Julian tore the mask from the collapsing old man's hands. The gray hair came away with the mask, revealing a bald scalp and the upper edge of another mask. The old man paused, for a second, and stood straight suddenly and with precision to a height Julian hadn't thought the crumpled man could have achieved in perfect health. The second mask was deep red and worn to the wood around the edge. Its painted lines and round, exaggerated features reminded Julian of long ago and outdoor fires and theater at night. The old man no longer seemed old. He grabbed Julian's throat with a large slippery hand and squeezed.

August sat in the orange light of the afternoon, sewing a quilt over her knees. The breeze blew gently across her thoughts and hands, calm and automatic.

Octavius shouted over the roar of the waterfall. The limping, merrily clad figure at the other side of the river shrugged its shoulders in cruel glee and scampered away. Octavius stood there for a while before he stooped to wash the blood from his arms and to rest.

They say what else could he be but a creature of the deep, amidst swirling sediment and tentacles, beak tearing the soft body of a struggling seaslug, and eyes, even in those darkest depths, searching always. He is the thousand arms at the bottom of the world. What lives down there---things whose names have been rotting beneath the countless tiny crustaceans sedimenting the seafloor for a very, very long time.

Years ago now, when still her eyes held water, she sailed across the airsea. Ialiom, queen of laughter and joy, roamed the world to find a new home. She chose first the forest of pines, for a house in the trees, expanding an inch a year. But the trees soon grew too large for her house, and afraid that she would upset them, she set sail again. Next the mountains for a world of mist which blew cold with the ice of space, but she found it too distant and lonely. So she sailed to the town below, for a life among folks and evening meals with friends. And as much as she loved them, she needed some peace, and so went down the river. At a bank she stopped, chose a quiet seat on a rock, and became fluent in the language of water. Bidding the river thanks and goodbye, she sailed on forever, into the bluest sky.

August turned her face upward into the wind, seeing the trees' upturned leaves and feeling the sudden change in the air. The wind was preparing the land for what was coming, and August was putting her needles into a basket, heading inside, lighting the lamps, and shuttering the windows.

Octavius emerged from the forest to find the eerie oncoming storm of a dark sky behind a sunlit field of wheat in front of a farmhouse. His thoughts spun with unreality and confusion. How long a sword walked makes a wound miles can't be escaped? What does a non-identity seek?

An old man writes a letter in a dank room. He signs it,

Malleus, King of the Sea

Lake Superior, it's said, seldom gives up her dead.

The ocean, it turns out, is not so stingy.

The first body presents itself to the inhabitants of Winterford, Canada in the early days of spring. It once housed Tom Waitlock, a sailor hailing from London. During a stint aboard HMS Albiore, he was beaten to death and thrown overboard after making an untoward remark about a fellow crew member.

His corpse, though remarkably well-preserved, tells no such tales, and the people of Winterford are content to give the unnamed deceased a proper burial and move on with their lives.

The second body appears a day later: the former vessel of Yusuf al-Din, a Turkish merchant and poet. He drowned along with the rest of the crew and passengers of the Ba'ul when a storm overtook it and it capsized. His friend and business partner Diana Dmitrikakis mourned his death and promptly proceeded to take over his share of their business, over the vocal protests of his family. She spent much time over the following several months wondering if she had been unscrupulous in profiting off of her partner's death, but eventually concluded that, their occasional disagreements notwithstanding, they had been good friends, and this was what he would have wanted.

This too is unknown to the people of Winterford; they remark how strange it is that two corpses (undecayed ones, at that) should arrive in as many days, provide the deceased his final rites, and put it out of their minds.

The following day, two more bodies wash up in the tide; these too are remarkably indifferent to the passing of years and waves.

One is that of Estelle Thelin, a fisher from the east coast of Canada. Prior to her death, Estelle made a living fishing with her sister Hélène out of their vessel Raïa. On the day of Estelle's death, Hélène had come down with the flu, but, knowing money was tight, insisted on going fishing anyway. Shortly into the voyage, Hélène fainted, leaving Estelle to pilot the craft as best she could on her own; the boat was overcome shortly afterwards, and they both drowned.

The other is that of Rodrigo Sauseda, an ecologist who up until his death worked in a research station in Antarctica. He had been fascinated by marine life, and had once off-handedly remarked that when he died, he'd like to be cast into the ocean that he might rest surrounded by that which he spent his life studying. His preference proved relevant sooner than anyone had expected: he died suddenly of a stroke, and his colleagues, remembering his wish, buried him at sea.

The people of Winterford begin to feel uneasy, and wonder what quirk of nature or deity incited such morbid gifts.

The days pass; the bodies wash in. Each morning brings more dead than its predecessor, none of which shows the slightest sign of decomposition.

After the first week, a town meeting is convened, at which it is decided that Alfred Anstone, a then-unemployed youth, is to be given the responsibility of dealing with the influx of bodies. He is somewhat uncomfortable with his new duties, but takes to them admirably, collecting the new dead each morning, bringing them to the church for their final rites, and burying them in the evening.

The townsfolk are certain now that something besides chance is at work. Some are inclined to panic, but the townsfolk are on the whole a pragmatic bunch, and after dealing with the circumstances as best they are able, they go about their routines as best they can.

After the first month, it is deemed unfeasible to provide rites and burial to all of the deceased; Alfred's job is reduced to collecting the bodies and disposing of them as efficiently as possible. Few are happy with this policy, but all agree that there are quite simply too many bodies for the church to process, and that the graveyards are running out of space.

Alfred requests more manpower, and is told to recruit other idle youths as necessary; he rounds up some of his peers, and together they go about cremating the dead with as much dignity as is practical.

After two months, even the more level-headed residents begin to wonder whether their solution is sustainable. All non-essential labour has been dropped in favour of handling the incoming corpses. Alfred and his crew are working to the point of exhaustion; they barely manage to clear off the bodies in time for the next ones to wash in. And still, more and more bodies arrive each day.

There is talk of abandoning Winterford: the corpses just keep coming, say the proponents, and we can't keep this up much longer. Soon we'll be living among them, for pity's sake! But most are too scared to leave their lifelong home. This can't keep up forever, they maintain; sooner or later, the gods will grant us a reprieve!

Sixty-seven days after the unexpected appearance of Tom Waitlock's corpse, the body count is the same as the previous day. The villagers hold their collective breath, praying desperately for respite.

The next day, they breathe a tentative sigh of relief: there are two fewer bodies to cremate than the previous day. While the more wary residents caution that this could be only a temporary reprieve, most of the populace is noticeably less despondent.

In the days that follow, their hopes are borne out: the body count drops significantly each day. After two weeks, Alfred is happy to announce that he can make do with his crew of youths, and that the others can return to their usual jobs.

After the hundredth day of corpses, the body count stabilizes: each day sees more or less the same number of bodies. There are still far too many to give rites and burial to, but there are few enough to be comfortably handled by Alfred and company.

In the days and years that follow, the people of Winterford adapt to the peculiar circumstance. It is decided that Alfred and his crew will be supported by the townsfolk, provided they continue tending to the arriving corpses; Alfred's crew, as they've come to be known, find this agreeable, and go about their macabre duty. After their deaths, their children take up the mantle, supplemented as necessary by those who are discontent with their other career choices; they are still known as "Alfred's crew", though Alfred has long since passed on. The dead become a point of peculiar pride for the people of Winterford: though they would scoff at anyone who voiced it, they feel grateful to have been trusted with this strange offering, in much the same way as you might feel touched when your cat brings you a dead mouse.

The ocean looks on, indifferent as ever to the reception of her gifts.

Log in or register to write something here or to contact authors.