The True Name of the Sharp-Toothed God
By KT Bryski- 16 minutes read - 3192 words
It is a hard voyage, at the worst time of year. Unlucky as speaking the true name of the Sharp-Toothed God. We wake cold, work cold, piss cold. Sleep cold—maybe. That depends. Second night on the water, I catch the pretty young man smiling at me, his cheeks pink, whisky untouched.
There are two passengers. Pretty young man and harsh grey woman. They bought every berth on the ship. No other fares, no cargo. They paid to sail fast, like a bird winging up the coast and into the polar seas. No sea-sickness, either of them. They’re on deck every day, stamping in bright wool coats and stiff new boots.
Lewis shows me his blisters in the lamplight. Boots never been worn, he tells me. Bought special, just for this.
“Why?” I ask.
He looks surprised. “We’re heading north.”
I already marked the icebergs crowding like wolves, the pole star running hard and bright ahead. No one else in Lewis’ cabin—not the grey woman—but no bed either. That’s okay. Hammock cocoons us together. Lewis smells like maps. Thin bird bones pressed into me; his heart skittering against my chest. My fingers close around his wrist. Gentle, like he’s glass.
“Did Captain Nilsson say anything about our expedition, Milo?”
Captain says a lot of things, most of them to the first mate. But work is work. Keep the ropes coiled, decks clear, galley swept. Sail over the world’s top and down the other side, doesn’t matter to me.
What matters more is Lewis stretched beside me in the hammock. I pull him close, breathing him instead of cold salt air. He trembles.
“Are you a monk?” I ask. I’ll feel bad, if he’s a monk. Innocent, you know?
An archivist is okay. I think. He must figure so, because he cups my cheek. Then he drinks me down, and I drink him too, until we’re sweating for the fire of it. Warmest night I ever spent. In the morning, he whispers my name and it hangs like fog, sparkling in pale light.
I like my name, looking like that. I kiss him deep, so he says it again. Then I slip out quiet. It’s a good ache, he leaves behind. Been a long time since I ached like that.
— # —
“Bad luck, those two,” the cook mutters.
“Heard ‘em talking about the Sharp-Toothed God.”
“If anyone knew his name, it’d be them.”
“They brought a gun, too. Bad luck coming.”
More muttering. Whisky slopped into cups. A little fire going in the stove. No fiddle tonight. Just grumbling: Captain, the weather, the Sharp-Toothed God. The voyage. A hard voyage, this one—we’re running out of north. Me, I keep quiet. Never thought to ask Lewis what an archivist does. If he really knows the true name of the Sharp-Toothed God, he shouldn’t have whispered my name like that.
— # —
Sea-ice thick, black water shivering between the floes. Frost feathering eyelashes, damp slicking lungs. Toes pinch in my boots, even though I shoved extra rags in. I think about Lewis’ soft feet and his blisters splitting like seams. The ache comes back, fierce enough I crouch behind a barrel, cooling my cheeks on the biting wind.
Nearby, the grey woman’s cornered Captain. Sloane—Lewis mumbles around her. Walks a half-step behind, when they pace the deck together. She’s an archivist too.
Her wool coat has faded: scarlet gone tired, like dried blood. Her wolf-eyes never stay still. I sink lower, the barrel shielding me. “I expected the island within sight by now,” she says, tightness and teeth.
“Bad weather,” Captain says. “You should’ve sailed in summer.”
“Out of the question,” Sloane says. “When shall we arrive?”
“Soon.” Captain says that to everyone, when there’s no answer coming. But Sloane, she doesn’t know that, so she spends a long time gazing across the water, her elbows propped on the gunwale and her long white hair flying in the wind.
— # —
Every night, I wait until the crew’s breathing goes deep and then I creep into Lewis’ cabin. When first I lie beside him, his skin’s cold on mine. Clammy and white, like a candle unlit too long. So I stoke him up, I kindle him, get that spark flaring until his shivering stops and his lips fall warm on mine.
A week on the water, I figure I can ask. “What’s an archivist?”
“We look after old papers,” he says, too quickly, his spine bumped under my fingertips. “Books, maps, letters. Organize them—destroy them, if necessary.”
“The cook heard you. Talking about the Sharp-Toothed God.”
He lies in my arms like a dead boy. Silence, a long, long time. Long enough that I climb out of the hammock. The ache opens in my chest, but I don’t like it this time. Scorching-heavy, like whisky gulped wrong.
