Viewing Medusa

jellyfish weekend

Mary Akers 

 

JOSIE’S PASSIONS WERE STRANGE TO ME.

She studied jellyfish: the stinging, tentacled, shadowy things that drift through the deepest oceans and often wash to shore, resting flat and flaccid on the sand, ready to sting the unsuspecting beach walker. Deadly box jellies, specifically. Phylum Cnideria, Class Cubozoa.

The intense scientific scrutiny of so deadly a creature had its effect on her. Like married couples who begin to look alike, or pets that grow to resemble their masters, Josie became a lot like the jellyfish she studied. She could by turns be prickly, stinging, even deadly, yet still soft and elusive, floating along on currents not of her own making.

The summer I met Josie she was a field-biologist, approaching thirty, still idealistic, except also bitter, if you can imagine two such traits existing side-by-side. You could have asked her what she was like, and she’d have told you; her answer would’ve been accurate, too, since she couldn’t escape the need to be analytical and objective, even when it was her self being put under the glass.

“I’m a mass of contradictions,” she’d say. “I like fast food French fries and boiled ground provisions. I eat to feel happy and smoke to feel alive. I drink and dive, with no local recompression chamber. And you wouldn’t think it—from looking at squalorous me—but I’m independently wealthy, with a fat inheritance from my conservative, dead, Irish Catholic father. I send money to the IRA in his honor. Oh, and I’m also a committed communist who beds down with a black man.”

My brother Martin, older by nine years, held the position of field station director at the Rainforest and Reef Preserve in Dominica the summer I met Josie. The RRP was open year-round to visiting scientists, feeding and sheltering those who desired to conduct on-island field research. Dominica, a diverse island, with several 5,000 foot volcanic peaks, a boiling lake, and a tropical rainforest in its interior, had fringing coral reefs in both Atlantic and Caribbean waters. As such, one could find many topics discussed by the scientists seated around the dinner tables: black band coral disease and bleaching; the feasibility of long-term ecotourism for Dominica; long-line fishing and its benefits to fishermen vs. its detriments to the ocean; the effect of the herbicide paraquat on the nesting habits of endangered Sisserou parrots; the ethics of collecting indigenous rainforest orchids for greenhouse cultivation; declining iguana populations and the dangers of habitat encroachment for the great boa; and the geology of volcanic islands and plate tectonics, my brother’s fascination.

I had just finished my second year at Duke University and planned to return in the fall, with Jane-Goodall-stars in my eyes, to study primate behavior. But every summer since high school I’d spent with Martin, my airfare paid in exchange for a summer’s worth of work around the station. In the way some children are groomed to become musicians by parents who play professionally, there was never any doubt that Martin and I would become scientists. The only undecided was the field.

Our parents were tropical marine biologists, and my childhood memories always involved reefs: the impossible vastness and variety of the Great Barrier Reef; the vivid, lush purples and magentas of the giant clams and anemones in the Red Sea; the overpopulated and dying Florida Keys; and the upper and lower shark-rich Caribbean islands with their various flat, dry, limestone bases, or lush, green rainforest topographies. I have been in the waters of every warm sea, learned to swim before I could walk, and seen my parents disappear beneath the waves more times than I can count.

So Josie’s work was not what I found strange, but rather her fondness for her subject. From my earliest childhood, I had learned to fear Chironex fleckeri, also called box jelly, fire medusa, sea wasp, or indringa, according to the local nomenclature. In Australia’s waters my parents protected our arms and legs with pantyhose worn beneath our suits. My brother and I were glad to wear it, too, having witnessed a lifeguard’s vain attempt to save a man who foamed at the mouth, arched his back and popped off the sand like a jumping bean, gurgling in a way that was horrible to hear.

But the box jellies were what attracted Josie to Dominica. They were rare in the surrounding waters—nothing like the giant schools found along the Great Barrier Reef—and Dominica shouldn’t have had them at all, but they were there, they were virtually invisible, and they were deadly. Already there had been six sightings, two severe stingings, and one death. The fishermen were beginning to panic.

