From Issue I (2016)
by JEFFREY FLANNERY
FEW IN THIS TOWN have ever seen the ocean. In fact, far easier for them to imagine the more distant and exotic plains of Africa, the dust of which is blown around the world to kindle Midwestern sunsets and litter the farmers’ windowsills, than to comprehend such a thing as deeply liquid and darkly immense as the sea. The African plains, much like the Midwestern fields and prairies, offer a foothold on this earth: they bend to shovel and sweat, project a flat and steady existence that in some ways can be trusted. The ocean with its dark veneer and forbidding deep is not intuitively understood and so not trusted. Yet for billions of years, from its waters, from its depths, life viewed the world through the ocean’s dense and cloudy lens. We haven’t the faintest conception of what the ocean looks like down in its depths. We only know what we see, and so for the most part we don’t know the sea. And this vast tiding mother-of-all returns our disinterest. So how hard is it for a person raised on these ordained plains—a person who has dug up the rich earth and dutifully planted his crops, who has looked out across endless fields that he has cultivated under his geometries, who has diverted streams, dammed rivers, and cut roads at his will and for his purpose—how hard is it for this landlocked person to believe that the earth was not, in fact, created to support human life? And so how hard is it then for him to truly comprehend the sea?
She, on the other hand, lives by the ocean. Which is to say, she lives by its rules. She has lived by the breath and pulse of the ocean ever since, as little more than a child, she realized that even here in this Midwestern town, deep in the land that is the furthest from any seashore, there is an ocean below her. Embedded in the rock of her grandfather’s quarry, she discovered the thousands of jellies floating through these layers of ancient sediment. When she separated the loose layers of shale that housed them, they were not dead at all but came flooding out towards her as if freed from five hundred million years of static captivity. They were in such numbers and in such density that she dreamed for many months of the floating black jellies falling upon her out of the darkness of her sleep.
LIKE THE SEA, the sky is hospitable only at its very edge. Some days the Midwestern sky is a calm flawless blue without depth or substance. Then there are the days when the sea above roils, fissures, and explodes with blinding flashes, releasing the load of its lakes, drowning the dusty ground in a pelting rage, punishing it with hail or covering it with snow. Braced between the barns and silos, surrounded by the faithful oak trees, the farmers ride out the fury like fisherman, each homestead an ark, a weathered and experienced vessel that has made it through these storms before.
When she had the chance, she took to the air and left the land above those dead and long-stilled oceans to study the waters on which the living seas appear. At first, through lecture and textbook, she traced the perfect explanations for waves and clouds, currents and coastlines, evolution of fins, eyes, and shell formations. But she ached to see and touch the stinging imperfections of the world, to seek out the patterns that mathematics pointed to but could not fully reveal.
BENEATH THIS SHIFTING, upturned sea mirage, the earth on which this small town was built is an old but regular patch of ground. Low-lying hills are painted on the horizon, but these rises are tired and worn, their exposed edges and rocky extremes ground down, softened by the countless arrivals and departures of the seasons. This is a place that knows too well the tiring but ceaseless march towards death. Seasons are the cycles that bring life from death, but it is not an unending cycle. With each turn from winter to spring the struggle intensifies, the miracle lessens, faith recedes.
She discovered that the most exciting objects of study, such as the great white shark or the leviathan blue whale, were also the most rare and that the researchers dedicated to these beasts spent their time waiting, and waiting. She had neither time nor patience for this. So she sought out what she could see and study in abundance. She followed the blooms and flows of the common jellies, brainless clumps of gelatin unchanged for millions of years. These beautiful soul blobs have survived ice ages, tepid seas, meteor strikes, mass extinctions, and now, man. They have shut down nuclear power stations, disabled our most powerful submarines, rendered entire nations dark and powerless. While other species have given it their all learning to fly and breathe, evolving brains and opposable thumbs, jellies just continue on as they are.
THE ANCESTORS OF THOSE who populate this town did not come here for its brutal but beautiful isolation. No, they did not settle here for its hills flush with deer and pheasants, nor for its broad flowing rivers with fish and waterfowl. Instead they came for something black and filthy that stains you down to your inner rings. Over time, continents shifted, the land rose, and the seas receded to their distant borders. And the people, they came for what was exposed in outcroppings and river banks, the stuff that lay at various depths beneath the soil, the tarsoft coal with which they could fire their smelters and mills, distill down into coke, from which they could fashion an industry of iron and steel.
