Re-reading this, there are so many things this story COULD be a metaphor for. It was mildly self-revelatory and written when I was in a pretty stormy mood. You can take whatever you want out of it.
The moment we caught the monster, sunlight broke over pink-tinged waves and ignited the low-hanging clouds into plumes of suspended fire.
Thick rigging rope quickly tore my hands raw, turning red with each hand-over-hand pull and heave and synchronized breath. Above us, Captain Wethers clung to the railing that lined the deck, leaning over the edge and staring into the water with wide, wild eyes. Every so often he’d shout back to us, encouragement or a threat to fling us overboard, let us tangle with the beast in its element, if we didn’t wrench it out of the water faster. A spear dangled in one of his hands, scratching circles in the railing’s filigree. Once we made it back to shore, someone – most likely me, I thought irritably – would be hunched over it for hours, carefully waxing and sealing the scrapes until they were invisible.
If we made it back to shore, I corrected myself.
The odds still dangled somewhere beyond our favor.
Though I couldn’t see it, I knew the beast thrashed at the side of the boat, all neck and limbs and spine-dotted tail doing its best to struggle free from the bespelled nets slowly, deliberately pulling it free from the water. It let out a wail, a long, throaty noise that reminded me of nights back home in the flatlands, when my uncles and father brought their hollowed-out reeds and we all danced the night away by fire- and starlight. Only this time it sent despair spiking through my heart.
I’d thought hell was the dried grass and gnarled trees and parched earth. But I’d been wrong.
Hell was the waves, and the murky darkness below the water, and the monsters that pulled us down there.
The beast made another sound that was almost lost in froth and foam, and I bent forward to pull the slack out of the rope. The other men did the same, swearing in a dozen languages and sending prayers to a dozen gods in the same breath.
One last lurch, a terrible groaning from the ship, and the beast was out of the water. The makeshift hoist we’d built held firm, though the ship tilted to the port side, enough to threaten to take our legs out from under us. I saw the men sneak worried glances at the hoist, like the weight of their gaze would be enough to snap the heavy wooden beam in two.
But if Wethers noticed his men’s concern, he didn’t acknowledge it.
He eyed the beast like a prize, his gray eyes running from its head, along its seal-dark shoulders and oar-shaped limbs, to the tail that thrashed and beat a terrible rhythm against the side of the boat.
And then, for the first time I could remember, Wethers smiled. His lips formed a string of words that were lost in the wind, followed by a sharp bark that sent me and my crewmates scrambling to secure the ropes attached to the hoist. Knots after knots after knots, all while trying to ignore the rumbling keen from the monster suspended somewhere between the sea and the sky.
I stopped near the railing, hands balled into fists to keep the salt water away from the bloody mess that was my palms. The beast sloped beside me, a dark mountain in the middle of the sea, still thrashing and screeching and doing its best to work itself free from the nets. It lifted its never ending neck, twined its head back.
Then its eyes were on me.
I stared back into them, lost and mesmerized and frozen in its blue-black gaze. It made another noise, but this one was different. Hopeful. Pleading. I shuddered a breath, stepped forward.
A hand caught the back of my shirt and hauled me back, sending me sprawling onto the sea-slicked deck. I climbed to my feet, using the mast to stay upright as the world sloped around me.
The monster sighed, once, and went slack, a sudden dead weight that sent water sloshing over the deck. I tore my eyes away from it, toward Wethers, who now stood at the helm, braids twining around his head like snakes as he boomed out the order to unfurl the sails. They flew down and were caught, secured in an instant. The sunlight streaming across the horizon stained the canvas fabric pinkish red.
Wethers smiled again, blood red in the morning light. “Men, take us home.”
They tethered the beast to the shore, close enough for the tide to wash over its bulk, but kept helpless by the pronged ropes woven around its front and back limbs. Wethers’ prize, they called it. The creature he’d hunted for half a century, the heaving mass of flesh and limbs that sank his son’s ships and disappeared into the murky depths before Wethers could fire a shot.
In the morning, they said, they’d bleed it dry along the shore. A warning for its kin, a warning to anyone who doubted Wethers’ power at our home port. There was cheering and dancing, and a parade as the monster’s severed tail, a bloody heap of spikes and damp flesh, made its way through town.
I didn’t go. Instead, I went past the docks, letting the moon lead me to the shore where the monster lay, its slow breaths rumbling like thunder. Ribbons of blood trailed into the sea from its severed tail, and its eyes were closed and half-buried in the moist sand.
The eyes snapped open as I approached. It bared long rows of flat teeth and hissed, flinching back as far as the ropes allowed.
I didn’t turn and run, though my knees were weak and I had to force my hands not to tremble.
Instead, I stood in place and met its gaze.
And I saw terror.
“You’re still impressive in the shallows,” I muttered to it, crouching down just out of its reach. “You’re scarier, of course, when you’re coming up from below us and roaring and crushing the boats to splinters, but I can still see the power in you, now.”
Distantly, I realized how ridiculous I had to look. Up to my calves in sand, talking to the sea monster every sailor’s taught to fear.
It didn't reply – not that I expected it to. But it did listen. It twisted its head, cocked one eye in my direction. Looked me up and down nervously, like I was the monster.
The decision came to me right then. Lightning-fast, and bright too, and before I knew it I was at the ropes, snarling for the beast to calm down, else the knots would just work themselves tighter. I didn't know if it understood my words, or if it somehow knew I meant to help it, or if it'd just given up hope, but it relaxed then, sighing and sagging into the grit.
The knots didn't loosen easily, even though I knew them better than my own reflection. I cursed and twisted and rocked them back and forth, doubling my efforts when the first, then second rope fell away.
“Go,” I whispered as the last knot fell to pieces in my aching hands.
It gave me one last, long look, like it saw straight to my soul and then back again.
“Go!” I shoved its side, turning it toward the waves.
At first, it moved slowly. It wasn't made for moving its bulk along the land; that much was obvious. With an impatient growl, I dug my shoulder into its hip, pushing it closer to the sea. Any minute, the dock would swarm with people and I'd be caught. Probably hanged, if Wethers had any say in my punishment.
Inch by inch, we moved, until the sand shifted beneath me and I hit my knees.
But the beast didn't notice. Foam churned over its flippers, then its chest, then the base of its neck.
And then, with a joyful song, it was submerged.
I watched it go, its bloody tail burning beneath the water, until it was a dark speck that could have been a trick of the moonlight.
Soon, all that remained was a deep groove in the sand, dried blood from its tail, and me, struggling to stand in the thigh-high water.
When I turned, I saw lantern light blooming on the horizon. I moved quickly, letting the darkness of the dock's underside swallow me, and by the time their angry voices hit the shore I was gone.
The next morning, Wethers swore he'd carve the beast to ribbons, the next time he caught it. He gave an order, and within minutes his crew swarmed the deck, ready to go out and hunt for the one creature that had ever eluded their captain.
But I wasn't among them.
The fire flared, dancing to the tune of a half-dozen reed flutes. I smiled, letting the music wash over me, its own kind of ocean in the dry, barren flat lands I called home.
There was something else, too – something that made the laughter quiet when I began to play the high, lilting song. I thought of the beast, throwing itself back into the water. I smiled, though that pinched the sound into falseness.
My sister squeezed my shoulder.