Ed peered through the morning fog and traced the path of the footprints along the beach. He kneeled down and placed his hand next to one. The footprint looked about eighteen inches long. Three clawed toes splayed out from the center. Between each toe, the sand lay flat and even, the faint impressions of webbing. When Ed conjured up a creature in his head that could have made the prints — something big, bipedal, clawed-toed, with webbed feet — he saw an enormous bird, like a semi-aquatic ostrich.
Ed stood up and looked for someone else to whom he could show the footprints. It was the Tuesday after Labor Day. The summer morning sounds of scampering, shell-gathering kids had been replaced by lonely seagull caws and the rhythmic rumble of waves. About a hundred yards in the distance, a man emerged from the fog. His head moved from side to side as though he were scanning the beach for something. The man approached. Ed thought he looked about his own age, mid sixties. The man’s eyebrows were knit in worry, the wind blew his thinning hair, and he squinted behind his glasses.
“Excuse me. I’m looking for our dog. A black lab. Have you seen him?”
“No. Sorry,” said Ed.
The man turned and looked down the coastline. “Okay. Thanks anyway.”
“He have a tag?”
“I’ll call if I find him,” said Ed. “I’m here a lot.”
“Thanks,” said the man. He turned to leave, and Ed said, “Hey, what do you make of these footprints?”
The man took a step toward them and looked down. “Yeah. I don’t know.”
“What do you think made them?” Ed asked.
The man shrugged. “Not much of a nature guy, to be honest.”
The man walked off. The fog wrapped tight around Ed in perfect incongruence with the vast expanse of the ocean, and the rising sun gave everything a soft, orange glow.
Ed opened the door of the condo. Carolyn stood behind the kitchen counter in her bathrobe. Her shoulder-length brown hair stuck up on one side, and she held a package of coffee grounds.
“Hey, honey” she said without turning.
“You wipe all the sand off your feet?”
He looked down. Sand clung to the tops of his feet. “Yeah,” he said, then stepped out into the hallway to brush off the sand.
He came in again and sat on a stool across the kitchen counter from her. “Carolyn, I saw something today. Huge footprints from some kind of bird.”
She scooped coffee into the machine and stayed silent for a beat. Next, she manufactured a smile and leaned over the counter to kiss him. The scent of her skin mixed with the brewing coffee. He loved her for not saying more.
“They’re unusual is all I’m saying, something I haven’t seen before, and I just wonder what made them.”
“What do you think made them?” He recognized her question as a test. She turned toward the refrigerator and got out some bread. He watched the elegant lines of her thin neck, unchanged in their decades together.
“Whatever made them had claws.” As he told her about it, he became less certain of their spectacle. “Had to be something bigger than any bird I’ve seen out there.”
She put four slices of bread in the toaster.
“Well, now what are you going to do?” she said.
“I don’t know. I was thinking I’d go to the state park. Maybe try to talk to a ranger there.”
“And tomorrow, you’re going to be out on the beach an hour earlier?”
“Well, yeah. Taking my camera phone too”
“It’ll be dark. You should wear a head lamp.”
“Good idea,” he said, though after he said it, he thought maybe she’d been teasing him.
“And maybe think about forming a search committee. Tell all the neighbors. Maybe notify the Cape Gazette?”
“It’s interesting. That’s all.”
“I shouldn’t tease. It’s great. A puzzle to work on, and maybe you’ll learn something.”
“I know, just don’t take it too far.”
Beams of light from Ed’s headlamp and flashlight bounced along the path in front of him as he walked toward the beach. He’d brought a backpack this time filled with a water bottle, his camera phone, and plaster for making a caste. Posted to the boardwalk leading over the sand dunes, Ed saw a flyer picturing a lost black labrador named Jellyfish. He thought of the man he’d seen the day before.
The low tide left a wide swath of sand exposed. Ed walked slowly, his lights oscillating across the beach in search of footprints. As he made his way toward the cliffside, the sun ascending and throwing pink across the landscape. He knew this to be the kind scenery he should stop and appreciate, the kind Carolyn would point out, but he didn’t have time for it.
An hour later, with the sun firmly in the sky, he found prints fifty yards up the beach from where he’d seen them the previous day. This time, with the tide at its lowest point and no fog, he could follow their path almost to the cliffside before they disappeared into the water. He took pictures with his phone from every conceivable angle. He put his own foot next to one for scale. He zoomed out to give a sense of the creature’s path and gait. He took pictures of pairs of prints thinking someone might be able to study the distances in between and make a determinations about the creature’s anatomy.
He took out the plaster and mixed it in a cup, but it poured out too heavy and crushed the sandy edges of the footprint. The plaster set, but the resulting cast made it look as if the creature walked with frying pans strapped to its feet. The claws, came out beautifully which was enough to make Ed feel he’d salvaged some value from the mold.
