By Gray Winsler
Art by DS Thornburg
Published Issue 103, July 2022
“Can we go home now?” Penelope asked her father.
Georg shook his head. “Not ‘till we catch something for your mother.”
“But it’s been hours …” she moaned, plopping her head down to rest between her hands, fingers fiddling with the pink ribbons in her hair.
“Patience, little lass. Patience. That’s the secret of any good fisherman.”
“I’m only seven, Papa. I’m not supposed to be patient.”
Georg chuckled, glanced from his line to his daughter. “Is that right? Here, take this.” He handed her the fishing rod, its line stretching deep into the sea, the creatures below hidden beyond the sun’s reach. They could not have know what lurked beneath.
Penelope hesitated as she took the rod. “What do I do with it?”
“Just hold it there, and then if you feel something try and take it from ya, reel it in with all you’ve got!” he said, spinning his hands.
Georg knew this wouldn’t keep Penny occupied for long. But he took what he could, sitting back and savoring the moment, their little dinghy rocking with the waves, the sun warming them from above. He smiled at his daughter, grateful she was old enough to come out with him now.
“Can you tell me a joke, Papa?”
“You already know all my jokes.”
“Then make up a new one,” she smiled wryly.
“Oh it’s that easy, is it? How about you give it a go then?”
“Hmm,” she thought.
Georg watched the gears turn in her head. He couldn’t believe how smart his little lass had become. He could still remember the joy that washed over him hearing her say “Papa” for the first time, so long ago now.
“Oh! I got it! What’s a sea monster’s favorite meal?”
Georg thought for a moment. “I don’t know.”
“Fish and ships!”
He laughed. “You felt anything on that line yet?”
Penelope shook her head no.
Georg looked over the boat, following their line into the sea. Under the water, on the edge of where the sun’s light could reach, he saw a massive shadow slip beneath them. He fell back into their boat, rocking it side to side. That wasn’t a whale … he thought.
“Everything okay, Papa?”
Georg nodded. “Yes, yes …” forcing a smile, “But I think we ought to be heading home now.”
“But we haven’t caught anything for mom?”
“We’ll get something for her at the market.” Georg picked up the two paddles fixed to their dinghy.
“That’s cheating!” Penelope teased.
He began to paddle, glanced again over the edge, but saw only an empty sea. Still, he felt the weight of something beneath them, a beast slithering through currents below …
“Are you alright, Papa?”
“Yes Penny, just pull in that line will you.”
Georg could see he was making her nervous.
“Everything’s alright — just pull it in.”
Penelope reeled in the line. The wind whipped up as she did, gray clouds sliding in from the northwest. The clouds slipped over the sun, graying the skies above them, a thick gloom setting in. The wind seemed to kick up the waves, tossing their dinghy to-and-fro.
“Yes, Penny?” Georg asked, paddling them toward the shore.
“I’m scared.” She wrapped her arms around herself in something of a hug.
He looked to her, composed every ounce of calm he had and said, “We’re gonna be alright. Just a little storm is all.”
Just then, between them and the shore, Georg saw a gray fin cut up through the simmering water — massive, as big as a sail. His jaw fell open as the fin sliced through the sea, curving over to their starboard side. Georg’s blood pounded in his neck as he throttled the paddles, pushing them closer to the shore.
He cursed himself for having brought Penny with him, seeing just how far they were from land, a hundred yards between them and safety. He looked up to her then, saw her shivering as the first drops of rain pattered down on them. Then he looked back to the fin, drawing nearer to them now, circling.
Penny shrieked at the sight of it. Her shriek seemed to beckon it, as if fear drew it closer. In an instant they felt its weight knock into their dinghy, a sickening crack splitting across the hull, water gushing in.
Penelope leapt over the crack diving into her dad’s arms, wrapping herself around him. “Hold on!” Georg shouted over the crush of waves, paddling on in vain. He saw the fin turn toward them again, let go of the paddles and held his daughter close, bracing themselves.
Georg could just make out the massive shadow of the beast beneath as it pounded against their dinghy, splitting it in two, throwing them into the sea. He held onto her with all his might, but Penelope slipped from his grasp. The rip of the current pulled him under, garbling his shouting of her name as water filled his mouth. He thrashed beneath the waves, pushing up to the surface, hearing Penny’s shrieks beside him as he once again found air.
