FICTION


The Tempest

By Taylor Grothe in Issue Eight, March 2023

The creak of the ship on open water, the dark sea below my feet. The infinite, so close, one false step away through the rotting side of the hold. One hatch opened in a storm, and I would be as good as foam.

The intrusive thoughts followed me everywhere, but especially on the ocean.

I had come here to meet those thoughts—I chose this fate every time a new boarding house turned me out to the streets. I’d learned the sting of salt could not scrape away the thoughts boiling through my skull. But I could change things. Be something more. The things I sought were larger than a life spent toying with unsuspecting, powerless people. Larger than thoughts breaking like a bloodied tide.

They say there are places where certain lemmings, half-mad, run themselves off cliffs and into the swirling, hungry water below, their spines crushing to nothing from the fall, their eyes and mouths bloodied pulps of soft tissue.

I wondered what they saw on that final descent. Did the ocean, a predator luring unsuspecting prey into its mouth, have teeth then? Did the whipping water open its jaws around them, devouring those sacrifices, never enough to slake its hunger?

“Miss Harrow, are you quite alright?”

The youthful break in the voice forced me to turn. So helpless, fragile. My stomach rumbled. “Aye, Mr. Crenley, I am.”

Promoted to first mate at the death of his former superior to the plague ravaging our land, he seemed too young to me to even spit in his hand and rub for pleasure.

“You look right pale. Is it the storm?” He gestured at the building clouds, their bottoms darkening like a new bruise. It put me in mind of my own throbbing blood. And his. I pushed the thought away.

“Nothing of the sort. No, just coming up for air from belowdecks.”

I dragged a hand through the misted turn of my hair and yanked it beneath my bonnet. Nothing was so dogged as habit; on the ocean, no one cared I hid the top of my head from world-weary gods, only that I had a berth on a ship where women were not allowed. But after the first storm I calmed, they came to accept my presence, and even enjoy it. They whispered that I was a witch in the darkest shadows of night. They clung to each other, let me walk past unmolested. Yes, they were afraid, but they came to depend on me all the same, as I hauled in ropes and broke bread with them, as I mounted them, one by one, to their puny pleasures. Their trust was to their folly.

One should never trust a witch on water.

The old first mate had taken me on after I charmed him between my legs while ashore, the ocean calling me with its siren song. I whispered in his ear I was a vessel of the gods, meant to bring luck to sailors. It was not a lie. Not really. It was an insistent, bright thought in my head, forming sweet on my tongue as I spoke it. I would make it so. Flush with triumph that the gods hadn’t struck me down after I spoke the words, I’d tightened my thighs at his waist, watching his eyes flutter back in his head with need. I’d added I would soothe his long days at sea. I would keep the storms at bay. He’d groaned his assent, voice thick as blood in his throat.

More was the pity he’d perished, but his replacement was just as trusting. These boys mattered little to me. Means to an end.

Mr. Crenley cleared his throat, Adam's apple bobbing. “We had better move indoors. The thunder promises a tempest anon. Had we been within distance of land, we might have sailed for a port’s shelter. But now, it’s too late. We will have to ride it out.”

I tipped my head to the horizon, where a low grumble of thunder approached like a starved animal, no longer bothering to camouflage itself in its desperation. To every side of us, only the flat expanse of water echoed its keening. I thought again of those lemmings, piercing the air with their bodies to be swallowed whole, bones and all.

Dark clouds teased the horizon with sparks of lightning. My hands tightened on the schooner’s railing. Those women on land, in those boarding houses, knew I was not one of them from the start. They were perfect to practice sacrifices to the gods. The fear sapped out of them, I left their girls lusty, greedy wastrels, overeager and passionate. They devoured boys, too. Without their fear, they were magnificent. Their mistresses were unable to believe their eyes, the rooms of their sacred boarding houses refashioned into temples of lust and bloody, hidden daggers. They turned me, their interloper, out into the streets.

And here I was, on this vessel. A sly smile crept across my face.

Mr. Crenley still waited, trust bland and plain as flour on his face.

“Your former master would’ve wanted you to sail on, deliver your goods. I should hope this crew is not so cowardly as to turn tail.”

