Part 4: A Dark Blip
When we reemerged from the barn, a man in an unkempt gray beard greeted us. He wore an old sailor’s cap and had a dark blue raincoat that was flailing violently. I looked up to the dark gray sky and wiped the sweat from my brow. The clouds could not have looked more angry, and bloated, and ready for a wrathful release.
“Alright,” yelled the captain called Finnegan beneath the rumblings of the impending storm. “We’re about to board that ship over there.” He pointed to the dock. A long, tall barge, the size of the barn writhed in the restless waves. “It’s powered by steam and owned by me. You do as I say, no matter what. If I say cast, you cast, and if I say pull, you pull, and if I say dance, then you’ll do your best vaudeville shuffle, understood? ” We all nodded, puzzled, and I believe I saw Conrad wink. “Let’s go.”
We jogged behind Captain Finnegan and scaled the slope down the tiny remnant of the wheat hill until we reached the vessel. When it was my turn, I stepped feebly onto the bobbing ladder, much less than confident that I’d make it aboard. I sighed when I did and quickly scurried over to the side of the boat. I felt more perspiration upon my face. I saw Conrad slip something into Finnegan’s hand before fastening has hat and gripping his whip.
“If you’re the sleeve-rolling type, now would be your time to shine,” said Conrad, readjusting his orange ascot.
We all braced ourselves along the railing as Captain Finnegan cranked the boat to life. I wiped my brow once more before we set off into the dark, choppy waves of Lake Van Buren.
It was a rather hefty body of water, most certainly on the larger side of the lake spectrum. As we departed from our miniature gulf and headed further into vacant water, I surveyed the crew. Some looked uneasy, but not Conrad, who appeared as a groom at the altar. I glanced up at Finnegan atop his control nest. His grumpy eyes were slits, scanning the waters as if searching for a trespasser. I suppose he was.
Three flashes and thunderclaps interjected, nearly on top of each other. I used this to estimate that ten minutes of anxious steaming passed before we reached the epicenter of the lake. Finnegan dwindled the steam engine to a mere purr and barked above the stirrings of the clouds.
“You’re in my sanctuary now, you all got that?” We nodded. “Now we mesh with the waters and we wait. This lake’s got the river Jennings running through it. It’s the artery to the Atlantic. That being said, there’s no telling what type of creature could have made its way in here after years and years.” I gripped the railing as the waves continued to pound, unrelentingly so. “The equipment is all accounted for over there.” He pointed to a huge mass of thick ropes, cables, nets and what appeared to be some sort of rolled-up tarp-like contraption that dangled over the side. “Now we’re going to wait right here, in the dead center of this lake until we spot the thing.” He yelled louder above the thunder. “Keep your eyes peeled, and if you spot it…well open your mouth.”
“What if we can’t tame it?” asked John Gray, worriedly.
“No such thing,” said Finnegan confidently from above.
Conrad shot a look that only we, down on the lower deck, could catch. It was a façade of pure, brazen rebellion. He shook his head, chuckled, and said,
“Gentlemen, eyes on the waters.”
We spread out. I gripped the cold railing next to John Gray. Richard and Bill assumed the other side. Conrad stood at the bow, his boot propped up on a pile of rope. Fritz was not far away.
And so, we watched.
There was an eerie calm in that lake between the claps and strikes on that eve. My eyes shot to any break in the waves, any bobbing log or floating chunk of debris. I do not know how many minutes passed with silence, but they were many.
“You think…” Richard started.
“Shhhh,” said Conrad, from the front. “Now is the calm, my dear man. Now is the courtship…the affectionate gaze before the enchanted dance.”
“Just how are we going to move this thing if we catch it?” asked Bill defiantly.
“I will forgive your impertinence…” he lowered his voice. “Yes, yes…lest we disturb this sacred moment. When we have our catch in our clutches, then our kinfolk will reveal themselves, isn’t that so, my fair Fritz?”
“It is,” said Fritz frigidly.
Our eyes kept peeling and the storm continued to swell. By then, the moonlight was peeking through the clouds, scattering galaxies of glittery speckles of light over the waves. More time passed with uneasy tensions of the silent up-and-down of the steamboat.
“Finnegan, my good sir, do cut the steam completely, yes?”
