Mother and Son
They stood together on the stainless steel swim step of the Wendell Holmes, the tips of their dive fins washed by water that matched their eyes. The bay’s surface spread plastic wrap tight, the early morning waters not yet ruffled by the trade breezes. The water sluicing across the swim step was bright green in its thinness.
These days Cedar questioned herself constantly. But in this moment she knew her son was precisely where he belonged.
They watched the spinner dolphins rouse for the hunt. She glanced at Justin, his heartbeat visible beneath his skinny-smooth chest. Now-now-now-now-now.
She touched his forearm.
“Watch just a minute longer,” she said.
“Too long,” her son said, but he stayed where he was.
See this moment. Absorb every drop of lovely detail. She kept this to herself. Teenagers have a tipping point for life lessons.
Out on the water gray apostrophes appeared, bowed forms that skittered across the surface before disappearing in an equivalent wink, leaving a fingernail of foamy scrim behind.
“Just once, I’d like to swim like that,” Cedar said.
“I’d just like to swim,” said Justin. He coughed. “Carpe diem.”
It was her expression.
“Sometimes watching is seizing,” she said.
“Watching is pretty much waiting,” her son said, but from the corner of her eye she saw the edge of a sly smile.
Justin wore the yellow mask his father had given him, the equally jaunty yellow snorkel poking up. Discounting proud five-year-olds, few divers sported yellow masks. Yellow stood out from the human stampede. Wyatt’s every action bore a message. Her ex-husband couldn’t be blamed. He descended from an unbroken and unyielding line of mid-Western alpha achievers. His father, a Chicago banker, had named him after the gun-slinging lawman. From the zygote Wyatt had been groomed to be quicker than the rest, metaphorical bullets bringing the Windy City’s financial world to its knees. Soon it would be Justin’s turn. They had agreed.
Sixteen-year-old boys aren’t inclined to sunflower colors, but Justin loved his father and she did not want to discourage this.
Most of the dolphin pod still slept in their loose protective circle. The joy, as always, was in watching the first risers wake their brethren. Frenetic torpedoes, they leapt free of the water, their glistening forms suspended in the air until, with a last fanciful twirl, they struck the water with a wallop intended to put the spirit of the hunt into their slothful companions.
Joy is contagious.
“Watching is just waiting,” Cedar said, shoving her son.
Even off balance, he pierced the water cleanly. She watched him descend through the water, a pale scalpel, fins together, performing an undulating beat. When he reached the sand bottom thirty feet below he remained clearly visible, his lanky form nearly as white as the sand. Justin dwelled in South Pacific sunshine, but Irish lineage resided firmly entrenched in his every pore.
Cedar always gave him a few minutes alone with the dolphins. Her gift to him. They dove with the dolphins several mornings a week, but the few minutes always made her anxious. Glancing down she saw her fingers coiling the drawstring of her gym shorts. She smiled. Being a parent was being unable to control your instincts.
She scanned the bay, for what she didn’t know, and then she turned her attention back to the dolphins. They were readying to hunt, but this never overrode their curiosity. Beneath the clear waters three dolphins streaked for her son, their dark forms moving low over the sand in that bumping, playful, terrifyingly efficient manner that always trumpeted the fact that man was a clunky interloper in the sea.
As she watched, Justin rolled on to his back and blew three silver rings. In a wink, the dolphins redirected. Rocketing upward, each dolphin pierced its own wobbling molten ring.
Cedar laughed, took a last deep breath, and dove, morning cool waters scraping away the night’s sweat.
The entire pod was awake now. Everywhere dolphins crashed past, making antic clicks. The dolphins veered closer to Justin, nearly brushing him. Standing on the bottom he turned slow circles, the dolphins whipping in and out. He did not reach out. Over the years she had had her share of New Age customers on the boat, folks certain of a karmic human-dolphin bond; more than once she had seen that certainty shatter in the face of aggressive dolphins.
Watching Justin, she wondered if maybe the New Agers were right after all.
For the first ten minutes she surfaced for air when Justin did, but after that she came up alone. At the last, exhausted, she floated on the surface watching the dolphins leap. An old Palauan fisherman had told her dolphins leap free of the water to enjoy the silence. She doubted this was true, but you could love a fable as much as a fact.
Soon enough the early risers made their point. On some collective signal, the entire pod rocketed off for the deeps.
