Due to their publication schedule, neither the Sunrise nor the Weekly Explorer had yet printed photos of the giant, pale, unmoving woman who had washed up on Nantasket Beach. Disappointed, Red considered checking the Post.
The enormous body had come ashore that morning, but police cordons had so far prevented photographers from capturing anything more than a white lump on sand. As the event—as far as Red could gauge—was true and provable, reputable news outlets would have first crack. By now, the Post’s website might even have a slideshow with aerial photos and diagrams. All lay a few tempting clicks away.
Red, however, was no fan of reputable websites or of reputable news.
Besides, certain places on the internet viewed their visitors as surely as visitors viewed them. Nothing Nietzschean about it; this was as much a fact as the marooned giant. One had only to take the example of customized ads to see the truth of it.
Meanwhile, Lewis Ethelred “Red” Perry had made a life’s work of avoiding the gaze of others, whether electronic or no.
His preferred media elided reality. The back-alley websites functioned as a spyglass. Being electronic, though, this left open the possibility that someone might look down the other end and see him shrunken. Red might be unassuming, but he refused to be reduced.
He liked the old-fashioned printed newspapers best. These were kaleidoscopes, or perhaps the faceted compound-eye viewers that put every image on fragmented repeat. The Explorer, World Weekly, the Weekly Sunrise: they lent a fanciful skew to the dour parade of true events, simultaneously veiling the mind and intent of those who consumed them.
But in this case, somehow, the avoided world and the invited world had merged. Accounts of the phenomenon at Nantasket bled over the borders of the fantastic, drawing Red out with an irresistible call.
Because she wore white, they called her a bride. The Bride of Brobdingnag, a moniker that stuck because some too-clever word-wrangler put it in early.
Red knew Swift from school, but he didn’t agree with the name at all. First and foremost: the thing she wore was no wedding dress. In the few vague descriptions he’d allowed himself to read, it was said her garment had short sleeves and fell somewhat below knee length. Now, Red had two sisters and a mother besides, and he’d be damned if that wasn’t a nightgown.
Thinking of the woman as having been interrupted in her sleep was more romantic. Not in the tawdry, ripped-bodice way, but in a way that was harder to pin down—hinting at something mysterious, something gothic. Had she been a pining lover on a foreign shore, swept from her balcony at night by a rogue wave? Some sleepwalker in an undersea land of titans, who had drowned in air as surely as we drown in water?
It should have been the stuff of sensationalist rags. Red’s purview. But this time, polo-collared types would discuss it in bars—and not neon caves full of dusty old crackpots, either, but the kind with sports on the TV and tap pulls shaped like fish or sheaves of wheat. People in cardigans would whisper in the grocery’s dairy section about the monstrous wonder on the shore.
Red did not care to eavesdrop, to hear those discussions, for fear that intrusive perspectives might sop up the overspill of fancy and uncover cracks in this singular fairy tale. Cracks through which he might be spied and judged.
His only remaining choice was to see her, in person, with his own eyes. More, if he could. He yearned to place his hands on the impossible made fact.
Spring’s lingering chill would keep some spectators at bay, but Red anticipated the carnival would crank into full gear soon enough. Out would come the scientists in parkas, the politicians in wool trenches. Lines around the block. Up would spring the booths and the tents. Have Your Picture Taken with the Giant Woman! Souvenir t-shirts, helicopter tours high in the salt air above the smell of popcorn and the shrieking of children. Apparently, a handful of protestors had already gathered at Nantasket, preparing to oppose a not-yet-manifested response to the giant’s placid invasion.
So Red snatched up a few folded papers and not much else, aside from his wallet, to South Station, and boarded the train to World’s End. Taking MBTA let him avoid the traffic on Nantasket Avenue that clotted within the peninsula’s slim neck. Besides, “World’s End” was a romantic-sounding waypoint for a voyage.
From the nature reserve next to the station, he thought he might try to hitch along with a fellow-traveler, but he wasn’t averse to making the walk, either. A part of him wanted to imagine he was the only pilgrim, to pretend that the beach would be empty of all but the woman and the wind.
With his ride underway, the train clicking over the tracks, Red examined the swags of bulbous cloud hanging over the marshy landscape. Now and then, they broke—a blue eye opening to watch cars hiss along the expressway below. There were fewer people inside the car than Red expected. He would look up from his paper often, losing track of words in the shape of his reflection on the glass. How the rushes and the inlets and the whole sky moved, but his face never did more than quaver. It was as if he’d become his daydream-self, approaching the body and sheltering in the soft L-shape where her shoulder met her neck, and perhaps muttering the lines of a World Weekly story toward her ear. If she never heard a word, all the better.
