Outside the portacabin the prostitutes sit around; once the men have finished with them and the girls have made enough money for the day they just stick around, some on the shaded stoop, some on the oil cans that wash up here, their slick skin glimmering in the sun, their exposed legs smelling of sex.
Men come and go from this place. Sometimes is it said they just disappear. The ocean is a dark land and those who want to hide something can count on her as an ally. Up above us, high on the bank, the village children are out in the playground, their happiness drowned out by the scalded shrieks of seagulls hovering over the little fishing boats, waiting like the rest of us for a morsel to be thrown. Lately I miss my home. The sounds I crave are those of a calm breeze caressing the vines; the leaves of the olive groves, of my mother’s voice calling me, my father and my brothers to the house to eat; sounds of peace. I long to go back to my father’s farm, to my mother’s house, but everybody there has up and left, gone to God, or like me got drawn to the twinkle of a distant city; a twinkle whose heart, all of us find, is crystals of ice. Lately I think about these things a lot. I have even begun to speak of it with Juliana. Juliana is Alejandro’s favourite. Me, I do not pay her for sex. That is not the love I want and besides I have no money.
‘Why talk of home, Izzy?’ she scolds, heaping ash on my head. ‘You have no money. And what will you live on when you get there, heh? How will we live?’
Each day before noon, before the heat of the sun becomes too punishing for a man to be any place but in sleep, Alejandro comes out onto the stoop and boils up the little black crabs he has caught that morning. How deaf he is to the brief squeals of the creatures as he tips them alive into the pot of boiling water. ‘Good eating,’ he tells all around him as he cracks open their backs for the little meat inside, ‘I could eat a thousand of these little bastards. Oh, yes I could. A thousand.’ But only he eats them. Often it is somebody else who has caught them for him. Afterwards he wipes the juice from his shoes. Alejandro wears fancy shoes that shine like glass, a new pair most weeks, sometimes boots. Two new pairs I have seen on him this week alone. One day, sitting out there on the stoop after his feasting, he hooks one big leg onto the other so the raised boot is near and he cleans with a cotton kerchief and smiles at his reflection in it. ‘Good boots, are they not, Monkey-boy?’ he tells to me. ‘It is no bad thing to see this face. Such boots, you could not afford, eh? But in any case, with all the money in this land, why would you trouble yourself with the expense? Heh? Because, who wants to see a face like that?’ The other men laugh when he rattles my chains.
My mother she used to say in all of us there lies a monster. How often we rouse and let it loose depends upon how it makes us feel inside. One who is empowered by its release will readily turn over his free will to it. But a man who feels shame will endeavour to keep the beast in him on a tight rein. Such men, good men, could not survive a place like this without letting loose the reins of the beast.
The portacabin sits crookedly on the concourse of a minor harbour in the horse-shoe bay where the local fishing boats moor. A mile up the coast is the main harbour. Up there the big commercial trawlers anchor. Uptown the yachts of the rich languish, waiting to be played with, though they are mostly vacant most of the time – monuments to the excesses of the city whose brim they decorate. Sometimes they are driven out to safe distances by the servants of fat men and tight-faced women whose child sees only a world captured within the frame of the phone in his hand.
Alejandro will get a nice yacht for himself this year, he says, maybe next year a better one yet. “Maybe,” Piertro says on the sly, “he will switch the plates on it, like he did with his big phat car, so no-one will know for sure if it is new or an old potato cart.”
Five miles south of us lies The Bay of Tears. Nobody swims there; few men fish there; so many have died. The ‘Tears’, they say, are of mothers weeping for lost children, and for their men who lingered too far out for too long, their eyes greedy at the wealth of clam, lobster and crab, their loaded buckets sealing their fates as the shallow waters crept in behind their backs and the sands beneath them quickened, so softly swallowing a man to the knees, and holding him prey. Me, I had never been to this bay, only heard stories, until now.
Last week I ask Alejandro when he will pay me the money he promised for running the parcels into town. He pulls a cigarette out from between his straight white teeth and presses his lips together, shaking his head like a disenchanted parent. The smoke funnels down his nostrils like the fumes from his big car. ‘You are always asking questions, little man,’ he says. ‘Why so many questions? You are a troublesome little man.’ He laughs to himself, wheezing on the smoke. ‘One day I will feed you to the crabs. Hm, hm, I think I might just do that.’
