It would be easy to say that we were a people better made to weather the changes, but that history would be a revision. We were lucky, that’s all. Lucky to make our home in a place that kept us separate, off the coast, high enough to stay above the waters. I try to remember that, and to remind the rest. I don’t tell the stories of all those years when the world was in flux and the ocean rose around us and cut our oval island into the two hills that jut now from the sea like the masts and rigging of a sinking ship. I tell instead of when the bluebottles came to us. How we took them as our totem—the twisted, quivering, tentacles spread in a halo around the blue-glass sail. And I tell the story of who we were then, who I was then, before we were set adrift.
The Sail (pneumatophore)
That fall, when the jellyfish first appeared in droves on our beaches, I was an eleven-year-old girl, and I was listless. The creature’s misfortune was my opportunity. My obsession had for years been horses, and I grew up tending the three black Arabians my parents kept on their farm that stretched down the east end of the island’s largest hill, but that summer I’d fallen in love, from a distance, with a much older boy, Bryan, who helped on my uncle’s lobster boat. It happened one afternoon when I watched him save my father’s mutt, Delilah, after she slipped and fell into the water between the dock and their boat. Bryan sheltered the dog and tread water until my Uncle pulled her aboard by her collar, despite being crunched between the rolling boat and a dock piling by every swell. He worked without a shirt for weeks after that, and I watched the way he wore the bruises on his shoulders from the blows like trophies.
So, I was left pining, and desperate for some new passion that might move me closer to the boy’s ocean and away from my parents’ island, and then the bluebottle jellyfish were cast up by each high tide for a week leading up to the new moon. They weren’t jellyfish in truth, as I would soon tell anyone who’d listen, not those scyphozoa jellies but hydrozoas—each a colony unto itself.
My uncle, a lonely man, may have been the first to see them as he sat up drinking and jigging squid off the back of his boat anchored outside the harbor jetty. He told me that their bioluminescent sails floated on the water like lamps lit with St. Elmo’s Fire. By the morning they were left, dying and dead, in a line stretching along the high tide mark. The town council shut down the public beach after the first few curious children and dogs were stung by the wisp-tentacles that were often too thin and pale to see against the sand. I remember walking along the soft black sand by the dunes and watching scientists from the mainland poke and prod them. A gang of us children followed the researchers as they carried specimens in buckets to and from their vehicles, asking questions. We learned the names for them: bluebottle, Portuguese Man-of-War, Siphonophora.
The sheriff soon chased us off, so we gathered in the lee of the dunes and watched the scientists work. And we came to a quick consensus there that we liked that first name—bluebottle. It seemed so much prettier than the others, and brought to mind the rare, blue sea glass that we found on occasion when combing the beaches for flotsam and jetsam. That night enough of us must have passed it along to our parents that it stuck, or maybe it was a choice made by the town council, already hoping for a new way to stretch the summer-tourist season a bit. Later, when I was a grown woman and tourism had been forgotten and we’d recognized the bluebottles’ portent, another man I loved, a fisherman raised in New Zealand, told me that this was never the North Atlantic name for them, but came from his South Pacific. When the talk of closing the harbor began, he took passage aboard the next boat out, hoping to return to his ocean, in time. Now, in my old age, watching the new storms through the porthole of glass I leave uncovered as my ancestors did when their winter gales arrived, I see the trees bend and the storm surge pile-up around our hills, and I wonder whether he might have made it home.
The bluebottles and speculation on whether they were a one-off-bloom—a phenomenon (as many of the scientists guessed) or if they would return (as I promised myself), were discussed in the paper and in the Grinning Turtle Pub all through that first winter. I spent weekends reading all about their four specialized organisms living in a commune. The sail and the gut below it each its own being, as was each tentacle—be it one made for stinging or for sex. I had plenty of time to read and to pine for that fisherboy, who had left for a welding job in a mainland shipyard.
When the date the bluebottles had washed up came again, I convinced my parents to let me spend the night with my bachelor uncle on his boat, along with his promise not to drink liquor, only coffee and beer. The dogfish were in, and we pulled them up while we waited. I worried when he gutted the sharks and cut out their long brown livers, about the tremors I’d seen in his hands earlier in the night, but he knew how to keep the cocktail of beer and coffee in his blood just right, and he slipped the knife along their stomachs and spines easily.
