Dr. Jacob Walter had become used to the slight motion of the boat on the waves. The dips of the floor beneath his feet no longer induced nausea. He had grown accustomed to rising with dawn and retiring with nightfall. The sun was high in the clouds on this March day, the heat of the morning already rising. He could feel the sweat starting to blossom on his forearms as he dragged the lines in from the deep.
He and Michelle had been here for a little over a week. They were both professors at a university back in California. They had received a grant for this research expedition to the coast of Brazil to study and document the Chiropsalmus quadrumanus, also known as the four-handed box jellyfish. There had been little research done into this particular cubozoa, and the Walters were hoping to find something of value to add to the international discussion.
Jacob stepped barefoot onto the deck, still damp with dew. He took a sip from the coffee mug in his hand and took in the morning, which was arriving with majesty. There was little to compare to the beauty of light falling across the waves of the lower Atlantic, glistening and rolling across the sea. He heard a stirring and looked behind to see Michelle emerge up the steps. The sea wind rustled through her blonde-graying hair. Sunlight rippled golden across her face as she squinted in her bathrobe. He stepped over and pulled her close, resting his chin atop her head and burying her face into his chest. She snickered, but held there for a few minutes.
“I wish we never had to leave this place,” he said.
“I know,” she replied, reaching her hand up to run her fingers through his already-thinning hair. At 37, she had finally gotten the courage to chop her own short above her shoulders before the trip. It was a fresh start after everything.
They went inside to prepare breakfast – oatmeal from the can. It was all simple, vacation-style meals for the month of their research. Occasionally, Jacob would motor over to shore and they would walk to the road and catch a taxi to the nearest city to pick up groceries or eat at one of the hole-in-the-wall restaurants. Brazil was a beautiful country. Strings of colored flags hung from stucco buildings faded by decades of harsh sunlight. Children kicked soccer balls through side yards while shirtless street performers strummed guitars and beat drums for change. Still, they both felt alone and strange on their trips into town. Eyes seemed to constantly follow them, and Jacob felt bad for expecting to be mugged. They were the only foreigners in the area. The government had allowed them to stay, but the locals occasionally got curious about them. A few times, small boats would motor over and make broken conversation. Jacob’s Portuguese was sloppy, but he was able to explain that they were scientists, here to study the jellyfish.
The things were living in the bay by the hundreds, floating like pale ghosts amidst the waves. Innocent medusas. Jacob and Michelle had several sample subjects in aquariums below deck that they had taken for observation in the last week. There was something thrilling in being one of a small number of people devoted to researching and analyzing something so small and specific, a substratum of a substratum, really. He took pride in his and his wife’s work, stayed up-to-date on the current papers making the rounds, and submitted his own. They already had nearly 60 pages of notes from the past week’s studying, which would then have to be sifted through and contextualized into a document half that size.
The cruiser they were working from was sparkling white and christened the Sarita. The boat was made to carry a small crew, so Jacob and Michelle had plenty of room to work and relax. There was a top and bottom deck as well as a platform above for fishing and shade. The Sarita sported two outboards and a trolling motor. The university had subsidized the lease. There was no television or Internet connection on the boat, so during downtime, the Walters had brought boxes of books. Only light reads – Cussler adventures, L’Amour westerns, history books. The world was tragic enough that neither felt any need to seek out fictional heartbreak.
Jacob slid out of bed in the dark and slipped up to top deck again. A voice seemed to be calling him. Was it the song of the whales, calling from the blue deep? Or something older, something from the black heart of the sea? The stars were out, sprinkled across a sky fading indigo down to a horizon of purple, where the sun waited to rise. It was a calm night, the water docile and flat. He listened to the quiet, to the soft lapping of the boat in the sea, the slight buzz of the electric light, the low calls of distant gulls readying for their morning runs.
He waited to hear that voice again, but there was nothing.
His rational mind fought against it. He hadn’t been sleeping well. Even in this tropical paradise, surrounded by light and beauty, the memories kept surging through his mind. Her face, her name, her smell, her laugh. In the darkest moments, he almost wished to forget. He almost wished he had never known her.
No parent planned on losing their child. No one expected it. There was no way to prepare, no word in the English language. Nothing to do except bear the pain as best as possible. Bear it or break.
All his life, he had listened to others’ stories of tragic deaths, had faithfully nodded and intoned about purpose and promise and all the usual clichés. Car wrecks. Gunshots. Cancer. A dare pushed too far. A careless moment. A lapse in judgment. None of these were why Lily was gone, her presence taken from the world, now only a face in photographs. It had been something else.
He took a deep breath, inhaled the strong salt air that never failed to give him a little bit of strength. He returned below deck, his stomach roiling. He searched the cabinets and tried to quietly pour himself a bowl of corn flakes, the echo of the cereal hitting the bowl seeming to fill the entire cabin. His watch read five minutes past four.
