When I was a child, I wanted to be a marine biologist.
My mother blamed my love of the aquarium on this, all those late-summer afternoons where I dragged her unwilling hand halfway across the city so I could stare at some fish. Nose smushed to the glass and eyes wide, hours spent staring back at their scaly visage. All those sharp teeth and black pupils. The one Giant Pacific octopus in his own glass entrapment; never coming out except to unravel a single tentacle like a magic carpet, all suction and flesh.
They fascinated me.
My mother considered them grotesque. Didn’t understand why I couldn’t bother looking at the sea otters instead. Or even jellyfish, those brainless bags of carbon. I wanted deep-sea horror and mouths. Piranhas side-eyeing patrons and the lone female anaconda and her horde of children. I pressed a finger up to the shark display and one bared his rows of daggers at me, and I laughed. I giggled with such glee she took me by the wrist and dragged me out.
I think she expected me to protest, lash and cry and make a huge scene like other children would do, but I didn’t. I know I would come back one way or another.
Finding out I get sea-sick broke my heart, because now my dreams of working with sea animals was shattered. How was I supposed to study orca migration and salmon spawning changes if I upchuck my lunch every time I go out onto my boat? I resorted myself to studying human anatomy, knowing it would make my physician grandfather happy.
I graduated with honours and enrolled in the best medical school in the country, beating everyone’s expectations of me. I know I was supposed to recoil in horror when the first cadavers rolled out, but I smiled with quiet curiosity instead.
Humans look so different on the inside.
After that episode in the aquarium, my mother begged my grandfather to take me fishing out of the illogical belief that seeing fish cut up and cooked would make me hate them—or at least pity their short, hard lives.
So he did. He fired up his small fishing boat as I sat in the back woozy with sick. I cast my small fishing pole into the tiny marsh and soon felt a tug. He was ecstatic when I caught my first fish, a long, grey thing with buggy eyes and a tiny dorsal fin. I caught it through the nose. It was bleeding profusely.
Maybe my mother was right. I was so distressed at causing it suffering I slipped it into a small bucket, cradled it to my chest as my grandfather putted us back to shore and on the drive home, watched it jump and flop onto the kitchen floor, a small puddle of blood forming underneath it.
Is it any wonder I couldn’t eat seafood after that? I was eight-years-old and traumatized, dreaming up nightmare scenarios where his brothers or sisters would rise up from the marsh and throw a hook through my nose.
Kill and gut me instead.
I never had any friends in high school or college, and med school was no different. I think I scared the other students off, with how I would inch closer to the professor with every disturbing fact escaping her mouth, or ask questions with (I assume) a glint of wonder in my eye. Nothing about me suggested I had a taste for the macabre; I didn’t own anything black, and always came to class wearing pink or green or, my favourite colour, blue. Maybe these were warning signs, telling others I was no different from a poisonous frog. Harmless, but always ready to strike.
When I wasn’t in class or studying, I worked as an assistant for the marine biology department, charting algae growth in the local marshlands. The professor in charge was a small, owl-faced man; unassuming but brilliant. He worked with a major hardware chain downtown, developing a new type of plant-based fish bait. In just a few more weeks he would sell the fish bait to them.
I thought it strange that a scientist would concern himself with developing what amounted to little more than fish food, but I was happy to finally be working with something aquatic, even if it was just algae. I was the only assistant in his lab, working late hours while my colleagues were drinking their stress away or partying. After about a month, the bait was ready to sell; he listed my name alongside his in the documentations, and after three anxious weeks the chain said they would buy it.
I was thrilled beyond belief; I phoned my grandfather and told him I helped develop a new type of fish bait, one that was plant-based and didn’t require using worms or buying expensive flies. He told his fishing friends, who told theirs, who then told theirs, until half the town was lining up ready to buy this wonder bait that promised to increase the likelihood of catching big, fat, and juicy fish.
They started disappearing during the first week of sale.
I read the news article on my phone while walking into his lab, stricken with fear. I tried to shake this feeling off, logged onto my computer only to find the page opened with even more articles. One fisherman’s boat was found last Monday, overturned with no sign of life. Two more the next day. A third on Wednesday. The fourth early that morning, his hat floating on the water. I closed the window and got up slowly before turning around and running out the door.
I started my car and drove towards my grandfather’s house. He was the only person I ever truly love. He never took me fishing again, so heavy with guilt and worry for my mental wellbeing. He held me when the nightmares got too much and took me to the aquarium behind my mother’s back, fed my love of sharks and turtles and octopi, the happiness I get from watching seahorses and clownfish. I promised every creature I passed by that last visit with my mother that I would come back, and I did. I owed it all to him.
