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As Betwixt the Devil and the Deep Sea

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  • As Betwixt the Devil and the Deep Sea

    Summary: After a few days’ stay on a remote and bleak island in the sea, a writer finds that the boat he arrived in has been torn from its mooring by a storm. None of the locals will take him to the mainland, afraid to brave the waters after the storm, and as he struggles to make his way home, it seems more and more as if something doesn’t want him to leave.

    Rating: Mature

    Content Warnings: supernatural, physical, and psychological horror, suicide

    Status: Complete

    Scribe's Note: Originally written for an online anthology.

    Beta reader:
    Scribe in Command

  • #2
    As Betwixt the Devil and the Deep Sea

    The waves lapped lazily at the stony beach, nary a sign that a storm had rolled past the night before and torn my boat from its mooring. Above, seagulls soared, their screeches carried on the softly blowing wind. The old man, a grizzled character with wild, grey hair and beard and a scar across his cheek, sighed and shook his head. ‘Sorry, lad, but yer boat’s gone. Could be anywhere. Like as anything been smashed upon some cliffs. Waters hereabouts are treacherous.’

    I looked out over the steely sea. ‘Could you take me back to the mainland?’

    ‘Me? Not a chance.’ The man shook his head vigorously.

    ‘Why not? I’ll pay handsomely. Can you think of anyone else who might, if you can’t?’

    The old fisherman pulled a pipe and a tin of tobacco out of his pocket and began to stuff the pipe. ‘No one on this island will go out there, not after that storm.’

    ‘But the waters are calm now,’ I said, gesturing out at the waves. ‘There’s barely a breeze blowing.’

    ‘No,’ the old man struck a match and lit his pipe, ‘that storm was only the beginning. Mark my words. Ye’re better off waiting it out here.’ He blew out a puff of smoke.

    ‘Now, just one moment!’ I said. ‘My good fellow, I really must—’

    He interrupted me. ‘Ye’d best get back to town, lad. Where it’s safe.’

    ‘Well, how long do you think it will be until it’s safe, then?’ I asked, exasperatedly. The old man merely shrugged and sucked on his pipe, refusing to look at me. With a sigh of frustration, I picked up my luggage, turned from him, and walked away from the shore.

    The ‘town’, as he had so generously described it, was in truth no more than a village. The only settlement on the island consisted of some twenty houses, a few farms, a shop that received supplies from the mainland twice per month, an old stone church, and a single tavern that, luckily, had three rooms up for rent, in one of which I had been staying since I arrived three days prior. I had intended to return today, but apparently that was no longer possible. The storm had seen to that.

    It had come out of nowhere. The day before had been fine; not a cloud in the sky nor any on the horizon, though the island seemed perpetually bleak even when the sun shone. I had gone to bed late. It had been nearly midnight when I blew out my candle after spending the evening writing. When I laid down my head, it was perfectly calm and quiet. The storm woke me less than an hour later. It struck like lightning from a clear sky. I had stood up and looked out my window, and for a moment I thought I saw something, lit up for a second by the lightning. Something huge and dark, out to sea. A half-dreamed imagining, no doubt.

    I returned to the tavern, setting my luggage down next to the bar. The landlord turned to me with a look of surprise. ‘I thought you’d gone back to the mainland, sir.’

    ‘Unfortunately,’ said I, uttering another deep sigh, ‘the storm tore my boat from its mooring. So either I find someone to take me, or I shall have to ask for my room back.’

    ‘Well, you won’t find no one who’ll brave them waters after the storm,’ said the landlord. ‘But your room’s still free. Isaac!’ he called, and a moment later his son appeared from the kitchen. ‘Please, help our guest get his luggage back to his room.’

    ‘Certainly.’ The young man smiled at me and picked up my suitcase. ‘Right this way, sir.’

    I followed him up the stairs. Eighteen years old, the boy was most certainly not hard to look at, with dark hair and sparkling dark eyes. I could look, but of course, that was all I could do. Isaac opened the door to my room, and I stepped inside. He followed and deposited my luggage next to my bed, but he did not leave, instead glancing around the room before his eyes fell on me.