Cedar looked down into the water. Justin stood on the bottom. Looking up at her he crossed his arms and scuffed the sand with a fin.
She was prying off her fins on the starboard bench when he pulled himself up the ladder.
“You could teach your mother how to hold her breath like that.”
“You taught me.”
“I’ve forgotten the part about not having to breathe.”
If he heard her, she couldn’t tell. He was humming, slipping off his fins. It took her a moment to recognize the song. She had tried to introduce him to music that mattered.
As a teenager she had fronted a band. She had possessed absolutely no aptitude for instruments, but she did have a surprisingly good voice. The band had covered David Bowie songs until the songs sang in her head. They’d experienced some small success. This was during Bowie’s androgynous phase. She hoped all the pictures had been destroyed.
Well I, well I wish I could swim. Like dolphins, like a dolphin can swim.
We can be them, forever and ever. We can be heroes. Just for one day.
After the required debate and angst, they had named their band after Bowie’s song.
“You probably don’t want me to sing,” she said.
“Now would be the perfect time.”
She tried to look hurt.
“Before I was an embarrassment, I was your mother.”
“You’ll always be my mother.” He reached for the fresh water hose. Before she could speak he said, “Sparingly.”
“Perchance I repeat myself?”
“There’s a chance.”
She watched the water slough off his hairless body. He was thin, no doubt. In their e-mail exchanges, Wyatt was constantly telling her Justin was too skinny. You can’t make a man out of fish and papaya. Perhaps this was true, but it was also true you could make three men out of steak and potatoes.
She saw that their debate was pointless. Justin’s chest and back were beginning to thicken, long muscles spreading into each other like puddles.
He rinsed his fins, carefully placing them, one atop the other, under the bench. He had done this thousands of times, yet he performed every rinsing and placing with focused deliberation. On dry land her son moved slowly, always the observer. The afternoon of their arrival in Palau ten years ago she had staggered to bed, strung out and jet-lagged. When she woke she found her six-year-old son crouched in the drumming rain, watching water sluice off a palm frond twice his size. She had ushered him inside, toweling him off so that his hair stood out as if electrified, but the instant the rain stopped – as if someone had turned off a spigot -- he was out in the steamy afternoon, crouching now to watch dragon flies appear above the oily smooth mangrove waters.
These days she was an observer too. She watched her son, freezing each moment, storing them away for the departure that was coming. Wings. Every mother’s wish and heart break.
Leaning out, Justin shook the water from his hair. In Chicago his hair would have been brown, but here it was bleached by the sun, filled with highlights women broke the bank for. It had grown long. It slapped about his head like a streaked towel.
For a long moment he looked quietly into the water.
She loved that he always did that. He never forgot the magic.
Turning, he waved the hose like a baton.
“Barely used a dribble,” he said.
“Sixteen-year-olds are trainable?”
“Lying is a synonym for being nice to your mother.”
He was humming again. Stepping forward, he kissed her forehead.
“You are my hero,” he said.
Placing his hands on the railing, he swung down into the galley without touching the steps.
Walking to the bench, she bent, her hands shaking slightly.
“And we are all a work in progress,” she said to the crumpled towel beside the arranged fins.
Tonight I am lucky. I encounter a saltwater crocodile, a fair size one too, which is a happy coincidence because I am famished. I watch her make her ropy-sway way across the starlit surface, intent on her own hunt. Self-absorption is her last mistake. I pull her down and squeeze her tight, feeling her heart race and rupture. Blood spins in her slack mouth. As the last spark leaves her, I regret my choice. Large saltwater crocodiles are rare here, females rarer still.
I do not need to eat often. I expend little energy swimming, for most often I swim slowly or simply drift. Actually, I sway more than swim. When it comes to swimming, I am no marlin or tuna. I am closer to a drunk at closing time. I feed on both the living and the dead; best to have a range of palatable options. The dead, of course, don’t protest. The living creatures of the sea fight me, but they do not scream and lament and regret. In the last instant, as the water about them fills with their own wavy liquids, they accept their mistake. You, on the other hand, rarely accept your end. You deny your responsibility and your end right up to the last tick of consciousness. To the final moment, and probably on into wherever it is you may or may not go, you curse others. You curse me; you curse your gods; you curse fate. Once, a fisherman screamed his wife’s name. I wish it had been a dying oath of love, but it wasn’t. Through not insubstantial suffering, he screamed at her for making him fish at night.
