The Odyssey Of The Penelope Anne| Ken Goldman

The Odyssey Of The Penelope Anne

 
 
 

The gaff-rigged Island Packet schooner caught a stiff wind, tracing the same course from Cape Cod to Nantucket as the early New England whaling ships had followed en route to New Bedford. Having ‘come about’ a full ninety degrees Richard secured the main sail of the Penelope Anne and reached into the cooler for a Heineken. He cut the diesel engines and the vessel’s six sheets snapped in the breeze like thick leather straps. Watching Deidra as she sunned herself centerfold-style upon the quarterdeck Richard could almost believe the gods had decided to grant him that second chance after all.

The heaving ocean forced an uncharacteristic humility on the young accountant while he steered the 38 footer through the swells. Having entered a particularly demanding channel of Nantucket Sound he weighed his mistakes against his chances for putting his life back together, finding an appropriate analogy for his situation in the rolling waves. Sailing the treacherous waters of matrimony he had been inadequate at the helm, declared every man for himself, and gone overboard into a triangle more treacherous than the one in Bermuda.

The trouble was that there were too many women in the world. At the same time there were not enough. It was a man thing, really, and the female of the species could never understand the male perspective. He would not even try to explain it to Deidra if he hoped to change her mind about the divorce.

The brief liaison with a tight-assed little stenographer was not a meaningful affair nor even a very memorable one. Several nights crunching figures inside the executive offices of Boston Bancorp he had also spent crunching the pelvic bones of the aspirant young siren named Cissy, whom he had fished from the secretarial pool. Later, when reason replaced passion Bancorp’s chief actuary realized too late his poor choice of this young woman given to school girl tantrums and midnight phone calls.

Once discovered his fleeting rendezvous produced agonizing nights of strained silence between Deidra and himself. Although she eventually forgave his dalliance, the woman’s weary reprieve had been the first red flare Richard should have noticed. About himself there was something else he should have noticed, something that anyone who observed him for more than ten minutes easily detected.

Cissy had not been the problem. All women were the problem.

It was that man thing again. He could not keep his eyes off women. How could he? Women were everywhere, beautiful women each a unique study in comeliness and temptation. It was enough to drive a husband into a state of rabid madness that no married woman could ever fathom and few would endure. Could any woman, no matter how beautiful herself, compete with all the rest? During their last torturous weeks together a yawning ogre slept nightly between Richard and his wife and quickly became The Creature That Would Not Leave. Their lovemaking became its first kill, and it gorged on a feast of the couple’s silence.

Richard moved to a small Tremont Street studio apartment off Boston’s Common while his young wife filed for divorce. The truth hit him almost immediately. He had been a putz. The legal sharks from the offices of Ginsberg and Meyers smelled blood and already were circling. In less than a week Richard decided that he did not feel like supplying them with a chum line taken from the gutted remains of his life.

He had been a putz. It was as simple as that. Maybe that sexist adage applied to him after all, the old feminist cry from those bra-burning ‘70’s that stated men were pigs with brains located in their jockey briefs. He had been kicked in the gonads, all right, and maybe for the first time that kick had cleared his head. It was time to wake up and smell the settlements.

He phoned Deidra, explaining to her “We need this weekend together … alone.” He spoke in the simple terms of a man weary of confrontation in the presence of double breasted third parties seated behind long tables of polished mahogany. In Providencetown he chartered what the rental brochure had called the ‘Blue Water Passage Maker.’ He confessed to the woman who still legally remained his wife that he had no desire to set a course for the offices of Ginsberg and Meyers. But he would not beg her to join him, he insisted, completely aware that his call had amounted to begging. Still, there was something to be said for groveling. Deidra agreed to come.

Richard’s last chance to undo the advancing rot wasting away his marriage lay here in the heaving Atlantic with the rest of the world – and its women – hidden beyond the horizon. As the Penelope Anne sliced through the whitecaps the divorce papers might have awaited his signature from a desk on the planet Neptune.

