The Baron tossed the last swallow from his glass and crushed it beneath his feet. Then he lackadaisically pulled a cigar from his pocket and lit it with a small flame he got from rubbing his fingertips together.
He took a drag and addressed his two new acquaintances with a toothy grin and a gleam in his eye. “Well, that’s an awful lot of he-did-this-so-she-did-that.”
Willowmina had an uneasy feeling, and tried to hurry things along. “All we want to do is keep those ghosts from following the witches.”
“Ah, yes, then all your troubles would… Cease. Well, I will tell you where those ‘ghosts,’ as you call them, are going.” The Baron draped his snake around his neck and spread his hands wide. “I am known to some as Baron Samedi, and to some as Baron Saturday, and to others not at all. I know more than this world contains, and it is my job to see that all who are no longer of this earth find their way to Guinee.”
As he spoke the moon shone brighter in the sky, bathing the night forest in a pale greenish light. Dark clouds crept from behind the hills and a mist gathered in the air.
“Guinee?” asked Willomina.
“Guinee is another land, very far from here, and not in this realm. It is where the dearly departed belong, and it is I that sends them there. That is where these phantoms are en route to now, and I am their guide. Now do you understand, little tree?”
“Sort of. But would you mind sending these ghosts through another forest?” Willowmina asked, and the moon suddenly went dark and the black clouds broke, sending torrents of rain pouring down upon them.
Slub Glub dove into a mud puddle and buried his head, fearing that Willomina had made the formidable Baron angry.
Willowmina stood her ground, as she believed her request to be reasonable.
“Hahahahahahahahahahahahahahahaahha,” Baron Samedi exclaimed, beside himself with laughter. He slapped his knees.
“Every forest is forever full of ghosts … Every forest and every city and every desert,” the Baron chuckled.
Then he saw how crestfallen Willowmina was, and whether it was out of pity, or as a prank, he offered a ray of hope to her.
“I tell you what, though, little tree. These specters that have been parading as of late, and creating all this witch-hyena-raccoon whatnot, have all been floating in on this stream, which is where I meet up with them every midnight.”
He pointed a bony finger to the craggy creek that ran along the forest to their left, where a modest ripple of dirty water gurgled softly.
“If you follow this stream back to where it starts, maybe you can discover why these poor souls are being sent down this way, and try to stop it, hmmm?”
Willomina brightened at this possibility. “Thank you,” she said hastily, and reached down to pull Slub Glub out of the mud.
Baron Samedi produced another glass from beneath his hat, and pulling a flask from his pocket, he poured himself another drink. “My pleasure, sweet flower. But what’s the hurry? Why don’t you both stay and have a drink with me.”
Slub Glub, emerging from his hiding place with a face covered in black dirt, thought this was a fine invitation and reached for the glass with his tentacle, but Willowmina pulled him away by the nose toward the creek bed.
“Thank you very much, sir, but we really must be going, we want to get to the bottom of this as soon as possible.”
The Baron seemed to find this highly amusing, and laughed again. “Oh, I wish you luck with that, getting to the bottom of it. Maybe you’ll even find the top!”
And with that he wandered back into the darkness, in the direction of the poor souls he shepherds, chuckling to himself and puffing on his cigar.
“I don’t think I can swim,” Slub Glub mused.
“Me neither,” said Willowmina.
“Yes, you can,” came a voice out of nowhere, and sounding none too enthusiastic.
“Who said that?” Willowmina asked, looking around.
“Down here, in the water,” the voice replied.
Slub Glub got down his knees and stared into the muddy creek. “Are you a fish?” he asked.
“No,” the voice replied with a sigh. “I’m a babbling brook.”
“Oh,” said Willowmina, “and how do you know I can swim?”
“You’re a tree,” the brook replied, as if Willowmina and Slub Glub were the stupidest critters it had ever encountered. “Trees can float. Just get in, and I’ll carry you along, everyone does it these days,” he said, sounding put-upon.
“Well, not if you’re going to be grumpy about it,” Willowmina replied.
“Oh, just get in, after all these glowing sailors with their drooping limbs it’ll be a change of pace.”
