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Before The Shape of Water, There Was Mrs. Caliban

A grieving housewife finds hope in the unlikeliest of places—a sea monster's arms—in Rachel Ingalls' 80s cult favorite.

Thanks to Guillermo Del Toro’s The Shape of Water, interspecies romance has become a little more mainstream. But long before Elisa snuck hard-boiled eggs to her Amphibian Man, Dorothy was giving her unlikely lover—“Larry,” a self-named sea monster—bags of avocados in the late Rachel Ingalls' groundbreaking Mrs. Caliban.

Dorothy is a housewife in 1950s suburbia—lonely, suffering from tragically bad luck, and on the verge of divorcing her husband. She meets Larry when he appears at her door, seeking asylum from his scientist torturers after a successful (but violent) escape from a nearby laboratory. Save for Larry's froggish head and green-brown skin, he resembles a “well-built large man”—though, if the radio reports are to be believed, he’s a murderous monster. Unafraid but excited, Dorothy sympathizes with Larry’s plight—she's a loner herself, after all—and agrees to hide him. They quickly fall in love.  

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For a novel whose premise is pretty outlandish, the love story between Dorothy and Larry is surprisingly relatable (that is to say, human). Though they’re entirely different species hailing from entirely different backgrounds, Dorothy and Larry both share a similar sense of loss, heartbreak, and a stripping of their freedom. These commonalities allow them to not only be vulnerable with each other—for the first time in a while, they feel truly understood—but to also fall in love. As Larry learns more about the human world, Dorothy begins to see it with new eyes, discovering things about herself in the process. (And in case you were wondering: Yes, they do have sex.)

In the excerpt from Mrs. Caliban below, Dorothy and Larry have snuck out of her home to go swimming in the ocean. By this time, Larry has created a suitable disguise for himself—no one is suspicious—and both Dorothy and Larry have already fallen for each other. Here, Dorothy gets another glimpse at Larry’s past, plans their future, and realizes just how much his arrival has changed her life.

Read on for an excerpt from Mrs. Caliban, and then download the book. 

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Mrs. Caliban

By Rachel Ingalls

Mrs. Caliban

By Rachel Ingalls

She went in to Larry, took him by the hand, led him through the hall and the kitchen, and through the door they hardly ever used, the one that connected directly to the inside of the garage. She opened the car door and stowed him in the back. He was too large to have fitted comfortably with his head down on the front seat. She put her straw bag on the seat beside her.

The evening was clear and a light breeze moved here and there. It wasn’t quite dark yet. She drove down the straight, neat streets in the soft, lingering twilight. All the houses looked lovely in this light, with some lamps on but not many curtains drawn. There had been a time when she could not bear seeing lighted houses in the evening hour, because they had made her think how many of those houses represented a family, and how many of them contained children.

“I wish you could sit up and look, but it’s still too light. Somebody might see you from one of the windows. It won’t be long now. I’ll tell you when.”

“I can smell the gardens,” he said.

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She too could smell the flowers, giving out their fragrance as the light went, and the grass, which reminded her of her own childhood in school during the month of May and the early days of June, when all the windows were open and the men were out cutting the grass on the playing fields.

“I love it,” she said. “But a friend of mine from school used to get hay fever. She couldn’t get near any grass or trees or plants without coughing and sneezing—every year. I suppose by now she must be taking pills or getting injections for it.”

“For me, it’s like food.”

“Me too, especially flowers.” She wondered if he would like perfume. Fred hated it. He couldn’t even stand any scented soap other than Palmolive.

She drove until they reached a stretch containing relatively few houses. The air was darker now, the leaves of the trees almost black by the sides of the road and hanging down from above.

“I think it’s all right now, Larry. But be ready to duck down if I tell you.” She saw his face come up in the driving mirror. He looked ahead, and to either side. After a while, he said, “If I had a hat, do you think I would be noticed at night?”

“It would need more than a hat. I think with make-up and sunglasses you might just get away with it. If you drove fast.”

“Could you teach me to make the car go?”

“Oh, yes. That part would be easy.”

She headed for the beach. On the highways he stayed crouched down in the seat again, until they emerged into a quiet, slightly run-down neighbourhood full of old clapboard houses and tattered palm trees. Here the buildings were closer to the sidewalks and there were few flowers. In many of the front yards there was just a square of sandy ground instead of grass. Faintly from the background, like the swish of traffic on a main road, Dorothy heard the sea. From the back seat Larry gave forth a soft moan of pleasure or pain. He had heard it, too.

“I brought some towels. We could go swimming, if you like.”

