Jane Thistle was wrenched with sobs as the tiny raft was carried by the holy men to the water's edge. She walked in the procession, though she was still weak from the long labor that had delivered the blighted infant. Her husband John Thistle helped support her. Others, deemed more important in the ritual, walked ahead of them, even though they were the parents. There was the mayor of the village, John Stout, and the village surgeon, John Copper, their black top hats severe like parading towers. The four religious men in their cowled robes and sandaled feet, bearing along the flower-decorated raft, took the lead.
The nameless lake spread out before them, vast and black, misted gray where it blended with a distant horizon, lapping the shore with an insidious calm. Violent storms never blew in off this lake, and the oily waves never much varied their steady, somnambulant rhythm. Fish were not caught from this lake, and boats were never sailed upon it. Even travelers from the villages on its far side would rather spend months skirting around it than weeks sailing across it. Too many had been lost in the attempt. Too many had died eating the fish. It was said that these waters were tainted with the fluids from the machinery of those ancient people who had once populated this land, but had died out many ages ago, extinguishing themselves so thoroughly that they took most of their artifacts along with them.
But there was an island at the center of the lake, Jane Thistle had been assured by the surgeon who examined her newborn, and the mayor who had given the Word, in accordance with the laws of their religion. No one alive had ever set foot upon this island, but it had been sighted before travel on the lake had finally been entirely outlawed. Though never visible from the shore, it was a large island, thick with black fir trees choked in swirling mist. It was the island to which the waters would either literally - or only symbolically - carry away her child.
And now the robed men set the raft down in the thin water that slurped around their ankles (they would take long purifying baths to cleanse themselves later). All throughout the walk from the village, the infant had been quiet, had not fussed. Was he sleeping, or blinking up innocently at the churning gray skies, the faces of the strangers who bore him toward his fate? His name was John Sadness. The parents of the blighted were discouraged from naming these infants, when they were occasionally born. But Jane Thistle had named him secretly. Even her husband did not know his name.
But now, as if he knew he was to be sent to an obvious death, John Sadness began to cry. And so did his mother, who in a burst of anguish sought to rush to his side. Her husband held her back. He was afraid that if he didn't, one of the constables behind him would do so instead.
Mayor John Stout addressed the distraught woman in a deep, oratorical voice that belched out steam into the chill air. "Madam, I have given the Word, in accordance with the laws of our Lord and Master, and upon the advice of Surgeon John Copper. But you need no surgeon's eyes to see that your child is blighted, and must be sent from us to the place where his brothers dwell."
"No other blighted children dwell on that island!" Jane Thistle cried, a vein standing out on her flushed forehead like a brand of disgrace. "You know as well as I that they all perish from the cold, or in the water, or if they do wash up on the island, that they are too young and weak to care for themselves!"
"We do not murder these children. They are the Lord's children, howsoever malformed. We simply turn them over to the Lord's hands. But the Word tells us that they must not live amongst us, to spread their polluted seed. Would you have every child born of our village to be as this child?"
In her pain and helplessness, Jane's legs turned watery, insubstantial beneath her, so that she leaned more heavily into her husband's arms, however much she resented them at this moment. Her sobs increased as her child bawled more lustily. He wanted milk. He wanted his mother.
"He isn't that badly off!" she rasped, only half believing her own lie. She had had to drip milk into his twisted mouth with a dropper. And she had screamed when first she saw his face - not only because she knew he would be sent away, but out of simple terror itself. "Couldn't we castrate him, so that he won't breed? He has two arms, two legs, he could support himself when he's older - be of help to the village"
"There are no exceptions. He would be sent away if he had but a cleft palate, a milky eye. It is the only way that the rest of us can be sure of our purity. We cast no blame on you, Jane Thistle. You did not ask for this curse, nor deserve it I am sure. But the Word is the Word. And we can delay the Lord's decree no longer"
"Please...please," Jane husked, now nearly limp in her husband's embrace, no longer struggling, "let me kiss his brow - one last time"
But the holy men either did not hear her beaten whimper, or did not heed it, as they pushed the miniature raft out into the lake of liquid obsidian. There, it was rocked obscenely, if gently, like a cradle. Jane Thistle could see nothing of her son John Sadness upon that floating coffin but for the flowers, and his two small arms - deformed as they were - reaching up for the neck of his mother, or in an appeal to their God.
Jane Thistle wore only long black mourning gowns for the ten years that followed the exile and death of her child. Her husband did not try to discourage her. The black attire, snug around her slim waist but the skirts voluminous, complimented the severe beauty of her dark hair and eyes and her contrasting colorless skin. He was grateful that she would still bare that skin to him in its entirety, after the fruit their love had seeded. But there had been no further fruit, and that was no doubt why she permitted their love-making. The surgeon told her the child had probably damaged her womb in his birth. John Thistle felt his wife was relieved for this - that there would be no other children. But at the same time, he felt that her mourning garments were not only for their blighted son, but for her other children who would never be born at all.
