Dark Water is one of eight short stories from Home, the sixth collection from P.J. Blakey-Novis, now available for Kindle, in paperback, and on Audible here.
We’d ended up in Romania almost by accident. There was finally an end in sight to the damn pandemic and global travel options were starting to open up. After more than two years without a break away, Martha and I took a fortnight off work and caught a train to the airport with just a backpack each. Financially, the pandemic had been a blessing with little to spend any money on, so we knew we could pretty much go wherever we wanted. The idea was to head to Gatwick and get on whichever flight was leaving next. This happened to be Bucharest.
We boarded that flight with a mixture of excitement and nervousness. We had no accommodation booked, no knowledge of the country at all, and no idea what to expect. Martha could sense my trepidation but put my mind at ease – she was good like that.
“We can just mooch about for a day or two and if we don’t like it we’ll fly somewhere else.”
I nodded, knowing she was right but not wanting to spend the whole fortnight on planes looking for the best places. “We’ll see,” I replied. “I’m sure there will be plenty to do.” I wasn’t wrong. Bucharest was impressive, with outstanding architecture and plenty of boutique shops and eateries. It wasn’t until the third day that we started looking at trips further afield.
We skipped the guided walks around the city, certain we’d seen everything by that point, but we did book ticket for the Ghosts & Vampires Tour on that evening. It was as expected but still enjoyable as we joined another ten tourists for a walk around supposedly haunted locations in the centre of the city, guided by an enthusiastic Romanian man wearing a vampire-style cape. When the tour was over, he handed me a leaflet with details of the 12-hour trip to see Dracula’s Castle.
“We can’t come all the way here and not visit the castle,” Martha said, and I knew she was right. She’d said the same thing in Venice about the gondola trip.
“We’ll go back in the morning and book it,” I told her. “It’s getting late and I’m hungry.” We stopped at a small pub which was only a few doors along from the hotel we were staying at, having been there for lunch when we’d first arrived. I didn’t know what anything on the menu was, but the beer was cheap and we’d had some local soup last time. That’s where we meant Florin.
He was slouched at the bar, almost looking like a part of the furniture. I didn’t pay him any attention until he spoke, sensing my difficulty in selecting a local drink to sample. He pointed out a strange looking bottle covered in dust. “Try that, my friend. Good, local,” Florin said in broken English. I didn’t like the look of the drink but ordered two anyway in an attempt to be polite. “English?” he asked, and I nodded. “Seeing the sights?” I could see I wouldn’t get away without speaking.
“We’ve been around the city and we’ll probably take a trip to Dracula’s Castle. Is there anywhere else you’d recommend?”
“Bigar Falls,” he said after a moment’s thought. “It’s waterfall. Very pretty, very romantic.” He grinned at this last part, his eyes flicking towards Martha.
“Sounds nice,” I replied. “Do they run tours from the city?”
“Yes, but much money. They take advantage, take too much money.”
“Well, that’s to be expected. These trips always cost a lot.”
“I take you tomorrow, much cheaper in my car. Tourist trips only go in daytime. Waterfall better at night.”
I didn’t know how to respond so I told him I’d talk to Martha and see what she thought. I expected her to say no, that she’d feel safer through a proper tour operator, but she didn’t. “Sounds good to me, more authentic. He probably just wants to make some money and it’ll cost us less. And if it’s nicer there after dark…”
All I could think about were horror films where Western tourists get kidnapped and harvested for organs, but I pushed it out my mind as best I could. Just movies, I told myself. As it turned out, Martha was right. Florin was just looking to make a bit of money for beer by driving us out to the falls.
The journey was several hours and we didn’t leave until early evening. I’m sure Florin had been drinking before we left but decided not to say anything, worried about making the journey awkward. It wasn’t long before we were out of the city and onto darkened country lanes, unable to see anything but the gravel roads illuminated by the car’s headlights. I wondered how much of the waterfall we’d be able to see in the darkness but had assumed it would be lit up if it was a tourist attraction.
I was right about the lighting but I’d expected to see other people. Florin stopped the car and the waterfall was visible from where we were, maybe two hundred metres away. We all needed a toilet break but the public ones designed for the tour groups were now locked so we had to find a spot in the darkness to relieve ourselves, Martha included.
“How close can you get?” Martha asked, gazing upon the impressive falls. It was huge, falling around an enormous, moss-covered rock the size of a large house. Pastel coloured spotlights had been installed just above the surface level of the river below, sending sparkling shards of light through the misty water.
“There is pathway, like bridge. It goes through waterfall. Right inside,” Florin told us. We followed as he clicked on a torch and began walking along the darkened path.
“Are we allowed to be here?” I asked, not so much worried about Florin but concerned we were trespassing and would end up in a Romanian jail.
“Of course! Public place, yes? Natural, not owned.” He had a point but the gate at the end of the boardwalk suggested otherwise, a large padlock holding it firmly locked. Florin didn’t seem fazed, pulling a metal contraption from his pocket and fiddling with the padlock. I heard it click open and looked at Martha, unable to hide my trepidation.
