A weird tale that actually happened to me
This entire story is completely true. Every single thing in it actually happened.
It’s hard for me, sometimes, to believe that things like these can really exist on this planet. As I was writing about them, I felt as if I was writing fiction — something deliriously imaginative to shock and entertain my audience.
But no — it’s all true. Every word of it.
God help me, but it is.
When I’m finished, you may understand the strange fear I show when walking near aquariums now — and why you must, at all costs, avoid the Waterfront aquarium in Cape Town. The things I saw there are impossible forget — and the one thing, the final thing, of which I may not be able to write — it is best not to know at all.
Let me start at the beginning.
I always make a point of going to the aquarium in every city I visit, if they have one.
When I was a kid, my mom used to take me to the aquarium at our zoo every week, and I’d stare into the fishes’ eyes and try to understand what it was like to be them, looking out from inside that tank.
It was very important to me that I not imagine myself as the fish, but that I try to get a clear idea of what it felt like to be that fish, as that fish.
I’m not sure I ever got as close as I wanted to, but I loved the fish anyway — their eerie floating in the water; their eyes, so big and deep. I knew they must be pondering mysteries I couldn’t fathom.
There were certain tanks in the aquarium, though, that scared me. I’d always hide my eyes when we walked by them — I didn’t like the snapping turtles, or some of the more freakish-looking fish.
But eventually I got over my fears, and stood and looked at the snapping turtle and wondered at his wrinkled skin and beaklike mouth. I looked at the evilly grinning moray eel and the bioluminscent fish that flickered in the dark, and they became my friends.
I came to love just about every fish in the sea.
The invertebrates, though, were a different story.
When I was about nine, I saved my pennies and bought of those “Sea Monkey” kits. You know, you can hatch your own Sea Monkeys; watch them raise a little family. I looked at the imagery on the box — happy little merpeople playing and building underwater homes — and got myself all excited about my new pets.
I didn’t expect them to actually be merpeople, of course — I wasn’t that naive — but I thought they might look like crabs, maybe, or some kind of cute little swimming beetles.
Then the Sea Monkeys hatched. I looked through the magnifying glass into the aquarium, and they were alien shrimp-like creatures, with dozens of pulsating legs and translucent white carapaces and big pitch-black eyes set in nothing that looked remotely like a face.
I flipped through the accompanying booklet for some explanation of this — anything, any fact, to make these creatures less alien; to bring them into my world. My eyes landed on one line: “Sea Monkeys breathe through their feet!”
I screamed. I took the Sea Monkey aquarium and tore down the steps and out into the backyard and smashed it on the driveway, destroying them.
I had nightmares for weeks afterward. I was afraid to fall asleep — my dreams were filled with alien creatures covered in tiny twitching legs and writhing tendrils and enormous black pits for eyes, but no faces; only more wriggling mouthparts and probing antennae.
I started flinching away whenever insects flew nearby. One day in a toy store, I picked up a puppet caterpillar and its fabric feet touched my arm — I screamed and threw it away.
Whenever I heard monsters in the closet or under my bed, my policy was always to try to understand them, and make friends with them. Alone in my pitch-black bedroom in a house in the center of twenty miles of wind-dusted West Texas prairie, I spoke with whatever came to visit me — nightmares, spirits, sprites and daemons — and learned their names in their own languages.
This was what I tried to do with the invertebrates. But they have no names, because they have no language.
They don’t even have one brain, at all, the way we do — instead they have a series of sub-brains that each governs a different section of their bodies. I once listened to a science podcast where a group of researchers talked about their work on crickets. One of the scientists told the story that he accidentally pierced a cricket’s abdomen with a tool, and its translucent loops of guts started spilling out. This unleashed a tiny burst of smell down in insect-land, and the cricket’s mouthparts started twitching excitedly. It then bent down and, grabbing hold of the spilled-out ropes of its entrails, began to eat itself.
I bought pet shrimp and stared intently at their twitching mouthparts, trying to become an invertebrate; to understand how it felt to have five sub-brains in one’s body; to have a belly lined with beating legs; to filter the water for food and scrub it with a face packed tightly with pulsating mouthparts.
