Setting – Donner Summit 1865-1869. A harsh mountain environment near Lake Tahoe where railroad construction crews work 24/7 blasting tunnels through granite outcroppings and laying track. Winter storms drop between eighteen to twenty feet of snow. Avalanches claim lives; bodies, not recovered till spring thaw, are found with tools still clutched in hands.
Gee Lee – Chinese immigrant working as a camp cook for the Central Pacific Railroad. Lee embraces family obligations, toiling to send money home to improve impoverished living conditions. Dreams of returning to his lovely wife and young children keep Lee motivated.
Wèi An – Lee’s wife and mother of his two children, a daughter, and a son. Plagued by her controlling mother-in-law, Liu spends most of her time outside, working in the rice fields. Violated by a district official, she is now confined to the house.
Gee Yang – Lee’s older brother. Yang is charming and fun-loving; gambling and opiates have a magnetic appeal. He enjoys being away from his mother’s influence and is pulling away from Lee, who keeps reminding him of his responsibilities. He’s moved from working with tunnel gangs to constructing wooden show sheds at Norden.
Tang Ai (Eye) – Yang’s wife, mother of his daughter. Yang and Ai’s union did not produce a male child before he left for California. In this, Yang neglected his duty to the family. The couple discovered that living in the same house amplified their cantankerous relationship.
Gee Pei (Pay) – Matriarch of the Gee family, mother of Yang and Lee. After losing her oldest son in the Opium War, Pei sold her daughter-in-law and granddaughter to finance a California sojourn for her younger two sons.
Foshan – Lee’s Donner Summit kitchen assistant. He is named for his birth town in China. An orphan, Foshan plans to seek employment in San Francisco once his railroad job concludes. Foshan is wildly in love with his bossy-man.
Jaingshui – A reanimated corpse that hops. A Jaingshui is created when a Chinese person dies away from home and is not buried with his ancestors. Like the western vampire, the Jaingshui searches for life-energy (qi) to consume.
Nian – Chinese lion monster whose name means ‘year.’ Nian grows a unicorn-like horn and collects feathers in her shaggy mane. The monster hibernates in the sea or under mountains for eleven out of twelve months. The weather worsens when Nian wakes to hunt, during February’s new moon. On the menu; infants and children, crops, farm animals, early death, and betrayal.
Have you ever looked at a tree and seen a monster? When I was five, I was terrorized by thinking that the giant sequoia I was about to drive through would bend over to snatch me from the back seat.
As an adult, in the middle of a windy night, I was awoken by a sound like a gunshot. My car was totaled when the walnut tree I’d parked under snapped. (The insurance did not cover an ‘act of God.’) A decade or so later, I cleaned-up shattered window glass after an arborist removed a cedar tree that was growing too close to the house. While I appreciate the daily benefits of breathing, I recognize the hazards trees can cause when things go wrong.
For me, the car totaling experience resolved the age-old philosophical question about the sound a tree makes (or doesn’t make) when it falls in the woods. The same debates about the nature of reality and how it relates to experience can be applied to monsters.
Are there really extra large, hair-covered, humanoids hiding in the forests of the Pacific Northwest? Does a diabetic older man enter your house each year with the intent to delight your children? (It’s OK! He’s not a stranger, he knows what they’ve been thinking.)
Monsters are grown inside an electrically charged, submerged, gelatin-like structure that everyone carries inside their skull. This magnificent organ has evolved to specialize in pattern recognition. When we see or experience something that doesn’t make sense or for which we have no prior information, our brains concoct stories that seem real and make sense.
Addiction, accidents, rejection, unrealistic expectations, loss, grief and the fear of disappearing
are a few of the thoughts, emotions, and behaviors that breathe life into our own personal monsters.
Because we are social creatures, our monsters can spread like a virus. Screaming fire in a crowded amphitheater or a run on the market because a rumor predicted a crash are examples of monsters gone viral.
Monsters are as adaptable. as we are. Before we understood the stages of decomposition, we thought evil spirits inhabited dead bodies, causing them to move. Every time we drop our kids off at school, we hope that a gunman doesn’t lose his marbles anywhere in the neighborhood. We worry that refugees and immigrants are taking our jobs.