He and Deidra shared a day mercifully free of discord, and time aboard the schooner had accomplished what a backfield of marriage counselors could not. With the aid of a strong wind in a few hours they would dock at the Straight Wharf slip near Nantucket Island’s Main Street. By sunset they would dine on hard shell crabs and sip cappuccinos in The Tavern at Harbor Square just as they had done during the dizzying early days of his courtship. Richard had reserved a beach cottage at the White Elephant where, if luck remained with him, he might make love to Deidra beneath the stars while a wine dark sea provided the accompanying soundtrack.

In the morning maybe they would return to Boston to burn those damned papers together…

*

A great sloshing sound startled him from his thoughts. Something of considerable bulk behind the schooner had risen from the ocean and its thick spray speckled the back of his neck. Whales probably. Schools of the humpbacks were common in these waters and the huge creatures often swam like Shamu wannabes alongside sea craft, to the delight of the sightseers from Cape Cod and Martha’s Vineyard.

Richard inspected the swells unable to locate the seafaring mammals. But he saw an object there, something massive obscured by the glare of the late afternoon sun. Adjusting his binoculars the image did not immediately register inside his head. When it finally did he had to rub his eyes.

Dripping with a great wash of sea water colossal chunks of rock rose a hundred yards over the Penelope Anne’s starboard rail like an ascending Atlantis, a small island of granite chunks that pushed ponderously through the ocean’s surface. Waves crashed against the jagged rock formations that a moment earlier simply had not been there. Richard shook his head as if from cobwebs.

“Almost had me going there for a moment…”

He was seeing a salt water mind video, pure and simple. Deidra’s lawyers had played darts with Richard’s lucidity all week and now the Atlantic had become a weigh-in station for his sense of reason. The salty old girl was a prankster and no one understood that better than one who often had been the butt of her jokes. The ocean frequently played tricks with a man’s head as well as with his stomach, and one required more than a pair of sea legs to call himself a true sailor. Phantasms might occur to weekend seafarers who spent their week days exploring E-mailed actuary tables from a swivel office chair. Considering what aberration the Atlantic might have conjured up, an island of rocks coughed from the deep seemed pretty lame compared to the sea serpents and ghost ships of the old sea captains’ tales.

Richard spit on the binoculars’ lens and wiped them, certain a closer inspection would reveal he had seen ocean mist mirrored off the prism of the rolling waves, nothing more. Better he should pop off the flap top of another cold one. Then he could focus his attention on the more pressing issues at hand, like how best to suggest to attorney-at-law Robert Ginsberg that he commit a sexual act hitherto thought anatomically impossible.

Richard looked again through the lens. He looked hard.

The island was real.

Whether natural or unnatural formations, the rocks had emerged like a David Copperfield illusion from the ocean’s floor. Maybe a sudden shift in tide explained the phenomenon of an underwater island, although high tide had already come and gone. Or maybe ol’ Poseiden (or the beer) was just screwing with his head. Richard gulped down the rest of his Heineken without the can leaving his lips.

“Dee, take a look at this,” he said with studied calm while his eyes remained on the jutting rocks. Holding out the binoculars for her he almost added “…and tell me I’m not crazy.”

She did not hear him, immersed in her Walkman’s music as she lay ass-to-the-wind in the sun. Richard removed the earphones that had tangled in her curls, his finger jabbing in dumb-show toward the starboard rail. Tying the strings of her bikini top Deidra rose to her feet, attempting the difficult trick of shielding her eyes from the sun’s glare while peering through the lens. She removed the binoculars, squinted, then looked through them again.

“An island? Out here? Where are we?”

She seemed as perplexed as he. But this was good. Given his frame of mind during the past few weeks Richard might as easily have seen Napoleon Bonaparte in a speedo waving to him from those rocks.

“Until two minutes ago I’d say we were about twenty-five miles southeast of Nantucket, great food, and great sex.”

They exchanged knowing smiles. It had been a while since the couple had engaged in banter they could comfortably slip into, and after sex that had been the next thing to go south.

“And now?”

“You got me. Skull Island, maybe. You want a beer before we meet Kong?”

