A Whisper from the Waves’, Carrie Gessner

Illustrations © 2018 Toeken



 [ Cliffs, © 2018 Toeken ] In a small town on the coast of Maine, a whisper drifts in from the sea.

Leviathan.

Not a name. Rather, a title. Leviathan is the Woman Eater, the monster who lives beneath the sea, said to have an appetite for disobedient wives, for ungrateful daughters, for women who don’t fit neatly into society’s boxes.

Leviathan is a punishment.

That’s what Marley’s banking on.

She stands on the edge of a cliff overlooking the Atlantic, a lighthouse at her back. The cliff isn’t high enough for the jump to kill her—at least, she doesn’t think so. Still, the blackness down below sends a shiver up her spine. The foam on the waves is the only reason the water level’s visible at all.

The September night is cold. Reluctantly, she strips down to her underwear and a t-shirt, shedding her boots, socks, pants, long-sleeved shirt, and sweater and folding them into a pile. She’ll leave them as evidence that she was once here, a little reminder that they’ll never erase her, not completely.

“Hear me, Leviathan,” Marley says, closing her eyes and holding her arms out to her sides, “and answer my plea.”

She jumps.


Zola Ward strides purposefully through her precinct. She ignores the whispers of her fellow detectives, whispers that have been following her for six months now, ever since she transferred here. It’s not just the fact that she’s new. It’s that she’s new and a woman and black in a state that’s ninety-six-percent white and almost as conservative.

Can’t beat the views, though.

“Got another one for you,” says her sergeant as soon as she sits down.

“Oh, yeah? What is it this time?”

“Missing person.” He drops the file on her desk and walks away.

The captain, old-school to the bone, keeps punting her the cases no one else wants—the junkies, the prostitutes, the runaways. The ones that could’ve been prevented. The ones nobody cares about. And she’ll keep taking them because someone’s got to look out for the forgotten.

Zola opens the file. The details change, but the song remains the same. Marley Pelletier. Waitress at The Whistlin’ Whale, a pub on the outskirts of town. Reported missing by her husband, Mark. Says she had a late shift on Friday night so he went to sleep before she got home, like usual. When he woke up today, there was nothing to suggest she’d been home at all.

After reading through the husband’s statement twice, she calls the local hospital, but no one’s been brought in in the last sixteen hours that matches Marley’s description.

She slides her sweater on and heads out to The Whistlin’ Whale, a modest two-story structure, its wooden walls distressed from the salty, damp wind pervasive on the coast. Inside, it’s pretty much what Zola expected—plain wooden furniture, drink selection that emphasizes cheap beer, chalk sandwich board proclaiming lobster bisque as the day’s special. Saturday afternoon means it’s only on the cusp of getting busy, but even with just a quarter of the tables occupied, desperation fills the air.

The desperation of people in a tiny coastal town that offers nothing but the comfort of the known.

It took her a while after she arrived to figure out what it was, but now? Now, she can feel it everywhere she goes.

A middle-aged waitress approaches, with the saggy look that comes from living the same day every day. Her nametag reads ‘Jo.’ “Sit wherever you’d like, honey. I’ll be with you in a minute.”

“Oh, I’m not here for a meal,” Zola says, flashing her badge. “I’m Detective Ward. I just need a moment of your time, Jo.”

Jo shrugs. “In that case, guess you can talk to me on my smoke break.”

Zola follows her into the back alley and holds up a photo of Marley. “Do you know this woman?”

Jo curls her shoulders forward as she lights the cigarette dangling from her lips. She leans against the pub’s back wall, takes a long drag, and blows out the smoke in a long sigh. “She in trouble?”

“She was reported missing this morning by her husband. She works here, doesn’t she?”

Jo stares at the cracked concrete and twists her lips before nodding.

Zola takes her time putting the photo back in her pocket and getting out her notebook and pen. There’s something this woman isn’t saying. “When was the last time you saw her?”

Jo meets Zola’s gaze and says softly, almost pityingly, “You’re not going to find her.”

No challenge in the words, no bravado. Simple fact.

“What makes you say that?” Zola asks.

“Women like that, with lives like that—they don’t want to be found.”

