“Comments included a suggestion that Exxon executives be tossed
into the drifting oil”
— Re. Valdez, Combined Wire Services, April 24, 1989.
When Larry woke up it was night. He found himself immersed in sea water that seemed unusually cold. His arms and legs were moving; he was swimming toward a cluster of lights on the shore. There were sounds of other bodies plowing through the water next to him. He had difficulties breathing; something was clogging his nose, and the bristles around his mouth stuck together, painfully. There was also a heavy smell wherever he turned his nose, like the smell of junkyards and new driveways in July. The last time he’d been swimming, which was near the beach of his Caribbean holiday home, he’d been able to move his limbs much more freely.
That last time his head had been full of Scotch, and he’d been facing the sun, following a streak of reflections. For a split second he thought he’d fallen asleep still swimming on that beach, and that cold currents were waking him now to the specter of the falling night. But then he remembered having actually swum back to the beach, and having seen Hellengrund, his Public Relations manager, and the members of the board lift their glasses which had sparkled in the late afternoon sun.
Next to him was a snorting sound, emitted by another swimmer. Larry’s eyes seemed to get used to the darkness. He was able to make out a vaguely familiar face that watched him in passing. The lights were closer now; they formed an arc beyond which there was total darkness. It was clear that the swimming could not go on forever; the others in his company were whizzing and coughing, and his own breath was running thin. What would happen once he stopped swimming he could not imagine, but he had the sudden vision of looking at an indoor pool filled with fish. The pool was laid out with turquoise marble, and the water was so clear, he could see his initials, ‘L. R.’ on the bottom in gold. The image of a swarm of herring in that clear water made his stomach growl.
A few of the lights were moving; they were nearer, attached to a large shadow. In front of him there was a sudden commotion; fellow swimmers, unseen, beat the water frantically, and sounds of distress came from all sides. Within seconds he found himself caught in a net. Turning around swiftly, he ran into other bodies, and soon there was no more room for him to turn.
He was pulled up along with his colleagues by the net and dumped onto the deck of a boat, into the intense light of a kerosene lamp.
“I’ll be damned. Look what we’ve got,” said a man’s voice. “Jesus, this makes me sick.”
Looking up, avoiding the blinding light, Larry saw a fisherman whose face was black with grease and tar, and so were his clothes, his hands, and his boots. He looked like nothing he’d seen before, like a fisherman in mourning. Around himself, Larry saw creatures he’d seen in the San Diego Zoo — in an area they called the Arctic Pool — wet fur clinging to their bodies, all covered with blotches of a black, intensely smelling mass.
* * *
“This one here has got a funny look to his eyes,” the fisherman said to his wife, back in his house, carrying Larry cradled in his two strong arms and dumping him into a bathtub filled with warm suds. “It’s almost as if he understands what I’m saying. Just look at him. You see what I mean?”
His wife was a stout woman with a kind baby face who was standing in the door with her hands on her hips. She nodded in agreement.
“Poor thing,” she said, looking at Larry from all sides. Larry became dimly aware he was stark naked, but there was nothing he could do.
“Did you hear this thing about the Chairman of Exxon?” she said. “He’s disappeared. Not been seen for days.”
“Figures,” the fisherman said. “He probably escaped, that swine.”
He took a hard brush and started scrubbing Larry’s belly. Each stroke produced a sharp tingling kind of pain, but also a wave of intense heat on his skin.
“You know,” the fisherman said to him, as his brush continued to scrape, “I take mercy on you, because of the circumstances, but we’re supposed to be on different sides. You’ve been eating my fish.”
Larry tried to protest, but a belch was all he could produce.
“But now the fish is all gone, you see, and we’re both stuck in this mess.”
The fisherman took a pair of scissors and trimmed Larry’s fur where it stuck together with clumps of tar.
Larry cried out from pain, looking for an escape. The bathtub was slippery, and his limbs — or did they call them flippers? — were good for nothing except for making big waves. But then he managed to fling himself up for a short moment and, peering over the edge of the bathtub, he looked into the anxious scruffy face of Hellengrund whose spindle-shaped body was still struggling in the net. Of course, it’s his job, playing the victim, he thought. What’s a Public Relations manager good for? And, falling back into the tub, he regained his executive vision.
“Full-page advertisements in local papers,” he barked in Hellengrund’s direction, although the white-enameled wall of the bathtub hid him from his view. “Arrange fishermen’s ball with Safe-the-Bay raffle. Put village on payroll until media focus shifts!”
The fisherman interrupted Larry’s bold attempt to regain control. He lifted him out of the water which had assumed the appearance of raw sewage and left a ring of tar on the inside walls of the tub. Larry sneezed as his wet body was exposed to the air. He felt hungry, alone and cold. The fisherman walked into the living room with his load and put him gently down on the sofa which was padded with towels.
“Here we go,” he said.
He started his blow-dryer as his wife stood by, making sure Larry stayed put. Larry felt drowsy; the scrubbing had made his skin burn as though it was set on fire. The fisherman continued to speak to him in a soothing voice, but what he was saying was drowned by the loud hum of the dryer.
Larry looked around for Hellengrund, but now the arms of the sofa were in the way. All he could see was the tail of a big-bellied shiny creature in the corner, twitching only intermittently, as though all its energy was spent. Larry was tired and hungry beyond belief. Before his eyes, which were closing now, a swarm of blue-grey herring merged into one glittering stream of light that ran from the horizon all the way into his expectant, desperate, already watering mouth.