By Jane Seitel
The dive boat was not far offshore—only enough to almost lose sight of the island’s outline, which appeared as a smudge on the horizon. The fringing reef lay at the edge of the blur. Here the water became deeper, darker, richer in life. The beige sand of the shallows disappeared: the sea escaping its transparent reflection of sky, becoming a more decisive cerulean, a blue tinged with fern green. Beneath this greater opacity beat the heart of the reef, the reef always in motion—a garden of lacy sea fans, whips, and the swarming schools in their frenzied saturations, in their dances of approach and escape.
The trip out, however brief, has always been difficult for me. The boat plowed the sea on our way to the dive site—the smell of diesel, grease, grit, and rubber churning up last night’s dinner of calamari, papaya, banana flambé combined with immodest quantities of Modelo. The boat ground to a stop, the anchor thrown. Wearing my second skin of neoprene and my tank secured, I spat into my mask to seal it, and set the pliant mouthpiece between chapped lips. My new husband accompanied me. He was my “dive buddy” in every sense now. Our fins at the edge of the plank, we plunged in backward, together.
Our descent was not great: the reef, at its deepest, was probably thirty feet or so. Nonetheless, the habitual world quickly disappeared, and between the islands of staghorn and elkhorn coral, the fish flocked—schools of silver mollies, neon tetras, four-eyed butterflies, an occasional stoplight parrotfish. These fish were beautiful and seemed oblivious to the black-suited intruders. But the reefs were also not without their predators. In Isla Mujeres, black-tipped sharks, makos, and whale sharks live in the waters. For me, it is not the shark, but the barracuda that makes my pulse pound. He approaches, a silent stiletto of a predator with rows of razor sharp teeth menacing, his obdurate black eyes impenetrable, imperious.
I saw a barracuda almost immediately upon descent, squeezed my husband’s hand, pointing with the free one. He shook his head—don’t worry. We skirted the main reef, investigating the crevices looking for the small transparent crabs, exploring living coral polyps in their flower dresses of saffron and spiny reds and algal green. I don’t know when my hand loosened from my husband’s, and then let go. Perhaps it was when I found myself studying a moray eel, his plum head peeking out from a rock. I don’t know when my husband wandered off; what I know is that I felt something in back of me, although I was swaddled in the thick epidermis of my wet suit.
I flipped my fins about, and my worst fears calmed: it was not a barracuda. The squid shimmered silvery blue with pewter speckles, and couldn’t have been more than two feet from me, undulating and hovering so that the sand directly beneath the animal flicked up in small whirls. But that was not what caused me to turn and look; rather it was the squid’s eyes, huge and bright as turquoise cabochons. As I moved away, those orbs followed me, and the squid’s body appeared so diaphanous it seemed at odds with his visual organs. The lens of those eyes shifted as I launched myself into motion. I swam towards the far side of the reef. The squid, like a dog, followed me, hovering close but just outside arm’s reach. I headed over to a huge sea fan that was moving to an unheard music of ocean wind. Every few seconds I would glance over in the squid’s direction, and there it would be, my new dive buddy. Like all squids, the skin mirrored the surroundings, becoming lighter or darker in adaptation.
Soon, a beautiful green parrotfish, the clown of the reef, appeared in the valley between the corals, and I set off in pursuit. The squid, all liquid-motion, had no trouble keeping up, and so I closed in on the parrot, who was absently nibbling algae off of a staghorn coral. It was a funny sight, the parrotfish with his two buck-teeth, like some school boy eating corn off a cob. Out of the corner of my visual field, I noticed something like the sun briefly flickering off a prism or a flash of aluminum. As I turned, I saw them: the spears of four or five barracuda bolting away. I sighed relief.
I saw something else—the telltale traces, the bits of silvery blue skin; the residual of squid ink dispersing to cloud the water. The squid’s blue eyes were gone as I was pulled upward to the surface, inexorable. Bitter in my mouth, I gulped the stale oxygen, bit deep into the mouthpiece of the regulator.
Jane Seitel received her MFA from Drew University. Publications include The Florida Review, Prairie Schooner, Split This Rock, The Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion. She received The Charlotte Newberger Prize in Poetry. She lives in her poetic imagination and occasional creative nonfiction.