Friday, October 25, 2013

Thaumoctopus mimicus: The Man on the Beach

Nothing else feels quite like it. So many different kinds of pain all at once. The suckers, thousands, each yanking a tiny piece of flesh, all at once; the crushing muscle of the tentacles; the harsh, tearing beak.

Couldn't say which is the worst part. In the end, it doesn't matter...

When you have a really monotonous job, as most people do, things tend to run together. One day is the same as any other. Which is why, when something out of the ordinary happens, we tend to remember it. It might be a particularly irritating customer, something amusing a coworker did, a horrific on the job accident. These things stick with us.

"Remember the time when..."

Everybody's got at least one.

Of course I've got some.

Like the time I was working construction and another worker fell three stories onto the concrete pavement below. We all feared the worst, but after a few seconds of lying on the ground in pain, he picked himself up, dusted himself off and stumbled off to the first aid station. I remember the man I was eating lunch with at the time shouting "he's OK, folks", in an imitation of a racetrack announcer after a crash when the man stood up.

Or when I worked as an R.O. on election day and one of the voters, informed that, due to the vagaries of government bureaucracy, the poling station for her district was several miles away, despite the fact that she lived two blocks from where we were, became irate and spat in the poll clerk's face.

But aside from anecdotes trotted out when there's nothing else to talk about, they rarely make a difference in the long run. We always go back to work the next day, same as always, back to our dreary lives to await the next island of interest in a sea of banality.

But this next one is different. This time, something happened that changed everything. Something so hideous and awful that I've never been able to look at the world the same. Can't look at people the same...

It was a typical July day at the beach. The sun shining brightly in the blue sky, a cool breeze blowing in off the water, children playing in the sand, enjoying their two and a half months of freedom.

To anybody else it would have seemed positively idyllic. Me, on the other hand, spent most of the time somewhere between boredom and irritation, as I was working at the beachfront snack bar. My day consisted mostly of leaning out an opening in the front of a concrete bunker, serving ice cream and soda to annoying children and middle-aged people clad in swimwear that was clearly not designed for them.

It had been a slow day and I was bored half-catatonic, praying to whatever god would listen for something to happen. It seems they were only too happy to oblige.

It was around noon when I heard a woman scream. I looked to where it was coming from and saw that something rather nasty looking had washed up on shore.

It was a body.

In a fit of morbid curiosity I deserted my post for a closer look. It was an appropriately disgusting sight. The skin was a pale, mottled, greenish grey and covered in strange, round marks, what remained of his clothes were nothing but tattered rags and it was obvious the myriad scavengers in the sea had had their way with him. He was missing a large chunk of his lower torso on the right side, his left arm and right leg were nowhere to be seen, his eyes were both gone and perhaps most disturbingly of all, the poor bastard's lips and much of his cheeks had been eaten away, giving him a twisted, skeletal grin. I only glimpsed it for a minute, before somebody mercifully threw their beach towel over it.

A mother covered her children's eyes and led them away. A man vomited and discreetly kicked sand over the sick. It was then I realized I wouldn't be selling much that day.

The police were called and they took the carcass away. The body was believed to be a member of a rather extreme environmentalist group. There were concerns about overfishing in the area and a few weeks ago, four activists had set out in a small boat in an attempt to obstruct a commercial trawler. They succeeded in preventing the vessel from deploying its massive fishing net by firing a small improvised missile at the net mechanism. Unfortunately, this caused the entire net rig to collapse, bringing several tons of metal and netting crashing to the deck, killing two crewmen. Upon learning of the deaths, the captain of the trawler flew into a rage, retaliating by ramming the smaller boat, apparently killing all its occupants. We were advised to keep an eye out for the other three, as they had not yet been recovered.

Even after the police had left with the corpse, an air of gloom persisted about the beach that day. Most people packed up and left, and few came to take their place. The only customers I had that day after the body washed up were a teenage couple, both exceedingly pale, dressed in black t-shirts with garish band logos. Not typical beach goers at all.

