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Shell Grottoes

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EST. READING TIME

7 minutes
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Remember the grotter.

That’s what they used to say.

Shingle crunches under the vampire hunter’s feet. He watches flickering twists of flame light up homes of oystershell, miniature cairns made by young people that illuminate this shore during the festival.

He doesn’t know if he remembers the words from life, from one of his many books or if he’s channelling it from somewhere else entirely (when did he first visit this town at the mouth of the estuary?). He’s old and he can remember the grotters. He will check the reference at home. It’s in one of his books, he is sure.

Tomorrow, his friend of a lifetime, the vampire, will be visiting him here at the estuary’s mouth, for the festival that gives thanks to the waters that give the town its life. It’s a yearly tradition they maintain in their old age.

The young construct the grottoes, even now, from the shell of the creature that made this town famous. Swimming in its own liquor, a genuine taste of the sea sucked from rough shell.

They were harvested as far back as Roman times, or so everyone says. They are a culture attributed with a great deal around here; the dock leaves and nettles growing in conveniently close proximity, the spit of mysterious shingle that juts out to sea from the town’s beach, infant sacrifice at the garrison twelve miles away. Why not seafood cultivars? Perhaps if people wish it to be true, then it should be.

The vampire hunter knows it’s easy to project onto the long dead and how tempting it can be. He knows the all-consuming power of fiction, what the stories he helped create mean and how they consumed him also.

He has added a genteel celebrity to the town and has enjoyed a long and varied life. The vampire hunter is the most polite man you will ever meet; he has lived a life of horror. He has seen things, more than most.  

Watching the fires that writhe like trapped elementals, he recalls some of his past lives:

Leading a fearsome band on the Romney Marshes, smuggling rum and tobacco through waterlogged reeds, fighting the king’s men not too far from the town that became his home.

Aeons spent as a scientist lacking in moral fibre – he could breathe life where none should be.

A time-travelling and ageless being, but even that couldn’t last. New faces always appear. The only constant was change, he knew now.

An Egyptologist among golden sands, disturbing the rest of the long dead.

The island’s most famous detective, pipe in mouth, coolly analytical. (He was always a learned man, if not a decent one).

The vampire hunter is stitched into the fabric of this island’s story; he can feel himself coming to the end of his own limited perspective before he fuses, willingly, with that bigger thing, the ongoing story with one eternal narrator, or many, depending on your point of view. He knows that he will have an afterlife afforded only to the few and he used to wonder if he deserved such a thing. But age has taught him that no one gets what they deserve, not really, and that the concept itself is a strange one. Anyway, he’ll be remembered not for what he was, but for what he pretended to be.

He has helped the island and its inhabitants find some form of escape, aided them in the struggle to face down their fears and allowed them to enjoy lurid entertainment splashed with poster-paint blood. We all yearn for the monstrous and the weird even as we shun it.

What monsters has the vampire hunter fought? Brucolacs, goatsuckers, the blood-hungry, sure. But to this list we must add other things: the animated remains of a body embalmed and bandage-wrapped. A stitched-together monstrosity of his own making. He recalls the huge snowy ape-thing that beleaguered him in the impossible mountains of the Himalayas, a snake-haired woman with a stony stare, and the eternal being thawed from ice that derailed the Trans-Siberian. He remembers them all so fondly, the lost friends to whom he will toast with the vampire tomorrow, as they always do.

The vampire hunter makes his slow way home, away from the festival and along the coast, past the Harbour Lights pub where men in leather jackets and women in short skirts smoke and drink, butts piling up by the wooden bench legs. One man, voice loose with drink and rough with tobacco, recognises him.

The man mimes a stake plunged into his heart, gasps, staggers back into the arms of the woman, moans, then laughs. His companions laugh also. The vampire hunter smiles, gives a small nod. This happens often.

His walk takes him back up the slopes where a rusted cannon on a concrete base stares blindly out to sea. The tide is retreating, exposing that mysterious shingle spit on which the vampire hunter himself has walked. Either side of the town stretch miles of saltmarsh, boggy ground where a few unwary lost themselves and never returned. The vampire hunter loves the marshes of his adopted hometown, unpeopled flatness where his mind can wander, a space waiting to be filled. It’s known locally as the Hollow Shore, a name like the title of one of the vampire hunter’s films. These echoes and suggestions please him greatly.

