This story takes place in the year: 1964
Very few, are those, who are not enamored by the sight of the ocean. What can be said of the ocean and its utter limitlessness, its rhythmic churnings, its unconquerable depths, and spirited passions which have not been better sung by poets of yore? Certainly, it is better to adhere to a contemplative silence in the presence of the ocean, for it exists not merely to be described, but to mesmerize—to induce thoughts of things well beyond it with an unduplicable furor all its own.
Mr. and Mrs. Garrett were certainly infatuated by the sight of the ocean; moreso, they were captivated by the sight of a sky-blue bungalow against an alabaster beach and vibrant headgrass. For this house was theirs, now—theirs to live long lives in, and theirs to gaze from out upon the boundless waters whenever they pleased. And even as they had just arrived, still the cheery occasion of simply seeing the ocean was one of excitement and awe. To them, it was nothing more than a portent to a welcome beginning.
Not so was it for George, who, at so young an age, had scarcely been consulted in the decision of such a drastic change of setting. He had been presumed only to become gratefully accustomed to it, and to quickly forget his little life of yesterday. Perhaps he would, but at the moment he was not forgetful at all. Prior visitations to the beach he had greeted with the same over-abundant glee as any other child his age, but never had he been there without the promise of an eventual return—a return to the neighborhood of his playmates and grandmother, never to see them again except on holidays or rare visits.
George lingered in the back seat of the automobile even as his parents had stepped out of it. He was still drowsy from the earliness of the hour in which he was roused and brought along on so long a drive. His mother beckoned to him to follow, as she was eager to tour their new home. Begrudgingly, he maundered after them, noticing how few the houses were in that place. George did not understand it at the time, but Sunset Beach was very much still within the early stages of property development, and in only a matter of a few years, he would have neighborly playmates in excess—perhaps his father had assured him of this at some point, but his words had fallen upon deaf ears. George wore a dismal expression as his mother showed him all through the new house. She told him to go play outside while she and his father moved the remainder of the luggage inside, but that he was not to go swimming unsupervised. So, George stepped back outside and went rambling along the beach, moping even more now.
He trudged barefoot, wandering back and forth across the fringe between the dry sand and the wet sand, daring even to let the little waves lap against his ankles, wetting them like the curious lickings of his grandmother’s dog, who had so often danced around him when he explored the woods behind her house. Much to his dismay, there was little exploring to be done in such an open place as this—patches of pink-budded hawthorns and tangled junipers grew low upon the dunes, but even these were so trifling that they constituted little more than prickly green thickets to be avoided by his bare feet. At some point, he ascended the loose sand of the dunes, climbing over the wire-bound pickets of some meager fence, only to acquire for himself a little stick by which to poke at the holes of hermit crabs. He then continued along the beach, leaving a long, snaking rut in the sand as he dragged his little stick along behind him, rather unsuccessful in his search for burrows in the earth. Amid this, he did not fully realize how far away from his parents’ bungalow he had wandered, nor how truly alone he was in this new place.
Overhead, great, grey clouds thickened and stirred. They were not storm clouds, for they shifted steadily, billowing fast like smoke out of a piping chimney, causing the sun to flash bright and dark upon that beach in the space of mere moments. George took very little notice of them as well, but in his constant staring down at the reflective sheen of the freshly wave-kissed sands, the fact became slowly obvious to him. More prominent were the winds swirled all around him, chilling his arms and blowing his bangs away from his eyebrows in a manner that made seeing difficult while his head was turned in one way or the other. Quite unconsciously, George was guided by these gales away from the waters and toward a more verdant place, where the beachgrass perforated the sand and fluttered excitedly about at the slightest breeze.
