Chapter Twenty Eight
Sister Phyllis Newman
Able shut down the nautilus dives on Long Drop Off, the dive operators sending up a collective caterwaul. They stormed into his office as he knew they would, spitting betel nut and curses, a crowd that spilled back into the hall. They would go broke. They would have to sell their boats. Their children, the children of their aunties and uncles, the children of every generation to come, would end up in the street with their stomachs empty and one person to blame.
When they asked him for a reason, he played the poker face of his lifetime and told the story he had concocted. He had received a call from a senior official from CITIES, the international group charged with protecting the oceans. The official, a scientist from Norway, had said in no uncertain terms that the endangered nautilus should be left alone. If they did not desist, the scientist said, the fines would make their business losses look like pocket change.
How had CITIES found out about the dives?
Able answered this with a question of his own.
How many wagging tongues were there on this island?
It was a good story, told with a fine poker face. The diver operators yowled louder. Several began plotting a trip to Norway to dice the scientist into chum.
Able knew that closing Long Drop Off was pointless, but he felt he had to do something.
Cedar had not been part of the protest. When he called to inform her there would be no more nautilus dives, she said, “I understand.”
Hanging up, Able thought, What sort of world would it be if we each listened clearly without self-interest clamoring in our ears? If we were open-minded enough to make the decision that was best for the whole?
He realized now why he never beat her at poker.
I continue to wander aimlessly, unable to outdistance pain. I can find neither wisdom nor patience; they are gone from my sight. I am lost. I regret taking the children, and I do not; in my literal and figurative darkness I remember their sweetness and revenge tastes good. An eye for an eye, you say. I feel dirty. Sullied. Wrong. I want to lash out again. Share this pain that crushes everything from me. Dreams live until they die.
I am rudderless, drifting with the currents, wobbling absently down into the deeps where even wholesale blackness is colored by ache.
And stewing anger.
Sister Phyllis Newman had saved a lifetime for this trip, dropping coins, one by one, into the white mouth of a bright green ceramic frog her grandmother had made her for her sixth birthday in a time long gone. When the coins appeared at the bottom of the frog’s throat, she took it to the bank. Each time, as she lifted the frog from the kitchen counter, its’ weight a promise, she gave a happy croak. She knew it was silly, but nuns did not have enough silliness in their lives.
No one here knew she was a nun. She had arrived on this tropical island, famous for its God-given beauty, dressed like any tourist, in jeans and a Red Sox baseball cap, for Fenway Park could be a chapel too. She loved how the jeans hugged her thighs and the way no one stared at her as she lifted her luggage from the wood carousel.
She had booked a room at a pension. She spent the first full day of her vacation sleeping beneath the mosquito netting. She was no longer a young girl. The trip had tired her mightily. She did not mind giving up a day of her short vacation. She wanted to be fully alert to God’s glories.
She hired the first guide she found. She knew she probably paid far more than necessary, but she did not like to bargain with those in need. The boat was smaller and more worn than the dinghies she had fished in when she was a girl, but the guide assured her they did not have far to go. The island she sought, the one with the marine lake filled with the stingless jellyfish, was only thirty minutes away through protected waters. This lake was a lifelong dream. Thirty minutes was so close.
Her guide smoked the entire way out, sweet smell of cloves, ashes and the occasional spark whipping back past the rattling outboard engine. Sister Phyllis said a silent prayer. His breath told her he had been drinking. Maybe she should have walked away and found another guide, but it was obvious to her this man had fallen upon hard times.
When they tied up at the small wood dock jutting from the island’s mossy shore, her guide simply gestured to a footpath leading into the wall of jungle. “It is a half mile down that path,” he said, his eyes already closing. “It is the only path and the only lake. You cannot get lost.”
I don’t know how it happens. I honestly don’t. I certainly do not will it. It is orchestrated without a doubt, but it is orchestration beyond me. What do I sense? Hatred. Pure, elemental hatred. A primal emotion undiluted, containing not a wisp of reason, yet somehow carried out with conscious thought. It shocks me. Even single cell organisms are evolving. But this is a different kind of evolution, one I did not expect. Evolution, of course, is unexpected. Under other circumstances I would be amused by my blind ignorance, but this is deeply unsettling. For an instant, I even forget my pain.
This woman is pure and good.
Single cell organisms.
Perhaps the meek will indeed inherit the earth, but not in the fashion you imagine.
Sister Phyllis knew from the guide books that she was required to have a guide, but he looked so peaceful and she was a strong swimmer – childhood summers spent at the lakes in upstate New York – so she took her fins, mask and snorkel and bade him whispered goodbye.
