Stranger Waters

Note: Dear Readers. I apologize for the previous story, which is admittedly bad. Perhaps not in the idea department, but in structure. I feel it could be so much better, but then again that’s the beauty of these shorts. I can mess them up, but I can then expand and improve upon them, non? 😀 In any case, here’s installment numero dos of the 12 shorts of Christmas. Also, apologies for any editing errors in this one… it’s late and I’ve been working my day job and this is way past my bedtime.

Bas was tired and a little drunk, though sadly that particular state was already in wane and the promises of a terrible hangover could already be felt just over the mental horizon; a headache was soon to come.

He had been traveling through Asia for some months, doing some back-and-forth commutes to his homeland of Costa Rica whenever he had procured whatever item his most voluminous employer – quite frankly his only employer for the past year, just about – had commissioned him to find and acquire. Mr. Mikoto kept his pockets full and, more importantly, was working on an issue Bas himself needed assistance with in exchange for Bas’ peculiar set of talents.

“Owari,” said the suited Japanese man that stepped through the threshold of an oldschool-style Japanese house – not an original but rather built to resemble a Tokugawa period palace – opening and closing his fists, stretching his fingers. Jin was not tall or particularly intimidating physically, but his presence and demeanor spoke of boundless capacity for efficient violence. He was his employer-appointed backup, and had saved Bas’ derriere on too many occasions. In fact, he had just done so.

“That was quick,” Bas remarked, though not entirely surprised. Not any longer.

“The Oyabun,” said Jin with a noncommittal shrug of the shoulders. “They don’t choose their men like they did in my time.”

Jin had once been a Yakuza assassin, many decades before, who having fallen from grace once his boss, his Oyabun, had died, had roamed masterless into chaos for some time. He was now under the care and benefaction of Mr. Mikoto, better known as the Tattoo Collector, and Bas’ employer, though that last detail was hardly a claim to fame.

Just fifteen minutes before Bas and Jin had been sitting on the floor of the pagoda drinking amicably with a few goons of the Yakuza, trying to pry some information about one of the many mcguffins Mr. Mikoto wanted. There had been plenty of sake, some whiskey, and more bare-breasted women than he had been witness to in forever. Despite the alcoholic haze and the cigarette miasma, Bas had managed to edge into a certain conversational avenue that started to yield success. The Tattoo Collector wanted a bone, a whale bone, but not just any such item, and like every single one of the items on his whimsical wishlist, this one required more than a little elbow grease.

The two goons Bas had been chatting up began to grow somber as it became clear what he was inquiring after. This was not something to trifle with, and they were not happy about the gaijin’s intrusion when it came down to something so instrinsically Japanese.

As is bound to happen when alcohol flows freely among tough men, any old little prick of discord can set off a chain reaction of macho bullshit, and such had been the case then. Within seconds the two men were standing, their bare, tattoo-laden torsos quivering with anger at Bas, speaking in quick, strong Nihon-Go that Bas simply could not follow but which underlying meaning he instinctively understood; they were going to kill him, or mess him up something fierce at the very least. The naked women, seeing the sudden change in the room’s mood and knowing better than to become collateral damage, quickly made off, which couldn’t possibly help make the remaining goons any less aggravated at whatever the hell had set their two colleagues off against Bas.

He wasn’t quite sure what happened, but he thought he could recall a fist flying toward him, unnoticed by his drunken conscious mind, but well perceived by his subconscious, the part of him that was the wolf. The wolf in him had caught the fist and unceremoniously broken the issuer’s arm at the elbow with an effortless thrust from his other hand. He didn’t really know what he had done, but the damage had been caused and all he really understood was that it was time to exit stage right.

Jin had already begun doing his thing by the time the now-broken-armed goon’s fist had flown, and so the scene was one of apparent mayhem to Bas as he exited the scene. Cowardly many may think him, but he knew how to pick his battles, and he sure wasn’t about to stand and get in the way of a far more effective killer than him, that being Jin.

“Got the info?” he asked Jin.

Un,” he grunted, meaning yes. “Don’t know what good you are, if I have to get the info like this every time,” he was joking, of course, but Bas couldn’t help but feel the sting of truth behind the jocular barb. He really hadn’t been that efficient at his job as of late, but then again, he still had the upper hand in certain areas over Jin despite the fact that they hadn’t come in handy lately. Also, what the hell was up with the jokes? That was Bas’ thing, the cracking of the whip of sarcasm and the jab of hazing. He did admit the man’s accent had watered down since he first met him. He figured the man must have been real quiet before getting paired up with him.

