IN SEARCH OF THE ODDBY
It was in late spring of the year 1875 that Dexter Boyd made his way to the old seaport of Narragansett, Rhode Island. He had been traveling the countryside for weeks, climbing in and out of dusty horse-drawn carriages and shabby hotels. The venture had become a tedious bore for him. He was never graced with the simple comfort of building an acquaintance during the length of his travels, for the souls he encountered on the winding, wheel-grooved roadways were always repulsed by his eccentricity.
He was indeed eccentric, but not in a manner that would spark curiosity or sympathy among his fellow men. He had a vile, abstract queerness that gave one the urge to wash after shaking his hand. Bubbling gooseflesh was not an uncommon response as well. He had a contemptuous nature to any that engaged him, and rarely did he speak. When he did, it was usually when he pained himself to admit that he was in need of something. The physicality was in equity to the persona. He was a short, frail little man with strange features that were bland and toad-like. His skin was smeared with a clammy, greenish hue that remained pale regardless of sunlight, and his eyes were compared to the round, shiny button pupils of a china doll. They never appeared to modulate from emotion.
Dexter was more than aware of his unpopularity, but it did not bother him in the slightest degree. Since the earliest years of his childhood, he had been partial to the pursuit of anything odd or unusual. It was the one thing that drove his fancy, the one thing that was an alleviation to all the shortcomings of his woeful existence. It called to him like an exotic woman, enticing him with such pleasure that all other proclivities were not worth the effort of comparison.
He hadn't the perception to determine where the impulse originated. His earliest memory was of his great grand uncle Georgie, whose left hand, which was perfectly normal in other respects, sported a sixth finger. Young Dexter would wait with growing anticipation for the rare occurrences when Georgie was in his family's company, and he would do little else but gawk at the mutation until his parents sent him away to sulk in his room.
When he reached his teens, he became obsessed over the two-headed calf that was born on a dairy farm near the edge of town. He would come to visit it each day after school, and when it did not survive to see its second year, Dexter insisted that it be stuffed and made a permanent fixture in the Boyd residence. His mother and father were appalled at the idea.
As a young man, his strange urge alienated him completely from his family, and his schooling came to an abrupt end. In desperation, his parents arranged for Dexter to woo a young, budding seamstress, but he quickly lost interest. Instead, he squandered the majority of his inheritance on a variety of trips across the country to indulge his appetite for the bizarre. Gigantism, dwarfism, unexplained growths, rare diseases, anything out of the ordinary was worth the expenditure of his time and money. He even traveled to New Guinea to inquire about the mysterious practice of head shrinking, and almost lost his life at the hands of the aboriginals.
Nothing impressed him more however, than the famous traveling sideshow of a man named Barnum who had established it as the most shocking form of disfigurement and sub-humanism on the planet. He was a clever old chap that scoured the globe searching for possible candidates to join his entourage, and Dexter could not have been happier with the assortment he had collected: The Conjoined Twins, The Mule-Faced Woman, The Armless Fiddler, General Tom Thumb (a man who measured only twenty five inches and weighed fifteen pounds), The Pinhead Man, The Human Caterpillar (with no limbs at all), and so on…
Dexter followed the circus from coast to coast, ignoring the other entertainment and paying his dime again and again to pass through the dark folds of the sideshow tent. He became so persistent that Barnum had him banned from the show entirely.
Dexter had witnessed every bizarre mishap of nature known to the civilized world, but there was one oddity that had yet to fall on his prying eyes. He was not even sure it existed. It was a myth really, a strange tale he overheard in saloons and boarding houses during his summer excursions. From what he knew it most likely could not exist, but his curiosity and determination drove him to find out once and for all if the rumors had any grain of truth.
There was talk of a strange sea creature that had been captured in the distant reaches of the Atlantic, and brought to the port of Narragansett, Rhode Island, a popular shipping and receiving station for several countries that bartered with America. The creature was supposed to be a hideous, aquatic mutation of some kind. Some people said it was like a horned porpoise, others that it resembled a manta covered in poisonous spores. Each time he heard the tale the description was different, but the location of Narragansett was always the same.
At long last, the port city was in view from the small, square-shaped window of Dexter's carriage. He demanded that his driver stop and let him walk the rest of the way. He was not sure why he did this, and his driver looked startled at the order, but was secretly relieved to be rid of the peculiar man. He helped Dexter with his travel bag, and rubbed his fingers to signal further compensation. Dexter ignored him, and soon the horses bolted forward in a burst of dust, and he was left alone on the beaten road.
He walked slowly to the entrance of the old city. He wanted to savor every moment, and sip it as smoothly as a good wine. The sun was setting quickly, and though the seaport was bustling with life, he sensed a worn apathy from its occupants. It was as if the long weeks away at sea made the sailors ache for the security of land, but when their feet finally touched the moist, green earth, it no longer felt like home.
