Sweetlings

“Sweetlings” by Lucy Taylor is about a small enclave of people living on the shrunken east coast of the United States, surviving and evolving as Earth’s seas rise.

 

The night before my mother walked into the New Sea carrying my six-week-old brother, I heard her and Papi arguing. Even with the wind screaming past our tiny squatter’s house on the cliff, the rage in her voice slashed through the thin wall.

“It’s not right! I’d rather smother the boy in his sleep than do this!”

“But you must,” Papi said. His voice was firm and deliberate, the way he sounded telling me to take a dose of foxglove to ward off Blister Rot or refusing Mama’s entreaties to leave this lonely, wind-battered place and take our chances inland. Kind, but unyielding. “The child is suffering. See how he struggles to breathe. I’d carry him into the water myself, but my legs are too weak…and I won’t ask Mir to do it.”

“Then don’t ask it of me!”

“It’s not in our hands, don’t you see? We’ve got to accept what this new world is becoming, not torment ourselves with what we’d like it to be.”

His words reminded me of Jersey, who even now—two years later—has a kind of mad optimism that sees the Great Inundation and the ensuing havoc and death as some kind of exciting adventure, a new start for humanity instead of a long bitter trudge to extinction.

Mama’s sobbing played counterpoint to the howl of the wind.

“We were fools to have another baby! Not in these times. We shouldn’t have had Mir either. Look at her! Maybe it’s her I ought to take into the sea!”

“There’s nothing wrong with our daughter,” Papi said. “She’s thirteen. Shy about her body and starting to think about sex. A difficult age at the best of times.”

“I wish she was dead! I wish we were all dead!”

In her despair, she threw something, a dish or a cup that shattered twice, the first time against the wall, the second time, inside my heart. I’d heard enough. I scrambled out the window next to my bed and hurled myself down the path that hair-pinned along the cliff side. The cliff was unstable, the high tides gouging out chunks of earth and rock whose thunderous collapse sometimes made the house sway, but I ran recklessly, heedless. If I fell, I’d become just one more corpse among thousands, people who’d lived and died in places Papi’s Grandma Ortega used to talk about when I was small. She still remembered the Old Coast towns like Campbells Landing and Pungo, even as far inland as Richmond, Virginia, where the Atlantic Ocean, the James River, and the Chesapeake Bay combined to sweep out cities and reconfigure the east coast.

As I ran, I could see moonlight on the chain of debris islands offshore—soiled tiaras formed out of junk—girders and bot parts and smashed weather drones, agri-panels tortured into sinister shapes, a smashed airbus and the skeleton of a horse. A human skull with a tire iron through its teeth grimaced from the top of a flagpole.

The path narrowed. I crept along until my fingers found a wind-chiseled gap in the sandstone. From the hollow within came warmth and the reek of charring sea vermin.

Inside, Jersey crouched by the fire, turning the meat on a coat hanger skewer, his hand gloved with rags. He was fifteen then, small for his age, but wiry and strong, the ferocity of his will to survive making up for what he lacked in stature. He wore khaki shorts two sizes too big and a blue bandanna that held back his long, dark auburn hair.

He looked up. “Thought you weren’t coming.”

I slumped beside him. “It’s the baby! I think Mama’s going to drown him.”
His eyes got big as twin moons. They’re deep blue eyes, which is so weird-looking. When I first saw him, I felt afraid. Like he might carry some strange disease. Papi says in years past, such eyes were common, but it’s hard to believe. “Jesus, Mir, why would she do that? We need all the babies we can get! Is something wrong with him?”

“I don’t know. Mama kept him in the room with her. She never let me see him.”

Which was a lie, of course. I’d seen my brother plenty of times: like all baby animals, he was pink and wriggly and (I guess) cute, but fell somewhat short of being fully human. If Jersey knew I was lying, though, he didn’t let on. After all, he needed to stay on my good side. At that time, I was one of only three girls near his age in the settlement. One of them, Galveston Fenwick, was already pregnant and living with her betrothed. The other, sixteen-year-old Sabra Pacheco, had Blister Rot in her crotch and would never be able to have babies. Which meant that, unless he left the settlement and struck out on his own, I was Jersey’s only realistic prospect for sex.

“Eat something, Mir.” He twisted a lump of meat off the skewer. Crisped, insectile legs and blackened, indented eyeballs were part of the presentation. I felt my gorge rise.

“I’m ok. Supply truck’s due any day.”

“Sure it is. Fuckin’ driver’s probably a hundred miles from here stuffing his face with our food.”

He had a point. In theory, the supply truck made the run down the New Coast from Charlottesville every few weeks, bringing food and medical supplies to the pockets of people still toughing it out by the sea, but its arrival was already sporadic, the portent of more hardships to come. Maybe the people in the western settlements had forgotten us. Maybe they were starving, too, and had no food to send. Maybe they were all dead.

To please Jersey, I nibbled a few bites of the mystery crustacean. The temperature dropped, and a harsh chemical rain began spilling in from the east, smelling faintly of ozone and motor oil. We spent the night clinging to each other, as if huddled inside a giant clam shell. Once I woke up so hungry that I brought Jersey’s grubby fingers up to my mouth and licked off the taste of burnt sea life.