    ‘So, if you don’t mind my asking, sir, were you not leaving this morning?’

    ‘So eager to be rid of me?’ I asked, cocking an eyebrow.

    The boy blanched. ‘Not at all! Begging your pardon, sir, I meant no disrespect. I was just . . . curious.’

    I smiled. ‘I was only joking. The storm took my boat. It would appear as if I am stuck here, as I have been told that no one will take me back.’

    ‘Oh, that is bad luck, sir. Most folks ’round here never leave the island for anything else than to go fishing. You may have to wait for the supply boat, and that will be another week or thereabouts.’

    ‘But I have a train back to London in three days!’

    Isaac gave me an apologetic smile. ‘I’m sorry, sir. Not much I can do about that, I’m afraid.’

    ‘Your father and the old fisherman I spoke to on the beach said people are afraid of the storm.’

    Isaac shrugged. ‘The older folks here are superstitious. They’re afeared of everything. Storm like that come from out of nowhere, it’s bound to spook them some. ’Specially the ones never been off the island before.’

    ‘Have you?’ I asked curiously.

    ‘No, sir.’ The boy laughed. ‘I always wanted to, but . . . It hasn’t happened yet. But I’ve kept you long enough. Let me know if there’s anything you need.’ His eyes met mine as he said it, and I wondered for a moment if he knew. Then he nodded his head and left the room, closing the door behind him.

    I sat down at the writing desk with a sigh. If I was going to be here for a while, I might as well get some writing done, and I pulled paper and ink out of my leather satchel.


    As there was little to do in the village, I spent the rest of the morning writing before going for a walk along the beach. The sun was once again shining, though still the place seemed bleak, and a chill wind blew in from the sea. I pulled my coat more tightly around myself. The round stones and pebbles crunched beneath my boots, and the sound of the rolling waves filled my ears. This was why I had come here in the first place. The peace and quiet. What better place for a fellow to get some writing done? And the island was the perfect setting for my novel. Bleak, isolated, just the sort of place where sinister things might be afoot.

    I had not counted on being stuck here for over a week, however. I would be able to afford a new train ticket back home, but it was an expense I would rather avoid, and my landlady would worry if I did not return when I had said I would. I had no way of getting word to her about what had happened since the island lacked a telegraph. It lacked many other modern comforts as well, such as proper plumbing, and there certainly was no electricity.

    The island lay a few miles off the coast. To the south and west, one could see the mainland on the horizon, but to the east and the north, there was nothing but open sea. The village was located on the eastern part of the island. West of it, more sheltered from the sea, was farmland, and to the north was a small forest, nestled atop high cliffs. The stony beach, where the boats lay and the fishermen’s huts stood, faced south-east. When the afternoon tide came rolling in, the waves nearly reached the huts.

    As the sun began to set, I returned to the village. When I got to the tavern, Isaac was waiting for me. ‘There you are, sir! I’ve been looking for you. Come, let’s go to your room. I have news.’

    Once again, I followed him up the stairs and into my bedroom. What news might he have? Had he found a way for me to get home? He closed the door and turned to me. ‘I asked around, and it’s as my father says: no one will take you back to the mainland.’

    My shoulders slumped in disappointment, and I sighed.

    ‘But!’ he continued. ‘I have decided that I will take you. I can . . . borrow a boat.’

    I narrowed my eyes. ‘You mean steal one.’

    ‘No! I will return it, and no one’s using them right now anyway. They won’t even know it’s missing. And if they do . . . well, better to ask forgiveness than permission.’ He grinned. ‘This is your chance to get home! And my chance to see the mainland, if only for a half-hour. What do you say?’

    I thought about it, chewing my lip and studying the young man’s face. Something about that excited visage made it difficult to say no, and finally, I responded, ‘I say yes. Thank you, Isaac. Your assistance is greatly appreciated.’

    ‘Think nothing of it, sir,’ he said and smiled at me. Something in that smile made my stomach stir and my cheeks flush. ‘Now, why don’t you come down for a spot of supper? There’s a hearty soup and fresh-baked bread all ready for you.’

