The Turn of the Tide
Mark Howard Jones
Mark Howard Jones has had dozens of short stories published on both sides of the Atlantic. His novella The Garden of Doubt on the Island of Shadows (ISMs Press, 2006) drew praise from Ray Bradbury, among others. His latest collection is Songs from Spider Street (Screaming Dreams, 2010). Jones has also edited the Lovecraftian anthology Cthulhu Cymraeg (Screaming Dreams, 2013). He lives in Cardiff, the capital of Wales.
At first none of us could work out why the tide was so strange that evening. It rushed at our feet, devouring them in a fuss of foam, when the tide tables said it should have been nearly a half-mile away across the beach.
We wandered up and down the shoreline, scanning the sky and sea as if an answer would suddenly present itself, and we could all laugh and sigh in relief before going home.
But by the time darkness began to close in, and Rosemary had to leave to begin her drive back home, we were still none the wiser.
The following morning, when Kate returned from her customary walk, she was nearly in tears. Ed and I stood and listened, leaning forward now and then to hug her, as she told us of the disturbing flotsam she had come across on the beach.
There was a fish, she said, that was all fins. Just fins and a mouth; no eyes that she could see. It was lying dead by the big rock.
Then further on she’d found two birds, each with just one wing. One was flapping helplessly, cawing loudly in distress, the other was dead. “It was like they’d been one bird and someone had pulled them apart somehow…and just abandoned them. But all the life was left in just one of them. It was horrible!”
After a sit-down and a strong cup of coffee, the three of us bundled up and went down to the beach. We looked for a long time, but there was nothing.
Kate turned to us: “They were here!” Ed suggested that maybe another freak tide had come and gone, taking the strange things with it. I nodded in agreement, not believing a word of it.
I had hoped that Kate’s suggestion of three weeks in a cottage overlooking a picturesque old fishing harbour might be good for all of us.
It would also serve to give my ex-wife, Rosemary, a break. She’d been acting as Kate’s guardian ever since the accident that killed her parents. That was two years ago and I could see more strain in Rose’s eyes every time we met up.
There was a small gleam of hope in the back of my mind that I might get some worthwhile work done myself. Spending time with two unpaid models (though I was paying the rent) might lead to some interesting drawings, I’d hoped.
But now this incident with Kate had me worried. Perhaps it was a glimpse of what Rosemary had been struggling to cope with.
My pencils and sketch pad remained in the back of the car for the time being.
On the local news last night they showed pictures from a farm about twenty miles away. A lamb had been born, more or less inside out. Yet it was still alive, running around in the field.
Ed looked squeamish, while Kate hid her eyes and made little noises of protest.
The item made the national news too. They should have issued a warning beforehand. The pictures were revolting, truly disturbing. Something inside me wanted to scream out at how wrong they were. To me, they seemed to be the worst sort of pornography; nature inverted, mocked, life turned so obviously into a sick joke.
We didn’t need our faces rubbed in it, did we?
Kate had arrived with nothing more than a small bag and a pile of wormy old books, which I presumed were for her thesis (I could never remember what she was studying, but it was something to do with archaeology).
In contrast, Ed had almost filled my car with half the contents of his flat. It was a good thing Kate had driven down with Rose, or she’d have had to sit on the roof for the whole of the journey.
The town was tiny, more of a village really. It sat on a promontory with the old harbour visible from the living room of the cottage. There was a long, pale gold beach back down behind the cottage, reached by a maze of narrow, steep streets.
It was never really busy, but at this time of year the place had already waved goodbye to most of its tourists.
Ed and I have both been enslaved by Kate’s deep green eyes and sweet lopsided smile. We both do whatever she wants with little protest, knowing that whatever sacrifices we have to make will be more than compensated for by the time we spend with her. Whichever of us she chooses, whichever night.
Perhaps we are both fools. Or just keenly aware of how lucky we are.
