The shape of water, p.1
The Shape of Water, p.1Guillermo Del Toro
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To love, in its many forms and shapes
Thanks to Richard Abate, Amanda Kraus, Ricardo Rosa, Grant Rosenberg, Natalia Smirnov, Julia Smith, and Christian Trimmer.
For brief as water falling will be death,
and brief as flower falling, or leaf,
brief as the taking, and the giving, breath;
thus natural, thus brief, my love, is grief.
It doesn’t matter if the water is cold or warm
if you’re going to have to wade through it anyway.
—PIERRE TEILHARD DE CHARDIN
RICHARD STRICKLAND READS the brief from General Hoyt. He’s at eleven thousand feet. The twin-prop taking hits as hard as a boxer’s fists. The last leg of Orlando to Caracas to Bogotá to Pijuayal, the knuckles of the Peru-Colombia-Brazil fist. The brief is indeed brief and punctuated with black redactions. It explains, in staccato army poetry, the legend of a jungle god. The Brazilians call it Deus Brânquia. Hoyt wants Strickland to escort the hired hunters. Help them capture the thing, whatever it is, and haul it to America.
Strickland’s eager to get it done. It’ll be his last mission for General Hoyt. He’s certain of it. The things he did in Korea under Hoyt have shackled him to the general for twelve years. It’s a form of blackmail, their relationship, and Strickland wants washed clean of it. He pulls off this job, the biggest yet, and he’ll have the capital to recuse himself from Hoyt’s service. Then he can travel home to Orlando, to Lainie, to the kids, Timmy and Tammy. He can be the husband and father Hoyt’s dirty work has never permitted him to be. He can be a whole new man. He can be free.
He turns his attention back to the brief. Adopts the callous military mind-set. Those sorry fucks down in South America. It’s not subnormal farming practices to blame for their poverty. Of course not. It’s a Gill-god displeased with their stewardship of the jungle. The brief is smudged because the twin-prop is leaking. He blots it on his pants. US military, it reads, believes Deus Brânquia has properties of significant military application. His job will be to look out for “US interests” and keep the crew, as Hoyt puts it, “motivated.” Strickland knows firsthand Hoyt’s theories on motivation.
Think of Lainie. Better yet, given what he might have to do, don’t think of her.
The pilot’s Portuguese profanities are justified. Landing is a terror. The runway is hacked from pure jungle. Strickland staggers from the plane to find the heat is visible, a floating bruise. A Colombian in a Brooklyn Dodgers T-shirt and Hawaiian shorts waves him toward a pickup. A little girl in the truck bed throws a banana at Strickland’s head, and he’s too nauseated from the flight to react. The Colombian drives him to town, three square blocks of clacking, wood-wheeled fruit carts and shoeless, potbellied children. Strickland wanders the shops and purchases on instinct: a cigarette lighter, bug juice, sealable plastic bags, foot talc. The countertops across which he pushes pesos seep tears from the humidity.
He studied a phrase book on the plane. “Você viu Deus Brânquia?”
Merchants chuckle and flutter their hands over their necks. Strickland hasn’t the faintest fucking clue. These people smell sharp and steely, like freshly slaughtered livestock. He walks away on a blacktop road that is melting beneath his shoes and sees a spiny rat threshing in the black muck. It is dying, and slowly. Its bones will blanch, sink into the tar. It is the nicest road Strickland will see for a year and a half.
THE ALARM SHAKES the bedside table. Without opening her eyes, Elisa feels for the clock’s ice-cold stopper. She’d been in a deep, soft, warm dream and wants it back, one more tantalizing minute. But the dream eludes wakeful pursuit; it always does. There was water, dark water—that much she remembers. Tons of it, pressing at her, only she didn’t drown. She breathed inside it better, in fact, than she does here, in waking life, in drafty rooms, in cheap food, in sputtering electricity.
