Part 1 of 2
Anna ambles along the edge of the Salton Sea, counting the dead fish. One, two, one dozen, two dozen. The salty ground sparkles in the pale sunlight. Her boots crackle through the white crust, each step sinking a half-inch into the stinking, spongy mud.
At the first set of coordinates marked by her GPS she pulls out four short metal poles threaded together with red twine and stakes out a 10-foot-by-10-foot square. Every dead thing inside the square gets counted: one, two, one dozen, two dozen. Most of the fish along the western shore of the sea are old news, brittle white bones left over from last summer’s die-off. Anna counts eighty-seven fish and two haphazard heaps of gull feathers, records the numbers, and moves another hundred yards down the beach.
At the next site one of the dead fish catches her eye. It’s a new one, shrunken and sunbaked but still largely intact. The fish is pale, almost as white as the skeletons. Anna squats down, prods it with her pencil. It’s hard to tell in its current condition, but the white coloration seems to be some sort of coating on the scales, perhaps something fungal or bacterial. In recent months she has seen many fish like this one, with a variety of deformities: kinked spines, extra fins, missing eyes. All of them were partially or wholly covered in the same white film.
The late morning sun beats down on the back of her neck. The stench rising from the beach is rapidly approaching unbearable. Anna adjusts her soggy mastectomy bra, regretting her decision to wear it this morning. There’s no one to see her on the deserted beach, and the silicone breast forms efficiently funnel sweat into the chafing fabric.
As she straightens up, something splashes in the water a few feet away. Anna looks back, but sees only the spreading circles of water, shivering away from a smooth, empty center.
Anna doesn’t believe in the Salton Sea monster. She is a researcher, a scientist; she believes in rationality, in things she can count. And yet on windless days like today the sea is so still, so glassy calm that she can hear the steps of the seabirds, hear the splash of every fish. She cannot shake this feeling of something following her down the beach, something watching her from the water. And it is odd, even unnerving, that a fish is always rippling back under the surface whenever she looks toward the sea.
Four hours and a scant two miles later Anna reaches the disintegrating concrete of the abandoned marina. During her absence, her weathered truck with the US Fish & Wildlife logo has been joined by a large SUV with a boat trailer. A broad, sunburned man with a military haircut is hauling a fishing boat into the green glop at the base of the boat ramp. He waves at her.
Despite her efforts to keep to herself, Anna’s slow clockwise migration around the muddy shores has made her a fixture in the beachside communities. She waves back, embarrassed that she doesn’t know the man’s name. “Going to catch some fish?” she calls.
“Sure!” he calls back. “If the Salton Sea monster doesn’t catch me first!”
Anna tries to smile.
The big man clambers into the boat, his hairy legs shiny with algae. The stuff would tangle his outboard motor, so he paddles through the green clumps, rowing towards the clear water farther out.
Back on shore, Anna sags into the cab of her truck and kicks off her boots. She dumps a quart of briny sand out of each one. She spends a few more minutes arguing with her sweat-soaked bra, prodding a tender spot on her left side. Not just tender: there is a sore, swollen lump under her armpit.
A familiar wave of fear rises up inside her, very different from her silly but vaguely thrilling terror of sea monsters. This older fear is dull and nauseating and all too real.
By now the man with the fishing boat has rowed past the algae-clogged pier. He starts his motor and putters out into the sea, leaving a rainbow sheen of oil in his wake.
Anna starts her own engine and turns her truck away from the marina. The road takes her through an alternating patchwork of vineyards, orange groves, and cracked, salt-rimmed desert. Even the greens of the farmland are muted, dusted over with salt. The only bright thing in sight is a yellow biplane that loops over the orchards, squirting clouds of poison onto the earth.
The Salton Sea is dying.
This is also old news. Like most things in the desert the sea has been dying almost since its creation a hundred years ago, when the silted-in canals of the Imperial Valley emptied the entire volume of the Colorado River into the middle of the California desert. For a few short decades Californians mistook the disaster for a miracle and flocked to their accidental oasis. They built yacht clubs and marinas; they stocked the water with fish from the Sea of Cortez. But with no outlet to the ocean the evaporating sea grew increasingly saline, slowly transforming into a noxious pan of agricultural effluent and algal blooms.
Now the highway takes Anna past the skeletal remains of abandoned resorts and flooded trailer parks. During the summer months the deoxygenated water drives suffocating fish onto the beaches by the millions. When the wind blows the wrong way the smell of hydrogen sulfide and ammonia, potent and pervasive, drifts over the mountains and poisons the dreams of sleeping Angelenos.