As Ed made his way back home, the sun blazed an August-hot heat. A few walkers and a couple of middle-aged surfers began making their way out onto the beach now. Ed saw a woman walking up and down the beach, stopping periodically to scan the expanse. “Piiiiiickllllllllles!” Then, a pause, and “Here, Pickles” while she slapped her knee. Another lost dog.
Later that morning in the condo, Carolyn sat next to Ed on the couch, and he handed her the plaster cast. She knit her brow and rotated the hard plaster first one way, then another.
“You see here? These are the toes. You can see the ball of the foot there.”
“What’s all this?” she asked, pointing to the blob-like mass near where the creature’s heal should have been.
“Well, the sand is soft. It kinda lost its shape when I poured the plaster, but you can still see it, right?” He traced the outline where the imprint should have been.
He took out his phone and gave it to her. She slid through the pictures, tilted the phone and leaned in. “It is unusual,” she said. “You think it’s some bird?”
“They’re too large for that,” he said.
“What do you mean?”
“Plus, yesterday and today? I saw people out looking for lost dogs.”
“You think this creature ate their dogs?”
It was a stretch, and while the thought had crossed his mind, he shouldn’t have said it.
“It’s just unusual. These prints start showing up, and people are losing their dogs.”
“Stay in bounds, Ed.”
“I am. I just want to see it for myself, to know what’s making the prints.”
“That’s sounds perfectly sane and logical. Almost like birding or wildlife photography.”
“Almost,” she said, “only at four in the morning with headlamps, plaster casts, and dead dogs.”
He’d overslept and the sun bathed the beach in its soft morning glow. As he walked along the water’s edge toward the distant rocks, he saw a mound of brown on the beach. At first, he thought it might be seaweed. As he came closer, he saw and heard flies swarming above the mass. Coming closer still, he smelled the sour stench of rot and saw pink entrails spilling out of matted fur. The flies dissipated with his arrival, but returned and buzzed about him once he stopped moving. He found the face of the beast. Its white teeth, jagged and pronounced, emerged from receding gums. Large black eyes pushed outward from the animal’s sockets. He traced the shape of its body and recognized the animal as a dog, though distorted in death, bloated in some places, scrawny and bent in others, its coat lackluster like a threadbare blanket. Three stripes of pink flesh showed along its ribs, a claw mark matching the footprints. Ed took pictures.
Back at home again, he sat next to Carolyn on the couch, showed the pictures, and pointed out the similarities between the claw marks and the footprints.
“This is disgusting.” She pushed the phone back to him. “I think you should see somebody again.” She said.
“There’s nothing wrong with me.”
“You’re misconstruing things, making them more fantastic than they are.”
“The footprints are real. That dog is real.”
“It’s a dead dog. There’s no magical beast to blame.”
“I said unknown, not magical.”
She stopped and exhaled. “Just talk to someone about it?”
“I’m talking to you.”
She got up, and put her hands behind her head and walked toward the kitchen.
Ed had planned to call the police and to be on the beach when someone — the police, animal control, sanitation — came to pick up the dog. He wanted to ask their opinion as to what happened. Was an enormous clawed bird on a killing spree along the Delaware coast? Maybe several clawed birds? Or, maybe Carolyn was right and he’d convinced himself of magic where none existed.
Instead, he sat on the second floor porch with a cup of coffee, the scent of it mixing with the salty smell of the sea. He wanted Carolyn to see him there, evidence of his indifference. He had a narrow view of the ocean between the two houses in front of his and watched the waves roll in. A copy of Shipwrecks of the Delaware Coast lay in his lap, but he couldn’t focus long enough to get through a page.
Behind the screen door, he could hear Carolyn emptying the dishwasher in the kitchen. He hoped she’d come apologize or ask him if he wanted lunch, something. He would have apologized to her if he thought it would help. She’d put up with a lot over a long time, indulged him, coddled him, and took him to see a doctor several times when he’d gone too far. Promising to change would be empty. Instead, he waited, listened to her footsteps, to her opening and closing her drawers, to the clatter of the dishes.
That evening, she said to him, “I’m not mad, Ed. I’m just run down.”
“I know,” he said, “That’s worse. I’m sorry.”
She walked away. That night, he pretended to fall asleep on the couch while watching the Yankees. He couldn’t be next to her in bed without trying to explain everything, and he knew she couldn’t stand hearing him talk anymore. He lay there listening to the drone of the sportscasters and the sounds of Carolyn getting ready for bed — the opening and closing of the bathroom door, the squeak of the mattress springs as she settled in.
He woke up at five without an alarm, sat up on the couch, and looked out the window at the gray sky. He thought it might impress Carolyn if she woke up to find he had not gone out to the beach, that he’d slept in. He spent ten minutes thinking about this, then ten more minutes getting dressed and hurrying down to the beach.
Soon after traversing the boardwalk with the poster of Jellyfish, he saw a trail of prints broken occasionally by the ebb and flow of the tide. He followed the tracks, losing them several times but always picking them up again further down the beach. They lead him to the cliffside, then disappeared into the water.
