Playing Horseshoes

The Big Book of Animal Anatomy said that horseshoe crabs had blue blood. It was one of the only books in the house, along with a boring old beat-up copy of New Zealand Bike Trails and a scary book called The Fairer Sex that Henry wasn’t allowed to read, which had a lady with a gun on the cover.

Mum and dad took the train south to Wellington every morning, and didn’t get home until after bedtime. There was a school for kids in Paekakariki, but not any proper jobs for adults – there was a cafe and a church, and a lot of houses, and the beach: that was pretty much it. Henry walked to school, then after school he read The Big Book of Animal Anatomy or walked around on the beach and found stuff for his collection. His collection had: 15 bones from various small fish; a weird gold coin with a funny symbol on it, that dad said was maybe a British Pound from the old days (though he wasn’t sure); 4 cool paua shells and, pride of place; 1 skull of Phocarctos hookeri or the common New Zealand Sea Lion.

The day he found a horseshoe crab was a big day. He was pretty sure just from the look of it (the Book had a lot of pictures) but the blue blood really gave it away. It was missing a big chunk of its belly, and its little blue eggs were spilled all over the sand. Horseshoe crabs never came this far south: the waters were too cold. It must’ve got lost somewhere.

It was a big day because it was a cool thing for his collection (1 Carcinoscorpius rotundicauda, or Mangrove Horseshoe Crab) but also because that’s the day he met Sophie. She was half a year older than Henry: almost 10. She had dark brown hair, and green eyes. She had a necklace with a seagull skull on it that she made herself. She knew lots of cool things about animals; she said the horseshoe crab probably got killed somewhere else, then floated on the East Australian Ocean Current from Indonesia all the way down to little old NZ. She also had a big cool driftwood stick that made her look like a magical ocean witch.

He let her take the horseshoe crab, even though he really wanted it. The way he saw it, he lost a crab, but he made a friend. The next day, he went back out to the beach and found Sophie again. She was staring out to sea and turning a gold coin over between her fingers. She smiled when she saw him coming.

“That’s British,” said Henry. “They used to have British money here.”

She shook her head. “Yeah nah,” she said, “this is from the magical city beneath the sea. My dad told me about it: if you swim out past Kapiti, there’s no land for ten thousand thousand kilometers, until you get to Ar-gen-tina. Somewhere in that ocean, there’s Atlantis, which is stuck beneath the sea ‘cos God got mad at it.”

“Nah,” said Henry, “Atlantis is in the Atlantic. It’s right there in the name.”

“Nah nah,” she said. She banged her staff in the sand. “There’s thousands of boats going through the Atlantic every day. Thousands and thousands, but there’s basically nothing between here and Cape Town – that’s why nobody has ever found Atlantis, ‘cos it’s in an ocean that nobody ever travels on.”

Henry nodded: it checked out. “Atlantis sounds cool,” he said. “It sounds way better than Wellington, and way way better than Paekak. This town sucks.”

Sophie was real smart, and also real pretty. Henry went to hang out with her every day after that. They walked up and down the beach, and found all sorts of cool stuff. They talked about their dads: her dad sounded way nicer than his. They didn’t find any more horseshoe crabs, but one time they found weird tracks in the sand that Sophie said a horseshoe crab had left – an alive one! Maybe it was looking for its friend. That was kind of sad: it must’ve been very lonely, being a horseshoe crab.

***

Mum and dad made snapper fillets for dinner again. Henry hated snapper fillets. He didn’t like eating fish at all: it smelled bad, and it tasted the same way it smelled. Fish were cool to read about, but eating them felt wrong. They’d been alive once, in the great big endless ocean. They could go anywhere. Now, they were meat that you ate with lemon and a side of mashed potatoes. Henry didn’t eat his snapper, so dad got mad and sent him to bed early.  

He was sitting and reading the Big Book, when he heard dad shout. At first he thought dad was just mad at mum again but then he heard glass breaking and got scared: dad liked to shout and swear, but he never broke things.

Henry didn’t want to go out of his bedroom, but he also knew that it was important to be brave. Maybe somebody had fallen down. He opened the door just a crack, and peeked out. The smell of blood was so thick in the air that he gagged. He ran back inside his room and slammed the door, then dived underneath the bed. The springs and rods of the bedframe dug into him and almost made him cry out, but fear kept him quiet.

He curled up, and shivered, and didn’t cry.

Somebody knocked on the bedroom door.

“Henry?” they said. Their voice was strange: it went click-clack and sounded like it came from deep inside their throat. It was thick and wet and sounded like the tide retreating.

A moment passed, and a new voice came through the door: one he recognised.

“Henry?” said Sophie. “They’re gone now. We can go.”

“The monsters?” said Henry.

“Yeah Henry,” said Sophie, “the monsters are gone.”

He crept out from under the bed, and opened the door. Sophie stared back at him. There was blood all over her: on her shirt, on her jeans, on her face. Henry didn’t know what to do, then he saw it: behind her, chittering and burbling, looming up with spiderlike legs and its mouth oozing blue blood. He screamed, grabbed her, pulled her through the door, then slammed his whole weight against it. She stood in the middle of his bedroom, and smiled at him.

Then, she began to grow. The skin around her mouth peeled back, and her pretty green eyes bulged and split. Her legs melted together, and three pairs of spiderlike arms uncoiled from her chest. Henry heard her spine snapping and reforming as she twisted into her new form. It didn’t look like it belonged upright: she swished her tail back and forth like she couldn’t stay balanced.

“I’m sorry my dad scared you,” she said, in that voice like the sea rushing between rocks. “We came to take you away, to the city. Like you said you wanted.”

She wrapped her arms around him and he didn’t know whether she was hugging him or hurting him. One of them cut him, just a little, and he felt a strange rush. She was cold, and damp. She smelled like the ocean, and like dead things. Henry began to cry. He cried in her arms for longer than he knew, then she let him go and he went and unlocked the door.

“Hello Mr Sophie’s Dad,” he said. The beast did not respond. It pointed, with its strange bonelike arms, out to the sea beyond Kapiti, then it fell from its upright position: it scuttled across the floor, a medallion of cold chitin like a knifelike tail. Henry sobbed. Sophie brushed by him. Her tail flicked up and tapped gently against his back. Her voice came muffled from somewhere beneath her shell.

“C’mon Henry,” she said, “it’ll be cool. You don’t need to be alone.”

He couldn’t see his parents’ bodies, but the reek of their blood made his head spin. The two gigantic horseshoe crabs scrambled out the door and across the sand. Henry stared at them. His throat hurt from crying. The water called to him. It was beautiful, but he couldn’t say why.

He took a deep breath, and followed them into the ocean.

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