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“A New Law of Nature,” by Katherine Forbes Riley

Shark Jawbone

You call yourselves the most successful animal in the ocean. At the top of the food chain for millions of years, despite your small brain. You say, who needs intellect? Or empathy, compassion—your offspring learn young all that’s for weaklings and losers. You tell them, win at any cost. You’re under no illusion that it’s nice at the top; no it’s straight up competition for all you’ve got. But you get to cruise the oceans enjoying the view and never worry about what’s coming for you.

There’s no prey shape to our posture, no surface marking to signal our lower strata. Some of us are stupid, some of us are smart. We have beauty, color, and art. Some of our bodies are wildly bizarre, others are shaped much like yours, rounded and tapered at the ends to reduce drag in the water. But underneath all our flesh is bone, while you are constructed entirely of cartilage. So you swim faster, and turn more tightly. Your jaw holds many rows of teeth that freshly regenerate every few weeks. Some of us don’t even have teeth. Some of us can’t smell or hear while you can scent a single drop of our blood from hundreds of feet and hear us coming for miles. Over millions of years we’ve evolved through every possible social organization. You evolved into the perfect killing machine.

You tell yourselves you keep us in check. You say, without us their numbers would explode and then they’d all die of starvation anyway. You call it the law of nature. As if it’s the only one. But in fact it turns out that following a mathematical pattern called a power law, the speed of growth declines with size. That’s why a shrimp grows faster than a whale, and that’s why we naturally breed more slowly in places where there are a lot of us already. (Think about it, if you can, how you feel when we outnumber you. Hungry, aren’t you?)  And that’s why you do so well when there are many of you and just enough of us—an inverted pyramid top heavy with you. It seems like a paradox how you could survive unless you understand (can you?) how fast in those places everything under you cycles through, growing and dying but before we do reproducing as much as we can to survive you. You tell yourselves it’s a super-productive system, you tell yourselves it’s better for us too—all that sex, plenty of food—but you wouldn’t change it even if you knew we didn’t feel the same way as you. Your skin is an interlocking web of ridged diamonds, a structure that by its very design resists drag or attachment.

About the Author:

Katherine Forbes Riley is a computational linguist and writer in Vermont. A Dartmouth College graduate with a PhD from University of Pennsylvania, her academic writing appears in many places. Her creative writing appears in Halfway Down The Stairs, Noö, Spartan, Crack the Spine, Storyscape, Whiskey Island, Lunch Ticket, Eunoia Review, Literary Orphans, Eclectica, BlazeVOX, McNeese Review, Akashic Books, and Buffalo Almanack, from whom she received the Inkslinger’s Award.

Image Credit: © Morphart – stock.adobe.com

“Seashell,” by Will Walawender

Water DropSketch (BW)

In one month I will cast myself into the sea. There is an ocean growing inside me, and it pours out at night. Out of my eyes like tears, yes, but out of my ears, my nose, my mouth as well. Some nights my ocean swells and it leaks from my pores. Melissa tastes salt water when she kisses my neck in the dark. She says, “Erica, I’m worried. What is the matter?” I don’t want to concern her. I whisper that I am warm, too hot, I am sweating, I have been eating too much sodium lately. She can feel the chill of me like a breeze when she wraps her arms around me though. Of this I am sure.

I visit my doctor in the morning and she still doesn’t know what to do. She takes samples of my blood and it comes out clear. It’s foamy like a wave. We meet every few weeks. She has my samples lined up along her shelves. I sit in her office, staring at the vials in front of her books. They are dark, almost black, at the farthest left. Their color filters out, making red, pink, until they turn green to the right. My doctor shakes the greenest one and says that I don’t have much time. “I see maybe a half a year, maybe a bit less.” She kneels in front of my chair to take my hand, flips it over to run a finger across my palm. Her nails tread across my flesh, making ripples all the way up my wrist and forearm. She flips my hand again and kisses my knuckles. I don’t know how to react. Her lipstick washes away in my flesh. She says, “I’m so sorry. I don’t know what to do.” She says, “Come back in a few weeks, please. Maybe I can help then.”

