Westwind

Thermidor

Joe Pierre

 

1.

She smelled of the sea. And not some stale, oil-slicked, backwater harbor, but a fresh offshore breeze mingled with sea foam spray.  This scent was strongest in her hair, which seemed ever-matted from brine, and her entire body was dusted with the finest salt crystals that had a crisp citrus taste and awoke the senses.

“The ocean is in my blood,” she’d told me when we were first dating.

To her, the ocean was all about memories of fog lifting off morning waters that were as still as a plate of glass, the lonely tolling clang of buoys and the plaintive cry of gulls, the afternoon sun coming up to cast a sparkle across rolling waves, the chugging beat from the inboard motor of her father’s fishing boat as they cut out into open sea, and above all the myriad creatures that they’d pull in from his nets each day.

She was her father’s companion on the boat from an early age and was no stranger to hard work.  She helped in hauling up the nets and sorting the catch into buckets.  Hoards of small fish and shrimp for the most part, along with less frequent but inevitable oddities – crabs, octopuses, starfish, and even the occasional turtle.  Only the starfish were ever thrown back.  Everything else was either sold at market or taken home for the dinner table.

When she turned 12, just as she was entering puberty, the skin of her hands suddenly dried up.  First, it only cracked and scaled, leading doctors to diagnose an icthyosis, recommend various ointments and salves, and advise her to stay out of the sun and away from the ocean.  But despite her father’s best efforts, he found it impossible to keep her off the boat and within a short time, her hands became completely desiccated and shriveled up into useless, blackened, leathery, wrinkled lumps.  It was as if her hands had been replaced by two large fossilized prunes.

Soon enough though, the hard skin molted and two newly formed lobster claws appeared where her hands used to be.  One crusher, one pincer, or as her father liked to say, “pincher.”  Of course, they weren’t red as one might first imagine, but various shades of speckled brown and green that matched the color of her eyes.

She and her father took the transformation in stride and without a lot of drama, for they were used to witnessing unexplainable events and discovering seemingly chimeric creatures with some regularity out on the ocean.  In fact, her father was more alarmed by her new breasts than anything else.  Despite the changes, she was just as able to work the nets and sort the catch – if anything, fish rarely slipped through her grasp as they had before when she had fingers, and she no longer had to bother with gloves.

Thinking about the cruelty of children, I wondered whether she’d been taunted in school.  But she explained that she’d been mostly home-schooled and rather than being given children’s books, she had voraciously consumed dictionaries, encyclopedias, and all manner of historical and scientific references for hours on end, and that in any case she’d grown up in a relatively small fishing town where no one seemed to think it all that strange for the daughter of a fisherman to have lobster claws for hands.

Only later when I pressed her for an explanation of what seemed to me some kind of miracle did she pause to think for a moment and say, “I don’t know, maybe it was karma.”

I assumed she meant because they caught the occasional crustacean in their nets, but I don’t think she ever really believed that she was being punished.  The truth was she never really grew up thinking much about her claws at all, any more than she’d thought about her hands when she’d had them.

When I told her I had trouble wrapping my head around this, she said nonchalantly, “Remember when your baby teeth fell out and your permanents came in?  I guess it was kind of like that.”

 

2.

Her father died after she’d grown into a young woman who was more than capable of self-sufficiency, a year or so before we met.  I envisioned some tale of him being lost at sea or grappling with a whale, but in fact he simply came down with pneumonia one winter and didn’t recover.  Although she’d never really considered a life outside her hometown, without him there was no appeal.  And so, she stayed around long enough to sell off the house, boat, and other family possessions, and then packed up what little was left and traveled across the country in a rickety little pick-up truck with no particular destination in mind.  She didn’t stop until she reached the ocean on the other side, eventually settling into a little town quietly reminiscent of her own and where I happened to be living at the time.

“I drove all across the country trying to see what else was out there,” she said, “but nothing really interested me until I hit water again.  If I’d still had my father’s boat, maybe I would’ve unhitched it and kept going right out into the sea.  Maybe I’d still be floating out there now and we’d have never met.”

“That would’ve been tragic,” I replied, as if tragedy could ever really be averted.

