Artwork for podcast The Pen Is...
...Exploring the Eerie
Episode 914th July 2021 • The Pen Is... • Ana & Hana
00:00:00 00:26:47

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First up, a correction: This episode talks about a fish with a light on its head that it uses to lure unsuspecting victims, but that fish is called a lanternfish here when it is in fact an anglerfish *facepalm*. Many sincere thanks to Hana's brother-in-law Cody for the correction AND the incredible artwork for this episode. (Check out @cpburke.nvartwork on Instagram for more of his artwork.) Hana shares a scary story she wrote based on her fear of the deepest, darkest recesses of the ocean. She and Ana discuss her writing process, beginning with the initial inspiration that shaped her tale and moving into how she refined the tone and why she made particular stylistic choices. Plus, the scary story author's ultimate fear: is my story scary enough?

Originally recorded on October 11, 2020.

The Lanternfish

Olivia wasn’t sure what first drew her eye to the girl on the veranda, but once she glanced over, the scarf drew her in. It was a beautiful goldenrod with a pattern of ruby-colored fish on it and it hugged the girl’s neck like a glowing, silky living thing. Olivia smiled slightly, the universal sign for opening a conversation with a stranger and the girl waved her in through the gate.

It was her first week in this new town and she was enjoying the solitude of her nightly walks, getting to know her neighbors at a distance, through brightly lit windows, before she’d start greeting them in person as a new librarian. As much as she enjoyed wandering through the stacks of books, breathing in the smell of paper and binding glue, she tolerated the need to interact with the public as a necessary part of her job, but not an attractive one.

She hesitated a moment with her hand on the gate knob, then turned it and walked into the long garden that led to the small house set back from the road in the embrace of a sea of weeping willows. Normally, approaching a stranger to strike up a conversation was something Olivia would do only under duress, but the girl looked so friendly and unthreatening. And there was something about her outfit that was magnetic. The jewel-toned scarf was the crowning piece, but her buttery yellow dress and crimson sweater were somehow both soft yet impeccably tailored, and her green pumps showed off her dainty feet.

“Good evening, it appears that you’re enjoying our uncommonly fine autumn weather as much as I.” The girl’s voice was bright and musical, none of the annoyingly chipper tones of the busybody mothers one found in a town this size, nor the wistful sighs of the other spinsters Olivia was lumped in with at community potlucks and town hall meetings. Yet it also sounded a bit...old-fashioned was the only word she could think of. Indeed, her style seemed a bit outdated, yet somehow timeless and classic. From a distance, Olivia had thought she was young, but from closer, she had almost an ageless appearance. A woman, not a girl.

“Yes, I always like to go for a stroll in the evenings as long as the weather permits. I’m Olivia, I’m new to town,” she said as she continued up the garden walk. A thought skittered across the back of her mind that the house itself was surprisingly shabby, especially in contrast to the vision of color and elegance the woman presents, but it all faded into the background, the house and the thought. Nearer the house, a refreshing whiff of sweet but salty air chased the mustiness of the evening away, reminding Olivia of her childhood summers by the sea. 

“Lovely to meet you, Olivia, I don’t receive many visits from neighbors so this is an undeniable treat! My name is Marina.” The woman stepped back to where she had been sitting and gestured to Olivia to join her. “May I get you something to drink? I’ve been savoring my nightly mug of tea now that the heat of summer has passed us by.”

When Olivia said that she would very much like some hot tea, she expected that Marina would go into the house to get it, but instead she reached for a teapot on the side table, wrapped in a cozy to keep its contents hot, and poured the steaming amber liquid into a fresh mug.

The two of them sat there, companionably enjoying the sunset and the sounds and smells of the earth as night approached. Marina was effortlessly charming and warm, the type of person who you feel you’ve known forever. Olivia felt herself drawn out of her customary shell bit by bit as they talked. 

Or rather, she talked. As she was walking back home in the remnants of twilight, Olivia realized that she had hardly learned anything about Marina beyond her name. Instead, she had found herself telling her own little life story, eager to entertain this woman who made her feel equally funny and charming. It was a bit intoxicating, having such an attentive and eager listener. Strange that someone with an effervescent personality lived in a small, rundown cottage that was so set apart from her neighbors, like some beautifully colored fish hiding alone in the dark crevices of dead coral. Olivia tried to remember if she’d even noticed the house when she first moved to the neighborhood, but it all became a bit of a blur as she fell asleep, grateful to have made a friend.

