“The Drowned Man’s Kiss” is inspired by the works of the Greek Poet Nikos Kavvadias: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nikos_Kavvadias
In his poem “Esmeralda” there’s this verse: “Come sweet dawn, the drowned man kissed you.” And the story was born from that, playing as it went with the theme of the cursed dagger, which also features in another of Kavvadias’ poem, “To Machairi” (The dagger).
Longtime listeners or backers of our Pseudopod 10 Year anniversary will be familiar with the artistic work and madcap visions of Jonathan Chaffin of Horror In Clay. He makes fine horror-themed tiki mugs, art, and ephemera. He made a Cthulhu tiki mug, before that was a thing, and a cask of Amontillado and an Innsmouth Fogcutter. Now, he has a warning for you. Somewhere in the infinite multiverse, or just on the other side of this shadow, the King In Yellow awaits. “The Pallid Mask” from Horror In Clay is a 8in tiki mug inspired by love for the linked short stories of Robert W. Chambers, and every subsequent writer caught by that fateful play.
The mug is available on Kickstarter, and will ship in August. The mug is part of a collection with companion pieces like a custom-written D6 tabletop RPG module and a Mai Tai glass from the mythic “Shores of Carcosa” restaurant. Learn more on Kickstarter by searching for “Pallid Mask” or at Horror In Clay.
The Drowned Man’s Kiss
by Christine Lucas
Last night, I dreamt of the drowned man again.
It starts with a murmur. A prayer, slithering through a sleeping shipmate’s lips. Or perhaps a confession, or a memory caught in the fog of the ghostly hours before dawn. It lingers little down here, in the stale air heavy with the stench of urine and unwashed bodies. Soon it rises higher, amidst the sails and the riggings, hungry for fresh air. Then comes the scratching against the ship’s hull. Grip by grip, claw-like hands dig into the wood dragging upwards God knows what.
I lay still on my hammock, squeezing my eyes shut. I don’t dare to steal a peek at the narrow stair leading upwards, to the main deck. But I hear the slow drip of water—stagnant, black water mixed with putrid drool and I gag at the stench. Once, when I was a young fool, I did dare a glimpse. Never again. I’ve seen enough of the corpse sprawled across the upper steps, its torso reaching downwards, the rest out of sight. Grey, bloated flesh bathed in the milky light of early dawn. Bone grinds on bone as he turns to seek me out amidst the slumbering sailors. One eye dangles on its decaying cheek, the other socket a dark nest for crabs.
Gnarled hands, their flesh stripped off by water and fish, dig into the wood. First they drag the corpse forward step by step, then they dig into the lower deck’s planks and slouch closer, an arm’s reach each time. Should I dare a peek, there would be no pelvis, not groin, no legs to see below the drowned man’s waist. Only the white-washed remnants of his backbone, and long tendrils of muscle, sinew and entrails.
Madonna forgive me, with every slosh, with every pull of those fleshless hands I pray that he’ll turn towards one of the others. He never does. And I lie there, helpless and exposed like a gutted pig. I cannot move. I cannot scream. I cannot die. And I part my lips when his tongue probes my mouth, cold and slimy like a dead minnow. My heart struggles against my ribs, my stomach heaves and I wake up, breathless and bereft of the dead man’s embrace.
Someone will die today.
Mere superstition, Papa-Nikolas deemed such beliefs back at home, during his Sunday sermons. But common folk know them for omens of certain death: waking up to the drowned man’s kiss or to the ship’s bell double toll. Illiterate sailors’ superstitions across the Aegean Sea. They could be, I guess. But I know such beliefs to be older than Papa-Nikolas’ Christ, older than the twelve slumbering gods beneath their white marble temples. I cannot–will not–shrug them off. I know few men worthy of respect–retired sea captains, stony-faced, hard-eyed, every wrinkle a reminder of a conquered storm. And they all revere these omens and the one who sends them forth—the one who still lurks in the deep.
