Fear is primal. Instinctive. Unavoidable. And right now, there is something you fear—and you can feel it. Creeping up behind you. Lurking in the darkness that lives under your bed, or in your closet. A nameless dread.
In Undercurrents: An Anthology of What Lies Beneath, twenty-three talented authors, including New York Times bestsellers Kevin J. Anderson, Rebecca Moesta, and Jody Lynn Nye, have stood on the shores of their psyches and looked out over the ocean of possibility and wondered "What lies beneath?"
The sea creatures and sea monsters that answered their calls range from a giant kraken that rules the deepest ocean to the smallest puffer fish that creates intricate works of underwater art. Creatures of classic mythology—mermaids, sirens, and sea serpents—swim alongside more unusual beasts—underwater cats and singing whirlpools. These stories dive deep into the fears many of us face, including loss, abandonment, death, and physical, mental, or emotional danger. When the fears we keep buried beneath the surface rise up and threaten to consume, we must make a choice: conquer or be conquered.
This anthology is the fourth volume produced by the alumni of the Superstars Writing Seminar, and all proceeds benefit the Don Hodge Memorial Scholarship Fund.
"Undercurrents, an aptly named anthology, uses tales of the sea, some familiar to readers and some entirely original, to explore the discovery of the unknown. With contributions by so many talented authors, readers of all ages are sure to find several stories they can easily relate to."– Amazon Review
"Another stellar anthology from Word Fire Press and Editor Lisa Mangum. It is everything you'd expect and so much more. Great stories, a wide variety of genres and exciting tales. Highly recommend this."– Amazon Review
"Anthologies are like an expansive buffet. You can try a little of this, take a bite of that, and always return for seconds of those dishes you loved. And every once in a while you find a buffet where everything is good! Undercurrents is just such a feast. Each story deliciously stands on its own, but together they form a most satisfying read."– Amazon Review
Kevin J. Anderson
The man held everyone's attention as he shouted into the milling, familiar chaos of the harbor, forcefully waving the stump of his right hand. For reasons I would always regret later, I stopped to listen.
"I have been sent here by the captain of the Sea Wind, a three-masted lateener lying at anchor in your beautiful harbor of Lisbon!" His voice was hoarse and gravelly, as if from too much shouting in his life. He stood tall on an old wooden crate, flanked by two burly seamen in fine sailing clothes, canvas trousers, striped shirts. The smell of salt breezes and fish stalls hung heavy around us. Many merchants and dockworkers flowed around the obstacle, wrapped in their own business, but others paused to hear what the man had to say.
"The captain bids me to tell you that the Sea Wind is now taking on crewmembers for a voyage of discovery. We need twenty brave young men, and we will pay well."
Francis, my older brother, pulled me with him as he pushed through the loose crowd, weaving our way closer to the man on the crate, our own task forgotten. I held two mended iron hoops in my hand, fresh from the blacksmith, which our father needed for a barrel he was making. I knew we were expected back at the cooper shop promptly, and I tried to tell Francis, but he told me to hold my words. Only a few people were actually listening to the man.
"Where are you sailing?" an unkempt man called out, lounging against an empty cart with a broken wheel.
The man with the stump turned toward the question. "We shall sail westward to the newly discovered island of Madeira, a paradise with jungles, flowers and fruits, and birds the colors of jewels! Then we sail southward along the coast of Africa to rich ports and lands unknown, perhaps even to the kingdom of Prester John himself!" He wobbled on the old crate. "Our own Prince Henry commanded us to discover the world—"
"Prince Henry himself commissioned your ship?" Francis scoffed.
The man smiled uncomfortably, turning to gaze down at my brother. The two burly sailors did not seem amused by the challenge. "The prince gave all men the task of exploring the seas, boy. Not two years ago, his own Squire Eannes successfully rounded Cape Bojador in Africa—what was once thought to be Hell itself, where men are black as charcoal because they stand so close to the sun, and the ground is a burning lake of sand! Eannes brought back tales of vast lands farther south—and the Sea Wind will go beyond, mark my words! To lands of untold riches—pearls as big as your fist, more gold than our ship can carry!"
