"Why don't you do a story about Monkey Bottom?" asked Miriam, the slender, attractive, thirty-some brunette. If only I'd known how this innocuous question would alter my life, I would have ended the conversation right there.
She hadn't had that much to drink, as far as I knew. But she was a bit tipsy. I tried to read her expression. I wasn't looking for a long-term relationship, but I wasn't even up for a one-night stand if this babe--and babe she was--turned out to have a couple of screws loose.
"I write about local history," I reminded her. "I don't think a piece about a monkey's rear end would interest my editor."
Being a writer, even a part-time one, didn't hurt when I was looking for female companionship, I had learned. I'd sit near a target and start up a conversation with the bartender or a barmaid, asking him or her if they knew of any local history I ought to be aware of. I happened to mention, of course, that I wrote historical articles for Hampton Roads Magazine. Whether the barkeep or waitress came up with anything or not, I'd then turn to the nearby lady and say, "What about you? You from around here?" Since I was bringing her into an ongoing discussion, a wary woman would often react more favorably than if I'd tried to strike up a direct conversation. Like Miriam had.
I'm a couple of years past forty: blue-eyed, brown-haired, fairly handsome, could even be considered slender, if I were to turn my authorial skills loose on myself--with a bit of artistic license. Closing in on the mid-forties didn't hurt either, as long as I didn’t hit on women too much younger than myself. Three years ago, I had retired from the navy and my wife had decided she didn't like having me around full time. As a matter of fact, she didn't like having me around at all.
"No, not a monkey's bottom," said Miriam. "Monkey Bottom."
"I'll bite," I said, instantly regretting my choice of words. "What's a monkey bottom?"
"It's a bottom-land--a tidal area." She paused and sipped at her straw. "Monkey Bottom's right near here, right next to the navy base. I don't know a lot about it, but there's a curse or something."
I looked around The Thirsty Camel, an older bar with neon advertising signs on the mirrors. This bayfront tavern happened to be on Willoughby Spit, on the edge of the Chesapeake Bay, in Norfolk, Virginia, home of the largest navy base in the world.
"I've heard of bottoms," I said. "But why the monkey part?"
"From what I remember, two families lived there way back when, off by themselves. Now I don't know why, but they kept monkeys and other jungle animals, and wouldn't have nothin' to do with other folks. There were so many monkeys, and they were so loud, that neighbors far and wide could hear them howl and chatter. After a few years, the families disappeared, but locals could still hear monkeys howlin'. They started calling it Monkey Bottom and the name stuck."
She giggled, so I signaled the bartender to bring us another round.
"That's not much to build a story on," I said. I'd caught her slight emphasis on the word, "disappeared," but I didn't want to spoil the telling of it. "What happened to the monkeys?"
Looking at me oddly, she said. "Who said somethin' happened to them?"
"Something must have happened," I answered. "Or they'd still be there, and I'd have heard about them."
She made a "shoo" motion with her free hand while she took another sip. "Of course there’s no monkeys there now, silly. But like I said, Monkey Bottom is suppo. . . supposed to be cursed."
The bartender put down two more drinks.
"In what way?" I asked.
Taking a sip of her fresh Tequila Mockingbird, she looked around conspiratorially. Then she leaned toward me. "Ssshhomething," she said with a slur, "ate the monkeys. And shailors would find their heads, floating around the bay."
“And just where did you hear this?”
She grinned, as if imparting some great secret. “There was this weird girl in here a couple of months ago, with her girlfriend. We got to talking and she told me about it.”
“Told you about what?” I asked.
“About the curse, silly. She had one of those weird names, Natasha or something like that. She had a few too many and came up with some really weird stuff about Monkey Bottom.”
"Really?" I said, looking down the front of her shirt. "Maybe we should go somewhere and talk more about this."
Miriam was agreeable and we went back to my apartment. Somehow, Monkey Bottom never came up again that evening.
For some reason, I kept thinking about Monkey Bottom. Maybe because my editor wanted more articles without a military slant. Seems like almost all local history had gone on during the Revolutionary and Civil Wars, not much happened in between. I suppose I could have tracked down Miriam and asked for more details, but she’d probably think I was looking for a steady thing.
I guess I should admit, right here and now, my writing was strictly a hobby. I didn't want to write the great American novel or get published in Playboy. But I loved researching history, especially the odd stuff, and free-lancing articles gave me the excuse to indulge myself--I'd always had a strong work ethic, and it didn't seem right to do something purely for pleasure. Except women, of course--that was fish of another kettle.
Why in the world, I wondered, would people keep exotic animals in a place like Willoughby Spit? Especially on low ground. The spit, with a foundation of nothing but sand, was like a house made of cards. The whole thing could disappear in the wind.
Since my apartment was out on the end of the spit, I drove by the area most mornings and evenings. On a cold November day with gray clouds and a feel of imminent rain, I decided to take a few minutes and turned into the Norfolk Visitors Center parking lot.
