The Fifth Fedora: Weird Noir and Stranger Tales in Honor of Stephen T. Vessels is now published by Borda Books and Wilder Utopia, and is available on Amazon or in our bookstore. "Son of the Sea" is part this collection of tales told in Stephen's honor. The following, for your enjoyment, is an excerpt of Avery Faeth's story.
Pulo, like every little boy in the seaside village of Ocaba, lived with his family in a small hut lashed together with whips of dried kelp. By day his father tended to crab cages and game traps, and his mother sat at home weaving blankets and baskets. On days he was supposed to help her comb the beach for driftwood and seaweed, he would chase the bubbles left in the trails of receding waves with the other children. And when the sea boiled at night under ravenous clouds that swallowed the moon, his family huddled like all the others in their humble houses and waited for the coming dawn. In fact, the only thing to set Pulo’s otherwise ordinary home apart from every other hut lining the beach was Pulo’s family itself.
Unlike the other little boys in Ocaba, Pulo had no brothers or sisters to share space and attention with. By comparison, their hovel of bleached palm fronds was a kingdom for all the emptiness inside of it. His mother was also the only woman who had not been born in the village, to not grow up with the other children chasing bubbles in the sand. She came from an even smaller village nestled in the depths of the dense jungle that hugged the edges of the coastline, the only daughter of a tribal medicine man. The young fisherman who would become Pulo’s father was driven to shelter in the shaded village one day when a summer storm caught him off guard and forced him inland. His appearance in the village was a revelation to the medicine man’s daughter, alluring in a way the spiritless missionaries from their dry cities had always failed to be. For his part, her father abided the young man’s presence only for a matter of days before he sensed Pulo growing inside his daughter and demanded that he join their household, as son and apprentice. The young man was only too happy to take the daughter as his bride; but the old man’s magic unnerved him, and he absconded with his new wife back to the seaside under the cover of the next storm.
The young couple adjusted quickly to life by the sea and would have gladly never heeded the shaman’s magic again, if not for the already delicate bride’s waning vibrance as their baby grew. Ocaba’s ancient doulas, gatekeepers to every new life in the village, burned bundles of perfumed sea grass and milled bitter tinctures in vain. The young man even enlisted the help of the missionaries skulking along the road that led out of Ocaba to pass their supposedly holy hands over her. But neither their cryptic prayers nor the midwives’ incense hanging in the air were enough to save her, and her husband resigned himself to losing both her and the child. On the night the young man became Pulo’s father, he was preparing a pyre for his wife on the shore. He was so engrossed in his work and grief, and so enveloped by the darkness of the new moon, that he did not see her father approaching across the sand. He seemed to emerge not from the dark shadows of the jungle, but from the waves themselves, the medicine bag around his neck glowing with purpose and mystery. When the two adversaries finally stood face to face, the young man could not speak, from exhaustion and desperation alike.
And so the night continued in silence. The young man sat outside of his own home, surrendering to the shaman’s power. The old man worked over his daughter wordlessly, spilling magic into the night in place of recrimination. The young woman ebbed between life and death. Pulo came screaming into the stillness just as the sunrise started to dim the light of the unseen power inside the hut. The young man became Pulo’s father, and the old man became a legend in Ocaba.
From either fear or gratitude, no one dared ask the medicine man to leave after he saved the lives of both his daughter and grandson. Some doubted his gifts and suspected that her frailty was the price he paid for them. Others viewed his arrival as a boon to their community, a merciful gift from the inscrutable jungle. And while the village’s prosperity did wax brighter as soon as the shaman joined their community, his daughter never bore her husband another child. Pulo’s grandfather no longer offered to share his tribal knowledge. Pulo grew strong in the love and abundance of his blessed household, a child of the sea more than the jungle, but always under the watchful but distant eye of the medicine man. Yet once a year, always in the season of Pulo’s birth, his mother would fall deathly ill again, and the shaman would spirit into the night, solitary in his search. He would return with secrets glowing in his medicine bag and draw her back from the brink, then retreat to his corner of the house to wait in patience for another year.
Only once did Pulo attempt to follow his grandfather on his midnight mission. He had lain awake in his bed, unable to sleep over the sound of his mother’s suffering. He had heard his grandfather leave his corner and move through the hut, then brush the vines across the door aside and disappear into the night. Pulo was a little afraid of the emptiness of the new moon, and even more afraid of his strange and serious grandfather. But his growing sense of helplessness in the face of his mother’s mortality steeled his nerves. He followed the old man’s footprints in the sand until he came upon his grandfather at the shoreline, nothing between them but a husk of a fallen palm. Pulo had held his breath and watched in awe as the old man pulled and overturned a simple boat from behind the tree with surprising vitality. But just as the shaman started to push the boat into the muddy sand, Pulo felt the stern hand of his father in his hair dragging him away.
“This is not for us, Pulo,” he said, putting himself between the boy and the magic and pushing them toward home. No matter how Pulo twisted in his father’s grasp, he could not catch sight of his grandfather as he headed into the ocean. He wondered if his father’s brashness had revealed their intrusion to the old man. The hours in the hut waiting for his return felt longer than ever before, and Pulo began to fear the specter of death and his grandfather’s wrath in equal measure.
But if the shaman had seen the pair, he did not let them know. He moved past Pulo’s room with no hesitation, knelt by his daughter’s side, and lit up the hut with the contents of his medicine bag. And though the light crept across the threshold of his door and beat whispers against Pulo’s eyelids, he dared not steal another glimpse into his grandfather’s toils. He turned his face to the wall and waited for dawn to drown out the glow and welcome his mother back to the land of the living....
Juggling careers in costume and video game design, Avery Faeth has been attending the Santa Barbara Writers Conference since 2003. When she’s not writing weird fiction or managing her online vintage store, she loves researching film theory and true crime. This is her first published piece. Avery lives in Los Angeles, California, with her cat Phyllis. www.rabbitholereviews.com