The Hunger from the Deep
AUTHOR'S NOTE:  I was recently commissioned by Blue Bicycle Books to write a 1,000-word story for Piccolo Spoleto, a series hosted by the city of Charleston in conjunction with the Spoleto arts festival. Inspired by the activists behind the "Strawless Summer" initiative here in the low country of South Carolina, who have taken aim at curbing the astounding amount of plastic trash we throw into the sea--as well as local homeboy Edgar Allen Poe, his disciple H.P. Lovecraft, and a whole lot of campy B-grade horror--I wrote this bit of flash. I hope you enjoy it!--SD

I ducked into Hutson Alley, my heart pounding in my chest—not because of the caterwauling of fire trucks, though their sirens filled the city streets, and not because I feared the citizenry would soon run to riot, though they stood on the sidewalk in nervous knots, clutching their handheld devices. 

No, I ducked into the alley, my heart pounding in my chest, because I had been there at the waterfront when that thing had arisen up out of Charleston Harbor. I was among those lovers and holiday makers gathered there on the promenade, when what had at first appeared an especially active pod of porpoise had revealed itself as single, sinister wave, rippling darkly toward us through the waters.

A gasp of shock rose up from the crowd. But only I did fully apprehend the ominous nature of that black wave streaming toward us in the burning moonlight, and only I ran. Such fear had seized me, such animal terror, that I ran as far from the waterline as my legs could take me—which, owing to my love of a good meal, and general aversion to physical exertion of any type, turned out to be a mile or so away, to this alley just off King.

I do not flatter myself a man of courage, but those of my acquaintance might note my erudition. I am, at the least, in the possession of various advanced degrees, a great deal of debt, and one underpaid adjunct teaching position in the sciences. Though the college where I am employed has thus far proven deaf to my entreaties for advancement, they have acceded to my demands for a subscription to The Journal of Environmental Sciences. Which was how I came come to learn of a recent discovery in the Gulf of Mexico with some bearing on that cursed black wave I’d seen streaming toward the Holy City.

Earlier that year, I had read, about a hundred miles off the coast of Texas, the crew of a commercial trawler had reported a shifting black mass in the water; they’d assumed it was no more than floating crude from the latest spill, until that black slime adhered to the hull of the ship and began to climb it. 

Upon examination at Texas A & M, this slime showed itself to be alive, in that odd manner of archaea, that ancient unicellular organism that constitutes life’s third domain and yet remained unknown until the 1970s, much of which makes its home around those eruptions of noxious gases at the bottom of the sea. The newly discovered species of archaea that had climbed the hull of the trawler was found not only to metabolize petroleum—it had evolved, no doubt, near a natural vent—but to manipulate its hydrocarbons at will. 

And though this modest creature possessed none of the machinery you and I might consider material to intelligence, researchers had arrived in the lab one day to find their various samples of this black slime, floating in various jars, had converged upon a table in the center of the lab in one slickly glistening gelatinous mass (that is, at least how I imagine it) and appeared to be in the process of breaking down a plastic Coke bottle an intern had left there the night before.

The scientific paper had been rushed to press, by a researcher no doubt intent on attaching his name to a Nobel, but he emphasized that Archaea fame, as he had christened it (the hungry archaea) did not appear to pose a threat to any other life-forms, and might even, in time, prove helpful in cleaning up the truly astounding quantities of plastic trash strewn daily by human endeavor into the sea.

I, however, knew better—and though I am not a man of courage, I had to tell someone what I had glimpsed there in the moonlight of Charleston Harbor, what extraordinary horrors it might entail. But who among the nerve-wracked masses huddled together in the alley, searching their screens, would believe me?

I was relieved to discover Dr. Regina Singleton, my colleague at the college, the chair of the Religious Studies department, pacing the length of the alley’s bricks in her hot-pink pumps. “Dr. Singleton,” I began.

“Oh please, Kyle,” she said, “call me Gina. They’re reporting some strange type of flooding down on East Bay. All traffic off the roads except emergency personnel. Any idea what this is about?”

“I must confess, I am seized by a nervous apprehension—”

“Come again?”

“I’m afraid you’ll believe I have lost all faculty for—”

“Kyle,” she said, “aren’t you from Illinois?”

I conceded that I was.

