The Cryptozoologist Off the Record
T. S. McAdams


I first saw her working as a supermarket cashier, but I didn’t put that in my article for American Cryptid. She had a narrow face and the mean little chin of a moray eel, and she wore a new-hire nametag with “Morgan” on label tape. Her hair was frizzy and tangled, gathered at the nape by a plastic tortoiseshell clip, but it fanned out too much from there to say she had a ponytail. Sliding my groceries over the scanner, she said, “I wouldn’t eat one thing of this. I’d just drink the wine.” She looked at me like cashiers always do in small towns, but that’s in my head. Even a little city like Fort Bragg has seven or eight thousand people, so they don’t know each other well enough to recognize outsiders.

I had yogurt, raw almonds, hippie granola with no hydrogenated oil, and six bottles of pinot noir, because it’s cheaper that way. I also had protein shakes, the kind with not a ton of protein but only a hundred calories. After my divorce, I found a phone app to put me through different calisthenics every day. I got stronger doing it and changed the setting from beginner to intermediate, but I looked exactly the same. I guessed the cashier wouldn’t be impressed by my military presses, basically pushups in a V position with my butt in the air. Not that she could have done them. She had stubby arms, like she had dwarfism in just those two limbs. It emphasized her chunky breasts.

When she said that about my groceries, I said, “There’s no kitchen in my hotel room, just a fridge.”

“What hotel are you in?”

“The one on the estuary. The manager says they have a mermaid.” That was a lie. The manager told me all about her mother-in-law being airlifted that morning because Fort Bragg didn’t have a good hospital. She said taking sea glass was illegal and waved a pen holder with sea glass glued to it so I’d know the law wasn’t serious. And she said her brother-in-law knew where to find the red sea glass, which everyone wanted, but I wouldn’t want to go anywhere with her brother-in-law because he used drugs, probably sold drugs, and drove without a license. She never mentioned the mermaid sightings. I just wanted to get a reaction.

She said, “The estuary ain’t deep, the water ain’t, but the mud is. Soft and deep both.” I gave her a hundred-dollar bill, and she gave me one dollar back. She said, “A person can drown in mud, good as water.” I had a feeling already, but I took the dollar and left. It wasn’t the right change, but I took it and drove two miles north on Main Street, which is also Highway 1, away from what I’d come to find. I remember I saw a store called Redwood Liquors on the way to the market, and I noticed on the way back that it was still open, but I didn’t need to stop after buying all that wine.

*

The estuary was surrounded by pickleweed with those segmented stems, spike grass like scruffy wheat, and some generic shrub I called alkali heath in the Cryptid. It probably was alkali heath. That would make sense, according to my field guide. Plants were mixed together in patches, not in any kind of zones. There was moon enough to see that nothing much grew in the water, though Pudding Creek above the dam was literally hidden under algae and aquatic plants.

I wrote that I found her naked at the edge of the water, teasing a whelk, a sea snail, making it rear up and stretch for a scrap of meat. This was true, aside from a short-sleeved, button-up work shirt, half-sleeve or more on her. Also, I didn’t say the meat was a slice of bologna. It’s just that I was getting used to interviewing witnesses and speculating, you know, noncommittally about what they might have seen. Witnessing something myself put me out on a limb already, without saying it passed as human and got a job at Safeway.

She really wasn’t wearing pants, and she didn’t have scales or even webbed toes, just thick legs like an Olympic swimmer. I wrote that she could be an unknown branch of pinniped evolution, which is something Cristiano, our editor and publisher, said before he sent me to Fort Bragg. There’s a rumor at American Cryptid that we’re just a way for Cristiano to launder money from something illegal, but he’s legitimately obsessed with parallel evolution. Cristiano says sea lions are closer relatives to bears than seals, which kind of makes you think. I looked into the whelk thing, too, thinking there might be another story in carnivorous sea snails, but that’s entirely normal.

She said, “Swim with me, refrigerator man.”

I stayed on dry mud, on ground that wasn’t mud at that moment. I said, “I’m Bill Laird. Is your name really Morgan?” A bird in the shrubbery somewhere made a kek kek sound, like dropping glass bottles into a recycling bin. She picked up the whelk and pulled it out of its shell with a talon or thumbnail or whatever and popped it in her mouth. Watching her chew was nauseating; the way she worked her cheeks, almost peristalsis, made me think it was pretty juicy. She swallowed it in one bulging lump and said she wanted to see my room.