With easy access to a world of information and a bit of discernment, monsters can be vaporized. Yet, instead of doing the work to accomplish this, many of us cozy up to them, inviting them to tea, and letting them share our pillow at night.
Monsters are with us to stay. Many of them are portrayed as hideous and frightful, while others are beguiling. All of them signal some kind of danger and remind us to be alert.
With certainty, we know that tomorrow’s monster will be different from today’s.
Below is a variety of contemporary and classic monster representations and lists of themes they exemplify.
Do monsters fall in love? Can a human love a monster? According to The Shape of Water, the answer to both those questions is, ‘yes.’
The Shape of Water is “an adult fairy tale for troubled times,” says Guillermo del Toro of the story for which he is most proud.
The Shape of Water is a feel-good must-see for monster lovers, lovers of love stories, and sci-fi fans.
The film’s color palette, the 1960’s cold wartime period, and costuming blend beautifully with the superbly crafted monster in a nostalgic tale of beauty and the beast. The shape of Guillermo’s story encompasses lonely, voiceless, disabled outsiders banding together for a greater good—saving an intelligent misunderstood and endangered creature.
In an interview, del Toro commented, “Success and failure are doors that stand side-by-side. You knock and see what happens.”
Happily, for its creator and for audiences everywhere the project turned out to be a resounding success. It is entertainment at its best with important messages…for troubled times.
embracing the authentic self
interspecies understanding and communication
different is valuable
even monsters are worthy of love
love overcomes fear
people with no ‘voice’ can make a difference
Unable to perceive the shape of You, I find You all around me. Your presence fills my eyes with Your love, It humbles my heart, For You are everywhere.
Fan fiction continuing The Shape of Water love story.
Picking up where the movie left off, Giles continues his narration as he and Zelda journey to South America in search of their friends.
Short Story – The Shape of Water Continued
Zelda and I stood together on the canal bank watching as they dragged for bodies. We cried when they placed one red shoe into her trembling hands.
We consoled each other after the investigation interviews.
We bonded when we cleaned out Elisa’s apartment. The princess didn’t have many valuable possessions. I kept her egg timer, and Zelda wasn’t parting with that shoe.
Elisa had some money saved. She left a note saying to split it between us.
Our conversations were stilted as we trundled through grief-stricken tasks.
“I think he healed her and took her away with him,” I’d say.
Zelda’s expression was melancholic, “If she were still alive, she would have let us know.”
“How could she? Too many people are still looking for him….for them.”
Our prospects for work dwindled. Zelda was spending nights on the sofa sleeper in my apartment. Though I enjoyed her company and cooking, sharing a bathroom with her was nearly intolerable.
“Yolanda, from work, cleaned Colonel Strickland’s office.” Zelda offered as she turned hash browns one morning. “She overheard him talking about where he found the creature. She knew the place; she has cousins near there.”
“Did Yolanda say if her cousins ever heard of a River God?”
“She didn’t.” Zelda compressed her lips. Those words dropped off into a moment that was as deep and broad as the Monterey Canyon. Zelda’s stern brown eyes bored into mine. My scalp tingled. I ran my fingers through the hair that hadn’t been there before Aqua Man.
A postcard arrived one day. Not in the mailbox but slipped under my door. There were only two things on it. My street address and a stamp from Peru.
Zelda and I became unencumbered adventurers. We headed south making discrete inquiries. We were lucky Zelda speaks Spanish. She started teaching it to me. A year, to the day, after we left, we stumbled on a lead. Iquitos is a hole-in-the-wall-town on the edge of the Amazon Jungle. Zelda found a job almost right away teaching English to school children. She dragged me along sometimes.
One of her students, Jhady, is a disfigured girl, the daughter of a local businessman who owns an ‘art gallery’ in the back of his grocery store. Zelda kept nagging me to show my sketches to her father.
When I did it, he was expressing lukewarm interest until he came across a piece titled, Elisa and her Monster. Raimee’s eyes went buggy; e began talking so fast that I couldn’t track a word. He seemed in danger of stroking out, so I rushed Zelda in to translate.