Often, he didn’t want the people he spoke with to speak back.
As the sea passed on his left, Red took again to imagining the huge woman, alive, on some unexplored continent—if there was such a thing in the world these days. On the stage of his mind, he watched her brush her hair. She might pause to extend a hand beyond the balcony rail, summoning a songbird to her fingers. Dainty in her hand, it would nonetheless crush a human of normal size. Then again, how was Red to know her size was not the normal one and his the laughably small?
Perhaps her end had been one of despair. He could imagine her as the only one of her kind—a fluke, appearing fully formed and lost in a strange place. How easy it would be for a creature like that to feel aloneness building, flooding over the walls until her imagination became glutted in that trackless, rejected state. Borne on a tide of sorrow broad enough to break her giant heart, the literal tide could easily have taken her.
The waves of sympathy inside him soon frothed and broke into indignation. What right did anyone have to claim her? Even approach her? Far better that she melt into the breakers or swirl away like sand than have a crew of toughs strap her to a tractor-trailer and haul her away, the salt at the tide line drying into a landscape on her skin. Great minds with tiny hands would prod at her remains, reducing her piece by piece until only the sea-stiffened gown remained. Words and pictures and secondhand accounts would replace her, and she would return to the stuff of stories, those in disreputable print.
An unfamiliar feeling, being angry on someone’s behalf. Red found injustice exhausting. It was far better in the world of his weeklies, where fates were deserved by buffoons and laughter at their expense encouraged.
Debarking in the rustic-looking station at World’s End, he clutched the newsprint in a sweaty fist. Across a tongue of water, George Washington Boulevard’s northbound lanes swarmed with cars, either stopped or moving so slowly they gave off the illusion of stillness. The faint gooselike noises of car horns over the estuary became a chorus as Red meandered through forested backroads. Along the main thoroughfare to Hull, traffic stalled in a bubble of warmth and exhaust. The snarling tension of each driver seeped out in flares of anger; some of them put their windows down to shout at Red as he passed.
Their broken voices were not worth looking up for. The sky had moved lower still and had begun spitting drizzle. Ahead on the parkway, Red slowed down when he caught sight of a gray-haired policeman, holding a clipboard and shaking his head.
“You live on the island?” the cop asked. His city accent was spread thick over the words.
It was hard to resist the urge to correct his failed geography. “I don’t.”
The cop scratched his nose, a mushroom bulb growing spotty in the Irish tradition. “Can’t let you pass, friend.” He made a fist and poked his thumb toward the empty highway at his back. “Some kind of human rights protest, or something.”
“Is she human?”
“The woman,” Red said. “The big one. Is she human?”
Raising his bushy eyebrows, the cop looked down at damp, curling paper. “No idea, pal. I’m here to stop people from killing each other. The regular-sized people. Those are the ones I care about.” He added a chuckle that sounded less than altruistic.
While the mist settled on the cop’s epaulets, Red looked over them at the empty road.
“Scoot, pal.” The cop stared from under a fuzz of short lashes, stubby as a push-broom, and used his nose to point the way back down the avenue.
And so Red turned. Seeing someone confronted, the drivers in their cars had settled, with few watching him make his pilgrimage back, head down against the wet wind. Some averted their eyes and put up their windows.
The disappointment of others is a contagious, sticky thing.
What anger the soft mist had calmed flared up again as Red mulled over the policeman’s apathy. No, not apathy. Rather, a lack of curiosity. As a gift, curiosity is not evenly distributed among human beings. All manner of capacity for wonder is ascribed to children, but Red—who headlong since made the happy shift from the factual to the fanciful—could easily identify an incurious child. Little CEOs, those were. Or nitpicky management types, computer programmers. Someone had to grow up and make the software, write the code that peered through screens and reaped ad data.
Not that a boon of curiosity couldn’t be lost or squandered. Red had noticed that once someone had authority over others, however little, their curiosity drained away to an untappable reserve.
A man had to stay at the bottom of the ladder, invisible, and keep himself from looking up, to instead be afforded a view of the richness lying around him.
When Red reached the trailhead, the afternoon was chilly and dark, with reluctant water trapped in the sagging folds of cloud, waiting for the first molecular domino to fall. Red didn’t have the shoes for the trek, but he had no choice, so he started up along the marshy water’s edge until a margin of shore appeared around the bulb of Rocky Neck. Abandoned on an inlet surrounded by vines was a blue canoe, hauled all the way onto the dark sand. Fingers of river water reached for and failed to catch it, over and over. Both oars were still in their oarlocks, broad paddles planted in the seeping dirt and foam-rubber grips crossed, defensive.
