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Originals: “Damnatio Aquae”

Damnatio Aquae

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ARTHUR Fitzsimmons would tell anyone who would listen that he’d only had three real friends in his adult life – his dog Digger, the Lee-Enfield .303 rifle he’d carried through The War, and since then, the contents of any liquor bottle he could get his increasingly unsteady hands on.

While Digger had found himself under the wheels of a Brisbane City tram one fateful evening and the army made him give the rifle back when he was discharged from service on medical grounds, the numbing comfort of liquor had remained a steadfast pillar of Arthur’s post-War existence.

In a previous life, he had been Private Arthur Fitzsimmons with the Australian Imperial Force. Having joined up to escape an apprenticeship as a blacksmith, Arthur found himself on the other end of a lot of ironmongery on the Western Front.

The recruiting posters and newsreels made it look like the war was some jolly great adventure for a young man to embark on with his chums – give the Hun a black eye and a bit of a drubbing, see some exotic parts of the world, maybe meet some women, and generally do manly things for King and Empire.

It was all revealed as absolute balderdash right from when Arthur arrived in France, where he was confronted with hellish visions of a destroyed, blasted landscape that had been rendered alien by shelling, bombing, gassing, and wholesale slaughter.

Arthur’s daily existence became an unceasing nightmare. During the day, he was shooting, being shot at, being rained on, being crawled on by rats, gassed, and watching his friends die face down in the mud, cut down by machine-gun fire.

At night, his dreams were invaded by monstrous creatures, oozing out of the mud with oily, blubbery skin and too many appendages and eyes, calling him to their lost city deep under the ruined Earth, where mysteries would become knowable and help him make sense of the senseless carnage filling his waking hours.

He was soon convinced there were Bunyip-like creatures living in the murky, stagnant water of the shell holes churned across No Man’s Land. Not just convinced in a “heard too many tall tales around the Furphy” sense, but “Was convinced he had actually seen them, more than once” sense.

Furtive shapes lapping at the water and vanishing as soon as Arthur tried to look at them, whispering at him as he took shelter nearby, telling him blasphemous and untrue things he desperately wanted to believe.

Listen to the rhythm of the shells and the machine-guns, Arthur,” they’d say.
They’re performing a special song only you can understand, and if you time your movements just right, you can avoid getting hit by shells or bullets

Then, when he’d stick his head above the parapet or the shell-hole, a bullet would whizz past his head or an artillery projectile would thump into the ground nearby, and the crater-Bunyips would scamper away giggling that he’d fallen for their practical joke.

Because Arthur could still hold a rifle, point it in the direction of the Germans, and fire it, his increasingly erratic behaviour was simply ignored. As long as he was keeping bullets going towards The Hun, he could rave about crater-Bunyips and mud-octopuses and The Whisperings as much as he liked; no-one cared. After all, there was a war on, and every able-bodied man was needed at the front. Able-bodied being the key word; able-minded was a luxury the Empire was prepared to compromise on at the time.

Even that definition was finally stretched after Arthur was buried alive when a German whizz-bang shell landed near the section of trench wall he was manning, however.

The explosion caused the trench to collapse in on itself, leaving Arthur trapped in a small air pocket, unable to get out and realising his left leg was bent at an unnatural and extremely painful angle.

He didn’t know how long he was trapped under the debris – it could have been a few minutes, it might have been a day or longer – but the lack of light, the scrabbling of unidentified creatures in the mud, and the panic about being trapped in there forever had comprehensively subsumed him, indelibly melding with his psyche.

You are closer to us now, Arthur, the voices whispered at the edge of his hearing while he was immured. Sink further into the mud with us. Soon the stars will be right and the great ones can rise from below to sit upon their nephrite thrones, and you can be rewarded.

When they dug him out of the buried pile of mud, trench wall, body parts and debris – raving about “the mud-Bunyips” and “the sleeping monsters waiting for the right stars” – the medicos agreed that Arthur’s hold on sanity had snapped, along with his left leg, the latter of which in particular meant he was no longer fit for combat duty. It was further decided the best thing for him was hospital and recuperation in a sanatorium followed by going back to Australia where he could be crazy away from where anyone important might see.

In the years since the Armistice, Arthur had tried to forget his experiences in the trenches, but he could never shake the nightmares. He’d rapidly given up trying to convince anyone about the “Mud Bunyips” or “The creatures from below” – people just nodded then found reasons to suddenly be somewhere else – so before long, Arthur stopped trying to convince anyone of what he knew and instead worked on blocking out the troubling images from his mind.

