Jellyfish by Claire Hamlett

My mother bears the mark of the jellyfish. On the soft, pale inside of her right arm. It grows fainter as she grows older, but it is still just about discernible: a round stamp on the wrist and a single long tentacle, with a curl at the end, reaching almost to the elbow. It could be mistaken for a question mark or a fishing hook.

The year she got it jellies infested the warm Mediterranean seas, beside and within which I spent the summers of my childhood. They were fist-sized or smaller. I remember them in jewel tones – greens, purples, and blues – but perhaps my mind has mixed them up with the colour of the sweaty, plastic ‘jelly sandals’ that were so popular in those days. The tide brought them in and deposited dozens on the sand to sting the feet of sun-blinded holidaymakers. The tide pulled out, the water went still and calm, and many more of them floated in the bays and coves: waiting, it seemed, for flesh.

To escape them, we went to a less sheltered beach where the water could move more freely and sweep the jellyfish back out to the deep. Still, I was afraid to go in. I crouched over the rock pools on the beach’s far edge, filling a bucket with hermit crabs. Plucking them by their shells from the sand at the bottom of the shallow, warm rock pools. I never understood why the ones I took home always died by the next day. No one explained to me that the small volume of water in the bucket would quickly run out of oxygen and suffocate the crabs.

Along the sand, people lay on their beach towels, their skin gently roasting in the high sun: clusters of British and German tourists, fat, slim, pink, and crispy dark brown, partially or barely wrapped in many-coloured swimsuits. They moved so rarely they could have been dead. To the birds circling above they might have looked like melting sweets spilling out of their wrappers.

My family – my father, my aunt and uncle and cousins who were now too old to be interested in me and my hermit crabs – were like all the others. Except my mother, who had always been a bit of an outsider, with her foreign roots and her refusal to descend floppily into middle age like the other adults in my extended family. She could never sit still for long. She went into the sea almost as soon as we arrived at the beach.

Farther and farther out she went, leaving a wide buffer of shimmering water between her and the kids playing in the shallows. I looked up from my rock every now and then to scan for her bobbing head, encased in its white swimming cap. Swimming did not come easily to me and it made me anxious to watch others do it so fearlessly. I think my discomfort in the water disappointed my mother, who considered swimming an essential skill. To say it was in her view a matter of life and death was not an overstatement. Her own mother, who I had never met, had drowned decades ago because she didn’t know how to save herself.

A crab the size of my hand sidled onto my rock. I hopped across to the neighbouring one, my feet protected from the rough surface by my sparkly jelly sandals, and leant in to observe the crab at close range. Its black, ridged shell was like a lava-formed landscape in miniature. I wouldn’t try to pick up a regular crab, their legs and claws were too much everywhere.

Shouts rippled down the beach and only properly got my attention when they were very close. The fleshy forms on the sand had come back to life. All the sudden movement made the scene confusing to look at. I stood on the rock, craning my neck. Finally, the source of the excitement became apparent. My mother, being dragged out of the water by two men, my father flapping nearby.

It had latched onto her arm with a savage grip. The pain, she said, nearly sent her into shock. She could remember tearing it off her, her fingers clamping with equal ferocity into its gelatinous body. As she talked, lying in her and my father’s bed in our holiday flat, I could feel the jelly in my hand, slippery, amorphous. She couldn’t remember her swim back to shore. My body is strong, she said: it’ll know what to do.

As she had collapsed on the sand, while people shouted for help or shouted advice to each other in a salad of languages, the pain had still threatened to take her down. It was a Spanish boy, from the cafe at the top of the beach, who had saved her from it. A hero wearing not a cape but a food-stained apron. He had flown to her side and squirted vinegar onto her arm from the bottles the tourists used to douse their oily chips. The smell had made me hungry, even while I watched my mother writhing, her eyes rolling in her head like marbles.

Her arm was still swollen and red against the white bed sheets, a fat sausage on a fresh butcher’s sheet, even though a day had passed since it happened. The jellyfish that did it must have been much bigger than the others that were clogging up the seas. That was what everyone said. I pressed my cool fingers gently to her arm, leaving light yellow marks in her skin. She watched my hand. She did not flinch.

It was my mother, she said.

We were alone; everyone else had gone back to the beach. I had been left to keep an eye on her.

The jellyfish? I said.

Yes. She wanted to take me back. She tried it once before. A single big wave on a day when there were no other waves. My wrist broke and I swallowed mouthfuls of water, but she did not succeed. I knew she would try again one day.

A shiver ran down my spine. I looked down at my legs crossed in front of me. Grains of sand were still stuck to my ankles and hiding between my toes from yesterday. I could remember when she broke her wrist years ago. We weren’t here but at the seaside at home. A ‘freak wave’, my father had called it.

You are old enough to know the truth now, she said. You ought to know what your grandmother did, who she was, or you will never really know your own mother.

The Truth was that my grandmother had not drowned by accident. She hadn’t known how to swim and never went into the sea where my mother grew up. Her love for my mother had been intense, possessive, needy, sometimes angry. A son born, before my mother, had died, and all that unused love had to go somewhere.

When my mother wanted to leave for university abroad, they fought ferociously. But my grandmother’s bitter recriminations only hardened my mother’s determination. She had been away three months when she received word of the drowning. She knew at once that it had been deliberate. She went home only to find that nobody else would see the truth.

It was a punishment, she said, meant for me. But also, for the whole world that she felt was against her in so many ways. By wanting me to stay at home she wanted me to live with her in the fear she lived in so deeply. I would not. Today she saw another chance at last to reclaim me, she tried very hard to drag me down. I saw the darkness below me, but I fought. I fought like the devil to live my life. Today I will rest. Tomorrow I will swim again.

Perhaps without realising she had taken hold of my arm and was gripping it tightly. When she let go, the marks she left were slow to fade.

The next day, the whole family went to the beach together. In all the drama, I had forgotten that I’d left my bucket on the beach. I found it when we went back; it had clung to a rock for two days, waiting for me. The hermit crabs I had collected had all escaped.

My mother took her swim as she intended. Nobody tried to talk her out of it, though I could feel unease in the looks they shared behind her back. She came out of the sea a little while later, walking with steady grace, her shoulders shining. When she lifted her arms to take off her swimming cap, we saw the mark on her inner arm: distinct and dark like a burn. It hadn’t been visible until today amid all the redness and swelling. She dried herself with her towel and announced she was going for a walk.

I went back to the rock pools with my bucket, but my interest in the hermit crabs had evaporated. I squatted on a rock and looked out to sea. Now that I knew the truth, I wondered if the swarms of small jellies had come because of my grandmother. As her emissaries, her scouts. I looked at the sea and there they were. The water was calmer than it had been yesterday. They could propel themselves towards the shore now, without being thrown back by forces much bigger than them.

People nearby who had seen the jellyfish were beginning to move out of the water. I unbuckled my jelly sandals and placed them on a higher rock behind me, then lowered myself slowly into the sea. The surface had a layer of grease from the sunscreen washed off acres of skin. I pushed through it, feeling little jelly bodies bumping softly into my legs and my torso, but I knew they would not sting me. I went out farther and farther until I was as deep as I could go while standing upright. Then I let go. The water lifted me. I made myself breathe and be still until I was floating on my back, completely calm as the jellyfish gathered below me.

About The Author

Claire Hamlett is a writer from Oxford, UK, where she lives with her husband and two dogs. Her published non-fiction work can be found at clairehamlett.weebly.com

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