“Yes, please.”

She turned off, along a sandy road. No one was around. She branched off again on to a narrow, bumpy path and stopped the car. The sea was loud and near.

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  • Photo Credit: Tim Marshall / Unsplash

He said, “You hear?”

“Yes, I’ve always loved the sound of the sea. I think everybody does.”

“For me, it’s the sound of where I live. That’s hard to explain. It’s always there, like your heartbeats. Always, for our whole lives, we have music. We have wonderful music. The sea speaks to us. And it’s our home that speaks. Can you understand?”

“You must be lonely.”

“More than anything. More than hunger. Even hunger sometimes goes away, but this doesn’t.”

She stroked his face with her hand. She tried to imagine what his world could be like. Perhaps it was like a child floating in its mother’s womb and hearing her voice all around him.

She asked, “What was it like?”

“So many things are different. Colour is different. Everything that you see tells you something. At the Institute, they told me there are some people who are colour-blind. When you show them, they don’t believe it at first. They can’t believe they suffer from this thing, because they have never known any other way. That’s how difficult it would be to explain the difference in the way my world looks.”

“And the sound.”

“And the way it feels. When you move, the place you live in moves too.”

“Your eyes are specially developed for seeing underwater, aren’t they? I mean, I’m not sure that I’d see what you see, even if I could go down there in a diving suit.”

“Yes, they were very interested in my eyes.”

“When you escaped, did the light hurt your eyes?”

“Yes.”

“Then the idea about sunglasses was a good one after all. I’ll have to get you a pair, just in case.”

“I took a hat to begin with. It cut off some of the light.”

An ordinary pair of dark glasses wouldn’t work, of course. His head was much too big. She’d have to take off the earpieces and widen the central frame somehow, and then put everything back together. And would the two lenses be far enough apart, anyway? There was also the problem of where to rest the nose-bridge, since the space between his eyes was flat and his eyes swelled outwards; it would hurt to have the glass lenses bumping right up against his eyes.

“If you swam out into the sea now, could you get back to your home?”

“No,” he said sadly. “They showed me on a map where it was that they captured me, and it’s far away.”

“Could you show me on a map?”

“Yes. It’s called the Gulf of Mexico.”

“I see what you mean. You’d have to swim all the way down the coast and get through the Panama Canal.”

“You know, it’s wonderful to see another world. It’s entirely unlike anything that has ever come to your thoughts. And everything in it fits. You couldn’t have dreamed it up yourself, but somehow it all seems to work, and each tiny part is related. Everything except me. If I had known I was only going to stay a short while, this would have been the most exciting thing I could imagine—a marvel in my life. But to know that it’s for ever, that I’ll always be here where I’m not able to belong, and that I’ll never be able to get back home, never …”

He bowed his head. She embraced him.

“I don’t know how I could bear to give you up now,” she told him. “Now that you’ve come, everything’s all right.” She talked about her marriage and about her children. “But I understand. If I could manage to get you to the coastline on the nearest point to your home, could you swim from there?”

“Then we can get you back. We’d have to work it so that you swim down the shore while I drive the car across the Mexican border, and then once I was over, I’d pick you up.”

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I don't know how I could bear to give you up now...Now that you've come, everything's all right.

They talked about the idea. The actual plan seemed simple enough. It was only the timing that might be difficult. Fred’s vacation was coming up and there was also the question of his sister, Suzanne, whom he didn’t much care for himself, but had always pushed on to Dorothy whenever Suzanne had felt the need to see him again. Suzanne was supposed to be visiting them sometime during the next two months.

There had been a few years when they had taken separate vacations, or when he had gone on his and she had stayed at home. Sometimes she went to see her parents, who were old now and occasionally irritating to be with; first one of them more than the other, then the order reversed, often nowadays both equally peevish. Could she just take the car and say she was off for a break?

Larry removed his sandals and stepped out of the car. She followed, bringing the keys and the basket holding the towels.

At first they swam together. She was amazed at the difference in his mood. It was like being in the water with a beachball, but also a powerful animal or machine. The way he looked had not convinced her of his difference, but this did: the way he moved in the water, which was his element. He came rocketing up from the deep water and picked her up in his arms, driving across the waves with her. They seemed to be going as fast as a motorboat.

After a while, Dorothy said that she wanted to get out and get dry. Larry asked her to wait while he explored.

“Be careful,” she told him. “The coast around here has a narrow shelf under the water and then it drops right down deep. There’s no gradual sloping.”

