Claudette Nootka Is Ugly Inside And Full Of Hate

“Seems kinda slow in here today.” Caspian Shipley remarks lifting his glass and glancing around at my empty bar.

I should note that it’s 3:30 in the afternoon on a Thursday. What Gentlemen’s Club is a grandiose circus in the middle of the week on a workday? He knows nobody comes in here at this time because he’s always in here at this time. He waits at the door for me to unlock it at 3:00 every day.

Now there’s an idea! I collect my notepad from its spot next to the register and write the word “CIRCUS” at the top of the page and underline it twice, thinking I might make Thursdays busier if I can talk the girls into letting the men flip peanuts between their tits for prizes. I’ll have to remember that later. Run it by them. See what they think? They probably won’t go for it but you never know… They’re all fun-time girls. Progressive women like I am. They might find it empowering.

Remembering Caspian is there, I reply with a grunt instead of words, but I can hear the voice in my head muttering and it’s muttering once again about how much I can’t stand Caspian Shipley.

Taking a swig of his Poseidieus and Coke, he makes a sour, disapproving face against the taste and sucks air through his chartreuse teeth which protrude from between his lips, round and brittle, like he has a mouthful of pistachios.

He really is vile and there’s something strange about his face today but I can’t tell exactly what’s changed. The expression he’s making seems odd–even for him. Does he always make that same expression when he sips Poseidieus? I know he always grimaces as he’s drinking but is this the same wince he always makes or is there something different about his face? I can’t say for sure and finding myself unable to pinpoint what’s changed about him, I feel the loathing I keep for him sink even deeper through me until it comes to rest inside my bones.

“Something about this don’t taste right. You gave me Poseidieus?” He asks. He doesn’t quite slam the lowball glass down on my bartop but the emptiness of the room is emphasized as the sound of the noisy clank of the glass forcibly meeting the wood reverberates.

“This again, Caspian?” I ask, slowly shaking my head. I roll my eyes too because I just made my decision. It’s official. Today’s the day I stop pretending to be nice to him. I can’t do it anymore.

“‘Course it don’t taste right. Orion Klygore ages Poseidieus for six years. This shit sits in his dilapidated boathouse in rusty vats for six whole years. You know Orion don’t you? You think that man has ever cleaned those vats? You think he’s ever cleaned anything? Because I don’t think he even cleans his own ass. You’ve seen the Klygore boathouse haven’t you? That big, ugly landmark where the baywater meets the swamp? All the Bay People know it. Tin roof full of holes with boards literally falling off. In the marsh at the bayhead. You know the one I mean. Looks like something out of ‘Deliverance.’ I say again: ‘Course it don’t taste right.”

I’m telling all of this to him, but he’s had so much of this swill today that his eyes have started to glaze over slightly and he’s looking just past me and I’m not sure he’s listening.

Probably he’s looking at something over my shoulder that isn’t actually there…might be he’s got a hallucination? A vision of Xaigon himself blowing up and twisting balloons into the shapes of seals or something like a clown perhaps? They do say the cheaper the Essence, the weirder the visions. Who knows what’s going on in that empty head of his right now? Not me, of course because I never drink that cheap shit. Belongs in the trashcan.

Then again, maybe the expensive Cetacean Essence I’ve been drinking this afternoon is twisting up my brain too? I can’t stop thinking of a tiny car that’s got a line of Xaigon’s climbing out of it…each of them with a funny painted face. That’d be a sight to see ’cause he’s an obsidian giant squid. A god as unending as eternity. The Lord of the Tides that reigns in The Abyss beneath the Bay, bloodthirsty and beautiful with a spiral onyx shell on his back to hide up inside, and bed down like a hermit crab does. Dreaming forever about the destruction of reality and the endless night to come…

A dozen murderous sea gods climbing out of a bright orange 1992 Volkswagen Beetle? Now that’d be a sight! Oh, Claudette Nootka, where’s your head at? Now, you stop thinking ’bout the circus!

