The Schooner Redwing
by Andrew Kleinstuber
Andrew is an award winning fiction writer from Delaware where he owns and operates a small farm with his wife. His free time is spent as close to the water as possible, with a book in his hand, or writing stories that nobody wants to read.
Midnight, October twenty-two becomes twenty-three—my birthday—1891.
There was nothing but fire left of the ship, scattered across the shore like cannon sabot, splintered and burning bright beneath the pouring rain. The explosion, which we’d later find out was from the barrels of gunpowder in the hull and a lantern fire in the galley above, had torn through the night sending concussions out into the darkness and hunks of scorched wood one hundred yards over the shore. It took nearly an hour for us all to regain our hearing and even then I suffered from pronounced tinnitus and felt unsteady on my feet in the half frozen, rain scoured sand. We searched the beach under the glow of the fire for survivors, found only pieces.
Six men in total—or what was left of them—were recovered from the wreckage by the time the early morning haze split the field of blue above us across the middle along the horizon the color of boiled welch. The remains were wrapped in canvas and stowed in the back of a wagon we’d borrowed from Mr. Stuart Cotton, the farmer who’d lent the oxen to help pull the Lyle gun in the night. His daughter was the first of the onlookers come the ashen morning light, drawn in to the tendrils of black smoke that blossomed into the clouds above. She stood alone on a high dune to the north and the wind tossed thick red curls into her face and a long green dress billowed around her ankles, steam pouring from each breath through her nostrils as she watched the aimless wandering of the six Watermen from Station Indian River around what little remained of the wreck of the schooner Red Wing.
By the time the sun had fully risen, though still smothered behind thick milky white clouds, the crowd was nearly two score and beginning to murmur amongst themselves Surfman Long brought us together around a small fire behind the charred corpses in the wagon. His normally bright and youthful eyes seemed grey and unfocused, his tight cropped hair somehow mussed and when he spoke his voice was a shiver, “There are no survivors,” He seemed relented to admit this, as though it were his bearing that had brought the ship aground, “Anyone lucky enough to survive the explosion wouldn’t have survived the sea at night in these conditions.”
Her voice cut through the still air like a flag shifting in a gale, “What about the footprints to the south?” We all turned to the young Ms. Cotton, standing with her hands buried deep in pockets and a slight shift in her neck.
Long’s voice found some traction before the lady, “This doesn’t concern you.” And then he wavered, “What footprints?” Shifting her shoulders beneath her thick grey cloak the young woman flicked her eyes to the south-east, “Beyond the area you searched, Surfman. There’s an unsteady trail headed over the dunes, looks like they were dragging something.”
Long’s eyes were manic. His left brow jut high on his forehead in a sharp upward V, his mouth slightly ajar before he spoke, “Beyond—where? Dragging something? How can you—” He broke off mid sputter, turned with a hand to his hairline and started across the now steaming wreckage with Surfman Cole following suit leaving the rest of us standing around the fire looking at the young woman with the cold green eyes. She looked at each of us in turn and when she found me I felt a chill begin in my spine that trickled off into my marrow, put ice in my blood, then she turned and started off toward the ox at the front of the wagon and whispered to them with her long fingers on the faces of the creatures.
By now the crowd in the dunes had somewhat dissipated, as quickly as the people flocked the black smoke in the horizon they vanish; soon as the dead have been covered the fun is gone. The subtle paradox of humanity is that we fear death, but, like a shark that smells blood in the water it draws us in out of hunger for the unimaginable, its presence excites in ways we can’t begin to comprehend. So, after the bodies—still smoldering along the severed limbs and fringed hairlines—were wrapped tight in canvas, often so incompletely that a single man could manage the package with ease and it was loaded into the wagon and covered by a sheet there was nothing left to see but a pile of crippled planks that had once been a boat they couldn’t care less about, so they left save a few late arrivals hoping for their glimpse of fatality, the hunger grinding in the pit of their stomachs. Because of this there were only a handful of spectators privy to the very public outburst from Surfman Long on the southern edge of the wreckage.
