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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