“Well, now, Professor Harding,” the fisherman says, as his Bluebird skips across Penobscot Bay, “I don’t know about that. The jellies don’t trouble with us, and we don’t trouble with them.”
He’s not much older than forty, but wizened, his hands work-roughened and his face reminiscent of saddle-leather, in texture and in hue. Professor Harding’s age, and Harding watches him with concealed interest as he works the Bluebird’s engine. He might be a veteran of the Great War, as Harding is.
He doesn’t mention it. It wouldn’t establish camaraderie: they wouldn’t have fought in the same units or watched their buddies die in the same trenches.
That’s not the way it works, not with a Maine fisherman who would shake his head and not extend his hand to shake, and say, between pensive chaws on his tobacco, “Doctor Harding? Well, huh. I never met a colored professor before,” and then shoot down all of Harding’s attempts to open conversation about the near-riots provoked by a fantastical radio drama about an alien invasion of New Jersey less than a fortnight before.
Harding’s own hands are folded tight under his armpits so the fisherman won’t see them shaking. He’s lucky to be here. Lucky anyone would take him out. Lucky to have his tenure-track position at Wilberforce, which he is risking right now.
The bay is as smooth as a mirror, the Bluebird’s wake cutting it like a stroke of chalk across slate. In the peach-sorbet light of sunrise, a cluster of rocks glistens. The boulders themselves are black, bleak, sea-worn, and ragged. But over them, the light refracts through a translucent layer of jelly, mounded six feet deep in places, glowing softly in the dawn. Rising above it, the stalks are evident as opaque silhouettes, each nodding under the weight of a fruiting body.
Harding catches his breath. It’s beautiful. And deceptively still, for whatever the weather may be, beyond the calm of the bay, across the splintered gray Atlantic, farther than Hardingor anyonecan see, a storm is rising in Europe.
Harding’s an educated man, well-read, and he’s the grandson of Nathan Harding, the buffalo soldier. An African-born ex-slave who fought on both sides of the Civil War, when Grampa Harding was sent to serve in his master’s place, he deserted, and lied, and stayed on with the Union army after.
Like his grandfather, Harding was a soldier. He’s not a historian, but you don’t have to be to see the signs of war.
“No contact at all?” he asks, readying his borrowed Leica camera.
“They clear out a few pots,” the fisherman says, meaning lobster pots. “But they don’t damage the pot. Just flow around it and digest the lobster inside. It’s not convenient.” He shrugs. It’s not convenient, but it’s not a threat either. These Yankees never say anything outright if they think you can puzzle it out from context.
“But you don’t try to do something about the shoggoths?”
While adjusting the richness of the fuel mixture, the fisherman speaks without looking up. “What could we do to them? We can’t hurt them. And lord knows, I wouldn’t want to get one’s ire up.”
“Sounds like my department head,” Harding says, leaning back against the gunwale, feeling like he’s taking an enormous risk. But the fisherman just looks at him curiously, as if surprised the talking monkey has the ambition or the audacity to joke.
Or maybe Harding’s just not funny. He sits in the bow with folded hands, and waits while the boat skips across the water.
The perfect sunrise strikes Harding as symbolic. It’s taken him five years to get herefive years, or more like his entire life since the War. The sea-swept rocks of the remote Maine coast are habitat to a panoply of colorful creatures. It’s an opportunity, a little-studied maritime ecosystem. This is in part due to difficulty of access and in part due to the perils inherent in close contact with its rarest and most spectacular denizen: Oracupoda horibilis, the common surf shoggoth.
Which, after the fashion of common names, is neither common nor prone to linger in the surf. In fact, O. horibilis is never seen above the water except in the late autumn. Such authors as mention them assume the shoggoths heave themselves on remote coastal rocks to bloom and breed.
Reproduction is a possibility, but Harding isn’t certain it’s the right answer. But whatever they are doing, in this state, they are torpid, unresponsive. As long as their integument is not ruptured, releasing the gelatinous digestive acid within, they may be approached in safety.
A mature specimen of O. horibilis, at some fifteen to twenty feet in diameter and an estimated weight in excess of eight tons, is the largest of modern shoggoths. However, the admittedly fragmentary fossil record suggests the prehistoric shoggoth was a much larger beast. Although only two fossilized casts of prehistoric shoggoth tracks have been recovered, the oldest exemplar dates from the Precambrian period. The size of that single prehistoric specimen, of a species provisionally named Oracupoda antediluvius, suggests it was made by an animal more than triple the size of the modern O. horibilis.