Dexter found a room in a dingy hotel that offered a reasonable rate, and after relieving himself of his travel bag he returned to the crowded street without the benefit of a much-needed rest. The thick smell of fish and saltwater was pervasive, and it afflicted him with a slight nausea. Despite this, his step remained stable and he walked on:
Past the lean, stubbly-faced seamen who roped the boat rails with potent stenches of rum. Past the sore-muscled dock men who wearily unloaded their splintered cargo, piling box upon box in the dusky haze of cigar smoke. Past the packs of wild dogs that ran crazily in the causeways that harbored beggars and desperate harlots. Past the stick-legged shadows that streamed to the lonely spires, pointed high in the scrambled, dark squalor that was called Narragansett.
Dexter begrudgingly approached several of the inhabitants, and inquired repeatedly of the strange rumor. His efforts proved fruitless. He was met with cold eyes, and denial of any such entity in the confines of the city. He walked on bitterly in the salty breeze, realizing more and more with each passing moment what a hindrance his personality had become. He continued until deep in the night, when the streets became filled with shadowy figures and burdensome silence. He was about to abandon hope, when an old man overheard him speaking and offered him the desired information if he crossed his palm with silver. This he did, and he was directed to an old pub called The Little Horn.
Dexter rushed away with renewed enthusiasm, and soon came to a pier-like structure that was supported over the water by a framework of large wooden posts. Something gave him a feeling of dread upon seeing it. It was a simple place, but isolated in a foreign way from the surrounding nightlife. He could only explain it by assuming it was the presence of the entity that bestowed such an aura. Fear would not deter him however, and he walked briskly across the wobbly rope bridge that led to the front door.
Inside was a dark, smoke-filled room with the stench of rotting fish and unwashed skin. There were several shapes of weary sailors sipping rum in the shadows, and the banter immediately halted when Dexter was visible in the doorway. He stood as if he were naked, as if he were trespassing onto a private resort without the credentials to justify his intrusion. A cold minute passed until a short, and stocky man with a half-grown beard approached him from the shadows.
Briefly relieved, Dexter drew the courage to speak. "Would this be The Little Horn?" His voice came out in a garbled snort, but the man did not seem to take offense by it. "Aye, lad," he replied. "I'm looking for the owner of the establishment," Dexter pressed, failing miserably to sound courteous. "You're lookin at the owner, lad." The seaman's voice was smooth, but Dexter sensed hostility in his words. "Well…I came here because I was told that…this is where it is…" The pub owner's eyes flashed like blue marbles in the sunlight, and the tint of hostility began to grow. "Where what is?" he growled. "You know…the thing…the sea monster, I'd like to take a look at it." The man gazed at him up and down, as if he were eyeing a piece of warped hickory. "Are you alone?" he asked. "Yes," Dexter replied reluctantly. For the first time in his life, he wished that he was not. "Three dollars." Dexter's eyes beamed. "Three dollars! That's robbery!" The seaman leaped forward and threw a crooked finger in his face. "This is no circus freak show, lad!" he blurted. "It's three dollars, or you can drag your land-lubbering tail back to where ye came." Dexter cringed, but pulled three silver coins from his pocket and slapped them in the man's hand. The seaman cracked a toothless smile, and pointed to the far side of the room. "Follow me."
Dexter was led into a dark hallway while two other sailors followed quickly behind him. He did not understand why they decided to join them, and he feared the whole ordeal was a ruse, and he was about to be beaten and stripped of all his possessions. Still, his obsession brought him to an empty room, with a staircase on the far wall that led straight down into the dark, salty water of the bay. Dexter froze and waited for the men to make their next move.
"Relax, lad," the man said, "Over here." He walked to the center of the room, and lifted an iron ring to a heavy trap door. "Keep your eyes down there." Dexter peered into the hole but saw nothing but blackness. One of the sailors produced a torch, and descended a few of the steps with the stick ablaze in his left hand. The under cavity of the pub became illuminated by the bright fire, and there, floating several feet below on the Atlantic water, was the abomination he had so relentlessly sought after.
It had the slight resemblance of a sea lion, but was proportionately much larger. Dexter estimated it to be at least fifteen feet in length. Its body was fat and bloated in a segmented, insect-like apportion. On its sides were a pair of large, membranous flippers, and its head was a bony, bulky sphere with protruding, egg-shaped eyes. A set of gills lined each side of its jaws, and two walrus-looking tusks stuck outward obscenely in a severe underbite that measured to its temples.
Dexter was rendered speechless. He began to doubt the accuracy of his own senses, and wondered if the creature was even alive. More closer observation revealed its sides to be moving in and out in a slow, methodic rhythm. It appeared to be sleeping, while it sustained itself quite comfortably on the water's surface.