“Glowing sailors?” asked Willomina. “Those must be the ghosts that just passed by. You know where they’re coming from?”
The brook sighed again. “Yes, of course I do, they’ve been floating on me for weeks now, get in and I’ll take you to the ocean from whence they appear.”
Willowmina put one root in the muddy water daintily and shivered a little. Then with a shrug she hopped in, and with a leafy branch pulled Slub Glub on top of her. “I didn’t know water can talk,” she whispered to Slub Glub.
“Oh yes. Most bodies of water are good conversationalists. I knew a man who went so far as to get married to the sea, even.”
Willowmina and Slub Glub bobbed along for thirty minutes or so, as the brook gently wound around various bends, getting a little wider as it got further along. “I feel some floaters upstream a ways, near my neck,” the water gurgled up at them.
“Your neck? Where are we now?” Willowmina asked. Slub Glub was asleep, nestled comfortably between her branches.
“My armpit, can’t you tell?” Indeed, there was a sharp right-angled bank along their left side. A little while later they passed by a trio of ghosts, who were being passively swept along by the current. Their eyes were rolled up towards the stars, and their legs were rigid as they buoyed past. “At least they’re not too heavy, due to their missing various parts,” the water reflected.
“You don’t happen to know how they met their unfortunate ends, do you? I’ve got to keep them from coming this way any more,” Willowmina asked.
“Ah, you’d be doing both of us a favor if you did,” the babbling brook replied. “They’re really stinking up my scent. And I’ve found the stray eyeball or left arm dangling down in my muddy bottom. But no, I just roll them along, I don’t know what their story is. But there may be a clue up ahead – I think I see one of their boats.”
The brook was right; there was a small wooden raft appearing on the horizon, seemingly unoccupied. It looked like it had been in some bad situations; there were large holes in its sides and its deck was severely splintered. Willowmina rustled one of her branches on the head of the sleeping Slub Glub. “Wake up, blue thing, and find out what you can from that broken boat.”
As the not-quite-a-life raft approached, Slub Glub dutifully latched onto its hull with one tentacle and pulled it alongside them. Peering over the edge, he spied some strange scrawls scratched into its sides. “There seem to be some drawings in here, scratched into the wood.”
“Ah, maybe that’s a clue, what do they look like?”
“There’s some stick figures, and some things that maybe are supposed to be boats, and they’re being turned upside down by a kind of giant black spider.”
“Yes, there are strange things in the deep sea, weird things best left in its briny depths,” the babbling brook chimed in, unhelpfully.
“What else is in there?” Willowmina asked Slub Glub, who was still inspecting the battered lifeboat.
“Well, there’s these,” he said, holding up a tubular telescope in one hand and a pair of undergarments in the other.
“Bring back the telescope,” Willowmina said, extending one of her branches towards her squat, blue companion so that he could climb back on top of her. Slub Glub, not knowing what a telescope was, dropped the cylindrical thing and made his way back carrying only the undergarments, which were silk and flowery. “No, no, those are bloomers. Bring back the tube!” Willowmina instructed.
“That’s mine,” croaked a wretched voice. “Give it back, ye squalid landlubbers!” It was another ghost, who was now peering over the side of the little boat Slub Glub had just vacated.
“Oh, he was there too,” Slub Glub commented to Willowmina.
“Ah, never mind, I don’t need it where I’m goin’ anyway,” the ghost relented, his teeth falling out as he spoke, revealing gangrenous gums. A large hook jutted out uselessly from his shoulder, which was missing an arm.
“The Baron is just up the river, he’ll take you to the next world,” Willowmina told the ghost, trying to be helpful.
“And it’s about time. This one’s full of monsters,” the deceased sailor shuddered. “Which you’ll find out soon enough, if you keep goin’ in that fool direction – that’s where the Sea Devil lives, with its thousand spinning arms and unblinking soul-stealing eyes, and a mouth as big as the moon and twice as smelly!” he blathered, pointed his hook upstream.
“Ah yes, Baron Saturday, I’m comin’ to ya,” the sailor muttered, and he drifted down-river.
