Published in Overland Issue 247 Winter 2022 Fiction Fiction | I am the sea Karen A Johnson Find it. Kill it. The thought has been bothering me and my fingers fumble, working back and forth on the mariner shell necklace. Walking home along the beach, I pull my coat tightly about myself, keeping the wind from probing the exposed skin of my neck. Across buttongrass and bauera and beyond the choppy harbour are Hell’s Gates, a wickedly shallow channel surrounded by rocks; they are cloaked in the blackness of an encroaching storm. The Gates are a slot breaching the edge of the island. On wild days long ago, when the sea raged, they trapped the west coast townsfolk, denying them access to the rest of the world. Salt air pushes itself into my lungs. My mother is gone but I scan the dunes and marram grass as if I might see her. I’ve taken to wearing her necklace and from the hours I’ve spent staring at it, I know each shell is perfection. Conical. A tight, tiny spiral, speckled with starlight. From my cabin, surrounded by pigface and spear grass, I venture daily to fossick on the beach. Trawling through mountains of kelp, I search for interesting driftwood to make into furniture or sculptures, oddly dried seaweed that can be fitted to a necklace or with the addition of a clip, become a brooch. Letting my eye adhere to the sea’s surface, running up and down with the wild sou’wester swell, I spy something that turns into nothing. I spy nothing that a heartbeat later turns into something. I hold my breath. Once again, it’s nothing. Moving on, I kick at the piles of weed, scattering in a clatter crabs and isopods feeding on the decay. A toad fish stares at me from clouded eyes. I bend down to it: ‘What are you doing here? You don’t like the wild sea.’ But it is the way of death. It happens when you’re caught far from home. Hauling my driftwood treasure across the sand, I leave a track as if I’m a creature with many tails. And I’m almost to the place where a path cuts through the dunes when I see— A fishing float. Not a common pink rubbery one but a beautiful glass one. It has the rope still attached—a macramé of lanyard knots. Dropping the driftwood onto the sand, I pick it up and turn it about. From nowhere, a voice I recognise immediately. Ethel! I fall backwards, landing heavily in the sand. The last time I heard her voice was before she got taken. I drop the float. Ethel? Despite the chill air, a sweat breaks out on my skin. ‘Mother?’ I whisper, looking about me. A sigh issues from … somewhere. My eyes scan the dunes. She must be hiding where the scrub starts. Ethel! I squint at the fishing float. I send my gaze back to the dunes. Back to the places where someone could actually hide. But in the sand next to me, the fishing float vibrates and a keening issues from it, followed again by my name. Barely able to breathe, I stare at the float. Strangling a cough, I say: ‘Are you in the float?’ I pick it up. It is not possible for her to be inside it. Annoyed and upset at such a prank, I turn the float about in my hands, searching for … something. A transmitter perhaps. There’s nothing. Her voice continues. The fishing float is hanging outside my cabin. To leave my mother’s voice outside means I am in control. I know she is not in the float. How can she be? She is in the sea. We were on the beach, collecting old bottles and shells. My mother, grey hair loose and blowing across her face, was dancing among the wind-driven sand-ghosts, laughing with the exuberance of someone much younger. I was laughing too. My mother walked into the sea, into the waiting waves. And it came—spreading from the inside of a wave. Changing from the shape of water to … I can’t find its image in my mind. But it was big. Like an enormous mouth and she just slipped inside, as if she were nothing. I stood for the longest time, sand-ghosts rushing past dragging at my clothes and hair. Spots of migraine threaten my eyes. My mother is screaming worse than a westerly wind. There’s a tightening in my head—a pressure born of the deep sea. I go up to the fishing float and rub on the glass between the lanyard knots but I refuse to take my mother with me when I go inside the cabin. I make myself sweet black tea, only just managing to get the cup to my lips to sip it. When my mother quietens and the migraine pain subsides, I go to my easel. I am painting the strange creatures that wash up on the beach. A phosphorescing mass of nipples, blubber, fins, scales, anuses. The next day flows by in a flurry of activity. I obsessively search out photos of my mother. In the early evening I go beachcombing, following a line of phosphorescence along the shore, kicking it up so it creates a show of light about my ankles. Strings and beads of it float in the water, hanging into depths unknown—snakes and ladders to another world. Old lifeforms climbing up out of the murk, sliding back down. This world. That world. The water stirs but it is just a school of fish. I walk on, feet lighting up the night. A plop. Holding my breath, I stop. Nothing more. I return home to cook a late dinner. A Tasmanian devil is sniffing at my door, black as midnight with a blaze of white across its chest. Its nose is in the air. Possum and barley broth is wafting from my kitchen. From outside, my mother says, If you fall down injured, not even your bones will be found. ‘Go home,’ I say to the devil. The full moon is up. It makes the air bristle and leaves its shine on the windowsill. My mother called it the mad moon. ‘Go home,’ I say to the moon. A cloud comes. The window reflects me back at myself. Behind me there’s