“A Gift From the Deep” — An H. P. Lovecraft-inspired story for young readers

I adapted some of H. P. Lovecraft’s cosmic horror stories so my 10- and 12-year-old girls could enjoy them. (I wrote about the process in https://medium.com/@prosetech/serving-up-cthulhu-for-kids-be420ac2cd97.) Just for fun, I also wrote this bonus original story inspired by the master.

I remember two things about that time, each equally distinct in my mind. I remember the pure happiness I felt when Tasi invited me to spend a summer month with her family on the coast of the Ipswitch Bay. And I remember the horror that swallowed us both, before I truly understood the meaning of my discoveries on the beach.

At the beginning, the trip was a blissful dream. Me — a twelve-year-old girl — roaming the sandy beaches and rocky coast with my dearest friend! Jumping from one sun-bleached rock to the next, breathing salty air, hearing the calls of sea birds spiraling above us. After a dreary year of school in a dull and drizzly town, there was no better escape.

But even from the beginning, there were some hints that my month in paradise was not going to unfold exactly as I thought. The town of Innsmouth, where we were staying, was not at all as I had imagined. The wooden buildings sagged under years of decay. Every window was streaked with grime, and I could see the rotted old door frames splintering apart under layers of paint. It seemed like a place people came not to live, but to be forgotten.

The people that we saw in the town were not friendly. They stared at us suspiciously as we wandered the empty streets. When we went too close, or if we dared to call out a friendly greeting, they would silently slip back into their dim and neglected houses.

Tasi’s father told us not to worry about the peculiar villagers. Douglas Seaton — or Mr. Seaton, as I knew him — had lived in Innsmouth a lifetime ago. He told us that the once bustling town had been devastated by a strange sickness. Decades later, it was still recovering.

As Mr. Seaton told it, he had been roughly our age when his family fled the diseased town. He was reluctant to say more, but I learned later of many disturbing things that had happened in Innsmouth during his childhood. Those stories hinted at why Mr. Seaton would have left in such a hurry — and also raised the question of why he would ever dare to return.

The ultimate goal of our vacation was a fishing adventure. Tasi’s father was an accomplished fisherman who had not set sail for many years, and he was looking to pick up the sport again. But when we arrived in Innsmouth, our plans shifted.

It seemed the winds were wrong, or the waters were wrong, or perhaps all these things were ways of describing — or disguising — the true concerns. For the villagers had seen some unnatural signs that were warning them not to intrude on the deep waters of the sea.

Tasi and I learned about all this by eavesdropping on the whispered conversations between her father and the grim-faced locals. With our fishing adventure delayed, we set out to explore up and down the craggy coast. Each morning we would eat a hurried breakfast in our worn and mildewy seaside cottage. Then we would rush out one after the other, shouting wildly, to spend another day scampering over warm rocks and burnt sand.

We had been there three days when I made my first discovery on the beach.

I remember the moment clearly. Tasi and I were taking turns running ahead over the rocks and through shallow pools of water. The noonday sun was hot on my face. I leapt ahead onto a rough patch of sand and stopped suddenly.

On the ground in front of me was a long eel-like creature. Its body was deep gray, thick and glistening, like an uncoiled muscle in the sand. And it was huge — nearly as long as I was tall, with bony, broken fins poking out along the sides of its shapeless body.

Something about it seemed deeply unnatural, somehow wrong. Surely it was dead. I thought of prodding it with a stick, but I was afraid of approaching the loathsome thing.

I heard Tasi calling me from the distance, but I didn’t dare make a sound.

Just then, the creature jerked to life with a shaky breath, and twitched its massive head towards me. And then I saw something that disturbs me to this day.

Where I expected to see a face, there was a gaping maw wringed with teeth. But there was not a single mouth, but two deformed sets of jaws fused together in a single misshapen skull, like a gruesome joke of the gods.

The shock of that sight made me stumble back, and I nearly tripped in the sand. And then, the half-alive creature let out a wretched braying sound, as though it were begging for help. A chill shot through my body, and for an instant I wondered if there was a way to put a end to this beast’s life.

Then I was running across the rocks, back toward Tasi and away from the abomination in the sand.

I didn’t tell her what I had seen. Instead, I complained of feeling unwell, and we returned to the cottage. I went to bed early that day, having hardly eaten my dinner.

The next day Tasi begged me to return to our rocky playground. But I stayed in bed, haunted by a thick snake-like shadow that wound through my dreams.

The day after that, Tasi finally talked me out of the cottage. The sun was blazing as we took the path down the rocky bluff to the water. I felt as though the fear and dread of the past two days was steaming away into the air around me.