"What…what is it?" Dexter asked warily. "It has no name," the seaman replied. Dexter's eyes were glued to the sea beast with incredible fascination. It was unlike anything he had ever seen, and though it frightened him, he wanted to be nearer to it. "It's unbelievable…" he whispered. "Aye, lad," the seaman croaked. Dexter was about to inquire if he was able to get a closer look, when a swift kick from a boot sole gave him a much closer view than he anticipated.
Dexter flew through the square-shaped opening and fell onto the creature's lower torso. Its skin was like thick rubber, and he bounced off and sank deeply into the shore current. He reached the floor of the bay and struck a great pile of objects that he immediately recognized as bones. Ribcages, femurs, skulls, and metatarsals met with his fingertips. His body popped back to the surface like a cork, and the laughter from the three men was echoing off the water and framework above him. "I forgot to tell ya it was feedin time!" the seaman shouted, and the laughter roared louder.
The unnamed thing was coming awake. Its eyelids flitted open, and its membranous flippers slapped violently at the surface of the water. Dexter swam away in panic, and crawlstroked as fast as his scrawny frame could carry him. From behind came a great roar, a hideous, gelatinous bawling that jumbled Dexter's maneuverability, and he collided into one of the old wooden posts that was covered in slime and algae. He had just enough time to turn and see the great jaws of the monster pry open to devour him.
Strangely, it remained separated a good foot from his position. He squinted curiously, and noticed the creature had an exceptionally long, scaly tail, about twenty feet in length, that was chained and padlocked to another post that was opposite him. Hanging a foot above the chained coils on a rusty nail, was a silver key. The chain crisscrossed around the other surrounding posts, preventing it from traveling any large distance.
"Good show, lad!" the pub owner cried. "You are the first to get away. Swim over to the staircase, we'll let you go, I give you my word."
Dexter ignored the sailor. His attention was captured by the aquatic eyes that stared with hatred upon him. It was a lustful, frenzied hatred, an expression that reflected the depths of an ancient, merciless ocean, yet was strangely familiar. His blood began to drop slowly to an icy chill. There was something in those eyes, something which, with all its hellish brutality and barbarity, was distinctly…human.
He felt his mind slipping away, spiraling far from the salty port of Narragansett, and bringing him back to a warm August night several years before, as he waited impatiently outside the circus tent.
The dime was pressed tightly in his sweaty palm, and the mosquitoes danced on the back of his neck as the line grew longer to see the Lion Boy, a young man afflicted with hypertrichosia: a rare disease that grows four inches of hair all over the facial area.
He was kept in an iron cage like an animal, and a sign was posted nearby explaining how he was captured and dragged from a cave in the jungles of Africa. Later it was learned he was actually a scholarly gentleman who spoke five languages.
Dexter had barged inside with the eager crowd, who surrounded the cage in droves to gawk at the spectacle. The children cried in horror as the mob pushed against the steel bars, fighting and shoving each other aside for a fleeting glimpse. The Lion Boy would crawl on all fours and pretend to be a ferocious beast, while they poked sticks into the cage and offered him rotting scraps of food.
He was an oddity: a misconceived, ousted freak for the public that the bastard Barnum had made so readily available. Dexter had joined them that night with their pointing, their taunting, their pitiless stares, and their laughter. Always their laughter. He never heard it more distinctly than he did now.
Dexter swam slowly away in a wide arc, and moved toward the chained post that held the silver key. "What are you doing, lad…" Dexter reached the wooden pillar, with the creature following him just a few feet shy from the lock that was held between the chain's thick coils. "Stay away from that key!" the seaman shouted. "Have you gone crazy, lad? It'll kill ya! It'll kill us all!!!" Dexter reached out and snatched the key off the rusty nail, and placed it carefully into the keyhole of the heavy padlock. It opened easily, and he watched as the coils of the thick chain pulled apart, and slid silently down into the dark water. He closed his eyes, braced his body solidly against the wooden post, and waited for the beast to do him in.
There arose a horrendous crash in the bay, and a deafening roar that shook the current ripples that broke over his soaked skin. He closed his eyes ever tighter, and prepared with the deepest humility, to meet the great monstrosity.
The monstrosity, who sent countless victims to the crowded boneyard of The Little Horn. The monstrosity, of tales spun in twilight to frighten children and sober the sailors who were deep in their cups. The monstrosity, who devoured the curious and danced with death within its merciless jaws. The monstrosity, the horrid, unspeakable monstrosity, that left him quite alone.
When Dexter opened his eyes, the heaving mass of its body was well past him, and it was rushing back to the open ocean. Within seconds, it had traveled such a distance that it began to blur from his view. The sun had just seeped to the horizon, and a golden ring shot over the waves and gleamed from the flippers that cut majestically through the morning tide.
When it was barely visible, the water, in a rush, broke suddenly; the waves parted to the shiny whip of its green tail, and the old creature returned to the sea.
|Copyright 2007 Jason Epple, All Rights Reserved.