When the Jellyfish Rule the Oceans
Dreaming, Aurelia spends an eternity in formless darkness, long after the voices have faded. No sound but for the roaring in her head, the musty smell of pent-up clothes: hangers ruffled with her mother's dresses, jackets, scarves.
She puts her hand on the door, pushing ever so slowly, opening up the world. Her parents' bedroom, curtains drawn, a bright sky beyond. They are there, both of them, and the smell is overpowering. In evening formal wear, Mother in a green satin gown, Father in a purple-tied tuxedo. Holding hands, but only because she, Aurelia, has posed them like that.
In her mind's eye, Aurelia sees it happening again, the harsh voices of the men barking their commands. Mother crying, pleading with them. The first shot impossibly loud, and then the second, Aurelia trying to make herself invisible, infinitesimal.
If they open the cupboard door . . .
But they do not, they did not. This really happened, but days ago. She doesn't want to leave them, their soupy, meaty smell, growing ever more pungent. But there's a clarity in her head that's been lacking, a vector leading through the bedroom door.
It's bright in the house, every blind thrown open, every room in disarray. But she will not replace a single cushion or right a single upturned stool. She takes water from the faucet and a packet of crackers from the pantry, puts them in her backpack. Goes out on her voyage without even a jacket.
Vista of the sea below, almost never as radiant as it is today, incandescent. The sheer cliff-face, the salty spray, deep cracks in the mansion's foundations where lichen grows. Running her hand along the coarse rock-face, she spies a splash of color, a hoppity fluttering, the erratic flight of an azure-colored not-bird. It descends the rock wall and lands on her outstretched palm. "Where are you going, little one?" Aurelia asks it, but of course it cannot answer. More than a phantasm but less than a flesh-and-blood thing, the not-bird fills her with an alien warmth. Perhaps it intends to accompany her.
The vector leads over the precipice.
Terror grips Aurelia, pushing her down to hands and knees. Good dirt, black dirt. The not-bird seems to taunt her with its nonchalant hopping, bringing it ever closer to the edge. Aurelia crawls, listening to the muted boom of breakers on the rocks below. She peers over the lip of the chasm. It's unusually calm down there, the angry waves for once quieted.
There's a stone staircase carved into the rock, rarely used by anyone and never by her. Dangerous in all weather and suicidal in some, the zigzagging staircase is slippery and slimy with moss. Aurelia sits on the top step. The rush of air is invigorating and the not-bird seems to be waiting. She can do this, not spindled on rickety legs but sliding, inch by inch, on her rump.
It's surprisingly tiring, this undignified progress. Reach, slide, plop down. Reach, slide, plop down. Her pants are rubbing and the steps are only getting wetter and slimier. Salt fills her nostrils, stings her eyes. By the time she's a third of the way down, she's having second thoughts.
Reach, slide, plop down. The barnacle line comes and goes, the steps now more green than black in color. She's getting cold despite her exertions. In her struggle to stay warm, she speeds up, scooting down the furred steps to the quickening beat of some inner drum. The not-bird remains forever one step ahead, apparently impervious to wind and splash and spray.
There's a bright orange door in the cliff-side, hidden from view until now. "Is that where I'm headed?" she wonders aloud, the only answer a howling tempest. The door is almost down at the wave line. The wind is fierce, the ocean broiling, each boom quaking her core. She's wet through, tremoring with cold. The door's surface is made of some plasticy material. Even if she had a key there's no keyhole, no handle at all, but the not-bird won't go any further. So she knocks, pounds with puny fists, sobs. The not-bird tweets in a peculiar manner--
The door opens inward and Aurelia tumbles into darkness, the door closing behind her with a clang. The blackest pitch, a suffocating silence.
But then a miracle, light--
The not-bird's olive eyes have turned a gossamer gold, illuminating the tunnel ahead. And it's warm air rushing toward her, blessedly so. Some earthy smell, like ancient peat. Aurelia stoops, watches her head, shuffles along like that. The tunnel veers once way and then the other, never allowing her to see very far ahead. The not-bird eyes play a dancing light onto the flickering, rough-cut walls. The tunnel's getting hotter, more suffocating, her clothes plastered to her skin. She stops for a drink of water and to catch her breath. A loamy, decaying stench invades her nostrils and there's a distant, intermittent hissing, like an inhalation and exhalation of breath.
The tunnel widens into a small chamber. Sunlight shafts in from a crack in the earth above. Something's crunching underfoot. Aurelia looks down, sees that she's standing on a bundle of bones and torn pieces of fabric. The hissing is getting louder, the stench more caustic.
Something's alive down here and it isn't her.
She can follow the tunnel further or she can attempt to climb. The not-bird scoots up onto a ledge. Aurelia levers herself up and the not-bird shows her where to step next. Then the not-bird flies up and hovers some distance below the crack. No more footholds. She can see tufts of green, but it's far too high to reach. The not-bird's trying to show her something, a black rope almost invisible against the wall. She touches it, recoils. It's gristly, like a string of meat. She gives it a tug, sees if it will hold her weight. Apparently it will. But the wall's so smooth that there's nowhere to gain leverage. Aurelia doesn't have the strength, her feet scrabbling uselessly against the wall.