By 1921 he was already known as one of the resident ‘intemperates’ to be found wandering the Fortitude Valley region propping up bars at all hours of the day and night. A year later, he had simply cut out the middle-man and was given to finding a quiet spot on one of the side-streets near McWhirter’s and Waltons’ department stores and passing his time downing bottles of spirits.

While he always preferred Scotch whiskey, his army pension didn’t stretch to buying a lot of it – the half decent stuff was 17 shillings and sixpence for a bottle. A bottle of Red Seal or Beenleigh rum was better on his pocketbook at 7 shillings a bottle, but he was able to stretch his meagre funds the furthest with Stewart’s Special Pot Still rum, a bottle of which could be obtained for 6 shillings and sixpence and assure him of several hours respite from what he called The Horrors.

It wasn’t just the being buried alive which caused them; it was his absolute knowledge that there were Other Things in the world that were not man’s friends, and actually seemed to revel in their suffering at times.

It didn’t take long before he lost his flat – when he had to choose between buying alcohol or paying the rent, the alcohol won out – and from there, Arthur, his swag, and Digger made do as best they could on Brisbane’s streets.

By European standards, Brisbane did not have a ‘winter’ – many, if not most, of the city’s residents had never seen snow in their lives – but it still got cold at night, and tonight was colder than usual.

Feeling the chill, Arthur took a medicinal swig of the last of his rum before staggering onto one of the city’s trams – a design nicknamed a “Dreadnought” due to its large, grey, solid design – paying his twopenny fare to a less than impressed conductor, huddling up, and falling into a spirits-fuelled sleep unbothered by the other passengers, who gave him as wide a berth as circumstances permitted.

While Arthur dozed, the tram trundled along the tracks in the city, making its way past the Breakfast Creek Hotel as the conveyance emerged from Fortitude Valley and continued onwards, with the city’s lights reflecting off the Brisbane River to the right.

The tram’s stop and clanging bell at the line terminal jolted Arthur awake, and he staggered off the vehicle with the hazy realisation he had no idea where he was.

Leaning against a nearby lamppost, Arthur could smell the sea air and almost taste the salt it contained, but as far as he knew the tramlines didn’t run to Redcliffe or the Bayside and the Brisbane River was many things, but being noted for smelling like the ocean was not one of them.

There was a fog rolling in too, combined with the drop in temperature – both things Arthur wasn’t sure were due to drink or the fact it was now very dark.

He looked around for the tram, but any sign of it was gone – he had not heard it trundle away, and realised he could not even see the tram stop from where he had staggered to.

Looking around unsteadily, Arthur thought he was in a park of some kind, and lurched onto a stone bench which seemed cold and damp to the touch. He sat for a few minutes, trying to clear his head and work out how to proceed.

He figured he had, in a drunken state, managed to get on the wrong tram, and was in some part of town he did not normally venture to. He did not feel like sleeping in a park in a strange part of town if he could help it, but he had to admit it wouldn’t have been the first time either.

Adjacent to the tram-stop was a row of shops, all but one closed for the night. One of them, however, was brightly lit up and Arthur could read the name stencilled on the window:

“Whateley & Sons – Fine Spirits, Beers, Wines, Etc”

Arthur couldn’t believe his luck, and made a (very wonky) beeline for the bottle shop’s entrance.

The man behind the counter was reading a pulp magazine with a lurid cover involving a striking redhead in a torn dress with her stockings gratuitously exposed being attacked through a ship porthole by something with a lot of tentacles. He looked up as Arthur swayed in, and put the magazine to one side.

Arthur thought the man’s features seemed almost blubbery and there was something wrong with his face, like his lips were huge and deformed and his eyes far too far apart. A sober man, no matter how well-bred, would have done a double-take. Arthur’s rum goggles meant the shopkeeper’s strange countenance barely registered.

“Yes, mate?” the man said as Arthur came to the shop’s counter.

Arthur looked around unsteadily.

“I think I need a drink.”

“I think you do too, mate, from the looks of you.”

“Something with some kick to it. I… I need… it’ll help me.”

The shopkeeper nodded in understanding, turned around to the stock wall behind him, selected something from one of the higher shelves, and then placed an emerald green bottle on the counter.

Even in Arthur’s booze-impaired state appeared to be 40 glorious imperial ounces in size; the bottle topper was a curious design, though – it looked like a black wax octopus, with tendrils of wax dripping down the neck to create the impression it was holding onto the bottle.

