The beach sand was hot; it felt good on the bottom of my feet. Felt like it was scouring off layers of thick, dead heel flesh; the heat in it permeated my skin and warmed and released the striated muscles and tendons. Phalanges, metatarsals, cuneiforms and cuboid, calcaneus et al., all in perfect alignment, ready to walk the world.
It became suddenly too hot, as if the skin the sand had scoured away had been a shield, protecting the tender, younger epidermal layer from harm while it cured. As if the true motive of the beach, if beaches had motives, were to lure you to it with promises of relaxing, romantic walks, only to be consumed by the heat of it. Millions of tiny shards of volcanic glass and mountains worn down by the sea, absorbing heat and pretending to be just an innocent stretch of shingle.
The ocean there was cool, but not cold – salve for weathered soles. Oddly, I wasn’t going to swim or bathe; I just wanted to wade, to soothe my accidentally enthusiastic pedicure. The brine became a complement to beach burnishment, bubbling up around toes, around ankles, around calves. I was convinced I’d have the feet of a newborn child, the sorts of paws one could display, to photograph, to become the Platonic ideal of feet; that which all want but none may have.
As I left the water I felt something odd. A kind of tugging, a pulling, an irresponsible and unfamiliar flapping about. There on my foot, something flashed in the sun. Something nearly transparent, glittering as it…flopped and flexed? More than just one. Dozens. Little fish, no bigger than my thumb, attached everywhere that had been in the water. I tried to brush them off, but their jaws were clamped in. I tried to pull them free, but doing so was painful; I’d have had to have pulled out clumps of my own flesh.
The doctor in the nearby village told me they were witzerfan fish, and once they clamp on, your best bet was to wait until they die, then pinch their jaws to release them. She said you want to release them soon, because after the witzerfan fish dies, its jaws continue to burrow in to the flesh. In deeper water, these fish consume necrotic tissue; the whales and sharks and seals and halpless surf enthusiasts who fall to the bottom of the sea once their spark has winked out – these are the usual prey of the witzerfan. In mating season, the witzerfan clamps on to flesh in this manner, the doctor said, and waits for a mate to fertilise the eggs that fill its belly. Whether or not the eggs become fertilised, once attached to a host, the witzerfan begins the process of dying. As it dies, it burrows, creating a sort of nest for the incubating eggs.
What a ride, I said, glancing at the fish bodies still flapping around all over my feet. It seemed like I could feel them gnawing their way through my flesh. I asked how one goes about removing them.
Oh, the doctor said, we freeze the bodies with nitrogen to make sure they’re good and dead, and then you have to squeeze the jaws together and pull them straight out. If you don’t get the jaws all the way out, there’s little danger because we’ve frozen the bodies and removed them, leaving no chance any tissue remains.
So I won’t be a spawning ground for tiny horrors?
No, she said. We treat the area with betadine and topical antibiotics and the worst that will happen is some localised irritation. Itching. That sort of thing.
Then she came at me with a canister that sported a lever and a long spout.
Now hold still, the doctor said, we don’t want to freeze off what’s left of your skin! She thought that was funny. I held still.
As the fish froze, their bodies fell away from my feet, dropping to the floor like little crystal tree ornaments, cracking and smashing into hundreds of tiny frozen fish-flakes. It made a sound like the breaking of crackly ice in the spring, or like a tiny crystal glass bursting into a million pieces with the slightest tap. When she was finished, she demonstrated how to pinch and pull, pinch and pull, always straight out.
It was an odd afternoon, sat on the corner of a chair on the sunny balcony of our room, pinching the jaws of tiny fish heads and yanking them out of my feet.
Later, much later, but also earlier by decades, I was packing up my instruments following a wind ensemble workshop, and this fellow walked in the room. He was older than I, his face acne-scarred and leathered. His eyes were piercing blue, his hair either straw coloured or grey. He stood beside the table where I was packing up and attempted to make small talk.
Unsure whether his awkwardness at doing so were due to language challenges, as he spoke with a thick European accent of some derivation, or whether he was just naturally an unsettling sort of fellow, I told him we were busy and I was leaving soon.
He said he was the security.
I said I didn’t need it.
The smile he attempted did not reach his eyes; it was stuck somewhere between a leer and a grimace. He bowed slightly and backed up two paces before pivoting on his heel and marching from the room. I felt a shiver run up my spine as I finished putting instruments and music in bags and loading up for the long walk through the University halls to the bus stop.
The halls were filled with the sounds of music students warming up, noodling through scales and arpeggios, tooting and hooting and squawking and squeaking. I glanced in to one performance hall to see a gaggle of primary students sat on colourful plastic chairs, each with a wind instrument at the ready. I was expecting an off-key, slow and dragging rendition of “Three Blind Mice”, but they embarked on some Bach chorales and had clearly been paying attention in their lessons because it was lovely.
I turned around and headed back up the hall toward the main double doors when I saw the guy. He was marching toward me with a strange, strained look on his face. He took me by the arm and in a conspiratorial whisper said the police were looking for me; something about traffic tickets. He marched me right past a couple of bike cops at the door to the band room and into a warm-up green room just past.
He seemed very pleased with himself. I, on the other hand, knew I had no tickets and no police were looking for me. I told him to let me go, and that all interactions between us were officially complete. No need to approach me further.
I watched myself leave through eyes that weren’t my own. I looked in the mirror and saw the man’s face there. A brief flash of panic washed over me before what had been the me I’d been became him. His thoughts were labyrinthine; devious. He liked watching. He had **plans**. His mind was like a kinetic sculpture in constant motion, made entirely of bear traps and sharpened blades. Everyone who wasn’t a target was a threat.
A whirlwind of confusing montages cascaded through the scene then; a simultaneous broadcast of the man’s entire life, and every decision he could’ve made, expanding outward into infinite possibilities, then collapsing back to himself, sitting in the snow outside an alpine ski lodge. There was a sculpture planted in the snow about 20 yards in front of me/him of an angel with the tail of a fish and the wings of an eagle, mounted on a spike that had been thrust through its chest. Its face bore an expression of serenity, except for the eyes, which had been crafted from porcelain. The eyes told a very different tale, one of torture, of exquisite suffering.
In an area around the sculpture were bird tracks in the powdery snow; every two feet or so a number of bird tracks made the same pattern – two ovals at approximately 45º angles to each other, with trailing paths at the top of each oval. Like a human heart. At the tips of the delicate footprints were tiny trails of blood, as if the bird who’d made them had gouged out a perch on something skinless. Between the bird-track hearts I had left trails of my own urine, forming an uneven border.
I, the man, wore nothing but a short kilt of tanned leather. My torso was a pattern of scars layered one on top of the next. I sat in a pit hollowed out of the snow, up to my waist, watching the sculpture, waiting. Someone would approach, speak to me. I would draw from beside me a harpoon gun, shoot them through the chest, and drag their corpse to a growing pile beside me.
“This is how it is done,” I said, my voice like wet pebbles dropping against one another in a bubbling stream.