Only the water and the wheeling shorebirds made any sound, the season’s first leaves too small for wind to wrap around them. Red looked for the owner of the canoe, but it was a cursory search. Satisfied, he shucked his shoes and tucked the socks inside them, tossed them into the boat, rolled up the legs of his jeans until the stiff denim squeezed below his knees, and pushed off into frigid water.
Able to board in without wading too deep, the chill on his legs made him shiver to the point of tooth-knocking. For relief, he spread one of his weeklies below his wet feet and tucked another around them. Words puffed and bled ink in little trails.
It was a punishing row against the tide, but he was grateful for the heat it ginned up in his body. Sweat rose, ran, then seemed to steam away as soon as it came. His arms burned before going numb.
So it went until a break appeared in the rows of beach cottages. They were shuttered and lightless, but bloomed by virtue of their colors with the potential of habitation. A short, intense summer left the community fat with money it probably didn’t want to lose.
Several feet up the bank, by the dock where Red tied off, were wooden racks holding more canoes: red, yellow, green. Some even the same blue as his, or close enough. Each boat had a canvas cover; all were in various states of detachment. In damp heaps, they appeared ready to slither away from the shore toward dry refuge. Sensation returned to Red’s arms, which felt like they’d been viciously pinched.
Beyond the racks squatted tiny cabins—each with its own poured-concrete stoop. Some kind of camp, these cabins painted a dull green rather than the hopeful colors of summer. Red tried each cabin door, but found them locked. It was too dark now for him to see his hand at arm’s length, so he hauled the driest of the canvas covers to a stoop and sheltered underneath it for the night, his head propped on one shoe. Rain tapped the tough fabric on and off until daybreak.
Red woke sore and cold, with gray light seeping in underneath his makeshift tent. The clattering it made when it fell back against concrete sent a clutch of seagulls up hollering from the pilings where they slept with pinkish lizard eyes half-closed.
Nothing human was roused by the sound.
The poor weekly rags, which Red had used again to wrap his feet, were now as good as papier-mâché, an unreadable, gray clump that left soggy fibers in the hair on his ankles. The mass was half-molded in the shape of his feet, and deflated when kicked off, an abandoned wasp’s nest.
There came with leaving them a little sadness. Red used his socks to brush off his bare, pink toes and shoved his feet back into the shoes. He could tell it was early. The streets were barren of traffic—car or foot—and no food smells floated into the air from the cafés that stayed open for the few year-rounders.
Red would be hungry soon; his stomach already knotting. But reaching the woman in white took priority. He did wonder how the protestors had crossed under the cop’s watch, or whether they had at all. Were they residents here, affronted at the gall of a floating oddity?
Once, outside Quincy Market, Red saw a miniature city of tents and sling chairs. People handed out flyers and sang along with poorly played guitars while shoppers walked around them. No signs or chants, but Red heard someone say they were protesting capitalism. Or commercialism—one of the two. Red had watched them almost all day: too-thin boys wearing round sunglasses with purple-tinted lenses, a girl in baggy, printed pants who spun a ribboned hoop. Sometimes people brought police over, who mainly spoke to shoppers and not to the protesters. No one raised their voices and everything smelled like burning hay.
The next day, all signs of the transient city were gone.
As Red walked up the J-curve of Nantasket Avenue, he passed one or two people: a woman wrapped head to toe in a spandex suit, hunched over and biking into the wind. A man smoked a cigar while sweeping the sidewalk in front of his shop.
At last, he swerved right on A Street into a cold, salt-scented breeze that pulled the dank tendrils of his hair away from his face. It felt right; his skin naked and free and scoured by wind.
Police had placed movable barricades painted in reflective orange along the line where the street met the beachfront road. Only one officer stood guard. His gaze was fixed on the spread of sand and the gray-blue waves beyond. One street north was B Street; it made little sense to Red why the alphabet-named cross streets began more than halfway up the peninsula, leaving extra letters to tumble off the promontory. At least there, the barricades were unattended.
He walked, shoes squelching, past shops and cottages painted in candy hues. It was hard to tell one kind from the other—some homes had awnings and iron-barred windows while a few shops had weathered lawn furniture.
Red had only ever lived in apartments. It might be nice, he thought, to someday be in a place surrounded by grass, where he could put statues of mermaids or dragons as sentinels between him and the street. So much of Boston was concrete, or metal and glass that bent the wind around corners and hurried it along. He thought he might prefer this wilder place in its half-dead twilight season. Here, the sea gnawed at hard edges and the wind stole voices.
