No wonder no-one ever comes here, Sally thinks to herself as she clambers off the speedboat and onto the island.
To call Kawaldi an island is perhaps a little generous. It’s a rock. A rock in the middle of nowhere. Or to be more a precise, a rock about 270 miles due east of Antigua which is, to all intents and purposes, the middle of nowhere.
Kawaldi doesn’t even appear on most maps – too small, remote, and pointless to be of any interest. The only ones that do show it are shipping maps, where the area is always shaded in deep red and marked with the legend, ‘HAZARDOUS WATERS – AVOID.’
Kawaldi is the highest peak in a range of ancient volcanoes, its sisters submerged just beneath the Atlantic’s surface. Jagged beasts ready to tear apart any cruise liners or container ships that stumble into their territory.
A shiver runs down Sally’s back as she looks out into the the never ending blue. They are the only people for hundreds of miles in every direction. She is one of the most isolated humans on the planet. For a minute, this even gives her a thrill of excitement, but only for a minute. Mostly, this is a terrible way to spend a summer holiday. While all her friends are shopping and hanging out at each others’ houses, she is stuck on this godforsaken rock – of no interest to anyone. Except geologists.
Why couldn’t he be one of those geologists who looks at rocks in a lab? Or one who teaches other geologists about rocks at a university? Why did Sally’s father have to be a field geologist? A geologist who specialises in looking at rocks in the world’s most boring places. And ever since her mum had died, it’s meant that she and Billy have to go too.
“Who wants to help me take samples?” Sally’s dad asks.
Sally doesn’t answer. Drilling into a boring slab of rock is not her idea of fun. Billy doesn’t answer either but that’s not due to lack of interest. He’s staring wide-eyed at the hill at the far end of the island. Sally sighs. She knows what’s coming next.
“Can I go and explore, Dad?” says Billy.
“You can explore with me. We’ll drill here first and then work our way inland.”
“No, Dad,” Billy whines. “I wanna climb the mountain. I bet there’s caves up there and maybe fossils. Probably a T-Rex.”
“Billy, don’t be silly,” says Sally. “There weren’t any T-Rexes here. It’s an island.”
Billy is unperturbed. “Can I Dad? Can I? Can I climb the mountain?”
Sally sighs again and waits for her father to give his usual answer.
“Sally goes with you. She’s in charge. OK? You do what she says and if she tells you it’s too dangerous you come right back here. Got it?”
“Yay!” says Billy.
The ‘mountain’ as Billy insists on calling it is just as boring and featureless as the rest of the island. A miserable rocky lump on a miserable rocky rock. It’s about a 45 minute walk from bottom to top and Sally spends most of it thinking about how much Facebook she’ll need to catch up on, once they get back to a WiFi connection.
“Told you,” cries Billy suddenly. “Cave.”
“Billy, don’t go in there. We don’t have any torches or anything.”
But it’s too late. Billy is already bounding up the slope towards the opening.
“I won’t go in,” he says. “I just wanna look.”
Sally mutters a swear word under her breath and follows her irritatingly enthusiastic little brother.
“There’s something there,” says Billy as he peers into the darkness. “A lunchbox, I think.”
“No, there isn’t Billy. No one eats lunch here. No one comes here at all.” Only, then Sally sees it too. A dull metal case, rusty and weather beaten.She has to admit, it does look like a lunch box.
Billy takes a couple of cautious steps into the cave’s entrance and then reaching down warily, as though he half expects the thing to bite him, he picks up the lunchbox. The tin disintegrates as he lifts it. It’s old. Very old. And as the bottom falls out, reams of yellowed paper flutter to the floor.
“They’re maps,” Billy cries picking up pieces as random. “And letters, look.” He squints at a page and then hands it to his sister. “The writing’s all joined up. Can you read it?Please?”
13th July 1897,
My Dearest Patricia,
How I miss you. By the time I send this letter I shall be back in the relative civilisation of Antigua and by the time you read it I shall, more than likely, be well on my way back to England and back into your arms.
