Nocturnes | Chapter 22 of 35

Author: John Connolly | Submitted by: Maria Garcia | 5110 Views | Add a Review

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The decision to reopen the rectory at Black Sands was not one made lightly. The Church of England, it was felt, was not welcome in that place, although antipathy was not directed toward the King’s Church alone. The community had resisted the presence of organized religion since its inception some four hundred years earlier. True, chapels had been built there, both Catholic and Protestant, but without worshippers what was a chapel? One might as well have erected a small hut close to the shore, for at least then bathers could have made some use of it.

The small Catholic church had been deconsecrated at the turn of the century and subsequently demolished after a fire consumed its roof and turned its walls as black as the very grains that gave the village its name. The Protestant house of worship remained but was in a state of shameful neglect. There was no living to be had at Black Sands. The people of the village, when asked, pointed out that they had no need of clergymen, that they had survived and even prospered through their own efforts, and there was some truth to what they said. This was a treacherous coastline, with riptides and hidden, fatal currents, yet in its entire history not one soul from Black Sands had fallen victim to the sea, and not a single ship from its small fleet of fishing vessels had been lost to the depths.

Without the support of the community, the chapel at Black Sands had to be resourced entirely from diocesan funds, and only the worst and most desperate of clergymen were dispatched there to eke out a miserable existence by the sea. Most drank themselves quietly into oblivion, troubling the natives only when they were found unconscious by the side of the road and had to be carried back to their beds. There were exceptions, of course: the last rector, the Reverend Rhodes, had approached his assignment with a veritable missionary zeal for the first six months, but, slowly, communications from him became less and less frequent. He indicated that he was having trouble sleeping and, while he had experienced no outright hostility, the lack of enthusiasm from his prospective parishioners was wearing him down. Finally, in the last letter he ever sent, he confessed that the loneliness and isolation were taking their toll on his sanity, for he had begun to hallucinate.

“I see shapes in the sand,” he wrote in that final letter. “I hear voices whispering to me, inviting me to walk upon the shore, as if the very sea itself is calling my name. I fear that if I stay here any longer, I will do as they request. I will take that walk, and I will never return.”

Yet he persisted in his efforts to encourage the villagers to change their ways. He began to take an interest in the history of the community, to inquire about its past. Packages arrived from bookshops, packed with obscure tomes. They were found in his study after his death, the pages prodigiously marked and annotated.

The Reverend Rhodes’s body washed up upon the shore at Black Sands one week after his last missive was received, but the circumstances surrounding his death were never fully explained. For, you see, the Reverend Rhodes had not drowned, but suffocated. When his body was opened, his lungs were found to contain not water, but sand.

 

 

But that was decades ago, and now the decision had been made to reopen the church at Black Sands. There was a duty upon the church and its clergy not to allow a community to exist without the light of the true faith to guide it. Even if the villagers chose to turn their backs to it, still that light would shine upon them, and it was given unto me to be its bearer.

The chapel stood on a rocky promontory close by the seashore. Scattered around it were the weathered graves of those clergymen who had come here down the centuries, and had breathed their last against the sound of the waves crashing. The Reverend Rhodes was buried close by the western wall of the church, a small granite cross marking his final resting place. A path led from the rear of the chapel to the rectory itself, a modest two-story residence built from local stone. From my bedroom window, I could see the ghosts of the waves descending upon the dark shore, white on black. When they broke, it was as if the very sands had devoured them.

The village itself was little more than a huddle of small houses spread over five or six narrow streets. There was a shop devoted to the sale of whatever the residents might require, from a cap to a cartwheel. Beside it stood a small inn. I gave my custom to each in that first week, and found that I was treated with a respectful caution, but made to feel neither welcome nor unwelcome. Both premises were owned by the unofficial mayor of Black Sands, a Mr. Webster. He was a tall, cadaverous man with the manner of an undertaker measuring up a particularly impoverished client for a cheap casket. He politely declined my request to post times of services in both the inn and the shop.

“As I said to your predecessor, we have no need of your presence here,” he informed me, with a half-smile, as he walked with me along the main street of the village. He was greeted warmly as we made our way. I, on the other hand, received only cursory nods. On occasion, when I glanced over my shoulder, I caught those who had passed us watching me and exchanging words.

“I disagree,” I said. “Those who exist without God in their lives are always in need, even if they are unaware of it themselves.”

“I am no theologian,” said Webster, “but it seems to me that there are many religions, and many gods.”

I stopped short. This, after all, was heresy.

“Yes, there are many gods, Mr. Webster, but only one true God. All else is superstition and the misheld beliefs of ignorant men.”

