Page 7 of Dreadful Skin

I don't know how much time passed from the time I lifted the bottle to the time I set it down. I don't know where the time went.



When I awakened, the rain was still battering down on the roof, and against the windows, and I was still open-shirted and bootless, on the divan. I'd slept and I hadn't dreamed of hunger, and chill. I glanced down at the bottle—determined to remember the label, and interested in acquiring more one day.


But between the busy splatter of the raindrops outside, I could hear something else—once in a while, and loud. It sounded like a sharp blow, or a rap. When first I heard it, I thought I imagined it. Bang. Like something solid, dropped and landing hard. I waited and listened, and then it came again. Bang.


I sat up and set the bottle aside.


Bang.


It came from down below, by the wheel.


Bang.


No—not by the wheel. The next deck up, at least. Bang. Again. It came accompanied by a ringing noise this time—a twang, where something else had been struck. I thought perhaps the jackstaff, since it stands so tall. I heard a quick jingle as if from a chain or cable, and we often ran a flag up the staff.


Bang.


Like a drum, but not quite. Like a boxer jumping on a mat, but not quite.


More like a boxer, I thought. More like someone jumping. But it couldn't be someone, of course. The collisions came too far apart; no one could jump so high, to make such loud landings at such lengthy intervals. He'd have to be jumping from deck to deck around the Mary Byrd, and of course that wasn't possible. Of course.


I don't know why it frightened me so—or rather, I don't know how I knew to be frightened.


There was something frantic about it, about the way it dashed to and fro from deck to deck, front to back. Occasionally it would strike against something and be dazed, then resume again. It made me think of a cat my wife once had; in the evening, shortly before bedtime, it would transform from a lazy beast to a mad terror of a creature. It would tear around the house as if its tail were on fire before settling down and turning in for the night with the rest of us.


I've seen dogs do it too, when they're cooped up too long or kept on a chain.


Outside in the rain there was a flash of lightning followed soon by a sharp rumble of thunder. The rainstorm had gone from pattering to booming, and I was glad for my decision to stop and stay. The water was getting rough for a river, and when I stepped to my window to peer outside, I couldn't see a thing beyond the rail.


Thunder cracked again—this time like a whip the size of a river. The storm was right above us.


Beside my bed there was a lantern mounted on a swing-arm hinge. It was a mariner's style, and made for a man at sea, not on a river. When the boat moved, the force of gravity would hold the flame level—or that was the idea. It worked well enough, and I liked the look of it. It struck me as a sturdy, stable thing with an ingenious design, so I left it lit.


The other two, by the mirror and beside the door, I extinguished. Despite the rain, these boats are made more of wood than anything else—and the engines are fed coal. Fires happen, and we were moored away from the banks. On board, we had a pair of small rowing yawls for emergencies or the crew's quick shore runs, but if there were ever any real, quick trouble, we'd never get them into the water in time.


Bang.


Thunder answered it, so loud and so harsh that Mary rocked a little harder against the waves—her windows rattling in their frames. Downstairs near the galley, I thought I heard a crash. It must have been dishes, or plates. I remember, I thought—I'll ask Laura in the morning.


But then there was a new sound, another sound—not the thunder, and not the intermittent banging. It came louder than both, and twice as nerve-shattering.


I clapped my hands over my ears, trying to keep it out.


It roared, or howled, or scraped across the boat in a long, anguished cry that must have come from a living throat—but what, I couldn't guess. My mind raced, playing games with itself. I knew that sounds can be deceiving—especially at night, and in the rain, and when a man is tired and slow from wine.


I'd heard mountain lions that sound for all the world like a woman screaming for help, and inmates at a sanitarium who bayed like hounds. I'd heard my own boat make startling pops, cracks, and cries—just the settling of a ship with a few years on her. I knew how strange and frightening the unknown may seem. I knew not to panic.


But how could I help myself? The cry went on and on—challenging the thunder, daring the sky to fall.


I pressed my hands tighter around my head, but nothing could keep the hideous keening at bay.


Then it came in—through the window. There was an explosion and the world caved in. The rain came in, and the howl came with it.


I barely had time to see it, but time stretched for me and I remember every detail. I remember every second as if it happened over an hour—the stinging splash of water, the moaning wind, and the groan of a sagging timber support where the window had burst free of its place. I saw light glinting off of something shiny and round; it took me a moment to realize they were eyes. They were gold eyes, shot through with red and bulging from a face like none I'd ever seen.