At daybreak, Jersey took his gaff hook and net and went to fish in the tidal pools. I returned home, where Papi told me Mama had walked into the sea with the baby. Her body washed up days later, teeth marks on her belly and a specimen of formerly extinct sea life snagged in her hair.

I never saw my brother again.

 

The trilobites are the first miracle, Papi says, and I suppose he should know. Before I was born, he taught high school science and studied oceanography in his spare time. He took his students on field trips to look for fossils in what used to be the Allegheny Mountains.

According to Papi, the trilobites’ return from extinction—heralded by that first one I found in my dead mother’s hair—signaled that the earth is reinventing itself, lurching toward a new equilibrium. The second miracle is that these “new, improved” trilobites have gills modified to leach oxygen out of the air, so they can thrive on both land and in the water.

“Look, Mir! See how it kills its prey! How it stabs with its leg spines and feeds chunks of the worm into its mouth!” Papi sits in a wheelchair Jersey and I took from a dead guy whose house we were looting. Reverently, he gazes at the live-action nature show being played out on his forearm: Permian-era arthropod versus post–Great Inundation earthworm. The trilobite’s leg spines make short work of the meal, and remind me just how dangerous these creatures can be: curled up in a ball for protection, they look harmless enough, but snatch an enrolled tril too fast or too roughly and the spines thrust out like jointed razors. This tril is the color of sea grass and mud, its leg spines half the length of its body. Five inches of prehistoric arthropod, it belongs to a species Papi says died off some two hundred and fifty million years ago.

Until recently, that is, when the New Sea began belching them up like a horde of sea locusts.

“Fucking amazing, aye?” he exclaims. “Look how the cephalon bulges—brood pouches, I’d say. Where did you find it?”

“Down the Old Road past the duck farm, in the ditch where Hetti Spooner drowned.”

“Two miles then.”

“Give or take.”

He cocks his head toward the window, following some stray wisp of thought. Honeyed light slants onto two large aquariums on the table beside him. In one, trilobites sun on a small island of pebbles and mud or crawl underwater along the edge of the glass. The second aquarium churns with the slow, restless thrashing of its lone occupant, a foot-long, eel-shaped fish with four lobed fins and bugged-out, manic eyes. This one’s just a baby, but still so dangerous it makes the trilobites look like lap cats by comparison.

“Trilobites on land—think of the ramifications!” Papi declares as the last of the worm disappears into the trilobite’s barbed mouth. “Evolution is moving to erase its mistakes, to create a new hierarchy of life that may or may not include humans. Who knows what our odds are at this point? But trilobites back from extinction—and amphibious, no less—that’s a miracle I’m thankful I lived to see!”

He speaks with terrifying conviction, a mad prophet gleefully reading into catastrophe a harbinger of still worse to come.

I nod toward the second aquarium, where the metallic blue, eel-like fish snakes back and forth, squeaks against the glass and loops back, loops again. “What about Old Four Legs? Is he a miracle, too?”

Papi frowns at my use of the nickname. Some scientist bestowed it on this oily, foul-flavored fish over a century ago, but Papi’s a stickler for using proper, scientific terms.

“The coelacanth, you mean. They were never extinct. Scientists in the early twentieth century thought they were, but then they turned up off the coast of South Africa and later, in a fish market in Indonesia. Evolution-wise, a fascinating creature! Ancestors of tetrapods, four-leggeds who live on land. More adaptable than humans, I’d wager. Not a miracle perhaps, but who knows—they may outlive us all.”

“So you think humans are just some kind of cosmic fuck-up?”

I want reassurance. I want him to hug me against his chest and tell me not to be silly, no way will evolution conspire to do in the human race, but instead a weird elation illuminates his swarthy face and his eyes glow with the radiance of stars. When he speaks, the words are measured and hushed, like a prayer. “What I think, Mir, is that the Great Inundation was just the beginning. Humanity may be a failed experiment. Now nature’s wiping the slate clean. A new environment, new species evolving at a breakneck pace!” He flexes his huge hands as if trying to physically contain the vastness of the idea and looks over at the tril perched on his shoulder like an exotic pet roach.

“The trilobites’ adaptation to land should have taken millions of years. How did it occur in just a few generations? I found a theory about that, you know—punctuated equilibrium—the idea that after environmental upheaval, surviving species branch out into new ones over a very short period of time. They might even leave the water for land or vice versa.”

I consider this. “So, this punctuation thing, is that why the baby looked like he did?”
“The baby—? There was nothing wrong with the baby.” He tilts his head, confused and suddenly rattled. I’ve seen this change in him before, a shift in mood like a land in the grip of unpredictable seasons, thoughts massing like storm clouds before evaporating into the pale, scoured sky of his mind. In such moments, he is a stranger to me and I to him. Like those nights when I find him at the window, staring out at the New Sea as if spellbound. When I say his name and he turns to me, there’s no recognition. It’s as though I’m nothing he’s ever seen before, but something fabulous and faintly unclean, a bizarre species of spider fish or toad that just hopped and wriggled its way into creation.

Perhaps in search of more food, the tril has begun climbing into Papi’s thick, matted hair. He shakes his head, shudders. “Take this thing, will you? Put it back in the tank.”

I pluck the tril loose using kitchen tongs and start to drop it into the tank with its kin. Papi stops me. “Not that one, Mir. Feed it to the coelacanth, please.”