Here, also, the sand was pierced by a scattering of smooth, arid maple branches, which were nearly all shed of their leaves and protruded from the ground in strangely knotted shapes. It was here that the winds subsided somewhat, and George, gazing all around at these curious branches, found some minor distraction from his brooding at last. There was something quite astounding about the way the shadows of the clouds rolled along the gnarled curvatures of these branches—so quickly molding their gloomy crevices into stark, vein-like streaks of black, thereby enhancing the hollow lifelessness of them. A subtle sense of misgiving struck George then, but even at that age he was well enough acquainted with the odd forms which vegetation often occupied, not even if they rose from the earth like the desperate limbs of the dying, their splinters nigh finger-like in their upward reaching, nor even if their shadows waxed long and cacodaemonical across the alabaster sand in the brewing light of the hazy sun. There was, at least, the familiar aura of the forest to be found in them, regardless—and that was enough to imbue George with a faint feeling of homeliness.
As George loped around these weird limbs, gawking dazedly at each one that he passed, he became gradually aware that one of these was certainly unlike the others. He found himself before a shape which was nothing other than that of a human leg, swelling up from the sand. George examined it more closely, noticing at once that this peculiar leg was complete with a knee, a shin, an ankle, a foot, and even five toes, all perfectly proportionate to what was expected of them. But so rugose and sun-tanned was the skin of this leg that George had not immediately discerned it to be so, as it appeared much more akin to the dark and withered branches which surrounded it. Timidly, and very curious, now, he poked at the foot with his little stick, rather thoughtless in his discovery of such a strange thing.
However, he did not expect anything to happen when he did so. Suddenly, amid the skin of the instep, something shifted with a slight sound. A long, thin crack split across the decadent skin of the foot, extending from the toes to the heel, and curving downward in the middle—this shape was not far removed from a smile. From out this crack, a fleshen tongue slithered, its tip worming one way and the other beneath the skin lips of this crevice. And with it, from out these lips, there developed two rows of blackened teeth, which crackled with wetness. Then, the foot turned, pivoting in the sand so that its smiling instep faced George directly. A gurgling arose within the ankle of this foot, which stretched and contracted in a manner that was no different than a human throat. Hacking up a furious, raspy echo, the mouth of the foot spoke to George, saying:
“Lookee ye! Handsome feller—rovin’ on your lonesome?
Come closer, laddie; naught’s to fear!
If yer a friend to me, I’ll be a friend to ye.”
George did not know what to think of this at all. He had never heard of such a thing as a talking foot. He stood petrified, staring at its terribly wide smile in complete startlement; he was still unsure of whether or not he should run away when the foot spoke again.
“What’s troublin’ ye, boy? Ne’er a man’s foot address’d ye?
Paw, I shan’t bite ye, laddie.
Whate’er harm a foot in the sand done to a man?”
George noticed that, with every word pronounced from this bizarre foot, its smile would briefly reset itself—speaking without actually grinning, but rather, doing so in choppy intervals, each time softly crackling, as if its teeth did not quite rest easily behind its lips. Yet there was something subdued about its voice; its tone had an air of helplessness and defeat, yet its accent reverberated with hints of charm and familiarity; it was as if he had heard it somewhere before, speaking to him just as jovially as it did then. Cautiously, he took a step toward it, if only to be more certain of it. Very gently, the foot bobbed up and down just a bit, as if it were nodding to him.
“Aye, thar’s a stout feller, bold as a button.
Now tell me, what ails ye?
What brings ye hither, in such a blue way?”
Rather than fright, George felt unhappiness at these words, for they only served to remind him of his gloomy predicament. And though he had as much distrust for this foot as any child could have toward a stranger, he felt at once the urge to speak of his qualm, as he had nobody else to tell.
“I just moved here with Ma and Pa. I don’t know anybody. I don’t get to see my friends anymore,” he sighed, his gaze falling to the sand at his own feet.
To this, the foot again nodded, smiling in its overly wide, sudden way.
“Aye, lad, naught’s as frightening as foreign shores.
Thar’s apt to be troubles;
Aye, but there’s just as like to be treasures.”
