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A Pearl Beyond Price
For there are strange objects in the great abyss, and the seeker of dreams must take care not to stir up or meet the wrong ones.
H.P. Lovecraft, 'The Strange High House in the Mist', 1926
Michiko was not afraid. She had heard the monsters singing, each to each, a hundred times before today. She was fascinated, but she did not think the creatures even noticed when she dived into the blue-green deeps of their realm, fishing for pearls on the edge of the abyss.
She knew the monsters were always there, though she could never be entirely sure she had seen one. She had caught glimpses — a tentacle slithering into a crevice, a huge eye peering at her from beneath a ledge, a sudden burst of bubbles at the mouth of an underwater cave — and she did not need to see them to know them. In her heart she understood the cadence of their monster melody. Their music was made in deeper, darker tones than the whale-song that vibrated through her bones whenever the great herds of humpbacks came to the warm waters of the Indian Ocean. The monster song was mournful: the creatures of the deep sang of loss and sorrow. They sang of darkness and death. They sang of despair.
Michiko yearned to help them, to mend their misery. She was barely fifteen, the youngest of the Japanese pearl divers, the littlest mermaid of the Ama group that worked on the Kimberley coast, eking out a meagre living on the fringes of the world. The older women seemed happy enough, glad to live independently in a strong, female community that provided for their needs: they fished, and they gathered the plentiful seafood of these warm waters — crabs and crayfish, prawns, sea urchins, and valuable bêche-de-mer — they dived for oysters, hoping always for pearls; they made mother-of-pearl buttons, and they carved exquisite whalebone amulets to trade for other necessities. The women told grim fireside tales of want and oppression in the society they had left behind to come here, left for this peaceful life where one day merged seamlessly into the next. But Michiko had known no other. She had been no more than a babe in arms when her mother had fled Japan. And now she was restless, stuck here in paradise, trapped here on the shore with her all-female family and her strange dreams of the Akkorokami that lived beneath the waves.
When the tide was out, Michiko gathered seaweed for the camp. In the intertidal area, she marvelled at the footprints of the monsters, creatures so heavy that their feet left imprints in the living red rock. The imprints were so deep they sometimes made little rock pools full of swaying anemones and tiny periwinkles, and she imagined that the legs that belonged to the feet that made these prints must be at least as tall as the masts of sailing ships — the tallest things she had ever seen — and the bodies atop these legs must be vast indeed, bigger than the most enormous whale. She longed to meet such creatures. And when she slept, she dreamed about them, dreamed that they would someday show her the dark mysteries of their hidden, forbidden world.
The morning sunshine was warm on her face as Michiko waded out through the shallows of the rocky headland, preparing to dive. She tightened her linen loincloth, checked her knives, and fastened her woven rope bag for collecting oysters. Then she tied back her long black hair and pegged her nostrils closed. She was ready.
She paused for a moment on the brink, scanning the heaving surface of the sea for signs of danger. She was unafraid, but not unwary: she knew there were risks aplenty for divers here on this idyllic coast. The ocean was full of predatory sharks, deadly box jellyfish came and went in their seasons, and closer inshore there were huge saltwater crocodiles that lurked near the mouth of the estuary. And there were always the Funayürei, the ghosts of drowned sailors, sliding like pale eels through shipwrecked ribs and spars, always ready to suck the souls from the living. Michiko had seen sailor's bones, picked clean by crabs and currents, washed up to lie bleaching on the sandy shore. She always gave the bones a wide berth. It was bad luck to touch such things. She fingered the carved whalebone amulet at her throat, reassured by its curving shape incised with magical wards against the soul-stealers. She never swam without it.
She shook her head, re-focussing her thoughts, then took a deep breath and dived, sleek as a seal. As she broke the surface, the melancholy monster music flowed around her, curling around her near-naked body, caressing her as she arrowed downwards. She swam smoothly, angling through schools of brilliant little fish, yellow and blue, their scales glowing bright in the slanting sunlight that lit waving beds of kelp and seaweed. A giant clam snapped shut as the shadow of a cruising manta ray fell upon it, a huge bass grouper nosed close to her, and in the distance she glimpsed a green sea turtle, hunting. She felt the pull of a different current as she neared the oyster colony that clung to its rocky outcrop on the edge of a deep fissure. She eased her knife from her belt, ready to gather.
Then a single note changed. The monster song was different. Now, the music sang to her, promising heart's desire, promising an end to the aching loneliness of her life, luring her towards the edge of the steep shelf where the water was deeper, darker, and colder.
She peered into a crevice. She saw the outlined edge of what might have been a giant octopus, but realised on the instant that this was something more: this creature's sinuous tentacles had long hairs like a sea spider, hairs that trapped air bubbles from the surface of the sea and dragged them down beneath the waves.
A grey tentacle coiled back, then unfolded towards her, silently offering a single, perfect pearl.
