Alone again and consumed by curiosity, I sought to learn all I could regarding the vagabond merrows. As the village was forbidden to me, I turned to the solitary native in my family’s employ. I knew little about our groundskeeper, not even his name, but I did know that he was born and raised in Craigwen. Shy and lacking my family’s gift of gab, I could not bring myself to openly approach a man who was, for all intents and purposes, little more than a stranger.
Instead, I wrote a letter with a series of questions – about the town, its history and folklore – in addition to directions to a particular rock, beneath which he could deliver his response. I placed the message at his doorstep, along with a handful of sovereigns for his troubles, and would check my impromptu drop-off daily. It was all so comically elaborate but such was my nature; I hadn’t even considered the likelihood of his illiteracy. After a week of waiting and nearly ready to abandon this endeavour, I lifted the selected stone and found my letter returned, along with my bribe of coins. Written on the back of the parchment was a simple, straightforward reply:
The groundskeeper was literate, at least partly, but unfortunately wanted nothing to do with this bargain. I watched him tend the garden, where he kept his head down and avoided my gaze. I was confused, seething even, for it never occurred to me that he might decline. The severity of my dismay revealed that more of Mother’s haughtiness lurked inside me than I imagined.
If he was unwilling to tell me the truth then I would have to glean it through subterfuge.
Ms. Bradshaw’s watchful gaze remained a problem, necessitating a certain degree of trickery. I ultimately decided to exploit our situation and requested that she chaperone me to the village, feigning interest in Cragwain’s scrimshaw and assorted knick-knacks. My pretence was met with scepticism but she nevertheless acquiesced. Her only demand was that we remain together and that we would return before dusk, citing the village’s notorious inhospitality.
We departed Caeruchel Hall after tea and travelled by foot to that destitute hamlet. Craigwen was but a quarter mile from the manor – appearing from that distance as an ugly blotch upon an otherwise splendid scenery – and so the journey was not unduly arduous. For reasons unknown, neither clear skies nor a bright summer sun could lift the heavy gloom from that place and there was an ever-present fetid miasma, reeking of fish and the nitrogenous waste of low-tide mud.
The history of Craigwen was far less known to me than that of the region as a whole. The putrescent village appeared as if frozen in time, preserved beneath layers of rust and rot as if it were an insect in amber. And yet I suspect that even the most discerning of antiquarians would fail to glean a shred of truth from this mummified corpse-town.
Though penniless, hunger was not a peril these people suffered. The men always returned with a truly bounteous catch, undoubtedly miraculous by the standards of other fisherfolk. Why the people of Craigwen never simply sold or bartered their surplus sustenance would be readily apparent to any who had set their eyes upon it.
I’ve previously noted that Craigwen does not appear on any maps, that few are even aware of its existence. This did not prevent neighbouring villages from being rife with rumours about the beshadowed little town. A common claim was that no two fish caught off its waters looked the same. This, like most hearsay, proved false, but hardly an unreasonable conclusion to come to. North-Atlantic marine life is not known for its beauty but there was something offensively hideous about Craigwen’s principal resource.
I saw this firsthand at the wharf, where mothers and wives gutted the most recent haul. There was a diverse array of obsidian eels, some with dragon-like heads and faintly glowing bulbous eyes, others with mouths thrice the size of their bodies; grinning fish with the scaleless pink and wrinkled skin of men; ghost-fleshed wretches with organs visible, bearing the lamenting visage of doomed souls. Grotesque fiends, fantastic beasts, and loathsome aberrations – malformed by the crushing black abyss and now destined for the pot and plate.
Peering over the edge of the docks, I searched for evidence of yet another rumour. Our cook, though not a native to Craigwen, was born and raised in a nearby village, and it was from him I was able to learn these tales. He told me that large ships gave Craigwen a wide berth because of hazards hidden below the water’s surface. These lurking threats easily brought ruin to even the most seaworthy of vessels and folks these days knew to steer clear. This ultimately meant no cargo-laden clippers, no prosperous whalers – as industries developed, often bringing the benefits (and horrors) of mechanisation, the village of Craigwen was left behind.