Ed peered into the nooks and crannies of the rocks out in the water hoping to see an unknown species of bird. He noticed a small cave accessible only through the water and waded into the ocean. The cold stung his toes. To get to the cave entrance, he’d have to swim. He got a plastic sandwich bag out of his backpack and put his cell phone in it. Then, he swam, bag and all, to the small opening.
Still in the water, he entered the cave and turned on his headlamp. The pool opened up to a vast underground expanse. He wondered if anyone knew about this, if the historical society had mapped it. Maybe his eyes were the first human eyes to see this.
The waves pushed him gently back and forth as he peered inside. Light from his headlamp penetrated the deep recesses, yet he couldn’t see the cave’s end. He traced the edge of the water to a small sand embankment where he found dozens of the mysterious footprints in the sand. This was the creature’s home. The beast only came out early in the morning with the low tide. The rest of the day, water covered the mouth of the cave.
A large wave crashed against the cave’s entrance. Just as Ed turned toward the noise, water shot through the narrow opening like a cannon ball and knocked him down. He hit his face against a rock. Laying on his belly, he put his hand to his face and felt the warm blood. He splashed water on his cheek to clean the wound. The salt stung.
His face ached and throbbed with his heartbeat. He got out his phone, and turned on the camera function so that he could see his face. When he did, the severity of his injury surprised him. The left side of his face dripped crimson. He took off his shirt and pressed it against his cheek.
Ed looked more closely at his surroundings. Based on the number of prints and their multitude of directionality, Ed estimated there to be several three-clawed creatures inhabiting the cave. He looked at the shapes of the rocks and boulders, around their edges, to see if an animal lay watching him, but he saw nothing.
Even with his headlamp, trying to make out the contours of the cave proved futile. Ed listened for the sound of movement. All he heard were waves beating against the side of the cliff, the water pouring into the cave entrance, then receding back out. He looked at the beach on which he sat and studied the crisscrossing footprint patterns.
His bleeding stopped. He removed the balled up, bloodstained shirt from his face. He looked at where he’d entered, but the tide had come up and that narrow entrance had almost disappeared. Ed needed to leave before he became trapped.
He stepped out into the pool of water, and a wave burst through the narrow passage like spray from a shotgun and knocked him backward. He attempted again, this time ducking under the water and trying to swim through, but again the push of the waves coming in forced him backward. With every failed attempt, time passed and the tide rose making escape more difficult. The rising water level ate away at the cave’s beach too.
He realized he’d need to wait for low tide and returned to the embankment. Water had almost closed the cave mouth entirely and darkened the cave so that he could hardly see. He felt his way to a space between two rocks where he felt he could sit protected in case whatever animal had made those footprints were to emerge from the darkness. He wanted to call Carolyn to let her know what’d happened, but his phone didn’t get reception. He pulled his knees to his chest, listened, and waited for his wet clothes to dry. Nothing but the sound of the waves, the low bellow of the ocean crashing against the walls around him. Light waned to a mere shimmer coming off the water. Ed closed his eyes. Hours passed.
Then, he heard a sound like a low dog growl only higher in pitch. He opened his eyes and saw the silhouette of a creature looming above him. It stood nearly seven feet tall, broad shouldered with tufts of feathers sticking out at its sides and on top of its slender head. The beast’s beak jutted out toward him like a weapon, its neck bobbing like that of a chicken. Ed flinched thinking that one of these movements would be a thrust toward his face like a snake striking. He remembered the dog carcass, the ripped flesh, and looked at the creature’s feet. Three long claws jutted out. The source of the footprints revealed.
The giant bird leaned toward him. It growled again, a guttural noise from its Ostrich-like neck. The bird let out a loud squawk, and the sound reverberated against the cave walls.
He reached for his camera phone and pointed it at the bird. He’d have to use the flash. It’d likely scare the beast, and he knew what those claws could do to flesh. Still, he’d only be hastening an encounter that’d likely take place before low tide anyway. He needed that picture. Without it, the bird didn’t exist. No matter what happened, someone would eventually find his body, and his phone. Someone would show Carolyn, and when they did, he wanted her to have something to see, a valid reason for everything.
Ed imaged Carolyn looking with reverence at a picture of the creature’s plume of red and blue feathers, the enormous crooked beak, the opalescent eyes, and scaly neck. If this bird existed, what else might be out there? The image would be an apology for everything. He’d gift Carolyn a glimpse at the impossible, and she would understand why he couldn’t help hurting her over and over, why she had to find him dead in this cave. Their years together would be justified, worthwhile. Not “I told you so,” but more of a “I just couldn’t help it, and now you know why.”
He pressed the button on his camera phone. The flash lit up the creature’s head and bounced off the cave walls. The bird lifted one leg high in the air near Ed’s face giving him a clear look at the sharp claws which had so clearly marked the dog’s carcass. The creature’s eyes grew beautifully wide and angry, and it let out a deafening, blood-curdling shriek.