Zola furrows her brow. Is Jo intimating that Mark hit his wife? Maybe Mark got out of control, killed Marley by accident, then covered it up. More often than not, a missing-person case has something to do—directly or indirectly—with the spouse.

“She ever say anything about her husband?”

“You’re not from around here, are you?”

Zola slips her notepad and pen back into her coat pocket. She won’t get any more information from this woman, and unfortunately, what she got already isn’t a lot. “I think we’re done here.”

Jo shakes her head through the haze of smoke. “You’ve got this look, like you’re going to carry the world all by yourself. But, honey, all that will get you is a bad back.”

“Thank you for your time,” Zola says through a tight jaw.

As she stalks out of the alley, Jo calls, “Check Colossus Cliff. You’ll find what you’re looking for.”

Zola pauses, turns. “How do you know?”

“Dropped her off there last night.”

“You dropped her off at the top of a cliff?” Unbelievable. “Did you ever hear her express suicidal thoughts?”

Jo drops her cigarette to the concrete, grounds it out, and strolls closer. “Ever wonder why no one goes to the shore at night? Why the sun goes down and you feel a strange stirring to go inside? Why you look out at the ocean and instead of feeling awe, you feel uneasy?”

Not this again.

“There’s a monster in those waves, Detective,” Jo says. “We call her Leviathan.”

“I’m not listening to urban legends,” Zola says before walking off.

Jo’s drawling ‘See you around, Detective’ follows her out of the alley.


On a gloomy, overcast afternoon like this, the park where Colossus Cliff is located isn’t crowded. Zola drives slowly up winding lanes barely big enough for one car before emerging from the cover of the trees. She pulls into a small parking lot, only eight or ten spaces, a little ways away from a red and white striped lighthouse.

The air is silent save for the rustle of leaves in the breeze and the constant breaking of the waves. Hands on her hips, she looks out at the ocean. She came to the coast because it’s pretty, because it’s calming, and pretty and calming mean she won’t lost another partner on the job. But this cliff is anything but. Though it looks innocuous, there’s an undercurrent of… wrongness she can’t quite name.

Just the waitress’s old urban legend getting to her. She shakes it off.

A hiking trail leads into the woods to her right. Since it’ll be the biggest area to search, she saves it for last and heads instead toward the lighthouse. A sign on the door explains it’s locked except for special occasions, and there’s no sign of broken entry.

A wooden railing sits at the edge of the cliff. It extends from the parking lot past the lighthouse, but not much past it. If Marley had jumped, she wouldn’t have had to go over the barrier, just around it. On the hunt for any sign of the missing woman, Zola strides through the ankle-high grass to the railing’s end only to be greeted by a neatly folded pile of discarded clothes.

So, Marley’s a jumper, after all. Damn.

In a way, it disappoints Zola. She does this job to get the answers, but sometimes, the knowing hurts worse.

She takes a picture of the pile of clothes and pulls on gloves before sifting through it. A sweater, a long-sleeved shirt, socks, boots, and brown pants, nothing in the pockets. Unremarkable except for the fact that they’re hanging out on the edge of a cliff overlooking the ocean.

The thing about life this far up the coast is in the autumn, the water’s pretty damn cold. If the fall didn’t kill or severely injure Marley and she managed to pull herself back to shore, she’d have died of hypothermia in under half an hour.

Damn. This isn’t how she wanted this to end.

There’s something out there in the water, though. Something that calls to her.

Something she can’t ignore.

She calls the find in to the precinct while absentmindedly studying the series of switchbacks off to her left that leads to the rocky shore. When she hangs up, she traipses down the trail. Might as well do a little more investigating before the crime-scene techs get here.

Gray rocks smoothed by the surf make the going uneven but not treacherous. Down here, closer to the sea, the itch, the inkling grows more insistent. She stares out at the water, almost the same dull gray as the rocks it brushes up against.

There’s nothing out there. Leviathan is a myth, a legend, something made up to scare her because she’s new to town.

Isn’t it?

She takes a step closer to the churning water.

She cuts to the right, positioning herself directly below the pile of clothes up on the cliff. Not much land between the craggy cliff face and the water here. Jumping straight into the water would’ve been easy.

Being pushed into the water would’ve been easy, too.