a rattling and clanking of metal. Steam clings to the cabin ceiling. I take the pot from the fire, pouring boiling water onto tea leaves. Gratefully I sip the tea, seating myself in my mother’s green leather chair. Sitting my cup on a small table, I place my hands on the chair’s wooden arms, wrapping my fingers over the ends. But before I have time to undo the movement, my hands become my mother’s. It is a strange thing and it takes me by surprise, transfixing me. Of course it’s trickery, our hands share the same knobbly lineage, but it’s heart-wrenching nonetheless. My mother’s voice rings out: Hell’s Gates. The things of nightmares. Skin prickling, I study my hands … they are my hands. I should un-tether my mother, let the storm blow her away, roll her onto the beach, give her back to the sea. But I cannot. I will not lose her again. I put my hands over my ears. But she is beside herself, as she channels anyone who has ever lost themselves to the sea. These people flow and ebb all around me until I escape to the beach. Beyond the breakers I see a creature, sending glowing tentacles into the air. It is incredible. The spirit of the sea, my mother’s voice says. Back at my cabin, I stare at the fishing float. My hands tremble. I rub my temple. Get your eyes off me! I step onto the doorstep and the fishing float thumps against the cabin. Mother is rousing up a storm and my head is throbbing something serious. In my brain something explodes. I realise the night outside is not black—the stars are up. A possum cusses. So ill-tempered, it must be a Gemini. I go inside the cabin, closing the door. I’m a Gemini. Mother is getting on my nerves and after a short while her keening starts. A noise that reverberates in my skull. I think it’s the wind but looking out my window I see only a light breeze. My brain squeezes in on itself until I have a migraine. Black spots in my eyes. Find it. Kill it, my mother’s voice grinds. Holding my head, I say, ‘What are you talking about?’ She says nothing. ‘The creature that took you?’ The fishing float bangs the cabin wall. For a moment my head lightens—the deep-sea pressure is released. ‘I’ll find it but you’ve got to help me.’ I go back inside and bring out my most recent painting—a warty shark-like beast. ‘Is this the one?’ No. Sighing, I lumber the painting back inside. Mother’s high-pitched keening continues. She is working herself into a rage. Quickly, I take out another of my paintings and another. ‘I need a clue,’ I say. The next few days go by in a blur of paint. The cabin is dishevelled. I forget to eat. Colour is incredibly important and where I am uncertain of a creature’s shape, I merge it seamlessly into the water. An essence. A fleeting glimpse of reality is all I can hope to achieve. But I must capture enough on canvas for mother to know. I try extending my mind back to the day my mother was lost. But it only ever touches the edge of memory. Access to the image I need is denied. But I draw and paint the things that come to me, in the hope of a likeness. Unable to take herself to the beach to look for the creature, her tormentor, my mother becomes increasingly exasperated. But I can’t find it and kill it if I don’t know what it looks like. Take me to the beach! I won’t. The thought of it makes me feel faint. What if I were to drop her on the rocks and the fishing float smash to smithereens? What would happen to her then? Would she be sucked away into the atmosphere? Evaporate in the sun’s rays? Be chased off by sand-ghosts? A storm overnight has driven strangely shaped wood, giant knots of kelp, and a colourless seaweed onto the beach. At the far end of the bay, a creek expels tannin. I shiver. The landscape is out of sorts. I turn around. The sun falls behind the mountain. Go faster, I think. A rumbling. Not in the water but up on the beach near the high tide mark. I freeze but already there’s a deep growling, followed by a blood-curdling accusation and a gristly tearing of sinew from bone. The devil’s eye glints in the starlight, its lips curling back in a snarl as its dark body hunkers over a wallaby carcass. Giving it a wide berth, trying not to show the fear I feel, I push on. Faster, I think. Faster. A splash, as if something has dropped from a great height into the sea. But no, it’s a large sinuous form thrashing. I shine my torch on it and suck in a breath. It is enormous, scaly, throwing a fish as big as an albacore into the air, thwacking it with its tail. All I can do is stop and stare, trying to make it out. I can only see … bits, pieces. But I have seen its kind before, and in a fidget, I open my sketch book, unleashing my pencil. In the study of the moment, my fear retreats. I move slowly towards the low tide mark, the sea foam sucking about my calves. The torch lighting up … bits, pieces. A wave forming, rising and rising, and an eye—a shout from beyond the beach, beyond this world. Ethel! The wave slams me to the sand, shoving its fists in my mouth, making me gag. And something slicks past me, brushing firmly against me before nailing its teeth into my flesh. I open my mouth to scream but the fists fill it up. My mother grabs my arms, her nails like claws ripping at my flesh. She is howling, spit flinging from her mouth. The water draws back into the sea. When I come to, I am in the cabin. I don’t even remember bandaging my leg. My sketch book is sodden. Outside, my mother is chanting. Find it. Kill it. Trying to sit up, I fall back. My leg is bad. Struggling from the bed, dragging my leg, I hobble outside. My mother’s agitation increases when I near the fishing