“A sharp knife will keep you safe when you’re cutting,” he told me.
When I began nodding off, he gave me a mug of his strong black coffee. I choked it down and chewed and swallowed the sluice of grounds at the bottom, not knowing any better. While we fished, I kept my tired eyes on where I could just make out the horizon in the half-moon light. They didn’t come that night, and I cried myself to sleep in my bed in the morning, knowing I wouldn’t be able to miss another day in school and doubting my faith in the bluebottles’ return.
My doubts were justified as the fall turned to winter. Not many people could stomach our winters, but I lived for them, and I miss their bleak quiet now, such a contrast to this monotony of keening wind. Then, the seasons gave me more room to spread out. I was, even then, selfish in regards to the island. I saw the fishing fleets off with pleasure, even when so many men and women I knew well left with them. I watched the seals come huffing into the harbor and the whales migrate past—huge things that appeared and left with no more than spits of white spray and the occasional color of a back or tail hunched or thrust above the waves. I rode my mother’s mare slowly down snow-covered Main Street and was alone on the road, passing the grey-shingled hotels and shops that would stay shuttered until late-spring. I fished in the surf with my father, careful not to let the waves top my waders.
Along with the hotels and shops, almost all of the diners and inns and bars that opened for the tourist season shut down come winter, with no way to make a profit off the three hundred or so year-rounders, so we ate all our meals on the farm, the three members of my family around the kitchen table. My uncle, who’d been at the table with us other winters, was forced by dwindling lobster hauls and the expense of his drinking to join up with a trawler from the mainland that hauled up skate to be ground up for pet food. The crews that went out after swords and trawled the Canyon for the deep-sea fish had no need of an old alcoholic.
So it was just the three of us, and after the first few weeks of the bluebottles failed return, I was forbidden from talking about them. We lived so near each other in the winter. It was inevitable that a chattering child, such as I was, would rub their nerves raw with eager lectures stolen from library books. They worried my new obsession was unhealthy, though they’d been excited too when the anniversary came around.
We ate venison and roots and eggs and whatever shellfish my father brought home when low tide fit with his farm work, and my mother’s belly grew rounder and rounder with what would be my new brother.
She had all sorts of particular and exotic cravings. I remember a few—grapefruit, ribs, kiwis, and Chinese-take-out crab rangoon. So we sent to the mainland much more often for the processed foods and out of season produce—luxuries even then, now just sense-memories. The mark-ups at the grocery came down a little when the tourists left, but their selection grew more and more limited as the winter wore on. She and I would pick up her special orders from the ferry, where they would be waiting in a heap of small green boxes along with our neighbors’ groceries. If it was sprinkling rain, as was much more common than snow, when my mother opened the box to check its contents, the dry ice that kept the perishables cold would send pillars of smoke skyward when it came in contact with the water dripping from the brim of her hat.
We said our hello’s to the neighbors at the ferry then retreated to the warmth and security of our house on the hillside, as they did to theirs. I saw other children at school, and sometimes one friend or another would come home with me for the afternoon or I’d spend the night elsewhere. We islanders shared so many things, our lives were all similar, but each little family was cut off from the others by the gray and the cold of winters. We didn’t know yet how we would need each other, just exchanged pleasantries, made jokes about the quiet without all the tourists, checked our mail at the post office, and moved off.
The Sex (gonozooids)
That March of the second spring after they first arrived, the bluebottles were still absent, and I’d begun to forget my earlier fixation. My father woke me from sleep early one morning by pinching my toes.
“There’s an early calf about to be born,” he said. “I could use your help.”
My mother was late in her pregnancy with my brother, and I think my father knew the calving wouldn’t go well, and wanted to save her from it. The birth, from what I’ve seen since, was an easy one. The cow lowed long and loud, and, guided by my father’s hands, the calf slipped out onto the hay. I could see at once by the way it rested, unmoving, that something was wrong. It was fully formed and had none of the signs or deformities that might point to a problem, no extra head or exposed organ, or umbilical cord wrapped around its neck. It was just a slick, dead thing.
“Take the mother out,” said my father.
I heard him slapping the calf’s body as I led its mother away.
