A Beginner’s Guide to Sandcastle Alchemy
(Originally published in Weird Tales #358)
I remember the weight of the lightning rod in my hand. How light it was. How it balanced with the plastic shovel and pail gripped tight in my other fist as we marched down the beach, singing through the fog:
“The Queen of Mermaids fine and fair,
Felt no pain and knew no strife,
Only joy year after year,
Till whalers snared her husband. . .”
It was our reveille song at St. Ahab’s Home for Boys. Our cleaning the dishes song. Our tending the garden song. Our scrubbing the floors and hanging the laundry and chasing mice from the pantry song. It was our national anthem.
Six boys went down to the shore that morning. Five due back at sundown. No different from the year before, or a hundred years before.
“Her true love dead upon the keel,
The Queen looked on as through the night,
With fishing nets and hooks of steel,
The mongers caught her children. . .”
I remember the smell of the water on the air, coming not from the ocean, but from the sky, that clean scent of approaching rain as dawn struggled to rise above a pursuing phalanx of dark grey clouds on the horizon. The tide was out. Cool, dry sand ran off our feet like dunes of sugar as we walked.
“Left thus alone she turned toward home,
No lover and no offspring,
To take her kingdom and her throne,
When Death should come to claim her. . .”
“Here we are, lads.” Old Pete dropped his equipment in the sand. “Remember not to build too close to the water. Look at the water now, but mind where the tide’ll be when you finish.”
“Like building your house by a river, innit?” offered Handsome George. “Can’t build too close, or floods will steal it away when you ain’t looking.”
“Right you are,” said Old Pete. “Same goes for us today.”
“So once a year she walks on land,
To spy our royal off’ring,
And lift an heir up from the sand,
To rule the waves beside her.”
Old Pete wasn’t the oldest kid at the Home. In fact, being eleven made me six months his elder. But he talked old, so that made him old.
“How long you figure we have till that storm hits?” I said, shovel held tight in both hands to keep them from shaking.
Old Pete looked off to where bruise-colored clouds massed along the horizon. “I’d say we’ve got a good five, six hours. You lads think we can be done by then?”
We worked in a line down the shore. Handsome George staked his camp farthest out, at the north end of our small enclave. Next came Slow Alfie (who wasn’t so much slow as deliberate in his methods, but ‘Methodical Alfie’ just doesn’t ring right to an adolescent ear), then the twins Felix and Helix working independently, then myself and Old Pete.
“I heard the Mermaid Queen’s so beautiful that she puts the loveliest two-legged woman on land to shame,” said Felix, digging out a foundation with his trowel.
“Says who?” asked his kin, also putting shovel to earth, as were we all.
“Says every fish I ever caught.”
“I heard the same,” nodded Handsome George. “I also heard the other mermaids in her kingdom are even prettier than she, and that the Queen herself is thought plain by comparison.”
We knew this dialogue. Could have swapped places with any boy, like well-rehearsed understudies. Growing up in the Home, you knew the other Sons of Ahab. You knew their favorite colors, knew the names of the monsters they ran from in their nightmares, knew who cut the cheese because you recognized the smell. The only secret you kept was what you were going to build when your turn came to head down the shoreline. Because you didn’t dare write it down. Only a fool would draft a blueprint, lest someone nick your destiny for themselves. You kept it hidden in your head, where there was plenty of room because all your other secrets were spilt already, as was every tale could possibly be told, exaggerated, or just made up about the Mermaid Queen.
“You know clothes are against the law in her undersea kingdom?” I shouted down the row, up to my elbows now in damp earth. “Even the prettiest among them feels no shame.”
“Aye,” they agreed.
By now the sun was completely gone, smothered under black nimbus pillows.
“You know she used to save drowning sailors,” said Old Pete. Wind whipped the boy’s dirty blonde mop of hair in six directions at once so that he could scarcely see his labors. If he hadn’t already built his castle from mental scratch a thousand times or more, he might have had trouble.
“But they all fell in love with her,” he went on. The other boys had stopped their work to listen. Old Pete always told stories best because he told them like they were new, like we hadn’t heard them a hundred times before and retold them another hundred. “All the rescued sailors kept throwing themselves overboard again next chance they got, trying to get back to her. Ended up drowning themselves. ‘Course even that wouldn’t have been so dear if they hadn’t told all their shipmates about the Mermaid Queen’s beauty and wealth, so that the rest of them all jumped in and sunk like stones as well.”
Old Pete sat back on his heels, waved a hand at the frothing blue expanse behind him. Out of us six, he was the favorite to win, wise as cats and sharp as claws. White caps formed beyond the farthest sand bar, the horizon line now erased by an encroaching wall of rain.
“Yessir, there’s a whole fleet of unmanned ships wandering the oceans out there somewhere.” With his foundation dug, Old Pete gave the sky a hard look, then set about his architecture.