I’m surprised, because usually we feed Old Four Legs fish scraps, but I do as he says. The tril doesn’t even have time to curl into a protective ball before the coelacanth torpedoes in, sheers off the spines with one slashing bite and gobbles upward through the exoskeleton. Bits of gill filaments and sections of thorax swirl in the water.

I’m repulsed by the carnage, but weirdly hypnotized too, imagining the danger posed by such fish when they’re fully grown, six-foot-long monsters that roam coastal waters and hang out on the mudflats waiting for prey. You see someone missing a foot or a hand, most likely they lost a fight with a coelacanth.

“Wish the smelly fuckers were extinct,” I mutter.

Papi works his tongue around in his mouth and spits something into the tank. A yellowed incisor floats to the bottom leaking a thin trail of blood.

I pretend not to see and don’t tell him some of mine are loose, too.

Losing teeth is apparently part of the great evolutionary plan.

 

The next day ushers in the worst of summer’s heat and humidity, when breathing feels like gagging on a wet sponge, and there’s a metallic tang to the drizzle. In the settlement, rumors circulate that the supply truck has been spotted to the north and people gather by what used to be the open-air market, the most optimistic of them bearing sacks and wheelbarrows with which to tote off their plunder. I join the Pugmire kids and Crazy Paki Begaye, who clutches an Kindle Fire that hasn’t worked since Papi was a boy, but that he holds on to like the hand of his mother. For hours, we loiter in the energy-sapping heat. The supply truck doesn’t show. We are all idiots.

I’m about to give up when I see Jersey jogging up the main road and go to meet him. He’s sweating and red-faced and gives me a longer than usual hug. I know immediately something is wrong.

“You should have been at school today, Mir. You won’t believe it! Mr. Watanabi tried to shoot himself!”

“Watanabi! You’re kidding!” Not much shocks me these days, but this does—the image of the staid and scholarly Mr. Watanabi going into freak-out mode is both hilarious and deeply disturbing. Watanabi is like Papi used to be, a rock of calm in the tempest, predictability amid chaos. That even he is losing it now scares me more than I want to admit.

“What happened?”

He takes my hand and leads me away from the small knots of people, up the Old Road where the air is so laden with oil-tainted mist I see only his silhouette ghosting beside me.

“Watanabi was teaching about the Hush Phase—after the First Inundation when everybody thought the waters had calmed and they could rebuild. He was a teenager then. He said people turned to superstition and magic, trying to placate nature to keep the water from rising again. They started to worship old sea gods like Triton and Mizuchi. They’d leave legs of beef and sheep heads on the shore for an offering.”

“Papi told me about that. Waste of good meat. Crazy, huh?”

“They believed in demons too, half-human monsters that would drag people into the water and drown them. Some wouldn’t even eat fish. They were too afraid of angering the sea gods.”

“But that was so long ago. Why would Watanabi want to kill himself over ancient history?”
Jersey tightens his grip on my hand. “Because he thinks the monsters have come back, that’s why. Or maybe they never went away. He says there’s something huge that crawls out of the water at night and hides in the thicket behind his vegetable garden. He hears it slithering around, but he’s afraid to go outside. All he’s seen are its tracks entering the water. He thinks it’s a demon waiting for a chance to kill him and eat him and that whatever it is, it will come for us, too!”

“Holy shit, what did you do?”

“Well, at first everybody’s dead quiet, stunned, but then a few kids start to giggle. Pretty soon everybody’s laughing. I mean, I laughed, too, I couldn’t help it. That’s when he pulls out the gun. I think, oh fuck he’s going to shoot us, but he puts it in his mouth! I’ve never even seen a real gun, but me and Pete Spooner, we grabbed him and took it away. A couple other kids walked him home. He was still sobbing and struggling.” He shrugs. “Shit, I guess that’s the end of school.”

I can’t shake the image he’s left me with. “I can’t believe Watanabi had a gun!”

“Not anymore.” He digs in his pocket and pulls out a matte black Glock about the size of my hand. “You think it’s loaded?”

“Let’s see.”

I take the gun, click open the cartridge, and show him its innards—six amber bullets. Hollow points.

“How’d you know how to do that?”

I try not to smirk. “Papi taught me when I was five.”

We trudge in silence through the foul-tasting mist, the reality of the gun hanging between us like a dangerous secret, until Jersey stops and clears his throat like he’s got something important to say. Blurts out, “There’s something I need to show you. I wasn’t going to because I didn’t want to scare you, but I need to know what you think it might be.”

We take a last longing look at the road the supply truck will take if it ever arrives, then head northeast, beyond the dirt roads to the soggy, bramble-strewn fields where Jersey and I sometimes hunt frogs and long-legged brown limpkins. I’m used to it here, but today the fog and the silence unnerve me. Freddy Elkins was set upon by Road People here, and a supply truck was hijacked and the driver stabbed and dismembered a couple years back.

The path narrows until we’re skirting the edge of a drop formed when slabs of rock and dirt crumbled away. Jersey leads me down into the rock fall. I’m about to ask where the hell are we going, when, like a gift, the path levels out, and we’re on a stretch of powdery red earth dotted with tiny blue flowers. At our approach, lizards skitter for safety. I wish for my net and my gaff hook. We could eat these.

Jersey points at the ground. “So what made this?”

