19 May The Abalone Thief
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"The Abalone Thief"Written by
Estimated reading time — 18 minutes
Although there is no internet access or even cell phone service in this tiny cabin where I sit typing, perched on a cliff high above the Pacific Ocean, still I write this blog, in the hopes that it might find some new civilization, long after mankind is gone. That this may be a testament to one man who found faith and religion, after doubting for so long.
You see, I was never a spiritual or superstitious man. I was a man of science. A student. A marine biologist. Before this I never had what one would call faith in anything resembling religion. To me it was all math, everything. The strange mutations of life were simply an exponential progression of evolution. But now, as I see the sacramental fires burning bright on the beach below me, and feel the awakening of the ancients echo in my sleep and dreams, now that I realize that man’s time is over and it is a new beginning for beings much greater and more powerful than our own, I offer up a poem, a sacrament, a narrative, to the events that unfolded before the great awakening.
Let me start at the beginning.
I was a doctoral student at the University of California Santa Cruz working on my PhD in marine biology. Mollusks were my specialty. Specifically Haliotoidea Haliotis rufescens, or as they are known by their common name: red abalone. Abalone are an edible type of sea snail, a marine mollusk, single shell gastropod found in coastal waters around the globe. Like all snails they have a head, with a mouth and a pair of eyes, and a foot which they use to cling to rock formations while using their file like tongue to scrape algal matter into their mouths. They also have an enlarged pair of tentacles. They are considered a delicacy, their flesh being comparable to calamari. Red abalone, the largest and most prized of the species, are found only on the west coast of North America. Red abalone are not endangered but because of overfishing and acidification of oceans they have become rather scarce; that is why, California put a ban on the commercial fishing of them in the 1990s. They can be harvested for personal use only north of San Francisco, April through November, with a hiatus in July, and with a limit of only three a day and a total of eighteen a year.
Since I was writing my doctoral thesis on Haliotis rufescens it was deemed that I should spend the summer in a tiny fishing village called Shelter Cove. There I would study, measure, count and map the abalone and also report any suspicious activities relating to abalone poachers to the California Department of Fish and Wildlife. So, when the school semester ended in June I packed up all my gear (scuba set, books, slides, specimen jars, microscopes) and strapped my kayak to the roof of my trusty old Subaru outback and headed north up highway 101 for Shelter Cove.
Shelter Cove is a quiet little hamlet on the coast of Humboldt County. The sign as you enter declares it, “An Island in Time”. There is only one long, winding road in, which climbs up to nearly 2,000 feet as it transcends the summit of the King Range mountains and, conversely, only that one twisting, dangerous, cliff strewn road out. To the south is nothing but inaccessible shoreline facing steep cliffs, dotted with pockets of tiny beaches where the surf smashes down on jagged rocks, and deep, dangerous tide pools. To the north it is relatively the same, only a thin, potholed, dirt road winding over the cliffs slightly to the east.
This is why this area is known as Humboldt’s Lost Coast. The brave surf and kayak here but it has a notorious rip tide and once an entire troop of tired boy scouts resting on the beach were swooped up by a sleeper wave and sucked out to their deaths in the ocean’s depths.
The lodgings that were given to me consisted of a small cabin, nothing more than a shack really, perched high up on a cliff face. To the right I could see the boat launch the fishermen used, the caged in area where they gutted their catch. A small stretch of beach lay there where locals would drive their pick-up trucks up onto the sandy shore and drink beer and barbeque. To my left was another stretch of beach they called Deadmans, separated from the boat landing by a jutting cliff. Deadmans, a favorite surf spot, is only accessible by the ocean. The surfers have to paddle on their boards around the cliff face to get there.
The only internet access in Shelter Cove is from satellite and the university was too cheap to put one up in the shack they had supplied me with. I couldn’t even get cell phone service to use my phone as a hot spot. So when I had to post my data on the University’s Science Lab website, I would have to travel down the road a few miles to a coffee shop in the lobby of an old hotel that had Wi-Fi. There I could also manage to get cell phone service, but only in the parking lot at the top of a steep embankment.