Slub Glub perched himself on Willowmina’s trunk as they bobbed and weaved through the twists and turns of the babbling brook, which had widened into a stream, and then a river, and eventually became so large that it seemed to go on forever in all directions. “This is the end of the line for me, odd folks,” the body of water babbled. “We’re about to empty into the Big Drink, the Ocean of the Unknown. Watch out for the serpents and such,” it said, and with a last gurgle fell silent. Willowmina and Slub Glub were alone and adrift on a puddle one thousand miles wide and a hundred miles deep.
An uneventful hour passed of aimless floating on the ocean waves. “See if you can see anything in this sea,” Willowmina said to Slub Glub. Since she was floating on her back, all she saw was sky.
Slub Glub fiddled with the telescope. “Hmm, nothing… No, nothing there… Oh, wait a minute. There we are.”
“What is it?”
“Well, I think I see the soul-stealing eye that sailor was talking about.”
Willowmina rotated herself so that she could see what Slub Glub was staring at, and found that the blue mutant’s telescope was poking into the ocular orb of a mammoth creature, pink and slimy, with vast tentacles festooned with suction cups connected to a body the size of a mountain. “Ooooh,” she said, very impressed. “Are you a god?” Willowmina asked the monster. In response, the great pink thing sprayed them both from head to toe with gallons of black ink.
And so there they were, Willowmina buoyed on the ocean waves and Slub Glub perched upon her branches, both now black as tar and covered in the dank sticky ink sprayed by the giant looming sea horror before them, who had now turned its attention elsewhere. Slub Glub and Willowmina found themselves similarly distracted, by an irritating nipping at their heels.
Slub Glub raised his foot, which had been dangling in the water. A crab was attached to it, its pointy pincers dug deep into his toes. “Aaaugh! It’s a baby sea spider!” he screamed. “Why do things keep trying to eat me?” he moaned.
Willowmina, who was similarly afflicted, was shaking the crustaceans out of her leaves. “They’re crabs,” she said. “I wonder what they’re doing this far out at sea?” Indeed, there were many crabs among them – so many that they formed a pink chain as far as the eye could see. While Willowmina and Slub Glub were trying desperately to shake these bothersome crabs off of their bodies, the great pink tentacled ink-squirting monster-god of these worrisome waters, who was technically a giant squid, was engaged in a somewhat opposite activity. It was splashing furiously with his great gaping mouth wide open, ingesting and digesting these exoskeletal creatures.
In doing so, the huge squid created great tidal waves with its eight twirling tentacles, which had the unfortunate effect of drowning Slub Glub and Willowmina. “Glub Glub” was all Slub Glub could say as he found himself submerged in the briny depths of the endless ocean. As Willowmina also went deep below the black nefarious waters, she had the realization that this was how the ghost sailors must have died – they were drowned in the turbulent wake of the giant squid as it fed on crabs.
Slub Glub, who actually would have been able to swim if he had bothered to try, sank like a stone. As his lungs filled with seaweed, he turned an even darker shade of blue. He rested peacefully on the ocean floor, waiting for the long nap that would finally be his.
Up above, the giant squid (whose proper name was Seamort) was busy trying to swallow as many of the little pink pinching crabs as possible. The crabs seemed almost happy to oblige, offering little resistance as they surfed down the great gaping gullet of the monstrous leviathan. After several frenetic moments of swallowing, sucking and thrashing about, Seamort had eaten all the crabs around and let out a mighty belch.
It was then that something blue and strange caught Seamort’s eye. That strange blue thing was Slub Glub, who lay at the bottom of the water below, his tentacles flopped among the coral crusts of the ocean’s briny bottom. Seeing Slub Glub’s limp, noodly tentacles, similar to the squid’s own, awakened some sort of familial paternal instinct in the massive pink squid’s Squishy cephalopodic brain, and he dove down in Slub Glub’s direction.
Seamort’s giant pink tentacle reached through the ocean’s dark depths towards Slub Glub, who thought this was the mighty finger of the Lord coming forth to nudge him to the afterlife. Slub Glub was surprised, then, to find the Great Squid’s tentacle curl around him gently and pull him swiftly to the surface.
