by Matthew Kelly
The Gulf of Mexico lapped at Caledonia’s feet the moment her daughter was born. Aunt Inilda, who had been stationed between Caledonia’s legs for some three days in anticipation of the birth, panicked when the baby finally slid into existence. “Hapne, hapne,” she shouted, throwing her hands up in shock, or fear, or amazement, or delight. The truth of the matter was that neither Caledonia nor anyone else onboard had the slightest idea what the crooked old woman was saying. For three generations, she remained the sole speaker of a language whose name itself had evaporated with the waters of the Nueces. Discovered in the barn of the family’s abandoned ancestral home, she was a relic from a time when the sun still ruled over a scorched and uninspired earth. Caledonia had always loathed the woman, sensing her feverish gesticulations to be equal parts farcical and divine. But today, Caledonia’s hatred was particularly acute, for Inilda’s antics had allowed the newborn to plummet into the brackish waters of the gulf, which by then had filled the shelling station in the corner of Moises’s shrimping boat.
“A baby born to the Gulf is a baby of the Gulf,” Moises would say for years after Caledonia had fished her daughter from the caramel-colored waters and fled, along with Inilda and 80 pounds of shrimp, to the ship’s rowboat. That was the day a father was born and a fisherman was laid to rest. “Babies float, ships sink,” he’d say while smiling, though nobody believed he was happy.
It was clear to everyone that, from birth, Guadalupe belonged to the blank, gray waters of the gulf. Not once in her life had she cried or laughed or wailed or sighed. When, at two, her brother dropped a statue of St. Jenaro Sánchez Delgadillo on her head, she didn’t so much as flinch. “Her eyes are full of gulf water,” her mother would say. This even Inilda understood.
At eight, it was decided that Guadalupe should be entrusted with the care of a pet so as to develop the requisite emotional connection to the universe. And so her parents loaded her into their rusted sedan—her father’s baby after having lost his boat—and drove to the local shelter. But as they passed through aisles of pit bulls, they eyed their daughter with great unease. “No mutt deserves to be thrown into the gulf,” Moises sighed. Guadalupe, in tow, simply stared through the bars.
As they rounded the last aisle of strays, they found an attendant shaking salt into a pot of water atop a gas range. A paper bag perched beside him jerked and crinkled. Looking up from the pot, he smiled. “Lunch.”
Moises reached across the table for the bag and unfolded it, his eyes widening. Smiling a blank, empty smile, he pulled a crumpled 10-dollar bill from his pocket—the usual donation—and dropped it on the table. “Dos bogavantes,” he quipped, drawing a large red and green lobster from the bag and tossing it to his daughter.
For some time, Guadalupe convinced herself that her lobster was the key to unlocking the secrets of the cosmos. He was, in her age of fantastical thinking, the fulcrum of the universe— the bridge between her birth in the gulf and her dry, lifeless life on the land. She kept him below her bed and resolved not to feed him. “He’ll survive on my dreams,” she’d say. Her mother stared.
Within two months, the lobster had grown five times its size. Within four, it wandered freely throughout the house, carrying waves of Gulf water in its wake. Sofas floated and tables warped. Caledonia installed statues of St. Jenaro Sánchez Delgadillo in every room, praying for fire from the heavens to smite the beast. The statues, resin blank, ignored her calls.
On the one-year anniversary of her trip to the pound, Guadalupe decided that it was time to consult an expert on divine cosmological matters: Brother Alvaro de La Llave of the local Theresa of Avila Church. And so she perched a chair beside her lobster, mounted him, and scurried down San Jacinto Street, around the chipped fence and through the doors of the church. The organ cut short as the parishioners gasped. Stopping just feet from the pulpit, Guadalupe boomed, “Do lobsters have souls?”
The priest stepped back, his grip tightening around his leather bound book. His eyes darted in all directions before dropping downward, settling on the fine print of his text. “The second angel poured out his vial upon the sea, and every living soul died in the sea.” There was an awkward pause, and Alvaro sensed his flock doubting his insight—or, more importantly, his ability to get the leviathan to leave the church. Grasping at the incense -scorched air for wisdom, he cried, “The Gulf is made of the souls of lobsters.”
Guadalupe, intrigued, leaned close to her beast and whispered, “Do you know the way to the Gulf?” The lobster paused, as if sifting through memories of a time long passed, before scurrying out of the church, down streets whose names had long since rubbed off their signs, up hills named for valleys and down valleys named for hills. As the sun began to set, they rounded a bend that promised to open onto the vast Gulf, from which Guadalupe had come and to which the souls of lobsters were destined to go.
But as they turned the corner Guadalupe found that they had reached a dead end. On one side, they found the rusted fence of a tuna-canning factory, on the other a used scrap junkyard. The Gulf was nowhere to be seen.
Guadalupe said nothing, staring through the bars of the fence. Slowly, she and her lobster turned around and began the trek home. And for the briefest of moments, she smiled. Lobsters, she had come to understand, were no better than people at finding their souls.