When we did meet for the first time, she’d already been in town for a few days.  Of course, word had gotten around that a new woman had arrived, “a girl with lobster claws for hands.”  Ours was not quite the kind of town where we were used to seeing such an anomaly as if it were nothing, but for the most part it was the kind of place where knowledge of our own personal deficiencies prevented anyone from ever making an audibly unkind comment.  So one evening, when I’d seen her walking on the other side of the street with her arms and claws wrapped around two large brown grocery bags, I tried not to stare.  But then, one of the bags slipped out of her grasp and a bottle of milk shattered against the pavement.

I crossed over, finding her on her knees trying to pick up the tiny shards of glass with her claws.  I crouched down beside her and intending irony, said, “Need a hand?”

“Thanks,” she said with a half-smile.  I smiled back.  As we both stood up, she looked at me and said, “You’re very amusing.  How ‘bout a drink?”

By the time she’d raised a claw to casually brush aside the long strands of matted hair from her face and made a gesture of grasping a drink and hoisting it to her lips, as if with a giant oven mitt, I was done for.

 

3.

We hit it off from the start and before long were spending all of our time together.  It seemed we shared a kind of melancholy fondness for the sea that included a respect for its power, an admiration of its vastness, and an acute sense of loneliness when we gazed out across the ocean horizon from the shore.  And so we shared this together, as cliché as it sounds, by taking long walks on the beach, watching sunsets, and sometimes camping out at night with blankets, drawing warmth from bonfires that we built, and each other.

As you might expect, the subject of her claws came up a lot in the beginning and I asked a million questions that she inevitably answered with considerable patience, if never quite seeming to understand my fascination.  In retrospect, it was probably fair to say that I was attracted to her claws.  To the very strangeness of them.  And I admit I felt at least a little special thinking that the girl with lobster claws for hands had somehow chosen me.

The claws themselves were remarkably versatile, surprisingly dexterous, and quite powerful.  With them, she could effortlessly open the tightest jars, crush volumes of ice for making drinks, or even shuck a dozen oysters in no time.  Once she cut clean through a padlock bolt after I’d lost the key.  And yet, she had no trouble dialing a phone, cutting intricate designs in paper, or unbuttoning her blouse, and she held my hands so tenderly, never piercing skin.

She liked to dip her claws into the ocean, often soaking them in the frigid seawater for an extended period of time.  If she didn’t do this regularly, her claws would ache and throb.

“It’s like they get really thirsty,” she said, “and need a drink.  Or like the sea is calling for them, and I have to take them back every once in a while.”

After we’d been together for a year or so, the novelty wore off, and I got used to the claws, except for one thing that was rather strange and unsettling.  From time to time, I would get a thought in my head about eating them – steaming the claws until they turned bright red, tying a bib around my neck, cracking the shells open, and sucking out the soft flesh inside to dine upon with generous amounts of melted butter.

One night, after we’d made love, I confessed this to her, but she was nonplussed.

“I’m not surprised,” she said.  “Isn’t that what love is in the beginning – feeding one’s hunger and being fed upon?”

I didn’t know what to say.

“How do you picture it?” she asked.  “Eating them freshly steamed or something like Thermidor?”

“I’m not sure I know what Thermidor really is.  It’s like baked in the shell, with a cheese sauce?”

“It’s broiled.  With a béchamel sauce – white wine, butter, and cream.  The cheese is more of a superfluous topping.”

“You’ve had it?”

“Yes,” she said.  “Actually, I love Lobster Thermidor.”

“Isn’t that kind of cannibalistic?”

“Lobsters are cannibalistic.  It’s a natural thing.  Animals don’t have the same ridiculous hang-ups about food that people do.”

“Well, anyway, I just picture eating them steamed.  And maybe dipped in butter or with a lemon wedge squeezed over them.”

“Did you know,” she said, “that Thermidor was the ‘month of heat’ in the old French calendar, which at the turn of the 18th century coincided with the end of Robespierre’s Reign of Terror?  So, Thermidor can also mean a kind of revolution against a revolution.”

“Is that so?”

