Bogleech.com's 2017 Horror Write-off:
Why They Came Up From The Sea
Submitted by Jenne Kaivo (email)
I don't live by swimming water. Some seas let you in: they have warm water, the soothing or exciting motion of the waves, soft sand. Every sea is full of dangers, of course, and every sea can bring that ancient comfort with its presence, but here along the coast by the vast kelp-forest, there is no swimming. The frigid waters that stream down from the Arctic can kill you in hours, or less than hours, with hypothermia, and surprise riptides have killed many who ventured out in wetsuits and didn't know they shouldn't fight the inexorable current.
Then, of course, there is the kelp. The feeling of a strand of kelp wrapping around my ankle is one I know well, and this is strange, because I've never been further into the sea than a game of tag against the waves in shallow sand, when they were gentle. Everyone I've spoken to who has lived by the kelp forest remembers that feeling, how being wrapped by a harmless, slimy plant conjures fears of unknown dangers of the deep. The idea of it is sometimes enough to make a memory.
Still, I love it. I love my little house by the vast sea, walking along the grey sand on a sunny day, beside the vast grey waters in the fog. I love the sea at night, when my steep path that winds down the cliff can only be navigated by my memory of the rocks, the sandy stretches, and beachwood logs set down as stairs. When the moon is full I can see the path like daylight without red, and enjoy a longer walk along the changing line of the water; when I'm sure of the tide, I can clamber over those wet and slippery granite rocks that are so hazardous even in bright sun.
On one autumn night I went far like this, under the full moon, with the spring tide still receding. I went over several massive rock formations, unlocking beaches that normally could not be navigated in an unbroken line. I walked close by the water, but not enough to get my feet wet, and kept my coat buttoned against the cold sea breeze. At some point, on a certain stretch of sand, as I watched the waves, I caught a glimpse of what could be driftwood or a tentacle. I stilled to see.
It was, in fact, a tentacle (or pedantically, an arm, but "tentacle" describes it better): the next wave that fell away revealed a giant Pacific octopus making its way deliberately out of the water. I once saw one in an aquarium and was struck by how much larger it seemed in my mind than in the world: this one was about the same size as that, its body as big as my head and its tentacles stretching longer than my body. It didn't seem small anymore. It did seem determined: taking no notice of my presence, it moved towards a huge stone further up the beach, which was still surrounded by a shallow tidepool puddle.
I have read that coastal octopuses do this (extra-pedantically, "octopuses" is more correct than "octopi": the word doesn't come from Latin to begin with). They like the easy pickings trapped in tidepools, and are rarely seen because they mostly come at night when the harsh sun won't dry them out. I hadn't seen it before. I watched this sight in fascination until some motion in the corner of my eyes caught my attention.
It hadn't come up alone. Several more crept along the beach, all with the same goal in mind. Of course, I took my phone out to record this strange event. I don't know how many there were in the end: maybe twenty, maybe more. They encircled the great granite stone in a very precise matter, each linking one tentacle with one from its neighbor. I checked my phone: it only showed that it was recording darkness, and when I tried to fix the lighting settings, the camera app just crashed. I tried to load it again while barely looking at the screen: they had begun to wave their unlinked arms in a complex pattern. Their skins shifted tones of grey and black in the moonlight, presumably in color patterns I couldn't see with the eyes and light I had.
The stone began to glow with a cold aura of pale blue. Lines appeared: the shadows of natural cracks and crags seemed to become etched with a script, a flowing alphabet that formed itself to its surroundings, lit by a dim light that shifted colors in time with the shifting tones of the octopus circle. I glanced at my phone: the screen was shifting rapidly with images, languages, and lights I didn't recognize. Eventually it settled on a sort of home screen that gave me vertigo if I tried to look at it. I gave up on the camera and put it away.
Something began to emerge from the darkness. At first it was a dim haze muddying the moonlight on the far side of the rock, stretching from one horizon to another, and I was afraid it might be the border of my reality, but it quickly settled into a solid form: a vast wall of reptilian skin, stretching into the distant mountains on one side, the deep ocean on the other, and maybe two stories into the sky. The outermost curve of its side nearly touched the octopus stone. It was wriggling and twitching slightly: not too much, but enough to make me worry about earthquakes.