“Really?” said Webster. “Am I an ignorant man, Mr. Benson?”

“I, I cannot say,” I stammered. “In most things, you seem to me to be a most cultured man, yet in matters of religion you exhibit an almost willful blindness. The people of this village look up to you. Were you only to use your influence to—”

“To do what?” he interrupted, and for the first time I saw real anger in his eyes, although his voice remained frighteningly calm. “To encourage them to follow a god that they cannot see, who promises nothing but pain in this life in exchange for the hope of some idyll in the next? As I have said, perhaps there are other gods than yours, Mr. Benson. Older gods.”

I swallowed.

“Are you telling me that the people of this village are engaged in pagan worship?” I asked.

The anger left his eyes, to be replaced by his customary calm.

“I am telling you no such thing. All I am trying to say is that you have your beliefs, and others have theirs. Each has a place in the order of things, that I do not doubt. Unfortunately, the place for yours is not here.”

“I choose to stay,” I replied.

He shrugged. “Then we may yet find a use for you.”

“That is my fervent hope,” I concluded.

Webster’s smile widened, but he said no more.

I held my service that Sunday in an empty church, as was my duty, and I sang “The Lord Is My Shepherd” accompanied only by the cries of seagulls. That night I sat by the window of the study, staring down on the strange black sand that gave the village its name, surrounded by my predecessor’s meager possessions, now coated in many years of dust. Unwilling yet to retire to my bed, I spent an unproductive hour rummaging through old seafaring histories, topographical studies, and anthologies of supposedly factual supernatural encounters more suited to the archives of penny dreadfuls than the library of a clergyman.

It was only when I began to search the writing desk that I discovered the notebook. It had been placed flat at the end of one of the drawers, among the corpses of dead insects. No more than twenty of its pages contained writing, but the neat script clearly matched that of the Reverend Rhodes contained in the various church documents bequeathed to me.

The notebook was an account of Rhodes’s investigations into the history of the area. Most of it was of only passing interest: tales of foundation, of feuds, of myths. Rhodes had learned that Black Sands was far older than a casual perusal of its history might have suggested. True, the village itself had only been in existence since the early seventeenth century, but the lands had been in use for long before that. Rhodes believed that he had ascertained the location of a stone circle that had once stood close by the shore, its position now marked by a raised slab that might once have served as an altar. But what purpose had the altar served? It seemed that to this question Rhodes was willing to offer an answer.

What Rhodes had discovered was this: once every twenty years, within one week either side of the anniversary of the community’s official founding on November 9, 1603, somebody drowned in the waters off Black Sands. The records were incomplete, and there were years for which Rhodes had been unable to provide entries, but the pattern was clear. Every two decades, a stranger, somebody from outside the community, died at Black Sands. True, there were other drownings in the intervening years, other accidents—although, once again, it should be stressed that none involved the citizens of Black Sands—but there was a strange consistency to the November deaths. The final entry in the notebook was for one Edith Adams, on November 2, 1899, but hers was not the last such death at Black Sands. That distinction would fall to Rhodes himself.

That night I did not sleep, but found myself listening to the sound of the sea. At other times, it might have lulled me to rest, but not at this time, and not in this place.

 

 

The whispering began on the night of November 1, the day of the saints. At first, it sounded like the wind in the grass, but when I went to my window the branches of the trees appeared unmoving. Still it came, sometimes soft, sometimes keening, speaking words I could not understand. I returned to bed and clasped my pillow to my ears, but the noise did not begin to fade until first light.

And each night thereafter, as the anniversary of the foundation of the community approached, I heard those voices, and it seemed to me that they grew louder and more insistent. I found myself awake in the dead of night, my blanket wrapped around me as I stood at my window and stared out at the black shore. And though the air was still, I thought I saw trails of sand rise up from the shore, twisting sinuously in the air like wraiths.

I tried to make up for my lost rest during the day, but the resources of my body and mind were not to be so easily replenished. I was troubled by headaches, and strange waking dreams in which I stood on the black sands and felt a presence behind me, only to turn and see the empty strand stretching toward the sea. One of these dreams was so disturbing that I awoke, thrashing at my sheets, and was unable to resume my rest. I rose and went to my little kitchen, in the hope that some warm milk might restore my composure. As I sat at my table, I glimpsed a light moving on the promontory to the north, where the old stones lay. Leaving my milk, I dressed hastily and, wrapped in my dark coat, made my way through the fields toward the path that led to the ancient site. I was almost within sight of the track when some instinct made me fall to the ground. Two shadows fell across me, the forms of men marching silently in the direction of the stones. I followed them, staying away from the path, until I came within sight of the altar. There Webster stood waiting, a lantern resting upon the stone. He was dressed in his usual tweeds, the tails of his overcoat flapping in the breeze.