He heard Michelle stir and enter the room. There was no quiet on a boat. She yawned and sat down with him at the table. They stared at each other silently, eyes red and crusty from sleep, minds not fully awake.
“Can’t sleep?” she asked.
He shook his head and took another bite of corn flakes. “Want some?”
“No thank you.”
There was another pause.
Jacob started. “I hear her at night.”
“I hear and I feel her and I almost see her. Out there on the ocean. On the back of a dolphin. Singing with the whales. Out in the blue.”
“She’s out there somewhere. You’re probably sensing her spirit. From Heaven.”
Jacob had to restrain himself from screaming whenever someone mentioned Heaven. He had a brief, embarrassing infatuation with Eastern religion after college, but the concept of faith clashed with his personal philosophy. No, Lily was not in the clouds. Her soul had not ascended. She was not an angel. She was gone, and would never be again. But then, what was that voice, faint in the darkness?
Michelle had trouble reconciling this. Unlike him, she had grown up Catholic and lapsed out, but she still held onto some strands of the belief. She told him that she would rather fall back on that then surrender to nihilism. He worried for her, but knew she was strong.
Hours later, Jacob woke at dawn, buttoned his shirt, and zipped his shorts before grabbing his tablet and clipboard. The cabin of the Sarita had been modified into a miniature lab, partitioned off with curtains, which Jacob pulled behind him. He had the lights turned off, in order to better see the glow of the jellyfish. He studied them in awe. Every time was like the first time with these things.
How strange and beautiful they were, these silent phantoms of the sea. They plied beneath the waves, luminescent in the dark. They would group en masse and, seen from above, resembled hundreds of tiny lightbulbs sinking slowly into the ocean, sending up one last dying glow.
Like all beautiful things, they were both fragile and deadly. The venom these jellies carried in their nematocysts caused intense pain and left rashes that took months to heal. In one case, a child had died after being stung by one. But jellies were gentle monsters; they avoided confrontation whenever possible, content to float forever in the blue. These stings were the result of careless contact with the tentacles extending from the jellies’ bell bodies. They never asked to be born this way: seen and not felt.
While doing the daily tests of the water, a vivid memory floods into his mind. The three of them in some cozy diner, the smell of sausage and pancakes circulating through the air as the waitresses pass by with their plates. Rain seeps down the glass outside as the day wears into night. A song plays on the loudspeaker – an old Kenny Loggins track. Jacob is looking for a jukebox in vain and complaining to Michelle about the inauthenticity of the place, but really, he is enjoying the night.
Lily sits across in the booth, her hair all over the place. Michelle reaches over to smooth it down, to which Lily groans. She insisted on wearing a sundress even though the spring day took a turn for the chilly, and so he had let her wear his windbreaker. The sleeves are comically over-long and she rolls them up in order to dig into her chocolate-chip pancakes. The syrupy smile on her face as she chews and swallows that first bite is unforgettable.
It had been one of those perfect nights that a person is lucky to get a few times a year, and luckier still if the memory of them lasted. Jacob worried sometimes that entire sections of his life were fading as they drifted further into the past, taking on a dusty, monochrome tint. He struggled to remember his own childhood growing up in Rhode Island. He couldn’t remember where he’d met his wife; it had been through a mutual friend, but he didn’t know which. When Lily was born, he’d bought an actual camera and carried it everywhere, capturing every mundane activity. He never wanted those days to fade — and they hadn’t. But when he looked at the man in those photographs, he had trouble reading the face staring back at him. Who had he been?
He was startled out of his reverie by the trill of a dolphin twenty yards off. He saw the silver body break the waves. Suddenly, the entire sea seemed to erupt in splashes of white. He called for Michelle, It’s a pod! Big one!
They stood, the wind blowing wet across their faces. Droplets splattered into their eyes as they watched the group of dolphins course past them. Joyful whistles pierced the air. Light glinted off the animals’ gray skin as they cascaded in and out of the water. Jacob counted at least thirty of the animals before they faded into the distance, a mass of whitecaps on the horizon. He hugged Michelle next to him and breathed in deeply, savoring the moment. Going, going… gone.
All the memories were good memories, even the bad ones. The long car trips across state, the air conditioner struggling against the summer heat, sticky sweat running down their foreheads as Lily whined in the backseat to change the radio station. Helping her with homework. The evenings she would run inside from the backyard with bruises and scars. The nights her crying had kept them awake until dawn – they had been first-time parents muddling through as best they could. The tantrums, spilled drinks, soiled diapers – he missed all of it and wouldn’t trade it for anything.
