One of the anthologies I’m enjoying at the moment is The Weird, edited by Ann & Jeff VanderMeer, an overview of 20th century supernatural, horrific and just plain odd fiction. In the author interview afterwards, Ulibarri says her inspiration for today’s story came after devouring this anthology for a class. And it shows, though I can’t quite say why; there’s something old-school in the straightforward style of its storytelling, with the prose sharp and lean.
The seawall had been there for as long as Chaun or his parents or grandparents could remember. It created a u-shape around the bay, closing the city off from the ocean. Nobody remembers what’s on the other side of the seawall. Nobody dares to look, and most people forget it’s even there as they go about their lives.
Nevertheless, the story starts with Chaun being instructed in his new job. Every night he must swim alongside the edge of the seawall and tighten bolts as he goes. There are one thousand eight hundred of them. Once he has tightened them all (which takes a few weeks) he must go back to the beginning and start tightening them again, for they will have worked loose in the interim.
“Is there anything dangerous in the water?”
The old man was silent for a moment.
“Just—be cautious around bolt number 841.”
Before Chaun could ask what had made him so bitter, the old man handed him an envelope full of money. “Every morning, this will be waiting here.”
“So much, every day?”
“Every day,” the old man said. “No one knows what you do, but it’s the most important job in the city.”
Already there’s a Kafkaesque air of being a small cog in a vast inexplicable machine; the lack of detail given about the rest of the world only enhances this feeling. So Chaun goes along, and after the first few backbreaking nights gets into a rhythm of swimming along and tightening the bolts. It seems easy enough, and when he gets to bolt 841, it doesn’t look any different from the others. But when he begins to tighten it, yellow tentacles slither around his legs.
He kicks them away, but from that moment on he dreads tightening bolt 841. Because the next time he has to return to tighten that bolt, he’s sure those tentacles will return again.
As I said, there’s not a single wasted word in this story, and the bare style only enhances the mood. The sparse environment, the repetitious occupation that brings a dread-inducing inevitability of returning to that bolt and those tentacles, all serve to conjure up a terrific air of uneasiness.
The Bolt Tightener by Sarena Ulibarri
Availability: free online, free audio
Word count: 2,700
First published: Lightspeed Magazine, March 2013 (text and audio-book available here)