The Jellyfish Collector by Michelle Goldsmith

“Where do you think they keep their brains?” Eva asks. “They have to have one somewhere, don’t they?”

She stands motionless beside her younger sister, Fiona, the two of them staring past their own reflections and into the tank beyond. On the other side of the glass drift dozens of moon jellyfish, gently pulsating in the water as though dancing to imperceptible music.

“Don’t know,” says Fiona, squinting into the tank as if the jellies might be hiding their brains in some hidden corner. They hold her attention for a few seconds longer before her gaze begins to dart around the darkened room. “Do you think they have a mermaid here?” Fiona combs a hand through her long red-gold hair. “Do you think I could be a mermaid?” She doesn’t even wait for Eva’s answer before scurrying off. “First one to spot a shark wins!”

Eva remains, mesmerised by the jellies, watching their transparent, alien forms glow with the changing colours of the ultra violet backlight.

They are so beautiful. Hypnotic. She leans closer, sure she can hear a slight humming, too musical to be the sound of an aquarium filter, coming from behind the glass.

A hand comes to rest on her shoulder and she looks up. Her father is standing beside her.

“Fascinating creatures, aren’t they?” He smiles. “So strange and ancient. Did you know that creatures like these have been living in the oceans for hundreds of millions of years? Yet we still don’t know that much about them. How they came to be, why they swarm.”

He winks. “Maybe one day you’ll be the one to find out.”

Eva listens, rapt, as her father tells her more, keenly absorbing every skerrick of knowledge, collecting and storing them like shells combed from a beach. She wants to know everything about the jellies and their world.

Eventually, they move on to the next display, where a large jar of yellowish fluid contains a preserved box jellyfish. Eva’s father reads aloud. “Traditionally thought to lack a conventional brain and, therefore, complex behaviour, the box jellyfish, Chironex fleckeri, has been found to posses a specialised eye and has proven adept at visually oriented navigation.”

“What does that mean?” asks Eva.

“It means they’re smarter than we think.” Eva’s father looks up from the label and glances around. “Now where has that sister of yours got to?”

He sets off towards a tank on the far side of the room, where Fiona has been momentarily entranced by schools of tiny, brightly coloured fish darting to and fro like living jewels.

If Eva had her way, they would spend every weekend exploring the many wonders of the aquarium, lost in an ethereal, submarine world of alien creatures and endless possibility. Nevertheless, the red exit lights soon flicker on and her father’s voice calls to her. “Come on Eva! The aquarium’s closing up for the night and these poor people want to go home. You wouldn’t want to get locked inside!”

Eva is sure that she would, but before she can find a good hiding place a staff member appears to usher her out.

Her father ruffles her hair. “Don’t worry. We can come back again soon.”

***

The undulating waves form smooth humps in the water before rising to angry breakers that charge forth to hiss against the distant shore.

To Eva they seem like an army of great sea mammals, pounding their foamy heads against the sand as they wage an eternal war against the land.

She shifts on her board as she spies a dark shape near the shore: a surfer washed in on the last wave.

“It’s all about timing,” says her father, treading water beside her.

Eva maneuvers herself in the water to face him.

“You have to learn to read the wave,” he says. “Don’t fight the tide, move with it. Be one with the sea.”

She laughs. Doubtless her schoolmates would mock her daggy, ‘greenie’ father if they were here. But now, with only the waves and the gulls for company, the words feel right.

Eva shoots a longing glance over her shoulder. Those older and more experienced on their boards are barely visible in the distance, far out to sea where the larger swells break.

Her father smiles. “Not for your first lesson. But one day.”

They are interrupted by the appearance of the surfer from the shore, cutting seal-like through the waves on his way back out to sea. He draws level with them and pauses.

“Nice wave before,” says Eva’s father.

‘Thanks mate,” the surfer replies. “Just thought I should warn you we saw a few jellies further out. Not usually a big problem, but get stung and you’ll itch like crazy.”

“Thanks. We’ll keep a look out. Won’t we, Eva.”

“Good man.” The surfer gives father and daughter a wink before paddling away and disappearing through the crest of the next wave.

Eva dips her head and pretends to wipe salt from her eyes to cover her grin. She is thrilled rather than frightened as she imagines countless jellies floating like gelatinous balloons beneath her. She hopes she’ll get to see one.