I am a patient man. I decide I will wait for the right moment to ask again for the money he owes to me. But the next day Alejandro rattles me awake at dawn and tells me we are to go fishing. The matt on which I sleep is damp with perspiration. The weight of the hot air already is crushing. I put on just my shorts, but crumple a vest into my pocket, for out there on the boat I am guessing it will be breezy. But we do not head for the boats. Instead Alejandro drives us south and pulls his big black car in among the shrubs that border The Bay of Tears. The landscape beyond the steep bank before us is like nothing I have ever seen: debris of every kind is littered about for miles, far out even a rusted truck, but otherwise the rippled sands are green with 4 plant-life, a vast, dank field reaching out to an ocean that seems to hang on the horizon, so far away, waiting for the consent of the moon to devour the land once more. But the moon is a spiteful child, playing tricks on mother-earth. Who can know its mischief. Panic crumbles my belly as Alejandro takes two large tin buckets from the boot of his car to hang over my arms.
‘Go,’ he says, hooking a thumb casually into his belt close to the gun he wears always and likes to show. With the other hand he makes a shooing motion out to the sands, as a man directing a dog from the house.
The rippled sand is strange beneath my naked feet: slimy, never dry, even at its highest peaks. Alejandro hangs back, checking his rich-man’s boots; with a rag he swipes away grains of insolent sand. Behind by the bank you can see where the tideline has taken a siesta the previous night before creeping back into the distance: a mark close to the height of my head. Pools of clouded water riddle the sandbanks. Weeds like rotting pasta steam in the risen sun wrapping up garbage that stinks almost as bad. I hold both buckets in one hand, in the other I grasp a long netted stick given me by the boss, which I use to test the ground while navigating a safe way ahead. Where the ground takes in the stick above the white ring painted around it, it is not safe to walk. Alejandro tells me this. So today I guess he wishes for my life to continue, at least until he has his lunch safely in the pails. After maybe fifty metres I turn my head to see that he is following in my footsteps. ‘Maybe is better you go ahead, boss,’ I say to him. ‘You are wise to this terrain. I… not so much.’
Soon he is standing over me. His mirrored glasses show me only myself looking up. I see what I see: only darkness – a shell. Alejandro, he is smoking a cigar. With it he points at me. ‘Do not think I am fooled by you, little man,’ he says. ‘I see right through you. I see through your shell. I know what you are.’
There is a sharp pain in my foot. I yelp, shaking frantically the toe that the tiny black crab has pinched into like a staple gun. All around us the green weed is stirring now, rippling with life that seems on mass to be moving towards us. Alejandro, safe in his boots, laughs heartily. ‘Ha, you are my bait for today, my little fellow. See? This region is over-fished. The whole eco-system is breaking down. There is no carrion for these little bastards – there are far too many this year and they are starving. Eat them or they will eat you.’
I shake and shake but the crab it will not let go. I am bleeding. It is biting into me. I growl in anger and pain.
‘Relax,’ Alejandro says. ‘Put down your foot.’ He takes out his penknife, stabs the wriggling body of the crab straight through then smears it over the edge of a bucket. ‘Number one!’ He shouts this in my face. ‘Did you not hear me say “a thousand”? I want a thousand! Now swing that net and get fishing. Imbecile!’
Alejandro had eaten the whole two buckets before noon. He is not a fat man. In fact he says the crabs keep him young and fit for in the sack. Juliana does not smile when he says this. This day her mouth is bruised and swollen so that it would hurt to smile. Maybe she spoke out of turn, or laughed without invite. So she has decided for now it is best not to speak, or to laugh at all. I look at her and I do not smile either.
Later, I tell to Juliana the story of my encounter with The Bay of Tears and of the crabs that flow like the tide itself. She says it was not always so, with such a plague of one crustation, and how once she had been forced to swim that bay when she was just a girl, when she and two friends had been where they were not supposed to be and then got stranded where the cliffs could not be climbed. She says that it was not the crabs they feared. When they realised they were cut off they had tried to swim through the shallow, claggy waters, back to the path that leads up the bank. Juliana said she aimed for the rivulets where the waters run deeper, because if you try to stand in the shallows the sands will claim your feet as part of them, like a jealous man grasps the heart of a young woman and never lets go. At one point her leg had caught in something, which she saw was a big gilded chair, like a throne. This chair made her think of God. She kept calm and twisted her leg till it was free, all the while praying to the Gods of the sea and flattering the waters for their beauty and kindness. With every word of her plea she took one more stroke towards safety. The waters were her friend that day and delivered her safely to the bank. But when she looked around, her two companions had disappeared. They would wash up with the garbage the next day.