The breeze carries below deck the scent of spices and the cries of dock workers. I climb up. Someone will die today. My fists clench. It won’t be me.
I wash down the dream’s aftertaste with gulps of tsikoudia from my flask. Droplets drip on my beard and the strong, bittersweet spirit burns my throat and awakens memories of my small island north of Crete–memories of home.
I miss home. I miss Ayse. Without her, I have no home to return to.
The memory of her smile coils like a noose around my throat. I climb the steps to the main deck faster, towards the sunlight. The harbor of Algiers offers plenty a distraction: the loud, colorful crowd clad in djellabas, hooded robes of many styles and sizes. The aromas of cumin and garlic mingles with the stench of animal dung. The docked corsair ships hoist Barbarossa’s banner and ragged captives are herded away to the slave markets. Under the rule of the Barbarossa brothers, slave-trade has flourished across the Barbary Coast.
Our line of trade is safer, although not as profitable: hashish and opium, and sometimes mastic gum from Chios. Captain Yusef looks at me with Ayse’s eyes—so much like them, and so filled with hatred. Would she look at me the same way now? And does he know? He mustn’t. I’m still alive, am I not? But perhaps he suspects. I shan’t give him an excuse today–not with the drowned man’s kiss still on my lips. So I avoid his gaze and my sin—again.
I hurry to join my shipmates unloading the cargo.
With the cargo unloaded and coins in my pouch, I head to town, for some decent food and–damned lice–a visit to the baths. Amidst carts and kebab merchants’ stalls, I elbow my way through the crowd, one hand on my dagger, the other on my pouch. Each step takes me closer to the gathering I’d hoped to avoid: not the slaves, not the corsairs, not even the fast-fingered urchins. My heart flutters when I near the women waiting at the docks.
Clad in dark kaftans, some with their heads wrapped in sebniyyas, some unveiled, they flock away from the ruffle. Their faces light up with every docking ship, looking for those who sailed away: fathers, husbands, sons. This breed of women knows no country or religion across the Mediterranean. They are brides of the sea, a sisterhood of mourning and waiting, from the mother of the last cabin boy to the wife of the most feared corsair.
Ah, Mana… you were one of them, once… Long-dead, now, my poor mother, may the Virgin bless her soul. How long did she wait before giving up, when the sea took my father? How long until she dried her eyes, with no grave to cry over?
How long did Ayse wait for me?
Ayse. My love, my sin, the blood upon my hands. Shame has long erased her face from my memory, but not the scent of her hair—cinnamon and spice—and the way her body coiled with mine. Rare, precious stolen moments of peace, drowned by the thoughtless fool that I was. I blink. Damned sand makes my eyes water. I need shade. There. A door to an off-way shop. I’ll be safe there. Alone.
Two steps down into the cool interior and into another world. I half-heartedly browse through the collection of dusty old swords and moth-eaten uniforms of a dozen Mediterranean armies–Byzantine vamvakia and Saracens’ helmets and Crusaders’ breastplates. A parrot squeaks somewhere outside. Mixed scents flow into the shop: coriander and garlic and camel dung. At the darkest corner, behind dusty bookcases, on the highest shelf above a pile of carpets, I spot a wooden box, under the protection of the khamsa amulet: Fatima’s Hand.
My hands ignore silks and velvets and move upwards, to the box. A blackened hand guides mine, dead blood drawn to shed blood.
“How did you find this? It’s not for sale.” A steady, heavily-accented voice. The shopkeeper appears from behind a cobweb-covered bookcase, his step noiseless as a cat’s, clad in a sand-colored djellaba. Dark-skinned and wrinkled, with small, cunning eyes over a graying beard.
“Why?” I pop the lid open. Amidst a handful of blue nazar talismans lies a dagger, its blade the length of my palm. I pick it up; well-balanced. Damascene steel? Worn heraldry on the hilt: the outline of an anchor with a fish tail curled around it.
A good dagger can come handy. Bad dreams can be just that: dreams. That bastard Yusef is real flesh and blood.
