“Are you sure we’re both actually awake?” Dolly spoke anxiously from fifteen feet away, behind him. Carstairs turned to look at her.  She was shivering slightly and had her bare arms crossed, hugging her elbows in the early morning chill. Fifteen feet was as close as she would come to the creature. From the shore it had first looked like a beached whale.

“This is real,” Carstairs said.  He reached out and touched it with the flat of his hand. “But I’m not sure what it is, and how something this size could possibly exist in this river.”

Its skin felt cool to the touch, the texture like shrink-wrap plastic stretched over a skinned and deboned chicken breast. He couldn’t detect any life. The smooth surface was dry, like a fine greyish-white parchment.

“Water,” he said. “It needs water. Its skin is drying out. I can’t tell if it’s alive or not yet, but it will definitely die without water. We can wet it down. There are a couple of pails up by the pump.”

Dolly ran for the pails. Carstairs did some quick mental calculations. He had arrived at the farm just after midnight, ahead of the storm. The front had puffed through about one o’clock, and the wind had started to come up a few minutes later. By two a.m. a strong gale was blowing directly from the north-west. At least thirty knots and gusting. It was rare, but when this happened, the flow of the river was temporarily reversed. He’d seen it before.

He looked at his watch. 6:07 a.m. It would have taken at least an hour for the wind to push the water in the river back up to the lake so the creature might have been stranded like this for two and a half, maybe three hours. He knew that fish died quickly when they were taken out of the water but whales and porpoises could live longer. But how much longer? He wasn’t sure, but they breathed air like humans, so the main problems with them being beached was that their skins dried out, and the crushing weight of their bulk unsupported by water, ruptured their internal organs. They could breathe out of water, but they were literally destroyed slowly, by their own weight.

Dolly came running down the hill with a metal pail full of water dangling from each hand. It slopped over the rims of the pails as she ran, wetting the lower legs of her blue jeans.  They couldn’t reduce the creature’s weight, Carstairs thought, but if it was still alive, they could alleviate its suffering.

He looked up the river.  When the flow was full there was more than seven feet of water in the centre of the riverbed.  Now it was just a wide expanse of mud studded with rocks. He noticed a brightly-coloured spoon-shaped fishing lure, caught by its three-ganged hook under the leading edge of a large flat rock. A twelve-inch leader and six feet of monofilament fishing line trailed from a swivel on the lure. Some fisherman, maybe even someone in his family, had lost it recently.

The wind had now dropped to almost nothing and the water was beginning to trickle back down the main channel from the lake again. But at this rate it would take at least another half an hour, maybe more, before there was enough water to float the creature off the muddy bottom.

He took one of the pails and then the other from Dolly and sloshed the fresh well water down the length of the grey-white bulk. She stood well back, pinching the skin on her arm. A nervous gesture. She had done that since childhood.

“More water,” he said. “The well’s too far. There’s still a bit of water here and there in puddles. Let’s try and fill these pails from those low spots.”

They worked together for about fifteen minutes non-stop, as a two-person bucket brigade. Dolly scooped muddy water out of shallow depressions in the riverbed and Carstairs wet down the animal, pouring the water from one end to the other. The morning was still cool but they were both now sweating heavily. The flow of water down the centre of the river channel had increased a bit, but it was still a long way from the creature.

Carstairs emptied another pail of water over its back and sides, then placed his hand on the smooth greyish surface again. There was still no movement from the creature and no other signs of life, but the skin now felt better. It was still cool to the touch but it now had an elasticity that had not been there before. “One more pail,” he said.

Dolly walked over and scooped another full pail from the flow now coming down the channel. He took it and spilled the water carefully along the creature’s length. Then they both stood back, breathing heavily.

“What do you think?” she asked. “Did that help?”

“Not sure,” he said. “I think so. The skin seems to be moist again. Here, I’ll show you. Come on over and put your hand on it.”

