When the creature washed up on our shore, I was among the first witnesses. Taking the same walk I took every morning along the cliff trail overlooking Surfer’s Cove, I passed a small beach bound on each side by rocky shoals and tide pools. Four or five tourists had already gathered beside the creature, which at first glance I mistook for a giant tangle of seaweed. The moment I saw the eye, however, my mind recognized its animal form. It almost reminded me of a walrus, or an inverted bowling pin—thought not in size. The creature would out-span a 737. Razor teeth lined its gaping jaws, each one as long as a child’s coffin. Curiosity possessed me and without even asking myself whether the thing was dead or alive I ran for the path leading down to the waterfront. Soon I nestled among the murmurs of strangers as we ogled the towering corpse.
From atop the cliff the creature had seemed almost angelic, nestled to the neck in ocean foliage the way a blanket might cradle an infant. Now, standing next to it, I felt dwarfed, as if I were at the far end of a long lens that stretched out to an invisible eye the way this creature stretched along the waterline and tapered off into the tide. I stood beneath its white eye, a looming gypsum moon. Waves splashed uselessly against the ridge of its back. The jaw protruded stiff as an iron fishhook, and its sunken cheeks outlined a nightmarish skull. I peered into its mouth, saw its throat receding toward a dark sphincter. A salty, slaughterhouse stench slathered the sea air. I removed my sweater and wrapped a sleeve over my nose.
Subconsciously, my hands had dug out my cell phone and were snapping pictures. I changed my Facebook status to, “big fish”. I sent texts and photos to close friends, morbid acquaintances, and a girl I’d been trying to sleep with. I updated my blog with a slideshow consisting of:
- The eye: Milky white, harboring a ghostly blue aureole almost as a trick of the light.
- Its teeth: Lining a jutting under-bite, in three rows, jagged and scarred, chipped in places but never broken. Black stains of blood and decay carved lightning traces along each surface.
- Skin: Patches where the scales flaked off revealed a translucent, leathery epidermis. Slime dripped by the handfuls, slowly congealing to crust over into scabs of purple mucous. A shredded scar cut across its ribs, as if it had barely dodged a thrust from Poseidon’s trident.
- The scales: Where they remained, each was as large as the hood of a Volkswagen. Even smeared with murk and crusted over in barnacles and starfish, they reflected the color of the sky, a crumpled form of the cliff behind us, and occasional distortions of my own curious face.
- Tentacles: tangled up in the kelp and slime. Though miniature in comparison with the overall size, each was as round as a tree branch and some as long as a tree. There were dozens of them in bunches along the creature’s back. Not appendages, I thought. Possibly they served the function of antennae or whiskers on kittens.
- Claws: Dozens in tandem, coiled up in two rows flanking the underbelly—like a centipede. Occasionally impaled on one claw or another, the blubber of a seal, or the severed snout of a shark.
Though introverted by nature I was drawn toward the other gawkers and compelled by raw social forces to engage in inane conversation. Only stupidly obvious remarks seemed appropriate. Anything else would strike too intimate a chord. So we followed the default round of typical questions and comments
“What could it be?”
“It’s so big.”
“Look at the teeth.”
“Did you see its eyes? Ugh, the stench.”
Yes, rot and fish guts, just as you’d expect. My own idiotic contribution was the question, “Do you think it’s alive?”
The girl I was hoping to get into bed (and somehow thought that pictures of a decomposing sea monster might help) texted me back.
< omg, wut is it? >
Blithering chatter in person was one thing; in textspeak it was intolerable.
< just come down here > I replied.
Already more and more onlookers gathered at the beach, winding down the trail in groups of three and four. The press beat the cops to the scene by fifteen minutes. Cell phones and cameras flashed in unison. The drone of whispers punctuated by the clicking of pocket devices. “Everyone please move along,” was the obligatory police mantra, but they didn’t have enough manpower to hold back our burgeoning horde. It was a public beach and no crime had been committed. Every few minutes, as if tethered to a metronome, some moron tried to touch the creature and some other moron had to scream at him to stop. An old woman picked up a piece of driftwood and poked at the monster to see if it would respond. Teenagers threw rocks from a distance.
Theories began to trickle in. The crowd grew large enough that anonymity loosened tongues to even the most absurd notions. The irrationality of one’s apperceptions grows with proximity to death. The larger the corpse, the greater its impact on the imagination. Every idea encouraged another, and thoughts spiraled wildly out of control.
“Pollution. Dumping. Floating barges of trash.”
“A result of global warming.”
“Nuclear testing drives them to the surface.”
“Benthic alien civilizations.”
“Dead for eons, drifting. Probably didn’t start rotting until it beached.”
Whatever it was, it was certainly dead, and probably long before it surfaced. I couldn’t locate gills, and the amphibious possibility remained. I refused to express my own theory, that this carcass was a shell or vehicle housing one or more living creatures, or at the very least a host of insects and foreign bacteria. I expected the soft belly to explode at any minute, for spiders and crustaceans to emerge and scuttle over our bones.
There was one moment, scanning the crowd, where I noticed that people were no longer looking directly at the creature. All eyes pressed against viewfinders, downcast upon the screens of iPhones, flipping through Wikipedia in attempts to identify. Police writing reports. Reporters turning away to make phone calls with fingers in their ears. Collectors hunting for more clues along the beach. Only two or three children, still rapt in attention, fixated upon the beast itself as though to a siren’s song. I felt an uneasy sense that every moment spent here was out of our control. We were flooding in too rapidly, summoning one another at an unsustainable rate. The distant crackle of a bullhorn dutifully ordered the crowd to disperse, but no one obeyed.
