She was crab-catcher, Captain of the yellow bucket that safe-housed lost-looking creatures. Her chubby fingers could wave like sea-anemones, her toes could spread like starfish arms. Her clothes left in a pile on the rocks, a spaceship she climbed out of, useful only for transport. She was a lone explorer, examining and rescuing alien species. Fearlessly wading into the deep, she received stings and pincers with few tears.
Today she was tackling an invasion. Tangled tentacles, beached every few feet, organs inside out. Jellyfish. The nightmare of waiting. Of being aborted. Abandoned children who couldn’t stop waiting by the door, just in case, rucksack packed. Ankle-deep in wet sand, she scowled at the indifferent Ocean. The mighty, unfathomable authority. The things it spat at her, life and death in one salty slap of water against beach. She loved the Ocean like a jellyfish would, stranded in attempts to comprehend the injustice. She was dislodging the biggest when an oversized shadow intruded on her child’s world.
She turned to meet the towering form of an old man. He smelt of the toilets at the village pub and rotting fish. His face heavy with a big grey beard, his body weary under a long coat. Stranger. They didn’t get strangers around here.
“It’s dead.” His voice was gruff as though he’d just been screaming and his accent was all confused.
“No. It’s waiting, see?” She knew she should be scared and was very proud to not be.
“Could sting you bad, you know?”
“Yeah. I been stung before.”
“Where your parents, huh?”
She shrugged. He sighed and rolled up his sleeves to start digging the translucent sack of organs out of the grave it’d made in the sand. She frowned at the puckered holes that purpled his arms.
“You gonna help or not?” She wrinkled her nose against his smell but knelt down to scoop the sand away beside him. They worked silently for a few minutes, the sea approaching, cautiously. Eventually it took the jellyfish back. She wouldn’t believe that is was dead. “Starfish food now.”
The Ocean wind scraped salty against his old flesh, trying to rip his wrinkly filth away. He looked down at the girl, sand stuck to her eyelashes, freckles speckled across her dark cheeks. The scenery clung to her, like a huge rough blanket, keen to envelop her. Belonging without submission, without drowning in her overbearing surroundings. She was a ferocious presence of childhood reckoning. He had forgotten innocence and its indignance.
“Aren’t you meant ‘ be at school?” She shrugged again, already busying herself with the next jellyfish, squatted in the sand like an oversized crab. He watched the sea swirl around her legs. The waves, once remorseless, sunken and apologetic at her feet, helping her lever up and away its collateral. The wind, hateful to him, played with her curls, pulled her into chilling embraces. Beasts not tamed but befriended.
The waves, the cliff-face and childhood village behind, the grey-faced clouds- all bore heavily down upon him. The open landscape behind the jellyfish and the crouching girl was like Heaven’s arms spread open. A peace and acceptance beyond his comprehension. If she weren’t here he’d wade out now, swim into the cold clarity of that distance for as far as his spent body would allow.
There was something in his exhausted loneliness she understood and knew she shouldn’t. The other kids at school wouldn’t. She thought he was thinking of jellyfish, as his grey eyes blurred over the endless stretch of the Ocean.
“Why would it just leave these jellyfish out here?” she asked, succumbing to a moment of trust often beyond her. He turned to look at her, his expression suddenly so beyond her comprehension she felt abandoned in her careful thoughts of creatures shivering, forgotten, in the sand. She felt vulnerable suddenly and small in her underwear and the cold. He sighed and shook his head. “What are those on your arm?” It was his turn to feel reduced to misunderstanding. His next look was sharp as a needle. There was a greedy hollowness to him. The saddest kind of hunger. He would swallow everything around her and still feel empty, untouched. He was the Sea.
“You’re just a girl.” There was a dangerous tenderness to his reply but she just heard the playground boys taunting.
“You did it to yourself.”
“That’s enough.” The threat electric as a jellyfish sting.
“You don’t belong here, your voice is all funny.” She could see him considering beating her, the flutter of breaking bodies behind his eyelids.
The next few days there was no way to sneak from school. When the weekend came she hurried back to the beach with the last slice of white bread salvaged for him, loose in her pocket. She had seen a beached shark before, although she couldn’t remember where, a photo at school, or on T.V.? That’s what he was, lain just where the wet sand met the dry: every nightmare she’d had of what the Ocean’s depth held. His bloodshot eyes ringed in bulging blue. His lips cracked, over yellowed teeth, sharp as his fractured gasps for breath. Sand and vomit sticking to his clammy face. The punctures scarred across his skin now looked like he had been hooked through by a fishing line and reeled in. He stank like he was already rotting, his flesh oily with sweat. Twitches spasmed through him, like an overgrown fish trying to flip itself off land. She couldn’t find the pupils in his eyes when they met hers. He gasped something in a voice so rank it made her recoil. It sounded like he was choking on more vomit until she heard his words.
“I thought you weren’t coming back.” He smiled so weakly, it mangled his face further, his dry eyes moistening at the pink rims. She had never witnessed anything so completely degraded. For the first time she was scared of him. She wanted to kick and scream at him, to run. “Hey.” He spluttered his exhausted desperation. So she just stood over him, her pulse swelling in her ears.
“I can get it you. That medicine, an injection.” She gestured to his scars. She knew the beating she’d get for it, but Momma wasn’t this ill, and she could get more. “Why haven’t you got any?” She could even do it for him, she’d watched enough times. It struck her as a kind of magic, a dark kind. The flame under the spoonful, her mother’s mutterings, the frenzied search for the right vein in the body. What had he called it? “Smack.” That’s when she noticed the stones in his pockets.
“Thank- Bless you.” He tried to smile properly this time, for her, he looked like someone’s grandpa. He looked like if he had more energy he’d put one of his big grimy hands to her face.
She waited with him and all his ugly rot, until he pretended to die. She waited for as long as she dared, to see if he’d stop pretending. She watched the pulse faint beneath the fine flesh on his neck, the spasms still shocking through him. The Sea swept in around them, pulling at his old fingers, wetting the stones in his pocket, swirling his filth away: claiming him. Reluctantly, she began to haul the big sack of organs out to Sea. She was just hauling Momma from the bathroom floor to the sofa again, and then she could curl up in her unconscious arms and put cartoons on the tiny TV. He didn’t have enough left in his body to struggle against the water, he spluttered at each wave until his face was submerged. Their breaths merged as her head filled with echoes of her own labored panting. He shook, choking and writhing but there wasn’t enough willing in him. She only heard, facing the blue certainty of the horizon, she gripped his feet and pulled him further and further out. By the time she couldn’t reach the bottom, he didn’t weigh much at all, only the stones kept him below the surface.
It was fear that made her eventually swim back to shore, frantic fear of his corpse somewhere deep in that chasm of water-logged darkness. The shore seemed to shrink into the distance every time she thought it reachable. It was as though the tide were him trying to pull her down into his grave with him. So when she finally crawled from the shallows, dripping and gasping, she felt like she had only just clawed her way out of an unwanted embrace. She sat on the wet sand and stared out at all that deep nothingness, waiting for the cold water’s bitter sting to settle in her throat and chest. She could see starfish on his eyes, fish in between his bones, anemones in his mouth and a jellyfish wrapped around his chest, countless sea life come to nibble the scars of addiction from his skin. She stretched, laid back in the sand and thought of running away to sea.