by D. Harrington Miller
Edna’s knuckles cracked, a stark sound of snapping twigs that was muffled by the mud. She clenched her fists again, letting the bones grind. Open. Close. Open. Close. Hurt more each time she did it. Her calloused palm brushed against something solid. She reached down deeper and then deeper still. Her elbows disappeared below the surface, the frayed ends of her stringy, gray hair dipping into the murky water. She felt around with her fingertips, searching for the sandpaper touch of a buried clam. She had ditched her gloves early on, trickier feeling shells through rubber. She nicked herself more often since then, but she had upped her haul. Lost the top of her pinky about a year ago, though no one seemed to notice her nub digit. Dwight would have, but he hadn’t been noticing anything for a while and wouldn’t again. The bay water squished and slurped as she dug through the shoreline sludge. She felt her mangled pinky jam against that same solid something. Nothing but a rock.
It took Edna a few months to step onto the shoal. Verne Trotter helped her locate Dwight’s trawler at the Kennersley docks, coated in seagull shit, the hull overrun with barnacles the size of silver dollars. The engine was flooded, probably from the tropical storm that hit two Septembers ago. Edna hadn’t remembered the storm. Dwight was in hospice then.
She took to the job faster than most. Osmosis, she reckoned, after three decades of marriage to a bonafide merman. There were moments, echoing across her memory, her salt-haired husband bobbing just below the surface of the bay, holding his breath three, four, fives minutes. She couldn’t swim nearly as good as Dwight, and she had no idea how to fix a trawler. She preferred to walk the shoals anyway, feel the sand under her feet. Her knees appreciated the stability.
Verne said he’d never seen a waterman with tits before. Neither had Edna. Still hadn’t. Because she was a waterwoman.
She had made him a promise, just before they got married all those years back. The bay, that was his domain. If she wanted to jump into the ocean during a weekend in Rehoboth, by all means, but the bay was off limits. Dwight said he was protecting her. Too many local boys and girls claimed by her waters. Edna sometimes thought it felt like the bay was his mistress. Spending all that time together, away from home. Giving up her bounty day after day. Edna hated the bay most of her married life on account of that notion, but once the creditors showed up on her doorstep, she forgave Lady Chesapeake.
Now she was drowning on dry land. It started with the urgent care. Then the tests, lots of tests. Hospitals bills piled on the living room carpet, atop the couch. She had to start watching her programs in bed again, like she and Dwight had done for half their thirty years. Cost more to die than to live, thought Edna, as she dug her hands into the silt.
She hadn’t found a single clam all morning. The news liked to tell her the bay was dying. Maybe so. There was a lot of that these days. She had already let go of knowing. When they told her that with the chemo Dwight had at least two to three good years left, they knew until they didn’t. She had let go of Jesus too. He didn’t know shit either.
She wandered down the shore, ready to call it a day. Cutters in the distance, white sails dancing across the chop. A few trawlers still trying to make their haul. And there it was.
She brushed over barnacles, looking for the edge. Her hands danced across the boss, feeling the contours, the grooves and ridges, getting more excited inch by crusty inch. A doggone bonanza. The edges of her lips turning up into what your average joe would call a grin, but anyone who knew Edna Holly would call a great big smile. She ran her hands over that clam shell nearly twenty minutes before she found the umbo.
It wasn’t always clams. You spend your time digging, you find things. Beer cans. Plastic bags. Traffic pylons. Dwight found a skeleton back in ’88, though it might have been ’92. Someone was getting elected. Edna remembered all the signs in Gayle Dunleavy’s yard. It wasn’t really fair to call it a skeleton, since it was just a foot. A few toes were missing. The police wouldn’t let Dwight keep it, though all he had asked for was a single bone, something to remember. Edna wished he had kept it, even if it didn’t exactly belong to her late husband. It would still have been his in some way. She still had the trawler at least. Thankfully her memory hadn’t gone yet. Dwight’s went pretty quick.
She spent another hour digging, clearing off the mud. Then, with a heave that cracked all her joints at once, Edna’s clam broke the surface, jutting out like a drowned schooner after a hurricane. Her smile went sideways. Just the hull of an old sunfish, she thought. The paint peeled off, stripped by the barnacles. Sure as hell looked that way.
But no. There was the valve, crusted shut. That there was a clam. Praised be. A big one. Enormous. She thought about calling the folks at the Guinness book. Lester Denton would want a photo for his wall; every catch of note went behind the bar at the Docksider. Jools Vanderpreiss at the paper. Lily Sweetwater and all the other ladies Edna used to see at the knitting circle. Dewey Trout. Verne Trotter. They would surely want to weigh her, feel her, slobber their tongues all over her. Soon enough the whole town, the whole county, would be wanting their piece, and all Edna would have left would be a big ol’ empty shell. If she was lucky. And Lady Luck was as a much a legend for Edna as this clam would be a few years from now, a good yarn to tell at high tide.
