The Delicacy

by Hall Jameson

Zoe knelt near the crawling tide, poking at the sand with her shovel, leaving little V-shaped divots, not wanting to find the creature she was searching for.

I suppose there are worse places I could be, she thought, scratching her name in the sand. She wiped the sweat from her brow, then shivered. Her thoughts muddied, the sun felt both hot and cold. How could that be? Time had been moving too fast; she had been missing beats, losing track of days.

Zoe laughed the first time George said the word geoduck. He pronounced it gooey duck and she thought he was joking.

“A gooey duck? What kind of duck is that?”

He shot her an exasperated look—a look she was well acquainted with—before explaining in condescending chef-speak that geoducks aren’t ducks at all, or any type of fowl for that matter. They are, in fact, large mollusks. “As a chef, you should know that. We see dead ones on the beach every time we visit Puget Sound.” He looked at Zoe, and she shrugged. She did not remember. He pulled up a picture on his laptop and Zoe made a face.

“Oh, man! Gross! They look like clams on steroids.”

George scowled. “The geoduck is a delicacy,” he said. “The secret is not to overcook them, else they become rubbery.” When she wrinkled her nose, he added, “Perhaps your palate isn’t sophisticated enough to appreciate something so complex. It’s probably best you only deal with sweet things.”

Zoe sighed. George was an excellent chef. He would be the first to tell you so.

“I’m sure you can do wonders with them, George.” She folded her arms across her chest and did not meet his hard stare. She wasn’t up for a battle tonight. She turned back to the computer screen and scrolled through the other geoduck images.

Such strange creatures! Like giant slugs. The photographs revealed creatures as thick as a sausage, with buff-colored skin, some well over a foot long. A few had undersized, clam-like shells attached to their bases. Words popped into her head: obscene, phallic, alien, disgusting.

“Once they leave their holes, they’re stranded. They have no way to crawl back under, so they lie on the surface of the sand until they die,” George said, a peculiar smile on his face. “Seagulls like to dine on them.” Zoe shuddered. He reached over and slammed the lid of the laptop down, nearly catching her fingertips.

They spent the rest of the night in a cool silence.

Had that been last night?

Zoe looked down the beach and saw George on all fours, digging, his bare back and shoulders crimson. She smiled. That would hurt tonight. “Serves you right, asshole,” she muttered. In front of her bare toes, a hole the size of a dime made a soft pop as a bubble rose and burst.

She peered into the hole. Was it in there? Tonight’s dinner? She preferred crab or haddock, caught and prepared by someone else, then served on a platter with a ramekin of butter and a bib with a lobster printed on it.

She swiped at the sand with her shovel, leaving a shallow groove. She stuck her index finger in the hole and sand closed around it. She eased her other fingers into the hole, then buried her hand past the wrist. She gritted her teeth as she explored the opening. Her fingers brushed something firm and slimy that pulled away from her touch.

“Oh!” she said, withdrawing her hand. Disgusting. She took a breath.

You can do this.

George would be pleased if she succeeded. It had been a long time since he had been pleased with her. He’d become distant since she started working with Chef Harwood; but she’d always had a passion for pastry, something George often mocked, pointing out that he was a classically trained French chef, as if she could forget. However, she’d overheard Chef Harwood say that George’s food was bland, with a tacky eighties sensibility, and that between the two of them, she was the better chef.

“I’ll get you!” she said through gritted teeth. She plunged her hand into the hole and wrapped her fingers around an eely mass. Her smile of triumph shifted to one of disappointment as it slipped out of her grasp.

Sitting cockeyed on the beach, one arm submerged in the sand past her elbow, she leaned on her arm, forcing it deeper into the hole, searching with her fingers. Something jerked away from her touch, then returned, pressing against her fingertips. She moaned, fighting the urge to pull her arm from the hole. Something slid under the pads of her fingers and along her palm.

“I can’t do this!”

She started to pull her arm from the hole, but the creature looped around her wrist in a tight band. She squawked as it yanked her into the hole up to the shoulder. The air pocket made a greedy glugging sound as the sand swallowed her upper limb.

“George!” she shouted, her voice caught by the surf and carried away. She saw him far down the beach, talking to a woman she did not recognize.

