Charybdis and Scylla
Monsters are made, not born. Transformation, like lost virginity, is a crossing that can’t be undone.
Neighbors all our lives and no one else looks after us since our husbands died so we take care of each other until we’re killed by this stranger. Who else will? There’s this thing that happens to women who live long enough. It’s like people only look at us to sell something. Used to be, when I was a pretty young thing, sunlight beaming at me from everywhere and everyone all the time enough to make me ashamed of myself, and then I got a certain age and it was like I was a whirlpool threatening to swallow everyone whole if they so much as looked at me in the face. I thought I looked like still water – a nice old lady – and I cultivated that look.
I have to tell you about me, that I’m not a nice lady. Neither is Scylla. Don’t you forget that about us. We know better than to let people push us around, and we don’t go gentle into that good night.
We’ve been neighbors since our weddings, and no one else looks after us, now that our men have passed. Neither one of us got kids. She’s got her cats, of course. Smells like them. When we’re having tea at her place, I have to wipe down the cups before I drink anything to get the cat hair out.
Neighborhood’s been trying to get those cats for years, but I won’t let them. All she has in her life are those cats. Be devastating to lose those filthy, disgusting animals.
Besides, I used them too. We worked together, Scylla and me and her cats.
That’s why I was so worried, that lady came by on a Sunday – a lady with hard hands like a man’s, work boots, and no make-up standing on the sidewalk in front of Scylla’s yard with a clipboard. Lady was counting cats on the porch, in the windows. She had parked her truck around the corner so she wouldn’t make a scene, but I could see her truck from where I was, across the street, a city municipal truck with cages in the bed, and nets. I was watering my lawn. I watched a bit, see what she’d do. Didn’t do anything but count cats. Got sick of just watching. I turned off the hose, walked on over. Howdy, ma’am, anything I can do ya for?
She looked up at me. She looked down at her clipboard. She wrote down a number, then came back to me with a civil servant smile. Hi, ma’am.
What are you doing out here? Counting cats?
Afraid so. Seems like someone has gotten in a little over her head. Against city code. Neighbors are complaining. You ever see so many cats in your life?
I’m her neighbor and I certainly didn’t complain about anything. She likes ‘em. Loves ‘em, even. Got no kids. Neither one of us had kids. She takes care of strays. Hardly any o’ those are actually her cats. They just come by ‘cause she feeds ‘em. It’s their own mistake, though, ‘cause she’ll get ‘em spayed and neutered soon as she can get ‘em in a box.
Good for her.
The lady pocketed her pen, and held her clipboard in a way to hide it from me. She knew I was curious about what she had written.
Hey, you from the shelter, ain’t you. You folks a “no kill” shelter?
Oh, we rarely have to put an animal down. We really don’t do that very much.
Right. Be a lot of cats to take in, all at once. Hard to find ‘em good homes.
We don’t put down animals unless they’re dangerous to themselves and others. Maybe one a month, often less. Dangerous animals only. Pit bulls, and sick and injured animals that ain’t getting better.
Had a pit bull long time ago. Such a sweet dog. You know that TV show “Little Rascals”? Old show. Old as shit.
I think so.
They had a pit bull, too. Used to be a family dog, especially for them boys liked playing rough. Cute as babies, them pit bulls, and so patient with the boys. Sweet too, just like mine was. Good dogs.
They can be, by themselves, with good discipline. Bet you kept him in line.
Oh, sugar, you know I did. He was a sweetie, but I had to keep an eye on that boy. Boys is all the same, you know. Gotta watch ’em close. Listen, you want to come by for some tea? I have just the best tea in the world right inside. Oolong. Fancy, fancy, all the way from India. Ever been to India?
Sorry, but I have to file my report. Have a good day, ma’am.
She wasn’t done counting, but why would she need to? She knew enough to know that she was coming back, and she’d file a report about it. Maybe not that day, but soon, the trucks would come, with a warrant and a social worker and a cop and animal service folk from two or three counties. Who knows what they’d find inside with the cats, so they’d be ready to be cautious and move careful.
I went back over to my yard. I poured more water on the grass. I acted like I was just minding my own, but what I was doing was thinking. Someone had to do something, because Scylla loved those cats, and they were so useful.
