Aphelion Issue 250, Volume 24
May 2020
 
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The Demon Whitefish

by Jordan Moureau




Salt water lapped against the small fishing boat as it floated to the dock. Fagan stroked the water with his paddles. Just enough propulsion to glide safely home. He was a simple man. His favorite things were a pint of ale after a good haul on the bay, his wife's sweet rolls, teaching his sons what meager knowledge he'd earned in his life and doting on his daughter. He didn't complain much, but he didn't so much mind when others did.

The wharf was quiet that evening. Dusk had almost fallen and mist was rising cold above the water. He had a few fish to bring home that evening, but all in all it wasn't a particularly good day. Fagan wasn't concerned though. He'd had a good day before and he would have one again.

He hopped out of the boat, stretched his legs and began tying it off at the dock. Dusk was well done. Minna would be looking for him. Probably grumbling as she dumped his cold dinner back into the pot. Lanterns were being lit in the town. A few straggling fisherman's lamps lit up behind Fagan on the lake. He pulled his own lantern off the hook on the front of the boat and struck a match to it.

He jumped a little when the light fell on a small dark figure not ten feet away. It was covered in a ragged dark grey cloak, the hood up. Greasy brown ringlets of matted hair slipped out of the hood.

"Please sir." It said in a young boy's voice. "Will you take me back out on the lake?"

Fagan frowned. "Why? It's dark out. I've got a dinner to get home too. Where's your mam, eh?"

The figure stepped closer and clutched at Fagan's shirt. "Please!" He looked up at Fagan with deep set brown eyes, rimed white. His skin had a pallid texture, sweaty and pale. His fingers were yellowed and cracked.

Fagan stumbled back. "W-what... ?"

The boy's face contorted before Fagan could finish, blue lips split wide revealing six sets of pointed pearl white teeth in rows across a gaping mouth. Fagan screamed. Fisherman and beast crashed into the water. Fagan struggled as the thing rendered flesh from bone, devouring every scrap underneath the murky surface of the lake. The water frothed red. Fagan's cries of pain and terror were nothing more than bubbles popping on the surface as he was dragged down among the fish.

Minna stared from the wharf. Her fingers clenched around a small pot of food. The surface of the lake stilled but for the clouds of red blood, still dissipating. The pot slipped from her grasp and hit the planking with a dull thud. She ran.


* * *


The next day, Minna didn't get up. She scrunched herself into a ball and spent the day muttering under her breath. All the children tried waking her up. Arlin, the eldest boy, came in her bed room with a big bowl of fish stew, waving it under her nose.

"Where's da?" He asked.

Little Leith ran and jumped into the bed, snuggling under her arm and staring up at her with his big blue eyes. He played with her hair and asked "Where's papa?"

Even Ethne toddled in and stood at the edge of the bed, her eyes barely peeking over the top. She stared quizzically at her mam and spoke the only word she knew, "Pa?"

Minna just drew the covers in closer. Arlin fetched the healer.

Deirdre bustled in with her big white skirts and sad brown eyes. She had her bag of tricks and tonics, glass bottles tinkling against each other whenever she moved. She shooed the children from the room and stepped up to the bed. She pried open Minna's mouth and peeked in. She laid an ear to her chest, lifted her wrist and let it fall to the bed, and pressed on Minna's stomach.

"I'm not sick." Minna said swatting her away half-heartedly. She sat up stiffly, pulling the covers with her and wrapping them tightly around her shoulders. "I think I'm crazy."

"W-why do you say that?" Deirdre said in her soft, nervous voice. Deirdre hadn't always been such a timid wispy creature. When she was young she would dance on the Inn benches, singing at the top of her lungs. Then death stole into her home and took her man, Tifton, and her boy, Adan. It was a wasting illness that took them. Something even Deirdre couldn't hold at bay. It stoked a panic in the village, but the disease never spread.

"I saw a thing that can't be seen." Minna whispered. She wouldn't look at Deirdre.

Deirdre sat down heavily by the bed and was silent.

"I went to see Fagan last night. I-I had his dinner. He was standing with... with something on the dock." Minna's eyes locked on Deirdre. "It ate him. In the lake. It ate him."

Deirdre eyes were the size of saucers, her lips shook.

The door burst open making them both jump. Ide, Minna's sister, stood in the door way.

"What is this?" Ide said. "Arlin says you're sick. Can't get out of bed." Ide looked between them both as if just becoming aware of Deirdre. "Where's Fagan?"

