By Liz Breazeale
Featured art by Nsey Benajah
The first ghost stepped out of the ocean in the summer, shimmering and hazy with captured light. We saw the age in her body, moving as though still burdened by a vast and lonely sea. Her wrinkles like the finest, most fragile spiderwebs we’d ever destroyed.
She came to rest on a foamy lip of shore. Her outline was set and static, her insides swirling, misty, full of translucent opals spun in an ancient hand. We realized later that every ghost was different in texture, but only when we couldn’t count them anymore, when they’d packed themselves across the sand.
Tourists surrounded her, our first ghost, asked where she came from and why. But she didn’t even try to answer. Just planted herself on that sharp beach in Maine and watched the shore birds scuttle and dive.
We spread the video of her like an invasive species, a creature introduced in the most fertile of ecosystems. Amongst ourselves, we debated whether she was a projection or performance art, a trick of the light or a stunt like Holograph Tupac. We asked one another, is she yours? Hoping one of us was the answer, some brilliant marketing ploy, some Don Draper–genius viral advertisement to be jealous of, but knowing under our skin this was something else, something new.
By the time it happened again two weeks later (four ghosts, their storm cloud bodies a close-knit archipelago across a Florida beach), people were antsy for the punchline. Even we, suspicious and still convinced we could see the projector in the videos, somewhere under the waves, could only watch the Maine woman gazing at the horizon for so long.
Even we mobbed the new ghosts, inches from the pearly depths of their eyes, which were opaque enough to see something we were sure was hate swimming up then darting away, fish to aquarium glass. Who are you, we asked, searching their cumulonimbus bodies that swayed, sediment moored in an invisible wave. Who are you? Moving unconsciously toward begging.
They beached in swarms after that. No rhyme or reason, just waves of gauzy apparitions from Miami to St. Joseph to Seattle. Wireless operators with trembling hands and men with sagging skin and women who sometimes tried to remove their wedding rings, who met our eyes and never looked away. Captains who stood like buoys and calloused navigators and men with rogue-wave figures, flowing but impassable. Once they emerged from the ocean, crowning through the ankle-deep shallows, they never dissipated, never made a sound.
We called them squids. We couldn’t tell you who coined the term, but it stuck. The way they beached and never left, cluttered our coasts with their remains.
The squids were everywhere, on every Instagram, every TikTok. The most popular beaches bristled with the waving hands of selfie sticks thrust high, awash in humans trying to loop an arm around what always showed up on screens as a swab of residue, a sea-fog blur alighting on the sand. People took online quizzes that assigned them famous squids based on what type of fast food joint they preferred—the woman in Maine, of course, the squids who came the day after, the beautiful WWII nurse in Kauai, the old man and woman still clutching hands in Georgia—or the quizzes told us where we ourselves would beach according to our favorite TV show to binge. Squid was the most popular costume across the country that first Halloween, girls in silver bikinis speckled with clouds of cotton balls, boys all dipped in silver.
The squids were identified, misidentified, re-identified. Twitter worked overtime. Facial recognition software was a bust, couldn’t capture the melted chrome of their eyes, the near-transparent skin, the drifting of their turbulent foggy innards.
Speaking of which, do you know how many textures of fog exist? We didn’t, not until the squids, when we needed some other way to try and track them. The variations were overwhelming, unearthly but familiar: the texture of apparitions you find in photographs, the swirl and puff of sediment disturbed on the ocean floor, the manufactured smoke from concerts where the air is thick and pulsing. The corona of haze around a streetlight in the humid summer, condensed breath hanging low and close, chalk dust always fading. Steam from a shower and rivers of morning heat above a pond and arrows of jet trails—all of these and more were noted, used to catalogue and identify the loss the oceans were handing back to us.
And when the parks service realized that the squids were not creatures that faced extinction, it turned out to be a dream for us. With no more ropes blocking off each individual squid, we organized dozens of tours, period- specific tours, famous squid tours, nighttime story walks, each led by guides who spoke with deepened voices and, yes, did give historically accurate information. The beaches were woven through with tourists like water rings, expanding from luminous centers.
We shared the more specific stories with wide hand gestures and dramatic pauses to customers with windswirled hair and tourtakers with axe-brimmed hats and vacationers splashed in neon. Our beaches were populated, if you believed us and of course you should, with courageous soldiers and captains who went down with their ships and lovelorn beaus longing to hold one another. The night tours were best, the romance cool and looping, our bodies misted with light from the squids.
That one woman, you see her? The lady with the bent feathers on her hat?
And they would nod.
Poor thing, she was sailing on this steamer back in 1910, coming to meet up with her fiancé. She was leaving her entire family back in England for him, but the ship went down in a storm. They say she died clutching his handkerchief.