My closest neighbors lived down a rutted dirt road. A young single mom and her 9 year old girl Suzy.
On my first day, as I was unfastening my ocean kayak from the roof of my battered old Subaru Outback, Suzy rode right up to me on her pink Huffy bike, an inquisitive look on her round little face.
“Who are you?” she asked in that bluntly curious manner children from small towns often have.
“My name’s Theodore.”
She nodded as if she approved of my name, her eyes wandering along all of my equipment.
“What’s all this stuff?”
“This is my scuba gear, these are specimen jars, and these, here in these boxes, are microscopes. With a microscope you can see real small stuff.”
“I know what a microscope is. The sixth graders use them at my school. Why do you have all this stuff?”
“Well, I’m a scientist and I’m here to study abalone.”
“Abalone? Oh gross, my Uncle Bob tries to make me eat that stuff every 4th of July. I don’t like seafood.”
“You live in a fishing village and you don’t like seafood?”
“No. I don’t like anything slimy, stinky, slippery, wet or gross.” She nodded her little head in that authoritative manner she had used when I told her my name and then rode off, leaving me standing there laughing.
After that day, whenever Suzy rode past on her bike and saw me she would stop and talk. Though she claimed to hate slimy stuff- (“Oh!” she’d squeal, “Get it away!” when I held up a baby squid for her inspection), she soon fell prey to the wonders of nature, marveling over a sea urchin or laughing uproariously at the awkward antics of a huge dungeness crab I had brought back from the ocean for her amusement. Her big brown eyes would gleam and her pig tails would bob up and down as she stroked a starfish. I showed her the tiny holes in the mantle of the abalone’s thick domed shell, the respiratory apertures, and explained to her how the sea snail vented water through them with its gills. She stared into the microscope at macro algae and I explained how the abalone fed on them with the small median teeth of the radula. As her enthusiasm began to grow I sensed a future marine biologist in the making and grew to truly love her visits.
I quickly settled into a routine of waking early and taking my kayak out to dive. Even though it was summer the water was cold, averaging about fifty degrees, and I had to wear a full wet suit with a hood and gloves. I would pull my hood over my head, pull down my half mask, put my regulator’s mouthpiece to my lips, and slip into the murky water to explore the underwater rock formations with my flashlight, looking for the domed, brick red shells that are the underwater homes of the abalone who had suctioned themselves to the craggy surfaces. I would count and measure them and then return to my kayak to scrawl out my findings. It was peaceful work but it could be dangerous. Every year dozens of abalone divers wash up dead on the shores, smashed against the rocks by a swell or sucked into dark ocean caves. In 2004 an abalone diver, who ironically worked for the Recreational Fishing Alliance and was on a federal fisher management panel, was attacked by a great white shark while diving not too far south from here, off the coast of Mendocino. When his friends first saw the huge cloud of blood in the water they thought it was some kind of sick joke. They were gravely mistaken. His mauled and ravaged body washed up on shore a day later.
In the evenings I would type out my statistics on my laptop, their average depth and proximity to the shore; and, in my free time, I would wander the desolate shoreline exploring the tide pools while I sipped a local micro-brew and sampled some of the fine cannabis the hills to the east of us were famous for. I’d gaze up at the sky, streaked in pink and purple as the sun sunk down into the ocean, watching pelicans beat their wings in unison as the high pitched wails of young harbor seals echoed off the towering bluffs. I was happy. As happy as I’ve ever been. By my third week I had charted the entire shore line for over half a mile.
At the end of the first month I had made enough inroads with the notoriously secretive locals to be invited to a party.