A hand touched my shoulder and I jumped, turning to face the girl I had messaged. Her gaze drifted over my shoulder, her pupils engorged with light. Her green fingernails slid slowly across parted lips and a gasp that was almost palpable.
“Hi,” I said.
The word “Jesus,” fell off her lips. I caught a glimpse of her neckline and cleavage and for a moment forgot why we were standing on the beach to begin with.
“I guess the tide brought it in,” I said.
“Thanks for texting me.”
“You didn’t bring your camera.”
“I have my phone,” she said. “How long has it been here?”
“They’re estimating three or four hours. The slime is still drying.”
“Ew. I want to see its eyes.”
A wave of Japanese tourists fresh off the cliff cut between us. Panic flashed across my friend’s face as she plunged back into the mob. Instinctively I reached for her, grabbing only the tips of her fingers, which wiggled frantically up my arm, clutching. I pulled her toward me. Our chests mashed together between the sway of people. I could feel her breath on my skin. She giggled nervously and looked around, but didn’t let go of my hand.
“Come on,” I said.
By now it had become an ordeal to move among the crowd. The beach was packed. I glanced back to the cliff and saw it lined with those unwilling or unable to come closer. I heard the distant whir of helicopter blades. More arrived every minute, drawn in by texts, by tweets, by Facebook posts, Flickr images, Reddit upvotes, Google news headlines, radio broadcasts, word of mouth, and the old fashioned allure of seeing a mob on the horizon. Thick like rats in a gutter, shoulder-to-shoulder, no one able to move without displacing two others. The girl and I groped through the membrane of bodies to where a film crew was setting up to take sweeping, cinematic footage of the roof of the creature’s mouth.
The girl crouched down to examine its eyes, then, tightening her grip on my hand, brought us in closer. Soon there would be nowhere to go but past its gristle-lips or into the sea. I experienced sudden futility. Trapped, pinned, hopelessly avowed to a fate I could not yet fully understand. I told myself to resist, but I could not. Even as she yanked my fingers I felt another terrible pull, a dragging and sinking sensation, and I feared we were at the center of ceaseless time. I imagined each of us torn to pieces by an infinitely receding whirlpool of teeth and claws. I looked down to see that the dragging feeling came from a small wave washing past my legs, and the sinking was the sand it stripped out from under my feet.
New waves burst forth, splashing over my knees. Several people shrieked and jumped back from the sudden cold. My girl leapt upright and splashed around in surprise.
“Waves just sneak up and grab you, huh?” She laughed it off. Backwater filled the dead jaws of the creature before us, and then drained away with the shifting sand.
Tectonic plates seem to crack. I stay rooted while the earth moves.
“What was that?”
“Come on, everyone get back.”
But it’s too late. The surf returns higher than before, thrusting into my chest. Cold spray slaps my face with the taste of salt. We are packed like sardines on the shelf, and now something else is rising out of the sea. At first it’s like a great ship cresting the horizon, then a jungle island breaking the surface of the deep. I hear screams and I understand—it is all suddenly so clear.
Like tossing bread to the gulls, or fish guts to sea lions. The lure of curious meat. What had he hoped to snare? Certainly not these miniscule morsels.
Out at the shallows’ edge the crown of his head bursts forth, a behemoth compared to which our previous curiosity was merely a snail. Its emergence displaces the depths of the cove, filling the beach with swells that lift me off my feet. Instinctively I fling my cell phone into the sea, like a fox trying to shake the tag pinned to its ear.
A wall of water tumbles past my peripheral vision. I breathe it into my lungs, flailing, gasping. I am tossed and floating. Bodies spasm beneath and above me. Through the turmoil I swear I can see his eyes, pale and yellow like twin sunsets on the horizon. I catch a final glimpse of the dead creature that he used for bait, reclaimed now into the undertow by some stray flesh of the overlord. And then I go under. The girl, whose hand still clings to mine, follows me down. I writhe past the bodies that surround me and pull her toward my chest, clutching her as I had on the beach. Her eyes are wide, lost. She is trying to scream and breathe at the same time, not quite drowned yet. Then her fingers go slack and she is torn away from me on the tide of a hundred more bodies washing out to sea.
I grope for the surface. My head rises into the air, and though I am a speck to his mountain, I seem to mirror the god before me. Lapping crests splash into my mouth, while he swallows entire lakefulls of brine broth dripping with human flesh; some already ripped to pieces, others shrieking as their wits fail them. Pale corpses wedge between his teeth. Orange ooze drips like waterfalls from seven gaping nostrils. He clenches his jaws and the sky blackens with geysers of meat and streamers of viscera.
Hundreds at a time drench the chasm of his throat. We are nothing to him, seasoning for his soup.
The sea grips me again, but I refuse to drown. The hunter must have its prey.
I swim, but not for shore.
Josh Wagner‘s career as a writer began with his first published work of fiction titled “The Finger”. This short story saw print in Lost Worlds Magazine in 1992, a year before Wagner graduated high school. Since 1999 Wagner has been writing a steady stream of novels and short prose. His first novel, “The Adventures of the Imagination of Periphery Stowe” published in 2004 by BAM Publications, led directly to the development of Fiction Clemens. He has since published several short stories and poems, and plans to release three new novels sequentially between 2010-2012. The first of these novels, “Deadwind Sea”, was released in January, 2010 by Impossible Clock Productions.
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