He looked directly at Francis, pointing with the raw pink end of his stump. "Do you remember the stories of Marco Polo? Of the exotic places he visited, the adventures he had? Would you like to see lands never before beheld by the eyes of Christian men?" He paused and lowered his voice, adding fervor to his words. "Would you like to sail with us on the Sea Wind?"
The man made me uncomfortable, but Francis's eyes were glittering. He had caught the fever. I tugged on my brother's sleeve, but he stammered out, "How long … how long do I have to decide?"
"The Sea Wind will set sail in four days, but we intend to gather the crew today. Are you interested, boy? Can you write your name?"
I don't know which question my brother was answering. I was afraid for him, but Francis looked so sure of himself. One of the burly sailors handed him a stained piece of paper and a quill. Francis refused to meet my gaze and carefully wrote his name. Grandfather had shown him how to write it—Grandfather's name was Francis, too—but the old man couldn't show me how to write my name, since he had never seen what "Stefan" looked like.
The man from the Sea Wind smiled congratulations at my brother and rested his stump on his hip as if to say he would have shaken Francis's hand had he been able.
The iron barrel hoops in my hand had grown very heavy.
* * *
In the cooper shop, Father turned back to his work, away from Francis, struggling to quell his anger. His voice was gruff. "You can't go. You are my oldest son. I need you here." He began to arrange the staves for the barrel.
Francis wouldn't let his dreams be broken so easily. He gestured to me, even though I wanted no part of this. "Stefan knows how to do the work as well as I do—he can carry on! I am going, Father. This is what I want to do, to sail the seas and see the world. I'm old enough now." He paused, still waiting for Father to look at him, to face him. "Don't make me run away from home."
With a tired, defeated sigh, Father let the curved staves fall together with a flat clatter and stood up, abandoning the work. "How long?" He drew a deep breath, looking down at the barrel and then at me as if I were part of a conspiracy. "How long will you be gone?"
Francis seemed to fight back a smile, knowing he had won. "Maybe a year, no more. We'll sail down the coast of Africa, maybe even find a passage to India. I'll bring back more riches than we've ever had!"
Father wasn't as angry as I had thought he would be. Instead, he seemed resigned to the fact, as if he had been expecting this to come any day now, knowing his son's restlessness as well as anyone.
"If you're going to be gone for a year, then you'd better at least help me finish this barrel."
* * *
Francis breathed in awe as he stared at the Sea Wind lying at anchor in the harbor. "Look at her! Oh, just look at her." We sat on the wharf as the late afternoon sun turned golden heading toward the distant watery horizon. The waves brushed against the docks. The air was heavy with screaming gulls and the salty scent of the sea.
The masts of all the ships were like a forest on the water. The city of Lisbon stumbled downward from the surrounding hills like a staircase into the Tagus River where it met the ocean, forming a calm, sheltered harbor at its mouth. The Sea Wind rocked gently in the sleepy water, giving us a peek at the line of scum and barnacles crusted below the waterline. She was a magnificent ship, one of the largest in port—seventy feet from bow to stern—and could comfortably hold thirty men on a long voyage.
She had three raked masts, fitted with wide triangular lateen sails rippling in the wind, brushing against the spiderweb of rigging that entwined the ship. The Sea Wind's hull was also finely decorated as an exploring ship should be to bear the pride of Portugal and Prince Henry the Navigator throughout the oceans. Her railing was painted gold, as was the stem, embellished with ornate feathers and curls.
Francis wrapped his arms around his knees as he sat, marveling at the ship he would call home for the next year, but I could see that wonder blinded his eyes. I knew my brother didn't notice that the gold paint on the railing was peeling and scarred by the graffiti carved there by other sailors. The ship creaked more than it should have in the gentle wash of waves, and the hull looked as if it might have shipworm. I squinted against the sun, and I could make out that the sails had been patched several times. The thick layers of barnacles at the waterline showed that the Sea Wind had been in the water a long time.
The wind picked up, and the ship creaked. "Francis, what if you don't come back?"
"I'll come back."
"But you'll be out on the ocean, alone! Everyone knows about the sea monsters just waiting to prey on sailing ships. What if you sail off the edge of the world? You're going where no other vessel has sailed before."