“I don’t think so,” she said, shaking her head and backing farther away. “I’ll go up and wake up Reg and the others.”  Reg was Dolly’s husband, Carstairs’ brother-in-law.  “We need more serious muscle.  He can carry more water than I can,” she said, laughing.  “And they’ll all want to see this.”

Carstairs checked his watch again. 6:28 a.m. The flow coming back down the channel was now about six feet wide and beginning to rise slowly to fill up the rest of the riverbed. But it was still only inches deep. “It will still be a while before the water level comes back up again and gets over here,” he said. “You go ahead. I’ll pour a few more pails of water over it.”

Dolly put the pail down and walked back up the bank toward the house. Half way up she turned, waved to him, and gave a thumbs-up. Then she was gone from view, over the hill.

He filled both pails again from the flow in the channel and carried them over to where the great bulk lay in the sucking mud of the riverbed. He poured them both over its length and then put the flat of both hands on the creature again. It definitely felt better now. Where the smooth grey and white skin had been cool before, his palms now detected a damp warmth.

The animal lay in sort of a trench. It seemed that parts of it had been completely covered up by silt at both ends. But how could it breathe covered up like that? He moved alongside the bulk and looked for a blowhole. There was no sign of one, or for that matter, any sign of a head at all. Carstairs stopped about two feet from where he thought its head should be and tried to get his mind around the strangeness of this encounter. He was standing in a temporarily drained mid-western Canadian riverbed, alongside a creature, that by its shape and general appearance, should not exist here. But here it was nonetheless.

He remembered reading an article about a cow that had plunged out of the sky over the Sea of Japan and sunk a small fishing trawler. Had this creature been deposited here by some strange force from above?

In the case of the mysterious airborne cow, it had turned out that the animal had jumped or been pushed out of a cargo aircraft at 35,000 feet without a parachute and had attained terminal velocity before dramatically showing up, seemingly out of nowhere, to give the crew of the ill-fated fishing boat what had undoubtedly been a very bad day. It was highly unlikely, Carstairs thought, that two similar events involving large mammals dropping out of the sky, could occur in one person’s lifetime.

So that left what? He wasn’t sure. Whatever this creature was, it must have been here all the time, in this shallow fresh-water system in the Canadian prairies. But he had grown up here, had fished the lakes and rivers in this area as a youth for almost twenty years, before he had moved away, and he had never encountered anything that looked remotely like this.

He moved around the main mass of the creature toward the bulkier end, and at that moment there was a tremor in the mud under his feet. The wet silt began to move like quaking gelatin, and a huge head suddenly reared up out of the soggy muck beside him.

Carstairs jumped aside, stumbling in his startlement. His body twisted as his leg rammed up against a rock the size of a car engine. Then he lost his balance completely and fell backward onto a mass of soggy moss and cattails near the deadhead of a mud-submerged log. Strangely, he was not frightened. Only struck with a deep curiosity as he stared at the creature from flat on his back.

The head hissed and waved about violently, its huge eyes now clear of mud but dilated and vacant. Carstairs raised himself up on his elbows and lay there, about ten feet from it, his heart pounding like a trip hammer, his mind processing the strange image, trying to comprehend it as if it was a piece of abstract art. Then he got slowly and warily to his feet, keeping his distance.

The head, on a long camel-like neck, had a fine symmetrical beauty to it, with a curved jawbone like a miniature seahorse. Carstairs realized that the creature’s neck had actually been folded over near where he had been looking for a blowhole, and the head had been fully submerged in the wet silt. For how long, he wondered? How could it have breathed covered over with mud? The neck and head added about two more yards to its length so the animal, what he could now see of it, was more than twenty-five feet long. Was there also a tail somewhere under the silt at the other end?  Probably, he thought. Both ends had appeared to have been submerged in the mud. With a tail in the same proportions, it could easily be thirty feet in length.

The head had stopped waving around now and the great eye nearest him seemed to clear and come into focus. The eye was as large as a baseball and the cornea was a pure robin’s-egg blue. There was a human quality to it, a knowingness borne of intelligence, and he marveled at this seeming incongruity. Then the creature communicated to him in a pure, direct burst of telepathic energy.