“Yes,” she said.  “In fact, it’s mid-summer and we’re probably pretty close to Thermidor right now.  I wonder whether we should be expecting some kind of radical change.”

“I hope not,” I said.  “I like the way things are now just fine.”  But at the same time, I knew that change was inevitable, and in retrospect, the transformation that was about to come upon us might well have been conceived that very night.

 

4.

Sometime just before that, one weekend morning when we were lying in bed naked, she asked what women who you’ve been sleeping with for a while inevitably seem to ask in casual pillow talk.

“Do you want to have children?”

“I always pictured myself having kids one day,” I said.

“How many?”

“I don’t know.  There were three of us growing up, so I guess I always pictured having three myself.”

“Do you ever picture them having lobster claws for hands?”

“What are you asking, exactly?”

“What would you do if your children suddenly sprouted lobster claws for hands?”

“I don’t know.  I guess that would be okay.”

In fact, I hadn’t given it much thought yet, but to my surprise the possibility of having children with her didn’t really scare me.  Though the truth was that given the choice, I’d just assume the kids got to keep their normal human hands.  Still, I told myself, she seemed to have navigated her life with lobster claws just fine, and I thought it would be nice if we could live in a world where it didn’t matter what kind of hands you had.  And that kind of change only happened when there were adorable children with lobster claws for hands to shake things up.

“If we got married and had kids,” I said, “I’m sure everything would be okay.”

“I’m not sure how I feel about marriage,” she said.

I was somewhat taken aback.

“Don’t get me wrong,” she said, “I believe in monogamy.  Lobsters are serially monogamous.”

“Serially?”

“It’s just that I have a feeling like I don’t know where I’m going to be for the rest of my life.”

“What do you mean, for the rest of your life?  Like forever?”

“I’m not sure, it’s just a feeling.  But I do want to have a child and I’ve decided I’d like to have one with you.  And if you want to, I’d like to do it soon.”

You get to a point in relationships where one of you inevitably wants something else.  In theory, you can work through that, but in my experience, it always meant the beginning of the end.  This time was different though.  I can’t say why, but in that moment, having kids, getting married, and spending our lives together seemed as natural as the sun coming up each morning for the rest of our lives.  If it didn’t work out, or if the children had lobster claws for hands, so be it.  I wanted to give it a shot.  Looking back, maybe it was what she’d said about forever, the way she held it out there, just beyond our grasp.  Maybe instead of making it seem scary or doomed to fail, it made me want it.  To really want it.

“Okay, let’s do it,” I said.  “Let’s start a family.”

 

5.

And so, we stopped using birth control, and in the weeks that followed the end of summer, she missed her period.  And then the next one.  We didn’t bother with pregnancy tests and sticks that turned blue.  We both knew what was happening and soon enough it would become obvious to the casual observer as well.  I encouraged her to see the family doctor in town, but she still had an aversion to doctors that went back to her childhood and wouldn’t hear of it.  She already knew quite a lot about pregnancy anyway.  She took her vitamins and stopped drinking more than a glass of wine with dinner, but otherwise went about her business.

The subject of marriage hadn’t come up again, so one day I asked her what she wanted to do.

“Marriage isn’t important to me,” she said.  “But I love you.  I’ll always love you and you’ll always be the father of our child.  If you want to get married, I will.”

“It shouldn’t really matter, but I’m sure my parents would be happier, and it might be best for our kid.”

“What do you want to do?”

“Let’s do it.  Let’s get married.”

“Okay.  But do you think we could just have a little thing here in town and not invite anyone?  And can we hold off on sending word to your parents, at least until after we’re ready to announce the baby?”

“Okay.  When?”

“Well, we shouldn’t announce the baby until at least the first trimester is over.  Or maybe even later.”

“So when should we get married?”

“If we’re going to get married,” she said, “let’s do it as soon as possible.”

 

6.

The minister in our town who did all the weddings also happened to be the bartender.  He wasn’t a real minister exactly, but one of those guys who got his credentials through the mail somehow.  Anyway, he was a friend of mine and we arranged a simple little ceremony on the beach early one morning at the crack of dawn.

