Be calm, thou Wedding-Guest!
‘Twas not those souls that fled in pain,
Which to their corpses came again,
But a troop of spirits blest…
– Samuel Taylor Coleridge, “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”
The water was shallow and the color of dusky jade. The old man trimmed his motor just enough to pass over the turtle-grass, leaving a white and churning trail. He had been fishing off the southern tip of Florida for over fifty years, and could navigate every shoal and coral reef, every channel and bank. He could name each small island, no matter how insignificant. He knew where the mullet muds spread, attracting bass. He knew where to set his lobster traps, and the best locations to catch stone crab. He could tell where the snapper were hiding, and in deeper water he hooked mackerel, bonefish, pompano, and bluefish.
Now he squinted as he studied the water ahead, shading his dark eyes with a brown, weathered hand as he inhaled the humid air heavy with the smells of brine and gasoline. He set the outboard motor on idle, and trimmed it higher. The twenty-five-foot boat rocked and drifted slightly as water sucked and lapped at the white hull and facets of waves glared and glistened in the midday sun. “Another one,” he whispered to himself, his breath whistling through gaps in his teeth as he inspected the marl banks of Ramshorn Shoal about one-hundred feet away.
He collected his largest net and waited as the tide gently rolled the figure towards him. Slowly, undulating golden hair reached for him, white puffy hands flipped back and forth, back and forth as if trying to signal him, and pale, torn breasts broke the surface and sank again in a rhythmic dance. The old man felt tears sting his eyes; she was special, he understood at once. He hurled his net as soon as she was close enough.
The twenty-two-foot T-top cruiser skipped over the waves, approaching one of the small islands somewhere in the vicinity of the Calusia and Corinne Keys. In the boat were five impatient men, all carrying automatic weapons. In the last blush of the setting sun that cast a russet glow on the rippling surface of Florida Bay, the pilot abruptly spied a pier jutting out into the surf ahead of them. It was long, built on wooden stilts, and looked like a finger pointing in their direction. In the distance he could make out the island where the pier originated, and buildings behind a large dock area where shadowy boats pitched and strained at their moorings like chained dogs.
The old man looked up from his work as he heard the distinct sound of an outboard motor approaching his quay. He smiled. “It never fails, sweetie-pie,” he said to the figure of a woman sitting at the kitchen table. “Our newest friend must have called them.” He carefully put down his knife and disconnected the tubing. He lowered the flame on his burner , untied his rubber apron, and pulled it up and over his head.
He left through the side door of his house and walked casually to his fish and bait shop that stood beside it. He unlocked the shop from the rear entrance, and switched on the overhead fluorescent lights. He moved to the front where he rotated the sign in the only window so that it showed “OPEN” to anyone outside.
“Hello, Oliver,” he said to a man seated at a small table to the left of the door, frozen in the act of playing checkers. “Hi there, Preston,” he greeted Oliver’s opponent across the checkerboard, also sitting motionless as if contemplating a move. “Sorry to bother you-all,” he said to the dozen or so inert and tranquil human forms paused in their various activities, as if the light had caught them by surprise.
“How are you, Margaret?” he asked, tipping an imaginary hat at a beautiful woman wearing a flowered shirt-waist dress, who hovered in front of his display cases, gazing silently at the open mouths, glazed eyes and glossy scales of the plump dead fish buoyed by mounds of chipped ice.
He listened to the sound of footsteps, the rapid tread of brutal and arrogant men moving closer and closer along the planks of his pier. “Seems like we’re going to have visitors,” he said as he leaned back against the front of his sales counter.
He caught a momentary, partial reflection of himself in the cool light of the shiny plate-glass window; he was startled by how he had aged, how leathered and wrinkled and bald his head had become. Life always startled him, human and otherwise, how it plowed forward towards degeneration, death, and decay without fail. “That never seemed fair to me,” he said to the young woman leaning against a wall to the right, talking on a payphone, caught in a moment of animated conversation. “No, it never seemed right…” The thudding of heavy boots stopped outside the shop entrance.
The door slammed open, making the little wrought-iron bell above it jangle helplessly.
One of the five men pushing into the fish-and-bait shop reached up and pulled the bell down and threw it to the wooden floor. Another of them, a red-headed tough with a thick, burned neck and cruel eyes, strode in front of the group and motioned them to halt. They readied their high-powered weapons. “I thought we cleaned out all these islands,” the red-haired man said. “Who are you?” he demanded, shoving the point of his AR-15 into the old man’s stomach.
The old man didn’t raise his hands, or move; he looked almost comical, standing so casually with the muzzle of a gun in his gut. “People around these parts call me ‘the hermit,’ and sometimes ‘that crazy old guy,’ but my birth name is Sam,” he answered, his voice devoid of fear or anxiety. “I’m a fisherman. I’ve been fishing these parts for fifty years or thereabouts. I sell what I catch.”
The dark and lanky owner of a M1911 semi-automatic pistol aimed it at the old man’s head. “What are you really doing here, ‘Sam,'” he demanded. He swept his gaze around the store, and for the first time noticed there were people scattered about. He jumped back, swung his gun back and forth in a rapid, nervous arc. “Okay, all of you, stop where you are,” he shouted. “Now!”
