A heron perched in a mangrove tree glanced at the old pickup. Its tires crushed the shells lining the driveway leading to the back of a coral-pink house.
An unshaven man in shorts and a sleeveless River Monsters tee-shirt hopped out of the truck and grabbed a fishing rod from its bed. He looked at the soupy water of the Florida Intracoastal Waterway that snaked across the length of the backyard and shouted, “Come on, Johnny! Get your butt in gear, man! Tides comin’ in! Porgies and drum are comin’ in!”
Johnny cracked open the ratty screen door and looked out. He appeared threadbare and wan.
“What’s up, Tim?”
“Hard night?” Tim replied.
Johnny slung open the screen door, banging it into a rusty colander leaning against the side of the house.
“Oh! Not that bullshit with the spaghetti strainer again!”
“Yep. Got another one by the front door too.”
Tim teasingly shook his head. “Whatever. Let’s fish. I didn’t forget the bait if you didn’t forget the beer.”
The friends sat on fraying five-and-dime lawn chairs by the barnacle-encrusted seawall. Tim looked down at the human-like teeth of an undersized porgy he was unhooking and turned toward the heron walking across the lawn, eying the fish.
“Catch and release or give this one to Old Petey?”
“Let it go. That pain-in-the-ass mooch needs to catch ‘em on its own.”
“Dude, you’re such a drag. Every year, same old shit after Christmas — what is it with you?”
“I think about Yaya — Grandma — this time of the year. She passed away three days after Christmas when I was a kid…heart attack,” Johnny replied.
“Oh, my bad.”
There was silence, silence broken by the raucous cry of a soaring gull.
“Back when I was eight, we went to see Yaya in Icaria.”
“It’s a remote Greek island. She had a little whitewash house near an olive grove overlooking the Aegean. You could smell the salt when the wind blew. Salt and olives.”
“She was a great cook: goat, stuffed grape leaves, killer avgolemono soup.”
“So you put out spaghetti strainers to remember her cooking?”
The sky darkened, as a slate-hued cloud scudded overhead, laden with water and lightning.
“No, it’s not that,” Johnny said. Tendrils of the dark cloud extended earthward, accentuating the shadows on his face. “Yaya put colanders by the outside doors from Christmas to Epiphany. She believed that it prevented the Kallikantzaroi — ”
“ — Cowlick-Can’t-Zowie-What?”
“The old folks believed in devious goblins, the Kallikantzaroi. Yaya said they stay underground all year, sawing away at the roots of the World Tree. But they come up when the sun is lowest in the sky, during the Twelve Days of Christmas, to terrorize folks living on the islands.”
“So how’s the spaghetti strainer fit into the picture?”
“It keeps them from entering the house. They like to count. They find the colander and start counting the holes, over and over, until the sun comes up. Then poof, they vanish,” Johnny said, feeling a tug on his fishing rod. He began to reel in what felt like a dead weight.
Stagnant wavelets broke in the shallows beneath the seawall, wavelets parted by the long, flaying legs of a hideously misshapen crustacean.
“Nice spider crab, Johnny!” Tim called out, patting his friend on the shoulder.
Johnny shook the crab off the hook, plopping it back into the canal. He dropped the rod on the lawn and grew pale. “I need to go inside for a few — the sun, the beers….” he said, turning for the house.
Like he was revolving in a nightmare, Johnny found himself in a familiar position: leaning over the bathroom sink, water running into the basin, brimming to the rim. He plunged his face into the water that seemed to bear the potency of the Aegean in the days preceding the Epiphany:
it is the twilight of fatigue-green plastic army men beneath olive trees as the fulgent fiery sun setting over a vanquishing army needing higher ground no retreating as I am just returning with Yaya’s old colander to line plastic sharpshooters along its dented rim and fill its hollow with infantry and bazooka men and Daddy is calling and I am leaving the army men with their rusty vantage point and soon I am in bed encompassed by oblivion blackness and waking WAKING to sounds of scraping on the back door leading to the porch then a kelpy SHLUMP and then tiny legs thousands of tiny legs countless tiny legs crawling now and I am in the hallway standing in the doorway Yaya’s bedroom Yaya is sleeping Yaya is waking Yaya is frozen in horror
she/we saw IT
bloated sausage body scorpion pinchers countless daddy-long-leg-like-legs on Yaya’s chest twitching on Yaya’s chest arched twitching daddy-long-leg-like-legs on Yaya’s chest and Yaya screams and it LEAPS to the windowsill compressing impossibly thin under the window and is gone into the oily shadows as Daddy and Mommy are running down hall and Yaya’s not breathing
no one ever believed me that it was real and not a nightmare
Johnny did not notice the cold water splashing his sandaled feet as his face emerged from the coffin-cold water; his memories shattered by the shouts:
“Fish on! Get the net!”
Johnny pushed open the door; Tim’s rod was bent and his arms were taut with strain.
Johnny looked at his friend, tethered by monofilament to a denizen of the deep, and he recognized the tableau. The Aegean is the wellspring of all waters; and creatures of the abyss wait for those who believe.
The most recent stories of James Zahardis have appeared in Flashes in the Dark, Deimos eZine, 365 Tomorrows and Thrills, Kills ‘n’ Chaos. He holds a PhD from the University of Vermont in Chemistry (2008) where he is currently employed as a research scientist and lecturer. He is a fan of the literature of Joseph Conrad, Alexandre Dumas, H.P. Lovecraft, and Herman Melville. When he’s not in the laboratory, lecture hall, or library, James is most likely to be found bass fishing on Lake Champlain or taking an excursion to some woody patch to watch birds.
This story is sponsored by
Odyssey Writing Workshops — Dedicated to helping writers of fantasy, science fiction, and horror improve their work, we offer one of the top workshops in the world each summer; live, interactive online classes each winter; and many free resources.