I think of them lying together, their bodies smooth and unblemished, maybe sleeping with their limbs entangled. But I don’t feel I have the right to feel jealous; she should be with him.
God knows why she’s even interested in me, this sad old sack of raddled flesh. Perhaps because, to her, I’m so old that I represent some sort of continuity, the lie of permanence, and the hope that there is something left when the flash and dazzle of youth have gone.
Well, she got what she wanted—me and my nephew together here at the bitter end of summer. I wonder what she’ll do with it?
Towards the end of our first week there, Kate spent two nights with me.
On the second night I’d grown accustomed enough to things to notice that when she reached climax, she muttered some phrases in an unfamiliar language.
When we were lying together afterwards, I asked her about it. She was evasive and denied that it was some obscure old European language like Basque or Welsh. Soon afterwards we both drifted off to sleep.
The next day I gathered my courage and asked Ed if she did the same when she was with him. He seemed embarrassed and uncomfortable, which was unlike him. He denied that she did. “She just says my name,” he insisted. Though I can always tell when he’s lying. Just as I can with his father.
A few days later, Kate and I were talking in the lounge of the cottage. She’d been fascinated by reports in the newspapers of the events at the nearby farm earlier in the week.
She said she thought someone or something was changing things, experimenting with them. “You know. Making them better.”
I was puzzled how she could think that way, be so calm, after how upset she’d been. I flopped down into a chair. “What? You mean nature?” I asked, knowing full well that evolution was a game played over thousands and thousands of years, not a matter of mere days.
She stood looking at me with her green eyes, clutching one of the old books she’d brought along, her mind working around the idea. “No. Not nature. But something like that.”
I puffed in frustration. “There’s nothing like nature, Kate. There’s just nature.”
“We don’t know that, do we?” she said rhetorically before turning on her heel and walking into the kitchen, my sarcastic ‘Oh, I thought we did’ left unsaid. She added, “I’m going to find Ed” as she left.
She knew he would give credence to her irrational idiocies, if only because he was so besotted by her.
I’m normally an early riser. Ed and Kate are not. I had discreetly made sure that Ed and I slept as far away from each other as the cottage allowed, but I had to pass his door to get downstairs.
As I crept down to breakfast one morning I could hear Kate sobbing in his bedroom. I suddenly felt angry that he’d upset her. What had the little idiot done to her?
For a second I wanted to burst into his room and confront him, but then common sense prevailed. I settled instead for some guilty eavesdropping. The voices were muffled, of course, but I managed to catch a few of Kate’s sentences.
“… miss them so much, Ed. You don’t understand, do you? I was wrong. I just want them baaaaack.”
Content that it wasn’t Ed who’d upset her, I gathered up my guilt and sneaked downstairs as quietly as I could manage.
Late that afternoon I found Ed at the back door, a pair of binoculars held up to his eyes.
“You’d be better off waiting for dark if you want to catch any unwary blondes stripping off.” He ventured a half-laugh but kept the eyepieces pressed to his face.
I endured a further minute of silence, then asked: “What are you looking at?”
He lowered the binoculars and handed them to me, pointing at the hill that rose just beyond the houses. “Up there. Something seemed unusual about that hill. Look at the trees.”
I adjusted the lenses for my older eyes and peered up at where he had indicated. “The trees all seem to have joined together in one mass,” he said.
I could see the branches wound together seamlessly, one tree becoming another, all moving as one when the wind passed through the leaves. What I could see of the trunks below them seemed to have lost their roundness, flattening out as if reaching for their companions on either side. I couldn’t think what could have caused those changes, but something inside me didn’t like it.
“One mess, you mean,” I said, handing the binoculars back to Ed in disgust.
“Shall we go up there and take a look?” he asked, as I walked back inside.
“No!” I yelled over my shoulder. That was the very last thing I wanted to do.
During a solitary walk along the beach behind our cottage, I began to feel a sense of deep unease.