There was a long and often startling line of profanities strewn out into the morning followed by the unhinged croak, “I see that, Surfman Cole.”
With everyone’s eyes now on the spot fifty yards away where the tall man chastised his slightly bumbling compatriot the cold breeze shifted just and sent the thick ocean air across the beach and Long seemed to settle with the temperature drop. His shoulders slackened and fell toward the earth and he gestured behind him toward the wagon where we stood. When he spoke his voice was quiet and the words were drowned out by the crash of the waves and the fire crackling beside us. After a quick nod Surfman Cole turned and trotted off back toward the group, his head stooped low.
At the edge of the group Cole stopped, breathing heavy, and spoke, “Surfman Haley, Long would like you to accompany us. He wants you to br—,” Cole hesitated as he spoke and his eyes flittered left where Ms. Cotton now stood. Lowering his voice he continued, “He’s asked that you bring the Winchester. The rest of you are to begin clearing debris from the shoreline.”
The words sent a rippled murmur around the group that landed, along with their gazes, on my brow as I peered into the fire. Without meaning to my eyes shot up and at the woman by the wagon that she’d ridden to Church in the previous Sunday now filled with the charred remains of sailors and saw what I thought to be hatred in her before I looked back to the fire. I nodded, barely a crick of the neck, and started off for the wagon. I removed my hunting rifle, a Winchester Model 1885, from the rear of the wagon and a box of ammunition from the
canister beside and hung the weapon over my shoulder, set a handful of rounds in my pocket. I felt their weight bulging at my hip as I moved through the group and I felt the stock of the rifle against my shoulder and the frozen air blowing off the sea as I followed Surfman Cole away from the fire but more then anything I felt her eyes on the back of my neck, watching.
We followed the trail for several hundred yards as the sun began to tear it’s way through the veil of clouds overhead and by the time we reached the clearing we were under full light, exhausted and soaked through. At the top of a small dune looking down into the small basin we saw first a frenzy of black feathers and yellow eyes behind red scaly faces. A single shot from the Winchester fired from the hip was enough to scatter the flock and we were left alone staring into a pile of intangible flesh as their wings beat solemnly above, circling like wraiths.
First we thought it was another body. From the top of the pile reached fingers to the heavens stiff with rigor and below there were sordid outlines of legs and a torso and at our feet now two meters away lay a single ear stripped of skin. Upon closer inspection it became all too clear that the entirety of the pile was void of skin, a sinewy mass of gore. By the time I saw the third foot and realized this was not one man, but the missing pieces of the whole crew, Surfman Cole was vomiting in a dogwood bush. For a long moment we stood staring at the exposed muscle and tendons and bones stark white beneath the sun before the flies found us and we began a silent retreat back to the top of the dune.
“This, this is—” Surfman Long seemed to start speaking as a matter of formality, as if he were still trying to decide what he could possibly say about this, “This is witchcraft.” His voice cracked as he finished speaking and a burst of wind carried most of the words into the ether but it was obvious from the sheen of his eyes and the droop of his shoulders that Surfman Long was lost. Cole stood doubled over still with his back to the desecration and in recollection I believe he was in silent prayer.
For several minutes we stood like this, alone together on the edge of sacrilege.
The next moment was one that will likely define the entirety of my future existence on this planet, and in that moment—as I’m sure the was the case with all moments of note—, I don’t know that the decision was made in real time. It were as if the whole of my life, the years spent stalking deer in the fall with dried leaves at my feet and the thousands of rounds I’d sent down range in preparation for a war that never came and the nights spent wide awake with the icy chill of darkness lapping at my feet all led to that instant. It gave me the strength to swing the rifle around and expel the spent round from the chamber, lock a new one in it’s place. It gave me the will to turn away from the pile of rotting meat that was once man and grab hold of the lapel of my superior. It gave me the voice to growl into his ear, “Send word of this to Vickers. Take Cole, go back to the beach and send word with the fastest horse in the stable of what has happened here today. And Long,” When he turned and looked into my eyes all I saw was my own reflection, twinkling in reverse on his tears, and I almost didn’t recognize the ferocity of my self, “don’t look back.”