Sand, rocks, some sparse grass: nothing my brain can frame as any recognizable pattern. But Jersey’s seen something, obviously. I crouch on my haunches and study it. Sweeps of sand that look broom-swept, pitted by wind, grass stalks snapped off just below the rim of a rock ledge where—“Something lay up there, sunning itself or waiting for prey—”

Jersey nods.

“—and here where the weeds are crushed, it jumped down”—I’m excited now, decoding the message some passing creature has left on the land—“heavy and long-bodied, but—” Confusion nicks at me. “—look how deep the feet punched into the sand.” Now I’m stymied, because the legs are spaced way too far between front and back. I stop relaying my observations to Jersey and try to look with my animal brain, wordless and unburdened by preconceptions. Here’s where the thing struggled its stumpy legs out of the sand and wriggled down the slope we’ve just ascended, leaving behind a broad, serpentine swath punctuated with prints that are clawless and wedge-shaped. Its belly drags the ground like a seal, but no seals ever lived this far south. The tracks continue down to the path we came up on, then descend a steep grade and zigzag out of sight.

Jersey’s looking at me expectantly.

“Whatever this is, it’s heavy, with short, strong legs that attach to the body at a weird angle. Going downhill, it folds the legs in and skids on its belly. Almost like—” I snatch up a fistful of flattened grass. Press it to my nose. “Shit.”

“What?”

“Smell.”

He breathes deep and recoils. “Christ, it smells like…”

“Old Four Legs. A big one.”

“Fucking can’t be.”

Papi’s talk about speeded-up evolution, about the coelacanths being the ancestors of tetrapods bangs around in my brain. “The trilobites came onto the land. Maybe Old Four Legs did, too.”

We stare at each other.

“But it’s a fucking fish, Mir. It can’t walk. It can’t breathe air!”

“Maybe it can. The trils evolved a new type of gills, who’s to say Old Four Legs didn’t do the same? And as far as walking, I’ve seen them waddle on the mudflats from one pool to the next. Their fins work like legs. Like a dog paddling.”

“But that’s just a few feet. We’re a half mile from the water. I mean, for Old Four Legs to walk here, that would be…totally amazing!” On this last part, his voice lifts, like a switch has been thrown in his brain, flipping it from horror to awe. Is it that easy, I wonder, this psychic sleight of synapse? “Jesus, what if you’re right? What if that’s what made the tracks Watanabi saw in his garden?”

“Then you probably should have let him keep the gun.”

Jersey squints toward the horizon, where the sun’s broken through and strikes blinding shafts off the metal flotsam of the debris islands. “We need to get out of here, Mir.”

“Yeah, before it comes back.”

“I mean we need to move away. Go inland.”

“Because we found a weird set of tracks? Because Watanabi’s losing his mind?”

“Because we don’t want to die! Look, if Old Four Legs was really here, this far from the water, then what else may be coming onto the land? Do we really want to stay and find out? I don’t, and I don’t think you do either. We need to get out.”

“But how? Where do we go?”

“We take what we can and walk west in the daylight on the Old Roads. At night we hide. We keep going until we find other people, maybe even some who came from here. We’ll find a place to build a house and grow food.” He wraps an arm around me and whispers into my hair. “We’ll do our part, too. We’ll make babies, lots of them, and help start this world over again! Think of it, Mir, wouldn’t you like that? A new life?”

In the face of such absurd hope, such blind faith in a benevolent universe, I can think of many objections, but I fall back on the most immediate one: “What about Papi? You want me to leave him?”

He sighs. “I don’t know. You say he can’t hardly walk. Maybe there’s no other choice.”

I shove him so hard he almost falls down. “Your brain must be Blister Rotted if you think I’d do that! Not for you, not for anyone.” I can see the damage my words do, but that isn’t enough. Suddenly I want to hurt him, make him hate me. “I don’t want to make kids with you, either. I don’t want you! You want to leave here so bad, go on and go!”

Are there tears in his eyes? I’ve never seen Jersey cry, not even when he first wandered into the settlement after his parents were killed, a scared little kid who’d been living off insects, almost starved to death. Shame scorches me. I want to tell him the truth about why I’m really upset, but I can’t find the words, so I watch him walk away and say nothing.

There’s so much Jersey doesn’t understand.

If he did, he might not be so fucking optimistic.

 

As if to compensate for the supply truck not arriving, the sun beams down like a blessing, and fishing is good for a few days. I gaff a halibut and net two cod that the receding tide’s trapped in the shallows, decide to fire-roast the halibut and store the cod. Behind the house, I slice the smaller fish into strips and lay them out on the drying rack while Papi watches me with the intensity of a man who’s never seen this action performed before, let alone the skinny, wild-haired young woman wielding the knife.

When I’m done, he beckons me over. “Back’s bad today, Mir. Rub it, please?”

The fat halibut calls to me, and my stomach is singing an aria, but I nod and lift up his shirt. Force myself not to wince, but he feels my dismay and disgust.

“How bad?”

“I can see bone.”

“Blister Rot?”

“I don’t think so.”

Truth is I don’t know what this is. It looks like someone branded Papi’s back with a hot iron, creating scarlet ovals that grow larger and more inflamed as they descend his spine. From the centers swell white, bulbous protrusions that at first I took to be herniating vertebrae, but when I poke one with the tip of my finger, it feels spongy and blood fills the depression. Papi moans.

“Hurts like six circles of hell.”

“You want the Dilaudid?”

