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The Fisherman and the Beast from the Sea

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Will finds the creature washed up among the rocks, just as the tide is coming in.

It is still as he approaches, and at first Will suspects that it might already be dead, but he is still careful as he draws closer; he has no idea what the thing is, but danger is inscribed in every curve of the the creature’s long, lithe body.

The creature is big - Will thinks that it would be at least six and a half feet tall, if it stood up on its feet like a man. Its skin is gray, pale on the chest and belly, darker along its back and down its limbs, and the gangly, webbed hands and feet are the color of the ocean before a storm. There’s a delicacy to the transparent frilly membrane that lines its long tail.

A mess of netting is tangled around its body, trapping its limbs at odd, painful-looking angles, and Will feels a familiar stab of outrage. The stuff is ghost net - a long length of fishing net that has been discarded in the water by careless fishermen, but that continues to trap living things - and Will has often found dead or dying animals tangled up in it along his beach.

It’s an ugly waste of life even when the ghost net’s victims are only fish, but Will is by no means sure that the unmoving thing he looking down at now is an animal.

The net is wrapped strangling-tight around the creature’s neck. The fingers of one hand - and it is a hand, not anything so animalistic as a paw - are wedged between the rope and the skin of its throat, as though it had been trying to pry the net away to clear its airway.   

Drawing closer, Will’s boot knocks a small stone loose, and it clatters down the incline and lands in the sand beside the creature. Its head moves at the sound, ever so slightly, and its eyes fix on Will. They are jet black and full of an uncanny intelligence.

Those eyes scare Will more than anything else about the creature; they are so nearly human and yet utterly something Other, but they draw him in, too.

It doesn’t thrash against its binds or bite at the air as Will slowly inches closer, nor does it cower or try to shy away as he might expect a frightened animal to do.

But when he stops in front of it and takes out his knife the creature skins its lips back and snarls, just for an instant, and in that moment Will sees the rows of white triangular teeth. Shaken, he takes a step back, and believes that he sees a glimmer of satisfaction in those black eyes.

The look provokes the stubbornness in Will, and he returns to the creature and kneels next to it, leaning a hand on its shoulder as he begins carefully to saw at the rope that has nearly strangled it. Its skin is cool to the touch, and not quite as rough as he expected it to be.

He speaks to it in a soft, soothing voice, though more for the sake of calming himself than the beast - it seems calm enough already, all things considered.

Helpless though it is, strangling in the netting, it is not pathetic. There is a dignity to it - almost a sense of arrogance. It lays entirely still as Will works.  

Will frees it from the netting that was around its neck, and watches it draw in deep gulps of air, its chest rising and falling dramatically and its frilly gills rustling, and he senses that though it is breathing easier now it still is not getting enough of what it needs - that it must make it back in the water and quickly, or else it might yet die.

Working as fast as he can, Will cuts one of its arms free of the netting. It extends the limb, shaking it sharply as though to restore circulation, and then it holds its hand out to Will, palm up.  

The sense of unreality, which Will did not think could become more acute, grows again, but he places the knife in the creature’s hand.

“How did a big smart thing like you get into so much trouble with a dumb piece of net?” Will asks rhetorically, watching as it cuts itself free; that he has found such an alien creature on his beach is an astonishing shock, but he is not especially surprised that it might have run into trouble with ghost nets. They are nearly invisible in the gloom of the water, and once something is caught in them trying to get free is apt to only make the problem worse; in his tenure at the lighthouse, Will has found dead dolphins tangled in old nets twice, and before today he might have said that they were the smartest creatures in the ocean.  

It glances up at his voice, but only briefly, before going back to work.

When it has freed itself, the creature rises in a single powerful motion. The knife falls to the sand as it steps towards Will, looming over him.

Will squares up and holds his ground, the voice of instinct commanding him to under no circumstances turn his back on it - that if he flees now, or even lowers his gaze, the thing will perceive him as prey.

And, too, he has his own sense of pride.

There’s something about the way the creature holds himself that makes Will think that it desperately needs to return to the water - that it is verging on becoming a question of life or death - but it too refuses to break eye contact. Will cannot tell if it is violence or curiousity that he sees in the creature’s eyes now; he wonders if for it there is any distinction between the two.

When it still does not go, Will lifts his hand in the beginning of a shooing gesture.

The creature moves, fast as a blink, and its jaws close around Will’s forearm.

The pain is stunning, and Will grinds his teeth together to keep from crying out as his blood begins to drip down into the sand. The creature tilts its eyes up at him and Will thinks, It is going to wrench my arm right off, and I’ll bleed to death here on the beach, if it doesn’t decide to eat me alive first.

The thought should probably trouble him more than it does. But Will has, for some time now, felt that he has already lived longer than he ought to have.

So he waits. He does not look away from the creature.

There is almost a kind of uncertainty to it when it releases him. It tilts its head, watching him speculatively.

With grace that seems uncanny in such a large being, it kneels and picks up the knife from where it fell in the sand. It straightens and holds the knife out to Will, and heart hammering in his chest, Will steps forward and takes it.

The creature turns, and carrying itself on legs shaky with exhaustion, wades out into the water. It sinks below the waves, and an instant later in is gone from view.

Will stands on the beach, clutching his bleeding arm, and looks out across the water.