It was a wild event, held on a sprawling manor that sat on a grassy hillside with the ocean spread out below it. It was the last day of June and there would be a month long hiatus for abalone harvesting all of July, so the abalone divers were throwing a feast. There was abalone wontons, abalone salsa, two kinds of abalone ceviche, abalone sausage, but the most scrumptious was the abalone wrapped in dates, goat cheese and bacon and deep fried. All of this as well as the standard fare of salmon, halibut, cod and oysters. Bottles of wine from nearby vineyards littered the tables and ruddy faced fishermen gathered around kegs of local micro-brew. The sheriff was there in full uniform and when someone passed him a joint he puffed it and passed it on like everyone else.
A week into July I noticed a massive amount of abalone missing off the point of Deadmans.
Abalone concentrate where current flow causes drift seaweed to accumulate. The point of Deadmans was one of those places. Because abalone expand a large amount of energy when moving they tend to stay in one location. Last week the point of Deadmans had been littered with abalone; now, there wasn’t a single one left. I shone my flashlight along the submerged rocks, nothing. I reached my hand into a narrow crevice, felt around the deep fissure for the telltale feel of those thick shells, cautious and aware that a swell could suck me into the narrow space, crush my bones, wedge me in and trap me.
Even if there wasn’t a moratorium on abalone fishing going on an absence of this size was unprecedented. This had to have been some kind of large scale poaching. In San Francisco, in Chinatown, dried abalone sells as an aphrodisiac for $2,000 dollars a pound. A haul this big could easily net over half a million dollars.
First, I alerted the fish and game department. Next, figuring that the poachers, after having exhausted the supply on the point, would now move down into Deadmans cove itself, and that they would most likely come in the early twilight hours, I decided to stakeout Deadmans beach to see if I could catch the poachers if they returned.
The only way accessible to Deadmans cove is over the ocean; so, I hauled my kayak out to the boat launch, slipped it into the dark water, waves lapping at the concrete pier, jumped in and paddled out. There was a full moon but the fog was rolling in thick across the relatively calm water.
I kayaked past the beach where a few pick-up trucks were still parked, surfers relaxing on the shore and having a few beers after a day of riding the waves, and made my way around the towering point of Deadmans, carefully avoiding the crescent of jagged rocks that rose up out of the black water and fog. Paddling into the small cove I rode the surf up onto the beach. Pulling my kayak across the black, pebbly sand to the cliff face, I found a small cave, nothing more than a craggy wrinkle in the bluff, and tucked my kayak into it, camouflaging it with driftwood, dried seaweed and a few handfuls of sand. With my kayak hidden I hiked down the beach and behind a large, washed up tree stump I set up my small one person tent. I hunkered down for the night, staying awake for a good while, but then drifting off to a light slumber, determined to sleep lightly and awaken as early as I could.
In the middle of the night I awoke to a garbled noise. I at first assumed it was the yapping of sea lions; but as sleep left me, I realized it was human voices. It sounded like they were singing or chanting. I poked my head out of my tent. The entire beach was now draped in a thick shroud of fog, but when I peered out into the distance I was startled to see a mass of orange flames flicking up into the night sky. It was a huge bonfire and silhouetted around it appeared to be a circle of people. Was I dreaming? I blinked my eyes and focused on the fire and, yes, around the fire was a ring of people in black, hooded cloaks.
They held hands and slowly circled around the flames, chanting, with the fog swirling around them. On the outside of the circle were others,also in dark cloaks, remaining still as statues, holding torches. They couldn’t see me, hidden in the fog behind the massive log, and I watched curiously. It was definitely strange; but, I just assumed it was a bunch of teenagers getting weird, or, maybe even a coven of old hippy wiccans getting their witch on. Either wouldn’t be unheard of in these parts.
I watched the strange ritual for over an hour till they were done. Then they responsibly put out their fire (which impressed me), burying its smoldering remains in sand, and wandered up into a ravine where a trail took them up the cliff side. So there was a way to Deadmans cove besides the ocean. I would have to scope out that trail when I got a chance. Maybe the abalone thief used it to get to the beach.
