“They used to maroon men out there just before sunset so there was no escaping.”
Reggie stretched his arm over the space between our two Adirondack chairs and topped up my glass with that hellishly strong homemade wine he made. I took a sip and hid my cringe, then looked across the bay to Half Moon Island.
It was obviously named for its shape, a small island less than a mile long that was rimmed with a sand and pebble shore, and had a thick copse concealing the middle. My back porch where we sat had a prime view of the eastern side of the island. At the moment, the treetops glowed with the sunset behind it, a breathtaking sight from my deck.
“They couldn’t have been very smart, then, could they? It’s easy enough to swim over here to dry land.” I said.
“Oh, they were smart all right. They dropped them off around this time of the night, just as the sun was going down. You don’t want to be over there after the sun goes down.”
I suspected there was something behind the matter-of-fact way the old man spoke, and when I turned, I found a twisted smile through the salt-and-pepper beard.
“Bears? Can bears swim that far out?”
“Bears know better.”
“They’d know even better than the bears, don’t they?” With my scowl, Reggie’s wheezing laughter taunted me. “Did I ever tell you about the time a bunch of fellers went looking for Valentine’s gold?”
I drank down my wine and held out my cup for another just to get through the rest of his story.
“No, but I’ve read it. They sent a party to dig for it and were never seen again. Now, their restless spirits can be seen on nights when there’s no moon.”
“That’s a bloody fairy tale.”
I glanced through the kitchen door and caught a smudge as Jen washed dishes. I wished she would hurry it up and join us. Reggie never talked that sea folk balderdash around her. He charmed my wife with the old Gaelic legends his people had brought to this land.
I heard her humming as she washed, and then the clink of dishes. It would be a while yet before she set them to dry and put on the kettle. Until then, I was stuck with Reggie’s stories.
I liked him, I really did, but ever since he’d crossed the dirt road and offered me his hand in greeting, these performances were nightly. I suppose Reggie was part of the charm we were looking for when we both took teaching positions here in rural Nova Scotia. I just wasn’t as charmed as Jen had been with Reggie. I wanted to have a fine meal on the deck and drink some good Riesling, just me and Jen. Yet, here I was, and I had to admit that he was my only real friend here.
I waited for him to go on, but as usual, he didn’t without prompting.
“Well, what happened to them?” I asked.
“No one knows. The men left on the ship could hear them out there talking to one another, their voices as clear as if they were on ship, and then the sun went down and the screaming started. The crew sent a boat out to help. That only added to the screaming, and no one else would set foot on the island until daylight. That’s when they found them, the poor buggers. They found their bones, picked clean as though they’d been there for weeks. If you go to just beyond the forest where there’s a big boulder with a tree fallen over it and you’ll find what’s left of the crosses used to mark their graves.”
“What do you think it was?”
“I wouldn’t hazard a guess.”
I smirked. “Not ghosts?”
“I said I wouldn’t hazard a guess.”
Settling back in my chair, I gazed out. The sun had dipped out of sight now and left the purple haze in its wake. Half Moon Island looked like it was made of nothing but shadow
“A curse, then?”
Reggie took what I expect was supposed to be a slow and dramatic sip of his wine before he went on.
“One legend goes that is was Valentine’s doing. Folks around here like to claim that Valentine was this debonair rascal of a pirate. It goes over real well for the tourists, especially with that foolish pirate festival they have every year. Truth is that Valentine was a real son of a bitch. That story of how he came here and made a jolly pirate colony is bullshit. He gathered all the men of the town on the wharf and shot them in front of their children, then turned their wives into whores for his men. Half the people here are descended from his rampage of rape and murder.”
“They don’t put that on the postcards.”
“Damn right they don’t, nor what he did to the children when he was done here. He went to each house and handed their mothers a knife, told them that they could choose to let their daughters come with him and be sold to brothels, or they could cut the girls’ throats and spare them. Some mothers did the deed and had to live with themselves afterward, but others had to watch their daughters be carted off like the cattle Valentine had made them. As for the boys, he took the ones who were sturdy enough to serve him and did to the rest what he had done to their fathers.”
