The Gorge of Children
short story in The Beauty of Death 2 – Death by Water
Independent Legions Publishing, 2017
Honorable Mention for The Gorge of Children
in Ellen Datlow’s The Best Horror of the Year, vol.10
Following the success of The Beauty of Death (2016 Stoker Award-nominated anthology), this new, water-themed installment of the gargantuan book of horror tales gathers an astonishing array of international authors, including Clive Barker, Peter Straub, Caitlìn R. Kiernan, Ramsey Campbell, John Langan, Edward Lee, and many other top horror writers.
2017 Bram Stoker Award nominee, Anthology category
2017 This is Horror Award nominee, Anthology of the year category
From the back cover
In each of these stories from some of greatest writers of horror and dark fiction, water plays the dual role of accomplice and executioner. With accidental drownings, irresistible calls of sirens from the deep, strange whisperings from household plumbing, faces of the dead in droplets of water, rabid fish, leviathan monsters, and more, these thirty-nine tales of death by water will make you think twice about taking that long-awaited cruise, going for a midnight swim, or taking your next shower.
Joanna Parypinski, Lucy Taylor, Dona Fox, Eric J. Guignard, Lucy Snyder, Stephen Gregory, Daniel Braum, Simon Bestwick, Peter Straub, Lisa Mannetti, Daniele Bonfanti, Ramsey Campbell, Gregory L. Norris, Michael Bailey, Marge Simon, Caitlín R. Kiernan, Frazer Lee, Paolo Di Orazio, Dennis Etchison, John Palisano, Brian Evenson, Michael Hanson, Edward Lee, Tim Waggoner, Gene O’Neill, Jonah Buck, David J. Schow, Anthony Watson, Bruce Boston, Michael A. Arnzen, Adam Nevill, John Langan, Alessandro Manzetti, Clive Barker, Lisa Morton, Jodi Renée Lester, Jeremy Megargee, Nicola Lombardi, Adam Millard.
Edited by Alessandro Manzetti & Jodi Renée Lester
My story: The Gorge of Children
Four friends bonded by a deep passion for adventure — four kayakers. A virgin Alpine rapid. One of the few places on the surface of this planet where nobody’s ever been. An ancient place of horrific human sacrifices. Children to placate the river god.
They go in with hearts pumping and adrenaline flowing. They come out shocked, strange. Changed.
And then the deaths begin…
Spring – Aosta Valley
The river is born from a vertical chasm in the wall of the glacier, like silver blood pouring out of a gash. Thick water out of darkness through the shimmer of the sun on the green ice and into the light of a cloudless Alpine sky. It is four meters wide here, but it will grow, fast and hungry, as it feeds on all the streams cascading down the steep walls of the valley.
Two kayaks are already in the water, a big man with jughead ears and a woman with wavy blonde hair escaping her helmet: both warm up lazily, ferrying smoothly through the creases to the other shore, or paddling upstream in the narrow near-bank eddy, then elegantly peeling off into the current with firm, high-bracing strokes, to hop downstream five or six waves and spin back into the eddy.
Together with a tall man in civilian clothes, camera strapped across his chest, a third paddler is lingering on the stony bank with his tomato-red creek boat—a Burn III with the airbrushed logo of his sponsor Zermatt Watches—on his shoulder, and his black, carbon fiber paddle held in his other hand like a lance. He closes his brown eyes, slowly inhaling the breeze caressing his curly hair—the sun on his face, the voice of the water rustling in his ears. When he opens them again, he looks at the photographer and smiles.
“You should be on the water with us, mate. You would have home-field advantage, too.” Pleasant, measured cockney accent; tenor voice.
The answer is deadpan: “And who would drive the van?”
The kayaker chuckles. “Come on—you, me, Léa, and Iancu! We’re like the four fuckin’ knights of the Apocalypse, aren’t we?”
“You’ll have to content yourself with the Three Musketeers today, Sean.”
Sean squeezes his eyes. “Ha. And what about D’Artagnan?” Then raises an eyebrow, “Really, Cedric. You’re missing out on this one. It will be great.”
