Some time ago, I entered the first round of NYC Midnight’s Short Story Challenge. I’m very happy to say my story “Gold and Bones” was not only in the top five of the prompt category (which means I move on to Round two) but was the top pick! Each round the story gets shorter and the deadline gets tighter. While the top prize is $7,500, the real treasure is the stories we write along the way, right?
Gold and Bones
Sometimes from the lighthouse, I catch a patch of blue sky. Not today. Today the fog’s mean. A blinding glare blanketing the world in malice.
A drown woman scratches on the lighthouse window. Fish nibbled her bloated face and the fog’s tides toss her rotten nightgown. Her eyes radiate gold light and there’s another shine of a gold ring on each bone squealing against the glass.
“Hello Harriett.” I sip my coffee. “Sorry on behalf of the mainland. Oli the boat-builder and me are tryin’—”
The fog swallows Harriet Whitter and her golden glare. She never cared for me much.
Four stories down and several hours later, the door swings open as Oli returns from his first dive. I hobble over to see him. “Oli? That you?”
“Naw, it’s Christ come again. Who the hell else would it be, you goat-kneed madman?”
Could be a ghost.
His coat smacks the floor in front of the fire. “Seen any islanders today?”
“Living or—” I stop myself before he has to. “A-yuh. Harriet Whitter.”
Oli fiddles with his wet belt. “Whitter, eh? How’d she look?”
Oli puts his forehead in his hand to hide his scowl. “Murderous? At peace?”
“Well, can’t says as I know.” I only remember the hole in her cheek. “Hattie always had a murderous look.”
He can’t deny it. “Especially for you.”
“Yeah.” I laugh. “She always said I ought to have been chucked in the sea as tribute.”
Oli snorts at that, then disappears under the stairs. Maybe he agrees.
When he brings fresh coffee and chowder he mutters. “Fresh clams. Fog was too bright too see gold or bones today.”
“Thanks.” He makes the coffee too bitter, but I don’t complain. “Maybe it’s sunshine.”
“Making it brighter. Why wouldn’t it be sunshine?”
“Why would it be? Because we’re doin’ such a good job?” He scoffs. “You go out and dive and tell me if we’ve made a lick of difference.”
“So I will, once I finish the chowder.”
Oli scratches his eyebrow as he considers. He knows the ghosts give me hell. I wasn’t from the island. Hell, I’m barely from the mainland. If they’re particularly bloodthirsty today, he won’t let me go.
Eventually, he shrugs. “You can decide yourself.”
That’s not like him. “So, who did you see today?”
Oli’s face swirls from regret to confusion then back to hard. “Not my Izzy. If that’s that you’re getting at.”
“I’m sure I wasn’t—”
“Eat your damned chowder and go dive or don’t. It makes no difference.”
Izzy was the sort of islander to break a seagull’s wing and leave it as tribute to the sea. But she was always kind to me.
As kids, she’d help us dundibums with our homework, she’d let me sit near her. Even with my legs. Same way that Oli let me hold the planks in place while he fitted them together, even when his dad would yell at him for bringing bad luck near the boats.
They were a good match. Happy together. Both born on the island. Born to sail in the storm to shipwrecks and salvage the living, the cargo, and the dead. They’d had a good life together. Ended too soon.
At the base of the lighthouse, the black stones moan in the fog. I limp out onto the dock and the half dozen boats Oli’s built. I wasn’t allowed to help with them.
Scratching under the dock. The soft squelch of sharp and thin on wet and thick. Sure enough, three sets of gold eyes stare back at me from the water.
Lively day for the dead.
The three kids don’t look at peace or murderous. They look like someone slapped them upside the head. They each have a bit of gold in their ears.
“Hello there.” I touch my cap. I don’t know their names, but when they were alive, they swam around the rocks here. They’d be grown up now. “If you kids show me the way to your bones and I’ll bury you nice on your island.”
Quick as fish, they vanish.
Yeah. It’s a rotten day to dive.
But what if them ghosts understood me? What if it does make a difference? Even if it’s just to those three ghosts.
The folk who say the fog is just cold air and warm water say it was hurricane. But the islanders knew hurricanes. They knew to batten up and shelter on the mainland.