“Straight answer, okay? Are we on course?”

“The navigational equipment says we are.”

“But there are no islands in this part of the Sound. Aren’t there usually channel markers, buoys, lights—-something to indicate shallows or rocks? This waterway is heavily traveled.”

She had a point. Had those rocks emerged like a monolithic Godzilla through the schooner’s hull Deidra and he might be having this discussion alongside Davy Jones’ locker. Maybe they were in a shallow channel and there could be more surprises below the surface just waiting to say ‘Howdy’.

Another beer followed by a course correction as a chaser seemed a good idea. Steering his marriage away from the rocks had been hard enough; Richard had no desire to try the same thing with the schooner. He trimmed the main sail, dropped anchor, and popped the flap of another brew. Checking the map against the compass on the instrument panel and the sun above, he graphed the Penelope Anne’s location using the protractor and ruler he found inside the map box containing the chart of Nantucket Sound.

They were thirty-seven degrees latitude north by thirty-four degrees longitude east, and the circle he drew encompassed both Cape Cod and Nantucket, placing the schooner right where he expected. The only logical action was to radio the island’s location to the Coast Guard when they arrived at Nantucket. He hoped that no one attributed his discovery to the slew of empty beer cans. But his priority now was not the U.S.C.G. Richard still had to guide the Penelope Anne out of this place while trying to keep the craft and their asses in one piece.

The sun had begun its western descent. From the stern Deidra stood watching the world turn golden. Richard stood behind her and touched her shoulders, catching the faint honey scent of her hair as it brushed against his face. The rocks jutting from the island gleamed like cut diamonds in the refracted light.

“So, are we in any danger, skipper?” she asked, still watching the sea.

“We’re okay while we’ve got daylight to steer our way clear. We’ll stay put to make sure the tide’s steady. We may be in a channel that keeps those rocks hidden below the surface when the tide’s low. That’s the best I can come up with.”

Deidra smiled the kind of smile he had almost forgotten she had been capable of. “Uh-huh. I see. Well then, Captain, maybe what I really meant to ask is, am I in any danger?”

She turned her face toward his and looked at Richard hard. He studied her eyes right back, searching for something he had missed seeing in them for a long time. The moment felt suffused with uncertainty, different from those early days when thought never entered into his actions with this woman. But now so much discomfort had passed between them and intimate occasions were harder to determine with any real accuracy. He felt like a man at sea without a compass, unsure whether he could read the signals correctly.

“Lady, you’re in one hell of a lot of danger,” he said, drawing Deidra to him.

He kissed her.

At first her body stiffened in his arms as if the woman felt uncertain how to respond, but she did not pull away as he feared she might. In the next moment she returned his kiss, pressing herself hard against him so that he held her closer. The instant became dizzying, a swirling dropping of the ground beneath them. It had been easy to forget that the surface was not solid but the unsteady deck of the schooner.

Richard tugged at the string of Deidra’s bikini and the soft material fell completely away. Her skin tasted of the salt air, better than he had remembered it. She broke the kiss and led him to the deck mat where her mouth found his and they kissed again.

“Richard…”

A whisper in his ear.

“Richard …

The breathy voice came from a place inside his head as well as from the woman he held in his arms. It was a soft yet urgent voice that caught in the heavy sighs of the wind, becoming lost in the ocean breeze. He kissed Deidra full on her mouth, losing himself in the heaving thrusts of her body and the co-mingled smells of salt and sweat. The voice came to him even while they kissed.

“Rich-chard … Rich-chard … “

It was not Deidra’s voice he heard.

Another woman spoke to him, urgent yet childlike in her imploring.

“Oh Rich-chard…Rich-chard…” 

The wind…only the wind …

Now a second voice spoke, and this woman sang his name with a curious pleading. Her ingenuous song seemed as soft as the sea breeze, even more alluring than the first.

A third voice, foreign-sounding and more insistent, joined the first two.

Ree-chard… ! Ree-chard… ! “

The silky voices melded together in a seductive female chorus whose words consisted only of his name, and a fourth voice fused with them, then a fifth. A dozen women sang his name, crying and wailing it, their song faintly discernible above the sea breeze, almost indistinguishable from it.