I have arrived at the place the locals call Kawaldi which is, I am afraid to report, the most barren and lifeless rock I have ever set foot upon. To what ends Crotchet and Slim desire this pitiful little isle charted I cannot imagine, but mine is not to wonder why.
Fortunately, it is not a large island, barely seven miles around, and my work shall be complete in eight days when I am due to be picked up by the same fellows who dropped me off. I explained to them that it would be far simpler for them to camp here rather than make the same two-day journey twice but the damn superstitious fools would not even get off their boat. Really, they are the oddest people.
I must admit it feels somewhat strange to be out here all alone. It is so damned quiet. I do rather wish for some company. The evening draws in and, silly as it seems, it is more than a little eerie. But I have a fire and a fine location for a camp. Soon it will be dawn and I will be a day closer to our reunion.
Good night my love,
“Wow,” Billy says. “1897. That’s like 120 years ago.”
“Exactly 120 years ago,” says Sally. “Looks like Samuel forgot to deliver his letters.”
“Look, here’s another.” Billy grabs another piece of paper and hands it to Sally. “Go on. Read it.”
16th July 1897
My Dearest Patricia,
This is my fourth evening on Kawaldi and my task is half complete but already I cannot wait to get off this damned island. I do not sleep well. Not well at all.
I am not helped by my own condition which is, I must report, not good. Whether it is the water I brought with me from Antigua or perhaps I am playing host to a tropical parasite. I am unsure, but I am in the grip of a most unpleasant fever. Sweat pours from me as I stumble around the island, charting every monotonous detail. Then, when night falls, I am overcome by uncontrollable shaking. I must ask you to forgive the appalling hand with which this correspondence is written but the sun has already set and the trembling has set in.
One of the symptoms of this damned ailment is the most lucid and dreadful dreams. For the past two nights, I have dreamt myself staggering around this hateful island, enveloped in deep fog, and in the midst of an uncontrollable terror. I hear a sound. A distant but ghastly sound.
Clank clank clank
It echoes hideously off the rocky hill that stands on the island’s south end, swirling in the fog so I cannot pinpoint its origin. It comes again.
Clank clank clank
Closer now. I am overcome by a certainty that, whatever that sound is, it is coming for me. I can see nothing through the fog but I know I must move. I run. I run faster that I have run since I was a child. But it is hopeless.
Clank clank clank
Louder now. It’s close. So very close. It is upon me. I cry out, a violent death throe and then…
I wake, dripping with sweat from head to toe, my mouth as dry as a desert. I know how ridiculous you must think this. It is ridiculous to me as I write but a fever can do odd things to a man’s thoughts in a place like this. Oh, how I wish you were here beside me. No, how I wish I were back home beside you.
Do not be alarmed, my love. As you read this letter, I will be returned to health and racing across the wide Atlantic, home to you.
All of my love,
“Cool!” says Billy. “He was going crazy. Do you think he died here?”
Sally doesn’t answer. The thought has crossed her mind. If this Samuel had got off the island, why hadn’t he taken the letters with him? Surely he would have taken the maps he’d been working on.
“Maybe we should take these down to Dad?” she suggests.
“No,” says Billy. “Not yet. Read the next one.”
2oth July 1897
My Dearest Patricia,
I should be elated but alas, my despair has never been greater. My work is done; the island is charted. I should, at this very moment, be aboard the boat to Antigua and vowing never to return to this loathsome isle.
I completed my final chart early this afternoon, a feat that took no insignificant effort. My condition has greatly deteriorated to the point where every step feels like intensive labour. My head pounds constantly and my tongue is thick with dehydration. I still drink the water, despite my suspicions that it is exacerbating my condition, but even so my body becomes increasingly parched. The dried food I brought with me from Antigua, tastes like tree bark to my desecrated palate and I am lucky if I can keep more than a mouthful down.