You blame everyone but yourself. This explains so many of your troubles. It may be your most glaring weakness, and that’s saying something.
Animals are harder to read, but, through muscle and sinew, they speak to me in their fashion. Holding the limp crocodile, I now know she had a vested interest in this world, for she fought me with surprising strength to the very last. You see the crocodile as a mindless predator, but in our world the female crocodile is known for the vigilant care of her young. On some loamy riverbank, her restless brood of hatchlings will now be answered by something unfamiliar coming out of the dark.
I wish I could give her back her life, but mawkishness is pointless now. I eat. After I finish, I don’t descend immediately. It is a lovely night on an empty rolling sea. I drift above the reef, listening to the gravel-click of creatures feeding; gnawing, grasping, clawing, ingesting. It’s what we do. What we have always done. It doesn’t make us monsters. Overhead the stars wink. Such a lovely place we share.
I feel the tickle of outgoing tide. By the time you wake, what remains of the crocodile will be far out to sea, discovered only by descending birds.
At midnight Cedar still carried the electricity of their dolphin encounter. Justin was asleep in his cabin. She wondered if he was dreaming about the dolphins. More likely, his dreams comprised things a mother didn’t care to entertain.
Water wrapped the dock pilings gently, passing with equal delicacy along the hull of the Wendell Holmes. Even by Palau’s dreamy tropical standards it was a glorious night, a bright half moon poised like a tilted teacup in the silky black sky. She remembered sleeping on black silk. It had come with a price, but it would be nice again for a night.
The stars popped. It was a perfect night for playing the bagpipes, but she never played in the harbor. To quietly spite the members of the band formerly known as Heroes she had taken up the bagpipes when she and Justin came to Palau. Ten years later she still played terribly and she knew it. She only played out on the open ocean, where Justin could wear ear plugs and she winced alone. Still she loved the instrument for its elbows and knees look, and for the rare lovely note she wrestled from it.
She sat, sipping gin and enjoying the night, but slowly the sight of the tipped moon made her sad. Now it looked less like a teacup and more like a questioning smile. There was no turning back. She had made a promise. It was the right decision, which made things no easier.
She saluted the night with a last swirl of gin and tonic. Once a mother, forever a mother. It was the best of curses.
That afternoon, after Justin finished his schoolwork, they had made the run out to Long Drop-Off Reef, three raw Patti Jean frying chickens strung out – pink and glistening – in three identical three-foot-by-three-foot stainless steel cages on the bow. She didn’t know why, but she still strung each fryer’s stubby limbs so that they hung, spread-eagle in the center of the cage, like a goose pimply Fay Wray. In the beginning she had done it because King Kong was Justin’s favorite movie. He had been obsessed with it. They had watched King Kong on the VCR in the galley every Friday night. It was their date; Justin eating Doritos and spouting the lines a second before the actors, pushing close to her and going quiet every time at the end. It was beauty killed the beast. Even at ten, she suspected he had a thing for Naomi Watts. She had certainly engaged in a fantasy or two regarding Adrien Brody. She had a weakness for the soft-spoken, cerebral type, still tough beneath the intellect. She didn’t need a therapist to explain the attraction. Adrien Brody was the yin to the yang she had married. On more than several occasions she had entertained Adrien in her bed after the movie; her hands performing his magic, stifling her quick breaths.
In those days, when she strung up the chicken on the dock, Justin would prance about the cage banging out a drumbeat on the empty paint can he kept expressly for that purpose. He had painted the can black, with a white skull, more like a thumb print, at each compass point. The paint can was long gone, but Cedar still danced about. She did it partly to embarrass him and partly to hold on. She also did it because everyone should embrace a little prehistoric mystery.
It was beauty killed the beast, but it was life’s mundane exigencies that strangled the thrilling possibility of the impossible. One day Adrien Brody might walk down the dock. One day she might play the bagpipes beautifully. One day Justin might pick up his towel.
