The Man Who Ate The Ocean

Every day, with the noon-tide, Andre continues in his plan to eat the ocean. Grasping, clutching, sucking, licking his way he moves from the Adriatic to the Mediterranean, from the Mediterranean to the Atlantic. No sea is safe from Andre’s probing tongue, nimble fingers, tearing teeth.

Day by day: anchovy; bass; cod; eel; hake; lobster; mackerel; octopus; prawn; scampi; tuna; whitebait; all slide into Andre’s gullet’s boiling depths.

Today he is emptying oyster beds — a peculiar departure from his itinerary.

Moving slowly and methodically, he slices each shell in turn and licks at the insides. The relentless suction of Andre’s moluscine gut rumbles over serried, rapidly emptying shells, his questing tongue — a pseudopod — slopping along rows of mother of pearl.

The orphaned spats along the banks grow fewer every year. Now only thirteen remain, under a bridge by the waters edge. An early sunrise blinks them open, and they rise up, becoming boys.

One of them is Jesus. He is not their leader, but there is something about him, something greater than an empty stomach.

“The ocean is nearly gone,” says Jesus. “Andre is eating it all.”

Tomas sneers. “Says who?”

“Listen, it’s true. My Papa told me as he died: ‘Andre is eating the ocean, that is why he is here.’”

Pedro jeers: “Your Papa died loco. How can anyone eat an ocean?”

“How do you eat up anything? One bit at a time. I tell you, every day he eats a little piece. She is getting less and less.”

“It is true,” puts in Juan. “Why else do our fathers’ boats rot in the harbour?”

“My Father’s nets were not worth inheriting,” says Jesus. “Before Andre came this way there was fish for anyone.”

Somewhere, a street organ jangles a fandango. Our boys turn towards its sound. With nothing better to do they walk, hands in pockets, in search of it.

They turn into Calle San Jose and there stands a street minstrel, ancient beyond his years in a faded, embroidered bolero, crumpled shirt and frayed pantaloons. He is turning the handle of a decrepit wooden organillo much bigger and much stronger than himself. The contraption jangles and rattles out the same fifty bars of the one Spanish tune every foreign tourist knows, over and over again.

“No monkey,” says Pedro.

A murmur of disappointment hovers in the dusty air. Disappointment is all that ever relieves boredom. But a monkey would make a nice change.

Pablo, the youngest, howls. “I want to see a monkey!”

“Whoever heard of an organ grinder without a monkey?” says Juan, indignant.

Instead of a monkey, a Catalan woman, gaudily dressed, but fading, dances an amazing fandango, not fast but graceful. Arabesque calligraphy made flesh in the movement of her arms and legs, and the click of her castanets. As her feet slam down, thick clouds of dust surround legs already black with dirt from neglected streets. Her face is streaked with grime and sweat and her ragged dress is stained and patched so much that little remains of its beauty. But there is a hint of grace.

“Look at her feet,” whispers Pedro.

The others stare. There is blood on her feet but her fingers bleed too, from her castanets.

This is her Sacre du Printemps.

The sages have assembled.

Through her glazed eyes she counts thirteen of them, gathering to witness her dance herself to death.

Her movements increased in frenzy. Faster. Faster.

“She is dancing to save our ocean,” says Jesus.

A passer by drops a few coins into a tin mug on top of the organillo.

“I have an idea,” says Juan. “I will hide behind the organ. Pedro, you throw a stone at the mug, and I will catch it when it falls.”

“He will see us,” says Marcos.

“The rest of you must distract him,” says Juan. “Play football. Pedro — you be the striker.”

So it is agreed. They have no ball, only a stone. They kick the stone between them, falling over each other in the excitement of the game, their footfalls a noisy counterpoint to the rhythmic stamp of the dancer.

Round and round she whirls — and the rabble of boys breaks ranks and runs towards her, jostling and shouting. The old man looks up sharply.

An elbow hits Jesus in the ribs and he falls, gasping for breath. He looks up and he sees the Catalan woman balancing on one leg in frozen fright, and a twenty legged monster bearing down on her.

“Stop!” shouts Jesus.

But, miraculously, the tide of unwashed faces parts and surges past on either side. The old man is shouting and shaking his fist.

Jesus runs off to join the others where they gather in Calle Generalissimo Franco, dividing up the spoils.

Juan picks out a few coins. The pesetas, he keeps. “What are these?” He cannot read, and he has never seen nor heard of Euros before. “Foreign coins!” he says with disgust, and tosses  them away. Tourist money. He spits. “Five pesetas each,” says Juan. He is their accountant because his father was a shopkeeper before he died.