“Oh, thank you!”

The message was so intense, both in its clarity and its feeling that Carstairs was nearly knocked off his feet. He stumbled back several steps, his heels creating smucking sounds as they came up out of the mud. The creature’s words had not been audible, but he had registered them as clearly as if the great beast had mouthed the message directly into his ear.

The water was returning faster down the main channel of the river now.  A spreading pool lapped at the soles of his rubber boots. He stepped closer to the creature and looked into the huge eye. It held a gentle softness. Carstairs could sense an understanding behind it that transcended any human relationship that he had ever known, and, he realized, an intelligence greater than he had ever before encountered. He felt strongly compelled to communicate, somehow, and he willed himself to verbalize what he was feeling.

“Can you understand what I say?” He realized that he had whispered this. Now he spoke louder. “Can you understand me?”

“Yes. There is no need to speak. Just to think. But speak if you find it easier.”

Again the creature’s words were not audible, but Carstairs seemed to pick them up at the core of his auditory canal. The sense of its communication was calm now and strangely soothing, like how a professional therapist might speak to a nervous and jittery patient. And the tone was distinctly female.

“I feel awkward,” Carstairs began. “This is so strange. Who are you? What are you? How did you come to be here?”

“My name is Clothilde. I have lived in this water system for more than a hundred human years. I began as what you would call a cell. My ancestors needed a saline environment, but gradually we evolved, adapted to fresh water. We can now live easily in either one.”

“But how did you get here, in this river?” He spoke more quietly now. A human standing ten feet away would not have heard the question, but the great beast responded instantly with a telepathic reply.

“Your grandfather came here more than a hundred years ago from a principality in a small country across the eastern sea.”

“England, Wales,” said Carstairs, nodding, remembering his grandmother’s stories.

“He was homesick even before he left,” projected the creature. “He brought with him two little glass containers, one with the dirt of his home country in it, the other filled with water from a river there known as Conwy. When he settled here, he homesteaded the land that this river runs through. He mixed the soil he brought with the soil on this farm, and he poured the water from the River Conwy into this river. I was a tiny cell in that container of water.

“And you developed by mitosis,” thought Carstairs, excited now.  So there was a reasonable, even scientific explanation for how this unusual creature happened to be here. He was comfortable with this. It was something he could understand.

“I grew, and I evolved,” the beast projected, and Carstairs was gripped with a complexity of emotions at this subliminal exchange. He hadn’t spoken, hadn’t opened his mouth, but the creature had read his thought, and understood him perfectly. He trembled with elation at being able to communicate with this superior life form by pure telepathy.  He’d read and heard about the ability of aquatic mammals like whales and dolphins to “speak” within their own species, and of man’s attempts to forge a communications link between humans and these same species. There were many examples of trained porpoises and dolphins and even some whales, in captivity. They were like aquatic dogs, begging for food scraps from their trainers. But this, this creature, whatever it was, was so much more than that. It was truly an advanced life form, seemingly with the faculty of reason and critical thought.

Carstairs was overwhelmed with a jumble of questions. What a strange and wonderful beast this was. But whatever in God’s name was it? What species? And it had called itself a human name. A distinctive and old name, very uncommon.

He had only ever known one woman named Clothilde, a girl, really, a long time ago. When they had been students. It was an unusual name even then, and he remembered her again now, even though it had been more than twenty-five years. She had been the girlfriend of an acquaintance, and they had spoken several times at parties and gatherings. She had been unhappy with her name he remembered, thought it too old fashioned, and had asked everyone she knew to call her Chloé. The relationship between them had only been casual. Carstairs had suspected at the time that his acquaintance, her boyfriend, treated her badly. Twice he had seen her wiping away tears after what might have been an argument. But he had never said anything to either of them about it. They had all played at being sophisticated and strange often unexplainable couplings between young people then had seemed the norm. Looking back now, he felt he should have spoken up. But they had all moved on and he had long since lost touch.