When I was done with my lawn a couple times over, I looked up the shelter in the phone book, called them up. Wasn’t the lady with tough hands answering. Was some fellow didn’t seem to care much about anything. I said to him, I said there was a stray pit bull in the field behind the elementary school. Said I saw one with half an ear missing, and a scratched up chest, jumping out of a dumpster when I took my granddaughter to the school playground after church. Scared us half to death, it did, and she’s still crying. Pit bulls are dangerous. Oughtta be put down, I said. And right by the elementary school.
Point of fact, I got no grandkids. Got no kids, either. Had a husband once, and I lied to him too, all the time. Needed to buy some time, is the reason for it, and keep those officers busy hunting after real trouble.
I went over after to Scyllas for tea with a fresh bag of cat treats I got from this landscaper didn’t work hard enough. Knocked on the door, and heard her watching television. She didn’t do much else, the poor dear. Had to keep it loud, too, on account of her hearing’s not so good anymore. Cats were already at the door, meowing up a storm. Never could tell the animals apart as there’s so many. Least a dozen at the door howling for my treats they see me coming.
Scylla got up from the TV. Flipped it off with her hand on account of her remote was long busted. Came to the door like she didn’t want anyone coming in. Had that look about her, like she wasn’t sure what I was doing here and maybe I was going to yell at her again like I did last time, when I had to take care of her little mess with the landscaper didn’t work hard enough, and we had to get him over to my house in the middle of the night like we was smuggling a dead body.
I didn’t come over to yell, this time. I told her I had something for the cats. She lit up when I took an interest in the animals. I sprinkled around the little bits of meat I had in the baggy.
Your yard’s a wreck, she said. Ain’t seen your man around a while. Growing wild, again. Keep watering it like that, you’ll need a new gardener soon.
I shrug. I go through those gardeners. You, too. Men, I say. Mind if I come in for some tea.
Ain’t Tuesday, yet.
I know, baby, but it’s an emergency. Come on, now. Serious stuff.
In her house, I gave her the number to call, and a tip to talk about a pit bull, yellow with an ear missing, running around the school yard like he owns the place. Then I told her the why of it. Needed to buy us some time, come up with a plan about the people coming for the cats.
She crumpled up the paper and threw it at me. Said it was all my fault. It wasn’t. I yelled again. I hit her in the face. Knocked her over. Most cats ran out of the room. Some of them looked at us curiously. They don’t know what to make of their benefactresses. Scylla was crying on account of the bruise on her cheek.
Serious stuff, Scylla. No fucking around. They’re coming for your cats, and they’ll find everything, goddammit.
I hit her again. We’re going to have to leave town. Can’t think of anything else for it.
We have to take the cats.
I know, baby. I know.
Then Scylla started howling. She was down on all fours and she curled her head back and howled like a dog. Then she was just crying, curled up into a ball and weeping.
I looked around for something I could use for Kleenex. Couldn’t find anything. I didn’t carry that in my purse.
If you could have gotten her before she escaped…
Wasn’t always like this, you know. Once upon a time, we were normal, normal woman. We were so normal that people still think we are. We had husbands. We went to church. We waved at the grocery store at our neighbors, and bought decent, respectable food. We were decent women, once.
Also, used to be were pretty enough to get looked at when we didn’t have money in our hands. Used to be men listened to us, and respected our opinions. Actually, they just listened because we were pretty, and they never respected a damn thing.
I kicked her until she stopped talking, but I couldn’t get her to stop crying.
Look, I’ve thought about this, and I know exactly what we’ll do. Trust me, Scylla. I’m the only one you can trust.
Next day, I get all packed up and ready to go. I rent a van with the landscaper’s credit card at a place I know had no cameras running, and they couldn’t care less if I was a man or a woman or even to look me in the face. Some folk won’t even look at me to sell me something.
It’s life. People grow old. I don’t blame anyone.
I rent a nice, big van. I pull it up to the garage, all full up on cat nip. We don’t know how much time we got, so we got to hurry. Start in the bedrooms. Chase out all the cats we can. Scare ‘em out. They howl and hiss and swipe at us. Feral creatures, not too far from nature.
Everything smells like cat piss in her house. Shook up the furniture to run the cats out, and little flecks of cat hair and cat piss take flight and up in the nostrils. Should have worn a mask. The cops coming are going to wear masks. Wasn’t thinking about it. She’s in the garage, sitting in the van, cooing for all her babies to come rest at her breast. Some of them do, but it ain’t because she’s calling them. It’s the big bag of catnip I put in back, cut open to smell strong. She’s sitting on it, and the cats come to her, gonzo stoned and chasing their own tails from the catnip.
