Image of Long Story Short Award - Fall 2020
Image of Short Fiction
The crowd thronged around Larry as he shuffled forward. Its members shoved past him like a rushing current, heedless of courtesy in their excitement. He forgave the jostling, of course, for his mind was just as spellbound as theirs, the outside world faded to buzz and blur amidst the shining beacon of Theophany. This was the holy day, the sacred ceremony, the event Larry had been looking forward to ever since his first swim. He’d never been able to participate before, as the young lived apart from the main community. Now, after so many years of anticipation, his curiosity had reached a fever pitch. What would the ceremony be like? Would they truly get to see a god? The wonder morphed into a familiar ache as he pondered. He could never bury his hope for something greater, something beyond his childhood’s monochrome stain of dreariness. The longing pulled at his heart like a fishhook on an inexorably reeling string. In his imagination, the string belonged not to a rod but an instrument – a divine violin playing the harmony of the universe, luring him with its hypnotic melody into some abyss of the mind. A fathomless trench in which his soul would learn to sing that harmony, too.

Sand shifted underfoot as Larry walked with the crowd, a few grains tumbling downhill before him and glinting in the moonlight. The ceremony would begin once they reached the bottom of the slope. Larry tried, with little success, to quell his impatience. The wait for the full moon had drifted by like a jellyfish caught in the doldrums, endless days clogging his mind like oil in the throat. At the least, the steady crawl of illumination across the moon face had given plenty of time for observing his new community. For all their reverence of Theophany, everyday life looked surprisingly secular. They hunted, ate, strolled, slept. All rather ordinary, until Larry had noticed a strange habit: at each meal, a portion of food was set aside and carefully stored away.

“Those are our offerings,” his new friend Lawrence had explained. “We carry them with us to the holy grounds.” Larry had nodded and begun to save portions of his own, even on nights his belly protested in hunger.

Today those pangs gnawed with a vengeance, teased by the rich scent of offerings being carried all around. Larry had never seen so much food in one place before, could never have believed their struggling community possessed so much. Yet it was all to be given away. What could this god be like that it wanted their food? Perhaps the gesture was merely symbolic, proof of the worshipers’ devotion. Or perhaps the deity truly intended to eat everything they brought. The idea of a god needing to eat felt absurd to Larry, like a contradiction of terms, but if the food were somehow transformed...magicked into pure energy, or nourishing aether, or an ambrosia of everlasting life! Larry turned to share his ideas’ excitement with whoever happened to be closest, and his euphoria swiftly chilled.

Beside him, Luna and her partner Liam shambled along. Larry had heard the whispers about them, about the slow dulling of their shells to faded brown. Luna’s recent pregnancy had been especially difficult. Liam had practically starved so she could have enough to keep up her strength, while her body had devoted as much nourishment to the eggs as it could. It still hadn’t been enough; no one expected their children to live. They were too weak and sickly, malnourishment evident in their feeble tininess. All the while as the parents drowned in suffering, they hadn’t reduced their contribution by a single shrimp.

“Here, let me carry that,” Larry said gently. Luna startled, eyes snapping up. When he held out a claw, her gaze clouded over once more. She passed him her offering without a word.

If only Luna’s family were an isolated case. Despite being new to adulthood, Larry knew what a healthy lobster was supposed to look like. The past month had been a blur of countless dulled shells, friends going hungry as they dutifully packed away the food their aching bellies craved. Larry had wanted to say something, to encourage them to eat what they needed. Gut churning, he’d kept silent.

The words still wouldn’t come as he accepted Luna’s morsel. It was puny, pitiful, far too much. Dread dropped like lead into Larry’s stomach, sharp as starvation. Each time he tried to return his thoughts to the ceremony, the sick feeling seized his mind, wrenching his attention back to suffering, weakness, hunger. His claws pinched in frustration. He refused to let Theophany be another casualty of his worry, tossed into a mass grave alongside countless nights of lost sleep. Their sacrifice had a purpose, something far greater than the needs of the flesh. Larry could only not understand because he’d never experienced it himself. Soon all would be clear. Feeling reassured, he shook himself from his musings just in time to collide with the lobster in front of him who had suddenly stopped walking. The descent was complete.

It was dark this far below the surface. Only the faintest slivers of moonlight percolated to this depth. Larry could just make out the outlines of the lobsters around him; everything else was lost in darkness. The vibrations thrumming through the water made his hairs stand on end and his claws flex against shivers of anticipation. No one moved. They all stood frozen, waiting. A mood of great solemnity had descended upon the crowd, but as Larry stood amongst the grave faces, his heart soared. Giddiness bubbled up in his chest and fizzed through the tip of his tail. His head felt full of seafoam, light and cheerful as coral. Maybe he should calm himself, respect the gravity of the moment, but he couldn’t believe everyone else’s seriousness! Surely not even years of habituation could dampen the ecstasy of what they were about to experience. A true communion, transcendence, Theophany – Larry felt ready to crawl out of his exoskeleton from excitement.

As his mind whirled, something in the distance began to move. The hulking shape was nearly upon them before it managed to cut through Larry’s haze of exhilaration. The cacophony in his mind went silent, replaced with blank shock. Darkness still obscured his vision, and the figure stood far across the crowd, yet he knew at once with utter certainty what it was: an astonishingly, horrifyingly enormous lobster. Its bulk interrupted the angle of the moonlight, casting their tiny huddle into black shadow. Larry’s mind sputtered as it tried to comprehend the thing’s scale. Bigger than a shark, wide as a whale. Imagining how many molts it would take to reach that size, he shivered. The lobster had to be centuries old. Of course, lobsters tended not to die unless something killed them, but starvation always eventually did. At a certain point, one lost the agility needed to hunt. Yet here this behemoth stood, shell gleaming with health.

The worshipers went forth one by one, depositing their offerings at its feet before scuttling away. The heady scent of pheromones suffused the water from a thousand prayers of adoration. Drifts of sand, kicked up by all the movement, danced lazily in the current before settling on the tops of their shells. Larry hardly noticed the layer of grit as it began to cake the offering balanced on his back. It lay heavy compared to the little shrimp Luna had given him. Clutching it – her measly offering, the price of her children’s lives – close to his chest, Larry turned and walked back into the moonlight.