Since the strange cultists, or whatever they were, had not waded out into the ocean or given any sign of abalone poaching, I paid them no real mind -live and let live, right? Just a bunch of kooks getting weird. I had often heard that Humboldt County was a weird place and that Southern Humboldt even weirder. I waited all day on the beach for any sign of poachers, eating trail mix and dried fruit, but saw nothing.
When the sun set and the sky began to grow dark I packed up my tent and went and retrieved my kayak. I had been on the beach for over twenty four hours and had seen no sign of the abalone thief. I pushed my kayak out into the surf, jumped in, and paddled back around the point.
That night, even though I was exhausted from my little expedition, I was restless and unable to sleep, tossing and turning in my bed. I went outside onto the cliff edge to smoke a joint and drink a beer to calm my nerves. A slight breeze stirred the leaves of the manzanita and dune tansy that lined the cliff edge, the salty smell of the sea heavy in the air.
It was then I noticed that from up here I could just make out a fire burning on Deadmans below me, tiny silhouettes of circling acolytes around it. I could even make out the torch bearers that encircled the group. They were back, the local weirdos. Probably just a bunch of Goth or metal kids who listened to too much Marilyn Manson. The beer and pot were doing their trick and I yawned, feeling exhaustion take over.
That night I had the first of the dreams.
I dreamed I was in the ocean, deep underwater, beneath the waves, examining the abalone. I ran my finger over their hard outer shell imagining their fimbriated head lobes, their columellar muscle. It was breeding time and I could see their respiratory apertures venting eggs and sperm into the ocean’s water column.
I had no scuba gear. I didn’t need it. It felt as if I had some sort of gills, for I could feel the salty water swooshing in and out of me as it churned, cold and green. Full of fascination I studied the formations of rock and shell as a hand, almost human, crept over the craggy shelf. It was covered in pale, green scales and the tips of the fingers ended in black claws. It reached out and took hold of a Haliotis rufescens’s blood red shell and slowly peeled it off the rock, the slime trail the sea snail uses to locomote leaving a viscous, oozing stain.
I gazed in wonder as a humanoid head then rose up over the rocky ledge. A face with the features of a fish: gills, small holes where the nose should be, massive black, empty eyes. I stared on as the creature put the abalone to its mouth and with fanged teeth pulled the sea snail slowly out of its shell and began chomping on it, swallowing it in quick, eager gulps. When it was done it extended a long, thin, black tongue, forked like the tongue of a snake, and licked the empty shell clean.
So this is the abalone thief, I thought to myself, with the calm and calculating mind of a scientist, without any fear whatsoever.
Then I saw, out in the murky distance of the ocean floor, more. There were more of them, hundreds of them. Maybe even thousands of them. An army of these scaled sea creatures, feeding on the abalone; I realized that they were gaining sustenance to strengthen themselves. They were preparing for something.
This army of creatures was readying themselves for the coming of a being greater than that that has ever roamed this earth. They awaited a great awakening. And in a massive epiphany, I realized the importance of their mission, and that I was needed; I must join them, lend my psychic support, and then I realized what the cult on the beach was doing, what their goal was. Then I looked down at my hands and realized that my hands, too, were webbed and covered in scales. I was one of them.
I awoke bathed in sweat, shivering, unable to dislodge the strange dream from my mind.
The dream was bizarre. Silly. Obviously it had no bearing on reality. Sea creatures poaching the abalone? But something within me felt different. I felt very unscientific. For the first time in my life I felt an inexplicable spirituality: a desire to worship a higher being, a higher power. I also felt very, very scared, though I couldn’t say why.
The next day I searched for the path that lead to Deadmans. I realized that from my cabin, I could walk along the cliff edge, between the clumps of coyote bush and dune tansy, down a hill into a gully that eventually formed into a steep, rocky ravine. Following this ravine down into a small valley I found the trail. Nothing more than a deer or elk path, really.
