This Week’s Prompt: Phleg′-e-thon: a river of liquid fire in Hades.
The Research:River of Fire
The river was great drain down the side of hills, a bright reddish brown even on the best of days. A dead snake constantly inching it’s way down, Mel would never normally go down near it. But she and Donna had made the promise to go and see if it was really true. If past the old statues, through the bent woods, and right before the lake that had somehow kept it’s clarity, on a moonlit night with no clouds in the sky, you really could see the dead.
“You know it’s a rock formation, right? There’s a bunch of those. Or some mist or something.” Mel said, putting a white mask on as she got aboard the boat with Donna. They’d considered renting one, but the only boat at night was run by Mr. Gills. And Mr. Gills had one eye, kept three barely tamed dogs, and looked at people like they were meat. Donna was convinced he’d killed someone before. So they “found” an old rowboat.
“Or swamp gas, maybe. But come on, what if it’s not?”
“We’ve traveled down a dangerous river of slurp and who knows what to see the dead.”
“And that’ll be awesome. C’mon, I borrowed a knife and got a new can of mace for this.” Donna said from the old boat. “We’ll pull over on the lake and see the moon at worst, and then trek back, and you can blog about how we wasted a night on an adventure! Or seeing the dead, now come on!”
Mel frowned, looking down the sides of the river, checking for the tenth time that she had her phone and keys. And then the began down the river.
The moonlight seemed to foul on the water. When you could make out it’s reflection, it was an outline of rotting cheese instead of the orange disk overhead. Mel saw some distant lights over the hills, probably a summer camp bonfire. It was oddly cold along the river, the summer heat sucked into the porous earth.
“And who’s that?” Donna asked, shining a light on a marble calvary man covered in moss, his head having fallen off.
“Judging by the…colorful base.” Mel said, squinting at the layered graffitti. “He’s at the least had an eventful love life. Name starts with an H…Henry?”
“Henry, huh?” Donna said, shining the light at where the head would be. For an instant there was a face in the branches, grimacing from with flashing eyes and fading translucent skin. The tree lines became veins of invisible wounds along a shadow of a face. Mel blinked, and it was gone.
“What war did we have that’s got a statue these days?”
“Okay, but which one that people leave in the middle of the woods?”
Mel had to pause at that. Yeah, you’d think a place that could afford a statue would move it. But they were drifting into older parts of town, which were more wild than others.
“Maybe they tried. I read about that, back in Spain, that saint statues went back into the wilds if you tried to bring them back.” Mel said, pointing her flashlight into the nearer woods. The sudden movement of the flashlight caught some of the branches and a few birds fluttered away, cawing at being disturbed from sleeping.
Yeah, I would rather be asleep too, Mel thought. But a deal’s a deal.
“That’s dumb. It’s a statue. Just move it back again.” Donna said frowning, her light catching on glittering cans that poked above the river’s sludge surface. With a flashlight instead of the moon on them, the metal became rusty detrius again. Mel wondered if stars worked like that. If you saw them too clearly, were they no longer beautiful?
“I think the idea was it was the saints that moved them.” Mel said. The river had carried them past the last of the statues now. The gray and red iron of the cemetery was coming into sight now. Probably, Mel thought, the statue was a grave not a war memorial. Probably, the idea was that the cavalry man buried beneath would stand in an unstained, well kept forest of stones and sarcophagi. Maybe even surviving family or service men would visit him.
The Old Town cemetery had been so thoroguly reclaimed by the forest that there was burial a tombstone that could be read. Some tomb stones and family lots were knotted together, moss layered over them like a blanket over a group of hiding children. Some of the longer stones had croaking frogs on them, large white eyes reflecting the light perfectly back at Mel and Donna, little lanterns on the edge. And of course there were spider webs. Spider webs from branches to roots, among graves that could still be seen, running as a second fence between the iron one. Some spiraled, some just ran straight, a net of silk to catch flies that no doubt had been plentiful from all the bodies once.
“Maybe the reconstruction club should do something down here.” Mel said.
“The reconstruction club?”