“Jesus, Reggie, what kind of story is that?”
“Closest one to the truth, I reckon. Some university fellow from England came over here one summer to do research on Valentine’s time here. Said he’d seen some papers Valentine had written before the mutiny that finally served bloody justice and Valentine was a follower of the devil. John ‘Valentine’ Brody putting a curse on that island seems like the sort of thing he’d do. Something’s over there. Not even the rum-runners of the old days would stay the night on the island.”
“A satanic pirate using witchcraft to protect his gold?” I had to say it out loud if for no reason than to chase off the creeping fingers that were making their way across my shoulders.
Reggie just took another sip of his wine. “Whatever it is, we’re lucky it stays there on that island. Like you said, it would be nothing to swim across when conditions are right.”
Much to my relief, Reggie turned the conversation to the news. By the time Jen brought the tea out, the conversation had turned to politics and Reggie thankfully piped down with Jen’s chiding.
“What did he spook you with tonight?” Jen asked later as we crawled into bed.
“I wasn’t spooked. He was talking about Half Moon Island this time. I think he wanted to keep me up all night thinking about it.”
Jen laughed as she tucked her dark curls up into a ponytail. “Of course he did. So, what did he tell you?”
“Some bullshit about Valentine being a Satanist.”
She snickered. “Sounds plausible.”
I scuttled deeper under the quilt. “Better than your theory of giant nocturnal crabs.”
She turned off the light and cuddled closer to my warmth. Neither one of us was yet used to how cold the nights were here in Nova Scotia.
“From the depths of Hell, hungry for human flesh,” she said in her best Vincent Price impression.
“We live on the cusp of Satan’s aquarium. God, the people here and their stories.”
“You love all this salt of the earth stuff, Sam. That’s why you were so hell-bent on moving here.” She turned her back on me, pulling my arm over her at the same time. After a moment’s silence, she brought me from the brink of sleep with a nudge. “Maybe that’s what we heard the night we moved in.”
“I’m certain that was a fox.”
“Maybe it wasn’t. It did sound pretty hideous.”
“It was a fox, and Reggie is just trying to wind me up with his ghost stories. He’s desperate for me to believe him one of these days like you believe all those stories of women in white he tells you.”
“I don’t believe them, I just humour him,” she said, but a moment later I felt her shiver and she pulled me closer.
* * * * *
A week later, with school holidays coming to an end and with them the freedom to enjoy my long and lazy days, I sat on the porch with my morning coffee and looked out at Half Moon Island with a case of cabin fever.
Satanic pirates my ass, I thought. He probably told that story to keep folks from getting into their heads to build a house or a cottage over there and spoil his view.
When Jen came in from her morning shopping, I had already packed the boat. She raised her brows as she came upon me on the dock.
“Are you running off on me? Who is the hussy?”
“We’re running off together. I thought you might like to become one with nature for an evening and sleep under the stars.” She scrunched her nose. I laughed and stood up straight, rubber boots sinking into the soft sand as I planted my hands on my hips. “Can’t you look at it like it’s a holiday?”
“A holiday doesn’t involve sleeping on the beach.” I lifted a brow, and she groaned. “Where?”
“Half Moon Island.”
“Of course not, but I’m not keen on being stuck on an island in the dark when we have a perfectly good house right here.”
I hopped up to where she stood on the grassy bank and slipped my arm around her waist.
“Would you make me go alone?”
“I would, to spite Reggie so that the next time he brings it up — and he will — I can tell him there’s nothing over there at all. Or, better yet, I can make up my own horror story. I think I can do better than your nocturnal crabs.”
“Fine, but I’m not sleeping on the ground. Can we get the folding cot in there?”
Victorious and smug, I loaded the cot and everything her heart desired into the aluminium boat. By supper time we were motoring towards Half Moon Island.
Though far from looking thrilled, Jen smiled as she sat at the stern watching our little red house get smaller. Her bare arms and legs looked spectacular stretched out, and I grinned as I turned the wheel. Not only was I going to sleep on Half Moon Island for the night, I intended to spend a good part of that night making love to my wife under the stars on that supposedly unholy ground.