Tubas blare from downstairs and a woman screams. Elisa sighs into her pillow. It’s Friday, and a new movie has opened at the Arcade Cinema Marquee, the around-the-clock theater directly below, and that means new dialogue, sound effects, and music cues she’ll need to integrate into her wake-up rituals if she wishes to ward off continual, heart-stopping frights. Now it’s trumpets; now it’s masses of men hollering. She opens her eyes, first to the 10:30 p.m. of the clock and then to the blades of film-projector light finning through the floorboards, imbuing dust bunnies with Technicolor hues.
She sits up and arches her shoulders against the cold. Why does the air smell like cocoa? The strange scent is joined by an unpleasant noise: a fire engine northeast of Patterson Park. Elisa lowers her feet to the chilled floor and watches the projector light shift and flicker. This new film, at least, is brighter than the last one, a black-and-white picture called Carnival of Souls, and the rich colors pouring across her feet allow her to slide back into dreamy make-believe: She’s got money, plenty of it, and groveling salesmen are slipping onto her feet an array of colorful shoes. You look ravishing, miss. In a pair of shoes like this, why, you’ll conquer the world.
Instead, the world has conquered her. No amount of gewgaws picked up for pennies at garage sales and pinned to the walls can hide the termite-gnawed wood or distract from the bugs that scatter the second she turns on the light. She chooses not to notice; it’s her only hope to get through the night, the following day, the subsequent life. She crosses to the kitchenette, sets the egg timer, drops three eggs into a pot of water, and continues to the bathroom.
Elisa takes baths exclusively. She peels off her flannel as the water pours. Women at work leave behind ladies’ magazines on the cafeteria tables, and countless articles have informed Elisa of the precise inches of her body she should fixate on. But hips and breasts can’t compare to the puffy pink keloid scars on either side of her neck. She leans in until her naked shoulder bumps the glass. Each scar is three inches long and drawn from jugular to larynx. In the distance, the siren advances; she’s lived her whole life in Baltimore, thirty-three years, and can track the fire engine down Broadway. Her neck scars are a road map, too, aren’t they? Places she’s been best not to remember.
Dipping her ears under bathwater amplifies the cinema’s sounds. To die for Chemosh, cries a girl in the movie, is to live forever! Elisa has no idea if she’s heard this right. She slides a sliver of soap between her hands, enjoying the feeling of being wetter than water, so slippery she can cut through liquid like a fish. Impressions of her pleasant dream press against her, heavy as a man’s body. It is abruptly, overwhelmingly erotic; she skates her soapy fingers between her thighs. She’s gone on dates, had sex, all that. But it’s been years. Men meet a woman who’s mute, they take advantage of her. Never once on a date did a man ever try to communicate, not really. T
But the timer, that infernal pip-squeak, ding-a-ling-a-ling-a-lings. Elisa splutters, embarrassed even though she’s alone, and stands, her limbs shiny and draining. She wraps in a bathrobe and pads shivering back to the kitchen, where she kills the stovetop and accepts the clock’s bad news: 11:07 p.m. Where did she lose so much time? She shrugs into a random bra, buttons a random blouse, smooths a random skirt. She’d felt ragingly alive in the dream, but now she’s as inert as the eggs cooling on a plate. There’s a mirror here in the bedroom, too, but she chooses not to look at it, just in case her hunch is true and she’s invisible.
ONCE STRICKLAND FINDS the fifty-foot riverboat in its appointed place, he uses his new lighter to burn Hoyt’s brief, SOP. Now the whole thing is black, he thinks, the whole thing is redacted. Like everything down here, the boat offends his military standards. It’s garbage nailed to garbage. The smokestack is patched with hammered tin. The tires atop the gunwales look deflated. A sheet stretched between four poles offers the only shade on the vessel. It’ll be hot. That’s good. Burn away torturous thoughts of Lainie; their cool, clean home; the whisper of the Florida palms. Boil his brain into the kind of fury a mission like this requires.
