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Tidal Pool

by Shawn Bailey 7 months ago in fiction · updated 7 months ago
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Letter From a Village Fisherman

I never thought of our village's tidal pool as a dark secret. Like most things that exist before we are born, it was nothing more than a banal curiosity. That is, until you interacted with it.

It lies stagnant and black about a fifteen minute walk from the heart of our village. When the sea retreats, it leaves behind a smooth, obsidian swath of salty obscurity that's nestled within an uneven terrain of porous rocks and jagged protrusions. These shore-worn blades of rock have left many a foot showing the white of bone. There are other, smaller tidal pools dispersed intermittently amongst the algae ridden rocks. Life teems in these clear puddles surrounding the pool, but once you're standing over that veiled mirror of blackness, you can't see past the murky surface.

Not that you could just walk up and stare into it whenever you pleased. Twelve of our villagers guarded it in shifts. No one talked to them. No one knew their names. They weren't the biggest of us, or the meanest either, and they were always smiling. But you didn't want to test them. One of the older fishermen, who was prone to the drink when having a bad month, stumbled a little too close to the pool one night and ended up having to be transported thirty miles to the nearest hospital. I heard through the grapevine they had treated him for severe jelly fish burns and a few broken bones. He returned to the village a week later still in bad shape, but to this day, as far as I know, has never touched the drink again.

Here's how the pool worked in our village. Every few years, a small group of the elders would select one or more of the youth, usually between the ages of fourteen and sixteen, and they would be unceremoniously led to the pool and allowed to submerge for a few quick seconds, then marched back to their shanties, where they would recover over the course of a week or so. I can only share my experience with the pool, but can't speak for the others. I'm not certain everyone followed the same paths in life. Some of us were later seen speaking to the elders, but others were never summoned. Some apprenticed with fishermen, some with boat makers, but some, my self included, seemed to go about life as normal without interruption from anyone.

The day of my submersion, I watched a friend ease himself nervously into that lifeless tranquility. I could tell he was being careful with his feet, finding purchase on each invisible foothold. When he was neck deep, he looked nervously up at the guardians who only smiled and laughed, motioning him to get it over with. We were to step off the underwater edge and go until we hit bottom, which my friend did. In a few seconds, he emerged from the blackness with his face contorted in pain. They helped him up the stairs and he hobbled off, alone, towards his shanty.

As I stepped in, the warm temperature seemed an invitation. I was taller than my friend, so I was chest deep when my toes no longer rested on rock and dangled off into nothingness. I didn't want to hesitate like my friend and get laughed at, so I jumped. I had blown all the air out of my lungs so I would sink easily. The bottom must have been about twice the length of my body because I thought for a second I wouldn't touch, and be forced to return to the surface having failed a simple task. Instead, I felt stabbing pains in my feet, from what I gathered was a sea urchin. The pain was almost unbearable. I remember them helping me out, smiling and laughing, and a few fragmented memories of a very painful walk back to my hut.

The next week was a blur of fevered dreams of the deepest, darkest places in the sea. I would sit motionless on the ocean's bottom, in solitude, surrounded by a heavy quietness. Or I would lurk in dismal haunts and obscure hideaways. I was as big as a ship in these dreams. I was no longer human, but could not discern my form, nor did I seem to care, but was keenly aware that I took up a great deal of space in those gloomy depths. Time was immeasurable and I wasn't sure if I had sat for minutes or years in the crushing underbelly of those mysterious depths. At the end of my dreadful meditations, I would dive into hidden caves and sink deeper into the endless.

Gradually, I got my life back and helped my uncle with the nets. Not long after that, I developed a real knack for where to fish. Our family had a really good three months. Then my sense of where to find the fish dissipated and seemed to plateau, although it stayed higher than normal. We didn't go without. My friend's path was different. He became a little stronger. He could drag the boats down to the water without any help. He could finally beat me wrestling, and with ease at that. It was apparent to us that whatever lie at the bottom of the dark tide pool had empowered us in different ways.

Six months passed. I missed those initial, heightened senses and was overtaken by a dreadful curiosity. I asked my uncle how many times he had dipped below that ominous surface in his lifetime. He said, "Only once. Everyone gets one dip. That's it."

I was flabbergasted. Why would you only get dipped once? Whatever was happening, it seemed to be a good thing. Our senses worked better. Our bodies were stronger. Why not get even stronger?

My uncle replied that, "One dip gives our village a collective advantage. Helps us stay strong, healthy, and well fed. Why ask for more when we have what we need?"

It maddened me to no end that this made sense to him. It angered me even more that it made sense to me. He was right, but my festering curiosity drew me back again and again. I would make excuses to swim out past the jetty, saying I could sense a school of fish out there, and always making sure to emerge from the frigid waters with a few I'd speared for show. I would wave to the guardians and they would wave back. I did this for months. But my attempts to ease closer and closer were soon interrupted. I noticed two things. One, there was sometimes an overlap between when the replacement guardians showed up and when the old ones left. One time, there was a fifteen minute break between when the old ones passed over the dune and the new ones emerged. The second thing I noticed was one of the older ladies from the village. She sat in the sand a fair ways down the beach. This was always at dusk, but she had no fire to keep her warm.

