The Driftwood Women, Emily Carlson
It’s not the first question that people ask the locals, but it is often the one asked with the most earnestness: have you ever seen the driftwood women? Most will roll their eyes and assure you that the women are a myth, a tall tale designed to sucker tourists and visitors towards the shore, where they’ll find nothing except places just off the beaten path to empty their pockets. But the youngest occupants of the town and the old-timers know better and are more likely to be honest with you. The younger the teller, the more exuberant they are. The older ones are wary, growing willing to divulge their stories only after the gift of a drink or two. But no matter who is telling the story, there is a consensus between them.
They’ll tell you that the sightings of the driftwood women are growing increasingly rare, but if you wake early and stay near the boundary of the evergreen trees near the shore, if you tread very carefully and hold your breath when you hear a sound, you might see one. You must be careful not to draw attention to yourself. Leave no trace of your observance, and most importantly: do not attempt to engage them. There are stories of people who thought it was their right to approach them, and while the actual outcome is disputed (Were they eaten? Drowned? Or simply disappeared?), everyone agrees that it is a tremendously bad idea.
People who have seen them report feeling insignificant and uncomfortably aware of just how fragile a human body is, as they watched the giant forms crouching upon the shoreline, shrouded and mist. I saw them when I was young, and all I could think of was that you could so easily be picked up, taken away or pulled apart by their hands, a retired sailor confesses. In all my years on the sea, I never felt so small.
Despite their moniker, no one knows what exactly the driftwood women are. They’re made up of planes of smooth skin and long limbs that could be normal, if they weren’t so tremendously tall and angular, stretching skyward in a way that no natural human body could. But more than that, what makes a driftwood woman is the grandiose unfurling of wood from her neck. The creatures have no face that anyone has seen; the gnarled limbs, salted and made smooth by the water and wind, push out of the body. Each wooden head is unique, just like the ordinary driftwood that washes up on the shore. No one knows what they eat, what they think, who they are. The assumption is that they live in the water, coming out only in the moments of dawn that are shrouded in mist. The children think that maybe they shrink down, allow their bodies to collapse deceptively until all you can see is another piece of wood by the waterline. But the children only think of them as a mystery to be solved, just another awe-inducing aspect of nature, while the oldest members of the town remember that a crucial aspect of awe is dread.
Stories about the driftwood women used to be prevalent along the coast, but seem to be disappearing, decreasing along with the number of sightings. It’s uncertain what the cause of this is – increased pollution and harbor activity maybe, or maybe it’s just that there are fewer witnesses who survive the encounter. And at this point in the conversation, the speaker cautions the curious. If you take it upon yourself to try and spy a driftwood woman, it might be best to keep very quiet about it. Look, but don’t touch. Don’t make a sound, and don’t bother trying to record them. It’s not certain how they’ll react or if they’ll even notice. But if they do, if you happen to anger the driftwood women… well, water and wood are everywhere, and you can only stay away from them for so long.
Emily Carlson is a queer writer, reader, and lover of monsters. Emily currently lives in the Pacific Northwest and can be found on Twitter at @emiacarlson or by saying her name three times while looking in a mirror.