He snatches the box from my hands. “Choose something else.”
“I want this one.” I point the dagger’s tip at him. “How much?”
He raises his arms in defense and his chin in defiance. “Not that. It’s cursed.”
“Cursed?” I cock an eyebrow. The drowned man sighs over my shoulder; claw-like nails trace my jugular. My skin breaks in goosebumps. I manage a half-grin. “You’re not getting one dirham more than it’s worth.”
“I’m not haggling, you fool!” He holds out the open box. “Put it back, if you value your soul.”
My soul? Hah! I lost my soul long before I stepped into this hole. I toss a dirham to him. “No. The curse. Tell me about it.”
He catches it in mid air with surprising speed. His eyes gleam, much like the eyes of the ship’s cats stalking the hashish-eating rats. He measures me from matted hair to bare feet. “Fine, effendi. I’ll tell you.”
Effendi–sir. Such a change in attitude one dirham can make… After the sea robbed me of father, ship and future, such crumbs of respect warm my heart. Even coin-bought respect.
“That dagger ended in my shop with a long trail of blood behind it. Not any blood, no. Legend has it that those wielding it will murder those they love most.” He nods. “Yes, effendi. It’s true. Husbands have killed wives and mistresses, men their brothers and fathers.”
Then that bastard Yusef is safe. I stifle a chuckle. “And whom have you killed?”
“No one.” He meets my stare. “I’ve never handled it, only kept it inside the box, where it can do no harm.”
“Nonsense. If it’s so dangerous, why didn’t you throw it in the sea?”
His wrinkles deepen, his eyes widen and the blood leaves his lips in one heartbeat of absolute terror. He sucks in a deep breath.
“I keep it where I can watch it; I’ll never sell it. Not for one dirham, not for one thousand.” He holds up the box again. “Please. Choose anything else at half price.”
The offer is good. I don’t care. This is an exquisite blade, and the curse–if indeed there’s one–can’t affect me. Everyone I’ve ever loved is already dead.
I blink shame away. I’ve yearned for few things in my life: the sun on my face, a ship under my feet, a warm meal after a hard day’s toil, and her—family, life, old age with her. I can’t have her. But I’ll have this. I want this. I point it at his neck. “How. Much.”
He sighs. When he speaks again, his voice is weary. “The Prophet, peace be upon him, has warned us against murder. I will not sell it to you. I won’t have the blood of your victims on my hands.”
“As you wish.” I tuck the dagger in my belt and flee. He doesn’t try to stop me.
In the shadows of the back alleys of Algiers, my father and grandfathers and all my forefathers, well-respected captains and navigators, turn their backs on me. First a murderer, now a thief. Virgin be blessed, Mana, you rest in God’s arms now and can no longer see your son’s shame.
As I flee, every dog in Algiers howls.
One of my younger shipmates never returns. He got a blade in the gut during a tavern brawl, I’m told. No, in a brothel, someone claims. The fool tried to pull down a whore’s yashmak. But no one can be that stupid; everyone knows that those veiled whores might show their tits for a dirham, but never their faces.
He’s dead. I’m not. I’ve survived another visit from the drowned man.
Later that night, I hear more whispers from the nearby hammocks: Captain Yusef considers expanding to privateering and slave trade.
I roll over and shrug it off. Neither this ship nor this crew are fit for piracy.
Not even Yusef can be this foolish.
We’re two days off Algiers, heading southeast, to Crete. Madonna be blessed, no more bad dreams since we left port. I seek solace in the wind-blown realm of masts and riggings and sails, unless the boatswain orders me elsewhere. My kingdom in the clouds, between the seagulls’ flight and the dolphins’ graceful leaps. There, memories and guilt disintegrate under the sunlight.