"Let me guess," I said. "You're here to see the dead guy, aren't you?"

I had surmised correctly & they were disappointed when I told them that the police had already come and removed it.

They bought a fudge sundae and a large cherry slush, then sat on a bench on the boardwalk, sharing them while simultaneously making out. I distinctly recall the way the boy held the drink with one long, bony hand while he slipped the other under the hem of his more rubenesque paramour's shirt, caressing her ample breasts and belly.

It's strange, the things you remember, isn't it?

I decided it would be in poor taste to continue watching the happy couple and spent the rest of the day defrosting the freezer, then scraping the filth off the hotdog machine.

It was just after sundown and I was closing up shop when I saw a man coming my way from across the beach. It was dark and I couldn't make out his features. He walked with a strange gait. I figured he was drunk, or worse. As he kept walking in my direction, I called out to him.

"Sorry, man. I'm closing up for the day. I already cleaned out the register."

I couldn't explain it, but I wanted him to go away. I couldn't even see him properly and yet I felt something profoundly unsettling about him. When I addressed him he stopped in his tracks for a moment, then to my relief, he turned away and left.

After I had finished closing up, I was walking home when I saw him again. He was at the water's edge, walking into the sea. Then the really strange thing happened. When he'd walked out a ways, he seemed to collapse. Just fell beneath the waves. I thought perhaps he passed out drunk and as unnerved as I was by him, I decided to run out to see if he was alright. I stripped down to my boxers and waded out to where the man fell, but there was no sign of him anywhere. Not a trace. I shouted out for him, but nobody answered.

I was baffled. There was no way the undertow could have carried him away from this close to the shore. Eventually I gave up. Maybe there had been no man. It was dark, I had a very morbid experience earlier that day, perhaps my mind was playing tricks.

It briefly crossed my mind that perhaps what I'd seen had been the ghost of the man who had been washed up on the shore, but I quickly laughed it off. I'd never been superstitious before. I finally came to the conclusion that the events of the day were simply coloring my perception, that I should just go home and get some rest.

It didn't help much. Even sleep couldn't extricate me from the previous day's influence. I had a terrible nightmare. I dreamed I was drowning.

The ship was falling apart, capsizing. I went over the side in a shower of debris. Something hit my head on the way down and I blacked out. When I came to, it was too late. Couldn't make it up. Couldn't even tell which way was up. The water was too dark. I couldn't hold it in, I had to take a breath. My insides stung as they filled with saltwater. I was dead in seconds.

Only I wasn't dead, I was still conscious. I couldn't do anything, I was completely limp, but I was still conscious. I could not do anything.

And then the fish came at me.

There were billions of them, some were the size of dogs, other could barely be seen with the naked eye. A blizzard of silver scales. They all crowded around, trying to get a bite of my inert flesh. The big ones went at my hands and face, the smaller ones found their way into openings in my clothes. Piece by piece I disappeared into their bellies. Great Whites circled around my corpse. They had no interest in dead flesh like mine, but they were happy to gorge themselves on the living fish I attracted. The violent dance of life and death continued for hours.

Then, they scattered, trillions of fish, each zooming off in its own direction as quickly as they came.

A dark shadow loomed in the sea and even the fearsome sharks were humbled, turning away.

The giant octopus.

Its tentacles stretched for miles in every direction. Its mantle was a submersible island. Its shape ever shifting, its color ever changing, but its massive eyes never straying from their goal.

Somehow I knew... I knew what it wanted. It was more than a simple beast scavenging the carcass of a dead thing.

It wanted me.

And as its vast, membranous form enveloped me, drawing me toward its ravenous beak, hard as wrought-iron, surrounded by a pulsating, non-newtonian amorphousness, preparing to cut me to ribbons-

My alarm clock went off. I didn't feel rested in the least.