I’m still laughing at myself when I say: “Poseidieus is shit, Caspian. Bottom barrel. Do you hear me? Is any of this registering?”

I pause a moment because he’s not responding and then his eyes blink quickly a few times and he nods at me.

I pause a moment and then his eyes blink quickly a few times and he nods at me.

“Nobody who comes in here drinks it except you and I only keep it in stock because I’m a Xaigonian Enclave loyalist. I love my malevolent god and his chosen people. Orion and his bloodline are Eternal Lineage. My family is Eternal Lineage. Nootka’s a Seãkwa name. I’m the real deal. I think the brew he makes is crap but I serve it to you because we stick together. In The Depths We Are Bound. In The Depths We Find Truth, Caspian. Never forget our words.”

Caspian is here every day and everything about having to deal with him on a day-to-day basis is cringeworthy and actually makes me want to die a little bit.

No, it isn’t his awful tips, although they are awful…or maybe you think I have an opinion about disgusting old men hanging out at titty bars in the early afternoon–every afternoon?–Well I don’t. It’s not my business why men do what they do. They’re gross and one day their abominable behavior stops disgusting you the same way it used to. Instead of continuing to ask ‘why’ it suddenly all adds up and you understand that the club is just a zoo and these men have no idea which side of the glass they’re actually on.

And no, it’s not the way he’s constantly slamming his glass down on my bar either. I hate it, but I don’t really give a damn about the glasses. I buy cheap ones. They’re shitty because nobody’s here to look at fancy glassware. They’re here to look at ass and titties. Except Caspian. Caspian faces away from the stage. Caspian faces me. He comes in just to annoy me because he knows I can’t stand him. That’s what I believe. That’s his purpose. He orders the cheapest Cetacean Essence I have. Orion doesn’t even filter the seawater before he mixes it to ferment, that’s how little he cares. He doesn’t give a damn about the sacred ritual he’s bastardizing every time he brews another batch of his garbage up. I doubt he even cures the psykothrix algae into the right kind of powder or even has Aquaria bless it in the ancient ceremony with the secret words like he’s supposed to. Might not even put any sacrifices into it at all. Just mixes up his poison however he wants and then delivers it to my club. Then Caspian orders it. Then he makes a face like he’s dying with every sip, and in a way, he is.

More than once it’s made him say horrible things out of nowhere. I’ve had to throw him out for speaking out of line to Thalassa because he’s 63 years old and doesn’t think the racist shit he says is that bad.

None of this is surprising when you think about the massive amount of the Seafoam he drinks from sunup to sundown. Like I said, one day you just stop trying to make sense of why men do what they do and you realize you’re just at the zoo. Here’s another ape throwing shit through the bars at you. He doesn’t question why he does it–and more importantly, he doesn’t care. He just instinctually does things that you hate and the only explanation that makes any sense is that he wants you to hate him more than he hates himself because that places you on the bottom rung, just beneath him. He gets to call that winning, I suppose.

Top it all off with the fact that he’s easily the worst behaved patron we deal with when the Essence hallucinations really start to kick in; always doing something inexplicable and strange. I watched him cut open his hand with a sacred dagger he took out from his coat pocket once. He put the dagger back where it came from and smeared the blood in his palm all over a lime he fished out of his drink with his knobby webbed fingers. Then he just threw it at a guy for no reason I could tell. The guy was in his 20’s–young and built like a bull shark. Caspian slumped to the floor in the fetal position screaming like he was being beaten to death as soon as the guy walked over with the bloody lime between his index and thumb to ask him about it. Guy didn’t even touch him. He didn’t even seem mad. Just confused. So was I. The young guy walked over and Caspian just curled into a ball and started wailing in agony. I’m telling you the visions from the cheap stuff are weird. Who knows what kinds of things a man his age would have to see to make him choose to do something like that?

I would ban him entirely from my club and my general presence for that matter if I could, but I can’t because he’s important. Like, actually important. Besides, I can’t just pick and choose which Xaigonian Enclavists I like to be in my bar and which ones I don’t. I mean, sure you’d want to crack down on a guy who’s being an asshole, but unfortunately he’s more than just some random asshole from the village.