* * *
Today, once again, I hold the two empty buckets and the rod with the white ring around it and the net to scoop up little black crabs for Alejandro who sits smoking up on the bank as I plot my course. Casually, he is making calls about the drops tonight, but over his glasses, his eyes are on me. The gun, I see, is not in his belt, but in the hand that holds his cigarette. It is late afternoon, far more risky with the temperamental moon and the tide. My heart is fierce in my chest, like a caged monkey, but I have no weapon and there is nowhere to run, except towards danger. So I select my fate and head for the creeping sea. It is a racing game: first find your footing, then a spot where the weeds are thickest and there is plenty of trash for critters to hide amongst, then you put down your buckets and as the crabs emerge to race at your feet you scoop them up into the net. Alejandro is right in this: bare feet make good bait. I have one bucket almost filled to the mark they cannot climb out from when I look up to see the waters surrounding me, the weeds shifting, not with crabs now, but with the sway of the current; such a silent assassin. Already it is evening, and I have been so engrossed in my work, in satiating my captor, in spinning this way and that, that I have failed to notice the narrow streams widening all around me, flooding the lower sandbanks. In the distance I can see the car up on the bank, maybe a hundred fifty metres away. The water is still very shallow back there, if I can only replot my course. But the land has changed and become blurred.
Out of the shushing quiet there comes a cry, a shriek of pain not far off the bank. Then I see Alejandro way over there, thrashing about like a fish on a boat, trying to haul himself from a rivulet the size of himself which no doubt he has slipped into on account of those fancy boots. I am small but fast, and I know how to pray. ‘Oh, mighty God of the sea…’ I drop the two buckets – they begin to sink, maybe five hundred crabs scramble out of them – and with the rod in my hand, leap swiftly from one bank to the next. ‘…how beautiful are your waters, and how fickle is Man that he defiles your land so thoughtlessly.’ I am in flight, testing the ground ahead of me only where my speed allows. ‘Lord, guide the feet of your humble servant this day…’ Skipping like a stone flung from the hand of a child. ‘…spare me this day, oh mighty God, that I may sing your praises forevermore!’
I am standing over Alejandro, and still he has not climbed from the shallow pool he is sitting in. I think maybe he likes it in there. His glasses have slipped from his face and hang from one ear. His eyes are a stranger to me, and here they are, bulging from his face as if he is in mortal pain. I see now that the pool around him has turned red. His arms straddle the sand around the water while his left leg kicks out, trying to keep purchase on the slippery sand, to haul his weight out of the water, but his right leg is an unseen weight.
‘Get it off me!’ he yells. ‘Get it out.’
I check around. No crabs are this close to the land yet, only the carcasses of dead ones picked clean by the gulls. I lay belly down on the sand and duck my head into the cloudy, bloody water that is far deeper than it first appeared, and can see that there is something sticking out of the back of Alejandro’s thigh. Blood is pumping out of him where the long metal spear goes in. At its far end is a chain, and below, entangled in the chain, a wad of netting, and inside the netting a rusted anchor: a puzzle made up of many elements too weighty for one man alone to shift. Between his struggles Alejandro pants like a woman in the pangs of birthing. My own efforts are futile. I pull myself back up from the water and look around. A mile along the bank two men with buckets and nets are mounting the hill towards their jeep.
Soon they will be gone.
‘It is a spear,’ I tell Alejandro gravely. ‘A whaling harpoon. The chains length is under an anchor; it will take maybe a half dozen men to lift it. The harpoon has its hook in you. If you keep pulling, it will tear your leg open.
‘How is that possible? You lie!’
I want to tell him it was set up ready for him. Waiting. But I say, ‘You stay still, boss. I will go get help.’
‘No! No! You miserable little fucker.’ He is bear snarling words. ‘You stay still.’ He takes his mobile phone from his trouser pocket. It is a good phone. Even wet it works, but I can see the message it gives to him – there is no signal down here.
‘Give me your knife, then,’ I say. ‘I will try to cut through the netting under you and free the chain.’
Alejandro hands me the penknife but is not happy to do it and at the same time is pointing the gun at my head. ‘One false move, little man,’ he tells me. His teeth are gritted and a scream comes down his nose as he twists enough to keep an eye on what I am doing. I drop to my knees once more, dip my head in the water and survey the tangle that secures him. I cut away at the net, come up for air, then go down and cut again. Alejandro screams like a scalded cat each time the chain is snagged. Finally, the most I can do is loosen the net a little to lengthen his leash.
‘It will do no good,’ I tell him, pinching the bloody salt-water from my eyes. ‘Give me your phone. I will go to the top of the bank and call the other men, then I will go fetch as many as will fit in the car. We will get you out, then we will take you to the hospital.’ I jump to his side of the rising pool and snatch the phone from his hand. The gun flashes my way. I throw the penknife down close by him. ‘You would be unwise to shoot me today,’ I tell him. ‘Today, I am the only one who can help you. Take the knife: reach down and cut the net. I swear to God I will return.’
Still I feel the gun trained on my spine as I run from him and mount the bank. At the top I check the phone is working okay. Up here the signal is good. Alejandro’s black car sits close by. The keys are on the front wheel where he always leaves them. I get into the car and with much haste drive north.
* * *
Alejandro does not sleep in the portacabin as we do. His house is on the brink of the city. A nice house. Not a place of the rich, but for those trying to get that way it is just okay. The house-keys are where I have seen Alejandro leave them. When I come out again my pockets are loaded with the best quality gear and there are two bags of clothing to go in the trunk. The boots and pants were too big but will sell. And there are nice shirts that will do, also odd trinkets and some useful things from the kitchen.