About halfway across, she straightened up and started waving with both arms.
“What is it?” I called.
“Reggie!” She flailed both arms now, then giggled as she settled. “I think he was trying to get us to come back.”
“Of course. He’s about to lose some of his credibility!”
“You’re so mean,” she said, but nonetheless laughed as she wobbled up to me. She plopped down next to me and wrapped her arms around my waist. “Did you change your mind?”
“No, I’m going to the other side of the island. It wouldn’t be a holiday if we could see our porch light shining from the shore. At least this way we can look out at the big blue Atlantic and pretend we’re far, far away.”
“Will you protect me if anything comes to drag me off?”
“Of course. I’m a manly man, after all, and manly men protect their women from …”
“Please don’t say giant crabs.”
We decided to set up camp right on the beach. Pop-up tent, portable gas barbecue, and a cooler filled with hot dogs and beer. We’d brought our phones, but the signal was sketchy on this side of the island. Jen had brought along her iPad so we could listen to some of the music she’d downloaded until the battery went.
To my surprise, it was Jen who wanted to go exploring first.
“We still have a couple of hours of daylight,” she said. “Besides, don’t you want to see if there’s anything in there?”
“Actually, yeah. Reggie mentioned graves. Even if he’s full of shit, it would still be something to see.”
“Maybe we’ll get lucky and find Cupid’s Gold.”
“Valentine’s gold, you mean.”
We found a path and followed it. It led to a boulder with some graffiti sprayed all over it. No graves. We headed off the path. As long as we didn’t lose the setting sun, we’d hit the beach and be able to find our way back to camp without having to circle the whole island.
Jen pointed out the litter found in the brush. “Looks like this place isn’t as isolated as Reggie would have you believe.”
“No one stays the night though, or so he says. They boat over and take off before the sun goes down.”
I doubted this to be true. There were empties all over the place. This place would make a great isolated party spot Still, it didn’t seem like anyone had spent the night here. If there were kids partying into the wee hours, we probably would have heard them from our place.
There was nothing on the island. Not a goddamn thing. Just woods and trash. We broke through to the other side of the brush and stood looking across at our own house.
“We could just go back,” I suggested, feeling a little deflated.
I’d at least wanted to see some sort of historic relic to validate the local history that said Half Moon Island had been a hideout for seafaring outlaws over the years. My inner history nerd sulked.
“Come on. Now that I’m over here I’m actually enjoying myself.” I lifted my brows and she laughed, “I love Sheet Harbour, but it does get a little boring. This is a nice break, together.”
I took her hand and held onto it as we headed back towards the boat. By the time we reached the other side the sky had started to turn purple with the coming night. We fired up the grill and cracked open the beer. An hour later, we were both stuffed and belching behind our hands as we sprawled on the beach mat we’d brought, gazing up at the glittering sky.
“I should make something up,” I said as I twisted open the last beer. I’d had four to Jen’s two and I was buzzing enough that I knew there’d be no screwing around under that big sky. Jen seemed pretty knackered as well, her lids drooping as she smiled back at me.
“Tell him you were visited by Valentine’s ghost. He told you where the treasure was and you even laid eyes on it, but you were sworn to secrecy. Break your oath and Valentine will return and cut your tongue out.”
“I was going to tell him we saw something in the water and take a blurry picture. I’d bet money he convinces himself he sees something.”
We tipsily shambled around our small tent and made two sleeping cots and bags into one double, then heaped an extra blanket on top. I don’t think it took five minutes for us to fall asleep.
* * * * *
Jen shook me awake, hissing in my ear. “Sam, wake the fuck up!”
I came out of sleep quickly as her jarring urgency broke through. “What? What is it?”
“I heard something.”
I turned my chuckle into a cough. “Oh, really? Did it sound like a giant —”
That’s when I heard her something. A … shuffling, followed by a chittering.
I sat upright and listened while Jen wrapped one arm across my chest and grasped a fistful of T-shirt.