Michiko's salt-stinging eyes widened with surprise.
The tentacle coiled again, changing now through a myriad of iridescent colours, beckoning her to dive deeper, to enter the cave.
Despite her fascination, Michiko was still counting time. She could hold her breath for a full two minutes, and her two minutes was nearly up. She was running out of air. She turned for the surface.
The monster understood. It reached out to her again, this time sliding the tentacle close to her mouth, offering a bubble of air.
Michiko hesitated. Deep in her heart, she felt the vibration of the song, telling her that there was plenty of air inside the cave. She took the chance. She gulped the air bubble.
The hairy tentacle grabbed her, coiling around her with impossible speed as the monster pulled her into its lair.
She reached out with her knife.
But the creature of the deep had already relaxed its suckered grip. And now Michiko understood that the song sang true: the top half of the underwater cavern was, indeed, full of air. She opened her mouth very slightly, exhaling slowly, so that her breath made the familiar whistling sound, the Japanese divers' isobue. It sounded strange in her ears, echoing in the silence of this strange place. She gulped air that tasted stale, damp, and salty: but, for all that, it was perfectly breathable. Michiko relaxed, just a little, curiosity getting the better of caution.
The melody changed again. Welcome, little mermaid. Be assured I can feel your thoughts. You are my guest. I will not harm you. You are safe here.
Michiko, waist deep in cold seawater, bowed her head in acknowledgement. She shivered.
Thank you, great one, she thought. I am honoured.
The song that surrounded Michiko changed to warm her quivering body. She looked away from the circling tentacle and gasped in disbelief at what she saw. The walls of the cave were lined with ledges, and the ledges were heaped with treasure: she saw caskets spilling over with gold and silver and precious gems; there were long ropes of pearls, and bolts of brocade fit for an emperor; there were beautifully engraved swords and knives and jewel-set goblets, the lost bounty of countless shipwrecks, stolen away from the restless sailor-souls, gathered together to line the monster's glittering nest. She wondered if this might be the undersea lair of some mighty dragon.
No, child, said the monster. Dragons are puny things compared with such as I.
Michiko was sure she felt the creature laughing at the very idea. She peered further into the gloom, and realised that she could not make out the shape of the monster beyond the thickening of the long tentacle whose tip still circled her waist, holding her steady.
No, child, the creature said, answering her unspoken thought. You cannot look upon me. I am vast. I contain multitudes.
You are young, unspoiled. You spoke to me in your dreams. I heard your longing. It amuses me to reach out to you. Perhaps it will amuse you to visit me again. Will you do that?
The compulsion was overpowering. Michiko knew that there was no other possible answer.
Yes, she said. She did not want to leave, but almost a full minute had passed, and she could feel pressure building in her lungs. She would have to swim for the surface, and soon.
Choose, said the monster. The tentacle swept over the heaps of treasure, offering it to her.
Michiko was not greedy. She passed this first test. She selected a practical silver dagger and tucked it into her belt, delighted at the creature's bounty.
Choose again, child. I feel your pleasure. It gives me joy.
This time she reached into a brass bound chest and picked out a thin gold ring set with a small cabochon ruby. She was thrilled to find that the ring was a perfect fit for her index finger.
Thank you, great one, she said.
Once again, she felt the monster's deep laughter. You have chosen well, child. Long ago that ring belonged to one of the Elder Race, and it still carries with it the gift of tongues.
Michiko had no time to ask what this might mean. The sea creature was still speaking.
But the third time pays for all. Take some pearls with you, child, it said. You have not fished today. You must not disappoint your family.
Michiko accepted the proffered pouch and eased back the drawstring. She gasped in surprise. She had never seen pearls so large, or so fine. It's too much, she thought.
Do not give them all to your mother at once, the creature warned. One is enough for today. We do not want every pearl fisher on the coast seeking out my cave. Hide them away, for next time.
I understand. Michiko closed the little silk pouch and tucked it safely into the band of her loincloth, feeling the round smoothness of the pearls pressing against her goose-pimpled skin.
And now you must go. Human beings are so fragile. You cannot risk a longer stay. Farewell.
Farewell, great one.
There was, abruptly, nothing else to be said.
Excerpted from "Cthulhu Deep Down Under Volume 1"
Copyright © 2017 Steve Proposch, Christopher Sequeira & Bryce Stevens.
Excerpted by permission of Little Island.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Introduction Ramsey Campbell,
A Pearl Beyond Price Janeen Webb,
Haunting Matilda Dmetri Kakmi,
Wife to Mr Lovecraft Lucy Sussex,
Darkness Beyond Jason Franks,
The Diesel Pool Kaaron Warren,
Dreamgirl Stephen Dedman,
The Thing In the Bidet William Tevelein,
The Return Of ... Christopher Sequeira,
The Elder Things B. Michael Radburn,
Vanguard Aaron Sterns,