Thursday 7 April 2022

The Serpent and the Squid


by Anthony Brum

dark roast espresso and a bottle of fizzy green pop


Elspeth sneered as she spied a shark overhead. That swagger, as if it were grander than any creature in the ocean, as though it had nothing to fear. She couldn’t abide it. And she was hungry.

“Just you flap this way my cocky little salty-sack,” she whispered, willing the shark toward her. Silently she rose from the camouflage of the seabed, careful not to give herself away too quickly, then with a brisk flick of the tail accelerated upwards. The shark peered down as Elspeth corkscrewed towards him with teeth bared and eyes wide, fiery bright. He fled, as quickly as his sleek body allowed, but with every frantic twist and turn Elspeth powered closer. Her pounding heart wouldn’t sustain this pace for long and with a screech she was upon him. The shark avoided her snapping jaws for a few desperate seconds, but his fate was now certain. Elspeth nipped the tip of his tail, jerked him towards her and crunched her teeth into his thrashing body. Her great gills billowed as she recovered from the chase, savouring the taste of his blood as it bloomed from his side.

“You’d better fill my belly for all that trouble.”

That would keep her going for some time. Just as well. She hadn’t visited these parts for many years, and who knew how much longer her search would take before the next meal? She had spent many weeks traversing warm waters and cold, across vibrant reefs crackling with life, and the most barren of undersea deserts, day after day, night after night, until...

“Now, what do we have here?”

Ahead, a curious shape jutted from the seabed, large, unnaturally spikey at one end, bulbous the other.

“Found you.”

She sidled up to the dozing mass that lay sprawled across the full length of a barnacle encrusted shipwreck. Much of undersea life feared this giant creature, or should do, but not Elspeth. She was more-or-less family.

“Silas,” she whispered and whipped out of sight.

He opened an eye and peered around, stretching a couple of his great tentacles.

“Boo!” said Elspeth.

“Hello Elspeth,” he said before resuming his slumber.

“Oi! Wake up! Look what a mighty podge-blodger you’ve become!” She circled his mammoth body. “I remember when I could’ve gobbled you up like a tiddler. Look at you now. I’ll bet you could swaddle that galleon right down to the shingle, filled with screaming squidgies with no bother.”

He didn’t open his eyes, instead shuffled into a more comfortable position.

“I’ve not seen you round for prob’ly ages. Is this where you’ve been hidin’ away all this time?”

Silas didn’t answer.

“Hmm.” A few stories had reached Elspeth and she hadn’t liked the sound of them. It seemed they might be true.

“Well, aren’t you going to show old Elspeth around? Shall we go up? See what adventures we can have and make lots of trouble?”

“I’m staying here,” said Silas. “It’s dangerous on the surface.”

“What, a great briny behemoth like you? What’d you be afraid of?”

He cushioned his head with a coiled tentacle.

“Come on! You can’t just be lyin’ about all day. There’s times for dreamin’ and times for terrifyin’. Get up! When you was a little tiddler I coudn’t keep up with your scurrying about, dartin’ here and there, getting up to all sorts. D’ you remember that time...” Elspeth cackled a rusty laugh, “when you hid all those puffies in yer Uncle’s favourite shells an’ he was pullin’ spikes out of his rump for almost ages! And what about when we’d cover old Bessie with tangle every time she was dozin’ and then hide when she woke up not knowin what’s goin on.” She chortled. “And what about when we went up and kept shovin’ that old barque, so it went round and round in circles. Them squidgies not knowin’ what’s happenin’. We kept it goin’ for days like that.”

Her laughter and reminiscences drew no reaction from Silas. Elspeth sighed. She slowly descended and settled her long body across his bulk. He didn’t seem to mind. It was probably the first time in a long while anyone had showed him any attention. She lay still and gazed upon a large anemone amongst the plant life nearby. It expanded and contracted in a pleasantly hypnotic fashion that belied the toxic sting of its fingers. Elspeth yawned. The long search for Silas was catching up on her, and he made a very comfortable bed.

“What’s happened, my love?” she murmured before succumbing to blissful rest. She dreamed of ships with blazing cannons, and mysterious caves, and beautiful mermaids, and the glory days when tales of leviathans bristled in every sea and ocean.

A very long sleep later, she awoke to find a brightly coloured clownfish, inches from her face. He quickly darted back to safety through a porthole of the derelict ship.

“You know,” she said languidly, “I yearn to go back.” Silas didn’t reply but she had spent enough time cradling him as a youngling to know whether he was awake or not.

“Oi!” She gave him a prod with her tail.

“What?” said Silas.

“Do you remember the last time we went up? All that commotion when they saw us. All that thrashing about and ruckus and this ‘an that.” She chuckled. “It’d be good to do that again, good for the old heart.” She let that sink in before broaching the next subject.

“You must have heard the old yarns, of your father I mean. King of the Ocean. I’ve heard it said them squidgies thought he was some kind of god.”

Silas didn’t stir. “I heard they hunted him down, kept chasing and chasing until he was too tired and hurt to go any further. Is that what happened?”

“Don’t know,” replied Elspeth. “Maybe. So that’s what this is all about, is it? You’ve been down here all this time, ponderin’. That’s no way to pass the time.”

“I’m fine,” said Silas.

“Fine, shmine! What happened to that youngling I could barely keep up with? Come on! What are you goin’ do with yourself all day? Just lie here and sleep? Where’s your spirit gone? You must be hungry, you haven’t shifted the whole time I’ve been ‘ere. Let’s do something.”

“You do something. I’m happy here.”

“Are you? Are you really, Silas? Just wallowing about on your big toy boat.”

“It’s safe here.”

“Silas, there are oceans to explore, reefs to visit, lots of wonderful, tasty fishies to gobble up. And it’s all out there, waitin’ to be found! Come on. Let’s have an adventure, just you and me like we used to.”

“But those ships, don’t they have spears that shoot through water? And big guns with cannonballs, isn’t that how Father died?”

Elspeth looked into his eyes, and deep within saw fear and pain, and the boredom of a life dreaming but too afraid to find adventures of his own.

“Well listen,” she said, gently lifting one of his tentacles. “These old scales of mine have weathered a few battles, and yes sometimes it can sting a bit. But if we don’t show ourselves too often, they’ll leave us alone and we can have a bit of fun. I don’t think they’ll miss the odd boat.”

Silas contemplated the view above.

“It’ll be alright?” he whispered.

“I’m old,” said Elspeth, circling a figure of eight. “And I’m still around. And let’s not forget, you...” she tapped him on the side of his head with her tail. “You’re the king now, a god, just like they say. Why don’t we go and show ‘em? Let’s taste some of those squishies”

Silas untethered his remaining arms, releasing the suckers that had anchored him to the shipwreck for so long. He lunged upward, reticent at first, but then with great thrusting strokes that sent Elspeth spinning. She laughed and raced after him. They would soon be at the surface where there were ships to be sunk, terrible havoc to be wreaked and above all, plenty of adventure.

About the author 

Anthony is based near Bristol. He has written for the website SFFWorld and published novels in the genres of Children’s Sci-Fi and Contemporary Romance.

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