“She moved over the fields like a bird shadow, then, dropping, soaked dewlike into the soil so that she felt the wheat sprouting from her shoulders, the trees from her thighs while the early stars whispered her secret name.”
—Annabel Thomas, “The Imprisoned Woman,” The Phototropic Woman
She had always feared the sea, in awe of its mysteries, skittish of its temperament. To her, the sea was a mosaic of plants, animals and organisms which formed a single living monster. She was born in late Summer, the oven of seasons, and suspected that, possibly, she was fire. It made sense, then, that she would repel water.
She had lived by the sea her entire life and finally accepted that was why she had so few friends: her aversion to water. She didn’t care. The friends she did have liked that about her. It made her different from everyone else. They had their own versions of difference. But people grow up and become adults who have an urge to pack others into molds, like children building sand castles with plastic toys. So her friends planned a trip, to another beach on a different sea and urged her to come.
“The waves barely lift you as they pass. The water is warm, like a bath. Try it,” they said.
She was tired of being a gap in a story, so she went and, after spending an afternoon alone on the sand, stepped into the water and joined her friends swimming. It was bright and warm and shallow and if the sea were a monster, this was its iridescent scale. Harmless.
She left the water with her friends and followed them to a cliff. “Jump with us,” they said.
It could have been the easy swimming and the sun, the oneness with aqua, that made her go against her instincts and jump. She thought she might die in the first moment, but she smashed through the surface and broke through again with a smile. She made her way to the rock shore and crawled up the face. Halfway up, she slipped on the wet algae and nicked the soft skin of her arch. She found a patch of sand and packed it on the cut to absorb the blood. She jumped again and stayed in the water this time. A friend handed her a mask and she explored the neon coral, followed fish and discovered hidden eels.
The coral put her at ease, it was solid and steady, while everything else darted around it. She reached out to touch it and cut herself—again—this time on the skin between fingers. The pain of the cut was like a giant tentacle suddenly come to life that viced her entire body with fear. She surfaced and searched for the shore. It was further than she thought. She saw her own blood in the water and began swimming. She knew she should swim calmly and steadily, but the fear kept tightening around her chest and throat. An octopus appeared next to her – she tried to push it away but it wouldn’t leave. One of its arms reached for her hand and attached.
The bleeding stopped and she understood the octopus was there to help. She checked behind her and saw the dorsal fin and screamed. She knew she was nearing shore but would never outswim a shark. Her legs reached for the sea bottom and found it. She stood and did her best run for the beach. The shark gained on her, but then circled back toward the deep. She reached the sand and collapsed, air like a hot knife to her lungs. When her breath came in normal intervals, she sat up and, only then, realized the octopus was still with her. She pried off its sucker and brought it to the water, where it paused then pulsed away. She looked at the skin between her fingers. The cut was gone. Had she imagined it? Had she imagined everything? When you let go of fear, your mind loses sharpness, she thought. Fear is what drives the mind to do great things.
She cut the trip short and returned home to her studio apartment. She liked living in a tight space, a single room that fit her exactly. She lay down to take a nap then awoke the next morning surprised she’d slept through the night. While she showered she checked the soft spaces of her skin for cuts—the arch of her foot, the stretch between fingers—but there were none. As she toweled off her hand skipped over a lump. She stopped and examined it. It was a small raised hill on the back of her hip, translucent in the center. She pressed on it and suddenly a tiny bloom erupted, the maroon color of octopus skin. She yelped, afraid a creature was leaving her body, and searched for a pair of scissors. She cut it, but couldn’t get the root under the skin without digging into herself, so she left it and hoped it would disappear. She scheduled an appointment with her doctor.
The next morning there were more. Tiny blooms on her hips in different neon colors—blue, pink, yellow—and the original maroon. She cursed herself for listening to her friends, for going in the water, for allowing herself to forget the sea was a monster. She cancelled the doctor’s appointment. She knew the doctor would admit her to the hospital, where she’d become a prisoner of tests.