I return to Melissa’s home, more damp than ever. I can feel the bubbles of fish in my stomach when I tell her. “An ocean?” she asks. Yes, an ocean. It’s growing. It’s like I’m made of ice and I’m melting. We are sitting across from one another on top of the blankets of her bed. When I stand up, I will leave a puddle where her foot will rest later tonight. See, I say, holding out my arm as if to hold her hand. I flick a finger across my skin and splash water on her face. It drips down on her lip.

“Maybe,” she says, “I can keep you in the tub. Or I can fill all my empty beer bottles with you. I can keep you forever.”

That’s sweet, I tell her, but I can’t.

I don’t say so, but I fear her anger. Getting mad at me for changing this way. She could lash out and drink me. Laugh as she pisses me out the next day and flushes me down the toilet.

I tell her that I can’t see her anymore. I’m sorry, I can’t leave this burden on you. You’re too sweet, too kind, but how can you bottle this much salt water?

I leave her then, apologizing for the wet trail of myself as I walk out the door.

I begin to spend my time walking the streets in the rain. I sit in the bleachers at the county pool watching college students do laps. I drink two gallons of water a day to sustain myself.

There has always been an ocean in me. It’s deep. If you fall all the way in, I’m sure you couldn’t get out. Fish bobble up to the surface, and predators wait down in the depths.

My one month is up. I take a long walk down to the beach.

I call my father and take my time as my feet sink and mix into the sand. For one long second, I listen to his breathing on the other end, long and raspy. It sounds like a beached whale’s cry.

When we talk, our voices trail off at the end of our sentences. My father gulps and exhales in a slow, tragic kind of way. He asks me about Melissa between gasps of breath. We don’t talk about his divorce. I tell him about my brother’s new adventure overseas and he coughs in excitement. He tells me how beautiful his nurses are.

The tide is rising as I talk to him. Seagulls call out and fight over fish in the slosh. My ocean is seeping out of me. I’m dripping into the receiver of the phone. Drip, drip, drip. If my father can hear it, he doesn’t say anything.

I remember once he told me, “You will find a nice boy soon. Your ocean will calm and smooth over like glass and all will be well.”

Of course I got angry. I said, You know, maybe it’s good that I am dissolving into my ocean. Maybe lots of people have done this before and that’s why the Atlantic is so damn big. Each wave is another sad girl like me. Can you imagine swimming across that many people?

I listen to the sound of his snores, his breath, his sobs, his I don’t know what again at full volume pressed to my ear.

For a minute, neither of us says anything. Then he says that he can hear the ocean on my side of the phone. “It sounds so beautiful, I wish I could see.”

The tide is kissing at my toes in the sand. My father and I are listening to each other’s breathing through the phone.

I take one cautious step into the water and press the phone tighter to my ear.

I want to really hear what my father is saying in his exhale. On the other end, the cave of his throat sounds empty, but I know otherwise.

If I concentrate hard enough, I might be able to hear.

About the Author:

Will Walawender is a student at Sarah Lawrence College pursuing his MFA in Fiction Writing. He has taught Creative Writing at Exploration Summer Programs at Yale and Baccalaureate School for Global Education. His fiction has previously been published in The Bookends Review and is forthcoming in NANO Fiction.

Special Note:

This story was a finalist in The Conium Review‘s 2014 Flash Fiction Contest, judged by Ashley Farmer.

Image Credit: © Kreatiw / Dollar Photo Club

“Fish Head,” by Jinny Koh

Fish Sketch

The girl was born with a fish head. At first, the mother cursed herself for prodding too many fish at the market. This is my karma, she thought. Secretly, the father blamed himself for a previous affair. I must have caught some stupid disease, he suspected. Whatever the reason, the girl with the fish head was born and there was nothing they could do about it.

Despite the girl’s fishy origins, her parents loved her. They decorated her nursery with pictures of sea animals and anemone, brought her to the aquarium to show her that she was not alone, abstained from eating fish (although the father drove out once a week for a plate of crispy cod and chips on the sly), and even served her worms for dinner. Thankfully, the girl’s refined palate rejected them in favor of mac and cheese, burgers and fries.