“I think that we should give it back.”

The others stare at Jesus, with empty eyes and empty bellies.

Juan is appalled. “What? You must be loco!”

“The Catalan Woman; she is dancing to save our ocean. It is a sin to steal from her.”

Juan throws a single coin down at Jesus’ feet in disgust. “Here. Give it back yourself.”

Now the boys disperse, shouting, “Loco! Loco!” They leave Jesus, staring at the coin before his feet.

The old man comes shuffling round the corner. Jesus is petrified, rooted to the spot.

The old man is coming straight at him, his face a mixture of anger and despair.

There is the tin mug lying on the floor. Jesus snatches it up, drops the coin into it and runs up to the old man and holds it out to him.

There is a long moment while the old man stares first at Jesus and then at the mug. Jesus holds up the mug, clutching it with white knuckles until it is level with the old man’s face. With a snarl of confusion rather than anger, the old man snatches the mug. He takes out the coin, and throws it at Jesus, who turns and runs.

Jesus walks down Calle Generalissimo Franco, clutching the worthless coin, stomach empty as a fishing net. Some men stand on ladders, they are removing the street sign and replacing it with one that says: Calle San Francisco. Jesus stops to stare and scratch his head. He cannot even read, let alone appreciate the irony.

He walks up to a hamburger stand and offers the coin that the old man threw back in his face. The man at the hamburger stand scratches his head. “That is no good,” he says. “Euros only. Pesetas are no good anymore.” Jesus walks away, not understanding what has happened.

It is noon and the street is alive with tourists. Even their clothes laugh in daring colours that flash and chase Jesus like a firework display. Sunglasses sparkle and media players hum like bees. Jesus stares up at them, wanting to tell them that Andre is eating his ocean. But not knowing any words they would understand, he can only open and close his mouth — a beached turbot.

Sometimes there are the remains of hamburgers in the streets, but today some dogs got there first. Jesus sees some stragglers, ribs sticking out, on their way to rejoin their pack. He thinks immediately of his friends: Marcos; Juan; Pedro; Pablo; Tomas; Jose; Miguel; Anton; Gomez; Vincente; Carlos; and Francisco. They would be eating somewhere. Jesus does not know how much they have between them. He knows that they have five pesetas each. Five pesetas would not buy much, but multiplied by twelve, Jesus thinks, it would be at least a hundred pesetas — maybe even two hundred — a small fortune. Enough, maybe, to buy a big slice of pizza, or a chicken, or a hamburger and French-fries. They would not be hungry when they went to sleep under the bridge tonight.

Jesus looks about him, drinking in brown limbs and shining teeth. The Catalan woman’s teeth were black and brown, and her skin white and parchment dry though streaked with dirt. Her smile was not like these others either. When they smiled it was the pop of a wine cork that Jesus had heard so often passing by their cafe tables. The Catalan woman’s smile was a great wave surging up and breaking over jagged rocks in a frenzy of despair.

Today, Andre is eating the Pacific, moving northward up the Alaskan coast, devouring crabs with a sideways movement of his head between his grasping, pincer claws. He pauses, his antennae alert for danger. Someone is watching him. He looks up, his eyes focus and for the first time he sees Jesus.

Rain is streaking the window distorting a small boy’s face pressed against the glass, mouth opening and closing straining to eat food right off Andre’s plate.

Andre calls a waiter and points at the glass. “That one!”

Hands grasp Jesus’ wrists and draw him up, stretching him out, crucified.

Deep within him, something breaks and he goes limp. Sometimes, waiters smile kindly and give him scraps from the kitchen, but not this time. Andre is too important a customer.

So Jesus goes to sleep beneath his favourite bridge, hungry, beaten and alone.

Loneliness adds to Jesus’ hunger. Next day he tries to steal from cafe tables but is too slow and too weak with hunger and is driven away. Now there is little he can do but sleep and drink sea water. Even so, it takes him a full week to die.

Between the gulls and the crabs, there is nothing much of him left, and the tide takes that.

Andre leaves the coast. Ahead of him stretches sheep and cattle country. Flocks of whippoorwills erupt from sun scorched trees. Deer raise fear-filled eyes, seeing on the horizon an emerging blight. and a ravenous lion’s roar is edged with hunger and despair. Game too: duck; pheasant; grouse; even the humble chicken cannot escape him. Wide open spaces surrender and fall beneath his tearing, grasping claws and gluttonous maw.

The ocean finished, Andre begin to eat the land.

Copyright 2017: Zoë Nightingale; 2007 Zoë Elizabeth Butler


About Zoe Nightingale

I am a writer of short stories, novels, poetry and non fiction.
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