A Matter of Ocean and Sky

Kathleen Gallagher

© Copyright 2013 by Kathleen Gallagher

Photo of Ft. Jefferson in the Dry Tortugas.

Before the day is over, I vow that I will be a woman snorkeling in the Dry Tortugas’ archipelago reef, sixty eight miles from Key West in the Gulf of Mexico Ocean next to Fort Jefferson, a massive unfinished fortress. The first man to discover the shore was Juan Ponce DeLeon on June 21, 1513. When he captured sixty turtles, he christened the island “The Tortugas (turtle), and I plan to swim along the wall with my fourteen year old daughter.

But for now I am wearing a ten dollar, orange fluorescent child’s snorkel and mask from the local beach store. I come up for air---water in my nose, water blinding my eyes. I try again, diving under the warm liquid; I relax---I try to breathe naturally. I see the green walls, the shadow of other swimmers feet moving away from me; I hear their laughter; I read their thoughts: Look at that middle-aged woman flopping around? Does she think she’ll find an exotic fish in the Southernmost Hotel pool?

Earlier in the day my daughter and I watch the local news: four men caught in the ocean swimming from Cuba. The ocean patrol tries to pick them up from a watery death, but they swim, evading the ships, floating on the waves, tiring but not giving in---for giving in would mean going back. Two are arrested as they are scooped up out of the Gulf of Mexico like ocean catch, one drowns, and one swims safely ashore.

“Could you do that?” My fourteen year old daughter, Kara, looks at me with a smile on her face.

“I don’t know if I could do it. I don’t know how far I could swim for my freedom.” I answer. “Listen to you, Mommy,” she replies. “Listen to what you are saying.”

She is right.

So it is then that I plan my own watery escape, although I am not sure where, or what, I am running from.

While my daughter naps, I look at hotel brochures.

“Wake up, wake up,” I tell her.

“What?” She rolls over in the double bed and squints up at me.


“We are going snorkeling.”

I smile. What?” She rolls over in the double bed and squints up at me. “What?”

“We are going snorkeling,’ I repeat.

“Yeah,” she replies with a chuckle. “You, snorkeling?”

It is true. I am a good swimmer, but I have fears. I fear the silence under the waters. I long for the silence. But this adventure is something I need. My daughter knows. “Okay, Mom. We’ll go to the drugstore and buy you a snorkel, and we’ll practice in the hotel pool before we go.”

She is a planner. She is her father’s daughter.

And so, that is how I find myself in the hotel pool, ignoring the jeers of hotel patrons sipping island drinks with little umbrellas. I take a deep breath and swim above the water to see my daughter smiling at me.

“I think you are ready now, Mom.”


Sixty eight miles away and two hours later, we are on a catamaran close to the island of gold sand and blue skies. I think I am ready, but I fear I will be eaten by sharks, bits of my body carried off by huge turtles while my daughter swims far ahead along the Fort Jefferson Wall.

“Mom, did you see all those fish?”

I smile inside, for it is a poem about a fish, after all, that brought us to this place in the ocean. Several months earlier, I had read the poem, “The Fish,” to her.

“Who is this woman?”

“A poet named Elizabeth Bishop.”

“Is she still alive?”



“We are going to go on a trip to see one of her homes,” I say. “We are going to the place where Bishop fished.”

And so we find ourselves swimming and snorkeling together along the fortress.

My daughter’s blond head bobs in and out of the water like a buoy.

The truth?

I see nothing.

Like a navy propeller she swims by me.

I come up for air.

I watch her pink-brown back bobbing in the waves that threaten to push us against the wall. She turns and waves at me:

“Mom, did you see all those fish? Did you? Did you?”

‘Sure did,” I lie---water bubbling into my snorkeling hose

causing me to cough out of my nose.

“I took pictures, lots of pictures,” she yells waving her small underwater camera. “But I am tired now. I am going back to the beach to lay down.”

She swims by me, not noticing that my flippers aren’t even working yet. So, I try to follow the directions she gave me in the pool: Relax, breathe, relax, breathe. Paddle. Paddle. Paddle.

I panic. My breathing is labored. I come up for air. I make a plan.

I stand up to save myself and my feet feel something sharp. The coral reef---Damn! What Thousands of life forms have I killed with my stepping down, with my own reluctance to swim out farther? What am I to discover here where coral lives bountifully?

How did I get here?

I do not know if I can bear to swim alone in this darkness. But, I know that I must. I relax. I swim. I breathe. And suddenly my world is an underwater dream of magical colors, and I open my eyes and see a swirl of reds and oranges and blue fins suddenly swimming around me. My feet move with the water and my arms move smoothly. I am breathing calmly. I scream: “I did it! I did it!

But there is no one around to watch me shed my old skin—and only the sky and ocean embraces me.


“Mom, that’s my fish.”