I first encountered Josie at a meeting where anxious, weathered Dominicans sat behind tables in the Ministry of Fisheries—a new building in the capital city, equipped with modern conveniences and “donated” by Japan, along with three new Nissan SUV’s, in exchange for Dominica’s vote to preserve whaling rights in their waters.

With the lights down, she projected images of the box jelly along the white stucco wall while the slide projector fan hummed and the fishermen shifted and cleared their throats. The window facing the interior of the island let in sounds of the Saturday market, and from the other side, waves slapped rhythmically against the high seawall, another Japanese whaling gift-incentive.

“Scuse me, Miss. But what does it do? When it attacks?” A dusty-skinned older fisherman I recognized as Raymond asked this question, calling Josie Miss, despite her wincing objection to the title.

“Well, Raymond, I know you’ve seen firsthand what they can do. I’m sorry about your son.”

The room murmured its agreement. The one fatality had been Raphael, a boy of twelve, out with his father, working the seine nets. No one even knew he had been stung until they drew in the net with a drowned Raphael tangled in it, blackened welts on his legs. The whole island turned out for his funeral in a spectacle of wailing and angry tears.

“Even though it may seem like it, box jellies aren’t attacking when they sting people. They have complex eyes, with retinas and corneas, just like ours, except there’s no brain for them to connect to. But they can see in all directions, tell up from down, navigate, and distinguish light from dark. They’ll chase a shrimp to eat it, and avoid you if they can, swimming away by squirting water. But during the rainy season, the rivers wash down sediments and the waters get murky.”

“Raphael didn’t see it?” asked Raymond.

“Probably not.”

“He feel it?”

Josie hesitated. “I’m afraid so. A box jelly has, not just one, but three serious poisons. It’s got to stun its prey quickly, to avoid damage—from a struggling shrimp, say—so it has one poison to stop the heart, one to paralyze the muscles, and one to kill flesh instantly.”

Raphael’s mother, Calliope, a large, colorfully dressed woman I knew from the Saturday market stall where she sold torch ginger and anthuriums, sat beside Raymond and moaned softly.

“But he would have yelled, Miss. He would have screamed. He was a boy.”

“Not necessarily, Raymond. Survivors of a box jelly sting tell of excruciating pain. Victims have been known to die, not from the venom, but from a pain so intense that they go into shock and drown.”

A spattering of fat raindrops began to hit the tin roof of the fisheries building and the smell of hot, settling dust wafted into the room.

Josie clicked the slide carousel forward to show an enlarged teardrop shape enclosing a squiggly line. “That’s the nematocyst—the stinging cell. And it’s full.” She clicked again and the same shape became a deflated balloon with a long string. “And this is what it looks like, microscopically, after discharging its stinging cell. Each tentacle may have 5,000 of these.”

“Lord, Lord,” said Calliope, snapping open her purse to retrieve a handkerchief and dab at her eyes.

Josie flipped to the next slide and a human body flashed on the screen, carefully photographed so as to omit the head. Its skin bore a crosshatch of blackened whip-like scorch marks. The legs looked as if they had been wrapped with burning ropes.

Calliope stifled a scream with her handkerchief and turned to face the back of the room wagging her head, eyes unfocused.

“Witnesses say this unlucky fellow died within three minutes of being stung,” said Josie, deep into her scholarly lecture, oblivious to the swelling discomfort of her audience.

Raymond stared at Josie’s hand as if willing her to click the forward button. When she did, a translucent jelly, shot from below, haloed by the water’s sunlit surface, hung suspended within the slide frame, its long tentacles captured in a floating moment, like a woman’s hair drifting behind her in the sea.

Josie wasn’t attractive. She carried around forty unnecessary pounds, was heavy thighed, with an extra fold of flesh at the waist. Her skin had a pasty cast, tinged with pink when she’d been in the sun. She didn’t tan. Her hair clung to her head, thin and stringy, more reddish than any other color, and her front two teeth were exceptionally large and widely spaced. Her eyes were slightly different colors, too—one blue, one green. She walked with a heavy stride, a self-admitted klutz; her arms and legs bore many scars of miscalculation and fecklessness.