And we’d all sigh with the romance—yes, we did too, did you think we were monsters—the luminous daguerreotype impression of it.
These were the squids we knew, the ones whose stories we told. The ones with names like chandeliers and sharpened-knife jewelry and crisp shirts we could tell would still be white and stiff were they not, you know, dead and full of that mist. We devoured their tragic, gleaming ends, regurgitated them day after day.
We were giddy when we discovered one squid that beached in Acadia National Park had perished on the Titanic, a first-class passenger who tried to leap for a lifeboat but tumbled into the sea. He was so beautiful, pocketwatch in hand, mustache silken, body the texture of clouds rolling over the moon. That was all some of the tourtakers knew, the allure of that ship, and we told the story again and again, even if our particular beaches didn’t contain a Titanic squid. The doomed maiden voyage, the glamour of her husk slicing the sky, her pearls of light still shining. The silent, imagined movie reel of it, those icebergs jewelling the horizon, peaceful and still. Like the squids, if we didn’t look too hard.
There were others, of course, squids whose names we never knew. All we could do was guess the way they died, grimy and brutal. These stories were flashy, too, but only because of the endings. For these, we’d pause by a man missing a finger, a young woman with holes in her shoes, maybe an old lady with raggedy-ended coatsleeves, and we’d ask, can any of you tell me whatyou think happened to this poor squid?
Heads wagged no.
We’d sweep our hands over the perimeters of their bodies, careful not to touch, and we’d make a mournful sound in our throats. And we’d say, the historians aren’t either, but can’t you just imagine?
We’d recite the whole list, an incantation of endings: explosion, torpedo, falling off the side. Crushed, hypothermic, sucked into a vortex. Fire or running aground or capsizing, the hull rolling over like nightfall, like the ending of a day.
Rumors did start to spread after a few months, nothing awful, lies we did our best to diffuse. Rumblings that touching them would sicken you—a boy in Corpus Christi, someone said, held hands with a young female squid the consistency of weak soup for a full five days, became dizzy, exhausted. It came out later that he was actually dehydrated, but nobody cared by that point. That they were gathering our energy to overthrow us, that you could go mad just from trying to follow the pattern of their swirling insides, that they emitted a whistle only dogs and cats could hear to turn our beloved pets against us. Everyone had a cousin who knew the friend of a friend who followed a squid into the ocean and drowned, even though we never saw a single one of them go back.
We laughed at first, especially about the overthrowing one. The sickness rumor even led to a brief bump in measles vaccinations, for some reason.
We did stop taking our dogs to the beach at some point. Not because of the rumor, but because they ignored us and lay, tails fanning the sand, whining at the squids. Grasped the tennis balls we threw, gentle in their teeth, and trotted over to a squid. The squids sometimes thrust out a hand.
After about six months, a spiny, waking restlessness began to show itself. The dog thing didn’t help. The feeling was nothing so coagulated as rage, nothing so resined and scabbed over as fear, not yet. Just a curiosity, a creeping, haunting ache in limbs that had not been stretched in too long. It started to freak us out, how the squids responded a second too slowly, always chased away from some vast sweeping current, their water-ripple bodies always ebbing. And it was weird, how they sometimes tried to hold a single sand grain between their misty fingers, tried to clutch one single particle of glass. Two men were arrested for defacing the rocky cove in which a soldier stood; they spraypainted swastikas over the lips of rocks. It was found later that they misidentified the squid as a Nazi officer when, in fact, he had been a Bosnian refugee.
Spillover started to occur, areas where squids overran the beaches. It was usually just one or two squids in parking lots, maybe a random maid swaying by a boardwalk, a greasy engineer staring out to sea from a grassy knoll. The biggest incident was when workers walked out of a shipyard one morning after they reported two squids in coveralls and work boots staring at them forhours, trying to stroke the unfinished hulls.
They had those eyes, the foreman said. Judging.
And their bodies, people said. Whirlpools. Ready to suck us down.
We understood when they said that, because the bubble of it had been swelling in us, too. If we let them meet our gaze for too long, we felt it like the ocean floor: all that silt, that residue, with the whole planet underneath. It was too enormous to hold and we felt it in our pores, couldn’t sweat it out, the depth of something beyond longing.
In our defense, the squids beached at all hours. You can imagine how tiresome it was. They slipped onto ferries, they loomed into frame at beach volleyball tournaments, they perched in the middle of our guests’ sandcastles, gleaming and cloudy.
Two hurricanes made landfall that August, Isaias in Alabama and Kyle in the Carolinas. We tried to warn the squids before we evacuated, some of us. Sort of. It’s just that most of us were a little busy at the time, and who really relished a glimpse into those empty lantern eyes?