She looks like her heart is being ripped out, and I guess it is, but it’s better this way than if we let the shelter take them all. Can’t let anything bad happen to her cats, and can’t get caught.
She’s filthy. Been filthy forever, since the beginning of it, when her mother was still alive and living with her, and she only had the two – boy and girl – then the kittens, then came the strays and the kittens and then more kittens. Lord, did she stink all the time.
Cats will always find a way home, I said. I touched her arm. I was driving us out of the city. I was thinking how if it smelled so bad in that house, the cats could find it from miles away. If they didn’t like where we was going, they could stumble back home in a couple days after everything blew over. Maybe we could stumble back, too. Old women were invisible.
I remember back when we were married.
That, I did. Never forget it.
My man was a drinker. Came out to check the mail, he was still drunk. Wasn’t the type to hit somebody. Never bruised me, but I never saw him sober. He was a janitor until the factory closed. Then, he was nothing. Sat around the house, watching the TV like he was sitting on the catbird seat, and church on Sunday like it made him righteous. You die in a house with a cat, and you don’t feed it, the cats’ll eat you. Don’t you forget it.
Hers was friends with mine. They went on hunting trips, fishing trips – anything else they liked. We were stuck with them. Even if we had left them, where would we go? This wasn’t a big town, and we had spent so many years with their hands on ours at church. We were accustomed to our men, and our life. So we did what had to be done to keep our life the way we wanted it.
Now this. We drove the cats, in our rented van, out onto the beach. We drove into the water.
We kept driving down. The water was all over us, but we kept driving. We pushed our way over kelp beds and sunken trash piles. Used to be a city out this way, until the water swallowed it. I know it’s still there, like Atlantis, except it was never really a jewel to be remembered.
They probably found your cat treats already, Ms. Charybdis. No turning back now. My friend, if she were really concerned about me, would have reached out her hand to mine. She stroked a cat’s head and stared at her cat when she talked to me. I think maybe she named her cat after me, and that was whom she was talking to.
I had taken one cat treat with me in case the animals got restless. I said, Hey, can you look in the dashboard?
The cats perked up when they saw the treat I had brought. She didn’t recognize where I had gotten it. She looked at it a moment before tossing it into the back at the nervous, mewling animals.
We’re getting old, Cary. When we were younger it was easier.
It was. We kept driving into the sea until we reached the city. There were other cars there. I pulled in to a spot at a motel, next to one of those classic cars with big fins – a real gas guzzler. On the other side was a little foreign car, cheap as plastic, I reckon, and drives for miles on a single tank.
Went inside and wasn’t anybody behind the motel desk, here, so we just took the keys to a room that looked good, and swam in with the cat nip and the cats. The cats hated the water. They poured after us into the room, mostly, with Scylla clicking her tongue at them. Bunch of them swam off, but there was still plenty following us into the room. The cats hated it, but there was nothing to be done for them, now. They’d either accept it, or they’d drift away, and wash ashore in a heap somewhere, strays at birth and emerge from the water strays again.
My babies… She was reaching for the ones that were floating away, trying to chase after them.
Let them go. They’ll find their way home. We can’t go back, and we ought not to get lost chasing cats our first day. Look at all the ones made it, anyhow.
I threw the soggy bag of catnip into the room, with what was left of the cat treat. Most of the cats went after the food and the drugs, and were probably going to have sex under the motel bed once they settled, and birth their kittens in a heap in the closet.
My little babies…
We’ll find more.
Always stray cats need a good home.
There’s no going back from this place. Both of us know that. This is our new home. We aren’t alone here. I ventured out of the room, told Scylla to wait.
Fish swimming around in schools like a postcard. The rusted ruins of a normal town, where the white picket fences were all driftwood with rotten nails and little crabs running around like cockroaches up and down the walls. People floating on by like jellyfish, here. Not a one of them waving at me. Guess this ain’t the sort of place one goes to find friendly neighbors. I poked around a bit, just to get the lay of the land. Swam around the motel, to see what was close. Saw a bunch of rotted out houses, and the shadows of sunfish like inkstains on the concrete sidewalks, and schools of something silver and wide-eyed passing on the left of a slow-moving car.