The center was a wooden building with sharp angles, somewhat reminiscent of a warship, situated atop a wooden deck with those huge, quarter-operated binoculars common to tourist attractions. These eyepieces afforded a magnificent view of the aircraft carriers docked a mile or so off.
Acres of marshland sat behind the tourist center, on the other side of a six-foot chain link fence. To my right, at the edge of the lot, a locked double gate prevented access to a boardwalk leading off through the high grasses. On the fence was a sign.
Monkey Bottom Wetland Walkway
The name for this walkway comes from local lore about two families who lived near here and owned pet monkeys, along with other exotic animals. Prior to dredging by the U.S. Navy in 1940-41, this was a low-lying area of land, known as a bottom, on Willoughby Bay. It is said that many used to go and listen to the "monkeys holler." This evolved into Monkey Hollow, and eventually Monkey Bottom.
There was more, but it didn't apply to my research. I went up some steps and into the visitors center. There wasn't much to it: racks of tourist brochures, a counter with cheap souvenirs, and a cash register alongside a couple of computer stations. A gray-haired lady sat at one. The remainder of the room contained racks filled with tourist information pamphlets.
"May I help you?" asked the woman behind the counter. Her badge identified her as Anne.
I smiled, probably not as widely as the average snowbird just down from Canada, but I wasn't feeling up to displays of conviviality now that I'd found out Monkey Bottom had gone to the tourists. Along with my chances of a decent article, probably.
"Yes," I said. "I'd like to learn more about Monkey Bottom." And I explained why.
"Not much to tell," said Anne. "There's a sign out on the fence. . ."
"I've seen it."
"Then that's the story, far as I know."
"Why is the boardwalk closed?" I asked. "Not enough tourists in November?"
"No. It's locked because kids are always tearing it up."
"Every couple of months," Anne said, "we find the railings ripped right off the deck. Even locking it up doesn't help. It has to be hooligans from the naval housing across the way, and they must do it at night, because I've ever seen any of them out there during the day."
"Was the fence put up to keep the kids out?"
Anne looked puzzled. "I don't know. It's been here for as long as I've worked here."
"Is Monkey Bottom part of the base?"
"I don't think so." Anne shrugged. "But why else would someone put up a fence?"
I wondered if I should get a job in the visitor center. I qualified, because the main job requirement seemed to be not knowing anything. Maybe I could rattle her chain. "Someone," I said, leaning over the counter, "told me there was a curse."
The woman looked at me with an expression like she’d bitten into a lemon.
But then a heart-shaped face appeared in the door just behind Ann. "A Monkey Bottom curse? I heard something about that, recently." She left the doorway and put out her hand. "Hello. I've been listening from back there. We don't get many visitors this time of year. I’m Sheila."
I reached across the counter and shook her hand. "Hello, Sheila. I'm David Kramer."
She was an attractive redhead, and her green eyes gleamed, but I noticed a wedding ring. Too bad.
"Now who told me?" she wondered. "Or was it something I found on the internet?"
I shook my head. "Not the internet. I've googled Monkey Bottom, Norfolk, Ocean View curse, legend, you name it."
"Wasn't it that girl with the funny name?" asked Anne. A moment ago, she’d known nothing, but now seemed to have undergone a remarkable recovery in memory power. "You know, the volunteer who quit a little while ago. The crazy gypsy?"
Sheila popped her finger in front of her like a cowgirl shooting a six-gun at Anne. "Come to think of it, you're right. Olenka. The one who thinks she's a witch."
I picked up the phone. "Hello?"
The sultry female voice pronounced it strangely, like Kraymar, but that was close enough. "Speaking."
"Hi, I'm Olenka. Olenka Doronenko."
It took me a moment. I'd been busy at my real job for a couple of days, and hadn't had time to think about the part time writing. Then it hit me--Monkey Bottom.
I'd gone through the archives of the local paper, The Virginian-Pilot, but there hadn't been much. A couple of missing persons in the 'twenties, a guns-involved dispute between a couple of fishermen who lived near the bottom, but nothing specifically related. There were also several stories about police raids on liquor stills and speak-easies. I wondered if the missing persons had anything to do with rum running. Or maybe the “curse” had been invented to keep people from wandering around the bottom and stumbling over liquor stills.
A City Hall search of old records revealed that Branamir Stabros had purchased five acres--"at the mouth of the Elizabeth River, adjacent to Willoughby Bay"-- in 1902. A year later, Stanislav Morejka had bought up the rest of the bottomland.
"Well, hi there, Olenka," I said. "I'd given up on you calling."
"It's about that place, isn't it?" she asked. "Monkey Bottom?" She had a curious voice. Not an accent, really; just stresses on the wrong syllables. Made things sound Russian or something.
"That's right. I'm interested in the history. . ." I began.
"I couldn't keep volunteering there, at that visitor place. I got that close, but then I got scared after Granddad died, and realized I had to get away."
"What do you mean?" I asked.