“Gentlemen,” she continued, “the most venomous creature on earth is not a snake, or a spider, or even a scorpion. It’s this lovely, nearly invisible, prehistoric jelly.” She said this with fondness, as if speaking of a beloved pet. The oldest fisherman, seated at the front of the room, sat back in his chair and passed a hand over his closely cropped white-tinged hair.

“What you need to know—other than to avoid them—is what to do if stung. Box jelly tentacles adhere to the skin. Don’t pull them off! It makes them discharge more venom. Pour vinegar over them. You should have several liters in your boats, just in case. It won’t help the pain, but it will deactivate the stinging cells and prevent more stings. Then you can carefully pick the tentacles off, using something other than your fingers.”

Josie paced the front of the room, striding to the limits of the slide projector cord as she spoke. And Alton James, one of the most handsome fishermen in Dominica, sat forward in his chair, following her with his eyes, attending her every word, nodding in agreement.

From Martin I had learned how Alton gravitated to Josie at first meeting, following her to the field station, offering nights of pleasure, proposals of marriage, children for her to bear, in the overenthusiastic way of so many local men. I could not imagine the attraction.

When Josie finished her lecture the attendees grudgingly and sparsely clapped, then filed out. Alton walked up as she was placing the slide carousel into its box. Her scholarly demeanor changed immediately. She rolled her neck and leaned back, balancing the box on one hip, pelvis forward. He stood very close, as most island men do, either not understanding or not caring about personal space. He wore long khaki shorts and a loose, short-sleeved shirt in a faded coconut palm print. The bottom three buttons were undone; when he reached for the slides his shorts dropped slightly and a horizontal line of lighter skin shone above the waistband. His stomach was flat, the skin smooth and hairless.

“I will take these to your vehicle,” he said, in a sliding voice like fruit pulled from its husk.

Josie lifted her hair and watched him walk out the door, then turned to me as I stepped forward.

“You must be Marilyn,” she said. “You and Martin look just alike.”

We shook hands. Josie’s grip was strong. When she smiled her upper lip stretched and vanished, revealing a wide swath of pale pink gums. “Martin’s told me so much about you, I feel like I know you,” she said.

“And I know almost nothing about you,” I lied.

MY JOB, ASSIGNED BY MARTIN, was to help Miss Connie, the cook, on weekday mornings. Mondays we rose at dawn and walked down to Mahaut to greet the fishermen and buy directly from their daily catch. Tuesdays we made a trip to town, by bus, to purchase groceries, check mail, and visit the woman who sold bakes, fat wads of deep-fried dough that Connie would stuff with fish or garlicky cheese for lunches the researchers could carry easily into the field. Wednesday was wash day, and anyone could have their clothes cleaned for $5EC a load, which Connie and I bleached and scrubbed on a ribbed concrete sink, then hung out along the fence to dry, wary of sudden rain showers. Thursdays we cleaned the gutters that led away from the dorms, especially the kitchen drain which didn’t feed into the small septic tank, but emptied right into the bush and often clogged; squash vines grew spontaneously at this point of egress, twisting and writhing up the trunks of coconut trees.

Fridays we mopped and cleaned the dorms.

When we came to Josie’s room, Miss Connie stiffened and hesitated at the door.

“Not here much, is she?” I said.

In response, Miss Connie clicked her tongue and eyed me sideways.

“Where does she go? Does she really work that much?” I asked, knowing the answer, but wanting to hear it from someone else.

“Work?” Miss Connie rolled her eyes.

“Well, where is she if she’s not working?”

“Shaming herself,” she said, in an angry burst that surprised me.

“Shaming?”

“Chasing down a man when he got a woman already.”

“Alton’s married?”

“Woman with a baby.”

“Alton?”