But when I reach the door, Lewis calls, “Wait!”
He struggles to sit up. “What do you know about the Sharp-Toothed God?”
Everyone knows that god. Sailors most of all. A long, long time ago, there’s an old god that lived under the sea. Fights mountains, swallows souls. Witches and monks, they chain him up. Enough time goes by, the Sharp-Toothed God falls asleep, and everyone tries real hard to forget his name. Gouging it off walls and statues. Tearing it from books and tapestries. Killing anyone that knows it.
You call that god, even now, he’ll wake up. You speak the name of the Sharp-Toothed God, and he’ll come running back.
“I know that god,” I tell Lewis.
“There’s one last book. With his name written down. We need to find it, before anyone else does.”
He shudders. “Rip the page out. Burn it. So no one can ever call him back.”
That archivist Sloane, I think, she’s spent too long in her cups. Scaring this poor man. So I murmur nice words until he stops shaking.
“Can you imagine,” he keeps whispering, “can you imagine if someone stole that page?”
— # —
Next day, snow finds us. Hungry, silent, grey. Clouds roll low over the water; the masts pierce their guts and disappear. Snow makes us ghosts. We creak wordless across phantom decks. Lewis hunches in his woollen coat and I want to clasp him tight to my warm chest and rub the cold from his white wax flesh.
Seas roughen. Ice scrapes the ship’s belly. Hard to watch the water, when it’s that restless. Corpse-coloured ice shoves down, inky water swells up. For the first time, that harsh grey Sloane goes green; she clutches Captain’s elbow, her eyes bulging out. But then she lifts her head.
“There it is,” she gasps. “I see it.”
Me, I see mist like a wall. Icicles beard the rigging, crash onto the deck as wind beats harder. Water beads Lewis’ cloak like diamonds sewn into the wool. Another shiver, a bad one.
Captain’s hushing Sloane, but she wrenches free. “Look!”
First glance, it’s a tall grey shadow against white rolling mist. Cloud bank maybe, spitting more snow. But that shadow darkens, spreads, like another ship looming out of the snowfall. Everyone’s peering now, hanging over the water as far as they can. Lewis sidles next to me. Since nobody’s looking, I squeeze his hand. He’s the only one wearing mittens.
But Lewis isn’t peeking at me like I’m peeking at him. He’s gaping straight ahead, his blue lips falling open.
A rocky island juts from dark water. The kind of island that’d sink ships on purpose, if it could. The kind of island under which the Sharp-Toothed God would dream. Harsh jagged hills. Stones roughened like hands split by cold. No beach, just sheer cliffs plunging into fanged waves.
Anchor drops. Island sits there, cool and grim. It doesn’t care about us, no more than the Sharp-Toothed God does. That island’s probably older than him and hungrier yet.
“You remember what—” Sloane says.
“Yes,” Captain says. “But you take only one crewmember, in that case.” He pauses. “Not my first mate. And certainly not the cook.”
“Give me anyone.”
We weren’t meant to hear that. Not us, crew. Glances flash like daggers. But Captain just calls out, “Ready the landing boat.”
Crew moves slower than it could. No one wants to go ashore. Grumbling seethes just below the surface as Captain steadies the boat. “Who will it be?” he asks Sloane. “I can recommend—“
But Lewis interrupts. “Milo.”
Shock ripples through the crew. Blood pounds in my ears. I wonder if I heard wrong. But Lewis stares straight at me, and says again, louder, “Milo will come ashore with us.”
— # —
Bad weather for a little boat. Water pushes over the sides and soaks my lap. Spray flies like splintered ice, stinging my eyes. Muted light, out here, Sloane and Lewis’ wool coats dun-coloured in the gloom. Black waves churn.
We struggle over restless seas. I pitch forward and back, struggling with the oars. Shoulders burn fierce. Lewis tries to help the rowing, but he can’t hold the oars right and if we fall off-course, I’ll be too tired to bring us back.
Sloane sits like a figurehead, facing forward, her long hair matted with ice. From some pocket, she’s pulled a spyglass. Keeps it trained on the island, even when the boat judders along an ice-shelf with groans like dying.
Lewis leans forward on the bench. “I’m sorry, Milo.”
I grunt. Working too hard to talk. Wouldn’t do any good, anyway.
“It’ll be quick, I promise.”
“Lewis, what are you telling him?”
He straightens. “Nothing.”
“Good.” She pauses. “Milo, wasn’t it?”
I grunt again. Politer.
