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GHOULS • by Megan Arkenberg

“Easy, girl,” Merle murmured, tightening her grip on the mare’s reins. The sand beneath her feet was soft and clotted  with large tangles of seaweed washed up by yesterday’s storm. By the light of the lantern tied to the reins, she could see the sharp silhouette of the shoreline rising up ahead. A coast that rough could easily sink a Lake Erie schooner.

Merle hoped so, anyway.

A black shape cut across the inky blue of the lake. Dear God, let it be a ship, Merle thought. A rich one. On a night such as this–dark, but clear–she knew the lantern bobbing along with her horse’s lurching gait would be indistinguishable from an anchor light on a moored schooner. With luck, her victim’s captain would think it safe to sail just as close to the rock and ultimately wreck his vessel against it.

What happened next would depend heavily on the captain. Some men panicked, driving their ships until they sunk and drowned everyone aboard. Unfortunately, that would also make cargo-picking difficult, and Merle would have to rely on what washed up on the beach: jewelry, crates of cargo, purses lifted from the pockets of corpses. At other times, the sailors would be smart enough to grab the yawl and row away as fast as they could, leaving behind a gold mine in everything from furs to metals to liquor.

“Blackbirding,” they called it. Merle smiled to herself, thinking of the flocks of seagulls that came down to inspect her victims long after she was through with them. No blackbirds there. “Moon cussing” was another term, the one her grandfather had used. She glanced at her lantern, at the light washing weakly across the lake, and thought he may have had the right of it.

“Excuse me.”

The chill voice from out of the darkness sent a shiver up her spine. Merle pulled her horse to a halt, sliding her lantern farther down the reins to get a better look at her companion. “Who are you?”

A man stepped into the circle of light. His features, where they were not gaunt or as tattered-looking as the sails on a floundering ship, had an Ojibwa cast. Both skin and lips were a dull, sickly gray, and the glow of the lantern made his eyes seem lost in their deep sockets. He smiled when he saw her, baring a line of sharp yellow teeth.

“Who am I?” He shrugged, a brief lifting of thin shoulders beneath a skin cloak. “One much as yourself, I would imagine.”

Merle stiffened. “Waiting for the wreck?”

“Well, I certainly imagine I could profit from it.”

“You waste your time.” Merle lowered her lantern again, unsettled by the ghastly appearance of her companion. “Once that ship goes down, I’m not letting anyone near her.”

“As you wish,” the man said, shrugging again. “But I doubt we would be, ah, competing for the same goals. Am I correct in imagining you are here for the gold?”

“Gold, furs, whatever they happen to be carrying. I’m not picky.”

He took a step closer, and Merle’s horse began to shy away. There was an unpleasant smell clinging to the air around him, but she couldn’t quite name it. “Good. I have no interest in gold, or any other treasure.”

“Then what are you interested in?”

“Well.” A wave slapped against the sand, loud enough to make Merle jump. “Let’s just say I think a pair of ghouls like us can manage to strike a bargain, aye?”

He took another step, his sickeningly sweet odor falling on Merle like a fog. It was one she knew well, but from where?

The answer came to her just as another wave broke over the rocky shore; the smell was like a low beach on the morning after a storm. More than that, it was the smell of the things that washed up tangled in the seaweed, swollen and bloated and foul. It was the smell of corpses.

The man’s sharp teeth flashed in the lantern light. Merle was no coward, but her grandfather hadn’t raised a fool, either. She turned and ran down the beach as fast as her feet would carry her.

A cold laugh echoed over the lake. “Not much of a ghoul, is she?” the Wendigo asked the mare. The horse merely nickered. Still chuckling to himself, the ghoul took the reins and continued Merle’s walk up the shore. With luck, a fresh catch would be on the beach by morning.


Megan Arkenberg is a writer and poet from Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Her work has appeared in many webzines and anthologies, including The Lorelei Signal, Rose & Thorn, A Fly in Amber, and numerous haiku and tanka publications. Her story “Panthanatos” was included in Hadley Rille Books’ Ruins Metropolis anthology earlier this year. She also edits a small fantasy e-zine, Mirror Dance.

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Posted on September 23, 2008 in Horror, Stories
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  • http://users.beagle.com.au/peterl P.M.Lawrence

    So blackirding has another meaning? Here in Australia it refers to raiding the Pacific Islands for slaves or near slaves, typically for the sugar fields up north in the late 19th century.

  • http://users.beagle.com.au/peterl P.M.Lawrence

    Typo – I meant blackbirding.

  • http://sarah-crawl-space.blogspot.com/ Sarah Hilary

    Terrific story, Megan! I loved Merle’s apparent ruthlessness and how fast it faded in the real ghoul’s presence. Great atmosphere and imagery you conjured – I could see and hear and smell the ocean and the beach. Five stars from me.

  • http://www.writewords.org.uk/oonah/ Oonah V Joslin

    A wrecker beaten at her own game and that sickly smell of things rotting in the weed and the feast of flesh to come on the morning tide :) Very icky indeed!

  • http://nowplayinginseattle.blogspot.com/ kcball

    A nice little tale, Megan, well told. i lived, for a time, at the Soo and have an interest in in Lake stories. Do you know of the Bannockburn?

  • Avis Hickman-Gibb

    I liked this one. Well rounded and has pace. He let her off the hook lightly, but I suppose he had other “fish” to fry!!