We learned that Raimee had seen the River God, he called him Iglootoo. The River God receives pilgrims during harvest moons. He pointed to my sketch, speaking two words I understood, “White Queen.”
“We found her!” Zelda screeched, her eyes filling with tears.
Listening to Raimee and nodding, she repeated, “A small group is preparing to leave next week. He says he’ll arrange for us to join them if you will speak to the River God on behalf of his daughter.”
She pointed to my sketch.
Waving his arm, Raimee encouraged Jhady to come out from behind the curtain where she’d been hiding. She hung her head, letting her long dark hair form a barrier. I could see enough of her face to observe tight, contorted skin around her nose and mouth.
As the date for departure approached, our nerves grew taught.
“What if it’s not them?” Zelda worried.
“It has to be! Raimee recognized Elisa in my sketch.”
“It doesn’t look that much like her! If it is her, what are we going to say after all this time?”
“Hello? I’ve missed you?” I suggested with sarcasm.
“Should we take something as an offering?”
“If we don’t, they might not let us go—” I smiled slowly. I knew what I was going to bring.
It would be a four-day trek into the jungle. We bought burros to haul our gear. Neither one of us believed that the other could hike that distance. I hoped those burros could carry people!
We headed out at dawn with guides at the front wielding long, thick blades, doing battling plant life. Zelda and I were the last stragglers in a group of twelve.
We stood at the edge of a small lake. Thick tropical foliage obscured the opposite shore.
An elaborate calling ceremony began with pounding drums and song. Zelda stood to my left. Raimee to my right. Jhady pressed against her father’s side like melted cheese on beans. Flower petals were cast over the glassy surface.
When bubbles appeared moving in our direction, all grew silent, even the birds and monkeys stopped chattering.
Zelda’s breath caught when a blue-grey, be-gilled head rose from the water like a bioluminescent Atlantean Prince.
Following the locals, we dropped to our knees, sinking into warm, soft mud. Supplicants displayed their offerings before them.
We could tell he recognized us when his purposeful footsteps halted; his head swiveled in our direction.
The party leader stood, calling the creature’s attention.
“He knows you!” Raimee stated clearly in English.
“Where’s Elisa?” Zelda whispered vehemently.
In my peripheral vision, I watched our scaly friend picking his way through the line, accepting gifts and laying webbed hands on heads, feet, and other places the petitioners extended for inspection.
The expressions of those he skipped turned to masks of disappointment. I wondered at his choices, did he not care for their gifts?
As he got closer, he seemed distracted.
Jhady was next in line. The River God dismissed her. Raimee’s face crumbled, “Not again!” he cried.
“Wait!” I called, even though Zelda pounded on my arm.
Standing, I held out my basket. Mewling sounds came from inside.
Aqua Man’s gills flared. I think that’s as close as he gets to smirking.
“I remembered,” I said looking him full in the face. “I was going to ask for more hair, but I’d rather you heal this little girl.”
When he pointed to my basket, signing the word for, ‘funny,’ Zelda and I glanced at each other, grinning.
Aqua Man returned his attention to Raimee’s girl.
Peeling her away, Raimee thrust her forward, admonishing, “Sé quieto!”
Clawed, webbed hands cradled the girl’s face. The River God remained in that position longer than he had with any other pilgrim. The girl’s frightened utterings echoed the kitten cries. When he pulled away, he dropped to his knees, hanging his head.
‘Leave us,’ Aqua Man signed.
In the awkward moment when no one but Zelda and me knew what he wanted, Zelda took care of business. “He said you should all go now. Va! Va!” she shooed.
Before the pilgrims departed, Raimee approached us. “My Jhady is beautiful again!” Tears coursed down his faces. He grabbed Zelda’s hand kissing it. Thanking me profusely, bowing to the River God, he backed away.
When he could stand, Aqua Man led us to a vine-choked path. The going was slow. He grunted as he pulled at the stalks, making room our burros to pass. I tried helping, but he waved me away.