Francis turned away from the ship, looking at me with scorn, but I could see the fear behind his eyes. "Stefan, somebody has to go. Somebody has to show the way, somebody has to dream. I talked to other sailors—the Sea Wind has voyaged south once before, but they thought they could never make it past Cape Bojador. They told me terrible stories of the bleak desert that pokes its finger into the sea, making the water dirty brown with sand and so shallow that the keel scrapes the bottom even twenty miles offshore. And they told me of barren cliffs of sandstone without so much as a weed growing on them. That was the edge of the world."
He blinked, then swallowed hard to drive away his anxiety. "Or so they thought. So we thought! Until Squire Eannes rounded the Cape, and came back to say there was more of Africa beyond … and more, and more! It wasn't the edge of the world—instead, it might be a gateway to India! Somebody's got to go—you know that."
I saw a strange expression on my brother's face, not just a sadness, but an actual pity for me. "You wouldn't understand. You were always content with the excitement of Lisbon, with helping Father make his barrels, but you know I've always wanted to go to sea, how I've stared at the ships, heard the sailors' stories. I have to go. I don't have any choice."
Even though less than a year separated us in age, he seemed infinitely older than me. "I'll miss you, Francis."
"I'll miss you, too."
* * *
One candle in the corner guttered badly, flashing shadows like moths around the room, randomly switching the patches of light and darkness, but it was getting late and we would extinguish the candle soon anyway. Francis wanted to be in bed early, for the next morning he would board the Sea Wind, but I didn't see how he could sleep this night of all nights. I would be lying awake myself.
Mother had already tucked our little brother Matteo into his basket of straw, supposedly to sleep, but the toddler could sense the tension in the air, and his bright eyes watched as our family sat together in uncomfortable silence.
Father brooded by himself, not looking at Francis. I honestly didn't know if he approved or disapproved, if he were angry or sad.
Mother stared at Francis, as if she needed to say something but found it impossible to speak. Her fingers played nervously with a loose thread in her faded dress. Her dark hair was drawn back into a braid that was becoming undone, rampant hairs protruding wildly to shine in the uncertain candlelight.
"Francis …" Her voice sounded uncertain. "We love you."
My brother obviously didn't know how to reply. On the other side of the room, little Matteo began bouncing up and down, shouting in his tiny voice.
"How long until I'm old enough? I want to go on a ship, too! I want to go with Francis!" When Mother ran to the child, she was crying.
After a long moment, Francis met Grandfather's gaze. The old man sat in his chair, the one he rarely left except when he helped Father in the cooper shop. He was not yet too old to work. Grandfather spoke softly, which forced Francis to sit beside him in order to hear his words. I followed my brother, wanting to stay by him for every minute we had left together.
"Francis, you have talked with the other sailors?" the old man said in a raspy voice. "You know what awaits you … out there? In the unknown?"
Everyone in our family knew the story. As a boy, Grandfather had wanted to embark on a similar voyage, but before the ship had even left Lisbon harbor, he had tangled his hand in one of the winch ropes, crushing it, and was forced to return home without seeing the sea as he had hoped. Perhaps the old man now looked at Francis with envy, because he had a chance to make the voyage Grandfather had never been able to do.
Francis had gotten good at his show of bravery. "I've heard stories of the abyss at the edge of the world where horrible creatures wait to devour unfortunate sailors. Of the great sea serpents and sirens and—"
"And the kraken? Have you been warned of the kraken?" The fearful look on Grandfather's face said that he would refuse to tell the story, whether or not my brother had heard it.
Francis looked up into the shadows where the walls met the ceiling, lost in his own imagining. "They say that when you are out there, and the sea turns dark, and the sky turns darker—you'll know. You'll know when the kraken has come, veiled in storms. And when the wind whistles through your rigging and tears at the sails, when the water foams and seethes—you'll know."
Grandfather pushed his face closer to Francis's. "And when black tentacles thick as a mainmast rise out of the water to wrap around your ship and crush it as if it were straw, and when the kraken drags you under, screaming, to feed his children—you'll know. And you won't ever return, Francis, but your bones will keep him company far beneath the sea, alone forever—for the kraken can never die."