Handsome George whistled as he worked, piping the Ballad of the Mermaid Queen into an atmosphere gone cold and bitter. Slow Alfie worked in silence, as was his wont. Helix and Felix told each other jokes, one relaying the setup before the other broke in with the punch line. I hummed a tune my mother used to sing to me before she and the old man brought me to St. Ahab’s. By rights I shouldn’t have kept the memory, seeing as they’d received the letter announcing my selection when I’d only been evicted from the womb a week prior, same as all the other Sons. But there you go.
Old Pete sang nursery rhymes. Not the Mermaid Queen’s, but all the rest he knew, and then only certain parts.
“London Bridges. . .had a great fall. . .along came a spider. . . who lost her sheep. . .and cried wee-wee-wee all the way home.”
He sang it to himself, over and over.
“What’re you on about?” I said.
At first, Old Pete made like he hadn’t heard. His hands continued their chores with the trowel and bucket. The structure rising before him stretched halfway up the ten foot copper lightning rod planted in its base. The key was building around the rod— setting it deep in the earth first, then working up.
“What’s that now?” he said, still focused on his sand.
“You’re singin’ just the bad parts,” I told him. “You’re singin’ crib hymns, but you’re skippin’ over all except the bad bits.”
“Am I?” Old Pete said, and returned to his work. “What a funny thing to do.”
My watch claimed our tasks done at high, but from the color of the sky it could easily have been ’s skulking sister . A hard, unceasing wind pasted our clothes to our bodies. Sand swept off the dunes, tickled our noses, made it unpleasant to breathe.
Notching my initials into the foundation at my feet, I stepped back and let my sculptor’s pick fall into its bucket of tools. A drop of rain hit my open palm.
“Handsome George!” called Old Pete. “You ready?”
Handsome George’s castle was broad and flat, a kind of city state of small, compact buildings, no two alike, huddled together and radiating out from a central palace, surrounded on all sides by a great wall lined with ramparts and studded every few feet by a lookout tower. A market square spread itself across the northern border where sculpted vendors at their booths hocked every good worth purchasing: livestock, fruits and veg, crockery, clothes, and slaves by the dozen. Guards patrolled the streets that surrounded the main palace. Soothsayers, prognosticators and doomsayers stood atop soap boxes preaching their own brands of apocalypse. Women of ill repute stalked dark doorways; criminals of every persuasion prowled the alleys.
Handsome George huffed back his ginger hair, stepped into the broad, empty sporting arena on the west side of his city and placed both hands on the copper rod that jutted from the palace’s highest point.
He nodded to Old Pete, and Old Pete nodded back, then shifted his gaze to Slow Alfie.
Slow Alfie’s sandcastle was the smallest of the six. Not a castle at all, really, but a house. Two stories and a roof that rose to his waist. Windows and shutters. Picket fence and a mail box. An ankle-high sand man mowed the lawn in slacks and a tennis shirt. Two girls in pigtails purveyed a lemonade stand out front. Through a side window, a woman could be seen setting a pie to cool on the sill above her stove. A cat slept on the sofa. The TV was on. I didn’t have to ask if it was the house he was born in.
Slow Alfie gave Old Pete the thumbs up, spat into his small, mousey hands, rubbed them together, and slapped them tight around the copper rod that shot from the house’s chimney.
True to form, Felix and Helix and gone in aesthetically opposing directions. Being the traditionalist of the pair, Felix had constructed a fairy tale castle with towers and ramparts, surrounded by a moat that swarmed with carnivorous reptiles of undreamt dimensions. Knights in plate armor lined the battlements, gathered themselves in rows in the central courtyard as though braced for siege. At the top of the highest tower, a young woman stood at a window, gazing out across the bristling crop of spear tips, arrowheads, and raised swords to a lone, armored figure situated outside the castle, beyond the moat, mounted on his warhorse as it galloped toward the heavily fortified compound.
But while Felix had struggled over the dunes with a
wheelbarrow full of picks, trowels, buckets, brushes, levels and other instruments
of measure, his twin had eschewed any such trappings of precision beyond his
own hands. No two walls of his castle were
the same height or length.
The twins took hold of their copper rods, and nodded to Old Pete, who then turned to me. Thunder rumbled overhead, a sleepwalking giant stumbling its way toward us. “You ready?”
I freely admit to having no imagination. Not in a visual sense. Since toddlerhood did I battle with my own dim wits; in mute dread did I labor for inspiration for how my castle could stand apart from the other Sons’. Nothing came. For years, nothing came. Until the night before we went to build. I was in the bathroom, staring into the mirror, trying and failing to count the grey hairs I’d developed (thirty-seven, already at the age of ten!) in pursuit of an original concept. Staring into the mirror, I imagined my head as a closet full of ideas that would all come tumbling out if I were to but open the door. If I could but find the door!