"It called me, one night after I locked up the center. My battery went dead and I was stuck in the parking lot after dark. By the time my girlfriend came with jumper cables, I was clawing at the fence, trying to get out on the marsh."
I wasn’t quite sure what to say, but then she went on.
"My grandfather went there as a boy, with his sisters. To the bottom. Now it calls me."
"What calls you?" She was losing me fast.
"We must meet," she said. "I have something to show you."
Olenka turned out to be a walking, breathing dream. By that, I mean that she walked with a sway to her hips that gave new meaning to rhythm, and when she breathed deeply in her figure-hugging blouse, it was like woman had just been re-invented. Her hair was shiny black and her eyes ebony. Each pupil had a depth like the night of space, lighted only by the glint of a distant moon. Her face, or a face not much different, had beguiled nomadic conquerors for millennia, although she probably hadn't even reached twenty-five years of age in this incarnation. She wore several large hoops in her ears and I could see where someone might think her a gypsy.
She had suggested we meet at a bar, the same Thirsty Camel joint where all this monkey business had started, in fact. Not so much of a coincidence, since it was the only bar close to Monkey Bottom. It was dark outside already: December 21st, longest night of the year. Or shortest day. One of those glass half-full or half-empty things.
After "Hi," and a handshake, I ordered a double vodka martini for me. She opted for a beer. By the time she'd nervously lit a cigarette, the drinks had arrived and she downed half her beer immediately. I guessed she didn't do the bar scene much; she seemed nervous.
"So you're from around here?" I asked, just to break the ice. We sat on stools facing each other, more intimate than a booth. Nice.
"Yes, I went to school across the street." She nodded in that direction. "Willoughby Elementary. It's built atop the old Monkey Bottom, you know--on fill dirt."
Apparently she wanted to get right down to why we'd met. I'd have preferred a few drinks first, now that I'd laid eyes on her, but what the hell? I raised an eyebrow, my best impersonation of an intrepid investigator. "And?"
"As a child, I could feel it calling me. Even in the daytime." She sucked on her cigarette, then blew out a cloud of smoke. "At night, it wasn't so bad; we lived a couple of miles from the bottom."
"You say, 'it.' What is it?"
She looked toward the door again and shuddered. I've read in books about people shuddering, but I'd never seen it first-hand.
"I don't know," she said. "I hope I never find out."
The bartender stopped by. I looked at Olenka's glass and nodded.
When I turned my attention back, Olenka was looking at the door, unconsciously stubbing her butt in the ashtray. Watching for her reaction, I said, "The ladies at the visitor center said you're a witch."
She turned her gaze back to me, an eyebrow raised. "Sheila, you mean. I never said I was a witch; I just told her I believed in curses and spells and the rest."
She hesitated. My eyes shifted to her lips as she moistened them with the tip of her tongue. Our eyes met, and I realized the lip action had been done just for me. She apparently didn't feel comfortable with flirting, however. Maybe because I was nearly old enough to be her father?
"I've lived with it all my life," she said, her eyes steady and challenging. "Why wouldn't I believe?"
The barkeep set down drinks. After a moment, I asked, "If 'it' calls people, why hasn't word gotten out?"
She twisted her lips. "It doesn't call just, 'people.' It calls families." She lit another cigarette.
"Like the Stabroses and the Morejkas?" I had no idea if I was pronouncing the names correctly.
Olenka's eyes grew wide and then she laughed. "You do your homework, don't you?"
"According to my grandfather, Stabros and Morejka crewed on the same ship, out of eastern Europe. Eventually, they brought their families and settled here, along with a bunch of animals. Most people guessed they planned to start a circus or side-show or something." She took a long pull on her beer with the same hand her cigarette was in and I could see she'd relaxed somewhat. "But that wasn't it."
"What do you mean?"
"Granddad--my grandfather, Yuri Doronenko--thought maybe something followed them from Europe. Something from the old Slavic legends. Maybe the animals were food--sacrifices for whatever it was."
"You," I said, "have got to be kidding. A legendary creature? I thought only Disney used those old monster stories nowadays."
She looked around as though an eavesdropper would think she was crazy--good call, in my opinion.
"It gets a taste of blood," she said in a low voice. "And you know what they say about thicker than water. Somehow it makes a connection with a family's line." She dropped her half-smoked butt into an empty beer glass, where it hissed. "Maybe they fed the animals to the creature to. . . to spare their children."
"A beast that preys on specific families?" I reached into my pocket for a cigarette, then remembered that I'd kicked the habit two years ago. But a yarn like Olenka was spinning called for a smoke to go along with the alcohol. I'd heard plenty of sea stories in the navy, even tossed a bit of blarney and bullshit myself, but nothing to compare with this.
"Can I bum one of those?"
She shook out a cigarette for me. When I put it in my mouth, she leaned close and lit it. I smelled the sweet, fruity beer on her breath.
"You don't believe me, do you?" asked Olenka. Hesitantly, she reached over and took my other hand with her cool fingers. Christ, was she coming on to me in hopes it would change my mind? Then again, maybe it would.