I had a waking nightmare that the jungle was a many-pointed sea star grasping and suffocating everything in its path.
My friend was breathing hard, stooped, and unsteady by the time we reached a clearing. Zelda was steadying him when we heard a, ‘Whoop!’
And there she was! The White Queen, our own dear Elisa. I stared in shock – her eyes and smile were the same, but the rest of her was drastically changed. She was a combination of a heavily endowed fertility goddess and an Aqua Woman.
Lumbering toward us, tears streamed down her face, “You found me!”
Another jolt – her voice!
Overjoyed, the three of us cried and hugged.
After a moment, Elisa pulled away. “Iggy,” she said, “Thank you. Please go now.”
He nodded, turning away. We watched him walk into the water. At thigh height, he dove.
Returning to one another, we replayed a muted version of our happy reunion.
“Let me look at you,” Zelda said while swiping a hand along her cheeks.
Elisa’s hair was hanging in a thick braid down her back. Across the top of her cheeks, along her collarbones and arms, were glittering, overlapping scales.
“How–?” I began, not knowing what else to say. I reached for her free hand. “I saw you shot.”
“It’s a long story,” Elisa replied, her voice lyrical and butter-soft.
Zelda erupted in tears again. “Your voice—it’s just like I always imagined.”
“Me too,” Elisa smiled, “Though I don’t use it as often as I’d like.” Shaking herself, she continued,” Come inside, out of the heat. You’re staying,” It was a statement rather than a question.
Zelda and I hadn’t talked about it, but we’d packed everything.
I situated our burros before following the women into the house. It was a single room building. Two double beds were pushed up against the walls. A small kitchen counter took up another wall. A table surrounded by four stools stood in the middle.
“Zelda will share with me, and Giles will take the other bed.”
“But what about—?” Zelda asked.
“That’s his name?” I wanted to know.
“His name is Iglootoo. He told me that after I taught him how to spell in our language.”
Zelda nodded. “I never thought about him having a name, but I guess you’ve got to call him something.”
“Iggy fits him,” I responded. “Did someone give it to him or did he choose it for himself?”
Chuckling, Elisa patted my shoulder. Leaning in to plant a kiss, she said, “I’ve missed you, Giles. We’ll have plenty of time for stories. Did you bring your art supplies?”
“I never leave home without them.”
Zelda joined Elisa in her small garden picking vegetables for our meal. I sat inside, observing. Sketchpad in hand, I let my pencil capture the scene.
Long shadows, two women wearing large straw hats, their heads together. I couldn’t draw the feminine laughter but wished I could capture it artistically. Their voices carried.
“How long till Iggy comes back?”
Elisa straightened, raising a hand to her brow, looking out over the water. “He’ll be gone for a while. Those ceremonies take a lot out of him. He needs to go down deep to feel restored. He’s worried about the baby and me,” she rubbed the base of her spine, “so he hasn’t gone as far as he should. With you here, he can take as long as he needs.”
“Honey,” Zelda came to stand beside her, “are you worried about—” she nodded at Elisa’s middle.
Elisa faced away from me, but I could see Zelda’s expression. In all honesty, I’m glad it wasn’t me out there voicing the questions that were on our minds.
They moved into the shade, sitting close. Zelda’s arm wrapped protectively around her dearest friend.
“My child— if it lives. If we both live, won’t have any friends,” Elisa cried.
“If it lives?” Of course, it’s going to live, and so are you! As for friends—that baby already has four people who love it.”
“It,” Elisa repeated, letting the word hang in the air.
Elisa leaned into Zelda; they huddled together. “I’m so glad you are here, Zeldy.”
“Me too baby girl!”
Our days became predictable; meals, naps, tending the burros and the garden. For the first time, in possibly decades, I was relaxed and at peace. I noticed, with pleasure, that I’d lost track of the days of the week.
One afternoon, Elisa and I were sitting at the table sipping tea. I’d just finished telling her about the inquiries, the search for bodies, and apologizing for getting rid of all her things. She patted my arm.
“Thank you for taking care of everything. That phase of my life is dead, you did the right thing.”
