In a small town by the sea, there lived a woman named Ranunculus and her three children.
Ranunculus worked as a butcher, but she refused to sell veal because her son was a calf. The calf had a magical tongue that was coated in paint. With each stroke of the tongue, the colour of the paint would change, and since the calf loved to lick and suck, he left colourful marks on trees, buildings and giggling children. He never gave his mother any trouble, unlike his father, who’d left the family to live in a big city and paint with oils and a brush.
One of Ranunculus’s daughters, Marta, was slow to speak, and when she did, she stumbled over her words. Her mother’s impatience only worsened her condition.
While Marta’s blather gave Ranunculus a headache, her other daughter, a wolf, worried her more. Sometimes the wolf shed her human skin to run after a squirrel or rabbit, and Ranunculus worried that she would lose the skin or be shot and killed by fearful humans.
Indeed, Ranunculus had a lot to worry about. Business was not good; the town seemed to be emptying out at a relentless pace. Ranunculus felt more and more isolated. Several of the houses on their street were empty, and the single man with the greenish face who moved into the cottage next door was unfriendly.
The sour-faced man had moved to their town because he’d heard it had questionable tap water. He had embarked on a high-toxin diet so he could reach the next stage of human development before everyone else. His favourite foods included lead paint chips and the mercury-rich meat of bald eagles.
One night, this toxic man woke up hungry and, feeling revolted by the idea of consuming something wholesome, he lit upon an idea: he would make house soup. He planned to burn down a house, gather up pieces of burnt wood and other debris, and boil them in a cauldron along with any bones or charred meat that he found.
So, while Ranunculus and her family slept, the toxic man set her house on fire.
The two sisters escaped when the fire alarm woke them. In her haste, the wolf left her human skin behind. The calf was too afraid to run through the wall of smoke. Ranunculus tried to coax him out, but the smoke overcame both of them and they died.
The sisters waited for their mother and brother to come out of the house, but the voracious fire grew and loomed and drooled heat and light until the frightened children ran to the park and hid in a rhododendron bush for the rest of the night. Although it was summer, the night was cold, and they curled up together for warmth. When they returned in the morning, they found that their little house was now a smoking, blackened heap.
The toxic man was foraging in the ruins when they arrived, and the two girls saw him pick up a blackened rib bone and sniff it. The sight filled the wolf with rage. She fell upon the toxic man, tore open his belly and ate his bitter entrails.
Afterward, the sisters searched the remains of their house. They kept the rib bone, which had belonged to their mother, and they also found a handful of their brother’s teeth. In the yard, they found two jump ropes, which they kept.
They retreated to the rhododendron bush, where the wolf spent a day and a night licking their mother’s bone. Marta lay curled against her sister’s side, listening to the rhythmic lapping of the wolf’s tongue. After a while she put the calf’s teeth in her mouth and rolled them around.
She cried into the wolf’s fur, but the tears didn’t empty her out. Both girls felt heavy and plugged up.
In the morning, they walked to the beach. Swimming in the cold water always gave them a clean, empty feeling. Or maybe they could relieve their fullness by swallowing some seawater and vomiting.
The ocean was violent that day, and the sisters bound their bodies together with a jump rope to avoid being separated by the ravening waves. Marta tucked her mother’s rib bone in her pajama pants and lashed it to her stomach with the other jump rope. The wolf swallowed the calf’s teeth, and they climbed into the ocean together.
A wave slapped them down and the current sucked them out into the ocean where the water was so cold it felt hot like the inside of a stomach. I am sorry to say that they drowned.
The current carried their bodies to green, opaque waters, where they sank to the corpse-cluttered bottom. They lay under a vast slab of water so dense and dark it suffocated all living things. Nothing came to nibble on their flesh. As they swayed and bloated in the darkness, dead seaweed wrapped them up, knitting their bodies together.
The coat of seaweed tightened around them and the heavy, rocking corpse of the water compressed and kneaded their bodies until their bones and organs broke down and turned to clay.