Wind mangles her words, shatters them against the snow-feathered sea. “There exists on the island a ruined abbey. Within that abbey, there is a certain relic, a…”
“Book.” Manage that one word. Flinch when Lewis does.
Sloane glances at me, sly and quick and cutting as a knife blade flicked out. I can imagine her whispering the true name of the Sharp-Toothed God, just to see what it tastes like.
Lewis’ eyes are round. “Sloane, I—“
“Told me you’re archivists.” I don’t think Lewis told me what they really do. Hurts, realizing that. “Books, right?”
“Well, well, Milo,” Sloane says. “Impressive.”
Lewis green. Gritting my teeth, I keep rowing. Better to save the breath. Try not to look up. Every time I do, ship’s fainter in the falling snow. If I look for it and it’s swallowed up whole, I don’t figure my strength will last.
— # —
Snow’s salting down when the keel hits bottom. Narrow channels slice the island’s shoreline, veins of gravel running to its heart. Seawater bites my legs to the knee as I push the boat in; Lewis strains alongside, his hair spiked with sweat. Take more time than usual making sure the boat’s beached. Nothing to eat, if we get stranded. Gravel falls into the sea like crumbs from the island’s mouth.
Once the boat’s set, Sloane strides along the gravel bed like she’s been here before. Ducking my head against the wind, I trudge after. On my heels, Lewis pants. Don’t mind that. Not much else to listen to, besides our boots crunching on crusted snow and loose stones. And I like listening to all the sounds he makes.
Banded rock shears up, on either side. The bones of the world break a skin of dirty snow. Cold air cuts my lungs, lips, face. Light falls smothered, can’t even catch pockets of ice in the rock.
Then the rock opens up. Island’s one hard and stony bowl, with ruin in the middle. Sloane cries out, like the sight teased between her legs. Even Lewis staggers, seeing it. Me, I’m just cold. Fire in the stove and Lewis in my arms never sounded so good.
Closer we get, less impressive the abbey looks. Winter picked over the bones long ago. Roof collapsed, abbey guts open to the sky. We climb over a crumbled tower. Bare windows gape like empty sockets. Lewis steps careful, but I figure wind ground the glass down. Wind will grind anything down, given long enough.
Flat stones crest through snow and grit. Shallow grooves here and there, marking where monks used to tread. That’s how I know we’re standing inside.
I perch myself on a stone. Sloane and Lewis, they sniff over the ground like tracking dogs. Stoop to brush away the snow, shake their heads, mutter, and move on. Light’s unwelcome on this island anyway, but the gloom deepens and the wind drops colder.
Don’t want to be stuck here at night. Can’t even dig myself a grave to sleep in.
“Sloane!” Lewis shouts. “I’ve found it!”
Terror in his voice gets me moving. An open hole yawns in the ruined floor: a deep, deep wounding, worn steps going down into darkness. Notches in the rock: someplace there used to be a latch, a bolt. I’m standing at Lewis’ shoulder, but I shift in front of him, a little. In case anything’s down there.
Only the wind sighs over the darkness.
Sloane grins. “Almost done.”
Crane my head. Stairs grow dim, the further they go. Past the last one, shadows swell like another ocean. “The book’s down there?”
“Down there.” Sloane nods to Lewis. “You know what to do.”
Lewis gulps. Not green, now. White. Dead white. He puts one foot on the steps, then stops. Looks at me. “Milo, can I—“
“Yes. I’ll come.”
“No!” Flush fills his cheeks, spreads down his neck. “No, I just—I wanted—“
Sloane rolls her eyes. “I’ll give you privacy.”
She turns her back. Exhaling, Lewis darts forward. Lips brush mine, sweet to melting, and then he pulls away. “Thank you.”
Steadies himself. Takes the stairs down. Never looks back.
My lips tingle where he kissed them. But I glance to Sloane. “You’re not going?”
She sits on a broken column. “Of course not,” she says. “Someone has to report the expedition’s success.”
— # —
A long, long time we wait in that ruined abbey, and all that while, darkness is falling. Shadows ebb like the winter sea. Sloane doesn’t move, but me, I pace back and forth across the stones. Cold climbs up my legs: toes pinched, calves hurting. Keep pacing anyway. Saltlick air—I wish we brought more water.
At last, rustling down the hole. Footsteps. I fling myself forward, but Sloane thrusts her arm out. “Wait,” she says. “See what comes up.”
