A census taker travels the length and breadth of the British Isles to survey the land’s supernatural inhabitants.
(I’ve decided to do a series of short vignettes inspired by the December 2012 prompts from the International Story a Day Group. Mostly to keep myself regularly writing and posting in this blog. This is based on the December 19 prompt “Saltwater and Sunlight”.)
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The pilings from the pier rose out of the dark water and mist like black, jagged teeth. The pier connected to a crannog, a large wooden cone-shaped dwelling built on top of log supports driven into the peat bottom of the loch. Clouds obscured the moon so it was difficult to make out the crannog as anything but a few angular shadows above the water.
Mr. Jones maneuvered his small tugboat close to the end of the pier and cut the engine. The owner of the boat rental shop nervously sniffed, wiggling his walrus-like mustache as if he scented something unsavory in the air. “I don’t know why you want to come out here in the middle of the night. As far as anyone knows, this place isn’t occupied.”
“We won’t be long,” the census taker assured him. “You will be waiting here, won’t you?”
“You hired me for half an hour,” Jones informed her. “And I don’t go back on my word.”
“Fair enough.” She hurried out from the cockpit of the tugboat out to the prow. With a bit of help from the kelpie, she scrambled up onto the wooden pier. Rutherford, Hank, and Jack were already on the pier. “Well, let’s get to it,” she told the men. “I’m sure this won’t take long. We’ll be back on shore in time for supper.”
The wooden slats of the pier creaked underneath their feet as they walked to the dark crannog. The only other sound was the waves of the loch, lapping against the pilings.
“This is like a horror film,” Jack observed. “I think the sensible thing would be to get back into the boat. We all know what’s going to happen if we go in there.” He stopped to turn around.
Rutherford grabbed him by the collar and dragged him back. “Oh no you don’t. You’re essential for this bit of business.”
“I don’t like the sound of that.”
The wood door to the crannog was shut. The census taker knocked on the door. She knocked again, but there was no answer.
“No one’s home,” said Jack. “Maybe we can come back tomorrow morning.”
Rutherford dragged him back again before he could run to the boat. “Maybe the occupant is busy with something at the moment so he cannot hear the knock,” said the fairy godfather.
“Or he can hear it but physically can’t get to the door because he’s on the loo,” said the kelpie.
Jack frowned. “This place doesn’t look like it has any indoor plumbing.”
“Appearances can be deceiving,” the census taker replied. She tried the bit of iron that served as a doorknob. It turned easily in her hand and the door swung inward, revealing an impenetrable inky interior. “Hello?” she called out. “We’re from the census bureau. We would like for you to answer some questions for the census we’re doing for Queen Mab.”
The sound of something scraping against wood broke through the stillness. Then a figure appeared at the threshold of the crannog. The woman wore a long green gown embroidered with silver ribbon wound around small black gems studded into the fabric. Her hair hung long, past her waist, wavy as water weeds. Her complexion was as pale as a trout’s belly and her eyes as dark as the jewels on her dress.
“I told the previous census taker that I wish to be left alone.” She rasped the words like the lapping of the water. Rutherford’s goose familiar was spooked and waddled quickly to hide behind the fairy godfather.
The census taker unzipped her messenger bag and took out the package that she had retrieved from the pet shop at Westcliff-on-Sea. She held it out toward the woman. “I’ve been told that you would be more cooperative with this.” She then tilted her head toward Jack. “We even brought an interpreter in case you need one.”
“Now wait a minute,” said Jack. “I’m no interpreter. I only know English. Some French. Klingon. And English, of course.”
Everyone else ignored Jack’s comment. The woman grabbed the package out of the census taker’s hands and ripped up the brown paper wrapper and twine. Inside was a leather bound book etched with strange curling runes that gleamed with an inner light in the darkness. She looked back up at the others. “What does it say?” she hissed, revealing needle-like teeth.
Rutherford pushed Jack forward. He squawked and stumbled towards the woman who shoved the book towards him and leaned in close.
