My tall son tells me the official term for a group of jellyfish is a smack. A pod of dolphins, a cauldron of bats, he recites. An earth of foxes, a raft of ducks, a gulp of cormorants, and oh!—he whacks the air—a smack of jellies. We raised him on words, on mythology and on Shakespeare, and he has grown up by the sea, but he is fourteen this summer, so he will not go to the beach with us today. He will not bike the three blocks with us, wave at our neighbors on their porches, or patter down the reedy slope to the hot sand and the glittering bay. Instead, he and his friends will amble around our little town, cameras in hand, black denim tight around their ankles and calves but loose around their taut waists. They have movies to make, spoofs to upload to YouTube, bright red Slurpees to film as they are hurled through the air, turning into small, dark rivers when they hit the asphalt below.
It won’t be fun anyway, he tells me, there are too many jellyfish right now. Scientists call it a bloom when a large number of plants or animals suddenly appears, but this population feels neither bloom-like nor smack-like. They aren’t clumped together in one mass, generations of rapidly growing organisms clogging up waterways, blocking light and oxygen from the surface of the sea. They don’t seem to associate with each other, this invasion of Red Lion’s Manes. And there is nothing swift or biting about their movement, nothing that swoops unannounced out of the air. They are so uniform in size—about two to three inches in diameter—and so equidistant from each other—one small villain every two to three feet—they seem to have been placed by hand, dropped in with calipers, gauged with micrometers. As I eye them in the shallows, I imagine the bay, the whole connected sea, gridded vertically and horizontally, a lunatic version of a nautical chart. There are invisible lines drawing neat cubic squares, latticing the sea. This shimmery trelliswork makes crisscross cages for the jellyfish. They do not cross the lines to pair up, gossip, or cuddle. They can’t or they will get zapped. I am going overboard here, but the networked lines are tentacles too, but only for the jellyfish. I can cut over. I can go anywhere the jellyfish aren’t, but they have to stay in their ever-moving enclosures, their small shifting electric boxes. I imagine, too, a mastermind behind this, his cartoonish underwater lair with large levers and gears, his evil laugh echoing through deep oceans.
See, the jellyfish make us go mad. And it is just barely July. In August, we know to swim only at high outgoing water, only when the tide is pulling the beasties out, when there is no conglomeration at the drop off, no low current pooling them at your waist. But we are not that organized yet. School has just let out for all of us. My husband Tim and I are both teachers, and my small son has just finished fourth grade. The beach bag is not fully packed. We don’t even have a spray bottle of vinegar in it yet, or a canister of McCormick’s meat tenderizer, the two tried-and-true sting erasers, the jelly nematocyst antidotes. We haven’t even had time to search out a tide chart.
There are camps to go to in the morning, library programs on sporadic afternoons, dentist appointments, violin lessons. We have not shed all that yet. We know our schedule will drop off as summer lengthens, as the heat slides into our bones, as the sun gilds us, as we ripen alongside our corn and tomatoes. For now, we need relief from the crowded roads and the steaming macadam. We just want to dunk ourselves, to feel the cold immersion, hear the pale quiet underneath. We want to splash and to swim, and the jellyfish are blocking our way.
I have to step over three parched jelly pancakes on my short walk from my towel to the shore. Their red-brown middles are glazed by the sun, their long tentacles barely existent, fading slug trails if anything at all. There in the ankle-deep water, standing on a periwinkle pitch, I see the rehydrated versions—purple glossy hoods, tentacles three times the length of their bodies. One pulses there at the surface. In the next little plot, one throbs just below. Another, a bit farther off. Look left and there are more. They palpitate slowly. They push the water like lazybones. I am faster and stronger, but I am too big. There is nowhere to lay my body down. They are taking up too much real estate, claiming all this prime waterfront. When I go for it, I dive shallow, eyes and mouth clenched tight, coming up unharmed, but blustery and panicked, scanning wildly around.
I high-step it back to shore and watch my husband and young son. They have decided to travel above the water, have pushed the paddleboard off the shore. Tim strokes unhurriedly, and my small son, sitting cross-legged on the bow, points and counts as they glide. “Dad,” he says, “I’ll stop when I get to twenty.” I can still hear him when he does.
It is Tuesday, so there are only a few people on this strip of public beach. Two teenagers, deeply tan and easy in their bikinis, have just come down the steps from their grandfather’s big house. They are eating bowls of ice cream, cradling red Fiestaware and clattering red-handled spoons. Our neighbors from down the street, who live upstate during the winter, have pulled their beach chairs to the very edge of shore. Their cooler is wedged in the shade of the trees near the path, and every once in a while, the husband hauls himself up to traverse the burning, shell-shot sand and replenish their shiny red cups.
Otherwise, no one moves. There is no one in the water at all. There is more space between us than the jellies, but we are just as evenly spread out. We have divided the beach and laid claim to our spots. Across the water, in front of Shelter Island, a small fleet of Optis races around a triangle of buoys. Their tacks are swift, their white sails chockfull. The SeaTow cuddy boat chugs in front of the small stretch of the South Fork we can see. I like that it is a slight rounded hill, a grassy hummock too far to make out buildings or roads. It looks wild and distant. I am standing on Corchaug territory looking at Shinnecock land. We are all rich in fish and in wampum. I can almost imagine it that way.
Last summer, Tim—a California transplant—had a hankering for waves, so we drove to the ocean. There was a wicked shore pound, but we dove and splashed and bodysurfed and swam, all four of us together. Every time we surfaced, tottered in to the whitewash, grabbed up one of our children’s hands, we would notice something shimmering, a new luster, how this water bubbled big and clung on. There were droplets on our faces, transparent beads dripping off our shoulders, stuck in elbows, fastened to our feet. We shone in the sun. We were luminous, gleaming, awash in glowing brine.
It took us a while to figure it out. After we toweled off and reached to push at the clear gems still festooning us, we realized we had been swimming in jellyfish stew. Nothing stinging, though, no pain at all. So Moon Jellies maybe, or others so atomized their tentacles were neutralized, but all just part and parcel of the water, diced up by the drubbing sea. Afterwards I wondered how small the smallest were, how many we swallowed or nosed in, but then, it was only how beautiful we were, what glorious transformed beings! What had this water done? We were brand-new, magical creatures, thoroughly crossbred and belonging to the sea.
Today, we smolder on our towels, forsake the cool blue water. These jellyfish repel us, forbid us to co-mingle, but I know they won’t be so greedy every day. I can wave at my tipsy neighbors. I can smile at the bronzed girls. When you live by the sea, when its rhythms and tempers are your own body’s echoes, you know that how you learn is over and over. That the tide pulls out at the same time as it charges in, that the shorelines are re-made over every winter. That the ocean’s memory is vast and profound but changes as it strikes the surface. Human, jellyfish, neighbor, teen, we share this power. We are new to each other—new to ourselves—when we gather on the shore. Apart and together, we are witnesses to summer. We watch it go and go.