Originally published in Synaesthesia Magazine, December 2014. Read the rest of the issue HERE.
The light is weirding, the wind is up and Zoe is ready to throw her younger siblings into the sea. Then they find the jellyfish. It doesn’t look like a fish – it looks like spilled party food. There’s rings of colour in it, like purple slices of orange.
“It’s a fish,” says Hanna, and stamps near it so that its clear flesh jiggles. “Those rings are poison,” she says. “If you get it on your skin you’ll die.” She prods it with her toe and it jiggles again, sadly. It doesn’t look dangerous, but Hanna’s from round here and they aren’t. Even Zoe, older than all of them, listens to her.
They walk on along the grey shoreline, resolved as a group to reach where the rock sticking out into the water looks a bit like a poodle. Then they will turn and go back to the house. It will be late enough and they’ll tumble in to a warm room and eat food that isn’t gritty and sandy, and in return they’ll offer up stories of their day at the beach to their parents. Every day the same. Some holiday.
Further down the beach there’s another jellyfish, larger this time. Squinting ahead they can see more of them, scattered down the beach like sad, semi-liquid Frisbees.
“Seals’ve been by,” says Hanna. She prods this jellyfish, too. “Seals eat jellyfish.”
“It doesn’t look very eaten,” says Zoe. “Quite a lot of it left.”
“They only eat the tentacles,” says Hanna. “Jellyfish that size would have tentacles six feet long, easy.”
The others draw back, as though the beached jellyfish will any minute grow its tentacles back and lash at them. Zoe stands firm, looks out to sea. “Do you think they’re still out there?”
Hanna gazes out too. “No,” she says. “Long gone – there’s rain coming in, look.”
The others look, but they can’t read that sprawling mess of grey-blue like Hanna can. It’s just a swirling stew of bad weather, like it’s been all week, since they got here. First day, their parents pulled out board games, second day they pulled out wellies and macs, but weren’t much taken with the foggy sand. By the third day, wanting a holiday of their own, they resorted to packing sandwiches and waterproofs and sending the children out by themselves. You keep an eye on the little ones, Zoe had been told. It’s a private beach, all yours, have fun. As the door closed, she heard Uncle Mac say, “Be good not to have them under foot.”
Zoe stamps, hard, next to the jellyfish and it shivers and keeps shivering. She stamps again, deliberately clumsy, and the flesh of it squelches under her boot and bursts out around the edges of her sole. Angie shrieks and Ben’s eyes grow large. Hanna looks at her, impassive.
“It got under foot,” says Zoe. Hanna shrugs. As if he’s been let off his lead, Ben woops off down the beach and jumps from jellyfish to jellyfish, stamping, double-footed, green wellies growing slimy. Then he chases Angie with his slimy boots. She screams again, an assault on Zoe’s ears, and runs out into the shallows. She stands in the boggy low-tide sand with the salt water swirling around her feet so he can’t get to her without washing the jelly off his boots.
“I’ll throw them at you,” says Ben.
“Keep them on,” says Zoe, absently, still stood by the big jellyfish. She’s back to looking at the sky, straining to see what Hanna sees. She tries gazing unfocused, like a magic eye picture, but that doesn’t work. Finally she turns to Hanna.
“How do you know about the rain?”
Hanna points. “You can see it coming. Where that big wave’s come up under that buoy.” There’s a tiny orange dot. “Now look at the water – not what it’s doing. Look at the colour.”
And then Zoe sees it, a thick line across the water, a deep black-green and everything beyond it shadowy. The line is creeping closer.
“Going to be a doozy when that hits,” says Hanna.
“How long do you think we’ve got?”
Hanna chews the skin around her thumb. “Maybe 10 minutes,” she says, “but you’ll have the usual warning before then. I’d get them kids home.”
“Yeah,” says Zoe. “Or leave them here.” She half-smiles at Hanna, who doesn’t smile back.
The usual warning strikes soon and sudden, out by the horizon, sheeting down. It sears and crackles and Zoe counts her own heartbeat 1, 2, 3, before she sees the burnt yellow of the thunder roll out towards them. The air shakes so that she can’t catch her breath. Angie shrieks, water spilling into her wellies. “I’m stuck! My feet are stuck!”
“You want to get her out of there,” says Hanna, loud enough for Angie to hear. “Get herself burnt to a crisp if the water catches light.”
Angie starts crying and Zoe turns, angry. “That’s rubbish,” she spits. “That’s rubbish, you’re just trying to scare us.”
“Believe or not,” says Hanna. “Here it comes.”
And there’s the sheet of light and the rolling orange heat of noise and, abruptly, that dark line, a million slaps echoing, almost on them. There’s Angie, wailing mute, caught in the mouth of the monster with the water rising round her boots as if the rain could add to the sea level and the ghosts of jellyfish drifting around her. Ben teeters at the edge of the dry, panicked.
Zoe reaches her just as the rain does. Grabs her and pulls her up and out of her wellies as the sea floods in. Arms full of Angie clinging, she struggles to turn back to the shore, slipping on the unsettled sand, shouting to Ben, to anyone. The next sheet of lightning chars her sight clear, but through the bright water in her eyes she thinks she sees, up the beach, a silhouette. Help on the way – or else Hanna, leaving.
by Francoise Harvey