A shiver cuts through the air and down her spine, and beneath her sweater, goosebumps rise. Because there it is again.

The call.

This time, she can’t push it away.

She walks back to the section of shore that slopes gradually into the ocean and wades in. Her mind is blank save for one thing—an instinctual force driving her home, a home that isn’t behind her but before her. Her boots fill with water she knows is ice-cold but instead feels pleasant and welcoming. A few more steps, and her pants are soaked through from the knee down.

She’s up to her chest before the land drops off sharply, and she plunges in.

Something solid and warm wraps around her middle, tugging her down, down, down until they come to an abrupt stop. The water’s murky. She blinks until her eyes adjust to the darkness.

There’s a woman beside her, one arm around Zola’s waist. Only she’s not a woman. Not just a woman. The form is mostly right, except for the webbing between fingers and toes. The naked skin has taken on a blue-green hue and is partially coated in scales. And slits carved into her neck undulate as she breathes.

Gills.

What the hell?

Zola tries to break out of the woman’s grasp.

TAKE HER BACK, a voice booms.

Zola stops fighting. She can’t tell if the voice is just in her mind or in everyone’s mind or spoken aloud, but she knows what it means.

Leviathan.

Zola follows the woman’s gaze into a cave, bioluminescent algae clinging to its ceiling. One by one, shadows resolve into more women, some of whose scales have progress further than others’. Among the women, Marley, and behind them, a gigantic mass with rippling tentacles.

 [ Gigantic mass, © 2018 Toeken ] “Is she not one of us, Mother?” asks the woman holding Zola.

SHE DOES NOT BELONG HERE. NOT YET.

Though the shadowed leader doesn’t turn toward her, Zola somehow knows she’s being addressed directly when the voice booms, YOU PROTECT THEM ON LAND. YOUR PROTECTION IS NOT NEEDED HERE. YOU MUST RETURN.

Zola opens her mouth to speak, but she cannot speak here, not in this realm.

Water rushes into her mouth, her lungs, and this world under the sea goes black.


Salt water pushes itself out of her lungs and up through her trachea to spill onto the rocks. Violent coughs rack Zola’s body until her eyes are leaking tears and her throat feels like it’s on fire. Once the water’s gone, or almost gone, her stomach heaves until there’s nothing left inside.

Finally, chest heaving, she lies on her back. The sky above is gray, just as when she went under. Then two faces lean into her line of sight—EMTs, from the blue of their uniform shirts.

“You see Leviathan out there?” one of them asks with a half-grin as he helps her into a sitting position and gets a blanket around her shoulders.

Leviathan. The one the town calls the Woman Eater. Images flash in her mind. An underwater community—a safe haven?—full of women who used to be human, now living under the protection of their mother.

Not a Woman Eater at all. A Woman Protector.

Zola’s teeth chatter as she answers, “No. I didn’t see anything.”


Zola slides into the back booth in The Whistlin’ Whale. She taps her fingers against the tabletop until Jo saunters over, pours steaming water into a mug, and tosses down a tea bag. She offers a knowing smile before she walks away.

Zola sinks into the booth, glad to be done with the week of desk duty the captain assigned her as punishment for investigating the seaside alone, no matter that he hasn’t bothered to assign her a partner.

Not that she’s ready for that.

Jo returns with a stack of blueberry pancakes and sets the plate down with a clatter. Then she leans against the back of the opposite booth and looks down at Zola. “So? What’s the official word on Marley?”

“Probable suicide,” Zola says as she unrolls the napkin of silverware.

Of course, the case will remain open until it goes cold, which it will, since they don’t have the confirmation of a body. But that’s not what Jo’s concerned about because it’s one thing for a thing to exist and quite another for everyone to know about it.

To know about her.

“And what do you think, Detective?” Jo asks.

Zola lifts the bag out of her tea and sets it on the saucer. The water’s a perfect golden-brown now, just the way she likes it. “I think… some women don’t want to be found.”

The only people who’ll be hearing that particular truth from Zola’s lips are the women who need it, the women she’s here to protect.

Jo nods, satisfied with the answer. “Enjoy your meal, honey.”

Zola tucks into the pancakes. She will.


© 2018, Carrie Gessner

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