by Christian Macklam
Shaun barely reacted as the hook broke the skin of his thumb. He regarded the red bead that formed with curiosity. Tying flies had become second nature decades ago, so how had he managed to stick himself now? Just the booze, he thought, sucking the small cut until he no longer tasted iron. Of course, that couldn’t be true. After all, he’d only had one pull so far. But he didn’t want to consider the alternative; that he might be slipping. He was here to forget all that.
The canoe swayed beneath him as he reached down and flipped back the tin lid of the tackle box. Its olive paint had chipped here and there over the years, but the family name “Bourcier” still stuck out where his father had written it in bold, black marker a lifetime ago. He pulled out the sleeve of cheap rye whiskey and unscrewed the lid. It washed down his throat like holy wine. Shaun let the warm tendrils spread through his body before slipping the bottle under the seat. He’d be wanting it again soon.
A gentle wind rippled the surface of the lake into a grayscale kaleidoscope. The light of the moon was so intense it might as well have been mid-day. He worked silently, without his flashlight, even able to make out the silver line of the shore a good half-kilometer away. The sound of loons skipped along the water and he spotted their painted outlines bobbing near the small rocky islet nearby. Loons out this late? That was odd. They weren’t nocturnal as far as he knew. What were they doing out? Maybe something about the full moon had them all backwards. He watched as they drifted in the white light.
From the air the lake was a stone-blue oval, roughly twice as long as it was wide, as exquisite as it was insignificant. It was one of the many that pock-marked the forest this far north, all connected by waterways, like synapses spread across a green canvas; a somber Tom Thomson painting aching with a wild beauty. Almost dead center, a crag of broken rocks, about the size of the pickup he’d left back on the main road, protruded above the surface. It was here that Shaun liked to set his line and where the loons now gathered, pealing their midnight song, a mournful, alien chorus. Their eyes blinked red in the naked light. Occasionally one would dip its head or dive underwater. They must be feeding, he thought and hoped they wouldn’t scare away the fish.
He secured the fly—a classic Black Ghost from his father’s collection—this time with the deftness that comes from a lifetime of practice, then cast the line in a series of perfect concentric arcs. As he settled in Shaun flexed his shoulders. They were sore from portaging the canoe. It wasn’t a big boat but the hike had been long—at least five clicks, he figured, although he’d never checked—over rocky terrain. At one point he’d almost lost the damn thing and barked his knee something awful in the process. That hurt now, too. Christ, what didn’t these days?
He grabbed the bottle and took another sip, longer this time, deeper. A loon dove beneath the surface close by. Shaun closed his eyes and tilted his head back. The moon was so close it almost felt hot. When at last he opened his eyes again, he was looking at the shore. A figure—a man by the looks of it—stood in shimmering silhouette. Black water lapped at his feet as he stared back at Shaun. The air felt suddenly solid, unbreathable. There was a clap of wings as one of the loons took flight. Shaun glanced over, only for a second, but when he looked back the man was gone. He swept a calloused hand through his hair. A trick of the shadows, it had to be. He went to take another drink but thought again, returning the bottle to the tackle box.
A loon emerged with a small fish clasped in its beak. The fish writhed, a silver flicker, then the loon threw its head back and it disappeared down the bird’s gullet. Shaun’s thoughts lingered on the scene. He wondered what came first, suffocation or the feeling of being slowly digested, consumed.
He shivered against a stiff breeze, a whisper of the autumn chill that would soon descend on the lake, and tried to focus on his fishing-line and the gentle rocking of the canoe. He liked it here with the wilderness as his barricade against the outside. The outside where everyday felt more and more like a march towards some anti-climactic ending. Other people seemed to care so much, and he had tried his best, honestly. Even managed a steady relationship or two, a steady job or two. But nothing ever stuck. On the lake he could disappear, really disappear, not just pretend. Back there, he was the fish. Here, he had wings. He had repeated that mantra until he was convinced that there was never a time when it had been any different, until he was certain that it was them he was escaping from, that they, the others were the problem. He sucked back a deep cold breath. He was here to forget all that.
A ripple spread where the line met the water’s surface and the tip of the rod dipped. The metal of the reel was ice-hot against his palm. He flexed his fingers to try and coax some feeling back into them. Another dip, and suddenly the spool whirred as the line raced out. Shaun gave a firm tug to set the hook and let the fish run. Normally he was pretty good at determining what he had on the line, but tonight he was having trouble. All he knew for sure was that it was big. As the line slowed, Shaun grasped the reel and applied pressure, light but constant. He started to reel in. A couple of times the fish made another run. He let it, knowing it would eventually tire itself out. Each time it rested Shaun drew it closer and closer. He pictured its scales strobing up from the deep.