The geoduck—surely that’s what this wicked creature was—burrowed into her flesh below the elbow. She screamed, but stopped when she felt no pain. The creature guided her into the sand. She closed her eyes and leaned on her arm, allowing her body to ease in further. Something snapped in her shoulder as she sank into the hole; it widened to accommodate her head and torso.

In the dark, she inhaled. Heavy, wet sand slid into her mouth and nostrils. It filled her eyes, and she saw each individual grain—so lovely up close! Tiny transparent creatures skittered between the grains. The geoduck continued to pull her downward. If someone looked down the beach at that moment, they might catch a glimpse of her foot slipping under, her toes wiggling just above the surface of the sand. She imagined the gulls circling her exposed toes, preparing to swoop and sample the wiggly knobs, until the geoduck gave a final tug.

Her descent complete, she and the sand became something simple, ancient. She relaxed and sipped the briny juices beneath the sand, sampled bits of seaweed and salt, delicious cuisine. Her new suit was slick, her body smooth, about nine inches long. Her bottom rested in the smooth slide of shell that folded around her like the wings of a butterfly. Her neck was long and graceful, one lean muscle, extending up toward the breathing hole in the sand. A single foot beneath her shell pushed her along, propelling her away from predators—predators like George. She wondered how anyone could think she was obscene, or resembled an alien. Had she really thought that once?

She was now something pure. Her job: to slip through the sand and feed.

A spit of light shone through the air hole. She pushed upward, careful not to venture too close to the surface. She did not want to get stuck above the sand and die, as George had warned against; but if she could reach him, tell him about her discovery, convince him to join her in the sand, she knew he would be happy. He might even love her again.

She eased the tip of her neck above the surface and called to George. Though she had no vocal cords, her voice was loud, musical. He was one hundred yards away, still talking with the woman. When he turned toward Zoe’s spot in the sand, she felt hope. But then she noticed something odd: George and the woman were holding hands. The sun winked off the diamond on the woman’s left ring finger.

The pair jogged through the surf, splashing and laughing, the woman’s yellow hair rippling in the breeze as if they were in a commercial for laundry detergent or condoms. George scooped the woman up in his arms and carried her inside the cottage.

It was as if Zoe had never existed at all.

***

Zoe sank into darkness, the glint of George’s white-capped smile leaving a blocky afterimage.

Who is that woman?

Time had skidded, sputtered, and restarted, the corners filled with mud, the edges with uneven toothy borders. She drifted, a slip of paper caught in a draught. What she thought had happened the night before had happened at a different time, perhaps long ago. She wondered how long she had been away.

Long enough for George to find a replacement.

Her body, no longer her body, corkscrewed deeper into the sand. She longed to be blind, mute, void of all senses, not wanting to remember when she ceased being Zoe.

As she tunneled downward, her perception changed, her essence shifted; yet the thoughts continued to flow, daisy-chained. The pain clung to her, insistent that she remember.

No!

She stopped in a murky compartment, a vile place, infested, swarming with parasites, prickly things, toxins. Tiny creatures shaped like arrowheads and ax blades surrounded her in a filmy shroud, piercing her skin, stabbing her long neck. She welcomed the pain, craving the blankness of the in-between, where she was before this moment. She focused on the perfect pinpricks, longing for the darkness to engulf her; but memory gnawed at her, persistent, until two words rolled toward her from the darkness, spoken in her Zoe voice.

George. Murder.

Then she remembered.

***

A buttery light filled the dining room, complementing the savory smell drifting from the kitchen. The dining room table was set with crystal and sterling silver; tapered candles glowed from the center candelabra. A smiling George ushered Zoe to the dining room table as soon as she walked in the door. Strange—he was home before she was. His warm mood, his affectionate kiss, made her uneasy. George disappeared into the kitchen, returning with two bottles of wine, one white, one red.

“I prepared pan-seared scallops with lime and a julienne of honeyed carrots.”

“Sounds wonderful,” Zoe said. Her chest felt tight.

“Which wine would you like?”

“I’d love a glass of Merlot.”

George frowned. “The Chardonnay is a better compliment to the seafood and sweet profile of the entrée, sweetheart.” The last word, the word of endearment, rang false. He’d never called her sweetheart. Alarm bells chimed somewhere far away, but Zoe ignored them. She did not want this to end.