Sometimes, I think I spot the mermaid’s tail breaking the surface far off, on horizon’s trail: Panaghia Gorgona, the Madonna Mermaid. With one hand she holds the infant, with the other she wields the storm. It’s the sea herself, some old folk say, while others claim that she’s a deity older than both the Trinity and the twelve. But all agree, and add in whispers, that a host of drowned sailors follows her trail in the deep. Perhaps my nightly visitor is one of them, the harbinger of her will, delivering her justice to those who fail her.
Is my father among her drowned host?
Is Ayse? My son?
My vision blurs. I seek the comfort of my cursed dagger in my palm. There’s no mermaid, no God–no forgiveness.
That night, the drowned man returns.
Come morning, I’m proven wrong. Yusef is that foolish.
Under overcast skies, we’re ordered to follow a small Venetian ship. That bastard Yusef will be the death of us all. Most of us come from sun-scorched coastal villages with brittle soil, scrawny goats, and wells rare enough to teach us the value of fresh water. We are no fighters; we’re goatherds and fishermen turned sailors and smugglers, aboard a ship wrecked enough to attract the least possible attention.
Yusef envies Hayreddin Barbarossa’s infamy and riches; he won’t listen to reason. He doesn’t understand that this barque with the much-mended sails isn’t a galley. We’re not battle-trained seamen, and he’s not Barbarossa.
My mates mutter and take their time following Yusef’s orders. Even the boatswain seems disgruntled, his face drawn, his hands in fists; he’s an olive-skinned Egyptian of few words. When he speaks, he speaks right. As I climb down from the main mast, he tries to talk sense into the captain.
There are enough thugs loyal to Yusef; dogs of a kind pack together. I make my way to the side. I won’t have any of them stand behind me.
A few feet away, the boatswain attempts to reason with Yusef.
“…but what if they carry gunners and bombards? What do we have? Grappling hooks and belaying pins? The men–”
A slap against the face. Stunned silence. The boatswain takes two steps backwards. Wipes his bloody lips. Gawks at the captain. Yusef has never hit him before.
“You have your orders,” he barks.
Yusef pulls a belaying pin from the nearest bulwark and holds it out, pointing it to each man around him in turn. He spins around, until he spots me. He points the pin straight at me. It can crack my skull with a single blow.
“You! You, lazy Greek, always sleeping late, always loitering where you thought I couldn’t see you.” He wags the pin as if he’s wagging a finger to an unruly child. “You’re bad luck, you. If it hadn’t been for my dear late cousin’s pleas, I wouldn’t have taken you onboard.” His voice hardens. “But she’s dead now, isn’t she?” A shadow slithers behind his eyes—Ayse’s eyes. If he didn’t suspect I was involved in Ayse’s death, he does now.
And he’ll kill me for it. Or to scare the others into submission. Or both.
I won’t waste my breath. I meet his gaze and my sin, and keep my right hand on my dagger. My fingers trace the faded heraldry on the hilt. I lick my lips and taste the briny taste of the drowned man’s tongue. I ball my fists, balance my weight. Yusef’s eyes cut too deep. No. Not like this. Not by Yusef’s hand.
“Hah!” Yusef snorts and signals at his thugs. “This dog thinks he’s a man.” Hefting the pin like a club, he charges.
Perhaps it’s the wind that clouds his vision. Perhaps it’s my newfound clarity that steels my arms and guides my moves. Perhaps it’s those eyes that remind me of the man I once was, before this superstitious drunk I’ve become, terrified of bad dreams. I sidestep right in time and elbow him in the back hard enough to send him face down on the deck. I manage a kick against his ribs. Something cracks. He curses.
“Next time, I’ll kill you.” My voice rings calm–controlled. It scares me more than any of Yusef’s threats. And still it thrills me, and I’m drunk by this absolute hopelessness, in which all routes stretch open. Even mutiny against a bully, against a curse, against Sea and Fate.
“Get him, you dogs!” Yusef attempts to get up.
I kick him again. He rolls over onto his back.
