By Peter Viele
The gilded grey heron, kissed by the last glimmer of failing sun over the longleaf pines and live oaks of the mainland, soared silently across my bow and over the reeds of the marsh searching for prey in the ebbing tide. He found his final meal of the day scurrying just above the strandline. The ghost crab writhed in his clutches, unable to escape his fate upon being snatched by the bird’s stealth. The heron returned to the perch of my dock and dismembered the poor crustacean.
Looking closely enough, one can see all manner of creature grappling for survival here in my winding, salt creek. That is, on most days.
The humidity of the day persisted until I got to planing speed out of the neck of my creek and onto the Intracoastal Waterway. The respite of airflow cooled my frustration as I accelerated.
It was my wedding anniversary: June 13. And, in lieu of standard date-night fare, my wife and I decided on an easy beach day with our young daughter over on our beloved Masonboro Island, followed by a bottle of wine and a movie night in.
Just across the water lay the unspoiled treasure of our own barrier island. Masonboro was always the primary choice for beach days despite myriad options within a short distance of our home. Sugary sand, virgin dunes, no cars and no buildings. The natural playground plays host to surfers, shell collectors, kayakers and boaters all seeking the same unspoiled experience. Getting to Masonboro Island was like going on a mini-adventure in and of itself. But with children, it was an expedition.
It was a lovely day of leisurely exploration and loafing about, finding only a few beachgoers in our own private section of the island. The southwest breeze that pervades much of the summertime days here kept the day comfortable as we played in the pristine, emerald green water. It had been a full day of salt and sun.
Yet, here I found myself returning to the island at 8:30 at night. I had demanded that my daughter double-check to make sure she had collected all her toys before making the Sahara-like trek back across the island to the boat at the end of the day. I would go on ahead to load up and get the engine running. She trailed behind with her mother. “Scruffy,” her precious stuffed sleep-time buddy, who wasn’t supposed to be coming to the beach in the first place, had stowed away. He never made it back on board.
Being the lovingly willing — and begrudging — father, I was now returning to search for the cherished Scruffy on the island. “Never leave a man behind!” I declared to my daughter as I tucked her in just earlier this evening, promising that I would return him safely after she was fast asleep.
I took notice of the now-apparent stillness as I cut across the Intracoastal, leaving the channel. It was odd. I had an unexplainable, unnerving sensation at the quiet. The final living creature I had witnessed was now surely settling soundly back at my dock after his crab buffet. There were no more boats left speeding about, and the wind had disappeared completely.
I sped past the channel markers that usually housed pelicans or cormorants — no one was home this evening. Out past the inlet and rock jetties, far out into the ocean, it looked like a front might be nearing. To my back, the sun had set. Pulling back the throttle as I neared the cove at Masonboro Island, as to not run aground in the ever-changing sand-spit that had begun to enclose the harbor, I slowly tilted the propeller up and motored into my usual nook just behind the jetty. Neighbors were turning on their lights, and the street lamps clicked into place as I looked over my shoulder across the inlet back to Wrightsville Beach. There was no moon. It was getting dark.
Setting the anchor was a careful business, as the last thing I wanted was to be dry-docked, at night, on my anniversary. The tide was swift and merciless and was still an hour from being fully low. I grabbed my trusty Maglite flashlight from the boat, hopped into waist-deep water and slowly did the “stingray shuffle” to shore. I found our trail and scanned back and forth for any sign of our fleece-lined — and now surely sand-filled — stowaway. No trace. The quiet disturbed me. No oystercatchers cackling. No black skimmers stalking the low sky. Even the cicadas and miserable horseflies seemed to have left for the evening.
I was still only midway across the island when, all of a sudden, the surf began to roar. The ocean had been all but flat the entire day with no systems to produce waves in the near-term forecast. June rarely brings anything more than a lapping of 1-foot side-shore ripples. The peculiarity of waves arriving suddenly and without source piqued my interest as I backtracked to our encampment from earlier in the day.
There they were, 6-foot waves, crashing into the sand, materializing from some phantasmic, unknown source. I only managed a faint sight of them from the final strand of sun rays collapsing behind me. A mysterious and foreboding fog bank was rolling in behind the waves and ushered in an immediately chilling drop in temperature.
I stood dumbfounded at the crest of the dune. I was back overlooking our daytime spot from my summit, where only a couple of hours earlier our beach chairs and wares were splayed about, roasting in the afternoon sun. I refocused and pressed the button of my flashlight containing fresh batteries. It illuminated the scene brightly where now only footprints and a crumbling sandcastle remained.