In an unexpected embrace of tradition, the bride-to-be insisted that I not see her the night before, and told me that she would meet us on the beach at the scheduled hour.  There were a few minutes of awkwardness, standing there barefoot in the sand in the pre-dawn light with the minister, and for a moment I’m sure both of us wondered if maybe she wasn’t going to come.  But just as the sun was rising up, casting light out over the water, she appeared in a kind of traditional white hippie dress that I’d never seen before, striding towards us with her hair put up and tiny little flowers woven into it.  The sleeves of her dress were thin at the forearms and then flared out wildly, revealing her claws in all their splendor.  In a word, she was beautiful.  She was so beautiful, I teared up.

Then the minister said some words, we exchanged “I do’s,” and that was it.  We were married.

Later, at home, I asked her about the dress.

“It was my mother’s,” she said.

“Your mother?  You never talk about your mother.”

“As you know, she died when I was very young.  I don’t really remember her and my father rarely spoke of her.”

“Right.”

“Well, after my father died and I was going through the house, I found the dress neatly folded at the bottom of an old chest.”

“How do you know it was your mother’s?” I said.

“I just knew.”

“Did she leave behind anything else?”

“Not really.”

“What about pictures?”

“No.  There may have been some at some point, but I never saw any.  I guess my father only ever kept the dress.”

“Do you think he was saving it for you?”

“It’s hard to say.  But I think that yes, he probably was.”

“It’s kind of sad,” I said.

“Yes, it is.  But I’m happy now.  I’m happy we got married.”

“Me too,” I said.

At that moment, I suddenly recalled the saying, “happy as a clam” and for the first time in my life I truly appreciated its meaning.  In the past, I’d always thought the phrase ridiculous.  After all, I always said, how happy is a clam?  But of course, the point is that a clam has all it needs within the little world contained inside its shell and in that moment, I had all I needed.  Just me and my wife, pregnant with unbounded possibility.

 

7.

The first trimester passed uneventfully, but shortly thereafter a darkened line appeared from her navel down along her lower belly, like some signpost pointing to things to come.  It made me nervous and I again suggested a visit to the doctor.

“Don’t worry about it,” she said.  “It’s normal.  It’s called linea nigra – black line – and it’s just a result of hormonal changes.”

I looked it up and sure enough, she was right.  But despite what she’d said, it seemed to me that something else changed in her at that point.  She became quieter and internally preoccupied and she insisted that we hold off a little longer on announcing the pregnancy.  She also restated that she was adamant about not seeing a doctor.

“Promise me,” she said.  “Promise me you won’t take me to the doctor, even if something goes wrong.”

“You mean even if there’s an emergency?  I can’t very well not take you to the doctor if there’s an emergency.”

“No.  Listen to me.  No doctor, no hospital, no emergency room.  I’m serious about this.  You have to promise me.”

“Where are you planning to deliver exactly?”

“Here, at home.  In the bathtub.  I’ve read up on it.  We’ll do an underwater birth.”

“Honey…” I said.

“This is non-negotiable.  You have to promise me.”

“Okay, I promise.”  What else could I say?

 

8.

My friends always told me that once you’re married and have children, your life changes quickly, drastically, and irrevocably.  And yet, nothing could have ever prepared me for the radical metamorphosis that came upon us over the next several weeks.  First, the dark skin that had appeared on her belly thickened and dried, while its margins expanded with the girth of her abdomen and the growth of our child inside.  Then this area of hardening spread around to her back, forming a carapace, while her legs fused together and became segmented, and her feet spread out like a fan, taking on the unmistakable form of a lobster tail.  Once again, it was obvious what was happening, though the speed of transformation was a shock.

Each change was accompanied by localized stiffness and aching, and soon she took to the bathtub, soaking in cold water for extended periods to ease the pain.  One night, from this vantage point, she gazed up at me with a sad look upon her face.

“I was afraid this might happen,” she said.  “I’m sorry.  Do you forgive me?  Do you still love me?”

“I still love you.”

“How can you love me like this?”

And suddenly, I understood something.  “I guess that’s what love is,” I said.  “In the beginning, when you’re in love, you’re full of hunger and desire, because you’re craving something that’s missing.  But once you have it, you either get bored and move on, or you’re lucky enough to find a sense of contentment.  And that kind of love includes the good and the bad and everything else in between.”