Octopi have moved into the dumpster behind the motel. They got one of the cats, wrapped their tentacles over it like a skirt. The cat didn’t stand a chance against the animal. Scylla didn’t notice, and I didn’t tell her. I saw it happen because I was out swimming around, looking for a place to get food. I was waving at the other people here, underwater. A woman pushed a baby stroller while she swam. She ignored me. I don’t think there was a baby in the stroller. A man with long hair, and a big, white smile, gets out of a room near ours. Gets into that big car with fins. He waved at me. He was an ugly old man, and it said a lot about him he was treating me nice, when I was invisible on account of my age and infirmities. He was the type for troublesome behavior. No one’d miss him.
A woman in a wedding dress with a long, long train swam aimlessly down the street, bouquet clutched against her chest, and her white train shimmering, collecting fish in its shining wake, and she was singing a wedding march. Siren, I guess. Men took up after her. I saw headlights deep and away through the water haze. Worse than smog, that water, and the cars had to drive slower than school speed limits with all the liquid resistance and darkness. There was a man in the center of town, hanging off a self-made watch-tower in a homemade cape, surveying the streets. He had a harpoon and everything. I guess he thought he looked heroic, and I guess he was heroic, but when you first looked at him, he reminded you of the kind of homeless man you’d find climbing trees and throwing trash at people in the park.
There’s nothing to eat but oysters and kelp, because you can eat those raw. No heat to cook things with. Maybe a sushi chef would brave cutting into something, but the blood attracts other fish, and sharks.
I had told Scylla I’d go get some food for us. That’s why I was poking around. She was trying to calm down her babies. She hadn’t noticed the octopus, but the cats had.
At the lunch counter, the waitress asked me what I wanted – oysters, or oysters shoved on soggy slices of bread, or oysters shoved into opened cans of soup, rank with seawater. Cat food came in 10 pound bags, so soggy I could tear the bag open right there at the table with my bare hands, and I guess people ate that down here. A man in a back booth was certainly eating the cat food. His cheeks bubbled in and out like a fish’s mouth when he was chewing the big mouthfuls. He didn’t use his hands to eat. He let the catfood float in front of his face, then darted his head out to get it like bobbing for apples.
I got a bag of cat food to go, but stuck around to eat some oysters.
The waitress came by and asked me if I was new in town.
She said not to worry about the sharks. She said there was a man who took care of them before they bit anybody – Captain America, they called him, our own personal Federal Disaster Preparedness something-or-other. Anyway, all anyone had to do was flip the sharks upside down and they fell asleep, and then anyone could cut them up so they’d start floating up, over the town. Then other sharks would get to them.
She pointed at the water.
See how it’s kind of red, a little bit. See how it’s like a little bit red when the sun hits it?
I couldn’t see anything.
Blood, she said. That’s him. Captain America does that to any shark comes into town. Got one just before you came in.
It wasn’t a big town. I guess there was a mill at the edge of the city, or some fishing boats. People didn’t go over to that side of town, because there wasn’t anything left in the larger buildings. When the businesses went bankrupt, they were liquidated, and that meant fishing boats and mills were washed clean before the waves came. Anything worth anything in this town was in the houses, where women had clung to their heirlooms with iron claws, holding families together around heirlooms when there shouldn’t be anything but ocean. And the men? Most of them were gone. Treasure hunters and scientists came in scuba gear. They weren’t like us. They rummaged through empty houses. Best to ignore them, if any came by, or go find a room in a hotel for a day or two until they were done where you were living. No stopping them, unless you wanted to draw attention from the outside, and nobody wanted that.
Thanks for the advice, I said.
No problem, she said. Then, she kissed the wild-eyed man in the back booth and put a bucket of oysters in front of him with a sturdy Phillips head screwdriver. He picked up the screwdriver and started work shucking those oysters. He was one of the few men, and that’s how he earned his keep, here.
There were a few other men. The town doctor drove his vintage Packard from his storefront to his home back out of the water along the mainland every day. You could set your watch by his arrival. He wore scuba gear, and carried extra oxygen tanks. He wasn’t one of us. He was just committed to his work. Folks went to see him, if they had the money for it. Often they paid in barter – oysters and the sorts of baubles treasure hunters came down to get. The doctor was the only commuter I knew about. The sheriff was a man, but he never did much. He drank cold coffee. He drove around town in his car, waving at people. He shot his gun at sharks that were too big for Captain America to flip alone. He pointed out the places where the sea life had settled in to anyone curious enough to ask him what was going on in the neighborhood. The octopi liked our dumpsters. The barracudas were partial to the dead trees piled up around the elementary school playground. Stuff like that.
