Third Place, Summer Fiction Contest 2018
The clouds blew in with the wind. The wind brought waves. Waves brought a storm of jellyfish. Fernando did not know the meaning of a sting. He didn’t understand anaphylaxis. Circulatory collapse. He knew they were things to be avoided. Things that would burn terribly and consume his morning with the application of baking soda and vinegar and require time to heal that would keep him away from the ocean, but he did not understand the potency of their poison. And certainly he did not understand hives and hydrostatic pressure and how permeable capillaries leak fluid and become porous holes unable to support one’s blood pressure.
He was not an outstanding pupil. He had quit school and was eighteen, but his future was bright. Tourism was his life now. It was a vibrant life. He witnessed the mating patterns of sea urchins spiny and black and the migration of dolphins and the tides that restored the beaches with tiny life forms like crabs and mollusks, and the road runners that chased them. Every day he did this. These weak creatures were in a way, his, to protect. From the mountains, the bay looked magnificent and blue, serene, yet in every corner, under every rock, were these fragile marine lives swirling madly in tide pools, his to be discovered.
He always wore a life jacket and although his skin was naturally brown and rich in melanin, itself protective in the sun of Guanacaste, he always wore sunscreen. He understood the ocean and knew that he must be careful himself and caution the tourists he led. They came to Costa Rica for the same reasons he loved her. If he was careful, the dangers of the ocean would not befall them.
He called the jellies that had washed in with the wind and cold water that day Rapunzel jellies because their tentacles extended in long strings like endless blonde hair, translucent, nearly invisible, until they were clumped and grasped to their prey.
He set out on the Jet Ski from the resort on Playa Hermosa to see the humpbacks that had been sighted the last two mornings just past the mouth of the bay. The parrot was on his shoulder, clinging to the rugged vest, strung on its harness, to its cord. It did not appreciate the ride that morning the way it usually licked him with its little black tongue. It was not snuggled to his cheek, behaving as the affectionate thing which loved to have the yellow collar of feathers on its neck rubbed. Its claws clung sharp and strong, through the heavy khaki, into the skin of his bare shoulder beneath the vest, as he took each wave.
The rock formation known as Monkey Head Island was visible from every angle. Beyond it, the ocean. As he approached it, its shape morphed to look more sculptured, less natural. Polygonal crests of brown stone, silhouetted and weathered and crumbled away in chunks to a simian profile. He turned the craft to hit the whitecaps diagonally. As he descended into a wave, another beyond it overtook it from his right, adding to its crest in synergy, such that it created a wave larger than him, and it pelted droplets that tore from the ocean waves with gale force. The ocean pushed back upon the Jet Ski, pushing its bow up as the watercraft surged forward. And as Fernando spit and cleared the salt from his eyes, his face dripping, ready to take the next wave as he gassed the Jet Ski, he saw that what had caused the rogue wave was the great body of a humpback. A thin stripe along its body that blended with the white of the sea spray arced parabolic over the surface then disappeared beneath it.
His heart thumped in his chest, pulsing against his shoulder where the parrot squawked. Its wings protracted outward, righting its balance as they stopped. It shook its tail feathers and its wings retracted, settling against his body. There they were tossed about, and he tried to steady the water craft by gassing the Jet Ski with each wave, holding its handle where his knuckles were pink against skin whitened from his clutch.
Then, without so much as an explanation of what was to come, he had a vision that he was the bird, instead watching himself, Fernando, from a lifeless dune, where sandstone howled around them, a place resembling the after-death of monsters ill-tempered and bestial like the Cyclopes Brontes and Steropes and Arges. It was a place without water, no place for him, a boy summoned to the ocean. When he pined for water in this premonition, it came crashing upon him in waves at his feet from a river coursing like an unrecognized fate through this otherwise barren desert, where nothing sprouted with life, not algae, nor lichen, nor even moss. Bubbles escaped in neat spheres from his lips, his nose, rising, rising toward the surface. He looked to the west where upon the meridian, a palette of red and orange streaked the sky, glaring like Jupiter’s vast eye in disappointment, setting lower, until it disappeared altogether, leaving them in the gloom of a midnight clouded as membranous yellow as a cataract, yet it was only late morning.
A moment later, the whale broke from the surface, only feet in front of him, this time the same white stripe on its body vertical, soaring and looking as buoyant in the air as it did in the water. It twisted around in a semi-circle, before all the tons of its mass crashed upon him and knocked him from the vessel. He hissed a rush of the tiniest bubbles. They drifted further from him, growing darker blue then black. The cord snapped from the parrot, such that it soared for a minute with a gust of wind, witnessing the spectacle of the humpback. Then it fluttered down to rest upon a rock protruding wet and jagged. It gave a chirp then another chirp and then it just sat, watching the enormous mammal in all its majesty, and watching Fernando tethered to the water craft, unconscious. Its wings were clipped, and it could not gain lift with them as nature would otherwise allow.
Melissa Franckowiak is an MFA student and a practicing anesthesiologist in Buffalo, NY. Recently, her work has appeared in Traffic East, Ghost Parachute, Fredericksburg Literary and Art Review, and Rio Grande Review. Melissa is the mother of two children, the owner of a chatty Amazon parrot, and a lover of all things outdoors. She writes as Melissa Crickard.