Caspian Shipley is Aquaria Shipley’s brother. The day I ban the brother of the High Priestess from my bar is the day I have to stop thinking of myself as a loyalist and accept my new status as a pariah.

From The Rising Tide’s Caress, She Floats On Xaigon’s Breath.

I remember the day that Xaigon chose her to speak to us with His Voice. I acknowledge that she is his mouthpiece in Echo Bay. What kind of devotee would I be if I turned away her own brother? The brother I witnessed hold her head beneath the waves during the Choosing Ceremony? No. I wish I could make him go away forever but I can’t. Besides he’s an elder now and if he really wanted to press for dominance, he outranks me. His wants supercede mine and the only thing Caspian wants in this whole wide world is to piss me off.

There’s not much to be done about him, unless I want to be shunned. You have to understand: I’ve already been Essence Shifting myself for years. The whole purpose of Cetacean Essence is not to get you drunk and seeing things that aren’t there. It’s transformative. If you want to join Xaigon beneath the waves you have to start drinking Essence early and often. It takes a long time to take effect. Eventually I’ll be so changed that I won’t be able to keep this club anymore. I’ll probably give it to one of my girls before I finally go below. Eventually I won’t be able to come out of the water for more than an hour or two at a time and I’ll just come up to defend the sanctity of Twilight Cove from the trespassers, so I won’t need it anyway.

The holy texts tell us: “From The Depths, We Arise; To The Depths, Shall We Return.” That’s from The Letters of Calypso To The Settlers Of Echo Bay; Chapter 2, Verse 17. I know all the texts by heart.

I have to tolerate the man because Xaigon picked his sister to lead us all. He chose Caspian to drown her in the ceremony. She became our most high priestess when she was the only one of the three drowned girls who spat out the seawater and breathed with life again. I saw it happen. I believe in the texts. She was singled out by HIM and Caspian had a hand in her assention into power. That means Xaigon chose them both for his purposes. I can’t question the Lord of the Tides. There are consequences for that. Where will I go when the time comes for me to walk into the sea for good? I’m devoted. I belong in Xaigon’s Coral Caves. I belong in the Shining City. I’m not in any rush to leave land, I’ll take my time–a few more years at the very least–but I’ve spent my life preparing for this. I don’t question HIM. I don’t want to have to find another place to spend my unnaturally long existence beyond the City in the Silt of Exile.

I drink as much Cetacean Essence as Caspian probably does. Maybe more. I don’t drink the stuff he drinks. The stuff I drink is more expensive. It doesn’t destroy you. It remakes everything you are. It’s almost like magic.

“The Tide That Brought Us Forth Shall Bring Us Home.” The Word of Selkira, 13:4

Everyone’s Essence Shift is different. Caspian and I are both Shifting. Xaigon has made a place for each of us when we wish to join him. Eventually the longing in our hearts for his dark embrace will grow and become too heavy a burden to bear and we’ll go down to be with him. We both plan to do that. I’m just Shifting with the calculated, intentional grace that befits my lineage. I’m Claudette Fucking Nootka. That name means something around here. I’ll walk into the black waves at Twilight Cove with dignity and an audience when I’m ready. The vessel of my soul is sacred and I’m trying to preserve it as I change. My teeth aren’t green and my eyes aren’t lopsided bulbous amber orbs. My skin isn’t mottled with scales because I moisturize, but those things all describe the way Caspian is Shifting. He looks like cheap shit because he drinks the cheap shit. Imbibing Cetacean Essence is one of the sacraments of our faith. If you’re a devoted believer that Xaigon’s Word Is The Way, the sacraments you take into yourself should be chosen with purpose and reverence. The effects of higher end Essence are worth what you’re paying for it and I’ve chosen to pay a lot. I might even be more fishperson now than I am person-person but you’d never know for sure because I’m trying to keep my appearance from changing too drastically so I’m going as slowly as I can manage. Really taking my time. I don’t really see the differences yet except for a few small ones here and there. My hands. My feet. My neck. If you looked at me you probably couldn’t tell I’m embracing my fishdom at all. Everyone transitions in their own way so who’s to say one path is better than another? One path is certainly much faster and uglier. People like Caspian still pick it anyway.