Try as he might, he couldn’t make out anything on the label besides the product’s name – Life of R’yleh. Everything else was weird scribbles that vaguely looked like the Arabic and Hieroglyphic letters Arthur had seen in Egypt during the War; he couldn’t make much of them and it all looked a bit fancy for Arthur’s liking and by extension, the available coins in his pocket.

“What’s this, then?” he asked the shopkeeper.

“It’s good stuff,” the shopkeeper replied. “Might be from Ireland? Has quite a lot of strength to it; apparently it’s made with water from the bottom of the ocean. ”

“I see” said Arthur, who didn’t really follow but was transfixed by the bottle and its strange wax topper.

“Anyway, it’s not doing any good gathering dust on the shelf here, and I’d like to call it a night, so it’s yours for one shilling and I’ll even point you in the direction of somewhere you can sleep it off without worrying about the beak rousing you off, too.”

Arthur was already sliding the coin over the counter, coat-of-arms side up, before the shopkeeper had finished speaking. He barely took his eyes off the bottle as the shopkeeper suggest he head across the park and look for a culvert near a bridge which would be out of the wind and not somewhere the police would be likely to poke in without a good reason.

Mumbling his thanks, Arthur stepped outside, clutching the bottle to his chest like a baby. The sea-mist seemed thicker and the glow from the street-lamps seemed dimmer in the darkness; he’d only taken a few steps when the bottle-shop behind him had disappeared into the haze.

Across the road, he could see one of the lamps shining brightly by the park entrance. The small sign by the low stone fence read (as far as Arthur could make out) “Great War Memorial Park”.

There was nothing great about the war, Arthur thought to himself as he leant on the fence for a moment to steady himself. The wind picked up, bringing with it a cutting chill.

Maybe not from your perspective, but from ours… it was a delight, the wind seemed to whisper. Arthur looked around, still clutching the bottle. That voice! No, it wasn’t getting him tonight. He was going to find that culvert, wrap himself in his coat, and drink the alcohol until he passed into an oblivious sleep.

True enough, the culvert was in a channel of some sort that probably flowed strongly when there was a storm. There were no storms at this time of year in Brisbane – the wet season had passed, thankfully – and the culvert was indeed dry, and away from the chilling wind that was blowing leaves across the park grass and into the murky fog.

Bars had been fixed into the concrete a few feet into the culvert – probably to stop children or animals wandering in and getting lost, but Arthur found them reassuring. If there was something in the wastewater system, it wouldn’t be able to get through the bars.

Light was shining into the culvert from a nearby ornate electric lamp, obviously made to look like a 19th century gas lamp for some reason that doubtless appealed to the designers.

Sitting in a huddle against the side of the drain, Arthur looked at the bottle more closely. Its contents sloshed reassuringly inside, and the bottle even seemed to be somewhat luminescent.

He grasped the octopus cork-topper and gave it a sharp twist to break its wax tentacles and open it, but it wouldn’t turn. He tried again. No luck. In frustration he yanked the top and it popped open satisfyingly, appearing to exhale a sound that resembled “Riley Fit-arghan” as it did so.

The black octopus creature figure had come off completely, with its still tentacles attached, as if it had simply let go of the bottle neck. Something green flashed in its eyes and Arthur put the item in his pocket, keen to become acquainted with the bottle’s contents instead.

Any pretence Arthur may have had about being able to taste different flavour profiles in alcohol had vanished more or less at the same time the Imperial German Army decided to start shooting at him on a regular basis.

This drink was different, however. It was glowing very slightly; much like the radium-painted dial of Arthur’s “trench watch” – one of the few mementoes of his time in the military which he had retained – but it certainly  had an alcoholic bouquet to it and that was as much of a smell test as Arthur needed.

Even to his nose, the drink smelt of seawater, kelp, smoky peat, and fog – not unpleasantly, either. He raised the bottle to his lips and took a draught from it. It was pleasantly warm as it slid down his throat – much smoother than the usual cheap spirits he drank, and it gave him a pleasant feeling in his stomach.

Even in a more together state, he would have struggled to describe the taste – it had elements of rum and whiskey in it – but with each swig, he felt his nerves calming. He was out of the wind and the rain. The police would not bother him, and he would not have to face the jeers of people on the street telling him to get his act together and have some dignity.

For the first time in a long time, Arthur felt somewhat at ease. Not calm, but not perpetually on edge or twitchy either. He’d forgotten what it felt like.