I blew smoke and looked at her image in the mirror behind the bar. "It makes a good story. Maybe we should go somewhere and talk about this legend of yours."
Olenka squeezed my hand and I felt her fingernails. "It's not a legend. It’s real but nobody can sense it, nobody except. . ." She released my hand and sat straight. "That's why I was so surprised when Sheila told me about you. You came specifically to ask about a curse. You can feel it can't you?" Her eyes pleaded.
This was beginning to seem like a scene from a movie. You know the one: "Please, Inspector, I must get out of Casablanca. I’ll do anything. . ."
"I'd like to help you," I said. And I meant it.
She managed a tremulous smile. "You want to know about the family connection? Granddad was in his early teens when his older sister, Kalyna, talked him and their younger sister, Arjana, into sneaking into Monkey Bottom after dark. Nobody had seen the families for years, but the monkeys still howled at night and Kalyna wanted to see them. Granddad wasn't sure it was such a good idea, but she insisted. Remember, this was way before the day of child molesters, so they didn't think all that much about a prank after dark.
"When they came to the first house, nobody was there--no people at all. It looked abandoned." She emptied her beer and held it up for my perusal. "Could I have something stronger? Maybe a rum and coke?"
"I'll be right back." She picked up her purse, looked around, and headed for the restrooms.
My cigarette had burned down in the ashtray, unnoticed. I put it out, ordered more drinks--a double for her--then tried to get my thoughts in order. She was nutty, probably, but sexy as all get out. There was no way I'd back out of this while there was a chance of getting to know her better. I went over to the cigarette machine and fed in some money.
When she got back, her composure had returned. She took a long drink. She had obviously washed her face and I realized she had been wearing no make-up.
"Look," she said. "Do you really want to hear all this? You're just looking for a story--a bit of local color. Right?"
"No," I said, reaching out to take her by the wrist. "I want to hear more."
She tensed. "Why?"
Had I sounded phony? I didn't want to scare her off. "Tell me about your grandfather, Olenka. What happened?"
Olenka remained tense, as though knowing why I stayed. Again I had the feeling she would leave. Then she relaxed with a visible effort. "You're a really nice guy." She set down her drink and put that hand over mine, cool from the glass. "I can tell you're the kind of man who cares. Really cares."
"I do care."
She took both hands away and straightened. She looked into the glass as if it were a crystal ball, to avoid looking at me. "Okay, here goes. Like I said, they found the first house abandoned. They looked in some of the sheds and cages, but they were empty; the doors had all been opened. Arjana wanted to go home at that point, but Kalyna insisted they keep on, promising they’d see the monkeys.”
Olenka's eyes glazed. She was with her grandfather, creeping through the black night of Monkey Bottom. “After they found the first house empty, they set off through the trees--those scruffy live oaks that get stunted and bent by the salty onshore winds. They couldn’t see anything clearly. . .”
* * *
Yuri and his sisters couldn't see anything clearly, even when the moon peeked through the clouds. They heard things, though. It wasn't a windy night, but there came a rustling in the grass and the leaves. Strange birds would fly between the trees, fluttering and squawking. They heard the scritch of claws on bark, heavy things breathing. But no monkeys. They crept quietly because they didn't want to run into something in the dark.
They came out of the trees, and set out across the tidal flat, toward the other house. The important thing was not to go toward the bay, but to stay away from the water, somehow they knew that. Kalyna led the way, Yuri following behind, holding his little sister’s hand. The night had gone quiet. Yuri wanted to go home then, knowing they’d be in trouble if they ruined their shoes, but Kalyna kept on.
They had no idea that--even though they stayed clear of the waterfront--the water was coming to them, creeping up the many channels into the tidal flat. The stink from the swamp muck increased until it became almost unbearable. They were nearly across the flats when Yuri began to make out--over the slurping of their own passage--the sounds of unknown things slithering and undulating through the sour ooze.
“Let’s go back, Kally,” Arjana pleaded. “Let’s go home.”
Kalyna didn’t seem to hear. She slogged on, a dark blur in the dim light. As they walked, slimy tendrils of swamp growth seemed to wrap about Yuri’s ankles, slowing him down. Arjana began to cry and he stopped, holding her back.
“Kally,” he said, “we need to get out of . . .”
Something long and limber rose out of the swamp and coiled around Kalyna. She stopped and stood still, but seemed not to realize what was happening. Yuri took a step forward, but another snake sprang up to grab her. As though suddenly awakened, she began to scream.
“Granddad said he’d like to think he only ran away to save Arjana,” Olenka said. “He knew he should have tried to save Kalyna, but terror overcame him. He might have left Arjana there, too, but she threw herself into his arms. He picked her up and ran toward the closest solid land, the way they’d been going all along.”
Things were trying to grab him, too, slithering around his ankles and he realized it wasn’t plants that he’d felt earlier. They had grown thicker and now they tried to pull him down. He stumbled, but managed to keep his footing despite the burden of the screaming Arjana. As close as her mouth was to his ears, though, her screaming could not mask the terrorized screeching of Kalyna, behind them.