His four companions jerked this way and that as they formed a circle and bounced their weapons from one newly discovered witness to the next.
As the end of a gun barrel was no longer pressing against the old man’s belly, he folded his arms and said firmly, “Haven’t you hurt enough people?”
The red-haired man spun around, again jabbing the AR-15 in the old man’s direction. “Shut the hell up,” he barked.
“You murder people and run drugs for any country that’ll pay you. And not long ago, you killed a very nice, pretty woman. No, you did more than just kill her…”
“What the fuck,” he said. “What did you say? How do you know that?”
“She told me. She’s been waiting for you.”
“Who told you what?”
The old man could only smile broadly as he perceived the small, shuffling noises of motion coming from every direction. He watched the red-haired man about-face in time to see Preston and Oliver rise from their chairs.
“Defense position,” the tall man ordered, and the five mercenaries pressed against each other, forming a clump that bristled with firepower as they nervously rotated back to back.
The old man sighed and shook his head as he raised the hinged part of the sales counter, slipped through, and ducked behind. “You guys are the best,” he said to his friends, “I’ll have you fixed up in no time.”
The red-headed man darted his eyes after him, but then became immediately distracted by the woman in the flowery dress who had been so perfectly stationary, and was now incrementally shifting around to face him from the far end of the display cases. “Holy fucking shit…” he sputtered.
They all turned to look at the woman with the wavy black hair, perfect tan skin, and glassy bright eyes placidly watching them. They could hear chair-legs scraping and scuffing shoes and the unmistakable sound of a phone receiver being slammed forcefully into its cradle.
“Shoot her,” the red-headed man bellowed. “You want more of what I gave you the first time, cunt?” he shouted at the woman as she took short, awkward steps towards him. He and the others started firing.
The old man lowered himself to a sitting position behind the humming refrigerated cases as bullets zipped and ricocheted, pinging and banging. He waited for the guns to stop and the screams to begin.
In a bright blue 1950s Mackle home that stood next to a fish and bait shop on a small island somewhere in the vicinity of Calusia and Corinne Keys, a radio was playing the oldies. But not old enough for me, Sam thought, and smiled briefly.
His kitchen was airy with the glass jalousie windows cranked half-open, the Venetian blinds pulled all the way up. Outside he could hear, as he had heard every night of his life, the comforting sound of palm fronds rustling in the sea breeze, the swooshing of waves rhythmically advancing and retreating on the sandy shores. In the nearby thickets of red mangrove he knew fiddler crabs were scurrying for their tiny burrows to escape raccoons, and in the dense stands of gumbo limbo, tamarind, and buttonwood trees that covered most of his island, birds were settling, seeming to sleep.
He gazed at the corpse of the teenage girl stretched out on the tarp draped across his kitchen table. Tubes fed chemicals into the bloated, discolored, and shark-mangled body. This process was uniquely his. As a fisherman and charter captain, he had taught himself taxidermy in order to satisfy customers who wanted to mount their trophies, like soaring sailfish or silvery barracuda. In time, given the isolation, the lack of supplies, he had improvised, experimented with ways to prepare fish with preservatives of his own invention.
And he would have continued with fish, except a few decades back, it seemed something happened to South Florida, something evil. He began to find human bodies in the bay. Victims, voiceless, they came to him. They drifted and floated to him, begging for his help. And he, out of desperation, read about and tried to learn all the ways to preserve the dead. After many years of hard work and failures, he had finally perfected a system, a method. He used aspects of taxidermy, but something of plastination as well. Unable to readily obtain or afford chemicals like acetone or silicone or any of the fancy polymers, he hunted his own substitutes in the hammocks and jungle-like forests, and in the saltwater shallows close to shore.
Of course, he hadn’t expected that his process would work so very well. Or that his new friends would be so single-minded in their loyalty. “It’s funny how life turns out,” he said.
He wiped his hands on his apron and pulled out a chair, sat down next to the beautiful golden-haired woman who reclined at the table, lounging in her pink peignoir with the fuzzy collar. “This young lady was in the water for a long time, honey,” he said to the woman.
She remained motionless, a cheerful smile transfixed on her lovely face, her teeth white and luminescent, her large blue eyes twinkling. Her hands rested in a cupped position around a mug of coffee.
He stroked her long, wavy yellow hair with the back of his left hand while gazing at the wedding band and engagement diamond that sparkled on her left ring-finger. “I love you so much, sweetie,” he said in a low and husky voice. He waited a moment, studying her, and then caught the slightest movement of her head. “That’s a girl,” he exclaimed, giving her a hug with his right arm. “You’re doin’ fine. I’m so lucky, so grateful you found me that day off Ramshorn Shoal.”
He held his wife for a moment more, then said, “Well, back to work.” He stood, pushing back his chair, and walked around to where the tangles and snarls of chestnut curls cascaded from the cadaver’s head. He watched as the mix of natural ketones and other chemicals seeped from the tank, through the tubes and needles, into the girl’s every cell and interstitial space. He began planning how his latest guest might like to abide in the bait shop during her days and months and years to come.