map The Sand Octopus

by L.Shapley Bassen

Published in Issue No. 251 ~ April, 2018

Rei: universal energy outside all living things, the highest spiritual consciousness, God’s energy. Rei energy has a frequency of 7200 cps (cycles per second) or above.


“If you set a story in 1320, Europe, you’ve got to know that in 28 years, bubonic plague will cross the Channel and continue annihilating half your unsuspecting characters. If you set a story in the present day, you know you’re equally blind to an inevitable future.”

Not that Marjorie’s husband, Byrd, a newly-minted Reiki Master in Manhattan, visibly reacted to his wife’s remark as he passed by her associates in the living room en route to the renovated kitchen, but he did stop – pause – in his mind. In the past several years, Marjorie’s hobby/obsession – writing historical novels – had miraculously paid off. One of the first three had won a national award, but the one about Bach’s second wife Anna Magdalena had taken off, become a bestseller in the genre, been optioned for a movie, and resulted in new representation and contracts for at least two more novels. In the business, she had progressed from having a nice deal ($1 – $49,000) to a very nice deal ($50,000 – $99,000), onto a good deal ($100,000 – $250,000) and was hopefully headed toward significant ($251,000 – $499,000) and major ($500,000 and up). Whatever labels attached to higher eyries were beyond Byrd’s flights of imagination. All this, as bookstores and publishers shuddered and toppled like Middle Eastern dictatorships, both fundamentally supplanted by novel (Byrd punned) technologies. IBM’s Watson had trounced Jeopardy’s two prior human champions as the week began.

Byrd’s passage to the kitchen had been no idle journey; it was intended to cue Marjorie to end the authors’ club morning meeting so their trip to the ocean could commence. After three feet of snow and bitter temperatures that winter, the January thaw had finally arrived for Valentine’s Day week, all the more to be celebrated. They were expected in Freeport on Long Island. Nevertheless, in the kitchen Byrd toyed with the new stainless espresso maker and poured a foamy fragrant cup he sipped at on his return to the ‘study’ – the small second bedroom in this Upper West Side building where Marjorie had lived all her life (‘inherited’ from her parents). Rent-controlled in the West 80’s, now renovated by her royalties, the apartment was the steal of the still-young century. Byrd’s earlier moment of inner cessation had filled with wonder: how had this son of the South found himself in this place and time after all – and what was to follow, what was following/awaiting him in the blind future?

In the South, Byrd had grown morbidly obese, and his first wife and now adult children had looked to him like marionettes he’d seen at a country club wedding, cavorting to the melody and lyrics of Dixie. Byrd had met Marjorie after he’d written a fan letter via her first publisher. He had explained that as a principal in an advertising/marketing firm in Mississippi, he’d Googled through Baroque music to Bach’s Joy of Man’s Desiring for one purpose and located instead Marjorie’s novel about Anna Magdalena Bach. Then he’d felt a compulsion to read her book and had been – “Perhaps Bach’s Sleepers, awake! would have been the more apt title for me.” His forwarded letter had a similar effect on Marjorie, who had snailed him a handwritten reply along with his requested/reimbursed autographed copy of Joy. Thereafter, their courtly correspondence rivaled Cyrano’s and Roxane’s, lacking only the Bergerac nose and duplicity.

Byrd left his wife and Mississippi. He married Marjorie, and on her health insurance (he was unemployed in Manhattan) had bariatric surgery whose complications resulted in a successful malpractice suit that underwrote his Reiki education and certification. Three hundred pounds lighter, as if released from a prison of flesh, Byrd found acolytes, clients, and a decent cash flow. Marjorie’s books sold lucratively: she retired from her research job of three decades, located in a sliver of a building designed by Stanford White near the Empire State. Its mirrored, red-marbled entry was a reminder of an entire era utterly replaced by not one, but now, two centuries.

Today, after the society of historical fiction authors would leave their living room, Byrd and Marjorie would walk through the warm oasis of February sunshine to the subway to Penn Station, and from there descend to the Long Island Railroad train, rising to Freeport, to Guy Lombardo Avenue, to the Nautical Mile, to a restaurant overlooking an inlet of the Atlantic where gambling cruise ships slowly moved out into tax-free waters. The black couple they would meet in Freeport for lunch would take them afterwards to Point Lookout. Off-summer season, there they could walk freely along the beach by the jetties and the waves. They had socialized with the Thornes several times before, in the City and on the Island, after Ernelle had introduced herself as a fan much as Byrd had. Ernelle Thorne was a high school music teacher. Her husband Charles, a doctor, ribbed Byrd about Reiki in an easygoing way.

“So Rei energy had a frequency of 7200 cps? That the same as hertz?

“I’m sure I don’t know,” Byrd said.

“That’s a twenty-five mile long wave,” Charles spread his arms, “some long wave, moving at the speed of light, cycling by every 1/7200 of a second. Boggles the mind. How do you get your hands on that?

“Let me know when you’ve done the math.”

The men socialized with the mutual indifference of book covers to their wives’ aligned interior pages. How apt was the démodé book-binding metaphor for the sexagenarians, Byrd thought, in this age of e-books (where Marjorie’s novels also sold well). Befriending the black Thornes was just another piece of the new jigsaw puzzle of Byrd’s Northern life. This brave new world was new to him.

