Out of the Belly of Hell
by Max Sparber
Read by David Thompson
Listen to the audio version
Although the sea monster washed ashore on Monday, it wasn't until Wednesday that the
fishermen found it.
There had been a festival the previous weekend, the feast of San Felipe de Jesús, one of
the Twenty-six Martyrs of Japan and the patron saint of the village. As happens on feast days,
there was carousing and drinking, and so the fishermen did not work for several days to recover.
It had been a good February anyway--the fishermen had pulled net after net of calico
bass, white sea bass, and halibut out of the fishing cove near the village. Maybe it was this
abundance of fish that brought the sea monster. Who could say?
Hernandez was the first to see the monster. He was always early to the cove, arriving at
sunup to repair nets and then perching on his favorite rock. There he would plunge net and pole
into the deep waters of the cove, a spot that had been good to him for fifty years.
This morning, a half-mile before he reached the cove, Hernandez was met with an
overwhelming odor. He had smelled something like it before, on another beach, years earlier,
where a school of salmon had inexplicably beached themselves and rotted.
Hernandez wrapped his cotton pañuelo around his mouth and nose. The garment was
lightly perfumed with orange blossom--a daily gift from his wife, and a mildly erotic one, so that
he might think of her, and her own orange blossom smell, while he fished, and hurry home to her.
Many of the fishermen had similar gifts from their wives.
Hernandez was surprised to see the sea monster, but only briefly. His town provided
salted fish for the sailing community in the Monterey Bay. These men told many stories of
enormous creatures they would see on their way round the Cape Horn, on their way to sell hide
and tallow in Boston. Some ships would be wrecked on the way, smashed in two with a single
twitch of a writhing tail.
This must be one of those beasts. Hernandez was certain of it.
It was large enough that Hernandez could only compare it to buildings. It was a little
smaller than the mission church on the hill above their village, and that was large enough for 25
families to comfortably sit in.
The monster filled much of the cove, pressed up against the jagged, flint-colored stone
promontory that circled the area. Great dunes of sand rose up on the sides of the beast, like
waves, as though it had come ashore at great speed.
It was fishlike, with an enormous mouth and huge, unblinking, watery saucers for eyes.
But instead of one set of fins, there were many, hundreds of fins ringing the monster. Its tail was
pointed like the two prongs of a fork and covered with a thin layer of brown filigreed skin,
looking like a dragon's tail from a book of children's fairy stories, or like a wooden decoration
from a festival day.
Hernandez marched over to the beast. One might say he moved incautiously, but
Hernandez was not afraid of it. He knew the look and smell of a dead fish, and this had both the
look and smell. He touched its side, and it was rough like sandpaper, cold and dry.
Suddenly it heaved slightly and a ripple rolled across it, as though in response to
Hernandez's touch. In an eyeblink he saw its muscles flex, moving from back to front, and then
the creature's mouth opened. It happened very fast, and then Hernandez was running.
He stopped himself. He had seen this before. Sometimes a fish can be long dead, but you
splash a little salt water on it and it twitches as though alive, sometimes strong enough to leap
from table to floor.
Hernandez turned and looked back at the sea monster. It had stopped moving again. Its
enormous mouth was now open, its tongue extending slightly. And there was something on its
Hernandez walked back to the creature, not so incautiously this time. He rounded the
front of the monster, and, when he saw what was in its mouth, he crossed himself and knelt in the
Entwined in the monster's tongue, propped upright in its mouth, was a cross. And
attached to the cross was a man.
"Dios te salve, María," Hernandez said, and then rose again. He stepped closer to the
monster's mouth, peered in.
The man on the cross was a monk. He wore a brown hooded robe tied with a rope. His
hair was cut in a tonsure, and his eyes, rather than being closed, were open and rolled upward, as
though staring to heaven. Spears pierced his body in an x-shape, entering under his arms and
exiting through his shoulders.