I’m not given to being spooked, easily or otherwise. For a painter, I suppose I’ve got a very poor imagination, at least in that regard. But the wind that afternoon seemed to carry on it a scent of something awful, a slight tang of uncertainty, the taint of uncleanliness.
I dug my hands into my pockets and tried to ignore it, walking back towards the cramped streets of the town. I noticed that a small group of men had gathered outside one of the pubs on the front, gesticulating in an odd fashion.
Turning to look out to sea, I saw a line of grey clouds settling themselves along the line of the horizon. I was sure they should mean something to me, like a set of signals that are perfectly clear to anyone with any sense.
I disliked the feelings that were tugging at me, so I drowned them in a glass or two of whisky at the pub a few doors down from the cottage.
Meal times at the cottage were a rudimentary affair. I’d have liked us to eat out every meal, but it was simply too expensive, so I usually shopped at the market every morning.
On the menu this time were lamb chops with potatoes and runner beans. Neither Ed nor Kate seemed very keen on this simple fare.
Eventually I felt compelled to ask if there was anything wrong with it. They both shook their heads, but there was evidently something wrong with something, even if it wasn’t my cooking.
“Ed keeps going on about the ‘weird things’ happening. He keeps trying to explain them away and I just think he should just shut up,” blurted Kate after a short pause. He looked across at her, peeved.
“Weird things?” Even though I’d asked, I knew perfectly well what they meant. But it might give them a chance to clear the air.
Ed detailed the catalogue of unusual things we’d witnessed, discreetly leaving out Kate’s odd orgasmic utterances.
“Hmmmm. I see what you mean,” I said.
“Well, I just don’t think they add up to a pattern like you do, that’s all. Taken in isolation, they wouldn’t seem so ‘weird’ after all. They’re just coincidences,” he said.
Kate laughed, obviously unimpressed by his argument. “Maybe it’s…a warning. Maybe the world has finally had enough of us. Maybe this is the way things are supposed to be.” There was a look very like triumph on her face.
Ed turned to look at me, and there was genuine fear in his eyes. Maybe it was the implications of what Kate had said, that the world he was so sure of would now become unrecognisable. Or perhaps it was the fear that she might simply be losing her mind; that he might be losing her.
I could offer him no answers and turned my attention to the undercooked runner beans on my plate.
Even though there were only a few years between Ed and Kate, it seemed like a gulf at times. They were both bright, of course, but she sometimes seemed as if she was made of different stuff to him.
He was already working in my brother’s law firm and was beginning to make a name for himself. But he found Kate’s moods unfathomable. It made me chuckle sometimes to see him struggling with her, particularly as his befuddlement meant she’d soon be seeking solace in me.
I suppose I must have a streak of sadism in me somewhere.
They had been arguing on and off all morning. Kate was ad-amant that there was ‘something’ abroad causing all the strange phenomena that seemed to have haunted the summer so far.
Ever rational, Ed demanded that she agree that it might all just be a huge coincidence.
I dragged them into a small corner shop and bought ice cream for us all in an attempt to cool things down, literally. It didn’t seem to work.
Ed decided to throw down a fresh challenge. “All right, all right…If there is some ‘evil genius’ at work, why haven’t they shown themselves? Why are they so shy?”
Kate was gazing out at the sea. “What if we’re looking at them right now?”
Ed looked puzzled.
“I mean, what if they’re there? Just above the surface of the water, but we just can’t see them?”
Ed shook his head. “But where would these giant invisible ‘things’ have come from, Katie?” He only called her Katie when he was very annoyed with her.
“Well, maybe they’ve always been here, but they’ve only
now woken up from a long sleep and here we are…everywhere…and everything’s changed. And maybe they don’t like that. You’ll see.”
She fished a few stray strands of auburn hair out of her mouth with her long fingers. “And don’t call me ‘Katie’ like that!”