Piercing the night, a blood-curdling scream let out in the darkness from the obscured sea. My neck hairs jolted into defense, and I panned the flashlight in the direction of the cry. It sounded like a woman. My light flickered and went out completely. Oh, no; I could make out an outline crawling from the waves. It was a woman in an extravagant white dress! I could see her now as plain as day, and I rushed to her aide. She was pulling herself out on all fours, dragging herself from the sea’s grasp.
“What in the world?!” I thought aloud. “Ma’am! I’m coming!” I yelled to her, running to her side.
Reaching for her hand she ignored my behest to assist.
“Ma’am! Ma’am!” She continued to ignore me. ‘I mean, I’m trying to help you here,’ I thought.
She extended her hand to the beach behind me, reaching for someone, when another hand appeared from the darkness to her rescue. It was an older gentleman, in drenched, very archaic-looking formal wear. He appeared behind me from nowhere. There had been no one on the beach, to my knowledge, let alone a man with massive sideburns that connected to his mustache.
“Sir, what’s going on here?” I emphatically inquired with my heart racing. He was just as rude as his female counterpart that he just fished out of the ocean, ignoring me as well.
Then more appeared. Fully clothed, trudging their regal — and soaking wet — fine evening wear out of the waves and onto the dry sand of Masonboro Island. ‘Were they on one of those turn-of- the-century murder-mystery cruises or something?’ I wondered. I was perplexed. Not a word was uttered, only faint moaning and wailing that grew louder. My senses told me that things were not as they appeared, but I could not help but to continue to stare as though I was watching a train wreck.
The rough-hewn visage of another gentleman exiting the turbulent ocean revealed as he neared; not that he was unhandsome — he was stricken with a grievous affliction! The gore oozed from his face and the air was rife with putrefaction, not unlike a gutted fish that was baked in the sun for a couple of days. My jaw dropped in astonished horror as the fractal light cast upon them by the sliver of the moon told the full measure of their tale — they were all terrifyingly injured and dying. Limbs missing, gashes, contusions, but mostly, severe burns. My stomach turned.
“Wha . . . what happened? Who are you? Wha . . . what is going on?” My questions remained unanswered as I walked through the crowd of trauma.
Collectively, they made their way to drier sand following one of the fellow injured gentlemen carrying a now-illuminated oil lantern. His unique facial hair also seemed to be from some other time — a full white beard, but no mustache. The spectral procession continued behind the lantern toward the dunes. I lost count of how many of them there were, and none would even make eye contact with me. Women, men . . . children. Shock overwhelmed my faculties. My eyes must have been betraying me.
A shimmering object glimmered brightly from the water just beyond where I was standing, diverted and entranced my attention from the spectacle. A clue to this ruination, perhaps? Just beneath the surface of the water lay a coin; I kneeled down to inspect it, as if hypnotized, as the whitewater waves rolled between my knees. It was a lovely mint coin with some sort of crest and the date of 1838.
I turned to shout at the strangers, “Hey!” when a large plank of wood washed in, bouncing off of my legs, knocking me over into the water. I stood back up and composed myself. It appeared to be a chunk of a ship transom with large capital letters emblazoned in gold leaf. I made out PULASKI. “Pulaski?” I thought aloud as I read it.
Then I recalled where I had heard that name before. The Charlotte Observer had just published an article about a steamship named Pulaski that had disembarked Charleston, headed for Boston, and sank 40 miles off the coast of southeastern North Carolina — taking with it some 100 souls.
The shipwreck had been recently found by divers. ‘That’s right!’ I thought. It happened on the night of . . . June . . . 13th . . . 1838. I swallowed my reckoning with an audible gulp and slowly turned to the apparitions who were now convalescing in the dunes above the main trail back to the cove. I could hear their chatter. They were afraid. But I, more so.
I clenched the coin and turned to the jetty to make a silent escape, following the rocks back to the cove to avoid them. A firm skeletal grasp seized my arm. I froze in terror as I turned to find a disembodied arm reaching from a cloud, which had crept up on and was now engulfing me. An open palm of bone and ragged, decayed flesh slowly advanced. The coin I was clutching began to wildly shake, but not from the cause of my trembling hand. My instinct compelled me to place the coin in the rotten flesh. Clasping shut around the treasure, the hand receded into the mist and I was freed.
I took my freedom and ran as fast as my feet would carry me in the direction of the jetty. I knew it would take me back to my boat despite not being able to see 3 feet in front of my face. I only turned back to make sure I wasn’t being followed. I could only make out a faintly glowing orb at the center of the illuminated silhouettes of the dead.
Tripping over my feet in the pillowy, soft sand next to rocks and heart beating out of my chest, I fought against my own fatigue for survival. I had to get off of Masonboro Island. Finally reaching the cove, my little 19-foot skiff was not where I had anchored it. It was loose, and beginning to be sucked beyond the harbor. Then, my eyes caught Scruffy. He had been at the trail entrance all along. Impossibly, I missed him on the first pass.