Emerging once again at the top of the water, and still cradled in Semort’s twisting, suction cup-festooned appendage, Slub Glub stared at Seamort’s slimy face and also registered a subconscious connection. Though they differed greatly in size and color, and Seamort had 8 tentacles to Slub Glub’s two, they appeared to be from the same general class of organism.
“Are you my mother?” Slub Glub asked.
Seamort was not, in fact, Slub Glub’s mother. Not only was Seamort a male giant squid, which at best would have made him Slub Glub’s father, but Slub Glub had not been conceived by the usual method. Slub Glub was the product of man’s nefarious ingenuity and nature’s shiftless flexibility. He was born in a bathtub.
To be more specific, the chemical agents that acted as the catalyst for his unnatural life were mixed in a bathtub-like vessel within the Research and Development Laboratory of General National, a corporation of conglomerated concern of consolidated commercial enterprise. They were a big business, run by big business men, who did sinister things and made great gobs of money doing so. Their scientists were trying to discover a chemical ingredient that they could put in potato chips to make them taste like soda pop. The boss of General National, who always wore a four-piece suit, was convinced that if they could sell a bag of chips that tastes like soda, it would sell as well as chips and soda combined, which would generate enough revenue for him to have his bones replaced with solid gold.
In pursuit of this noble goal, the dutiful white-coated scientists of the General National labs combined different ingredients in their bathtub to see if any would make potato chips taste like soda pop. On one fateful day, the ingredients in question were lemon juice and frog’s fingers. It was then that the useless discovery was made that when lemon juice touches the fingers of a frog, it becomes a darkly-colored, sticky goo that smells like moldy fish lungs and stains all that it crosses with a permanent purplish-blackish tattoo. Repulsed, the scientists did what scientists who work at big corporations usually do, which is they flushed the horrible mess out a long tube and into the waters of the nearest stream.
It was a sunny June afternoon when the sludgy chemical refuse of the General National corporation exited from its long journey through rusty cylindrical tubes to its eventual home in the boggy creeks of the Lost Hills Nature Preserve, where it mingled with the more natural fluids that had come by way of rain and dewdrops.
A sizzling sound was heard as the black goop perverted the surface of the small lake that adjoining the creek, and the waters began to bubble and the fish swam away in fright. The woodland creatures gathered around in curiosity, observing the frothing waters of their newly polluted lake, which was washing strange bubbles onto the shore.
It was at this strange juncture in time that a human being arrived, carrying a squirming cephalopod in a plastic bag. This mousy individual looked furtively about, as the bag in his hand contained a small, angry octopus, which his daughter had purchased from an ad in the back of a comic book. His wife was disturbed by the pet, and had demanded that this unfortunate man abandon the creature in the woods. Seeing the bubbling, sizzling lake, he emptied the octopus out of the bag and into the black oozing waters and scurried off to civilization.
As one might imagine, the chemically altered lake had unusual effects on the octopus and the natural order of things. When fall came, the octopus laid her eggs. The eggs were a strange blue color, and their mother rejected them, seeking a better life upstream. A group of possums stumbled across them, and took them for their own, because possums aren’t terribly smart. Then one grey October morning the eggs hatched, and among the strange brood that emerged was Slub Glub, who came into the world a mutant creation, with yellow eyes and fevered mind.
But all of that was in the past. Getting back to the present situation, Slub Glub was raised above the water in the gentle curve of Seamort’s massive pink tentacle. This was a good thing, for though Slub Glub, being semi-octopus in origin, was able to breathe underwater, he did not know that he could, and thus had not been trying to, and would surely have drowned. Seamort inspected Slub Glub carefully, and found him confusing.
At this point Willowmina bobbed back up to surface. “I’m glad I’m made of wood,” she sputtered. Then seeing that Seamort had stopped thrashing about and was holding Slub Glub aloft, she saw her opportunity to get some answers. “Hey! Big pink thing! You almost killed us, you know.” Her earlier reverence for the giant squid had now turned to annoyance at nearly being drowned.
Seamort looked at her with surprise, as he hadn’t noticed her before. “Oh, I’m so sorry,” he said, surprisingly regretful. A tear even seemed to form in his giant eye.
