The Fog Catcher
Jim Steel

Artwork by Marcia Borell

We don't get many tourists these days.

Im not a tourist, said Crawford, wilting behind Barclay.

Of course, thats just part of what Im trying to achieve with all this. The days of cheap flights just to lie on a beach are over. We need a whole new philosophy, said Barclay, turning around and shielding his eyes from the sun. Look you can still see your hotel from here.

Ill bet, said Crawford. His hotel should be obvious enough as it was the only one that hadnt had its windows boarded up. Are we nearly there yet, Ernest? He was already regretting his drunken promise of the previous evening. He was a magnanimous, happy drunk, and if only more of humanity could have been like that then the burden of existence would feel lighter. This, of course, would include the sober version of Crawford who was now wheezing up a path on a hot, empty hillside with no prospect of shade.

Barclay turned forwards again. Theres the first one over there. Look!

Crawford looked. What he saw was a square tennis racket, about 10 feet wide, stuck into the ground. There was a large plant growing out of the ground at one corner. It was starting to come back to him now why he was up here; he had been too embarrassed to ask Barclay what it was that he had agreed to go and look at. They left the path and walked over to it. The stones under Crawfords canvas shoes probed his soles for weaknesses and found them with every step.

There are only three mature olive trees of the native variety left on the whole island, said Barclay, totally oblivious to Crawfords suffering. Its a subspecies thats unique to the island, as well.

Really. Crawford took the last couple of mouthfuls of water from his plastic bottle and looked at it with a disgusted expression. He knew better than to discard it while in Barclays company.

Perfect, said Barclay. Give me your bottle and I can show you how it works.

Crawford handed over the bottle.

Oh, said Barclay, Its empty. Never mind. Anyway, this island suffers from a lack of rain. Now, imagine the early morning fog rolling in from the sea and up the hill. All that desalinated moisture available for nothing. The only problem is that it hangs about a metre off the ground, skirts over the island, and evaporates. What we need is something to condense the moisture and allow it to get to the ground in its liquid state. This big iron grid does that. The water condenses on the wires, runs down them and thence onto the ground through this hosepipe at the corner, and that allows the sapling to grow. Of course, once the tree has reached about a metre or so in height, it is able to extract its own moisture and we move the fog catcher to a new position and start it on another freshly planted sapling. When enough trees are underway voila we have a self-sustaining microclimate.

Barclay had been gesticulating wildly with the empty bottle and he now handed it back to Crawford. Crawford crushed the air out of it, screwed the top back on it and stuck it into one of the pockets of his cargo pants. He stepped up to the frame for a closer look.

Is that rust on the wires?

Barclay turned around to follow his gaze. It shouldnt be. Thats a stainless titanium alloy. Its nearly indestructible.

Crawford rubbed one of the wires with his fingers and noted that the brown coating came off on them.

#

Marry you? Crawford laughed and raised his beer bottle in acknowledgement. Why, my dear, I thought youd never ask! I must warn you, though Im nought but a humble travel writer, and that does not pay well in this day and age. Still, Ill do my utmost to make you a happy woman. We will be blessed with many children.

Vera smiled at him from the other side of the bar and shook her head indulgently. No, Crawford, not marry Marri.

Crawford shrugged and gave her a puzzled smile.

She looked up at the clock and poured herself a glass of heartburn white. Stocks of everything alcoholic were running low and Crawford ruminated on the possibility of the hotel running out of beer before he managed to get off the island. He tended to view it a challenge rather than a problem. Vera chased her little housedog away from a bin and pushed herself up onto the stool on her side.

Shoo, Sebastian away! No, Crawford, the Marri were the first people of the island. They were covered in downy hair the colour of olives and dark, deep eyes and little pointed ears.

Ah, said Crawford, The little people.

No, said Vera with wide eyes, They were tall and thin; as tall as us. When people came they left to go to another world. Sometimes they come back and steal people and animals away.

Crawford took another mouthful of beer. This island has hidden depths. First I find out about Barclays fog catchers and now I discover theres a whole bunch of mythology to go with the place. My editor will be most impressed.

Yes, said Barclay, who had just walked into the small bar, Why on earth does someone try to make a living from travel writing these days? Fuel tax has just about wiped out the foreign holiday industry.

Ah! said Crawford, turning to face him, Thats exactly the point; people want to read about what they cant have. And who knows? circumstances can always change. I write the scripts for their dreams.

Crawford tapped out a cigarette from its soft packet and lit it with a match drawn along the edge of the bar. Vera frowned at him, although in the muted, soft light that cuddled the bar it was hard for anyone to look annoyed.