On the southern shore of the sea the sulfur smell is stronger but also cleaner, coming mostly from the geothermal plants that mark the farthest extent of the San Andreas Fault. Anna parks alongside the seawall, pulls on her rubber hip waders, and gingerly lifts two long wooden poles from the back of her truck. Each pole has been mounted with a waterproof, motion-triggered, extremely expensive remote camera. Despite the seasonal carnage, the Salton Sea remains a critical stopover for migrating shore birds; the cameras will help record the numbers and the species. Balancing the poles over her shoulders, Anna trudges off through the thigh-deep, muddy water.
It’s when she’s coming back in the fading twilight that Anna sees it: something, someone, crouching over the backpack she’d left behind on the rocks. She freezes, thinking instantly of monsters, though exclusively of the human variety. But the creature that ripples away from her is long, seal-like, and distinctly inhuman. It slips into the water with hardly a sound.
After a few minutes of acute hyperventilation, Anna works up the courage to approach her backpack. Her spare socks and camera and GPS and binoculars are laid out in a neat row in the mud. All that remains of her granola bars are the shredded foil wrappers. The most recent issues of Nature lie beside the wrappers.
It's the magazines that catch her attention. Several of them have been left open, the pages torn and streaked with mud. As if something had clumsily flipped through them.
Anna retrieves her camera, checks it for damage, and begins taking pictures of the scene. She’s not quite sure what she’ll do with them. Everyone knows that the Salton Sea monster is just a failed tourism gimmick, an urban legend cooked up by those wannabe-alien abductees and hippies up in the hills. What do a couple of muddied magazines and torn candy wrappers prove?
The heart and soul of the Fish and Wildlife office is the site laboratory, located inside a 1960s-era Quonset hut. The structure is currently painted a fashionable, peeling mustard yellow; older layers of institutional gray and military green are visible underneath. A collection of administrative and residential trailers form a loose semi-circle around the laboratory.
Most field biologists only last a season or two at the Salton Sea. It takes its toll, working in a habitat that cycles annually between slow deterioration and sudden, catastrophic extinction. Anna has become fascinated with the people who stay in the job year after year, recording the mounting death toll. There are scientists who truly love the place, who remain out of sheer stubborn devotion. And there are staff members like her: people whose lives have come quietly unraveled, who have nowhere else to go.
And then there is Anna’s supervisor Enrique.
Today Enrique is at the lab bench, humming as he works, his helmet of black hair bobbing cheerfully over the disemboweled remains of a grebe. A quiet klaxon begins whooping in Anna’s head: Enrique is only cheerful when he has bad news for someone else.
“The results came back on those dead cormorants,” he announces brightly as Anna enters. “Positive for avian botulism. We could be looking at another outbreak this summer.”
“Ah,” says Anna neutrally. Another outbreak would be bloody awful, but she’s not sure if the remote hope of thousands of dead and dying birds littering the shores is enough to put Enrique in such a good mood. Edging around him in the narrow lab space, she pulls out the horrible thing she’s been carrying around in her bag all day. She sets it on the counter beside him.
“What’s this?” Enrique unwraps the stinking newspaper like a kid opening a birthday present. Inside is a dead fish, shriveled and grotesquely deformed, with an extra set of gills and a half-formed second jaw jutting out of its chin. Anna points out the white film on the scales, explains that she has seen it on a dozen similar specimens.
Enrique is enthralled. He is already reaching for a scalpel and a dissection pan. More, he tells her. Anna needs to bring him more of these. Creeped out and relieved in equal measure, Anna agrees. She flees the hut and heads for the nearest trailer, into the tiny space that doubles as both the lounge and her office.
She finds the walls plastered with breasts.
Defeated, furious, Anna slumps in her office chair. All of the centerfolds she cut up the day before have been replaced. A blonde reclines enticingly across the refrigerator door; a pair of top-heavy brunettes smile down from the corkboard above Anna’s desk. A fresh stack of men’s interest magazines occupies the coffee table. Enrique must have been storing them up, waiting for her to do another purge of the accumulating pile in the lounge.
Briefly Anna contemplates the harassment suit she’s been dreaming of filing for the last year. But reality quickly overtakes the fantasy, turning it sour: she needs this job—she needs the health insurance—too badly.
In the end she scoops all of the magazines and centerfolds into her backpack. She leaves, intending to throw them into the dumpster or an irrigation ditch.
