Reef of Plagues
by JOEANN HART
These tourists are nothing but trouble, slapping and grinding through the water in their power cruisers, searching for a place to snorkel. Better luck milking a fish, we tell them. They give us the rough side of their tongues. It was not so long ago we were adjusting their masks, leading them to where sapphire light shone through branched cathedrals, the coral luminous as jewels. Our precious riches. Don’t touch, we say, again and again, this is not a treasure hunt. The reef is still the source of our living, for those of us who are left, those who survived the first few seasons of sinking tourism. Who wants to visit a Hades of bleached bones?
“Hey!” a bright pink man shouts from a vessel that has snuck up on us. “Hey!”
We look at one another to see who’s game. Our broad backs are to the sun, men and women alike, our bellies to the rubber boats as we scoop water samples into vials, scrape slime from lifeless coral, and take the reef’s temperature as we would a dear child’s. Out in deep water, buoys do all this and more, sending messages through the clear air to the office computers. But the sensors can only monitor the decline, not mourn it as we do. For years, the coral has been fading like a shadow on the water, but no help came until tourists threatened to become an endangered species. The scientists do not discuss what will happen if the reef dies altogether, but we can read the signs. We know our fate.
The pink man believes the problem is that we cannot hear him. He inches closer, one keen eye on his depth finder. Sophisticated electronics are not magic; it is hubris to navigate a vessel that size in shallow water. Or just plain folly. Even we in our inflatable dinghies cannot always use our outboards and must pole and push with our oars. But that is not our job to tell him. Not anymore.
The man tests his luck and gets quite close. The cruiser begins panting in neutral, then suddenly he is on his deck waving at us. “Excuse me! Over here! Got wax in your ears?” He laughs. We groan. No one wants to deal with this man in the loud print shirt. We are sick of explaining the obvious to the oblivious. It is too damn hot.
“What?” one of us answers. We know, of course, what he wants, but we pretend innocence. We lean back and drink deeply of our canteens as we look up at him.
“What happened to this place?” the man asks. He takes off his baseball cap and sunglasses and wipes his boneless face with his shirt. He is wide and top-heavy, like his black-hulled boat, which flies an American flag. His red hair is almost plucked clean, so with his sunburnt skin he looks like a tufted bloodworm. His two pastel children, slick with sunscreen—and we hope it is not the toxic slop that poisons the reef—stare at us. A pale woman, the man’s wife, we guess, looks down into her wineglass, searching. An old man, a crumpled version of the pink man, lies on a lounge chair with closed eyes and an open book.
Do we pretend to more innocence? We do.
“Happened? What do you mean, happened?” another one of us asks. We no longer have to be nice to tourists, so we’re not. We would not be welcome in their country after all. We are nobody to them. Besides, the sick reef is their fault. That is what our bosses hint at, without naming names. They say our coral is dying because the world burns too much oil, and it is sure as hell not us doing the burning. Every day, we must scrounge gas for our scooters to get us to the dock for work.
The man presses his stomach against the rail, and as he leans forward to talk to us his skin flushes. Like the seaworm, he should not be out in the sun. “We’ve been going around in circles. Where’s the coral? The fish? I told my kids it would be like swimming in a high-end aquarium.”
We all look at one another as if we haven’t a clue. One of us peers into the water, then sits bolt upright and shouts “Great Zeus, the reef is dead!” We all look horrified into the sea as if we don’t know shit.
The man cannot tell if we are pulling his soft pink leg.
“I give up,” the woman says, and we wonder if this is her first time outdoors. On stormy days, when we hang around the office, our bosses show us videos from cameras miles below the surface and we marvel at the strange greenish-white creatures at the very bottom of the sea. That is the color of her skin. “I told you we should have gone to Atlantis instead,” she says to the horizon.
“These kids need to experience real nature, not a water park,” he tells her. “I don’t want them to grow up sheltered and afraid of every living thing.” He pauses as if considering. “Like you.”
We shake our heads. You cannot speak to your woman like that or there will be a price to pay. He has a sickly smile on his face as she whispers something to him we cannot quite hear over the hissing of the surf, either “Fuck you” or “I’m warning you.” She finishes her glass of wine, turns to the cabin and disappears into the cavernous space. The children pay no mind to either of them. They have blue flippers on their feet and snorkeling masks in their little hands, ready to receive the world’s blessings. We look past them, squinting into the strong sun to watch a pelican drop headlong like Icarus into the sea. We wait for him to rise in glory, a feasting bird, but he comes up with an empty beak. There are so few fish. The charter boats must go far out to sea now while our people hold empty nets on the shore.