Ten years had passed. Jane Thistle had been twenty then, was now thirty. In that time, other women had watched their infants sail out to the unseen island. Some had sobbed, as she. Some had watched in icy relief. In those ten years - as in all the years before - not one raft had washed back ashore. No flotsam of wood, no tiny fish-like bones. Only flowers,nothing more.
But one day, a cry went up. The whole village was gradually aroused. Some children casting rocks out into the ebony lake had seen something shadowy in the distant fog, and soon the constables were called to the water's edge. Other townspeople joined them. John Thistle told his wife about it as he hurried to their barn, slipping into his jacket as he moved. There, he took up a pitchfork.
"I'm going with you," Jane Thistle told him.
"They say it's a ship, Jane," John told her gravely. "At first, the boys thought it was a whale - some great beast. But it's a ship,heading toward our shore"
Jane pulled her fringed black shawl around her shoulders, the chill autumn breeze stirring her black curls about her face. "I'm coming with you."
At the edge of the lake, a brisk wind snapped at Jane's skirts. A grayer Mayor John Stout held a plump hand to his top hat's brim to keep it from being dislodged. The constables had muskets in their fists.
The ship had already run aground by the time Jane and John Thistle arrived. Its prow was lodged in plowed-up mud. The vessel loomed; not even before craft had been outlawed from these waters had such a large vessel sailed them. The villagers murmured how it resembled, in general outline and in size, an ocean-going vessel. But resemblances ended there.
The hulking ship seemed to have a skin of glistening scales (no doubt why the boys had taken it for a living thing). These scales, up close, proved to be a mosaic of glossy white tiles, perhaps ceramic. There were no sails, nor even masts. Several small structures up top were also tiled and without windows or portholes. Here and there were pipes of a brassy color, up top and growing out of the sides of the ship, and thick black hoses like veins running in and out of white flesh. Atop the huge craft were, here and there, clusters of brassy and silvery machinery, like boilers and furnaces, with shiny chimneys that belched no smoke, but seemed only to vent a thin steam. The machinery made no sound.
"This can't be from the villages across the lake, and there are no rivers that connect with it," John Thistle breathed in awe. "It has to have come from the island."
"How could this have been built without us having heard any sounds of it?" Surgeon John Copper wondered aloud. He had taken to dyeing his graying hair red. "Even across the distances, wouldn't we have heard something?"
"Perhaps it was built at the bottom of the lake, and risen up," said Jane Mason, wife of one of the constables.
"Built by whom?" John Thistle asked.
"Look at it. Look at the machinery. This is the work of the Ancient People," said Jane Mason.
"The Ancient People were demons in the flesh," John Stout said, "and the Master cursed them and cleansed them from our lands. They are extinct, and rightly so."
"We don't know what exists on that island. It could be the Ancients still survive upon it, if only in small number. But look at that ship, John Stout! Who else could have created it?"
"Hallo!" John Stout bellowed, advancing further across the damp gritty sand but not actually nearing the slithering membrane of the surf. "Hallo, in there! Show yourselves!"
In answer, the assemblage heard a grating of metal from above. Then, a whispery scrabbling sound...
John Stout backed up several steps, and in a rather less confident tone repeated: "Hallo?"
Below, they caught a fleeting glimpse of dark, silhouetted hands movng in quick darts and flurries, as fistfuls of flowers and broken petals were cast from atop the ship. The mayor stumbled backwards frantically now, as if the touch of the snow of petals might be poisonous.
With the petals still fluttering in the air like moths, a head rose up furtively to gaze down at the villagers. It was silhouetted, and thus difficult to make out - difficult, even, to fathom - but seemed to resemble the fleshless skull of a horse. And then, timidly, the body followed. Ribs curled free of the chest like those of a skeleton, and the vertebrae protruded in a line of jagged dorsal fins. The forelimbs were great pinchers, like those of a crab and with these the thing was lowering a rope ladder over the side...
"Dear God!" one of the constables cried, and shouldered his musket, and fired.
Thunder. The very air was burned. The skeletal apparition went back down out of sight abruptly at the impact. The villagers had all heard its inhuman shriek of pain and surprise.
"Demons!" cried John Kettle, the blacksmith. "It's the Ancient People!"
"No," said Jane Thistle in a voice so low only her husband beside her heard it. She clapped a hand over her heart, and in a tone of awed, anguished joy said, "It's our children!"
"It's our children!" said Jane Mason at the same moment, in a louder voice and in a tone of absolute horror.