*

The vampire hunter was married, for decades. His wife was swiftly snuffed out by a disease more monstrous than any creature he had ever faced. It was after that that he found this town at the mouth of the estuary surrounded by saltmarsh and thought how, perhaps, he would trade in a life of horror and fear for one lulled by the sigh of the sea. He remembers telling his friend, the vampire, how they would never do battle again, but that he should, of course, visit him. Come for the festival, see the shell grottoes and the flickering flame.

*

Back at home, darkness falling rapidly, the vampire hunter brews tea and makes a simple supper. Remember the grotter?

He scans his bookshelves. That book there, it’s familiar, jogs something inside of him. Esoteric Kent: A Guide to the Hidden Walkways and Roads Less Travelled of the Garden of England, published by the Malachite Press. This is an old edition, one he must have bought in the years just preceding his move to the town. He pulls it down, opens it and there it is, under the entry for the festival. He sees pencil marks made by his own hand, years back, underlining what he once thought important, and now does again.

The children… find a use for some [oyster shells] in the construction of grottoes, which they illuminate at night with a piece of candle, generally on the first of August. Probably few people remember the origin of the old street petition, “Please remember the grotter!” The children who give utterance to it do so without reference to its appropriate day. The legend goes that a prominent holy man’s remains were being returned from Palestine by boat. A knight charged with the remains’ protection, and his horse, fell overboard. The knight was saved without his horse, and on being rescued, his clothes were found to be covered with clinging oysters. The miracle, associated with the presence of the holy, became the origin of the oyster grotto.

The vampire hunter cannot now help but think of how the forgotten rituals are some sort of armour against the monstrous realities of this world. Oystershell barricades to keep the dark at bay, a darkness given form in the very monsters that he fought, and in the main, defeated.

His interest is rekindled now. He takes down Stories from the Marsh: The folklore of the Hollow Shore. He takes it down, flicks through the pages. This copy is an original, very old; foreword penned by folklorist C.L. Nolan, a man long dead and forgotten. The vampire hunter recalls meeting an already-ancient Nolan when he was just a young man fighting his very first undead. Mooted talks to adapt the old-man’s story ‘The Sea Giant’, that in the end came to nothing.

It’s been a long time since he delved into the lore of his home. Each tale in the book is accompanied by a beautiful and melancholy woodcut. Birds feature heavily, with ghostly bittern, mournful curlews and majestic harriers. He lands on one story that feels deeply familiar, ‘The White Heron’. A real species? The vampire hunter is unsure.

‘Fear the shades of the reeds. White things that were lost to us, now returned'.

The author is simply marked anon.

*

The morning finds the vampire hunter at his desk, flicking through entries in both Esoteric Kent and Stories from the Marsh. He searches for more information concerning the festival, what it means, and if in fact there is any solid reality other than these half-remembered fictions and symbolic acts that make up the life he has lived.

The doorbell rings.

The vampire is as tall and imposing as he ever was despite the advancing years. In fuligin black, he speaks in a deep baritone and commands the presence of those around him. Here is my mortal enemy and dearest friend, thinks the vampire hunter.

They sit in the kitchen talking, before they head out of the town to walk the Hollow Shore, listening to the burble of curlews and keeping watch for the elusive white egrets that have been spotted in the area after a generation of absence.

They return to a town heavy with crowds, filling with revellers celebrating the festival. The people are drinking hard, laughing, enjoying the temporary freedom of it all. What meaning do they ascribe to it? There must be something.

The vampire and the vampire hunter make their way once more to the seafront, and see children building new cairns of oystershell, next to piles of candles awaiting ignition.

‘Why do they persist?’ asks the vampire as he watches two pale children kneel in the shingle. ‘If they have forgotten the grotter, the roots of their rituals, then why do they persist?’

‘They wish to stave off the dark. Like all of us.’

The vampire nods and regards his friend, who stares out over the estuary as the fires are ignited and the pitch of the festival increases. He looms over the grottoes like a being from the age of fables, willing the dark away.

Gary Budden is the co-director of Influx Press and editor at Unsung Stories, and his work has appeared in numerous journals, magazine and anthologies.

Published on September 26, 2016.