With Jellyfish

Carol Guess & Kelly Magee

A girl swims in the sea at sunset. Her mother tells her not to, and the girl tries not to, but she does it anyway. She does it for the buoyancy. She does it because she’s not supposed to.
             The sea is exactly the same temperature as her body. She floats on her back, watching the sky flicker. She feels a prick on the back of her arm, and when she looks down, the water is full of tiny jellyfish no bigger than her pinky. The girl holds very still and waits for the waves to wash her closer to shore.
             Now you’ve done it, her mother says when the girl returns home.
             How did you know? But as soon as the girl says it, she feels an itch on her arm. A pebble of gray skin like a wart flakes off, a spot of blood in its place. The girl grimaces.
             You just killed one, her mother says.
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The girl’s skin dries. She can tell when a baby is forming because a small, round patch goes whiter and whiter until it bubbles out like a boil. Sometimes half a dozen form simultaneously across her limbs and torso, and her mother calls it an outbreak. Sometimes only one, and her mother sarcastically calls it a baby.
             Her mother says things like, I hope you don’t eat your babies.
             She says things like, You wouldn’t understand since your kind don’t raise their young.
             After the boil forms, the new head turns rubbery and thin. The threadlike tentacles appear while it is still attached. She is immune to their sting, but her mother is not. The jellies stay active for an hour or more after they drop from her body, so she tries to be careful about where they land. She tries to clean up after herself. But she doesn’t always notice when it happens.
             Ouch, her mother says. Right on my chair? You did that on purpose.
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Some of them she saves to feed to the bad kids at school. The ones who call her names or disrupt class. She needs quiet to focus during social studies or she can’t pass the quizzes. She keeps dropped jellies in a plastic sandwich bag in her backpack. They are so small she can slip them into an open milk carton. The bad kids get terrible stinging rashes and are sent home.
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Now she can swim in the sea whenever she wants. Her mother shoos her out every evening, tells her it’s for her own good. In the water, she can feel her skin drinking. The jellies turn her phosphorescent. All night she strokes, and her arms leave light trails in the water. She sees other sea life, but even the dangerous ones are afraid of her. She is perfectly safe with her babies. Sometimes they drop in the water, which makes her happy because she knows they will live.
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One is born with eyes. It forms differently than the others, burrowing in instead of ballooning out. When it drops – or rather, when it pushes itself from her body – it leaves a quarter-sized hole in her forearm, several inches deep. There is no blood. Just a piece of her gone. The jelly lands on the carpet without a sound. She watches two dark areas near the top, thinking that they look like eyes. She leans closer, and they contract like pupils.
             She moves to the left, and they shift to follow.
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She doesn’t tell her mom about the one with eyes. It’s weeks before another begins to burrow. This time she races to the water, hoping it won’t drop on asphalt and shrivel, hoping it will wait for waves to be born. She almost makes it, but a car pulls up in front of the boardwalk. A few of the kids from school climb out.
             Look, it’s the jellyfish girl. Her arms are disgusting.
             I bet she has herpes.
             I bet she has AIDS.
             They play keep away with her backpack until one of the pretty girls touches her hair.
             Jelly’s not so bad. Her haircut’s cute.
             Suddenly they’re laughing again. She feels air on her chest, feels something undone. The pretty girl has untied her bikini; she’s standing there topless while the cool kids laugh.
             In this manner she loses another baby.
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Now the cool kids call her Jelly. They smear her locker with blood-colored jam. In the lunchroom they trip her, so she drops her tray. A boy steals her cell phone and sexts all her contacts: Mom, Doctor, Dentist, Neighbor Two Houses Down.
             She knows she knows something, but she doesn’t know what.
             Her mother says things like, I hope you don’t beat your babies.
             She says things like, You wouldn’t understand since your kind fuck so young.
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There’s a boy at school with dark brown eyes who watches when she drops her tray. One day she’s in the bathroom crying when she hears her name.
             He’s standing by the sink, looking out the window. Let’s go, he says.
             They cut class, walk outside past the bleachers. They walk into the woods and she isn’t afraid.
             Beyond the woods is the beach and her jellyfish, swimming.
             How did it happen?
             She tries to explain.
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When the baby starts to come, she’s alone. Her mom’s shopping. She’s just watching TV. She knows why she’s wet, knows body from ocean. The boy has a car. She texts him; he comes.
             The hospital races to glow in her window. He’s holding her arm; he’s saying her name. They’re inside and she’s trying to explain to the doctors that it’s a jellyfish baby. She went swimming and she felt the sting. The ocean did this, with its sea foam swirls.
             She holds out her arm, shows the burrowing world.
             When she wakes up, she’s burning. The boy’s asleep by her bed. He’s snoring, slumped. She wants him to wake up. The heat in her arms starts crying and nuzzling. It has eyes this time; mouth a jam-colored O.
             The boy wakes up. What will you call her?
             Aurelia, she says, and just like that her jellyfish baby has a human girl’s name.
             In two days she’ll go home with the boy. The boy’s mother will sing Aurelia to sleep. The boy’s mother will call Jane’s mother and try to talk sense, but her mom will hang up.
             Back at school, the kids will avoid her. Boy by her side, Aurelia home with his mom. Her arms will be smooth. She’ll dream of the sea. But they live inland, Great Plains. She’s never seen the ocean wave.

CAROL GUESS is the author of numerous books of poetry and prose, including Tinderbox Lawn and Doll Studies: Forensics. Forthcoming books include How To Feel Confident With Your Special Talents (co-written with Daniela Olszewska) and X Marks The Dress: A Registry (co-written with Kristina Marie Darling). She teaches Creative Writing and Queer Studies at Western Washington University, where she is Professor of English.

KELLY MAGEE‘s first collection of stories, Body Language (University of North Texas Press) won the Katherine Ann Porter Prize for Short Fiction.  Her writing has appeared in The Kenyon Review, The Tampa Review, Diagram, Ninth Letter, Black Warrior Review, Colorado Review, and others.  She is an Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at Western Washington University.