When the creature washed upon our shore, I was one of the first witnesses. Out on the same walk I took every early morning, along the cliff trail overlooking Surfer’s Cove, I passed one of several small beaches of rocky shoals and tide pools. Here I noticed seven or eight tourists already gathered. At first glance I mistook the creature for a giant tangle of seaweed. But when I saw its single milky eye, I recognized the animal body within. Nearly the length of a small prop plane, the creature appeared from a distance like an abysmally large cuttlefish. Curiosity possessed me. Without even considering whether the thing was dead or alive I ran for the path leading to the waterfront. Soon I was nestled among the murmurs of strangers as together we ogled the towering corpse.
From atop the cliff the creature had seemed almost cherubic, nestled to the neck in thalassic 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 against the ridge of its back. Its lower jaw protruded like an iron fishhook; sunken cheeks suggested a nightmarish skull. I peered past rows of fractured teeth into the receding throat. A salty, slaughterhouse stench on the sea air. I pulled the collar of my sweater up over my nose and mouth.
I’d already dug out my cell phone to snap pictures. I updated my Facebook status to “Behemoth beached at S. Cove.” I sent texts and images to close friends, morbid acquaintances, and a girl I’d been trying to sleep with. I updated my blog with a slideshow of filter/no-filter image pairings captioned with carefully crafted descriptions and hashtags.
The Eye: Harboring a ghostly blue aureole almost as a trick of the light.
Teeth: Lining a jutting under-bite in three rows. The stains of decay.
Skin: Flaking scales sheltering a translucent, leathery epidermis. Slime by the handfuls, crusting over scabs of purple mucous. Shreds of scars along the ribs.
The Scales: Each the size of a Volkswagen Bug’s hood. Smeared with murk and crusted over in barnacles and starfish, reflecting a distortion of the cliffs behind us.
Tentacles: Dozens branching from the neck. Tangled up in kelp and slime. I wondered if they worked like whiskers on kittens.
Claws: Coiled up in two rows flanking the underbelly—like the legs of a centipede.
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 stuck to the default script of typical questions and comments:
“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 came in the form of a question, “Do you think it’s alive?”
The girl I was chasing texted me back.
omg, wut is it?
Blathering chatter in person is one thing; over text it’s intolerable.
just come down here, I replied.
Already, more and more onlookers were joining us on the beach, winding down the trail in threes and fours. The press beat the police to the scene by fifteen minutes. Cell phones and cameras flashing in unison. Digital tones that mimicked a shutter’s click punctuated our drone of whispers. We were assaulted by the obligatory police mantra, “Everyone please move along,” but there wasn’t enough manpower or moral authority in the city to hold back our burgeoning horde. This 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 the monster to see if it would respond. Teenagers threw rocks from a distance.
The theories started up right away. Soon the crowd grew large enough that anonymity loosened tongues to even the most absurd notions. The irrationality of one’s apperceptions increases 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.”
“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 wondered if it might be amphibious. I resisted expressing my own theory, that this carcass was a shell or vehicle housing one or more living creatures. At the very least it must be host to insects and foreign bacteria. I expected the soft belly to explode at any minute, spawning an army of spiders and crustaceans to scuttle over the screeching masses.
There was a moment where I started to notice that people were no longer looking directly at the creature. All eyes mediated through viewfinders, monitoring the screens of cell phones to apply a filter or comment on a post or search the internet to try and identify the thing. Police were writing reports. Reporters turning away to make phone calls with fingers in their ears. Collectors hunting for more clues along the beach. Hundreds of us engaged at arm’s length with every peripheral facet, but only two or three small children were still actively engaged with the thing itself, fixated as though to a siren’s song. I felt an uneasy sense that every moment spent here was beyond our control. We were flooding in too rapidly, summoning one another at an unsustainable rate. The distant crackle of a bullhorn routinely ordered the heedless crowd to disperse.
A hand touched my shoulder. Startled, I twirled to face the girl I’d messaged. Her pupils were engorged with light.
She rested the tips of her green fingernails on parted lips and gasped with a sound I could almost touch.
“You made it,” I said.
“Christ,” she said.
“I guess the tide dragged it in.”
“Thanks for texting me.”
“You didn’t bring a 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.”
“I want to see its eyes.”
A wave of Japanese tourists fresh off the cliff cut between us. Panic flashed across her face as she slipped into the mob. I reached out and managed to grab the tips of her fingers. She clawed frantically back up my arm as I pulled her toward me. Our chests collided between the sway of people. I could feel her breath on my skin. She giggled and looked around, and didn’t let go of my hand.
“Come on,” I said.
By then it had become an ordeal to move in any direction. Even the cliff now packed with those unwilling or unable to come closer. More were arriving every minute, drawn in by texts, tweets, updates, upvotes, headlines, podcasts, and occasionally the old-fashioned allure of noticing a mob on the horizon. Thick like rats in a gutter, shoulder-to-shoulder, no one able to move without displacing two others. I heard the distant whir of helicopter blades. 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 eye. Tightening her grip on my hand she drew us closer. Soon there would be nowhere to go but through its gristle-lips or into the sea. I experienced a wave of futility. Trapped, pinned, hopelessly avowed to a fate I could not yet fully understand. I told myself to resist, but it was too late. As she yanked my fingers I felt a secondary tug on my body, a terrible dragging and sinking sensation. 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. This thought was triggered by a small wave that washed past my legs; the sinking feeling was the sand slipping out from under my feet.
More waves sloshed over my knees. I heard shrieks and saw people leaping back from the sudden cold, splashing around in surprise.
“Waves just sneak up and grab you, huh?” We laughed it off. Backwater filled the dead jaws of the creature and then drained away with the shifting sand.
Tectonic plates seem to crack. I remain rooted while the earth moves.
“What was that?”
“Come on, everyone get back.”
But it’s too late. The surf returns, higher now, ramming my chest. Cold spray slaps my face with salty dismissal. We are stoppered up like jars on a shelf, and now something else rises from the sea. At first I imagine a battleship rising on the horizon, then a jungle island breaking the surface. I hear screams and finally understand. It is suddenly all so clear.
Like tossing bread to the gulls, or guts to sea lions. The lure of curious meat. What has he hoped to snare? Certainly not these minuscule morsels.
Out at the shoal’s edge the crown of his head bursts forth, a monster compared to which our previous curiosity is a mere snail. Its emergence displaces the depths of the cove, filling the beach with swells that lift us off our 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 overtakes me. I breathe it into my lungs, choking, flailing, gasping. I am tossed and floating. Bodies spasm above and below me. Through the turmoil I can see his eyes, pale and yellow like twin sunsets on the world’s edge. I catch a final glimpse of the dead thing he used for bait, reclaimed now into the undertow by some stray vestigial flesh. And then I go under. The girl, her hand still clinging to mine, follows me down past the assembly of bodies. Her eyes are wide, lost. She is trying to scream and breathe at the same time, not quite drowned yet. Then her fingers slacken and the tide tears her away to join the hundreds washing out to sea.
I grope for the surface. My face bursts into the bright air. Though I am a speck to his mountain I seem to mirror the god before me. He swallows entire lakes of brine broth dripping with scraps of human flesh, pale corpses wedged between his teeth. Something orange oozes in thick sluggish waterfalls from a halo of gaping nostrils. He clenches his jaws and the sky blackens with geysers of meat. Hundreds at a time pepper 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.
originally published in The Lovecraft eZine