If you wonder how I could hate him, you shouldn’t. Most people who know him hate him. You’d hate him too if you met him. Yes, we share a religion; a common path and a common goal…but that doesn’t mean I must be his ally. I’m allowed to hate him.

Xaigon himself tells us in the Gospel of Nyxara: “My Power Is Fed By Your Devotion, Not By Your Unity.” and again hatred is mentioned as a blessing in the pages of The Creed Of Velyra: “Xaigon’s Depths Are Dark And Unfathomable. If Your Hatred Should Ebb And Flow, Then Blessed Are Those Who Let It Flow Like The Tide.”

He’s a complete asshole and the only book that matters tells me that I’m right to hate him because hate is a good thing. I’m literally allowed to hate him because Xaigon says I can and if you think I shouldn’t then you should mind your own business. Don’t presume to teach me the Word Of The Lord Of The Tides. I’m telling you, everyone hates him and that’s fine. I hear the things they say about him behind his back. Bartenders hear all the things. Like the rest of everyone else, I do my very best to ignore him even though he comes in here and sits for hours and makes his unpleasant faces and complains about how bad the cheapest stuff tastes…Every. Single. Day. What do you really expect, Caspian? The stuff you’re willing to pay for is lousy and my unpleasant company while you drink it is on-the-house. The hatred is gratis. Yours for free.

Today, I’m finding it nearly impossible to ignore him because there isn’t anybody else here and something about him is off as well. It’s just him and one other guy in the whole place and I can’t even try to make them talk to each other and leave me alone because the other guy is sitting 20 feet away down by the stage.

Marina spins lazily around the pole and looks as bored as I do–as bored as Caspian does–as bored as the guy in front of her does and he’s got his nose down on his phone. He’s not watching her because she rolled her eyes at him earlier. I don’t know why he didn’t get up and leave when she did that. I’m just a spectator so I don’t ask why. Just watch.

I don’t blame her entirely because the man only threw two–no three bills on stage. She just left them on the ground there. They’re still right there actually because she didn’t bother picking them up even though that must have been half an hour ago. She’s not a $3 whore. If you don’t believe me just ask her. He didn’t start scrolling until she looked at him, disgusted. Not one of my girls would be enticed to hook a leg above their head and spin upside down for tips like that, but I know I’ll still have to say something about it when she’s done because she looks absolutely miserable. I’m not mad at her for that, but I also can’t allow it. Nobody comes to this club to watch the talent be depressed. If anyone was to walk through the door right now, they’d take one look at how weary she is up there and walk right back out.

Bored strippers are just as bad for business as miserable old sour-faced Caspian.

I turn away from him and press the open end of the nebulizer mask to the right side of my neck, basking in the exquisite brackish mist that gently moistens me with its elegance. I’m feeling eternally supple and marvelous at this moment.

“Claudette, I’ve seen you hit that thing about five times in the last hour,” Caspian remarks, taking another swig of his drink and making another sour face. “It’s getting harder being up here, ain’t it? I can tell. You really ought to think about planning your Depth Departure.”

“You ought to think about shutting the hell up and minding your own goddamn business, Caspian. I’m doing just fine. Thriving.”

“I’m serious. You’ll have to go eventually. You can’t avoid the Shining City forever. Better to plan The Plunge and get going while the going’s good…you’ll want to leave on your own terms before you shrivel up and are forced to leave on someone else’s.”

“Shrivel up! Look at me you vile old greenmouth. You dare imply anything about my Shift? Have you got a mirror back at the house? Look in it at yourself. You’ve already got the big beady yellow eyes, there’s just five hairs left still waiting to fall out of your scaly head, but they will soon, and look at your teeth. They’re like algae. When’s your Depth Departure, Caspian?” I say.