Now, from above, came other voices. Rumblings, and chatterings, hissing whispers, and panther-like growls.
"Jane," said John Thistle, "we must get back to the house"
"No!" she replied, moving forward.
He took her arm. "We must! Hurry!"
The first of them dropped off the back of the ship, where they were less vulnerable to the constables' muskets. The villagers could hear them splash as they landed. And then, they charged out of the ship's shadows, kicking up the poisonous black water as they came. In their speed, in their fury, in their vast and varied hideousness the constables were barely able to aim at them. A ragged line of shots cracked the air, and then the creatures were upon them.
"Run!" yelled John Thistle, violently pulling his wife along now, but still holding onto his pitchfork. "Run! Run!"
And despite her terrible joy, Jane did run, when she saw one of the creatures embrace Mayor John Stout in four obese arms dangling folds of creased flesh, and thus engulf him totally. A translucent head which was little more than a gelatinous bag closed over the mayor's head like a caul.
As Jane turned and fled, holding hands with her husband, she saw the surgeon John Copper run past her. He was moving very fast for a man of his years, and then she realized that he wasn't so much running as being propelled along by the momentum of a creature which had hold of him. The thing galloped on its hands and feet but its body was normal enough; like all the creatures, it wore no clothing. From its eye sockets, however, writhed twin nests of milky tendrils like those of an anemone, and its bony hooked jaws pierced Copper's neck like the mandibles of an ant warrior.
Thistle let go of his wife and whirled about, gripping the pitchfork in both fists now. He lunged at the creature, and the trident caught it through its own neck. Jetting blood, it collapsed atop the surgeon, but the man was already jumping with his final electrified spasms. Thistle again took his wife's hand; again they ran. Jane's black skirts flapped the air like storm-lashed sails, and the ground seemed to hammer with a maddened heartbeat under their thumping footfalls.
Something that squealed like a pig being slaughtered could be heard racing up behind them as they sprinted into their yard, and whatever it was thudded against their door just as John got it closed and bolted. They rushed from window to window, locking them and drawing the curtains. Finally, John panted, "Upstairs, Jane...move!"
Jane's hair was in her face, and her eyes gleamed madly from within its tangle. "They survived, John. Some of them...the strongest. And helped the weaker to survive. All these years, they were building that ship. Building it from what they found on the island, machinery that the Ancients left behind. Building it all this while, so they could return to us..."
"For revenge, Jane!"
She wagged her head. Tears streamed down her flushed cheeks.
John again urged her upstairs, and this time she obeyed him. They entered their bedroom; John shut and barred its door. He turned to close the curtains to the one window, and saw the creature which had been waiting for them.
It had been struck by one of the constables' musket balls; dark blood was winding down its pallid flesh. It was stooped but towered over them, emaciated yet also suggesting great strength. Its eyes, each as large as a normal man's head, were two great cloudy sacks, hanging from a head that had not grown since its infancy. Its hair was still wispy as corn silk.
Though the eyes had grown so much larger, its cadaverous body so much taller, Jane Thistle recognized her son, John Sadness, instantly.
"My boy!" she sobbed, spreading her arms. "My boy!"
It took a lurching step toward her, fingers three times longer than they should be curled into a skeleton's talons.
"No!" John Thistle cried, darting toward the small fireplace to seize up a poker. The creature fell upon his wife, and she struggled with it. But as Thistle raised the poker above his head, he realized that the thing had crumpled, and Jane was fighting to hold it up. John dropped the poker, and helped take hold of the scarecrow-like body, walked it to the bed with her, where they laid it down. The creature gurgled up at them. Its pendulous orbs were nothing like eyes, might have been blind. Maybe it was scent that had led it here. Or mere memory. But it reached up feebly, unerringly to Jane's face and stroked her cheek.
John took hold of its other hand and sat on the edge of his bed. In this bed, they had made this creature. Their son. John watched as his wife bent over John Sadness. Her tears fell upon its tiny face and great eyes as she kissed it, one last time, on the brow. Then, with a small contented shudder, the creature died.
A dozen townspeople had perished in the battle. None of these victims had been children, however, for which the townspeople were grateful.
All of the monstrosities that had disembarked from the ship were finally slaughtered. It took several days to track down the last of them in the woods. Whether there were more aboard the ship, or back on the island, no one could tell, but the strange vessel was gone by the time anyone returned to the beach.
Sometimes Jane would stand at the spot where it had arrived, holding her husband's hand. There they would both look out across the black lake, staring at where the island must lie, as if hoping the mist would part, sunlight would beam down upon it. But it remained cloaked in its winding sheet of fog. And while most of the villagers no doubt gazed out at those waters in dread, Jane and John Thistle did so with tears in their eyes, and sad smiles on their lips.