Above the Waves
by Joel Caris
It hunched folded in the sloped clifftop cavern, the sea roaring far below and the world suddenly alight with anticipation. A saltwater mist drifted through the air out beyond the cavern’s opening, a gray obscuring of the sun broken only by the frequent darting passage of the sea birds that served as the creature’s companions. They were mottled, feathers purple and blue and black, and their dark beaks curved long and sharp and open, their thin tongues trembling in the salty air as they screamed across the sky. It knew them, knew their movements, and in service of them the creature ran its forearms along the stone walls, worn smooth over the endless years of its restless presence.
It could feel all through the stone. Two hundred feet below, the ocean waves crashed upon the cliff base. The stone rung and vibrated with the sea’s fury and the creature could feel the way the water ate at the rock, the way the rock slowly sloughed off into the sea, feeding its insatiable appetite. It could feel each swirl of water, each stream draining back into the mother ocean. It could feel the soft flex, the infinitesimal moment-by-moment growth of mussels, the scratched clinging of barnacles. Tangles of seaweed broke on the stone and tumbled limply down its jagged surface. Birds alighted all along the cliff—on its weather-worn top, clinging to sea-faced ledges, hopping along outcroppings at its base. Just outside the cavern’s entrance clamored a raucous colony of the bruise-colored sea birds, hundreds milling and fighting and nesting on the top of the cliff, spread out into sniping, noisome cliques. Females nestled down on caches of eggs while the males strutted and huffed, crying out at each other and flinging themselves off the edge of the cliff, plummeting down to the sea below. When the males tired, when they grew weary of their performances, they would circle around one of the nests, preening, and the female as often as not give way to the male, allowed him to settle down on the eggs while she stretched and circled and perched at the edge of the cliff, watching a long time at the sea below before falling and dropping down into its chaos.
The creature knew all of this—it had seen it so many times, knew now the exact vibrations these dances made throughout the cliff’s stone. Tangled deep in the angled cavity of its home, it bloomed to life a vision of all this activity—of hundreds of birds performing their rituals—in its trembling mind. Each of their movements traveled through the stone to alight upon its body, on the bristled black hair that covered its skin, salt-crusted conduits of a near-inconceivable sensitivity. It was the rigid, crystaled salt that moved the hairs so precisely, so minutely, and that created the received sensation that burst visions into the blinded creature’s brain. It could only live by the sea; could only perceive the world after several years of encrustation; could only emerge out of the blind cocoon of its youth through the slow drift of the ocean, the way it permeated all about it.
The birds fed and groomed it. They would bring small, torn, bloody squids to the mouth of the cave and toss them down the rock entryway, slick and damp with the ocean’s mist, with the blood of what came before. The creature would catch these squirming, dying animals in its own mess of limbs, slashing them with razor claws and shoving the flayed meal into it’s tattered mouth, two or three thin limbs pushing the meat down its long, elastic throat, where the muscles throbbed and contracted as a vice, shredding and reforming the flesh of its prey, smoothing its passage. The birds screamed as the creature ate, wheeling back into the sky above, into the ocean’s wind, and cutting the current back down to the water below in search of their own meals.
In its movements, in the tremblings of its mind, the creature saw its love for the birds as a deep purple-blue washed across eroded slabs of stone strewn with the writhing of its meals. Its world was color and movement and great sections of pockmarked darkness it knew as stone, as the basis of all that the creature understood, and beyond that a gray nothingness from which, given enough time, all that existed emerged. This was the sea, the ether of the universe. All things came from the sea; all things were made of it.
This included the creature. Its salt was all; without it the creature would fall into an absence of sensation indistinguishable from death: cessation. But the salt was ever-growing, the ocean ever-persistent, and as the crystals grew the creature became slow and dull, unwary, slapping the stone about it to try to make sense of the world, to bring it back into a vivid being. It would crawl out of the cavern and into the gray light of day, beseeching the ocean below and slashing its limps through the air, slamming them brutally into the stone and bloodying them. Arisen, the birds swarmed it; they ate of the salt on its hairs; they shattered the crystals down into something new, into a lightness, and the world began to bloom and brighten until it blew out into a blinding whiteness. The creature than lashed wildly and retracted into its cave, often leaving behind the shattered remnants of birds caught by its limbs. This knowledge—the heavy stillness of their bodies weighing the stone, thinning its vibrations—threaded through the whiteness in red and black, the sorrow of cessation, dripping from the heavy shadow of stone. The creature drew in on itself, folding its limbs close to its body. It waited, tracing the threads of death until the full world came back, its brain returned to an equilibrium.