“What have you done to the coral?” the man asks, pointing at our equipment. “The last time I was here it was a tropical wonderland.”
What have we done? We? We stare at him blankly. Some of us go back to work. After this, we have to get ourselves to Half Moon Bay, where our bosses think they saw signs of black band disease in a healthy colony. They want us to suit up and dive with them for coral samples. Time is not on our side.
“I want to see the fishes, Daddy,” says the little girl.
“I want to see a shipwreck,” says the boy.
Ah, so would we, on both accounts. Rusted hulks and snapped hulls used to sit where they landed on the reef, left as a warning to other mariners. We would collect some fine things from those boats. Our homes are made with so much salvage that the priests joke that we live in salvation. But now the tourist board, grown nervous and defensive, tows the vessels out to sea before we can get to them. They say tourists do not want to see that nature’s power is greater than their own.
“You must have been here a long time ago,” one of us says. “This part of the reef has been dead or dying for a good eight years.”
“What do you mean dead?” the man asks. “Have you ever seen coral? It’s just a rock. A colorful rock.”
It is alive, or was, we try to tell him. Tiny animals, polyps. They grow a shell, creating hard and beautiful homes, and live on algae. We do not waste breath explaining symbiosis to this man, but tell him how the algae determines the color of coral, which grows in many shapes. We know them all by name. Elliptical Star, Boulder Brain, Corky Seafinger, Mustard Hill, Yellow Pencil. We learned the language of sea life when we were guides; now we must learn the language of sea death. Not just bleaching, but disease. Yellow Band, White Band, Black Band. White Plague, White Pox. The reef is so sick it can no longer give birth to the tiny organisms from which spring the great chains of being. Now, clear jellyfish float like dead spirits through a labyrinth of thighbones and skulls. “Warmer water stresses the polyps and they eject the algae,” we say. “That is the bleaching that makes them look like skeletons. Sometimes they heal themselves, but lately, no. They die in a shroud of slime.”
“Polyps?” the man says. “I know all about those. I had four polyps removed from my colon last year. Benign, totally benign. I had two removed a few years before that. If I can grow new polyps, so can this reef.”
We wonder if he is now pulling our legs. There is no way of knowing. Their brains are as dense as conch meat. We pause at our labors and inhale the salty breath of the ocean.
“We wish we could help you,” one of us finally says, although we do not wish that at all. “We have work to do. Parts of the reef on the other side of the island are still alive. Go there.”
“I don’t have time to motor all the way around the island,” the man explains, as if we simply misunderstand his problem. “We’re on a tight schedule. Today’s the day for snorkeling.”
Music comes blaring from the cabin. It is the woman’s way of getting her man’s attention, or it is her way of drowning him out. “ABBA!” we exclaim. “Cassandra,” a song that is no “Dancing Queen,” but sounds good to our ears. We tire of calypso, playing everywhere for the tourists. We hum the refrain and continue our work. The man goes to shout into the cabin and we forget about him, then we forget about our work when we find a sea turtle tangled in plastic filament. We pull him close with a grapple and cut the fishing gear away. But it is too late. Too late even to eat him and give his death meaning. It never ends. Last week we found a bloated manatee in a ghost net, his soft whiskered face nibbled away by the fishes.
The man returns. The music has stopped.
“Taking those water samples isn’t going to help anything, if you don’t mind me saying so.” The man says this with such a smile, we can tell he’s figured out how to fix our problem. “You should be spending your time building the coral back up. We visitors spend a lot money here, you can afford to bring in new polyps. Get some biotech company to engineer ones that can tolerate warmer water.” He grips the railing tight with satisfaction. We look at one another. Create a new species? We hadn’t thought of that. Maybe that’s because we are not gods.
Speaking of the divine. The cabin door opens and out comes not his wife but a near-goddess, a young woman at one with the elements. She walks on deck as if she’d rather fly, but keeps her ravishing feet on earth as a courtesy to us lesser beings. Before she puts on her sunglasses, she pauses to stare at us with her wide-set eyes, gray as deep water.
“It’s out of our hands,” one of us says to the man. “We can’t bring back the dead.”