Deirdre snatched up her medicine bag and stumbled past Ide. She backed to the door, her boots clipping on the wood floor. "I-I have to go." The door snapped shut behind her.

"What was that about?" Ide asked.

Minna burst into tears.


* * *


Day's came and went. The family mourned. The town brought an endless array of food to Minna's doorstep.

"He was a good man." They said to Minna and the boys. "He was a good father and a good fisherman."

And they said it all again when the next good man went missing. And the one after that.

The wharf was busy, sun toasted fisherman stood next to big barrels of fresh fish. The women peered over the catch with squinty eyes and pursed lips. Whitefish Village was a prosperous one. People came from six counties over to buy the sweet white fish and drink their Inn's ale. A man in Whitefish who could bring home enough white fish was seldom hungry.

Minna sidled through the crowd. Most stepped respectfully out of her way. Odell stood by her late husband's boat in a rough looking brown jacket and broad brimmed hat. Odell was Ide's neighbor's husband from the south side of town. His son was getting married soon and needed a boat as much as Minna needed money. Arlin was too young to fish. As far as Minna was concerned she would see her boys in a trade like baking or farming before she sent them out on the water.

"Aye, Minna. Sorry to be seeing you on such terms." Odell pulled out a sack of coin and handed it over. "My boy will take good care of her, to be sure."

Minna picked through the coins. "This is too much." She pulled out ten silver coins and held them out.

"Now Minna, don't be like that."

"Take your coin and buy yourself a better jacket." She said dismissively. "That old rag wouldn't keep you warm if it was the middle of the summer."

Odell scowled, but he took back his coin.

Shouts and laughter came from the wharf. A figure popped out above the crowd, he seemed to be standing on a barrel. People were beginning to pool around him.

"Hear you, good people of Whitefish." He said with a flourish of his finely tailored sleeve. Minna said her goodbye's to Odell and wandered over. "I have need of information concerning the recent inexplicable deaths of your fellow fisherman."

Minna elbowed her way to the front. He was quite the specimen in brightly colored silks, a gold hilted sword and boots so shiny Minna could see her own face in them. He stood on the barrel as if it and everything around it were rightly his own.

Minna scowled. Nobles.

His valet, a much younger man, leaned against the barrel looking quite preoccupied with his fingernails. He was dressed in the same colors as the first, but not half as fine. He had no sword, his boots were mud crusted and he had quick blue eyes with a nose that had been more than once broken.

"...I have come to rid you of the evil lurking here. Yes! Among you!" The noble was saying. Minna scanned the faces of the crowd. Some people were laughing, other's gasped and whispered. Dierdre stood on the other side of the barrel. She looked pinched and fearful. Her mouth was moving, fingers anxiously stroking something Minna couldn't see.

Dierdre's eyes snapped up. For a split second it was as if no one else existed except the two women. She looked like a wild animal, caught and unable to escape. Dierdre spun and vanished into the crowd without waiting to hear what the man had to say. Minna frowned.

"...And I, Carolan son of Caiseal of the Emerald Valley, will champion you in the name of all that is good and holy!" Carolan pulled his sword out and thrust it above him. The crowd cheered a bit. Some of the young men were getting excited, but most began to wander back to their business.

"If I had a copper for every time a noble told me summat like that I'd have a crest of my own and a hundred of you lot to be my servants and buy my fish for me." Said an old lady clutching her basket of cloth wrapped food.

"Whatever you say, ma." Her beautiful dark haired daughter replied. "I think he looks... quite pretty."

The little old woman's eyes got a little narrower as she looked from the girl's dole expression to boldly standing Carolan. "Noble's babies come out sideways." She said quickly. "They'll have you crying in labor for days. And they scream twice as loud as the regular ones. Their poop smells worse too..." The girl's expression was becoming increasingly disbelieving, but the old woman showed no signs of stopping as they shuffled out of ear shot.

"Why yes, son. I am a knight of the king." Carolan was saying to a group of captivated boys. "I am here to do my sworn duty."

Minna stepped up to the valet who was settled a comfortable distance away, watching. "What's your name, lad?" She asked.

He grinned. "Eamon."

"And you two are here to do what?" She asked, watching him out of the corner of her eye.

"As my lord has so eloquently described..." He coughed. "To vanquish evil."

"Really. What makes you think there's evil here?"

He shrugged. "I don't really know. Something about witches and black auras."