In the city jail, the man who was responsible for bankrupting the town is bound to his cell, and there won’t be any trial for him. Every time he starts to heal up, sheriff sends a catfish through the bars, after his old wounds. I bet a few cats have made it over there, too. They’ll eat human flesh like it’s nothing. No one ever lets that fellow go. Not after what he did. Nobody told me what he did, exactly, but it must have been bad. Prometheus stole fire from the gods to get chained up like that. Maybe he stole all this water, brought it down on people’s heads.
Waitress told me all about that stuff. She’s a small town, lunch counter waitress. She could probably tell me the last time anyone had ever fallen in love in that city. She could probably tell me about what happens when the divers chase after the woman in the wedding dress, and all the rumors about the things that man in prison had done to this town.
The man who was eating cat food and shucking those oysters was named Ulysses Grant Smith, after the president, the waitress guesses. He was a soldier for a while, too, just like the president had been. Never quite made it home from the war to his war bride wife, probably thinks he’s dead. Then, he fell in with some of the women in town trading favors for clothes, a place to sleep. Waitress said I needed a man to come around and do a little work around the house, he was the one to ask, but I shouldn’t expect much from him. No point fixing the plumbing, and the paint’ll never dry.
When he got done shucking, he went over to the payphone outside the counter and looked at it like it was about to ring. He swam away when he saw the woman in the wedding dress coming back around the block.
I chased after him.
Mr. Ulysses, I said, Hello?
He didn’t look at me.
I touched his arm. Hello? I heard your name was Ulysses.
That’s me. He said it like he was standing inside of a jail cell, but he wasn’t the one screaming like a whale.
Call me Carey. You know, you look a lot like my husband. When he was alive, he was a man just like you. Look at these hands…
I took his hands, and ran my own over them. His hands were wrinkled up like prunes, but strong. They reminded me of gardener’s hands, soaked in lime. He’s spent so long under water, that his skin is bloated and puffy, even with his strength. He’s pale in all this muted light, and he smells like an oyster. He looks down at my hands, soft and weak and not even as wrinkled as his. I smile, mercurially, and I let him go. I drift away towards the door, and talk over my shoulder. The bubbles of my words float up to the roof and break there, in a burst of smaller bubbles. Anyway, it was nice to meet you, Mr. Ulysses. I leave him there, in the diner. I have to check in with Scylla.
My clothes are soaked through all the time. I’m wearing the same thing I wore when I left our houses up on land. A big pair of sweatpants, and one of those shirts that doubles as a nightgown, no bra. I had my hair in curlers, but that doesn’t work down here. Everything is just soaked, all the time. Scylla’s hair is the worst. She has long hair, all the way down to her waist and gray because she never dyed it. It went wild underwater, like a shriveled-up sea anemone. Tiny fish and mollusks collected there already and we were barely there a day.
I don’t feel like we belong here, she said.
We belong here, I said. I brought you some cat food.
I tear the wrapper on the cat food and throw the soaked cat food everywhere, for the cats as if they were astronauts eating in space. Cats flailed around after the soggy bits of food. They were not natural swimmers. They struggled to get to the wet food. It must have been like eating Styrofoam. Some of the cats coughed it up, and got sick all over the place. They were catching cold.
I met a man in town, I said. Just my type.
The cats won’t be any use, here. They like the fish.
Sharks, I said. Barracudas in the elementary school. Fish everywhere. Crabs. We won’t need cats. We just need a current. A good, swift current and it’ll all float away forever when I’m done with him. Come on, I want you to come with me. You’re all cooped up in here. You should get out.
Do you think they’re already looking for us, on the mainland?
I want to go home.
If you find someone, you’ll settle down. I promise. It’ll relax your nerves. I saw someone you might like in the motel.
The fish are so ugly.
Try to make the best of things. This is all for the best.
It’s hard to sleep at night when the covers float up and away, and it’s all so clammy and damp and cold. How do people stave off infection, here? I’ll have to find the doctor and ask him. I sleep, as best I can, in the water. The electricity doesn’t work, so we all just have to go to bed when it gets dark. If the world above the water gets a little dark in evening twilight, we get so dark you can’t even see your hand in front of your face. Ocean water swallows light. It’s like the algae in the water are soaking all the light up – eating light – and there’s none left for anyone or anything else.