Going to work was out of the question, so she called in sick, hoping the blooms would wither and die, but they only grew larger and more elaborate. The next morning, she made up an excuse to work from home. She had pink eye and was highly contagious. After a few hours staring at a screen, working harder than normal to prove she was actually finishing tasks, she needed a break. She began walking with no destination in mind, but eventually found herself at the lagoon, as if it’d been pulling her there all along.
The sun was focused and the air stone dry, despite the looming ocean. She followed the lagoon path, occasionally startled by fish jumping out of the water and splash landing. Usually at the lagoon she encountered men and women walking their dogs, but none rushed past her this day. She was alone, nearly. A construction crew was dredging the muck, doing whatever it was they did every few years to reshape the lagoon. Men were off in the distance, on foot, in dinghies, plotting how to best force their will on the land.
She had just begun to relax into her solitude when a construction worker turned a corner from a side route and bumped into her.
“Prickly,” he said.
“Yes, well—” And she had nothing more to say. He studied her with amused curiosity.
“You’re certainly different,” he said.
“Not too many people cover themselves head-to-toe in this heat.”
“I don’t want people to look at me.” She was still unsure about this man.
“I can see you,” he said. “And your smell—fresh saltwater, not stagnant like the lagoon.”
She became frightened and hurried away from him.
“Come back!” he yelled after her. “I don’t bite.”
She ran off the path—something she never did because of the ticks and snakes—and through the brush. She looked up and saw a canopy of orb spiders, each big as a man’s hand, weaving their traps. One had caught a butterfly larger than it. She pushed forward, further into the eucalyptus and pines, further into the tumbleweeds that’d caught between trunks. When she finally stopped to catch her breath, she spotted a small cottage made of terracotta. She wondered if she could fit inside standing up or, if she went in, she’d have to hunch.
She expected the inside of the terracotta house to look like a child’s playhouse, but she soon realized the cottage was merely a cover. Inside the cottage, the walls were pearlized, like a shell’s interior. An iridescent spiral led to a chamber below ground. She knew if she left without following the spiral to its end, she would come back and do it anyway, so she stepped down, surprised at how solid the spiral was despite appearing like delicate china. At the bottom was a well of light. The walls were crawling with sea slugs, sea cucumbers, horseshoe crabs. An underwater world without water. But because the lagoon was a brackish place, there were land animals, too. Giant millipedes, beetles. The bottom was cool, but not cold, and not a threatening place. She felt oddly at ease despite the living wall. It was clear the sea snails had made the house.
“Who lives here?” She asked.
The answer was her echo. She concentrated on the stick and release of the sea animals, like the house’s own heartbeat.
She asked again, “Who lives here?”
She looked down at the floor to see what it was made of. Coral. She’d lost her shoes in the underbrush. She lifted her feet to check for cuts, but there were none—only more lumps. She was afraid to touch them, but also afraid not to. What happened if they didn’t bloom? Would they overtake her body from the inside out? She touched the bumps and they unfurled.
She took in the living wall, the floor, the spiral, the iridescence, her own body and realized this was, in fact, herhouse. How long had it been here? Was it built for her? Or, was she birthed from it? Maybe this had always been her house, waiting here for her return. With every question, her memories seeped out of her, and with them, her previous self, her former life. She could never go back to where she lived, who she was.
“I need a minute,” she said.
The stick and suck continued, as if the creatures were burrowing into her head.
“I need a minute!” she screamed and the noise ceased as her echo bounced off the walls.
There are those who accept their fate and those who make their fate, she thought.
The time to mourn her old life was over. The animals resumed their noise, but then, somehow, she understood they were communicating with her. A type of Morse code. She heard clicks amongst the stick and suck. The sounds drifted together then passed her like a wave.
“What do you want from me?”