“The Historical society, the ancestry commune, I don’t know. People who have money to fix old stuff.”
“Huh. Wonder if anyone related to the old town still lives around here. They’d probably want their grandparent’s old stuff fixed up.”
Mel nodded, before glancing over the hill. A dim orange light was starting to rise in the distance. It couldn’t be sunrise already, could it? No, no they’d been out here only a few hours. It must still be that bonfire. Man, that was a long party.
There was a sloshing not far behind as they passed the graveyard. A black boat gradually pulled up along side them. Mel and Donna exchanged looks as the growl of an angry dog was heard from what was clearly Gills ship.
“Well, row! Mace probably won’t reach that high if he’s gonna kill us.” Donna said in a panic.
Mel began as best she could to push faster along the sludge. The larger boat moved along, foot steps echoing on deck as their smaller shipped slowly pulled ahead. At last they seemed safe, a good distance established. Unless, of course, he had a gun.
“If he had a gun, we’d be screwed anyway.” Donna muttered when Mel mentioned it.
“Maybe we should land?” Mel said, looking to the side of the river. The coast was a thin outline of reeds, but she could still make it out from the pebbles on the shore.
“No, no. No. He’d just jump us there.” Donna said, not taking her eyes off the boat. “Damnit, what assholes is he bringing out here.”
“Maybe he just sails down river at night?” Mel said, still catching her breath.
“What, in the midlde of the night in this–” Donna stopped as Mel gestured at their boat with her hands.
“Okay, but we have a good reason.”
“We’re chasing a ghost story.” Mel groaned.
“Look, I just-Oh shit, he’s started again. Paddle!”
“You paddle.” Mel said, lying back and looking at the handful of dim stars in the sky. “I’m tired.”
Donna groaned, but grabbed the oars and began driving their boat back away from the ceaseless march of the more proper river boat. Mel watched as a figure came out with a lantern in hand on the prow. It seemed extremely reckless to sail without anyone steering. Donna’s rowing pushed them ahead again, past the cemetery and far from the boat.
“Is he still following us?” Donna asked, sighing.
“No…No, he pulled off, seems to have run ashore.” Mel said squinting. The orange on the horizon was growing behind the ship. Mel now heard the hiss of steam. The smell of burning filth came down on the wind ahead of the stream of fire that was snaking it’s way towards them. Fire full of smoke and dancing shadows, tongues of flame licking the sky.
“Oh god, oh god.” Mel said, pointing vainly over Donna’s shoulder. Gills boat sat in front of the fire, back-lit by it as he waited by the side. The thick smoke and fire was gaining steam as Mel grabbed the oars from Donna and started peddling towards the shore.
Adrenaline was pumping the oars, giving Mel’s arms any strength. Furious movement away from the fire was the best she could manage some of the water splashing over and into the boat as Donna turned herself to see the encroaching light. As Mel felt exhaustion take its toll, as the boat bumped against rocks hidden in the river, ruins of some long forgotten damn and bridge, the flames seemed alive. A mass of red and green and orange and blue teeth teetering over the water through pumes of smoke that masked it’s true bulk. It was almost transfixing, fire having that special power that it does over terrified and desperate minds.
The boat hit a final rock and Mel felt it slipping out from underneath, rolling onto it’s side. The water tasted worse then it smelled as Mel tried to swim out from under, flailing vainly towards the shore. There was a brief, panicked comfort in the cold water, even as a branch clung to Mel’s leg. Kicking violent, Mel pulled herself free at last and pulled herself to the shore.
Only then did she turn back to see the branch, slumped in the river, overcome and lit by the fire. The smell of burning flesh filled her nose as she saw the dead floating down the stream.
Midterms put a great deal of temporal stress on this story. I like the idea of playing with the reality of the horror vs the literal tricks of light and shadow, but the ending is rushed and to be honest it doesn’t have the symbolic resonance the story deserved. But it was either wait another 2 weeks perfecting it, or sending this out. I’m disappointed that the fiftieth isn’t my best work, but that is nature of things sometimes.
Next week, we journey to a strange garden with stranger shadows.
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