And I was there in my perch half-way between the mainland and the island when the sea roared up and ate that island. If I didn’t know before, I know now how the sea hoards its bones and gold. But them islanders got wealthy from salvaging. They dove into the salty maw one too many times to snatch what wasn’t theirs.
Then on this perfectly clear night, with no sign of a storm, just a real low tide—suddenly, this roar of water and miles out. Like… a tower of water rolled in fast. Big enough to slap the cliff and send the lighthouse tumbling—
And the island—
I moved faster then I knew I could and raised the alarm. Rang both the hurricane bell and the ship-wreck bell and hollered uselessly to the empty sky. Soon the whole coast rang.
Still, it wasn’t enough warning.
How could it be? When it was the middle of the night? When God was splashing the ocean like it was bathwater?
Maybe it was unkind to warn them. The ones crushed to death by the water must have been so startled by the darkness and the noise. It sure didn’t help none.
When the wave hit, the lighthouse windows shattered and the spray killed the light. It was the only time in my life that fire went out. I stumbled around in the dark to restart it, cursing my legs, my slowness, my bad luck. They needed the light to find the shore. To know which way to swim. Even with the inland sirens roaring, I heard them in the water. Piercing cries. “Help us! Forgive us! Save us!”
Maybe if I wasn’t so slow…Maybe if I’d protected the flame…maybe it would have made a difference.
I never dive as far as Oli. I know I’ve gone far enough when the island and the lighthouse both blur to a hazy shadow and I can only tell one cliff from the other because of the flare four stories up.
When I swing my legs over into the water, it chills me to the core.
“Just the ghosts.” Not a very reassuring reminder.
I snap the goggles over my eyes and nose, tie the boat to my waist, and attach the air-hose the mast. It smells like copper and rubber, but I can’t dive like an islander.
In fairness, I don’t need to.
Under the water, it’s clear. A smooth white light washes the sea bed and shows each brown pebble and clam. What I want is gold and bones.
After a time, I see glints in the distance. Jesus! Them three dead kids bobbing along with empty gold eyes and slack jaws. Someone tied them together with a bed-sheet. When they float away, I follow, swimming as fast as I can.
Being the build-builder, Oli had been inland fetching lumber and trading the island’s gold for finer goods when the wave came. A little group of us— I suppose his friends and the people most involved— met him at the mountain pass to give him the news before he could see for himself. Nearly killed me how cheerfully he greeted us. Last time, I ever seen him smile.
They talked in somber tones while I stared into the cart. Bolts of silk next to the raw lumber. Packages tied with brown string next to a bucket of shiny nails. I’d counted twelve bags of sugar when Oli snatched me by the collar and shook me. After I told him what I’d seen, he threw me on my back and called me a jealous, goat-kneed cripple, which isn’t necessarily wrong.
He’d run to the cliff to see. The mainland town was mostly the empty bed and breakfasts and broken fishing hovels with dull cheap cotton on the lines. The island should’ve just beyond, been brightly painted houses and pretty linens drying in the breeze.
Instead, it was empty sand and clumps of sea weed.
He howled for Izzy, wailing like if would bring her bodily back from the surf. I’d see love-sick dolts bellow at the sea before and I feared he’d throw himself off the cliff.
Which, of course, he did.
Lord knows, I couldn’t have done anything except accidentally gone over with him. But the others grabbed his clothes and then his arms and plucked him back from death.
Oli kicked and screamed and sobbed and cursed. “Don’t act like you mainland fucks don’t want every islander dead! Damn this whole town living out here in the sun like you own the sea when you ain’t never paid it nothing.”
That’s when the fog rolled in.
We all watched it rise off the sea, like steam off a bowl of soup. It covered the island first, obscuring the salt-slicked grass glittering in the sun like jewels.
Oli went limp as a fish and gawked.
The cloud rolled over the beach and climbed the cliff. I panicked when the lighthouse, the center of my world, faded into white nothing. It kept coming over the town, settling thick and silent among the houses. We thought our whole town had been smudged away, but then right on schedule the bright light flared in the distance.
Five years on and the fog ain’t let go yet.