They came out of the swamp at the other house, which was dark. Despite that, Yuri called for help, hoping for an adult who would somehow save his older sister. No one came out, of course.
He reached the front door and opened it, planning to holler again, but suddenly it went quiet out in the swamp. Kalyna’s screaming cut off so suddenly that even Arjana went silent. Yuri put her down. Clutching each other, both stood and listened, hoping to hear the sound of Kalyna slogging through the swamp, perhaps, but the night had gone completely still.
Then they did hear something coming across the bog, but it didn’t walk on two feet. It was the sound of something--something large--being dragged over the sodden muck, like a boat being pulled along on a rope. It was coming their way. And they were only yards from the edge of the marsh.
Yuri pulled Arjana inside and closed the door. He moved blindly forward through the pitch black, staggering over furniture until he fetched up against a wall. Cobwebs touched his face as he made his way along the wall until he found a closed door. He opened it and the two Doronenko kids stumbled over soft things on the floor. Feeling around, Yuri realized they’d entered a closet. He shushed Arjana and dragged her down onto the floor, which was covered with musty, molding clothing or linens. It was the best hiding place they could hope for, he realized.
“They hid there for hours,” Olenka said, “until Granddad figured it was early morning and the tide had gone out. Then he and Arjana crept out and made their way through the house. The moon was low, streaming in through a window onto a table. Granddad glanced at the table as they passed and noticed a book covered with Cyrillic writing, something he’d seen as a young boy in the Ukraine. He picked it up and took it with him.”
She seemed to come out of a trance, looked at her glass and drank the last bit. “That’s it. When they got home, their father gathered all the neighboring men and went into Monkey Bottom to search for Kalyna. They found her two days later. She. . ."
She set the glass firmly down on the bar. "I don't want any more to drink. I need to stay focused."
"What about Kalyna?" I asked, realizing I'd eaten my olives and was chewing on the plastic skewer. "Was she okay?"
She gulped and raised her eyes to mine, daring me not to believe. "They found her head. The neck was smooth, like someone had lopped it off with a sword."
I stared at her, willing her to drop her gaze. But I was the one who looked away. "I get it," I said with a weak laugh. "This is a late Halloween put-on, right?"
She continued to stare at me, even though I wouldn't look directly at her.
"You asked about Monkey Bottom, remember?" Olenka said, grabbing my wrist. This time there was no seductiveness to her action. "I called you because I need somebody's help. Your help."
"Then give me something to sink my teeth into. That book. Did your grandfather keep it? Could you show it to me?”
"All in good time. If you agree to help me."
"Look, I don't know how I got into this in the first place," I said. "My editor doesn't want horror stories. And how could I help you, anyway? This all happened years ago."
I made the mistake of looking up and her eyes captured me again. "No," she said, "what happened to Granddad was only the beginning. He had sucker marks on his ankles. So did Arjana. The creature put something into their blood."
Pulling my hand loose from her grip, I said, "Order me another drink, would you? I need to use the men's room."
Once in the head, I recovered quickly. I could understand why they had said Olenka was a witch, in a way. She'd entranced me with that story. Maybe I should leave, but this could still make a good article for the magazine, I reasoned, as long as I mentioned no more than "legends" and "rumors of a curse." In fact, it would probably help the article, if I avoided the mention of headless corpses. And I certainly wanted to spend more time with Olenka. I returned to the bar.
Olenka began to speak, but I held up a hand. "Okay, I believe you. Or at least I believe that you believe. But if there's really something going on in Monkey Bottom, why isn't it more widely known?"
"Why would anyone think it was cursed? Other than my family, of course. It's not like people were disappearing from Monkey Bottom on a regular basis. Only Granddad knew, and he wasn't about to tell."
I shook my head. "No. I'm not letting you get away with all the spooky jibber-jabber you've been spoon-feeding me all night. What exactly is the curse?"
She grimaced. "It's not that simple, but I'll try. I'm guessing, here, but I think it had a hold on those two families that had the monkeys. Maybe they moved away while the creature was busy eating monkeys, more likely it got them. Anyway, when those families were no longer available, it called my grandfather and his sisters. It took Kalyna and marked the others."
She lit a cigarette and tossed the empty pack onto the bar. "Whatever got into Granddad's blood passed down to the next generation. He didn't expect that and 'it' took his daughter. Arjana killed herself right after that."
"Because of her brother's daughter?"
"Because of her daughter."
"You're losing me. You said the thing took Yuri's daughter."
"And that's the dirty little secret." She inhaled and blew out a long stream of smoke. "The other side of the Doronenko burden. Incest."
"What in the hell are you talking about?
"I left out a part of the story. . ."
I opened my mouth to speak but she held up a hand. "After it got Kalyna, when Yuri and Arjana were clinging together in the closet. At some primitive level they understood what the creature wanted and they. . . they had sex. It was the only way to save Arjana."
