Friday, 13 September 2013

The Common Jellyfish

A girl, no more than twenty, moves lightly over the beach below. The sun has beaten down through the afternoon and the sand’s warm, spongy surface sinks and cracks like the top of a cake beneath her feet. A pair of shoes swing silver from one wrist and the faded blue of her dress whips up in the wind, drowning her in fabric. She walks along the water’s foamy edge, eyes cast downward, tracing the break from light to dark with her toes. She doesn't yet know what she carries in the small, dark cave of her womb, yet her hand plays itself unconsciously around her belly all the same, wondering.

She stops, her feet snap back under her and crouches, hovering over her knees, examining something half buried amidst the surf. At first she saw just one: a thin, tissue-like body. Long, crenelated tentacles wind across the sand behind it like gnarled fingers. A little further on another of these alien forms lies draped over the pebbles like a discarded handkerchief. She picks her way toward it, lifting its edge experimentally with a brittle length of seaweed. 

Leant against a rock to pull on her shoes she spies a man bent over where the waves  break in ordered lines. He is sifting through the blanket of dying jellyfish. His rubber waders fill with water as the waves flop over the waistband making a strange, sloshing sound. Rooting around in the wash with thick, orange gloves up beyond his elbows, he catches the jellyfish and lifts their tentacles to inspect their undersides as a vet might examine a sick cat. A large cool box sits nestled in the stones five feet off and every so often he shuffles over to it to slip a jellyfish first into a labelled bag, and then into this box.

The girl stands behind him, listening to the musical sound of the pebbles as the sea draws them tumbling back over each other. She watches as he takes each creature by turn in his great orange paws and rolls them between his palms. He holds them up to the light and pulls and squints at their papery flesh. He drops one into the swell, the jellyfish flops along the head of a wave a while and is pulled back under. The man snaps off a glove and rubs his forehead. His skin is nicely mottled in the way that all skin becomes if left to absorb the weather.

“What are you looking for?”, her voice swallowed by the tug of the sea. He leapt in surprise.

“Now, where’d you come from?,”  feigned bewilderment. She shrugs as though it were a real question and weaves her feet into the wet sand. The man picks up another jellyfish and pushed through the shallows with it outstretched.

“Just seeing whether they are boys or girls,” the broad crack of a smile appears from inside his beard. They stand with their heads craned over the jellyfish that spreads in a web between his fingers.

“They look like nothing when they’re not in the water,” she plays her dried seaweed amongst its tentacles.

“They are water, mostly. They’re evaporating,” he let the jelly slide from his hand into a zippered plastic bag. “Truth is we won’t know what we're looking for until we find it,” he wriggles his hand back into its glove, 

“We?”, she tilts her head, questioning. He points at the red university crest on the side of his box, or what remains of it as the transfer has curled and peeled.

“Marine biology,” he smiles almost apologetically, as if he might be thought to be showing off. 

“Observation, that’s all it is, you get to be a specialist at it, watching,” he breaks off and looks sidelong at the girl, at the thin white hands that unknowingly cup the space around her middle. “You don’t want to be a scientist then?” The girl shakes her head vigorously. 

“Why are they here, so many of them?” she crouches in the water now, her dress darkening as it soaks up the sea and weighs down over a set of narrow shoulders.

“They follow currents. Streams of warm and cold, undetectable to us. The currents are getting messed up round here, it’s confusing them. Blooms of jellyfish get thrown off track and end up, well,” he gestures around their feet.

“Blooms,” she murmured, “like flowers,” 

“I venture these are prettier though,” he laughs, gathering up his evidence bags and fastening the lid of the box with ratty cable ties.

“Of course there’s diseases, parasites, other stuff to consider,” he was uncomfortable. He couldn't very well leave her here. If he had been more confident, better at talking he would know what to ask, how to get her help.

A trail of yellow lights blink faintly into life over the town, the distant hum of electricity, like a swarm of fireflies spread past the headland. 

“Moon Jellyfish,” he eventually managed and lifted his feet from where they were buried by the encroaching tide. He shuffled backward up the beach, shaking his sandals.

“Aurelia Aurita if you go in for Latin titles,” the girl bends to trail her fingers in the darkening water.

“Aurelia,’” she repeats into the waves as they flatten themselves out around her ankles. “Aurelia,” she turns it over in her mouth, tasting its outline. The silver currents draw away from where they pauses, far out to sea. “Aurelia,” She stood up, her hand clasped confidently around her middle and wades over to join the scientist on his bank of pebbles, “Aurelia Aurita, yes, I like that.”

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