Mr. Crenley inclined his own head. “Nay, Miss Harrow. Not we.”

I watched his too-thin back disappear into the shadows of the hold, the goosing of his skin belying his brave words.

Weaklings all.

I braced my back and fingers, gripping the salt-softened wood, the bleached surface of its plane biting into my palms. I prayed this would be the storm that made the final difference.

#

Rain lashed the balustrade and the quarter mast, the sail long folded in like a butchered gull. It lay in a useless, stiff coil belowdecks.

A spark of excitement lit my bones as the nose of the schooner plunged into the trough behind a thirty-foot wave. The bonnet flew from my head, my hair ripping from its once-neat braid, the mouth of the ocean coming up to meet me. Around me, the air filled with the cacophony of screaming for rope, screaming for bails, screaming for mothers. There would be none now. No one to save them. The boat wheeled and spun as waves struck its sides.

It was not long for this earth, boards scattering to the waves. The sky reverberated with the hellhound cry of thunder, white light shaking my vision to bits.

The excitement in my chest welled like newly spilled blood from a wound, suffocating the cry of pleasure breaking through the walls of my throat. So little time to act.

I ran to the prow of the ship, feet slipping as a breaker struck the schooner to its side. I grabbed for the railing as the ship righted, perseverant though it failed.

“Miss Harrow! The captain is lost! We-we tried to throw him the line but—” Mr. Crenley’s throat caught, “—it, we lost him—it was no use,” he called, his voice screechy with panic. “Will you summon the sea god? Will you save us? Please.”

The turn of begging in his words made my mouth curl into a mean smile. “Save you? All of you?”

“Y-yes,” he stammered, edging closer. “The ship—she’s going down—there is no time. Will you appeal to Him again?”

Through the spilling water, I could see his face, scrimshawed white and heart-blood red, his lips pulled in a mask of fear. So close I could taste his terror, hot and sweet, pooling in my throat. I ran my tongue over my lips and leaned in.

“Him?” I chucked. What a silly view, that the gods must all be men. “The gods, you mean? Oh, of course. Who will be the worthy sacrifice, then?”

He took a shuffling step back, in time for a spear of lightning to shatter the sky. The smell of ozone wafted over the doomed vessel, and Mr. Crenley struggled to keep his footing.

“What?”

“You think calming a storm such as this has no price?” I countered.

I mirrored him, pacing forward. I could smell the tang of his blood, hot and coppery. I could hear the thudding of his heart, so close, so dearly close. I could hold it under my tongue, but there was no time. Not yet.

Devour him. The thoughts came for me. Suck him dry.

Not now. My fingernails dug half-moons out of my palms. It wasn’t worth the potential offense. My stomach roared all the same.

“I don’t understand.”

Devour him. Insistent. Devour him.

I ran the tip of my tongue over my teeth. If I could just focus, I would commune with the gods of this dark and stormy sea and claim the thing I wanted as my own.

Aren’t you hungry? What would happen if you slit his body open and drank the crimson death of him—

“Hush,” I growled, at my thoughts, at him. “Hush now, it is alright. You are alright.” My toughened hands reached for Mr. Crenley’s small ones, his calloused palms clammy with sweat and deep-sea water. The ocean thrashed and rolled, dark plumes of jettisoned water rising from the depths. Another roll of thunder, the laughter of the gods. I softened my smile, pulling my pretty little prey close.

So hungry. Just this once. So hungry.

His bright doe eyes, the dark sweep of his hair. His salt-ringed shirt, still a little boy’s chest beneath it. His heart hammering hard, like he ran for his life. A race he could not win. I could almost feel badly for him, his lost, sallow soul. His face softened as the fear went out of it. So trusting. So delicate. So, so young.

Are you not ravenous? Are you not in need of him?

Doubtless he thought of the times I smoothed the seas for these lost little boys, sucking up their terror like a dry sponge does a spill. They did not know they fed me then.

Devour. Him.

They would not know they were all destined to be supped upon by the gods.

Now. Do it now.

“Fear ye not, Mr. Crenley. I will call the sea gods. Cleave close, silly boy.”