“Woman that love him.”

“But—”

“Sleeping in a dirty tree house.”

When I left Connie, I sought Martin to speak with him about what I had learned. He told me that Josie had indeed been sleeping on a shoddily built platform in a tree above a bar, next door to the house where Alton lived with his wife and child. Some locals found it amusing that a rich, white, American would degrade herself for the attentions of a poor black fisherman, but most in this conservative, religious, African-style matriarchy found it appalling, and Martin feared that Josie’s indiscretions would reflect badly on the field station. He had told her as much, and she promised Martin she would put an end to the relationship.

THAT EVENING AT DINNER a heavy, steady rain poured off the roof of the open-air veranda. The gutters rushed with sound, disgorging rainwater and clumps of detritus. Beyond the veranda the bush shrieked with the incessant trilling of tree frogs. The fading light caused Martin to rise and flip on the bright overhead fluorescents.

Josie joined us then, just as plates were being pushed to the middle of the table and eating began to give way to conversation. It was the first time since my arrival I had seen her at a meal.

She looked disheveled. Not untidy in appearance, but in demeanor, as if she had recently lost her bearings. Distractedly, she over-filled her plate with food, then ate with an alarming aggressive choppiness, repeatedly cutting bite-sized pieces of stewed turkey, holding each morsel up for a pre-bite inspection. This was made all the more disconcerting by the fact that she alone remained eating.

“Practicing dissection techniques?” said Martin, good-naturedly.

Josie looked up and found him at the table. “Checking for those little sharp bones, actually. Such a nuisance.”

“Don’t they have strange meat here?” said a female botanist to my left. “I mean, giant turkey legs cut in cross-sectioned slices, bone in the center? Tell me that isn’t odd.”

“I think they must freeze the legs first, then cut them,” I offered. “When Connie buys those at Astaphan’s they’re smooth and sharply cut. I think that much precision would be impossible if the meat were soft.”

“Not with a laser,” said Martin, and most at the table laughed, imagining, no doubt, laser-cut turkey legs in a land largely devoid of septic services, ambulances, and dentists.

“Soft meat,” said Josie, staring at a bite on the end of her fork.

“Excuse me?” A wispy-haired, sunburned fellow sat across from her. I knew him to be engaged in the daily cataloging, weighing, and measuring of Diadema antillarum, the spiny sea urchin, abundant on Dominica’s reefs.

“Fresh meat,” said Josie, still staring at her fork. She looked up, then laughed. “Sorry. Thinking out loud. Never mind. What’s the weather supposed to be tomorrow?”

“Clear, I think,” said Martin. “Should be a good day for field work. The Clemson group arrives in the morning. I scheduled your jellyfish lecture for right after lunch. That work for you?”

As Josie nodded, a small four-legged animal ran across the tiny triangle of centipede grass, our pitiful nod to a lawn, bordered by head-high chicken wire through which the bush encroached, riotous and lush.

“Ooh, look!” cried the botanist, and the diners turned in time to see the animal sprint across the soggy lawn, its large rear legs, tailless body, and short round ears making it look like a very large, long-legged guinea pig. It ran as far as the fence and stopped, dead-ended, then dashed back across our field of vision with its amusing, bouncy gait.

“It’s so cute. What is it?” asked the botanist.

“An agouti,” said Martin. “A rodent. The island’s only land mammal. It’s an herbivore. Harmless. Eats fruit, seeds, roots. Lives in the rainforest.”

“Oh, it could be our mascot. For the field station.” She smiled expectantly.

“The fighting agoutis,” said Martin dryly. “Doesn’t sound too intimidating, does it?”

When the agouti reached the opening in the fence where it had first entered, it made a quick about-face and splashed away again. Following closely behind the zigzagging animal, a man, wielding a large cutlass above his head, crossed the clearing, cornered the agouti, and with a quick arcing swing of his machete caught the animal in the throat, mid-stride. The small body took a few more steps then crumpled to its side; a rash of red bubbles wheezed up from the severed windpipe. The man bent over, caught the jerking rear legs between his fingers, hoisted the body, and walked off.

