What Lies Beneath
By Mary Rajotte
In Shady Valley, something older than time and as constant as the tide threatens to claim what it wants. On a hidden tract of land at the edge of Mourne Lake, families built their cabins nestled amongst the tangle of ghostly birch trees bordering the shoreline. Yet it was a temporary truce no matter what folks did to preserve the valley’s peace.
The beauty of the land draws people here. Coralroot sprouts from crevices between shoreline river rock. Golden threads of sunlight glimmer off the water. The breeze shushes through wild tufts of beach grass like whispers of those who came before. Bobby Burke heeds those voices now, the ones that hint at the water’s worth, and its warning.
Sunset comes fast at this time of year, so when the north wind rolls down the hillside and the flood plain turns dark, Bobby heads out. It’s his job to get the bonfire started, so he loaded the wheelbarrow with firewood and kindling the night prior. Hitching the load up on his hips, he maneuvers it down the slight slope toward the waterline and stops when the wheels start to sink in the silt.
No one quite remembers when the tradition started, but it is etched into the very foundation of life along the Mourne. Every spring when the ice fissures, when the undercurrent breaches the surface and sends fragments downstream, families get to work. Bobby's granddad was the one who taught him how to build a fire, starting with kindling first. Taught him how to secure the shoreline. How to whittle and carve. How to keep watch when all he’d want was to be inside where it was safe. Most important, he taught Bobby what it took to protect his family and their peace.
His granddad told him the stories of the water devils, too. How they'd come at night. First in the near-quiet rhythm of lake water lapping ashore. Then later in swirling eddies that threatened to draw you close enough to the water’s edge so hypnotized, you might venture out one step too many. That’s when they’d emerge from the lake looking for those who didn’t make their carvings, or brushed the old stories off like they were fairy tales. With claws and teeth, the devils would snatch and bite, and then drag the unlucky ones under the black surface never to be seen again.
The land takes as much as it gives here. Some people, like Bobby, learned that the hard way. But learn, he did, and now he’s the first one to get to work.
He starts by building a tee-pee of kindling in the belly of the ash-blackened steel fire pit that sits halfway between the house and the beach. The stockpile’s been sitting warm and dry in his cellar all winter, so it doesn’t take long to catch. When the bark and twigs ignite, he piles the wood high, and then sits back in his camping chair. The sap crackles and pops something fierce.
Maybe he felled the trees too soon. Granddad always warned him of that, but Bobby was eager to get started. And either way, the fire’s lit, and it sends crimson sparks glittering skyward.
He keeps watch over the flames until the soft squish of footsteps behind him alert him to Jimmy Finn’s approach. He’s hunched in his red flannel coat, a baseball cap pulled down over his ears.
“Good lookin’ fire you got there, Bobby. Heard anything from Old Dale yet?”
Bobby stands and gives his head a shake, looking over at the Pruitt homestead, which separates their tracts of land.
“Maybe we ought to give him a hand. He’s not getting any younger.”
“He knows the rules. Same as you and me, Jimmy.”
“I know, but…it’s just him, now Jeannie’s gone.”
“Yeah, well, that should’a been a lesson to him. He’s not the only one who lost—”
The rest gets caught in Bobby’s throat. Doesn’t matter if it’s one year or twenty. He’ll still never get over it.
“Ah, hell, Bobby. My apologies. Sure as hell didn’t mean to stir things up.”
Bobby waves him off. “It ain’t about me. It’s about all of us working together, following the rules. After everything, you’d think that’d make Dale the first one out here gathering kindling, chopping enough wood to last the night. Instead, he’s probably in there getting sauced to the gills as usual. All the times we pitched in? Well, I guess that’s his choice but just because he’s given up, doesn’t mean we gotta. Wasted enough time thinking about him as it is.”
“Gee, Bobby. A little harsh, ain’t it?”
“Look. I got my own work to do. Same as you. Same as everyone else out here.”
Jimmy gestures up the shoreline where other campfires blink awake in the growing dusk. “I know we do. But the Pruitts have lived in these parts as long as any of us. Longer, truth be told.”