The wind outside the culvert had picked up somewhat and the fog seemed to be edging closer, but the drink was providing him with a pleasant warm sensation, and after wrapping himself in his jacket, he was soon asleep.

Unlike his usual sleep – a black oblivion of nothingness on the best nights, a storm of tossing, turning and thrashing about on most of the others – tonight was somewhat settled. Almost like he was in a hammock on a ship, swaying gently while in motion to somewhere.

“You were right, Arthur” an ethereal woman’s voice was saying to him. “There is more in the universe than has been dreamed.

“The curtain between the reaches of the cosmos is tattered and threadbare in places. All you have to do is pull it back slightly, and all will become clear. You know this; you saw it in France. Come and lift that curtain some more, Arthur.

“In his palace in R’yleh, Great Cthulhu lies dreaming. There is a place for you among the seekers when the stars are right.”

Arthur woke with a start, sitting bolt upright in a cold sweat. Everything was a bit fuzzy and hazy around the edges of his vision, but… he looked around. He was in a trench again. The sky was black with flashes of green lightning dancing across it. He could only see a few yards down the trench before it was enveloped in a swirling fog.

From the fog, a shape. And a woof.

“Digger? Is that you, cobber?”

Another woof in response. Happy, but… something else. Worried? Digger had always been looking out for Arthur, right until his terminal encounter with the tram that fateful evening.

The shape in the fog woofed again.

Arthur staggered to his feet, unsuccessfully trying to shake the haze from his vision, and took an unsteady step along the trench. He had only gone a few feet when his right hand grasped something familiar leaning against one of the wooden trench support posts.

It was a Lee-Enfield .303 rifle. No; it was his Lee-Enfield. He recognised the rack number stamped on the butt, and the gouge on the fore-end where he’d parried a German bayonet away with the rifle.

The rifle’s weight was reassuring and Arthur immediately felt better. He whistled for Digger, and the dog-shaped shadow in the fog came closer and woofed again.

His face broke into a smile of joy; a feeling of warmth and happiness he had not known for many years came flooding back to him as Digger’s snout emerged from the fog, followed by his tongue hanging excitedly out of the side of his mouth.

“Come here, Digger! Give Artie a hug!” Arthur called out, opening his arms to receive his long-lost four-legged friend.

What emerged from the fog was not Digger.

It had Digger’s head, and it sounded like Digger, but it was terrifyingly not Digger.

For a start, Digger did not have eight legs, and he did not move diagonally or horizontally at will. Digger did not have stubby, leathery wings, and he most certainly did not have green, glowing eyes.

Arthur scrambled backwards away from the horror encroaching from the fog.

Not-Digger scuttled forward, and reared up, looked at him blankly, and then said – not barked, but actually said – Woof”.

Arthur screamed, grabbed the .303 rifle, pointed it at the monster, and pulled the trigger.

Not-Digger jerked backwards and fell onto its side.

“Woof! Woof! Woof?” it said painfully, rolling onto its legs, but unable to struggle to its feet.

“What are you? You’re not Digger!” Arthur demanded of the creature as he worked the rifle bolt.

The creature eyed him steadily, then opened its muzzle. And kept opening it. And opening it, until the dog-head had bent back around on itself. Its tongue stood up and swayed, as if tasting the air – then it pointed at Arthur. The creature began to levitate into an upright position, and then coiled to strike at Arthur.

Arthur fired again as Not-Digger lunged forward at him. The bullet hit the creature square in the maw and Arthur was splattered with its blood and viscera as it collapsed against him before sinking to the ground.

It bubbled into the mud and vanished. Arthur fell to his hands and knees in shock, then dry-retched.

A whisper on the wind again.

You know there are monsters out there. Digger knew it too. And one of them wants to meet you. Don’t keep it waiting.”

There was an explosion behind him and the trench collapsed. A shell whistled overhead.

Arthur fell forward into the mud, then scrambled to his feet, unconsciously grabbing the rifle as he did so.

Another explosion. He ran forward into the fog, shouting in rage as he did so.

The fog would clear a few feet in front of him each time, still always with a green tint, and in his fury Arthur shot at, bayoneted, or bashed away countless shadows, not even stopping to register what they were as he did so. All that mattered was getting whatever thing had turned Digger into an abomination, and ending it once and for all.

“I’M COMING FOR YOU, YOU DOG-MURDERING SON OF A BITCH!” Arthur bellowed as he plunged forward into the green mist.

The explosion came just as he registered the “whizzzzz” sound, and he was soon tumbling through the air before landing in a lake with an unceremonious splash.