When Elisa noticed my eyes rapidly blinking, her mouth turned down. She used to read me like a book. I think her skills in that department had deteriorated.
“Take a good look at me, Giles.” She stretched out a leg. Hiking up her skirt, revealing a creamy thigh, and areas covered with translucent scales.
Across the room, Zelda stirred from a siesta, yawning. Swinging her feet to the floor, she hurried over.
Elisa slipped off her shoes spreading her toes. Holding up her hands, she held her fingers wide. Webbing filled all the spaces.
We couldn’t contain our surprise.
Elisa bit her lip; she looked as if she was holding back a smile. Making sure we were looking at her face, she blinked with a set of inner eyelids. They moved vertically from the corners of her eyes toward the bridge of her nose.
“Mary, Mother of Jesus!” Zelda exclaimed, placing a hand over her heart. She puffed up, “I get that gilly thing,” she waved a finger at Elisa’s neck. He had to give you those when he took you in the water and healed your gunshot wound. But he dragged you all the way out here to the middle of the jungle, and he knocked you up,” Zelda’s voice was gaining volume, her gestures taking up more air space. “Then he leaves you all alone when you’re about ready to drop that kid—” Zelda paused when Elisa started repeating her tirade in sign language. Like a statue, Zelda rotated ninety degrees on her toes.
Iglootoo stood in the doorway, dripping, a puddle forming at his feet. ‘I did not change her or heal her,’ he said in the silent language spoken with his flipper hands.
One of the kittens scampered in around his ankles. Lightning fast, he pounced. Zelda and I jumped. Striding across the room, handing the cat to me, he kneeled at my side, bowing his head. I patted him, remembering the first time he’d encountered a house cat.
That evening as the three of us ate our meal; Iggy reclined on one of the beds playing with the kittens.
‘Iggy’ eats while he’s in the water,’ Elisa explained.
“I like that,” Zelda commented, “a man that don’t need no cooking’s alright by me.”
When the dishes were cleared, Iggy stood, coming to the head of the table. ‘Elisa asked me to tell our story,’ he signed.
He waited for her signal to start. She nodded.
‘Elisa is a lost cousin.’ Going to her side, he lifted her hair, touching her chin gently with a claw, he turned her face left and then to the right.
Her gill slits flared, displaying crimson filaments inside.
Zelda shivered, “I could have gone all day without seeing that!”
Iggy looked to me, I rolled my eyes, shaking my head.
He continued, ‘I was sent to find her, to bring her home. Elisa was designed to be my mate.’
I wasn’t sure if the word he’d used was ‘designed’ or ‘destined,’ but I was too engrossed to interrupt.
‘I was setting out on my journey when I was captured. I did not recognize Elisa when I first encountered her. My sense of smell is not good in the open air and my thoughts were muddled. When our kind enters courtship, we remain in constant companionship. I did not understand how Elisa could come and go. Her unusual behavior was a curiosity that I studied. When we traveled back here, in our liquid environment, we completed the bonding rituals.’ He paused, looking down at her, running a knuckle along her jaw.
Elisa covered his hand, smiling up at him.
‘I’m in you,’ he signed solemnly to her.
‘As I am in you,’ she replied, ‘and we are everywhere.’
Their moment of intense communication drew out.
I could see Zelda bursting with questions; she must have decided to keep quiet too.
As if reminding himself that he had an audience, Iggy continued, ‘When we arrived, we expected to be greeted by the family, but they are gone. All my people are gone. While we wait for the offspring, I tend to the city and search for the others.’
“City?” I questioned, glancing around.
Elisa sighed, “It’s underwater, and it’s beautiful, Giles! I wish you could see it—draw it.”
Just as my imagination was taking root, Iggy bent over, placing a hand on Elisa’s belly. ‘It is time,’ he signed. ‘We will return in three days.’ Scooping her up, he marched outside.
“Wait!” Zelda cried chasing after them, her voice on the edge of panic. I followed too watching Elisa’s crooked smile as she kept an eye on us over Iggy’s shoulder. She waved before they submerged.
