By L Lark
When the fish crawled out of the ocean to steal their cattle, the Xhosa refused to help them.
“We warned you,” they said – two young men caked in white clay, wearing white robes, like ghosts. Their Dutch was imperfect, missing vowels and interrupted by intermittent clicks. The tribe had entered into a shaky ceasefire with the settlers only recently, and they spoke little more than was necessary to trade cattle for ammunition and European medicines.
“We warned your ships not to wake them. They have slept for a very long time. They’re hungry, now.”
“What do you mean? Who are they?” Abigail asked, watching the long trails that led from the grazing pasture towards the coast. The imprints of the fishes’ bodies dwarfed those of the fur seals in the Cape and, however many there were, they were capable of overpowering five – six – cows in one raid.
“Please. Tell me anything,” Abigail said, but the Xhosa had no more words for her.
Abigail’s father had captained a whaling ship off the Cape of Good Hope. He had come to Africa as a young man, but retained a weary nostalgia for Holland all his life. When the Leeuwin had shattered upon the rocks at Duiker Point, its survivors claimed he had drowned humming a Dutch folk song about windmills nestled in mint-green fields.
Abigail did not know the song. Europe was little more than mythology to her. She had been born in Africa. She had shot a baboon in the stomach with a rifle. At night, she had heard the bored rumbles of predators in the bush and did not bother to close the window.
Abigail already knew that Africa was a land of monsters.
There was no need to be afraid of the fish.
The Xhosa men brought her to a sea cave half a day’s hike from her settlement, but refused to enter. It was low tide and water pooled around their ankles. Fat, olive crabs scuttled away from their shadows, disappearing into the rocks.
“There,” they said, pointing two fingers into the darkness. Abigail could not see the cave’s end, but there was water slapping against rock in the distance. “The answer is there.”
Abigail’s lantern filled the cave with turquoise light and the scent of animal fat. She hesitated and turned at the cave’s entrance, but the Xhosa men gestured her on, silhouetted against the sky. The cave opened into a small chamber and continued no farther. It was immediately clear why the Xhosa had chosen to show her this particular place.
Abigail had seen chalk drawings in the caves on high ground – crude scrawls in the shape of waterbuck, and ostrich, and hyena – but if these images represented real animals, Abigail did not know which.
These creatures had slender bodies like eels. They had appendages at both ends that could have been either hands or fins, and smeared rings of pale chalk for eyes. The drawings were accompanied by symbols that Abigail could not recognise. The language was neither Dutch, nor English, nor Xhosa, but the tribesmen had often mentioned a people who’d occupied this land before them.
“What are those things?” Abigail asked the men, shielding her eyes as she exited the cave. The sky over the Cape was always low and warm, trapping in the sourness of rotting seaweed and the invertebrates disintegrating on the beach.
Again, the men answered her wordlessly. They turned in unison and pointed out toward the ocean, fear in their eyes.
That evening, Abigail and her brother loaded their rifles and set out to guard the remaining cows, sharing black coffee from a tin pot. The caffeine made Abigail’s eyes feel tight and dry. She drew her horse next to Hendrik’s and blinked desperately into the darkness.
Hendrik was 16, and shared Abigail’s blond hair and slight frame. She was his elder by only seven years, but Abigail knew half the settlement assumed he was her son. There were thick calluses on her hands. Her face was permanently pruned and red from sunlight.
“Do you really think they’ll come?” Hendrik muttered. He had asked Abigail this question at least four times since the sun had fallen below the horizon. He was nervous and his horse knew it, huffing and braying, tail flicking against Abigail’s shin. It itched, but she did not mention it.
“I don’t know,” Abigail said, and paused.
A moment later, she added, “I’m sorry,” but was not sure why.
The fish did not come that evening, or the one after.
After the second week, Hendrik stopped accompanying Abigail on her nightly vigils. It was not the fish that spooked him, but a leopard that had moved into the hills above them and killed a Boer girl in broad daylight. Abigail had heard the baboon’s alarm calls while the beast paced through their settlement, unseen.
Abigail was not afraid of leopards. Her rifle was loaded and strapped across her back with a sling. It had been 28 days since their cattle had been stolen, and the moon was full and brown.
The remaining cows were uneasy, hovering close to Abigail’s horse. They looked weightless and buoyant in the darkness. Aside from their laboured breathing, the night was quiet.
In fact, the only sound – Abigail noticed after a moment – was a steady gurgling from the west. It did not belong to the repertoire of noises Abigail normally associated with the settlement. It was deep, layered. Abigail could feel it in her limbs and molars.
Beside her, the cows gathered, eyes wet and trembling.
The fish arrived at midnight.
Abigail heard them before she saw them: the sound of wet fins beating against the soil, accompanied by a deep intestinal groan. Her horse reared back with a whine and Abigail struggled to keep her muscles from tensing.
She readied her rifle.
She saw their silhouettes first – hunched backs dragging themselves over the hills toward the grazing ground. They were larger than she could have surmised from the cave paintings on the coast. There were five, at least, and they dwarfed the stinkwood trees that lined the route to their pasture.
Abigail’s horse stumbled back. Her hand tightened around the rein, but she could feel the rush of heat in its muscles. She whispered something involuntarily, lifted her gun, and set off two shots into the sky overhead.
For a long moment, the fish stopped moving and Abigail knew they were watching her. She could hear the even voices of the Xhosa in her head: Maintain eye contact, they would say. Make yourself seem large and unafraid. Do not run. This is Africa. If you run, you will be chased and if you are chased, you will be killed.
It was good, then, that Abigail could not force her body into action when the fish lurched forward and resumed their trek. Even her horse remained locked in place, ribs suspended in mid-exhalation. Only the cows seemed to respond rationally, scattering into the shadows of the pasture.
Abigail aimed and fired again.
Hendrik found her the next morning. Abigail’s horse was gone, but she had a strip of its rein laced between her fingers. For a moment, he’d confused her for their mother – her skin seemed too tightly stretched across her cheekbones and forehead. Her jaw was slack.
“Abigail,” he said, moving her bangs out of her eyes, “what happened to you?”
Hendrik’s heart had nearly swelled with joy when he’d seen her against the northern wall of the sea cave, forehead pressed against the stone. When he’d arrived at the pasture that morning, the cattle had been missing and there had been deep gouges in the soil from where their bodies had been dragged across the fields. It was the fish, he’d realised, feeling like there were rocks tumbling in his stomach. Lions did not pull their food into the ocean.
“I’m sorry,” Abigail said, saliva dripping into Hendrik’s collarbone. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry.”
“What is it?” Hendrik muttered, but he could not tear his gaze away from the drawings on the wall behind her. A dozen white faces, peering curiously over Abigail’s shoulder.
“I’m sorry,” she said again, “We woke them and now they’re so hungry. It will never be enough. Never be enough.”
Her fingernails felt sharp and brittle against Hendrik’s neck.
“They’ll eat everything,” she continued, “everything.”
The eyes on the wall watched him, unblinking, as Abigail sank against his chest. He did not know what she meant by this. Their settlement was small, no more than five houses on the shore. There was nothing there to eat, but –
Their hearts beat in odd syncopation with the ocean outside. Hendrik dipped his head into Abigail’s hair and tried not to believe in the creatures gathering at the water’s edge, hauling themselves unto the beach.
“I’m sorry,” Abigail said again and then spoke no more.
Bio: L Lark is a writer and visual artist currently living in South Florida. She is prone to daydreaming, sunburn and walking into panes of glass. She attempts to blog at www.l-lark.com.