The children have abandoned their masks and flippers and are eating some sort of sticky ambrosia that the young woman, who must be their babysitter and not a goddess after all, is bestowing on them. She looks at us as if she would like to share the bounty, but we are too far away for her beneficence. Just as well. It is surely sweet, but sugar sits sour on our tongues.
One of us starts rolling up some herb. We can’t seem to let him alone.
“What are you doing?” he asks, rising to the bait. “You can’t do that here.”
We light up the spliff and hand it around, leaning from one raft to another. The man gathers his children before they can smell the sweet smoke and pushes them into the cabin. The babysitter looks at us with longing.
“It’s just Mother Nature,” we explain to the man, smiling.
“It’s a drug,” he says. “And I won’t have it around my family. I think it might be time to leave this island.”
Some of us, whose hands are not busy with work or weed, applaud. This makes pink man purple. His throat is like a dark mast and we wonder if he might burst. The babysitter steps towards him, and even though she says nothing, he takes a breath. Then another. “The hell with this pimple of Caribbean dirt,” he says calmly, pulling his dignity around him. He turns away just as the wind shifts a bit. The boat adjusts, making him unsteady on his feet, and he trips on the lounge where the old man lies. The book slips to the deck. The old man does not wake and we wonder if he is even alive. When the babysitter bends down for the book, pink man, still trying to get his balance, bumps into her, knocking off her sunglasses. A lens splits open and we feel the crack right through our hearts. “Sorry,” he says to her. “You’ve got to stop being underfoot all the time.” He retreats up to the helm, muttering. She picks up her glasses and squints at him through the empty frame in a way that makes us shiver.
Rosy-gray cumuli appear on the water’s horizon as the man puts his cruiser in gear. We are losing time, but we wait to see if the great booby can turn his boat around in such shallow waters. Sweat bleeds from his pores, but he does it. We have to give him credit; it was not an easy task. When his stern faces us, we read the name. Odyssey, Annapolis, Maryland.
“This man is very far from home,” we say.
As the boat motors off, it leaves fingers of dark oil on the water. We watch him head out the wrong channel, but we find our tongues lie heavy in our mouths. His depth finder will not tell him he is in trouble until it is too late, and soon enough, he doesn’t have enough water to piss in. We hear the lifeless reef scrape his bottom and hold him tight. We go back to work. We are very busy collecting samples. By the time he bucks his vessel back and forth to free himself, there is a small puncture in his hull. Good luck with that, we say to ourselves. Good bloody luck. He leaves in a cloud of reeking fumes and we hear him curse the heavens. He is a man of poor judgment but more creative with his words than we would have guessed.
“How far do you think he’ll get?” we ask one another.
“Too far for us to help. Much too far.”
We watch the babysitter, regal in her beauty, standing like a statue on the transom of the power cruiser. As the man struggles to navigate towards open water, she unties her tunic from behind her neck and pulls it over her head. She stands before the reef like an Aphrodite in a silvery bathing suit, born on the half shell. She is slim-legged and smooth as a smelt. A thin gold belt embraces her waist like a wedding ring. She places her palms together and touches the tips of her fingers to her rosy lips, then raises her arms and dives like a marlin to windward, displacing a perfect arc of water that captures the sunlight. Drops splash on the old man and he sits up, blinking. Her body moves swiftly through the turquoise temple of water, gliding just beneath the surface. Her hair floats, then submerges, as she goes deeper, dissolving into the sea like salt. The old man stands with difficulty and raises a palsied hand. The wind stirs the water so that she is no longer visible, but we know she is there because small ecstatic fish leap at her approach. Love water, we hear them sing. Love the water! Our hearts are high with excitement, beating hard, and we open our arms to accept her blessings. Daughter of the mighty sea, she’s come to save us, or she’s come to destroy us. Either way, we hold our breath and wait to see what will rise.
This story, under a different title and slightly altered, was written as a part of “Reading the Currents. Stories from the 21st Century Sea,” a project by the International Literature Festival Berlin 2017 in cooperation with the Science Year 2016*17 Seas and Oceans (an initiative by the Federal Ministry of Education and Research, Germany). It was presented at the 2017 Festival.
JoeAnn Hart is the author of the true crime memoir, Stamford ’76: A True Story of Murder, Corruption, Race, and Feminism in the 1970s, which is forthcoming from University of Iowa Press in April 2019, and the novels Float and Addled. Her short fiction, essays, and articles have appeared in a wide variety of publications, including the Boston Globe Magazine, Design New England, Orion, Solstice, and the anthology Black Lives Have Always Mattered.