“Then he knows better than anyone that if we wanna stay protected, every man’s gotta do his part. If Dale can’t be bothered? Well, that’s on him.”
Bobby turns away from Jimmy. The heat feels good on his face. But no matter how close he gets, he can’t get his hands warm.
The musty scent of moss drifts up from the cattail marsh. Somewhere far-off, a high-tuned flickering, warped like the trill of a flute, ushers in nightfall. Out of instinct, Bobby looks to the treetops. “Barn owl. In the valley maybe?”
Jimmy grunts his agreement but keeps his eyes fixed on the lake. “Sun’s goin’ down. Won’t be long now.”
“Best get to it, then.”
Jimmy turns and heads back to his place, but not before giving one more glance toward the darkening water. By the time Bobby heads for the barrow and grabs his tool belt, Kate has come out of the house. She’s dressed in her work clothes and is wearing her rubber boots.
With her hair pulled up into a high ponytail and her makeup already scrubbed off, she looks beautiful, but her eyes are distant and her mouth downturned. With a thermos of coffee in one hand, she holds out a new pair of work gloves in the other.
“Won’t get much done without these.” Her voice is monotone. She doesn’t let go of the gloves until Bobby meets her gaze. Her eyes are wide and sorrowful with tears threatening to spill. “I picked you up some new ones. Last year’s were…”
Bobby pulls a worn pair from his back pocket. “Forgot to tell ya. Borrowed these from next door.”
“Won’t Old Dale need them?”
Bobby takes the gloves from her and shoves them back into his pocket. “Why don’t you go on inside? It’s gonna be a cold one tonight.”
He takes the thermos, then grabs an old duffel bag from the back stoop before he turns and heads for the beach, a few dozen yards from their house.
Behind him, the door slams on the doorframe and the soft shush-shush of Kate’s footsteps follow.
“Let me help,” she says.
Bobby tosses the bag to the ground next to his camping chair. “I got it, hon.”
He spins to face her. “Please, Kate. Go on. I got this.”
But she doesn’t leave. Instead, she grabs the lantern and bucket he left next to the fire pit earlier and goes with him. “It’s too much for one person to do.”
He blocks her from going any further. “Jesus, Kate, please!”
“I just…I don’t want what happened…just let me help you, goddamn it!”
Desperation breaks her voice. When Bobby gives her a quick glance, she wipes tears from her cheeks with the palms of both hands. He couldn’t stop her even if he wanted to. That same futile hope drives him, as though taking control of something, anything, will help him forget those things he can’t control. Not the tide or those hurts, once buried, that get stirred up along with it. So, he relents, and they get to work.
First order of business is to shore up the break wall with stones Bobby brought home from the quarry. Winter sure took its toll on the embankment. The ice floe came right up onto their land. Buffed the sand smooth and ate away some of the grass. Worse, it left everyone in the valley vulnerable to those dark things lying in wait just below the Mourne’s surface.
Flat jagged slabs protrude from the sand like a line of headstones to keep the land from eroding too much. Bobby slips on his gloves, wincing when the fabric scrapes over his swollen knuckles, and then nudges the slate with the toe of his boot. Some don’t move at all, but a few pop free like loose teeth. Two of similar size and one smaller, the remnants of last year’s handiwork burnished so the etchings are nothing more than hairline scratches. He’ll get to each one in time, but he wants to see which need the most attention. He starts there, using his shovel to scrape back the wet muck, heavy and thick as concrete. He pries the stone free and then heaves it up onto the bank with a thud.
Kate fills the bucket. She hauls the icy water over to Bobby, who pours it across the stone and then wipes the surface with his palm. The owl’s heart-shaped body on the flat surface is faded. The outstretched wings are missing, leached away by months of river water and mud, nature’s sandpaper. There’s only a hint of the animal’s wide-set eyes where Bobby carved them last year. He pulls the chisel out of his tool belt and starts a new carving.