Returning to the bay as promised I park the car and go sit quietly on the bank. It has been almost an hour: the sun sits on the horizon like a ball of lava and the tide is almost in. Below me the shrieking is like that of the little black crabs as they topple from Alejandro’s bucket into the bubbling pot. But now it is Alejandro who shrieks and the crabs who feast. He has pulled on his leash enough to be sticking up out of the water from the waist up. They are all over him, eating him nip by nip; a thousand of them, rippling like the waves. He swipes and stabs at them with the knife. But each one he slings away torn gets replaced by ten more. He is a clicking, writhing black mass.
‘Good eating?’ I ask the crabs with much laughter.
Alejandro’s gargled screams turn to rage. A bullet grazes the grassy bank, but too far away, for he cannot see or even hear to aim straight. They are in his eyes, his ears, his mouth. He is crunching and spitting them out. They are tearing at the cartilage that separates his nostrils. In a fit of rage and desperation he fires the gun up at those offending him so and shoots the end off his pretty nose.
I slap my legs, rolling about the bank in a fit of hysterics. Then forcing myself up to witness every last moment of the show, I call down, ‘Tell me again, Boss! who is the imbecile? Now who is a dim-witted ape?’
Alejandro’s retort is muffled. The critters are working on the gash his careless bullet has left exposed. In a final admirable fit of courage he plunges the penknife beneath the water and begins to cut. He is cutting the spear out of his leg, releasing the hook of the spear. But with only one free hand to fight the crabs off, his face is all but devoured by the time he rises to stand in the water, bleeding profusely and covered from the crown of his head to the waterline at his torn thigh in little black crabs. He manages two lunging steps forward before the clicking mass enter his skull. I grow silent, for now is not a time to laugh; now Alejandro’s cries mimic the high, scalded scrarks of the seagulls; the bitter complaint of a man who knows that the reaper has made his claim, and will be paid. So it is true what they say: that angry men don’t die in anger, but in mortal fear, just like everyone. In one last desperate act, Alejandro blindly reaches inside his face, tearing out a handful of crabs along with the tattered flesh they grasp – only to feel a legion replace them – before his arms drop lifelessly to his sides and he collapses backwards to slowly submerge from sight along with his host of frenzied dinner guests.
I sit a while longer, watch the sun go down, and feel at peace.
At dawn I return to the Bay of Tears with Juliana by my side. We park the big black car on the bank and walk to the edge. Down below, amid the garbage, lay the bones of Alejandro, picked clean apart from his rich man’s suit and boots. His clothes still ripple over the efforts of final foragers. Juliana takes the path down. How strange it is that when she approaches the corpse the mischievous little creatures disperse in a black arc away from her naked feet. Juliana, it seems, has long since made her pact with the Gods. She kneels and removes the wristwatch and gold chain of Alejandro, then she reaches inside the suit jacket and pulls out a roll of notes, damp but still good.
‘You are right, Izzy,’ she calls up to me, smiling. ‘Crabs don’t eat money.’
* * *
As we drive through the day to my father’s farm, to my mother’s house, the sun is gentle. Juliana’s hair lifts and curls in the breeze like a slick of oil on the waves. We will forget the sea, in time. I look forward to the whispered call of my mother’s spirit through the sweet ears of meadow-grass, to the smell of my father’s tobacco, resting in the walls of the parlour.
‘We must give ten percent of everything to the church,’ I tell Juliana. ‘We owe a debt to God. We must never forget it.’
She nods her agreement. ‘I will never forget.’
The seeds I took from Alejandro’s place will flourish in the glass-house behind the home of my family. Once the crops are matured the local kids will come knocking on our door, eager to run the parcels into the city. We will buy bikes for them so that they can do a good job and we will pay them a good rate. Juliana will bear many children. And they will have everything. On Sundays they will wear shoes that shine like glass.
About the writer:
Janine Langley-Wood is a literary and horror writer from Leeds, England. Langley-Wood earned an MA in Creative Writing through the University of Northumbria at Newcastle. She taught Creative Writing and English for 17 years and is currently doing creative degree support at Leeds Trinity University. Her horror novels are The Melting Dead released in 2015 with Assent Publishing USA and Perfecting Lola Ponker. Her short stories and poetry have appeared in various journals and anthologies, including Even the Ants Have Names, Diamond Twig Press, The Screaming Book of Horror, Noose & Gibbet Press and Horror Library Five, Cutting Block Press.
Image: “High Tide” by the Macedonian painter Vasko Taškovski. Oil on Canvas. 1978. Public domain.
Courtesy: Macedonian Academy of Sciences and Arts.