I tried to remain as nonchalant as I could, licking my ice lolly, doing my best to look as if I was ignoring a little lover’s spat. Though nothing is ever that simple with us.
We continued rambling along the side streets of the town. When Kate disappeared into a junk shop, I drew Ed aside, pretending to draw his attention to a box of books out front.
But when I suggested Kate might simply be letting her imagination get the better of her, he seemed outraged at my interference (that’s what he called it—’interference’!) and stalked off into the gloom of the shop, following her.
Ed seemed aloof with me for the rest of the day, and he and Kate went off for a drink on their own that evening. I had dared to criticise his goddess.
I was evidently asleep when they returned. The next day I kept myself to myself. At least until the afternoon.
A sudden commotion from the kitchen interrupted me halfway through the sixth chapter of Vian’s Autumn in Peking. I put the book down and went to see what all the fuss was about.
Ed was kneeling in front of Kate as she sat on a kitchen chair, tears running down her cheeks. He dabbed delicately at the soles of her feet. She was dressed as usual, in a skimpy top and some shorts.
“What’s wrong?” I asked, gazing down as he bathed her feet like a character in a Bible story. It would have made a very bad Victorian painting.
“Kate’s feet are all cut up,” said Ed, matter-of-factly. Kate sobbed. “The beach was all hard. It had turned to glass. I felt the sand cutting me and tried to get back to the road. It was huh-huh-huh…” Her words became lost in more sobbing.
I patted her shoulder in comfort and bent to look at her feet. The soles were covered in tiny cuts, weeping blood.
“You must have trodden on some glass,” I said, trying to brush off the impossibility of her words.
Kate continued sobbing. “Nuh-no. It was all glass!”
Ed held out the blood-stained towel for me to see. Sure enough, there were a few tiny fragments of glass glistening among the drying blood, but that didn’t confirm Kate’s story.
I felt it was my job to nod in a reassuring manner.
After we had both sat comforting Kate for a while, I left Ed to take care of her. I put my jacket on and headed down to the beach. Even after the recent strange events, I hoped to find a rational explanation for the state of Kate’s feet. There would be a broken bottle that had been ground against a rock, the sharp detritus then scattered unnoticed across the sand, I was convinced.
But as I walked down the few steps from the road onto the beach, I noticed the sand made an unusual crunching sound under my shoes.
The place was deserted except for me. I knelt and gingerly rolled a few grains between my fingers. Instantly, blood appeared.
Wiping my hand very carefully with my handkerchief, I flicked off the last few grains clinging to my skin or stuck in the pooling blood. One or two grains remained on the white cotton handkerchief, and I examined them closely. They glistened like tiny diamonds in the morning light. They were glass.
The whole beach beneath my feet seemed to have been turned to glass. It was a hideous impossibility, but the stinging in my fingers told me it was true.
Walking on a few steps, I could see that tiny creatures were stuck in the shining sands. Half kneeling, I saw they were some kind of mollusc, but one I’d never seen before, with a longish shell from which emerged tiny tentacles; all made of glass.
My head began to spin. I stood up and it seemed as if the very skin of the world crawled with horror beneath my feet.
I steadied myself against a rock while I examined the sole of my shoe, pulling my hand away quickly at the strange sensation beneath my fingers. I peered at it, but the rock looked the same as it had yesterday, when I’d passed it while out walking.
My exploring fingers soon found that it was soft, yielding easily beneath even a very slight pressure. It had become like a giant sponge, discarded on the beach by a careless bather. Stepping back, I wiped my hand on my trousers. There was nothing on my fingers, not even water, but I wiped them again, just to be sure.
I walked further down the beach, wondering what the hell was happening to the world around me. Or happening to small pockets of it, at least. I briefly imagined it might be some sort of previously unknown pollution; God alone knew what monstrosities industry or the government cooked up in their labs, or what by-products they dumped in the water. I nearly sniggered at my own paranoia.