She shrugged and whispered in my ear. “Live a little,” she ordered, before pulling me by the hand and following Florin along the bridge. At the entrance to the waterfall, we all darted through the sheet of water, trying not to get soaked through before the long trip back. Inside, it was incredible. It was probably the most wonderful place we had ever been to – the water falling around us was, unexpectedly, almost silent, the air smelled sweet, and it felt comfortably warmer that outside of that special place.
Florin stood grinning. “I give you some time, maybe half hour? Then we return. Is that enough?” I thought about it and, as beautiful as the place was, there wasn’t all that much to do.
“Ok,” I nodded.
“You two have good time, yeah?” Florin said as he darted back through to the bridge and I knew exactly what he thought Martha and I would be doing. Truth be told, I hadn’t even considered it but making love under this waterfall did sound like an excellent idea. I took Martha’s hand, moving in to kiss her, but she was hesitant. “He’s probably watching,” she said. “You know if it was safe then I’d be more than happy to. But the thought of him sitting in his car with binoculars in one hand and his dick in the other is quite off-putting.”
I sighed. “I very much doubt that’s what he’s doing, but I know what you mean.” I sat myself down on the damp rock, water falling to both sides as well as ahead, and Martha joined me. “It really is lovely.”
“Yes,” she smiled, nestling her head on my shoulder. We sat for a while, snuggled and content, before Martha glanced at her watch. “Shit, it’s been forty minutes.”
I pulled myself up with a groan, stretching my back and cursing my lack of exercise during the pandemic. Hand-in-hand, we rushed through the chilly water and back on to the bridge. Martha was in front of me so reached the gate first. She pushed but it didn’t move. She shoved harder. Nothing. Gently, I pulled her back to allow me access. Thumping the gate, all I could hear was the rattle of the padlock. Fencing had been added to both sides of the gate which I’m certain wasn’t there when we entered. Although it didn’t look impossible, it would not be easy to climb it and the river below now seemed malevolent, angry, and hungry.
“Florin!” Martha shouted. Silence. “What do we do?” she asked, turning to me.
I placed my arms around her. “Fucking scammer,” I muttered. We’d paid Florin for the round trip and he’d clearly thought it hilarious to shut us in and abandon us. “Not a lot we can do. Either we try to force the gate, climb around it, or we wait until someone comes.”
Martha looked down into the darkness of the river. “Climbing is dangerous. We’ll just have to stick it out until morning and explain what happened. I don’t think we’ll be in trouble, they’ll just put it down to stupid tourists and send us back to the hotel.”
I gave the gate a few hard kicks but nothing gave. The hour was late and we were many miles from Bucharest. Even if we could get through the gate, I was unsure we’d be any better off. The thought of roaming the countryside of a unknown place made me nervous, especially knowing we were too far from the hotel to simply walk back. At least there would be people arriving here in the morning, all we could do would be to make the most of it, enjoy the beauty of the waterfall and try to ignore the swirling river below us.
Huddled in that damp space, clothing wet, a chill creeping into my bones, it took all my effort to remain upbeat. This could be quite romantic, and certainly a memorable event, but I was convinced the sounds of the river were growing louder. It had been barely noticeable when we’d arrived, like strolling past a stream. Now, Martha struggled to make herself heard, even with her mouth so close to my face.
Eventually, despite the discomfort and noise, we fell into a fitful sleep on the cold stone floor. I couldn’t say how long I had slept but two things were immediately obvious when I did awaken – the river was quiet, babbling gently below, and Martha was gone. It took a fraction of a second to realise this – the area in which we had slept was too small for me to simply not notice her, and the bridge was empty. I leapt to my feet, heart hammering, and raced along to the gate. My hope, of course, was that she had found a way to open it, but I was unable to fathom why she would have left me there. The gate was as it had been when we fell asleep – cold, defiant, immovable.
A wave of nausea hit me as I glanced down into the murky water below. Down was the only other way to go, the only way Martha could have gone. But why? How? And, most importantly, where was she now? I weighed up my options, not liking any of them. I certainly was not keen on the idea of jumping down to the river, unsure if I’d even survive the leap. I reasoned that my best bet would be to try to climb the security fence – if I fell then I’d end up in the river anyway, but if I made it then I’d find another way down there, for Martha surely had to be nearby. The current wasn’t strong anymore, perhaps she had injured herself falling and needed my help.
I negotiated the fence with less difficulty than I’d expected, always underestimating my own physical strength and now cursing myself for not climbing it in the first place. Maybe it would have been futile, maybe Martha would not have managed it safely, and where would we even had gone? I followed the path quickly, finding myself back where Florin had parked the car. I felt that same surge of panic as I saw it, the car still where it had been left. He hasn’t left us here, I realised. This only led to more nightmarish thoughts running through my head as I understood something must have happened to him.