“It’s just an animal,” I told her. “Sounds like a raccoon.”
“That doesn’t sound like a raccoon.”
I couldn’t deny that the sound wasn’t any I’d heard the raccoons that congregate in our yard make.
“Baby, it’s nothing to worry about. We’re outside. There are things outside, even on a little island like this.”
Whatever was outside had come closer now, its click-click-click not far from our tent entrance. My alarm wasn’t quite at Jen’s red-alert level, but I was nervous not knowing what it was. It probably was an otter or a muskrat or something benign, but I figured a deer could swim over to Half Moon Island; if a deer could make it over here, so could something like a lynx.
It could even be a coyote. In these parts, the coyotes were getting a reputation for attacking anything they thought they could take down, including sleeping campers and lone hikers.
“I’ll have a look,” I told Jen.
She grabbed back onto me, clutching fabric and chest hair in a painful clench. “Don’t leave me.”
“I’m just opening the flap, Jen. Stay right where you are.”
She hunkered down and I slipped off the cot, then crawled towards the tent opening. I hoped whatever it was would be scared off by the light. I turned it on, flooding the small tent with a bluish LED glow.
The reaction outside was instant. The thing let out a piercing shriek. It had been right outside the tent flap and the nylon wall shuddered violently as our visitor scrambled back. I heard the grates of our small barbecue clink as the whole thing was knocked over, and the rattle of our empties being scattered.
I glanced back at Jen. She was nose-deep in the blankets with wide and terrified eyes.
“I’m going to open it now.”
My palms sweaty, I prayed I wasn’t about to have my face gnawed off by wildlife as I unzipped the door and shone the light out.
The moon was nearly full that night, but some clouds had moved in and snuffed out most of the natural light that would have otherwise shrouded the beach. I made a wide sweep with the beam but saw nothing, then stretched out enough to point it around the perimeter of the front part of the tent.
“I think I scared it off.”
I was about to turn back to her when a smudge of movement caught my eye. I whipped the light around in time to see something dart a few feet in front of me, huffing as it went.
Jen whimpered and the cot creaked as she pushed deeper into the sleeping bag. With my heart in my throat, I slowly moved the beam of light in the direction the thing had run.
The second the light hit it, it squealed and took off to the right. I leaped back with a yelp. All I caught was long limbs covered with fur as it dashed on all fours away from the light.
“What is it?” Jen asked, voice muffled and shaking beneath the covers.
The thing outside chirruped again. It had obviously moved back in once I retreated. I quickly zipped up the tent flap.
“We’re leaving. Right now. I’ll come back for out stuff in daylight or just leave it or … whatever. I don’t care. We’re just getting on the damn boat and going home.”
“But what is it?”
“Some kind of animal. Coyote maybe. I don’t really want to find out.”
The two of us moved quickly inside the tiny confines of the tent, long enough to throw on our coats and shoes and tuck our phones into deep pockets. All the while, the thing outside scampered about, occasionally darting close enough to brush against the tent.
The boat’s not far away, I told myself. If we have to run we’ll still make it. All it’ll take is a little push to get it in the water and then I can get the motor going.
As soon as we were ready, Jen and I huddled near the tent’s entrance. I could hear the thing outside scuttling in the sand, letting off a raspy growl every few seconds. My heart was in my throat and it was a fight not to show my wife how scared I actually was. When I whispered to her, I did so with a calm that barely constrained my fright.
“Walk quickly. Don’t run unless you have to. They might go for the cooler when we’ve moved away.”
She made a scared and strangled sound as she nodded her head and grasped the bottom of my coat. I faced forward and tightened my grip on the flashlight. I wished I had paid for the heavy tactical one that could double as a club instead of a weak plastic solar powered light.
I unzipped and we both stepped out.
The clouds had moved on and freed the moon from its shroud, and now the beach was lit up with silver. I could see now that there were actually two of the things about thirty feet away from our tent and near the shoreline, two crouching animals watching us as they made those horrible throaty sounds.
Jen’s already laboured breath picked up. “What are they?”
