Editor’s note: A few months back we let you know about a Writing at Sea excursion with Pangaea Exploration, and that we were partnering with them to host a writing contest, encouraging participants to submit pieces for publication on our blog regarding the theme of trust and reflective environmental practice. This week and next week we will share pieces by the two contest winners.
by Steven Paul Lansky
Writing at Sea Contest Winner
My name is Henry. My family calls me Hank. I’m not a movie star, though you wouldn’t know it by how many photos are taken of me. I live in a reef in the Bahamas near Stocking Island. It’s a sub-reef with many fish, including zebra fish, trumpet fish, and rays—and me, a sea turtle. More than a snapshot, my story is told, talked about, passed generation to generation across many lands and seas. I am a fabled turtle, Hank, the-one-who-knows-family. My mother and father left me with my instincts. And yet, I know all my relatives, and every turtle I meet is family.
Instead of feet, my friend Silkie swims with her black fluke, kicking up dusty plankton, silt, sand, and plastic onto the colorful coral. I forgive her because her swimming gives me hope for the ocean. She knows about and understands the fishermen. Silkie is of this place in a way the fishermen are not. She knows of the micro-plastics that fill the sea without regard for its creatures. In my lifetime I see more open space and fewer fish.
On the blue water’s surface over my head one particular fisherman looks at me. He seems to be thinking, “Soup!” I can see his shadow as he casts his eyes about, long spear in hand. I know this weapon. A flash of silver light splits the water of my ancestral memory, a watery vision of my father’s injury and a man folding rope on the surface. The boat’s bottom shadows me again. I try to swim away, careful to protect my nest where my eggs are on shore by swimming the opposite direction. Silkie’s fingers beckon the fisherman, a flash of color he takes to be me. He sees from his boat as she gives a sign and he steers toward the flowing hair, the lithe pale figure. She is briny. The fisherman wants Silkie. She makes for the open gap between the breakers. She distracts the fishermen from turtles like me. In my blue world, Silkie is my protectress. She keeps the bearded, white-shirted men away from the reef.
Sometimes, though, in certain seasons, when the wind is right and the moon is full, she craves the companionship of the olive-skinned, finless man. He cruises from port to port looking for things to put in his mouth, to satisfy his lust. He is a bit like the shark, barracuda, and ray, seeking weaker and smaller animals. She does not want to attract him, yet every once in a while his power draws her, and she distracts him for a time with her siren song.
In this quiet sea, I hear the familiar blips and beeps of my friends, the dolphins. They stay away mostly, but we share stories, legends, tales from the mermaids who hear the stories of men. Most sea legends are of the mermaids and their kin, shadow stories of the Lady of the Lake, luring hunters into the forest shape-shifted into deer, and myths of destruction of the chaos goddesses that ruled the sea in days of old. Some of the stories tell of my kind. I am of the earth and sea, and some name the very land Turtle Island, remembering when we held earth on our back and saved the land from a flood and the Four Winds. I know my salt sea, its open areas so large and expansive, blue, teal, azure: a long journey place. I swim near the surface, find a beach, and rest in sunlight. In the tropical sun, the water appears light green like my back. My shell has thirteen key shapes that mimic objects floating in the sea around me.
I still remember the first sound I heard: Silkie’s voice, singing. Up high, one tone on a ripple, another a somber mating call, then the shout of the white-shirted fisherman.
My mother told me once—the one time I saw her—she told me to survive. And I listened. I refuse to become a coin on a dead man’s chest. My mother swam off and left me an egg sack to feed off of; I ate my brother and sister eggs when I first hatched. Mother forgave me this because it is the way we survive. The heat of the sun covered my skin with leather.
Then I smelled it: my mother had been made into soup. The fisherman looked like a friend, a big-biped creature with hair on his face. His boat had a little burner, a cookpot, and sweet water. I knew little of his ways, but my mother gave me life and the fisherman takes life.
The fishermen might go away and leave me be, except for one man. One man is Silkie’s friend, though he wears a strand of hemp rope strung with the turtleshell keys of my cousins. He leaves her food, sweet tendrillar morsels, seaweed he dries on the wooden deck of his boat. He leaves the food on the rocks. She tastes the ocean-scented food. When she eats it she no longer fears the fisherman. This is what he wants. I fear Silkie will go the way of the larger fish. He lingers and watches. With fewer big fish on the reef, the fisherman sets his nets and traps to take the crabs and lobsters.
Silkie has no thoughts of retirement or changing lifestyles. She swims with me, and I swim with her. She is like me, a creature of the wild. She has no need of human ways. I am her buddy in the water, though I cannot paddle as deftly as she can. Watching from a distance, I hear Silkie speak to the fisherman over the crushing sound of the surf. I rest on the white sand beach.