A few months passed and the sun began to warm our village again. I emerged from the water that night to find no guardians surrounding the pool. I waited and waited, but no one came over the dune and then it was dark. After thirty or so minutes, I crept closer. As I felt my way around the rocks, I tried to keep an eye out for silhouettes on the dune using the faint light from the quarter moon. As I reached the pool, I saw that the guardians were indeed present, but they were all lying dead in the shallow waters. Adrenaline flooded my system as I eased closer to see if I could figure out what happened. But as I slowly circled the pool, I only became more unsettled. The guardians, the men I had passed by for the past year, were misshapen. I looked down at hands and arms that were no longer hands and arms, but tentacles and eel-like projections. One guardian's mouth was open wide, as if in midscream, but the mouth was a beak. Another's body was translucent and slimy. Another's eyes where as wide as my hand and as black as the coming night. Their bodies were a shattered collection of gashes and blunt trauma; blood and ink everywhere.

It occurred to me that I had been in contact with these creatures since the day I was born, and never knew their true form. Now I was alone, standing unprotected in the open, with whatever had killed them. I heard a noise behind me and swiveled to see the woman from the beach standing at the edge of the tidal pool, her arm raising and lowering a rope as she moved back and forth at the edge. I was about to turn and run when I realized I would probably fall and break my neck trying to get away. I was in the middle of my flight or fight decision, when she spoke.

"I found a deep spot," she said. I couldn't see her face clearly, but was certain she was smiling. Her motions ceased and I could hear the cord sliding through her hand very fast. When it stopped, she spoke again. "Here it is." She then bent down and picked up a rather large rock and stepped forward, into the pool.

I walked as quickly as I could over the sharp rocks, onto the beach, and past the dunes. I was soon at the edge of our village and screaming at the top of my lungs, "The guardians are dead! The guardians are dead!" The other guardians came out of nowhere and surrounded me. I hurriedly told them my story as wary villagers crowded around at a distance to hear the wild tale. The guardians gathered weapons, something I had never seen them do, and ran into the darkness.

*****

I later heard through the grapevine that the woman was the widower of a fisherman who hadn't brought in a good haul for some time. Years ago, the light-skinned people on the larger boats began trespassing into our waters and taking our fish. The officials did nothing. Over the last decade, they had taken so much that now even their nets were empty. The man was traditional, like most in our village, and thought himself a failure when he could not put food on the table. He tied a rock to his feet and sank himself at sea.

His wife lost her will shortly after. So she began doing what I had done, and watching the guardians. She too had seen the lapse when changing shifts. She had undoubtedly taken more than one dip in those black waters during those short intervals, as evidenced by her ability to take out all four guardians herself.

After their friends' deaths, the guardians chose several men from the village, one of which was myself, and allowed us to form a second circle, further out from the pool. For months, night after night, we were on high alert, not knowing what to expect. But nothing ever happened, and so life continued on as it had before. Years passed. The second circle gradually fell away and a few of us were recruited as replacement guardians. We took dips in very specific parts of the pool and watched in amazed horror as we slowly and partially transmogrified into various creatures of the sea. We could change to and fro at will. Our skin dark as a moonless night. Our senses heightened. We were stronger than ten men combined. It was both terrifying and empowering. We were connected to the sea in a way I cannot begin to relate. I could finally see why the misuse of this unnatural resource could be dangerous.

One day at dusk, she emerged from the pool so quickly and with such a violent force that none of us could immediately take in what was happening. Like our predecessors, we were unprepared. Our weapons lying in a clump too far away. Two of us dead in seconds. Two of us reached the weapons and began attacking back, for what it was worth. Her tentacles flailed madly as we hacked at them with wild abandon. A terrible shriek filled the night and she suddenly stopped and began, inexplicably, attacking herself. Her slimy torso slid from the pool and she used her beak to snap off her own limbs, black ink spraying like a fountain in all directions. We were stupefied by her actions and only watched for a moment as she sliced off tentacle after tentacle and used what was left to sling them toward the beach.

When I realized what she was doing, I screamed and rushed her torso, slicing and stabbing, praying that I was quick enough to end her. She payed me no mind and continued to fling parts of herself to the oceanside. I finally hit a spot that caused her to convulse. Her few remaining appendages shot out and grabbed me, dragging me close to one of her gargantuan eyes. I yelled for my friend, but he was in pieces. How she could still speak from that glistening orifice beneath her beak, I'll never know, but she uttered this to me in a sputtering gurgle.

"Ick goes eben deefer than -- rope. Thu the siiiide. Thoooo deeef."

I ran, I promise you all, I ran as fast as I could to the beach. I began grabbing those wriggling pieces of her and tossing them back towards the dunes. But the tide was coming in. She knew this. I looked around me and saw several pieces of her being sucked into the waves. And just like that, it was over. A few months later, I looked out across the sea and witnessed, in the moonlight, the water churning for miles and miles. Each appendage sprouting another of her, and another of her slicing herself to shreds and so on. An endless spawning of malignant baptisms.

Last night, I saw a steady line of her emerge from the edge of the sea and head towards the city in the distance. Thousands of her. But there are millions of her out there in the deep... waiting.

I'm sending this letter to you via our evacuating villagers, so you can prepare. I've included the coordinates of our village's tidal pool. I will go there today and follow in her footsteps. I don't know how long it will take. I cannot fathom what awaits me, but I promise to hold steady and descend as deep as I can into that darkness. I fear the only way to defeat a legion of her is with a legion of me. If I remain myself.

fiction

About the author

Shawn Bailey

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