And then it hit me. . .
I built myself. A sand sculpture self-portrait. Only, instead of eyes, I’d installed windows shaded by a shingled brow. Where the mouth should have been, I placed a door, and so on. My hair, always a mass of unruly curls, served as the support structure for a grand tree house that sprouted from my skull, complete with tire swing and owl’s den.
“Nice one,” said Old Pete. “But where are the people? Who lives there?”
“Nobody,” I answered. Standing atop the red plastic bucket I’d brought with me, I took hold of the copper rod that poked out through the topmost part of Mr. Sandman’s head. “It’s a haunted house.”
Old Pete nodded, and turned to his own castle. There was no question— his was the finest of the day. Perfectly conical in shape, Old Pete’s tower boasted an unremarkable exterior save a winding shelf that wound around it to prevent erosion. Bullet-shaped windows ran up in a spiral, allowing for a view of the labyrinths which spanned the breadth of each of its thirteen interior levels. Skeletons littered the floors, impaled on spikes or crushed by sprung booby traps. Half-decayed bodies slumped against corners, anchored by fingers dug into the walls as they starved to death, lost in the maze while their bodies wasted away. A beast haunted each level of the tower. Giant spiders, snakes and rats stalked the interlocking corridors. A minotaur kept watch over the penthouse. And at the very top, where the endless road of pitfalls and illusion lead to a single trap door in the tower’s roof, lay a mountain of treasure. It was the only part that looked fake, that horded swag. No more than a clump of half-sculpted sand, a kind of fool’s gold, as was Old Pete’s intention, I now believe.
I’d lost. The other boys’ dejection was also painted on their faces in bright shades of crimson as well. But it was square. We’d been tested and bested and that was that.
Old Pete’s copper rod ran the length of the tower and emerged from the top at shoulder-height. He grabbed hold of it, and gave me a nod. Wind whipped his dirty blonde shag around his head, sent a constant spray of brine to sting our sight.
As I examined the tower, and the other boys’ work as well, Old Pete’s strange song came into my head, repeated itself as we waited for the storm to hit.
London Bridges. . .had a great fall. . .along came a spider. . .who lost her sheep. . .and cried wee-wee-wee all the way home.
Only the bad parts, all stitched together with a minor note melody. I wasn’t aware that I was singing it aloud until I caught the expression on Old Pete’s face. He gave me a funny smile then, like we’d bumped into each other in the woods after dark, on separate errands to bury something.
He joined in the song as we turned to meet the storm.
Even with practice, it was hard to stand firm when the lightning came. After all we’d been taught at St. Ahab’s, forgoing literacy, maths, history and science, save how they related to the more arcane studies of meteorology, metallurgy, and the like; after the films we’d been shown and the practice drills we’d run, it still took nerve to stand in your threadbare trousers and wait for Zeus to cut you down.
“Here it comes, boys!” said Old Pete. “Belts!”
At Old Pete’s cue, every boy down the line freed a hand and whipped the belt from the loops in his shorts, folded it over twice or three times, and shoved it between his teeth.
George was the first to be hit. The bolt came down over the water, a dozen feet out. At the last moment, it hooked in toward land to blast the boy right out of his shoes. I never saw them come down.
I turned to Old Pete, eyes wide. He looked calm, happy even. I don’t know why he waited till I was watching to do what he did. You couldn’t call us enemies, but we weren’t exactly friends. Whatever the reason, he chose that moment to let go of his rod.
When the lightning came for him, it hit Old Pete so hard I thought he’d disintegrated, smote by the gods for his impudence. The boy had completely disappeared. As had his castle. The lightning struck the rod, uneasy now in its moorings without hands to steady it, and destroyed Old Pete’s life’s work as it had surely destroyed Old Pete himself.
Helix and Felix were next, struck by prongs of light split down the center from the same bolt as it lifted them into the air, then discarded them with a violent caprice. Helix flew back to the dunes. Felix skidded down to the water. That’s when I spotted Old Pete. He was laying face-down in the sea.
I didn’t think twice. Or once, for that matter. If I had, I’d have no doubt seen sense and stayed where I was and waited for the storm to hoist my bones into the sky and twist them like a wire hanger bent in a wet shirt.
Even now, I can’t say why I did it. All I remember is that Old Pete’s strange little patchwork song was still rhyming its way through my head when I spat out my belt, loosed my hands from the copper rod and ran into the surf. Couldn’t help but notice the scorched thumbprint of sand where the boy’s castle had once stood— the castle he’d left home to build, had been chosen to build, and which surely would have won had he not abandoned it.