I turn my back to him, and take a bottle of Celestia down from the top shelf. Setting a small glass on the bar, I pour myself a healthy shot and toss it back in one gulp. It tastes awful–all Cetacean Essence tastes awful–but it’s not anywhere close to as bad as the shit he’s drinking.

“Ah, Celestia?” He says suddenly. His tone changes and his large offset eyes grow even larger, “you gonna share some of that?”

“You gonna pay for it?” I ask. He looks shocked and doesn’t reply. “Yeah, I didn’t think so. Orion makes Poseidieus with porpoise blubber. Baron Darkmoor only uses baby orcas for Celestia. Doesn’t tell nobody on account of them being so cute and also federally protected. That’s why it’s not cheap. That’s what those of us in the know are paying for. Quality. Bit out of the price range of a miserable penny-pinching pseudodiver like yourself.”

His bulbous mustard colored eyes narrow and his mouth becomes a hard lipless line. I know somewhere in his head he’s searching for something equally awful to say to me but he can’t find it. His deformed nose catches my attention for the first time in the many years I’ve known him. His nostrils in particular flare wild and angry and that’s when I realize what I couldn’t pinpoint before. That’s what’s different about his face! His nose is practically gone–shriveled away and all that’s left of it is those holes. Was it like that before? No it couldn’t have been. This is a recent devolvement; a new decline in his features. It makes his fish-face look even fishier and that gives my lips rise to a smirk that feels almost devilish. To be honest, as soon as the word left my mouth, I was just as shocked I’d said it as he was to hear it. Pseudodiver is just about one of the worst slurs you can call a broke addict. They’re addicted to Essence but they can’t afford it so they drink Dreamsal or Poseidieus. Essence made by unskilled, unscrupulous brewers. It gets the job done but you’ll look awful by the end of it…you’ll always look awful for the rest of your unnaturally long life. Even the poor will make it to the Shining City, if they wish but at what cost to their dignity?

Compare us closely–really closely–and tell me who looks more like a fish? It’s him. I look fine.

It’s not even close and more of me has Shifted but my changes have bettered me. They’re adaptive. His Shifts are–it’s controversial to say this–but they’re ugly. He looks really awful. We’re supposed to be evolving. I know everyone Shifts in their own way and it’s rude to comment about someone else’s way, but that’s because everyone’s grown soft. I’m entitled to my opinion and Xaigon himself encourages us to recognize those among us that evoke the fire of hate and to look down upon them.

“Greenmouth first and then pseudodiver?” His tone is a bit disgusted when he asks. “That’s what you think of me–really? I like Poseidieus best and I’m in here every day keeping your lights on. I’m not broke.”

“Lights? That shit you drink doesn’t pay for anybody’s lights.” I spit on the floor behind the bar. “What’s your bill on average? Twenty–maybe thirty bucks? Drinking here all day? That’s it? What do you know about the light bill at my titty bar, Caspian? The neon sign out front? The sound system? The spotlights and the disco ball? You have any idea what all this costs to run? It’s a lot more than twenty bucks a day. You’re barely paying to run the automatic flusher on the toilet. Not only are you cheap, you’re fucking strange in a bad way and your breath smells like red tide and sardines. You annoy the fuck out of me. You piss other customers off all the time and your other fucked up behavior literally gives me migraines. None of my girls like you either.”

I turn away from him, heated and pressing the mask of the nebulizer to my neck again, but this time instead of the fine spray of briny water rushing to greet me, there’s barely a sputter. The liquid is out.