And that spectacular living fossil, the jeweled or common surf shoggoth, is half again the size of the only other known speciesthe black Adriatic shoggoth, O. dermadentata, which is even rarer and more limited in its range.
“There,” Harding says, pointing to an outcrop of rock. The shoggoth or shoggothsit is impossible to tell, from this distance, if it’s one large individual or several merged midsize oneson the rocks ahead glisten like jelly confections. The fisherman hesitates, but with a long almost-silent sigh, he brings the Bluebird around. Harding leans forward, looking for any sign of intersection, the flat plane where two shoggoths might be pressed up against one another. It ought to look like the rainbowed border between conjoined soap bubbles.
Now that the sun is higher, and at their backsalong with the vast reach of the AtlanticHarding can see the animal’s colors. Its body is a deep sea green, reminiscent of hunks of broken glass as sold at aquarium stores. The tendrils and knobs and fruiting bodies covering its dorsal surface are indigo and violet. In the sunlight, they dazzle, but in the depths of the ocean the colors are perfect camouflage, tentacles waving like patches of algae and weed.
Unless you caught it moving, you’d never see the translucent, dappled monster before it engulfed you.
“Professor,” the fisherman says. “Where do they come from?”
“I don’t know,” Harding answers. Salt spray itches in his close-cropped beard, but at least the beard keeps the sting of the wind off his cheeks. The leather jacket may not have been his best plan, but it too is warm. “That’s what I’m here to find out.”
Genus Oracupoda are unusual among animals of their size in several particulars. One is their lack of anything that could be described as a nervous system. The animal is as bereft of nerve nets, ganglia, axons, neurons, dendrites, and glial cells as an oak. This apparent contradictionanimals with even simplified nervous systems are either large and immobile or, if they are mobile, quite small, like a starfishis not the only interesting thing about a shoggoth.
And it is that second thing that justifies Harding’s visit. Because Oracupoda’s other, lesser-known peculiarity is apparent functional immortality. Like the Maine lobster to whose fisheries they return to breed, shoggoths do not die of old age. It’s unlikely that they would leave fossils, with their gelatinous bodies, but Harding does find it fascinating that to the best of his knowledge, no one has ever seen a dead shoggoth.
The fisherman brings the Bluebird around close to the rocks, and anchors her. There’s artistry in it, even on a glass-smooth sea. Harding stands, balancing on the gunwale, and grits his teeth. He’s come too far to hesitate, afraid.
Ironically, he’s not afraid of the tons of venomous protoplasm he’ll be standing next to. The shoggoths are quite safe in this state, dreaming their dreamsmating or otherwise.
As the image occurs to him, he berates himself for romanticism. The shoggoths are dormant. They don’t have brains. It’s silly to imagine them dreaming. And in any case, what he fears is the three feet of black-glass water he has to jump across, and the scramble up algae-slick rocks.
Wet rock glitters in between the strands of seaweed that coat the rocks in the intertidal zone. It’s there that Harding must jump, for the shoggoth, in bloom, withdraws above the reach of the ocean. For the only phase of its life, it keeps its feet dry. And for the only time in its life, a man out of a diving helmet can get close to it.
Harding makes sure of his sample kit, his boots, his belt-knife. He gathers himself, glances over his shoulder at the fishermanwho offers a thumbs-upand leaps from the Bluebird, aiming his wellies at the forsaken spit of land.
It seems a kind of perversity for the shoggoths to bloom in November. When all the Northern world is girding itself for deep cold, the animals heave themselves from the depths to soak in the last failing rays of the sun and send forth bright flowers more appropriate to May.
The North Atlantic is icy and treacherous at the end of the year, and any sensible man does not venture its wrath. What Harding is attempting isn’t glamour work, the sort of thing that brings in grant moneynot in its initial stages. But Harding suspects that the shoggoths may have pharmacological uses. There’s no telling what useful compounds might be isolated from their gelatinous flesh.
And that way lies tenure, and security, and a research budget.
Just one long slippery leap away.