He was still breathing when I dragged him from the water. I was almost disappointed. I wanted to thump him on the chest like they do. Not the mouth-to-mouth bit, just the thumping. Didn’t get to do the latter, but the former wasn’t called for, either. So that was a trade, I guess.
I thought I could make it back. My castle was still standing. I leapt to my feet, took a step inland, and watched my dream explode. Electricity coursed down through the copper rod and, with no one to steady it, destroyed my sandy doppelganger. As if to scold me, a splinter of light peeled off from the main bolt and slapped my outstretched hand.
Couldn’t say how long I was out, only that I was last to wake.
“Come on, lad.” Old Pete was on top of me. Shaking my shoulders. Whispering. “They come.”
Those words alone would have been enough to get me on my feet had I been dead and buried in a concrete coffin.
Handsome George, Slow Alfie, Helix and Felix stood in a line before their castles, each earthy construct now turned to glass from their respective doses of lightning. No longer resembling the work of master adolescent artisans, the surviving castles had become dirty, alien things, hard and smoke-colored, marbled with veins of muddy shadow, looking not so much built as grown, a kind of crystal pox that bubbled up from a syphilitic earth. Yet they caught the light. Lured it and trapped it and held it captive behind their walls and parapets with a raw, scarred beauty. A piece of my own castle lay at my feet, an open eye turned to glass, warped in its final moments. Staring up at me with mute accusation.
A dozen dark shapes loomed in the deeper water less than a league off shore, illuminated by rays of sunlight only just breaking through the clouds. A passerby would have mistaken them for bunches of kelp gathered by the tide had it not been for their slow, deliberate progress toward the shore. The Mermaid Queen and her court had come to choose her new concubine.
A wasp’s stinger pricked my heart at the sight of my demolished sandcastle. I would never go under the waves. Never know the weightless, shimmering paradise that awaited one of the four boys from St. Ahab’s who stood tall as the royal saltwater court emerged onto the border of our two kingdoms.
Old Pete seized my arm. We both did our best not to scream.
Her eyes came first. Glossy black marbles rose from the tide on red-veined stalks above a face of grey rubber. A lipless mouth parted to reveal three rows of dainty razorblade teeth. Densely matted tendrils of a man-o-war served her as hair, trailing back over her shoulders, their tips aglow like the lure of an angler fish.
She had a woman’s breasts. Six of them, hard and milk-less carbuncles that pocked her chest at random. Gill flaps filled the spaces between ribs. Jagged, horny plates ran down her neck, arms, and back. Her hands, if they could be called hands, looked more like a lobster turned on its back, a mass of frantic spines and feelers.
The lower half of her body was but speculation, hidden by a great, spiraling conch supported by a retinue of crabs the size of tortoises. From the way she moved, her tail appeared to be utterly boneless and devoid of scales. A single, tongue-like appendage incapable of supporting her body on land.
She paid no attention to Pete and myself, and for that I have thanked God every day of my life. Her attention was entirely focused on the four boys’ glass castles.
Three times she circled them, hoisted by her scuttling courtiers, examining each in turn, eye stalks probing the air.
Slow Alfie began to shake when the Deep Widow held up a handful of thorny fingers, and bayed the boy draw near. When he turned to look back at us I swear my heart stopped. Like I’d peered into a coffin at a funeral and found my own corpse in repose.
A bed awaited him, chauffeured through the listless tide by two manatees with dumb, bulging eyes. It was a mussel shell, as long as a man is tall. A salted slime membrane glittered over the obsidian gloss of its shell as it yawned open. The Empress of Brine made a slow sweeping gesture toward it.
Stricken eyes still held on us, Slow Alfie waded into the surf.
The moment the boy’s skin touched the pink jelly inside the great mussel it began to crawl over him, cocooning him from the airless depths to come. No doubt a smaller version of the connubial bed he would soon share with his bride.
And then we were walking away, with spines of stone and legs of wood that refused to bend at the knee but moving none-the-less, me and Old Pete in the lead, Helix and Felix and Handsome George catching us up quick. By the time we were over the first dune, we were running.
I’ve never been back to the beach. I don’t swim in swimming pools. I’ve never taken a bath and don’t care for showers. I take sponge baths in the sink.
I went back to my own house that night, back to my mum and pup as did we all, never to step foot in the Home again, our limited but highly developed skills now as useless to our new urban setting as Olympic gymnasts past their prime.
Never saw the boys again. I became a weather man. Got married. Had two sons who have never been to the beach, though they’re asking most days now. I wonder, sometimes, if they suspect.
I burned their letters the day they came. Smart lads, they will find me out, eventually. How then to confess? How do we explain about life’s bad parts to ears not yet grown large enough to admit such ponderous and unwieldy truths? Old Pete figured it out, as did our fathers before us.
As must we all, in time.
We grease the truth with