Reaching out for her hand through the churning waves, the beast whipped up between them, Georg catching a glimpse of its black eye gazing into him, no more than an empty abyss. “Penny!” he shouted as the monster passed by, Penelope gone from his sight. “Penny!” He cried one last time, before a wave slammed the beams of their boat into his skull, knocking him unconscious.
His body at the whims of the waves …
Georg came to on the shore, coughing up sea water. He pushed himself to his feet, rushing back out into the waves, crying out his daughter’s name, begging for her to return as tears bled down his cheeks. But all the sea returned to him was her pink ribbon, torn from her hair, floating into his trembling hands.
11 years later
The sun beat down on Georg, his skin worn and leathered from years at sea, years of searching. His lips burned as his breath passed over them, scarred and scabbed, forgetting how to open into anything resembling a smile.
A smell filled his nose then, a metallic sting that warned of a storm in the distance, even in this cloudless sky. He kicked at Herm’s legs resting between his own, their boat too small for anything better.
Herm groaned, voice muffled by the hat protecting his face from the sun.
Georg gave him another kick.
He groaned again, pulling the hat from his face.
“You’re a pisser, old man,” Herm said, sitting up. “I was dreaming of the most beautiful woman you’ve ever seen.”
“I don’t give a damn about your dreams.”
“She came from the sea just as me. But her skin was soft, supple — protected from the cruelty of this world. And her tits! My God … The way they flopped about with the rock of the boat —”
“Enough! Storm’s coming.” Georg tightened the knife strapped to his chest.
“Storm?” Herm asked, looking around the empty sky around them. “You are daft,” he muttered to himself. “I should’ve listened to my brother — he told me not to come out with you. Said you were mad, obsessed with some mythical sea beast.”
Georg sat back, letting Herm’s ramblings fade beneath the gentle whoosh of the waves. He looked over at the harpoons latched beside him in the hull, coils of rope fixing them to the boat. He picked one up and turned it over in his hand, fingers tingling, feeling that today just might be the day he could drive it into that cursed beast. Penelope’s pink ribbon was tied around the very same wrist that held the spear. Though it was hardly pink anymore, bleached white from the sun.
“Are you even listening to me?” Herm asked.
The wind shifted then, just as the first chill of winter. A blot of gray clouds could now be seen on the distant horizon, pushing in toward them. Georg felt something stir in him.
“It’s here …” he said, gazing out across the sea.
Herm stirred nervously on the other side. “It’s just a storm.”
Georg shook his head, palms beginning to sweat around the harpoon that rested in his hand, an anticipation bringing life to his body he had not felt in years.
“Paddle toward it.” Georg ordered.
“You’re crazy, old man,” Herm muttered, but did as he was told.
It was not long before the storm washed over them as an eclipse taking over the sun, enveloping the sea in shadow. Their boat was tossed side to side, but it was a sturdy vessel, reinforced to take the thrash and pull of whales. Sheets of rain began pouring down in on them.
“This is mad! You’re going to get us killed!” Herm shouted.
But Georg’s gaze was fixed upon the sea, searching as a spotlight for that gray fin to break through from the depths.
“There!” Georg yelled, pointing deeper into the storm.
“Oh God …” Herm mumbled to himself.
Georg watched as the towering gray fin tore through the waves undeterred, eagerness overcoming him. All these years searching, waiting, plotting — and now the moment was upon him.“Brace!” Georg shouted as the beast approached. He raised his hand, harpoon poised to strike, a crack of lighting sparking across the sky, as if Zeus himself endorsed the battle. And just as he saw the lurking shadow he flung the spear into the boiling sea.
Their boat lurched to the side, rocked by the creature’s weight, knocking them both over in the hull. The rope fixed to the harpoon remained limp in the boat — he’d missed. Georg cursed under his breath, pulling the harpoon back in.
Herm began to paddle furiously.
“What are you doing?!” Georg cried.
Herm said nothing, seeming to be strangled by panic’s grip, desperate for an escape that Georg knew could not come. He hauled the harpoon in the last of the way, watching as that wretched fin turned slowly, deliberately, until it was fixed upon them again.
“Oh God oh God …” Herm blabbered.
