Though I live in New Mexico now, about as far from the ocean as it's possible to be, I grew up in Scotland, in a remote coastal village by the name of Skerries.
Skerries was, perhaps still is, little more than a few houses huddled around a harbour; a once lively fishing port, reduced through generations of hardship to just a few idle trawlers, its population shrinking year after year, until one day, it will simply cease to exist.
Growing up in such a place, I was a lonely child, by turns dreamy and forlorn. During term time, I attended school with the handful of other children who called Skerries home. In the summer-time, having no friends of my own age, I would spend my days wandering along the coast, imagining myself an adventurer in far-off lands, exploring all the secret nooks of my private kingdom.
The coast in that part of the world is quite imposing: all bleak granite cliffs and lonely bays, rocks standing like dark sentinels amidst the sucking tides.
Odd noises are common and often on my wanderings, I would think for a moment to hear certain strange noises coming from the ocean, only for the sounds to stop just as abruptly as they had started.
Like my parents, I generally put such things down to the sounds of the ocean distorted by the imagination of a lonely young boy.
When I was about 13 years old, however, something happened that would change my mind forever.
It was a warm July afternoon and I was in the shallows of a secluded bay, idly poking through the rock pools in search of crabs, daydreaming, as usual, of some fantasy realm. I was enjoying myself. The sun was warm and soothing upon my back as I waded through the shallows, searching through the kelp to see what I could uncover. A gentle suffusion seemed to hang over everything; the sensation of a dream, effortless and pleasant.
A dream soon to be interrupted.
Gazing down into the rippling waters, I became aware of a sound coming from somewhere beyond my sight. A voice raised in a haunting melody.
The voice had an eerie, unearthly quality to it, and I did not recognise it as any language I'd heard before. The sounds seemed to touch something deep inside me, stirring feelings of longing that my young heart had never known before. Barely knowing what I was doing, I crawled to the top of a large rock and peered out over the waters.
Out in the centre of the bay a lone rock rose above the waters. And on this rock was a young woman, completely naked, combing her long hair as she sang. Her skin was as pale as marble and I could see what looked like seashells and kelp intertwined in her hair. She reminded me of a painting of a sea nymph I'd seen somewhere before. The same entrancing mixture of innocence and seduction showed in her delicate features. It seemed as if she'd always been there, waiting for me. Our eyes met and a gentle smile passed across her lips. I was enraptured.
Time passed, though I knew nothing of it. I drifted, half-awake, for what seemed like an eternity, her voice filling my entire awareness. She sang to me, it seemed, of strange and wonderful things. Things which could be mine, if only I were prepared to take them.
Finally, some instinct woke me. I found myself teetering at the edge of the rock, just a few feet above the water, poised as though I were about to dive in.
I jumped back with a yelp, my desire now horribly replaced by fear.
Out in the bay, the woman had disappeared, though it seemed as though the singing had only ended a moment before. The sun was low upon the horizon and there was a damp chill in the air.
How long had I been there? How long had I drifted, half-conscious, under the influence of that haunting voice?
Hearing a noise, I looked down. The waters below me were seething and bubbling as though something were rising from the depths.
I scrambled to my feet and hurried back across the rocks, up the shingle beach to the safety of the bluffs. Reaching the path that led back to the village, I paused, silent prayers rising to my lips, thankful to be away from that bay and the dark waters that filled it. A breeze ruffled the heather, filling my nostrils with sweet scents. The harsh calls of the gulls reached my ears, mingling with the pounding of the waves; sounds both mundane and reassuring.
I felt as though an awful spell had been broken. I felt as though I'd escaped a terrible fate.
Then the voice began again.
Ah, my precious one. Ah, my very heart's desire.
The voice, that same seductive voice from before, was now coming from somewhere on the path behind me. And though I did not understand the words, their meaning somehow came to me, freezing my heart with terror.
Come back to me, my love. The voice seemed to say. For it is cold down here, and I am alone.
There was an edge to that voice that pierced my heart like a needle.
I broke into a sprint, not daring to look back.
The voice continued, slow and mocking as I ran. It drifted on the breeze, drawing steadily closer.
Why run? Why resist? It whispered. Down here you will reign. Come be the sun to this cold, dark kingdom.
My limbs pumped, my lungs burned. A screaming haze fogged my brain.
Still it drew closer.
I began to pray in my mind, not daring to look anywhere but at the path before me. It drifted closer, its voice almost by my ear. And though I choked and sobbed, the voice rose above everything, soft and insistent. It whispered to me of a vast abyss, of the dreaming court where I would sit for all time, watching over my kingdom with empty eyes, as blind as the pale things that made their homes amidst my entrails.
I was hysterical, my breath coming in gasps as I ran, my limbs flailing, almost caught.
Still it drew closer. I saw it clearly in my mind's eye then – no longer a seductive nymph, but now revealed as an ancient hag, its flesh hanging like tattered rags, seaweed tangled in its lank hair, its eyes burning pits of despair. A claw stretched out towards me, mere inches away...
The path turned a sudden corner and I saw before me the stone cross which marked the parish boundary, wine-coloured and alive in the rays of the setting sun. Something stirred inside me. A flicker of hope.
With final desperation, I surged forwards, legs pumping, my hand outstretched. I was almost safe. Almost home.
Then it touched me.
A freezing claw grasped my neck, dulling my mind with despair, sapping the life from my veins.
You are mine, Oh King. The voice sighed. And I am entirely yours.
Then, even as I faltered, even as I was almost lost to the abyss, my hands found the warm stones of the cross.
It was as though the sun arose within me, pouring forth warmth and light to chase away the dark shadow that had fallen across my soul. There was a final, ear-piercing screech of rage. Then the memory of that freezing touch faded away.
I clung weakly to the cross, gasping and shaking as relief coursed through me.
It was gone.
That was almost thirty years ago now.
And though the memories of that evening have haunted me ever since, life has not been unkind to me in other regards. After a troubled youth, I relocated to the United States, where I started a family and enjoyed some small successes in my career.
I have filled my life with light, love and laughter. I find that I am capable of being happy.
Still. There are occasions where I feel the weight of that night hanging over my existence. A cold breeze on my neck at twilight, for instance, or the appearance of a dead-eyed addict emerging from an alley; moments of dread and despair. Reminders of what lies hidden, always waiting...
Knowledge of darkness can never truly be dispelled. It stays with you, your life's constant companion.
People will sometimes ask me why a kid who grew up by the sea would ever want to settle in the arid desert of Southern New Mexico. I just smile and tell them I prefer the warm climate; that I fell in love with the rolling mesas and the soft, rose-coloured desert.
Of course, I can hardly tell them the truth. I can hardly tell them of the black depths that still haunt my nightmares. Nor of the things that lurk in that abyss, waiting to drag unsuspecting souls down to the dark and lonely kingdom that awaits them there.