Rattled at the woman’s unnerving gaze, he simply nodded and flipped the book open to the first page. “Wait a minute, this is in English!”
The woman took the book back to look at the page herself and then threw it back to Jack. “No it isn’t, human. It’s in an ancient runic script.”
Rutherford nudged him again. “Whatever it looks like to you, you’d better read it.”
“Oh, all right.” Jack sighed and turned back to scrutinize the page where the book had fallen open to when he had caught it. He cleared his throat and then looked at everyone. “Are you sure you want me to read what this says?”
He sighed. “Well, here it goes. ‘Chapter 43. Dinner Buffets. A separate room or convenient buffet should be appropriated for refreshments, and to which the dancers may retire; and cakes and biscuits, with wine negus, lemonade, and ices, handed round.’”
“What?” the woman shrieked. “That does not sound like a grimoire.”
Jack glanced back at the cover. “Er, well, no it’s not a grimoire. This is actually Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management. Translated by Eldritch the Rotund. And if you want my opinion, I think this would be very useful for you. Your house probably needs a bit sprucing up.”
But she was in no mood to be critiqued about her household skills as she screamed. “Out, out, out!”
“Wait a minute,” said the census taker. “You still haven’t answered any of the census questions I’ve yet to ask.”
She turned toward the census taker. Dark magic swirled around the woman, reaching out like tentacles to seize the loch itself. Water snaked upward in long black ropes. “Out!”
“Run!” shouted Rutherford as he grabbed Hank with one hand and Jack with another. The waters of the loch popped and bubbled as if it was boiling. The engine of the tugboat roared into life as Jones noticed the abnormal behavior of the loch.
“I still have questions!”
“Now’s not the time for questions,” said the kelpie as he tried to tug the census taker from her position on the pier. “This isn’t the time to…” his words ended in a curse as he automatically grabbed the census taker by the waist. A huge wave towered over them like a lumbering, vengeful giant.
“Out!” the woman shouted again.
And that was the last that the kelpie heard before the wave crashed and swept them into the depths of the loch.
When the kelpie came back to his senses, he found himself on a rocky, frosted beach, next to a camp fire. He wasn’t wearing his coat, but he was wrapped up in a dry wool blanket. He sat up suddenly to see the dawn sunlight striking the surface of a blue-green body of water. Salt tinged the air. This was definitely not Loch Ness.
He turned his head to see a bearded and bare-chested beach bum wearing a crown of shells sitting on the other side of the camp fire. Instead of legs, he had a long blue-scaled tail, marking him as a merman. Beside the bum was a makeshift rack of driftwood where the kelpie’s coat and other pieces of clothing hung to dry. A few feet away, he saw the census taker also wrapped up in blankets, but she was unconscious.
“Aileen!” He scooted next to her to reassure himself that she was still breathing. Then he turned back to the beach bum and demanded, “Who are you? And where are we?”
“My name is Wright,” said the bum. “And this is my patch of land on the coast of the North Sea. Ye and the lass washed up here a couple of hours ago. It’s too chilly to go swimming, if you ask me. Did you two fall overboard a cruise ship?”
“Something like that,” said the kelpie.
Wright nodded sagely. “Cruise ships are death traps waiting to happen. Oh, and I also wanted to let you know that your mobile rang a while ago. I answered it. Apparently it was your friend, Rutherford. Strange one. I told him about you two and he simply said that you would be fine. He also said that he was taking his godson Jack back to London after all the excitement.”
“It figures that they would bail out on us after all of that,” the kelpie said, mostly to himself. Then to Wright, he asked, “So where exactly is here? Where’s the nearest town? And how far is that from Loch Ness?”
The beach bum raised his eyebrows. “Loch Ness? Well, the closest town is Nairn. And from there, it’s about half an hour drive to Inverness. Swimming would be faster, though.”
“Really? That far? That witch!” The kelpie flopped back on the ground to stare up at the dawn sky. “If we weren’t already water creatures, we’d be dead!”