His shoulder muscles clench. “Used the last of it weeks ago.”

“Shit.”

Around here, pain meds of any kind can be traded for food, so the loss of the Dilaudid is a blow. Nothing to do for it, though. I fetch the next best thing, an antiseptic salve, which I rub into the worst of the wounds. As my hands slide over one of the protrusions, I can feel its smooth elasticity, how it bends like connective tissue, meaty and amniotic.

An alien ontogeny, as Papi would say.

“You need a doctor to see this. A real doctor, not Bella Ludlow with her vitamin shots and horse tranquilizers. Maybe we ought to think about going inland. I hear the settlements there have doctors.”

“Does the boy tell you this?”

“His name’s Jersey. Yeah, he thinks it could be better inland.”
“I don’t care what he thinks. What do you think?”

“I know five more people who left last week and others are talking about it. The supply truck still hasn’t come. What are we supposed to do? Everyone who can leave is leaving.”

Including Jersey. I haven’t seen him since the day he talked about making babies with me, and I screamed at him. Now the obvious is starting to hit me: he probably did just what I told him to do. He packed up and left.

I’m beginning to wonder if I made a dreadful mistake.

“And these grand settlements,” Papi says, “has anyone seen them? Described them? I’ll bet they not only have doctors, but dentists, too, eh, orthodontists, surgeons even! And gigantic grocery stores with shelves full of meat and fresh fruit and ice cold drinks in flavors you can’t imagine! You never saw those stores, but they existed. Lots of things existed, Mir, but now it’s all gone. That world drowned before you were born.”

I listen numbly to his tirade. He is my father, the only family I have, this man whose once-powerful physique is now twisted into a grotesque parody of itself. It takes all my courage to respond, “I know the world you remember isn’t going to come back. I still think we should take our chances and go inland.”

“And how do we do that, Mir? I wheel myself hundreds of miles in the chair? You and the boy going to carry me?”

Since my fight with Jersey, I’ve been thinking about this. “The Road People make carts for their horses to pull. I could build a cart. Steal a horse. Maybe even find a vehicle that runs. There’s rumors of a black market car lot in an airplane hangar north of Blacksburg—it’s just a couple days’ hike, I could—”

“There are no hidden car lots!” His voice thunders over me, strafing my nerves and igniting the terror I try so hard to ignore. “And if there ever were, the cars are rusted out heaps of junk! There’re no settlements! The people that go inland, do they ever come back? Do you ever hear from them again! For all we know, there is no inland!” He gestures toward the cliff’s edge, where the path drops like a suicide into the sea. “Understand this, Mir. This is my home, this is where I belong. I’m ill. Stay with me. At least until the end. Promise you won’t leave me.”

I bury my face in his long hair, weeping into the tangles, breathing in his scent like it’s food.

And I promise. God help me, I promise.

He exhales mightily. When he finally speaks, it’s in a low, entranced whisper. I have to lean close to his face just to hear. “I dreamed last night about the trilobites. I was in the sea looking for food. Suddenly they were all around me, hundreds of them, rich and moist and succulent. I began to grab them and gobble them as fast as I could. Ambrosial they were. Like plump strawberries dripping with nectar. I called them my sweetlings and each one I ate, I thanked it for giving me its life.”

A shiver rivers its way across his shoulders. “It was a glorious dream, but when I woke up I was so hungry.” He reaches back and clamps a hand around my fingers, which are greasy with ointment and the seepage from his sores. “I’m so hungry, Mir. All the time.”

A chill prickles my neck like the ticktock of trilobite legs.

“I’ll bring the halibut. You can have all of it. I’m not hungry.”

“No, not that burnt, dead thing. Bring me a trilobite. I want to eat something alive!”

Using the tongs, I catch the biggest tril in the tank, but I don’t stay to watch him eat it.

That night I sleep in the cove where Jersey and I used to meet, at the end of the steep and crumbling sandstone path.

 

Still no sign of Jersey. I tell myself it’s not as if he hasn’t disappeared before—he’s got a wandering soul and no family to hold him back—but this time I feel like it’s for real. He’s gone, and I don’t blame him.

In his absence, I fish every morning and then roam around town, see who’s committed to staying, who’s thinking of moving on. I determine that hunger must make people thick in the head, because each day the same dismal vigil continues. Diehards and the terminally stupid languish in the afternoon bake, some of them strangers, people drawn here by the apparently un-dashable hope that supplies are actually coming.

A trio of Sea Rats—vagabonds who live on jerry-rigged boats and scavenge the debris islands for items to trade—sprawl lumpen and moribund on a tarp. The breeze buffets the woman’s long hair back from her face, enough for me to see something’s wrong. She has no ears. I shudder with revulsion and give the Rats a wide berth.

I’m heading down to the water when I spot Jersey snoozing in a puddle of shade and feel a gust of something joyful and wild, like that first and only time in my life I drank a cold can of Quench, how its icy fizziness tickled my gums and flowed down my throat like drinkable starlight.

So how do I show my delight at seeing him? I kick him awake, yelling, “Where the fuck have you been? I thought you were gone!”

I guess he understands the affection behind my outburst, though, because he grins and gets up, gives me a kiss.

I was right, it turns out. He did leave. Packed a rucksack and headed west, then changed his mind and turned back. Part of me exults because I know he came back for me. Another part wishes he’d kept going.