Minna looked out over the bay. It was clear and sunny. The sunlight sparkled on the surface. The mouth of the bay flanked by the village's ever present protectors, the mountains Cowan. Otherwise, they would be constantly blasted by the ocean weather. It was a good place. Built solid of oak trees and held fast through plenty of generations. A little rough around the edges, but still home and full of people she loved.

Minna scrubbed her eyes with the heel of her palm.

"Are you alright, ma'm?" Eamon asked.

"Come have a drink with me, and bring your master." She said abruptly. "I've got something to tell you."

"That's impossible." Carolan said. He stared at her suspiciously over his mug of ale as Minna finished her story. They sat in the Dancing Fish Inn. It was uncomfortably crowded.

"What do you mean impossible? How can you say that when a witch sent you here on a magical hunch?" Eamon said.

"That's different. Mistress Ablewin is a reputable sorceress from a good family. There's no such thing as flesh-eating water beasts." Carolan turned a bit pale just speaking the words.

"Are you calling me a liar?" Minna said standing up.

"I surely am. In fact I might just be so bold as to say you are the most culpable suspect for these murders."

"Carolan, now that is too far." Eamon said.

"It is not! She is obviously trying to distract us with these stories."

Minna got very cold. All at once she was angry and afraid. Minna clamped her mouth shut, snatched up her basket and stormed out of the Inn.

Eamon followed her outside. "Mistress Minna!" He called after her, weaving through the throng of people. "My lady!" He caught hold of her sleeve.

"Don't call me that. I'm not a mistress or a lady." She snapped.

"I'm sorry. And I'm sorry about him too. He's really harmless. He just... gets defensive sometimes."

"That's all well and good for him. In the mean time, there is something out there! My husband is dead because of it and my children aren't safe." She swallowed hard.

"I know. I believe you. I want to help you." He shuffled uncomfortably. "The truth is no one takes Carolan seriously. They send him off on nonsense quests. We've never really helped anyone, but I want to help you, Minna."

She bit her lip. "Fine. Meet me on the docks just before midnight."


* * *


Minna fed her children, tucked them in bed and waited until they were asleep. The embers of the fire burned low as she sat with a pair of Arlin's pants, ripped at both knees. Her fingers shook on the needle. She couldn't leave things to a fool like Carolan, not with folk dying, surely, but she was just a fisherman's wife--fisherman's widow. She didn't have a gold sword or an education. What would Fagan say if he saw her about to sneak into the night hunting for a monster? She had no idea. He'd probably be terrified. He'd tie her up and sit on her all night.

Arlin shifted in his sleep. The three of them were piled under blankets near the hearth, snuggled together like puppies. The fact was Fagan wasn't there. He couldn't protect them anymore.

Minna set aside her sewing and went into her husband's chest of clothes. They were much too big for her, but she cinched on a pair of pants and a shirt with a wide belt and stuffed her feet into her sturdiest pair of boots. She pinned a cloak over her shoulders and tiptoed past her children. She hesitated by the hearth. A set of knives for gutting fish sat cleaned and folded neatly in leather. Minna pulled out the sheathed fillet knife and tucked it into her waistband.

It was warm in the alley's between houses. The wind was broken by the many stone walls and every hearth had been burning hot since dusk. The wharf was a different story. Minna pulled her cloak close, covering her eyes with the hood and stood waiting.

The wharf was quiet. She could hear men laughing and drinking in the Inn but not many ventured out into the wind and when they did they didn't linger near the docks. Minna felt a rush just standing there, in plain view. She was so close to the water. It could be lurking under the surface right then.

Minna peered down, her hand on the knife at her waist. The water lapped at the wharf, teasing her, beckoning her.

A hand gripped her shoulder. She jumped and fumbled to pull the knife.

"It's just me!" Eamon whispered.

"Gods! You scared me!" She whispered back clutching her chest. She barely even had the knife out of the sheath. Not a good sign.

"Sorry."

"It's fine. Come on, let's go." Minna strode off down the wharf, counting the rows of houses as they went.

"Where are we going?"

"To visit Deirdre, the town healer."

"Are you sick?"

"No, she just gave me a funny feeling." Minna growled.

Eamon stopped. "You mean, I got out of a nice warm bed in the middle of the night to wander around town because you have a feeling?"

"You said you wanted to help, so help." Minna stopped and stared at him through the gloom. She wanted to be stoic, to not care whether or not he came or went, but she wasn't. She didn't want to be out there alone. It gave her chills. Every shadow made her want to jump and there are a lot of shadows at midnight.