A wave gathered and passed. She discerned that what they wanted from her was food. They were hungry. The walls wouldn’t build themselves.
They told her there was food at the lagoon. What type, she didn’t know, they didn’t specify, but they directed her there. If these animals were hungry and wanted food, she would feed them. She began to ascend the spiral, and, as she did, wondered if the iridescent walls surrounding the spiral, so thin and smooth, would eventually collapse and bury her.
As she moved toward sunlight, she saw that her own thicket of coral had become iridescent and pearlized. We’re merging, the house and I, she thought. When she stepped outside into the shade of the trees, the intricate coral flattened itself to her body and became the color of wet sand. She looked as if she were wearing lace. Her leg, the part of her in the light, darkened until she was nearly the color of squid ink. She felt a flash of energy. She stepped completely into the light and saw her entire body deepen in color. Am I a chameleon? she asked herself. An octopus?
Food. She had to find food. There were fish in the water she could trap. The terracotta shell covering the spiral had broken into pieces, lying scattered about on the ground. Only an arch stood covering the spiral. The ground had fissured and cracked open. How had she not felt the earthquake? The men’s machines were half-swallowed by the earth. The men were trapped inside. She heard them call to her for help. They should have rationed their oxygen better. Perhaps she could bring her troglodytes to the men to feast. That seemed unreasonable. They wouldn’t leave their chamber. She waded into the descended the bank of a hill leading to the sea and saw dead fish near the water’s edge. Luck, she thought.
As she collected the fish, her foot slid into the water. Her coral bloomed, lifted off her skin. What had once been neon now glowed and pulsed color, like a cuttlefish. She stared at herself in awe and wondered why humans considered themselves so special. They were plain and ugly.
She stepped out of the water and the coral flattened to her skin, darkening to the color of wet earth. The darkness pulled in sunlight and gave her new energy. She gathered the fish in her arms and searched the distance for the terracotta arch. Fear made her rush to climb the bank and race to the arch. What if a human saw her and captured her like she’d intended to do with the fish. She also feared that the spiral wouldn’t be there when she returned, that it was just a shimmering mirage. Then where would she go? But it was there, under the arch, exactly where she’d left it. She descended the spiral, careful to keep her footing while carrying the fish. Before she reached the bottom, she sensed a disturbance. They were communicating to her. She stopped to listen.
Bones, they said.
“Yes,” she said. “I brought you fish. There are bones.”
Food, they said. Bones.
She guessed they wanted more food, more fish with bones—to serve as an offering? She didn’t know and had no one to ask. From what she could sense, every person within miles of the lagoon had been swallowed by the earth. She ascended the spiral to gather more fish. When she stepped outside, she saw the water climbing higher, moving closer to the chamber opening. She hurried to where she’d found the fish the first time, gathered another armful and headed back. The last time she gone for food, she’d been nervous that someone might see her.
She no longer cared—no one was alive. As she walked, she realized she couldn’t remember the last time she’d eaten. Food wasn’t her energy source anymore. It was the sun. She looked at her own arms. Was her coloring really black or was it dark, deep green? The line between the two was so thin. Did that mean she was part animal, part plant? Maybe none of it mattered. She couldn’t change what she’d become, she could only accept her new body. But—her name, what was it? Because she couldn’t remember, she decided to call herself Coral.
She approached the chamber’s opening, and stepped onto the spiral.
Man, the creatures said. Over and over. Man.
She was already spiraling downward and couldn’t stop. When she reached the bottom, she saw a shadow. Who was here? She rushed toward the shadow ready to strike.
“Wait!” said the man. He came into the light. It was the worker she’d passed on the trail. “Who are you?” His eyes stared into hers. “What are you?”
She opened her mouth to speak but discovered her voice had disappeared.
“Let me help you.” He reached for her. She backed away too quickly and stumbled. She dropped the fish. They richocheted off the spiral onto the ground. He bent to pick them up and she was next to him in a jump, blocking his way. She knew he wasn’t to touch the fish. She didn’t know why, she merely understood he should stay away. He moved back and gave her room.