"Oh, come on!" I raised my eyes in the classic, "God protect me from fools," expression. "They just happened to have sex and it just happened to save them from the big, bad monster?"
"Please," she said. "I know it sounds impossible, but Granddad thinks this thing is ancestral, some sort of Black Sea--Ukrainian legacy. When it lost the Stabroses and the Morskyj's, it sought out someone with eastern European blood. That's why he and I understand it, to an extent--only me now that he’s dead. And that's why nobody else around here feels it--except maybe you."
I could only stare at her.
"It's the same old story," she continued, "from the beginning of the time. 'It' wants a virgin sacrifice." Her eyes were full of tears. "When I heard you wanted to know about the curse. . . When I learned your last name was Ukrainian. . . I thought you could feel it. Why are. . . Why did you. . .?"
I picked up a napkin and handed it to her. While she wiped her eyes, I took out a cigarette, lit it and put it in her mouth.
"Ukrainian. So that's what all this is about," I said. "But what does that have to do with me? Kramer's not Ukrainian."
Her eyes grew wide. "Yes, it is. Kramer is a common Ukrainian name.” Again, she pronounced it, “Kraymar.”
"Look," I said, "If Kramer is Ukrainian, I didn't know about it. I'm just an American mongrel, for all I know. But, if you're that upset about it, I'll help you. I'll prove to you that there's no Black Sea evil hanging around in the Chesapeake Bay."
"You. . . you still don't think it's real?"
I shook my head. "But tell me the rest, and then we'll decide what to do.”
"There's not much more, I suppose," she said. "Granddad and Arjana stayed together for the rest of their lives. They had three daughters and a son. The three girls were taken by the creature. My grandparents didn’t go to the authorities; no one would believe them and then the secret of their relationship would be revealed. So they kept quiet. Arjana killed herself after the loss of her last daughter.”
“Why didn’t they just move away?”
She picked up her empty glass and rolled it between her hands, watching it closely. Her eyes were damp. “I don’t know. Why don’t I just move away? I can’t. For some reason, I have to stay near the thing, if only to kill it.”
“But that was years ago. How could it affect you?”
“It was passed on. Granddad worried about that. Only the son of Yuri and Arjana--my father--was spared. But he’d never been marked and granddad thought that would be the end of it. But it wasn’t.”
She pulled back a bit, raised her pants leg and showed me her ankle. It was covered with circular rashes or birthmarks. Or scars from sucking tentacles.
“I don’t know why my father didn’t have the marks--he and my mom died in a car accident when I was little--but Granddad knew as soon as I was born that I was destined to meet the creature for lunch. Once I started to fill out, he kept a close eye on me and even kept me locked up at night. He started looking into witchcraft and sorcery, ju-ju, and voodoo --and got that book translated.”
“What did it say?”
“It’s full of old prophecies and curses. I'm not a witch, like that woman said, but I've studied the occult and it's made me strong-willed enough to oppose that whatever-it-is in Monkey Bottom. Granddad and I went over that book from cover to cover and we came up with a way to break the curse, at least we hoped so. I would lure the creature and my grandfather would read the proper words from the book and that would be the end of it."
"So why haven't you done it?"
"We tried. I volunteered at the center and got the key to the padlock. But the creature still had some hold on Granddad and wouldn't let him in the hollow--he'd turn back every time. Then he got cancer." Olenka took a drink. "He died a few months ago."
"So now there's just you."
"Right. Since then, it's been harder and harder for me to resist going to Monkey Bottom."
"And since it's still calling you." I took a deep breath. "Am I to assume you're going to tell me you're still a virgin?"
"Of course I am. That's why Granddad had to protect me. I don't dare take a chance on having a child and passing this whole thing on to another generation."
I looked her up and down. "And you're how old?"
"Twenty-seven, you son of a bitch. I've never had a man." She glared at me. "And when I finally think I've found someone who can help me, I end up with you."
If I'd had a couple less drinks, I'd have kept my mouth shut, I hope, but. . .
"Seems to me, all we have to do is un-virgin you and the problem is solved."
Her hand tightened on her glass and I expected her to throw the contents on me, but then she smiled maliciously. "Okay, Mr. There-ain't-no-such-thing-as-a-curse. You go with me and read from that book, out on the bottom, and I'll let you 'un-virgin' me. And I'm a lesbian, you ass. How about them apples?"
I felt myself swallow. I’d never actually thought about it, but the idea of sex with a woman who’d never had a man was more than intriguing. "It's a deal." Once again, if I hadn't had so many drinks. . .
She looked at me with suspicion. "Really?"
"Sure. We'll go out there tomorrow; you call in the beast; I read some words and toss a little holy water on it. How can we miss?"
"Tonight," she said. "We must do it tonight."
So there we stood at two-thirty in the morning, at the gate to the boardwalk, just a few blocks from The Thirsty Camel. Olenka had the key with her. Figures, I thought. The "witch" had this all planned out; all she needed was a sucker.