At some point Anna forgets about Enrique’s softcore magazines and leaves her backpack on the seawall while she’s off counting fish carcasses. She returns a few hours later to find the pack torn open and the beach strewn with waterlogged, shredded pornography. Walking through the mess, Anna feels light-headed and ill. She tells herself that the creature doesn’t understand—that it’s no worse than showing those pictures to a parrot, or a dolphin. But she doesn’t quite believe it.
It’s not until she starts cleaning up that she notices which of Enrique’s garbage magazines have been mangled and muddied.
Impossible, she thinks.
But all of this is impossible.
So that’s why Anna begins buying Spanish-language newspapers and magazines at the convenience store in Niland. In addition to the papers, she fills her backpack full of candy and fruit and tuna fish sandwiches. She does more of her work at dawn and dusk, leaving the baited backpack out on the beach while she retreats a safe distance from the water’s edge to watch though her binoculars.
In the dim twilight all she can make out is a hunched, inhuman shape rifling through the pack. Anna can’t see what the monster is doing with the magazines, so she has no way to prove it is actually reading anything, in any language. Looking at the ripped-up magazines afterwards, she thinks that Spanish-language magazines do get more attention than the English ones. But mostly the monster seems to prefer glossy magazines full of photographs. When Anna packs newspapers, she inevitably finds them opened to the comics section.
She still hasn't told anyone else. There's nothing to tell: the shadowy images she shoots with her telephoto lens look outright faked. She has no real evidence beyond the torn magazines and missing food. If Enrique or anyone else is out in the field with her, the monster fails to put in an appearance, regardless of what she puts in her pack.
So the next weekend Anna drives up the Coachella Valley, to Indio and Palm Springs, to search the big chain bookstores for picture books, comic books, anything at all in Spanish. The children’s board books fare a little better than the paper books—her sea monster does not seem to be getting any better at turning pages without destroying them. But the fragile comic books are the clear favorites. At the bare minimum, the creature seems to have figured out that there is a sequential order to the pictures: several issues of Batman are attentively mutilated from cover to cover, every page shredded and soaking wet.
During the day the creature makes less of an effort to hide the fact that it is following her around the beaches, often letting her catch glimpses of what might be a fin or a sleek, furry head before slipping back underwater. This behavior should probably worry her. But instead of predator or prey, Anna begins to feel more like she is playing an elaborate game of hide-and-seek. Initially even the faint click of her camera's shutter from a hundred yards was enough frighten the creature away; now she’s able to get within fifty feet before it abandons the comics and picture books and slinks back into the water.
This, she tells herself, is why she keeps at it: any animal can steal an egg salad sandwich. But a monster that risks being caught out in the open because it's engrossed in Batman? Is something else entirely.
It’s already late in the day when Anna drives down the mile-long spit of silt that marks the terminus of the muddy New River. The river holds the dubious distinction of being "the most polluted waterway in North America," serving as the open sewer of the Imperial Valley. Agricultural effluent, industrial discharge, and wastewater from the overburdened sewage system of Mexicali are all funneled north via the New River into the Salton Sea.
Anna parks in the shade of a salt cedar thicket. Not expecting to see the sea monster in broad daylight, she leaves her pack beside the truck, a hundred feet from the toxic riverbank, and stomps off towards the estuary in her waders. By the time she returns from her sample collection, the sun is low over the mountains and the thicket is murky with shadows. Anna practically trips over the enormous, slimy body curled around her belongings.
It rears up like a cobra. Inch-long white teeth snap in front of her face. The creature turns and flees through the trees, heading for the river.
Anna stumbles after it. “Wait!”
The monster doesn’t stop. The massive body ripples over the muddy embankment. Anna shouts again:
The creature hesitates, looks back. Belatedly, Anna is afraid—head to toe, it is close to ten feet in length. She had thought of it as a seal, but it is much more like a giant snake, or an eel, with a long torso that bends and twists in ways that a mammal’s body shouldn’t. It has arms and legs, but even those are like eels themselves: flexible, without defined joints, and ending in clawed hands and feet. The claws are as long as Anna’s fingers. Horror movie length, disemboweling length.
But she is right, her guess was correct: the creature prefers Spanish. Anna struggles with her frozen brain, trying to locate a few more words. Her heart thumps in her ears. Clearing her throat, she tries: “¿Cómo se llama?”
Suddenly the creature is moving again, heaving itself into the foamy brown river. It vanishes in a swirl of sewage and plastic bags. Anna’s disappointment is spiked with relief.
