Dolphin Pearls

The dolphins played beneath the soaring arches of the intra-coastal bridge. They twined around one another, just a thin shell’s edge away from touch, and then lay on the surface for a breath, beak to beak, and felt the sun dry them. The stickiness of salt skin, tacky, where jawbone meets another sinus. They fell back from one another, and accelerated into the diving game, tail fin high up in the air.

On the day Miranda’s mother went away, in the local swimming pool, Miranda hardly wept. She was stunned, a 14-year old lanky and shivery in the tiled corridor. Her mother, Cassandra, chose a spectacular way out. At the end of Cassandra’s aqua fitness class, elbows still vibrating from a vigorous sequential jog, Miranda’s mother jumped up, up, higher, and higher. All around her, her elder friends looked at Cassandra, the relatively younger woman in their midst, their mascot fairy, their light one, smiling and twirling to the Elvis beat. Cassandra smiled back, beatifically. People told Miranda later that Cassandra spent a lot of time with the swimming pool mural, porpoises in mid-jump over the waves, the realistic rendering surrounded by the starfish imprints of countless 3rd graders’ small hands. Cassandra had looked at the mural hard, focused, as if there was something to decode among the reds and greens, the yellows and blues of these fingerprints, the plastic whorls holding the DNA of a whole community.

Then, that day, during the aqua fitness class, Cassandra started to sing, her throat opening wide, flaring beneath her pink lips, tongue twisting upward, engorged with the luscious purple blood of ancient vibration.

Miranda heard her mother’s singing, heard the eerie sound while fastening her shoes in the corridor that ran along the back of the pool. She put her feet down hard, and her teeth clamped shut, too. Then she raced round to the wet passageway that led to the pool. She screech-turned around a wall of green tile. There was Cassandra, her mum, surrounded by a gaggle of aqua fitness elders. Her mum’s face was turned up, to more fully extend a throat like a cormorant’s red sack, billowing like the sail of a sunship that glides between the stars.

Miranda jumped in the water, paddled to her mother. She knew it was urgent. She needed to get there. The moment she arrived at her mother’s warbling form, the sound nearly exploding her ears and chest, Miranda dived under, and made for Cassandra’s feet. There they were, light green in the cool light of the pool bottom. Miranda could see the webs beginning to form between the toes. Then Miranda extended her own small white hand, like a twig in the water, and used her short nails to clip the near invisible rope that held her mother’s ankles to the pool bottom. The leash parted, translucent ribbons sinking to the pool floor, the remnants shaping bracelets around Cassandra’s sturdy ankles. That was all that was needed. Miranda burst up through the blue water, pushing out a placenta’s worth of water from lungs and trachea. Next to her, her mother’s singing subsided slightly. The folds of neck gills retracted into yellow skin. And then she shot up, amid a geyser of pool water, loosened and open, a shrill note in the air. Cassandra was gone.

None of the pool elders knew what had happened. One or two stared at Miranda, as if searching her for fire, for rockets, for blasting caps. Only one elder, a blue-haired lush half swaying in the water, looked at the community mural, and traced with her hand the back fin of the nearest dolphin.

Miranda had burst into tears, and was inconsolable, first in the pool, in the drafty corridor where she waited for her father, and then at home, in the quiet, dark, empty rooms where her father first cried, then drank, then told her stories of mermaids and sea mammals, and the terrible price of land legs.

Today, on the pleasure cruise boat, was the eighth anniversary of Cassandra’s rapture in the pool. Miranda, motherless orphan, watched the dolphins, her hands twisted and white around the tourist boat’s railing. She felt her balance shift with the curvy roils of the mammals just off to starboard. For a second, she relaxed her own grip, and felt the salt stick on the tender palm of her hand. Then she resettled, grasped, keeping herself from mounting the rail and jumping high up to the sun, deep down into the green wave.

Miranda congratulated herself on her levelheaded denial of those desires. Just like passing up a cooling gin and tonic, the tinkle of ice cubes like giggles in her ear. Like passing up a genteel glass in the local gallery’s exhibition opening, Chardonnay slipping in past murmurings of pastel appreciation. She was strong, and her feet were firmly planted on the Astroturf of the pontoon deck.

Behind her, Miranda could hear the Argentinian couple bickering about stars, and inlets, and, maybe, far away islands. Her Spanish was rustic, and not up to these round rolling sounds. With eyes and heart she sent love vibrations to the white-haired woman, the one who quietly looked at the passing scenery, only interjecting here and there a comment into the waterfall of her speaking spouse. The dolphins continued their play off the boat’s side, and now they had come up close, quite extraordinarily close, heads rearing up from the waters. One’s beak was just to the side, like an intelligent poodle judging her owner. Miranda stared at the dolphin’s eye. It held her. It commanded her. It pushed her forward.

Later, one of the bystanders on the boat would report how the young woman who had so desperately clung to the railing suddenly let go, opened her handbag and started the ritual.

Miranda took out the rosary. The dolphin looked on, curious. Still standing upright in the water, its beak opened from time to time, as if preaching. Miranda tore the rosary’s silk string. Individual wooden pearls gathered in her palm. The small silver crucifix at the end of the string cut sharp lines into her tender flesh.

The dolphin wanted this. This was her way in. Miranda took the crucifix, and dug deep into her face.