I shook my head. I didn’t have an answer. They sure as hell weren’t coyotes or lynx or anything I’d ever seen. In silhouette, their limbs were skeletal, appearing more insect than mammal, their heads dome-like without any hair, and two small nubs on their side for ears.
I turned around to put my body between Jen and these things and walked backward, flashlight aimed at the ground to keep from startling them again.
We made it about ten feet before they started to move. One made a guttural sound and started towards us. The other answered in a yip and bolted off from the beach to the trees. Every part of my body went cold as I saw that body in silhouette.
It didn’t move like a coyote or a lynx either. It moved like a human scrambling on hands and feet. The same could be said for the one that slowly advanced on us. It struck its long arms out in front of it and pulled itself along, trailing us one hop at a time.
“Jen, lead me. I don’t want to turn my back on this thing but I can’t get us to the boat without a pair of eyes.”
“I can see it. It’s not far,” she said, but I could tell from the frustration in her tone that the boat looked much farther than it actually was.
Painfully slow, we lurched towards the boat, the soft sand under out feet sinking with every step and threatening to trip us up. Every inch of my body prickled with fear.
Behind me, Jen quietly cried as she led the way.
Then the clouds once more crawled across the moon and we were in darkness again. I swore and Jen froze.
“Something just moved in front of me,” she whispered so breathlessly I could barely make her out.
“Keep moving,” I urged her, never taking my eyes off of the slinking figure ahead of me. I was too scared to put the light right on it. I didn’t want to see whatever it was. I didn’t want to know for the rest of my life what sort of thing lived on Half Moon Island. I tried to push Reggie’s story about the treasure hunters out of my head, but the creeping vision of bodies flayed of skin and muscle plagued me.
“Close,” she said, then shrieked and grabbed onto me. “There are more of those things.”
I’d seen them. The darkness shuddered as they moved, their clicking and grunting sounds getting louder and more frequent, excited or agitated or maybe hungry.
The one that had been following in my footsteps bolted forward in three hops and growled at me. What I had thought were paws caught in the light and I had to press my lips together to keep from sobbing as I realized they weren’t paws. They were small and bony hands. They weren’t covered in fur, but caked in mud and debris from the forest floor.
It took another leap and swatted at my legs. I screamed and pushed Jen in the direction of the boat, shouting at her to run. I didn’t look back as we closed the gap between us and the boat. Those things darted back and forth in our path, yipping and snarling now. We evaded them all, but just as we were in the last few steps Jen yanked me back.
“Oh God,” she sobbed, curling into me as I aimed the light at the boat.
There was one right on the bow, hunched as the first two had on the beach with skeletal limbs drawn close to it and head cocked.
I clearly see the thing for what it was: an emaciated child with dirty skin like leather, slack jaw revealing broken and jagged teeth. I’d say it gazed at us in curiosity, but the goddamn thing didn’t seem to have any eyes in those sunken sockets.
The ones around us became bolder now, swooping in close enough to spray us with sand and grit before darting off again. I kept my eyes on the one on the boat.
“The second it moves we have to go right for the boat. You get in and I’ll push.”
“What if it doesn’t move?”
Then we’ll become another story for Reggie to tell, I thought, but I didn’t dare say it out loud. If we had to bolt for the damn bay and swim home, I’d risk hypothermia and drowning over whatever these things had planned for us.
My panic rose as the things grew bolder, coming in close enough to brush against our bare legs. I held tight to my shaking and whimpering wife.
I was sorry, so sorry that I had brought her here, but I was too scared to tell her. It would bring her no comfort, just confirm that there was nothing either of us could do to get off this fucking island.
The thing on the boat gave off a wheezy rattle and sprang into the sand to circle us.
I didn’t waste a second. I grabbed a fistful of Jen’s jacket and hauled her with me towards the boat.
The boat rocked as Jen’s dove in. I dropped the flashlight in the sand and threw all of my weight into getting the damn thing off the beach. It only took seconds but I might as well have well been moving a mountain. I went armpit deep into the cold water and with Jen’s help, I hauled myself in. It was a miracle that the motor started right away and I steered the aluminium boat around the north end of the island.
