Children swim where grownups fear to venture
by Elizabeth Ayres
The summer solstice has come and gone, but the sea nettles are here to stay. I stand on the pier looking down into the bottle green depths of the Patuxent. The sun has burnished the air into a metallic amalgam of smells: wood, saltwater, creosote, exposed barnacles, sea weed. Insects hum, a chorus that rises and falls, ebbs and flows like the waves. How wonderful it would be to dive off this hot pier into the cool water. How delightful, to leave behind the friction of everyday living for a skin of liquid velvet. I could kick my way free of all worries. Back to the bliss of the womb, perhaps. Or even further. To some mindless, amphibian state.
Automatically, with the reflexes of a child raised on this river, I start to count the nettles. There are only a few on the surface, but moment by moment more ghostly shapes arise from nether darkness into the light, like eerie, diaphanous negatives developing in a chemical bath. I give up counting: they are as numberless as the stars. Their umbrella-shaped heads pump rhythmically with the current, and their long tentacles trail behind them in an entrancing, balletic display.
That otherworldly grace belies the venomous reality of those delicate threads. Poison enough to paralyze a small fish, to deliver a sharp sting and red welts to human flesh. If I scooped one up in a crab net, it would collapse instantly into an inert mass of brainless, heartless, boneless jelly. Removed from the water, which comprises 98 percent of its being, the creature would dry up quickly, expiring into its trace elements of salt and protein with a faint stink.
I recall summer days long past, when this pier was a blur of children cousins, neighbors, friends. A medley of legs and arms and laughter. Bare skin, wet bathing suits. A background drone of outboard motors near and far. While the adults were off somewhere doing whatever adults did, we swam, most of us, while some stood guard, furiously scooping up sea nettles in crab nets then running to dump them on shore. At regular intervals, pained cries: I’ve been stung! Or, One got me! Or just a wordless shriek and a churn of water as the victim rushed to shore for the placebo comfort of sand rubbed on burning skin. And after, a chance to exact revenge by taking up sentry duty, with upright net pole and vigilant eyes.
Yet we swam. I remember diving headlong off this very pier piling, eyes closed tightly, hoping to complete my underwater arc unscathed but braced for the awful instant of entanglement, when naked flesh would burst into a jumble of slithering arms. I would fight my way to the surface then, pawing to rid my face or neck from the adhesive, gelatinous fire.
We strapped on water skis despite the virtual certainty of getting stung while waiting for the boat to pick us up. When one of us would be put to bed with a thick paste of baking soda applied to a swollen body part, the rest of us went right on. Cavorted and splashed. Played mermaid or seahorse or water basketball, all in a gloriously adult-free zone, because grownups were scaredy cats, afraid to take their pleasure for fear of a little pain.
Now I’m one of them. Too chicken to swim in this water now that the nettles are back. I understand they’re particularly fond of our Chesapeake Bay, where the right mix of salt and fresh makes the water brackish, their preferred environment.
Life itself is pretty brackish. Pretty much a mix of salt and fresh. Pain of one sort or another is continually arising from the nether darkness. The dangers are as numberless as the stars. But the next time I’m tempted to hold back on living because of some possible hurt, I’m going to consult with the child I was. I think I already know what she’s going to say.
Poet and writing teacher Elizabeth Ayres, newly returned to Chesapeake Country, is the author of Writing the Wave: Inspired Rides for Aspiring Writers.