“Silkie,” says the bearded man. “Where are your keys? You have never held the ocean’s keys in your hand. Locals say you disappear for months when the weather is windy. I can give you keys to the strong box in my boat.” He hands her a piece of hemp rope strung with rattling turtleshell keys like his own.
“What do you keep in the box?” Silkie asks.
“Come closer and I will show you,” says the man.
Silkie smells the man’s sweat and the sweetness of his foods, still wary of his box.
She is unaware the keys came from the backs of my brothers. I remember a time when there were many brothers, cousins, sisters, uncles, and aunts on the open beaches. I saw turtles whose shells were misshapen, constricted by pieces of plastic packaging. And I saw my brethren hunted. Blood of my ancestors flowed along the tidal pools. The bearded men carved the shells into pieces, sectioned from the natural segments on the ancient leather, as they cooked the soup in the pot. The shell pieces rattled from their belts. At first they used them for exchange. Some cast them on the sand to augur the fate of their romances. They wrote forbidden love poetry and sent it to sea, scrawled with longing on the hidden places of my turtle relations. Others made tags to identify themselves. Now they carve shells into tools that lock and unlock doors, doors they need to keep their property safe from one another. In this way, turtle shells became the basis for trust and distrust among the fishermen’s society.
Silkie tosses the looped cord over her head. The keys fall against her breasts. She feels them with her fingers and swims away over the reef, her black fluke stirring the silt. I watch as she swims down the shore to lay in the shallow tide pool among the rocks and breakers. Silkie sees the fisherman approach, stumbling toward her in the riptide, and she flashes her autumn brown eyes. He pulls the strong box through the wet sand at the end of a twisted hemp rope. I want to know what he keeps in the box. So does Silkie. In the sunlight the man looks invincible, salt on his skin, blue eyes flashing, and feet in the white sand.
He gets closer to Silkie, dragging the box. Blow winds, blow! I think. A gust, and then a big wave topples him off his two feet. Silkie dives in and swims past him. With the skill of a sailor, she finds a key on her cord, sets it into the keyhole, turns it, and tosses the lid off the box.
With a swirl the Four Winds burst out of the box, filling the fisherman’s boat sails, pulling her out to sea while the man stumbles to gain his footing in the riptide. As the boat sails away, unmanned, the knotted hemp net slides off her deck into the crashing waves until its wooden buoys float over Silkie, tangling her fluke and arms in the devilish web.
When I see what Silkie faces I resolve to help her. But the wind is against us now, blowing her down. The fisherman rushes, swimming his awkward kicking splash, finding Silkie in the net. He throws himself on her, pressing his face toward hers, trying to kiss her briny, captive lips. At first she pushes him away, but she just becomes more entangled in the net until, surrendering, she yields to her trapped curiosity and desire, kissing him back.
Locked in this twisted embrace the two splash out into deeper water, as if in river rapids, the net floating around his arms and legs. I see my chance. I pace and paddle until I swim, swim, and swim just under Silkie, and I use the rough edge of my shell to cut and saw a hole in the net until she is free. By using my paddles, I free her, and she pulls out of the embrace, shoves the fisherman away, and dives deep, while gripping my back. We roll off into deeper seas. I prepare for the long journey.
Glancing back we watch as the fisherman swims to the surface, but he is caught in his own net. He struggles to stay at the surface, watching his vessel crash onto the reef, capsize, and turn turtle.
I turn back to the open sea, leaving the fisherman to his fate. Silkie follows, but she keeps looking over her pale shoulder at him. She was meant for the sea and the shore, as I am. The man was never meant for the ocean as we are. His world requires keys, doors, nets, sharp spears, and plastics. He meant to take from the sea what he wanted, to leave his mark in eternal detritus. He could not control the Four Winds any more than we can. When Silkie let loose the gale from the man’s box with the key—made from my brother’s back and given to her by the man—she changed the world. This new world will experience fiercer storms across Turtle Island, and Silkie and I will swim side-by-side in the long journey place.
Bio: Steven Paul Lansky wrote Main St. (2002) and Eleven Word Title for Confessional Political Poetry Originally Composed for Radio (2009), two chapbooks published by Seaweed Sideshow Circus. His audionovel Jack Acid (2004) is available (2012) as a digital download. His novel the citizen has excerpts published in The Brooklyn Rail (2005), ArtSpike, CityBeat (online), Streetvibes, and Article 25. Animated videos “Bratwurst” (with Leigh Waltz), “Exit Strategy,” “Harvest,” and “The Broken Finger” (Episode A-8) or the “Cigarette Break” are available on his Miami University faculty page. For more see: Cosmonauts Avenue, Black Clock 20, and St. Petersburg Review Issue 8.