In school, teachers often asked the girl what type of fish she was. Some tugged at her whiskers and claimed that she was Catfish. Others squinted at her grayish complexion and insisted she was Artic Char. The girl could not answer them because she had no idea. Poring over dozens of encyclopedias, she found no fish that resembled her. “It doesn’t matter what you are,” the mother said after discovering the girl in her bedroom, books strewn everywhere. The girl’s gill covers flapped furiously, exposing the pinkish flare underneath. That was the only way to decipher emotions on her otherwise expressionless face. She did not have tear ducts and could not cry. The mother cupped the girl’s throbbing cheeks and said, “You are not a label. You are our little fish and we love you.”

Growing up, the girl realized she was not that different from her girlfriends who also wrestled with issues like body odor. On cool days the girl carried a sweet, salty scent of the sea. But under the sweltering sun, she doused herself with copious amounts of deodorant to mask her perspiration, a stench akin to rotten flesh.

She also had her own share of boy troubles. Friendly and beautiful, getting the first date was a breeze. The problem was always with the kiss. Some complained about her slimy lips when she got excited. Others said her tongue was too short. One boy left without a word after cutting his mouth with her scales. She concluded that love was not meant to be. I’ll be a nun, she thought miserably, a nun with a fish head.

One day, the girl found out that a swimming competition was going to be held at the beach in two weeks. Now, despite her fish head, the girl was not a good swimmer. Her hands and legs were clumsy in water, as if they could not catch up with her head that moved and breathed effortlessly. Friends often mocked at that irony. Here’s the chance to prove my worth, she thought, her gill covers flapping in excitement.

The girl practiced her moves at the public pool every afternoon to the point where she believed she could win.

The big day arrived. The girl wore her favorite bathing suit with bright yellow seashells and went to the beach with her parents. The judges took one look and disqualified her. She has an obvious advantage, they said, unanimously shaking their heads. “Please,” the girl begged, “I practiced really hard for this.” After much persuasion, the judges relented. But no tricks, they warned.

The girl quickly took her place in line on the shore. The goal was to swim to the lighthouse and back. “On your marks,” the judge said, “get set… go!” The girl swam as fast as she could, hands and legs in a flurry. But something was wrong. A school of fish was following her. “Go away,” she garbled, slapping their heads and tails. But the fish were relentless, forming a crowd around her. Soon, more fish joined them. By then, her competitors were far ahead. “Please, leave me alone,” she said. It was no use. There were hundreds of fish. They dragged her down into the sea, refusing to let her go.

Night came. The competition had ended hours before but no one had left the beach. They were looking for the girl with the fish head. The police scanned the waters until the sun rose. Turning off their torches, they sighed and said, “We think she might have drowned.”

“Impossible,” her parents cried out, “she has a fish head, for goodness sake!”

Days dragged to weeks. The mother stopped going to the market for fear of recognizing one of the fish heads for sale. Others might not be able to tell one fish from another but she would. She knew her child’s face like her own – those lopsided whiskers, blue-green eyes, gill covers where three beauty marks rested on each side. When the mother slept, the girl’s head kept swimming in her mind, and salty tears would drench her pillow beneath.

The father no longer went to the pier for his regular fish and chips. He had no appetite for any food, much less fish, and his heart squeezed whenever he received flyers from sushi joints.

Years slipped by and slowly, the mother and father moved on. It wasn’t that they no longer pined for their daughter. Instead, they have accepted grief like an old friend who would accompany them to the grocery store, join them at the dinner table, and share their sheets in the quiet of the night. They try to comfort themselves with the idea that their daughter had found new life in the waters. “Perhaps she is now a sea princess!” they said. Even so, hand in hand they would venture to the beach in the evenings and, standing on the dusty yellow sand, call out for their daughter to come home.

About the Author:

Jinny Koh, born and raised in Singapore, now lives in Los Angeles with her husband and daughter. She was the Fiction Editor at The Southern California Review while pursuing her Master’s Degree at the University of Southern California. Her essay can be found on Role Reboot and she was a finalist for Potomac Review’s flash fiction contest.

Image Credit: © Tony Baggett / Dollar Photo Club