“Everything’s destroyed. Up there. The earth—broke open and sucked everything down into it. I don’t know why I’m still here. People were buried alive.”
Good, she thought. The earth asserting its dominance over the animal world.
“Can you help me?” he asked her.
She shook her head ‘no.’ His destiny was with the rest of the humans: fight for survival. She couldn’t stop that.
“Why?” His anger moved through her in ripples. “I can break this place, whatever it is. It’s just a thin shell. I can kick it apart.”
She tilted her head, half-smiling. Held out a hand, challenging him. Do it, she communicated to him with a look.
He didn’t move. They watched each other intently. The air grew heavier, as if storm clouds might drip rain from above. She gathered the fish and brought their bodies to the animals who began to feed.
The man covered his ears and screamed. “Stop! Make them stop!”
She laughed. It echoed and doubled and bounced off the walls. The man knelt on the floor and pulled himself in tight, covering his ears and squeezing shut his eyes.
The laugh had broken a barrier in her throat and she found she could speak again. “I thought you were going to break this place.”
He startled at her voice.
“Just like a man to enter a domain that isn’t yours and believe you can take over. You have no power here. This is not your house.”
“You call this a house? It feels like a trap. The animal version of a venus flytrap.”
“Maybe it is.” Her blooms were shifting from deep black to bright neon, a mesh of colors.
“How can someone be beautiful and terrifying at the same time?”
“That, in essence, is nature.” She stepped toward him. His eyes scanned the walls, searching for an exit. She moved closer to him and saw he was trembling. She touched his arm, so warm and soft. Hers had ceased being either. The space where she’d touched him changed color, from sunburned flesh to the color of her original bloom: maroon.
“No,” he said, squeezing his skin. “Whatever you are—I don’t want to be.” He raced toward the spiral and attempted escape, but he slipped and fell, again and again.
“What I am isn’t so bad.” She enjoyed watching him fall. “Besides, at least you have someone else like you, instead of being alone.”
He sat. “I’m fine with being alone.”
“But can you survive?”
“Who knows,” he said. “Who cares.”
She stood naked in front of him. Her blooms retreated and she looked starkly human again, which, to her surprise, she found unnatural and plain. She liked her new skin, the intricate lace, her changing colors, her iridescence.
He stood, shed his clothes, faced her, trembling—again. She kissed him. Felt his heartbeat in his lips. He picked her up and pushed her against one of the cool, smooth pearlized walls.
“What’s your name?” he whispered.
“Coral,” she said.
He pushed himself inside her. The space he filled was the exact amount of breath she lost. It took her a moment to pull air back in. “You realize—we aren’t in control. They are.”
She felt her coral lift and grow. She opened her eyes and saw he, too, had bloomed.
He looked down at himself, then her, and smiled and pushed himself further inside her, moving faster until they finally came to rest on the limestone floor.
She felt a discomfort then discovered thin tubes extending from her blooms, racing up his body. He screamed and tried to escape, but there were too many. She tried to pull herself away, but she was powerless to move, suctioned to him.
“Stop!” she yelled.
The tubes found his mouth and choked him, found his eyes and blinded him and soon found his heart and stopped it.
When he was dead, the tubes retreated back into her blooms, which flattened against her. She attempted to breathe life back into him, but it was too late.
A wave of sound passed her. The animals were satisfied. Food, they said.
“Now I am alone!” She wanted to rage, kick them, crack them in half, but she understood. She might break a few, kill them, but they would replace themselves soon enough. There would always be more. And, she should have known—she said herself—they were in control. She sighed an acceptance, stood and pulled him by the wrist toward the living wall. His body was soon covered in snails, beetles, crabs.
Bones, they said.
She didn’t understand.
Bones. Supreme Ruler.