Extraordinary, how it was the same sky and atmosphere over the City, but beside the ocean, the air and light were altogether different. The ground underfoot, neither asphalt nor cement, was sand, in dunes, on lips, alive with puckers of hidden clams. Near a splashed jetty lay a flat Germanic helmet moulted by a horseshoe crab. It attracted and appalled Marjorie. “A prehistoric hieroglyph,” she called it, running away towards the next jetty, each one marking the beach like a musical staff. There were only a few notes – people – on the beach on a February Wednesday afternoon.

At first, the women walked together and the men followed. Byrd walked to the rhythm of the waves, but Dr. Thorne slowed, examining the seascape.

“The tide’s rising,” he observed. “Humans are ‘ugly bags of mostly water.’ About 60%. Y’know, you see plenty of unexplained phenomena in medicine.”

Byrd felt a pulse of connection. “Star Trek, Next Generation. Home Soil. Great episode.”

Dr. Thorne continued in the same reflective tone, “But ‘for example,’ is never proof,” and with a friendly nod walked ahead to catch up with the women.

Byrd contentedly returned to the ocean’s beat. He enjoyed watching Marjorie fluttering on land while terns and gulls flew over the water, clusters of them alighting like one thought on a wave, jetty, or now-unchaired lifeguard mound. Byrd had grown up beside – out of, he sometimes fantasized – the great river that smelled of stones and mud and catfish. He could smell the Mississippi in his mind, contrast it to the salty Atlantic. Like a comma, a premier moon crescent punctuated the afternoon sky. Byrd sighed, ‘in equal scale weighing delight and dole,’ sorry and smug to invoke Claudius. He saw ahead of him Marjorie and their acquaintances stopped at the water’s edge, blocking his view of whatever had halted their progress. As he closed the distance, he saw a big man, bald and clothed in flannel shirt and ankle-soaked jeans, barefoot, sweating with his nearly finished labor. Byrd put his left arm around the waist of Marjorie’s thick leather jacket. He could feel her disturbed byosen. She reached up to cover his mouth with her hand, to keep him silent.

Before them was a sand sculpture of a giant octopus – so realistic it caused an instinctive recoil – its back to the ocean, facing inland. Its suckered arms were positioned to appear partially underwater – the sand – and partially dragging under its prey whose shoulders and head clearly identified it as the sculptor himself. The entire sculpture – octopus and artist – was just as clearly immediate prey of the rising tide. Each new breaking wave brought seafoam closer to drowning the tableau and dispatching its creator.

Byrd felt Marjorie trembling against him; her aura was the palest green. How easily she was given to episodes of overwhelmed intensity. She could concentrate herself into another time and place so completely that she would speak in whatever foreign language she was researching. She often reacted to awakening from a dream as if kidnapped like Oliver Twist. Now she twisted against Byrd’s embrace.

Just for today, just for today,” Byrd chanted the mantra and moved his right hand clockwise against her back, behind her pounding heart. He felt tenohira (his palms) transferring gi (healing energy). He breathed in light and breathed it out, “Anahata,” into Marjorie’s fourth chakra.

The sculptor put finishing touches on the octopus. A wave splashed the artist, and this time the cold water made him shiver and run up the beach, close to Byrd and the others. The black couple had taken out their cell phones and were about to take and send photos.

“Stop!” the sculptor barked. “No!”

Marjorie’s eyes filled. She moved beyond Byrd’s calming touch, shaking her head at the Thornes. “No,” she echoed, more gently, reassuring the chagrined couple.

After they left Point Lookout, they drove to Long Beach and walked on the boardwalk. There were young Jewish mothers with strollers, one or two retirees on bicycles, and some blank-eyed elderly lined up in sweaters and jackets behind glass in the King David old age home.

“In 1914,” Marjorie said, “elephants from Coney Island’s Dreamland were brought here to help haul pilings to build the boardwalk, but it was a publicity stunt by a man named Reynolds, the Donald Trump of the time. Verne and Irene Castle – you know, the Astaire-Rogers movie? –  opened a nightclub. And Clara Bow vacationed right here. She was born in Brooklyn. She was The ‘It’ Girl in 1927. That was the name of the movie she starred in. ‘IT’.”

The sun was fast setting behind the City in the west, beyond Brooklyn that bellied out south blocking Byrd’s view, but he could see the map and skyline in his mind. The Verrazano Bridge connected Brooklyn to Staten Island, the mainland, and the Mississippi. Florentine Verrazano had sailed a walnut shell of a French ship (La Dauphine) into the Mahicanituck river in 1524 – and natives, far more robust than the European sailors aboard, watched from the shore as that tide came in.

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L. Shapley Bassen's "Portrait of a Giant Squid" was the First Place winner in the 2015 Austin Chronicle Short Story Contest. She was Fiction Editor for till cessation of publication after 6 yrs], 2014 author of Summer of the Long Knives (Typhoon Media), Lives of Crime & Other Stories (Texture Press), and 2017novella/story collection, Showfolk & Stories [Inkception Books]. She was a finalist for the 2011 Flannery O’Connor Award, was a 1st reader for Electric Literature, won the 2009 APP Drama Prize and a Mary Roberts Rinehart Fellowship, and is poetry/fiction reviewer for Brooklyner, The Rumpus, and others.