I remember there were teeth, and there was hair. I thought at first, "It must be a man, surely," but before my mind could make the words I knew I was mistaken. No man, no ape. No thing I had ever seen before, nor heard legend of.


It lunged at me, flinging water and broken glass from its hair. It opened its mouth and fired that horrible cry—a screaming, miserable thing that did not slow or cease until it fitted that gaping jaw around my neck, and it drowned its whistling scream in my throat.


VIII.


Jack slipped out the way he'd come, leaving me and Sister Eileen waiting tense and alone together at the table. She handled his rudeness so well, and it made me glad of her sterling character even as the situation made me angry. There was much more to her than you might expect from a small lady in a habit, but isn't that the way it always goes? Once every blue moon, and once in a royal flush—people will surprise you.


He unnerved her, though—as he unnerved me. I couldn't say how I knew he was nearby, and watching. When I called him out, I only meant to invite him in, but if he was going to behave so badly, it was just as well that he'd shown himself the door.


So I could not understand why his leaving did not relieve me.


Sister Eileen released a deep breath she'd been holding. "He's mad," she said, as if that explained everything. "Perfectly mad."


"That may be," I agreed.


"He's dangerous, you know. Or don't you think?"


I don't know why she added the last part, undoing her statement a little by asking for my opinion. I wondered why she felt the need to do that. "I do think he could be, as any madman might be a danger to himself and others."


"We are the only others here, Mr. Cooper."


I knew it then—how she already knew more than I did. I could see it in the way she wasn't blinking, and in the way the muscles in her hands were taut like small ropes. She shifted in her chair as if she'd make herself more comfortable there, then changed her mind and rose to her feet.


"I appreciate your chivalrous defense, but I think it would be best if you'll let him be. Don't antagonize him on my behalf, please. I do not trust him, and I think that—given precious little instigation—he would do you harm. He needs only the smallest excuse."


"I beg your pardon? My dear lady—"


She interrupted me. "Something is wrong tonight. It's the weather, I think. Isn't it funny how it affects us sometimes?"


"It's very loud. The thunder is devilish, suddenly. But the captain has dropped anchor now and we'll wait it out. The rain will clear and we'll be on our way again soon. God knows there's no frowning for the weather."


"God knows it, and so do I."


"What do you mean?" I asked, increasingly curious as she grew increasingly cryptic. "I wish you'd do me the favor of speaking directly, instead of these little riddles."


She pushed her chair aside to leave the table and waited, with one hand on its back. "It's easier to tell the truth in allegory and riddles though, don't you think? Jesus did it, with his parables."


"Like the Good Samaritan."


"Indeed—just like that one. Do you think there was ever a real man, injured beside the road? Or might he have invented it to convey a point?"


"I'm sure I can't say. So tell me a parable, then. Make me understand what sets us all on edge tonight, and why you think poor Jack is taking it with such difficulty."


I thought she'd sit again, but she did not—she simply leaned herself forward against the chair.


"All right. Let us say, then, that there are two men in jail, awaiting execution. In eight hours they will be hanged. One man asks for a clock, so that he may be reminded of how much time is left. He takes comfort in watching the time pass—telling himself, 'Now I have three whole hours left to live, and I will appreciate these three hours.' Or, 'Now I have a whole hour left to live, and I will appreciate this hour.'"


"What about the other man?" I asked.


"The other man asks for a clock as well, but he is told that there is only one—and it's already been given to the other prisoner. Without the clock to judge by, the other prisoner is agitated and confused. He'd rather see the time crawl by and know how much is left to him; without the clock, he drives himself mad wondering how long he must wait for the hangman's noose. Because he cannot stand the wait, he fashions his own noose from the bedsheets and hangs himself before the executioner can arrive."


"I think I see. That's quite a morbid parable you've spun for me. Am I to gather that your mythic clock is the weather?"


"You would be quite clever to surmise as much, yes. Some of us—it helps us to gaze up and know. But when we can't. . .." Her voice ran out of air and she let the thought hang.


"I wish I understood better what you were trying to—" I began to press her further, but I was cut off by a most ferocious and terrifying sound.

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