It was a sentimental thing to say, but it felt like I had discovered something essential about life and as I was saying it, I couldn’t help but feel my eyes welling up.

“I love you,” she said.  “Remember that.  We love you.  Always remember that.”

“I will.”

“Now listen, this isn’t going to be easy,” she said.  “So I’ve prepared some notes for you.  Read them carefully and above all remember, no doctors.  No matter what.  Keep us safe.”

She then had me retrieve a sheaf of written notes she’d apparently prepared that outlined in considerable detail and with little diagrams a number of things she believed would happen from that point on and what I should do about them, starting with a long list of things to pick up from the store, like medical supplies, diapers, formula, and bottles.  It was a lot of information and I wasn’t sure I could do what was to be asked of me, so she made sure we went over things until she was certain I understood.

After that, her mind seemed to be increasingly elsewhere, as if thinking of some far off place.  And as further changes took hold in other parts of her body, her speech became garbled, making conversation difficult.  Sooner or later, she rarely left the bathtub.

Little auxiliary legs emerged from her torso, twitching back and forth, and her tail curled up and down, splashing water from the tub.  A pair of long antennae sprouted and one day I returned home to find her head completely submerged and her body flipped over so that her back was just sticking up out of the water.  Two lobster eyes with swirls and speckles looked up at me, reminding me of pictures of galaxies and nebulae in deep space and seeming to reflect that she’d retreated to some primordial state.  She could no longer manage speech of any intelligible kind and in its place, bubbles gurgled up from little feelers that had formed around her mouth.  On occasion, she would still reach a claw up to hold my hand, but while it broke my heart, somehow it was clear that she was at peace and that touching my hand was her way of trying to comfort me.

I felt helpless and thought about taking her to see some kind of specialist, but I’d promised her and besides, when I gave it any serious thought, I became painfully aware of the futility of it all.  Meanwhile, her abdomen continued to expand and soon it was apparent that the bathtub would not be large enough to provide her room to move about, much less even contain her girth.  And so, following her instructions, I set to work assembling a reasonably sized above-ground swimming pool in the backyard.  Finally, after her transformation from woman with lobster claws to 100% lobster was complete, I moved her out of the house into the pool.

 

9.

In the final months of the pregnancy, she seemed comfortable in the pool, scuttling about with a kick of her tail.  Winter had come, so the water was cold, the sky was overcast and grey, and the sun went down in the late afternoon.  Each day I sat with her for a few hours at lunchtime, dangling my feet over the water and eating a sandwich as I watched her feed on fish and shrimp that I brought from the local bait shops.  Though we remained connected, any remnants of personhood in her had largely faded away.  I was sure that she no longer understood me, but I talked to her all the same, giving meaningless updates on my day to day life or having routine conversations in which I would imagine her replies.

“We never got to talk about a name.”

“Do you think it will be a boy or a girl?”

“Yeah, I have a feeling it will be a girl too.”

“What about Dora?  Like Thermidora?  Or like that cartoon girl on TV.  The explorer?”

“No, I’m not crazy about it either.”

Finally, after her abdomen had swelled to its breaking point, I kept a close vigil until she delivered, ejecting our newborn child in a plume of blood that left the water a rusty brown.  As my lobster wife had predicted, the baby showed no signs of being a lobster herself and as we’d guessed, it was a girl.  A beautiful, normal, healthy, baby girl with ten human fingers and ten human toes.  It was a miracle, truly.

Following my instructions as they’d been laid out, I promptly cut the cord when our baby girl floated up out of the water, cleared her airway with a bulb syringe, wrapped her in a blanket, and hurried her inside to warm.  Using the little diagrams my wife had drawn, I put on my first diaper, held our new baby in my arms, and fed her formula from a warm bottle.

I thought the hardest thing would be to leave my wife behind outside in the pool, but as it turned out, it wasn’t as hard as I thought.  They say that when your child is born, your priorities change in an instant, and they did.  Though I still tried to visit at the poolside for a chat as often as possible, I could only leave our baby for short periods of time, and inevitably her crying would call me back into the house.  My wife had made it very clear that this was how it would be and was supposed to be, that I had to devote all my attention to our baby, and that under no circumstances was I supposed to worry about her.