    ‘I thank you.’ I joined him down the stairs, once again trying not to stare too obviously at his lithe, yet clearly athletic, form. One could not help but imagine. It had been so very long since I had been with anyone. Not since my university days. Not since William.


    That night, just as I was putting down my pen, there came a quiet knock at the door. It was soft enough that I barely heard it at first, but then it came again, and I stood. I carefully opened the door, not wanting to wake anyone.

    Isaac stood there, and before I could invite him in, he pushed carefully past me and closed the door. ‘I’ve everything prepared,’ he murmured. ‘It might be best if we leave at first light, so no one gets wind of what we’re doing.’ He stood very close to me. I swallowed.

    ‘Oh. All right, then. I . . . I shall be ready.’

    ‘Don’t worry, I’ll come wake you.’ He smiled through the soft candlelight.

    ‘Was . . . was that all?’

    ‘Yes,’ he said. Then, ‘No. I . . .’ He hesitated for a moment, bit his lip. ‘I seen you looking, so I thought I might kiss you now.’

    I blinked. ‘Oh. Yes, that . . . that would be acceptable.’

    And he did.

    An hour later, I lay on my bed with the beautiful young man naked in my arms. His dark eyes glittered, and he smiled up at me. ‘What if . . . ?’


    Isaac bit his lip again; clearly a nervous habit. ‘What if I stayed with you? I could send the boat back with the supply boat. I’ll leave a letter for my mother; tell her I want to see the world for a while. I’ll come back one day, probably.’

    ‘I’ve known you for all of three days,’ I reminded him, and Isaac laughed.

    ‘Not expecting you to take me in, sir. But perhaps you could show me some things. I have money, don’t you worry. Got some put away. Should be enough to get me started. I’ll find work somewhere. I’m strong, there’s much I’m fit for. So I’m not asking you to look after me.’

    ‘Shame,’ I murmured. ‘I wouldn’t mind looking after you, come to think of it.’

    Isaac grinned and kissed me again. I ran my fingers through his dark curls. ‘I should go,’ he said. ‘Better I sleep in my own room, then get up and make sure everything’s ready in the morning.’

    He stood, and I admired his body as he dressed. Giving me one last grin, he quietly left the room. As I lay in bed, I imagined hiring him as an assistant. That way we could be together. I had not expected to find a lover on my trip—certainly not out on a bleak island in the middle of nowhere—but perhaps some good had come out of my misfortune, being stuck here. I pondered this as I fell asleep and dreamt pleasant dreams of a beautiful man.


    I woke just before dawn and packed my things. Then I sat on my bed and waited. As the sun began to rise, I began to wonder what was keeping Isaac. I had a powerful need to relieve myself, and so I stood up and left the room to go out to the outhouse, rather than utilise the chamber pot. I walked down the stairs into the tavern and stopped dead at the sight that greeted me.

    There, dangling at the end of a rope from the rafters, was Isaac. His eyes were open, glassy, his stare blank. ‘No,’ I whispered. Then, louder, ‘No!’ I rushed over, stood on a chair, and attempted to get him down. Perhaps he was still alive. Perhaps he could yet be saved. But his skin was cold and clammy, and he was deathly pale. ‘No!’ I cried, struggling with the knot.

    ‘What’s this ruckus?’ said the gruff voice of the landlord. Then he, too, must have caught sight of his son, because next he said, ‘Isaac? Lord, boy, what have you gone and done?’ His voice broke.

    Together, we managed to get Isaac’s still body down from the rafters. We laid him out on the floor just as his mother appeared in the doorway behind the bar. Her eyes widened in shock. ‘Isaac . . .’ Then she rushed to his side and pulled his head into her lap. ‘Isaac! Wake up!’ She wept bitterly, calling her son’s name over and over, but there was no response. He was entirely still. Dead.

    The landlord and I stepped back. A mother’s grief should not be interfered with.

    ‘I should get the doctor. And the vicar.’ The landlord shook his head. ‘Oh, Isaac . . .’

    I swallowed the lump in my throat. It would not do to show my grief; I had no cause for it as they were concerned. ‘Why . . . why would he—?’

    The landlord shook his head again. ‘That boy was never quite right,’ he murmured.