The next hours pass in a haze of anticipation, frustration, and eventually elation as Eva manages to ride a small breaker all the way into the shore. As she stands wobbly-legged in the shallows, she spies her father clapping and cheering in the water. She laughs, forgetting to be embarrassed by this display.

As the sun begins to sink in the sky and the air grows cooler and the waves larger, Eva’s father suggests that it might be time to call it a day. Time to go back the house where her mother and sister are waiting.

“Just one more wave!” she begs. “Please, Dad!”

To abandon this endless panorama of sea and sky, the roar of surf beneath her board, the salt spray in her face, the rush of adrenaline as she abandons herself to the elements, is obscene, unthinkable. Here with just her father Eva feels truly herself, in perfect unity with the world around her. She wants this moment to last forever.

Her father relents, more than once, apparently also reluctant to leave.

Finally, her empty, growling stomach convinces Eva that surfing until nightfall may not be as viable a plan as she hoped.

As father and daughter paddle back to shore, Eva is stopped short by a sudden stinging pang in her left arm.

She cries out, then pulls the offending limb from the water and glares at it suspiciously.

“Yeah, it’s the jellies,” says her father. “Must be coming in on the tide. I’ve got a few small stings myself. If you’re so keen on surfing in stinger infested waters we had better get you a full length steamer.”

When the initial shock fades Eva finds herself fascinated by the sting; the way the irritated skin slowly inflames, becoming red and raised; the burning itch resulting from its exposure to cool air as they emerge from the water.

Later, in the 4WD on the way home, her fingers trace the wavy red line running up the smooth, pale skin from her elbow to her wrist.

“Something to remember your first surfing trip by,” her father says.

A souvenir from the jellies. Eva grins. “Totally worth it.”

***

The sky is overcast, the atmosphere still and humid, without even a slight breeze blowing in off the sea. To Eva it feels suffocating.

She stares at the thin white scar on her left forearm, as if by concentrating on that familiar mark, received on this very beach six years ago, she can hold back the welling tears.

“Did you hear me, Eva?” says her father, softly. “If I don’t survive the operation, I want you to scatter my ashes in the sea. Somewhere calm and scenic. Off the promontory, maybe.”

His voice catches and he falls silent.

They stand side by side on the hard wet sand, white foam occasionally dancing around their toes. Eva ignores a leafy fragment of seaweed that has entangled itself around her ankle, while in the distance the sinking sun stains the sea red. For a moment the only sounds in the entire world are the hissing of the waves and the mournful cries of the gulls wheeling above.

“I won’t have to,” Eva says at last. She lifts her face and gazes stubbornly out towards the distant horizon. “You won’t die. You can’t.”

Saying the words aloud, with the vast watery expanse before her, she can almost believe them.

***

Six months later, Eva stands on the deck of a small fishing boat, impervious to the cold breeze as she watches ash scatter on the ocean’s glassy surface. There are people all around her. Friends, family, shedding tears and offering sympathy. Yet their faces blur into a single seething mass and their words seep from her memory quicker than the ash sinks on contact with the water. She has never felt more alone.

Eva gazes over the side of the craft. The boat’s shadow spares her the glare of reflected sunlight, enabling her to see deep into the fathomless depths below. After a moment she detects movement within the water. When she strains her eyes she is sure she can make out soft, pulsating, umbrella-like forms far below. Swarms of jellyfish gently coalescing in the deep.

And when she listens she is almost sure she hears a throbbing pulse emanating from somewhere beneath her feet; a strange, humming song coming from the sea itself, trying to reassure her in ways no human words could. Everything will be alright. All hope, all meaning, is not lost.

Despite it all, she still feels empty; a pretty shell sitting on a collector’s shelf long after the living creature has been boiled away. She pulls her thin woollen cardigan closer to her body as the boat’s engine roars back to life, signaling the beginning of the long trip back to shore.

***

It’s a mild summer morning as Eva’s Experimental Marine Biology class huddles on the jetty, eighteen pairs of eyes fixed on the calm water below.

“Well,” says Professor Davis. “Can’t say I’ve ever seen that before.”