Sorry, V, said Crawford. I forgot. Anyway, this place isnt too far from Europe; a cruise liner could be here within a week. Sooner, if it leaves from the Iberian Peninsula. Thatll be this places salvation. Theyre building them again, you know. In large numbers. And Ill bet youll get a different class of tourists here. The day of the sun-dried hedonist is gone. This place was like the last days of Rome previously, wasnt it?

The new tourists wont have time for all that. Theyll storm the shore one day and be gone the next. Or the day after. A quick foreign fix of strangeness is what theyll be after. Your olive groves will be ideal for them. And stories of the Marri. Have you heard of the Marri, Ernest?

Yes, I have, said Barclay, staring at a tumbler of red wine that Vera had just handed him. It had a warmth and a glow that they knew wouldnt be matched by the taste. As a matter of fact, Pliny mentions them. This was at the very edge of the classical world. He also mentions the quality of the olives, which is nice.

Ah, but is it true, Ernest?

Who knows? We can always introduce a commercial strain. Sometimes tastes change.

Yes I hope you remember to mention that in the labels small print.

And onwards drifted the evening towards fuzzy oblivion.

#

I still not know if Crawford your Christian name or your family name.

Ah, and I leave on the morn tide.

Crawford and Vera were walking down the sticky tarmac to the bakers shop together. In truth Crawford couldnt wait to be gone from the place. The Stalinist teeth that used to house the north Europeans ran along the shore until they petered out in a rusting cluster of abandoned cranes. No more would they blight his sight. Gone, too, the glowing lunar hills that blistered the eyes. Three weeks in a tramp steamer would get old fast but at least he would be going somewhere, although the Caribbean was supposed to be a sorry place these days. Pirates were back, they say. Good copy. He would miss Veras dark beauty, though. He silently wondered if there was any chance of a farewell fuck.

You shouldnt make fun of me.

Im sorry, Vera. You shouldnt take me seriously. Listen: my last day; your day off. How about we go for a picnic? My treat: all you have to is say yes and be ready at the hotel in a couple of hours.

She eyed him from the side for a few seconds before coming to a decision. Okay. Hey, you like if I show you one of the Marris gates? Its how they walk between the worlds.

#

So wheres your little dog today? puffed Crawford. He had given up on all thoughts of conquest. Vera still looked beautiful, but he was a perspiring beetroot.

Im so annoyed with him. He run off again. I don't know. He never go far, anyway. You okay? You want to rest for a while?

Jesus.

No, no Im fine. Were nearly there anyway, arent we? He concentrated on watching her backside, using the sway of it to hypnotise himself out of the pain.

Just over this rise there! You can see it. Can you see it?

Crawford put on a spurt of speed and drew level with her. He looked in the direction that she was pointing and his heart sank.

That? Thats it?

She was pointing at one of Barclays fog catchers.

Thats one of Ernests fog catchers, isnt it?

Yes. It is also a gate. Come. I show you, she said, and started down towards it, bouncing over the ground in her training shoes. Crawford followed, ploughing through the dusty earth in his hiking boots.

She was there before him, standing in front of the fog catcher with her hands on her hips, smiling at him. He was pretty sure by now that this was her idea of a joke. However, he had also spotted a nearby slope that offered some sort of shade. An acceptable place for a picnic. At the very least he was going to carry less on the way back down.

And how, he asked, grimacing, Does this gate work?

Oh, its magic, she said. She looked around and picked up some feathers that were lying at the base. See? These are from birds that the Marri took through to their country.

Really? These feathers that you just happened to find lying at the bottom of the best perch for miles? And if its a gate, then shouldnt we be able to see through it or, dare I suggest it, open it, even?

Don't be silly we cant open it. But we can see through it, if we stand just so.

She grabbed him by the hand and dragged him round until he was nearly edge on to the fog catcher. The land and the air undulated in the heat but, damned if it werent so, he could see something through the metal grid. There were green and blue colours that wavered and pulsed. He wondered if the grid was creating some sort of interference pattern with the sunlight.

Come, said Vera, tugging at his arm. Im hungry. Lets eat.

#

There were plenty of times when Crawford was glad that he had taken this commission and not the one for the North-West Passage. Now, for example, when the wine was drinkable after the second glass and pleasant after the third, when the chicken drumsticks were delicious, and when he was sitting in the company of a pretty (if nutty) girl.

Crawford?

Hm?

She was gently shaking his shoulder. He awoke slowly and stretched.

Mmm Oh, Im so sorry, Vera I must have dozed off.

I also. A siesta, yes? But its getting late. Now it is time to go back.

They gathered up the picnic detritus and made their way back down to the port.

#

Crawford had a shower when he got back to his room and then fell asleep again on the bed. It was well after midnight before he made his appearance in the bar.

Vera was worrying on a fingernail and looking distracted.

Whats up? he asked as he climbed onto his stool.

Is Sebastian. He still not here.

Ah, don't worry he wont have gone far. Hell turn up, youll see.

