NEW YEAR’S EVE
A young man walks down by the banks of the Blackwater under the full cold moon. He’s been drinking the old year down to the dregs, until his eyes grew sore and his stomach turned, and he was tired of the bright lights and bustle. “I’ll just go down to the water,” he said, and kissed the nearest cheek: “I’ll be back before the chimes.” Now he looks east to the turning tide, out to the estuary slow and dark, and the white gulls gleaming on the waves.
It’s cold, and he ought to feel it, but he’s full of beer and he’s got on his good thick coat. The collar rasps at the nape of his neck: he feels fuddled and constricted and his tongue is dry. I’ll go for a dip, he thinks, that’ll shake me loose; and coming down from the path stands alone on the shore, where deep in the dark mud all the creeks wait for the tide.
“I’ll take a cup o’ kindness yet,” he sings in his sweet chapel tenor, then laughs, and someone laughs back. He unbuttons his coat, he holds it open, but it’s not enough: he wants to feel the wind’s edge strop itself sharp on his skin. Nearer he goes to the water, and puts out his tongue to the briny air: Yes — I’ll go for a dip, he thinks, dropping his coat on the marsh. He’s done it before, after all, when a boy and in good company: the brave tomfoolery of a midnight dip as the old year dies in the new year’s arms. The tide’s low — the wind’s dropped — the Blackwater holds no fear: give him a glass and he’ll drink it down, salt and seashell, oyster and all.
But something alters in a turn of the tide or a change of the air: the estuary surface shifts — seems (he steps forward) to pulse and throb, then grow slick and still; then soon after to convulse, as if flinching at a touch. Nearer he goes, not yet afraid; the gulls lift off one by one, and the last gives a scream of dismay.
Winter comes like a blow to the back of his neck: he feels it penetrate his shirt and go into his bones. The good cheer of drink is gone, and he’s comfortless there in the dark — he looks for his coat, but clouds hide the moon and he’s blind. His breath is slow, the air is full of pins; the marsh at his feet all at once is wet, as if something out there has displaced the water. Nothing, it’s nothing, he thinks, patting about for his courage, but there it is again: a curious still moment as if he were looking at a photograph, followed by a frantic uneven motion that cannot be merely the tug of the moon on the tides. He thinks he sees — is certain he sees — the slow movement of something vast, hunched, grimly covered over with rough and lapping scales; then it is gone.
In the darkness he grows afraid. There’s something there, he feels it, biding its time — implacable, monstrous, born in water, always with an eye cocked in his direction. Down in the deeps it slumbered and up it’s come at last: he imagines it breasting the wave, avidly scenting the air. He is seized by dread — his heart halts with it — in the space of a moment he’s been charged, condemned, and brought to judgment: oh, what a sinner he’s been — what a black pip there is at his core! He feels ransacked, emptied of all goodness: he has nothing to bring to his defense. Out he looks to the black Blackwater and there it is again — something cleaving the surface, then subsiding — yes, all along it’s been there, waiting, and at last it’s found him out. He feels a curious calm: justice must be done, after all, and he willingly pleads guilty. It’s all remorse and no redemption, and no less than he deserves.
But then the wind lifts, and tugs the covering cloud, and the shy moon shows her face. It’s a scant light, to be sure, but a comfort — and there, after all, is his coat, not a yard away, muddy at the hem; the gulls return to the water, and he feels completely absurd. From the path above him comes the sound of laughter: a girl and her boy in their festival clothes — he waves and calls “I’m here! I’m here!” And I am here, he thinks: here on the marsh he knows better than his home, with the tide slowly turning and nothing to fear. Monstrous! he thinks, laughing at himself, giddy with reprieve: as if there were anything out there but herring and mackerel!
Nothing to fear in the Blackwater, nothing to repent: only a moment of confusion in the darkness and far too much to drink. The water comes to meet him and it’s his old companion again; to prove it he draws nearer, wets his boots, holds out his arms: “Here I am!” he yells, and all the gulls reply. Just a quick dip, he thinks, for auld lang syne, and laughing slips free of his shirt.
The pendulum swings from one year to the next, and there’s darkness on the face of the deep.
From “The Essex Serpent” by Sarah Perry. Copyright © 2016 by Sarah Perry. Published by Custom House, an imprint of William Morrow. All rights reserved.