True or false: Parrotfish or baby elephant? by Leslie Beckmann
Leslie Beckmann, from North Vancouver, takes Lawrence Hill's first writing challenge and tells us one tall tale and one true story.
Which one do you believe: did she swim with the parrotfish or feed the baby elephant? Let us know in the comments below!
UPDATE: And the true story is that Leslie Beckmann went swimming with the parrotfish.
I roll backwards into the sea, all neoprene sweat and overheating urgency, watch set, gauges checked, fast before I can think of the tomfoolery, the hubris, of sinking five fathoms into the sea. Of breathing air from a can. Of doing both things at night. With only a sliver moon. Scorpionfish live here. And barracudas and jellies. And Jaws. I was braver and wiser, I was less afraid of the dark, twenty minutes ago on the dock in Tavernier.
The flashlight’s beam through the sediment rich water is almost a solid thing, the light dancing off numberless plankter, a silver sword outstretched before me. I hold my breath to quiet the rasp and release of my regulator, expecting the sea to fall silent around me. Instead I hear the thrum of a distant boat, the slap of waves against our mooring buoy, the crackle like Rice Crispies that is the sound of a thousand thousand shrimp feeding on the reef. Bright little fish, neon in a rake of light, dart into clefts and crannies to find a better darkness. A grey wolf eel, woken and alert, watches us from a crevice—head bulbous, eyes bright. It gulps at the water but only to breathe, not to bite.
These are not the star attractions. We are diving deeper and farther, diving to see Scarus vetula—the queen parrotfish—bedded down and asleep. They are exactly and unexpectedly as I was told they would be: swaddled in self-spun silk cocoons. I see one at the base of the reef, a bright blue prize—a male—inside a diaphanous sleeping-bag made prosaically of extruded spit. Beside him a female, her scales orange and brown—sways in her own gauzy balloon. They are far more beautiful than they sound, these oblivious fish, rocking gently in the never-still deeps. I am foreign here and a voyeur; I delight in being of so little consequence to the sleeping sea.
In twenty years and on another coast I will find an opalescent jellyfish washed up dead on the shore. It will remind me in colour and texture of the parrotfish cocoons. I will have long ago married and given up diving for a husband whose pneumonia-corrupted lungs cannot handle the depths. I will have recently been divorced, been given up by him. I will make a pact with myself in that moment: I will return to the night-time sea; I will see again those perfect fish wrapped in their aspic cocoons.
It is Day Three in the Western Cape and I am still jetlagged. I have come on my own, a foolish white woman travelling alone in Africa. Through the fog and dizziness of sleep deprivation I hear unfamiliar birds begin the dawn chorus and wonder what I was thinking when I set off this way, searching for meaning in a land so alien to my own. The sun will be up soon and the Yellowwood that smells nothing like the cedar of home will begin to steam.
They gave me my briefing yesterday. His name is Mthunzi—the !Xhosa word for shadow—because he is so dark he is almost black. I will spend a month here, mending fences, mucking stalls, and mixing formula. And I will feed Mthunzi.
I stand with an oversized baby bottle in my hand, a teat the length of my palm, and wait, like I am told, for the calf to come to me. Like most of the orphans here, his mother was shot by poachers for her tusks. He is skittish. I am suddenly afraid he will not like me. But I don’t matter, only the bottle. He raises his stubby trunk and latches, drinking hungrily. The thick yellow formula leaks down his lips, down his chest, onto the sawdust on the ground. Trunk high and curved, a perfect ogee, the tip is near my shoulder and I can feel his warm damp breath, sweet like babies and grass. He snorts a little between swallows. He wiggles the tip of his trunk in the air—the pointy parts are called fingers—like a suckling human infant flutters its contented toes. Lost in breakfast, he forgets his trunk, lets it settle on my arm, lets it flutter against my skin, soft and smooth and warm. He is like a nursing kitten kneading a mother cat and I—mother cat, mother elephant—am awestruck, am captive, am his.
Bottle empty, he sneezes, misting me with mucous and ooze. I laugh and he butts me in the gut, wanting more food. I will feed him three times a day, every day, for a month. In this month, he will teach me everything. And then I will come home to Canada and I will dream I have returned to the Cape. I will dream that it has been many years. I will dream, in the silence of my winter bed, that when I get there Mthunzi remembers me.
Parrotfish photo: Paul Asman and Jill Lenoble
Baby elephant photo: Roland Petrasch