The fin grew larger as it approached, the beast’s hulking form rising from the depths. Georg readied the spear, watching with a crystalline focus as its beady eyes broke through the sea. He saw for the first time its gaping maw, unending rows of chiseled teeth, riddled with rotting flesh that seemed to have festered in there for years.
Its mouth was cavernous, enveloping Herm, whose screams of horror were muddled by the beast’s own throat. Georg flung the harpoon into its gilled side just as its jaws clenched down upon Herm, sprays of blood and sea sputtering back at him, the end of their boat taken into the beast’s mouth just the same, wood and bone breaking between its teeth.
But Georg saw the harpoon had found its home, barbs rooting deep into the beast. He readied another and lunged across the boat, jamming it directly into that wretched gray skin. It thrashed, Georg leaping back and clinging to the other end of the boat as the thing mangled the last of its prey, the screams of Herm swallowed whole.
Georg braced, seeing the creature dive into the water, the lines of rope that bound them together quickly snapped up. His arms wrapped around the boat’s stern as it was yanked through the sea, the barbs on the harpoons holding strong even as the beast yanked them both through crashing waves.
Slack fell in the line just then, the fin winding back around, a trail of red sea swirling behind it. Rain whipped at Georg’s face as he unlatched the last harpoon, bracing with one hand as the beast approached, face grimaced with rage, determined for this to be the end for this wretched creature that’d stolen all he’d ever loved in this world.
But the beast was swift, the sea its home, and soon its gaping maw was rising from the the sea again, fixed upon Georg. He hurled the harpoon into its mouth as he dove from the sinking wreckage into the sea — too late.
He moaned in agony as the waves crashed over him, feeling thousands of tiny knives cut and gnash into his legs, his body thrashing, oscillating Georg’s arms flailed madly until he felt the wood of the harpoon jutting from the beast’s side. He beat at it with his hands, throttling the harpoon through the creature’s flesh until it released his legs where he darted forward into the waves.
The sea was awash with their blood, Georg’s legs useless, only a scream of pain. But he felt the coarseness of a rope brush against him then beneath the water’s surface, let it wrap around his arm, yanking him forward, still fixed to the harpoon embedded deep in the beast’s gills. He coughed and choked on the sea as he was dragged through, the rope burning into his skin, he and the beast bound together.
The rope slackened again then, Georg fighting not to succumb to the waves, his legs twitching though little help, more and more blood seeping from him.
“No …” Georg gasped, feeling his body drain of what little life it had left.
But as he looked up one last time he saw the menacing gray fin returning, harpoons jutting out from its sides as it ripped toward him. He slipped his knife from its leather strappings on his chest.
“Come on then!” He screamed at the wretched thing.
Georg watched the beast’s hammerhead break up through the frothing water, able to smell the rotting flesh in its teeth as its mouth crushed down on his waist. He cried through excruciating pain, the creature chomping up to his chest. But with his last moments of life he stabbed and stabbed and stabbed at its head, at anything he could reach, Georg’s body torn to ribbons as his knife carved across the hulking hammerhead, the sea a whirlpool of their blood.
He screamed with his last breath of air, driving the knife deep into the beast’s head, leaving it there as it gnawed and gnashed at Georg’s now limp body. But the beast’s wounds were many, seeping from all over its scarred form, its movements growing slower until it too became still, all their blood drained away into the sea together.
And as the storm thundered on above, their lifeless bodies floated there in the waves, adrift.
Gray Winsler is the first ginger to be published in Birdy Magazine, Issue 091. He loved living in Denver despite his allergy to the sun and is now based in Ithaca, NY. He spends his mornings with his dog Indy by his side, writing as much as possible before his 9-to-5. If you’re curious about Normal, IL or why TacoBell is bomb, you can find more on his site.
DS Thornburg is a visual artist, whose portraits capture the “process” of uncertainty, mortality and loss, to name a few. “Charcoal is moveable and fluid, as are human emotions.” Glance at his work, and see a darker, melancholy sadness. Stop and take the time to actually look, and you could possibly see a path to healing. See more of his work on Instagram and Facebook.
Thornburg is also a part of Spiritualist Cabaret, a one of a kind, immersive cabaret of storytelling enveloped in dark music scapes, magic, tarot, and visual art, that tells a story. See more on Instagram.