“Eh…I don’t think…”
Conrad waved another cut of crisp paper in the air and the engine fell silent. Most of us turned and watched Conrad stand at the furthest point of the boat, resting his gray-panted knees on the railing as he peered out into the depths.
“Fritz, if you will,” said Conrad strangely, in a voice of one giving a eulogy. The tattooed giant handed over a knife and a small leather pouch. “By sassafras and the blood of my own flowing veins, oh beast, I do come to woo you!” He slit his palm without a flinch. The cut was deep and ripe with red offerings through the white. Then he grabbed a handful of dark, chunky powder, the same powder from the barn, and smeared it in his crimson palm. I crinkled my nose at the sight. I could hear Finnegan puff in disapproval. “Oh…oh, yes,” said Conrad, kneading the thick, leafy dust and blood like some sort of freakish dough. When he felt that his recipe was perfected, he took the ball of bloody filth and held it over the edge. “Verily, verily, I say, oh demon…show yourself!”
He crumbled up the wad as if it was a brittle cookie and dropped it and it flowed and floated down into the water.
The mixture floated in the moonlight.
Still, we waited.
I kept looking at the floating powder, which had now drifted over to my side. I rubbed my eyes and opened them wider. A dark blip of shadow spread from the depths, beneath the dusty water.
Was the moon retreating behind the clouds?
I reared up. It was beaming in its full, unashamed glory.
Again, I peered back to the floating grime. And again I saw the shadow, no longer a blip but now a mass.
“Conrad,” I called cautiously. “Fellows…do come see this…”
The swift shuffles of boots scurried over to my position. I pointed my finger to the expanding splotch of shadow. It was swelling faster.
“Ready yourselves,” said Finnegan. “Not a blink until I say.”
It grew well beyond the size of our vessel. The sting of salt burned my eyes and I wiped my brow.
Bigger…bigger it grew.
Soft thunder rumbled.
Something burst forth! The waves smashed against the barge. I fell back to the deck. I looked up. The grand head of a dark beast blotted out the moon. Its long neck towered above and it curled and contorted. I shrieked.
The steamboat cranked to life and Finnegan yelled frantically.
“Now! All hands cast the lines. Grab and toss at my command!”
I crawled across the deck and lunged for the equipment with the others. The heavens boomed, but a much deeper thunder bellowed from the beast when it plunged below the surface.
Finnegan leapt down the steps and quickly fiddled with the rope and cable lines, fastening as fast as the lightning above. He connected the long black roll of tarp to the single main line and barked for us to assume our positions. At his command, we each hurled our connected ends out into the water, creating a floating, corral-like formation of linked rope.
“When it comes back up, you all pull like hell!” yelled Finnegan, out of breath.
We held our lines, white-knuckled. Fritz held two like floss.
“Steady…” said Finnegan. The monster sprang forth again. “NOW!”
I pulled with all my might, as did the rest…save for Conrad. The tarp and ropes made contact with the elongated neck of the beast, which forced it forward, straight into the boat in a horrifying embrace to the side of the steam engine. I nearly ripped the rope as I reached the apex of my exertion. The monster’s face was an arm’s length away from me. I winced and shrieked at what I saw. Nestled in the center was a lone eye of glossy white amidst an upright slit of black. I saw no mouth or nostrils, but still felt the rumble beneath us.
“Hold steady, lads!” yelled Finnegan. “Connection!”
The captain pulled the main line from the nucleus of the boat. One by one he approached each flexing man and clamped each rope to the metal fasteners. And with a final clank, the ropes were married to the boat’s clutches.
“Good God,” said John Gray as he scurried away from the flailing face when our grips were released. “Surely it’s the devil himself!”
Conrad laughed, wide-eyed and wonderstruck. He walked over to the where the monster’s face was still wrestling, whip in hand. He stepped softly, his arms outstretched. He stood mere inches from the massive face. Its eye glinted with pure hatred. “Not much longer, yes?”
I watched from our huddle near the stern as Conrad looked around in the open night air. He continued to scan, not at all wincing at the beast’s powerful objections. And then he saw what which he was searching for.
“Our kinfolk await,” he said, pointing a little way across the lake. There was a line of torches at a break in the wooded shoreline. “Captain, would you say that our catch is secure for transfer?”
“I do believe so,” he said from atop the steering deck that he had revisited.
“Then onward!” said Conrad, all but kissing the monster.
***To be continued…***