Aphelion Issue 241, Volume 23
July 2019
 
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An Echo of Strings

by L. J. Geoffrion


Lake Superior is old and cold and deep. And beautiful, oh yes, she is beautiful, too. In her watery halls she dances with her court in a gown of deep blue. Her black hair swirls about her. Her eyes are black, too, and she looks deep into a man and takes lingering sips of his soul.

Karl was dreaming. He knew that he was dreaming because he could feel the Fitz heave and roll and a part of him, the Watchman, frowned. He'd been on the lakes for two years, coming on right after high school graduation, and he'd never seen the lakes this wild, not even Lake Superior. He turned in his bunk.

His body twirled; he was dancing.

There was a swirl of strings, and he dipped and turned, pulling the woman in his arms closer. She was tall and slender, with black hair that floated like silk and black, black eyes. She tipped her face up to him. Her skin was milky white. Even her lips were pale. She smiled and her eyes pulled at his heart so that he wanted to weep. He loved Her. He had always loved Her.

"Karl," She murmured, "I have been waiting for you, my darling." The hand that rested on his shoulder moved up and caressed his cheek. He twirled her about and she chuckled low and pressed herself against him, her high, full breasts soft against his chest.

He held her there for a moment, his arms lightly around her. His mind was swirling and dipping too. He couldnít think. Her hands reached for him, pulling his head down for a kiss. Lips touched and her tongue played against his.

Karl heard thunder in his ears. Feeling left his fingers and his arms. He felt only her lips, so cold and soft, and her tongue, pulling at his soul. With a gasp, he lifted his head. The music faltered as he staggered back. She stood before him, her body still lightly swaying, and gave a small, sad smile.

His boat, the mighty Edmund Fitzgerald, yawed violently and Karl rolled against the bulkhead. He shook himself and rubbed a rough hand across his lips. With a groan, he pulled himself up, feet spread on the deck. Coffee; Rafferty should have some coffee on. He stood and staggered as the deck dipped. In the companionway, he could see that the deck listed to port. As he made his way to the galley, the ship swayed, and he thought he could hear the echo of strings.

Heikke Lunta stood on the shore of Lake Superior, the wind throwing a mist of spray into his. He raked his hands through his show-white hair and then scratched at the water in his mustache and beard. In the sky, a late gull screeched, its wings cupped against the wind.

Walking along in the wet sand, his stout, bandy-legged body moved in a rolling gate that echoed the waves washing across his worn boots. He felt a little lonely and a little fey and he lifted his face into the wind and whistled a bit of a tune. When his feet moved to the music with a skip and a jump, snowflakes swirled.

He stopped again, looking out at the restless lake. After a moment, he said, "Lady, will you walk with me?"

She took shape in the waves, far out. At first he wasnít sure where the lake ended and She began. Her black hair swirled in the water, swirled in the wind, swirled about her round hips. The hand that took his was cold, but he liked that, just as he liked her cool smile and black eyes.

She laid her hand on his forearm, squeezing the thick muscle there, and trailed her hand to his and clasped his fingers lightly. "Heikke Lunta," her pale lips smiled, "Itís been a long time."

Down in the galley, the men steadied themselves with their forearms against the mess tables, their feet wide on the deck. They sipped coffee and talked of other storms. "The Witch is throwing a real fit, She is," Joe Mazes said.

"Hey, Joe," Karl laughed, high and nervous, "maybe Sheís giving you a going away present. This is your last season, hey?"

"Thirty years," Joe mused, shaking his head, "thirty years on the lakes, and I ainít never seen a storm like this one." Joe took a sip of coffee, and Karl saw that the manís hand shook. "Sheís a bitch witch now, the lake is. All riled up. The Old Man should," his voice dipped low, "well, never mind."

"McSorley should get us the fuck out of this storm, is what!" Gordy Mac pounded his fist once on the table and then looked down into his coffee cup.

"The Fitz is a tough olí girl. Best goddamned boat on the lakes. Sheíll get us through," Joe said.

Karl took another sip of coffee. The ship lurched and coffee slopped down his chin. "Damn," he muttered, wiping himself with his sleeve. Karl looked at Joe, and something must have been in his eyes.

"Sheíll get us through," Joe said again.

Joe left to go to his own quarters, everyone had, but Karl decided to stay in the galley. The Fitz pitched unimaginably for a boat of its size. Rockiní and rolliní, Karl thought. He wedged himself against the table, holding an empty coffee cup. Even Raff, the cook, had gone to his quarters. It was impossible to drink coffee, anyhow.

Paul, one of the deck hands, came staggering through the galley hatch. He grinned weakly and sat down across from Karl. "No chow, eh?"

"Naw, Rafferty says that we gotta wait till we get in to Whitefish. What time is it?"