He struggled now to get out the words to the dozens, perhaps hundreds of questions he had for this Clothilde. He tried to fit this unbelievable situation into a familiar framework of understanding. Would he suddenly wake up and find himself on the floor, like the time when he had fallen out of bed and knocked himself out on the corner of a partially open dresser drawer? He’d had some wild dreams after that.

He sloshed around behind the creature’s main mass. The returning water was now over the toes of his boots and it began to seep under where the great beast lay. He knew that he probably only had a few more minutes before the water would be deep enough for the creature to submerge itself. It would logically wait for the channel to deepen, and then swim away and disappear. He felt desperate to communicate, to find out more. Clothilde sensed his urgency. She projected a soothing beam of thought energy to him.

“We only have a short time left now. You have many things to ask me.”

“You say you’ve been here for more than a hundred years? Why haven’t I ever seen you before? Why hasn’t anyone ever seen you before?” He was projecting too now, realizing that there was no need to speak; that it was a waste of energy. He was acutely aware of the extra time it would have taken to verbalize the words. Clothilde beamed back immediately.

“Here in this river, yes, but also in both of the connecting lakes. I usually stay in the deeper lake and go down to the bottom during the day. I’ve tried to be discreet, usually only surfacing or traveling between the lakes at night, humans are so curious and excitable, you understand. But when I was younger, I was often careless and there have been a few sightings. Almost all of them have been at a distance. As far as most humans go, I only exist in legends.”

“Yes! Yes!” Carstairs was so excited that he forgot himself and shouted the words to her, realizing as he did so that he didn’t have to. “The Ogopogo! There was even a picture once, from the 1930s, I believe. But I thought it was debunked.”  He remembered the old, grainy black and white photograph taken at a distance. Blown up, it looked like a few large intestine loops floating on the surface of the water.

“It was real.” She was nodding her head. Carstairs thought he saw a glint of mischief in the great robin’s-egg-blue eye. “I was careless that time. I’ve tried to make sure that it never happened again.”

“But you mentioned sightings,” thought Carstairs. “Yes, there have been so-called creature sightings. But not just around here. There have always been stories about something being seen in Scotland. The legends call it the Loch Ness monster. Nessie, to the locals. And I remember a few years ago reading or hearing about someone seeing something of your description in a Rocky Mountain lake. You couldn’t have gotten all the way out there from here, could you?” Frowning, he tried to hook the links together in his mind. “Is there a connection? Are you related to Nessie? Are there more of you?”

“I think our family numbers more than two thousand  now,” projected Clothilde. “I’m not really sure of how many, exactly. We have our world-wide telenet you know, but it’s hard to stay in touch with everyone.”

Carstairs was perplexed at this and must have shown it. Suddenly the creature shivered and projected a peal of what had to be mirth toward him because he was actually forced involuntarily to break into a smile when the vibrations of thought energy reached his brain. Then her words followed.

“Oh my goodness, for all your sophistication, you humans really don’t know, do you! Forgive me if I seem ungracious, because you did save my life, but this is too, too funny. I thought I might have ruined things eighty years ago with that foolishness on the lake, allowing myself to be photographed, but all these years, no one has really known, have they? We really are still the stuff of legend, aren’t we?”

“Mostly,” he admitted.  “So there are actually that many of you?”

“We exist in at least one or two water systems in almost every country of the world.”

“Are they all like you? I mean, so advanced, able to communicate this way, without speaking?” Then as an afterthought he added, “Do you ever make any sort of audible sound, like whales or dolphins do?”

Clothilde sent over another burst of silent laughter. Carstairs felt himself warming to it. He literally couldn’t suppress the goodwill he felt, the absolute joy of being with this creature. He felt his face break out in an involuntary grin.

“You mean the bubbles and squeaks?” She beamed over another joyous trill of thought energy. “Oh, my, we’re far more advanced than that, if I may say so without denigrating those fine species. We have the same relationship with them that humans do with dogs or horses. We can communicate with them of course, and consider them our friends, after all.”