But the story isn’t over yet! You see, in this part of the ocean, the water was only dead in the summertime. So when autumn came, a vivacious current washed over the clay, and the merry water revived not just Marta and the wolf, but the calf and Ranunculus, whose teeth and bone had been all bound up with their bodies. The family was now a clot of sensitive clay. They could no longer see or smell or taste, but they could hear the clicks and burbles and groans made by sea creatures, and they could sense the electric charge that living bodies emitted. This electroreception was like seeing bright, flat shapes moving behind closed eyelids.
They were full of love and tender fear, like a woman who’s just given birth. They were also marbled with hate, because the toxic man was part of them. After all, he’d been inside the wolf’s body when she died.
A few days after they were revived, twelve fat little merchildren swam over them, followed by a hulking merman. They called out to the merman for help.
The merman was curious. He could hear sounds coming out of the seaweed-wrapped log, and when he poked it, his finger made a depression. He pulled up one of the strands of seaweed and a cloud of clay lifted and dissolved into the water, so he tucked the leaf back in. He and his children swathed the thing in an old fishing net and dragged it to shore.
The merfolk were sleek and blubbery, with thick necks and short arms. On the beach, they undulated like seals and pulled themselves along with their arms. But their dark faces and hands looked human, and they had long, tangled hair. The merman had a long beard.
The clay mumbled at the merman, but he couldn’t understand what it was saying. He unwrapped the clay and dug a mouth in the spot where the sound was coming from. He sculpted a tongue from the leftover clay and planted it in the mouth.
The mouth and tongue moved as Marta’s voice said, “Thank you.”
There arose a sound like several people trying to talk with their mouths taped shut.
Marta said, “They want me to ask you to make mouths for them, too.”
One at a time, their voices moaned. The merman put his ear to the clay until he figured out where each voice was coming from, and there he sculpted a mouth. When it was the toxic man’s turn, Marta said, “Please don’t give him a mouth.” Since his voice was located right above Marta, the merman made him into a nose instead. The nose whined nonstop like an irritated insect, but they all learned to ignore the sound.
The merman and his children enjoyed playing with the clay, so they sculpted it into a slender humanoid body about one and a half times as tall as an average man. Marta’s mouth was in the face, where a human mouth would be, the wolf’s mouth was just above the crotch, Ranunculus’s mouth was in the belly, and the calf’s mouth was in the palm of the right hand. At their request, the merfolk made the calf’s tongue long and thick, so that it hung from the mouth at all times.
Once sculpted, most of the body parts worked the way they were supposed to—the torso rose up, the knees and elbows bent, and the legs held the weight of the body. The eyes could not see, so the merman sent some of his children to gather light-sensitive algae from tide pools. After one of the merchildren rubbed the algae into Marta Ranunculus Wolf Calf’s eyes, the world took on depth, shape, and some colour—mostly blue and grey and thin, runny yellow.
Inside the nose, the toxic man found that he could block the sense of smell from the rest of the body, and he did so out of spite. In consequence, he couldn’t see anything, nor could he participate in Marta Ranunculus Wolf Calf’s movements.
When the merfolk finished sculpting the figure, Marta Ranunculus Wolf Calf leaped up and stretched their spindly limbs. Their mouths laughed and mooed with delight at the vigour that sang through their body when the cold wind blared against them. They galloped up and down the beach with merchildren hanging from their arms and torso. The children shrieked with laughter, their tails furling and unfurling and slapping against the clay, until the mouth in the belly opened up and Ranunculus’s voice cried, “Stop! We’ll hurt ourselves!”
They stopped, and the children tumbled into the sand. But Marta Ranunculus Wolf Calf felt stronger than ever. They had no stomach to cramp with hunger, no lungs to burn for air, no bladder or uterus to ache and grow full. They held out their right hand to let the calf lick the children’s hands. Though it wasn’t coated with paint, the clay tongue was grainy with sand, and its rough texture pleased the children.
They spoke to each other sometimes while sitting still and straight in the dunes. “Do you love me?” Ranunculus asked her children.
“So much. To the moon and back,” said the pelvic mouth that belonged to the wolf.