“Did I mention that the locals eat them?” asked Martin to a round of nervous laughter. The botanist’s chuckle tapered off and ended in a small sob. Josie made no sound, stared at the place where the animal had been moments before, then abruptly returned to her plate.

“That was awful,” said the botanist in a choked-off voice.

“Well, they are supposed to be quite tasty,” said Martin. “And the locals have to eat, too.”

“Survival of the fittest,” said Josie matter-of-factly.

“Well yes, of course,” said the botanist, pointing into the yard, “but that was horrible.” Her hand shook slightly as she lifted her drink, a lovely lavender boiled guava juice that filled the room with its scent.

“Look, it’s a simple concept,” said Josie. “The strong and clever survive. The rest, the weak, they die. We know this. And we all agree with the theory, right? So why not the practice? I’ve never understood why it should be harder to accept when it comes down to blood and guts.”

“Well, that makes no sense. You’re saying humans should feel free to extinguish every species that isn’t smart enough to avoid or escape us?” This was said by a herpetologist I knew to be studying the near-extinction of a large local toad, eaten here for years by locals, a delicacy they referred to as mountain chicken.

“In Africa they eat bush meat—orangutans, chimpanzees and spider monkeys,” I said. “They’re our closest kin. It’s practically cannibalism.”

“Survival of the fittest is a creed. Either you believe it or you don’t,” said Josie.

Her meal now mostly devoured, Josie set to the task of chasing down the remaining bits of rice with her spoon. Once isolated, she brought each tidbit to her mouth with a quick jerk of her arm and a snap of her lips, grain after grain after grain.

LATE THE NEXT MORNING, it being a free Saturday, and the day being hot, I decided to go for a snorkel/swim. I didn’t care to be tied to Dominica’s capricious bus schedules, so I grabbed my mask, fins and snorkel and walked to Rodney’s Rock, a nearby dive site, named for Sir Rodney, the British naval captain who defeated the French at the Battle of the Saintes in 1782. The site surrounded an immense, partially submerged rock situated where the sea floor dropped off steeply within a few feet of shore. Thus I could stay near land but also snorkel in thirty-plus feet of water, allowing me to practice my free diving skills, glimpse large pelagic animals, or drop below the surface and listen for whale songs.

The road that took me to Rodney’s Rock was hot and dusty, the traffic minimal. At the break in foliage that signified the field station’s machete-hewn trail, I left the road and pushed through the bush, down the sharp incline toward the water. Scanning the shoreline I noted a fisherman in a dugout canoe floating several hundred yards to the south. Otherwise the surrounding ocean was an empty, welcoming expanse.

The tide was slack and the water smooth so I opted to swim northward along the coast, putting Rodney’s Rock behind me, knowing that as the tide turned I could easily drift-snorkel back to my starting point. I spat in my mask, rinsed it clean, and settled it over my eyes and nose, then slid carefully into the water, enjoying the cooling sensation that spread along my skin. I rolled onto my back to don my fins then bit down on my snorkel, turned, and stretched horizontal, surveying the ocean floor. A school of squid hovered nearby and eyed me warily, flashing neon full-body signals back and forth, side fins undulating like water wings, never breaking their floating V-formation. A small hawksbill turtle passed at the periphery of my vision and I abandoned the squid to follow her briefly; when she began to head for open water I kicked away up the coastline. After ten minutes, I reversed my direction and relaxed, letting the current carry me back.

As I approached Rodney’s Rock, I heard voices above the familiar click and crackle of Dominica’s underwater sounds. The voices were loud and angry, rising in tenor, incongruous in the space of my languid morning swim. I drifted closer and tilted my head to look above the waterline. The same fisherman and his boat were there, but nearer, and with another passenger.

Reluctant to expose my position, I maneuvered close to the massive rock and held on. The fisherman in the boat I could now discern as Alton, seated in the pointed bow; his passenger, Josie, sat astern. Waves lapped against the faded red boat and the rock to which I held, alternately masking their voices, then delivering whole sentences clearly.

