped the railing with his left hand and his walking stick with his right, stepping carefully down the weathered steps.
“Isabel?” he called, unable to see her through the fog.
“Right here,” came the reply. He took a few tentative steps toward the sound.
“No, over this way.” Her voice was to the left of him now. He edged forward again, but still saw nothing.
“Where are you?”
“I’m here.” Her soft tones came from the right of him now. “I can see you. Just walk toward me.”
Two more steps, and there was still nothing there. “Girl, are you playing games with me?”
“Never, Obie.” But there was laughter in her voice, and not the kind sort, either.
“All right, enough of this. Nothing better to do than taunt an old man? I’m going back inside,” he grumbled.
“How do you plan to do that?”
Obadiah took several steps forward, expecting to see his house swim into view. It did not. There was nothing but an endless grey wall. He stopped, befuddled. “Musta gotten turned around in this.”
He turned back and tried the other direction, but found nothing there either. The fog swirled hungrily at his legs, hiding his feet from view. Isabel’s voice rang out from all around him, laughing gaily, shifting positions with every sentence.
“No, over here.”
“Obie.” This one practically a breath in his ear.
“Enough!” He whirled, striking out with his walking stick, but the heavy wood swooshed uselessly through the air. Obadiah staggered and nearly fell as the momentum tugged him to the side. The fog fluttered in its wake, forming curlicues that winked and smiled before vanishing into the main mass.
“Try again,” whispered Isabel’s voice. Clearly mocking though she was, Obadiah settled his grip on the cudgel and took her advice. He struck out blindly, swinging from shoulder to hip in a repeated X-shape. The laughter rose around him, mocking as he hit nothing but air over and over again, but Obadiah gritted his teeth and continued.
With every strike, he took a small step and made a quarter-turn. Swoosh, swoosh went the stick, and the circle Obadiah walked in grew steadily larger. He might not know which way his house was, but he knew it had to be close. If he just maintained the pattern….
Suddenly, the stick collided with something solid with a resounding crack. The impact jarred the walking stick from his hands, sending it spinning off into the fog. Obadiah reached out with desperate fingers and grasped the wooden ball that topped his porch’s newel post. He wrapped his arms around it, grabbing it like a drowning man seizing hold of a piece of floating wreckage.
“Wait!” called Isabel as Obadiah hauled himself up the three stairs to his porch, one hand always maintaining a strong grip on the railing. “I’m still out here, Obie. I still need your help.”
He shook his head. “No, you aren’t.”
“Look.” And then, in a voice quieter and more tremulous than before, “Obie? Is that you?”
He looked over his shoulder. Behind him, a path had cleared in the fog, the mists shifting aside to make a brief corridor. At the end of it, fifty yards away or more, stood Isabel. She looked confused and afraid. She appeared to have been crying.
“Obie, help!” She took a running step toward him and then the mists fell over her again, consuming her.
“See?” Isabel’s voice again, though Obadiah knew well it was not her. “She needs your help.”
Obadiah shook his head once more. “All I can do if I go out there is give you another voice to play with. And I don’t even have my coat.”
“Wait!” called the voice once more, but Obadiah was already at his front door, opening it to step into the safety of his house. Fog swirled in with him, but it dissipated quickly when the solid wood slammed shut behind it, tiny wisps of cloud vanishing against his carpet runner.
The knocking started again, loud and insistent. Obadiah, ignoring it, walked slowly around the house, checking the latch on each window and then pulling thick curtains to block out the view and muffle the sound. He turned on the record player, settled into his chair and let the scratchy sounds of a trumpet flow over him. He could still hear the knocking in the background, but he figured it would give up soon enough when it realized he couldn’t be lured back out.
Soft cries could be heard behind the trumpet now, the sounds of a young woman in distress.
“You can still save her,” whispered a voice clustered outside his windows.
Obadiah dragged his chair over closer to the record player and increased the volume. He’d seen too many men swept overboard in storms to wonder if Isabel could really be rescued. All you could do by jumping after them was add another death to the tally.
“A murk,” he said out loud. “That’s a good name for it. A murk.”
The fog would pass. They all did, eventually. He’d go find Isabel after that. If there was anything left of her to find.
By Micah Edwards, with art by Tom Brown.
Micah and Tom have collaborrated before and it is likely that they will do so again.