Summoner from the Depths, by Andrew Sydlik

The Glebina River runs through southwestern Pennsylvania, alongside dilapidated small towns that once thrived on mills and mines. You grow up in one of these places, you get to know the river. You see it, hear it, smell it every day. You make mud pies on its banks, take your first drink. Or you see people die.

Every year, two or three children and drunk fishermen drowned. Then there were the floods. The worst was the St. Patrick’s Day Flood of 1936, caused by freakishly warm temperatures and heavy rain. I lived through another bad one in 2004, and saw men pulled under the chaotic waters.

I moved away, hoping to forget. I became a professor at a respected New England university, thinking that I could put my disturbed past behind me.

Until today. It was noon on Saturday, but I was in my campus office. I don’t do much at home other than shower and sleep.

Someone had slipped a manila envelope under my door from Victoria Kostka. I hadn’t spoken to Vicki in years. During the flood of 2004, we had witnessed four men drown. She claimed that she had seen a creature kill them. I clung to rationality and dismissed her version of events. But since then I’ve had a deathly fear of water. I shake if I stand in the shower too long, and I’ve been known to cringe at the splash of a puddle. There is an instinctual dread that reason cannot kill—one that only grows as I write these words.

The flood came in September. We got together that day to celebrate a fellowship that would finance archival research in Massachusetts on the voluminous correspondence of an early twentieth-century author.

Despite heavy rain, Vicki arrived with two bottles of wine. She was excited for me, though sad to see me leave town—this would be my first major excursion away—and we talked excitedly for hours. Vicki had always wanted to visit Arkham’s haunted streets, and pour over musty tomes full of esoteric knowledge. I was a mundane literary historian only wanting to trace an author’s influences.

By late afternoon, we’d drained the wine and fallen asleep in our chairs. We woke to the sounds of sirens and rushing water.

I leapt up and looked out the window, amazed to see water lapping at the windowpane. The tops of cars arched like the humps of whales. Vicki heard me gasp. We watched as all manner of debris swirled past the window.

I wish I could say that I responded quickly, but Vicki was the one with presence of mind to call 911. After a short while, a small rescue boat with four men came near. One man had a bullhorn and shouted for us to come through the window.

Vicki nodded kindly at me, as if to give me strength. I remember this so well because when she turned again to the window, I watched her expression change to pale terror. As the boat pulled up, there was one loud splash. I looked out the window and saw the four men struggling in the water, being pulled away by the current.

Vicki later claimed she had seen a large, dark shape tower above the boat. She described it as a flat form, rather like a stingray, rippling up and down in the air, on top of a long neck or body about the width of a person, still partially submerged. Pink tentacles flailed from around the black head.

These appendages lashed out and grabbed the men before they could scream. Then—Vicki shuddered violently each time she recounted this–the flat form inflated like a balloon, and pulled the men into the water. She said this happened at the moment I turned to look. Within a matter of seconds, no trace of the men was left; the boat, too, was soon swept away.

It was my turn to take action as Vicki stood there in shock. I called 911 to explain what had happened. Vicki rambled incoherently until a Red Cross boat picked us up and took us to a shelter. Only then, after some hot soup and coffee, was she articulate enough to tell me her story. When I denied having seen this creature, she said that I had not been looking. When I suggested that her story sounded too strange to be true, she rebuked me with a fury I had never seen in her.

I never gave any credence to her ranting. One fact I cannot explain: I remember hearing only one splash. The falling of four men should have produced four separate splashes, unless they happened to fall at exactly the same moment—and what had made them fall in the first place?

In defiance of my fears, some force draws me here to the Miskatonic’s shores. I stare into its depths, imagining the thing Vicki saw rise and fix on me. The screech of a gull or plunk of a fish snaps me out of my reveries. I made a conscious effort to avoid those trips, but find myself returning again and again.

After the flood, nothing was the same between Vicki and me. My research resulted in a book that got me my professorship. Within two years, I said goodbye to Glebina Valley. Though of an intellect surpassing my own, Vicki never went to college, and remained behind working in the town’s small library. I made an effort to keep contacts with Glebina Valley to a minimum.