Dirty brown water squirts between dock slats. Some of the crew are white, some tan, some red-brown. Some are painted and pierced. All lug wet crates across a plank that dramatically dips with the weight. Strickland follows and reaches a hull stenciled Josefina. Small portholes suggest the most perfunctory of lower decks, just big enough for a captain. The very word captain rankles him. Hoyt’s the only captain here, and Strickland is Hoyt’s proxy. He’s in no mood for fatuous ship-steerers who think they’re in charge.
He finds the captain, a bespectacled Mexican with a white beard, white shirt, white pants, and white straw hat signing manifests with excessive flourishes. He shouts “Mr. Strickland!” and Strickland feels like he’s been transported inside one of his son’s Looney Tunes: Meester Streekland! He’d committed the captain’s name to memory somewhere above Haiti: Raúl Romo Zavala Henríquez. It fits, starting off well enough before ballooning into pomposity.
“Look! Escoces and puros cubanos, my friend, all for you.” Henríquez hands over a cigar, fires up one of his own, and pours two glasses. Strickland was trained not to drink on the job but permits Henríquez his toast. “¡To la aventura magnífico!” They drink, and Strickland admits to himself that it feels good. Anything to ignore, just for a while, the looming shadow of General Hoyt, what it might mean for Strickland’s future if he fails to properly “motivate” Henríquez. For the duration of the scotch, the heat of his innards equalizes with that of the jungle.
Henríquez is a man who has spent too much time blowing smoke rings: They are perfect.
“Smoke, drink, enjoy! It is all you will know of luxury for much time. It is good you came no later, Mr. Strickland. Josefina is impatient to depart. Like Amazonia, it waits for no man.” Strickland doesn’t like the implication. He sets down his glass and stares. Henríquez laughs, claps his hands. “Quite right. Men like us, pioneers of the Sertão, it is not necessary we express excitement. Los brasileños honor us with a word: sertanista. It has a fine sound, sí? It stirs the blood?”
Henríquez recounts in dull detail his trip to an outpost of the Instituto de Biologia Maritima. He claims that he has handled—with his own dos manos!—limestone fossils said to resemble descriptions of Deus Brânquia. Scientists date the fossils to the Devonian Period, which, did you know, Meester Streekland, is part of the Paleozoic Era? This, Henríquez intones, is what attracts men like them to Amazonia. Where primitive life yet thrives. Where man might page back the calendar and touch the untouchable.
Strickland holds his question for an hour. “Did you get the charter?”
Henríquez stubs his cigar and frowns out the porthole. There he finds something to grin about and gestures imperiously.
“You see the face tattoos? The nose dowels? These are not Indians like your Tonto. These are índios bravos. Every kilometer of the Amazon, from Negro-Branco to Xingu, they know in their blood. From four different tribes they come. And I have secured them as guides! It is impossible, Mr. Strickland, for our expedition to become lost.”
Strickland repeats: “Did you get the charter?”
Henríquez fans himself with his hat. “Your Americans mailed me mimeographs. Very well. Our expedição científica will follow their wiggly lines for as long as we can. Then, Mr. Strickland, we move on foot! We locate the vestigios, the remains of original tribes. These people have suffered from industry more than you can imagine. The jungle swallows their screams. We, however, will come in peace. We will offer gifts. If Deus Brânquia exists, they will be the ones to tell us where to find it.”
In General Hoyt’s parlance, the captain is motivated. Strickland gives him that. But there are warning signs, too. If Strickland knows anything about untamed territory, it is that it stains you, inside and out. You do not wear white clothing unless you do not know what the hell you are doing.
ELISA AVOIDS THE western wall of her bedroom until the last moment, so that the sight might strike with inspiration. It isn’t a big room, so it is not a big wall: eight feet by eight feet, and every inch covered in shoes bought over the years in budget or secondhand stores. Featherlite spectator pumps in cherry and spice. Two-tone Customcraft with toes like garden spades. Champagne satin peep-toe heels, like a pile of fallen wedding chiffon. Three-inch Town & Countrys, brilliant red: wearing them looks like your feet are softly layered with rose petals. Relegated to the margins are the dirtied strapless mules, sling-back sandals, plastic penny loafers, and ugly nubucks of nostalgic value only.
