Jellyfish

I was standing in the sea, ankle-deep in water that was splashing up against my rolled-up pyjama bottoms. The reflection of the moon made a pointed line on the sea’s surface, guiding me like an arrow to go further in. I heard a voice calling my name. I looked over my shoulder, expecting to see my parents, but the beach was empty. 

It didn’t take me long to find a jellyfish and I fished it out of the water with my bare hands, like a doctor handling one of my internal organs, my heart or my liver perhaps. I ate the jellyfish on the spot, no hesitation, no questions, no conscious reason nor purpose. It was like I had swallowed a pill that froze time, as if time were something tangible that had danced on the surface of the ocean until that moment. I had always been fascinated with the creatures, seemingly harmless on sight, soft and squishy with their milkshake colours that reminded me of penny sweets. Something terrible about that day had made me eat a jellyfish, to help side-step a lingering memory that my brain could not process. 

That day when my family and I had walked along the coastline for hours. We had barely muttered a handful of words to each other all day. My parents had even held hands and walked close to each other. 

The next morning, I could remember little of the experience. What had the jellyfish tasted like? Why had I not keeled over from the sting? Had I learned how to digest pain? Only a void remained, an unascertainable thing that I could not see, describe or touch. An emptiness, as if I had stuck my head down a well that signified the end of space with nothing on the other side. I had eaten a jellyfish. As a result, chunks of memory began to disappear, leaving holes as if the jellyfish were smothering me, yet simultaneously protecting me. 

Holidays were never the same again. Minimal conversation between us, driving along long roads, visiting derelict castles and looking at ruins that had stood crumbling for years. One year, on our last morning before driving home, we had an early breakfast and went for a walk along the beach. At one point we stopped and Mother made us all hold hands. Further down the beach, a couple of boys my age were poking something in the sand with sticks. I didn’t dare look, I sensed that it was most likely a jellyfish. I felt my fists clenched as I walked away and heard one boy say excitedly, ‘Corr, you’ve just pierced it.’ I felt dizzy and closed my eyes, picturing myself stood ankle-deep in the sea, hypnotised by the moonlight years before. In my mind, I saw a familiar boy a few years younger than me standing on the water’s surface far out to sea. I opened my eyes again to the sunshine. It made me frown and I dug my nails further into my palms. My mother hugged me, took my hand and walked on. The boys who were poking the jellyfish stared at me in silence as we walked past. 

It wasn’t until eight years later that I began to recollect the experience of the night I ate the jellyfish. Sat around the breakfast table, the atmosphere was as cold and pale as the milk bottles that had been left outside on the doorstep. 

‘What’s your weirdest dream?’ I asked. ‘You know, the one that’s always stayed with you.’ 

My family began sharing stories of their most vivid dreams, the glimpses of certain scenes and the visceral feelings that they described had come back repeatedly, time and time again like a Monday-morning alarm clock. When it was my turn, I recited my recollection of eating a jellyfish. I had never told a story with such reverence, nobody had ever listened to me long enough, but I spared no detail as if it were the speech of my life, pausing at many points to ensure I chose the correct word that deftly described what I had experienced. Around the table, the eggs went hard, the toast was left to go cold and the tea in the teapot was left un-poured. At the moment of telling how I had swallowed the jellyfish, I began to shake. Sweat began to form around my armpits, seeping into my t-shirt while droplets formed on my forehead. I felt sick, as if I were about to vomit my breakfast back up. I swallowed hard, buried my head in my hands, my elbows resting on the table. My sister pushed some baked beans around her plate with her fork. My father put his spoon down into his cereal bowl and pushed the half-empty bowl away from him. My mother hugged me again. 

After breakfast, Mother showed me the family photo album. Pictures I could not remember seeing before. It was full of pictures taken before the jellyfish-holiday. Pictures of us all smiling and playing in the sand with another younger boy. The same familiar boy I had seen standing on the water. 

I stared at the boy and said, ‘I don’t know him,’ even though his face told a thousand stories. Mother began to cry. I started shaking again and my eyes widened. I felt a sharp energy radiating from my mother which made the blood in my veins flow with vigour. I still had no idea what had happened, only that there was indeed something in that void; something down that well; something beyond the end of space. Confusion, like a joining of form and feeling, of nature and resistance, of understanding and oblivion. I thought of the jellyfish and began to hear the crashing of waves in my ears as if it were a language that only I could understand. I sat and listened with the hope that an answer would appear like a bubble rising to the surface. 

My mother arranged for me to talk to a doctor. Each time I could think of nothing but the jellyfish. I could feel it swimming around inside my stomach. He convinced me to tell him the story of me on the beach. I relaxed and described the disjointed memories that often flew at me like a swarm of bees around my head. 

I am on the beach. The beach is filled with families laughing and playing in the hot sun. I am standing in the cool ankle-deep water, staring out towards the horizon. I start vomiting up a grey and salty bile, my whole body is quivering even though there is no apparent danger. There is a lump in my throat, so I crunch my stomach as tight as I can, expelling all air from my lungs. Out pops the jellyfish and plops into the shallow water. It lands between some seaweed, judders a few times, then lies lifeless. I cough, splutter and wipe dripping saliva from my lips. I feel someone slapping my back to help me recover. I look up to see the younger boy from my mother’s photo album. He has the same colour hair as me and familiar features. My brother. My brother who drowned in the sea after being stung by a jellyfish. I had been too young to understand until now. I look at the jellyfish that I had just regurgitated, now floating lifeless on the sea’s surface. I stand on it, hoping to break it up and help it decompose quicker. Unexpectedly, it pops like a water balloon and the release of water from inside makes a gurgling sound. Its energy and its hold over my thoughts and feelings have gone, washed away back into the sea. I smile, turn towards the shore where families have gathered in groups, some holding their hands over their eyes to block out the sun, others holding their children close. I walk back to my family, holding my brother’s hand as he sings a song that I have not heard in years.

Photo by Davide Sibilio on Unsplash

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