Too late I realize the sun is setting, I’ve gone too far, and the ghost’s slack jaws are open with hunger.
Oli’s told me not to follow the ghosts too far. Oli’s told me not to go deeper than ten or so feet. But those three float so patiently. Their gold eyes plea and promise that if we set enough of these ghosts to rest, the fog will clear and folk like Monte McGuane will come back.
I can’t find the sea floor any more. I’ll do what I should have done before. Drop a buoy with a long rope for Oli to find tomorrow. I start to swim to the surface.
The ghost children float after me. Their fingers reach towards me.
Keep calm. It’s only ghosts.
In this slow race, a goat-knee madman ought to have the advantage over the dead.
I swim like Oli taught me. Long ago when we still had sunlight and smiles. Big long strokes with my arms. Little kicks with my useless feet.
Something sharp catches at my trousers. I look down. I should not have looked down.
The fog is in the water. Hundreds of faces below me in the depths, gold glaring eyes and open mouths. Floating hair clipped with bits of jewels and sharp clawed fingers ringed in gold. An island of the drowned reaching for me.
The little ghost hooks onto the twisted lump of my ankle and tries to climb out of the water.
I give up on swimming and climb the rope, dragging myself to the surface. But this rocks the boat, makes choppy water, which spits into my air-hose. I swallow the brine until I can get to rubbery air.
The darkness brightens. Not from sunlight. The fog surrounds me. I can’t tell up from down. The goggles fill with the shine of gold. I close my eyes and climb.
Hand-over-hand on the rope. Only the rope can get me out of this.
In the water all around, piercing cries and grasping hands. “Help us. Forgive us. Save us.”
The hand on my ankle grips harder and climbs higher up my leg. A ghost seeking life, a drowned kid looking for breath. So cold. So heavy.
I grasp something soft and slimy and rotten on the rope and flinch away. I clench the rope stronger in my other hand, terrified to lose it, but with my free hand I can’t find the rope above me. Only the corpses. White silk nightgowns, white linen sheets, dead gold eyes. Glints of golden earrings and necklaces and rings and buttons shine in the rot. They pile around me, unmoving and suffocating and glittering.
My mask pops— air-hose plucked out— salt water rushes in my nose and mouth. I hold my breath and swallow at the same time. I have to get to the surface. I don’t want to drown. I only wanted to help. To be a little lucky… to make a little difference.
I hold the rope in my knees and crawl my fingers up the rope, snailing towards Oli’s boat, squeezing through the rotting flesh and glittering treasure while my lungs burn and my muscles freeze. I’m going to drown. One more set of bones for Oli to bury. He’ll notice the shape of the legs and bury me by the lighthouse.
Maybe I can haunt the lighthouse. Keep the fire burning even when it’s wet. So, people in the water can find their way. Even now, the light slashes the darkness. I flutter toward it. The hose, the rope, and my mask fall away as I swim towards the lighthouse.
Something strong grabs the back of my neck and yanks. The distant slash of light comes nearer and I flail my arms to help whatever is dragging me through the water.
I break the surface.
I cough and heave and the scent of rot makes me want to retch. I’m in a cloud of bloated frozen flesh, wrapped together with bedsheets, glittering with gold.
The strong grip on my neck vanishes and I flounder. It’s too dark to see, but I think— yes, my rope is tangled in the bodies. The boat is— far away. But coming nearer. Has oars in the water and— Oh, that’s Oli in a different boat.
He sits still and staring above my head.
Grinning like a love-sick puppy.
Of course, it was his Izzy that saved me.
I don’t try to turn and see her. It’s not my place to interrupt them.
Then the oars splash again. “Damn it, how did you swim out this far? You’re nearly at the island you know!”
Oli grabs me and hauls me into the boat. The wet rope hooks in the curve of my legs, dragging the string of drowned with it.
“What’s on your—?” Oli realizes. “Oh, Jesus—”
“A-yuh.” I try not to lose this strange fish.
“Oh Christ!” He tugs on the tangled mass, gingerly bringing it with us as we float toward the shore.
“Yup.” I stay on my back. Breathing and gazing at the warm darkness of the sky. For the first time in five years, I can see the stars.