Each shoe hangs upon a tiny nail that she, common renter, had no right to insert. Time is against her, but she takes some of it anyway, carefully selecting Daisy-brand pumps with a blue leather flower on a clear plastic throat, as if the choice is of utmost importance. And it is. The Daisys will be the only insurgency she brings off tonight, and every night. Feet are what connect you to the ground, and when you are poor, none of that ground belongs to you.
She sits on the bed to put them on. It is like a knight shoving his hands into a pair of steel gauntlets. As she wiggles the toe for fit, she lets her eyes stray across the slag heap of old LPs. Most of them were bought used years ago, and nearly all carry memories of joy pressed, right along with the music, into the polymer plastic.
The Voice of Frank Sinatra: the morning she helped a school crossing guard free downy brown chicks from under a sewage grate. Count Basie’s One O’Clock Jump: the day she saw a clobbered baseball, rare as a red-footed falcon, pop out of Memorial Stadium and ricochet off a fire hydrant. Bing Crosby’s Stardust: the afternoon she and Giles saw Stanwyck and MacMurray in Remember the Night at the theater below, and Elisa lay on her bed the rest of the day, dropping the needle on Bing and wondering if she, like Stanwyck’s good-hearted thief, was serving a sentence in this harsh life, and if anyone, like MacMurray, would be waiting for her the day she was freed.
Enough: It’s pointless. No one’s waiting for her and no one ever has, least of all the punch clock at work. She puts on her coat, grabs the plate of eggs. The curious smell of cocoa is undeniable as she exits into a short hallway cluttered with dusty film cans holding who knows what celluloid treasures. To the right, the sole other apartment. She knuckles it twice before entering.
WITHIN THE HOUR, they depart. Delight, say the guides, is the dry season; it is called verão. Tragedy is the wet season; no one will even tell Strickland what it’s called. The legacy of the previous wet season are furos, flooded shortcuts across the river’s bends, and Josefina takes them while she can. These oxbow switchbacks transform the Amazon into an animal. It dashes. It hides. It pounces. Henríquez hoots with joy and throttles the engine, and the green, peat
Henríquez likes to hand the controls to the first mate so he can take notes in his logbook. He boasts that he writes for publication and fame. Everyone will know the name of the great explorer Raúl Romo Zavala Henríquez. He caresses the logbook’s leather, likely dreaming of an author photo of appropriate smugness. Strickland smothers his hate, disgust, and fear. All three get in the way. All three give you away. Hoyt taught him that in Korea. Just do your job. The most advantageous feeling is to feel nothing at all.
Monotony, though, might be the jungle’s stealthiest killer. Day after day, Josefina traces an endless ribbon of water beneath expanding spirals of mist. One day Strickland glances upward to find a large black bird like a greasy smear across the blue sky. A vulture. Now that he’s noticed it, he finds it every day, making lazy loops, anticipating his demise. Strickland is well armed, a Stoner M63 assault rifle in the hold and a Model 70 Beretta in his holster, and he itches to shoot the bird down. The bird is Hoyt, watching. The bird is Lainie, saying good-bye. He doesn’t know which.
Sailing is treacherous at night, so the boat anchors. Usually Strickland chooses to stand alone at the bow. Let the crew whisper. Let the índios bravos stare like he’s some kind of American monster. The moon this particular evening is a great hole carved through nightflesh to reveal pale, luminescent bone, and he does not notice Henríquez creep up on him.
“Do you see? The frolicking pink?”
Strickland is furious, not at the captain, but himself. What sort of soldier leaves his back exposed? Plus, he’s caught gazing at the moon. It’s feminine, something Lainie would do while asking him to hold her hand. He shrugs, hoping Henríquez will go away. Instead, the captain gestures with his logbook. Strickland looks into the distance and sees a sinuous leap and silver spray.
The Shape of Water by Guillermo Del Toro / Fantasy / Romance & Love / Science Fiction / Horror have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes