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        I’m trapped in an underground warren near a lake, held in a claw-hewn lair by my captor—a hulking red-orange lake monster who is laboring to breathe. I think she’s grieving.

        Overhead, my boss and his wife are searching for me. He calls my name. “Carmen!”

        I try to respond but just as the sound slips from my throat, the creature slaps her lightning-quick tail across my mouth and nose so that I can’t breathe, much less make a sound. I struggle, my fingers pressed against her heavy appendage, but it’s not until the voices overhead fade that she lets her tail drop. 

        My wits are fried. Calm your breathing, I tell myself. I need to think my way out of here. It’s the lake monster’s birthing retreat—a damp dirt-walled chamber made of red clay, roomy enough for a 400-pound creature to turn easily in. My cellphone has no service underground but the flashlight works. The lake monster has rust-colored skin and a back that slopes to a long tail, which, when lifted, flashes a bright copper underbelly. I am as much in awe of her as I am terrified. The colors are more vibrant than the pictures I’ve seen. Her presence, though regal, shows the tell-tale sign of having recently given birth—a musky discharge, a flaccid belly, and that tight coil at the end of her tale. She is sagging against the dirt wall, but her pup is nowhere to be found. 

        I had hoped to find some tool to fight her off, but there is nothing here other than some broken tea cups, an old tree stump, a copy of Watership Down, and a little green dress. Detritus she has probably gathered from nearby campsites as she prepared for a maternal convalescence.

        For the past hour, she has trapped me in this tenuous state, blocking the door, eyeing me half-curiously, while she shifts from side to side, occasionally emitting a low whine. Earlier, she began drifting off but then suddenly jerked, as if coming out of a
near-dream and, upon recognition, stared violently at me.

        I have been calculating my fate, racing through various escape scenarios:  She will fall asleep and I will creep out through the tunnel she used to bring me here. Or she will become so despondent with grief that she turns an apathetic back to me so that I can sneak out. So far, she only stares at me with an unrelenting gaze, as if I am here to bear witness to her sweltering pain, to absorb her intermittent groans.

        This all happened because I fell off the lake wall. I’d heard the rumors—that lake monsters had been seen here in recent years. Usually spotted only in the boggiest of places, the warming weather has made northern locales more hospitable. So perhaps it was dumb of me to walk alone at night on the wall, angry as I was, and not completely sober.

        The dark water hit me like a slap. I cried out and began flailing, the yellow lights of my boss’s fancy lake house bobbing too far in the distance. I was scrabbling back up the lake wall slicked with moss when something grabbed my leg and pulled me under. It wrapped its tail around my torso, pulling me so long through the water that I nearly passed out. When it flung me out on the opposite bank, I gasped for air, my mind spinning. 

        I was ragged with adrenaline and could not feel my limbs from the shock of it. But there was a moment after that, when I was still trying to get the stars to stop shimmying overhead, that I caught sight of her face. The metallic sheen of her bright skin glinted in the moonlight and her flared nostrils were large enough to see up into. This was not the beast from those staid field guide drawings. This was a creature both fierce and sorrowful, heated and lashing out. Her black eyes were devastated moons, disappearing behind night clouds. She turned to the opening of her warren and yanked me down through a tunnel, bumping me against clay walls into this hovel.

        Over the last hour, her strength seems to have waned and her suffering grown, and that might be my window out of here. She flops to one side, her head twisting awkwardly to keep an eye on me. She must be exhausted because she doesn’t sit up. And that whine, it’s so sad. How motivated can she be to keep me here? Her chest heaves like she’s searching for breath and a sour smell wafts off her. Is she dying? How long will it take? Can I wait her out? Sweat trickles from my temples. I wipe my brow and, with that movement, Lake Monster raises her head to watch me.

        “What do you want from me?” I whisper.

        She flicks her tail, the coil on the end loosening a little.

        My knees have been pulled against my chest, curving my back. I shift to sit cross-legged so I can straighten my posture. Lake Monster strains to lift her neck. I try not to eye the tunnel that leads out of there. It’s so close.

        “What do you want from me?” I ask again, feigning bravery.

        “Mrrrmmmh,” she groans.

        My throat hurts. My back hurts. I am terrified.

         The ironic thing is, I used to be obsessed with these strange creatures. Before I got my current job, I’d dreamt of being a vertebrate zoologist and now keep a field guide tucked in my bottom desk drawer at work. Sometimes on sunny days, I still take my sad sandwich to the nearby park during my lunch break and leaf through the pages. 


        Lake monsters are ecologically and relationally meaningful despite their short life spans. What begin as slimy hot-pink pups, turn into young, independent youths basking on sunny rocks, but rapidly morph to doleful adolescents, much like the human kind. In this phase they may seem surly, found mostly at the mucky bottom of lakes, but they are doing important work—building up stores of hormones that will catapult them to action in just a few brief years. By age three they have ballooned in size and are ready for mating. 


        “Carmen!” The call muddles through to our little hollowed-out spot. They’re still looking for me. My hair, half-dried with lake water, crunches around my face. I know if I yell for them, it will alarm Lake Monster, worsening my chances of sneaking out. Perhaps I can distract her and inch my way to the tunnel or lull her to sleep with a story. 

        I lean forward and whisper, “Do you know why I was out there by the lake?” She keeps one eye closed and one trained on me. “My boss offered me a promotion, and when I asked about money he laughed and said, ‘Oh, Carmen, you’ll have to prove yourself first.’”

        “Can you believe that? I was sitting in the rocking chair next to him enjoying the warmish night air and feeling sort of grown up until he said that. I could hear his wife Stefanie laughing with my coworker’s wives through the open window behind us. They all seemed to be having a grand time, while I was pretending to be fascinated by interest rates, and then he said that thing—that I’d have to prove myself.”

