It was even larger than we realized, half-buried in the cove’s sandy beach. Scales the size of cars covered its sides; the smokestacks running from nose to dorsal fin towered above the seawall ringing the cove. Its cavernous mouth moaned as the sea breeze passed through. Rigging and fishing nets dangled from its teeth; shredded block and tackle dripped and shivered in the wind. The great megaphone, perched atop its nose like a human-sized conch shell, crackled, but was otherwise voiceless.
The whole town was present. Some stood ankle-deep in the sand; some peered from the seawall. The behemoth lay tilted on its side, the exposed hull covered with barnacles and seaweed.
Beside me, my neighbor Dan stepped forward and pressed his hand against it. “The wood’s soft,” he called back to us. “Rotted through.”
We clenched our fists.
When the behemoth first came, it spoke such comforting words. Our cove was already nearly barren of fish, our need for sustenance overwhelming the sea’s local resources.
“If I don’t help you, everyone will starve,” the beast said, its cheerful voice crackling through the megaphone. “In a year, there will be no fish left at all. For a small price, however, I will guard your cove and ensure that you have enough fish when you need them.”
We paid in oil: twenty barrels, which the beast sucked dry with a metal proboscis before sinking back beneath the waves and stationing itself at the center of the cove.
The wooden belly gave way beneath our axes and fish cleavers. The sodden, porous planks oozed water and slime, and shredded when we tore at them with our bare hands.
The great behemoth’s megaphone groaned and crackled. Its voice was weak and reedy. “Please,” the beast begged. “Please. I need help. Where is your gratitude? When you needed me, I helped you.”
It was my cousin Lenora’s ax that broke through the belly first. She gasped and scrambled back from the hole the instant the wood crumbled inward. Dan, myself, and several others moved in to continue what she started, but a wretched stench assailed us through the splintered gash. Pungent and warm, it was strong enough to make us gag and choke as we hacked and pried at the disintegrating wood.
Others rushed to join us, and together we opened a great, gaping hole in the behemoth’s belly. The megaphone crackled again, and the beast cried out as if in pain, “You only hurt yourselves! Who will help you now?”
The behemoth began by designating special fishing days. “On Tuesdays and Wednesdays, you will be allowed to fish,” it announced across the waves. “Fishing on any other days will be considered poaching, and will be dealt with accordingly.”
So we fished on those days, and those days alone, and if anyone went out to fish at any other time, the great behemoth attacked them, its jaws frothing the sea, its teeth shattering boat and bone. Whenever a neighbor’s body washed ashore, we buried it quietly in the churchyard, saddened but confident that the same would not happen to us. The behemoth was clear: Tuesdays and Wednesdays we could fish. All other fishing would be considered poaching.
With so few fish in our cove, we had to be careful.
With a final pull, the belly’s contents spilled forth, slopping across our shins and onto the sand in a great rush of liquefied, rotten fish meat. The stink made some dash up the beach and collapse, retching into the dry seaweed at the base of the seawall. The rest of us pressed our hands over our noses and mouths, eyes stinging and watering, our skin damp with the stench.
As meager light seeped into the cavernous belly, it revealed heaps of spoiled fish, enough to feed our town for months, maybe even years. The fisheyes stared up at us, mirroring our gaping glares.
“It would all have come back to you,” the behemoth moaned, its voice breaking over the megaphone. “You might have had it all.”
Beside me, Dan’s ax handle squeaked as he tightened his grip. The stench fueled something deep within us. When one of the scales creaked and lifted, we all looked up.
After another month, the behemoth required another payment of oil. The fish population had improved. When we hauled in our nets, more often than not they strained with our catch. Pleased, we paid thirty barrels of oil when the beast requested it.
“But now there must be limits,” the behemoth announced, its voice echoing against the seawall and the buildings facing the cove. “Although most only fish on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, some boats take too much. From now on, each boat may only take what it needs to feed the families of its crew and no more. Anyone who disregards this limit will be considered poaching, and will be dealt with accordingly.”
So we estimated our needs and pulled what we considered adequate to sustain us from the cove, but the behemoth found several boats still took too much. Its gnashing teeth missed no one it wanted to catch, and by the end of the second month, six more boats and their crews had been consumed.
Again, we buried those who washed ashore, and at night, listened to their starving families wail with grief. But still we obeyed, taking home only what the behemoth had instructed, confident that the same would not happen to us.
The fish grew plentiful.
The scale lifted on metal hinges, and from within, a face peered out at us. Someone pointed and shouted, “There’s someone inside!”
At the sound, the face disappeared, and the scale slapped shut.
The stench alone could not hold us at bay. Surging forward, we clambered up the pitted sides to the hinged scale. With crowbars and hammers, we pried it open. A cry rang out within, but Dan snagged the man before he could scramble away and dragged him from the porthole.
He was a small man, a bony man, with wide eyes and a gaunt face. He wailed as we pulled him down, hauled him through the rotten fish, and threw him to the sand. His feet were bare, wrinkled, and peeling, as if they’d soaked in salt water for weeks. His clothes clung to his wiry frame. He whimpered, clutching his hands to his face to block out the sun and the staring crowd.