Then why did you offer me Merlot in the first place?

“Chardonnay would be wonderful. Thank you.”

Dinner tasted amazing. George watched her with sparkling eyes, taking only a few bites of his own dish, offering her seconds, ladling extra sauce over her scallops.

“Eat up.”

***

The pain began after dessert, starting with a rolling sensation in her gut that shifted to one of excruciating pain. Her last memory: writhing on the polished hardwood floor of their dining room, skin flushed, the room blurry, her cheek pressed to the cool wood, George standing over her.

Her last words: “Help me, George.”

His answer: a thin smile.

***

The cloud of parasites continued to swarm around her, at first her aggressors, now her allies. Zoe welcomed them into her body, no longer feeling pain. She sensed the arrival of morning and dragged herself to the surface. She now had a purpose.

She did not need to check her location; her keen senses told her she was submerged in front of a cottage. Once her ocean getaway, it now belonged to her husband and his new bride. However, George was a creature of habit. She knew he would come out early to dig, to retrieve a delicacy for dinner, to show off his culinary skills.

Zoe prepared herself: her long neck extended, she rounded out her air hole to make it tempting and obvious. He would be sure to dig for her first. Now all she had to do was survive in that form for a few more hours. She was dying from the parasites, but she knew this would not be her final resting place. She was not supposed to die in the sand, but rather on a plate arranged in an exquisite presentation before the dessert course.

***

Zoeduck heard voices above the sand, the familiar deep voice of George, a rusty metal shard, followed by another voice, papery and nervous. She heard a scratching on the surface around her air hole, and used the last bit of her strength to stretch her neck up toward the opening.

I’m here, George!

George found her. As he pulled her from the sand, he held her up in front of him, taking in every inch of her with greedy eyes. She had always envied how he looked at food, as if it were his lover. He talked to the food as he prepared it, something that always disturbed her, particularly when he worked with the ‘baby’ cuts of meat—lamb or veal, for example.

“You are breathtaking,” he murmured to her, caressing her neck with his fingertips. “But I am going to make you even more beautiful.”

Finally, after years of incessant badgering and bullying, his passive-aggressive jibes, his mood swings, his brutal lovemaking, she was a delicacy to him.

He splashed cold water on her body, removed her shell, and rinsed her skin. He took out his knife. Zoeduck did not mind the quick blade or the heat of the grill. He doused her in butter and white wine as the woman looked on.

It would be a glorious night. A perfect meal. Too bad he was lousy at making dessert.

It was Zoe’s beginning. Once again.

***

There were parts of Zoeduck inside both of them now, their bodies cold and still, a film of foam on their chins. The parasites had made for a slow death, and George, forever stubborn, refused to go to the emergency room.

Killing them both had been a happy accident. She intended to kill the woman, leaving George with two dead wives, dead by the same cause: tainted seafood. That would raise some questions. His restaurant would close. His reputation ruined. However, a dead George was a good thing too. He could not hurt anything else. Women. Baby animals. Mollusks.

She felt her essence fade from their cold bodies and drift into another form. Her new form floated over the body bags, catching a final glimpse of George’s gray face before the coroner zipped the bag shut.

She arced in the sky and flew toward the beach, studying the air holes in the sand revealed by the retreating tide. She flew toward one, bubbles bursting around its rim, as if the creature below was agitated, struggling, or surprised to be in the sand. She landed and walked over to it, her talons leaving twiggy tracks in the sand. She tilted her head and looked into the hole.

“Hello, George,” she said, her voice the hungry whine of a herring gull.

________________________________________________________________________

About the Author

Hall Jameson is a writer and fine art photographer who lives in Helena, Montana. Her writing and artwork has recently appeared, or is forthcoming in The Red Asylum, 42 Magazine, Redivider, and Eric’s Hysterics. When she’s not writing or taking photographs, Hall enjoys hiking, playing the piano, and cat wrangling.

“The Delicacy” © 2013 Hall Jameson

________________________________________________________________________

Issue Six Stories:
Birdbeaks of Light Jedd Cole
Healing Hands Matt Ayers
The Delicacy Hall Jameson
The Message in the Sound Mary Renzi
A Matter of Doroteya Bill Tyrell