“Ha. Ha. Ha. Enjoy that smug smirk, see if I tell you there’s poison in your food next time someone slips you something.” There had been only one time Bas had returned the favor for the many times Jin has saved his ass, a bad episode in Hong Kong a couple of months prior.

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Par for the course, Bas thought to himself. Just more of the same with the Weirdness. Here he was, alone in a small fishing boat off of the coast of Okino Island in the Shimane prefecture, waiting for something out of a sailor’s nightmare so he could get the job done, while trying not to be noticed by the thousands of water Yokai – spirits, basically, though that’s hardly an approximation to what it really means, Yokai – that inhabited the sea of Japan.

There was something to say about the Japanese and their culture, the rich folklore full of things that go bump in the night. It likely was one of the reasons why the Japanese people were so apparently stoic in the face of hardship, having been bred of cultural fear, a tiny island nation surrounded by fearsome oceanic forces, at the mercy and whim of things beyond their comprehension. This sure was no land of Totoro, despite what any Miyazaki film might try to tell movie-going audiences.

He was there to collect a bone from a Bake-Kujira, a ghost whale, one of the rarest types of Yokai in Japan. Legends about it were few and far between, since this was a spirit creature aloof and rarely sighted near the coast, but what was known was that it was a violent, aggressive creature that did not suffer mortal onlookers lightly.

Bas was prepared. That is, he was as prepared as he could possibly be to tackled the feat of wresting the bone of a cetacean spirit creature that was anywhere from 15 to 20 meters, like a baleen whale, all bones, no flesh, with a penchant for killing sailors.

It was a moonless night but the sky was clear, star-studded, breathtaking. For a moment here and there, in the loneliness of the small wooden boat, he would forget his self-inflicted predicament and lose himself to the majesty of the universe around and beyond him. Then little things that go bump in the night would bring him back to the there-and-then. Meh, he thought, at least he wasn’t getting molested by the Kappa, the pervs. He chuckled at his own shitty joke.

He had been warned about one particular sea Yokai specifically, something that would look like a rogue wave, a wave alone with no actual swell, the Umibouzu, or Sea Monks. Despite the endearing name, there was nothing monk-like about these Yokai. They were likely named thus because they resembled a monk’s shaven head, but black and slick, with eyes that pierce the darkness of the ocean.

Umibouzu were attracted to light, and fire, because they despised it, so Bas’ boat had no light at all. Despite this precaution, he was already seeing the nasty, gigantic creatures rising above the surface, looking out hatefully at the stars, lights they could not snuff out. He remained calm and focused despite noticing one of the terrible things no more than 10 meters away. He stifled a shudder at the idea of just how big the creature might be underneath the subfuscous surface.

A few more minutes passed and he was now, thankfully, deeper out into the open sea. He had three tools; a harpoon made out of the bone of a whale that had been posthumously named under Buddhist tradition during the Great Tenpo Famine of 1837 – the aptly named “Bone of The Great Whale Scholar of the Universe who Brings Health”, the aforementioned Scholar yadda yadda being the posthumous Buddhist title bestowed upon the deceased aquatic mammal is its beached corpse fed a starving village –, the tooth of a Megalodon said to have been blessed by some Buddhist saint, and a small glass jar filled with dirt from the shore.

The first item was to attack the Bake-Kujira, the mystical weapon said to be tailor made for such creatures. The second another aid in attacking such a yokai as sharks in Japanese mythology have some bond with humans since they, well, eat humans. It is considered taboo to eat shark as it is tantamount to cannibalism. Aside from that, the ancient Megalodon used to swallow whales whole and the tooth, being jacked up with all the mystical steroids you could possibly want, should make old boney Moby Dick that much more vulnerable. Finally, the third item should keep Bas grounded, anchored to this his reality, his dimension, as the fearsome creature he hunted was reputed to transition between dimensions, likely not being native to this one.

Bas was losing hope that the night would prove fruitful, having spent hours out and having no luck, until he noticed a glow out of the corner of his eye. Bioluminescence, he immediately thought, and then he recalled the stories of the ghost whale’s entourage of bizarre, glowing fish and birds. He turned his head in the direction of the glow and was met with close to 50 meters of glittering schools of fish that had features unlike any fish he had seen before. Some had faces that could pass for human, some had legs like those of deer, others tentacled and excreting luminous, rainbow-like ink. The sky was filled with gulls of silver and gold, their cries so familiar yet somehow alien, a subfrequency marking their voices as something not from this earth. And amid the panoply of strange animals, the crowning jewel of the menagerie; the Bake-Kujira.