The shirt was it, no underwear, nothing, so I stayed between her and the manager’s office going in. I opened a bottle of wine, and went to get coffee mugs, but she started drinking from the bottle, so I opened another for myself. I said, “Where do you come from?” She looked at me with little round otter eyes and said I could have sex with her for forty dollars. I’d never done anything like that before. I’d been married fourteen years and faithful even as it unraveled; Cynthia too, I guess. Fourteen years selling insurance. Cynthia said that was all I could do with a state college anthropology degree, but now I’m Tom Fucking Slick. Cristiano only pays twelve hundred a month plus expenses, but we live on expenses on assignment, and he knows we pad our accounts. I knew I could put this down as an informant fee or something, and who says they even have diseases we can catch?

She had subcutaneous fat, not more than Renaissance paintings of Venus, but I mentioned in my article that it might keep her warm in the ocean. Her torso, sternum to pelvis, was strong, and she bucked me off when she finished. That night, I dreamed I was drowning, and I pretty much was: she was bearing down on my forehead with one child-sized hand, tipping my head back and carefully pouring a mug of water into my nose.

*

Safeway had fired her, it turned out, after calling her references, so she came to witness interviews in my sweats and tuxedo-print t-shirt, things I wore to exercise. I felt kind of infiltrated, but I figured that could work both ways; I could see witnesses react to her and watch her react to their stories. Obviously, I didn’t have women’s underwear for her. Maybe she didn’t even know that was a thing.

My first interviewee worked at a lumberyard on the ocean side of the highway, next to the Georgia-Pacific Mill. The mill had been closed for fifteen years, so the lumberyard was surrounded by empty real estate. Garland was his name, and he was older than me, with pink skin, white hair, and a white mustache, but he probably could have kicked my ass. Men always think about that, don’t kid yourself, and you think about it more when you’re divorced. I don’t know why. I parked next to a row of pickup trucks and SUVs, and this Garland came out to meet me. I think he knew it was me because no one picks up lumber in a little Honda Civic.

“I saw her right there,” he said. He pointed to the ocean about half a mile away. We couldn’t see the beach or the rocks below the cliff, so we started walking toward the water. Garland covered a hundred yards before he thought to put down his pointing hand. We were knee-high in plants I didn’t bother looking up, and Garland said, “Watch out for poison oak in here.” I wore work boots, maybe my favorite part of the job, leather and polyurethane mashing any pugnacious weeds to springy lumps beneath my soles. Garland looked at Morgan’s bare feet—I’m just going to call her Morgan—but she wasn’t taking an interest.

At the edge, he said, “Right there.” He pointed to the flat rock I knew he’d point to, the obvious mermaid rock. He said, “I was plain amazed. Tourists always go to Glass Beach, so this stretch is usually empty.” Rocks were dark gray like pilot whales or cold lava, and the ocean was turquoise, uniform bright turquoise in the sun. Garland had grown up in Fort Bragg and worked in the mill for a while; I knew that from talking on the phone. I tried to look at it all like he would, like I belonged to it, but it was too much of a postcard. It looked like a place to visit.

Garland said, “She was facing me, on her stomach. Hanging off into the water. Singing. She sounded like one of those old-time country singers.”

“Like Patsy Cline?”

“I don’t know. Screechy.”

“Did she have a tail?”

“I couldn’t tell. That part was in the water. But there was definite plumber’s cleavage.”

“Huh.”

“She had a butt crack, I’m saying.”

“Right.”

“Could be, what I’ve been thinking, she was only half mermaid.”

Morgan said, “Half-breeds don’t sing. They’re mute, and they don’t like the ocean. They always hear it, though, and it keeps them awake.” She scratched an armpit she could barely reach. “They’re pretty, but they die.”

Garland said, “You folks would know more about that than I would.” He said he should get back to work. Morgan tried to talk me into swimming in the ocean. I asked if she knew the story of the frog and the scorpion, and she said she liked frog, but she hadn’t had scorpion, where could we find a scorpion? I said probably not in Fort Bragg, and the ocean was too cold.