    ‘He seemed right to me,’ I said softly, looking away from the scene before me.

    ‘No,’ said the landlord. ‘He had . . . urges.’ Once again, he shook his head, as if to rid himself of the thought. ‘I’m sorry. Forget I said anything.’

    So, the father knew. It did not, however, seem as if he knew about me. It was important I keep it that way. ‘If you tell me where to go,’ I said, ‘I can get the vicar and the doctor.’

    The landlord gave me directions, and I stepped outside, immediately succumbing to tears. ‘Get a hold of yourself,’ I told myself. ‘You only knew him for three days!’ All the same, it felt like another love lost. Another sweet, young man gone. Perhaps I was cursed. I wiped my tears as I walked to the doctor’s home. It made no sense. Why would Isaac take his own life on the eve of his departure from this place? A cold breeze blew in from the east, and I hugged myself against the chill.


    After fetching the doctor and the vicar, I once again spent the morning in my room. I tried to write, but nothing came. Thoughts of Isaac kept filling my head. The more I thought of it, the more nonsensical it seemed for him to take his own life. Around midday, I went down to the tavern and attempted to clear my head with a pint of ale, but the space brought back the memories of Isaac’s lifeless body hanging from the rafters, and I soon drained my pint and left the inn.

    I wandered aimlessly. Isaac’s funeral was scheduled for the very next day. I wondered whether I should attend. Whether I, a stranger, would be welcome. After a while, my legs brought me down to the beach again. I stared out across the ocean. To the south and west, I saw the mainland, infuriatingly close but impossible to reach. The sun was not out today, the grey clouds casting the sea in shades of steel and midnight. The wind was still, the waves small. I squatted down and searched among the stones until I found a flat one of just the right size.

    I had often skipped stones on the lake near my childhood home as a boy. My father would go there to fish, but I had no interest in such things. Skipping stones, however—at that I became a master. It had been a long time since I had done it, but I reckoned that, even on the waves, I would be able to get at least four good skips with the stone I had found.

    Putting my weight on my back foot, pulling back my shoulder and elbow, and bending my wrist just so, I made to throw the stone, when a gruff voice barked, ‘What do ye think ye’re doing? Have ye lost yer mind?’

    I relaxed my stance and lowered my hand, looking behind me. It was the old man from before. His pipe was lit, and he glared at me. ‘What?’ I asked.

    ‘Ye don’t throw rocks in the ocean!’ he said. ‘Not here, ye don’t. Sea will swallow ye up!’

    Unsure how to respond to this, I laughed nervously. ‘For skipping stones?’

    ‘For disrespect!’

    Shaking my head, I dropped the stone onto the beach. ‘My mistake, I suppose.’

    ‘I should think so.’ The man approached me, still glaring. ‘Why’d ye come out here, stranger? To our island?’

    I shrugged. ‘For the air? The peace and quiet? I am a writer. I thought this place might inspire me. Back on the mainland, they said this was the bleakest, most desolate inhabited island there is.’

    The man shook his head, his expression grim. ‘Ye shouldn’t have come here. This place is not for ye.’

    ‘So I am beginning to see,’ I said bitterly. ‘But no one will help me leave! The last person who—’ I cut myself off and held my tongue. It would not do to tell this man what Isaac had been meaning to do.

    As if he had read my mind, the old man said, ‘I heard about the landlord’s son. Bad way to go.’

    I looked away. ‘Why would he do it?’

    ‘Shame?’ said the old man. ‘Regret? Place this small, ye think people don’t know exactly what everyone else is about? Or perhaps the whispers just got to him.’

    I frowned. ‘The whispers?’

    The man was silent for several seconds, staring out at the sea. ‘Ye’ll hear them soon enough. We all do.’ He caught my eye. ‘Folks don’t leave this island, lad. It gets a hold of ye. And that young man should have known that.’ He shook his head, his expression suddenly sad. ‘Ye shouldn’t have come here,’ he repeated, then turned and walked away.