When she was young, Michelle would read Lily stories about the ocean and all the wonderful creatures that lived in it. She watched The Little Mermaid repeatedly and the house would often echo with her pitchy renditions of “Under the Sea.” During trips to the beach, he would catch her bent over, staring into shallow tide pools filled with starfish and tiny octopi, mesmerized by the array of life that scurried and splashed in the water. He was always so proud of her, proud that he had instilled in her a love of the sea. It hurt to imagine how blindingly bright her future would have been, but he couldn’t stop himself from picturing her.
An auburn-haired beauty standing on the yellow shoreline. A blossom of freckles across her sun-drenched cheeks. She would be doing something heroic and important. She would bide her twenties doing low-level research before getting a break with one of the big conservation or activism gigs. She would travel the world, become successful, make them proud. Or maybe she would find some other calling in college: medicine maybe, or teaching. Whatever she would have done, Jacob would have supported her in her decision. But now, he would never know the person she could have become. The world should have known her name, he thought.
He reclined in bed and opened up the pink DS handheld that had been Lily’s. He inserted the card and booted up the game, taking comfort in the familiar sounds. They had never owned any pets, but Lily had always loved the game Nintendogs, where players could learn about and take care of virtual dogs. He had never paid any attention to her games before, but a week after, he had found the system and saw the log, the last save she had ever input, the remaining dreams of a dead girl, and had felt moved to continue her quest. This was how he found himself feeding and petting a digital husky named Mal. This was what his life had come to. He heard a sound from above and glanced up, slipping the system into his pocket. A part of him didn’t want Michelle to see him doing this. How could he explain to his wife that continuing Lily’s game eased some small piece of the pain? This was the closest he could be to her and something she had loved.
Each night, he stirred in bed, Michelle asleep beside him. He slid from beneath the covers and up above, as if in a trance, half in dream. He gripped the railing and leaned out as far as he could over the water. His brain knew this made no sense. There was some logical reason for why this was happening, but for once in his life, he felt the yearning to slip the science from his shoulders and believe. Each night, the voice grew more distinct until he could make out words, then a melody, a song drifting with the ocean. In his heart, he knew it was her. Lily’s voice singing and calling out to him. But what was she trying to say?
Why had she come to him here of all places? Tears streaked down his cheeks as the night air shifted around him. He felt them smack warmly onto the top of his bare feet. His eyes grew red and he wanted to scream back to her that he was here. He was listening. He always would be.
And then he saw her. A pale vision far in the distance. Glowing like the jellyfish. Translucent and transparent and beautiful. He nearly fell off the deck leaning over the railing. He wanted to call to her, but all he could do was reach out a hand. She was there, floating above the calm sea rippled with moonlight. She was coming closer. In the distance was the far song of the whales, a song that followed its own ancient rhythm, so strange to human ears. There was some kind of old magic in those sounds, the echoes of an alien world beneath the surface. Lily drifted closer and closer until Jacob could make out her smile and the starlight reflected in her eyes. He wanted to tell her everything. He wanted to hold her close and never let her go. But even in the heart of the moment, he knew that this small miracle was all he would be granted. She held his gaze for an eternity and then dissolved into the night, as if she had never been at all.
The next day, Michelle turns 38, and Jacob beaches the boat and extends his hand to help her onto the shore. He has not told her of his vision the night before. The sand sinks and slushes beneath their shoes as they walk to the road. Palm branches wave in the wind and a hermit crab skitters by. It is a Sunday afternoon, and they arrive to find the town packed. People fill the streets and sidewalks. Music filters on the evening breeze. They find a small churrascaria and order steak from a moustachioed waiter. At the table, they sip água de coco and talk about how they will present the findings of the study to the board when they get back. They have studiously documented everything, but Jacob can’t help but wonder if he has forgotten to do something.
In the evening, after too much wine, he pretends to be a captain.
He controls the ship.
Where to, myyy lovely senoriiiita?
Michelle laughs and attempts to wrest his glass away before he spills it. Her attempt is unsuccessful. Wine spills onto the fiberglass floor and they are both laughing.
The sky above is a flaring purple with clouds of ember on the horizon. The moist, tropical breeze portends night rain, as do the veins of heat lightning in the distance. They can hear the calls of stirring animals in the jungle from across the shell-strewn beach. They will be returning to the states soon, to social media and traffic, to the reign of white walls and glass, to an empty room and silent hallways. Beauty cannot last forever. In the wake of the moment, Jacob staves off the memories and inhabits the present, feeling each second course by him and fade away until nothing feels real at all but the water and the wine and the salt wind licking across his skin. He is nothing but this moment. He is nothing but himself. He is nothing. He is.
He spins the wheel and points. Land ho! We shall arrive shortly!
The wine is running low.
They are alone together.
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