She walked up the beach, dried herself off, and put on her clothes. Then she sat down and waited, and tried to think out a plan. For so many years there had been nothing. She had taken jobs to keep herself busy, but that was all they were. She had had no interests, no marriage to speak of, no children. Now, at last, she had something.

What they ought to do was tell the world. There was only one word for what those terrible people at the Institute had done to him: torture. They could take it to the newspapers. Especially the part about those two men forcing him to join them in their sex games. I Killed Defending My Manhood. You could take it to the Supreme Court. You could plead disorientation. It would cause a sensation. It would be a test case. They’d have to define the nature of the term human being. If Larry wasn’t human, he couldn’t commit murder, only kill like an animal and not be punished for it. On the other hand, if he were to be considered human, he had killed in a self-protective anger brought on by pain caused through torture by two sadists, who had taken away his human rights and wrongfully imprisoned him in the first place just because he was of a different race. She could imagine the headlines: These cruel and barbaric practices are not consistent with the teachings of our religion, says frogman. Is this the spirit of American democracy, we ask?

But he had told her that all he wanted to do was go back home. He wouldn’t want to go to the newspapers. He was right, of course. It wasn’t just the crowds and the bright lights and the fast-talking media men and the people who ran forward to spit at you. It was also possible—as the announcer had said on the radio—that a simple disease, even a cold, could kill a creature who had never developed a resistance to it. Even worse, perhaps he might already be carrying a germ which would not declare itself to be fatal until after he returned home, so innocently bringing with him the means of destroying his whole people. Better not think about that.

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  • Rachel Ingalls published Mrs. Caliban, which the New Yorker called "a perfect novel," in 1982.

  • Photo Credit: Alchetron

She ought to try to get him away soon, but she couldn’t leave just like that. She’d have to have some excuse. She’d have to wait till the vacation.

He was gone a long time, it seemed. The warm wind had blown the skies clear so that she could see the stars. She wondered what he was doing, how far out he had swum, how deep. She thought of him swimming among the wonderful colours, in Norway or Japan; it wouldn’t be home, yet it would be recognizable.

But down there it would be dark now, and not the lovely lighted aquarium she imagined it to be during the daylight hours, eddying with schools of tiny, delicate animals floating and dancing slowly to their own serene currents and creating the look of a living painting. That was wrong, in any case. The ocean was different from an aquarium, which was an artificial environment. The ocean was a world. And a world is not art. Dorothy thought about the living things that moved in that world: large, ruthless and hungry. Like us up here.

She was just beginning to convince herself that down at the bottom of the sea he was hurt or dying, when she saw his shape moving up out of the water. In that light and at a distance, he looked exactly like the statues of gods, except that his head was slightly larger and rounder than it should be. And he walked with a rounded, swimming motion from hip to knee, holding his large, powerful shoulders and arms easily.

She handed him a towel and he dried himself off.

“Shall I start teaching you how to drive, or would you rather leave it for tomorrow? It’s a little late now. I didn’t know you’d be so long.”

“Tomorrow,” he said.

“Are you cold?”

“No.”

He climbed into the back seat again. Dorothy started the car. “This would be a good place to learn,” she said. “There doesn’t seem to be anyone around and that path over there runs for a long way, just a straight stretch.”

She told him about her plan. Could he wait that long? He said yes. She asked him what it had been like in the water. He answered that it was not like his home; he had felt almost as foreign there as above the surface.

“But down there, I know how to defend myself. Down there no one attacks you for thinking. They “attack if you hurt them or invade their home, or if they want to eat you.”

“And if you’re different. They do that here, too.”

“But in the sea, it’s not just because you’re different.”

“I thought everywhere everyone had to fit in, or other people began to feel worried and threatened. And then if there are more of them than of you, they jump on you.”

“That happens here?”

“More or less. It’s true that what happens first is they let you know how they think, and then you’ve got to make them believe you think that. Something else happened. You’re sad.”

“Yes. Something is going on.”

“The Institute does a lot of underwater research around here. You mean that?”

“No. I don’t know. It didn’t feel right.”

“It isn’t where you come from.”

Want to keep reading? Download Mrs. Caliban today.

Mrs. Caliban

By Rachel Ingalls

Rachel Ingalls, who passed away in 2019 at age 78, wrote surreal, surprising fantasy centering the female experience. In addition to Mrs. Caliban, she was also known for her magical realism novel Binstead's Safari, and her short story collections. Although her genius went unrecognized for much of her life, her work gained increased recognition following 2017, when Mrs. Caliban was re-released after being out of print for 30 years. Discover her unique and insightful outlook on love, lust, and imagination today.  

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Published on 14 May 2019

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