But I was not quite as adventurous as before. I kept close to the shore, staying away from the rocks and shallow pools while Tasi explored farther out.

And so it happened that I made my second discovery.

A flash caught my eye. When I came closer, I saw a marvelous object half-buried in the sand. It was a bracelet, but one unlike any piece of jewelry I had seen before. Thin golden threads wrapped around and around, creating a fine lattice. Inside the threads were dozens of luminous jewels, like bits of brightly colored sea glass that had been carved into dazzling shapes.

I knew we would not find the owner of this bracelet. Apart from us, the beach was deserted, and when we did see another person it was only one of the grim fishermen from the village. Without pausing to think, I slipped the bracelet on my wrist. I felt a rush of excitement I could not explain, as though tasting a forbidden pleasure for the first time.

When Tasi saw my prize, her eyes flashed with surprise and something else that I did not immediately understand. But she congratulated me on the find, and we went back to celebrate.

At the cottage, Tasi’s father look at the bracelet with wonder for several minutes, though he did not take it from my wrist. When he had finished his inspection, he said simply:

“You have received a very special gift. Treasure it. But remember that in a family, gifts are always repaid.”

In that moment, I thought he was referring to Tasi, who had missed the chance to find this magical piece of jewelry on the beach. But I later understood that Mr. Seaton thought I was indebted to a different and more sinister force.

That night, while Tasi and I laid in the dark on the bed we shared, she suddenly passed me a piece of paper.

“Take a look!”

I grabbed my flashlight from under my pillow and shone it on an old, yellowed photograph. In the picture was an odd-looking woman, with odd bulging eyes and a fleshy, frog-like face. But most remarkable was the necklace she wore, which had the same web of gold threads and unusual gems as the bracelet I had found that day.

The air in the dark bedroom suddenly felt still and suffocating.

“It’s my mom!” Tasi whispered. “Before she left us. She used to always wear a necklace kind of like the bracelet you found!”

Somehow the word of my discovery spread to the locals. Villagers began coming to our cottage at all hours, until late in the evening. They would argue with Tasi’s father in hushed, angry voices. I heard whispers about the dwindling catch, and a strange illness poisoning the fish. One mean-looking villager with a shambling walk slammed a dead fish on the table in mid-argument. Mr. Seaton quickly stuffed the fish back into its bag, but in that moment I thought I saw a twisted and deformed body, like the unnatural creature I had found dying on the sand.

Mr. Seaton was reluctant to let us out of his sight during this time, and our beach walks became less and less frequent. He started working late into the night, reading old books and muttering darkly to himself. He began to rise later and later in the morning, but his sunken face suggested he was sleeping less and less.

A day came when Mr. Seaton did not rise in the morning. As we waited for him to join us, we stared out through the old cottage windows. A fog had blown in, and it covered the coast in thick gray shadows.

The hours passed. Tasi was restless. As lunchtime approached, Tasi decided to venture down to the water.

Against my better judgement, I accompanied her out into the fog.

Ordinarily, the idea of running wildly through a fog, hiding and searching for each other, would have excited us both. But something made me pause. Perhaps it was my odd discoveries on the beach, or the visits from the nervous villagers. Or perhaps it was the way the fog hung in the air, clinging to the rock like a wet, rank towel.

Tasi skipped down the rocky path first, nearly running. I followed behind, hesitating only a little. But then, as the rocky ground gave way to drifts of sand, a putrid smell hit me.

I stumbled off course, my bare feet splashing into the foamy water along the shore. The smell was suffocating. Both of us looked around in confusion. What had happened?

Just at that moment, a wind picked up. It blew off the cover of fog, revealing our true surroundings for the first time.

The waters around us were filled with fish — great masses of them. But they were not alive. There were huge slick bodies, torn apart by who knows what, floating in the rancid water. Other fish seemed whole, but were swollen grotesquely. Everywhere I looked, the surface of the water was thick with decomposing bodies.

At that moment I had no thought in my mind, except a desperate wish that the fog would return and shroud this horrible sight.

Without thinking, I ran, stumbling through the shallows, rotting bodies slapping my legs. I did not think of Tasi when I reached the shore. Instead, I ran desperately up the rocky path, scraping my bare feet in a mad rush to safety.

For many days after, the stench of fish stung my throat, and I could hardly block it out to eat a morsel of food.

Tasi’s father explained that the dead fish were part of a natural occurrence. It happened in cycles. If there was too little oxygen or too much nutrients in the coastal waters, a sudden wave of fish would die and be swept up the shore. The locals called it the red tide.

Shortly after, Tasi’s dad announced that we would be making the fishing trip we had originally planned.