I sigh and turn back to face him, lifting my webbed fingers right between his cockeyed, bulbous eyes I snap them a few times to make sure I’ve got his full attention before I begin saying what I finally want to say to him after keeping my mouth shut for so many years until today:

“Look, Caspian. Listen to me and listen good. You can come in here as much as you want. On account of who you are and how important your sister is, I’m not ever gonna ask you to stop. I might ask you to leave when you start getting too weird to deal with, or start pissing off the other patrons or the girls but I’m not gonna tell you to never come back. I’ll just kick you out for the rest of the day and then I’ll see you the next one. I’m willing to let you do whatever it is you do and as long as you’re mostly behaving, you don’t have to fuck off. You can keep coming in as much as you like. But I’m gonna make one thing abundantly clear to you right now: I don’t like you. I’m done with the insults and I’m done playing nice with you. That Depth Departure comment was rude and out of line and you know it. Taking The Plunge is a personal choice and it’s not your goddamn business if and when I decide to start living my fuckin life with The Fish. I don’t want to live beneath the Bay yet. I’m not ready and I’m not so bad at living up here that I absolutely must go down there. I like it up here. I’ve got my girls and my business to think about up here, so I’ll keep living topside for now and until I look like a goddamn mahi mahi if I feel like it. I’ll do it when it suits me, when I want to and it’ll be nobody’s business but mine.”

“I know what I look like,” I continue, “and you have a mirror so you know what you look like too. We’re both advanced morphs. You just look much worse off than me. Maybe the truth is I’m worse than you because I’m using this saline tank now and then because I’m very slowly forgetting how to breathe. If you’re really His true believer and as devout as you pretend to be then remember what The Book of Zephyra says. Chapter 7, Verse 4: Breathe Water, Breathe Wisdom, Caspian. You’re not better than me. You’re not as far along in your development as I am. You’re just ugly. We’re both ugly. I’ve just been keeping my ugly inside me until right now. Hear my ugly Caspian. I hold my ugly in my heart and it’s all for you. We’re not the same amount of ugly because you’re ugly inside and outside. I’m only ugly inside.”

“What about your neck?” He asks. He’s referring to the way the skin from my chin hangs a bit more loosely now. “Wasn’t so bad as it is now a year ago. Looks like your face melted into your shoulders.”

“Caspian, that’s the only really apparent, really visible sign of my Shift.” I reply. “It happened to me slowly and gracefully over time the way Xaigon intended for it to happen. Now I’m gonna go walk my happy ass into the back and get another tank because this one is empty and while I’m gone, you can go fuck yourself. Then, when I come back, you’re not going to talk to me again for the rest of the day. Got it? Do we have an understanding anglerface?”

“What’s with you and the name calling today?” He asks.

“I just really don’t have the patience to deal with you anymore–I’m tired of pretending not to be bothered by your infinite disfigurements day in and day out. You disgust me.”

I point to him and say: “ugly outside.”

Then I point to myself and say: “ugly inside. Now you understand just how ugly inside. The difference between us is I only show mine when I want to. Only you get to see it for now because nobody else is here…except that guy over there and he’s been scrolling his phone for about 35 minutes. He’s so focused you could probably throw a lime covered in blood at him and start screaming and he wouldn’t even notice. Why do I hate you so much? Lots of reasons. Mostly because this whole thing you’ve got going on with your head and face is awful. but I also feel Xaigon’s guidance in my heart saying that he wants me to hate you.”

“Was it Prophet Arionax that said ‘Hate Fiercely For It Is The Burning Light In Xaigon’s Abyss?’” Caspian asks. This is the first bit of scripture he’s ever quoted to me and I nod, a bit shocked that it evokes a tiny bit of respect for him…but then I remember I still hate him and push the feeling back into the dark where it belongs.

“When I come back, don’t talk to me again. Not for the rest of the day. Got it?”

He doesn’t say another word, just nods as I lift the wheels of my empty saltwater tank off the ground and carry it a few inches from the floor and walk towards the back.

Somehow I manage to make it to the office with the door closed behind me before the hyperventilating starts. The more you Essence Shift, before too long you’ll have to relearn the way to breathe. Mostly you’ll remember how and the way you used to do it will work just fine. You’ve spent your whole life with lungs and breathing through your nose and mouth but when you Shift, once in a while your body decides it can’t do anything with that input of air–not right in that moment–but you try it anyway and start to choke. You try to breathe the old way that you always used to do but this time you can’t because you forgot how it works.