I spent most of the next day half-conscious. Fortunately, it was a rather overcast day, with rain that came down in brief, furtive spritzes, so it wasn't exactly busy. The only customers I had were a group of Parks and Recreation workers who had come to replace a broken water fountain. They packed up and left around 4:00. I decided to take the opportunity to have a discreet catnap, but there was nowhere comfortable to sleep in my cramped enclosure, so I resigned myself to the miserable fate of remaining on my feet until the end of the shift.

Towards the end of the day, a tall, wiry middle-aged man in a sweatshirt and uncomfortable-looking shorts came up to me. I'd glimpsed him earlier that day and a few times before, jogging along the boardwalk, even through unpleasant weather, always with a small, black Scottie Dog by his side, without a leash, despite several signs posted in the vicinity informing the public of the leash laws. The dog wasn't with him this time. This was because the dog had wandered off and gone missing and since I was the only person around, the man wanted me to help him look for it. I was reluctant, but he seemed like a nice fellow, so I told him I'd help as soon as I finished closing up.

There was a flashlight in a drawer under the the snack bar counter. I swept it around through the gathering darkness as the man, whose name was Joe Strugatsky, called out for his beloved pet.

I thought I heard something moving amongst some trees opposite the beach, so I turned the flashlight towards them. I saw nothing, but heard the sound of something rushing away from us with great speed. We tried to run after it, but this phantom presence eluded us. We were walking back towards the shore, scanning the ground with the flashlight as we did, when we spotted something at the foot of a tree.

Strugatsky let out a horrible wail and for the second time in as many days I found myself looking at a dead body. Despite being only a dog, this one was even more horrific than the corpse I'd seen before. It was in several pieces. All were terribly mutilated. The most recognizable part left was one of the poor beast's legs. The really strange thing was the inconsistency of the mutilations, though. It was difficult to tell, but some of the parts looked as if they had been torn off by some incredible force, while others were cleaner, as if removed with a blade of some sort. It was fascinating and repugnant.

I did my best to comfort the distraught man, while masking my own apprehension. I knew of no animals that lived in this area that could do such a thing. How could this happen? Strugatsky decided to file a report with the police, while I finally went home, knowing I would get no rest that night either.

I went into work the next day with a sense of foreboding, but almost nothing out of the ordinary happened. The skies were clear and the beach was crowded with people. I saw that couple again, this time somewhat more appropriately dressed. The girl was wearing a purple sundress that showed off five red and black stars tattooed above her generous bosom and carried a matching parasol in her plump, babyish hands. Her boyfriend was wearing the same shirt as when I last saw him, but had exchanged the tattered black denim trousers he was wearing last time for a pair of shorts that didn't flatter his peachfuzz-covered, gallusine legs in the least and he had also acquired a pair of sunglasses. Even with his arm wrapped affectionately around the girl's shoulder, he looked mildly uncomfortable.

I asked them if they'd heard about the dog and they hadn't. Apparently the girl had enjoyed their previous visit and had felt like going again, dragging her lover along, despite his lack of enthusiasm. The young man asked me what had happened with the dog, but I said never mind, not wishing to think on it. They took their ice cream and went off to find someplace private while the boy grumbled about how crowded it was.

Ah, young love...

And so that's how it was for the next few weeks. Once more, one day was indistinguishable from the next. Even those two young lovers who I found so strange when we first met faded into the background of my daily routine.

One day a man complained of his clothes and wallet being stolen. Made quite a scene, rushing around looking everywhere for them, accusing others of having taken them. A fight broke out and the police took him and the other combatant away.

Not much interesting happened after that, until one cloudy, rainy day at the beginning of August.

It had been sunny when I came in, but the weather had quickly deteriorated and I was contemplating closing early, when I saw a customer coming my way.

Almost immediately I recognized him. That shifting, stumbling gait. It was the man I'd seen the day the body washed up, or else somebody with a similar affliction. As he got closer, I saw his deformity went well beyond his legs.

He wore sunglasses, a T-shirt and shorts, both sopping wet, as well as a pair of running shoes, the laces tied rather poorly. His skin was... the colour was a fairly natural, if slightly speckled tan, but the texture was inconsistant. Too smooth in some places, too bumpy and wrinkled in others. His limbs had a bizzare, twisted, ropey quality to them. They didn't bend the way they should have.

