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The Sea Jellies
I had been afraid of the sea jellies since I was a wee, black-haired child running up and down the beach behind Auntie Sheila's house in Largo, with no shoes on and wild flowers in my hair and smooth sea stones in my pockets. They floated in the rock pools along the shore like milky bubbles of glass, their delicately ruffled tentacles bunched up at their throats like strands of lace, streaming out behind them in the shallow water as they drifted about in search of the sea. They were lovely creatures, really, and I loved to lie on my belly on the huge, black, barnacle-crusted rocks, trailing one finger through the water as I watched the jellies drift lackadaisically through their day. I would lie there for hours at a time, feeling the sun hot on my back and the water cold as winter on my hands until the tide came in and tugged them away with icy white fingers.
I remember one glorious summer when the heavy charcoal-grey clouds that hung, swollen with rain, in the darkening sky, had torn open and scoured all of Largo, Fife, and Edinburgh with a passionate burst of rain. Wearing nothing but grubby shorts and our fathers' old shirts, Molly, Abigail and I ran outside into the downpour to dance with the rain, a storm so intense that our ears rang with the heavy pounding of it against the tops of our heads. The next morning, it was as though the rain had washed the sky clean, and it shone a pale silvery blue-grey with a thrilling promise of adventure as we raced down to the beach, laughing at all the silly people wearing shoes.
The rock pools were the best that we had ever seen, swarming with the delightful treasures carried in on the waves the night before. The water shone crystal clear, so cold that it sent shocks up our arms when we dipped our fingers in to stir it up, inciting a ripple of movement as armour-backed crabs scuttled from one hiding spot to another. We spent hours gazing rapturously at the pool bottoms, where dozens of pea-sized, blood-red anemones sat, like squat little people with their hair floating lazily in the water, and sea-scrubbed limpet shells glimmered like congealed drops of starlight, dotting the rocks with little spots of light as the sun glinted off of them. The anemones, tiny and fragile as china figurines atop a mantel, would suddenly blossom in a wave of tentacles and then shrink into hard, tightly-closed buds at the slightest movement, recoiling as we gently prodded them with bits of bone-white driftwood washed up after the storm. Here and there slivers of light shot through the water as tiny silver fishes darted about. Crotchety brown shrimps scooted furtively along the sand to plop into the water and hide, and the sea jellies, quiet and magical as ever, minded their own business.
They floated just beneath the surface like diaphanous submarines lying in wait for the enemy's steamship to come chugging along across the bay, not so light that they would be washed away with the pulsing of the waves, but yet not fully there, either. We stayed away from them. The jellies were not creatures to tease and tickle, for we knew how the flaccid tentacles could slowly, seductively wind about the quick silver dart shape of a small fish, pulling it close in a deadly embrace. We knew how we, too, could so easily fall prey to their silent majesty.
We, three little Largo girls who had been to Edinburgh once on holiday and knew that cities were terribly posh, were experts on the dangers of rock pooling and knew how to scoop the jellies up in a pail without even touching the water. We knew the art of building castles for the fishies out of shimmering purple mussel shells so that they shone in a hundred different colors beneath the water, and how to pick up a crab from behind and hold him in between our thumb and forefinger to keep us safe from his wicked claws. We knew how to pry the anemones and the chocolate-drop snails from their perches on the rocks without hurting them to move them to another rock pool, and, confident in our extensive knowledge of the local marine life, we set up our own Rock Pool Service and Rescue Team. We knew everything there was to know about the rock pools of Largo.
I was just assisting a timid young crab onto the rocks that she had been struggling to gain a foothold on when Molly raised the alarm. “Red Alert! Fish Out of Water! Red Alert!” I lifted my bare, dripping arms from the waist deep pool and clambered onto my feet, scanning the immediate area for the source of Molly's cry. After locating the source of the alarm, I raced over to the flat, sandy stretch on the outer extremities of the bay, grabbing my bucket of special equipment and alerting Abigail as I went. I ran as though lives depended on it - and indeed they did, as I saw the moment I joined Molly, kneeling on the sand beside the unfortunate victim of the tide.
There, lying pitifully on the sand like an amethyst-hearted gem, was a jelly twice the size of any we had encountered before - his pale, stringy tentacles looked like over-boiled noodles, lying wetly on the sand as the sun slowly but surely sucked the moisture from his body. His viscous mass quivered as a slight breeze swept across the flat expanse of beach, and a shiver crept down my spine. Looking at him, we saw nothing of the ruthless, deep-sea killer that we knew so well, only a poor animal an inch from Death's door. We hesitated. We knew how dangerous these creatures were in the water, and we had no wish to risk our own safety on the behalf of some poor half-dead sea jelly. But it was the steadfast policy of the Rock Pool Service and Rescue Team that we come to the aid of any marine creature in need of help -- and we had no intention of letting any of our clients be denied it.