float. She cries out. Yes! I look down at my leg. Below the bandage my foot is grey and scaly. Confused, I stare at it, and bending down, I undo the bandage. My leg does not appear to be injured but then, it is no longer my leg. I expect to feel panic. But it doesn’t come and I wonder: what happened on the beach? Did my mother do this to me? Shaking my thoughts loose, my head aches, and black spots threaten my eyes. No. Of course not. She is in the fishing float. My mother’s voice goes on and on. Find it. Kill it. A handful of stars but no moon. From the sea, a smell. The essence of time. And I go to it. My feet skid and slop in among the storm debris. The leg that is no longer mine seeks the water like a divining stick. I grab at it, trying to still it. A terror finds me. I draw the hunting knife, which I have never used, from its sheath. I wait, knife in hand, trying not to think about my leg. When hope has gone and I’m about to retreat home, the wave comes, rising and towering above me. In a dash of rainbow light the creature appears, so spectacular I gasp and stumble backwards. Parting from the wave, it slides at a terrifying speed towards me. I point the knife. Its eye is staring me down. I bring the knife forward but can’t— In the flicker of its globe-like eye, I see the flow of time and the creature’s journeys around the Earth. I see the stars and the creature’s arrival from somewhere I can’t understand. I let my hand with the knife fall to my side. It turns on its tail and launches back into the waves. But then— The wave rises and rises. It is coming. And its eye is at mine, only this time it is cold and ferocious and it sucks up a thundering wall of water with enormous sharp, broken shellfish teeth and my blood chills to the sea’s depths. Screaming. I am beyond reason. Beyond knowing. I plunge the knife, twisting it to and fro, shredding the membrane between me and the sea. I fall, rolling in the wash, yelling into the white foam. The creature flies into the air, screeching and circling, and then with a thwack, splashes down beside me. What have I killed? The sea and its mother the ocean, and their mother the universe? What? Beside me the ferocious creature fades into iridescent blues and greens, the colours of the shells at my throat. My mother’s shells. The shells are singing to me. The sounds of the sea and beyond. All I can do is listen. This world. That world. I need to see it, my mother demands. ‘It is too large to—’ Take me there. Carefully, I lift the fishing float and lurch my way on one grey scaly leg and one human leg to the beach. As we get close to the creature, the fishing float shakes and I can’t hold onto it. My mother is tumbling free. Tumbling and spilling and falling onto— Sand. Tears of relief streak through the horror on my face. My mother screams. EAT IT. I panic. My mother might become so enraged as to explode the float to a million glass shards right there on the beach. Without caring for nicety or sanity, I bite into the creature’s flesh, ripping at it with my incisors as if it is a chunk of sushi. Sweet and tender, belying the scales and the ancientness of the eye that had observed me, its fishiness runs in oily juices all over me—my skin the slipperiness of a blood-red sea anemone. I can eat no more and in revulsion at my own vileness I throw the remains of the creature to the sand. ‘Take it away,’ I tell the waves. That night, back in my cabin, I dream. The devil is roaming the shore, feeding not only on the sea creature but also on my mother. And I wake screaming at the dark with the worst gut ache I have ever endured. I have eaten of the creature that ate my mother. Sweat slicks my skin and when I examine myself in the mirror I see my mother staring back. Scaly skin pulls tautly on her temples. Her shell necklace has inverted, the shells piercing the flesh about her neck. I can feel them. Oh, how I can feel them. They are infusing me with ancient knowledge, squeezing out of me all the modern clutter and turning off the white noise. I rush to the fishing float. My mother is not there. Vomiting, gasping for breath, I fling myself towards the door but collapse to the ground. What on earth is happening to me? I must get to the sea. I drag my form through the spear grass and pigface but before I make it to the water—a growling snarl, a familiar form. Up lopes the devil, sniffing at my new shape, licking the leg that is no longer mine. It stares at me as if a great truth has been revealed. Its eyes go dark. Shrieking, baring bloodied teeth, it lunges at my slippery grey form. I dive into the wall of water that has come for me and I swim and glide—speeding towards Hell’s Gates. But which side is hell? And where do I belong? My body is spinning, spiralling, corkscrewing through the iridescent blues and greens of the world, the sea, the shell. My stomach is my throat. My mind is full of the dark rocks of the Gates. I feel the universe’s creatures all about me. Curious. Wondering if I am predator or prey. God or devil. Karen A Johnson Karen A Johnson is a Hobart-based writer. She works at the University of Tasmania. More by Karen A Johnson Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places. If you like this piece, or support Overland’s work in general, please subscribe or donate. Related articles & Essays First published in Overland Issue 228 5 November 20225 November 2022 Main Posts Beautiful, Beautiful Shari Kocher She felt both sick and sensuous, all at once, felt she ought to call someone but secretly suspected nobody wanted to hear it. 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