George looked back at the talking foot and frowned with thought. Where had he heard this kind of talk before? Immediately, the vague memories of Jolly Rogers and galleons-in-bottles he had seen on television resurfaced in his mind, along with such names of his toys as Blackbeard and Black Bart Roberts.
“Are you a pirate?” he blurted out, nearly laughing.
The foot seemed to smile even wider at this word—if such a thing was even possible. It cocked itself at a slant, and exclaimed:
“Pirate? Aye, that once I was; privateer, thereafter.
Sailed the Spanish Main to the Indies;
Lootin’ an’ plunderin’ for President Madison.”
“So, are you a captain?” George asked, still giggling at the comical strangeness of the talking foot’s accent and choice of vocabulary, sounding just like a character from a radio show that he had heard once before.
Now, the talking foot sighed a deep, guttural sigh.
“Aye, cap’n and shipmaster both.
Me own vessel, me own crew!
All I lacked was me left leg—paw, me poor footie!”
The foot then remained at a slant, almost as if lost in reminiscing. This transition from cheer to melancholy caused George to wax somber again as well, now wholly infatuated with the burgeoning tale of this talking foot.
“What happened to it?” he asked.
Flinching, the foot shook itself from its momentary musing and turned back to George.
“Ah, t’was a British broadside what took ‘er,
Eight-inch ball cleaved me knee a-twain.
First mate from the waters retrieved ‘er—but alas!”
“You must be a lonely foot, then,” George concluded, bluntly.
But the talking foot did not take offense; rather, it snorted—in only a way a mouth lacking a nose could—and chuckling, said:
“Aye, but now no longer—avast!
You’re with me now, laddie—
From now til’ ye set course for elsewheres.”
George laughed too, suddenly struck by the utter ridiculousness of this talking foot, and its strange mannerisms, and its ludicrous accent, and all its whimsical words. “Why is your mouth on your foot?” he asked, his voice nearly stifled with mirth. Now, the foot, growing somehow even more charismatic than before, straightened itself as much as it could in the sand, and, drawing a deep breath, it erupted with recollection.
“Aye, now that’s a swell tale to tell ye!
T’was a merchant clipper
Just come from the coast of Barbary, heavy with weal.
We sprung sails, gave chase and overtook ‘er
Without so much as a cracked powder
Nor even a single saber unsheathed before the mast.
From ‘er hull seiz’d we a right many pretty things:
Jerusalem menorahs, Gypsie trinkets,
An’ all manner o’ riches from the reaches of Araby.
Among ‘em, a lil’ lamp fashion’d Magi-like
Was fetch’d to me cabin;
An’ ‘pon the sight o’ ‘er I claimed as me own winnings.
I tell ye true—no sooner than me lonesome retired
Thar sprang from its mouth a djinnie,
Who offer’d me his olden sorcery of wishes three.
Aye, but such enchantry was bound to a particular doxy—
That me wishes three must be fates, not flights,
For no sandy djinnie-spell could beguile Death himself.
Me took to ponderin’, pacin’ about and prayin’
That I should wish right wisely,
An’ not so that I would augur me own end mortally.
Firstee, says I, I wish me fated with a great chest o’ treasure,
For what sea need a man sail
When his pockets are aplenty with dollars and doubloons?
But then methought, how could it certain be,
That I return to me native shore
Whole alive and undeparted of me chest o’ treasure dear?
Wished me second, that no ball from musket, ‘buss nor cannon
Should e‘er me flesh strike again;
That me fate should lay what other than any powder wrought.
Thereafter, me right clever wished a third time
That so long as I lived and breath’d
Me mouth should stay o’er the waters, unswallowin’ of the sea.
These wish-fates the djinnie granted with naught but a nod,
Recedin’ then back into the lamp,
An’ t’was not long ere me fated chest o’ treasure appear’d to me.
Yet when homeward bound I was, I found meself harass’d—
By naught other than Colonial schooners;
Me consignment revok’d for piracy ‘pon Yankee merchants.
But with me first wish fulfill’d right well an’ true,
Methought then o’ me second an’ third,
An’ that, certainy, t’was naught to fear from engagement.