“Do you have it?” he said.

One of the two men who had joined him, a dour farmer named Prayter, handed over a brown paper bag. Webster reached inside and removed something white: a clerical stole. One had gone missing from my laundry basket earlier in the week, and I had been driven almost to distraction trying to guess what might have happened to it. Now I knew.

Webster picked up his lantern. Instantly, his face was illuminated, but it seemed to me that I saw regret there, or so I now hope, in light of what was to occur later.

“It has to be done,” said Prayter. “It’s the way of things.”

Webster nodded. “There will come a time when it will no longer be possible,” he said. “Soon it will be too dangerous to continue.”

“And what then?” asked the third man, whose name I did not know.

“Then, perhaps, the old gods will die,” said Webster simply, “and we will die with them.”

He picked up the stole and he and his companions walked down to the beach. There they dug a hole in the sand and placed the vestment within before carefully filling in the depression once again. Then they returned to the village.

I stayed where I was for a time, until I was certain that they would not return, then followed the path that they had taken down to the shore. It was the work of only a few moments to find the little mound they had left, beneath which lay the remains of my church garment. I stood there for a time, uncertain of how to proceed. I believed in God, my God, and yet images from my troubling dreams came back to me, and the deaths discovered by my predecessor, and Prayter’s reference to “the way of things.” I was terribly afraid, and prayed for guidance, but none came.

And so, feeling that I was betraying the very faith that I had so ardently defended to Webster, I began to dig with my hands until I found my stole. I removed it from the hole, shook the black sand from it, and was about to make my way back to the rectory when I turned and refilled the hole once again. As I did so, I became aware of the sands gently drifting around me, forming shapes and patterns that to my troubled mind appeared almost purposeful, and I redoubled my efforts to disguise my excavations.

For the rest of the night I did not sleep, but mulled over what I had seen, and what I had heard.

 

 

The next day, I rose early and made my way into the village. I bought some bread and cheese, then stopped by Webster’s inn as he was making his preparations for the day. He found it hard to meet my gaze, but I gave no indication that I recognized his unease.

“I was wondering,” I said, “if I could trouble you for a cup of tea? I must confess, I feel a little weak this morning, and in need of something to fortify me for the walk home.”

Webster grinned.

“I could give you something stronger than tea, if you like,” he said.

I declined his offer.

“Tea will be fine,” I said, and watched as he disappeared into the kitchen behind the bar in order to heat the water. He was gone for only a couple of minutes, but in that time I did all that I needed to do. From the pocket of his jacket, which always hung on a hook behind the bar, I removed a worn white handkerchief, praying to God to forgive me as I did so. Then, once Webster returned, I sat with him and drank my tea, maintaining a pretense of normality while fearing throughout that he might sniffle or sneeze, causing him to search for his handkerchief. When I was done, I offered him money for the tea, but he refused.

“On the house,” he said. “Just to show there are no hard feelings.”

“None whatsoever,” I said.

I left him, and took a walk upon the beach. Only when I was certain that I was unobserved did I get down upon my knees and commence digging a hole in the coarse, dark sand.

 

 

I did not sleep that night, so that when I heard my name being called I was almost expecting the summons.

“Mr. Benson, Mr. Benson! Wake up!”

Webster was below my window, a lamp in his hand. “You must come quickly,” he shouted. “There is a body on the seashore.”

I left my bed, pulled on my clothes and shoes, and descended to the door, but Webster was already running ahead of me by the time I got it open. I could see the light bobbing as he moved across the grass toward the sands themselves.

“Come on,” he cried. “Hurry!”

I paused and drew a stout birch stick from my umbrella stand. I liked to carry it when I walked, enjoying the feel of the bark on my hand, but now its weight and heft offered me a kind of reassurance. I followed Webster’s light until I stood at the edge of the dunes looking down on the beach. Where the waves were breaking, a black bundle lay. It looked like a child’s body. Perhaps I was wrong to doubt Webster, and there really was someone hurt or dead. Laying aside my fears, I stepped onto the strand. The sand felt soft and yielding, and my feet sank unpleasantly into it to the depth of about an inch. I began to walk. Ahead of me, Webster was beckoning, calling me closer, but the bundle at his feet remained unmoving, even when I knelt down beside it in the light and probed gently at it. Slowly, my hands shaking, I drew back the damp black cloth that covered it.

Beneath the cloth was hair, and a muzzle, and a long pink tongue. It was a dog: a dead dog. I looked up to find Webster’s light beginning to recede from me as he tried to leave me alone on the beach.

