Daily Prompt: Fishing: The Phantom Fisherman

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via Daily Prompt: Fishing

In the small town of Cedar bay, ghost sightings were common place.  Families passed down stories of local haunts through the generations.  Hardly anyone, whose family was rooted in the town, was unaware of the tales spun by the locals.  The summer of nineteen ninety-three, when I was sixteen, I had decided to stay with my grandparents. My parents had been having some trouble in their marriage and it was my hope that if they had some time alone, they could rekindle their relationship and we could once more be the loving and caring family that we used to be.

At the south end of town, far from the bustle of Main Street and the town’s many small family businesses, was an old reservoir and public park surrounded by huge cedar trees for which the town was so aptly named.  The reservoir was a popular site for fishing, either along the banks, or, if you had a boat, near the damn where the water was deeper and the fish in greater supply. Those not interested in fishing could picnic in the park, or swim in the more shallow areas of the lake.  As a teenager I loved to swim and I loved swimming at the reservoir because I found a private little cove that was shielded from the rest of the lake behind a bank of trees. Every morning after breakfast I would put on my swim suit, pack a small bag to take with me, hug my grandparent’s good-bye, and then head out for my private swimming hole.  I’d stay most of the day, eat a small lunch that I had packed, and then head back to the house before dinner.

One afternoon while I was swimming, a teenage boy, and his younger brother spotted me as they were walking through the woods looking for arrowheads.  They came over to the bank and called out to me.  I was very shy back then, didn’t have many friends, and was a bit self conscious about anyone seeing me in my swim suit.  I stayed in the water, hidden as best I could, hoping that the boys would think I couldn’t hear them and move on.  The older boy stepped out onto an old log and called out to me again. “Hey, girl!” He said, cupping his hands around his mouth. “What are you doing here?”

I moved in a little closer, bending my knees so that water concealed me up to my chin. “What does it look like I’m doing?” I answered him.

He gave me an irritated look and dropped his hands to his sides.  “I mean, what are you doing swimming here? No one comes here.  You’d be better off swimming someplace closer to the park where people can see you.”

“I’m a good swimmer.” I told the boy, trying to reassure him. “You don’t need to worry about me.”

“You should worry about yourself.” The boy said.  “If old man Marshall finds you, it won’t matter how well you can swim.” The boy stepped off the log and motioned to his younger brother.  “If I were you, I’d get out of here before it gets dark.” He called out to me as he walked away. “That’s when old man Marshall comes out.”

The boys left me with a bewildered feeling.  Who was old man Marshall? As far as I knew this part of the lake was town property so I couldn’t be accused of trespassing, and if this “old man Marshall” did show up how dangerous could he be? Cedar bay was a quiet little town with a very low crime rate. Most of the residents knew each other and looked out for each other.  If there was some crazy old man wandering the woods hurting kids I was sure that my grandparents would have warned me about him.

I tried to dismiss the boys warning, figuring that they were just trying to scare me.  As the afternoon faded away into early evening, uneasiness settled over me. Old man Marshall comes out when it gets dark. What was that supposed to mean, and who was old man Marshall? It was getting late and I had to head back home anyway, my grandmother would have dinner ready soon and I wanted to help set the table.  I swam to the bank and climbed out of the water.  I dried myself off quickly, slipped my shorts on over my bathing suit, slid into my sandals, grabbed my bag, and hurried out of there.

The sun was going down and my heart was racing.  I had started walking at a fast pace which eventually broke into a panicked run.  I was angry at that boy for scaring me so, and angry with myself for allowing it. My heart stopped racing when I reached the main road. In ten minutes I would be back safe and sound in my grandparent’s house eating meatloaf and mashed potatoes, and listening to my grandfather telling us how his day at work went.

As anticipated, my grandmother was just getting the meatloaf out of the oven when I walked through the door.  I tossed my bag on the floor next to the front door then went into the kitchen, grabbed the plates my grandmother had set out and proceeded to set the table.  “Change out of that wet swim suit before we eat.” She told me. I nodded to her and then headed upstairs after I had finished setting the table.

My grandfather was already at the table when I came back down stairs.  My grandmother dished up his food from the stove and then set his plate down in front of him.  I picked up my own plate so that I could serve myself like I normally always do. It’s customary in my family to dish your food out from the pans set on the stove top.  That’s how my grandparents did its and had apparently passed onto my mother because it’s how we did it at home too.