Of course “Luck” was a lady, thought Edna, as she wedged the knife blade into the valve and jimmied it the best she could. The only god anyone prayed to in earnest these days was the same one they cursed, the only small “g” god it was safe to call a bitch. You didn’t hear the winos at the Docksider calling big “G” God a bitch. He only got their praise. He was the one who made their philly come in first. It was Lady Luck who was the whore. It was her fault when your colt came up lame. Screw them both, thought Edna.
She adjusted her grip and wrenched the knife even harder. The clam didn’t give an angler’s inch. So she summoned what extra strength she could and leaned all of her one-hundred and twenty-six pounds against the knife. The blade snapped off the bolster and stayed there, suspended in the thick, salt build-up.
And there was Edna’s justice, landing the largest clam a woman, or man, had ever seen — bigger than anything Dwight had brought home in thirty plus years — and she couldn’t even shuck the darn thing, which was a major breach of protocol given the clam was still lodged in the wet sand of the shallows. But moving it was a pipe dream if there ever was one. Heck, she had almost ripped her arms off lifting that briny bivalve out of the mud. And any clammer worth his sea salt wouldn’t help her out for anything less than halves. Edna would chuck herself overboard with rocks in her boots before she let anyone else take a piece.
Rage seeped in, taking her to that same dark space she found herself when the collection agent had shown up the morning of Dwight’s funeral. It made her eyes see spots and her body become like one of those marionette puppets that got its wires tangled, that is to say, she lost control of herself. She snatched up the hammer, clenching so hard her knuckles cracked again. She swung like Casey at Bat, pounding against the clamshell. Bits of boss and barnacle broke off, whole pieces of shell. Spittle whipped from her lips. A final pound, and Edna dropped the iron. Her lungs were on fire. Chalky dust hung in the air a moment before settling into the frothy surf.
“Dangitall,” she yelled.
The shell creaked open.
Edna froze, waves of fear and awe hitting her like the breakers, a feeling she hadn’t felt since she watched Dwight’s soul slip out from between his blistered lips. She half-expected the secrets of the universe to pour out of the darkness. Her other half expected dinner at least. A choking stench of rancid grouper gills and stagnant sulfur pools wafted out instead. Edna doubled over and chundered her breakfast into the ebbing tide.
She wiped a bit of half-digested gruel from her chin and peered into the shell, making sure to shield her tortured nostrils with the folds of her shirt. A tangled cocoon of seaweed and split-ends lay at the bottom. It quavered. Shook. Writhed. Something within pressed against the bourride jumble, yearning for escape. A soggy palm shot through the morass, flexing its fingers. Human fingers, wan and waterlogged like those floaters kayakers found from time to time beneath the Bay Bridge.
The waterwoman fell back, splashing onto the shoal. The haggard hand gripped the edge of the shell, rising before Edna, a resurrected nautilus. Soggy tendrils hung like vines, masking the creature’s face and body. It was impossible to tell where the hair stopped and the seaweed began. What skin peeked through the overgrowth bore a mossy hue. Folds of sallow flesh hung from all sides and angles. Edna could see the creature’s nethers peeking between two pasty, brined thighs. It reminded Edna of a manatee caught in a net, an image painted for her by that nickel-and-dimer Dewey Trout, who swore he had seen it on a fishing trip down in the Conch Republic.
The creature brushed aside a slimy tress. An eye peeked through. A woman’s blue iris. More mollusk than moll, her chest looked as if someone took a pin to a pair of puffer fish, resting flat against the curve of her protruding midriff, marshmallow paunch jiggling with each raspy breath. Skin pulled taut over sodden knuckles, like overstuffed sausage casings, as she attempted to unknot her tattered mane. Lady Godiva of the Black Lagoon.
“Speak mortal,” spat the woman.
The tidewater swirled around Edna, pitifully attempting to drag her out to sea. She gazed up at the sea hag. Words hovered inside her throat, jaw locked by terror and acid-reflux.
“Art thou mute? In awe? Perhaps your people possess not the words to describe my beauty?” The hag pulled back her algae-coated locks, exposing her wide sargasso see.
“So you’re not a manatee,” Edna surmised, earnestly baffled by the creature standing before him.
“Manatee? Do I have fins, mortal? Do I have the whiskers of a beast?” asked the woman. “Behold, Venus, The Goddess of Love!”