“Florin!” I yelled. “Martha!” Silence. Cautiously, I approached the car, testing the driver’s door. Locked. Cupping my hands against the window, I peered in. Nothing. I spun around trying to find a way down to the river and noticed a small clearing next to an information post. Breaking into a jog, I headed towards the opening in the bushes but something on the sign caught my eye. Under the weak moonlight, the text was difficult to make out, but the images were not. Perhaps it was the glimpse of flesh that caught the attention of my male brain, the naked breasts in the image calling out to me. The sign had no text in English, so it didn’t matter about the darkness. What it did contain were two images – on the left was a stereotypical mermaid, a pretty, topless woman with the tail of a fish. The image on the right reminded me of the movie Gremlins; the mermaid was there again but the skin looked mottled, grey breasts hung limply to her waist, her face riddled with pus and her mouth filled with dagger-sharp teeth.
I shook my head before hurrying to the riverbank. I stumbled in the dark, tripping on branches and other detritus. I scanned up and down, unable to see anything that would help. I turned to my right and began walking, my eyes moving between the surface of the river and the ground before me. If I could find Florin then great, but Martha was my priority. I decided that directly beneath the waterfall would be a logical place to start looking.
It was as I passed beneath the footbridge that I tripped again, this time landing on the damp grass. I turned, instinctively, to see what I’d fallen over. At first glance it looked like a thick branch, so I began to look away from it. Something caught in the light, a reflection of moonlight hitting the end of the item. Still on my knees, I moved a little closer, catching the reflection again. The golden light bounced from the ring, the chunky, eighteen karat piece of metal that Florin had been wearing on his right index finger. I crawled a few inches further to see that the ring was still on Florin’s finger, a finger still attached to Florin’s hand which, in turn, was still attached to what I thought was a branch. The arm, however, was no longer a part of Florin, wherever he may be. I vomited.
This new knowledge flooded my brain in a fraction of second; Florin hadn’t left us, something was out there, Martha is undeniably in danger, if she’s even still alive. I focussed my hunt on Martha but knew I’d have to look for the rest of Florin’s body, if only to locate the keys to his car. I pulled myself to my weak legs and took a few unsteady steps forward, scanning the riverbank, the water’s surface, the rocks which rose to the area we had slept on. Nothing. I called out, only to be met by silence.
I wandered the edge of the river for what felt like hours, back and forth, seeing nothing. I debated giving up, my grief beginning to pull at me as the inevitable clawed at my mind. As if from nowhere, a song pierced the silence. Hypnotic, alluring, sinister. The tune could not be ignored, as much as my mind screamed no. If I left, tried to make a run for it, I’d always wonder if that was her, if I could have saved Martha. I couldn’t bring myself to abandon her, despite the fear gnawing at me. I followed the sound as it echoed within the trees and off the rocks, trying desperately to find its origin. Before too long, I found myself at the base of the waterfall once again. The song was louder here, clear within the darkness. What had begun as only a tune now contained words. I couldn’t understand them all and I presumed they were in the local language, but something stood out, two words that I was all too familiar with – my name.
“Martha!” I called out again. “Is that you?” A stirring on the surface caught my eye, ripples forming. I was frozen to the spot as something began to rise from the water. Hair, long and flowing despite the wetness, a face, instantly recognisable. That smile, one I’d kissed goodnight every evening for years, greeted me. “Martha?” I said again, this time with confusion. She did not speak and it became clear the tune wasn’t coming from her. She swam towards me and I had no doubts it was her. My first thought was a mix of optimism and hope – perhaps she had climbed down to the river while I slept, choosing to go for a moonlit swim. Not that it explained the dismembered arm, but it gave me some hope, even if that was to be short-lived.
A couple of feet from the riverbank she stopped, rising far enough out of the water for me to see her naked breasts. She motioned with her head for me to join her before swimming out further. “You come to me,” I said. “Something happened to Florin, we need to find his keys and get out of here.” Martha bobbed in the water, still smiling but offering no reply. I didn’t know what to do – I couldn’t leave her there, but I had no intention of getting in the water. I pleaded, begged, even sobbed. Martha would not come to me, just smiling insanely as the tune continued to float around us.
“Then I’m leaving,” I said. “I’ll find the keys and get help. I just want you to come out of the water.” Martha looked as though she were considering my words, deciding if I was bluffing or not. In truth, I didn’t know if I’d actually leave her like that, alone and naked in a strange place. There was an almost imperceptible nod from her before she began swimming towards me once more. I breathed a sigh of relief, stretching my arms out to help her climb the bank. There was no need to offer assistance.
Within seconds she was on me, having thrust her muscular tail and launched herself onto the land. It took a moment for my brain to process what I was seeing as the beautiful face of my lover turned pale and grotesque. The smile remained, but as the lips parted, the razor-sharp teeth from the image I’d seen earlier came into view. As I felt the skin on my neck tear open and I could only wonder if this abomination was actually Martha or if I’d been tricked by an illusion. I’d never find out.