I sat down next to my grandfather and my grandmother took her seat across from him.  He was already giving her a detailed account of how his day went.  My grandfather was the foreman in a factory that he’s worked at since he graduated high school.  He started out sweeping floors and over the years worked his way up the latter to where he was now.  He told us about a new big order that they had gotten for car parts and how some of the workers were complaining about the over time they were going to have to do to fill the order in time.  He went on talking about the goings on of the day but I wasn’t paying much attention to him. My mind went back to the two boys I had encountered and their warning about old man Marshall.  I stabbed at my meatloaf as the conversation I’d had with the teen played over and over again in my head.  I didn’t even realize at first that my grandmother was addressing me.  I looked up, almost in a daze. “Huh?” I responded to her.

“How was your day?” She asked me again. “Did you have fun?”

I nodded as I stuffed a fork full of meatloaf into my mouth.  “Ummhmm.” I mumbled through a mouth full of food.  I swallowed then set my fork down.  “I met a couple boys today.” I told her.  “One was my age and I think the other one was his younger brother. They were in the woods near the spot I was swimming in.  I didn’t even notice them at first until I heard the younger boy say something about finding arrowheads.”

“Did they find any?” My grandfather asked me. I shrugged.  “They didn’t say.”

“I found quite a few of them in those words when I was a boy.” He said between bites. “There used to be an Indian village out by the reservoir.  People have found a lot of old tools and arrowheads around that area.”

“What were the boy’s names?” My grandmother asked, “I might know their parents.”

“I don’t know, they didn’t tell me.” I looked down at my plate and considered whether or not I should bring up Old man Marshall.  I didn’t want to seem silly being scared if it was just some made up story, but curiosity had gotten the better of me. “The older one did mention something strange though.  He told me to watch out for some old guy that comes out at night. He didn’t explain what he meant but I figured he was just trying to scare me.  You know how boys are.”

My grandparent’s demeanor changed suddenly.  A moment ago they were smiling, happy, maybe a little amused that their grand-daughter had met a boy. Now however, the smiles had faded from their faces as they looked at each other with a look between them that I can only describe as concern and maybe a touch of fear.

My grandfather cleared his voice as he turned to look at me.  “Old man Marshall?” He asked.

I nodded to him. I was sure now that they saw the confusion and alarm in my expression.  “So, that old guy is real?”

“It’s just an old story dear.” I looked to my grandmother who had set her knife and fork down and folded her hands neatly in her lap as she often did when she was nervous about something.  I could tell that she was trying to ease the tension in the room but I also saw the worry in her face. Whoever this old man was, he was bad news.

“Where did you say you met these two boys?” My grandfather asked me.

I shrugged somewhat. “They were in the woods, near the cove I go swimming in. It’s secluded and on the other side of where people normally swim but far enough away that no boats are nearby.  I like the privacy there; it’s where I’ve been swimming all summer.”

Again my grandparents looked at each other. Their expressions sent chills down my spine.  My grandfather cleared his throat then spoke again. “Is…is it near that old run down hunting shack?” He asked me.

I nodded slowly.  “About fifteen or twenty feet away.” I estimated the distance but it sounded about right.  You could see the roof of the old place through the trees from the water.

My grandfather was quiet for a moment then he looked at me and his expression changed to one of more stern authority.  “Elli, I don’t want you to swim there anymore.  You can go to the lake, but stay close to the park, where the other kids swim.”

“But why?” I blurted out suddenly.  “I like it there and I’ve never had any problems before today.”

“Young lady,” My grandfather started with young lady every time he wanted to make a very direct point. “Don’t argue with me on this.  You’re not to go back to that cove again and that’s my final word on the matter.”

I looked at my grandmother pleadingly.  None of this made any sense to me. Who was this Old man Marshall and why were my grandparents so terrified oh him that they would restrict my swimming to open view of everyone in the park?

“We’re not trying to be mean sweetheart, it’s just…well, we worry, and we would both sit easier knowing that you were safe.” My grandmother wrung her hands nervously as she looked across the table at my grandfather.

“We just want you some place where others can see you.” My grandfather said, “Just in case something we’re to happen. You know kids die from drowning every year, so it’s important that other people are around just in case.”

“And this doesn’t have anything to do with that old man?” I asked them.

“Of course not,” My grandfather assured me. “As your grandmother said, it’s just an old story.”

I slouched down in my chair, pouting slightly.  We didn’t speak of it again the rest of the night but I was curious now.  I knew that their fears had something to do with the old man and I wanted to know what the deal was with him but I also knew that neither of them were about to tell me.

After my shower before bed that I night I sat down in the spare bedroom that at one time was my mothers and now served as my room.  My mother had lived in this house as a child, grew up here, and knew the town well. She met my dad while attending college and eventually moved to the city when they married, but until then she was here, she was a local.