“If you say so,” said Edna. “Still don’t excuse you standing there in your birthday suit.”
The hag furrowed her brow, crushing a sand crab as it skittered across her forehead. That look brought Edna back to the time her son, Gus, had taken a lighter to little Vera Daughdril’s Barbie doll. Melted half its face off. The doctors had called him “emotionally disturbed” and insisted that he be placed until a professional’s care, but aside from that fist fight with the Ukrainian skipper when he was fifteen, Gus had been a model citizen. Until the meth at least, but that was another thing entirely.
The woman lowered herself to the shoal, extending a mossy limb.
“Come mortal, I have taken pity upon your simpleness. Thou shalt feel the sweet embrace of the Goddess, drink of the divine nectar…” She whipped her head back, a shower of barnacles plinked into the waves. “My sacred flower shall be yours. The mighty Ulysses was not so lucky as to taste my—”
“There’s a clinic up the road a ways,” offered Edna. She dug her hands deep in the muck, searching for something solid. “They could check you out.”
Edna volunteered at the Methadone clinic every Sunday. It wasn’t like she was gonna be spending that time at church. At first she hoped she might see Gus there, but she gave up on that dream pretty quick. Lately, the clinic felt less crazy than the rest of the world. At least the people at the clinic got better sometimes.
“Hear me, simpleton. This is a godly gift I have offered to bestow upon thee. My sex—”
“Hear ME, bitch,” interrupted Edna, her mind retreating once again to the comfort of that dark, angry space. “I ain’t got no problem with lesbians, but that sure as shit ain’t no invitation for you to get groovy. Now I think it best we get you some sorta health inspection before your tits fall off.”
“Mortal. You freed me from my prison. Let me reward you,” she begged. “I have spent millennia trapped in that accursed crustacean. I yearn to quench my thirst. To do that which I was created for…” The hag’s words trickled out until no sound came from her lips.
Edna cleared her throat. She thought of Dwight. The cooper had messed up the gravestone. “Living husband,” it said. Edna had to land a larger haul than a waterwoman or man would find in a lifetime to pay them to change that “i” to an “o.” But they’d already laid it in the ground, years back. Edna didn’t want to disturb Dwight again. That’s why she hadn’t considered selling the clam before she opened it. She hadn’t forgotten her husband.
She pushed herself to her feet. She was a head taller than the sea hag. Algae dripped from the woman’s once-golden tresses. Salt-cracked lips framed a dying reef, her teeth pocked and rotted from centuries of binging on the bones of bottom-feeders. She was a drowned goddess, her beauty soured in a clamshell sous vide. And in that moment, like the mirrored surface of the bay on a windless winter morning, Edna saw herself. She hadn’t yet built up the courage to fish for suitors at the Docksider, but she probably didn’t look too much different to those land sharks. Dewey Trout had called her a sea cow last week. He and the other crabbers had mooed under their breaths as she refueled the trawler.
“You want something to cover yourself?” Edna wiped her sandy hands on her shirt. “Got a jacket in my truck.”
An ocean poured from the eyes of Venus, the Goddess of Love, all the salt water soaked into her innards, now oozing out. Her bloated body quivering. She looked up at Edna with her pale blue eyes. “I have temples in my name…” She reached out to steady herself against the clamshell.
“Good for you,” said Edna.
“The bravest men fight wars at my word. Kings lay their swords at my feet. None can resist me…” Her words trailed off, lost in the sloshing tide. She stared off, out past the waves, to the artificial calm of the horizon, her divine motivations incomprehensible to a mere mortal like Edna.
“Maybe we can wash you up first. I’m sure you’d like that seaweed outta your hair,” offered the waterwoman.
The sea hag’s shoulders slumped. She gripped the shell’s edge, straining to pull herself back into the safety of her clamshell prison. Her hands slipped. She tumbled onto the shoal. Seaweed, sand, sagging flesh, splashing about, a tantrum unfit for a goddess. Her fists pounded the sea, sending small tsunamis harmlessly lapping against Edna’s boots. Her feet kicked up sludge, unearthing buried fish bones and sloughed crab skins. Edna thought she looked even more like a manatee caught in a net, trapped, drowning in the ocean it calls home. It reminded her of something Dwight had said, back when they had first heard Dewey Trout tell his tale. They’re like them water buffalos, the ones out in ‘Nam. But someone forgot to give ’em feet. Not fit for the land and not fit for the ocean. Ain’t got a place in the world, manatees.
“Brought low by a fishmonger,” Venus tore at a tuft of seagrass. “Hippolyta led armies!”