Nudging the lemon slice with her tongue, Cedar scanned the night sky for an incoming patch of black. Jonathan almost always returned to the Wendell Holmes for the night. Justin was seven when they found Jonathan, perched one morning on the bowsprit railing, a tiny quivering thumb of furry fruit bat. With a wingspan of three feet, Jonathan was no longer tiny. He was wickedly smart and equally smelly. Perhaps this explained why he himself was drawn to particularly malodorous people. Having located a scent he found enticing, he proceeded directly for the armpits, turning things lively. She had posted signs on the pilings near their slip, warning divers of Jonathan’s potential lack of decorum. She had put them up primarily for the benefit of Jonathan, who neither relished nor understood being swatted for his affections.
These days Jonathan slept hanging from a towel rack outside Justin’s cabin. At first Jonathan had hung from a bookshelf above Justin’s bed, but he had a habit of beating his wings in his sleep and Justin was a fidgety enough sleeper. Justin had protested bitterly when Cedar installed the towel rack outside his door, but watching her son fall asleep over school lessons, she had been firm. Jonathan hadn’t been happy with the new arrangements either. For two weeks she had smeared the towel rack with overripe banana, but Jonathan had snubbed the roost, sleeping in the jungle. When he finally returned, she knew it was not for love of bananas, but for love of Justin. Animals were like children. They knew good things.
She should turn in, but the night whispered differently, the warm wind light as a kiss. Tomorrow they had a full day; eight sorely needed customers boarding the Wendell Holmes at 7am for the trip to Long Drop-Off and, if they were lucky, an encounter with the ancient past. She had named The Wendell Holmes in honor of Oliver Wendell Holmes senior. On the rare occasion when someone asked, she explained that she admired poets and philosophers more than barristers. More often, no one cared. Divers just wanted to get underwater as fast as possible. On learning the origin of the vessel’s name, the few who were interested often opined that naming a boat after a long dead poet was different. To which Cedar politely replied that living in the past was sometimes easier. This usually proved a conversation stopper.
She inhaled the night for twenty minutes before standing, stretching, and stowing the director’s chair. The chair was a gag gift from the employees at the dive shop she had owned and run with militaristic efficiency. The shop was still there. She could see it now from the boat; dark save for the flickering fluorescent light under the porch awning. She had owned the dive shop for the first four years, long enough to decide she didn’t like being a round-the-clock slave to business. Dive charters offered more freedom, but now she needed more business. You picked your shortcomings.
Hopping to the dock, she checked the lines a last time, although she knew Justin had tied them with just the right amount of slack. On some fronts he was meticulous, more like a tad obsessive, a curse from her side of the family. The glasses in the galley cabinet were arranged in ascending height; the books on the shelf in his cabin were arranged in the same fashion.
The tension in the lines was perfect.
A man’s pleasant laughter issued from two slips away. The laughter rang in Cedar’s ears longer than necessary.
Before retiring to her cabin, she went to the stern and looked up at the stars. Her son woke clear-eyed each morning.
“Thank you,” she said.
A black smear wiped away a patch of stars. She braced herself, grabbing the railing with both hands.
Three feet of wingspan landed with an appreciable jolt.
“So,” she said, as Jonathan fussed about on her shoulder, settling himself. “I suppose you’ll require a meal along with a berth.”
Jonathan rode regally on her shoulder into the galley, where she gave him a banana. Superstitious boaters believed bananas were bad luck, but Cedar believed it was worse luck to have a hungry fruit bat on your hands.
Jonathan accepted the banana as his due. He was much like a teenager. His eyes were clear, too.
He ate lustily, depositing drooly banana bits down Cedar’s front. Already the galley was starting to smell like a high school locker room.
“You’d fill yourself up faster if you splattered less,” she said, reaching into a cabinet to pluck two cereal bowls for breakfast. She grabbed a small plate too. “You can share a papaya with Justin in the morning, but only because you’re impossibly charming.”
Justin’s name saw Jonathan’s pointy ears prick up, but then he returned to eating.
Outside Justin’s cabin, she lifted Jonathan from her shoulder and placed him on the towel rack.
He swung upside down and hung there, looking at her accusingly.
Bending to the bat she whispered, “I thought it was elephants who never forget.”
Slipping into her berth, her gaze went to the tiny triangular shelf beside the porthole. The shelf was only big enough for her phone, her book of the moment, and the photograph in the handmade frame. Salt air and the passing years had seen the frame curl up at the edges. The glue beneath the shells was acceding now too; now and again a tiny shell dropped like an acorn. In the photo Justin, maybe seven, held a conch shell to his ear, a happy light in his eyes. Mommy, the sea is talking to me.