At the edges of my vision, his thugs make their move. One of them, a huge Turk, is only a few steps away. He wields a grappling hook. A well-balanced punch on the stomach from the boatswain, and his grin becomes a growl. He drops the hook, retreats a few steps. His gaze darts between Yusef and the boatswain. I cannot tell whom he fears most; his bully of a captain, or the tough–but never cruel–boatswain? The rest of Yusef’s lackeys aren’t more successful: they ‘trip’ and land face first on the bulwark, they step on carelessly ‘forgotten’ caltrops or halt their advance at the sight of drawn hand fids.
Yusef pulls himself up, his face twisted. He hefts the pin and charges again. Before he can manage a blow, I grip his wrist overhead, and punch him on the mouth. A cry–shock and shame and rage, and Yusef spits out blood and chipped teeth. I release his wrist and push him back. He stumbles, rosy froth on his mangy beard, and grips a nearby line to keep his balance. Through incoherent curses, he draws his scimitar.
I draw my dagger.
He chuckles. “Such a small …knife you have there.” He spits at me, and blood lands on the blade of damascene steel.
The dagger vibrates. I feel it through my palm, through muscle and sinew, up to my hair that stands, down to my toes that curl.
Thirst. Need. A call to arms. A call to kin.
Madonna, help me.
But it’s not the black-clad visage of the Virgin that enters my thoughts; it’s a monstrous tail, and she comes bearing the storm.
The wind dies down. The sails hang loose. Lightning cracks over still waters. Cool drizzle starts to fall, and dead lips brush against my ear.
Behind me, someone murmurs—a prayer, a confession, a forgotten shanty from a ghost ship gliding by?
Thin fog rises from the sea. Distant echoes come with the fog and join the murmur. Whispers in tongues we once knew but have long forgotten, lullabies and limericks and prophecies and warnings. And a name—no, many names for the One who has none: Tiamat, Tethys, Thalatta.
Yusef raises his scimitar as if to strike, but then lowers it again, his eyes wild. Some men mumble prayers, others spit thrice on the deck to avert evil, others dare a glance overboard. From somewhere near the prow comes a great splash. Now sea water drizzles over us, and a lad leans over the railing to see. Is it a whale? A dolphin, mocking the affairs of men with its grace?
You know what it is, do you not?
The lad throws his arms in the air and falls onto his knees, his face deathly pale.
“P-panagia G-gorgona,” he mutters, making the sign of the cross.
More men fall on their knees. Faithless thugs and goatherds-turned-to-sailors alike mumble prayers in half a dozen languages. The boatswain remains silent, but holds the nazar amulet on his chest in a white-knuckled grip. Yusef doesn’t pray; never has.
No one listens. He takes one step as if to charge me, but pulls back when I raise my dagger. The next one closest to him is the lad who saw the mermaid. He’s still on his knees, rocking back and forth, his arms crossed on his chest, reciting a prayer to the Virgin. Before I can stop him, Yusef kicks him hard on the chin, sending him on his back. The boy falls and lays still, breathing but passed-out.
My vision blurs. “How brave of you. Such a threat, a praying boy.”
I move towards him. So does the boatswain, picking up the grappling hook Yusef’s thug dropped moments ago. Yusef spins to face me, the tip of his scimitar cutting half-circles in the air, between the boatswain and me.
Then scratching starts; I feel it first under my bare feet. Then I hear it–everyone hears it–through every plank and board, from the hull upwards. Scratching, grazing, scraping, something claws its way up from the deep. Blackened fingers with claw-like nails–the drowned man’s hands. Not one, now, but legion. The praying stops. One of Yusef’s thugs, dark-skinned, thin, his upper lip trembling under his thick moustache, howls like a madman. His eyes roll around, wild as if he’s smoked all the hashish in the cargo hold. Flailing his arms, froth on his lips, he jumps overboard. His muttering turns to a high-pitched sound before we hear a splash. It too turns to a gurgle before all sounds stop.
No one dares to look overboard.
The scratching resumes.