“Yes! You are the salt in my clay,” said Marta. When she spoke, the mouth on the face moved but the eyes remained expressionless.
Ranunculus smiled from the belly. And then she remembered with regret that she had criticized Marta many times. Her remorse soured the sensitive clay, and they all felt it. The calf bawled in response to her misery. His voice rumbled through their arm.
“That feels good, the way it vibrates through our arm,” said the wolf, trying to distract them from their sorrow. “Do that again.” The calf lowed again for her.
The exasperated nose let out a two-toned honk. Marta, Ranunculus and the wolf laughed together because it reminded them of a train whistle, and the calf bellowed with joy.
The merfolk loved to eat spiders, especially the kind that get pregnant in autumn and make big webs that swell like sails in the wind. So Marta Ranunculus Wolf Calf spent the season roaming through people’s yards in the middle of the night, gathering spiders for the merfolk and occasionally scaring the wits out of insomniacs. The spiders were easy to find, since they liked to build their webs near porch lights and windows.
The wind was so chilly, and the town had become so vacant, that Marta Ranunculus Wolf Calf often had the beach to themselves both day and night. When they did see people, they hid themselves by lying down in the tall grasses that grew on the dunes. When the merfolk sensed a storm was coming, they buried Marta Ranunculus Wolf Calf deep in the sand, and later returned to dig them up.
Marta Ranunculus Wolf Calf stole a lighter from an unlocked car and built driftwood bonfires for the merfolk, who wrapped handfuls of spiders in seaweed and roasted them.
As for the toxic man, he couldn’t stand any of this behaviour. With the advent of winter, he broke off their face and rolled into the grass of the dune they perched on, never to be seen again.
The merman tried to mould a new nose for Marta Ranunculus Wolf Calf, but the clay had hardened too much. The calf’s tongue was too dry to lick anything anymore. When the children moistened it with seawater, it cracked, and part of it split off.
They spent rainy winter nights in a dark, quiet cave they’d found in the side of a cliff that rose up over the ocean. On dry nights, they sat by the bonfire with the merfolk and listened to their stories.
In the spring, Marta Ranunculus Wolf Calf slowed down a lot. Ranunculus fell silent and unresponsive to questions, and the others hardly ever sensed her emotions anymore. Their limbs were hardening, and they spent most of their time lying in the deep, sharp dune grass. They let the children decorate them with seagull feathers, pebbles, beer bottle tops, broken seashells, bird bones, dead beetles, and bits of coloured plastic.
Finally, the merfolk sprinkled Marta Ranunculus Wolf Calf with kisses and tears and told them that they had to leave. The water in that zone died every summer, and if they didn’t move on soon, they might be forced to swim through miles and miles of water with nothing alive in it for them to hunt and eat. “I understand,” said Marta. “Goodbye,” said the wolf. Even Ranunculus, distressed at the thought of hungry children, spoke up from the belly, saying, “Oh dear! Oh dear! Goodbye!”
The merfolk left, and Marta Ranunculus Wolf Calf lay staring up at the white sky. With a soft click, Ranunculus blinked out. They all felt her death. The sisters’ mouths contorted in agony and the calf’s cries grew louder and louder until Marta Wolf Calf cracked and split open. They lay in broken shards in the grass, humming with love for their mother even as they forgot who she was.
Sea birds gathered around and ate the sensitive clay. The clay held salt and other minerals that they craved. Most of the birds fell down dead, but a few of them lived to fly away with aching bellies.
The clay tingled in the blood of the living birds and festered in the bodies of the dead.
Story copyright © 2017 by Gillian Barlow Graham
Artwork copyright © 2017 by Edward Carey
Gillian Barlow Graham is an MFA candidate at the University of Texas New Writer’s Project in Austin. She is grateful for a Michener Center fellowship that is supporting her work this spring.
Edward Carey is a writer and illustrator who was born in North Walsham, Norfolk, England during an April snowstorm. He has lived in England, France, Romania, Lithuania, Germany, Ireland, Denmark, and the United States. He currently lives in Austin, Texas, which is not near the sea.