He lands, and catches, and though one boot skips on bladderwort he does not slide down the boulder into the sea. He clutches the rock, fingernails digging, clutching a handful of weeds. He does not fall.
He cranes his head back. It’s low tide, and the shoggoth is some three feet above his head, its glistening rim reminding him of the calving edge of a glacier. It is as still as a glacier, too. If Harding didn’t know better, he might think it inanimate.
Carefully, he spins in place, and gets his back to the rock. The Bluebird bobs softly in the cold morning. Only November 9th, and there has already been snow. It didn’t stick, but it fell.
This is just an exploratory expedition, the first trip since he arrived in town. It took five days to find a fisherman who was willing to take him out; the locals are superstitious about the shoggoths. Sensible, Harding supposes, when they can envelop and digest a grown man. He wouldn’t be in a hurry to dive into the middle of a Portuguese man o’ war, either. At least the shoggoth he’s sneaking up on doesn’t have stingers.
“Don’t take too long, Professor,” the fisherman says. “I don’t like the look of that sky.”
It’s clear, almost entirely, only stippled with light bands of cloud to the southwest. They catch the sunlight on their undersides just now, stained gold against a sky no longer indigo but not yet cerulean. If there’s a word for the color between, other than perfect, Harding does not know it.
“Please throw me the rest of my equipment,” Harding says, and the fisherman silently retrieves buckets and rope. It’s easy enough to swing the buckets across the gap, and as Harding catches each one, he secures it. A few moments later, and he has all three.
He unties his geologist’s hammer from the first bucket, secures the ends of the ropes to his belt, and laboriously ascends.
Harding sets out his glass tubes, his glass scoops, the cradles in which he plans to wash the collection tubes in sea water to ensure any acid is safely diluted before he brings them back to the Bluebird.
From here, he can see at least three shoggoths. The intersections of their watered-milk bodies reflect the light in rainbow bands. The colorful fruiting stalks nod some fifteen feet in the air, swaying in a freshening breeze.
From the greatest distance possible, Harding reaches out and prods the largest shoggoth with the flat top of his hammer. It does nothing in response. Not even a quiver.
He calls out to the fisherman. “Do they ever do anything when they’re like that?”
“What kind of a fool would come poke one to find out?” the fisherman calls back, and Harding has to grant him that one. A Negro professor from a Negro college. That kind of a fool.
As he’s crouched on the rocks, working fastthere’s not just the fisherman’s clouds to contend with, but the specter of the rising tidehe notices those glitters, again, among the seaweed.
He picks one up. A moment after touching it, he realizes that might not have been the best idea, but it doesn’t burn his fingers. It’s transparent, like glass, and smooth, like glass, and cool, like glass, and knobby. About the size of a hazelnut. A striking green, with opaque milk-white dabs at the tip of each bump.
He places it in a sample vial, which he seals and labels meticulously before pocketing. Using his tweezers, he repeats the process with an even dozen, trying to select a few of each size and color. They’re sturdyhe can’t avoid stepping on them but they don’t break between the rocks and his wellies. Nevertheless, he pads each one but the first with cotton wool. Spores? he wonders. Egg cases? Shedding?
Ten minutes, fifteen.
“Professor,” calls the fisherman, “I think you had better hurry!”
Harding turns. That freshening breeze is a wind at a good clip now, chilling his throat above the collar of his jacket, biting into his wrists between glove and cuff. The water between the rocks and the Bluebird chops erratically, facets capped in white, so he can almost imagine the scrape of the palette knife that must have made them.
The southwest sky is darkened by a palm-smear of muddy brown and alizarin crimson. His fingers numb in the falling temperatures.
He knows. It comes to him that he misjudged the fisherman; Harding would have thought the other man would have abandoned him at the first sign of trouble. He wishes now that he remembered his name.
He scrambles down the boulders, lowering the buckets, swinging them out until the fisherman can catch them and secure them aboard. The Bluebird can’t come in close to the rocks in this chop. Harding is going to have to risk the cold water, and swim. He kicks off his wellies and zips down the aviator’s jacket. He throws them across, and the fisherman catches. Then Harding points his toes, bends his kneeshe’ll have to jump hard, to get over the rocks.