Oh, what a hellish din the air was that night, laddie!
Black and fiery as Tartarus,
T’was three Yanks to the Locker sent ere me own Matilda capsized.
Me crew whole was slaughtered sore, yet still was I unscathed;
Avast! Me second wish held true,
An’ now came the hour that I should be deliver’d by me third.
Figurin’ right quick, I bound meself to me chest o’ treasure—
Just like Old Odysseus,
When to that mast he was tied to forgo that deathly sirens’ song.
Me own chest a-puffin’ ‘gainst me chest o’ treasure,
I was cast from me ship,
Tumblin’ headlong into the salty waters of the Atlantic.
Now, somethin’ quite queer happened which ne’re I fathomed—
Me head was submerged whole,
Yet me mouth breathed still, for unto me still-surfaced foot it had gone.
Ne’er once was my foot wettened as I floated in such a wise—
Suspend’d upside-down for many a day,
‘Til unconscious unto me old native shores was I finally wash’d.
Not a soul was there to succor me, nor even to witness me return.
So sleep-like, I sank into the sand,
An’ ne’er awoke ‘til I was buried nigh whole—just as ye see me now.
Aye, what good’s a chest o’ treasure when it cannot be spent?
Ne’er am I to rove again,
Damned to eat the scuttlin’ hermit crabs til’ the end of me days.
Accursed, says I, is all djinnie magic;
Thar’s no givin’ without takin’.
Aye, three fates I’d wish’d, yet a fourth awaited me.”
Having told its tale, the foot turned down its heel and shook itself pitifully—its wide, black-toothed smile now transfigured into a wrinkled, drooping crest of utter despair Now, George had listened quietly and attentively all the while, blinking at the various terminologies which he could not understand at so young an age, but it seemed to him a very sad story; he felt bad for anyone—be they foot or man—who should have nothing but crawling crabs to eat, and who should be so very lonely for so long.
“What if someone digs you out of that sand?” he asked, hoping to restore some cheer in the tone of the talking foot.
Crackling, the foot craned itself toward him again, and, waxing buoyant, stretched its crevice of a mouth once more.
“Aye, but who would unbury a sea-dog soul such as mine?
Would ye do it, me boy?
Would ye free me from me sandy grave to rove once more?”
To this, George shrugged.
“I don’t know how. I don’t have a shovel. I’m sorry,” he admitted.
But the foot was unfazed. It shook itself once more, growing quickly energetic. And it told George:
“Ah, thar’s no trouble in it, laddie—I know whereabout to find one!
Follow the shore northward,
Ye’ll find a spade ‘neath a pier, for there me left leg was laid.
Go an’ fetch it, me boy, an’ bring it right hither.
Prithee, tarry not a moment more—
An’ once I’m out, me chest o’ treasure will be yers.”
The thought of uncovering buried treasure invigorated George at once, even so that he rapidly returned the jerky nods of the foot before turning and tearing sprightly past it, bounding beyond the gnarled, naked branches and onto a clearer stretch of sand.
It was not many strides more before the length of a barnacle-greened pier developed on the horizon, and he became laggard in pace with the fatigue of his little spring. Though the sand here was still steaming hot with the heat of the cloud-crowned sunlight, his only thoughts throughout this jaunt were those which chirped enthusiastically with the song of retrieving buried treasure, buried treasure! He imagined himself showing it to his parents and boasting of it to his grandmother and former neighbors. The very prospect of it was intoxicating, and once his vigor returned to him, he ran again, covering the distance to the pier in spurts of speed. Not once did he consider the strangeness of the talking foot, nor did he suspect any duplicity in spite of its pirate past.
He did not know that the age of those ignoble, swashbuckling rogues had long since come to an end, for he was still too young to have learned that in school. Neither was he aware of the antiquation of djinnie magic, but how else could a foot have a mouth, and speak like a man? And he did not quite understand how a foot without eyes or ears had discerned him, and had responded intelligibly in conversation with him, but in the light of buried treasure, these paradoxes seemed to be no more than trifling details.
