The first beast I laid eyes on was my father.
At all hours his roars reverberated, breaking into my sleep, rattling the windows. When he entered my doorway, he filled it. That was my earliest impression: he was bigger than the door. And he came from far away, smelling of the sea, snow fringing his thick coat and woolen cap.
We lived in four dark rooms. I shared a room with an old woman, my mother’s mother. My father slept in the room across the hall, tossing on the rusty box springs, snoring loudly. He was a restless sleeper, getting up many times in the night, his footfall heavy on the creaking boards. Then there was the kitchen, a low-ceilinged room with a black stove and a round table where my grandmother fed me.
When shadows moved through those rooms, brushing my skin like mist, I could hear their subtlest workings. Sound was my primary sense. The world seemed to be coming to me through my ears. Water trickling through wall pipes, steam knocking in the radiator, a mouse scratching, a fly buzzing. In sleep my grandmother’s breathing was punctuated by a whistle from the gap in her teeth. Everything else out of her mouth was a whisper. She whispered to me continuously, as she must once have whispered to my mother.
I believe my grandmother was telling me things, and when I came to understand words, they were already embedded in my consciousness. Dates, names, places that could not have arrived there by any other route. My grandmother’s history, my mother’s—the story of their lives, which I had just entered, a character in my own right.
My mother died in childbirth.
That was when my father began to roar. In my first year, this was how I knew him. Then one day he fell silent, as if he had dived into a deep pool inside himself from which, in my presence at least, he never truly emerged.
There was a dog and a cat. The first nonhuman beasts I would know. The dog was my grandmother’s. He was a German shepherd, black with a tan muzzle, named Re. He slept at the entrance to my room, like a sentry.
The cat had no name. She was orange, with white stripes and golden eyes. When she came to the windowsill from the fire escape, my grandmother fed her kitchen scraps. Sometimes the cat curled up beside me and slept. I remember her warmth, her small breath on my arm, the ticking of her tail against my ribs.
At night my grandmother held and rocked me, stroking my head or singing a lullaby. Her own bed felt far away in the darkness, like a ship across a deep harbor. Mostly I was alone, the window to my left, the door before me, the ceiling overhead lined with plaster cracks—a map of some nonexistent place I studied.
A part of us never leaves the first room we occupy. Everything I was to hear, see, or feel first took shape in that room. It was a world—with landmarks, climate, a population—splintered infinitesimally off the bigger world. The air was dark blue. It moved. Was ruled by currents. Ripples. Fevers of motions.
I felt the spirits of animals. In the instants of entering or leaving sleep I caught glimpses of them: an upturned snout, a lizard eye, a glinting talon, the flash of a wing. Hooves kicked up sparks by my cheek. Fur bristled. Teeth clicked. I heard pants. Howls. Plaintive cries.
And at dawn they were gone.
The first imaginary animal I ever saw leapt out at me from my father’s back. He was shirtless, shaving in a cloud of steam with the bathroom door open, when I came up behind him. Inked in blues and reds—with flashes of yellow—the tattoo looked alive, undulating with every movement of my father’s muscles, from his shoulders to his waist.
It was a sea serpent. A long scaly body with a horse’s head. Flaming mane, fiery tail fin, bared fangs, glowing eyes. A terrifying hybrid. It was surfacing through cresting waves, beneath clouds torn by lightning, with foam streaming off its back.
I cried out, and my father wheeled around, shaving cream on his chin and his razor frozen in midair. Kneeling down, he patted my cheek and reassured me that there was nothing to fear. I didn’t agree. To this day, it is the most fearsome tattoo I’ve ever seen.
“It scares away evil spirits when I’m at sea,” he said.
To me, it was an evil spirit.
My father was the man who shoveled coal into the furnace on a freighter. His name was Theodore. His hands were huge, his arms and shoulders knotted like wood. His back so solid it had once bent a knife blade when he was jumped in an alley. He had black eyes, curly black hair, and a thick, close-cropped beard. His eyebrows met above his hooked nose. He wore a heavy medallion on a chain around his neck. When I first saw images of pirates in a picture book, I thought this was what he must be.
Usually he was away for two months at a time. When he came home, even after he had bathed every day for a week, the coal dust still adhered to his hair, his skin, his breath. He would be talking and a black wisp would trail the end of a sentence.
Ports he visited in one year alone: Hamburg, Marseilles, Singapore, Murmansk, Caracas, Montevideo, Sydney. He sailed through the Panama and Suez canals, around Cape Horn and through the Strait of Magellan. He followed the equator across the Indian Ocean from the Seychelles to the Maldives.
Sometimes he sent a postcard from a foreign port. Only one of these has survived, yellowed and crumpled: a tinted photograph of the open-air fish market in the harbor at Tangier. Rows of sardines gleaming silver on rickety carts. The sun casting webbed shadows through the nets hung to dry. A man in a kaftan beating the ink from squid on the seawall. As a boy, I could almost smell the harbor. From the stamp on the other side a man in a red fez gazed out severely. My father’s laborious print, in watery ink, turned pale brown over the years. He was a man of few words, written or otherwise.
Arrived Friday, leave Tuesday for Alexandria. Raining. —Theodore Atlas
His name signed in full. The card addressed to “Atlas,” and then our street address.
His parents, married as teenagers, had emigrated from Crete. Their village was perched in the mountains of the interior, amid jagged cliffs, deep ravines, and pine forests. Its inhabitants were like the man Odysseus was told to watch for when he traveled to remote lands carrying an oar—a man who, never having set eyes on the sea, would ask him if the oar was a winnowing fan. These Cretans were farmers and goatherds who never ventured more than ten miles from the houses in which they had been born and would die. My grand- parents were an exception.
They settled in the Bronx and died before my father turned sixteen, his mother of diphtheria, his father in an accident on the docks. Like me, my father was an only child, and he had no other relatives in America. Having to support himself suddenly, he dropped out of school. Already over six feet, he could pass for eighteen. He might have become a stevedore, like his father, but instead went to sea, signing on to a freighter flying the Colombian flag, bound for Lisbon.
He had only seen the Atlantic from Jones Beach and Far Rockaway. Just as his ancestors had lived within a tight radius of their village, he had rarely left the South Bronx and only once—a week in the Catskills—been out of New York City. The open sea stunned him. His father had told him that only the sky above the mountains in Crete was bluer, so close to the mountaintops you could reach it by scaling the tallest tree. My father claimed to have done just that on his first visit to his parents’ village, several years after I was born—the most expansive statement I ever heard him make.
Still, however, nothing he ever said or did in those days compared in scope to his tattoo. I never really got used to it. And I never forgot that it was there, so at odds with the drab inexpensive clothing that covered it.
When I asked my father about it one day, he told me he had been tattooed in Osaka, Japan. He said he was twenty-five years old at the time. Which meant my mother had lived with it. I wondered what she thought when she saw it for the first time—if it frightened her, too—and how she felt sleeping beside it at night. Even among Japanese sailors this particular tattoo was uncommon. The image was so ferocious that many regarded it as a challenge to the sea gods, which could as easily provoke as appease them.
I encountered the tattoo twice more in my life. The first time was on the docks in Tokyo, where I was boarding a ferry. Three young Japanese sailors, shirtless in the afternoon sun, were awaiting a dinghy that would return them to their ship. One of them turned into the wind to light a cigarette, and there was the sea serpent on his back, vividly colored. I stopped and stared, moving on only when the sailors stared back.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from The Bestiary by Nicholas Christopher. Copyright © 2007 by Nicholas Christopher. Excerpted by permission of Dial Press Trade Paperback, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.