When I worked as a marine biologist, I listened underwater, using sensitive aquatic devices, to capture dugongs singing in chirps, whistles, and barks. The dugongs only screamed when threatened or alarmed. Mostly, I studied their songs echoing though whistles that vibrated with squeaks and underwater grunts. That night of the storm, the speakers picked up a dugong screaming and rushing up to surface with the bubbling of flatulence produced in the digestion of seagrass. The dugong, following our ship, was free, unlike the lion caged in the hold.
Our ship was transporting the lion to a private zoo to pay for microscopic fish-egg cells spliced with coral cells airlocked inside a sealed glass box. These cells, bioengineered to self-activate like super-charged sea monkeys, were to interact and grow with rapid speed once exposed to sea water. They had been designed to start a biological chain reaction in the sea to reskin dying coral, and I thought it a shame that the lion would have to pay the price.
When the storm raged near midnight, the sea invaded the ship with the dugong screams. Removing my shirt, wrapping the glass box, I knotted it in the sleeves tied securely to my left wrist.
Swimming toward the howls in cargo, I found the cage by inhaling a pungent scent laced through musk. The lion yelped. Its urine invaded the water, and I knew what I must do because I longed to save the coral but hated zoos.
In the dark of a wave, muted plunks tapped the wrapped glass. I grabbed keys in my cold hand, scaling the cage. Key after key, I threaded the lock.
The lion, choking, splashing, spasming, fought the rising water and me. It coughed blood. My own? Finally, I turned another key, and the lock released. Metal hinges groaned, a roar reverberating through my spine. The cage door hit my head. I dove underwater.
Swimming in gloom, skull pounding, I lost my way and didn't know which direction was up or down. Helpless, sightless, unable to breathe or hear, I lost control of my bowels and shuddered orgasmic into the womblike warmth of what I thought was the dugong swimming beneath me.
Grabbing onto the lion’s collar as it swam to the surface, air shocked my face and arms. The glass box still tied to my left wrist, the lion carried me across the deck of the ship, illuminated faintly by stars and moon.
The crew rushed to avoid the lion. It flung me off its back. Clinging to the rails, I gazed through a telescope at a rocky island where a harem of seals dotted cliffs silhouetted behind the moon. Smashing the glass box on the metal railing, I stashed the envelope of cells between my teeth and dove off the ship.
Swimming toward the cliffs of the harem island, I navigated on my back, using the stars and moon to stay on course, the envelope steady in my mouth but dissolving in my saliva. Congealing on my face, it tasted of salted roses and anchovies.
Legs treading, I pried the mess off my face and attempted to spit it out but swallowed some of the envelope with waves crashing.
Holding shreds of the dissolving envelope up to the light of the sky, I knew the contents had been created to save the sea coral because the coral was dying with the life of the water that quenched the thirst of the world. Capitalism inspired illegal fishing, climate change, factory pollution, and global warming stressing the coral, killing it in a process called bleaching.
When heat stressed, the coral rejected the algae. This rejection whitened the coral. Bleached and weakened, the coral began starving. Its symbiotic relationships severed due to stress, it behaved like a traumatized human, attacking those it needed to survive, working against its own best interests when it became unhealthy.
The envelope was supposed to set things right, but I was to deliver it into the water near the island, and this was apparently as close as I could get before the whole thing fell apart.
* * *
What poured out of the deteriorating envelope glimmered like thousands of weightless grains floating on brightening waves. Particles clung to my skin and tangled in a shimmer of seagrass.
After swallowing some envelope’s contents, I felt pressure building inside me. Something flowerlike began leaching from my mouth. I began choking on scaly petals blooming in my throat.
I coughed flowers streaming through seagrass, and the flowers began to swim like fish.
I vomited scarlet petals into the waves. Blood petals became newborn fish attracting larger fish resembling scarabs, chasing the flower fish down my throat, leaping off my tongue and down my gullet.
Surfacing atop the waves, the scarab fish clustered over my skin, drinking my blood where blooms grew from me. The scarab fish began consuming my soggy flesh along with the blooms.
My wounds opened to bone shrouded in seagrass, and my flesh began to disappear with the flowers that were me and also were fish, twitching like fins until a large sea turtle swam beneath me, carrying me toward what I did not know.
My left hand degloved, I endured the nibbling of fish devouring my flesh. My vision blurred. Floating, I glimpsed the lion swimming with the dugong toward the island’s rocky shore.
Small turtles ate the scarab fish by crawling onto me to remove them from within my wounds. Afterward, the turtles began expelling seedlings of bright living coral all over my body in hues of purple, green, green-brown, blue, and red.
The coral seedlings stuck to my wounds, collecting in tattered flesh, solidifying on denuded bones. Seedlings grew from me, hardening into a rainbow patchwork of living coral.
is the author of eight books, including Refrigerated Music for a Gleaming Woman
, winner of the FC2 Catherine Doctorow Innovative Fiction Prize. Parkison teaches in the Creative Writing Program at Oklahoma State University. Her newest book, Suburban Death Project
, a short story collection, was published by Unbound Edition in 2022. More information is available at www.aimeparkison.com