But a few seconds later something appears mid-river, poking its head out of the dirty water: a head with an elongated, almost human face. It stares at her, unblinking. The eyes are overlarge; the nose and mouth have a hint of a snout. The top of the head is covered in short dark hair. Or fur? There is more of the stuff on the creature’s chin and upper lip. It reminds Anna suddenly of the adolescent growth that teenage boys often sport.
The monster opens its mouth. The teeth are long, pointed, predatory. The sound that comes out is deep but hoarse.
It croaks: “Félix.”
And that is how Anna learns that the sea monster has a name.
Anna is back on the beaches, counting fish. One, two, one dozen, two dozen. A dry, persistent wind blows across the desert, fanning wildfires in the San Jacinto mountains to the west. The wind carries the smoke seaward, but Anna still has to constantly rub sand from her eyes. Down on the coast they call this the Santa Ana, Saint Anne’s wind.
After a half-mile of counting, she finds what she is looking for: a pale, sunbaked, largely intact fish. The scales are covered in white fuzz, like dried mold on a rotting piece of fruit. The eyes are gone—but instead of gaping gull-pecked holes, the skin and scales are tight over the entire head. The eyes are missing because they were never there to begin with.
Anna grins at the fish. She sets down her clipboard and opens the cooler she’s been lugging down the beach. Inside are two cold packs and three-dozen lurid pages from Enrique’s favorite magazine. Anna plucks one of the pages at random.
A much-too-young woman looks up at Anna through much-too-long eyelashes. Perfect breasts peek out of the lacy cups of a push-up bra. She glares back at the girl, trying to work herself into a righteous anger. She never looked like that, not even when she was twenty years younger. Not even when she was whole.
Nonetheless, she feels vaguely sorry for this pretty, exposed stranger as she wraps the girl’s white skin around the rotting fish.
Even once the horrid thing is stowed in the cooler, the air stinks of death. The irritable wind blows dust into her mouth and nose and eyes, leaves briny residue in her hair and on her clothes. Her teeth feel gritty against her tongue.
Which suits her just fine. Looking at the pictures in those magazines makes her feel raw and rotten, like a festering wound. Might as well rub salt and sand into it.
Several hours later Anna returns to the Fish and Wildlife office with a full cooler and an aching back. She has collected almost two dozen specimens with various abnormalities and deformities. All of them have the same white film on their backs and bellies and around their gills; all of them have been thoughtfully gift-wrapped in pornographic images.
Enrique stops by her desk, flush with more bad news.
“We got back the labs on that fish with the malformed jaw,” he announces. “Very high selenium. Mercury and arsenic are borderline. The concentration of DDT is twenty times normal.”
Trying not to sound too interested, Anna asks, “Did they say anything about the white film?”
“On the scales? The sample is too degraded. It could be fungal, or parasitic.” Enrique rubs his hands together. “We might need to capture live specimens. If it’s something contagious, the consequences of that would be dire.” His mustache twitches with barely contained glee. There’s nothing Enrique loves better than dire consequences.
For once, Anna wants to hug him for it. She almost regrets the cooler full of fish she’s left him.
It’s sunset, California style. The haze of wildfire smoke to the west colors the mountains an intense, coppery red. Anna drives down the dirt road to the duck ponds at the edge of the nature preserve. The ponds are pumped with fresh water from the Colorado River and ringed by an electric fence to keep out predators. They are also connected to the Salton Sea by big concrete overflow pipes. Switching off the electricity to the fence, Anna scrambles down the rocks and hunkers down beside the nearest overflow pipe. She settles in to wait.
After twenty minutes, something large and long slurps through the pipe and heaves itself into the duck pond. A moment later the reeds rustle and part. The sea monster slides its massive body out of the water, baring its jagged teeth. Suddenly it’s not a monster—he is a mer-person, a merboy, and he is trying his best to smile without terrifying her.
“Hiya, Felix,” Anna says. “¿Cómo está?”
He huddles in the reeds. “Bien. Gracias, señora. ¿Y usted?”
He always addresses her like a schoolteacher. Do merboys have schools? Anna has asked him a few times how he learned to read, but he never gives her a straight answer.
Anna rubs her arms. “Cold. I’m cold. ¿No tiene frío?”
Felix has learned a few English words from Anna, and Anna’s Spanish has been steadily improving. But their conversations are still mostly confined to Anna’s high school vocabulary, augmented by Felix’s unique version of charades.