Of all the jellies, Turritopsis nutricula fascinates her like no other. The jellyfish is immortal. That is, it constantly rejuvenates itself, transforming from a juvenile into an adult and then reversing that process back to a less developed stage. Though found throughout the world, these jellies are being studied for the most part by a few unfunded scientists in a small laboratory off a sharp-cliffed Japanese island. Two hundred feet beneath the sign that warns would-be jumpers—Stop! A dead flower will never bloom again!—scientists are engaged in a quest for a clue to endless life, a sea flower that dies and blooms again. It is not hard to dream that in this small jelly, no larger than the nail on her pinky, is the genetic key to human life everafter.
OPPORTUNITY. THIS IS what brought these families here two and a half centuries ago. Opportunity was written into the contracts that people signed and paid to cross the Atlantic, it was bartered at the wharves for cows and children, it was shouted by the itinerant preachers who offered pages from a book to be planted like seeds in the soils of the New World. It was bred into later generations as what they should seek, what they must find; it was whispered in their private supplications to their god; it was spoken to as if a guest at the dinner table; it was celebrated at dances, cursed and chastised at bars. Women challenged it as they stood knee deep in mud as they planted, men praised it when they stepped out onto a porch on that first spring day; it was the low last utterance, a parent’s joy.
She spent enough time with the men and women who live on the ocean, the sailors, the fishermen, the men and women who toil here, to learn that the sea is not the ocean, but is the embodiment of the spirit of the ocean. The sea is its mood, its demeanor, and at times the materialization of its force. Seas appear and vanish, come and go, take lives and sometimes give them back. The ocean is the face on which seas find expression.
SIMPLE PERHAPS in lifestyle and manner, the people of this town are hardly simple to understand. Bred like Thoroughbreds on pain and disappointment, but fed fat as Berkshires on hope and salvation, the contradictions in these people lie deep. This is a people hodgepodged of heritage, language, religion, and custom, yet who meet strangers with burning suspicion, even ready violence. These people will stake their very lives for their individual rights yet have little or no tolerance for those who wish to follow their own individual beat. They are thrifty to a fault: they will smoke and cure their own meats, can and jar their summer vegetables, mend their old socks, have but one suit hanging in the closet good for weddings, graduations, funerals, and Christmas dinner, buy everything in packs of twelve and twenty-four, save the meat and vegetable scraps to feed the dogs and stray cats outside, hoard old engine oil to spray down the dirt driveway in the summer, hang their clothes in the wind instead of using electric dryers, turn off their tractor engines while driving down a hill to save a few cents of diesel. Yet they are bowed by a lifechoking yoke of debt on farmland, crops, machinery, big screen TVs, ATVs, and river boats. And out of the same spirit they condemn the lazy and the idle, they never complain of the toll work takes on life and the living: the missing fingers, broken ankles, bowed backs, or stone-hard lungs.
She learned that there are lessons in the earth, and that the farther you go back—back to what the scientists call the dark time when animals were only cell membranes wrapped around water—the stronger those lessons are. A story she considers biblical in its impact took place some three billion years ago when the cyanobacteria rose up and conquered the earth. Suddenly, life assumed the ability to create energy from the sun. Life could finally creep forth from the depths, the hot fissures, the volcanic nooks far beneath the surface. The cyanobacteria consumed carbon dioxide and excreted oxygen. It oxidized metals—rusted the earth. It joined with other organisms to become the chloroplasts in plants and the eukaryotic algae. These were the mounds of ancient civilizations that ruled the earth for billions of years.
BY MOST ACCOUNTS, Midwesterners are a polite and accommodating people, their voices low and measured, greetings pleasant and answers considerate. But their demeanors shade a core that has been repeatedly broken and repaired, split and healed, each time creating a scarred caution in attitude and belief that can only be submerged so long. And so, in the early hours of the morning, those inner voices rise from the dark oceanwells of minds, and the radio crackles with the rants and condemnations of the silent witnesses who come forth to warn and condemn those who ignore the crop signs and abductions by aliens, who allow the corruption and waste of our governments, and who cannot see the long, shadowy reach of the devil’s claw into every aspect of our lives.
Her scars: the deep purple slug across her kneecap from when she fell against a skeleton of coral, the delicate loop of red seaweed around the base of a thumb she got caught in a sailboat’s jibbing, the graygreen seahorse tail that grasped her chin when a wave threw her face first into a pillar of rock, the white starfish on her shoulders from the day she was too careless in a Mediterranean sun, the milky krilldrift across her corneas from all the days of squinting across the sunlit sea.