"So I did. Well, fine."

Minna let out a tiny breath. They started walking again. She counted the fifth row from the Inn and ducked down it. She took them left after the fifteenth house, winding deeper into the little town.

"What's giving you a funny feeling?" He asked after a while.

"She was the first to speak to me about what happened to Fagan." Minna said, ducking down another hazy road, barely lit by the last dying fires shining through shutter cracks. "I don't know, okay? It's like... She's terrified of something."

"Maybe she's terrified of being eaten by the beast."

"No, it wasn't like that. She was afraid of... Of me."

Eamon was quiet. Their feet thudded against the cobble stones, barely breaching a thick kind of silence that only comes at midnight. It was the kind of silence that closes in and cradles you when you're sleeping, but awakens the worst of nightmares when you find yourself up at about at that hour.

"We're here." Minna said, stopping in front of a little house that looked almost exactly like all the others. Dried herbs were hanging from the roof, a ward against evil was rubbed on the front door in charcoal. Light from a full burning fire shone through cracked shutters.

The front door opened slowly. Minna grabbed Eamon and pulled him into a shadowed crevice between houses. Minna peeked just her eyes out from around the corner.

Deirdre stood silhouetted in the doorway clutching a basket and a small lantern. She looked right and left, then pulled the door carefully shut behind her. She started heading out of town.

Minna gestured to Eamon for quiet. Waited half a breath, then followed Dierdre.

Dierdre's house was almost on the farthest eastside border of the town. Beyond that there was only sand and sharp rocks, then mountains. Soon they were creeping among the rocks trying to avoid being seen in the glow of moonlight. Minna was fairly impressed with Eamon's creeping abilities. She almost forgot he was behind her more than once.

A sound ever so slowly began to light on Minna's ears. A soft moaning as they climbed further up the mountain. The higher they got the louder the moaning became until it was a high pitched squeal of fury.

Minna began to shake. The sound was unbearable. Minna clamped her hands over her ears. Still Deirdre shuffled along through the rocks and the sand. A shed became visible, old and rotted by years of neglect. The sound culminated at the base of a particularly pointed rock near the shed.

A dark figure hung against it. Arms tied around the rock, stretched to their very limit. It moaned and spat and screamed, jerking violently as Deirdre passed by it without a second glance. She disappeared into the shed.

"What is it?" Eamon whispered, voice cracked.

"Sh." Minna took the opportunity to edge closer to it, slipping from one rock shadow to another. The thing gnashed its teeth at the air. It was barely bigger than a child clothing ripped and torn. The door opened casting firelight across the creature's face. Minna gasped and fell back.

"Adan." She whispered. Eamon grabbed her and pulled her back into the shadow of the rocks.

Deirdre stumbled out of the shed, awkwardly clinging to a canvas wrapped bundle. She laid out her prize at the foot of the rock her long dead son was tied. Adan thrashed violently and whimpered. He snapped his teeth at her, seemingly trying to latch onto her flesh.

"What is she doing?" Eamon whispered in Minna's ear as Deirdre laid out a gigantic book, a number of various-sized ceramic pots and bowls, a tied leather bag, and a knife. Deirdre lined her bowls neatly in a particular order on the ground. She set a good sized bowl in front of her and began quickly emptying the pots into it. She took the bowl and careful to avoid the teeth, wiped it across Adan's forehead. She set it back down in her workspace, and began to unbutton her dress. She stood naked in the moon light, basking for a moment. Adan's screaming gained in pitch, then began to hiccup and jerk. Minna frowned, was it giggling?

"Won't work." It moaned, head lolling back.

Deirdre wiped her concoction on her stomach and breasts. She knelt again, took up the knife and opened the leather bag. She carefully turned it over. For half a breath nothing happened. Then a snake slide cautiously out. It surveyed its surroundings with dignity. Moonlight glinted off iridescent scales. It was like no snake Minna had ever seen, as long as her arm and almost as thick. Its head was wide and it had sharp ridged points running from tip of nose to the end of its tail.

Deirdre held a shaking hand to the snake. It crawled up her arm, twining itself around her waist and shoulders. She brought it to Adan.

"Stop, mother please!" Adan cried.

Deirdre looked away as the snake struck, twice at the temple and the neck. She walked back to her work space. The snake slipped off of her. Minna barely saw Deirdre stab the thing through the skull. She split it from end to end, poured oil from her lamp and lit it on fire.

The air crackled with an electricity, like a storm building pressure before lightning strikes.

"We should go." Eamon whispered urgently, grabbing her arm. Minna could see the whites of his eyes.

"We can't." She jerked away.

"She's a witch!" He grabbed her arm again and started pulling her with him.

Minna jerked away again, so forcefully she threw herself out from the rock and into the moonlight.

"W-what are you..." Deirdre said. "You can't be here!"

"What have you done to him, Deirdre? What did you do to your son?"

"I saved him!" Deirdre screamed, clutching her chest. "He was dead! I'm healing him."

"Healing him?" Minna stepped closer. "You're turning him into a monster. He ate Fagan."

"If I can just finish this it will all be better. I swear it!" Deirdre shook her head.

"This is wrong. What you've done is wrong." Minna stepped up to the other woman.

"Please, please just let me finish." She fell to her knees and grabbed Minna's pants, tears trickling down her cheeks. "I-I could bring Fagan back. I could give him back to you. I could fix him. I know how now!"

"Stop." Minna closed her eyes, compressing the cold ball of ice in her chest, making it smaller and smaller. Minna pushed Deirdre off her and took up the lantern. She threw the rest of the oil on Adan.

Deirdre screamed and lunged at Minna, dagger raised. Minna stumbled back. The tip of a sword protruded from Deirdre's chest. Her face frozen in shock. Her body fell. Eamon stood holding Carolan's golden sword, slick with Deirdre's blood. The air stilled, even the wind stopped.

In the silence, Adan began to laugh.

Minna took the lit wick of the lantern and threw it on the thing that was once a boy from Whitefish Village.

It never stopped laughing.

Minna covered Deirdre's body, closing the woman's eyes. She looked softer with her eyes shut, the long worn crease between her brow had disappeared.

"Did I do the right thing?" Eamon asked. His eyes were fixed on Deirdre.

"I think so." Minna squeezed his arm. A light fog descended on them, sprinkling their skin with moisture. Minna had the strangest sense that things were as they should be in her world. It was like she could still feel Fagan and Deirdre, even Adan.

They decided Eamon would fetch Carolan and they would take Deirdre's body to her family. Carolan would be happy to be cast as the hero and Minna was just as happy to stay in the shadows. The next few days were a flurry of gossip. Hundreds of people climbed the hill to see the burnt husk of Adan imprinted on the stone. Deirdre's family refused to believe it. Minna couldn't blame them.


* * *


She stood on the wharf in the early hours of the morning nearly a week later, Ethne in her arms, Arlin and Leith dropping bread to the tiny dock fish. Eamon stood in front of the Inn stuffing odds and ends of things into the saddle bags of a pair of horses. He caught sight of her and trudged over, hands shoved into his pockets.

"I guess that's it then," he said. "I hate that you're not getting your fair share of the glory. You were the one who killed it after all. You know he'll get a title for it."

"Mm, I can see it now. Her ladyship Minna of Whitefish." She laughed. "No, better him than me. I wouldn't know what to do with a title. Anyway, they'd not likely give me one."

"I suppose. Doesn't seem fair."

"It's enough a reward that the boys are safe to fish again."

Carolan strode out of the Inn, whipping his fine cloak along with him. He took his horse and called for Eamon. For a moment he caught Minna's eye. She thought he might've nodded to her, ever so slightly, but then he was in his saddle and riding away.

Eamon jumped. "Wait! Carolan!" He called.

Minna laughed. "Off you go. Be safe. Take care of yourself."

"You, too!" he said and ran after Carolan, fumbling onto his own horse. "Goodbye, Minna!"

She waved.

"Ma, who was that?" Arlin asked. He tilted his face up to her, messy dark hair just like his father falling across his face.

"He's a very brave boy and one day I'll tell you about him." She tousled his hair. "You, my dear, desperately need a haircut."

"What? Nooooo, it's not too long. Look!" He pushed it back over his ears and grinned.

"Haircut, haircut, haircut!" Leith sang throwing pieces of bread into the air above him.

"Come on, now." Minna said, Ethne lulled by the rolling of her hips as she walked. "Let's go home."


THE END


2013 Jordan Moureau

Bio: Jordan Moreau is a first-time, previously unpublished writer. Jordan can be happy then, to have finally made the grade.

E-mail: Jordan Moureau

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