After several minutes, I turned to look back at the town. Then I noticed there was a track across the beach. It was wide and slightly discoloured, cutting across the sand and part of the rock I had leant on earlier. As if something had passed this way, just as someone walking through tall grass leaves a trail of bent stalks behind him.
Squatting, I examined the sand at my feet. Just sand.
Later, when I was back on the beach road, I examined the soles of my shoes. Just like Kate’s feet, they were tattered and torn.
Looking down on the beach, I could see the discoloured path clearly, stretching from the tideline to the sea wall. Yet the road was completely unaffected.
Whatever it was, wherever it had touched nature, it had changed it. Man’s world, his structures and roadways, had remained untouched. But they too were made of natural materials, simply rearranged—how could they be anything else?
Perhaps that process of man-made change had granted them some immunity; maybe there was an unknown law that said only one metamorphosis of certain materials was allowed to take place before they became fixed forever.
But we hadn’t been changed. We were still just animals. Everything about us bore the stamp of nature. I felt cold and very small suddenly as I wondered how long it would be before one of us was ‘changed.’
Kate hobbled around gingerly on bandaged feet for a day and a half. Her wounds healed astonishingly quickly. I supposed that the cuts had only been very shallow.
Ed was very solicitous, as I’d expected he would be, hovering around her, organising things, and never leaving her alone for a second.
I felt left out of it all and spent most of my time alone, reading.
Thinking back over the last few days, of how different things felt, I couldn’t help thinking that for so long the tide had been going out. But now it was coming in and we were right in its way.
I tried to get out of bed without waking Kate, hoping I could move my arm slowly enough not to disturb her. It was all I could do to stop myself from tracing the line of pale freckles on her left cheek with my finger, wanting to join the dots before kissing her on the nose as usual.
When I finally managed to extricate myself, I pulled the sheet back over her so she wouldn’t get cold. It was then that I noticed the skin on her throat had become coarse and red. Strange that I hadn’t noticed it before.
Over breakfast later I asked her about it, and she insisted it was a flareup of her eczema. Shortly afterwards she disappeared into her room and came back wearing a silk scarf. I hadn’t meant to embarrass her and tried to reassure her. But she insisted on wearing it all day long.
I phoned Rose today. Even though I hadn’t intended to before I spoke to her, I asked if she could manage to come down earlier than planned.
She thought I was talking about a few hours, but when I said I thought it would be better if we left four days sooner, she was unsure whether she could make it.
“But why do you want to come back four days early? What’s wrong?”
I made up some nonsense about us not having a good time and told a half-truth about Ed and Kate arguing all the time. But there was no real reason, of course—at least, nothing I could put into words—so we left things as they were.
When I’d heard Rose’s voice on the other end of the phone, it had been a straw that I knew I had to clutch at. I’d had an unusual feeling of unease at being in this place. I felt only she could rescue me; all of us. From what, I didn’t know.
I knew it was a dream, but it felt like one of those lucid ones, where you think about waking up and then you do. Except that it didn’t work this time.
Ed and Kate were at my side as I walked down the narrow main street of the town that led to the sea. But things weren’t quite right, I felt.
Then, as one woman walked towards us, she began to blossom with strange fleshy growths, her skin stretching hideously. It was as if the meat she was made of was imitating things that had no business being on a human being, transforming her into a walking tree of flesh.
Around me everyone seemed to be going through a similar transformation. A man with enormously long arms tried to wave before being weighed down by the bulk of his obscenely unnatural limbs, laughing as he tumbled forward.
Another man seemed to be dragging his family along behind him, a woman and two children becoming lost as they grew into him, his face changing to become them as well as himself.
Two women who had been talking began to meld with the building they were standing in front of, just as a decorative bush nearby grew through them and took parts of them with it as it left.
I couldn’t decide whether these people were becoming more or less than human. Even the seagulls overhead seemed to have been affected, their cries becoming chilling and unearthly.