The cook had never seen them himself but others had, including his late great uncle, whose ship foundered off Craigwen while lost amidst a fog. The sailor returned to his village as the crew’s sole survivor, claiming that the old legends were true; that these were no mere rocks but great cyclopean statues – monstrous effigies from before the Deluge.
He said no man was mad enough to conceive such beings; that these were the idols of forgotten beings – of God’s first and failed creations, rightly cast down and drowned in preparation for humanity. Even devils, he said, were more kin to us than the makers of those profane stones.
Alas, whatever was out there was content to remain hidden from me.
There was one other rumour I wished to investigate, regarding a certain church and its unwholesome reputation. Knowing my governess would never allow it, I waited for when she seemed most distracted. Fortune graced me in the form of an elderly accordionist, who played just well enough for her to linger. Seizing this opportunity, I surreptitiously slipped between buildings and serpentined the grimy narrows which wormed their way throughout the harbortown.
Craigwen hid more within its clustered shanties and tortured alleys than outside observation would impress. Unfortunately, I had no time to appreciate the singular, almost organic quality of the dilapidation. What I sought would not be too difficult to find; indeed, I could see its steeple from Caeruchel. There, in the ramshackled heart of Craigwen, was the Church of St. Brendan; one needed only to follow the town’s capillaries to reach it.
The old stone church was distinctly Welsh, though oddly placed. Traditionally, such religious sites were located on the outskirts, adjacent to or surrounded by a cemetery. There were no graves here, at least none that were marked. The only standing monument was a statue of the church’s namesake. The iconic saint had been deliberately defaced, its head removed and its body engraved with blasphemous symbols not yet known to me. It seemed unlikely that superstitious mariners would spurn their patron saint.
Unless, that is, they had gained the patronage of another – something jealous and unwilling to share the devotion of its faithful.
If these people worshipped a new god, I found few signs of its veneration within that putrid sanctuary. I remember how the sunlight poured through cracks in the roof, illuminating particles of dust and spores as they floated through the aether. Exposure to the elements caused the damp interior to be fertile grounds for all manner of fungi. A particularly pervasive mould blackened those long-neglected pews and gave its wood the sodden aspect of flotsam.
The church had fallen into disuse, and decades ago if the level of decay was any indication. Time was limited, so I immediately began my search for clues, though had little notion of what I sought. Focusing my attention on the nave and chancel, I sifted through rubble and rubbish but failed to identify anything of significance. Frustrated, and full of youthful vigour, I impulsively pushed over a decaying pulpit and watched satisfied as it splintered across the hard stone floor. This petty act of childish vindictiveness proved unexpectedly fortuitous, for half-buried in the resulting wreckage was a book, no doubt of some importance and secreted away long ago. Loosening my bodice, I hid the tome close to my body, believing it best to conceal my prize from Ms. Bradshaw.
I returned to my governess with feigned ignorance, claiming that our separation was purely accidental. While she never called my bluff, she betrayed her scepticism with furrowed brows. I noticed that her face was paler than when I left her, despite the summer warmth; it was the haunted visage of one who had seen a ghost and, as memory serves, she would never visit Craigwen again.
Back at Caeruchel, I secluded myself with the tome and pore over its sepia pages. By happy chance, it was written in English, albeit the antiquated English of three centuries ago, and was primarily a record of local events.The first half was dedicated almost entirely to mundane celebrations and incidents – marriages, baptisms, funerals – anything that required the local priest, who was undoubtedly the book’s anonymous author. The tone of these chronicles took a sudden turn when Craigwen was besieged by a series of disasters. A powerful storm tore the town asunder, which was next followed by disease – an unknown sickness festering among the fish, spreading to those who consumed their poisoned flesh – and finally, famine.
Henceforth, the book shifts from record-keeping to what I could only then, in my ignorance, perceive as the diary of a madman. Believing himself forsaken by God, the priest made a desperate plea to a seemingly indifferent universe. That was when they came. Though he called them “Angels”, they did not descend from the long vault of heaven but instead rose from the fathomless deep.
Through these angels of the sea, a new covenant was formed – its fulcrum the promise that Craigwen would never hunger again. Alas, the specifics of this pact are lost to me, for mould blackened the remaining pages, rendering most words illegible. But I had to wonder: what did these thalassic saviours expect in return?