While Zelda was unsettled with the latest changes in her friend’s life, I was revitalized. I would bear witness to a new, possibly one-of-a-kind, life form. I wished for gills and webs so I could join Elisa and Iggy in the sea.
And then there were three.
They arrived in the night when the temperature was low and the humidity high. Elisa cried a little when she described Gemmalyn’s struggle to take her first breath of air. “If we didn’t make her use her lungs right away, they might never develop,” Elisa’s voice shook. “It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done.”
The nipper is a delight. ‘Darling’ and ‘adorable’ are words Zelda uses when she holds her. ‘Little Monster’ are others she says when she’s sporting a wounded finger that got too close to baby’s sharp teeth.
On a sweltering afternoon when Zelda was in town, and Iggy was away fishing, I sketched Elisa with her baby. It would be another contribution to the baby book Elisa was making. Gemma, still attached to her mother’s breast, had a full belly and was resisting sleep. Elisa rocked, in no hurry to put her daughter down.
“He took me to the city for Gemmalyn’s birth,” Elisa began. “I’ve never had the stamina to make it without help. When we’ve gone in the past, he holds me around the waist; I help kick. This time he carried me, just like when we left. That position creates a lot more drag,” she laughed softly. “It was an effort, but he got us there. It was the first time I felt sad about the place being deserted.”
“He took me to the women’s hall, then, in his language, he gave me the sights and sounds of the city as he’d known it. In that way, I saw his female relatives, and the traditional birthing circle,” Elisa raised glassy eyes gleaming with unshed tears. “It’s indescribable, Giles, understanding how it was and watching Iggy trying to make it right.”
Behind the mother and child scene, I began filling in the background with structures. A bustling, underwater metropolis with lots of Iggies.
“He did the work of the women, helping me bring his daughter into the world. It hurt, there was blood, and sharks circled above, just like buzzards, waiting for a chance.”
“Iggy kept us safe. We stayed in the royal’s suite in the grand palace. While I recovered, Iggy made sure Gemmalyn didn’t swim out of his sight.”
“And then we came home, to you and Zelda,” Elisa sighed, her eyelids growing too heavy to stay open.”
For a moment, I wondered how this mud brick structure compared to a royal suite, what held such attraction to keep them coming back here?
I put the baby in her bassinet, covered Elisa, then went to cool my feet at the river bank. My mind was churning with things only aquatic life can experience.
Iggy emerged with fish on a kelp stringer. Wrapping it securely around a branch, he let our lunch enjoy a reprieve. ‘What is on your mind, Giles?’ he signed as he sat next to me.
“I’m tired of sitting around,” I said, no longer bothering to sign back. Though he could not speak, he understood our language perfectly well. “I want to go with you, to help search.”
We started my endurance swimming and free diving lessons that afternoon.
I enjoyed my new quest, searching with Iggy sometimes, and other times alone.
Nearly a year later, our little clan is still intact. We’ve added rooms onto to Elisa’s house. The Iglootoo family, as I now think of them, is in residence less and less.
Gemmalyn, the most beautiful creature on the face of the Earth, is the best of both her parents. She is graceful in the water and out. She’s as curious as our cats and rambunctious as a monkey.
Though there’s been no sign of Iglootoo’s people, he remains hopeful. He is a devoted mate and father, and he’s a first-rate best friend. He’s accepted us as part of his tribe. Our association with him has elevated us as human beings.
Zelda helps Elisa chase after Gemma when she’s on land. She’s also become my art representative with Raimee, who’s been selling my Iglootoo sketches. (Elisa and Iggy have sworn us to secrecy about Gemmalyn!)
I suspect Raimee’s daughter has been playing matchmaker between Zelda and her father. Zelda nearly glows every time she returns from town.
Elisa has been pushing Zelda into talks with the National Parks system. Her goal is to make sure their home remains protected and safe, that people like Colonel Strickland can never repeat what happened to Iggy.
Iggy restored nearly all my hair and gave me back the body of a forty-year-old.
I’d be remiss in ending our story without mentioning my fresh start with love…
Iggy believes the merfolk are fairytales, he’s wrong.