“. . . my woman,” were the first words I caught, uttered by Alton, in a reasonable voice. He seemed relaxed, sitting in his weathered boat, shirtless, and fresh (I surmised) from checking the status of his fish pots; the contents of a bucket flopped noisily behind him.

“Your woman! How is that?” Josie’s voice, by contrast, rose and fell erratically. She wore a wetsuit of blue and yellow neoprene and gestured wildly with her arms. A mask and snorkel hung around her neck and her hair was wet. A specimen bag hung heavily over her right wrist.

“. . . love. . . heart. My fire.” Alton’s voice was soft and he held his arms toward her in an attitude of beseechment.

“Ahh,” Josie cried, throwing her arms in the air, specimen bag swinging wildly. “Bullshit, Alton . . .shit . . .no good to me.”

“Wife keep the home. Woman keep the heart.”

“Holy shit!” Josie’s voice rose to a shriek then dropped again. She leaned forward and pointed to his chest with the hand that held the bag. “. . .you. Stop.”

Alton lifted a short-handled dive knife and pointed to the water. “I going . . .” He pointed the knife toward Josie. “Stay.”

With an exaggerated motion, she transferred the sack to her left hand and slapped him with her right, the sound reaching my ears a moment after the act had been completed.

Alton, without expression, dived off the boat, knife in hand. The boat, with Josie in it, rocked wildly and began to drift away. She uttered a screeching noise of frustration then scanned the sea and shore. I tucked closer to the rock, grateful for my hiding place.

As I watched, she reached into her specimen bag and withdrew a box jelly, holding it by the non-venomous bell. When Alton surfaced and looked up at her, she threw the specimen against his head. It landed with a slap, tentacles clinging across his face and over one ear; the bell sagging against his shoulder. I rose instinctively from the water and a muffled noise crept up my throat; I fought the urge to cry out.

For a surprised moment, Alton stared at Josie, then turned his face toward me. Beneath the milky translucent strings, his features contorted in pain. With one hand he pulled at the body of the jellyfish, with the other he reached in my direction. Josie turned then, too, and I quickly took a breath and dropped below the water.

I pushed against the rock to keep submerged and watched as Alton sank, struggling in an aimless way. The water moved and churned and sand rose up in a cloud around him. He shot to the surface and attempted to swim toward the boat. His limbs moved wildly, then stopped in mid-motion. A high, shrill scream reached my ears—first as a distant above-water sound, then as a liquid, gurgling shriek that echoed throughout my body. Alton slipped beneath the surface, bubbles pouring from his mouth.

I do not know what Josie did at that point. I turned and fled across the water, kicking furiously, my breath rasping loudly in the snorkel. I reached a shallow spot and exited the water, scrambling up the hill to the road. When I reached the top, my stomach heaved and emptied itself. I don’t know if Josie saw me, if she heard, or if she cared.

I suspect she hailed a bus and returned to the field station. I ran—along the road at first—then walked, staring out into the water, imagining Alton’s body bobbing on each wave. Then I imagined him climbing over the rocks, exiting the sea, not dead at all.

I thought about walking to the police station and telling them what I had witnessed. But the Mahaut station was not manned during daylight hours and even as I walked I began to doubt what I had seen. It felt, instead, as if I had dreamed the entire thing, or blacked out and awoken with vague memories of an unconscious time. Furthermore, it occurred to me that perhaps Josie hadn’t really meant to kill Alton. Perhaps she meant only to hit him with something, anything, and so threw the nearest thing at hand.

My mind bounced between conflicting thoughts. A strange, detached part of me wanted to return to my swim. In the water the world disappeared, cooling me, rinsing away life’s complexities. In the ocean I could float, suspended and weightless, and close my mind to clamoring thoughts. I could come back to myself. I could drift to the edge of the wall where the island rose straight up through the water. I could look over the shelf, five thousand feet down to the bottomless blue and always get perspective. But not today. Not with what I knew was floating out there, too.