It was San Felipe de Jesús, one of the Twenty-six Martyrs of Japan. There was a wooden
statue of the saint inside the mission church, and it looked exactly like this. San Felipe de Jesús,
who had been marooned off the coast of Japan in 1596. There, the Japanese had falsely accused
him of planning to invade the country, and the saint had been martyred on a hill.
What strange providence had brought San Felipe de Jesús to this shore, back to lands
owned by Mexico?
Hernandez crept closer. There was one last detail on the statue in the mission church, and
if this body on the cross had the same detail, Hernandez could be sure of what he was seeing. And
there it was--the ears on the statue were missing, and so, too, were the ears missing here. The
body had rough stumps of flesh where his ears once were, and where they were cut off as part of
The saint suddenly rolled his eyes forward, staring at Hernandez, and Hernandez cried out.
What was this miracle?
Other fishermen arrived after a while, and, like Hernandez, they gathered around the beast.
By then, Hernandez was inside the monster. They could hear his voice, deep inside the belly of the
huge fish. They called out to him, but he did not seem to hear them.
Hernandez could sometimes be heard to be praying, and sometimes he could be heard to
be crying out in amazement. His words were hard to understand, but some were sure they heard
him exclaiming that it was beautiful, it was like a cathedral.
The fishermen did not know what to think. They too examined the monster, and they too
looked at the crucified saint on its tongue, all the while hearing Hernandez's ecstatic shouts from
inside. They talked among themselves, and then they decided they should send for the priest.
Hector agreed to go. Hector was the youngest of the fisherman, more of a boy, really.
Aside from his youth, there was another feature that distinguished Hector from the other
fishermen: His mother was Pomo, from the tribe of people who had lived here long before the
Spanish came, long before this was part of Mexico. Hector's mother had raised him after his
father had drowned when he was a boy. She spoke a language that nobody in the village
understood, except for Hector, and Hector only half understood, and she told him stories in that
language that nobody in the village knew, but for Hector, and he only half knew them.
The Pomo were a fishing people, and Hector's mother told stories of men riding out to the
ocean on boats made of braided tule, leaving in the morning and returning in the evening, bringing
back baskets of fish. At night, eating the fish they had caught, these men would tell of their
adventures out at sea.
They too had stories of monsters. There was something about the monster here in this
cover that Hector felt he knew, felt that he remembered from the old stories, although he was not
The beast reminded him of the story of his grandfather, who had sunk to the bottom of the
sea. His grandfather had been attacked by a monster, but it was not like this. That one was like a
long snake, and the side of its body was lined with eyes.
Hector ran the entire way to the church atop the hill. At first, the priest, Father Sanchez,
did not understand what Hector told him. Then he did not believe. Finally, he agreed to go outside
and look. From the church's position on the hill, he could just see over the promontory. And
there, squinting, Father Sanchez saw the decorated tail of the monster.
Hector helped the old priest down the hill and into the cove, and, when Father Sanchez
arrived, the fishermen surrounded him. They all spoke at the same time, excited, and told of how
Hernandez, inside the monster, was now saying the word "miracle" over and over again. And the
crucified monk entangled in the tongue? The monk did not speak, but his mouth moved. Every
time Hernandez said miracle, the saint silently mouthed the same.
Father Sanchez raised his hands to calm the fishermen. "Take me to the saint," he said,
and the fishermen led him to the mouth of the monster.
Father Sanchez stared at the monk for a long while. Then he knelt and crossed himself,
and all the fishermen did likewise, all but Hector. As Father Sanchez led a prayer, Hector turned
the story of his grandfather over in his mind.
As his mother told it, Hector's grandfather had gone to sea with a hundred men, each in
his own tule raft. The fishing had been exceptional, and, at the end of the day, all the men had
baskets overflowing with fish in their boats.
That was when the monster attacked, and all but five died in the attack. It swallowed
boats whole, biting men in half. Those who were not killed at once sank into the sea.