AFTER TWO HUNDRED YEARS of ceaseless digging, nothing remains of those layers of ancient fecundity but dry veins and piled dregs. The fiery smoke from the mills is gone, pubs no longer clog every street corner, the red light districts were shut down and cleared away, the revival tents have stopped visiting the baptismal waters of the river banks. The itinerant medical healers, the recruiters for the railroad, the men with pomade-slick hair selling options on land in California are all historical oddities now. The Victorian mansions along tree-lined avenues are no longer occupied by the elite; if not turned into museums or nursing schools, most have been shuttered, too expensive to heat. The houses built by the factories for the working mugs still sit like upturned stones on the low hills and asphalt roads weave their way across and back and forth. Churches and banks are still blackened by soot and most sit empty now. Lifeless factories tattooed with graffiti crouch darkly off the river where barges once floated, and warehouses sit hollow between the ancient iron bridges that once rattled and creaked with the weight of trains carrying their loads of coal and ore.
She had come to realize that we are mere accidents upon this planet. We are at the mercy of such small things: a degree or two in temperature, a point or two rise in acidity. The movement of a current. Any difference in what had been and we would not be here. Yes, we are even smaller than we think. We are minuscule in comparison to something that keeps us from destroying ourselves. It is not the trees. Not the millions of square miles of ocean. Not the vessel of air above us. And it is certainly not some grand design. Or was it? No, it is all part of the larger cycle, she would say.
AS ITS INDUSTRY DIED, the men and women here grew empty and passive while other forms of life found opportunity for renewal. The violent wounds of old mining operations and the tie-sutured gashes left by abandoned railroads began to heal, were slowly absorbed into forgiving hills and valleys. The sky lost its perpetual haze and no longer burst into flame at sunrise or sunset; it smolders now on distant berms. The streams expunged their rusty sediments, waters flow clear again over mossy rocks, and birds nest in strands of tall grass and velvet-tipped saplings. Nature, though slow and gentle in its recovery, ignores man’s ignobility.
She never imagined that one day she would return. She had always thought that her hometown was a place best forgotten. In some ways she felt that she had traveled the world and all she had seen and felt, all that had hurt and pleased her, was now inside her. She returned home with enough money to buy an old building in the industrial part of town, a building she converted into a space that is empty. She bides her time in this town. Her travels now take place in her brain, with her eyes closed, during sleep. She prefers to remain in place, to let the world revolve around her for a change while she plays the role of point of reference.
TODAY, NEW METHODS troll the previously forbidden deposits in the black shale. The drills sink not just deeper but snake horizontally, crisscrossing the strata beneath the farmlands in search of the gaseous stone. A new prosperity has returned. New wealth comes to those who were dumb enough to hold onto their once worthless land. And once again flares burn and lighted rigs flicker from fields and farms. Work sites are cleared overnight on the farms that have signed the leases with the oil companies. Machinery is brought in and installed within hours; drilling begins within days. Shiny stainless steel tankers roll nonstop, transporting water, some say one hundred million gallons a day, and top loaders carry millions of pounds of sand to be pumped deep into the rock until it cracks and spits up.
During the day she picks through the dust and broken flagstone of the quarry, looking for more of the captured medusae, the two- to three-foot diameter jellies that were stranded so quickly on some sandy beach that their last breaths and movements are recorded in rock. These fossils begin to fill her home. All facing the same direction, they form nearly perfect rings in the flagstone.
THE VOICES AT NIGHT offer a confused banter these days. The cries decrying Satan’s deeds have slipped beneath the hum of the universe, and conspiracies have crawled back to whence they came. Progress has touched them all and awakened a new faith in capital. No devil seems significant in light of opportunity.
There is always a trade with the devil, she now believes. We humans gave up a long life on earth for brains that gave us a quick chance at understanding everything. She thinks we overestimated our bet. The jellies, on the other hand, traded simplicity for immortality. And yet as much as she desires her own immortality, she recognizes the world will never follow suit. And just like humans, the immortal jellyfish will do what they were designed to do: They will feed and they will bloom, they will drift like a living snow and gently and graciously suffocate the world that, on a day no one will count, will reawaken and carry on.
Jeffrey Flannery divides his time between Natchez, MS, and Minneapolis, MN. Aside from writing about environmental issues and ideas, Jeffrey has worked for years developing new technologies that support a more sustainable world. His short stories have appeared in 34thParallel, Five2One, The Dark Mountain Project, Semaphore, Ducts Journal, Deepwater Literary Journal, Electric Windmill Press, and other literary outlets. Passionate about storytelling, Jeffrey often participates at The Moth and other StorySLAM events.
Alyssa Irizarry studied environmental studies, art history, and visual arts at Tufts University. She is the program director at Bow Seat Ocean Awareness Programs, a nonprofit that promotes ocean conservation and advocacy through the arts. Her research on environmental muralism is featured in an exhibit at the Monterey Bay Aquarium in California. She lives in Salem, MA.