Somehow, the sling of his rifle had become wrapped around his arm, and was able to struggle to his feet using the gun as a support. The lake’s water was knee deep and green, and the fog surrounding it was flashing and pulsing as if lighting was arcing throughout it.

An ibis was floating in the middle of the lake. It swivelled its black head and long beak towards Arthur, its beady eyes boring in on him.

“Hello… Arthur. So glad you could… come” it said in deep tones which seemed to be simultaneously coming from its beak and manifesting in Arthur’s head at the same time.

“You! What are you? Why won’t you leave me alone? Why must I suffer???” Arthur demanded.

You… are one of the sensitive” the Ibis answered, this time in a woman’s voice. “We can communicate with you. We can show you… wonderful things. The stars are right now.”

“I don’t care about the bloody stars! I want the nightmares to stop!”

Oh, but they can, Arthur” the ibis said, this time in a different man’s voice. “Come embrace what awaits and sit by the nephrite throne of R’yleh”

“Shove your nephrite throne!” Arthur spat, the venom in his voice surprising even himself.

It is too late for such attitude, Arthur,” another woman’s voice spoke. “You have drunk the essence of R’yleh, and tasted the water at the bottom of the ocean. Your destiny is with us now, and forever.”

“No! You are monsters, come to steal my essence! I will not let you!”

The deep voice that had first spoken addressed Arthur again.

“Digger sensed the truth and came to find out for himself.”

“Lies! Digger was my mate!”

“Woof” came Digger’s unmistakeable bark from the ibis.

Without thinking, Arthur lifted the Lee-Enfield and fired it at the bird.

It was a direct hit, spraying feathers and blood across the lake surface. The ibis wobbled momentarily, sank into the water.

“That can’t have been it,” Arthur said to himself, just as the water began to bubble and glurgle. A much larger, muddier, multi-armed and multi-eyed shape emerged from the lake.

“You will become one with the mud. The stars are right, the nephrite throne will soon be occupied, and you will be there to revel in the wonders of the new era whether you like it or not,” the monster boomed, its voice reverberating across the area.

“In time, you will understand. You will understand everything. We will make you understand.”

Several of the creature’s arms rose up from its torso, ready to strike, and its eyes began to glow a bright, piercing green.   

“THIS IS FOR DIGGER, YOU MONSTER!” Arthur bellowed, then charged into the mud-creature as fast as he could manage, with the rifle’s bayonet leading the way.

The lake water violently frothed and churned, turning green, black and red.

##

“What have we got, Terry?” asked Police Sergeant Kent, as he arrived by the riverside scene at Luggage Point the next morning.

Constable Brooks looked up from the tarpaulin-covered form on the bank of the river, just at the high-tide mark.

“Morning, Charles. I’d say he was a swagman or an itinerant from the looks of it. Too early to say but if I had to hazard a guess, I’d say he got drunk, fell in the river, and drowned. One of the fishing skippers saw him on the bank as they were returning and called it in.”

“Rotten show,” the sergeant said, absent-mindedly flicking his cigarette into the river. “Any papers on him?”

“He had a billfold but it’s pretty waterlogged so we’ll need to dry it out and see what we can find,” the constable replied. “He was in pretty rough shape; I shan’t wonder if he got caught in a boat propeller or something of that nature at some point.”

He lifted the tarpaulin to show the sergeant, who nodded grimly.

“Glad he’s the coroner’s problem and not ours, then,” the sergeant replied.

“Indeed. The medicos are just drawing up now, so hopefully we can wrap this up fairly soon.”

“I’ll leave you to it, then. Say hello to Tug for me when you get back to the station.” The sergeant departed, stopping for a brief hello with the ambulance assistants coming the other way with a stretcher.

Constable Brooks watched the sergeant leave, then turned his attention back to the figure on the riverbank. He was putting the billfold into an evidence bag so it could be properly handled back at the station, but he’d found something else in Arthur’s pockets – a strange, black octopus like figurine made from what appeared to be wax.

He was about to put it in the bag with Arthur’s billfold when he paused.

He looked up for a moment, thinking he had heard something – a voice, maybe – on the wind, calling to him from across the water, then absentmindedly pocketed the wax bottle-stopper with the octopus shape as the river lapped against the bank next to him.


By Royce Wilson

Damnatio Aquae is written by Australian writer Royce Wilson. In addition to writing fiction, Royce is a Freelance Journalist, Editor-in-Chief of Game on AUS and Games Writer at The Australian.

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