It was larger than he had expected, whatever its actual size was. It was large and he felt his bowels threaten with loosening. But he also felt wonder at the magnificent spirit creature he saw before him. It was a thalassic marvel, a being that may as well be the god of whales, an oceanic proto-deity that predated hominids. The wolf in Bas felt cowed by the majestic image before it, the presence of a true force of nature.

Minutes passed in silence as Bas could do nothing but stare, awed at the seemingly ligament-less bones held in place by a gelatinous transparency, a tenuous tissue hardly noticeable by the human eye, a living ossuary swimming beneath the surface of an otherwise dark sea.

Then he remembered the task at hand.

He braced himself , realizing in the space of seconds that this was likely the last time he drew breath freely, that he might never be reunitied with the daughter he lost what seemed now like so long ago, that he would probably not survive his task but the price was just right for him to risk it all…

… and so he lauched himself out of the boat, diving into the cold, dark waters, holding the bone-fashioned harpoon in one hand, the megashark tooth strapped to his wet suit, the miniature jar of soil hanging underneath the suit and around his waist.

The mythical whale felt his presence the moment he entered the water, and it’s light was noticeable even in the murk of the water. He oriented himself so as to receive the enormous beast and braced himself for impact with the harpoon held at an angle so that it might cause damage and somehow spare him some of the brunt of the hit.

One second.

Two seconds.

Three.

The impact knocked the air he had been holding right out of him, his ribs ached and burned and his head was on fire. He felt the drag of the sea water as the baleen monstrosity pushed him along. He realized he was still holding on to the harpoon, that it had not struck the creature as he had hoped, but he still had it, and that was a most welcome outcome.

He tried to get his bearings and get a notion of his position relative to the creature’s body, and then used the tell-tale map of the skeletal creature’s anatomy to find where the eyes would be. He fought against the inertia keeping him glued to the creature’s head, raised the harpoon, and scored a glancing hit, missing his mark by a few centimeters. He would have cursed but he was already out of oxygen and his body was threatening with shutting down, so he mustered the last of his taxed muscles’ strength and tried again for the eye socket. This time he found his mark.

Blinding light was the last thing he saw before he passed out, bleeding light, right out of the creature’s wound, which for a moment was as clear as day, not a translucent film of tissue but a perfectly pigmented sheet bleeding white light with rivulets of oily color. Then darkness.

He woke up with a start, a hoarse, deep breath, heart pounding. It was a miracle that he hadn’t drowned! He looked about and he was still surrounded by the bioluminescent school of bizarre fish, the sparkling birds still flew overhead, and now there was a carcass of a still-majestic creature floating nearby.

Bas couldn’t help but feel a sense of dismay at the sight of the thing now dead by his own hands. He had killed a wonder, and it would not return. Was this the only one? He did not know. He really hadn’t thought about it before, but now it was all he could think about. He thought he could almost cry, but the tears wouldn’t come despite the tight knot in his throat. It was done. No used crying over spilled salt, was it? Yeah. He could not take it back, whatever it was that he had done.

He swam slowly toward the floating carcass, his muscles still taxed terribly by the scant seconds of oxygen deprivation. He hope he hadn’t sustained any brain damage. It hadn’t been long enough for that, had it? That was something he would have to contend with later. For now, all that mattered was retrieving the bone and getting back to the boat, assuming he could find it, before any of the other lovely yokai that inhabited the waters came to see what the commotion was all about.

He tore open the translucent flesh with the Magalodon tooth, the tissue giving way and the blubber underneath, somehow not transparent at all, yielding bones. They were large. They were heavy.

Bas moved in and up onto the carcass which floated a little above the surface so as to cut into the dorsal area of the creature where the vertebrae would be. He figured it would likely be the least heavy of the bones in its bone structure.

Once done, he swam about 30 meters and found his boat, luckily aided by the luminous fish’s incidental presence. As he rowed back to shore,, which took him a considerable amount of time, he couldn’t help but muse over the fact that the Japanese were so intrinsically tied to whales as a culture, and the sea.

They had been long condemned for whaling in a time in history when this was forbidden, yet they continued under the guise of scientific research when everybody knew it was bullshit. But their country, their coasts, littered with whale shrines and the evidence of whale cults, show a strange symbiotic relationship with the noble creatures on many different levels. Whales have long been a staple of the Japanese pantheon, often equated as avatars of the god Ebisu – the god of plenty –, and yet they are killed wholesale for no good reason. It didn’t escape Bas that he had done one such killing himself, though he justified his own trespass against nature as the means to an end. An end that trumped all moral causes and all ethics. His daughter.

He would deliver this bone and, he thought, it was high time he called in his payment, the real one, from the Tattoo Collector. It was most definitely time.