He isn’t cold, he tells her. He seems confused by the question, which confuses Anna, who knows the water can get down to 10 degrees Celsius in the winter. That's still plenty warm for sea mammals with fur coats and protective blubber, but Felix is a sleek, muscular being. While the dark hair on his body looks a little like fur, it doesn’t completely cover his back, upper arms, or the backs of his legs.
It’s on the exposed skin, around the merboy’s broad neck and shoulders, where the white growth is most obvious. It looks like a malignant cauliflower growing out of his neck and dripping down his back.
Anna desperately wants to ask him about it. But there is a rhythm to these conversations, and Felix is still warming up to her. So she offers him the food instead. He gulps down a half dozen peanut butter sandwiches in two minutes flat, then moves on to the fruit, peeling the oranges with his teeth and slurping down the juicy innards. His teeth are jagged: the teeth of a pure predator, not meant for chewing. But he seems to go through carbohydrates and proteins with equal enthusiasm. He thoroughly enjoys oranges. Do merpeople get scurvy?
Anna tries rephrasing her original question, this time asking him if the water is cold. Not all of it, he tells her. There are warm spots on the bottom, aguas calientes. Good places to sleep in winter.
Anna decides these must be geothermal springs. Most of the geothermal activity is on this side of the sea, at the end of the San Andreas Fault. She asks if the aguas calientes are nearby.
The kid gets cagey. Now they are off and playing the game: he pretends he doesn’t understand her Spanish when she asks for a more specific location; she rephrases until she finds a question he’s willing to answer. Do all the families of merpeople sleep together in the aguas calientes during winter?
Oh, the merboy says, his family is the only one. But he has una familia muy grande, with dozens of brothers and cousins.
No, true mermaids are very rare. His mother and great-aunt, his tía abuela, are the only ones left, and they run the family. They were very beautiful when they were young, but now they are huge and hideous, and spend all their time lying in the mud at the bottom of the sea, bossing around their sons and grandsons.
This is the first time Felix has ever spoken of mermaids. In the past he has only told Anna about other merboys, like his two older brothers Tomas (the big one) and Salvador (the smart one), and his little tag-along cousin Gabi. Mostly he talks about how the merboys will follow motorboats under the water, trying to figure out if there are pretty girls aboard or not. If there are girls, his brothers will push on the bottoms of the boats to scare the passengers. If there are only big ugly fishermen, Gabi will bring plastic jugs and bags of garbage and attach them to the fishing hooks.
Anna asks: Why don’t your brothers or cousins ever come up to visit me?
They are very shy of people on the land, he says. Also, they lack los pulmones. Felix wraps his snake arms around his chest and breathes heavily.
“Lungs,” Anna says.
His brothers and cousins don’t have lungs, they only have las branquias. The kid wiggles his long, clawed fingers on either side of his neck. Anna assumes he means gills. And indeed, on either side of Felix’s thick neck are angled, pinkish slits.
“¿Tienen sus hermanos éstos también?” Anna pokes at the cauliflower-like growth on the merboy’s shoulder. He flinches, and she’s immediately sorry. Again he acts confused by her question. Confused and maybe angry.
But she’s been working on him about the white growth for several weeks now. And this time she’s brought proper bartering chips: two large plastic bags full of reading material, which she’s left out in plain sight on the nearest boulder.
So Felix unhappily lets her poke at the growth. She pulls a surgical scalpel and a sterile specimen jar out of her bag. She cleans the scalpel with an alcohol wipe, and then, as gently as possible, slices off the smallest lobe of the ugly white cauliflower.
It bleeds. Anna asks him if it hurts. He says it doesn’t. But the cut bleeds and bleeds, right through the wad of gauze that Anna slaps on it. She tells Felix to hold still while she applies pressure.
He pulls away before the blood has completely stopped. He is impatient to move on to the heart of their transaction. “¿Tiene historietas? ¿Cómics?”
Anna sighs. “Sí.”
She opens the first plastic bag and hands him the precious cargo: Ultimate Spiderman, La liga de los hombres extraordinario, The Walking Dead: Dios pasados, and Green Lantern Corps: La noche más oscura.
Last but not least, she hands over the second bag, full of the coveted Aquaman. These are the only English-language comics she brought, and yet they are the first ones Felix reaches for.
It’s full dark now. Anna can barely see her hand in front of her face, let alone pictures or text. But Felix turns the pages, his big eyes wide, engrossed.
She lingers, watching him read. Just for a moment, she feels very much like the mother of a teenager.
Read part 2 here