We trudge up Drunk Dog Lane, a muddy side street where abandoned houses list tipsily into the waterlogged earth and swaybacked roofs are pasted an inch deep in gull shit. We pass a sailboat with snapped rigging, port side down in the muck. Jersey is still talking, but all I’m aware of is the heat of him, the odors and essences that swirl off his electric brown skin.

When he presses me against the hull of the boat, I don’t resist. Then we’re kissing and grinding, and I’m licking the salt off his beautiful neck. Suddenly he slides his hands under my hair, pushing it away from my face, his thumbs sinking into the clefts of my gills, caressing the delicate skin flaps. I sink into languor. The pleasure is primal, like someone plucking a harp inside my skin, the vibrations spreading out into—

“Shit, what the fuck!” He jumps back the way I once saw him do when a dog he was petting suddenly bit him. “What are you, deformed?”

I feel frozen, mute with horror at what I’ve allowed to happen.

“Behind your ears, what’ve you got there? Let me see!” He laughs nervously and reaches a hand out, but I can’t let him touch me again. Not now. Not after I’ve seen the shock on his face, like I’ve tricked him by appearing to be normal, when the truth is I’m like some sort of mutant fish or a two-headed lamb.

“Get away from me!”

I dodge his questing fingers and bolt. He yells, “Wait! Stop!” and runs after me, which only spurs me to put on more speed. I dash through the slop and run-off from two collapsed houses and vault a fence into a field where the footing is firmer. Behind me, he’s yelling, “Sorry, I’m sorry!” but I don’t stop.

I sprint through an oak grove and down an embankment that levels out into a boggy wetland full of sea oats and sedge. Running here is sloppy and exhausting, but at least Jersey’s no longer behind me. A game trail leads me onto high, solid ground. From here, I can see a thinning portion of the Old Road where it emerges from the underbrush, and I put on a last burst of speed. Then I see what’s blocking the way and halt dead in my tracks.

I was wrong about the supply truck. It did come. A two-and-a-half-ton M35 army truck, forest green like its surroundings, is stopped in the road. Cautiously I approach it, expecting to find the driver slaughtered and the truck’s contents ransacked, but there’s no one around and no evidence of looting.

I haul myself into the cab, where a hand-carved pipe fragrant with herbs rests on a complicated-looking control panel. A plastic clamshell on the console overflows with sunflower seeds. No blood, no signs of violence.

I pocket the seeds, hop down from the truck, and go into tracking mode. Where the macadam crumbles away, faint scuff marks are visible, a left boot heel in need of repair. The driver walked a few paces north, paused, probably looking around to make sure he was alone, then jumped down into a gully thick with ferns and skunk cabbage. Here he deposited a stinking pile, much of it composed of undigested sunflower seed hulls, and wiped his ass with a hand full of weeds. Didn’t bother to cover his scat. Stood again, zipping up probably.

Then something goes wrong—coming up out of the gully, he stumbles and pitches forward, almost falls. Catches himself, seems to panic. Zigzags back toward the truck, then pivots hard and sideswipes a tree, blood and bits of skin scraped off on the bark. Now he’s running full tilt—a tall man, long strides—plunging deeper into the trees. Blood-spattered bushes, foliage trampled. The guy’s strong, he’s still on his feet, but much heavier now, boot prints an inch deep in the soil—something’s riding his back!—bleeding him out as he lurches, arms pinwheeling to judge from the snapped twigs overhead, toward a dense, thorny hedge.

Which is where I skid to a stop. A lower leg, partially skinless, protrudes from the thicket—the rest of the body it helped propel on this last, desperate race is now a red mound not dissimilar in shape to what he just left in the gully. I’m debating whether to come closer, when I realize the hedge is dotted with fat purple berries, juicy-looking enough to make my mouth water in spite of the circumstances. Unlike anything I’ve seen. Then two of the berries roll sideways. Two more pop up to my left.

With bloodiest intent, Old Four Legs is looking at me.

Five sets of eyes. A fucking tribe of coelacanths, land-savvy and vicious. Their tiny, fatty brains sizing me up.

I expect them to be slow and ungainly, but when they charge, their gait is horrifyingly fluid and fast, a reptilian scuttle on fleshy, lobed legs. I run for the one place of protection, the truck, as two more erupt from the underbrush, flanking me, and I can taste my own death, black and bitter.

I don’t dare look back, but behind me surges the ungodly din of massive bodies smashing through underbrush, the obscene suction of stump legs pumping through muck, the vile, oily reek of their hides. Then a chaotic blur in my peripheral vision, bloody jaws leering and a scaled, blue-gray body launching itself at my legs—ripping pain as teeth snag my ankle and I leap for my life, skidding on sodden leaves, and, oh Christ, which way is the truck?

There’s a crack and an explosion of green. Another, and the closest Old Four Legs jerks erect, its belly unzipped, internal sludge gushing. The third bullet almost plows a row down my skull—is Jersey trying to save me or kill me?

He bounds into view, aiming Watanabi’s Glock in every direction at once, pumped with all the mad zeal you’d expect of someone in this situation who’s never fired a gun in his life. No matter, the coelacanths want no more of this shit. They dive into the underbrush as smoothly as if they were slithering into a kelp bed.

“Mir, you ok?” He looks down. “Your ankle!”

“Just skin scraped off, I’m all right.”