“Like you are communicating with me now?”

Clothilde seemed to consider this for a moment before she replied, more subdued.

“Sort of. We’ve rarely ever made connections with humans. It’s too dangerous because of your……….their nature. We interact with whales and dolphins because they can’t, or usually won’t try and do us any harm. We share the same element, water, and they generally respect our existence. Not so with most humans. Oh, occasionally there have been unpleasant incidents with a rogue bull orca or sperm whale, but those have been the exception. They were crazed with the sex drive or just crazed. Aggressive dementia is, after all, not exclusive to humans.”

Carstairs thought about this for a moment, realizing the truth, the wisdom in what she had said. A profound sadness swept over him and when he looked up, he saw that he had affected her. A large tear had formed in the lower corner of the great blue eye.

“Do not be sad,” she said. “You cannot carry the collective responsibility for the shortcomings of the human race, just as I need not apologize for what my ancestors may have done in the past. Some of them were quite fierce, you know.”

“You mean the old sailors’ stories of sea monsters attacking fishing boats and swimmers are true?”

“Boats yes, and certainly divers with weapons. Always in self-defense and sometimes, I fear, in retaliation. But never just innocent swimmers. I don’t believe any of our kind has ever done that.”

Carstairs felt his sadness easing away. The flow of the water down the river had increased more rapidly and it was now up well past his ankles and beginning to trickle into the trench. He knew that there were only moments left before their connection would be broken, indeed must be broken.

He began to walk backward slowly toward the shore, maintaining eye contact with the huge, graceful head. He felt himself bursting with unasked questions. She sensed his despair

“You and your sister saved my life today. I was within a few seconds of death when you poured those first two pails of water over me. We are not fish, but although we are warm blooded, we are not really mammals either. We do require oxygen but we take it in from the water through the pores of our skin. We can’t breathe air directly. I am deeply grateful to you of course, because like humans, we fear death. If such a thing as a debt can be registered between us, I am evermore in yours.”

These snippets of explanation, the blend of archaic and scientific, whirled in the complexities of his middle ear and worked their way toward his brain for sorting and classifying. He felt himself moved by emotions he was unable to identify and struggled for something lucid to say, but she stopped him.

“But you really did more for humankind today than you did for me. Really. I am so very grateful, but by saving me, you probably also saved many more human lives.”

He grappled with this new revelation, and tried to fit a reply in with the many other questions that he still had. The water was well up his calves now. He hadn’t noticed it had filled his rubber boots. He waded back and stepped up on the grass of the bank. He was more than a hundred feet from Clothilde now, but the thought energy still traveled easily between them. He struggled to put his muddled thoughts into words.

“I’m grateful to you,” he finally said, “For this exchange. I feel honoured, to know you. If we saved you, it’s what we would have done for anyone, for any human.”

She beamed back at him wordlessly, and he felt the warmth of a changing emotion that swept along a spectrum from sadness to optimism ripple through him. He felt it elevate his heartbeat. Then she projected again. “You give me renewed hope. For humanity.”

“I have so many more questions,” he pleaded.

“We usually live more than four-hundred of your years,” she beamed back, anticipating the first of his thoughts before he could get it out

“You alluded to serious consequences if you had died. What would have happened here?”

“A withering,” she said sadly. “When one of us dies early, prematurely, and there is no one to take our place, there is a decline in what you call civilization in the region. A baseness prevails. Conflicts erupt. Sometimes they are just political, with words, but they often escalate to violence, even war.”

“But how…?” Carstairs asked, but at that moment he heard voices up the hill behind him. He turned his head briefly to call to his family to hurry and he suddenly felt the telepathic connection he had to Clothilde severed, released from her end.

When he looked back, the great head had disappeared under the water and all he saw was a few feet of her longitudinal bulk, now barely visible above the fast-rising river and moving away from him. REG

Saving Chloé, title and text Copyright © 2017, R.E. Gower