Writers generally set the atmosphere by saying it was pitch dark and foggy, with a chilly mist drizzling down, and a spooky wind moaning, but I can't do that. The night was clear, the area parking lot lights were bright, and the cars going by on the interstate drowned out any noise of wind or waves. The waning crescent moon smiled down and the stars twinkled. As for the weather, it was cold. Damned cold, and the wind off the bay made it worse.
She handed me the book while she opened the padlock and removed the chain. . I looked around. Monkey Bottom was off-limits and we'd be checked out by cops if they spied my car.
The cover of the book was old, as she'd said, the leather dry and cracked. Olenka had also mentioned the title being embossed with gold leaf, back in her grandfather's time. It appeared she and Granddad Yuri had worn off the gold with frequent use, however. It smelled of the flea market. Or the thrift store.
Olenka took the book back. She'd put on a light jacket when we left the bar, but didn't seem to notice the cold. "Don't talk once we go out there," she said. "Don't say anything until I hand you the book again, then open it to the page I've marked, and read the passage. It's not in English, but I've penciled in phonetic pronunciations."
"You've had no contact with the creature. It has no control over you."
"And what will you be doing in the meantime?" I had begun to shiver, despite my leather jacket.
"Surviving, I hope," answered Olenka. "I've memorized the words to call the thing and I'll have to stay alive until you've finished."
I had to hand it to her. She'd bought into the wiccan stuff and the monster stuff, big time and she was dead serious. But what would she do when she called her mysterious "It", and nothing came? We'd go back to my place, I hoped.
She walked out on the boardwalk. I followed. Below lay marsh grass, muck, and the usual jetsam of modern civilization: plastic bottles, crinkled condoms, plastic Wal-Mart bags.
We soon arrived at the edge of the water, on a platform maybe twelve-by-twelve feet. If I hadn't been shivering like a clockwork toy, I would have considered the spot romantic. To the left was the naval air base, where the runways were lit up like the aforementioned Wal-Mart's parking lot, but if you looked a bit to the right, the navy ships had been decorated with lights for the holidays, dock after dock of floating Christmas baubles. The lights of the bridge on our far right went on across the bay like a ribbon of bright decorations, almost disappearing in the distance as they blended into the radiance of the buildings on the other shore.
Olenka turned to me, indifferent to the view. "Are you ready?"
Right then and there, the frikkin' witch took her clothes off. She slipped out of her jacket, then unbuttoned and dropped her blouse onto the wooden deck before I caught on. She unhooked her black, low-cut bra and let it fall. Abundant breasts bared, she bent and began taking off shoes and socks, while I stared. Her nipples were long and hard from the cold, yet her flesh showed a warm pink. No goose-bumps, nothing to show the extreme cold. It wasn't a strip-tease; it was strictly matter-of-fact-these-clothes-are-in-the-way. Nothing erotic about it--and I doubt I could have gotten it up while shivering so hard, anyway.
Done with her footwear, she straightened, and I took a good look at her assets while she pulled her jeans down around her hips. She stepped out of her pants, revealing sexy, lacy panties. I didn't have time to appreciate their femininity before she peeled them off. Her raven pubic hair had been cut back to almost nothing, a tiny triangle of black mystery and I could only think that it hadn't been trimmed for a man.
Naked, she turned and faced me, showing all she had to offer, and stared into my eyes. I couldn't move or speak.
Then she turned into the bitter wind, holding her arms straight out to the sides, the book in her right hand. She began to chant in a tongue unknown to me, her voice high and clear. In this instant, she became a female shaman from the distant past. Olenka could have been standing on a cliff, overlooking the Black Sea or the Baltic, timeless.
I didn't notice the wind drop, but it was gone. The air stood still around us, heavy and close. The temperature had risen dramatically. I suddenly felt sober.
A dense fog rolled toward us from the middle of the bay. No wind propelled the mist, yet it came inexorably on. When it reached us, Olenka stopped chanting and the world stood still. There was no sound of lapping waves or rustling swamp grass or passing cars, trucks, and minivans. No light reached us from the moon, the naval station or the highway, leaving just enough illumination to see a few feet.
"Let's get out of here," I suggested.
"It comes," said Olenka, her arms still spread wide.
I thought of old low-budget monster movie cliches, but then I heard sounds of sucking orifices, slurping lips, gnashing teeth, slithering tongues, coming from beneath us. In such tidal areas, creatures of the sea have eternally invaded the land, some armored with shells to keep in the moisture they'd evolved in, others covered in slime that served the same purpose. The slimy ones burrow down into the mud, siphoning out miniscule organisms, while the armored pincers pull slippery bodies from the ooze and stuff them into gnashing mouthparts.
The perfumes of death rose to our nostrils. Along with the odor you'd expect, decaying bugs, snails, and crabs, came the reek of other deaths--drowned sailors washed ashore, murdered whores, unwanted infants. Countless larger creatures had perished here also, whales, sharks, and giant squid, their ichor soaking into the mud, their decaying stench permeating the stalks of the swampgrass.