Then there was the face. His bald head was bulbous and drooping. He showed symptoms of some sort of hydrocephalic disorder. I couldn't see his eyes behind the silvery shades he wore, but the glasses rested on a mis-shapen nose and underdeveloped ears that looked as if they had been sculpted from putty. The mouth didn't even look like a mouth so much as a set of conveniently placed wrinkles.

But the worst... the absolute worst part was seeing the whole mess move about. It stumbled and staggered, flopping bonelessly to and fro as it made its way towards me, closer, ever closer.

I wanted to scream. I wanted to be physically sick. I wanted to run. This thing wasn't human. It couldn't be.

And yet, it was standing on two legs. It wore clothes. What else could it be?

I forced myself to remain calm. It was just a man, I told myself. A man afflicted with some deformity, but a man still. He doesn't need my revulsion. His life must be painful enough as it is. I should treat him with respect, like I do all my customers.

I think I did a decent job of maintaining my composure when he came up to the counter to order. He pointed to a pan of cheap, probably substandard shrimp kebabs under a heatlamp with a floppy, syndactylic finger, then flipped and snaked his appendage into his pants pocket, pulling out a wallet, which he proceeded to empty infront of me, disgorging numerous soggy bits of paper, including several banknotes. The amount of money was enough for five kebabs. I asked if he wanted that many and he nodded his bizarre head, causing it to jiggle unpleasantly. I choked back some bile and handed him the food. Not waiting for his change, he shuffled off immediately.

I just stood there for a moment, dumbfounded. What did I just see? I couldn't have hallucinated that, could I?

Then I noticed he had left his wallet. Curious, I took a glance. They say everyone looks worse in their driver's licence photo. I could barely imagine what his was like. But the man in the photo was completely normal. In fact, it was somebody I recognized.

The man whose clothes had been stolen.

I put two and two together, rushing out after the strange teratoforme that had walked off with five kebabs paid for with stolen cash. I could see him at the waters edge. I yelled at him and he turned towards me.

I don't know what I expected him to do. Certainly not what he actually did.

His twisted limbs suddenly untwisted, his head sank into his torso, which billowed out and flattened. The dark glasses fell into the sand and his clothes collapsed into a pile.

Out of that miserable heap there emerged a tentacle. First one, then another and finally, the largest octopus I had ever seen was revealed.

Its skin's color and texture shifted and pulsated. Its tentacles flailed. In one it still held the shrimp kebabs. They quickly dissapeared beneath it and when they emerged, they were only sticks.

For a moment our eyes met. They were a remarkable golden hue, like two enormous bullion coins, with inverted V-shaped pupils, black as the deep sea abyss itself.

There was an abyss in those eyes. A deep, ancient intelligence that no common mammalian reason could ever truly fathom. It terrified me.

When I was a child I had read a story about a monster with an octopus for a head. It was meant to be fearsome and hideous, but at the time it struck me as patently silly. Now I understood.

I don't know how long we spent just staring at each other. Could have been seconds, could have been hours.

I was so dumbfounded by the hideous sight I was completely unprepared for what happened next.

I don't quite understand why... perhaps it realized its cover was blown and thought it too dangerous to leave a witness. Perhaps it is simply the nature of intelligent, or semi-intelligent life to not abide the existance of other species like unto itself. Whatever the reason, the beast attacked. Leaping through the air like a bolshoi ballerina, its tentacles propelled it with all the swiftness and grace its counterfeit humanity lacked. Its moist, rubbery weight hit me full on in the face and upper torso, driving me to the sand.

I can scarcely describe the flood of horror, pain and disgust that overwhelmed me. I was in so many different kinds of agony at once. Tentacles of pure, cruel muscle wrapped around my arms, body and head, threatening to crush my bones. Its suckers hungrily tore at every inch they touched. I tried to scream as I felt my shoulder dislocate and ribs crack, but my mouth filled with its salty, slimy, suffocating bulk. Oblivious to the vile taste through terror, spite and encroaching hypoxia I bit down but its powerful folds resisted me. Responding in kind, it brought its ravening beak to bear on my neck.