I asked Ulysses about all of this at the diner the next day. He was shucking oysters for spare change and a free meal, again. He had a metal spike he was using that looked like it came from a railroad. He didn’t say anything about what happened to his Phillips head from yesterday. Odd to find a man don’t keep track of his tools, but I reckon that should have been the first sign I should have taken to steer clear, but I didn’t. He jammed the spike into the oyster’s mouth and pushed hard. No hammers or striking blows under water. Too much resistance. He just had to push and push and push and push until…
I don’t know anything, he said. About algae, I mean. I know a thing or two about trucks. Had to repair an engine in a hurry once or twice. Everybody has to pick up something about their work, they do it enough.
Learn anything about oysters, yet?
Maybe. What do you do?
Nothing. We’re retired. We’re new in town. We’re staying at the motel.
My friend, Scylla. She was my neighbor on the mainland, and now we’re sharing a motel room. We share it with her cats.
Bet they hate it.
Some are taking a liking. They like fish. We leave the windows cracked enough to let minnows swim in, but not wide enough to let the cats out.
That’s good, he said. Ain’t the biggest hunters in town, them cats. He leaned into the oyster hard. He had his weight down on it, and his legs braced against a bar along the floor. He was straining. His veins were coming out of his head.
I held my breath.
The oyster popped.
All this hard work, I bet you haven’t had a massage in a while.
I reached out to his shoulder and felt the knots there. He didn’t pull away from my touch. He didn’t lean into it, either. He just took it, like I was a barber cutting his hair. He’s been underwater a long time.
I do a little acupuncture, if you want it. I learned it to help my husband with his stress, back when he was alive and still working. Worked for a clinic a while at it, with them needles. It’s the best for stress relief, I always say. I was lying. Really help you relax. Ancient Chinese medicine. Old as shit.
He nodded. He had another oyster to shuck.
You could use it, you know. Look at how hard you’re working. When do you get off?
I don’t know. When she says I’m done.
I’ll wait here, then. Take your time.
At the counter, I hung out and introduced myself to everyone that came by. A woman in a summer dress told me I was doomed – DOOMED – and the end times were coming. The floods were already here. The lunch counter waitress threw her out. I saw Scylla, walking around the block – probably going to take her cats to the doctor – and she had a bunch of her cats on threads tied to her clothes. They drifted around, aimlessly. You’d think they’d be dead and floating the way they looked except that they were stretching and swiping at each other and trying to pull themselves free of their ropes. Cats don’t take to leashes much. I saw elderly, overweight women pushing strollers around. Most of the strollers had rocks and oysters piled up inside of them, with some clams. The rocks weighed down the strollers, kept them from floating away.
My husband would do something like that, if he were here. He’d duct tape rocks to the bottom of his shoes so he could walk instead of swimming. Landscapers and gardeners would do that, too.
The woman in a wedding dress swam past, and I saw she had caught a fish in her mouth like a seal. She waved in at the lunch counter, but no one waved back. Her dress trailed away like jellyfish tentacles. Then, jellyfish spilled out from her dress. They must have been drawn to its sparkling torn wedding train.
This made me think of my husband. I could think of little else for a long time. Marriage was like standing at the bottom of a very large well, wondering if he was ever going to come along and pull me up. That’s what I told Ulysses when he came over for some acupuncture.
He said, It couldn’t have been all bad.
It wasn’t. It was. Were you married long?
Not really. I guess, technically, I’m still married, but it’s been years. Married just before I shipped out. Came back, and got mixed up in all sorts of shit. They let us out in New York City. Had a good job right there on the docks. Figured I’d save a bit, first. Never could quite save up a bit.
Where does she live?
Out west, last I knew. Don’t know where she is, now.
Couldn’t you just hitch?
Probably thinks I’m dead. Probably, moved away. Probably, when you think about it, I didn’t want to go home right away, and that’s probably why I didn’t. Wound up with this gypsy – living like a gypsy. Crazy times, you know. Lots of drugs and shit.
I stuck a sewing needle into his neck gently. He didn’t even flinch. I have a confession to make. I know nothing about acupuncture.
I had opened the window, to get some fresh water flowing through the room. Octopus from behind the house could smell the little flecks of blood from his neck. Their eyes peered over the ledge like alien periscopes.
Anyway, he said. Enough about me. What about you? Were there good times?