The sea is awash with colour and movement, a garden of translucent white, pink and orange. Eva’s heart pounds. There must be thousands of individual jellies down there. Dozens of different species all swarming together.

“But what about our research project?” asks a voice from the crowd. “We can’t perform a survey from the shore.”

Eva recognises Liu, one of the brightest students in the class and her closest rival on the honor roll.

A concerned murmur runs through the group.

“Don’t worry,” says Professor Davis. “You won’t be penalised for an unforeseen jelly swarm. Consider this an unscheduled day off. Go grab a coffee or some lunch and enjoy the sunshine. I’ll email you all to reschedule early next week.” He rubs thoughtfully at his stubble. “Although I’d love to stay and study this myself.”

As the rest of the students collect their gear and head off Eva stands silent at the end of the pier, hypnotised by the motion of the gelatinous creatures in their unearthly submarine dance. Lost in their world.

She is so absorbed by the jellies that she doesn’t even realise when someone comes up beside her.

“Not a bad consolation prize, eh Eva?”

Startled, she looks up to find Liu standing beside her. He brushes dark hair off his forehead and shields his eyes from the sun as he too looks down at the water. “Sorry?” Eva’s head spins. She feels disoriented, forcibly pulled back into reality like a hooked fish plucked from the sea.

“Pretty amazing, isn’t it?” he replies, gesturing to the jellyfish. “I’d say worth not getting into the water for.”

“Oh, yes,” Eva says. “Definitely.”

Concern shadows her classmate’s handsome features.

“Sorry, Liu. It’s just this headache. I think I’m coming down with something.”

It’s an unconvincing lie. Eva knows her distraction has much more to do with the eerie, undulating song coming from the water. A deep pulsating rhythm that only she can hear.

Liu pauses for a moment, before deciding to believe her, or at least not to push. He helps her collect her things.

“What do you think brought them here?” he says, as they finally turn from the water and make their way back to shore. “Some irregularity of the tide? I’m pretty sure it’s not stinger season.”

“Don’t know,” says Eva. “Could be any number of things. Perhaps something to do with climate change?”

Yet, even as they begin throw theories to and fro she can’t escape the strange certainty that she already has the answer: the jellyfish are there for her.

No hurry, they seem to say as she leaves. Take as long as you like. We will wait.

***

Years pass like waves washing against a coast, each eroding away a little of what came before and leaving its own debris. Eva fills her life with aquaria, each a miniature portal to another world.

One evening, as she often does when the day’s work is complete, she lingers in her lab to gaze over the myriad tanks that line the walls. Contained within are countless small fish, anemones, seastars and various marine invertebrates; a small sampling of the species found on the nearby reef. An aquarium by the door contains a selection of sea grasses, their fronds waving gently in response to the filter’s current.

Surrounding her are desks covered in papers, a whiteboard scrawled with notes and diagrams, a wall to which dozens of photos are affixed, each featuring groups of smiling, wetsuit clad researchers, herself among them. All stand as tributes to her professional success. Despite her youth and the heavy competition, it’s Eva who has been chosen to head a team of researchers investigating the impacts of human activity on the reef ecosystem. Key to the project, and essential to secure funding, is evaluating the ecosystem services the reef provides—its benefit to humankind—and the probable consequences of marine ecosystem deterioration. It’s important and challenging work. Additionally, the position enables Eva to pursue her own side project, a study on the intricacies of jellyfish behaviour.

She knows should feel proud of her achievements and grateful for the opportunities she has been given.

And yet… She still feels somehow unfulfilled, as if she’s missing a vital part of herself. As if she’s just playing a role, an elaborate pretense, and she is an imposter in her own life.

At last her attention is drawn to the jelly tanks. Crowding around her desk like sentinels, they are home to a multitude of jellyfish, some native to the reef and surrounds, others collected from distant places and far off oceans. All beautiful and fascinating.

A familiar sense of calm suffuses her as she watches them, their medusoid bodies pulsating rhythmically as they hover like satellites in space. After so many years she still finds them intriguing, the way they begin life as polyps, grow into plant-like strobila, and eventually bud off their stalks like tiny alien flowers and are released as miniature adults into the sea.