We fall into each other’s arms and, for that moment at least, it’s as though he’s forgotten I have gills. Or, if he hasn’t, it no longer matters.

We’re silent, getting our breath back, until as we’re walking back to the truck, he says, “So, does this mean you can you breathe underwater?”

I want to laugh at this inane question, but he just saved my life, so I don’t. “No, Papi says they’re vestigial. They don’t work like real gills. And, yes, for the record, when I was nine, I dived down to the sea floor and tried to breathe water and almost fucking drowned. My brother’s gills worked fine, though. He had eight sets—gills behind his ears, in his armpits, around his ribs, next to his scrotum. I was so jealous. Ma thought she’d given birth to a monstrosity, but Papi was all excited. He said their baby was one of the first human amphibians.”

While he’s still looking stunned, I offer him one more piece of unwelcome truth. “I carry the same genes as my brother. If you and I fuck each other, who knows what will pop out?”

He nods and for now, we leave it at that.

There are more urgent things to deal with. For one, the truck’s control panel is a baffling array of starship-like levers and switches and dials. “If we’re going to get out of here, we have to figure out how to drive it,” I tell him.

“Give me a couple of hours. You go get your father.”

When he says that, all is forgiven. I realize if I didn’t love him before, I do now.

 

A gray, chemical-scented rain is slashing in from the east, like the pencil strokes of a demented sketch artist, by the time I get home. Papi’s nowhere to be found, but I spot the wheelchair upended at the edge of the cliff. When I gather my nerve to look down, relief washes through me. Papi is alive, using his powerful arms to haul himself over the algae-furred rocks the low tide has exposed.

As fast as I dare, I descend to the beach and wade into a warm, shallow stew of brown sargassum and podweed. Kelp fronds lasso my ankles and tiny, needle-nosed fish pluck at my toes. Trilobites fist into tight, protective balls as I approach.

Papi has beached himself on a sloped concrete slab that might once have been part of a bridge abutment. The surface is slick with algae and littered with the crushed exoskeletons of the trils he’s been munching.

I wade toward him, but stop with some space still between us, staring at him. Appalled.

He is naked and bloodied from the brutal crawl over the rocks. His once sturdy legs dangle limply. I would feel pity for their pathetic flaccidity were it not for the fact that his penis is anything but.

He lifts a half-eaten tril to his mouth and sucks out what’s left of the meat. Beckons me. “Come here, daughter. Look what the sea has brought in.”

“Papi, what are you doing here? You have to come back to the house.”

I tell him Jersey and I have a truck to take the three of us inland, but his attention is focused on trying to wedge his fingers into a rock crevice where an enrolled trilobite tries to hide. Only when I tell him about Old Four Legs does he nod with a grim understanding. “It’s happening, Mir. Evolution gone mad! Do you see?” He gazes skyward, arms spread. “The Celestial Magician waves his god-wand, and the waters arise and destroy us. He waves it again and the sea creatures slither onto the land. What next?” His voice falters and for a moment, he appears mute with confusion and pain. “What’s happening, daughter? What’s happening to me?”

I have no answer.

He shifts position to show me his back, which has worsened dramatically, rows of thick, cartilaginous ridges colonizing his spine. The growths remind me of the grotesque, malformed fins of a cod I caught once, milk-white and dying, poisoned by chemical swill. I don’t tell him that, though. Instead I jabber about settlements with doctors and remedies for Blister Rot, but whatever this is, I know it’s a mutation more ghastly than Rot and it defiles more than just his physical body.

Beyond him, a fist-sized ball possessed of an unnatural symmetry bobs in a bed of sargasso weed. He points to it eagerly. “Look at that, daughter, see how the sweetling floats closer to catch my eye, how it longs to be eaten. Fetch it for me.”

A part of my brain, feral and ancient, recognizes a danger eons old, but his voice and the flat gaze of his predator eyes cast a spell. I wade out toward the tril. As I pass, he snatches my arm and yanks me down next to him on the slab. The reeking water washes over my legs. The arm he drapes over me presses down like a wooden beam.

“Let me go, Papi, so I can bring you the trilobite.”

He presses me against him, wet skin on wet skin. This close, I can see the teeth that have grown in to replace the lost ones—dark little triangles in twin rows along the sides of his misshapen jaws. Strong enough to crack a tril’s exoskeleton or sever my arm.

“This is where your mother released the baby and drowned herself. She was a good woman, but she couldn’t adapt. Not meant for this new world.”

A wave slaps my face. “Please, Papi, the tide’s coming in!”

“You’re different than your mother. You’re strong. Think of it, daughter, what our offspring could be!”

The tril is so close now, floating in on the tide just a few feet away. I lunge for it. He pulls me back.

“A shame we won’t have any children, though.”

I should be relieved. I am not.

He exhales a groan, wheezy and orcan. “What’s wrong with me? This hunger torments my body and muddles my mind. Confuses my heart. I want you with me, my daughter, my sweetling, forever.” He puts his wet mouth to my forehead, a swift sizzling contact, more a curse than a kiss. “We’ve waited too long to go home.” For a mad instant, I think he means the house on the cliff, and I want to weep with relief.

Then he says, “Our home is the sea, and it’s time we returned. Together. No, sweetling, don’t try to wiggle away. I want you with me.” Another kiss, one that brings blood. “Inside my belly, my sweetling, every morsel of your ambrosial flesh.”

