The Secret Life of Sea Monsters

By Dario Bijelac
By Dario Bijelac

They live in crowded old apartment buildings, leaning up against the walls at night to listen to the sounds the pipes make, the transit of air and water from here to there. Sometimes they will sing strange songs, harmonizing with the pipes and the sirens and the city sounds from beyond their apartment walls. They do not make excellent plumbers, but their drains are never clogged. Their neighbors have no complaints, though they often dream of shining eyes in the deep.

They also live in the suburbs. Sea monsters do not garden and their lawns are all weeds and wildflowers. If you look through that window, you will see one now. He stands at a sink and washes dishes. He makes waves in the soapy water by smiling at it; whirlpools form when he hums. His floors are always spotless, and his children eat a fortifying bowl of miso soup every day after school.

Every single one of them collects maps: street maps, old maps, maps of imaginary places. The walls of their bedrooms are lined with the things, and the word “key” has only one meaning for them. There is at least one sea monster in every internet map forum. Cartography is more than a calling for them – it is a mission from below.

Some of them work in advertising and marketing. The trends and fads of public whim are easy for sea monsters to follow, currents and tides that make sense. They smile wildly and widely when they land a deal; people try to ingratiate themselves with them, sensing danger in those toothy grins. Others are happier in the field of data analysis, and satisfy their predatory cravings outside the workplace. They prefer to commute by train, the gentle rocking motion assuaging land-sick stomachs.

They vacation in the desert, the exotic dry land stretching out in ways that feel adventurous and strange, heat shimmering in the air. This one has a calendar of desert mesas pinned to her cubicle wall and a cactus on her desk. A date on the calendar is circled in blue ink, neatly labeled “visit grandfather”. She pricks her finger on the plant sometimes, marveling at the way such sharp edges form in dry places. 

They love rainstorms – especially the ones with brilliant flashes of lightning and lots of growling thunder – and they never carry umbrellas. Sea monsters do not like snow; it makes them grumpy. In winter they wear thick-soled boots and dark coats and glare at the clouds. Spring is their favorite season. 

Their children do not learn the family secrets, and aren’t allowed to try out for the swim team, or go to pool parties. They complain bitterly to their friends about the unfairness of it all, about how their parents just don’t understand. They sing, sometimes, in their sleep. The songs are wordless and strange and makes waves, figuratively and literally. They doodle compass roses in notebook margins. Their grades are good, but sea monsters tend to be troublemakers in school.

They read mysteries and westerns and travelogues. Sea monsters are very good at figuring out whodunnit, but most human poetry confuses them. They look for themselves in stories, but seldom find anything familiar, despite having come in waves to the land again and again. They all think Melville was a hack. 

They move, once every twenty years or so, to hide the fact that they age differently than humans. The kids understand better now, have begun to hear the family stories. They know why they are here, have heard their grandfather’s deep sonorous song both waking and dreaming now. They retell the legends of their own origins, how mom and dad slipped over the side of the boat with the waves during a storm and made it to Ellis Island. Their stories are of fire and loss, laughter and love. The speak of all the places they’ve been, crisscrossing lines on a map slowly darkening the spaces between. They never live in the same place twice.

When they feel homesick, they go to the woods. The wind moving through the trees, the shifting patterns of light in the air, the life moving above and below and all around – these things make them feel better, feel safe. It’s comforting to know such places survive, despite humanity’s best efforts. Sea monsters love maple syrup and wooden wind chimes. 

They can smell and hear others of their kind and are always eager for their company, but they are not monogamous. They are explorers and prone to fall into bed with strangers, even with humans. You can tell a sea monster by the way they lick the salt sweat off the back of your neck, the sharp feel of teeth on your wrist, the sound of the sea in their voice when they call out your name. They hold you a little too tightly, and let go too soon. They are passionate and dangerous and will break your heart. Beware.

Soon, soon, they will rent a beach house on the coast for a long weekend. “A family reunion,” is what they will tell the realtor, and they will pay exorbitant prices for privacy and space and their own quiet stretch of sand. They will come together, new and old, half blood and full blood; all their blood sings for the sea. They will grill fish and eat marshmallows and chase seagulls. And then they will step, one by one, into the shallows and out of their skins. 

They will swim past dying coral reefs and under oil rigs, past cruise ships and transoceanic cables. They will return to Leviathan’s deep and in the bright glow of his eyes they will lay out their cartographic findings for all the other sea monsters to see, again. When they are done, the shifting land will no longer be an uncharted place. “It is still true that in these places, there are monsters,” they will say. “But there is also so much more.”