I suspected something was wrong with the marshwater four months ago, when I was taking samples among a bed of reeds. I thought I saw a glint of silver rushing past in the distance, and I would have chalked it up to the sun if it wasn’t such a cloudy day. Then I heard a slap! against the surface of the water that was so loud it shook the ground. I lost my footing and fell knee-first into the dirt, before looking up and seeing, along the treeline, a creature climbing out of the water on stocky arms and legs, the feet splayed out and webbed.
When I got to the house I rushed inside, begged my grandfather to put down his tackle box and throw the bag of fish bait in the hallway away, told him not to go to the marsh anymore. He laughed and patted me on the shoulder, said he had friends who would drink while out on their boats and that their drunkenness finally got to them, that they’re probably sleeping it off in a motel out of town somewhere, then hitched his boat to his truck.
As he started driving away I rushed back to my car, following him, until I pulled up next to him on the shore and struggled for the ignition key, finally seizing it from his clenched fist and throwing it into the water.
A large fish-like being, with hairy arms and legs rose from the water and snatched the keys between its human-like teeth before slamming back into the marsh, soaking us with water.
It had the blue-grey eyes of a human.
It had the blue-grey eyes of my grandfather’s best friend.
I don’t know what the professor found in the marsh water, or if the fish bait somehow quickened this…merging of man and beast. Made fish unafraid to approach man, made man stupid with hubris and greed. Balanced the playing field, the hunter becoming the hunted and vice versa.
The city tried to drain the marshlands, took me and my grandfather’s testimony of what we saw, found no physical evidence in the sand beds, and called us sick.
I cannot begin to tell you how many psychiatrists I saw, how they tried to diagnose me with schizophrenia or psychosis or mania. Said the webbing forming between my fingers were just visual hallucinations, my compulsion to be submerged in water, whether by overflowing the tub or drinking until I vomit, a strange form of PTSD. My grandfather was gathered up like a child and forced into a nursing home, and I moved into his house, clashing and screaming with the bank to not take it away. I let the bathroom sink spill over as I scratched at my peeling skin, picking them off to reveal scales glistening like new underneath.
I phoned the university countless times after my expulsion, tried to find out the whereabouts of the professor. I managed to track down a colleague through Facebook who said he left his lab in shambles, the words WE ARE NO LONGER GOD scrawled across the walls in red ink.
I think about all of the sweat and tears and blood I put into my work; meticulously collecting algae samples, taking notes from watching tiny slides through my microscope, always slipping my reports under his closed door, despite finding it bizzare. What did he discover? What did he hide?
What did I help him develop?
I’m trying to reach the ocean.
Something tells me the others are there, sunbathing on the shores and hunting in the sea. My back is contorted so fully now I cannot stand upright, and my silvery skin is covered with a thick layer of mucus. I can barely speak, cannot live without drinking a gallon or two every ten minutes or so. If I do not near the ocean soon I will die, gaping for breath or a sign from God.
Will I find the professor there? I’ll corner him among the sea beds and demand to know exactly how much he knows.What was in the algae? What was in the water? What did you do to us?
I’m crawling along the dried-up marshlands, dragging a wagon full of water cooler jugs behind me. The rope is slipping between my hands, so webbed and slick with wet. I think about all of the people who disappeared before the marsh was truly empty, high on curiosity or stupidity. Wanted to see the creatures for themselves not knowing they would become one too. I don’t know what happened to my grandfather, but at least I can drag my slimy body to the shore.
I think of my mother, the look of disgust on her face while staring at all of those ugly fish in the aquarium. How she called them grotesque, disturbing, a reminder of how much we have risen from the muck of our creation.
How she would say the same of me, eyes watering from the sun.
The ocean is in sight. I heave at the wagon as I trudge forward, and feel something wet—wetter than my own skin—crawl its way down from my nose to my lip. I touch the space between and draw back blood.
Whatever happened to the marsh since the last time I was on its waters, eight-years-old, dizzy, with a nose-torn fish sinking in my tiny bucket, perhaps his siblings grew grotesque too; feasted on fishermen and took the best parts of them. The legs, the arms, the teeth, the eyes.
Merged land and water, man and animal, until all that was left is the horror of life.
We are no longer any different.
Either way, they will find me in the ocean, tear me apart limb by limb; retribution for killing their brother before he could hunt me down first.
I’ve always known they’ll come after me.
Kanika Lawton is a writer, poet, and editor from Vancouver, Canada. She holds a Bachelor’s degree in Psychology with a Minor in Film Studies from the University of British Columbia, where she served as an editor with the UBC Undergraduate Film Student Association. She is the Founder and Editor-in-Chief ofL’Éphémère Review, Visual Arts Editor for Venus Magazine, and Community Manager of The Murmur House. A 2018 Porkbelly Press Micro Chapbook Series finalist, her work has appeared in Rambutan Literary, Ricepaper Magazine, PUBLIC POOL, and The Ellis Review, among others. She both loves and fears the ocean.