*

My second interviewee was an anti-mermaid activist. Swear to God. He met us at Glass Beach, the reason Fort Bragg gets tourists. The coot who runs the liquor store says there isn’t any more sea glass, but there is. Mostly brown and white and some green, not exactly fairyland, but still interesting. Paul, the anti-mermaid kid, said there was more glass and more colors five hundred yards south, where it was harder to get down to the beach, but that wasn’t where he saw it. From the northern part of Glass Beach, you can see where Pudding Creek meets the ocean, and that’s the stretch where he saw the mermaid drowning seals.

Paul was taking Marine Biology at Mendocino College. Watching the ocean for hours at a time wasn’t a class requirement, but he thought it helped him understand “conceptually.” I said, if he wanted to understand conceptually, he should read the textbook; empirical observation can get pretty circumstantial. That went over his head, conceptually. He wore wire-rimmed John Lennon glasses, and he was always pulling the stretched-out hem of his t-shirt from under his fisherman’s sweater to clean them. He said the mermaid looked like Morgan, but with different hair. I wondered what he’d say if he could see her hair wet, in the shower. I guess I could have arranged that with forty dollars of Cristiano’s money, but I didn’t think of it then.

I asked Paul what else killed seals, and he said orcas, sharks, sea lions, and sometimes even coyotes. So I asked what he was doing about them, and he said that was different, that was natural. He kept using the phrase “food web,” and I made a bet with myself to stare at him without talking until he said “circle of life.” He said it with air quotes, but he said it. He said the mermaid was killing for sport, though, because he’d seen her drown three pups—one right after another. I said, “When I go grocery shopping, I don’t just buy what I’m going to eat right then; I buy food for several days.” Then he said, “One time, it didn’t look like a seal.”

He’d filed a police report, saying it looked like a woman pushed someone under water, and the person didn’t come up. Then cops discovered Paul was an anti-mermaid blogger, and they stopped talking to him, even when some guy turned up missing from a senior mobile-home park on Pudding Creek. Morgan laughed at that and said, “Old men can’t swim.”

I said, “She’s got a point. Put an old folks’ home next to the ocean, and you don’t need mermaids to explain why someone might drown once in a while.”

Paul said, “I saw it!”

I said, “You’re sure now? A minute ago, you thought it looked a little more like a human than a seal. Now you saw it clearly?”

He got weird after that. He asked me who I really worked for, said he wouldn’t be silenced, and stormed off. His blog still linked to my article when it came out. Morgan was scanning the shoreline, so I looked too, and I was just as glad not to see seals, not even gulls, just a few strolling tourists and a crow picking at beached kelp. I said we might as well go, and she ignored me at first, but she came when I mentioned food.

*

The merman was waiting in my hotel room the second night. I went in to put away leftover Thai food, and Morgan went to the estuary to, I don’t know, get mud on my sweats. I was going to watch from the balcony and see what she did, but a merman came out of the bathroom. He might have been hiding in there to ambush me, but I heard a flush, so I don’t know. He was over six feet tall, kind of fat but beefy, like an orca standing on its flukes, only without any black, so more like an aggressive beluga. He had a full beard and short, thick arms, and he carried an Aquaman-style trident of some brownish metal. He was naked. I took that in stride. This was a second chance at first contact. I said, “Welcome. I’m Bill Laird.” Leftover pad thai isn’t first-contact hospitality, so I set the Styrofoam carton on the television. I said, “May I offer you a mug of wine?”

The merman said, “She’s here!” I didn’t know the right answer to that, so I looked around like I didn’t know who he meant, but I was trying to find her. I hoped he couldn’t smell her in the room. She didn’t smell like much to me, but seals have better noses than we do, and the pinniped theory makes sense. The merman smelled like a plesiosaur, or what I imagine a plesiosaur would smell like, briny ceviche and a little bit of Old Spice. He pointed the trident at me, which is funny when you imagine a really big guy doing it with really short arms, but it wasn’t funny in real life. He said, “I’ve killed humans before.”