The next few days were a whirlwind of activity, meeting the head librarian, filling out paperwork, learning the layout of the library and the idiosyncrasies of some of the town regulars. Every evening, she was too worn out from the events of the day to take her walks, falling into bed as soon as she had changed into her nightgown and brushed her teeth. She had almost forgotten about her enjoyable evening with Marina, especially as her introverted nature asserted itself outside of work.

After two exhausting weeks, Olivia found one evening that she still had some energy after a day of reshelving books and reminding schoolchildren to pay their late fines. The sun was still shining through the wavy haze of autumn and she was enjoying the crunch of a few dried leaves under her shoes when she walked past the silvery-grey wood fence. She hadn’t consciously walked this way, in fact she’d almost forgotten about Marina entirely, but there she was again, wearing the same beautiful goldenrod and crimson outfit with the beautiful silk scarf shining softly at her neck, drinking her tea and waving Olivia in to join her. Olivia opened the silvery grey gate and walked down the winding path to the porch, with its paint peeling off the rails and worn wooden floorboards. As they began to talk, she was grateful for the warmth of her tea. Sitting in the shade of the willows and feeling the cold begin to pool around her, she realized she had left her own sweater behind, lured by the warmth of the sun.

“Oh that’s no problem dear, I have quite the collection of cardigans. It won’t take but a moment,” Marina said, cutting off any protest Olivia might have. Indeed, faster than she would have thought possible, Marina was back with a beautifully soft sweater, this one a sunny lemon color. It fit perfectly and bathed her in warmth and softness, with none of the scratchiness of wool.

Again, as before, they sat and enjoyed the onset of twilight. Olivia had first thought to ask Marina about the town, their neighbors, to get an insider’s perspective on things she couldn’t ask her supervisor. And yet, somehow she found herself again talking about her passion for writing, her love of solitary activities like reading, knitting, and gardening. For the first time, she didn’t feel judged for her reclusiveness and desire to escape from the expectations of society. In fact, Marina seemed pleased by this, her wide eyes shining when Olivia told her that she had no close immediate family or friends and preferred the company of her books to most people.

As she rose to go home, Olivia began to take the cardigan off to give back to Marina, but the woman waved her hand and shook her head, saying, “Please, consider it a gift. I would be honored if you’d take it. You can consider it your veranda sweater, something to keep you warm for our evening chats!”

Olivia thanked her profusely for the lovely gift and made her way home through the murky evening air. As she was drifting off to sleep, she had a fleeting thought that none of her neighbors or library patrons had mentioned Marina to her in their gossip of townspeople. It was almost as if she existed in a different world, but the thought dissipated like a bit of seafoam tossed among waves.

As the weeks passed and fall turned trees gradually into plumes of rust, pumpkin, and honey-colored leaves, Olivia developed a routine of stopping by to visit with Marina. At first once or twice a week, she found that she enjoyed Marina’s companionship so much that she began to spend four, then five evenings on the veranda, surrounded by the gently waving tendrils of weeping willow. There was something captivating about the woman and Olivia felt flattered that she seemed always happy to see her and interested in her life. And she was so generous - one evening Olivia walked up to see that there was a dress laying across the wicker chair she normally sat in.

“Try it on,” Marina said, excitedly. “I was going through old outfits and found this one that I think would fit you just right and the color suits you so well!” Indeed, the garnet color was lovely, as vibrant as Marina’s own, ever-present crimson cardigan and the silk scarf that almost seemed lit from within with its golden glow. Despite Olivia protesting that she couldn’t take such an obviously well-made dress, Marina made her promise to at least take it home and try it on. “Wear it to our next veranda chat,” she said, with a gracious air, “It would make me so happy to see it on you, you have the perfect figure to show it off.” 

Another time, as Olivia was walking up Marina’s drooping porch stairs, some knothole or nail must have caught at her shoe heel, tripping her. She managed to catch herself on the railing to avoid turning her ankle, but her shoe was not so lucky. As she sat in her chair holding the shoe in one hand and the broken heel in the other, Marina said, as if it had just occurred to her, “I might have a pair of shoes to lend you!” 