Now.

The scream that ripped from my throat was of the oldest sounds, the craven cry of a harpy, the sky’s clouds splitting in dark rings. The wind died and for a brief moment, all that made noise was the welling and spilling of waves; all that spoke was the eldritch gods living at the blackest depths of the ocean, the endless expanse of crushing, light-devouring darkness. My skin thrilled as they answered me, older than time. Their power coursed through me, black light spreading through my veins.

Mr. Crenley, poor sweet John, did not have a chance to scream the word ‘witch’ trembling on the tip of his tongue. I could not push away the lust for blood anymore, though the sea gods might damn me for stealing a morsel of their meal.

My teeth bore deep into his throat. His blood spilled hot across the deck. The boards beneath my feet cracked and gave way, dumping his wasted body along with mine into the hold below, to the stinking mange of molded hay and refuse.

It did not matter to me. Not then.

I cracked his ribs with my fingertips, skin bustling like a lady’s skirts around my nails. I tore until I broke through to his shivering, still beating heart. I was hungry. Ravenous. As insatiable as the storm tearing this ship to shreds.

Pleasure rippled from my pelvis, a harsh wail building in my throat as I sucked the blood from Mr. Crenley’s veins, soft lips to severed, throbbing artery, until he stopped twitching. His life sluiced into my gut, my head roaring with need, need, need.

I needed more.

I tossed my head back, blood streaming over my face, sticky on my cheeks. The room was so, so cold. Overhead, boys screamed as the voice of the gods pitched high, shredding boards and masts and their silly, ineffectual instruments, bits and pieces of earthly fodder. They wouldn’t do. Only one thing would.

#

My feet hammered up the shaking ladder, the thudding of my heart strengthened to a tempest’s growl. So close to being part of the storm myself, so close to being welcomed by the gods. The ocean rolled and bucked, a wild horse. Beneath the black expanse of waves, beneath the froth frosting their ragged tips, a groan of sound.

The gods had come.

On the deck, the remaining boys smelled death on me. Doubtless they saw my mask of their shipmate’s blood. They cowered in the metallic shadows, their faces contorted in terror. Lightning fluttered fast as their hearts, shivering the corpses with broken necks, broken backs, broken everything. Their lives turned into nothing but deadweight. They were worth less to me dead than alive. Everyone knew the sea only feasted on the living.

The dead were left to rot.

The ship dove, the prow burying its half-ruined tip in the swell of a wave. I pitched forward onto my knees and raised my arms and my face to the whipping rain and hail. I screamed again, exposing my throat to the hunger beneath me.

I baited the gods. I offered only myself.

I am here. I am yours. I am one of you.

I waited.

The thunder broke off mid-roar. The lightning receded into char black clouds. The wind gathered and folded in on itself, blinking to nothing. The sea rolled to smoothness.

My breath came in hot flashes. It was wrong. I closed my eyes.

I had failed again. I had taken a sacrifice for myself in the way of the gods. I had ruined my chances. Now, I was worthless, and I was better drowned, crushed to nothing like so many lemmings, just torn flesh and crab-bitten skin; at least then I would have a purpose. I knew my fate would be far worse than drowning, could be an endless torment for crossing the deities. They would have my life in exchange for Mr. Crenley’s. Bile coated the back of my tongue, and I had to fight the retch rising, churning acid burning the roof of my mouth.

There was the sound of water sucking, so much like skin peeling back. So much like slipping, crimson blood.

My eyes snapped open to a wall of black ocean towering over our vessel, an unearthly tidal wave unbreaking. Hanging, hundreds of feet high. From its depths, a shape emerged. Dressed in silver scales, gills unfurling the pink of bloodied viscera, it approached, its eyes flashing a warning. I could hear nothing but the roar of the surf.

I staggered onto my hands and knees, bowing prostrate to the god come in visitation. My ears were a rush of blood. This would have been it. Could have. Had I not made such a ruin of my chances, had I not listened to the insistent thoughts clawing at the inside of my skull. Ruined, all now. My head touched the boards, my nose filling with brine and rot.