“I’m sure, but I told you: I don’t do that shit anymore, not after the Congo…I’ve got family.”
“Well, me too.”
“As a matter of fact, you used to. Then guess what? Your knockout fashion model wife left you with Mister Safety and your baby son—who calls him dad, if I’m not mistaken—’cause she cried her onyx black eyes out all night long each time you were out on an expedition, waiting for that call.”
“Thanks for the memo. Ever the friend.”
“No problem, you can always count on me.”
Sean quietly shakes his head. “Anyway…come on. One of the few places on the surface of this planet where nobody’s ever been. And it’s right there,” he vaguely hints downriver with his chin. “Doesn’t that make you hard?”
Cedric shrugs. “A little, yes.”
“And it’s not that dangerous; you know it.”
“One hundred percent is a pretty high body count for a rapid, in my book.”
“Two is a pretty low number in mine. They were both unprepared and had poor timing. Perhaps they were just unlucky, too. Anyway, they weren’t us.”
“Still. You have no idea what you’ll find in there. Could be a siphon big enough to swallow you and your boat whole. Not even your Swiss sponsor is going to pull you out from there, you know? Could be anything. And I can’t afford a risk like that.”
“You’re exaggerating. You saw it. It’s just the Elbow, you can’t really see that turn and…Oh, right, we had this argument already.”
“Twice,” he smiles. He pounds a hand on Sean’s paddle shoulder, causing the action-cam–rigged helmet dangling from his hand to swing a little. “Go. I’ll be right there with this when you exit the gorge,” he lovingly pats his Leica. “Remember to say ‘cheese.’ I’ll do my best to make you presentable. Luckily, you have Léa in the party, so at least some pictures will be nice.” He squeezes his shoulder. “And be careful, man.”
“Don’t worry, mate, child’s play. After all, it is called the Gorge of Children, isn’t it?”
Cedric squints, deep crow’s feet carved by wind and sun. “You know why it’s actually called that, right?”
“Come to think of it, no. Graceful name, though.”
“Too bad it’s because they used to make human sacrifices there. Child sacrifices.”
“You’re shitting me.”
“I can’t believe you didn’t know. It was half the reason ADAM bought my story in advance.”
“Oh. And the other half were the magic words ‘Sean Williams,’ right?”
“More like the words ‘first integral descent of the Dora de Pulaz, including the fucking Elbow.’ ”
“You know you’re a crappy person, right? My very worst friend.” He smiles, showing large, white, slightly uneven teeth. “Anyway, children?”
“Yep. They were—”
“Sean!” It is Léa, calling from the river, her voice throaty. “So? Shitting your pants?”
Sean turns to answer her, widening his smile even more, “No, it’s just our dear Cedric here is telling me only now that we may meet the ghosts of dead children in there.”
Her eyebrows rise over wide, green, almond-shaped eyes. “Fuck, man, you didn’t know?”
He shrugs. Then he looks back at Cedric with inquiring eyes.
And Cedric says, “Nobody wants to see Léa angry, so, the short version: before Augustus conquered and enslaved them, there was a tribe called the Salassi here in the Aosta Valley, one of the last to hold out against Roman domination. Tough guys. Well, this river was a god in their pantheon, and the gorge was its number one place of worship. The town of Pre de Pulaz, just beyond the gorge, is built upon the ruins of a Salassi village; you can still see some of them, I’ll take you, it’s interesting stuff. Aulo Murena, the Roman general who led the conquest, wrote that they believed the god’s core resided in the gorge, and they had to present him with a gift each spring equinox if they wanted to keep him content and prevent him from getting out and laying waste to the village. Prosaically, it was probably related to their fear of spring overflows. Yet, you know what those gifts were…”
“Yep. According to Aulo Murena, they had to give the god ‘a son’ each spring.”
“Sean!” Léa, again.
“Coming, coming!” and he quietly moves in her direction, looking back once just to say, “See you there, mate.”
* * *