Edging past the barricade, he saw the bare expanse of gray sand and—breathtakingly—the white swell of a huge form. No movement or breathing from the giant woman, nor did he see her dress fluttering. Whatever drying the fabric had done in the breeze had been undone again by the overnight rain.
For the first time, and with a cool liquid sadness that slowed his walk and made his shoulders slump, Red understood fully that she must be dead. He sniffed the wind for a hint of rot, but could smell only seawater. Sometimes, the two scents were similar.
More orange barricades and many more police gathered by a swell of activity spilling from the shoreline road to the beach. Familiarity straightened Red’s shoulders and made him crane his neck. As in Quincy Market all those summers ago, he caught sight of a cluster of tents, either pitched over colorful rugs or on the bare sand. Could it possibly be the same group? Now they might be a little older, but could still be roving the Massachusetts Bay area searching for worthy causes.
As he watched, men and women emerged from the tents. They were dressed more sensibly than the ones at Quincy Market, in anoraks and beanies and jeans. Instead of guitars or hoops, they held electric candles with plastic flames molded against the wind.
Staying low next to the boardwalk rail, Red crept forward. The protesters had begun lighting their candles, many of them guttering and going dark as if the clouds had reached down and put them out with misty fingers. The sharp smell of cigarette smoke wafted by.
“You live here?” A woman’s voice.
Red stopped, sand spraying from his shoes as he turned. He could hear the thump of his pulse inside his ears.
Down an embankment that fell away from the boardwalk where it arched over a drainage pipe sat a lady, her round, pleasant face looking up at him. The embankment was covered with gravel; pebbles shifted and fell as she twisted to get a better view. She held the cigarette in one hand and a candle in the other, only one of them lit.
“I don’t live here,” Red said. “I came here on a boat.”
“So did all of us. Unless you’re Native American, I guess.”
“I meant a canoe. I rowed over from World’s End.”
“To see the girl?” asked the woman.
This woman looked away from Red. She stretched her neck and then took another drag of the cigarette, staring toward the empty street. The lit tip of the cigarette was the same red-orange as her dreadlocked hair. “The big one. Don’t tell me you missed her.”
Even sheltered from the wind, it was hard to hear her. Red sat on the edge of the boardwalk, then scooted down the embankment on his butt. Pebbles rained on woman’s back, but she didn’t seem to care.
“No,” Red said, “I didn’t miss her. I just thought she was a woman.”
“Looks young to me,” the woman said. “Not even a teenager. Like a tween.”
“What does tween mean?”
“It means ‘in between kid and teen.’” She finally turned her head to look at him. There were fine crinkles at the corners of her eyes, but she couldn’t have been any older than Red himself.
A girl, then. It felt sadder, much less romantic. She was no lovestruck dreamer snatched away by a cruel wave. Just a dead child, a thing to gawp at and a perch for seagulls.
Red’s heart leapt, straining toward his ribs. He had felt his heart as a distinct entity, like something grudgingly trapped inside him, since boarding the train from South Station. It reached for the giant girl, an engine turning over and over as if it could offer a spark to restart hers. As much as Red knew he didn’t have that power, nothing mattered more than reaching the girl’s side.
Had anyone cleaned her? Snapped an umbrella to shoo the seabirds away? It was hard to see the gulls as comfort; their voices were too critical and their pink-rimmed eyes too sharp.
He started to stand up, digging his heels into the gravel.
“Do you have a car?” asked the round-faced woman.
“I’m tired,” she said. “I want to go home.”
“I think the trains are running now,” said Red.
She looked at him again. A thin gold ring glinted on one nostril. A gold tooth glinted just past her lips. “I’m from Indiana.”
Red had no idea what to say to that, so he got to his feet and stepped through the cloud of the woman’s cigarette smoke to the road.
A couple of the protesters were singing, their voices going in and out like a bad radio signal. Suddenly, over the sound of the wind and the sea, came a raw, scraping noise. The song came to a stop, and a few protesters gasped or shouted. Red scrambled up the embankment, clawing great handfuls of stones underlain by cold dirt. The debris pelted his filthy jeans as if urging him back—down to the red-haired woman and the solid, workaday smell of her cigarette, her mundane, knowable needs.
His fingertips skidded on concrete, pushing his head at last above the boardwalk’s plateau.
The giant girl was moving.
Chatter rose from the crowd by their tents, caught by a switch in the wind’s direction and blown out over the girl. As Red watched with stopped-up breath, she rolled slowly toward the northward end of the peninsula. The movement gave new shape to her all-white form, and now he could pick out a shoulder heaving up bit by bit, tracing the curve of the sunrise from the level of the gray horizon. One pale foot rotated, slow and fanlike.
