It’s the stuff of nightmares.
Your basal fear, innocuous at first, but slowly growing in intensity. It creeps up on you so slowly, you don’t even notice. And then, in the time it has taken to blink, the threat is all around you, absorbing you into its nucleus, and there is no escape…
The water was crystal blue, the Costa Rican sand white. The sun sent sparkles shimmering off the bouncing waves as though diamonds had been cast across the surface.
Repositioning the soft plastic of my snorkel’s mouthpiece, I dove into the sparkles and followed the gentle swirl of water kicked up by Ryan’s blue fins. The steady pssshhh… pssshhh… of air flowing through my snorkel held a meditative quality while my muscles relished in pushing my fins up and down against water in repetitive serenity.
We glided through emptiness, not a speck of life to be seen, towards the rocky cliffs ahead. As sand opened to rock below, the empty seascape woke up with life. Instead of endless uniformity on the bottom of the ocean, there were rocky mounds, crags, and crevices, all hiding creatures of the sea. A small school of black-striped yellow damselfish, maybe eight in total, rippled by. They kept their distance, spying me with considerate eyes, understanding I needed space. A parrotfish, orange lips puckered in an almost-kiss, bobbled up from a fissure in the rocks, regarded me, and left me alone – she knew better than to get near, sensing that swimming too close would seize my lungs in panic.
I smiled through my snorkel. The unbroken pssshhh… pssshhh… emptied my mind of schedules and to-do lists as I watched the colorful ocean community go about their business. Angelfish, urchins, queens, and devils played their part, showing off their beauty but keeping clear of the human with ichthyophobia.
With a push of my fins, I glided around a large rock, my eyes hungry for more wonders of the sea, but something was off. The rainbow community was gone, the rocks and crevices a ghost town. If the ocean could talk, it had fallen silent.
I scanned the barren space. A lone butterflyfish, its vibrant purples dulled in the shadows, zipped out of sight. The emptiness pressed down on me as though I was fifty feet under the ocean rather than floating on the surface.
And then, movement – a ripple, a flash. Emerging from the shadows, a great wall of fish materialized. Their tiny, bullet-shaped bodies, glistening silver in speckles of sunlight that breached the water, undulated in unison as they stared at me with beady eyes.
Ten thousand bullets, pulsing and watching me, as though they were a single organism.
My flippers stopped flipping. My feet, like leaves too weak to hold on to their sturdy tree, slowly dropped. The weight of them pulled me vertical before I kicked again and bobbled my body level.
The wall watched me. I watched them. An extraordinary school, too many to count. Enjoy this. Take it in. This is beautiful.
I nodded to the bullets. They watched me and pulsated.
With a flip of a fin, I turned away. Pumping my legs, I swam back around the rock, towards the damsels and parrots, towards an urchin minding its business on the side of a boulder, towards the most gorgeous yellow pufferfish I had ever laid my eyes on. The puffer smiled and winked.
A smile stretched through my snorkel.
I shimmied through the water as the puffer disappeared around a bend. I followed, the sun warming my back and water caressing my belly, as I searched for the banana yellow but Ms. Puffer had vanished like a ghost. Only shadows lay in her wake.
A tap-tap-tap on my leg shot blades of adrenaline through my heart and I jumped, as much as one can jump when suspended in the otherworldly spirit of fish. Whipping my head around, I met my husband’s smiling, goggled eyes. With a nod and point, he let me know it was time to head back to shore – to leave this realm and resume life as a biped.
With our eyes and hearts filled with the wonders of the ocean, we swam around a rock and stopped short. The mass of gleaming, silver bullets with beady little eyes undulated two feet in front of us. The organism had grown to twenty thousand individuals – a monster with forty thousand eyes, all staring into me.
Abandoning Ryan, I spun back around but another twenty thousand bullets, where crystal waters were a second before, pulsated and stared, stared and pulsated. Vacuous eyes incapable of blinking.
I spun, and spun again, dancing an erratic subaquatic pirouette. The school was now one-hundred thousand strong and multiplying like a cruel magic trick of the sea, surrounding me, pressing close to me, squeezing me and forcing me to be their heart. My husband was gone, lost to the monster, a sacrifice to the water gods. I was on my own.
Psh. Ps. P.
Slamming my hand to my bikini top to keep squirming, slimy invaders from intruding, I swam and swam.
Five-hundred thousand undulating bodies. One million eyes. I turned around, searching for an escape but I was closed within the wall of fish – my own personal Cask of Amontillado– and they were all staring at me, blurping, “Uno de nosotros. Uno de nosotros.”
“Oh my God!” I tried to scream through my snorkel, but the plastic mouthpiece distorted my voice to a garbled wail. My frantic attempts to scream were lost in the heavy weight of water and fish swarming me.
A nip on my leg seized my muscles; the edges of my vision darkened. Psh. Psh. Psh. Psh. Another nip, and another.
My greatest fear – it was absorbing me. The once-small school had become my existence and it went on forever. Everywhere I looked, fish fish fish fish fish fish…
Burst through the wall. Psh. Pick a direction and keep going. Psh.
A final push, a final kick towards the open ocean, through the empire of slimy, scaly bodies and eyes.
Eyes. Bodies. There was nothing else.
“Kick!” I gurgled as slippery, wriggly, slug-like bullets bumped my thigh, my neck, my cheek. I was a salmon, struggling upstream through fish soup, my life dependant on tenacity and endurance.
And then it was over.
I had breached the mass.
I gazed through clear blue. Crystal water stretched out as far as the eye could see. No fish. I was out.
I pushed for shore, not daring to look over my shoulder for fear that the black magic would surround me again if I only glimpsed the beast.
As I let the waves take me – to carry me back to land – images of my husband filled my head. He was tough. He was resilient. He could make it out.
The ocean spit me out onto the sand. Spluttering the snorkel from my mouth, I blinked at sand-speckled legs standing in front of me. I lifted my head, shielding my eyes from the sun’s glare, and met Ryan’s smiling face. “Anchovy pizza tonight, my dear?”