We are in Ripley’s Believe it or Not museum a day after our snorkeling adventure, and my daughter is pointing to a sign on the wall underneath an ominous looking fish

The sign reads: “Deadliest fish known to man.”

“That’s my fish,” she repeats.

“It’s….it’s… a barracuda.” I squeak.

“Yeah,” she repeats again. “It’s my fish.”

“What are you saying?” I ask. “What do you mean, that’s your fish?” “It swam by me yesterday.”

“Excuse me?”

“It swam by me, brushed by my side. And, I took a picture of it.”

“Where? I screech. Where did you take it? By the wall?

With me, hopeless behind you? Caught up in my own darkness?

“Three feet from shore,” she answers.

All I can do is look at her.

And all I can do is gasp when we get back the one hour photo: proof of her courage.


Later that day, we ride rented bikes with clanging bells and shiny reflectors on our way to see Hemingway’s house. We do not speak of the escaped misadventure.

My daughter’s strength pours into me. Now I am the baby, new to town. My flowered sun dress blows in the wind---down Duval Street, past Sloppy Joes---I am beautiful; the sea winds blow through my hair as I push the handle of my warning bell: Ring-a ding-ding! Get out of my way! I am ten again. My arms are in front of me. I am not holding on---Whee! We both laugh. We have both found courage.

The world chimes for us.


We explore Hemingway’s home. We discover that a drunken Hemingway once hauled a urinal home from Sloppy Joes--- embarrassing his wife when he arranged a large vase around the receptacle, setting the commode in their Key West garden disguised as fountain. But we are not that interested in his story. My daughter is more interested in the six toed cats and asks if we can sneak one home on the plane. Since we have snorkeled next to the Fort Tortugas, where we imagine that Bishop fished, we decide we must search for her home. We cross the island on bikes on a mission.

We find it. At Bishop’s winter home, a young man walks out front with his ominous looking dog….Is he the owner of the house? He walks by more than once. I can’t get a good picture of Bishop’s home because of all of the bushes covering the fence. There is a pair of old boots on the front porch, a gaping contrast to the immaculate upkeep of Hemingway’s home down the street. There is a sign on the fence: “Beware of the dog.”

Once, a friend of mine visited Sylvia Plath’s house in England---she read the plaque on the front---dedicated to a dead male poet. She became angered that no mention of Sylvia Plath was posted on the house, so she took her camera and stuck it into the mailbox flap. When she got her film developed, all she had was a picture of bicycles against a wall. I am sad. Why aren’t the tourists visiting Bishop’s house like Hemingway’s down the street, my daughter asks me. We discover a beach with a book exchange box. Not much to read, some wind-blown sandy Danielle Steeles, a couple of detective novels, but it is so cool to see a makeshift library on the beach. Alfred Tennyson is there too, well---at least a quote by him on love engraved on the beach. I am home on this island of words and eccentricities. We ride our bicycles down the street where we find an old bookstore named The Blue Heron.

I ask the owner of the bookstore about Bishop’s home.

“Why aren’t there tours of her home?”

“It’s just the way it is,” he tells me.

There is a shrine of books on the front table of Hemingway. The owner has a lighthouse picture in the right lens of his glasses; his store smells like wet books and one of his workers, sorting through books, is talking to another man: “Yes, I want to go fishing with ya—but I’ve got to make some bucks---I’ll need thirty today.” A three legged dog hobbles by me while I eavesdrop.

“Man, come anyway. What’s thirty bucks?” Then I spot the book I didn’t know I was looking for—a First Edition Hemingway---For Whom the Bell Tolls. It is not in prime condition. No dust jacket. A few stains. But first issue. Like this place. I plop down thirty bucks worth a fishing trip in the Keys.

“Take a free book out of the bin on your way out,” the lighthouse eyeglass man says. He winks at me with his good eye.

It is in that free bin that I find her---A frayed copy of Elizabeth Bishop’s Complete Works buried under a large text on deep sea fishing.

My daughter winks at me in jest, mimicking the book store owner, and with one eye closed, she reads the end of Bishop’s poem to me, and I listen.

“Rainbow! Rainbow! Rainbow! And then she tossed him back.”

Like the fish in her poem, we feel ageless.

We smile at one another.

And, I imagine a great light, not darkness that sucks us in and everything we need to know that is great and wonderful about living and knowing exists as we swim in the blackness with sharks, our scales worn and faded and glowing like small diamonds colors reflecting off the sun and waves. The deep waters splash and slam around us and we catch a glimpse of the white clouds sailing blue against blue against blue, and it is then that know that everything is okay, for we are the barracudas of ocean and sky.

I am a college English instructor who once had a poem selected by James Dickey of the movie Deliverance fame.  I like to travel as much as I can and this story is about a journey with my daughter to the Dry Tortugas.  Last summer I walked almost to the bottom of the Grand Canyon with my son.  I have published poetry, non-fiction, and won Honorable Mention in two Writer's Digest Contests, but have never made a cent.  I just love to tell stories.

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