Edna cracked her knuckles, unsure what else to do with them. “I got a fireplace at my house. It ain’t much, but it’s warm and pretty dry.”
The goddess’s eyes seemed an even lighter hue now, having liquidated their excess stock. “This happens not to Mars. War, death, murder fail to change. But beauty, love has not the stasis that evil, that cruelty, possesses.” The sodden goddess rose to her feet, wiping the tears from her face. “Hast thou heard my tale, mortal? The story of my birth?”
Edna felt the acrid temper of her words. She shook her head.
“I have heard it. I have heard it for millennia, from the gilded halls of Olympus to the bilge of a Cretian trireme,” the goddess closed her eyes, summoning her story. “The dismembered phallis of fallen Uranus was flung into the sea and out of it, I emerged. Beauty born from the discarded genitals of a deposed divinity.”
The sea hag dislodged a coil of kelp from her mane and held it to the sky. She breathed on the swollen pods and, from within, small flowers broke through the carapace, reaching for the warm rays of the sun. They fluttered in the cool ocean breeze, verdant and alive, but in an instant, they were dead. Shriveled. Rotten. She dropped the refuse into the waves. “We are at their mercy, as we have always been.”
Edna twisted up her fingers. She felt the joints grind. She didn’t know what she wanted, this Venus of the Dunes. It was hard enough looking at her, the grotesque way her body hung, out there for all the world to see, not a lick of clothes on. She hoped Dwight didn’t look like that, down in that casket. Most she could hope for, that he was just bones at this point, like that skeleton foot.
The sea hag bent her head, performing a corpulent genuflection. An invocation, a plea. Her lower half disappeared into the murky sea swirls, watery blue eyes begging Edna, for what, she couldn’t suss.
“Tide’s running high,” the waterwoman said, “I think I’m gonna head on home. You’re welcome to come with. Haven’t had a friend over in a long while.”
Thunder clapped in the distance, a storm on its way inland.
The goddess waded out into the chop, her hair buoyed by knotted kelp strands, spreading out like sinuous digits. A snapper splashed about, caught in the hirsute web. Venus kept her course, stepping deeper and deeper into the unwelcome sea.
Edna heard a slurp behind her. The clamshell twisted back and forth, an unseen hand jimmying it from its marshy entanglement. Squish. Squish. Splosh. Edna quickly stepped aside as the shuck burst from its confinement, looking like a mastless schooner as it sailed out to the fleeing goddess. Snatching her up in its craw, the sea hag uttered not a word of protest. And with a faint pop, the shell sealed itself once again, and dove below an approaching wave.
Edna stared at the spot where the goddess, Venus, had stood only moments before, and saw her reflection in the mirrored surface of the bay.
She kept her eyes on the road ahead. Too much to think about. Edna just wanted to lay down and forget about the creature, forget about everything. Even Dwight. Especially Dwight. It was too hard, all the digging, and the living. She had already decided she wasn’t going to tell anybody about it. Not like there was anybody for her to tell. Anyway, it could’ve just been something she ate. And she hadn’t really been sleeping much lately, at least since Dwight passed.
Lightning flashed on the horizon. The storm had landed. Rain pelted the windshield. Edna’s wipers creaked. Right, left. Right, left. Leaving translucent streaks across her field of vision.
Ka-Boom! A tree beside the road exploded. Flakes of wood and tinder peppered Edna’s cab. She swerved to the shoulder, dodging a free-falling limb. Her tires squealed as the car fishtailed across both lanes and finally stopped next to the shattered elm.
Edna took a big breath. She’d have cursed if she could have thought of the right god to curse. It had been a confusing day, and the bolt had left her rattled.
Wisps of smoke rose from the ashen heap, the tree split straight down the center. Edna rolled her window down to get a better look. She heard the soft hiss of rain drops on the glowing embers. From between the cleaved tree stepped a hulking man. Cartoonish muscles bulged every which way, his genitals flopping in the wind. He waved his hand and the storm calmed. A matted, white beard framed his gnarled face. Glowing white eyes scanned the dented pickup. “I am Jupiter. King of Olympus. Father of the Gods…”
Edna stomped on the gas pedal and slammed her chassis into the naked deity. His body bent limply over the hood before it disappeared beneath the undercarriage.
She was halfway home before she looked back. The sun dipped below the horizon, dyeing the sky a bubblegum pink. Dinner sounded good right about now. She had some leftover oyster stew from the day before last. Hopefully it had kept. Edna never took away Dwight’s place setting, even after they’d put him in the ground. She knew he wasn’t coming back, but it had made her feel just a bit brighter, eating by herself. But she didn’t need it tonight. She wasn’t alone anymore.