With a fistful of his shirt I shoved him in the direction of Cole and the two of them, still shaken with shock, started off toward the ocean.
They didn’t look back.
When I was a boy my father used to take me into the woods, often for days at a time. He was a small man, my father, and light on his feet but his hands were tough as stone and his arms were strong from the fields and in those days he taught me how to survive. He showed me the way to tell north by the growth of a tree line, the direction I was currently headed. He showed me the way to tell if an animal were injured by its tracks, a gate which I now followed in the wet sand. He showed me how to keep the wind from tossing your scent into the nostrils of your prey, something I was currently finding difficult in the open dunes, but I saw, with some relief, the tracks went toward the woods, not the sea. In the forest you find order: there are systems and networks blooming and interconnecting and what works thrives and what doesn’t fails but in the ocean you find chaos, an eternal struggle for dominance in a fluid environment. This is why, my father used to tell me, man left the sea: to find order.
But as I gripped the wet stock of my rifle and pulled the butt into my shoulder I knew otherwise. Man left the ocean for the same reason man does all things, for food and shelter. From the scenes which I’d just left I had to assume that the man, or beast, that I followed had the former and would like seek the latter. I dare not describe the visions that were skirting the edges of my imagination in the darkness just beyond thought though I assure you with no manner of pride or arrogance that I was in mild states of panic, though I knew it were my duty as if it were fated so. Why had I been the only one allowed a rifle at The Station? Why had I brought it along, across the inlet in heavy seas? If it was not so, then it was likely nothing was, and to that I’d continued still. Though as I continued I felt myself happening on somewhat of a daunting realization.
It was that, in an odd sort of sense, the man I followed seemed to be growing stronger, rather then weaker. His gate grew steady and his right footfall, which had been dramatically exaggerated, grew softer and even with the left. Watching the steps was like watching the steps of a man remembering how to walk. Before, had I been nervous or timid I was at least hopeful my prey might be injured, now I was simply scared. And I confess, when I heard the sand shift and give way behind me and to the left panic took control of my heart and the tips of my fingers went numb as the blood poured from my extremities and my finger slipped from the trigger over the guard in the wet air and as I fell onto the sand and the barrel of my rifle shot toward the sky and I felt for certain I would die without so much as a fight I saw much to my great overwhelming relief that standing twenty feet away with a smirk on her lips was the young Miss Cotton, green eyes flashing in the midday sun.
When she moved across the gully her long red hair caught the sun a sudden burst of vermillion erupted in the sterile afternoon light and had she not left footprints behind with every step I’d have sworn that she drifted rather than walked up to me, hand out. “Didn’t mean to sneak up on you, but I didn’t want to call out, either.” Her hand was strong in my own as she pulled me forward and I set the rifle around my back. Standing before her I brushed the sand from my sides and saw her eyelids flutter my way before she looked off toward the trees, “Not with that thing out there.”
For a brief moment I found myself admiring the small freckles that had begun to fade from her summer skin, slight ashen cobwebs along her cheeks and nose. Then I too turned, followed her gaze, “I suppose you saw, then.”
She turned and her emerald stare found my own and she looked what felt like damn near through me and once more my blood ran cold, “The abomination a mile back?”
A single look into her eyes told me that she had seen it. And yet she had continued, alone. Of all the things that tore through my mind the only thing I could manage, “It’s witchcraft.”
For a moment the young Ms. Cotton seemed to consider her words, chose them carefully, “It could be.” Again her gaze drifted back to the woods.
“What do you know about witchcraft?” The words, even as they were spoken, felt someone else’s and immediately a damp fever broke across my brow in the cool air.