At breakfast, I sat and waited to see what he would tell my mother about the calving. He had a brow that was always furrowed, but he was a light man who was rarely angry or depressed for long. I didn’t know if he’d be able to say anything, and my mother would have no reason to ask since the birth had been so unexpected. I was thinking of a way I could save him and break the news when the telephone rang.
My mother started to lift her heavy body from the chair, but my father waved her back and got up to answer. It was news of the bluebottles, they’d washed up in the night. We piled into the car and drove to the beachhead to see. It was the same scene as before. This time, others were already walking right among them. We went and joined the crowd—we all had shoes on and felt safer stepping around the things. I knew so much more about them than I had, and, eager to show off, I picked one up by its sail. My mother shouted a warning, but I smiled and held the bluebottle toward her. Its tentacles were longer than my body and draped along the ground, but I kept my legs clear of them.
“The tops have no stingers,” I told her.
My father laughed and bent to look at what I held.
“Take it,” I said. “it’s like a balloon.”
“Pretty things,” he said, taking it gently from me.
He held it with two hands, like at any moment it might make a break for it in the manner of a just-caught fish. I stepped to the next and grabbed it the same way, thinking to give my mother one to hold. Hot pain shot up my arm and I screamed and tried to drop it, but my hand clenched with that pain and I couldn’t let go. I was terrified. It shouldn’t have stung. I’d learned that about them. My mother rushed to me, grabbed my elbow, and pried my fingers apart. The bluebottle fell to the ground, its tentacles draped over my sneakers. I kicked at them, crying.
“Show me your hand,” said my mother.
She turned my wrist, and I saw the angry welts crisscrossing my palm. Now that I’ve handled so many, I know what must have happened—that there were some thin, near invisible stinging tentacle arms cast up over the sail by the tumble through the surf. I was right, though, that the big organism of the sail had no need for weapons. Its job is to navigate currents and catch the wind.
I thought of all those little venom soaked harpoons lodged in my hand, those sprung nematocysts, and I trembled. I’d read that they could kill, though I knew the few lines of stings across my palm wouldn’t be enough. The pain persisted, hot as a cut.
“Should we wash it out in the waves?” my mother asked my father, who had joined her in examining my palm.
“Could get sand in it,” he answered, “For jellyfish they say use vinegar if you’ve got it, and piss if you don’t.”
I would read this too, later, but it was the advice for a jellyfish sting, and the books I would read in the following years explained that these stings were of a different sort, and wouldn’t be soothed that way, just spread if there were any of the tentacle-cells left.
“Can you pee, honey?” asked my mother. “You can go behind the dune and it should help things.”
I shook my head no.
“I’ll give it a go. I’ve got a lot better aim anyway,” said my father. And he began to unbuckle his belt. I stood, shocked, looking to my mother, who watched him and seemed to be trying not to laugh. He took my wrist in one hand and turned the palm to face up, and with the other he went to reach in his pants.
“Just turn your head and cover your eyes,” he said gently.
I did, and in a moment I felt the warm stream of his piss run across my hand and off my fingers. It smelled sour. I shouted at him to stop as the burning spread with the treatment, but kept my other hand over my eyes.
“Ok, ok,” he said and released my hand. I heard a steady hiss as he turned his stream into the sand.
When the sound stopped, I blubbered “Can I open them now?” and my parents laughed and herded me home. I cried on the drive, not from the continued pain, but from my stupidity that would cost precious time with the bluebottles, and I held my angry red hand out in front of me, trying not to look at it. My parents, trying to assuage my sobs, reminded me that the animals had clogged the beach for a week the previous year, and that I could go look at them again in the coming days. But they were wrong.
By the next morning they were gone, swept back out to sea by a rainstorm that blew in that night. The island would learn that about them, that they were tough to predict and might stay for a week or longer or be gone an hour after the tide that brought them turned. Still, we could count on them returning as we could nothing else when there stopped being a spring to trigger mating and birth and flowering and new growth after a barren winter. We learned to look to the bluebottles’ arrivals and departures mark the seasons after our weather—our fall, winter, spring, and summer—leveled and became just one climate of storms and the spaces between them.
The bluebottles’ third appearance came the following November. My left hand, where I’d been stung, was hatched with red burn scars, but they looked somehow natural, like new creases that would heal into the landscape of the old.