Today—curious and uneasy—I opened Vicki’s envelope, finding a hastily scrawled letter and some clippings. An article caught my eye from an encyclopedia of Slavic folklore on Ksztaltu Bóg, a Polish name that roughly translates as “God without Form.” Many of us from the Valley were Polish; yet I wondered why Vicki would include this piece of Old World mythology.

I shrugged, and set it down to read her letter:

“Dear Joshua,

“I know it’s been a while. I hope you’re well, but I don’t have time for small talk. I may not be alive by the time you get this. I’ve been trying to get someone to listen, but no one believes me. You probably won’t either, but at least you’ll have a record. I’ve tried to post about this online, but anything I write is taken down quickly. It’s the damn ‘River Rats,’ protecting the secrets of Ksztaltu Bóg. They’re respectable pillars of the community today, but long ago they were reviled by pagan tribes who despite their brutality, still had morals and a love of humankind. The River Rats want nothing less to wipe us off the planet to make way for the return of the Great Old Ones.

“Despite your skepticism, maybe you went to Miskatonic University out of some lurking fear. You might even be able to find something more about this thing than I can, with the rare books at the library.

“Ever since the flood, I’ve been trying to explain what I saw….What you swear you didn’t see. Maybe you didn’t, but I can’t forget those men flailing—and that thing that grabbed them….

“You think I’m crazy: Vicki’s disturbed way of dealing with the trauma. To you, all the deaths connected with the river are natural. Strong currents and all that. Even though the annual number of drownings here is many times the national average. To your mind, Hurricane Ivan caused the 2004 flood. You’ll laugh at my belief that it and the 1936 flood were brought on by cultists who worship an ancient creature.

“But it’s not just a creature. This thing is more than just a monstrous animal. It’s a horrible being older than humanity itself. I’d erase the truth from my mind if I could; if those River Rats don’t kill me, I fear that this knowledge will. Before you write me off as a lunatic, let me explain—”

I looked for more of Vicki’s writing, cut off in mid-page, but that was all she had sent.

Just then, my cell phone rang. It was Vicki. “Did you get the letter?” she asked. The coincidence was creepy, and I half-expected to hear her on the other side of the door, like some late-night movie stalker.

“Yes, I did. But if you want to talk, Vicki—”

Squelching and rumbling obscured her response. I asked her to repeat herself. “I said page 474!” she shouted. The phone crackled.

“I can hardly hear you! Where are you? Was that thunder?” I shouted.

“Storms…not much time…library…only hope….” The connection went dead. I dialed her number, but it went straight to voicemail. I didn’t know what to think. Had Vicki crossed over to pathological delusion? Or was she just being dramatic, trying to get me on her side, or to scare me out of spite? In the past, she’d get worked up until she got it out of her system. I decided to try her later.

The whiskey tucked away under dissertation proposals steeled me to read the remaining contents of Vicki’s envelope.

The article on Ksztaltu Bóg referred to a river god worshipped only by the most outré Slavic people. It was also known as the “Summoner from the Depths” because it could command its followers from underneath the water. It was referenced in arcane literature, but folklorists had also found it mentioned among the settlers along the Glebina. The being was said to live within rivers, amorphous in its original state (hence the name “God without Form”). But it took shape in order to kill.

I rubbed the whiskey glass against my forehead. Vicki was right: after the flood, I had dismissed her as mentally disturbed. Even before that, she was sensitive and imaginative—one of the reasons we had become friends in that dull, ignorant town. But I distanced myself from her when she talked of monsters and conspiracies.

I didn’t blame her for wanting to give the deaths of those four men some profound meaning—and I hoped she didn’t blame me for seeing only the mercilessness of nature and recklessness of man. I didn’t think her delusions were harmful, but her letter and cryptic call showed me that her ideas had turned even more elaborate and bizarre.