The other dolphin caught on to the game aboard, and began running antics behind its mate. Standing high on its tail, it roared backward through the waves. Miranda did not pay attention. She was right then about eight years old, firmly attached to her father’s hand. They had visited a Disney park that housed a sad-eyed giant dolphin, an Orca. Miranda and her father visited the underground aquarium wall, and she held her small hand against the cool thick pane. The orca swam nearby, its black and white skin shimmering in Miranda’s vision, obscured by tears. Meanwhile, her father told her about rape in the dolphin world, about gangs of juvenile males ravaging one of their sisters, about blood in the water, about how nothing is as innocent as it looks. When they went up to the surface, to the dolphin show with its finale, the orca jumping out of the water and splashing the audience, Miranda wasn’t able to see the mammal through her tears. At home, her mother, the poet, scolded her for being morose, for being withdrawn, for being a loner, and how her father was fed up with the both of them, the sobbing women, the treacle stickiness of family life. Miranda wrote down these words in her diary that night: Treacle. Morose. Gang rape.

On the boat deck, Miranda succeeded in opening shallow cuts on her cheeks, little pepper stings of tribal scarring. The fellow boat passengers shifted backward in horror as the first drops of blood fell thick and dark onto the green turf. Miranda was still looking at the dolphin, only taking her eye away to select the first two beads. Then she inserted them carefully under her dermis. The dolphin chattered at her, its sensitive jaw vibrating in the drying air. Miranda felt the air’s coolness on the new braille beneath her skin.

Miranda finished inserting the prayer beads. She felt sure that her future love would understand the message, etched in blood and pearls. Her fellow cruise passengers shrank back even more as the young woman grasped the rail, swung a foot on the lowest rung, and then stepped like a gymnast up to the top bar. One man, a recent transplant from Colorado, looking to make his home in the surf shops of the barrier island, reported that the young woman had reminded him of Rio de Janeiro’s Sugarloaf Jesus. She shone, he kept repeating to the coast guard men. Another passenger, recently returned from her first trip to Havana, remarked on the music floating in the air, a cushion of sound that seemed to surround the boat like a light fog, a swaying deep in the hips of the keel.

After that moment of suspension on the rail, Miranda dove down to the intra-coastal waters.

None of the fellow passengers could quite agree on what had happened, and the interviewing Coast Guard officers sat over a beer that night, redacting their reports for the official record. Had the dolphins really approached the young woman, lifted her hair with their beaks? Had they twirled around her, offering fins to her groping hands? And had they truly towed her away from the boat, out toward the far islands beyond the horizon? They didn’t believe a word of it, and knew that a long day of search lay ahead of them, poles and bright lights lancing into the coves where the manatee rest in the warm waters.

Privately, the officers dreaded that amid the searchers would be the one remaining member of this stricken family, Hector, Miranda’s dad, Cassandra’s husband, dark- eyed, army fatigues hitched over belly, the strength of a luchador still tingling beneath dark tattoos.

The coast guard veterans remembered the weird story of how they had found Hector in the swamp. Oh yes, that was, to the day, exactly four years before his daughter’s jump off the boat, four years after Cassandra disappeared from the pool. Hector was found huddled, mud-smeared, in the root cave of a mangrove. They remembered the wounded bellows of the once powerful man, now under constant suspicion after the vanishing of his wife. They recalled the barks and whistles of an exhausted larynx. In his belt had been a knife and a diving bag full of abalone. Tucked amid the plump shell flesh, provenance unclear and hence occasion for instant rumor, was a rosary. A tiny crucifix was haloed with pink pearls still nesting in the moist flesh folds, ancient sand corns that had grown more and more luminous with each passing moon tide.

The Coast Guard officers extracted Hector from the root labyrinth, and he had been silent, drifting. They brought him to his home, where his teenage daughter sat beneath the kitchen table, clasping the wooden leg, a tableau of pity and grief.

Not knowing what else to do, they left them there, father and daughter, with the father’s hunting bag. For the next week, till the stink became too much, the bag of mollusk flesh oozed fluids onto the kitchen table, sticky and drippy. From what the officers could figure out when they visited later to check on their charges, father and daughter just spent their days looking upon the miraculous rosary and the pearls, marveling at the drying liquids transforming colors into flesh.

The dolphins played in the dying light. Their beaks broke the surface of the still water, their dorsal fins lancing through golden evening streams. Their numbers fluctuated with the seasons, predation, the patterns of migration. Whale lovers joined, and floated away, new babies were born. Today, a creature of green-blue whiteness glided among them, and breached in the weeds.

The story is part of a wider story collection and prose poem work in which I use imagination and speculative means to investigate women’s connection to water. During the time of writing these stories, I trained in various body work modalities in the water (aquafitness, Watsu, Ai Chi), and I participated in water protection rituals, often linked to the NoDAPL movement, and indigenous women’s care for our world. I worked on the Salamander Project, an art project in which disabled people go swimming together, semi-nude in public, going underwater, exploring liminal space.

Questions that intrigued me included, how does settler colonialism’s repression deform myths? How do contact zones reinvent themselves in surrealist lineages? My writing and art work as a white queer disabled performance artist is informed by feminist lineages, and by Donna Haraway’s recent work: how genre forms reshape affective regimes and do their own labor in opening up to strange touching kinships.

About the Author

Petra Kuppers is a disability culture activist and a community performance artist. She is a Professor at the University of Michigan, and she teaches on the MFA in Interdisciplinary Arts at Goddard College. Her most recent poetry collection is PearlStitch (Spuyten Duyvil: 2016). Her stories have appeared in Drunken Boat, The Sycamore Review, Visionary Tongue, Future Fire, Capricious, Wordgathering, Festival Writer, and Accessing the Future: A Disability-Themed Anthology of Speculative Fiction. Her first fiction podcast, Ice Bar, came out with PodCastle In March 2017. She is the Artistic Director of The Olimpias, an international disability culture collective. She lives in Ypsilanti, Michigan, with her poet partner and collaborator, Stephanie Heit.

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