August 22, 2008

SNF Presents: Guest Writer Chrissa Sandlin

BAD SHRIMP

by Chrissa Sandlin




Last night’s buffet was packed like rocket fuel just below her stomach. Edwina took a few deep breaths, but each one that touched her lower belly started the cramps again. She pulled both knees up to her chest and hugged them tight as her back jerked with her pulse.


She tried not to smell the sheets—the same detergent that she remembered from being sick as a child, the same lemon polish smell from the night stand. Her mother had cleaned Edwina’s old room, but she’d been ready for bed when Edwina arrived at 8:30 pm and had therefore slept through Edwina’s intestinal distress.


Edwina was exhausted, her gut sore and her head throbbing. The lamp’s twist switch required horizontal torque, and she couldn’t turn it off without moving. Hot yellow light poked her eyelids and stung her face. Sheets were piled beside her, kicked away from her body. Tears ran down her cheeks. No more work buffets, Edie. No more cheap conversation and tepid food. Especially no more shrimp, bad, bad, shrimp.


Pain, or the threat of pain, lived in the moment. Hold stiff through this moment, breathe in this one. You just rented out your body to the cramps and shudders. She couldn’t blame the women in the office for going to a shoddy little fish place—it wasn’t that different from the dusty office, just down the hall. She’d rented out her skills just as impersonally, temp job after temp job. Even the Styrofoam remains of lunch failed to advertise its perpetrators.


Her eyes closed, but her body only slipped into the shallows of rest, into a semi-conscious fugue of yellow darkness and heaviness. Dreams rolled through, smearing the room and the day before into odd shapes. Jambalaya popped in her dreams with the slap of a steel string, while the sweaty cook sieved another helping from the living shallows of the ocean. Water writhed through her.


Just past midnight, an acid eruption soured her throat and a bitter flume of salty acid rode the spasm up into her sinus cavity. Coughing her breath back, Edwina heard a static sizzle deep in her ear canal, like those exploding sugar rocks from once upon a time. Pressure rose through the canal, then released with a pop. Liquid drained from her ear.


When…where…did I go swimming? Edie tried to sit up, wincing at the smell of seafood that surrounded her. A tug at her ear rocked her sinuses back into nausea. Her fingers scrabbled to catch at what she thought was an entangled earring and felt something else, something that slipped over her fingers and clung briefly to her thumb.


She turned and saw, brown and glistening against the sheets, what looked like a pearl and granite plastic toy. Half shrimp, half child, it screamed like a hundred mosquitoes. Sweat ran down Edwina’s neck, down her chest. Her eyes were only tenuously connected to her brain—her optic nerve an eyestalk recoiled against a shocked and shuttered mind. Edwina shook her head, but the dream lingered and kept screaming. Why would I have a shrimp child?


She let the creature grasp her fingers. Spiny insect legs poked her skin and she shook it into the untouched water in the glass cup beside the bed. It tumbled and blew bubbles, swishing up to the surface and staring at Edwina. Over and over, in drifting spirals in the clear water, the creature drowned Edwina’s earlier dreams.

***


“You’ll just have to throw it out. I told you, no pets! Where the heck have you had it? What is it?” Edwina’s mom was in the middle of refusing to lend Edwina any sort of container for the creature she’d found in her cup in the morning. “What possessed you to put a crawdad in a cup for anyway?”


It had seemed content to float around in the water, but it was starting to make noises. Edwina could see the dark body of a crustacean, but it was firmly anchored to a human-looking torso. The crumpled baby face from last night had shifted into a toddler’s chubby form and seemed to be already thinning out.


“Water, water, water. Just over my head. Water.”


Edie was too strung out from last night’s illness to listen to either babbling voice. She wanted to go home—the apartment that smelled like her—to rest. Edie couldn’t stop looking at the creature, though. Its eyes were a swollen and luminous turquoise, almost too small to see clearly. Dark feelers, just thick enough to distinguish from hair, bent backward to lay across the fan of slate hair shading into a marine blue. It looked as if it had been dyed by the deep brown waters of the gulf, with hints of the blue of unsilted ocean. Its skin—her skin—was the same pale color of Edwina’s.