On an impulse I decided to stake it out that night. To watch and see if that strange group appeared again. Just to check them out, for curiosity sake, and see what they were up to. If I could identify any of them maybe I could question them about the abalone thief. See if they had any good intel on boats or strangers coming or going from the beach.
That night, sure enough, as I crept down to the ravine, I could see the fire burning on the beach below. I positioned myself off the trail and above the cove, just close enough to see the beach fairly well with my binoculars. I crouched down and put the binoculars to my eyes.
I could see that they were holding hands around the fire again, slowly rotating, most likely chanting the strange mumbo-jumbo I had heard last night. I tried to make out their faces to see if I could catch anyone I recognized, but their hoods obscured them and all I could see were dark shadows where their faces should be.
I scanned the gathering with my binoculars and noticed something going on off to the side, some sort of commotion against the cliff wall. Two hooded figures were holding a struggling figure by its arms. I focused my binoculars and what I saw made my mouth go dry and my gut clench. It was Suzy. They were holding little Suzy and she was naked. Naked and struggling. This couldn’t be.
Then, as I watched helplessly above, they pulled her forward to the fire. It took four of those cloaked maniacs to hold the squirming girl down, as another, this one’s robes a crimson red, raised what must have been a knife above her, for it glinted in the moonlight, long and pointed.
What should I do? What could I do? There had to be at least a dozen of them down there.
Then it all happened so quickly: the knife fell and I thought I could hear that little voice I knew so well cry out in pain and go silent. The crimson robed one hacked into her chest and pulled out a dark object I could only assume was her heart and brought it to his mouth. He then passed it on, little Suzy’s pale, naked body now limp and crumpled on the sand.
I had to do something. I had to call the cops.
I spun around and clawed myself up off the ravine and as I did my foot slipped and I sent a shower of pebbles and dirt down into the mist covered gully. I froze, my mouth dust dry, clinging to the rock face. Had they noticed? With a pounding heart I started back up.
Once I got to the top I sprinted over the bluffs to my Subaru, now out of breath and huffing. Fumbling with the keys I started the engine and sped down the road. I squealed into the parking lot of the Inn of The Lost Coast, leaped out of my car and with sweaty, shaky hands dialed 911 on my iPhone. When I told the operator what had happened and where I was she transferred me to the sheriff.
“Calm down,” he said, “and explain to me again what happened.”
“I saw them kill her,” I said. “Kill her and eat her heart.”
“Suzy Anderson that lives on the corner of Toth and Steel Head with her mother Cathy?”
“Yes, I’m sure it was her. On the beach at Deadmans.”
“You saying she’s been murdered?”
“By a cult in hoods on the beach?”
“Yes. Fuck. They ate her goddamn heart. Are you not listening to me?”
“Okay, Ted, okay. Just calm down. Now, listen, what I want is for you to go on home. I’ll check up on this and stop by after I get it all sorted out.”
“But they killed her.”
This time firmer: “Now, Ted!”
“Now, no more buts, Ted! You go on home and I’ll see you there. Got it?”
I couldn’t believe how nonchalant the Sheriff was being but what could I do? I would just have to do what he said: go back to my cabin and wait for him.
“Well, okay,” I said and I heard the line go silent. I stared down at the black device in my hand, knowing if I left this one small spot of land it would be rendered useless. I would be cut off from the rest of the world. Alone. But what could I do? He was the sheriff. Even if he was an overweight, pot head, he was the sheriff, and I had no choice but to listen to him.
So I drove back to my cabin and waited. I looked out over the cliff face but I couldn’t see the fire burning anymore. I drank a beer, tried to go over my data, but I was too shaken up. My hands shook so bad I couldn’t even manage to type numbers into the keyboard of my laptop.
Suddenly there was a knock at the door that startled the living shit out of me. Shook me to the bone. Wishing I had just hightailed it out of there earlier, driven away down that long winding road that was the only way in or out, never to come back, I crept up to the door and cautiously pulled the curtain of the window back. Peeking out the window I saw the Sheriff standing at my doorstep with Suzy’s mother Cathy and a little girl.