Fortunately Ms. Cotton kept her gaze steady as my forehead paled and dried in the slight breeze, a slight smile on her lips as she spoke, “Enough, I suppose, to know what it might look like. Not enough, however, to know what it doesn’t look like for certain.” When she turned and looked at me she smiled openly and her cheeks bore dimples and a defiant joy flashed through her eyes and my stomach turned the way it had on the boat crossing the inlet only this time with my feet planted firmly on dry land and the sun shining overhead I was somehow less prepared.
We followed the trail another half mile through what was first a thin pine grove and grew into a near impassable forest had it not taken us along route of a riverbed. Along the walk, aside from Ms. Cotton’s obvious determination in pursuit, I had learned that her name was Evangeline Cotton, she was a twenty five year old mother of one and as far as I could tell she was well adept at traversing wilderness. Though her ethnicity and her accent bore the unmistakable Anglo-Saxon characteristics of the immigrant farmer there were traces in her movements and slight habits in secrecy as she spoke that she was lying about something. It was not, in light of recent events, at the top of my concerns as we walked, each step found, analyzed and chosen before taken through a forest floor laden with pine needles and dried branches.
At a fork in the river we stopped for a moment, Ms. Cotton drank from the water pooled at the junction. I watched as she collected the water in her hands and poured it into her mouth, droplets spilling down her wrists and throat. “You know, Ms. Cotton, I’d feel much better going about this on my own.”
She swallowed the water in several long gulps and wiped her chin with the back of her hand as she rose into the still forest and she smiled at me with the same eyes she’d had for me over the fire beside her father’s wagon, “I’m coming with you.”
“Yes,” I started, “You’ve expressed that opinion several times. You have not, however, given even a single reason for such an unreasonable desire.”
She seemed to flirt with the idea of the truth, as if it were only ever but a passing fancy for her, then she shrugged and turned back toward the trail, “Doesn’t your job end with the dunes?”
I started after her, careful not to molest the footprints before me, “This isn’t about duty, anymore.” I spoke faster then I could think and, though true, I couldn’t believe I’d said that aloud.
“Of course not. Duty, honor, all that,” she tossed a glance over her shoulder as if to suggest I knew exactly what she meant by all that, “means nothing beyond staving off boredom and inner-competition. How else do you get a group of men to live together and not start measuring? Tell them it’s about honor.” She snorted as she spoke and darted over a fallen tree along the shoreline. “You’re here because it’s where you are. If you weren’t here, you wouldn’t be you.” She stopped, turned to me as I caught up to her, “And if I were anywhere else, I wouldn’t be me. So I’m going, understand.”
There was an awful lot of northern European in her vigor and though I still wasn’t sure that I could trust her just off and over her shoulder I saw smoke wafting from the tip of a stone chimney. She turned and followed my gaze and without warning, at sight of the smoke, took off in a low dart across the shallow river and through an overgrown holly bush without so much as a rustle. I took off at half speed, praying for silence. With my head low and my shoulders high I tore in through the holly and high stepped the tangled roots and felt the leaves tear at my chapped face and stick in my hair and just as I thought I might be moving in circles I broke through the other side and nearly collided with the back of Ms. Cotton.
She stood perfectly erect with her shoulders square looking out over the small homestead under the pine. On the immediate left of the property was a beautiful stone house built by hand with a sturdy wood roof and a fire that burnt far too black out the chimney and windows and doors were thrown tight. The right side of view was taken up by a small horse stable built for four but only holding two as well as a pair of goats while a Cock chased his flock out of view behind a sizable mound of hay piled just beyond the extent of the corral. It was, excepting the livestock, quiet.
When the scream tore our through the still fall afternoon Ms. Cotton was moving before I could register the sound so instead of hoping to discern possible location I simply took off in pursuit of my companion. The sound, torn and strained was seemingly from a child and must have come from the inside of the home for as we approached came a terribly shrill clattering sound, like the nasally grinding of rusty gears. I called out for Ms. Cotton upon hearing the sound, but she proceeded forth without fear or hesitation and I followed.
The beast that was inside the household was one of symptomless horror. The shock that overtook our will as we stepped inside the building was unparalleled save possibly, likely owing to which our safety was amounted, by the shock of the beast itself upon our sudden outburst into it’s existence. Before us stood a poorly construction human puzzle formatted in three dimensions over what was some form of gelatinous being as if the patchwork of human skin would camouflage the glistening coils of flesh beneath. On the creatures face sat an entire face-cut mask, though three extra eyeholes had been torn through the forehead of Sailor #4. From where we stood at the doorway we had a full view of the beast crouching awkwardly in the center of the room amidst a pool of it’s own discharge with a broken armoire splintered at the base of a dented bedroom door from which the sound of crying children could be heard.
Within the span of five seconds three things happened. First, my Winchester jammed as I pulled the trigger, targeted on the center of the chest-quilt. Second, Ms. Cotton removed two Colt Revolvers from inside of her cloak and squared them at the beast. And third, the beast let out a horrid, piercing cry that felt to have torn clear through my eardrums and had it not been for the extended expulsion of bullets from the steady tips of Ms. Cotton’s revolver’s then I’d have sworn I’d gone deaf from the cry.
Tips of her barrels still wafting tendrils of smoke Ms. Cotton watched the beast drop to it’s knees and fall flat on the stone floor, a thick black blood pooling around it’s corpse. In a single fluid motion she slung both pistols back and over her thumbs and let them drop simultaneously into the holsters she’d concealed beneath the thick wool. She turned on her heels and started off for the door with quick and certain steps, stopping when she was square with me.
In a moment that felt like it happened without there being time to react but seemed to drag on for a near eternity she shot up on her tip-toes and kissed my cheek, her sharp jutted nose bobbing my eye socket as she did so before dropping back to her heels, “Hey, Surfman.” I managed to turn and look at her, “You sure you know how to use that thing?” She nodded in the direction of my Winchester and as I looked down at the rifle in my hands she slipped out the door and the father of the small family began a slow exit, his bloodshot eye peering through the sliver of light between the door and frame.
The bodies of the six surfman were laid to rest in the Ocean View Presbyterian Church tonight, the night of October 27, 1891. The names John Johnson and Francis Mullen were managed by the shipping company as crewman on board, though there was no was of knowing which parts belonged to which man so effectively they were all unmarked graves. A seventh hole was dug and filled with the remains of the beast, though concrete was filled in on this particular plot as per request of the reverend. The six surfman from Station Indian River were present to pay our respects along with or Keeper, Washington Vickers, a team of analysts from D.C. here to check to hull of the Red Wing and the Chief of police, his Deputy, a few local mourners and, somewhat to my surprise, Mr. Stuart Cotton.
As they tossed the first handful of dirt onto the grave that was filled with concrete I mad my way around the thin crowd to where the farmer stood in his Sunday best and extended my hand in greeting. “Mr. Cotton? My name is Francis Haley.”
We shook hands and the big man grunted his greetings before looking back off toward the seven holes in the lush earth, “Some shit, isn’t it?”
I nodded in silence, seeking the proper wording, “Your daughter mentioned what happened, then?”
He turned slow and his eyes bore the unmistakable coldness of confusion as he searched my gaze. Eventually he shifted his stance and made to start off back toward his wagon, “I don’t have a daughter, Surfman Haley.”
I stood in the still fall air and watched the farmer walking off toward his land to the north with the ceremonies concluding behind me and the sound of shovels piling dirt into the earth on top of the sailors from the schooner Red Wing and the beast that rattled my fall. I turned back to the men and caught the quiet blue eye of Washington Vickers twinkling in the sunlight and he winked before grabbing a spade of his own, piling dirt on the past.