“It’s a baby, mom. Meet your grandchild, Hallene. Congratu-damn-lations.” Edwina pushed past her mother and started hunting in the cabinets for an old glass fishbowl. Hallene, her little goddess of the salt spray, was once again blowing bubbles.


“Edwina! What is…why do you keep fussing with that cabinet?! Did you have anything to drink at that party? Any funny stuff?” Her mother wrinkled her nose and watched her daughter open and shut cabinets.


With her forehead against one cabinet, Edie opened the doors on either side. “No, mom. I’m just tired. Didn’t I tell you I was sick last night?” She found her old fishbowl, complete with small castle. After rinsing it and filling it, she put a finger in the glass and let Hallene grab it and crawl up to her wrist.


Once Hallene was perched on her castle, Edie slipped her a Cheerio. She sucked on it while watching Edie. The mershrimp didn’t seem to mind being out of the water, but Edie worried that it wasn’t good for her. Her tail dried as it dug into her hand, the same thumb that had split and shucked the boiled shrimp last night. A shudder shivered last night’s aftershocks awake. Edie’s stomach dipped and groaned and she ran toward the bathroom.


When she returned, she found her mother feeding the creature another Cheerio. Her teeth were already sharp, just like her hair was already growing. Edwina was relieved her mother hadn’t just dumped it in the backyard.


“Why another fish? Are these little crab-things more hardy than your previous pets?” Her mother could feed it, place cheerios in its chubby hands, and still not see the hands. Well…she thinks my dates ended at the dorm-room door, too. Full of Cheerios, the creature clung to her sleeve, jointed legs curled into her tail. She didn’t make much noise.


“Don’t think you’re leaving until we get a chance to…” Her mother realized her bags were laying by the front hall. Her voice swelled over Edie’s inhaled explanations. “Do you hate being here?! Are you mad at me?!”


“I don’t hate you. I’m sick! I want to be in my OWN BED!” Her mother glared at her from the kitchen table. Edwina just kept putting everything together. “Just give me a rain check on the weekend?” Her mother shook Hallene back into her bowl, waking her.


Edwina packed her overnight case in the backseat, strapping it in for the first time since she’d been making this run. Her mother’s words would linger like ocean-going plastic, unrecycled guilt. She banked the fishbowl down with towels and pulled the belt around it, too. She wanted it close, where she could keep a hand on it.


At the first intersection, she turned into the road that was a straight shot to the highway. Edwina turned on the air, already thinking about work and where the bowl would rest. Edie, you’ve got to find out…But she couldn’t imagine the how and she shivered in the cold air. Her shorts were tighter than she liked and a pale puff of skin welled up around each cuff. It didn’t take long to for that to happen. Edwina rubbed her leg, flattening it out. Not fair, it’s not big enough to justify gaining weight.


Glancing out the window as she passed a small neighborhood park, Edwina watched the water in the small pond shiver and then sink suddenly. Brown water pushed itself out of the drains cut into the curb. The car shuddered as the water shoved it.


Edwina pressed the gas. Keep going, don’t let the engine flood...The car drifted up, slewing around as the water drained away from the road. Her car faced away from the highway, pointing toward the coast rather than inland. Edwina tried to release the steering wheel when her tires touched the concrete, but her fingers wouldn’t relax.
They were halfway to the beach before she was able to turn on the radio, finally settled into something distracting. At least her child wouldn’t complain about her Top 40 taste. Hallene was hanging over the glass lip, staring up at the a/c vents and ululating along with the music. She serenaded her mother all the way to the beach.

***


Thin waves rippled like spilled varnish over the beach, brown and foaming. They parked on the furrowed asphalt of an empty parking strip. It should have been full, mid-summer crowds scattered across the sand. She’d known about this place since high school, but the kids who belonged to these empty houses were elsewhere. Watching the beach from this forgotten space, she felt the day itself was birthing them, sweating and silent, until the beach pulled them free.


“When I was five, we came to the beach for the first time.” Edwina needed to mark Hallene’s first visit, anchor it to her own accumulations of family. “I remember Dad carrying me out, trying to jump the waves. I was screaming so loudly that I swallowed the crest of one of the waves. It was disgusting…but I’ve always loved the beach anyway.” When she’d thrown up that day, she’d thought she’d given it all back. Until last night’s thick salty reflux. Perhaps some gastrointestinal irritation had finally broken off a pearl from a grain of salt.