I picked up the phone suddenly and dialed home. It was almost ten at night but my parents normally didn’t go to bed until after eleven.  The phone rang only four times and then my mom picked up.

“Hello mom?” I said when I heard her voice.

“Elli? Hi Hun, how are you doing, how are your grandparent’s? Are you enjoying your summer dear?”

“Yeah,” I told her, “I’m fine we’re all good. I’m having a great time, doing a lot of swimming.  Hey mom, I have a question for you.”

“Sure baby, what is it?”

I took a deep breath then blurted out, “Who is old man Marshall, and why is everyone so freaked out about him?”

The line was silent for a moment and then my mom finally spoke, softly and with a slight tremor in her voice. “Old man Marshall? Where did you hear about him?”

I told her of my encounter with the two boys and then the way my grandparents had reacted when I told them about it.

“Well…” She started, “It’s an old story. Everyone in town knows about it.  Old man Marshall was a fisherman back in the 1920’s.  He lived in the hunting shack by the cove you were swimming in.  He lost his wife a few years after their daughter Birdie was born and he struggled as a single father to care for her. They didn’t have a lot of money and he would be gone for days on end, sometimes even weeks, working to support his daughter.  The story goes that while he was away on a fishing boat, Birdie who was left alone, went down to the cove one day. No one knows for sure if she slipped and fell into the water or if she was swimming, but she was very young and she drowned.  It was summer and school was out so no one even knew anything was wrong until her father came home and saw that she was missing. He searched the woods for her all night, calling her name and eventually found her the next morning, floating face down in the water.  People say  that old man Marshall was so upset over his daughter’s death that the day after her funeral he went back down to the cove where he had found her body and shot himself, falling into the water as well.  It’s not known for sure but people think that the gunshot wound wasn’t what actually killed him, that when he fell into the water he drowned, which might have been what he’d planned all along.  But, the story goes that at night during the summer you can hear him wandering the woods searching for Birdie. Some people have even claimed to have heard a gunshot right before a loud splash, but of course that’s all just made up stuff that kids tell around campfires to scare each other.  No one ever swims there anymore though because they say if you swim there after dark that old man Marshall will pull you under and drown you as revenge for the town not checking on his daughter while he was away.”

“Has anyone else ever drowned there before?” I asked her. “Like anyone that they think might have been killed by old man Marshall?”

My mom laughed at how serious I was taking the story.  “It’s just an old ghost story dear, an urban legend.  There is no proof that old man Marshall or his daughter even existed, let alone died there.”

“So, there’s no proof to it at all?”

“Of course not sweetheart, ghosts aren’t real.”

I hung up the phone and got ready for bed though I doubted that I would sleep much that night.  For a story that wasn’t real, my grandparents sure seemed to be worried about me swimming at the site of the alleged accident and suicide.  It occurred to me that my mom could have lied to me to keep me from being scared but I wasn’t a child anymore, why would she not tell me the truth?

For the next week I did as my grandparents told me to and I stayed on the side of the lake near the park.  I hated it though; I felt exposed and self conscious.  I always felt like everyone was watching me, possibly laughing at me.  I was a little over weight for my age but I wasn’t horribly obese. Still I didn’t like wearing a swimming suit around other people and possibly getting disgusted looks from them.  The last day of summer before I was to head back to the city, I went down to the reservoir for one last day of swimming and relaxing in the sun. There were so many people there, it was the weekend, and the lake was packed with other kids. I didn’t really know any of them but many of them were around my age and that made me more nervous to swim around them.  I decided to pack it up for the day but I didn’t feel like going back to the house just yet.  I was still curious about the story of the old man and the cove where supposedly his daughter had drowned. If there was any truth to the story then I figured that other kids had to have drowned there as well. The thought of me actually swimming in a place where people had died kind of creeped me out some but at the same time the idea of a haunted lake was exciting.  I made up my mind that I was going back to the cove to look around.  Part of me was scared that I might actually see the old man’s ghost while another part of me was hoping that I would.

I had to walk around the park to the other side of the damn to get on the wooded side of the reservoir but once there I cut through the woods to where the cove was located.

The woods around the cove seemed darker now, even though it was mid day.  The entire place seemed a bit more gloomy. I’d never noticed it before but there did seem to be a kind of sadness associated with the spot. I’d always thought that it was just due to it being so isolated from the rest of the reservoir but I was starting to wonder now if maybe the spirits of those who died there were still hanging around. Maybe the little girl who lost her life there was wandering around for all eternity looking for her daddy, not knowing that he too had lost his life after she died.