"About 5:30. Well, I guess I got some crackers down in my quarters. Ainít you hungry?"

Karl swallowed, "I guess not. Itís so rough, ya know?"

"Feeliní kinda green, eh? Hell, I am, too. I never seen seas like this. Never even heard of it getting this bad. Must be olí Heikke Lunta, eh?"

"Huh?"

"You ainít heard about Heikke Lunta? My cousin up in Houghton brought me a tape of this song. Heikke Lunta is supposed to be, like, the Finnish God of Snowstorms. When he dances, it snows and snows."

"Yeah, Ďcept that it ainít snowiní"

"Itís a hell of a storm though."

Karl chuckled, "Oh, yeah, itís that. And who the hell is playiní that music, huh?"

"What music? I donít hear no music."

"I keep hearing music, like, you know, the kind that youíd waltz to. You havenít heard it?"

Paul shook his head. "Nope. Maybe one of the guys is playiní it in his quarters. I donít think Iíve ever heard anybody playiní waltz music, though."

"There! Right there! Donít you hear it?" Karl tilted his head, listening. "It reminds me of something, but I just canít figure what." He got to his feet, bracing himself with one hand on the bulkhead. The cold steel shivered against his hand like the skin of a nervous horse. Again, he heard the music. Strings, swirling and twirling. As he walked down the companionway, it grew louder. Suddenly the deck dropped from beneath his feet and bounded back up like a live thing. Karl was thrown against the bulkhead, his head smacking against it with a meaty crack.

They walked for a while along the shore, not talking much. A murmur here or a light touch there; theyíd know each other for a long time. In this place there was no sign of Man, just the water and the land and the wind. A great pine had fallen across the beach, blocking their path, and the Lady took Heikke Luntaís hand. She pulled him into the water and they walked lightly over the waves. He chuckled, delighted at the trick, and skipped and jigged over the last waves, swinging her about so that her gown belled out and she laughed aloud, too.

"Dance, Heikke Lunta, dance!" she cried. The wind took her hair like a silken cape and whipped it off her shoulders so that it flew up and out. She caught at it, laughing again. There was a wild look in her eyes, and Heikke Lunta felt it tug at him. He kicked up his boots and danced across the waves, making a circle around her. She twirled about, following him, until his hands reached out and took her by the waist, swinging her up into the air. She squealed in surprise and then fell against him. He kissed her lips and she returned it, her black eyes looking deep into his. With a grin, he kissed the tip of her nose, took her in his arms and twirled her about again. They danced, skipping across the waves until the waves grew so high that the dancers sunk beneath, and the waves were nothing more than shadows across the watery sky.

In her watery hall, she held him against her and they moved together in another kind of dance. She was heady and wild, and Heikke Lunta loved her with his body, stroking her with his hands and with his breath. He could hear music echoing through her Hall, swirling about him as her hair swirled about him, soft and satin-smooth like her skin. She moved on him, straddled his hips, and he arched his back in pleasure as she rode him, her face tilted up and her black eyes squeezed shut. Above, the watery sky broke and crashed, and Heikke Lunta laughed.

Something smacked against his head, no, touched his head. Fingers brushed his temple. The contact licked across his skin like electricity, leaving him breathless and trembling. He blinked, the light wavering, and steadied himself against the bulkhead. A hand smoothed down his face, flowing like cool silk, the edge of a finger trailing along his jaw.

She was close, her face tilted up, a small smile on her lips, and her eyes slightly raised in question. Karl caught her fingers in his and brought them to his lips. The Fitz lifted again, pushing against the soles of his feet, and he bent his knees.

The Ladyís smile became a grin and she spun away from Karl, dancing along the passageway, her dips and twirls in time with battering waves. He followed after her, one hand tracing the bulkhead, the other stretched out, his fingers waving, keeping time with her dance. She twirled, her hair flowing like ink in water, coming back and taking his outspread fingers.

"Who are you, Lady?" The words were whispered, unbidden.

"I am your past and your present. I am your future." Her eyes held him. "Why do you ask, when you know the answer?"

Karl dropped her hand. "You are the end of everything! Why? Why canít you be just a beautiful dream?" A great weight pressed on his chest, and his eyes blurred. "My future? I know what you are!" His voice broke in a ragged gasp. "Death!"

She followed him around, her fingers again soft on his cheek. "Oh, Karl, beautiful Man, who told you of death?" She looked into him and past him, to the ship, and beyond that, into the night. "There is an end," she breathed, "oh, yes." Stepping closer, she lifted her face to his. "Come with me now, Karl. Come dance with me. We can forget this talk of endings. Let us dance, and talk of beginnings."