I thought of my nephews huddling in my mother’s arms late at night, crying for my sister and brother-in-law, whose mangled bones lay buried with six others in a composite grave. How many of us had the behemoth devoured?
Beth hit him first, and when the little man squealed with pain, we realized he could be hurt, even killed, and we fell upon him like gulls, tearing him to pieces as he screamed and screamed.
When he was dead, we stood with bloodied hands, our rage inflamed. In the stillness following his final cry, two dozen other scales clattered shut. We looked up at the behemoth’s mighty side, crowbars in hand.
“Sixty barrels of oil,” the behemoth declared upon the next month. “Too many of you have been caught poaching, and it requires more work than I initially estimated to keep your cove full of fish.”
We did not have sixty barrels. The government’s oil moths came only once every three months to deliver our town’s seasonal allotment of fuel, laying ten-barrel drums like eggs along the outskirts of town while their wings stirred up towers of dust that blanketed everything in a film of grit. Sixty barrels was more than a third of our entire fuel allotment, and it would be weeks before the moths returned with more.
When we told the behemoth we could not pay the increased fee, the behemoth’s megaphone crackled and said, “Then I will have to limit you further. On Tuesdays, you may only fish an hour after dawn, and an hour before dusk. On Wednesday mornings, you may fish from seven to nine, and at no other times.”
Such constraints would have made it impossible to feed our families, but when we protested, the behemoth replied, “Any caught fishing beyond those times will be considered poaching, and will be dealt with accordingly.”
At first, some tried to circumvent the limits, but after three boats fell, crushed and chummed by the behemoth, we did not resist.
We pried up each scale and pulled out the frail people within, tossing them to our neighbors despite their pleas. They were weak, breakable: the behemoth’s blood and bones.
“Please!” one skeletal woman cried. “I have children to feed!”
“No, I beg you!” a withered young man wailed. “This was all I could do!”
“I don’t know anything else,” an elderly man said quietly before our neighbors killed him.
When every scale stood open and empty, we climbed inside the ruins of the beast. But the spaces beyond the scales were not what we imagined: narrow benches lined narrow, wet rooms filled with rows upon rows of metal pedals. The muggy air stank of sweat and piss, blood and spoiled fish. Our footsteps echoed in the behemoth’s shell.
From within, we heard its voice over the megaphone, “Fools! You don’t know what you’ve done. There are far, far worse things than me beneath the waves.”
We did not listen as we wandered through the beast’s bare innards, but although we searched and searched, we found no one else. Just a cramped and hopeless space.
When the behemoth requested sixty barrels of oil again the next month, we still could not pay. This time, over the megaphone, it declared, “Then I will limit you further. You may fish only at certain times on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, but I will change the times every week. It will be your responsibility to learn the new times and abide by them. Any caught fishing outside these limits will be considered poaching and will be dealt with accordingly.”
We tried, but the times shifted too sporadically. When week after week the behemoth ate more ships, scattering their shattered hulls and what remained of the crews across the beach, we all became poachers. Under the cover of night, we slipped out to net what we could, always with an eye toward the behemoth’s glowing smokestacks to warn us if it surged to life.
In the daylight hours, it was impossible. The instant a ship set out into the cove, confident in its timing, the behemoth would crash down upon it and devour it. Its teeth churned the cove into a bloody froth.
Some said we should fight it, but most were too afraid of the consequences if we failed. So, instead, we stood at the seawall and watched it tear our neighbors apart. In the end, some would swear they heard it laughing.
We stood beneath the behemoth’s ruins, staring at the cold smokestacks and silent megaphone. We could not meet each other’s eyes, or the eyes of the corpses at our feet. The cove’s waves hissed, cursing us, and someone was crying. Perhaps it was me. The sunset cast a hot orange glow across the beach and the backs of our necks. In that all-encompassing light, we saw the battered fins and the great gouges cut into its side by something bigger, something stronger, from the deep.
The incoming tide washed away the rotten fish and the dead, but the stink lingered long after the light faded and we shuffled back to our homes. It clung to our skin even after we washed and changed our clothes, as if we had absorbed it.
In the weeks that followed, we pretended that life had returned to normal, that we were not changed, not marked. We pretended that our night terrors of the behemoth’s gnashing teeth had not been replaced by the faces of our own neighbors, of our own hands rending flesh and bone. We pretended not to hear the megaphone’s crackle at the edges of our own voices.
Whenever we fished thereafter, although we watched for a breeching fin or a smokestack plowing through the waves, what we feared most was meeting that look. The behemoth’s bones sank into the sand, lodged so deep it would never wash away in the tides of time, a reminder to us that it would never leave us. Perhaps that was its intention. Perhaps its display of weakness was only a ruse to draw us in, to trick us into taking its cruelty into ourselves. Perhaps there were no other monsters in the seas, only us, waiting with blood-ready hands on the shore.