's 2018 Horror Write-off:

The Swimming Man

Submitted by Charred Newt

There was a story going around the web, not too long ago. You could find it coming up in paranormal subreddits, forums dedicated to cryptids and oddities, facebook groups of weird-fantasy lovers and so on. It never really got viral, though, it remained confined in the chats of the genre aficionados.

It was the story of the Swimming Man; or rather, of how the authors met him. The first known record was from 2013, by a worker stationed on a medium-sized fishing ship on the northern coasts of Japan. He was working the night shift, a relatively calm one, until on of the sailor had raised the alarm: there was a man at sea, he said, and he had somehow ended up entangled in the fishing equipment. The rescue went well, even though the crew was half-asleep. The man was in a “confused and agitated” state at first, but despite apparently not speaking one single word of Japanese he had calmed down quickly and become downright affable. The recount described him as tanned, tall and slim, almost emaciated; they were not able to determine his age, but he didn’t look older than a man in his fifties. He was naked except for what looked like a hand-crafted necklace and he did not seem hurt. They had immediately thought of a tourist fallen off a cruise ship or a shipwreck, and contacted the authorities to check while they got their guest comfortable with a blanket and a hot meal. The worker noted that the man did not seem to mind the cold much and accepted the blanket more as a courtesy than anything else, while showing instead great appreciation for the food. Over a bowl of hot soup, they had tried to communicate beyond the language barrier, using both signs and the few words of English both the crew and their guest knew: things took a turn when he asked for a world map, to point where he was from they guessed. This seemed to clear things up, at first: the man drew circles with his fingers around Australia and started going through any chart they handed him, while they tried to explain him where exactly he was at the moment and to understand how he could have arrived there. Looking excited, he had motioned to be taken back on the deck; things here get a bit confused in the tale. Before the crew could react or even really tell what was happening, the man had jumped ship and was back into the ocean, farther away from them with every passing moment. He swam, wrote the worker, “more like a wave than a man or fish, more like the sea was his horse than his road”; he soon disappeared from sight. The coast guard had brought no record of any shipwreck or similar accident in the area and there was no further search.

There was a dozen more stories just like this one in the following years, all following the same beats: the Swimming Man would be rescued or simply show up at sea or by the shore, accept any help or food that was offered to him, ask in a way or the other for directions for another, often very distant part of the world and then be off before the night ended, back into the water and plowing through the waves like they were only mist to him. Some of the people said they were able to speak to him, often through a half-remembered foreign language: though all agreed that he had acted generally nice and even jovial at times, he seemed to prefer not to talk much about himself. He would exchange weird observations and cryptic pieces of advice, made harder yet to completely understand by the language barriers, but nobody had ever even gotten his name out. Any attempt to detain him or delay his departure failed: locked doors and windows would open to let him out to the sea, in a blink of an eye he would be past any fence or wall.

It was a curious urban legend, if so it could be called. It would have been easy to call it a fantasy and the tales all emulations and reinventions of the original 2013 story, but two things made it stand out to me. The first was just how spread out around the world were the witnesses: Japan, Indonesia, South Africa, Australia, Brazil and so on. That also meant that some of the recounts were made more obscure by varying levels of broken translations, which gave the whole matter more of a mysterious charm that really stuck with me. The description also seemed a bit inconsistent, more so with the more recent stories, but it was to be expected, I guessed.

The second thing was, naturally, my own encounter with the Swimming Man.

I had been in a bad place, mentally speaking, for a bit of time. My studies weren’t paying off as they should have and I could feel the weight of my family’s questions and expectations increasing every day. To keep matters simple, I was in need of a bit of a break and had arranged to spend a week in our old house by the sea. It was tiny and kinda run down, as it had been a couple of years since anybody had spent their holidays there, but it had a great view of the ocean and a small-ish boat stationed in the nearby dock, newer and better-kept than the rest of the propriety. I was a passable sailor and the season allowed for long trips in the bay, so it rapidly became my favorite pastime. There wasn’t much else to do, since it was still too early before tourist season, but I liked the privacy and quiet anyway. Before I knew it I was spending most of my time out in the waters, up to well after sundown.

I was out on one of those trips; there was just little more than a day left before my journey back home. The thought made my stomach clench and turn as I watched the sun slowly disappear beyond the orange-golden waves of the horizon. I didn’t feel ready to leave, didn’t feel like I would ever be ready to go back. Trying to keep my mind from these thoughts, I lit the portable lamp hanging from the canvas cover that protected the helm area and started fixing myself a sandwich dinner.