Even stranger are other hydrozoans like the Bluebottle, made up of countless individual organisms working together as one creature—a seamless collective. As Eva stands alone in the lab, she can’t help envying her venomous subjects their easy unity. Her liaison with the jellyfish has far outlasted most of her human relationships.

She finds herself thinking of Liu and their cordial yet inevitable parting. She is disconcerted to realise that although the separation occurred just weeks before, she feels distant and detached from it, as if it was something that happened a long time ago to someone else. The raw pain has already receded, leaving only a dull ache of loneliness deep in the pit of her stomach. Residue of a loss that was expected, anticipated and prepared for, the wound half-healed before the injury. In the end things always play out the same way, a suffocating sense of vulnerability whenever someone gets too close, tries to break through her outer shell. She closes up tight as a scallop and draws away, as distant and cold as the tide. Eva prefers to keep people confined to the shallows, where both of them are safe.

A soft whisper penetrates her melancholy, gone before she can catch the words. She turns, scanning the room for unanticipated company, but finds no one. She is alone in the lab.

Then again she hears it, behind her now, coming from the direction of the jelly tanks. This time it persists, a gentle hum slowly rising in tone, and words, barely discernable at first, gaining clarity the longer she listens, barely daring to breathe in case the spell breaks.

Rest. You must rest.

It is a strangely familiar delusion.

Eva wonders what people would think if they knew. Would the university continue to fund her project if they ever came to suspect she could hear the jellies talking? Singing?

No, it will be ok. She’s just been spreading herself a bit thin, burning the candle at both ends. She is exhausted, after all, has not slept properly in a week. Is it really that surprising that she’d lapse into half-dreams?

Eva begins to pack up. She should have clocked off hours ago and her coworkers might worry if they knew she was here so late again.

With one last glance at the jelly tanks she switches off the lights and leaves.

***

The hour is closer to dawn than dusk as Eva sits bent over her desk, sipping lukewarm coffee and hammering out a few final sentences on her keyboard. The cool early morning air creeps under the door to tickle the hairs on her arms in defiance of her small electric heater.

She should have gone to bed hours ago but restfulness eludes her. Always just one more paragraph.

The paper must be ready for presentation on Monday and she refuses to stop until it’s perfect.

The State Environment Minister will be attending the conference and Eva’s team’s ecosystem evaluation indicates that large sections of reef must be protected to prevent ecosystem collapse. Over three years’ work depends on this paper and she won’t let them be wasted.

Besides, there is no one to chastise her for late nights.

Fatigue finally sets in as she snaps her laptop shut. In a drowsy haze she makes her way to the adjacent room and collapses onto her cold, empty bed.

As she waits for sleep to overcome her, Eva stares at the large marine aquarium set against the opposite wall. Despite the dozens of tanks full of sea life back at the lab, and even one or two in the house to examine after hours, this is the only tank she keeps purely for pleasure. Contained within are a number of urchins, sea stars and a single specimen of a species of small local jellyfish.

As her mind wanders she finds herself dwelling on Turritopsis dohrnii, the so-called ‘immortal jellyfish’, a tiny hydrozoan capable of reverting back to its juvenile form after adulthood and regenerating.

“If I could go back,” Eva murmurs. Consciousness ebbs away as she loses herself in thoughts of leaving it all and returning to a simpler, happier time.

***

That night Eva dreams of jellyfish. She floats in a sea of nothingness as they drift around her. Thousands of them, millions perhaps, extending to the very limits of her vision. Their pulsing song envelops her. Reverberates through her very being until it becomes a part of her. Or perhaps it’s she who has become part of the song, just another note in an endless orchestra. As time passes the music seems less alien, until with sudden clarity she realises she understands the song. Though she hears nothing definable as words, the message she receives is clear.

You are unhappy? You feel isolated, alone, like you do not belong?

Eva knows this is true, but the jellies don’t appear to want, or need, an answer.

You try but still you feel helpless?

Another unwelcome truth.

Maybe you do not belong with them. You belong with us, as do all the dreamers who came before.

Eva scans the sea of transparent bodies, all pulsating in time like one immense organism.

We were here long before your species came, and we will remain long after they are gone. They are the dream, and we the reality. We merely wait for those who will wake. We are one. And we do not forget. Do not lose hope.

