Why All The Jellyfish Are Dead
© Copyright 2018 by Taylor Petty
My grandparents bought a week’s worth of beach for the seven days surrounding Christmas each year. It was their gift to the rest of us, the adults at least; instead of spending one morning exchanging presents, we all drove down to the ocean and stayed in the same enormous house. The morning of the 25th, it was tradition for the grown-ups to sip mimosas while my siblings and I made out like bandits with our piles of new clothes and decadent gifts, grinning like loons all the while. I could scarcely remember a single Christmas not spent in a stranger’s home while we, together, watched the tides rise and fall, snuggled close under downy blankets.
December that year was unseasonably warm across the Eastern seaboard, temperatures of balmy Floridian weather transposing themselves halfway up the coast. My sister wore tank tops and shorts when she went out. My grandfather, leaning over the balcony outside, said that people pay good money for this kind of weather in the summer, good money. Watching the shoreline off of our house, I imagined this beach in August, replete with swimsuits and suntans. Dead of December, a lonely little breeze blew across the sand dunes and washed-up seashells.
I’d spent the week drawing uneasily close to the holy day itself. I couldn’t quite explain - something about growing up stripped magic of its significance. I knew how all the tricks worked; I knew what happened behind the curtains. It felt a bit like a sham. I knew, I knew, the meaning of Christmas was family, not gifts; I knew, I knew, the true magic had lain in our hearts all along, but the whole day felt cardboard, a paper facade easily punched through. We listened to a man on the radio crooning White Christmas as the thermostat climbed up to 75 degrees fahrenheit.
We took pride in our traditions. Nobody wrapped presents until the last second on Christmas Eve. A Muppet’s Christmas Carol was observed with religious fervor, my older sister, like clockwork, bursting into tears at Kermit the Frog. Every year, one night a year, we all went out to Margie and Ray’s - all 14 of us - and ordered more seafood than we could ever eat, making fun of the little green broccoli garnishes dwarfed by the vast quantities of deep-fried and buttered shrimps, clam strips, crab legs.
It was because of this love of familiarity that ran so deep in our blood that we took a walk on that Christmas Eve, as we did every year, rain or shine. It was warm enough to dive into the waves, but we settled for shaking our shoes off and plowing our bare feet into the sand stretching beyond the house. My little siblings raced up the sand dunes, my sister beaming triumphantly from the top when she was the first to reach it. I simply traced circles with my toe, quietly marveling at the palpable warmth emanating from the ground in a month fondly referred to in terms of sweaters and hot chocolate. It felt like a secret paradise we had unlocked, a little heaven which was ours to claim.
The evacuated beach was endless the closer I got to the location of waves recurringly kissing the shore. I saw, across the infinite blue water, no clear distinction between this moment and a million others; everything blurred together into one seamless experience of my toes touching ocean in December with the sounds of my mother laughing behind me.
My older sister jolted me out of the daydream. “A jellyfish.”
Within the minute, we all stood in a circle around the deceased Cnidarian creature, staring down at its gelatinous carcass.
“Where are its tentacles?” my sister asked.
don’t know,” said my dad, his head tilted, his eyebrows
furrowed as though the blob could provide a brief science lesson on
its own poor death.
The day before, we had gone to the Virginia Aquarium with the rest of our party - my grandparents, my aunt and uncle, my cousin and her husband and her baby. After we wandered through the tunnel of fish, after we had pet manta rays, we stumbled upon a little circular window through which delicate pink jellyfish could be seen gently spiraling in a small blue tank. They almost glowed.
sister and I were transfixed by their precise, intricate dance.
Starstruck, she whispered, “They’re much prettier when
they’re not stinging you.”
This corpse looked nothing like the ethereal, luminescent ghosts of yesterday. It was a mucusy white, with mauve frills around some of the edge, and just translucent enough to see what looked like hemispheres of its brain. It was also uncomfortably larger than what I would have anticipated, had I known we would encounter this - its span was wider than that of my head.
“I wanna poke it,” said my little sibling.
“No,” my mother responded firmly.
“Only the tentacles sting.”
“No. We are not poking the jellyfish.” With this, my mother resolutely turned and began walking along the beach, expecting us to follow. After a beat, we all did.
Approximately 20 footsteps later, we were reintroduced to the concept of death in three more jellyfish’s bodies. They were close together, almost like a little family.
“This is creepy,” I said flatly.