The tiny girl tossed herself down and hid behind the big pink castle. A subtle clicking swept past with a low breeze from the grassy dune in front of them. Edwina remembered another beach visit, the time her Dad had flung a big blue crab in her direction after fishing. Just such a crab pushed itself forward, a deep blue shell with red edges. This time it came all the way up to her sandals and rested its pinchers on her pale toes.


Eyestalks regarded her with a wavering gravity. Salt air soughed against her legs, under and around her car. A breeze parted the bushes like a quick hand. Sunlight fell heavy on her, cratering her flesh in color, rather than depth, as it sunk into her skin after a million mile fall. Rattling and clacking sounded from the dunes around them. A high voice broke the scene.


“Mama, I want to go swimming. Please? In the foam, not the mud.” Hallene had forsaken the castle and yelled up to Edie. Her daughter had been less than the length of a finger last night and was now almost the length of a pen. No longer did she look like a juvenile toy. Instead, her dark shrimp tail fanned over long articulated legs and her pale torso swelled above it, floating easily in the shallow bowl. Her arms hung over the glass lip and her face was turned up to Edie. When the crab saw her, the red rim of his shell deepened.


“Don’t take her to the sea. I can care for her. There are bays and puddles and ditches. We
have need of her.” The crab reached a pincher out to her ankle and laid it against her skin. “Salt water rises and we can hear it singing in our marshes. If I were to wed the daughter of the sea…” Edwina winced to see that the girl’s dry hair was a deep brown with cerulean highlights, similar to the crab’s shell and the color of the water on the horizon line.


For a minute, the caress was a familiar plea. Edie, please stay. Don’t leave. The corollary, be the Familiar of my intentions, struck her when Hallene pinched her arm. Crabs with bolt holes and aspirations would not suffice in exchange for being the creature of someone else’s habit.


She lifted her foot and the crab sliced her ankle, trying to catch hold of her. Wind pushed her back, whipped the dune grasses against her as she ran toward the beach. Crabs and snakes and frogs hissed and grunted and snapped at her, coming from the edges of the dunes and trying to catch her before the water did.


Water up to her knees, waves up to her thighs, the sting of sand and salt against her cut legs and the taste of the buffet, salt and sea in the air itself. She let the water balance the glass bowl while the merwoman inside clung to the lip. They watched the water. Edie inhaled the air again and again, but didn’t dive under the waves.


A faint shout caught Edie’s attention. She lifted the creature up to her ear, where the noises became less like speech and more like music. A lifted rhythm moved her feet over the sand into the water. Edie slogged deeper into the ocean. Halle leapt into a wave that broke against Edie’s shoulder. The taste of salt and foam was like a slap.


Edie turned and fought her way back to the beach, half swimming, half running. Head underwater, she heard something, the exhausted echo of a song. A higher descant voice took it up, tumbling with the water toward the shore. Edie knelt in the sand, closing her eyes against the waves and listened to the siren sound, her blood so much the sea that it crested and broke under the skin of her face, flushing her with the sound of her own seduction.


Bad shrimp, indeed. The sea, Thalassa itself, didn’t want the entirety of Edwina—at least, not yet. It slid her forward on the tumbling sand, throwing her back up on the beach. Dizzy from dehydration and coated with silt, Edie rolled to face the water.


As she lay on the sand, a giant blue crab crawled on her belly and settled in. While the afternoon blazed toward the clarion evening when the hunters gathered at the water, Edie daydreamed about rest and a shower in a familiar bed. The crab dreamed of rising water and tribute to the smallest kingdoms of the sea.


The ocean had its child, its half-caste shore maid. Edwina had caught just the barest echo of music, broken and rippled. The ocean ran it’s beat and melody through her, the long stanzas of a familiar tune on a once silent speaker.

End

This is Chrissa's short story from the Thumbelina/mermaid challenge
Please visit Chrissa's blog - http://pollenandsting.blogspot.com/

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