We prepared to leave on a cool evening as the sun was setting. There was no trace of fog, but the wind was strong. It shrieked against the craggy rocks that lined the beach.

We did not leave on the fishing boat we had been preparing. Instead, Mr. Seaton took us on a small rowboat. Of course, both of us found that unusual, but we did not feel comfortable arguing with him. Perhaps we would have complained if it had been at the beginning of our trip. But now Mr. Seaton seemed to have gained a new and frightening intensity.

The water was choppy when we left the shore. The wind was unrelenting, making it difficult to keep up a conversation even if we had been in the mood to talk. Before long, Mr. Seaton brought the boat to a rocky outcrop surrounded by deep gray waters. He tied it the boat in place and gestured for us to climb off.

Then, he began to talk with a fierce urgency.

“The first lesson a fisherman learns is that you must respect the sea. But respect is not enough — not nearly enough! Instead, you must understand that the seas do not belong to us.”

Something about his manner was erratic and wild. Tasi started crying, but Mr. Seaton didn’t seem to notice.

“This will seem strange to you. For that, I am sorry. But I lived in Innsmouth. I saw our village starve when the waters closed to us. I saw better men than me try to reach into those deep mysteries and fail.”

Mr. Seaton grabbed my wrist and began to speak faster.

“The sea is a dark place. There are things that linger under these waters that we could never understand. Creatures with shapes that make no sense to our earth-bound minds. Civilizations that are older than the dawn of human time!”

As he talked, I became aware of an unfamiliar presence. On a craggy rock several yards from us was a silent figure.

Mr. Seaton didn’t stop to look.

“I was here when the villagers struck the first bargain with these strange creatures — we called them the deep ones. The terms of our arrangement were simple, but they carried a heavy cost. The deep ones offered us jewelry and guaranteed plentiful fishing. We agreed to share our own and allow them to… mix with us.”

It was hard to see in the growing shadows, but I couldn’t pull my eyes away from the silent figure on the rock. Its shape was both unsettlingly familiar and unmistakably wrong. It had the rough outline of a crouched human, but it was squat and bulbous. Its skin shone like the moist body of a frog. But strangest of all was its huge fleshy head, which slowly turned toward us.

Two bulging eyes fixed on me with an unblinking stare.

“I made that trade before. I had to. Now, I have been asked to make that trade again.”

I knew in that moment that I would never see land again — that I would die, or worse, in those murky waters. My family would never know about the bracelet, or the eel-like creature, or the swamp of dead fish. They would never know about the frog-like figure watching us, and waiting to claim one of us for some underwater kingdom beyond the waves and older than all human civilization.

But that is not how things unfolded. Instead, I heard Tasi screaming. When I turned, there was a second figure rising from the inky waters. There, directly in front of us, was another one of the loathsome frog creatures. But this one was not an impassive observer. Instead, its slick and bloated face was twisted with an expression of complete and utter hatred.

I was afraid, but another emotion took over my mind — one of amazement. For even in the madness of that moment, I recognized the face I saw rising out of the water before us.

In the next instant, a fierce wave crashed down on the three of us and the rocky outcrop. Before I understand what was happening, I was swimming fiercely, struggling to stay above the churning waves. I did not know which way led back to shore — I could barely tell the black waters beneath me from the dark sky above. I did not see Tasi or her father’s face in the heaving waters. I doubt I will ever see them above the waves again. But somehow I emerged, bruised and waterlogged, on a cold moonlit beach I did not recognize.

I was quite a sight when I stumbled into the coastal town an hour later, half-conscious and wearing torn and soaked clothing. Fortunately, the villagers of this small port were not at all like the hostile folk of Innsmouth. They rushed me to safety, and made sure that I had hot water and shelter for the night.

The next day my parents came and we set out on the long drive back.

As we traveled, I told my story of my adventure on the seas. We agreed that it had been utter foolishness to risk the waves so close to night. We mourned the loss of my friend. I described the trip in the boat with Tasi and her father, and the rocky outcrop where we stopped. But I did not mention the bracelet, which I lost beneath the waves. I did not describe the frog-like figures that watched us. I did not explain that I knew the face in the waves.

No, I did not tell my parents that I recognized the abhorrent creature that came to us — that I knew it from a picture Tasi had shown me by flashlight, that quiet night when we slept together in the cottage. How could I? For surely it made no sense that a human could disappear for a lifetime and become something else, something alien and depraved, and live deep in dark waters forever beyond our reach.

Matthew MacDonald is a mostly-tech author with a strange Halloween project. You can get the complete Four Tales of Cthulhu on Amazon https://amzn.to/2pX0Q46 or see his other projects at http://prosetech.com.