Gliding along the waters of Lake Okeechobee was a small fishing boat. Sun-baked men dotted its wooden deck, backs propped up against a barrel, or elbows resting against the railing as they watched ripples disturb the surface. The water levels had receded after months of drought, leaving swathes of muddy banks exposed. On the shore, a basking alligator opened an eye to watch them pass, but soon slid it shut against the glare of summer. In the shallow waters, the boat’s keel began to scrape, and the men jolted from their trance.
“Haul the nets!” hollered the captain. Calloused hands found coarse rope and moustached lips pulled back over gritted teeth as arms heaved against the pressure of the water. With a final wrench, the nets lurched onto the deck. Fins flapped and silver scales shimmered as the fish cascaded out. Their slimy bodies slapped against the sodden wood, soon scooped up by deft hands and sorted into barrels by type, the small ones tossed overboard.
But something caught the young deckhand’s eye, smooth and white among the gills and gasping mouths. Tangled in the net, dripping wet and tinged with algae, was a human skull. Ralph exclaimed and the others rushed over.
Silence settled over them. “Strange things at the bottom of these waters,” muttered Mr Beake.
“An’ now the water’s shallow, we’re draggin’ ‘em all up,” finished Captain Locke, his face grim.
“Cap’n,” called Michael, by the prow, “yer gonna wanna see this.”
They moved to the front, shifting the boat as they leaned over the side. Fingers broke the water’s surface, gnarled and nibbled by fish, their bones cracked by years under the weight of water. Beneath was a blurred tangle of limbs, only now made visible by the drought and dropping tides. Ribcages breached the mud, navigated by darting bluegills. A sparrow alighted on an exposed hipbone, pecked idly at the remaining flesh, and flitted back into the reeds which whispered as if passing secrets. And everywhere, skulls, so many it looked like a pumpkin patch, pushing up from the soil.
On the journey back, the men spoke in hushed tones, using words such as “who” and “hundreds.” There was talk of the Seminole war, but the theory was soon scratched as only one battle had occurred in 1837, and only thirty soldiers and Native American people had been killed. The others became convinced that there had been a mass tribe suicide to avoid capture and enslavement from the Europeans, and there was nodding all round.
But, that night, Ralph became less certain of their explanation…
He had brought the skull home, if only to scare his siblings with it, but after his sister’s squealing had faded, his fun did too. As the sun sank below the horizon, he stared at its form through the hessian sack in which he had wrapped it. The fabric pulled taught over the smooth cranium and hung limply over the gaping sockets where eyes once stared. With a chill, he realised how small it was. As small as his sister’s.
How had this child died? His mind fought to find fact among the fables.
A draught of wind threw back the curtain, and Ralph recoiled. In the glass’s reflection, there was someone looking back – A girl. She staggered in the street, fighting against the force of a rising gale. Pelting rain darkened the stripes and zigzags which traversed her clothes. Her accusing finger rose, stabbed towards the sac in which the skull was hidden, then swung in a wide arc towards the lake.
Ralph threw open the window. There was nothing there. It was dry and hot, not a drop to be seen. Baffled, he grabbed the hessian bag and swung a leg out of the window frame, slipping onto the street. A form flickered briefly under the streetlamp; pointer outstretched behind her.
“Hey!” he yelled. She vanished. “What…?”
He sprinted after her. Boats bobbed at the jetty as if stirred by ghostly hands. The shoreline was dotted with footprints – just smaller than his own, and barefoot. He couldn’t see far in the dimness, but with each step, more appeared before him, until finally, they trailed off at the water’s edge. Something rustled behind him. A gator…? No. It was her. She emerged in a blast of frigid air. Strands of sodden hair lashed her face, yet nothing could obscure her intense gaze. Her mouth stretched open to scream, but no sound escaped her lips.
“I can’t hear you!” Ralph hollered over the howling wind, but the girl only clawed at her throat, trying to wrench the words free. “What happened to you?” he yelled. Amidst the whirlwind of droplets, Ralph could have sworn there were tears on her cheeks. Her eyes blazed with urgency, with agony, but whatever she needed to say would not come out. She only pointed behind her still, though at what he did not know. A gust ripped the skull from Ralph’s hands, and the girl was knocked off her feet. Both were swallowed by the churning waters, and at once, the night grew still. Moonlight sparkled on the lake, obscuring the horrors beneath. It was as if nothing had happened at all. But… something had changed. There was a touch of humidity, the stirring of a restless wind, and on the horizon, the first tentative flashes…
Of an incoming cyclone.