    It was now clear to me that I had to leave. I considered waiting, staying for Isaac’s funeral. Paying my respects. But something told me that Isaac would have wanted me to get away if I could. There were beached boats not far from the village. It would be easy enough to borrow one. I could do what Isaac had planned; find the supply boat and ask the captain to tow my boat back to the island on his next voyage.

    That night, once the village was quiet, I packed my things and sneaked down the stairs and out of the tavern. I made my way down to the beach and had just reached the boats when suddenly, out of nowhere, a storm hit. The sea rose up, dark and ominous, and lightning flared across the sky, followed by thunder echoing out across the water. I stumbled and fell and thought the waves, now racing up the beach, would catch me and pull me to my death in the depths. And as I stared in horror at the roiling sea, I thought I saw something beyond it. Something monstrous and terrible.

    The waves reached no further than my ankles, and finally, I scrambled to my feet. Pulling my luggage behind me, I ran for the village, not looking back, even as the wind caught hold of my hat and carried it out to sea. I was not sure what I had seen, nor was I certain I wanted to know. By the time I reached the inn, the storm was already dying down.

    I slowly made my way back up to my room. With the wind still blowing and the rain still pitter-pattering on the roof, I was sure no one would hear me, and I reached my room without incident.

    My mind battled with itself. My rational brain told me that I could not possibly have seen what I thought I saw and that the storm hitting just as I got down to the beach must be coincidence. But it was difficult not to believe the evidence of my own eyes. And after the old man with the pipe had told me that people did not leave the island, it was yet more difficult to rid myself of the feeling that something was trying to keep me here.

    Maybe that same something had tried to keep Isaac here too. Could it be possible that Isaac had hanged himself under the influence of some sort of dark force that would not let him leave? That knew he was planning to take me away? In which case, was his death not my fault? Everything you love dies, said a voice in my head. Everything.

    A wave of nausea hit me, and I fell to my knees, pulling out the chamber pot from under the bed and vomiting into it. Not wanting to sleep with the foul stench of it in the room, I took the pot outside with me and emptied it in the gutter, letting the rain wash it clean. I stood there for several minutes, in the dark, letting the water from the heavens wash over my hair and face, leaving my clothing damp. I looked at my pocket watch. Nearly midnight. For some reason, I did not want to be out in the dark once the clock struck twelve. As superstitious as the natives. I scoffed at myself and went back inside.

    I lay awake for a long time before sleep finally found me. I dreamt of my dear William, lying beaten and bloodied where those men had left him. Then I heard the sea, calling to me. It called me by name. Isaac was there, staring at me with dead eyes. He did not speak. And there were so many voices, whispering. I could not understand them, but when I awoke the next morning, I felt as if I heard them still.


    The whole village was present for Isaac’s burial. I stood back from the rest in an attempt to seem inconspicuous. Once again, as far as they were concerned, I had no reason to grieve with them. The wake was in the tavern. I sat at the bar while the villagers spoke in hushed tones about the departed. I felt as though I was being watched, judged. I thought I caught occasional glances in my direction out of the corner of my eye, but every time I looked up, they were looking elsewhere. All the same, I did not belong there, so I stood up, intending to leave the tavern.

    ‘Stranger,’ said a voice, and a large man stepped in front of me, his arms folded over his muscular chest. ‘Where are you going?’

    ‘For some air,’ I replied. ‘I . . . do not wish to intrude.’

    ‘Not safe out there,’ said another man.

    ‘It is daylight!’ I protested. ‘How could it not be safe? There is nothing on this island but sheep.’

    ‘You heard him,’ said the large man who had first spoken. ‘Best you stay inside, stranger.’

    ‘I beg your pardon, sir,’ I said, pulling myself up to my full height; though the man before me was broader and more muscular, I was just as tall, ‘but I intend to go outside. Now please, let me pass.’

    ‘Coincidence, isn’t it?’ said the second man. ‘Stranger come to town and three days later, kid offs himself.’

    I stared at the man with incredulity. ‘Surely you are not suggesting that I—’

    ‘Do not go outside.’ It was Isaac’s mother who had spoken this time. ‘For out there you will surely perish. He will come for you. He will come!’

    Her husband approached and gently took her arm. ‘Calm yourself, woman.’