One of the loons drifted towards the canoe. An electric charge ran up Shaun’s back as he watched the bird eye the line. Shaun reeled hard, yanking the rod and bearing back down in jerky bowing motions. Other loons were drawn now to the promise of a free meal. His catch thrashed violently as it drew closer to the surface. The first loon dove. Shaun could feel the tension on the line and knew it was near its breaking point, but if he let up now he would lose it all to the bird anyway. A sudden jolt and he felt the tension give. Somewhere down there the bird had struck. Shaun’s shoulders sagged, but suddenly the reel sprang back to life, clipping his frozen knuckles as it spun. The line tore out again, scratching angry trails across the surface. The damned bird must have hooked itself.
Holding the rod stable with one hand, Shaun opened the tackle box and dug out the wire cutters. But before he could make the cut, the loon resurfaced. It flicked water off its back and shook its head. In its beak was a ragged white strip of meat. Shaun cursed and silently wished he had hooked the damn bird and drowned it. A shrill buzz cut the air as the line took off again, catching him off-guard. The fish was still hooked, still fighting. Reeling again, he could already see the rest of the loons closing in as the first choked back its bit of flesh. Another dove, and another. He was helpless. Two more pops on the line and the birds resurfaced with their stolen offerings. Somehow the fish was still there, but it didn’t much matter now. They would tear it to shreds before he could get it onboard.
Another bird took its turn. When it came back up, Shaun strained to see what was clutched in the loon’s beak. It was colorless, limp, and lifeless… but unmistakably human. The line shook violently and snapped. Shaun fell back, nearly upending the canoe. He felt his spine strike the yoke. The fishing pole bucked off the seat and landed against his chest as the tackle box spilled across the belly of the boat. The loons exploded into flight, their calls receding into the wilderness until they were no more than a haunting wind, barely audible above the percussion of his own heart.
Thud! The canoe lurched. Shaun grasped the sides for support.
Thud! The boards flexed beneath his feet. He twisted
and pain flared in his back, crashing in like an unwelcome guest.
THUD! Water shot up between the joints as the wood groaned and splintered. Desperate, Shaun looked into the water.
And something looked back.
He thought he could just make out the shape of a face that seemed part human and part shadow. An emaciated hand reached out, nails clawing against the paint of the canoe. Shaun stumbled backwards and
was thrown over as the boat heaved to one side. Icy water knifed across his skin. God, oh god, oh god, he was in the water with it. He knew how to swim but couldn’t seem to get his body and mind to obey.
The canoe listed, taking on water, angling for its final plunge into the depths. The rocks! Kicking with leaden feet and swinging his arms like windmills, Shaun swam. The water felt like black tar but the rocks were getting closer. He didn’t feel the hand around his leg until it pulled him under. Fingers dug into his ankle like hooks. He squirmed and kicked with his free leg, the sole of his boot striking something solid. His other ankle twisted unnaturally with a sickening pop as he fought himself loose.
He stretched out, desperately dragging his broken body across the rocks and rolling onto his back. And there, rising from the water beneath an indifferent moon, crawled the decayed remnants of a man. Pearly flesh shone through great tears in clothes that were no more than rotten rags. Its pallid skin stretched back into an unfathomable grin, exhaling breath that reeked of acid and dead things, and Shaun saw what he had failed to see before. Its features were not just familiar… they were his own.
Arms seized him. He felt the water biting down on his legs, then his stomach, then his face. Slowly, steadily, ceaselessly he was pulled into the depths; any sign of struggle disappearing beneath the surface and into the darkness of the lake. Not until the water struck the back of his throat did he realize there was only one thing left to consider: to breathe in and let the water suffocate him or hold on and be consumed by the unknown. By the time he had made his decision, the loons had returned to feed and sing again their mournful song.
Christian Macklam is a Canadian writer and screenwriter. He has a BA in Cinematic Arts from the University of Southern California and has received honours for several independent works, including a national prize from the Canadian Film Council in 2013. In addition, he has worked in the music industry producing films for artists such as Elvis Costello, The Chieftains, Ry Cooder, Melody Gardot, and Sarah McLachlan and is currently working on his first full-length novel. He has been published in the poetry anthology Colors of Life and in a short-story horror anthology from Flame Tree Publishing. He currently lives in Vancouver, British Columbia.