[Sometimes I write a story in one hour based on an intriguing image. I call them Postcard Stories.]
It had rolled and tumbled, whatever it was, gelatinous and tentacled, from lake to canal to stream.
People watched from the shore, following it with opera glasses and sea telescopes. Some thought it was a squid, others an octopus, others still just a glob of fatty flesh from some aquatic animal long torn apart and rotten. It was milky and translucent with tiny red hooks lining the each of its sixteen flacid arms. Deep blue bruises speckled the skin, wrinkling in like spots on a tomato. It had no visible eyes.
According to the papers, it had drifted for weeks down from Lake Huron to Lake St. Clair and now onward. Dozens of photographs had been taken from advantageous spots on the riverbank, but the results were always blurred. Biology professors tried to snag it with nets; fishermen gave chase with their boats. Somehow, the current always worked against them and it sank just out of reach every time.
No one could tell whether it was dead or merely placidly alive and content to drift. Sometimes it got stuck in bushes along the shore or caught in dock pilings, but a few good nudges with a pole usually got it going again. Someone in Algonac reported that it made a sort of whimpering, sputtering sigh when jabbed with an oar.
It left behind a rich purple trail of something like oil. When the sun hit it right, the long slick refracted the light in all the colors of the spectrum, and you could see it stretching back toward wherever the thing had come from. No one had wanted to touch it, at least until they noticed that whenever that trail swirled in an eddy beneath an old hanging tree or a shrub crackling away for fall, the tree or shrub burst alive again with vivid and unnatural colors. The leaves turned shades of greenish-purple, and the branches took on the shimmer of silver.
So Janey and all the neighborhood kids took her dying little sister Nora to the river. To watch it, of course, from a safe distance as they told their parents. To stand in the shallows with their cuffs rolled up. Only that. Just to watch.
Little Nora did not get out much in her condition, lungs always full of fluid and shivers always flexing her arms and legs. She’d rather have taken the opportunity, rare as it was, to crawl in the sand or play in the grass, but Janey held her shoulders tight and they stood together in the chilly water.
Paul and Ben ventured out the furthest; they’d been the ones Janey asked first, the ones who’d agreed to her plan. At first it was a stunt to them, but then they had to help carry Nora out to her red wagon for the journey to the river, and they’d had to catch her when she lolled to one side and then the other. She’d been too weak to hold herself up, almost as boneless as the thing in the water.
They watched the river flow, the little waves surge over the sand and into the grass. They stared at the promontory fifty yards upstream, and it wasn’t long before the floating thing lazily spun around and came toward them.
Something made Janey sick to see it. It had gotten tangled in ropes and netting now, and a long plank bobbed alongside. Along its journey, it had picked up the trash of the river, and Janey didn’t think that it deserved that, to gather our trash. Watching it now, she had a sense of its strangeness, its otherness, and it didn’t belong here rolling in a knot of human flotsam.
“Here it comes,” said Ben, flexing his fingers and rocking on his feet. He did that on the pitcher’s mound in the park. He wasn’t good at standing still.
Paul bent a little beside him, ready to pounce. “Ready?” he said.
Janey stared while Nora squirmed beneath her grasp. Should they even be doing this? Was it dangerous? Were they dangerous to it?
“Ready?” asked Paul again.
Nora let out a tiny cough and a big shudder, and Janey knew.
“Ready,” she said. “Now!”
The children rushed into the water in a great cloud of spray. Frances stomped in huge strides, and Irene waded forward with the hem of her dress in her hands. Ben and Paul were swimming now, just swimming for it, their arms flailing wildly and their feet kicking. The noise was incredible; they shrieked and the water roared and the people on the shore screamed for them not to do it.
Paul had the longer arms and he reached the thing first. He grabbed the plank and treaded water to spin the creature around, and it swept closer and closer to Janey and Nora. So near now, they could smell its rot, something between peat loam and copper; the strange sharp tang of it seemed to pour down the backs of their throats.
The creature hung limply in the water, just three feet from Janey and Nora, who was crying. They hadn’t told her the plan, and now that they were close, it was obvious that they were going to make her touch it.
But where? Janey hoisted her sister under the arms and thrust her toward the creature, trying not to cry. The odor was horrible now, and the slick of blood or poison or whatever it was had started to swirl around them.
Something had to happen. Janey wasn’t going back to the shore until it did. So, eyes clenched from the spray, she lifted her sister into direct contact with it, letting her arms and legs squish into its bruised-tomato skin like some terrifying hug. Nora screamed now, and Janey wished she could clench her ears shut, too.
Four of the tentacles weakly coiled around Nora, and Janey knew she’d made a mistake. She yanked again at her sister, but the flesh only squeezed her tighter.
“Get her!” shouted Janey, and the children tried to peel the fleshy arms from around Nora. They couldn’t even get their fingers in, and they all gasped as the creature made a slow roll with Nora and held her beneath the water.
“No!” cried Janey, pounding her fists on its exposed back, pounding and pounding. The others pounded, too, and Ben flipped open his pocket knife. Good, she thought, cut it open. Please. Get her out.
Before Ben got the chance, though. the thing completed its rotation, exposing a choking Nora once more to the sun. Janey grabbed her sister roughly and this time, the creature let her go, its arms draining from her sides. A whimper, very faint, came from somewhere above the surface.
With Nora in her arms, Janey kicked off from the creature and made for the shore, kicking frantically, screaming for help. The other children drifted back from the creature and let it go on, now with none of that slick substance trailing behind.
It bobbed a little, shuddered, and now the sixteen arms flowed behind it like a woman’s hair. That’s how it drifted the rest of the way through the canals and streams, the limbs torn away by rocks and the flesh nibbled away by fish, until it dissolved to nothing somewhere far away.
Nora lived a long, long life after that. She never coughed again, certainly. She never shivered, either. Her body grew strong and her mind stronger still. She had strange dreams for the rest of that long life, though, dreams of places and things that she later tried to paint and write about. She was famous for a time, lauded for her wild imagination, but she rarely talked about the source of her vision. When she did, she only said it was her “responsibility” to show us what she had been shown.
She held strange jobs and voiced strange opinions and never let anything bother her, not anything small. And to her, it was all small and wondrous.
Nora is missing now, escaped from an assisted living facility in this, her 110th year. There’s a river nearby and a sea not far from that, and it isn’t hard to imagine that she could gracefully dive in and go anywhere she wanted.