“Come to us, Rich-chard …”

“Don’t keep us waiting, Rich-chard …”

“Reeee-chard … !”

He knew these voices. He had heard them before. There was something so damned familiar about them, a quality both intimate and personal that only he knew. Although a few seconds had passed the voices seemed to have been weaving their hypnotic web for much longer.

He stopped himself cold like a man awakened with a slap while dreaming. Sitting up he looked around him but saw nothing.

“What’s wrong?” Deidra asked.

“I thought I heard something.”

Deidra’s Sony Walkman lay alongside the deck mat and a faint hum came from it. Richard pressed the ear phones close to his head and listened while Roberta Flack sang about how this young boy’s song had been killing her softly.

The sea was up to her tricks again.

Damn, she was good!

“It’s nothing,” Richard said, the head set still against his ear. “It’s noth—”

“We’re waiting for you, Rich-chard …” 

“All of us are waiting for you … “

Now the women’s voices sang to him from the Sony’s ear phones.

“Come to us…”

“Come …”

“Rich-chard … ”

“Ree-chard …” 

This time he got to his feet and looked about him, spinning one way and then the other as if a bevy of hidden Amazon temptresses from below deck might suddenly appear and step forward, twenty grinning Sheenas-of-the-Jungle stowed away as a perverse joke, laughing themselves sick at the idiocy of one man’s huge male ego. Richard hurled the Walkman and it skittered across the deck like a skimming stone, breaking in two when it struck the opposite side. Still the voices reverberated inside his head. He looked around the schooner’s quarterdeck but no one stood there. His eyes turned starboard toward the island.

Now Deidra was on her feet too, staring in the same direction.

“Richard, what is it? What’s wrong?”

“Don’t you hear them?”

The question seemed ludicrous, and he already knew the answer. Deidra heard nothing. She could not hear words meant only for him.

“Richard, I swear to God I don’t know what you’re talking about—”

Deidra’s words faded like lost echoes. He heard only the musical strains of the women’s voices resounding from the jagged island of rocks off the Penelope Anne’s starboard rail, pleading for him to answer them.

“Rich-chard…Rich-chard… ”

“We want you, Reech-chard…”

“We want you now…”

With a wondrous melding of sound more beautiful than music they whispered and sighed as no mortal woman could. Their song coalesced inside him and his brain swam with the rhapsody he felt through every pore of his flesh. Ecstasy tingled beneath his skin warming him from deep inside. A new sensation overpowered him. He ached to hear more of their music, to hear so much more, to feel so much more …

Deidra tugged at him but he paid no attention to her. He felt a vague comprehension that she must be speaking because he saw her mouth forming words. Yet he heard nothing Deidra said as if she were speaking from a place too distant to hear her. He had become drunk with the alluring music of the sprites calling to him from the island, the wonderfully mesmerizing choir in which he lost himself so completely. His head swam in the maelstrom of music that spoke to his soul and begged him to join them.

Scrambling for the binoculars Richard twisted himself from Deidra’s grasp. He had to look. Peering through the lens and scanning the jutting rocks of the island he doubted that what he expected to see could exist in pink flesh. It would have been impossible, inconceivable, too much for any man to hope for even in his wildest fantasies …

The great rocks of the island crawled with hundreds of women. Some stood balancing themselves precariously upon the large stones, breathtaking sylphs who sang how they were his for the taking. A few reclined upon the large rocks like sea nymphs while others dangled their feet in the water with an almost virginal innocence, demure yet alluring sirens smiling and laughing like children.

Richard twisted the adjustment knob of the binoculars and the women came into sharp focus.

Centerfolds. Cocktail waitresses. Cheerleaders. Bank tellers. A bevy of stunning faces and breathtaking bodies whom Richard had stored away in the most secret crevices of his soul. And more, so many more he could not count them all.