The men huddle together, like a bundle of trembling chickens in their pens. The boatswain stands his ground, holding the hook high. Yusef waves his blade at everyone and no one, cursing, his sword arm shaking.
They are coming for me. For us. Not in dream, but in waking, and I don’t know how to stop them. But this is not a dream in which I lie still, in which I cannot move. Now, I can see. I can bleed. I can die. And I can think, before the drowned man’s lips rob me of breath and life. I glance at my blood-stained dagger. The mere suggestion of throwing it to the sea had filled the old shop-keeper with dread. Why? What does that insignia mean, that fish-tail curled around the anchor? To whom does it belong to?
Yusef screams and charges me, his scimitar high. Mostly out of reflex, I fall to one knee and plunge the dagger upwards, into his gut. I push. And turn. And push. And turn, until the scream stops, until the scimitar falls, until his body collapses limp on the deck, the dagger’s thirst quenched by the sacrifice.
The scratching stops. The fog dissolves. The wind picks up. Amidst nervous whispers and suspicious stares, I remain on my knees, my shoulders slumped, my rage spent. The dagger almost slips my bloody grip; it yearns to return where it belongs. I hold on to it. Not yet. An arm’s length away, Yusef’s glassy eyes are fixed on me, one final reminder of my sin.
He’s dead. Whom will I hate now?
The wind-blown man, my shipmates call me. The call me other things too, but I choose not to listen. I hear they’ve made the boatswain their captain–a good choice. Not that it matters to me–since that fateful morning, I’ve spend my days in my kingdom of sails and riggings. They leave me alone; I know that the next time we reach port, they’ll leave me behind.
Sometimes, I think I spot the mermaid’s tail in the distance, reminder of unpaid debts. I promised Ayse I’d come back to her; I even meant it, at the time. But I didn’t. The lights of distant ports–Morocco, Alexandria, Algiers–kept calling me away. Neither war nor storm or misfortune, only the siren’s call of one more journey, feeding off my soul’s restlessness.
When I did return, it was too late. Great is the shame of an unwed mother in our island, no future for sailors’ whores and their bastards. Her bloated corpse, its hands still clutching the infant on its chest, had washed ashore beneath the Aghios Nikolas chapel–the patron saint of sailors. Was our child stillborn, or did they drown together when she threw herself into the dirty harbor waters?
Is the drowned corpse that visits me a man’s corpse at all?
I didn’t know she was with child when I left; I swear, I didn’t.
The dagger remains strapped on my belt. I suspect now that it carries no curse, but a purpose—is there even a difference? Its purpose becomes a curse to the hands of those who choose it: to return to the One it belongs to, one kill at a time.
But I have finally found my own purpose, the route I’ve avoided much too long. When the drowned man returns, I will kiss him back. And then I’ll return the dagger to its rightful owner, and seek Ayse and my son beneath the waves.
At last, I’m going home.
About the Author
Christine Lucas lives in Greece with her husband and a horde of spoiled animals. A retired Air Force officer and mostly self-taught in English, has had her work appear in several print and online magazines, including Daily Science Fiction, PseudoPod/Artemis Rising 4, and Nature: Futures. She was a finalist for the 2017 WSFA award. In summer 2019, one of her stories will appear in the “Temporarily Deactivated” anthology from Zombies Need Brains.
About the Narrator
Andrew is one of the founders and proprietors of the H. P. Lovecraft Historical Society, and has produced and appeared in films, radio dramas, games, music and audiobook projects based on or inspired by Lovecraft’s work, most notably the motion picture of “The Call of Cthulhu” and the Dark Adventure Radio Theatre series. He is an occasional guest reader on The H.P. Lovecraft Literary Podcast and is the co-host of the podcast “Voluminous: The Letters of H.P. Lovecraft.”
About the Artist
Geneva is a self-taught illustrator from North Carolina, who loves working with colors, big hair, and drawing whimsy with a touch of realism and happiness. Her work has appeared in magazines, novels, editorial and advertising campaigns.