There’s no analogue of our experiences in things like this. Nothing to relate to. No senses or drives like ours — other, perhaps, than raw hunger. If these creatures have consciousness at all — and I guess they must — then it must take some form that’s almost unrecognizeable to us.
And yet, over many nights spent staring at the tank, the humming of these many-legged, many-brained creatures began to sing to me in unearhly keys, and my profound dread was transmuted into awe; into worship. I found the numinous in the horror-kingdom of the invertebrates.
One of those friends was a young woman I’d known for a long time. When I described the feeling of living in this multi-brained body, not as one mind but as many — legs that beat on their own; segments that twitched and turned of their own accord; all of us seeking, hunting, probing in the dark — she reminded me of the movie The Fly, and told me this had always been a fantasy of hers — to be loved by a giant insect.
Around the same time, I was dating a different young woman, who became intensely interested when I explained the great arousal — not sexual, but worshipful — I felt when I stared into the non-face of an invertebrate. She, too, told me this was a sexual fantasy of hers — and against my repeated protests — she insisted we roleplay it. To be loved by the faceless many-in-one was ecstasy for her, and — God help me! — I did what she asked.
Once I learned the wordless humming chants and the twitching prostrations, my fear of the invertebrates began to fade. I came to know them well — not as friends; no, never as anything like friends; but as alien gods.
Many years passed this way. But I felt the terror, for the first time since childhood, when I went to the Waterfront aquarium in Cape Town last week. It was there that I saw things I’d rather forget — and one, the final thing, that I will not put into words, even here.
The aquarium has some fish exhibits, but an inordinate amount of its space is devoted to invertebrates. More invertebrates than I’ve ever seen at any aquarium — and throughout my life, I’ve been to more aquariums than I can count.
In some of the tanks, elongated anemones stroked the water with fluorescent tendrils. In others, giant crabs the size of dogs snapped at the water with chitonous claws. Hordes of orange slugs congregated on the glass. Polypous sea-sponges huddled amidst shadowy rocks.
And then — in one tank, beneath blacklights, a group of hagfish crawled over a pile of bleached-white bones —
Hagfish are not fish. To call them fish only intensifies the dissonance — because they have no skeleton, no eyes, no true mouths to speak of. They are something older — something from before the first fish — and they live in the high-pressure dark of the deep sea, shredding the flesh from drowned corpses with their rasping mouthparts.
A whole troupe of those slimy creatures writhed atop the bones in the blacklit tank, undulating up into the water, mouthparts probing into the dark, blind and half-brainless, pale and without bones, always smelling, seeking, hunting for more flesh.
I turned and ran — and that was when I saw it: the final thing. The thing I cannot write about but I must — !
I ran straight into a towering tank filled with brine shrimp; the Sea Monkeys of my childhood. Behind a magnifying glass, they were freakishly gigantic, and they beat their multitudes of legs — all of them fanned at the tips with strange smelling organs — as they stared with their dead pitch-black eyes. Hordes of them — millions, teeming and twitching in the algae-green sludge.
I fled through the aquarium’s dark halls, up from the pits and out into daylight and onto the docks, to collapse on a nearby bench, sweating and gasping for breath. I watched the people passing by, happy in the afternoon sun, but all I could see were the things that had been dredged up from where they belonged, from the deep silent places of the earth, to sit here among mankind and watch us — waiting, smelling, whispering and buzzing in hunger.
Maybe we’re all just biological systems, like the scientists say. That’s nice enough when we’re among the fish, and we can look into their eyes and imagine how it feels to be them. Fish aren’t all that different from us, in the great scheme of things. They’re practically our cousins.
But some kinds of aquatic stimulation takes our minds beyond the places they’re meant to reach. How can you empathize with a thing that has no face? How can you imagine what it thinks, what it feels, as it probes silently in the pressured dark?
I smelled them, and tasted them. I touched them — God, I saw them! In my dreams, I still see them— and the only way to save one’s mind is to go back to childhood and transmute the crawling things into gods again — scream in panic until it turns to ecstacy —
Iä! The twitching things that have no face — !