Her lips were cool and the taste of her flooded him. Sweet, sweet, her body pressed against him. He held her close, one arm around the curve of her waist, the other around her shoulder, his fingers in her soft, fine hair. He kissed her desperately, and she took his kiss, took his fear and desperation, took his breath, until he swayed, gasping.

When he pulled away, her eyes glinted and something seemed to move in their black depths. With a groan, Karl fell back. "No, I, no -- Iím the Watchman. I canít, oh God," his breath heaved, "Lady, I canít."

He stepped back, away from her, but she only watched him, her eyes holding him like an embrace. "When you are ready, Karl, I will be there for you." She lifted her hand in parting, and as she lifted it, a great wave broke against the bow of the ship. Karl was thrown against the bulkhead, his head smacking against it with a meaty crack.

"Whoa, dude, you ok?" He was lying on the deck. Listing -- the boat had a bad list. And Paul was bent over him. He blinked, and then slowly pushed himself to his feet. He could hear music, and the Lady -- he shook his head, confused. A woman was singing. He took an unsteady step, and then another. Paul put a hand on his shoulder, and he shrugged it off. "Karl, hey, maybe you oughta go lay down."

"No, I gottaÖ " Karl looked around, "Paul, donít you hear her? I gotta find her."

He moved slowly at first, staggering, one hand on the bulkhead; down two decks, and the long companionway that ran the length of the boat, almost six hundred feet, through the engine room where old Holl, the chief engineer, sat looking gray and lost, and then up two decks to the hatch.

Karl looked out the porthole into a night of wind and water. The sun had gone down, and the shipís lights shone out over the black waves. It was a mess out there. The fence rail was down, and lines snaked across the deck. The Fitz was laying low, the lake pouring over and around ore hatches. Karl turned to Paul. The music was loud, now. "Canít you hear her?" He looked out into the night, "Sheís out there. There! See that? Sheís dancing, sheís dancing out there, on the deck!"

"Karl, hey, come on, man. You got a big olí bump on the head. Come on, letís go to the rec room and chill out, eh?"

"She wants me, see, Paul, canít you see her? God, sheís beautiful." He pressed his face the glass. "Sheís waiting for me. I -- Iíve gotta go on my rounds. I gotta check things out." Slowly, as if in a dream, Karl twirled the hatch.

It flew open with a force that knocked both men against the opposite bulkhead. Paul bellowed wordlessly, grabbing at Karl as he struggled toward the open hatch.

From up in the pilot house, Karl could hear Old Man McSorley bellow, "Donít let nobody on deck!"

He felt hands on him. "Karl! Are you insane? My God!"

"No!" Karl cried, straining against Paulís grip, "Sheís out there! Canít you hear her? She -- Iím the Watchman! I have to find her!"

Karl dove toward the opening, scrabbling on all fours, Paul grabbing frantically at his arm and shirt collar. Both men stopped their struggle, stunned. Before the bow, a great wave reared up. Karl stood, one breath, two, watching it build. There, on the bow, the Lady danced. She turned to him, and, laughing, Karl stepped out on the spar deck. As the wave came down, he raised his arms up to her.

He was dancing, dipping and twirling. The woman in his arms laid her head on his shoulder and he moved slowly, pulling her against him. Over her head, he could see Paul leaning against a tall, white column, a drink in his hand, laughing with Bruce. And there was Old Man McSorely, sitting on a stuffed chair, his feet on an ottoman, sharing a joke with the First Mate, McCarthy.

The Lady pulled away from him and gestured to an older man who stood sipping a beer, "Heikke Lunta, come and meet my new friend! Karl, dear, this is Heikke Lunta."

The old fellow nodded, and held out his hand. It was a strong, square hand, and the manís blue eyes smiled. "Itís good to meet you, Karl, you and all of the crew."

"Thank you, Mr. Lunta. Iím always happy to meet a friend of my Ladyís."

"Oh, just Heikke Lunta, now. Weíre all family here, eh?"

Karl looked about the cool hall, at the men and women who danced there. His Lady took his hand and led him back to the dance floor. The sound of strings filled his head. She smiled up at him, her black eyes drinking deep, and Karl bent his head to her kiss.

Slowly, he twirled...

THE END


© 2008 L. J. Geoffrion

Bio: L. J. Geoffrion lives on the southern shore of Lake Superior (final resting place of the Edmund Fitzgerald), "abiding in happy chaos with various partners, kids, dogs, and cats." L. J. claims to be a good cook, a decent flautist, but a mediocre gardener. L. J.'s first novel is currently under consideration by an editor, and a second novel is in development. L. J.'s story, The Moonborn, set in a milieu even colder than Lake Superior (but with less water), appeared in the September 2007 edition of Aphelion.

E-mail: L. J. Geoffrion

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