Eva reaches out to touch the nearest drifting medusa. Upon contact she feels her consciousness expand, rush out exponentially to encompass the entire ocean. She is part of every wave, every ripple, each individual organism making up the great web of aquatic life, their triumphs, fears and their hungers. She floats weightless in strange detached calm. No matter what comes, life will persist in some form. It is for the benefit of those currently living that she must share her message. It is up to them to heed it. All this she sees and feels with astounding clarity. Yet one thing remains obscured. Deep in the unfathomable depths lurks a great presence. Her mind can comprehend it only as a great jellyfish, larger than an island, sleeping below the waves in a place of impenetrable darkness. Despite its slumber the creature’s synapses are afire, processing a multitude of information, the experiences of each and every of its children and all they encounter, stored within until they are once again needed.

When Eva awakes the salty crisp scent of the sea lingers amidst her bedsheets.

***

Although the dream is unsettling, Eva attempts to forget it through deeper immersion in her work. There’s little left to do apart from some final edits on her paper, however, and she finds her thoughts returning, again and again, to worry at the vision’s significance.

Perhaps she should talk to someone. Stress, sleeplessness and old dreams returning. It can’t be healthy.

But who to tell?

Her colleagues who might lose respect for her?

Her sister who already has enough on her plate with three kids and a demanding job?

Her mother, who after years of lonely stoicism, is now travelling the world with her new partner?

Liu?

It is only when Eva lies in bed the night before the conference that such thoughts are replaced by nervousness for her presentation.

Not even the humming song from the tank against the wall can reassure her. It doesn’t really matter how tomorrow goes. Your message will eventually prevail.

Eva still feels like she’s drowning.

***

The lecture theatre for Eva’s presentation is empty of almost anyone but familiar faces. Research scientists, academics and other colleagues; a choir of the converted for Eva to preach to.

Her team’s data is indisputable, their recommendations well supported, and Eva delivers them with no lack of oratory skill. But this means little if the right people do not listen.

The Environment Minister doesn’t even bother to turn up to the conference. The memo sent by his office cites ‘a multitude of competing responsibilities to the taxpayers’ as the perfunctory excuse for his absence.

Despite her colleagues’ reassurances that her paper was flawless and some interest in publishing it as a feature expressed by the editor of a prominent ecology journal, Eva is sure it doesn’t matter. Barely anyone new will read it. No one will do anything about it.

She returns home in a haze of despair, stumbles through the doorway and slumps at the kitchen table, head in hands. She stays that way for what feels like an age then bolts suddenly upright, resolute and driven by a new sense of purpose.

Briefly, she wonders if she might be mad. Then decides it doesn’t matter if she is.

Eva grabs the keys off the table and makes for the carport, only to pause just outside the door.

Wait. You have forgotten.

She returns inside and heads straight for the aquarium in her bedroom. Eva retrieves a net and a sample bag from the cabinet beneath, then scoops the waiting jellyfish from the water, gently maneuvering the creature into the bag for transport.

Driving with the bag safely contained in an esky on the passenger seat, the voices are silent, asking no more of her.

At the promontory, she shuts off the engine and jumps out of the vehicle, taking the jellyfish with her as she traverses the sandy slope to the beach. It’s early evening, the sky tinged pink.

Casting her shoes carelessly aside, Eva approaches the tidal zone where a shelf of exposed rock juts out into deeper water.

She lets the jellyfish bag float in a rock pool while she rests against a boulder and watches the final sinking of the sun. All the while her fingers trace the scar on her left arm. Up and down, up and down.

Eva feels no surprise as the familiar song envelops her. She lowers her gaze to an ocean teeming with jellyfish, vibrant despite the fading light.

Don’t fight the tide, move with it.

Eva retrieves her jellyfish bag from the pool and makes her way to the water. There she unties the mouth and releases the delicate creature into the ocean. She watches it gradually drift away to join the thousands of others, from countless different species, all converging on this one place.

For her, of course. Always for her.

Carefully she undresses. Her clothes, so meticulously chosen that morning, she leaves in a crumpled pile on the rocks. She wades into the cool, calm water, guided by thousands of familiar voices, becoming one with the great aquatic consciousness.

Slowly, Eva sinks into the jellies’ embrace. Home at last.

 

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