“Who is the Supreme Ruler?”
“Him? He’s the Supreme Ruler?”
Supreme Ruler. Here. Soon.
This was her domain—the source of her strength. The chamber fit her perfectly. She didn’t want another encounter with a human. Nor would she bend to a Supreme Ruler.
She ran up the spiral, which suddenly seemed neverending. The further she climbed, the heavier she felt, as if she were reentering gravity. Every step became a struggle. The chamber, which had once been well lit was dark. She fumbled upward, growing dizzy with the effort. The joints in her body strained and creaked against her increasing weight. When she finally caught scent of rotting seaweed, she knew the surface was near. As she approached the opening, her body bloomed—and glowed like a full moon.
When she finally stepped outside, she found herself surrounded entirely by water. The circular gap that led to the spiral was bordered by a band of saturated loam and not far beyond, ocean. The lagoon was now filled entirely with water. All that effort, years and years of men with machines delusional about their power over the earth, nullified by one shrug of the sea.
She took in her new landscape. If she didn’t return to the chamber, where would she go? She could begin to swim, but what would be her destination? Did any destinations exist? She accepted that the chamber was her home and she could do nothing but wait to see who—or what—was the Supreme Ruler.
The glow of her body made her descent down the spiral easier with one exception—she still felt heavy, pulled to the ground with exhaustion. By the time she reached the terminus, she wished for the fur of an animal to sleep on. She lowered herself to the ground, expecting it to be hard and cold, but found it warm and soft like a bed of seagrass. She closed her eyes and felt as if she were floating in water and, as she was pulled into sleep, she thought it possible she had been lulled by the motion of waves.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
She slammed against a wall, spine taking the brunt of the punishment and crashed to the ground. Her breath was gone. She frantically struggled to catch air, even a mouthful. A shot of air—she’d take that. Then it rushed in, all at once, choking her. She tried to stand but the chamber was violently rocking—a skiff in a hurricane. She traveled across the ground against her will, bouncing like a dull ball. A wave passed underneath and it occurred to her the earth was crashing into itself, an earthquake. The chamber rose, closer to the surface. Both sun and water rushed in. She felt certain she would drown here, alone.
The water was at her ankles. Her body began strain against itself. She imagined she was splitting in half and panicked.
“Help me!” she screamed, even though she knew help would never come. She searched the chamber for the animals and saw the bones—of the fish, the man, the creatures who’d died in the chamber—what they’d done with them. They’d become a statue—of her. Iridescent and pearlized. She crawled to the statue and reached for its foot. The violence stopped. She focused her gaze to calm herself and stared at bits of earth that drifted down through the sunlight. She attempted to stand, but her legs shook and, once vertical, she nearly collapsed from dizziness. She leaned against the bones and breathed, in and out, in and out, for a while.
Bones. Supreme Ruler, said the creatures.
She studied the replica of herself from the front. The creatures’ clicks moved past her with increasing speed.
“I can’t understand you,” she said.
She couldn’t separate their sounds into meaning. It occurred to her, after listening intently, they were making music. Their version of music. She walked around to the back of the statue of herself. No bones enclosing it. Empty. She stared at it, then she began to hum the creatures’ song until she could discern the chorus:
Come, disastrous water
Rise O deadly Sea
The song washed over her in waves, surrounded her with echoes until she understood.
She was the Supreme Ruler. It was larger than her, surrounded her, yet couldn’t exist without her inside. Only she could birth it, lift it from the depths of the lagoon. The chamber had been made for her and was the spine of the monster sea. She was the last piece to form the whole. She would take her place of command in the body of the Supreme Ruler and flood the Earth. Begin again, make the world new, beginning with the coral. All land and the animals who roamed it would cease to exist.
She sang her chorus to the creatures’ song, until her voice was no longer human. It merged with theirs and finally she spoke their language.
She stepped inside the gap in the bones—into the space made to fit her exactly—and bloomed.