The water closes over him, cold as a line of fire. It knocks the air from his lungs on impact, though he gritted his teeth in anticipation. Harding strokes furiously for the surface, the waves more savage than he had anticipated. He needs the momentum of his dive to keep from being swept back against the rocks.
He’s not going to reach the boat.
The thrown cork vest strikes him. He gets an arm through, but can’t pull it over his head. Sea water, acrid and icy, salt-stings his eyes, throat, and nose. He clings, because it’s all he can do, but his fingers are already growing numb. There’s a tug, a hard jerk, and the life preserver almost slides from his grip.
Then he’s moving through the water, being towed, banged hard against the side of the Bluebird. The fisherman’s hands close on his wrist and he’s too numb to feel the burn of chafing skin. Harding kicks, scrabbles. Hips banged, shins bruised, he hauls himself and is himself hauled over the sideboard of the boat.
He’s shivering under a wool navy blanket before he realizes that the fisherman has got it over him. There’s coffee in a Thermos lid between his hands. Harding wonders, with what he distractedly recognizes as classic dissociative ideation, whether anyone in America will be able to buy German products soon. Someday, this fisherman’s battered coffee keeper might be a collector’s item.
They don’t make it in before the rain comes.
The next day is meant to break clear and cold, today’s rain only a passing herald of winter. Harding regrets the days lost to weather and recalcitrant fishermen, but at least he knows he has a ride tomorrow. Which means he can spend the afternoon in research, rather than hunting the docks, looking for a willing captain.
He jams his wet feet into his wellies and thanks the fisherman, then hikes back to his inn, the only inn in town that’s open in November. Half an hour later, clean and dry and still shaken, he considers his options.
After the Great War, he lived for a while in Harlemhe remembers the riots and the music, and the sense of community. His mother is still there, growing gracious as a flower in a window-box. But he left that for college in Alabama, and he has not forgotten the experience of segregated restaurants, or the excuses he made for never leaving the campus.
He couldn’t get out of the south fast enough. His Ph.D. work at Yale, the first school in America to have awarded a doctorate to a Negro, taught him two things other than natural history. One was that Booker T. Washington was right, and white men were afraid of a smart colored. The other was that W.E.B. DuBois was right, and sometimes people were scared of what was needful.
Whatever resentment he experienced from faculty or fellow students, in the North, he can walk into almost any bar and order any drink he wants. And right now, he wants a drink almost as badly as he does not care to be alone. He thinks he will have something hot and go to the library.
It’s still raining as he crosses the street to the tavern. Shaking water droplets off his hat, he chooses a table near the back. Next to the kitchen door, but it’s the only empty place and might be warm.
He must pass through the lunchtime crowd to get there, swaybacked wooden floorboards bowing underfoot. Despite the storm, the place is full, and in full argument. No one breaks conversation as he enters.
Harding cannot help but overhear.
“Jew bastards,” says one. “We should do the same.”
“No one asked you,” says the next man, wearing a cap pulled low. “If there’s gonna be a war, I hope we stay out of it.”
That piques Harding’s interest. The man has his elbow on a thrice-folded Boston Herald, and Harding steps closebut not too close. “Excuse me, sir. Are you finished with your paper?”
“What?” He turns, and for a moment Harding fears hostility, but his sun-lined face folds around a more generous expression. “Sure, boy,” he says. “You can have it.”
He pushes the paper across the bar with fingertips, and Harding receives it the same way. “Thank you,” he says, but the Yankee has already turned back to his friend the anti-Semite.
Hands shaking, Harding claims the vacant table before he unfolds the paper. He holds the flimsy up to catch the light.
The headline is on the front page in the international section.
Germany Sanctions Lynch Law
“Oh, God,” Harding says, and if the light in his corner weren’t so bad he’d lay the tabloid down on the table as if it is filthy. He reads, the edge of the paper shaking, of ransacked shops and burned synagogues, of Jews rounded up by the thousands and taken to places no one seems able to name. He reads rumors of deportation. He reads of murders and beatings and broken glass.
As if his grandfather’s hand rests on one shoulder and the defeated hand of the Kaiser on the other, he feels the stifling shadow of history, the press of incipient war.
“Oh, God,” he repeats.
He lays the paper down.
“Are you ready to order?” Somehow the waitress has appeared at his elbow without his even noticing. “Scotch,” he says, when he has been meaning to order a beer. “Make it a triple, please.”