A soft, wet hand, cold as the grave, as the silky sea grasses slithering across the ocean’s floor, cupped my chin. Tilted my welling eyes up. A woman, impossibly lovely, dressed in soft seagrass. Her sloping curves undulated like breaking waves, seal slick and graceful.

“Aren’t you a charming one?” Her voice shimmered visible in the air, the brush of her breath wafting sweet and briny like the muscle of an oyster, and just as sharp as its shell. A razor, beneath that voice, poised to slit if I but erred. She clucked, a thin smile creasing her dark eyes. “Look at the mess you’ve helped us make.”

I did not respond with my own tongue, but my body did, quivering.

I couldn’t take her in. She changed, changed, changed again. A roiling wind, shifting her body like sand. Now her eyes flashed an effervescent aquamarine, her lips oil-slick black. She leaned in and pressed them to mine, a spark of desire building as her tongue dove, seeking—seeking—

I could not—would not—fight this rising tide.

She pressed me onto the splintered boards, her hands rippling through my sopping, bloodied clothing, ripping the fabric aside. Her hands like writhing eels, slipping into slick heat, coaxed me tighter, higher, my breath hitching, my eyes filled with tears threading my lashes like needles. She drank my sighs in, letting me well and die, well and die, rolling like ocean waves, until I was sure I would snap, until I could hardly breathe. Drowning, under her. She pushed me down as I writhed. Her teeth pricked my lips, copper flooding my mouth, her tongue swiping crimson beads. She chuckled as I shuddered, coming undone.

“Good girl,” she crooned into my throat. She snagged me, a fish on a line, the flash of pain and pleasure so bright it seared the backs of my lids. She released me and I bucked against her, my cry stifled against her soft tongue.

But I wasn’t. I had failed. I was not immortal, not a god. Just a bloodied, broken soul, wrapped around this god’s finger.

I wept into her, and she swallowed my sadness whole. Bones and all.

“There, there,” she crooned, her mouth still brushing mine, speaking into my hollow silence. “You are worth more to us, sea witch, like this. You will give us more men, more ships. And I will give you what you want. But not now.” Her fingers twitched at my thighs, setting me to flame. “For those deaths, you will be rewarded.”

“But what if I don’t want—”

I sat up to a leaving god, her body disintegrating into wind and waves. To the placid, slaked ocean, its surface shining like a mirror.

There was no time to indulge in my sadness. The gods were fickle, could take away what they had given freely not moments before. I still had a chance to join their ranks. The god had said as much. I set my jaw.

I stood. I turned to the boys watching, their faces frozen, their skin pallid.

To another ship, then. To another supper of desire and crimson panic.

There is no telling how long they will let you wither. You may be bones before—

I shook the thoughts from my mind, but the lemmings came to me again, their eyes blinded by their madness, their lust for the end of their torture. Their headlong dive to death.

This is a curse. You are cursed by their need of you.

“We sail for shore,” I whispered, slicking the blood from my cheeks with the back of my hands. My voice strengthened. “We sail now.”

The boys scurried like ants through the ruined wood as I mounted the top deck. There would be more men to charm, more throats to split like gutted fish. I caught my breath, soaking in the panic weaving the air like salt. I turned my eyes to the black water. I watched its surface for remorse. It seemed to watch me, too. Below the surface, a swell. A warning, to heed the gods.

It seemed to say: there will be another feast, but not today. The tempest has more blood to swallow.

© 2023 Taylor Grothe


Taylor Grothe

Taylor is a queer, non-binary, Autistic writer of horror fiction, on submission with major publishers. Shorts of theirs can be found in Coffin Bell Journal, Bag of Bones Press, and Shortwave Magazine, and Brevity's blog. Taylor is the graduate Assistant Managing Editor of Brevity and an MFA ('24) student at Fairfield University, as well as an Author Mentor Match Round 9 Adult Horror Mentor. They are represented by Larissa Melo Pienkowski of Jill Grinberg Literary Management. In their free time, Taylor slowly kills their family's many houseplants, and lives to serve their black cat, Hekla.


Fiction by Taylor Grothe
  • The Tempest