I am afflicted by spells of severe dizziness and have fallen more often that I remember. My knees are a patchwork of cuts and grazes which enchant the flies, my sole and constant companions. These buzzing demons give me not a moments peace.
These are not the courteous and well-mannered English flies we get at home but flies of the tropics, a fearless and savage breed. Each is the size of a bumblebee and they congregate in their thousands. They feed on my wounds, fill my hair and invade my ears and nostrils. Tears stream down my face as the beasts plunge into my eyes and if I am careless enough to open my mouth, they throng in and dive down my gullet.
Fortunately, they disappear at sundown but then my terrors really begin. My legs shake so violently, I can hardly stand. I am exhausted but I dare not sleep because when I do, the dreams take hold.
They are worse now. The moment I close my eyes, the scraping begins. Softly at first, then steadily louder. Closer.
I run. I always run but running is futile. Still the noise comes. Still the beast pursues. Claws rasping against the rock.
Clank clank clank
No longer is it just the sound that haunts me. There is more. A smell. I do not remember smelling anything in a dream before, but this smell is clear. It is a rancid smell. A smell of pestilence, of disease, of death.
I remember once, while rambling in Yorkshire with a physician friend of mine, stumbling across the carcass of a dead lamb. The poor animal had burst open, like an overstuffed sack, and its internal organs spewed out onto the grass. Stomach, intestines, liver lay on the ground and all were coated in a putrescent black slime. My companion suggested that a bacterium was to blame for the unfortunate animal’s demise but I rather suspected the devil. The stench of those rotting remains was so repulsive it has never entirely left me. There was something wrong. Unnatural.
It is that smell which comes to me in my dreams. In rumbling, growling breaths, the beast pumps its fetid stink into the atmosphere. It is, I am quite convinced, the smell of evil.
I began my letter by explaining that I am not yet on route back to Antigua. Instead I am sat in a small hollow – a tiny cave – in the hill which dominates the island’s south side. It is a vantage point which should give me a fine view of the sea to the west and the approaching boat of my rescuers. Alas, I shall not be liberated today.
The fog started as a wispy white cloud on the horizon but spread with terrible speed. White cloud thickened and darkened and then seemed to drop out of the sky, completely surrounding my island. Within minutes, I lost sight of the ocean. That damned fog; it almost seemed alive. A sinister beast creeping up the hill, silent but deliberate, approaching me from all sides.
Within minutes, it was so thick I could feel its weight. I do not expect you to believe me, it is true I have been guilty of exaggeration in the past, but if I hold my arm at full length in front of me, it disappears from view shortly after the elbow.
I dare not leave my cave and return to camp for I would surely wander off a cliff face and plunge to my death. For the time being, I am confined to the cave, foodless and waterless, and at the mercy of the elements. It must be close to sundown. I feel the fever rising. My shakes are returning. A searing pain begins at my forehead and drills deep into my brain. Oh, and this is new. I have heard of fevers causing men to hallucinate but do they also cause olfactory havoc?
The wind has changed and a miasma of rot rides upon its back.
It cannot be. Oh, Lord what is this fever that torments me?
The fetor of decay. The stench of death. The memory of black puss bleeding from a dead lamb. That smell!
There’s a pulsing in my brain.I suppress the urge to vomit. It’s the fever. The fever plays tricks with my mind. Oh, if only I could see.
Another gust and with it, more vile air. It’s stronger this time. The smell no longer lurks amid the atmosphere, it is the atmosphere.
Oh Christ, I plead. I am about to suffocate. My lungs reject the foul fumes. There can be no oxygen within them. They penetrate my eyes, my ears, my soul. It is the fever, I tell myself. I say it aloud but the words make no sound. There is no sound. There is no sight. There is just stench.
And then, there is a sound.
A soft, distant sound. A sound so far away that at first I doubt if I hear it at all.
Then it comes again. And I am sure. This is not the fever. It’s out there. The smell is real; the sound is real. That hateful, unspeakable sound that has haunted my dreams for the past week. It comes again.