Molly and I had already begun to unpack our equipment when Abigail arrived with a bucket of clear, cold seawater, ready for the rescue. While Molly positioned her spades on either side of the jelly to offer support when I lifted him, Abigail ran to scout for available relocation pools along the shore, which ideally would provide safety and security for the sea jelly, along with comfortable facilities and plenty of space, until the tide came in to take him back out to sea. This was the key moment in the rescue - these next few moments would decide the poor creature's fate: life or death. I maneuvered the bucket into position, with its rim digging slightly into the sand to retain a strong grip. This was necessary to ensure that the bucket did not slip. If it did, the sudden movement would kill the half-dead sea jelly it as surely as another ten minutes in the sun would.
On the count of three, Molly and I simultaneously moved the spades and bucket, levering the slimy mass onto the lip of the bucket. For one terrifying moment, the weight was almost too much for the spades, and the jelly teetered between the rim of the bucket and the fatal drop back toward earth. And then, with a satisfying shloomp, the jelly slid smoothly across the worn plastic of the bucket's lip and came to rest in its interior. Triumph and relief swept through us, and we managed a tricky high-five around the bucket. The next stage was not quite so difficult. Slowly, we poured the rescue bucket full of crystal clear water, making sure that the sea jelly was correctly positioned so as to recover as fully as possible from his dangerous exposure to the sun. We then carried the bucket between us to the large pool that Abigail had found, dipping the bucket beneath the surface and allowing the jelly to slowly, gently slip into the pool. After making sure that he was comfortable, the three of us sat back to watch him. Abigail named him Larry. He seemed content in his spacious pool, and I ached to shed my grimy clothes and join him, to dunk my head under the water and watch the thick, velvety weeds ripple in the push and pull of the waves.
The heat of the day and the tentative breeze tickling our skin lowered a soft, drowsy calm over us. The sun streamed down in thick yellow ribbons, and light twinkled in bright little sparkles of gold and white along the slim blue ridges of water rolling in from the sea. The three of us made our way back along the beach, stopping to collect the seashells and bits of sea glass mixed in among the damp pebbles on the beach, waiting until our hands were full to drop them one at a time into our buckets and listening to them patter against the plastic bottom of the bucket and then against each other as our buckets filled up with treasures. It was a lovely day, and the full, ripe sun soon brought silvery wisps of steam curling up from the rocks. Something white gleamed beneath the foaming crest of a wave, and, hopping over the ankle-high hillock as it swept past me, I scooped it up; it was the smooth white base of a slipper shell. It glistened wetly, nestled into the crease in my small brown palm like a fat white teardrop from God.
Later that night, as a slight breeze shifted the curtains over the open kitchen window, I tipped my bucket of treasures onto the rough wood planks of the floor, and began lining them up in a rainbow. I proceeded slowly and with great care, starting with the round, penny-sized, cherry red and pumpkin orange and buttery yellow snail shells, and then the misty bits of glass ranging from pale olive green to the deep, glowing blue of ancient gin and whisky bottles. There were some lighter blues, too, such as a clear robin's egg turquoise and a large triangular piece the color of sky. Gradually, the blues faded into white pebbles of glass, once clear and sharp as crystalline drops of rain but now smooth and smoky with age. After the glass pieces came the pearly, bone-white bits of seashells, which darkened into brown pieces and black pieces and curved round the kitchen table to end with the last shell, a polished black mussel with an underside of iridescent lilac perfection, leaning against the leg of my father's chair.
I leaned back against the table leg and admired my work. I could see the trail of colours winding across the kitchen floor like a lanky snake, a rainbow that I had stolen from the sea. I smiled a secret smile.
It was my sea shore rainbow.
I put my hand into my pocket and felt the cool hardness of the slipper shell. I ran my eyes along the sea shore rainbow, tenderly stroking each piece of it with my eyes and wishing I could be a piece of indigo blue gin bottle, carried by the sea to far off places. I raised the shell to my lips and kissed it, a fat white teardrop from God that I had stolen from the sea. I slipped it into my mouth and held it there, tasting the salt of the sea on my tongue and also the sweetness, the sweetness of wild things. I closed my eyes. All at once I was no longer the wee, black-haired child who ran up and down the beach with no shoes on and wildflowers in my hair and smooth sea stones in my pockets, and whose greatest fear in life was the sea jellies. I had conquered that fear today, and in my mouth the taste of the sea was sweeter than ever. Today, I had freed myself.
Many years later, I would have traveled to Paris and London and many other exciting places. I would run along the beach behind Auntie Sheila's house in Largo, with no shoes on and wildflowers in my hair and smooth sea stones in my pockets. My hair would still be black as night, and my hands would still be small and brown and forever searching for treasures in the sand. I would feel the coolness of one of God's fat white teardrops in my palm, and I would remember Larry and all of his gelatinous kin, and after a day on the beach with Molly and Abigail, I would make a seashore rainbow out of all the pieces I had stolen from the sea. I would forever be free. Many years later, I would be free, and I would forever wish to be a piece of indigo blue gin bottle, carried by the sea to far off places.