Since I was looking away from the water, I didn’t see him approaching the boat: I only heard the rhythmic thuds of knuckles against the wooden hull and a voice saying out loud: “Hello! Friend, there!”. I turned around, startled enough to almost drop my food, and saw a smiling face peering over the edge of my boat, flanked by a pair of long arms grasping lazily the wooden brim. There was something odd in his features, in the dimming light; odd, but friendly. He slowly waved at me: “Hello! Can I come up? Please?”. I nodded, more dumbfounded than scared: it had been more than a year since the last story about the Swimming Man had resurfaced, but as my guest lifted himself onto the deck it all came back to me in a flood of memories. He really was tall, looked even over two meters, and made the boat look much smaller as he sat down, legs crossed. His skin was the color of old leather, of somebody who had spent most of his life out in the sun; he was naked, but in the way a lizard or a seal is naked: the sea salt had encrusted his body to the point it looked like he had patches of scales in some points, while in others he was smooth, almost shiny. There was no way of telling how old he may have been, nor I even tried to. He made himself a bit more comfortable on the deck’s floor and smiled at me once more: “Thank you, friend! Very nice.” His voice was higher than I would have guessed, more musical even. I noticed he was eyeing the food I had set aside. Remembering what I had read, I offered him one of the sandwiches. He took it slowly, as if he was worried about scaring me, and nodded with a gentle smile.

We ate our dinner quietly in the small boat. The weirdness of the situation did not escape me, though I felt more curious than anything else. My guest ate slowly, like he wanted to make the most out of every morsel. I could see the muscles ripple all the way from the jaw to the torso every time he took a bite, as if there was hardly any fat between them and the outer skin.

Night had fallen by the time we were finished eating. The sky was clear and dotted with stars, mirrored in the calm waters below. I took the sight in, trying to burn it in my memories. We both just sat there, gazing at the ocean, until a sentence broke the silence.

“You are escaping, yes?” the Swimming Man asked, looking at me with his half-smile still on his lips. I asked what he meant. “You have a home, but you do not go home. You do not want to go home.” he said slowly, carefully scanning each word. In the dim light I noticed that his eyes were widely spaced apart, giving his face some odd proportions. They seemed to reflect every glimmer bouncing off the waves. I nodded and asked him how he could tell. “I was like you, once.” he said, turning his head back to the sea. I really did not know how to answer, at that point; nothing I had ever read could prepare me to that kind of conversation. Hoping not to overstep any boundaries, I asked him what had happened.

For what felt like a long time, there was only silence again.

Then, as if only a breath had passed, he spoke emphatically. “Friend, never fall in love with a mermaid! Her kiss will make so you never drown,” he brushed a finger across his lips, “and your heart, oh, your heart will make so you always look for her!” he exclaimed, hitting his chest with an opened hand. The sound echoed briefly in the cool air. He kept talking, his eyes lost in the memories brought on by his words.

“She is like home, to me. I always know where she is. But a storm split us, time ago, take me away. Now, I do not know where I am and how to go to her.” He shook his head and pointed at me, beaming once again. “So I need friend! For help! Say, friend, where are we this time?” I told him, trying to be as accurate as I could. He closed his eyes, pensive, focusing on something I could not tell; his lips moved silently, then he started murmuring: “Kold, cold, sne, I see dark trees, tall trees...”. I left him alone for a moment, while a tried to retrieve every chart I kept in the emergency compartment: I had always been advised to have them as backup even if I wasn’t planning to leave the bay, since ‘you really don’t wanna discover how it feels to need one and not have it’. Never thought I would have had use for one that way, I bet.

The Swimming Man was over with his meditation when I turned back to him.

“Ah-laska! She is in Alaska! Friend, how do I get there from here? Which way?”. I opened the charts on the deck in front of us, ready to find out. While he was studying the maps and I was doing my best to come up with some additional information on my phone, I asked him if he had been searching for a long time. He paused himself, then answered: “Long time, yes, I think. You see, I move, she moves. Maybe she looks for me, too. Maybe she is dead. She is sad and alone without her kærlighed, maybe she dies and the sea carries her body around, never stops.”

I froze, not sure of how to respond. He noticed and laughed: “Worry not, friend! Mermaid are not like you and me! I find her, she sees there is no reason to be dead, she is not dead again! I find her, all is good.” But even though he was smiling, I could not help but think that there was a glimpse of sadness in his eyes, a hidden heaviness.

He was done not long after. When he stood up his shape towered against the moonlight. He smiled once more. I told him I wished him luck with his journey: he interrupted me with a gentle poke on my chest. His touch felt cold but solid, like a wooden statue come to life.

“Escape needs a point.” he said, staring at me. “You find your point, you can leave home, you never stop. The water gets red with blood, you never stop. Thank you, friend!“

With that said, he jumped off the boat, making it rock under the powerful push of his legs. I could not believe my eyes: he touched the water with barely a splash and seemed to fuse with the waves. I could still see his shape just below the surface, his limbs barely moving but still he was darting towards the open ocean, like a marble rolling down a hill.

In a moment, he was gone. I picked up my stuff and made my way back to land and to my last day of vacation. I cannot tell exactly how I was feeling, but for the time being I knew I wasn’t as scared as when that bizarre night had begun. I slept soundly that night, and when I got back home I felt like things were finally going to pick up.

I have been better, since then. Sometimes I wonder if the Swimming Man found his lost mermaid at last; I have been scouring the internet, but there doesn’t seem to be any new story these days. Rereading the older tales made me feel a weird wistfulness. He had been different when I met him, more talkative. A bit sadder, too. Maybe six years of swimming will do that to you, even if you have been kissed by a mermaid.

As for me, I have kept his words by heart. I see the ocean with a new pair of eyes.

And I have kept swimming.