Sunday, January 11, 2015

"Strange Grotto of Death" by Ellen Lynn

Strange Grotto of Death
Ellen Lynn

"Will you sign the register here, sir?"

The proprietor of the River's Edge Inn, near old New Orleans, smiled cordially and introduced himself to me: "I am Harvey Toren." We shook hands and I told him I was Gary Allen. He seemed about thirty—four or five years older than I. We talked quite a while, before I was shown to my room. He seemed a pleasant chap and I felt I would enjoy my stay.

Early the next morning when I left the Inn, for the river, Harvey Toren was nowhere around. Outside there was a hot, rosy haze over everything—even over the lush, green foliage. I walked quickly in the morning stillness, when I was startled by a sound behind me. Turning, I saw an old woman—a toothless hag—leaning on a stick.

"What Y' doin', young fella?" she croaked.

"Going fishing," I answered.

"Don't go swimmin'!" she warned. "There's a man-eatin' alligator in the river."

When I laughed off her fears, assuring her I could handle myself in the water, she became angry.

"Fool!" she cried out. "Two men have been killed by that 'gator this past year! But I warned ya!" Aand she walked into the shrubs, disappearing from sight as mysteriously as she had come.

I was wearing swimming trunks under my slacks, and I slipped out of my clothes, leaving them by the trunk of a tree at the river's edge. The water was misty green; it looked cool and inviting. The air was weirdly still, but a sudden rippling on the water made me stare hard, as I remembered the old hag's warning. Then the surface turned calm—nothing appeared—but I decided not to swim; I'd use one of the canoes belonging to the Inn.

Drifting in the tropical waters, I almost dozed in the humid heat, the air acting like a drug on my senses, when I was startled by a jolt. Abruptly awakened to full awareness, I was horrified to see the saw-edged jaws of an alligator widely agape moving closer to the flimsy canoe. I broke out into a cold sweat and raised my paddle, hoping I could strike a hard enough blow between its eyes at least to stun the 'gator. As its deadly jaws clamped over the side of the canoe, I struck a wild blow and felt myself being hurled into the water. There was a sharp sting on my head and in the flash of a moment, as I blacked out, I saw myself carried bodily between the tremendous jaws of the river beast; I saw the upper teeth coming down upon me and froze stiff—as I went into a faint.

I opened my eyes in a world of aquamarine and rose hues. Was I dead? No. Something was dragging my arm and I was floating on my back. My head felt light and giddy. I turned it and saw, incredibly, a beautiful girl, her long, yellow hair floating behind her. Her white arm was linked in mine and she was strongly and gracefully drawing me through the water. We stopped at the entrance to a grotto, and holding my hand she led me inside. It was a luxuriously furnished room, a blue fire burning brightly in the hearth. In front of the fireplace a table was set for two and we both sat down to eat. Facing her, I studied her exquisite beauty. Our eyes met, and she smiled a sad, enchanting smile. Vaguely I wondered how she and I could be living, breathing in a grotto under the river, but those thoughts never lingered long. Vaguely, I wondered, too, how I got here and why she scarcely spoke. Yet I wasn't too curious; I was content. Suddenly she said:

"I am Lana. I brought you here to my home."

"I thought the alligator had killed me. My name is Gary Allen," I replied.

"You are to stay here and help me with my work. I collect the largest and most beautiful pearls from bi-valves. Come with me."

We swam together some distance from the Grotto where the water was a darker green and much colder. Glimmering through some strange-looking, enormous fronds was a huge pile of the most lustrous, opalescent pearls anyone could possibly imagine. Together we sat cutting open the bi-valves, extracting the pearls and adding them to the pile.

Time passed in the under-water Eden. Day after day, though I lost track of time, we pursued the delightful occupation of collecting these gorgeous pearls, swimming together in unbelievably beautiful waters, eating of strange and delicious foods. One day the lovely Lana stood close to me and twined her white arms around my neck. The blood raced to my head as I kissed her cool lips. We held each other tight, happy in this wild, unworldly love. But suddenly she turned away.

"Darling," she said, "you must leave this place; you must return to the upper world—without delay."

"But, sweet," I protested, "I love you. I want to stay here with you forever."

An odd expression came over her face. Quickly, she grabbed my arm, entwining hers through it and with powerful strokes pulled me up, up. We ascended rapidly through the dark waters when I felt my arm released. I looked back and saw my beautiful Lana swimming rapidly away under the waters.
I lay on the grass, under the glaring sun. There was the tree and my clothes still lying at the roots. Full of the thought of Lana, my love for her and the strange, happy life I had led with her under the river, I went back to the Inn. Harvey, the Innkeeper had spied me from the windows and came rushing toward me. He asked dozens of questions; they had given me up as lost—another victim of the man-eating alligator. The overturned canoe had been found far down the river.

Over a drink I told my fantastic story. I described the beautiful Lana and told Harvey of my love, and how she sent me away so hurriedly. His face blanched and he gasped, "Lana! What are you telling me? You're dreaming. This whole story is a figment of your imagination. You must have heard the story of Lana, who drowned herself in the river a year ago, after I killed her sweetheart in a duel. She never forgave me. When you were hurt this fantasy arose in your mind."

I was becoming convinced by Harvey's version, when I glanced down at my fingers. They were clutching a wet scarf. Slowly I opened out the silken square and recognized it as one of Lana's—which she often wore around her long hair! At the same time, Harvey yelled—"Where did you get that scarf? It was—Lana's!" There was a breathless silence between us as we stared at each other. It was clear that Harvey was beginning to wonder about my story—Could it be true?

That evening we both went in swimming trunks down to the river's edge. Wordlessly we got into a canoe and paddled to the spot that I remembered encountering the alligator. In his belt, Harvey had placed a sharp-bladed dagger. I stood up and dove into the water; Harvey, the dagger between his teeth, followed after me. We struggled down, down—when I spied the Grotto. There swimming back and forth in front of the entrance was the alligator! Then it saw us coming. The tail swished angrily, churning up a white foam. Its eyes fell on me and then turned on Harvey. At once it made a terrific lunge toward him and a wild struggle between man and beast began. I tried desperately to come to Harvey's aid but that mighty tail kept twisting around and brushing me off as though I were a fly on a sleeve. I saw Harvey thrust his cruel dagger between the eyes of the monster—and then, to my horror, the mad 'gator clamped his jaws down on Harvey—breaking his spine.

I thought my turn was next. I wanted to swim away from that grotto—fast. But then the monster became still. Death had come to it, or so I thought. But incredibly, suddenly the alligator seemed to disintegrate, disappear and in its place guarding the grotto was a familiar figure. It had the long yellow hair, the white skin and arms and legs of—Lana—now cold with long death. She seemed to be smiling, with a strange satisfaction.

Quickly I left that place of eerie beauty and death.