  • Megan Arkenberg

    P.M. Lawrence, I wasn’t familiar with the other meaning of “blackbirding.” Thanks for the information!

    kcball, I hadn’t heard of the Bannockburn, but I looked it up online. :-) Chilling story!

    Thanks for the comments!

  • Celeste goschen

    Great atmosphere!

  • http://www.erinmkinch.com Erin

    Very creepy, Megan. Enjoyed it!

  • http://canyonsofgray.blogspot.com dj barber

    Well told and enjoyable tale. Chilling and eerie.

    –dj

  • http://gretaigl.blogspot.com/ Greta

    Great story, Megan. Atmospheric and creepy. Nice description of the wendigo.

  • Jen

    I really sins’t expec that ending! It was fantastic, thank you!

  • rumjhum

    Oh boy!This is one hell of a good spine chilling story, and I’m glad I didn’t get to read it until morning (Indian time)! If I could give more votes than five, I would!:-)

  • Cindy

    Great little story with an extremely nice imagery created by using all the senses.

    One little thing, you can’t actually hang a lantern on the reins. I know cowboy movies always show them tying the reins to a post but the reins will actually break quite easily. Lanterns were used on occasion when riding in a really dark night but they were hung from the stirrup irons only with a rider in the saddle. The rider’s foot would keep the lantern handle on the outside of stirrup and keep it from beating into the side of the horse.

    You have to remember that lanterns contain fire and oil. You can’t just have it swinging around willy nilly. Also, when used, the horse is always at a walk (like in your story) and if it were an emergency, the rider would hold the lantern.

  • http://users.beagle.com.au/peterl P.M.Lawrence

    “I know cowboy movies always show them tying the reins to a post but the reins will actually break quite easily”. Then why was the Highwayman’s Hitch invented? My knot books describe it being used for just this, presumably for when a horse just isn’t that serious about pulling. It holds fast at one end and comes undone if you pull the other.

    “You have to remember that lanterns contain fire and oil. You can’t just have it swinging around willy nilly.” Actually, that is just precisely what you should do (provided it’s far enough from anything it could bump into). If it can swing, the orientation will keep the oil level relative to the lantern, but if you hold the lantern steady the oil will slosh. Think how a drinker’s trained reflexes work when his mug is jostled in a crowded pub – not by amateurishly trying to keep it still but by letting it swing and just keeping the mug oriented with the acceleration. (Perhaps I’m giving away too much about myself there…)

  • Cindy

    Lawerence,
    ““I know cowboy movies always show them tying the reins to a post but the reins will actually break quite easily”. Then why was the Highwayman’s Hitch invented? My knot books describe it being used for just this, presumably for when a horse just isn’t that serious about pulling. It holds fast at one end and comes undone if you pull the other.”

    You use a halter that has a rope attached. This would take too much time in the movies so they don’t use it. Also, if you look at those movies, they don’t “knot” anything. They simply throw the reins around the post a couple of times. A movie animal trainer is standing by and as soon as the cameras move away they walk over and either hold the reins if the camera will be coming back or take the horse away.

    My rationale about the oil in the lamp may be off, but again, it would not hang from the reins it would hang from the stirrup iron.

  • http://users.beagle.com.au/peterl P.M.Lawrence

    Yes, I know what they actually do in films is unrealistic, but the point was that sometimes people really did hitch the reins to hitching posts (apparently the Halter Hitch is more secure). By the way, what you describe sounds like the Lighterman’s Back Mooring Hitch, which is tied in precisely that way with a loose end hanging down rather than being fully tied off.

    Wherever you hung the lantern, it would have to be free to swing and clear of things to bump into. The stirrup iron really wouldn’t do as a fastening point, unless the lantern hung considerably below the horse where it couldn’t light very much. On the other hand, if the lantern was fastened to the reins near the bit, it would hang below the horse’s head.

  • http://www.theperfectblogtitle.blogspot.com/ Rena Sherwood

    One of the best stories on EDF.

  • Cindy

    You may want to do a little historical research because the lantern was hung on the stirrup irons to light the road.

    Again, the reins would not be strong enough to hold the lantern and even if they would, all that would accomplish would be to cause the horse put its head down because that is where the reins would be pulling it. A rider gives cues to the horse through the use of light pressure on the reins transferred to the bit. This gentle pressure tells the horse to go turn right or left or slow down, etc. I have never known a lantern that was able to convey this information.

  • http://users.beagle.com.au/peterl P.M.Lawrence

    You misunderstand me. I was not referring to best practice for guiding a rider, but to how the wrecker could have carried the lantern to mislead the ships – and slung below the stirrups would not achieve that. It would have had nothing to do with conveying instruction to the horse! The reins would undoubtedly be strong enough to carry the weight, if by “reins” you include the point of attachment to the bridle. It is absolutely false to state that “all that would accomplish would be to cause the horse put its head down”; it would certainly accomplish the object of the exercise, which was to mount the lantern where ships could see it. It’s not as if the rider needed to ride well or fast.

  • http://mirrordancefantasy.blogspot.com Megan Arkenberg

    If I may…

    I took the word “reins” from the explaination of blackbirding in Frederick Stonehouse’s “Haunted Lakes.” I describe the process much as he does–while I confess that I did not research extensively to check his accuracy, most sources seem to agree on this point.

    The best explaination I can offer is this; light lantern, strong reins, and a well-trained horse. :-)

  • Mark Tomlinson

    Lovely stuff megan.

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