It wasn’t until the hurricanes hit that some of us remembered the squids, truly, and even then it was with a sort of braced curiosity, the way you wonder how much force a falling tree will strike the ground with. We watched the footage, the squids covered over with water, how gradually it happened, the foam hurling off the waves, the ocean devouring them, and we felt the smallest inkling of relief. It jittered in our bellies. Maybe they’d wash away, the flotsam and jetsam of them, the crust on the edge of a bathtub. We couldn’t help remembering the ease with which they’d started to transgress our boundaries, the pockmarks of them dotting our medians and beachsides. They disappeared in the wind and water and spray, they became the clouds hovering close to land, they were gobbled up in the elements and we let ourselves exhale, even those of us who knew we would return home to submerged garages, carpets weeping water with every step.
But when the skies cleared, the first images the helicopters fed us were of a dazzling silver tide, a current of willowy shimmer stretched atop the storm surge, a shawl adorning the water.
Those in Alabama and the Carolinas never got it back, the wonder for the squids, the fascination. Kept asking what the squids have to be afraid of, what the stakes of their existence were. While we’re throwing out our mildewy family relics, our slimed-up photo albums, one politician asked, what are the squids doing?
By that time, see, there were so many, still coming every day. How were we to avoid them, even if we wanted to? We were impatient, wanted to cool ourselves in the shallows without a head, shoulders, trunk appearing between our legs, breaching the ocean through our bodies, reminding us that our world is made of the dead. We wanted the convenience of domestic ghosts, phantoms with the decency to disappear.
Although watching them beach in the night was still lovely, we had to admit. Like watching a corona of moonlight soften, then coalesce. Sometimes in the early days, we’d sit sipping rosé, charmed by the luxury of it all, and watch submarine crews glaze the beach below, or soldiers leak onto Hawaiian sand. Like silver blood seeping to the surface of a shallow wound, one you havenever realized was there, one you bought without pain.
Several newly reopened Gulf Shores resorts were abandoned when snowbirds awoke to find squids crammed into pools half submerged, their bodies made cinematically chilling by the greenish tint of underwater lights. It didn’t take long for this to become a regularity, for us to begin asking our neighbors, did you find any this morning? Their glimmering bodies slid by the hundreds into our harbors and wharfs and bridges with the ease of water over bulkhead doors.
A cruise ship ran aground just off New Orleans one night, its captain unwilling to trust the instruments, sure the flood of mist in front of him was cloudbank. Struck a spit of rock, gashed the underbelly open like a gutted deer, capsized in less than an hour. Dozens were killed before the Coast Guard arrived. The dead beached as squids days later, staring at the sun without squinting,their life jackets puffing out their chests.
It was a PR disaster. Nobody wanted to set foot on a beach, go on a famous squids tour, only to look into the face of someone they knew, a grandparent on a traveling spree or a childhood friend trying to sail around the whole United States or a father lost on an oil rig. And everyone could imagine the gut-lurch of those people, visiting their relatives, eyes crusted with wind-dried tears, could imagine knowing the loss but knowing also that the form of them was there, foamy like white caps, and not wanting to sell their house or clean out a room or throw out their old Eric Clapton records. It caused a chain reaction, a pilgrimage: people straggling to the squids, trying to find other loved ones, ancestors, relatives holding some kind of answer we knew they would never speak of.
The squids kept beaching. Thimble-eyed women and men in work gloves and daysailers who wore clothes similar to our own. Immigrants and soldiers and yachters and treasure hunters. It was like we had trawled the entire ocean floor and dredged up everything that had once been human, that had once been part of us.
There are over three million estimated shipwrecks around the world, said a San Francisco reporter one evening. Over three million. He repeated it, eyes not focused on the camera, looking away and past us, out to the squids and the ocean from which they escaped, like he was seeing it all and knowing there would be no end, and we knew it too, then, that of course they would always be coming, they could never be erased the way time can never be erased, the way we all want to forget but never can, the groaning sweeping dark that would pool around us, seep through our clothes and our bodies until we could see nothing but black, until we ourselves were nothing at all.
We asked the squids nicely, that’s important to point out. Negotiators were sent first, just to talk, one elected from each beachside community, but of course the squids had no representatives elected amongst themselves, of course they just stared. Then the government drafted letters of eviction that we hand-delivered to the beaches, the stooping dunes, the rocky stumbling jetties. Except, again, we had no one to deliver the letters to, the squids couldn’t even organize in the barest sense. So we turned back, chilled and hair-raised and always with a sense that someone was just behind us whispering something we had always wanted to hear that turned into the wind when we started listening.
We tried to ascertain how they formed, funny how we never had before, like we assumed they existed solely within our eyesight, but diver after diver came back with only video of a dark, venomous sea.