Sometimes you can only remember how to respirate the new way.

I begin opening and closing my mouth, pulling the swiveling chair away from the desk so I can slump into it before I collapse on the ground. I’m trying to inhale with desperate urgency but the air is just hitching in my trachea and nothing is happening the way it used to happen. I’m trying to stay calm. Not panic, but the oxygen I’m trying to breathe is only choking me as I use my feet to drag the wheels of the chair across the room. It’s just five feet to the cabinet. I feel cold but I’m slick with sweat as my vision begins to blur and my skin takes on a pallid sheen.

My hand is trembling as I pull open the metal door to the large cabinet along the office wall. On Xaigon, I swear I’m going to pass out before I can do this. I’m going to pass out and then I’m going to suffocate and die. One of the girls will find me in a few hours when they realize that I’m not behind the bar and come looking.

I curse quietly but the words don’t sound like any swear I’ve ever said. The words don’t even sound like words.

I’ll be dead on the floor.

That’s how she’ll find me. One of the girls.

I wonder which one?

Hopefully not Aquaditie. She’ll be so upset.

My fingers fumble with the threading on the hose connecting the mask to the empty tank that I’ve managed to hoist weakly onto my lap.

I’m going to fucking die if I don’t stop trying to breathe.

The hose comes loose and the empty tank falls off my lap, clattering to the floor and rolling away from me.

Dead because I can’t stop trying to breathe with my fucking useless lungs right now.

My vision is fading slowly. Blurring. Blurring. The only thing I see is white for a moment or two but I can still feel my hands. The new tank is right here.

I can’t stop trying to breathe. It’s like my body won’t listen when I tell my mouth to stop. Stop it. Stop sucking in air. You’re going to die. Xaigon, I’m devoted. I always have been, I swear. I’m begging you. Make my lungs stop trying. Stop it. Stop trying.

I need a miracle.

I can feel the threading at the top of the tank between the finger webbing on my right hand. It spirals around and around and around. The plastic connector is in my left hand.

I blindly force the hose onto the new tank. Everything I see is still only white. I twist the plastic joint onto metal, once, twice, a third time until I hear it click into place.

I realize I’m not sucking in oxygen anymore. My body listened.

Sort of.

Now my gills are flapping wildly instead. Over the last year the skin from my chin sagged and sagged and melted down to my shoulders as the gills developed. Six deep divots that delved down into the flesh and tissue of my neck. Three gills on each side. When they began forming the skin on my face began to slide down. It was my body reacting instinctively. Knowing to hide the secret thin filaments of my new blood vessels as they formed. My face melted downward shielding my new secret orifices from the world. As the cavities grew, opening like the mouths of hungry flowers on the nape of my collarbone, my cheeks seemed to soften, sloughing down from my face like putty. Evolving, my face now shrouded the lamellae in darkness as it developed in the new slits, flexing within the fissures–writhing like tiny hidden fingers.

I’m not trying to use my lungs anymore but I can feel my gills as they open and close and open and close, dry and waterless with wild reckless abandon. Useless without liquid passing through them, the gills ripple beneath the layers of skin that melted down my face to cover them.

I grasp the valve on the tank and wrench it open with one hand, lifting the mask to my neck with the other.

I’m not going to die.

Not in this office.

Not today.

The mask sends salty relief through me and I feel the wetness of it as it moves across my gills. Somewhere hidden in the side of my neck the grooves filled with vessels absorb the oxygen from the water, sending it directly into the blood in my veins.

Inhale The Sea; Exhale Devotion.

Thank you, oh Xaigon for allowing me to live to hate another day.

Moving the mask from one side of my neck to the other and back again, I can feel the water moving down and down beneath layers upon layers of the sagging skin that conceals my secondary breath.

The mist feels cold and moist. Droplets are rolling past my collarbone and down my chest and I start to think about how nice it would be to be submerged completely. To stay that way. Forever. Breathing has been getting harder and harder lately to remember.

…another chapter in the ANNALS OF ECHO BAY


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