My father attempted to offer some rationality. “Well, jellyfish normally migrate here in the winter because the water is cold enough for them. With the heat lately, they can’t live, and they wash up dead.”
My little sibling wrinkled their nose, then said, “Can I poke one?” Before being denied the opportunity, they picked up a twig and prodded its flubby head. It was surprisingly firm. This realization, accompanied by the realization that I had been contemplating the squishiness of a dead animal in the first place, made my stomach flip.
As we continued our trek down the shore, we found tens of jellyfish, maybe even hundreds. There were stretches with none, and I breathed a sigh of relief in thinking their massacre was over, but before we could prepare ourselves, another 25 would appear clustered in a radius of 20 feet, some flat, some bulbous, all disgustingly white and oozingly dead. There was no end to their numbers. A nation of jellyfish had washed up at our feet.
At one point, I looked over to see my sister crouched above one, an intent look on her face. When I kneeled next to her, she whispered, “I think this one’s still alive.”
“If you look, you can see how it’s expanding and contracting a little bit.” She highlighted this with the bird feather in her hand, her poking instrument of choice. “Look really close.”
After a few seconds of gazing into its goopy skull, I gasped. “Oh my god. I saw it.”
She nodded, then slowly stood up. “Yep.”
she walked away, I stayed for a moment studying the animal.
Underneath its skin were bubbles of what looked like air, although
they were perhaps an alien amniotic fluid. There were so many grains
of beige sand which, in the jellyfish’s time spent washed-up,
had crawled under its skin and settled. For the first time, I
recognized the splay of tentacles. They weren’t long and
delicate; they were a short little burst of frilly white things
sprouting from the main body. Each one ended in a violet color I had
never seen in nature before. This one was slowly dying on its side,
each individual expansion and contraction costing it the last seconds
When I was six or so, I picked up what I had believed to be a simple pretty shell, curved and spiraling. It was vibrantly colored, pinks and blues and oranges brighter than any of the other ones. I screamed when the creature inside poked out a little leg onto my hand.
“Here, dearie,” said my grandfather, gently scooping it from my grasp. He poked the animal back inside its home, then wound his arm back and tossed it into the sea.
I was stricken as I looked across the grey water. My shell and its inhabitant were floating somewhere, flung haphazardly through the air.
My grandfather put his arm around my skinny shoulders. “It was still breathing, huh? It had to go home.”
began to cry in hiccuping sobs.
Three distinct reasons prohibited me from offering the jellyfish in front of me a proper burial on this Christmas Eve. I rationalized my way through them over and over until I could recite each like a well-rehearsed apology.
First: the tentacles. I was not sure if a dead or dying jellyfish could still sting. It did not matter. I would not have the slightest chance of someone needing to pee on my hand to relieve the burning wound. It would not happen.
Second: my weak arms were simply not strong enough to lob the lump back from whence it came.
Third: there was no way to return each of the thousand washed-up jellies to the waves. It wouldn’t be fair to save the soul of just one. They died as a family. I was wary of separating them.
retrospect, these were all flimsy excuses. I can’t say why
shipping them to the sea would have been better than leaving their
corpses on the shore. Something in me just knows it would have been
right to spend hours on Christmas Eve sending home the hearts of a
clan of jellyfish instead of gift-wrapping the expensive presents I
had carefully selected for each member of my expansive family.
Christmas Eve, a plate laden with my favorite foods sitting tantalizingly in front of me as we celebrated and rejoiced and laughed, I tried to stop thinking about the dead jellyfish populating the beach in absence of its summer tourists. There were simply so many. A minefield of squishy corpses growing stiffer as the tide receded. I couldn’t quite believe they had ghosts, but they did have lives, once. All of which had been snuffed out in one fell swoop of high tide.
But tonight wasn’t the time to mourn. Grief was inconvenient. I wanted to lose my constantly guilty conscience in the glow of holiday lights and my family’s smiles, wanted to drop it off a high pier and let it drift away, wanted to suffocate it in the infinite sands and let myself become numb to the inexplicable sorrows of the world.
An almost-full moon reflected onto the black waves. I pushed death away. Toasting to Christmas with a glass of sparkling cider in my right hand at midnight, we said to each other, “Merry Christmas. Merry Christmas. Merry Christmas,” and the jellyfish’s translucent bodies gleamed alone in the darkness.
Taylor Petty is currently studying elementary education at Virginia Commonwealth University. They hope to pursue writing throughout their career.