They were all there, women he had wanted to touch, women he had wanted with every fiber of his being, exciting women who had seemed forever out of his reach. But now these women all wanted Richard and they sang his name into the sea breeze like a symphony of angels.

“Rich-chard!”

“Reeeeeee-chard!”

Pushing past Deidra Richard cranked the schooner’s anchor to the surface, then turned the ignition key. The twin diesel engines roared to life like awakened dragons. Behind the ship’s wheel he became a possessed sea captain fixated on his single course, steering the Penelope Anne in a sharp arc one hundred and eighty degrees directly toward the island. The deck pitched skyward with the abrupt turn and Deidra held fast to the rail to avoid being swept over the side. Too terrified to speak, she managed to stumble across the heaving deck struggling with Richard for the wheel, but he would not release his grasp.

“Richard! What are you doing? You’re going to kill us! You can’t—”

He paid no attention to her. Instead he hissed at her through clenched teeth like a mad man, and for one terrible instant he seemed ready to strike her. Too engrossed in his mission he instead pushed the schooner’s engines to their endurance. Deidra careened across the wildly swaying deck toward the small life raft. Clinging to the rail she prepared herself for the inevitable savage crunch of the schooner’s bow against the sharp rocks of the shore.

The Penelope Anne hit the first boulder with the collision force of a steam engine barreling full throttle into a wall of solid granite. On impact her quarterdeck split open in the middle exposing a splintered gaping maw. Another sharp rock dragged along the bottom of the boat tearing the hull below, knocking Richard off his feet. The deck veered wildly, tilting into the sea while leaving Deidra still clutching the life raft lashed to the side railing of the craft. The railing tore free, hurling the woman into the cold water of the Atlantic. She climbed into the dinghy just as the schooner slammed into another granite rampart. Struck dead-on the vessel’s diesel engines exploded, the concussion tearing the dinghy free of the Penelope Anne. Chunks of debris showered upon Deidra who crouched inside the raft like a terrified child.

A great wall of water from the sinking vessel nearly capsized the raft, but the woman clung to the life boat spread-eagled on its bottom. The tiny dinghy managed to stay afloat, thrown clear from the wreckage. The heaving wash of the submerged ship tossed the life boat around like a pull toy. Watching the bulk of the Penelope Anne disappear from view among the floating detritus of the schooner’s remains Deidra found the strength finally to scream.

“Richard? God, Richard! Where are you?” 

A single crash of the surf against the shoreline answered her.

“Richard? Are you all right?”

Nothing.

She searched the water for any sign of him, catching sight of an object barely noticeable in the distance. A vessel the size of a pin appeared on the horizon, possibly a Coast Guard cutter that had seen the explosion. It appeared headed toward the smoke of the blast that from a distance clearly indicated a craft in distress. Falling back into the life raft Deidra’s breaths now came only in quick starts. Exhausted, she again searched the rocks of the island, studying every niche for any indication of movement.

She spotted Richard on the shore clinging to a huge pyramid shaped rock, pulling himself bloodied from the surf, weak but still alive. He managed to haul himself from the water, completely spent as he lay upon his stomach on the rock’s angled surface.

Deidra called to him, but he did not hear her as he got to his feet. His clothes were rags as he staggered along the jutting rocks. His arms were oddly outstretched. He sniggered like a drowning man in sudden ecstasy over having found a floating life jacket. Deidra called his name again, screamed it.

Richard did not respond, instead stumbling along the rocks acting out a grotesque pantomime she could not understand. He fell, got to his feet, and stumbled again with arms extended all the while, like a grinning zombie fixated on an object only he saw.

Waves crashed against the rocks, and for a moment the island seemed concealed beneath the great rush of sea water. The sudden wake caused the dinghy to heave and dip wildly, knocking Deidra to its bottom. When she crawled to her knees to stare at the island again the huge rocks had already begun to slip beneath the water’s surface.

Richard no longer stood upon the sinking island. But something else did, a hairy and fat creature that seemed like a four-legged animal. Deidra could not at first clearly see it because it did not have any particular shape, as if it were still metamorphosing into the animal it had not yet fully become. Ill-defined and ugly it seemed the size of a large dog. But it was not a dog.