As always, it seemed to be just a split second that she was gone from the porch, returning with a pair of graceful blue pumps, much like her green ones. Olivia had been sure that her feet were much larger than Marina’s, but she must have been mistaken, because the shoes fit as though they were made for her. At this point, she had gotten so used to Marina’s desire to give that she was quick to accept the shoes as a gift. It was funny, the same spot in the steps never seemed to catch her heel wearing the blue shoes after that evening, even when she was sure she’d stepped in the same spot. She almost felt a sense of welcome and comfort from the house as she spent her evenings there, the enchanting smell of the sea air that lingered mysteriously there enveloping her in its arms.

These chats had become the bright spot of Olivia’s days, relieving the tedium of days at the library and giving her something besides reading and knitting to pass the time. It was a bit odd, though, that Marina never invited her inside the house itself, and occasionally her brain would note something odd - the disrepair of the house and garden, Marina’s appearance never varying, not a hair out of place and always the same outfit and that beautiful scarf, her ability to always direct conversation away from herself, the fact that she seemed to have no interactions with other townspeople. But these thoughts always came in the space between waking and sleep and were quickly forgotten, like messages written in the sand being wiped away by wave after wave.

The leaves were starting to fall in masses from the branches, leaving behind clean, bare forms ready for a deep sleep in the dark stillness of winter and the eventual reawakening and green new growth the following spring. Olivia found herself humming a Christmas carol as she cleaned up her small apartment and dressed in the beautiful clothes Marina had given her - rich garnet dress, bright lemony sweater, satiny blue shoes. She’d even begun patterning her hairstyle on Marina’s, a wavy low chignon that, like everything else about the woman, was somehow both outdated and timeless. Everything fit like a dream and she almost felt like skipping as she walked through the crisp late-fall air. Marina had said she had something special to show Olivia and her eyes had lit up when she said it, indicating it must be something quite exciting indeed.

Olivia walked up the garden path, her eyes focused on Marina, who seemed to somehow be even more beautiful than usual, her eyes luminous and hair glistening with a lustrous sheen. The gorgeous silken scarf at her neck waved slightly, though Olivia felt no breeze. She skipped up the steps and sat in her usual spot.

Once she’d settled, Marina leaned forward and gave Olivia a white box with a beautiful red velvet bow on it. She untied the bow and opened the box to reveal a luxurious silk scarf, a mirror image of the one Marina always wore, ruby-colored silk with golden fish scattered across it. 

“It’s so beautiful,” Olivia murmured as she drew it out of the box, staring at it. Indeed, she couldn’t tear her eyes from it.

“Try it on! It will look lovely with your outfit,” Marina said, breathing rapidly with excitement and anticipation. “I’ll tie it around you, just like mine.” She reached out to loop it around Olivia’s neck and Olivia felt a slight movement, as though the scarf were winding itself around her.

Suddenly, she felt the house shift around her and an ominous creak came from the front door, open as always. She felt the scarf begin to tighten around her neck and started the pull at it with her hands, saying to Marina “Please, I think it’s a bit too tight—ouch!”

Her words were cut off in a yelp as the wooden floorboards of the porch slid toward the front door, carrying her and Marina with them. Once they were inside, the door shut with an ominous crack, as of jaws snapping shut. Olivia barely noticed the completely bare space, the lack of human presence as she felt something pierce the base of her skull and begin to send tentacles crawling down her spine, cutting off her yell of pain. Her eyes open wide and mouth gaping like a fish, she stared at Marina, who began to shrivel and shrink, her life’s essence being drained from her. As her vibrant colors faded, she whispered to Olivia, “I’m sorry, it’s been too many years of this life...I needed to find someone to take my I can finally rest...forever.” Her eyes drifted shut and the papery skin and brittle bones crumbled, turning into a cloud of grey dust. In the span of minutes, there was nothing more of her but the satiny scarf that had so enchanted Olivia from their first meeting.

The twin of that one writhed around Olivia’s neck as its tendrils wound their way into her flesh. She realized that she could feel it pulsing inside her body and head, linking her to the living, breathing house. The cavernous empty space around her was slightly illuminated, the faint glow coming from her, she realized. As she felt the house secure its hold on her body and the final threads of scarf reached their fingers into her brain, she felt the screaming voice of terror in her head quiet. No longer would she worry about moving to a new town, dealing with cranky patrons, washing her dishes. From now on, the scarf tied her mentally and physically to this house, sleeping away a long winter of digesting, perhaps for many years, lying in wait for the next tasty morsel to walk by the garden gate...