At last, he arrived at the pier. The air was irregularly cold as he came beneath its shade, and the glistening, green algae which coated the posts of the piers disgusted him, dousing his immediate haste. Somewhat unadjusted to the relative shadow here, he glanced about, peering around the posts and scanning the sand where the waves surged up in brief bursts. Then, suddenly, he saw it—there was a shaft sticking out of the wet ground, one that was half-enveloped by barnacles and had a rudimentary handle on the end of it. At once, George hurried over to it, seized it, and set to wrenching it about, eager to extract it from the earth. This was not so easily accomplished, for the blade was very deep in the ground indeed—so deep that George had formed quite a hole in the sand just from tugging at it from different angles. And upon one final, powerful pull, out the shovel came, sending him staggering back, nearly stumbling. Panting, he collected himself, resolving to sprint back to the foot once his breath had returned to him. But as he gazed down upon the shady sand, watching the way the water seeped from it and shimmered darkly as it coursed in sheets back into the ocean, he noticed a little, pearly white thing in the hole he had made. It was a bone.
Surely, there was no reason to tarry with digging up a man’s leg, especially when there was elsewhere a treasure chest that was waiting to be excavated. Moreover, the foot had told him not to tarry a moment more—he did want the foot to let him have the treasure, after all. But the longer George stood there and examined what little of the bone was exposed, his curiosity snuffed out all other urges. For there was something queer about that bone—though he knew not what it was.
That same child-like intrigue which had prompted him to trust the talking foot and to obey it compelled him now to set the blade of the shovel back into the sand, once and many times more. For long, he pitched little mounts of dirt and sand over his shoulder, scraping his shovel against a gradually developing ivory shape in the earth. He continued to do this until—all of a sudden—he, upon glancing at the bone one final time, dropped the shovel and whirled about, hurrying and crying all the way back to his parent’s new bungalow.
He did not remember passing the tree branches or the talking foot on the way back, and he did not know what exactly it was that he, sobbing and shaking, had whispered into his mother’s bosom as she embraced him and cooed comforting things into his ear.
Memories of terrible things experienced at such an early age are often kaleidoscopic; they are distorted or utterly erased by the subconscious in order to protect the development of the human psyche, sometimes even replaced by a myriad of false memories, shrouding them like a gauze. George never knew for certain what it was he saw that had frightened him so terribly; surely, the mere sight of bone could not have been enough to send him into a panic.
In George’s recollection, there is quite an emphasis upon the fact that the talking foot spoke of a left leg—indeed, a left leg which was buried in the sand. And oft he believed that he must have come to the realization that the leg he uncovered was not the left leg, though a leg it certainly was. Perhaps it was the discovery of a right leg which cast some doubt upon the integrity of the talking foot, and that something was terribly wrong.
But every time he recalled this event, he remembered the impression that he had uncovered much more than a leg. A mind so young and gullible as his could not have discriminated between the bones of a left or a right leg, could it? Yes, his discovery exceeded that—certainly, it must have been an entire body that he found beneath the pier. Something of that nature would undoubtedly frighten even a child such as he was then.
Still, in dreams, the memory resurfaced within his mind in a variety of manifestations; some are more memorable than others, and some are more believable than others, but they are all stranger than any possibility which he could have ever conceived with his conscious mind, and all equally uncertain. For George dreamt that he uncovered all manner of bones—great and small, straight and curved, knobbed and toothed, hollow, twisted, sharpened, and adjoined in incomprehensibly bizarre and unnatural ways, totally unworldly in every aspect. And there is one singular conception which remained with him all his life; it was that beneath the talking foot amid the maple branches, there delved from its sand-submerged knee the immeasurable flesh and form of something so impossibly horrendous, staggering, and vile that one’s mind could not begin to uncover it—something as vast and mysterious as the ocean from whence it came.