Student Spotlight: Kaitlin Nichols
The following is an exclusive work of fiction for Stonecoast Review. Trigger warning: this story alludes to “children in danger.”
How Sweet the Flesh
The deep water vibrated with sound, clicks of rock on rock, rock on coral, coral on crab.
From my place on the sand I saw only three colors:
Brown. Tan. Blue.
The sand was fine and white, the kind people dreamed about while surfing through vacation ads they could never afford. Grains of it crunched in my teeth and crawled on my scalp like tiny, persistent sea lice. Sand is composed of bits of ground up landscape that didn’t survive the waves: shells with no living owner, empty bodies of dearly departed foraminifera. The ocean rests on a graveyard of beautiful corpses. I was there for the basketball-sized clams. They were studded along the bay floor like the raisins in the Christmas bread my sister sold at church bake sales.
“Sweet breads from sweet babies,” my uncle would say when he came by and bought a loaf, pressing a bit onto her tongue, making her suck the stickiness off his fingers…Our father always said his brother was a little eccentric. But he was family, so we didn’t tell mom.
The clam’s eyes were trained on the surface. When I had first come to see the clams in the deep, I thought they were watching me. They had big, human eyes, complete with whites, sclera, and iris. I had only learned the parts last year in science class—it made me feel better to have words for them. But when I asked the teacher if clams had the same kind of eyes, he had gone on a long rambling lecture. A simple “no” would have been fine.
Fish didn’t come to this place. When a misguided school of minnows wandered onto the minefield of bivalves, I saw why. Deceptively lazy tubes stretched from the front lines of the clam kingdom, at first flaccid and distended with water, but then erect as they ventured closer. Suddenly, the water began to move. A little group of minnows became surrounded by sucking, hungry tentacles. For the first time, the clams had turned their eyes from the surface and onto the prey, staring into the school with the intensity of a scrutinizing lover.
Thankfully, I was too big to be prey. I sat amongst the clams as an observer, of no more note than a rock, holding my breath like my mother had taught me. I was up to ten minutes at a time now. My sister said I was a freak. Maybe that was why I kept coming back to the clams with human eyes.
Tonight, the boats shone bright, white lights into the deep, luring more foolish fish into their nets. Amongst the clams, the browns, tans, and blues turned the kind of green which shouldn’t quite exist. I held extra still while the boats passed over; I was supposed to be in bed, after all.
It was strange. Even though we ate clam meat nigh on monthly, they were never over-fished.
The clams set their shells half-open, and I could just see the mottled brown lips dotted with impossibly blue eyes. People hadn’t even had a word for that color of blue until storefront signs blared its particular kind of neon.
I’d found out that the eyes were blue when mother dragged my first clam onto a boat in preschool. The eyes had rolled back and forth like a hysteric stallion; round, irises dilated in terror, just like my sister’s when our uncle asked for a hug.
“They’re just clams.” My mother had said when I expressed the gorging dread of watching the clam’s eyes dart back and forth between my mother and sister, as if begging to be heard. “They can’t hurt you, now.” And then she took out a knife and sliced deep through the lips, until the flesh lay bare to her hands.
In the green of the boat lights, I waited. My mother was on one of them, and tomorrow was clam night. Finally, I’d be able to figure out how she performed her magic. What happened under the water while we dragged up clams? Did they mouth farewell? Those eyes, the way they rolled and widened…I had long suspected they would scream as they were dragged to the floor of our boat, pried open, invaded, and eaten. My mother savored those meals. My sister wouldn’t touch them.
A splash above me. The clicks and constant worrying of the sea around me ground to a halt, and my ears rang with the lack of noise. Heart pounding, I squinted into the unnatural green, looking for the source of the disturbance.
There was a figure, writhing at the surface, arms akimbo, legs kicking, not to swim but to defend. It was my Uncle. Had he fallen off the boat? He was supposed to be going with my mother tonight. As I watched, his legs stiffened, curled up. Did he have a cramp? Had he just miscalculated his step and fallen into the water? His knees came to his chest and his head snapped up, then he sank beneath me.
As my uncle sank, bubbles flew up like silver birds escaping his lips. Finally, the new clam landed on the floor of the bay, sand spraying up into the water like a plume of confetti.
Resisting the urge to gasp and scream—I couldn’t inhale water this deep!—I pushed off the bottom of the cove and shot to the surface, letting out breath as I went, kicking so hard that I beat my own bubbles to the surface, breaking the inky layer to the world of moonlight and silent air.
I turned, pushing water around me to stay afloat, when a light turned directly into my eyes.
I threw my hand out of the water, still kicking and squinting into the light. Slowly the light turned away from me and onto the figure on a boat. “Mama?” I asked, and a great sob erupted from my chest.
“What are you doing out here?” Mother asked, crouching down in the boat. She was alone, I could see that, wearing her short working dress and flip flops, her boat bobbing up and down in the tide with me. “Tala, why were you down there?”
“I wanted to see,” I whimpered. “Mama, are they all people? Even the ones we eat?”
My mother sighed and sat down on the edge of her boat, reaching out to smooth my thick hair down to my scalp, the salt of my tears washing away the sand on my cheeks.
“Yes love. They are.”
“But why?” I sobbed. “There’s hundreds of them, mama! Why?”
She smiled as if someone had taken a fishing hook and pulled it up and out of her cheek. “Why don’t you swim down and take a closer look? I’m sure they’ll show you why I put them down there.”
I stared at her face, illuminated by the great white light, and tried to work it out for myself. Mama had put them there? The only reason Mama ever got angry enough to hurt anyone was if they hurt me or my sister. Uncle had never hurt us. He was just…eccentric.
But there was no arguing with the chipped porcelain sharpness of Mama’s smile. I nodded, turned and dove down again, Mama tipping the light into a column for me to follow.
The clam which had been Uncle was rocking slightly, I could see the furrow it had made around itself, was still making. Just like all the others, it had two eyes, staring at the surface, and the irises were huge, as if fury had pulled them to their greatest diameter.
I swam over to him, floating over the eyes and peering down. Had this really been a man, once?
A tube flopped out from the clam’s side and as water cycled through, it stretched out to me. I stayed still, wondering what it would do. None of them had ever acknowledged me beneath the water. But this was my uncle. Maybe he recognized me. I reached out my hand.
The extant flesh ignored my gesture, and I felt it wrap around my thigh, drawing me closer. Wide eyes fixated on my chest. A second valve slapped at my mouth, then wriggled at my lips, the same way I had watched my uncle’s fingers wiggle at my sister when he’d given her the Christmas bread.
Hey baby, he’d said. I’m all dirty.
The shell opened as if to devour me whole.
Gritting my teeth, I kicked away, his tentacle not strong enough to hold me. When I turned, a forest of pale fleshy tentacles erupted across the sea floor, as if the newcomer had proven that my body was nothing more than food.
It’s dangerous to surface from a dive like that too quickly. I swam until my stomach cramped. When I broke the surface, my mother was there with a rope and a grim expression.
“Do you understand, Tala?” she asked.
Panting, trying to push the memory of the tentacle at my lips, I nodded.
“Good. I could use the help.” She pulled me into the boat, wrapping me in a towel.
When we returned home that night, a bowl of rice awaited me, strips of grilled clam crisscrossed across the grains.