Deidra rubbed her eyes. This time the ocean had really done a number on her. She remembered something Richard had once told her, that often the sea could be one really sick bitch.

The island of rocks sank beneath the surface in a monstrous gush of sea water. Taking the tusked creature with it the island disappeared.

Deidra did not want the tears to come the way they did, to have her rescuers find her sobbing like a little girl when they pulled her from the raft. She had not cried once during the weeks since Richard had left her. But now she simply could not stop herself.

It was a woman thing…

*

“Cissy …” 

Richard felt certain that was the name he had heard the woman call herself as he crawled from the sea to discover that only she stood there awaiting him. All the other women had gone. More precisely, they had disappeared. He did not know where.

Cissy …

Yes, she looked something like the girl he had bedded from the secretarial pool, although she now wore a long flowing silky black robe that made her look like … 

Like what?

All right. Like a witch. A sorceress maybe. He did not know what else to call her.

“Cissy” she had called herself. He felt certain that had been the name she had said before the change came over him when suddenly her words seemed garbled and strange as if spoken by a creature of another species. But the change meant something quite different, of course. He knew that even as he felt his flesh tingling as it tightened around him like a wire-haired cellophane wrapper that hardly felt like flesh at all.

It was he that had changed, he that had become this four-legged swine-like thing. He understood this even as the ground beneath him sank back into the depths of the sea. 

But it did not end there. 

Many more awaited his arrival at the bottom, and the woman dressed in black herded him among the other filthy cloven-hoofed creatures like himself. There were dozens – no, hundreds – of them. They wandered the rocks and caves on the ocean’s floor while the woman stood there as if she were a dark shepherdess, a lovely, wicked herder of swine.

This beautiful creature had lulled him to come to her. She was like those mythological sirens who enticed the ancient Greek sailors to join them on their island, luring them to their deaths as they smashed their sea vessels upon the rocks of their shores, too crazed with the sirens’ song to resist.

She called herself Cissy, and she was that beautiful but dumb bimbo from the secretarial pool at Bancorp, Inc. He felt sure of it. And yet—

“No, not Cissy, swine, not in this place ,” the woman corrected him, as if she had read his very thoughts. Laughing, she snapped the whip that ushered the large boar into a great stall along with the others. The lash caught the husky pig painfully on its back as it ran to join the others like itself.

“Were you able to speak with a human tongue you would know to call me by my proper name, pitiful swine that you are!” She screamed this to the boar as she directed him to join the rest who roamed aimlessly like cattle inside their great stall beneath the sea.

The woman in black did not have to tell him more. He might have had the outward appearance of a pig but his mind was still that of a man. A dim memory remained of the Homerian epic he had read as a boy, the one that told of sea voyages, sirens, and sorceresses. One part of that epic he had always found particularly curious. It was the legend of an island whose sole occupant was a beautiful seductress known for her ability to turn men into swine.

No, not Cissy,” she had told him. That was not her name on this isle beneath the sea, and she was right to correct him.

In this place the woman’s name was Circe

 
 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

 
Ken Goldman

Ken Goldman is a  former Philadelphia teacher of English and Film Studies.  An affiliate member of the Horror Writers Association, Ken has homes on the Main Line in Pennsylvania and at the Jersey shore. His stories appear in over 670 independent press publications in the U.S., Canada, the UK, and Australia. Over thirty of Ken’s tales are due for publication in 2013-14. Since 1993 his tales have received seven honorable mentions in The Year’s Best Fantasy & Horror. He has written four books : three books of short stories, YOU HAD ME AT ARRGH!! : FIVE UNEASY PIECES  BY KEN GOLDMAN  (Sam’s Dot Publishers), DONNY DOESN’T LIVE HERE ANYMORE (A/A Publishers),  and an e-book, STAR CROSSED  (Vampires 2 Publications); also a novella, DESIREE,” (Damnation Books). He is currently scouting a publisher for his novel, OF A FEATHER. (You hear that, publishers?)

 
 

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