Red leapt up to the boardwalk level and down into the scrubby weeds at the verge of the sand just in time to pick out the hand that rested on the giant girl’s belly. It stayed there only for a moment before slipping. The protesters’ cries sounded more anguished than awed as the girl’s elbow splashed into the shallows, raising mist and a cloud of birds. A second afterward, her limp hand fell with a thump Red swore he could feel quivering through grains of sand to the place where he stood. It seemed the ocean groaned in sympathy, but it was just the sluice of the retreating tide.
At that moment, Red understood that she was not stirring to wake. High tide was on the way, claiming new inches of shore with every breaker and drawing sand out from underneath her body. Seeing the girl’s huge fingers, which curled gently toward her upturned palm, he felt another hand of similar size wrap around his chest and squeeze. His heartbeat split in two, charging up behind his eyes and down into his aching feet at the same time.
Nothing physical held him back; even the wind pushed him seaward, but he couldn’t raise either throbbing foot from the ground. From behind him came the soft slap of someone else’s running steps, and he saw the red-haired girl going full tilt, her dreadlocks bouncing along her back and the cigarette forgotten, still lit.
The noise behind the barricades had risen.
When the tide turned the giant girl’s head north, Red saw the creamy underside of her chin. Its shape against the sky broke the hold of fear. Released, with air flooding his burning lungs again, he surged forward. Each step in turn pummeled the wet sand and rattled his bones from ankle to jaw.
Those who were shouting and pointing at the girl swiveled their arms to follow his flight.
“Hey!” one of the cops called. “Stop!”
Red flicked a glance sideways. The man was in motion, but he was pot-bellied and slow. Another quick look showed the protesters in their own separate tide converging on the line of police from the street side.
A shrill whistle sounded.
At the rate he was running, and by the direction he’d taken, Red would end up tangled in the huge, white fingers. Maybe he could struggle through them and shelter in the girl’s palm. Then, when he was a few dozen yards from the monumental corpse, tendrils of gray tidewater tipped in white pushed up under the girl’s knuckles and lifted her hand. Nothing, after all, was truly heavy or strong compared to the sea.
The girl’s arm was swept in a helpless arc away from her body, to the level of her shoulder and then past it. She gestured out toward the open water, at the same time opening her embrace to Red.
He plowed, legs pedaling, first into the dragging surf and then against wet fabric with rigid skin underneath. Red’s lungs emptied, the air punched out by impact and the chill of the water.
He heard people, closer now. The purplish face of the chubby cop showed beside the girl’s bloodless toe, his mouth dark and shouting.
Red heard the noise but not the words.
With strength he had never summoned before, he hauled the dead weight of his own frozen legs out of the churning sea and onto the girl’s shoulder. He planted his knees in a lock of hair thicker than a fire hose, the strands coiling around his legs right away. Soon, the water would tug that lock free to bloom around her head, a greenish tentacle, taking Red with it.
He pushed the heavy hair away, sacrificing both shoes in the process.
Even close by, the girl smelled like nothing but sea and cold. Her dress was high-necked and plain. Down at its hem, policemen and protesters bobbed in waist-high water, still shouting.
“Don’t hold on!” Red yelled back at them. “Let go!”
Only the girl’s heel moored her to the shore. Red nearly overbalanced as a strong undercurrent deposited almost her entire body on the bare seafloor. Then the water boiled back in and the foot came free.
Seated near the notch between the girl’s collarbones, he turned his head, but all he could see of her face was the unblemished wash of white under her chin.
Some of the people, those who weren’t struggling back to the receding beach, waved and cheered.
Red waved back with both arms, baring chattering teeth.
It was fine to be noticed now that he’d become unreachable.
After he was tired of fanning his wet, wrinkled fingers in the freezing air at the spectators, he sat back and scooted up the hard, motionless throat to rest his back against her chin. He curled in close, but tucking his feet under him against the unforgiving fabric would only do so much to keep at bay the chill that sank under his skin and made his joints stiff.
Perhaps later he would pull part of the frilly trim over his body. For now, the sky was bled dry and he was tired.
He closed his eyes as seabirds wheeled overhead, shrieking at the huddled passenger aboard his white vessel.
L. Reed Walton (she/they) is a writer based in Atlanta, Georgia, U.S. They have a Bachelor of Arts degree in English – Creative Writing and Master of Arts Degree in Journalism. She is currently querying their fourth novel, a science fiction mystery. They’ve recently published other speculative short works in Hellhound Magazine and The ScienceFictionery. She lives with her lovely librarian wife-to-be and four capricious cats.
photo by Peter Thomas (via unsplash)