~1650 words, approx 11 min reading time
Content notes: gun violence, body horror
At first, Hannele’s shots were wild, erratic, like pebbles hopping along the surface of a puddle. They’d hit the deserters square in the stomach, with a puff of obliterated fabric–or else, shatter their spines and leave them bleeding for hours, immobile, sweating their lives out and staining the sphagnum moss yellow with bile and other unsavory secrets. And as they fell, the bog would burst into spore-clouds at these moments, stink the air with sulfur.
As time wore on, she sharpened her instincts, learned when to exhale and when to ball her fist. Her favorite spot was the neck, because when it went quick through the artery, the red would spray out like fireworks, paint the sky, the conifers. Her rifle was an M/28-30 fashioned out of Arctic birch, more rocket than anything else. And the deserters, they came almost daily, stragglers all, shambling across the fenland in their tattered, field-gray greatcoats, with a special kind of gleam in their eyes. Hunting for stray voles, half-eaten tin cans, for a roof over their heads. For an escape from their fates, from dogging guilt. She always saw them before they saw her, as she sat for all hours of the day on the little roof of her little shack, in the middle of that gray-green bog, camouflaged with overrun moss. Usually, they came alone. On hot, clear days when the air was free of gasses, they came in dangerous numbers.
The villagers at the edge of the bog had taken to calling it No Man’s Land lately, but there was no way of Hannele knowing that, isolated as she was. What she knew about the war could be summed up in the heavy explosions that occasionally ripped the night sky like an electric storm. Sometimes to the west, sometimes to the south. She knew the war was especially bad on those days when she’d lift her hand from the bolt on her rifle and it came away hot, each reload a decision, a split-second friction that left her palm burning and the morass in all kinds of messy colors.
She’d been there for months, years maybe, she’d forgotten how long. However long it was, it was enough to make her sinistral eye twitch from the many hours squinting through the telescopic sight, like a scientist through a microscope, at the deserters as they slunk their boots through the marsh-water nearly two hundred meters away. And when she let the bullet fly, she imagined each as a word–surreptitiously for example, or estuary, or hirsute, all weightless words–tearing through the air like a raptor in flight.
One day, through her looking-glass, she spotted the sea-hare.
It is not a sea-hare, she thought as she wiped her sweaty palms on her trousers and reassessed through the riflescope.
Not here, near three legions from the ocean. But the way the creature shifted in a continual motion, undulating this way and that with a strange luminescent shimmer in the noonday sun, was undeniable. It was a tiny thing, so small she wouldn’t have seen it had she not scanned the marshlands day in and day out. Pink, and vibrantly so, it slunk toward her shack with a gasping mouth.
It sidled over to her bog-girted hut, little by little, and it was nearly three days before it reached her doorstep. When she opened the tin door, the sea-hare’s ears bobbled as if in greeting, and in answer, she scooped it up in her palm, caressed it with one starved finger. It rippled soundlessly, much like a slug. She felt a gentle sucking, like a starfish when it sticks to your skin. When she pulled away, her index finger was marked with a red grid of nine tiny pricks, squares all, as if the sea-hare was trying to slurp up blood through her membranes.
Maybe I love it, she thought, without knowing quite what that meant. She just knew that the sea-hare smelled vaguely of gunpowder, and that on days when her rifle burst and the gunpowder smell hit her just right, the sun was always shining.
Hannele took the creature inside and set it on her bed. If coral was made out of gelatin, instead of ossified polyps, and shocked with neon light? That’s what this sea-hare looked like. And she could tell, from the way its ears pricked this way and that, that it was hungry.
She foraged for moss, for twigs, for sedges and cattails, but the sea-hare wasn’t interested. Probably, she deduced, it was missing salts, seawater rabbit that it was. So she hiked out farther and cut off scraps from the bodies of the deserters that still remained there, in parts: thigh-meat, and shin-meat, torso, globes of buttock, snippets of scapula.
The sea-hare lapped up everything greedily.