Everything was becoming mixed up. There was a fine mist of blood in the air, and I panicked at the thought I might breathe it in. So far I had avoided the changes being wrought around me, but this mist might be the catalyst.
I felt as though I wanted to run, but something prevented it. I was forced to carry on walking at my normal pace as if all this was inevitable, as if something didn’t want me to be spared the fate of these others.
In a doorway, a limbless shape huddled in a corner, trembling and threatening to become something even more repellent.
We were nearly at the seafront now. I had deliberately not looked at my two young companions, fearing the changes that might have occurred. But now Kate turned to me and smiled with what her mouth had become. I couldn’t scream. “Wonderful, isn’t it?” she asked. Then she pointed to the sea and said, “Look!”
I looked but couldn’t see anything. There was something there, though; I could feel it—something gargantuan. The water parted as something unseen rose from it, enormous and overpowering, threatening to crush our minds as well as our bodies. Although I knew I would be prevented from doing so, I tried again and again to turn from it…
I woke sweating and kicking, moaning incoherently. The things I’d seen still seemed to be there in the dark, holding back, staying just outside my vision. I sat up in bed and strained to see into the darkness, trying to penetrate it and make the shapes appear.
The dark had never held any fears for me, even as a child. But now I felt like a child, sitting there afraid to get up and put on the light in case whatever was in the blackness seized its chance.
As the sweat cooled, I began to shiver. I gathered my courage and leapt out of bed suddenly to flick on the light. Those two short steps to the light switch seemed to take longer than anything I’d ever known.
There was nothing hiding in the dark. I went through to the kitchen to make some coffee.
I sat alone in the dark for a few hours, sipping coffee and wondering what on earth I was thinking in agreeing to come here. The old saying about there being no fool like an old fool had been proved agonisingly correct. I was just in the way.
Then there was the feeling that Kate knew something or was somehow drawn here. I had no idea what her game was, beyond the obvious one of having two men attending to her whims, but I determined to challenge her about it in the morning.
On returning to bed I eventually managed to drift off for a few fitful hours. They were mercifully free of dreams.
I was awoken rudely by Ed bursting into my room just after seven without knocking.
“She’s gone!” he yelled. It took me a few seconds to drain the last dregs of sleep and find my way to the waking world. The uneasy feelings left by my earlier dream still clung to me.
“Wha—? P’raps she’s just gone out for a walk,” I offered. Ed seemed convinced otherwise and kept shaking his head. “She was strange last night,” he said. Despite myself, I snorted in derision.
He continued: “She kept talking about the sea. And how she now knew what she had to do. I was so tired that I didn’t take any notice of it.”
As soon as I’d pulled some clothes on, we ran down the steep street at the back of the cottage. A kind of shared instinct told us where she’d gone. Above us, the perfect cloudless sky threatened to tilt forward, spilling out whatever lay behind it, to bury us forever.
When we reached the beach we stood panting, our gazes sweeping the sands for any sign of Kate. There was nothing, and I was unsure whether to feel panic or relief.
The sea was unusually calm, as if a storm had recently passed over. But if there had been a storm, it was unseen and unfelt by the inhabitants of the town.
I walked along the beach for a short distance, then stopped as I noticed something lying by a large rock. I called Ed over.
We looked down at the pathetic pile of fabric scraps for what seemed like several minutes, not wanting to acknowledge the awful implications. She was gone.
Then we saw the line of footprints that led across the beach. They struck me as strange, as if Kate had been moving in a manner other than her usual elegant gait. They stopped several yards short of the high-tide mark. It was as if she had suddenly jumped into mid-air, leaving no trace behind her. Or ascended heavenward like some ancient mystic.
Ed and I stood side by side on the shore, staring out at the secretive sea as it held its tongue. She was out there, we both knew it. She had to be.
I just hoped that she had changed, become ‘better’ as she would have put it, because God help her if she hadn’t.