Annoyed, I nabbed the infernal snuggle buddy and darted as fast as I could through the knee-deep water, praying not to encounter a stingray — nor another specter — and lunged for my boat. Pulling myself aboard, I attempted to weigh anchor, only to find that my line had been cut. I was beginning to drift out into the treacherous Masonboro Inlet. Surfers, stand-up paddlers and kayakers attempt the passage regularly but as any local will tell you, you don’t want to be caught paddling across the inlet when the tide is sucking out to sea, particularly on a new moon.
I couldn’t get my keys out of my pocket fast enough. I fumbled them onto the deck, retrieved them, inserted them and turned the ignition, but did not find the usually gratifying hum. Nothing. The tide continued its interminable pull away from land. I was scared, frightened actually. Drifting rapidly out of Masonboro Inlet, I weighed my options in my racing, frantic mind. Do I jump and swim for the jetty? Scream for help? Blow my neon orange, $2.99 whistle? I never stepped foot on my boat without my cellphone, but in a hasty exit from the house for this unplanned quick trip, I had left it on my kitchen counter. I couldn’t think. I didn’t want to attract unwanted attention from the collection of the damned that I was now parallel with on the beach. Nor did I want to suffer their same fate with no engine, no phone and no anchor. Panic was setting in. There would be no one coming to tow me back home.
I looked back down at my controls and tried to calm myself. That’s when I noticed my throttle was engaged forward. No wonder! I put the throttle back in neutral and tried to crank the engine one last time. Salvation! The four-stroke didn’t let me down this time. Punching the throttle forward, I sped toward land. I considered stopping by the Coast Guard station at the south end of Wrightsville but I was too afraid to stop until I made it back to my dock. I looked over my shoulder every few seconds only to find a billow of mist reaching for me.
I blew through the No Wake Zone sign, twisting my skiff through my winding channel like I was a getaway driver, nearly running aground as I scraped the oyster beds that flanked my narrow passage. I slammed into my dock, stepped over the disemboweled remnants of the crab from earlier and tied off. There was no time for such frivolity as raising my prop, tying off properly nor any of my other typical, overly obsessive procedures. I ran for my bike and rode through the corridor of live oaks and creeping Spanish moss on the gravel and dirt road back to my house under the fading moonlight as fast as I could. The fog had now made landfall.
Exploding through my front door, “Babe, you are not going to believe . . . ”
“Shhh. What took you so long? I started the movie already and
. . . I ate all of the popcorn too,” my wife replied, aloof to my plight. She was watching John Carpenter’s 1980 classic, The Fog, a movie that scared me to death as a child. Great, I thought. I was in my own horror movie.
I rushed to the windows to confirm that nothing had followed me home. I breathed a sigh of relief. The aberrant shroud seemed to have lifted and the stars were shining again. I attempted to reconcile what I had just witnessed on the beach side of my favorite island. It couldn’t be what my mind demanded it to be. Reaffirming myself that I was no longer in danger, my heart began to slow down. I was safe inside my home with my girls.
Dusting off Scruffy, I decided to complete my mission. Upon sneaking into my daughter’s room, I tucked him safely between her sleeping arms, with her unaware of what he was just a party to. All was well. I crept out, unintentionally creaking the door hinge, waking her.
“You’re my hero, Daddy! Was he scared?”
“Yes, baby, but he’s home safe now.”
I kissed her on her forehead, thankful that we were healthy and alive.
I walked out, and picked up my useless phone that still lay dormant. I thumbed through search engine results of “Pulaski Shipwreck” and confirmed my encounter. The salvage divers working the June 13th, 1838 wreck site had also confirmed that what they encountered was the Pulaski — just off of our coast. Then, I pondered the families that suffered such a horrible fate on the Pulaski shipwreck almost 200 years ago and my heart sank with them. I got to see them tonight, still wandering, still traumatized, still afraid. It turns out that the people on the Pulaski steamship were mostly affluent Southern dignitaries. Yet, no amount of money could have saved them from their fate. I knew they would have given it all away to see their loved ones one last time.
Joining my wife on the couch, I asked, “Can we watch something else?”
I don’t know what happened on this June 13th. Was it my imagination? A hallucination into another plane of existence? An illusion projected from my own fears from watching horror movies at too young of an age? I don’t know. Call them ghosts. Call them lost souls. Call my encounter whatever you want. But one thing is for sure, come next June 13th, we’ll be celebrating our anniversary somewhere in downtown Wilmington, way across town. Come to think of it, maybe we’ll just head to Asheville to celebrate instead.
Peter Viele is a writer and editor who lives in Wilmington. An avid surfer, he has just completed a murder-mystery novel set amid pharmaceutical corruption in Spain.