Everyone engraves them differently. Some do the face only. Others focus on the wings or talons. Bobby does it all, the full body and every last feather. Just can’t be too safe.
When he’s done, he pushes himself up, tucks his tools into his belt and stretches out the crick in his neck. It took longer than he hoped, but with all the practice, it’s not so long as other years. He sets the stone in the sand where it came from. Kate uses the shovel to fill in around it. She makes sure not to cover up the totem, their protector from what lies beneath the Mourne, before she retreats to the fire to warm up.
She’s already got the lid of the thermos filled by the time Bobby joins her. When he peels off his gloves, she hands him the steaming brew. He inhales the deep, nutty scent before he drinks most of it in two gulps. When he’s done, he hands Kate the lid and nods to his handiwork.
“How’s it look?”
“Think it will do us ‘til fall?”
“That’s what I’m counting on. Almanac says we’re in for a wet spring. Best to make the cuts deeper this year.”
“You did three.” Her chin trembles and her voice is low, like it hurts her to say it.
“Yeah. Uh…old habits, I guess. One extra can’t hurt.”
He downs the rest of the coffee before he hands her back the lid. “Go on inside. I’ll finish up.”
She’s quiet, like she’s trying to think of how to word something difficult. Instead, she plants a quick peck on his cheek, and then turns and heads past the fire. There was a time when the wives would sit out too. Over the years, the men came to be the ones who sat up. Bobby prefers it that way.
He stands with his arms crossed in front him and looks out over the lake. At first, the slivers of moonlight dance and ripple. But when the wind rises, the water stirs and swirls like some evil thing below has awakened.
When he gets back to the fire, it’s blazing hot. He grabs the duffel he’d left there earlier and unzips it. Using his poker, he turns the bag over and dumps an old flannel and other rags into the pit. It takes time for them to light. When they do, flames travel through the fabric, singeing the bloodstained threads with gold before everything ignites.
Bobby plants himself in his chair and watches. The fire licks the top of the tarnished steel bowl, and as much as he tries to fight it, he can’t look away. His gaze travels up to where the stones stand in the distance.
For a long time, he was like some of the others. Thought it was just tall tales old timers like his granddad told the young ones to keep them in line. It took the worst of all losses to make him see. Now he has to relive it every year. But if it takes carving until his hands bleed, or keeping watch through the night so the fire burns till dawn, it’s still a smaller price than the one he’s already paid.
The night sky is black now, with a spray of stars and the moon hanging low. From beyond the house, the grasses whisper. The owls continue their forlorn chorus, and some time later, the crickets lull him to something just shy of sleep.
It’s not ‘til sunrise that a shriek pierces Bobby’s slumber. He bolts upright and jumps out of his chair, nearly pitching headfirst into the fire pit. A quick glance inside at the shirt, nothing more than embers and all its secrets burned away with it, eases his mind.
By the time he makes it to the back of the Pruitt house, he finds Kate standing there with her hand clamped over her mouth. Bobby grabs her by the arm and checks to make sure she is okay. She says nothing. Only looks at him.
He turns away and grabs the shovel spiked into the grass next to him. He winces when he wraps his calloused hands around the handle, but he gets to work turning over the sand to hide the bloody drag marks leading from the stoop to the shoreline and tries not to think too much about his part in this.
A gale rises from Mourne Lake, whipping the tufts of grass flat. No longer a whisper, instead a warning that the land took what it needed, as it has done for centuries. As for Bobby Burke, he only protected those that matter most and showed the ones who refused to believe that sometimes, they had to learn the hard way that living there had its price.
Toronto-native Mary Rajotte has a penchant for penning nightmarish tales of folk horror and paranormal suspense. Her work has been published in Shroud Magazine, and in anthologies from the Library of Horror Press, Shroud Publishing, the Great Lakes Horror Company and Magnificent Cowlick Media.
Mary is a member of the Horror Writers Association and was the recipient of the 2018 HWA Scholarship. Sometimes camera-elusive but always coffee-fueled, you can find Mary at her website http://www.maryrajotte.com