Francis looked nervously around the room.
Grandfather sounded forlorn. "And we will wait for you here, a year, maybe two, before we will know what has become of you, Francis."
"Oh, Francis!" I gasped, drawing a breath which was cold with shadows. The candlelight seemed dimmer than before.
A different light came into Grandfather's eyes. "But I know that no stories can change your mind. When that sea wind blows, you must follow it. You must go to the sea, answer your dreams. I know. There is no other way."
Francis smiled, undeterred. "You understand." He turned to look at Father, then back at the old man. "You understand."
* * *
Life was lonely without Francis.
He had left the morning before, looking both excited and afraid waving from the side rails as the Sea Wind set sail away from Lisbon and out to sea. My older brother had been by me ever since I could remember, to talk with, to dream with.
And now I was alone.
Our small bedroom was dark, and the air was humid and filled with the raw scent of the wood slats Father soaked for his barrels. Light rain trickled against the whitewashed walls of our house overlooking the harbor. Faint echoes of thunder rumbled in the distance.
Francis was gone, in distant waters.
Little Matteo cried in the corner, frightened by the storm. I heard Mother comforting him, whispering, "It's just rain. The storm won't hurt you—it's far away. The storm is far, far out at sea."
The storm was out at sea.
I lay on my straw tick mattress, damp with sweat and rain mist, and I knew I would waste my time trying to sleep for a while yet. Silently, I crept to the window and moved aside the canvas curtain, cut from an old sail, so I could peer into the night. Ricocheting raindrops glistened on my face.
The cobblestoned streets were wet, reflecting distant flashes of lightning. The other buildings, every one of them a white box with narrow windows decked with flowers, perched on the steep levels of the city. I could barely make out the dark water of the harbor, and I certainly couldn't see the ocean. But the storm was out there, and so was Francis.
Is the sea dark now, Francis? And is the sky filled with storm clouds even darker? Does the wind sing through the rigging and tear at the sails? Does the white foam boil against the side of the ship and crash on the deck? Is that roar of thunder your cry for help?
I could picture him standing at the rail, his knuckles white and his fingers gripping the peeling gold carvings scarred by graffiti, trying to hold himself steady against the screaming wind and crashing waves, peering down into the dark sea, pale with terror and waiting for the black tentacles of the kraken to reach up and smash the Sea Wind.
Will you ever return to us?
* * *
Days later I walked alone on the beach, far from the harbor. As if the storm had never been, the sun beat down to strike away my sweat. I wandered down the shore, looking for shells, for flotsam, for treasure. By myself.
The greatest loneliness was past now, and I was learning to be Stefan, instead of "Francis's brother." Father had begun to teach me what I needed to know as a cooper, and I was already becoming more independent. When Francis came back from his voyage, I might even be ready to embark on an adventure of my own.
But I would wait for my brother. I would wait to hear his stories, the sights he had seen and the perils he had survived. Mother was already asking sailors from newly arrived ships if they had any news of the Sea Wind and when it would return. I could be patient and wait for Francis, though I would miss him.
The sun glared on the water, but I shaded my eyes and saw a dark shape floating toward the beach, a piece of driftwood. I watched it bob along for a few moments and finally, when patience deserted me, I waded out to retrieve it.
I stood with warm water lapping about my waist, soaking into my coarse shirt. I looked at the wood.
It was a piece of wreckage, part of a ship, probably the splintered remnant of a rail. I turned it over, but in my heart, I already knew.
Peeling gold paint, scratched and obscured by sailors' graffiti.
The ocean made soft rushing noises, and I stared at the rail for a long time. Many ships had the same design, many ships could have shed that piece of wood—but I had no doubt.
Mother would continue to wait, day after day, for some word, watching for the Sea Wind to return. How long would she wait?
I let the driftwood slip back into the water, and I pushed it away from shore. I knew I wouldn't tell her. For all she knew, all any of us knew, the Sea Wind was still out sailing to marvelous, unknown places.
I turned and walked back toward the beach, washing the flecks of gold paint from my hands.
* * *