Closer now. It is coming. The fog is thick. I cannot leave but I cannot stay. I must…
Clank clank clank
Sally looks up from the letter. Billy’s face is white, his eyes wide.
“Is that it?” he asks, his voice audibly shaking.
“Yes, that’s all there is,” Sally replies.
“W-what do you think happened to him?”
“Oh, I’m sure he was fine. He just had a fever. They make you hear things sometimes. Probably smell things too.” She says the words brightly and hopes they sound more convincing than they feel.
“I wanna go back to Dad now,” Billy says.
The pair emerge from the cave entrance into bright sunshine and a perfect blue sky. Well, almost perfectly blue. But neither notice the wispy white cloud on the horizon.
The cave is still within sight when the fog comes down. The sea disappears first and then like a lumbering beast, leaving the water, the fog climbs onto land.
Billy stops walking and starts to cry. “I wanna find Dad.”
Sally takes him by the arm and tries to lead him forward but he won’t move.
“Billy, if that fog reaches us before we get down the hill, we’ll be trapped up here. Come on. We’ll be back with Dad soon.”
This does the trick and Billy takes her hand but the fog is too fast. It climbs as they descend and within minutes it has swallowed them whole.
Sally grips Billy’s hand tightly but when she turns to face him, she sees nothing. She looks down at her feet but they are not there. Her legs just melt away somewhere around the knee. Billy cries again. She wants to cry too but that will not help. Got to keep moving. Got to get down.
The hill is not high and not particularly steep but it does have ledges, mini cliffs that you don’t want to fall down. Billy doesn’t fall down one of these and that’s good. If he did, he’d probably be dead. But he does trip over a boulder. He lets go of Sally as he grabs wildly for a handhold but there is nothing for him to cling onto but fog. He slides for what seems like forever but is probably just a few seconds before he slams feet first into a granite wall. Sally sees none of this but even from her distance she can hear the crack as his tibia breaks.
“Billlyyyyyy!” she yells as she scrambles down to the sound of his cries.
“It hurts,” Billy whimpers. “I can’t walk.”
“I know. It’s OK. Dad’s coming here right now. You’re going to be OK.”
How long they sit there, Sally’s not entirely sure. Being robbed of your sight plays havoc with your sense of time. She calls for her father a few times but there’s no response and the echo from the hill is unnerving. So, she just sits there, Billy’s head in her lap as she strokes his hair.
“What’s that smell?” Billy asks suddenly.
“I don’t know. I don’t smell anything.”
But she does.
It’s a rotten smell.
A smell of death.
A smell of evil.
And Sally is scared.
She tries to take a deep breath but she can’t. Her heart wants to escape. It will burst through her chest if necessary. Calm down, she tells herself. It’s nothing.
She closes her eyes. Blackness replaces the white. Breathe, she tells herself and she does. A big deep lungful of nauseating air. She splutters as the stink burns her throat. Sniffs as it singes her nostrils.The image of a dead lamb fills her mind, its corpse slashed open and leaking black ooze, maggots feeding on its eyeballs. She wants to be sick.
“It’s the thing!” cries Billy. “The beast from the letter!”
Sally opens her mouth. She tries to say something comforting but the words won’t come out.
The image of that damn lamb will not leaver her. Its stomach bleeds out of its body on a river of black sludge and then ruptures. Maggots and worms spill out and this time Sally is sick.
“Saaaallllyyy” Billy wails.
It’s not until she stops vomiting that she realises why. Then she hears it too. Faraway. On top of the hill, perhaps. Beyond it, maybe.
The sound of sharp claws hitting solid rock.
“Sally, do something,” Billy moans. But what can she do?
Clank clank clank
The sound is louder. Sally stands up, placing Billy’s head down on the ground gently. She stands over him defensively. His features are lost in the fog. All she can make out is the vague outline of a boy. And now it isn’t her brother below her but a lamb, alive and helpless. It looks into her eyes and bleats.
Clank clank clank
“Saaaallllyyy” Billy screams.