They didn’t follow us into the water. I wasn’t a spiritual man but I could have wept in prayer. They gathered, sixteen small wasted figures, some scuttling back and forth while others squatted as they watched us go.
Jen sank down next to me. She didn’t care that I was soaked from the sea as she latched onto me and cried her eyes out. I wrapped my arm around her, but I had to keep looking, had to keep my eyes on those sickly things until they bled back into the dark forest on Half Moon Island.
I wasn’t surprised to see Reggie making his way down the hill to greet us when we reached the mainland about twenty minutes later. He reached his hand out and helped Jen from the boat, then offered me his hand.
I took Jen inside, drew her a hot bath, made her a cup of tea and gave her a sleeping pill, then changed into something dry and joined Reggie outside on the deck with a bottle of whiskey.
“Did you really not know what’s over there?” I asked after I took a swig.
“I heard tell of devils or something,” he muttered.
“You believed it, though? I saw you trying to wave us back.”
“I grew up taught to believe in that sort of thing, but I wasn’t sure until I saw the look on your face when you motored up.” Glass clinked against glass as he poured out a drink.
I looked out across the bay to the nightmare we had escaped. “It was the children.”
“You said Valentine put a curse on that island? He didn’t. He cursed those children, those boys he didn’t take with him. He took them over there and killed them or sacrificed them. Whatever he hid, he left them there to protect it.”
Reggie’s bushy white brows came together as he leaned forward. “Are you putting me on?”
“Did you see the state Jen is in? Does it sound like I’m putting you on?” I finished off my whiskey and slammed the glass down on the railing. “If you want to sit out here and spin your latest tall tale, be my guest. I’m taking a pill and going to bed, and in the morning I’m going over there and getting my stuff off that island.”
“You don’t have to. I’ll go over.”
“You can come with me, but I’m going over.”
The next day I left Jen to pack a few suitcases. She refused to stay at the house another night, not with Half Moon Island right outside our door. I wasn’t going to argue with her. Even if those things didn’t follow into the water I didn’t feel safe. We’d get a place in town and put the house up for sale.
She tried to talk me out of going back over for our stuff and reasoned that there was nothing of value over there, but I insisted on at least getting her iPad.
I had no intentions of taking the tent or anything else. It would stay there as a warning for anyone foolish enough to try and sleep there. If the abandoned campsite didn’t deter people as long as it remained, I hoped the sign Reggie and I fashioned would:
DEATH AFTER DARK. BEWARE VALENTINE’S CHILDREN.
I added the date and my initials, but I doubted that would convince anyone foolish enough to do what I had done.
I stood on the periphery of the forest where the children had come from. Reggie stood at my side, smoking his umpteenth cigarette. Anyone else might have thought I had staged the whole thing, but not Reggie. He had scanned the prints in the sand and agreed they were small human footprints.
“I hope I don’t live long enough to find out what happens to folks when you don’t get off of here before dark,” he said, then clapped his hand on my shoulder. “Come on. Your woman’ll be looking to get into town before the sun goes down.”
That afternoon around suppertime Jen and I got into our car and drove away from our dream house, and I saw Reggie in the rear-view mirror looking out at the sea. Something about his pose gave me a queer feeling, though it wouldn’t be for another six years before I found why. The very day the town doctor told Reggie he had terminal lung cancer, Reggie disappeared. His boat was found beached a few miles up the coast several days later. His body was never found, and it was presumed he gave himself to the sea.
That’s bullshit. Reggie took his boat over to Half Moon Island and waited for the sun to go down.
I went over myself a week after the memorial service. I went early in the morning by kayak. I found Reggie’s initials and the date painted on that sign and I found a half-finished bottle of his homemade wine at the base.
He went to see for himself what had driven my wife and I into town, to see for himself whether Valentine had really cursed those boys to protect his treasure. Reggie went looking for those children and he found them, and his disappearance is now another story people around here tell about Half Moon Island.
© 2017 Annemarie Hartnett
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