“Mr. Webster?” I said. “What does this mean?”

I was about to stand when I was momentarily distracted by a stinging sensation against my face. I brushed at the spot, and my fingers came away with a coating of black sand. All around me, the grains were moving, shifting. Shapes rose and fell, forming columns that held their shape for an instant before disintegrating into dark clouds that fell back upon the beach below. They might almost have been human, except that they were strangely hunched, their features almost hidden beneath thick folds of hair. I thought I discerned horns emerging from their heads, warped and twisted growths that appeared to curl around their skulls, ending almost at their necks. The whispering began and I understood that it was not language that I had heard in the past, but the movement of the sands, the individual molecules brushing against one another, reconstituting themselves in strange configurations, briefly uniting to create, for a moment, ancient, lost forms.

Now Webster was running, making for the safety of the dunes and the raised stone slab that rested on the promontory, his light held high before him so that he might not stumble on seaweed or driftwood. I followed him, my progress arrested by the strange, spongelike quality of the terrain. Behind me, I sensed a form rising high and then sand was filling my eyes and mouth, like fingers clasped suddenly across my face. I spat and wiped at my face with my sleeve, but did not look over my shoulder or stop running.

Ahead of me, Webster was tiring. I was closing on him, but I would not reach him before he gained the dunes. I waited, narrowing the gap between us by another five or six feet, then threw my stick with all the force I could muster. It struck him firmly on the back of the head and he fell awkwardly to the ground, the lamp tumbling away from him and the oil it contained igniting on the beach. In the sudden glare I saw his eyes grow wide and staring, yet he was looking not at me but at what lay behind. He tried to rise but I caught him a glancing blow with my foot as I leapt over his prone form. He fell again, and then I was approaching a steep rise, my feet sliding in the lighter sand of the dunes. I clutched at a patch of marram grass, drew myself up, and looked down on the black sands.

“You can’t escape,” he called. “These are the old gods, the true gods.”

He stood and rubbed the sand from his clothes. He appeared wary of the approaching forms, but not fearful.

“Embrace it,” Webster continued. “This is your death.”

“No,” I cried. “It is not my death, and these are not my gods.”

I removed from my pocket the bundled-up form of my stole and displayed it to him.

“Check your pockets, Mr. Webster. I think you’ll find you’re missing something.”

And as realization dawned, Webster was surrounded by what appeared to be five or six columns of swirling grains. I saw him try to break through, but the intensity of their movement increased, blinding him and forcing him back. And then, of a sudden, they disappeared and all was still. Webster’s thin form was left standing alone in the dying light from the burning oil. All movement had ceased on the beach. He raised his head uncertainly to me and reached out a hand. Instinctively, I stretched out my own hand to him in return. Whatever he had tried to do to me, I could not leave him in peril.

Our fingers were almost touching when a shape appeared close by Webster’s feet. I saw an oval of sand rise up with two holes about midway down its form, like the sunken sockets of eyes. The bridge of a ruined nose stretched between them, framed on either side by a pair of jagged cheekbones. And then, around Webster’s feet, a maw opened: I saw lips, and a brief glimpse of what might have been some kind of tongue, all carved from black sand. Webster looked down and started to scream, but the thing began to suck him down. He struck at the shape, his fingers clawing as he attempted to arrest his descent, but soon he was submerged to his chest, then his neck. His mouth opened wide once more, but any further sound he made was silenced by the grains that stilled his tongue as his head disappeared beneath the sand.

And then the face collapsed, leaving only a shallow depression where the hole had swallowed the life of a man.

 

 

There is no salvation without sacrifice. God Himself sent His only Son to prove the truth of that lesson, but there are others who have learned it in their own way. An archaeological dig at the site of the stone altar revealed a mass of bones, dating from before the time of Christ to the foundation of the village, an appeasement to whatever strange gods these people worshipped.

The chapel at Black Sands once more lies empty, and the village has a new leader. A German bomb landed on the beach in 1941, but it failed to explode. Instead, it sank into the sands, and attempts to recover it proved fruitless. If a bomb could sink into those sands, the argument went, then why not a person? So barbed wire has since been erected around the beach, and warning signs have been posted advising people to stay away.

Webster was wrong: the old gods will not so easily be forgotten. Sometimes the wind blows along this desolate stretch of coastline and causes shapes to rise up from the beach, phantasms of sand that hold their form for just an instant too long before falling in small heaps to the ground. It may take years, even decades, to complete the process, but they will succeed.

For slowly, and surely, they are obscuring the warning signs.

 

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Alice
Great book, nicely written and thank you BooksVooks for uploading

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