What did prove to be very difficult later that month was carrying out my wife’s final directive, that of removing her from the pool, loading her into the pickup, and driving her to the ocean where I was to set her free.  I didn’t want to go through with it.  I didn’t want to let her go.

On the one hand, I realized that I would probably never see her again and I worried a great deal about exposing her to the dangers of the sea.  She didn’t exactly have experience living underwater in the wild.  But on the other hand, she was a lobster now, she showed no signs of recognizing or being able to interact with our daughter, and it wasn’t as if she was likely to fare well confined in the backyard pool for the rest of her life.

I thought back to earlier in the pregnancy, when she started to show the first signs of transformation.  In retrospect, I realized she probably knew what was going to happen all along, maybe even before she’d gotten pregnant.  Still, once the changes started, all she talked about was how content she felt.

“Things are really happening fast,” I’d said.  “Are you scared?”

“It’s probably the hormones,” she’d said, “but I’m not really scared.  For the most part, I feel like all is right in the world.  Are you scared?”

“A little, yes.  What if something happens to you?”

“Something is happening to me.  It’s happening to both of us.  When you get married, when you have a child, I think you give up a little part of yourself, maybe even a big part.  And that’s what it’s all about.  That’s the point.”

“What do you mean?” I said.

“Well, I mean, that’s love.  Giving up yourself for another person.”

“And vice versa.”

“Exactly.  It’s part of the cycle of life.”

Maybe it was growing up on a fishing boat, or maybe it was her claws.  Whatever it was, my wife had always had a certain faith in the natural order of things.

The cycle of life.

Ashes to ashes.

Dust to dust.

Water to water.

And so, though part of me wanted to find another solution, I did what I was told, had our baby girl say goodbye to her mother, did the same myself – this time allowing the tears to fall – and slid my wife’s lobster body into the ocean.  With a single powerful kick of her tail, she shot away.

 

10.

I never did tell my parents, or anyone else, about what happened.  The only person that even knew I’d been married was my friend, the minister who was also the bartender.  Some nights when our daughter was put to bed and one of the many townspeople who volunteered to babysit did so, I’d go for drinks late at the bar and talk about my worries.

What would happen?  How did the genetics of this thing work?  Would our daughter develop lobster claws as she grew up?  If she never got pregnant herself, could she avert full transformation?  How would she make this decision when the time came?  What could I tell her to prepare her, to protect her, from what lay ahead?

And what about my wife?  I still thought of myself as married.  I mean, it wasn’t as if she were dead, or at least I didn’t think of her that way, though I did wonder whether one day she might be caught and end up on someone’s dinner plate as Lobster Thermidor.  For my part, that hunger satisfied, I no longer thought about eating lobster.

After a few years, our daughter grew into a little girl and learned how to talk, and I often took her for walks, hand in hand, down to the water’s edge.  As she moved from one tide pool to another, exploring for signs of life, my own eyes inevitably darted to any signs of movement – an eddy in the water, bubbles arising to the surface, or something that popped up looking like maybe an antenna.

I didn’t know how I would explain things as she got older, or to what extent I ever would.  For now, she knew her mother was alive and when she’d ask where she was, I’d point with my hand and make a sweeping gesture over the sea’s horizon.

“She’s out there, somewhere,” I’d say.

She would think about this for a few seconds and then get back to searching for sea creatures in the tide pools.  Not unsurprisingly, she loved to plunge her hands deep into the cold water, immersing herself in these primordial microcosms of life.

“The ocean is in your blood,” I would tell her.

 

 

Joe Pierre is UCLA professor and psychiatrist who writes the Psychology Today blog “Psych Unseen.”  His poetry and fiction have been published in Rattle,Caffeine, UCLA Beat, Black Creek Review, and the anthology Scream When You Burn.  “Thermidor” is a tale of Kafkaesque metamorphosis by proxy that explores the anxieties of pregnancy and parenthood.

Top

Hand coded by CRUXimaging