The rope goes taut and she hangs on. Inexorably, she's being lifted, but by whom? Up, up. Aurelia breaks the surface, brushes herself off and looks around. The pile of black rope lays unattended, her helper having vanished into the mist. Her hands are chafed and the sun's disappearing over the ridge. She's in a sheltered cove, cliffs rearing up on ever side. A small tugboat is moored down by a narrow beach of black sand. The not-bird zooms off in that direction and Aurelia follows in its wake.
the tugboat looks damaged, bent like a half-crushed can. It's cold here, a stiff breeze coming in off the ocean. She's damp and shivering, so she steps aboard and ascends the ladder to the wheelhouse. There's no one at the helm, no one on deck. She finds a heavy jacket, takes off her shirt and wrings it out, puts on the jacket and zips it up. Then she stares at the consoles. The not-bird flutters up to a particular panel, upon which there's a button marked AUTO. Aurelia presses the button and the tugboat's engines thrum to life. The tugboat begins to power away from the shore. She hunts in her sodden backpack for the crackers, finds them, but they've disintegrated to a pasty mush. She goes onto the deck and flings them over the side, wiping her hands on the jacket.
The sun is setting, but there's a yellow moon rising out of the ocean. Aurelia makes her way up to the prow, holding the rail while she tries to find her sea legs. She gazes at the moon, transfixed by its ghostly glamour. The tugboat's slowing down. The engines are straining but the boat's almost come to a halt and the water is gleaming in an unnatural manner. Something gluey and clogging has them entrapped. Seaweed? Oil slick?
A million bobbing globules, refracting the yellow light.
Jellyfish, a toxic plume of them, like a gigantic frog spawn. She goes back into the wheelhouse, beseeching the not-bird for help, but it's motionless, powered down. The engines are whining and the cloud of jellies is only getting thicker, coagulating around the boat as though it's a precious nectar.
If the engines fail, what then?
The consoles mean nothing to Aurelia. She is, after all, just a child. She can use just one button marked AUTO and she has just one helper with nothing further to add. She presses the AUTO button and the engines cease. Now she will drift with the jellyfish, come what may. Stars reveal themselves and the moon climbs high.
There's another light, winking in, winking out. A lighthouse. She's been there before, long ago. It seems to be calling, tugging, or perhaps that's the tide and the rocks she'll be dashed on soon enough. The clot of jellies is starting to break up in the waves, their ethereal body subdivided. She considers turning AUTO back on, but look--there's a darkened pier, a moonlit beach. If she's lucky, the tugboat will wash right up on the shore. Maybe there's a keeper at the lighthouse, some savior.
Cacophony, chaos, the tearing of metal. The deck lurches, Aurelia falls and hits her head. The tugboat has struck a reef and now it's sinking. There's a row of lights at the end of the pier. It isn't far. Aurelia scrambles to her feet, unhooks a life-ring, before toppling over again. The life-ring cushions her fall, bouncing her clear of the stricken tugboat into the icy black. She tries to swim but the jacket's too heavy, she can't lift her arms, but somehow she still has the life-ring. Sea and sky are intermixed and she's half-choked by the time she washes up on the beach, too weary to lift her head, let alone try to stand. But she'll have to or the waves will claim her back.
She's tangled, trapped. She manages to unzip the jacket, crawls half-naked and mostly frozen beyond the tide-line, but she'll die right here if she can't get dry. In the moonlight she can see waves washing over the side of the derelict tugboat.
Something shoots clear from the water, like a meteorite ascending to the sky. The thing curves around and beelines to Aurelia. It's the not-bird, awoken from its reverie. Now it hovers above her, spotlighting her with its golden eyes, its light warm, benevolent. She drags herself to her feet. Her legs are leaden, her energy sapped. She tumbles--
and it catches and holds her in some invisible grip.
Aurelia levitates, rising in some invisible bubble, by some hitherto unknown means of conveyance. The not-bird's taking her to the lighthouse. Aurelia will live on, thanks to it. She's warm now, her skin molten in the not-bird's light. It deposits her with infinite gentleness at the doorstep, and already she misses the cocoon of its protection, vowing to commit to memory exactly what that felt like.
"Do you have a name, little one?" she asks it. "How can I ever repay you?"
"Yettobe," the not-bird croaks tinnily in reply, but Aurelia never discovers which question it was responding to, for the not-bird leaves her, cavorting into the night.
Bereft, Aurelia knocks on the heavy lighthouse door.
Doors, forever opening, open for her once more.
Guy Salvidge is a Western Australian teacher and author of the dystopian novels Yellowcake Springs and Yellowcake Summer. His short fiction has been published in Tincture Journal, The Great Unknown and The Tobacco-Stained Sky. His story "Frank" recently won the City of Rockingham Short Fiction Award. Visit him online at guysalvidge.com or guysalvidge.wordpress.com