The fishing fleet was in our harbor, and the men and women who worked it had spent the last week offloading the catch, re-supplying for the next trip out, and spending the money they’d earned in the quayside bar that had been opened out of season just for them. It was a flurry of activity in the slow-season, and every day when school let out I went with my classmates to watch the catch being lifted out of the ships’ holds. My mother was at home with my baby brother, so my father would walk down and pick me up at the docks just before dinnertime every day. But first he left me and went up into the Harbor Bar to roust out my uncle. My uncle was my mother’s blood, but my father was still gentle and patient with him as he eased him into the car and then out again at our home. I sat up front with my father, and stretched out behind us my uncle whistled sad sounding songs and tapped his foot in time on the back of my seat.
The night before the bluebottles’ return, he stayed long enough to shave and shower on steady ground one last time before he left harbor, and to eat his sister’s fried chicken, which was the same recipe their mother had cooked for their father before each trip to sea.
He was almost sober by the time dinner was over, and he gave us all a kiss, even my father and baby brother, before heading back to his shipmates.
The crews of the six-boat fleet were still in the bar when word spread that the bluebottles had been pushed ashore in the night. I was down at the water with my mother and father, standing a good ways up the beach and watching the last few creature-colonies wash up. We watched as the crowd of fisherfolk spilled from the bar and down the hill of Main Street, crossed the jetty, and made their way to the line of bluebottles.
My uncle has told me what happened that night and morning. How the bad fishing had left the crews surly and dangerous, and there had been more fights than usual. Knives had come out on three occasions, though they were, he said, more for show and never inflicted more than slashes to arms or chests—no one trying to truly drive the points home. One fisherwoman, he told me, the deck-boss on the ship Levanter, knocked her greenhorn out cold with a whiskey glass when he made a pass at her, then stitched up the wound in his scalp herself. Sometime after all the fighting, as my uncle remembered it, when the liquor was put up and coffee was being served around, someone made the suggestion. In the years to come, when that night took on its legend, no one who was there remembered whose idea it was, but I imagine it must have been my Uncle Daniel, because he was the first to see those bluebottles glowing on top of the water.
The fisherfolk walked past all of us who had come down to the beach. Their stony faces were comical, especially for the children who had watched them swearing and smoking the past week as they kept a depressing tally of the few bushels of fish coming up over the sides of their ships. My uncle stopped just in front of us. He ruffled my hair and gave me a wink before scowling again. His knuckles were all split open and caked in dried blood and his hair was matted with old sweat. They took off jackets or pulled out handkerchiefs and wrapped them around their hands—word of my stings had spread in the eight months that had passed. They kept their boots and pants and shirts on.
Casually, here and there along the beach, they walked down to the bluebottles, picked one or two up by their sails, and walked into the water. The waves weren’t big, but they turned and walked backwards when they came to the surf so that the long tentacles weren’t tossed up against their bodies any more than was necessary. Here and there one cursed aloud when a tentacle did come in contact with some exposed skin. They waded out past the breakers, a hundred feet or so, until they were chest deep in the water, then let go of the bluebottles, and stepped a few feet to the side before they made their way back in for another trip.
I watched them do this, and I had no idea the role they and those like them would play in the time to come. Even after we closed our port to outsiders, they would set out from it—sometimes to bring back fish to supplement our stores, but more often for darker deeds that called back to our history of pirates and witches and wreckers and wars. Their role has, perhaps, been the most difficult and the best suited for such hard women and men. They’ve made us safer, for certain, and they’ve gone out across the water to find things and to bring them back. Things are easier now, and we need them less of late, but I remember—we should remember—their role and that they were the ones who first set the bluebottles back to sea.
We watched them work and my father shook his head and laughed.
“The things will be thrown right back up on shore, if not right here a hundred yards down the beach,” he said. And, still, he seemed pleased by their quixotic actions.
We would improve our methods at this ceremony in the years to come, but that third year they washed up we were just lucky. The tides were right and there was enough of an offshore wind to keep them from drifting back in. Seeing this, my father and the other men and women joined them. My mother held me back when I tried to join and told me that the water would be over my head before I was past the breakers. In no more than an hour the hydrozoa armada had left our beach and was sailing off to someplace else, so many beings working in their roles to keep the whole alive and drifting out on the open ocean.