“Anything to eat?”
His stomach clenches. “No,” he says. “I’m not hungry.”
She leaves for the next table, where she calls a man in a cloth cap sir. Harding puts his damp fedora on the tabletop. The chair across from him scrapes out.
He looks up to meet the eyes of the fisherman. “May I sit, Professor Harding?”
“Of course.” He holds out his hand, taking a risk. “Can I buy you a drink? Call me Paul.”
“Burt,” says the fisherman, and takes his hand before dropping into the chair. “I’ll have what you’re having.”
Harding can’t catch the waitress’s eye, but the fisherman manages. He holds up two fingers; she nods and comes over.
“You still look a bit peaked,” fisherman says, when she’s delivered their order. “That’ll put some color in your cheeks. Uh, I mean”
Harding waves it off. He’s suddenly more willing to make allowances. “It’s not the swim,” he says, and takes another risk. He pushes the newspaper across the table and waits for the fisherman’s reaction.
“Oh, Christ, they’re going to kill every one of them,” Burt says, and spins the Herald away so he doesn’t have to read the rest of it. “Why didn’t they get out? Any fool could have seen it coming.”
And where would they run? Harding could have asked. But it’s not an answerable question, and from the look on Burt’s face, he knows that as soon as it’s out of his mouth. Instead, he quotes: “ ‘There has been no tragedy in modern times equal in its awful effects to the fight on the Jew in Germany. It is an attack on civilization, comparable only to such horrors as the Spanish Inquisition and the African slave trade.’ ”
Burt taps his fingers on the table. “Is that your opinion?”
“W.E.B. DuBois,” Harding says. “About two years ago. He also said: ‘There is a campaign of race prejudice carried on, openly, continuously and determinedly against all non-Nordic races, but specifically against the Jews, which surpasses in vindictive cruelty and public insult anything I have ever seen; and I have seen much.’ ”
“Isn’t he that colored who hates white folks?” Burt asks.
Harding shakes his head. “No,” he answers. “Not unless you consider it hating white folks that he also compared the treatment of Jews in Germany to Jim Crowism in the U.S.”
“I don’t hold with that,” Burt says. “I mean, no offense, I wouldn’t want you marrying my sister”
“It’s all right,” Harding answers. “I wouldn’t want you marrying mine either.”
A joke that Burt laughs at.
And then he chokes to a halt and stares at his hands, wrapped around the glass. Harding doesn’t complain when, with the side of his hand, he nudges the paper to the floor where it can be trampled.
And then Harding finds the courage to say, “Where would they run to? Nobody wants them. Borders are closed”
“My grandfather’s house was on the Underground Railroad. Did you know that?” Burt lowers his voice, a conspiratorial whisper. “He was from away, but don’t tell anyone around here. I’d never hear the end of it.”
“White River Junction,” Burt stage-whispers, and Harding can’t tell if that’s mocking irony or deep personal shame. “Vermont.”
They finish their scotch in silence. It burns all the way down, and they sit for a moment together before Harding excuses himself to go to the library.
“Wear your coat, Paul,” Burt says. “It’s still raining.”
Unlike the tavern, the library is empty. Except for the librarian, who looks up nervously when Harding enters. Harding’s head is spinning from the liquor, but at least he’s warming up.
He drapes his coat over a steam radiator and heads for the 595 shelf: science, invertebrates. Most of the books here are already in his own library, but there’s onea Harvard professor’s 1839 monograph on marine animals of the Northeastthat he has hopes for. According to the index, it references shoggoths (under the old name of submersible jellies) on pages 46, 78, and 133-137. In addition, there is a plate bound in between pages 120 and 121, which Harding means to save for last. But the first two mentions are in passing, and pages 133-138, inclusive, have been razored out so cleanly that Harding flips back and forth several times before he’s sure they are gone.
He pauses there, knees tucked under and one elbow resting on a scarred blond desk. He drops his right hand from where it rests against his forehead. The book falls open naturally to the mutilation.
Whoever liberated the pages also cracked the binding.
Harding runs his thumb down the join and doesn’t notice skin parting on the paper edge until he sees the blood. He snatches his hand back. Belatedly, the papercut stings.
“Oh,” he says, and sticks his thumb in his mouth. Blood tastes like the ocean.