Vicki’s other clippings were nonsense. A newspaper article talked about her ominous “River Rats.” Once a pejorative term for the hardscrabble poor who lived in Glebina Valley, it was now a fraternal organization dedicated to charity. I had no clue how Vicki linked this with Ksztaltu Bóg until I saw her handwritten note: “Members kept young by devotion” it said, with an arrow pointing to a photo of several “River Rats.” who bore resemblance to men in photos from the 1936 flood.

She’d also included articles that Glebina Valley had received unusually heavy rainfall in the past few months. On the latest one, she’d written “Flood likely soon. Stars seem right. What happens if he rises???”

I tried Vicki’s number again. No answer. If I didn’t hear from her by evening, I thought, I’d call the police, though I had little to go on. The idea that she could be right, and was in real danger from an external source, seemed preposterous—but it was taking more and more effort to deny the possibility. Especially when I turned on the news to learn that severe storms were hitting southwestern Pennsylvania. I distracted myself by walking across campus to the main library.

Vicki had alluded to certain rare books. She probably meant the Necronomicon, about which so many deluded souls whisper in horror. But the encyclopedia article cited a less well-known tome—a Polish text called Zakazane Pisma, or Forbidden Scriptures, written in the 1500s by Dr. Egon Unruhe. Our library had one of five copies in the world, the Polish original.

Not sure what I was looking for, I opened the fragile manuscript with a wooden wedge, and carefully turned pages until I saw Ksztaltu Bóg in large, thick ink. I knew enough Polish to make a rough translation:

Ksztaltu Bóg has no form and many forms. The Summoner of the Depths lives in, and through, and is the waters. His followers have power over the elements, and from time to time call storms so that He may glut His hunger. His mass rolls like the waves, with many tentacles tipped by mouths ringed by nasty tongues. But in His true form, He is the very flowing water. His enemies have imprisoned Him in a river far away. But anyone near will take His very essence into them. They will drink Him, and He will summon those whom He sees fit. When the stars are right, He will rise, and His wrath will unleash storms that make Noah’s Flood look like light rain….

I pushed the book away in disgust, or was it fear? The text sounded like something Vicki could have written. But how did her description of the god accord so closely with a text she could not have had access to? The encyclopedia article had not given a physical description of the creature, saying only that it took form to kill. I now realized that what Vicki had claimed to have seen was not the creature’s head, but simply the end of one of its tentacles! I recalled her letter with a chill: It’s not just a creature we have to worry about. This thing is more than just a monstrous animal. Ksztaltu Bóg was in some way the Glebina River itself. A god without form, for water only takes the form of its container. When it was free, it would rise out of its banks to smother the Earth.

I suddenly realized that the jagged edges of paper next to the page I had been reading, 473, meant that someone or something had ripped out the next page. With dawning horror, I remembered Vicki’s distorted words on the phone: …page 474! Storms…not much time…library…only hope….

As I hurried out of the library, huge drops of rain began to fall. I shielded myself with my jacket. I wanted to return to the whiskey. I had tried to leave the drinking days behind me, but the past wasn’t staying past.

I thought of the recent extreme weather: Ivan, Katrina, Sandy. Temperatures absurdly hot and cold. Freak tornadoes. I always believed these phenomena could be explained by man-made global warming or sunspots. Now, I wasn’t so sure.

I’m in my office as I write this. I’ve been belting back shots since I heard that bad weather will hit New England soon. There is no hurricane this time. The announcer admits that scientists are at a loss to explain it.

I’ll stop writing now. I hear a tapping at the windows. Only rain or hail, I tell myself. I think I’ll finish this bottle before I go and check.

~~

Andrew Sydlik aspires to write better fiction, poetry, and criticism. His work has appeared in Grey Sparrow, Wordgathering, The Corner Club PressThe Holiday Café, Taproot Literary Review, The Shine JournalBewildering Stories, and the anthology Come Together, Imagine Peace, published by Bottom Dog Press. He lives in Columbus, Ohio, where he studies American literature and Disability Studies in the Ohio State University’s English PhD program.

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Posted on January 20, 2014, in Issue 12: The Shadows Only Hide the Monsters: Poe & Lovecraft Tribute and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

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