Florida piloted a project to stop them coming at all. They tried to raise all the sunken ships, remove the houses from which the hauntings migrated, but the archaeologists objected, and not to mention the fact that all the shipwrecks kept collapsing on their way up. The seafloor was snowy with debris, with centuries-old wood scraps disturbed too quickly. They tried fishing nets, miles of them, stretching down the coastlines, but all those manatees got tangled up and died, their zeppelin bodies bobbing in the currents. They tried shore patrols, they tried herding the squids with ropes, and for some reason they also tried sheepdogs,even though we all knew what would happen before seeing the live feed of the dogs rolling over in front of the squids, tongues lolling.
None of it worked, and we’re pretty sure there was an uptick in Florida’s beachings. We’ll never know; at a certain point, our counting was a guess, the way astronomers pick a section of night sky and use it to estimate the number of stars.
People were milling all the time, swiping the machetes of their hands through the midriffs of women in wiry spectacles and loose, swimmy skirts. Touching them was like reaching for the space in a glass where ice cubes have melted away, have left something of themselves behind. And all the wackos who had screamed into the Twitter void about the danger of the squids, the veneer of their silvery frames, they didn’t seem so insane now. That’s all we’ll say. How do you even know, they said, how do you even know what a squid is thinking? Humans, you at least know we all want one thing. We don’t want to die.
It was tragic, what came next. We can agree on that. The little girl’s mother said they were at the beach, a quiet, white-sanded one on Sanibel Island, because the girl’s favorite squid was there. An old woman with a tiny square purse who resembled the little girl’s deceased grandma. The mother also said that she only looked away for one second, only turned back to straighten the blanket and take a sip of water.
It’s possible, the police stated, that the mother would’ve seen the girl without the veil of the squids, their infinitely layered curtain.
But maybe not. We couldn’t tell you.
The mother shouldn’t have been at the beach, she shouldn’t have turned around, she shouldn’t have trusted the squids. The beach should’ve already been blocked off, hazard signs should’ve been posted.
But the squids were the ones who lured the little girl. They were the ones who pushed her to it. We’re not sure how, but they must’ve known, right? That by simply existing they were causing trouble.
You know what came last, of course, when we discovered we could beat and beat with nothing happening; it was violence without blood, hatred without retaliation. The bonfires dancing like witches against the dark—apocalyptic and spreading across Venice Beach and Martha’s Vineyard and the edges of Lake Huron. The reels of men, their clubs and knives arcing like grins in the night.
That was only some of us. Only a few bad apples. Most of us just wanted the squids gone, wanted them back where they came from.
Nobody cleaned up the beaches. We watched the squids still swaying, still moving the way they always had, like streams of bubbles on the surface of a pond. We watched them take only the most passing of glances at the debris around them, inside them,the charcoaled wood and ropes and broken glass, the photos of the dead little girl swimming, ghostly.
After the riots, after the dead girl, there were simply no more bookings. Our hotels, our restaurants, our beachside towns, we were bleached and rotting, coral reefs dying away.
There was nothing else to do except to let them have it all.
We left them on the beaches, left them to their sand and their ocean, we left them and said thank goodness that’s over. We fled to the mountains, to prairies swaying with grasses like couples in love, to deserts too dry for their ghosts to stay. We flew inward and upward and down, we gutted the country with exploring, we filled our albums with veiny canyons and windburned ash plains and the gnashing teeth of mountain ranges and pretended the clouds we saw were only clouds, the fog only fog, the steam only steam. We pretended that the restless sky and the solid meaty soil soothed us, untaught us the words for haunting, for ghost, for the endless layering of history and time.
We stayed away for years, we traveled and settled and lived whole new lives, only missing briefly the scent of the sea in winter, the storm clouds pressing palm down over the water. We turned away when an update comes on TV about which towns are completely overrun or when someone posts an article or photograph of spaces we used to own.
Only sometimes we can’t help it. Sometimes we drive through the night, pierce the arteries of our old hometowns like stingers into curling, desiccated insects, through sand-choked streets and yawning, toothless windows and sidewalks haunted with squids. We never stop until we reach the shores, until we wade through seas of them, force away scrolled signs all curled and rimey, until we hop the rusted barricades and peer out over what used to be ours, ours alone, our piers and harbors and beachside hotels. This is all we have left of the things we built and how we built them, all there is to remember who we are—the quicksilver tongues of squid bodies, the sweeping illumination of their tide.
Liz Breazeale is a recipient of a 2020 Creative Writing Fellowship from the NEA, as well as the 2018 Prairie Schooner Book Prize for Fiction for her first book, Extinction Events. She holds an MFA from Bowling Green State University and lives in Denver, where she teaches at the Lighthouse Writers Workshop. Her work is forthcoming or has appeared in Kenyon Review Online, Hayden’s Ferry, The Collagist, Best of the Net, Pleiades, Fence, Fugue, Sycamore Review, Monkeybicycle, Passages North, and others.