But he never been away this long before. Please, can you help me? I cannot leave the bar.

Look, Vera if anything had happened to him, we would have heard. He looked at her as she chewed her bottom lip. Look tell you what Ill have a few drinks In fact, well both have a few drinks, seeing as its my last night, and if he hasn't turned up in an hour or two, Ill go out and have a look for him. Promise.

#

Sunrise couldnt be more than a couple of hours off now, thought Crawford as he walked out into the street. Barclays sea fog had come rolling in and there was a refreshing chill to the air. He reflected that this was exactly the wrong time to go looking for a little dog. His beer-fuelled chivalry (and a need to clear his head) had pushed him out onto the street. He decided that he would wander the alleys for a little while, honour would be satisfied, and he could return to the bar and have one last attempt at seducing Vera.

He had only gone about fifty yards when he saw someone else moving through the mist. Curiosity kept him quiet while he watched. It was Barclay. He was about to shout when he realised that Barclay was holding a squirming little bundle. Was that Veras dog? His journalistic instincts got the better of him and he decided to follow Barclay. Barclay was walking out one of the paths that led up to the hills. Crawford followed him at a distance, folded into the fog.

Then he almost walked into Barclay.

Are you following me?

Um, not exactly, said Crawford, Well yes I told Vera Id find her dog for her.

Oh, hell be alright, probably, said Barclay, rubbing the top of the mutts head. Come on. You can help me.

They stepped off the track and crossed over the rough hillside for a few dozen yards. Crawford wasnt in the least surprised when a fog catcher loomed out of the mist ahead of them. It seemed to be standing in a pocket of clear air.

I noticed that the sapling here wasnt thriving, said Barclay, So I came up here a couple of nights ago to check. It seems that, by sheer bad luck, I stuck this one down on a patch of land that was somehow shaded from the fog, if that makes sense. A sort of a natural dry spot. Then I noticed something else.

By this time they were standing next to the fog catcher.

Watch, said Barclay as he picked up a stone and pushed it through the mesh.

What? asked Crawford.

Did you not see it? asked Barclay. Okay, go around to the other side of the fog catcher and catch the stone as I push it though.

Crawford went around and waited. He saw Barclay pick up a stone, hold it up to the grid and nothing. No stone came through the grid.

No? said Barclay. Okay, you try No, no you can do it on both sides.

Crawford picked up a stone and pushed it through the grid. At least, he thought he did. The stone just seemed to vanish into thin air.

Wow, said Crawford. Vera says that these are gateways to another world.

Yes, I know, said Barclay in an offhand way that vaguely annoyed Crawford. There are times when you can almost see something through the grid. Believe me, I don't understand it. And I built the things.

So whats with the dog?

Im going to try and put it through, said Barclay, absently scratching behind one of the dogs ears.

Wont fit, said Crawford. Too big.

I know that, said Barclay and he reached into one of his jacket pockets and pulled out a pair of snips.

For a moment Crawford thought that Barclay was going to start trimming bits off the dog until it could fit through but instead he cut, with considerable effort, though the wire.

Twang.

Twang.

Twang.

That enough, you reckon? asked Barclay, folding back a couple of the wires. Of course, it probably wont work now that Ive done that.

Oh, it worked.

Up and through the dog went.

And disappeared.

They waited.

Barclay held his head next to the grid. Here, boy! Sebastian! He shrugged and put his whole arm into the hole.

Crawford went around to the other side, expecting to see a cross-section of Barclays arm, but there wasnt one. It was as if Barclay just didn't have an arm.

I can feel something, said Barclay.

Is it the dog? asked Crawford.

Barclay didn't answer, but a look of shock appeared on his face as the colour drained from it. He tried to pull his arm out and got it as far as the elbow before something pulled it back in again and pulled him tight against the mesh.

He gave out a rising groan as Crawford rushed around and grabbed his other arm in an attempt to pull him free. Something must have attached itself to others part of him for Crawford realised that the man was gradually being pulled through the mesh. Bones were snapping and the fog catchers water reservoir was filling with blood. When it became obvious the Barclay had been dead for a while, Crawford let go and stood back to watch in horror as the rest of him was dragged through. Soon there was nothing but some shreds of clothing and a clump of hair hanging from the blood-soaked metal grid.

No ones going to believe this, thought Crawford. What could he do now? Catch the steamer in a couple of hours and leave the locals to puzzle over the mess?

The he realised that something was coming through the hole the Barclay had cut in the wire grid. But it wasnt covered in olive, downy hair. It was black and tar-like and had scaly fingers that were jointed in the wrong places.

Crawford turned and began to run. Downhill and away he ran, tripping and stumbling through the fog.

Sound travels well at night.

He was sure that he could hear wires snapping.

#

End


Return to Wicked Stories index