    ‘No!’ She flinched away from him, her eyes still fixed on me. ‘Stay in here. Stay with us! It is not too late for you. You can still—’

    ‘Hush now,’ the vicar said in a calm voice. ‘If the stranger wishes to brave the outside, let him. He is nothing to us.’ He turned to me. ‘My son, you may not have killed Isaac, but you are still to blame for his death. Your coming here upset the balance. You have angered the powers that be, and Isaac paid the price.’

    I blinked several times, then rushed from the inn. Out in the street, I stopped. I seemed to have difficulty breathing. It was midday, but the sky was dark with clouds, casting the world into shadow. I doubled over, hands on my knees, and sobbed.

    The door to the inn opened and closed. ‘Crying won’t do ye no good now, lad.’

    I looked up to see the scarred old man. ‘What will?’ I asked, straightening up and wiping my face with my sleeve.

    ‘Nothing.’ He stared at me, sucking on his pipe. ‘Nothing at all.’

    ‘The vicar said it’s my fault that Isaac is dead.’

    ‘It is,’ said the old man. ‘And it isn’t. Folks die. Nothing ye can do about that. Sea takes us all in the end.’

    ‘The sea didn’t take Isaac.’

    ‘Yes, it did. No matter how ye go here, no matter how ye die, it’s always the sea, in the end.’ He gestured towards the churchyard across the way. ‘There are no bodies in them graves, they’ve all gone to the waves. And it’ll take you too. It can take ye tomorrow, or next week, or in fifty years. It’s up to you.’

    I frowned. ‘How?’

    ‘Ye can flee and drown. Ye can fight and lose. Or ye can stay, and ye can live.’

    Voices rose from inside the tavern. I thought they were singing at first, but it was no song and no tongue that I recognised. It was a chant, dark and guttural. Chills went down my back, and I swallowed. I looked at the old man and backed away from him, shaking my head. ‘What is going on here? Whatever is the matter with you people?’

    ‘I told ye. No one leaves this island. Consider this yer last warning.’

    A wind blew up from the east, rustling through the trees in the churchyard. I could hear the sea, waves crashing against the shore. I shook my head again. ‘Isaac wanted to leave. He wanted me to leave.’

    My things were still in my room. But damn my things, I thought. Clothing, scraps of paper, worldly possessions. Worthless, all of it. I turned from the old man and ran for the shore.

    ‘Flee and ye drown!’ he called after me. ‘Fight and ye lose! The sea will give up its dead, and He will come for ye!’

    Unheeding, I kept running. As I did, the rain started up. A storm was coming, but I had long since stopped caring. I had to get away from this cursed place. When I reached the beach, I headed for one of the overturned boats, flipping it the right way up with great effort and pushing it down the beach towards the water’s edge. The waves rose to meet me, and I shut my eyes against the salt spray and lashing rain. And then, a roar. A howl. A scream. And whispers, so many whispers.

    I opened my eyes to see forms rising out of the water. Human, but withered and rotted. First among them, Isaac. He stared at me with dead eyes, his beautiful form now blue and bloated. And beyond them, there was a shape. Huge and dark, as black as night, and unlike anything I had seen. To gaze upon it was to gaze upon the face of madness.

    Looking behind me, I saw people moving towards me. I recognised the gait of the old man with the pipe. The villagers. The wind carried their voices, chanting their strange song. And here stood I, as betwixt the devil and the deep sea.

    I turned back to the shape, the incomprehensible, eldritch creature. ‘Let me leave!’ I cried. ‘Please, I beg of you! Just let me go home!’

    It was not a voice that spoke. Not a sound at all. It was like an echo in my mind, a feeling, indescribable and terrible. It said, No.


    The waves lap lazily at the stony beach. I stand, barefoot, the sea rushing over me, the tide coming in. It is still. So still. The storm is no more. I do not know how long I have been here. I do not know my name, nor do I remember from where I came. I feel as if I have always been on this island.

    I will stay here. I will never leave. This is where I belong. On this bleak island in the sea, with these people. With Him. He has taken my mind, and I give it up with gladness and with gratitude.

    This is my home now. I am His.