Billy is four years younger than her but he’s big for his age. He already weighs more than she does. Even so, lifting him onto her shoulder is not hard. She doesn’t notice the weight.
Clank clank clank
The fog is as thick as ever but Sally doesn’t care. With Billy draped over her shoulder, she runs.
She runs as fast as her legs will carry them. The route down the hill is uneven but Sally does not stumble. The burden on her shoulder should exhaust her, but she does not tire. She runs and she runs and she runs.
Clank clank clank
Yet still it is not enough. It is close now. So close that the clanking isn’t all she hears. Low rumbling breaths underline each scraping sound. She looks over her shoulder but, of course, it is all white. It could be one metre away; it could be a hundred but the beast’s getting closer, of that she is certain.
She feels its breath.
Hot, stinking condensation clings to her back.
Billy bleats on her shoulder.
And still Sally runs.
A savage pain pierces Sally between he shoulder blades. She’s about to scream but the noise comes from Billy instead. She turns and sees the beast’s gigantic paw, claws full of daggers, disappearing into the fog. It is here. She hears movement on her left and then on her right. The beast is toying with them.
Blood pours from Sally’s back, turning her white shirt a deep scarlet but she scarcely notices. She takes a step forward and hears breathing in front of her. She takes a step back and is she sure the beast is behind.
Another rumbling sound tells her its ahead, the stinking breath hits her full in the face. She fights back the vomit and turns to run but before she can a lazy paw swats her on the shoulder. It’s not a finishing blow and the claws only graze her but it’s enough to knock her off balance. All of a sudden, she’s aware of Billy’s weight pressing down on her and she can stand no longer. Sally falls to the floor, her chin thumping violently into the solid rock. Billy lands forcefully on her back.
She is face down . The fog is lifting, she thinks in a moment of ridiculous distraction, and then realises that she doesn’t want to die thinking about the weather.
A massive paw plunges down next to her head. She instinctively moves to avoid it but another comes crashing down on the other side. Sally doesn’t move. She stares at the rocky surface in front of her face and remains completely still. Play dead, she thinks as if trying to transmit the message to Billy. It’s out only chance.
A drop of putrid saliva falls onto her ear and dribbles down her cheek towards her mouth. It burns her skin like acid but she fights the urge to wipe it away.
She senses the beast lean in, knows it’s awful head is just centimetres from her own. And then it roars. Sally thinks her eardrums are about to burst. Spittle soaks her hair and the hot stink burns her eyeballs. She knows Billy is screaming next to her but she cannot hear him. All she hears is that earth shattering roar. It is the roar of victory, the cry of a jubilant predator. The roar of a beast who is about to feed.
Sally reaches out and takes hold of Billy’s hand. It feels incredibly small. Then she closes her eyes and awaits the end.
Death does not sound like she expected it to, although she’d never really given it much thought. She probably expected it would be a rushing, whirring noise or, if not that, then complete silence. Certainly not the strange noises she hears now. A clunking sound followed by a popping sound, followed by an agonising howl.
Is it Billy howling? She doesn’t think so.
Is it her? She has to think about this for a moment, raises her hand to her mouth to check that it’s closed. It is, but maybe the rules are different in death.
She rolls over and opens her eyes and it’s her father’s expression which confirms that she is still alive. He is terrified, appalled, confused but more than any of these, he is relieved.
Sally’s eyes move from his face to the thing he’s holding in his right hand. It takes her a minute to process it. The hand pick, she has seen many times before. What’s new, is the gigantic bloody eyeball impaled upon its spike. Thick black puss oozes from the Beast’s pupil, where the pick plunged in, and dark red veins stream behind it, severed when the eyeball was ripped from its socket.
Her father doesn’t even look at it. He discards the tool, lifts Sally up in one arm, Billy in the other and kisses them both on the forehead. He says nothing on their walk to the boat.
The fog is all but gone now. But faraway, they can all make out a distinctive sound receding into the distance.
Clank clank clank