Death of a Merman
On the table, writhing and gaping, lay a gray, wet, interminable length of muscle fronted by a frightful, basketball-sized head filled with rows of teeth. The thing twitched and coiled, serpentine, then lay still. I goggled at it. It was the only thing in the world. There was nothing else to look at; my vision had narrowed down to this one thing, this creature from the edge of unreality. It lay still, stiller than still, for an eternity. I can't remember if the table was still moving along the hallway. I can't remember what Mr. Newton was doing at this point. I stared into the one glazed eye of the creature that was closest to me. It was black, intelligent, depthless.
The spell was broken, of course. Like a jack-in-the-box, or a toaster watched too closely, the thing jumped to life again, jaws agape, and my young psyche broke. I can't remember if I screamed, but I know my heart dropped out of my body and into the ground, and Mr. Newton took action then. He said, and I remember these words like they are being spoken to me at this very moment, "Stand back. You don't want to get splattered." And then he raised the baseball bat which he'd been carrying and which I hadn't noticed, and he brought it down with all the strength of a grown man, onto the creature's head. There was a sick, solid thud. There was no splattering of brains. A little blood. A twitching and shuddering set up along the incalculable length of muscle that was the creature's (body? tail? what the hell was this thing, that was longer than the table and hung toward the floor and was now, I understood deep in some newly-awakening part of my brain, dying?) The jaws with their rows of splintered teeth chomped once or twice, and stopped. And with them stopped any illusion of an idyllic, Little Women-style childhood where I might run innocently about, wind in my hair, my belief in the goodness and justice of the larger world blissfully intact. This new childhood was decidedly more...Hobbesian.
The moment ended. Time seemed to remember that it had a job to do, and it sped back up to its normal pace, and Mr. Newton carried on pushing the table down the hall. I never saw the creature again, never heard its name. Years later, when I uncovered that memory, because I had an adult brain that could contemplate such memories and the Internet had been invented, I hunted the thing down on Google. It took a bit of digging; I asked the Internet what in fuck's name is big enough, ugly enough, and intelligent enough, that lives in Northern waters and can survive out of water for a bit. Turns out Mr. Newton was wheeling a wolf eel down the hallway of our elementary school. See it here:
Wolf eels are actually fish, not eels, and are fearsome-looking but fairly peacable animals. They mate for life, and are rather affectionate, if one could call a fish affectionate. I don't know why I'm explaining all this--I guess I feel I owe them a favor, after such a disservice was done to one of them in my young presence. Even back then, a fear-frozen second-grader watching the death of a monster, I understood that the monster was actually us. The creature on the table should never have been there. It's not like he asked to be brought up out of the water and get a free tour of our lovely school. He wasn't looking to have me for breakfast. Maybe he'd left behind a lady friend in the dark, cold water, a mate who wondered where he was. Taking a baseball bat to the head--that's no way to die.
So I did learn something from Sea Week, and I did get my merman, after all; a creature more fantastic than I could have imagined, because in the end, it was real. And if it's real, then we still have a chance to save it. It's up to us to educate ourselves, via our big brains and the fantastic Internet, and any other way we can, about our oceans. We don't have to wait for Sea Week, and we don't have to wait until one of these incredible creatures dies in front of us. We can do it now. We owe it to them.