That was sort of like admitting he wasn’t human, which was exciting, but it was scary too. I said, “This human might make a lot of noise.” I raised my voice, not to a shout, but to the threat of a shout. “Help! Psycho merman!” There were other rooms on both sides of mine and above. “Help! Call the National Guard! Killer merman!”

He said, “Merman is a very stupid word.” He stabbed the trident into the floor and left it there. He said, “I will have my wife.” Then he left. I stepped toward the door to lock it behind him, but I didn’t want to lock Morgan out. I tugged at the trident instead, but getting that loose would take some effort. I went to the balcony and waited for my eyes to adjust, because the sun had pretty much set.

The tarnished-silver estuary puddled a green-black corridor where dark plants and water canceled the electric city. There could have been anything out there, but the danger came from the bright room behind me. There was a thud and a crunch, and then the sliding glass door had a classic baseball crack, with the long middle spine of the trident poking through. It was a good throw for those little arms of hers. Of course, she was used to the glass doors at Safeway which were pretty thick; she probably didn’t know she would come so close to harpooning me. But I had to pay for that out of my own pocket, even though it was a legitimate expense. How do you expense the damage a cryptid does to your hotel room without saying she was there?

The trident blocked the slider so it would only open about a foot. I turned sideways and squeezed back into the room. I said, “He says you’re his wife.”

She said, “He’s got three other wives.”

“Think he’ll stay in the estuary?”

“He don’t like the estuary.”

“What area does he like?”

“Same as me. Past the kelp forest, where it’s big and empty, just swimming in dark or swimming in light, and herrings and sardines bunching together, and tuna and mackerel flashing after them. Tuna and mackerel, swordfish too, they don’t poke in the mud; they’re fast, and they hunt what they see.”

“And what about mermaids? Do they hunt herring or mackerel?”

“Every time you use that word, you sound retarded.”

I said, “What’s the right word?”

She put her lips on the bottle of mezcal I picked up at Redwood Liquors. She tilted it, raising her stubby arm as high as it would go, and the scorpion drifted to her mouth. When she lowered the bottle, it was a third empty, and she was chewing. Not very much. I guess a scorpion soaked in mescal only needs a few chews. She told me sex would be forty dollars again, which was about what I already spent getting her a scorpion. I bargained her down to thirty. After I fell asleep, she stabbed me in the leg with a corkscrew, so I locked myself in the bathroom and tried to sleep in the tub. In the morning, she was gone.

                                                                             *       

I looked for her on the beach and on Main Street. There’s a lot more to Fort Bragg than that, obviously. East of the freeway, it’s solid residential neighborhoods, twenty blocks deep and a dozen blocks wide, and thins out gradually from there; but I couldn’t search the whole town. She probably went back to her Shamu anyway. I thought about calling Cynthia, but I couldn’t think of a reason.

My last mermaid witness had retired to Fort Bragg from San Francisco. One draft of my article called her the type to highlight passages from Women Who Run with the Wolves, but that sounded sexist, so I changed it to Castaneda’s The Teachings of Don Juan; Cristiano took it out anyway. The witness wore shell bracelets she called Miwok amulets, and she had known she’d see something spiritual, because she had a psychic reading. We met in a breakfast place where she was a regular, I guess, because the waitress said, “I know, you want your omelet cooked with very little butter!” When I ordered, I said, “I’ll eat it how you make it,” just to show I wasn’t like that, and for days afterward I felt like I had swallowed beach tar.

This woman had seen a female humanoid with very short arms, her upper body raised vertically out of the water, moving like a person walking. She saw it in water too deep for walking, and she said no human could have moved through the water that way. I said any decent water polo player could have done it. She said that the creature was beautiful. She used the word “ethereal.” I said, “How far away were you, again?” She said an encounter like that couldn’t help but change a person. Nothing changes anybody, but there was no point arguing.

The next month, they sent me to Texas, to Nueces County on the Gulf, where people were seeing flying ape-men. They called them wild angels, after a country song from the 90’s. A couple of resorts outside Corpus Christi were playing it up, still are actually, and tourists are packing in to see the angels, but I wouldn’t bother. Honestly, I’d like to believe it—I even wrote that the jury was still out—but that stuff is pretty much horseshit.

 
 

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