For some reason she saw Jonathan’s accusatory eyes.
“I refuse to apologize to man or bat,” she said, closing her eyes. “It’s a mother’s prerogative to live in the past.”
In the darkness my brethren take to the chicken as I once took to the sailors, before I became more cautious. The oceans remain a big place, but people cannot go missing willy nilly these days. In the days of sailing ships, leaving shore was dropping off the map. I had a field day. When a rare vessel happened by after the fact, splintered timbers and floating debris could be accounted for by so many things. For the sea farers of yore, disaster arrived regularly and in myriad forms.
Today your vessels are far sturdier and tracked incessantly by technology. A ship that disappears on a calm day draws attention. I must control my impulses, wait for auspicious conditions. Rogue waves? The perfect storm? The Bermuda Triangle?
Maybe. Maybe not.
The greasy spoor lacing through the darkness stirs me, begets a tinge of salivation. I watch my fellows push thoughtlessly into the cage through the one way funnel. Again and again they are trapped by their gluttony, worming through the funnel’s wide end to get at the feast, only to discover the funnel’s narrow end offers no retreat. Five of them already float in the three cages, gorging on the last of their respective chicken without a care in the world. In this case, their obliviousness is amusing, like watching a toddler closely pursued by a mindful adult, tottering toward a fall. Without fail, these particular cages have returned my companions safely. But even with these cages I feel a touch of hesitancy and trepidation. If I have learned anything in my long years it’s that there are so many exceptions to every rule. But with these cages the risk of exception is worth the opportunity for a full stomach. In the ocean pickings are slim and growing slimmer, and my fellows do not possess my hunting abilities. Drifting, I cheer them as they tear and gobble.
In the beginning, only this boat visited the reef. Now there are several boats; and soon there will be more. This is how you work. I observeevery boat closely, the individual lines, the singular tone of engine, the construction of the cages that sink into the deeps at night. Most of the cages are chicken wire and badly rusted, the chickens floating loose inside, spinning slow cartwheels. I have crushed more than a few of these slipshod cages, the wire dissolving under the first slight pressure. Perhaps because of my own longevity, anything that smacks of rush offends me. In these instances I help myself to some chicken, but not too much. I allow my companions the lion’s share.
The original boat, her cages are stainless steel; the chickens are always tidily and humorously affixed. I could crush these cages too, but I let them be. The stainless steel cages -- three of them, never more -- sink down every third day. I also appreciate restraint.
Almost everything about her boat is different. She idles the engine back a hundred yards before she reaches the reef, and then kills the engine entirely as she nears, drifting up expertly on a mooring buoy. Most of the time her boat disgorges divers, but sometimes she arrives without passengers, just her and the boy with the similar airiness and scent. Occasionally she comes in rough weather, when the other boats opt for safe harbor. Often they go home before nightfall, but sometimes they stay, rocking out the night. These are my favorite times. I confess on a few of these occasions I have risen into the shallows, reaching out to gently touch the hull, tracing its shell-like smoothness with a pleasant shudder. It is fantasy; but why not? Rarer still, I have ignored my own rule and broken the surface. Several times, floating at a distance on still nights, I have heard the keening tumbling across the water. Despite hundreds of years of memories, the first time I heard the notes it took me some time to identify the melancholy sound.
A sound like memory. And heartbreak.
The woman plays the bagpipes terribly, without melody and only the barest trace of tune, but the music swells from her heart. If I knew how, I would smile. But it would be a bittersweet smile, for a woman who cannot carry a tune can be as sad as a woman who plays like a prodigy.
I know the captain of this vessel is a woman because I see her when she dives, but I would know this without the hazy visual acuity I possess. I cannot explain this to you. I do not understand it entirely myself. But when she is near I feel it as clearly as if you whispered “woman” in my ear, if I had an ear; a settling comfort, a balm of serenity, a soothing stroking, and something unconquerable and fierce too. I like how it feels. A steady, quiet strength; an intentness with limitless resolve. Resolve that will be needed.
The weaker sex? Now there is a joke without equal.
The woman and the boy, both with the sea green eyes, they soothe me. I do not feel what you call emotion, but I feel.
It is our connection and your hope.
Author / Speaker