And every time it ate, something about the creature changed. It wobbled and molded its shape. When it ate a cheek, it turned blood-pink, and veiny; when it devoured a tendon, it lengthened, hardened. Each new piece seemed to give it a new identity. It grew in bursts, so before long it seemed the size of an infant, then a child, then a man. And the more it ate, the more it took on the likeness of a deserter. Or, rather, like a jigsaw of many deserters where each piece is from a different puzzle. At one point, it was caught halfway in between sea-hare and deserter, so that it struggled to keep shape, lengthening along its tibia, hardening the curves of its skull, while the rest of it bobbed up and down on her bed like a bowl of meat jelly.
Fingers, noses, and ears were harder to find, as they were delicacies among the foxes. She had to wait a week before she shot a man with the biggest ears she ever saw. He was missing a thumb, though, so it was another day before she found that last digit, too. The sea-hare-thing gobbled them all up.
Before too long, it was almost indistinguishable from a man, with arms, legs, chest–except its upper lip rippled whenever it got wet, and each time it stood up, it stood not arboreal like a man, but mucilaginous like a bowl of stiff custard, as if it were just waiting for permission to fall down.
And the sea-deserter-hare gaped open-mouthed at Hannele from her bed, hardly moving except for its wet, gelatinous eyes. Wheezes, half-damp and gasping, puttered out from its pores.
It needs a spark to talk, she thought. Remembering the stories about princesses and frogs she’d heard once, she kissed the creature, but the saliva that dribbled down her shirt was snow-white and she backed off, slathering the liquid away with the back of her hand.
But it worked. The sea-deserter-hare started speaking.
And how it spoke.
Disgust is the only truth.
She shivered, because in the depths of herself she had long thought the same thing, but never put it to words.
Disgust is the mirror on the wall, it said, and kept saying things like that.
Disgust is the bedfellow you wake up to each morning.
The only theorem that comforts in the hollowest of nights.
The only part of you that will never die.
Then it leaned forward and vomited sourmilk all over the tin cans of beans hidden beneath the bed, and Hannele spent the afternoon mopping it up with a shredded rag.
The sea-deserter-hare liked to watch her. It wove her a doll out of reeds. When she tied a dried salamander up with sawgrass and hung it from the ceiling, to stink out that wet matchbox smell in the shack, the sea-deserter-hare took it down and burnt it to cinders. The thing went out hunting and brought back minks and muskrats for them to eat. She cooked them a stew and while she did, it jeered at her from the bed and threatened to break her in half.
Sometimes, it spoke tenderly to her.
One day, as she was cleaning her rifle, the sea-deserter-hare caught her by the braid. It gnawed on the strands of hair, and its pink upper lip quivered, making her shudder.
It snatched the rifle from her hands, and with her hunting knife, carved initials on it. So, it had a name? It did not tell her what it was. The knife made small scratches on the rifle,back and forth, back and forth, like a raspy tongue, and all the while a sickening wheezing sound emanated from the sea-deserter-hare’s pores. Hannele did not like the way it was handling her rifle, but wasn’t sure if this wasn’t the way things should be, because what she felt was a lot like disgust.
The sea-deserter-hare smiled at her.
And fired with a crack, slicing the air with deserter blood two hundred meters away.
And when the bullets flew out this time, the words were gnathic, bilboes, furuncle, sticky words that clung to the air like cellophane.
The sea-deserter-hare embraced her with its two arm-like arms and warm gelatin excreted from its pores, flooding the sockets of her skin, then withdrew, leaving her trembling and bleeding in grids. Then it came again, poured into her and she felt warmth, and again, and again, regular like an inhale and an exhale, until it became less a learned act and more an instinct that dwelled in her body, nested there, had always been there, in the crevices she wasn’t sure were hers.
And the worst of it all, Hannele thought, was she didn’t know if it was right or wrong, if she was happy or sad, if it was good or bad, or good or bad, or good, or bad.
And Hannele, she started wheezing.
Wailana Kalama is a dark fiction writer from Hawaii, with credits in Weird Little World’s Mother: Tales of Love and Terror, Pseudopod, Dark Matter INK’s Monstrous Futures and Monster Lairs.