The war was good times for us. We were just married, then. He was doing well with all the young men off at war. He sold cars. Young soldiers got their enlistment bonus were buying cars for their wives. Minivans. Sportscars for themselves. We had all kinds of money. We bought a house. We made friends with the neighbors.
How you end up down here?
Does your neck feel better? You still feel tense.
I had another needle. I shoved it near an artery, just to make him bleed. I missed. I pulled the needle back and touched the tip to my own tongue. I wanted more blood in the water. The octopi had crept into the room. I was watching from the corner of my eye. They could change their skin to blend with the furniture, but I could see their shapes moving. They loved the taste of blood in the water. They were crawling in the shadows of the sodden, moldy carpet, and they probably smelled like mold because they were camouflaged so good.
Don’t fear the reaper, he said. What are you waiting for?
Come on. I can see your reflection in the television. I can see your face. I know what you’re doing, lady.
I looked up and saw myself in the dark television screen. I was a shadow looming over him like a jellyfish, fat and soft and all my clothes and white hair splayed about the water, collecting bioluminescent algaes and mollusk eggs. I was awful looking, like some kind of monster. Gosh, no wonder nobody looks at me anymore, if that’s what I’ve become. Old. Gosh, I looked old. Breaks my heart to think about how beautiful I was, how I could be the center of the world just walking down the street. I looked myself in the face, and my hands fell away. I couldn’t imagine doing anything to anyone. I was horrible looking.
I was just offering acupuncture. I think we misunderstood each other.
No, he said. He stood up slowly. He turned to face me. I know what you’re doing. He put his hand over mine. He was strong. He had the strength of an underwater oyster shucker, and his hands could crush mine like lobster claws. He looked me in the face. He took my hand with the other needle in his own hand. He placed the needle against my neck.
Don’t fear the reaper, he said. I felt the needle pressing into my soft neck.
It hurt. God, it hurt. It hurt so much for such a long time. Then the octopus came. They swirled around me.
Hey, he said. Hey, I avenged somebody.
There were cats with the octopi, then, pouring from the door as their ropes broke loose. Scylla was back. She saw what was happening. She was screaming. She pounced on him, but he held her back. He was stronger than her. They were both swimming around, in a whirlwind. Scylla had her hair around his neck. She was trying to strangle him with her hair. He was getting strangled, too. He clawed at her face with his strong hands. He couldn’t punch good because of the water resistance, but he tried. Then, he got the knitting needle out of his neck, where I had jammed that first one like acupuncture. He yanked it out and stabbed her in the throat with the knitting needle. Got her hard. She looked at me, bleeding and dying there, for the sharks. All this blood whirling around us, the currents of the water revealed by blood. The blood was salty, because our ancestors had walked out of the ocean, way back when no one knew any better, and now we were back in it, nothing but salt water. Scylla swirled around the room, checking on her cats, even as she was bleeding out. She was checking on her cats, and tying them to her dress, and to her hair. She didn’t want to die alone. She didn’t want to die and let sharks eat her. She wanted to be eaten by them. She didn’t spare a thought for me, and we were friends for so long. She had attacked Ulysses because she hadn’t done a fellow in a while, and it was getting her on edge. It wasn’t me.
Cats bolted for the window, and Scylla wasn’t dead, yet, so she could hang onto Ulysses and me, out the window, where the octopus pulled on our bodies and nibbled at our skin. They couldn’t hold us down with the currents flowing. We started to float up, and the octopi came up with us. Cats came, too. Ulysses and Scylla and I, Charybdis, floating up and up, caught in the currents, with the cats and the octopi eating at us, until the sharks could get to us. Then, the currents ripped us away from each other. Scylla to her shore, Ulysses to his, and me to where I would go next.
On the farthest shore, of the stillest lake, I beached in a heap of dead cat, mollusk eggs, bathrobes, and all of that shit.
This was the first time a man had turned on me before I could get him. They had always been so gentle. They had been trying so hard to convince me they were gentlemen, who would treat me with kindness and respect and never hurt me. Until Ulysses, the men had always smiled and turned the other cheek, because I was invisible to them, even my husband.
You remember about that fellow was just sitting there, shucking oysters and waiting for the end of the world. He was the one who never thought for a minute I might be what I seemed. He was the one who killed us. He was the one who saw me – really saw me – and you don’t get like that without a reason.
And, that’s all I got to say.