I tentatively pulled the door open.
“This the girl you saw murdered?” the sheriff immediately barked at me.
I gazed at the little girl before me, a girl the same age and height as Suzy, with similar hair, but definitely not Suzy.
“No. This isn’t her. I said Suzy Anderson.”
The little girl looked up at Suzy’s mother. “What’s he talking about, Mama?”
“This is Suzy Anderson,” the sheriff grumbled. “And this is her mother. Known both of ‘em my whole goddamn life. Now what the hell is going on around here?”
“No. It’s not. That is not Suzy. I saw them kill her!” I shouted. Somebody had to fucking believe me. I gazed up to Suzy’s mother who looked at me like I was crazy and clutched the little girl to her.
“Momma, Ted is scaring me!”
“Okay, you two go wait in the car,” the sheriff mumbled, waving Suzy’s mother and the little girl along.
He then put one of his big, beefy hands on my shoulder and pushed me into the cabin.
“Listen, mister, you’re scaring that little girl half to death and you need to tell me what the fuck is going on.” He spoke into my ear and his breath was hot on my face. “You on drugs? Doing a little meth to stay up all night and do your research?”
He gazed suspiciously around the room, the specimen jars full of bugs and mullosks, the beakers of sea water samples and glass slides. “Do I gotta go get a warrant from my old buddy Judge Johnson and come back here and search this place?”
“Am I on drugs?” I shouted. “Me? I saw you smoking a joint at that party!”
He laughed a hearty laugh and grinned a big shit eating smile. “Hell, son, that’s for my glaucoma. I’ve had medical marijuana for over fifteen years. Was one of the first people in the cove to get it. Everyone knows that.”
I was starting to feel dizzy, the room was beginning to slowly rotate.
“You alright, son? You don’t look so good.”
“But the fire on the beach. Did you check out the fire?”
“Yeah, I went down there. Looks like a bunch of kids was having a party, left fucking beer cans everywhere. But they’re gone now.”
“You went down? How?”
“How do you think? I walked.”
“You know about the secret trail?”
“Secret trail? Damn, you’re a dumb one, ain’t ‘ya? That fucking trail ain’t secret. Everybody knows about that fucking trail.”
I staggered back. The sheriff pulled out a chair and pushed me heavily into it.
“I saw it. I saw them kill her. Kill her and eat her heart.”
“You didn’t see nothing, son. Sometimes the light of the moon reflecting off the water, the sound and rhythm of the ocean, they can play tricks on your mind. Trust me, I’ve seen many a good man go a little crazy out here. Shelter Cove is known to have its share of crazies and they didn’t all start out that way.”
I sunk my face into my hands and shook my head.
“But, I… but, I…”
He put his big mitt of a hand on my back in a tender way, gave me a pat. “Tell you what, son. You get some rest. Sleep on it. I’ll come back tomorrow afternoon and we’ll talk again. Even take a little walk down to that beach. I’d like a walk with a scientist guy like you, maybe you can tell me what some of that weird looking shit in the tide pools is.”
How I fell asleep that night I don’t know. It was as if I had been drugged. I drank half a beer and a great lethargy fell over me and I stumbled to the bed with my eyes heavy and was asleep before my head hit the pillow.
That night the final dream came to me and I had the great realization. I was in the ocean, with all the other deep ones; the cool salty water swooshing in and out of our gills, the light of the moon sending out great shafts of pale light through the deep, murky water. Of course we were harvesting abalone. Eating some for our own strength, bringing back armfuls of others for the great one who slept out in the ocean depths: the dark lord who was awakening and who would soon rise in a fury of black leathery wings and tentacles.
The next day the sheriff arrived at my house as he said he would. He brought with him a box. I opened it to find a large, black, hooded cloak. I slipped the cloak over my head, pulled up the hood, and together we walked down to the beach to start the fire and await the arrival of the others.
Credit To – Humboldt Lycanthrope