Hector's grandfather sank, his boat smashed. He sank deeper than any man had who lived
to tell of it. He sank so deep that the water became like ice and pressed against him like a
mountain had fallen on him. He sank until everything turned black.
Father Sanchez rose, and he called into the mouth of the fish. "Hernandez!" he called.
"Hernandez, anciano! Can you hear me?"
All the fishermen fell silent and joined Father Sanchez in listening. After a long, unbearable
pause, Hernandez's voice came from inside the whale.
"Father, it is so beautiful," the voice said.
"Why are you inside the fish?" Father Sanchez asked, still shouting.
Another long pause. "It is a miracle in here, father," the voice said. "It is like stained
The priest considered this. He held his arms out, and, with the help of several fishermen,
stepped into the mouth of the monster. Hector watched, unsure why this caused his stomach to
The priest looked at the crucified saint. He touched the saint's head, then leaned in to
speak by the nubs of flesh where the saint's ears had been.
"Why are you here?" Father Sanchez asked. "What does this mean?"
The saint's eyes met Father Sanchez, and then the saint started to shake violently. His eyes
closed, and his head fell forward.
The fishermen cried out in alarm and disappointment. Father Sanchez put his hand on the
saint's chest, then turned to the assembled men.
"His heart has not stopped, gracias a Dios," Father Sanchez said.
The priest then turned to look into the mouth of the monster. Hernandez's voice could still
be heard, praying and sometimes letting out little shouts of joy.
Father Sanchez sighed. "I think I will have to go in and investigate," he said. He held out
his hands, and the fishermen who had helped him into the mouth of the creature climbed in and
took his arms.
Hector watched as all three disappeared down the mouth of the monster. He did not know
why this reminded him of the story of his grandfather.
There were no more giant fish in the story. Instead, Hector's grandfather felt his feet
touch sand, and he knew he was at the bottom of the sea. So he sat down to die in this freezing,
After a while, he saw a small light in the distance, flashing at him. It grew closer, and grew
bright enough that Hector's grandfather could see it was a fish, but a strange fish. He had never
seen a fish like this. The light came from inside its mouth, and as the fish swam, it opened and
closed its mouth.
Father Sanchez's voice interrupted Hector's memories. The voice came from deep inside
the beast. "Oh!" the voice said. "Oh, so beautiful! You must all see how beautiful!"
The other fishermen looked at each other and spoke to each other, nodding. Hector could
not hear what they were saying, but they came to some sort of conclusion. They began to climb
into the monster's mouth, one by one.
Hector let out a cry. He remembered what his grandfather had seen. Tiny fish darted
toward the light, and, as they did, the fish at the bottom of the ocean would close its mouth,
His grandfather had washed up on shore with this story, and had told his mother, who told
Hector. The grandfather had told the story with amazement. It was, he said, the first time he had
seen a fish fish for a fish.
Hector ran to the monster. All the fishermen were inside, but he could see the last of them,
past the saint, walking slowly down the throat of the giant beast.
"Wait!" he said. "Stop!"
The men did not listen. Further ahead, some of the men began to cry out in amazement
In front of Hector, the saint looked up and smiled.
The monster's tongue curled inward, and, as it twisted, Hector could see it wasn't curled
around the saint on the cross. Instead, the saint was attached to the tongue, along with the cross.
The saint folded backward onto the tongue, now looking less like a human and more like a fleshy
nodule, a bulbous mass in a fish's mouth.
A mouth that now snapped shut.
The monster's many fins dug into the sand around the creature. Slowly, the fins dragged it
away from the promontory and back to the sea. As the creature moved, its saucer-like eyes turned
in its head, surveying the beach, and, finally, settling on Hector. It beheld him for a moment, then
The monster convulsed slightly. Inside, the prayers and shouts of joy of the fishermen
turned to screams.
And then it was gone, back to the sea, a receding point in an endless expanse of blue, and
all that remained was sand, nets, hooks, and a sobbing boy.