So I walked. Hot and sticky, and disturbed, I walked, keeping close to the water’s edge for as long as possible, listening to the mellow percussive rocks rolling in and out, over and over with the waves. Listening to the eternity of the sea.

As I approached the field station compound, a student rang the lunch bell and I followed the sound instinctively, through the gate and down the path, despite my rolling emotions.

Miss Connie had made lunch that day, just like every other day. She served curry soup and fried dasheen with soursop for dessert. I got in line, filled my bowl, and sat at the far end of the longest table. Josie sat at the other end and a group of visiting students filled the intervening seats. They chattered and asked questions that I’m sure I answered, although I don’t remember speaking a word.

Mostly I remember watching Josie eat. I found myself unable to look away as she slurped her soup, dipping the pieces of dasheen in the broth and sucking them dry after each dip. When the soursop was served, she peeled away the bumpy green skin and slurped the fruit into her mouth, rolling it around until the smooth brown seeds were free, spitting them onto her plate. Soursop juice ran down her wrists and dripped off her elbows to the floor. I thought of Miss Connie, later, on her hands and knees, wiping up the stickiness while shaking her head at the lack of manners displayed by scientists. With one piece of soursop remaining, Josie leaned well into the table and pulled it towards her, oblivious to the longing looks of the surrounding students. She licked each fingertip with a loud smacking sound when she was done.

And I wondered where Alton’s body was. Had it gone only a short way before coming back to rest on a hump of rounded rocks? Had the hermit crabs found it already? Would it drift and bob its way to another beach? Another island? Or worse, during some future dive or snorkel, would I round a coral head only to find myself face-to-hollowed-out-face with it?

Immediately following lunch, Josie presented her jellyfish lecture to the visiting student group, and I sat in, as was my custom. I found it hard, though, to be still and listening, knowing what I knew, seeing what I had seen. Harder, still, when Josie looked my way and talked about the medusa stage of the jellyfish, her voice dripping with fondness.

“The stage of the jellyfish that we all recognize—the inverted bell-shape with hanging tentacles—is called the medusa stage, the sexually mature phase.” Here, she smiled. “Most of you are familiar with the Greek Medusa, a wicked creature, with snakes for hair, so ugly, that to look upon her face turned one to stone. But the original Medusa myth goes farther back, to a time when women were worshipped for their fertility, for their mysterious ability to bleed every month with no sign of a wound. This Medusa got her name from a word that means sovereign female wisdom. She was Libyan, with dreadlocks, and a hidden, dangerous face. It was inscribed that no one could possibly lift her veil, and that to look upon her face was to glimpse one’s own death, reflected in her eyes.”

As Josie talked, I began to think about eyes. About hers, being blue and green, both. And about those strange eyes of the jellyfish. Those eyes, with retinas and corneas, eyes not so unlike our own. Eyes on muscular stalks that turn in all directions, allowing the jellyfish to look away from themselves, out into their watery world, search for prey, and chase it down; eyes that turn to look inside, right through the walls of their own bodies, to see the struggling shrimp and watch themselves devour it.

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About Mary Akers

Mary Akers is author of the award-winning short story collection, WOMEN UP ON BLOCKS, and a forthcoming collection BONES OF AN INLAND SEA (both from Press 53). She co-authored the non-fiction book ONE LIFE TO GIVE and is Editor-in-chief of the online journal r.kv.r.y. In 1999, she co-founded the Institute for Tropical Marine Ecology a marine field station located in Roseau, Dominica.

Comments

  1. Great story! I love the combination of biology, attraction, transgression and speculation. And the freakish image of eyes that can see in multiple directions but are unconnected to any kind of brain. Can’t wait to read Bones of an Inland Sea …

  2. Cezarija Abartis says:

    The intensity and passion inside this realistic, mild, almost non-fictional surface story is wonderful. The young narrator gets to see the sting of the world.

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