Then the world grew so bright. It thrummed, and the creature knew so very much.
The birds tended it because the creature tended them. It did so only on occasion, but in its perfect knowledge of the cliff and all that came upon it, it protected the birds and their offspring. They suffered only one great predator: a small marsupial, fierce of teeth and claws, a perfect climber, and ravenous. As did all things, it came from the sea, only on occasion, clambering swift onto the base of the cliff and then beginning its ascent. The creature listened at all times for it, mindlessly rubbing its limbs along the interior of its home, keeping close attention to all the minute vibrations that swarmed throughout the stone. It knew the sea; and the birds; the waves and the rivulets; the rain when it fell and the creak of expanded rock in the sun; the all-patient creatures that clung to the cliff; the intruders, the explorers; the happenstance; and when the predator came, it knew that too. It knew it perfectly, intimately, as deeply as it knew the birds despite so much less opportunity. But this predator, fierce as it was, was the basis of all its existence. It was the keystone of its relationship with the birds. It brought the purple-blue of love, for the love could not exist without this reciprocity. It emerged from the sea a gift.
When the predator came, the creature grew attentive—still except for its listening—and it trembled with an excitement. The world coalesced into those moments of anticipated action and the creature wept its love and gratitude onto the stone—and it listened, and it tracked.
The marsupial knew a piece of what waited at the top of the cliff. Its consuming hunger drove it toward the nests of the birds, toward the eggs that lay as treasure within. But the moment it breached the lip of the cliff’s worn top, the creature was upon it. Here, in this moment, the air burst to life with its fury and a whirlwind of muscled limb and talons. The creature tore the predator into ragged pieces, into strips of flesh and bone, and flung the gore across the stone. The birds rose in one great, dark plume into the sky, screaming with a furious joy—with the abandonment of blood lust—and then they descended in a chaotic flock back down onto the rock. They scrabbled and clawed at each other, fighting over small hunks of flesh, devouring the remains of the predator in one great dance of reciprocity, in the creature both protecting and feeding them in one swift moment of violence. It was a completion, a climax; a settling of their debts and the initiation of a new ledger. For the creature, it was a deep, ecstatic throbbing of purple and red cut by bursts of green-yellow. Its body shivered in the thrill.
And so it was in anticipation of such a moment that the creature now grew still and attentive, its arms working the stone, its mind focusing in on the faintest of tremors, nearly nothing. The predator? But not—not yet. In the sea perhaps, somewhere farther off, not yet on the rock but making its way toward it, the movements working their way through the water to the rock and providing an anticipation of what was to come. Already delighting in this approaching moment, the creature swept and listened, swept and listened, and color bloomed within it. But then it dampened and faded, hollowed out into the gray of the sea as the vibrations grew and webbed into something different, something unique. Something the creature did not know: more than the marsupial predator, more than the birds, more than any creature that had ever come upon the rock, something greater and odder and misshapen, grotesque, horrific. The creature swept and listened as a darkness grew within it at the awfulness of this soft-fleshed, awkward, deformed creature that seemed to slap at the sea, that thrashed and pounded at the ether, that carried no grace within itself. A muddle of brown and powder blue bloomed in the sea of gray, as though an infection. And the creature, pressing itself tight against the rock walls, tried to form this intruder into something more, tried to coalesce this infection into an understanding. But it could not, and the creature fell into convulsive shudders at the horrid presence and, scrambling from its cavern, flung itself into the bright gray of the daylight and slammed its limbs upon the ground, calling the birds to it in the hopes of comfort, in a need for their familiar presence.
And they came to it, screaming.