        Lake Monster adjusts her head in my direction.

        “I must have looked a little shocked because he said, ‘Let’s see how you do. Give it, say, six months.’ Then he raised his cocktail glass in the air, like he was gesturing time passing, and said, ‘and we’ll reassess.’” 

Lake Monster thumps her tail one time. She seems . . . something. Indignant?

        “It was the way he bent his wrist when he raised that glass. I know you don’t have hands, but imagine,” I snake my legs out flat behind me like we’re two girls at a sleepover. Her tail swishes in response. “If I had that much power in the turn of my wrists, the comics would have me shooting bolts from my fingertips.”

        I’m close enough to see the gunk in Lake Monster’s tear ducts. My curly hair reflects off the curve of her one opened eye. The light on my phone has created a dimly lit dome around us. Slowly, the tip of her tail shifts across the floor, bending toward me, until it rests against my arm. The touch is gentle, and I am moved by it.

        “I just couldn’t take it, you know? I told him I was going for a walk to think about it. And do you know what he said?” Lake Monster opens both eyes now. She’s listening. “He said, ‘Be careful. There are lake monsters out there.’”


        Unfortunate for the male of the species, they are poisoned by the female reproductive bile immediately upon fertilization—a maternal defense adaptation to ensure their pups are safe from their predatory and jealous fathers. The mothers, however, don’t have much more of a long-lived life. They last an average of eight months after giving birth to their first and only child. In what is known as the “incubation phase,” a misnomer to be sure, the pup’s bones remain flexible, capable of being tightly ensconced in the end of its mother’s tail until her eventual death.

        A tough reproductive cycle by human measures but don’t count the lake monster out. Their brief lives have a critical place in the ecosystem of the lake, their excrement is an excellent source of fertilizer, and their biochemistry is ripe for filial love.


        My head is now lying on the ground next to hers. Her hot breath pulses against my eyelashes. Her tail has curved loosely over my chest, and it seems to be calming her because her breathing has slowed, as if she may actually fall asleep. When she is solidly out, I can slip out from beneath her tail and tiptoe away.  After a few moments watching her chest rise and fall, her eyes flutter shut. I count 20 Mississippis. 

        “Caaarrmen!,” my boss bellows overhead. Lake Monster’s eyes blink open. Damn it. 

        “Please let me go,” I say. She snorts, her tail heavy against my body. I roll out from under it and skitter back against the clay wall, kicking my phone. The light wobbles against the reddish-brown walls. She clamps the empty coil of her tail against her stomach where her baby should be. “Where’s your little one?” I ask. 

        She whimpers and rises onto her knees for the first time. I jump back and bang my head on the dirt wall. 


        The younglings have a voracious appetite, eating frogs and minnows and small coyotes. The adolescents have a strong taste for small children if given an easy opportunity with them but are generally too lazy to swim to the surface for little kicking legs. The adults resort to bric-a-brac lake vegetation for their meager survival, their need for calories waning rapidly in their latter years. They live their whole lives, it seems, preparing for the moment of copulation and the tumultuous aftermath of birth, with a near-heroic maternal bond.


        “Carmen!” My boss sounds angry now. I hear bickering and stand up. They’re right overhead. I step toward the dirt tunnel I’d arrived through. Lake Monster swipes her gargantuan tail to stop my escape, wrapping its end around me in a too-tight embrace. I gasp. 

        Stefanie asks, “What were you talking to her about that made her so upset she had to go for a walk?” Their voices are clearer now. They’re close. 

        “I offered her a promotion. That’s it. A promotion. She said she’d have to think about it and skulked off.”

        “How could you let her go out alone in the dark?  With those monsters!”

        His voice drops a note. “I thought it would look presumptuous if I offered to walk with her.”

        I’m breathing hard, staring at the tunnel, weighing the risk of shouting for help and daring an exit. 


        Most symbiotic relationships require some measure of mutual harm. A need arises, a need is met, a bond is formed, and everything dies a little bit. Even cellular division, on some level, is the generation of future ghosts.

        It is easy for humans to look at the lake monster’s short lives with sympathy. But we would do well to remember that time is relative. Much as the mighty bald cypress might look upon our human lives as nearly meaningless due to its abbreviated nature, nearly all of us would say it was worth it. 


        Lake Monster’s knees buckle and she drops onto her belly, her tail slackening, though still coiled around me. Her breathing is more labored now than ever. Her skin dulls to a burnt orange and she whines. For a moment I stare, almost wishing there was some way to save her but if I don’t yell now, I’ll lose my chance. “I’m here!” I cry out.

        Her tail constricts, and my voice gets clipped as she twists tighter around my chest.

        “Damn it!” I cry, swallowing the words.

        “Shh,” says Stefanie. “What was that?”

        I struggle against Lake Monster’s enormous appendage. They’re right there. They just need to hear me. 

        “John!” I manage to cry out.

        “Is that her?” he says from above. Feet stomp. Brush moves.


        Lake Monster’s tail is so tight around me now, I can no longer call out. The creature’s skin rusts from gold to bronze, the way a person on the edge of death loses their color. Her rump is raised in the back, teetering on the pile of her legs. She is capsizing, failing. She brandishes the last of her strength in her ferocious tail. 

        “Carmen?” Stefanie calls. There is scratching overhead. 

        “Stefanie,” I croak. The bruise of cocktails has waned from my system. It is only fear and abject terror.

        They seem to be scraping through the dirt overhead. I plead with my eyes, but all I see is a mother holding on to the only child she’ll ever have, until she squeezes so hard my ribs crack. 

        I was in amniotic brine once, bunched up and knees knocking my cheeks, until I burst forth and was desperately loved, no matter how briefly I was there.

Lake Monster's Lost Pup

Harli James

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