A wave shatters over us, stinking rain and sea water flooding my mouth. The force of it pitches me forward. My scrabbling fingers close on the trilobite, clawing for the notch where the barbed legs retract, digging in. A starry, hot shock of pain as the spiked legs spring out, slashing my palm, and the stranger who once was my father mashes me to his chest. I slam the trilobite into his face with a force that shatters the exoskeleton and impales his eyes, nose, and lips on the spines. Scarlet stripes bisect his forehead. Gouts of blood radiate from his eyes like a gory sunset.

He paws at his face, plunging the razor-spines deeper. An eyeball skews off center, strings of flesh drip from his cheeks.

Not Papi, I tell myself. Not my father!

Only when he begins lunging wildly, flailing his arms, reaching for me, do I come back to myself and flee toward the shore. His roar thunders across the sky, where clouds pile up in tall towers of ivory and cream, serene and untouched by his agony.

 

In my absence, Jersey has figured out the control panel and moved the truck off the road out of sight. When I tell him Papi fell from the cliff, he doesn’t ask for details, but his lips quiver with some secret emotion that might be grief or suppressed celebration.

We argue about whether or not to take all the food. Jersey says we have no choice, that if we drive back to the settlement to share it, we’ll lose everything, including the truck. Suspicion might even fall upon us for the death of the driver. I suggest leaving a portion behind on the road to be discovered by whoever passes, but there’s little force in my argument and I let Jersey persuade me that our survival demands we take all of it.

Much later, when everything changes, I will wonder if that was the moment—when we decided to steal the food from our neighbors and friends—that we both became monsters.

A few days into our journey, the truck bogs down in a marsh and we have to abandon it, carrying as much food as we can. Soon after, we encounter a band of Road People heading south. They talk of settlements to the west and feed our desperate desire for hope by describing fields full of crops and fat women who squirt out healthy babies. They carry with them warm bottles of Quench, which they share with us before going on their way, but that night, two of the men come back and beat us and rob us of what little food we have left.

We trudge on. Days unfold like clouds drifting. Jersey says once we cross over the mountains, we are sure to find towns, but no matter which road we follow, what new route we explore, the water creeps up on us, blocks our way, forces our meandering path to become ever more narrow, our detours longer and more circuitous. Not sea water now, but shimmering expanses of wetlands and streams that whisper across the ground like a network of capillaries and veins bringing blood to a comatose body.

A map we found in the truck shows a route over two-lane roads into what used to be eastern Kentucky and a string of settlements in a long, narrow valley. For two weeks we struggle to get there. Finally, we crest a rise and are blinded by sunlight on a vast inland sea, where refuse has clumped into debris islands like the ones I remember from home. They tower above the lake like glittering pagodas of aluminum and plastic and copper. Bright, creaking temples to terrible gods.

On the befouled, porous shore of this New Lake, Jersey and I build a lean-to from rubbish we take from the islands. There are mounds of human bones, too, picked clean by sea birds and trilobites. One child-sized skull fascinates me, with its crystal ball smoothness and twin rows of tiny, sharp teeth. I stick it on top of a post outside the lean-to, but when Jersey sees it, he becomes furious, takes it down and buries it under a cairn of stones far from the beach.

We see no other humans on this desolate waste-shore, only herons and gulls and herds of small, skittish deer. Once, I get a glimpse of an Old Four Legs; it scuttles down the hill where it had lain watching me and dives into the lake, the water parting before its metallic blue hide as if for a sea god.

Which in this new world, perhaps it is.

The first babies the boy and I make are twin females—strange yellowish creatures, their limbs stunted and flipper-like, lacking ears but each gifted with eight sets of gills. One dies as she washes out of me in blood and afterbirth, but the other splashes out gasping and flopping.

The boy and I seldom speak now, and when we do, the words are paltry and halting, quickly hushed by the silence. My thinking unravels and frays. Memories dip below the mind’s shiny surface into a languid, animal realm.

The boy’s name is Jersey. Jersey. Often I want him. Sometimes I love him. When he holds me at night, I luxuriate in the lavishness of his textures and scents: sleek, oily skin with the tang of sweat and sea salt, the old pennies smell of his wild, rushing blood, the rich, fresh oyster taste of his semen.

His name is Jersey, though often I forget why it’s important that I remember.

We struggle to survive, yet I revel in the vastness of this wild, spacious place, where my fish-daughter crawls in the shallows, hunting tadpoles and popping dragonflies into her mouth.

Days pass—the boy’s name is Jersey—while a hunger fiercer and more urgent than lust thrums between my legs, in my belly. I chew the stringy flesh of sea turtles and suck fat snails out of their whorled shells, I crack open a trilobite, gobble it.

To no avail.

This Hunger is old. It catches me by the throat and savages me, unleashes an ancient appetite. Hunger for the Food that moves on two legs, muscle sliding over bone, heart pumping, blood crooning, while the ghostly blue eyes regard me with trepidation and awe.

Tonight I wait in the shadows of the lean-to where the Food sleeps and dreams and sometimes, disconsolate, cries out in pain. Mir, it sounds like.

I wait for the Food to come outside and give himself to me, but I cannot remember his name.

 

“Sweetlings” copyright © 2017 by Lucy Taylor

Art copyright © 2017 by Miranda Meeks

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