The octopuses abandoned their shrine and began to scale it, sticky suckers clinging to dry skin. They seemed to take stations, some going inland past the point where my night-vision could see a thing, some climbing over the top entirely, some remaining closer and spaced in fairly even stations from the belly to the back. I was startled by the feeling of something wrapped around my ankle, and it was absolutely a tentacle. One fairly small octopus had crawled towards me instead of the reptilian wall. It gave a very gentle tug, almost polite, and made a show of moving its other limbs back in the direction of what I could only assume to be a giant serpent, and, assuming it to be a serpent, supposed its name was Jormungand.
That one little arm that wrapped around me was strong, probably strong enough to have knocked me flat entirely if it chose. Not seeing another option, I stepped gently forward with my other foot. It unwrapped my ankle and continued, slowly enough to make sure I kept after: it would probably be anthropomorphizing to say it waved one tentacle and beckoned. Although I was unnerved by the situation, I liked that it seemed to be asking nicely, and followed.
When I got to the serpent's side, the small one began to scale it too. It stretched several tentacles far into the darkness, and I dimly saw them tugging against the sky. I looked up further, and saw the writhing silhouettes of the others heading seaward again, all tugging on long strips of old, dead skin. The closer stationed octopuses grabbed hold, and the ones that had gone further out dropped back into the little pool around the rock to take a breath.
I thought I understood what the little one meant to tell me: "since you're already here", or maybe "it's weird that you're here, but" "you might as well help". I walked forward, grabbed the bottommost portion of skin, and pulled back towards the water.
The skin was cold and dry: it reminded me of fabric that was fragile and stiff, but I could clearly feel the outlines of scales. I felt a magnified version of the same slightly stomach-turning satisfaction that comes from peeling a big strip of sunburn. I took the station lowest to the ground, and kept a steady pace backward until the shockingly cold water lapped at my heels. The whole thing had begun to strike me as rather important, so I didn't quit at that, but continued even further. The icy water struck me, receded, and struck me again: my feet began to numb, but the painful cold kept reaching higher parts. I suppressed my shrieks.
When I was knee-deep in the water with the waves receding, another tentacle stretched up and grabbed the rolled skin in my hands, and I felt something brush the back of my leg. My crew was relieved, and could return to water. I ran out of the sea then: the feeling of the tug of the waves followed me for several minutes. I sat in the sand to remove my squelching shoes: cold sand is better than waterlogged socks. I saw a few more octopuses exit the water towards their stone: it seemed like they needed the same amount as before.
Looking up, I saw how the shed portions of the snake shone, fresh and new, in the moonlight, and the writhing was stilled: the tight old skin must have made it restless. A restless world serpent is in danger of waking. More octopuses, stationed in the sea, kept the work going, and I wondered, do they do this throughout the world? Who handles it on land? What do they do with the skin? They probably eat it. That last one I didn't wonder very long.
When the fresh scales shone out to the horizon, those who had splashed into the tidepool near the stone ringed around it again and made some different motions. The glow receded, the flowing script vanished, and the serpent disappeared, leaving bare beach, hollow valleys, and empty air. There was no hint of it. They all returned to the sea: one small one, as it passed, stretched out a tentacle to give my bare foot a gentle suction-cup pat.
My phone had gotten wet, but after a day and a night in rice, I was able to look at the footage I took: a somewhat surprising amount of octopuses on land, then nothing more.
This was some time ago. I still don't go into the sea, because it isn't swimming water, but I'm not afraid anymore of the thought of the kelp wrapping around my ankle. However, some rich person bought a massive stretch of beach, and closed it off to trespassers. I can't walk so far along the shore, but I know that they removed a lot of rocks to make the beach more "accessible" for themselves. I've noticed a lot more earthquakesrecently: of that, perhaps, I should be afraid.