The secluded and isolated area didn’t feel as warm and inviting as it once had. Now that I knew the story, real or not, of what happened there, I couldn’t get it out of my mind.  I decided to turn around and head back to my grandparents house when I caught sight of the old hunting cabin up in the woods.  I realized that I was close to the cove now and for some reason, the idea of it sent chills up my spine.

“You came back?”  A familiar voice caused me to turn and glance towards the water.  The teenage boy I had seen a week ago was standing near a tree about four feet from me.  His brother was sitting on the end of the log on the bank, his pant legs rolled up to his knees and his bare feet dangling in the water.

“I’m going back to the city today.” I told him. “I just wanted one last look at the cove before I left.”

The boy smiled a half smile as he looked at me. “Yeah right, you were hoping you’d see me again.”

“Actually, I was, but not for the reason you think.” I crossed my arms over my chest and stared back at him.  “I asked my mom about that old man.  She said it’s just an urban legend. All fake, so if you were trying to scare me, you failed.”

“Humph.” The boy turned away from me. “Shows what you know. It’s not an urban legend, it’s all true.  We know people who have actually seen him.”

“The ghost?” I raised an eye brow. “You’re so full of it, ghosts aren’t real.”

“They’re not huh?” He looked at his brother and both boys chuckled some, “Whatever you say city girl.”

I put my hand on my hips and glared at him. Man this kid was really starting to make me angry. Did he think I was stupid? “If any part of your story was real then there would be some evidence of someone actually being killed by this ghost guy, but since there isn’t any evidence of anyone being killed by him, it just proves that it’s a story and nothing more.”

“But people have been killed by him.” This time it was the younger brother who spoke.  This entire time he’s remained silent. I thought that he wasn’t paying attention to us but he was.  He looked up at us with a serious expression on his young face and continued.  “It happened in the fifties, a couple of kids were fishing, and one of them fell in the water. The other one tried to pull him out and that’s when old man Marshall grabbed them both and pulled them under, they both drowned.”

I narrowed my eyes.  “But you don’t know that it was old man Marshall.” I told him.  “It’s just rumors fueled by a tragic accident, nothing more.”

The older boy frowned. “Believe what you want.” He said to me, “But don’t say I didn’t warn you.  If you get caught down here after sunset he will get you!”

I took the bus back home that night and tried my best to put the idea of killer ghosts out of my mind.  Back in the city life would go on as usual and eventually I did forget about it.

Twenty years later I returned to Cedar Bay with my parents for my grandfather’s funeral.  I’d never attended a funeral there before so I’d never had a reason to visit the funeral home and mortuary.  It was a family business that had been there since the founding of the town in the late eighteen hundreds.

After the service my parents, grandmother, and I were told to exit the viewing room through a hall way in the back of the home.  A car was waiting out back that would take us to the internment so that we could arrive before anyone else.  While walking down the hallway something caught my eye and I stopped to look at it.  It was an old black and white photograph of two boys, one around twelve and the other a teenager, probably fifteen or sixteen.  They were standing on a dock holding up a large fish that I assumed they had caught in the lake.  The younger of the boys had denim pants on that were rolled up to his knees and his feet were bare.

Suddenly that last summer came rushing back to me as recognition washed over me.  I asked my grandmother if she knew who the two boys in the photograph were but she shook her head.  “I’m sorry dear; I’ve never seen them before.”

Just then, the funeral home’s director joined us in the hallway.  He looked at the photograph and frowned some.  “That’s a sad story there.” He told us, “Those two boys, they were brothers, Charlie and James, my uncles.”

“Do either of them have children?” I asked him.

“Oh no,” He said. “They both died shortly after this photograph was taken.”

“Died!?” I was shocked. There had to be some mistake here, how could the two brothers’ have died when I had spoken to them, twice? “When did this happen?” I asked.

He thought for a moment and then nodded to himself as though confirming the answer to a question in his head. “It was nineteen fifty five I believe.  My father told me that his two brothers had gone fishing one morning and when they didn’t return home his parents sent him down after them.  He found them both in the cove on the wooded side of the lake; they had both drowned.”

“That’s horrible.” My mother said. “They were so young.”

The director nodded. “It was strange too; my father said that both boys were excellent swimmers.”

I never told my parents or my grandmother that the two boys I had seen that summer were the two from the photograph.  I was an adult now and not supposed to believe in such things but it was hard to dismiss the old stories as folklore now. Charlie and James had told me that two boys had been dragged to their deaths by old man Marshall, but now I knew that they were describing their own deaths.

I never went back to the cove after that, though I wondered if the ghosts of the two brothers still haunted the area, warning other children about old man Marshall, perhaps hoping to spare future children the same fate as them.

Daily Prompt: Fishing