Willowmina was a little ashamed at her harsh tone. “Um, no problem, I guess your mind was on those crabs.”
“Those crabs! Those crabs will be the death of me!”
“The death of you? Don’t you mean the death of them? And us, and all the sailors that get caught in your thrashing tentacles as you try to swallow all those crabs?”
“Don’t you think I’d stop if I could?” Seamort wailed. “Look at me!” Slub Glub and Willowmina looked at him, but were unclear as to his meaning. “I’m huge!” he continued. “I’ve grown gigantic from eating so many crabs, and pink like them to boot.”
“But aren’t you a giant by nature?” Willowmina asked?
“Not like this. I would have some self respect, and eat a reasonable diet, if those deviled crabs weren’t so tasty and plentiful.”
“Okay, don’t worry. All we’ll have to do is convince the crabs to stop coming this way, and then you’ll stop eating all of them, which means that no more sailors will be drowned by your great thrashing tentacles as you stuff them into your mouth, and therefore no more ghosts will be floating down the babbling brook on their way to be guided by Baron Samedi to the afterlife, and thus we’ll have no more witches who think they’re being haunted hypnotizing hyenas to create havoc, and as a result no more frightened raccoons hiding in and nibbling on willow tree leaves, causing us to cry and flood the forest, leading to sharks biting Slub Glub’s rump,” Willowmina expostulated. “Only problem is, there aren’t any more crabs left to discuss this with, as you’ve eaten them all.”
“It’s all my fault,” Seamort moaned, wiping his tears with Slub Glub’s nose. “But more crabs will come, they always do.” Just then, as if on cue, the first of a new wave of pink snapping crabs appeared, poking its pincers above the water. It was the first in a long line, extending towards the distant horizon. Seamort got a glazed look in his giant eyes and began frothing at the mouth; his tentacles began to bristle, and it was clear that he was about to go into a renewed feeding frenzy. Willowmina shouted for him to stop.
“Wait! We must find out where they’re coming from, and why!” she yelled, and Seamort snapped out of his trance, relaxing his eight great squid arms. Willowmina addressed the crab, who was pinching the bark of her trunk. “Little pink crab, why are you so far out to sea, in this dangerous place where as you can see you’re about to be eaten by a giant squid?”
“Oh, what’s the difference,” the crab replied in a tiny, whiny voice. We can be eaten by a giant squid, or stepped on by oiled apes, or split in half by pointy planks of wood. All options end the same way.”
The crab, now joined by a baker’s dozen of his fellow crustaceans alongside him, then burst into sonnet.
“Oh once we were happy and free
And selfish in our shell-fish-ness
Thinking only of the surf and sea
And sands of golden grainy bliss
But strange pink monkeys from the trees
Grew smart and lost their hairs
Then they came to our golden shores
And sat tanning in their chairs
Plastic umbrellas darkened our skies
Children all building castles
Flip-flops trampling our soft pink heads
A beach of endless hassles
And no salvation in salt water is found
Just sporting monkeys floating around
On boards that skate upon the surf
Crushing us for what it’s worth
We will not go back on this or any day
In these bleak waters we shall decay
And fall into the flapping maw
Of tentacled squid with giant jaw”
–“Pink monkeys? I’ve only seen brown ones,” mused Slub Glub, once the chorus of crabs had completed their song of sorrow.
“Oh wait,” Seamort chimed in. “Hairless pink monkeys? They must mean human beings.”
“Human beings? What are those?” Willowmina inquired.
“They were children of the monkeys, but then they lost their hair and started wearing sandals and they do like to lounge around on beaches cooking in the sun, so I could see how that would get in the crabs’ way.”
“How do you know all this?”
“I read books,” Seamort replied mysteriously, and then the frenzy came over him again and he began diving after the crabs, who made no effort to get away as he swallowed them whole.
Willowmina grabbed Slub Glub by his knobby forehead and pulled him away from the tsunami of Seamort’s thrashings as he fed. “You know what we have to do,” she said to him.
“We’ve got to find these human beings and keep them from driving these crabs into deep water.”
To be continued.
Illustration & text copyright (c) Andrew Goldfarb