But it’s only Lewis. Pale, hollowed-looking. But whole. Alive. Hunched over, hands in his pockets, he climbs that last step. Stands on the flagstones, trembling. Wind plays with his hair like I want to.
“Well?” Sloane demands. “Was the book there?”
“Yes.” Can’t hardly hear Lewis over the wind.
“The Sharp-Toothed God’s name was written down?”
“On a single page. I burned it.”
She nods, like that makes sense. Me, I search Lewis’ face. Figured he’d look happier. Went into the dark so bravely—more important, came out of the dark. Even better, no one can ever know the Sharp-Toothed God’s name. That bad old god can’t come back now— why’s Lewis staring at his shoes?
Sloane’s voice gentles. “You read the page, first?”
“I had to,” Lewis whispers. “To make sure.”
“Yes,” she says. “You did.” Strangest thing—her words getting softer and her eyes getting stonier. The saddest smile I ever saw breaks like morning on her face. “You’ve done well.”
She takes a pistol from inside her coat. Cool as the sea-wind, she shoots him in the head.
— # —
Screams echo. Ragged, jagged, bouncing off stones, drilling into my skull. Takes Sloane slapping my cheeks to make me realize, the screaming’s mine.
Lewis sprawls flat on the snow-crusted stones. Bullet hole makes a round mouth in his forehead, dribbling blood. His lips open too, a little, like he forgot to say something. They’re still plum-purpled.
Sail as long as me, death finds you plenty. I’ve seen them all, all those people knifed or shot or sickened or starved or drowned or hanged. But I never saw someone die I wanted to kiss back to life.
I try. Take him by the shoulders and clamp my mouth on his. Kiss again and again, praying those ghostly eyelashes to flutter and his laugh to burble up.
He smells like gunpowder. He lies in my arms, a dead boy.
Sighing, Sloane squats next to me. “What if he said the True Name— drunk, or despairing?”
“He wouldn’t have.”
She stands. “Your captain won’t wait much longer.”
“You were fond of him. Fine. Take his coat. He shan’t need it, and I daresay you do.”
I don’t want it, but it smells like Lewis and he touched it and I won’t leave everything on the island. So I unbutton it, fingers trembling. Fold it over my arm, feeling his weight, his fading warmth.
“Wait.” Sloane snatches it back, checks all the pockets, shakes it out. Thrusts it back to me. I clutch it closer this time, afraid it’ll be snatched away again, like Lewis was.
Nothing to do then, but leave Lewis and the abbey to the cold wind and the colder sky. Follow Sloane to the boat, the snow weeping down.
— # —
The minute I get back on ship, I throw that coat in my trunk, lock it up tight. When I can’t sleep for nightmares, I steal peeks at it. Stroke the cuffs and collar, like it’s Lewis’ flesh and blood. On bad nights, I hold it to my nose, inhale until only memory’s left.
Takes me a long time, to wear the coat. But one night comes, when everyone else is dealing cards around the stove, and the fiddling’s reeling, and I’m too angry to bear the lamplight’s glow. As I sit alone, the heartache crests and I want to hold him. Just once more. So I slide my arms into the sleeves. Roll my shoulders like it’s a last embrace.
Sloane last touched the pockets, not Lewis, but I stick my hands in anyway. Nothing much there. Button, lint, pencil stub.
And a hole.
Breath comes hard, then. I sit on my bed, teasing my fingers through the hole, into the lining. Thought it was a new coat. But I send my finger and thumb pinching down to the hem. And there, I feel it.
A scrap of paper. Thin and dusty to the touch, torn along one edge.
Laughter and tears come together.
Me, I don’t read well. But I can figure this word. It’s old and ugly and strong. Before I can think better, I tear that paper up and swallow it down, but it doesn’t matter. I read it, I remembered it, and now I got that name inside me, too.
At first, that scares me. But now, I hold onto it like Lewis’ coat. Polishing it careful. Waiting until I’m standing in front of Sloane again—one day, one day soon. When I finally get around to speaking what I got burning under my ribs, I figure it’ll hang like fog, sparkling in pale light.
I figure the Sharp-Toothed God will like his name, looking like that.
And if he kisses me deep, I’ll say it again.
© 2023 KT Bryski
About the Author
KT Bryski is a Canadian fantasy author. Their short fiction has appeared in Lightspeed, Nightmare, Strange Horizons, Apex, and others. They have been a finalist for the Sunburst, Aurora, and Eugie awards. When not writing, KT frolics about enjoying choral music and craft beer.