Perhaps it was the lack of oxygen, or the fact I was already overwhelmed with pain, but I barely felt it when the beak clipped my jugular. As the blood began to race out, the tentacles relaxed their grip. Convinced I was finished, the cephalopod slid off me and slipped back into the ocean. It all happened so fast I had no time to think. To think this could be it...

The splash was the last thing I heard before everything went black.

I woke up three days later in the hospital. Joe Strugatsky had found me lying there on the beach as he took his regular constitutional with his new dog. He applied first aid and called 911.

I suffered a dislocated shoulder, three broken ribs, lost 3 pints of blood and my neck required 60 stitches. Almost immediately after I awoke, I was questioned by a pair of policemen about the attack. They thought I had been mugged. When I told them the truth, they almost arrested me right there for making false statements.

They thought I was crazy, of course. I would have thought the same if I were in their position. The doctors kept me a few extra days for psychiatric observation. When they decided I wasn't a threat to myself or others, they cut me loose and told me to take a vacation, so I did.

I'd saved up some money, so I decided to take a cruise on a luxury liner. I was reticent about going on the ocean, but an uncle of mine who been on the boat before highly recommended it. For the most part it was wonderful. The food was delicious, the acommodations were comfortable and we visited several beautiful tropical islands.

I was so relaxed I nearly forgot my previous ordeal. Then, on the voyage home, the ship's security personnel were looking around for a stowaway. They didn't know who he was or where he came from, only that he was a lanky bald man wearing sunglasses. They told the passengers to keep an eye out for him.

One night I was in the dining hall and caught a glimpse of a man who fit the description piling his plate high with morsels from the seafood buffet. He was a fairly average-looking fellow in a white polo shirt and tan trousers. Funny thing was he didn't eat his food in the dining hall, he took the plate out with him.

I followed him out onto the deck. I was curious and decided to confront him about it.

"You're that stowaway, aren't you? They're looking for you, you know?"

A worried look crossed his face and before I could say "Man Overboard" he was over the railing, seafood platter and all. A man lept off the boat. An honest to goodness man. What splashed down in the water was not. A white polo shirt and tan trousers fluttered down to float on the surface a second later.

Many creatures use mimicry to misdirect potential predators or prey. The Corn Snake uses its similar markings to the poisonous Coral Snake to discourage predators. "Red to yellow kills a fellow, red to black, venom lack". Some butterflies have owl face-like markings on their wings for a similar purpose. The Ant Spiders have a similar shape to their insect namesakes and wave their front legs in the air like antennae to fool the colony into believing it is one of their number so it may prey upon them or their aphid livestock, a wolf-spider in sheep's clothing.

There is only one animal known to man that can mimic many different animals depending on the situation. When a beast that preys on the Mimic Octopus appears, it will contort itself and change its color to take the form of a creature the predator will not eat. When a tasty morsel blunders into its territory, it assumes the shape of a creature its prey has no fear of, perhaps even one of their own. Sometimes a flounder, sometimes a mantis shrimp, sometimes a poisonous sea snake. They have quite an extensive repertoire. Possessed of a fierce intelligence, perhaps the greatest of any invertebrate, their problem solving skills continue to shock humans to this day.

Though their habitat and food sources are threatened by mankind's greed, it may not be beyond them to find a new form to assume in order to survive...

I know they're just trying to stay alive. I know it's our own damned fault. Doesn't make it any less unnerving. Every time I meet somebody's gaze, I fear for a moment I might catch another glimpse of that terrifying black and gold abyss...

I haven't seen the ocean in many years. I studied journalism and got a job with a news agency as a foreign corespondent in Kyrgyzstan. It's a landlocked country. Probably the furthest place from the ocean you can get.

It's hot, it's dry and it's boring.

And I hope to God it stays that way.

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