Then came the sound of splashing.
"Now.” Without turning, Olenka handed the book back to me. "Read from the book."
I opened the book and dropped my eyes to the hand-lettered pages, but became distracted. Something long and sinuous appeared above the platform's deck, just in front of Olenka's bare feet. Like a vine growing a thousand times too quickly, it extended out and wrapped it around one of her lower legs. The inner side of this "rope" had circular suckers, like that of an octopus, and the tip seemed to have a mouth of some type. I thought of an eel, but this was no lamprey.
"Read!" Olenka begged. "Say the words aloud."
I began to read, alternating my gaze between the words and the action going on before my eyes. The sounds of the language were strange and meant nothing to me; to this day, I can't remember a single syllable. It’s her I remember, standing there in ripeness and ready, not trembling. She was like one of those inescapable about-to-be-abducted Boris Vallejo women off a ‘70s Fantasy paperback; except, she was real.
A second slippery tendril appeared and grabbed hold of Olenka's other leg. I shouted as I read, as though yelling English at a foreigner so he’d understand.
More boneless appendages appeared on the other side of the deck's railings. They took hold of the handrail, wrapping about like constricting snakes. Olenka started to sing in a keening wail.
Suddenly, all the tendrils holding the railing tightened and pulled, straining like a ship's hawsers until it seemed they must break. The nails and bolts let go instead, with a great screeching, and the lumber disappeared, pulled down into the sea.
More tentacles came up now, half a dozen of them, weaving in the air like silk ribbons in an upward draft, and they reached toward Olenka.
I stopped reading, slammed the book shut and tried to step forward and rescue her.
I couldn't move. Looking down, I saw two tentacles had crept through the apertures between the decking and grabbed my ankles. Panicked, I struggled, but accomplished nothing, other than falling on my back. More slimy ropes slithered around my upper arms and pinned me. Somehow, I knew I must not let go of the book, and clutched it tightly to my chest.
I looked toward Olenka, who no longer sang. Whimpers escaped her lips. Slimy tentacles lashed her arms to her sides. Her legs were similarly entwined, and though her legs were clamped tightly together, the mouth at the tip of a suckered feeler had crept to her crotch. Tasting her, I realized.
“Read," she screamed. "Why aren't you reading?"
Knowing it was her--our--only chance, I raised the book off my chest and lifted my head to read. I got a few syllables out and then a cold, slippery, muscular thing that smelled of salt and seaweed wrapped itself around my face and pulled my head down onto the deck. I couldn't even see the book after this, but my head ended up so that I could observe Olenka.
Coils of cords had nearly encased her by now, and the tips of the tentacles had turned inward to attach themselves to her skin. Like blood-sucking eels, they writhed and fed. Her screams pierced holes of agony into the silence of the uncaring fog.
The ropy appendages lifted Olenka off her feet and pulled her out from the deck, suspended above the water. In front of her, where she couldn't avoid seeing it coming, a huge cylinder of flesh rose into the air. This appendage had no tentacles, nor did it possess a sucking mouth. Instead, it had armored, crab-like pincers. It swayed before her, ready to strike. Olenka went silent and focused on the claw with a detached dreaminess.
The end came quickly. The snake-like limb flashed forward, the pincers snapped and pulled back. Olenka's head came with them. Blood spouted from the neck of the mutilated body, spraying into the air. I felt droplets of warm, thick fluid fall on the parts of my face not covered by tentacle. Then the thing's tendril's dragged down the naked, female body. All that remained was the bloody ball of Olenka's head, clutched in the hard, chitinous claws of whatever ungodly spawn of creation this might be.
A second later, in total silence, the tendril bore its gruesome trophy down into the sea, undulating as it went.
At the same time, the tentacles around me loosened. I gasped for breath; my mouth and nose had been completely sealed by the creature. If the decapitation of Olenka had taken longer, I might have suffocated. But now I was free. I crawled toward the shore until I managed to get to my knees and then to my feet. I staggered to my car, got in, and hit the button to lock all the doors.
The police found me just after dawn, the car’s heater running full blast in a vain attempt to take away the chill that will never leave me.
Not only was I covered with her blood, I had been seen drinking with her for hours. Her severed head was found two days later, floating in the bay. The local newspaper’s headlines call me, “The Monster of Monkey Bottom.”
In a way, Olenka prevailed. The curse was broken. Yet the creature survives. I will not. At least the marks of the beast will cease to torment me.
Norfolk General District Court – Courtroom #5
Sentencing Hearing, Judge’s Bench, April 3 20--:
“David Kramer, in accordance with the laws of the Commonwealth of Virginia, you have been found guilty of the heinous murder of Olenka Doronenko by a jury of your peers. I therefore sentence you to death by lethal injection, as provided by statute. May God have mercy on your soul.”
Published in Exotic Gothic 2, 2008