“Please pardon my rudeness,” she said. “You may cut an eccentric figure at thirty or so years of age, teaching freshman biology in your seersucker suit and such, waxing your moustache—”

“It’s a natural resin,” I informed her, “available at the Charleston Farmer’s Market.”

“But I need you to make yourself intelligible here. Do you have any idea what’s going on?”

“I’m afraid you won’t believe me.”

“Try me,” she said. “I have a master’s degree in miracles.”

And so I explained, in a manner I fear was less enlightening than frightening, the nature of Archaea fame, this hitherto unknown organism from the deep, the fact that it metabolized petroleum and appeared to hunger for plastic—explained too its uncanny resemblance to the slime mold, that singular unicellular intelligence that can separate and reconstitute itself at will. 

Before Dr. Singleton could respond, everyone’s handheld devices chimed with the same alert: Find shelter. Barricade doors. Citywide curfew enforced until further notice. At once, we all rushed into the closest dining establishment—which, in our case, happened to be Michael’s on the Alley. (I was relieved, I’ll admit, to have found shelter in a familiar downtown eatery—though the prices were a bit steep for one of my means, I simply cannot resist their Colossal Crab Cake.) The hostess locked the door behind us, and we helped her block the entrance with chairs. As we settled in with the restaurant’s patrons, we all watched the drama unfold on our mobile phones via footage from aerial drones.

Behold! The black slime was rising with the tide into the city streets, up from the sewers on East Bay, overtaking the sea wall at the Battery; the black slime, bricabrac with half-digested plastic trash, was now making its way at around four miles an hour—a leisurely walking pace—up Anson, Meeting, and King. Thus far, the only means of discouraging its progress that had proven even marginally successful was fire; hence, the wailing of fire trucks.

Soon, I knew, that ravenous black slime would ooze its way into the alley, a crude black goo, its level ever rising, streaming with shopping bags, soda bottles, bottle caps, shrink wrap, old beach cups, beach toys, an action figure, an old flip flop, single-serving yogurt containers and Lunchables and such, their plastic peel-back lids still peeling, and a near-infinite number of plastic plates, forks, spoons, and straws—straws in every shade of the rainbow, straws in every stage of disintegration, straws with bendy bits and swirls around the sides—and coffee stirrers too. What a great flood of plastic, I thought, is associated with our hunger as a species.

Would the city’s sheer plastic content prove so attractive to the hungry archaea that it would settle here and feast for the next millennia or so? Would we be shrink-wrapped by that suffocating black slime, stuck fast like flies, for all of time? Or would the creature simply gorge itself upon the contents of our dumpsters and then roll on, in search of the nearest landfill? There did, at least, seem some chance of the latter. Dr. Singleton and I were conversing in tense whispers on the subject when a silver-haired gentlemen approached us. “I beg your pardon,” he said, “but I could not help but overhear. Is it true that we require fire?”

Dr. Singleton confirmed that it was true. The gentleman, I noted, was dressed with such understated elegance as to suggest great wealth, his accent—English? Scottish? He gestured, and beside him appeared the restaurant’s chef in his tall white hat, brandishing a blowtorch. “For the crème brulee,” he explained.

“Oh hey,” I said, “cool.” I glanced over at Dr. Singleton and cleared my throat. Wherever the silver-haired gentlemen was from, it clearly was not Illinois.

“If I understand correctly,” the gentleman went on to say, “to open the door would mean certain death, but if we barricade ourselves in this dining establishment and defend ourselves with the chef’s blowtorch, there is at least a chance that this menacing black mass will pass from the city streets as soon as it locates the nearest midden?”

Yes, I told him, there was a chance. 

At that, the gentlemen turned to address the patrons, staff, and passersby who’d taken shelter at Michael’s on the Alley and rang his glass with a spoon. “Ladies and gentlemen,” he said. “It seems we have brought together by an existential threat of an unexpected nature. Allow me to be your host this evening, and for however long we may find it necessary to remain within these walls. As such, I propose that we start at the top of the menu and work our way down, with courses paired with wines.” The gentleman explained he had ample funds with which to cover such an extravagance, should the menace pass—and if it should not, well, this was certainly the way that he, for one, would choose to go. 

And in the end we all agreed—this was the way we had gotten here, and if it came down to it, this is the way we would want to go. For we too are a ravenous species.