It was not easy going. The path was slippery with recent rain and jungle drippings, and there were many roots. At points the path rose so steeply she drew quick breaths. But it was a short walk, as her guide had promised. After fifteen minutes she stood on a small dock, the wood spongy beneath her feet, her heart bounding now with joy. Surrounded by forest, the dark green marine lake might have been a lake of her childhood dreams. Across the lake she saw dangling vines and explosions of hibiscus. And there was no one else, this communion with Nature hers alone.
Sitting on the end of the dock, she slipped on fins and mask. Settling the snorkel firmly in her mouth, she pushed up with her hands and plunged forward into the lake.
The water was so warm it was like the sun’s exquisite embrace. Finning away from the dock she saw, through her face plate, mossy tree limbs strewn on the rocky bottom and dark, catfish-like fish flitting to and fro. It was as if she had swum back in time. Her girlish smile made the snorkel bobble.
Halfway across the lake, all familiarity disappeared. The first jellyfish were scattered individuals, opaque softballs pulsing in the murk. So beautiful, their pulsing like a serene heartbeat. As she finned forward, their numbers grew. Within a minute, the water was a gelatinous cloud. The massing of the jellyfish, some now the size of cantaloupes, might have given someone else pause, but Sister Phyllis had read everything there was to read about the lake and she knew that even the largest jellyfish possessed only enough sting to prey on shrimp-like copepods. At most she would feel a mild itching, perhaps here and there the faintest kiss of sting.
Reading in her room at the convent, she had imagined herself an adventurous marine biologist, exploring wild places, making discoveries that thrilled the world and quietly honored God.
Now she was here, swimming through jellyfish throngs. Her heart beat faster with the adventure, and also with the smooth, silky brush of dozens of jellyfish. Sister Phyllis made herself resist for a moment, it was base and ungodly, but then she gave in. It was erotic, like hands everywhere, the multiple lovers she had never had.
As the jellies brushed past she felt only the faintest tingling.
It was erotic, divine and beautiful, and then it was not. At first she was only aware of the thickening mass. The first jolt surprised her, but she was not alarmed. Perhaps a single jellyfish had maintained its ability to deliver a full dose of venom. The second and third jolt undermined this theory.
She turned and began to kick back in the direction of the dock, hoping to swim back to the middle of the lake, away from the sunlight, where she knew the jellyfish would dissipate, but the jellyfish were so thick they formed a wall, not a hard wall, more like a mattress, but almost as impenetrable. As she pushed forward, fighting to remain calm, it felt as if the wall pushed back.
The guidebooks had told her to wear a bikini -- it allowed for more contact -- but she was too modest for that. Still, so much of her was exposed. The stings burned her arms, her legs, her outthrust hands and her cheeks where the mask did not reach. A match flared against her lips. Reflexively she opened her mouth, and the jellyfish slid inside. She stopped, jerked her head out of the water and spat. The jelly oozed out reluctantly, sliding down her chin, stinging all the way. The pain was everywhere, thousands of needle applications, improbably minute doses of poison falling one upon the other in an agonizing downpour. Somewhere in her brain she remembered. Twenty million jellies in the lake.
Sister Phyllis Newman was a survivor. She turned for the nearest shoreline; no more than twenty yards away. She kicked furiously; she knew the pointlessness of swimming with her arms. She nudged forward through the mass. A tree had fallen into the lake. It loomed suddenly in her face plate, bearded with moss. Beyond thought, her fingers clawed for purchase among the sharp branches and soggy bark. Hand over hand she pulled for shore, branches raking open her flesh.
The world was a gelatinous mass. The pain rushed forward in waves. She fought to be free of the water. She pulled herself up the trunk until she was half out of the water and then she acceded. It was God’s will. Below her waist, untold puncturings proceeded. Above her waist, her hands cupped in prayer.
She thought of all the coins dropped. She counted them, one by one. Finally a wave of pain swept over her and did not recede.
It is terribly slow. I wish I could stop it. She crawls up the trunk. She is a godly woman, so to God she prays. Like Jesus on the cross. But as you know by now, I am no god.
It is terrible and yet so very beautiful. Her acceptance is a marvel. At the last she does not even strike out at the jellies. She does not assign them blame. She declined to bring the guide who might have saved her. She takes responsibility for her own actions. She offers forgiveness. She thanks her God for her time here. She prays that, in that time, she made a difference.
Ocean acidification, oil spills, global warming, the waste of nation upon nation dumped from barges, washed down rivers, poured down sinks. Coins dropped, one by one.
Perhaps the jar has at last shattered.
You are no longer an accident waiting to happen. It is possible you are even making accidents happen.
This is an unexpected twist.
Eventually the guide went to find her. To his credit he possessed a barely functioning two way radio, and enough sobriety to remember the police channel.
When Able arrived at the lake, only half the island was there.
Author / Speaker