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Critical Opalescence: Ocean

Critical opalescence is the temperature of water (374 degrees), when it is neither a liquid nor a gas, but varies between them, producing a shimmering sparkle.


Best of the Net Nominee 2023

Nature Photographer

        Gulls abound, standing and sitting around her. It could be a cover, the ocean picture before her; it is framed so clear. She can imagine it printed life size, the viewer immersed, sharing it with her: a wide horizon of sea, a hidden home. But there’s more. Something just out of view.

        Her hand is on her bag, knowing a camera is there. Could she take the shot? Wait. Debate. There’s a man to her right. He stands alert, yet so still. Surfboard is under his arm, easily. The word RESCUE is in view – on the board, on the yellow truck, stenciled in black letters. A lifeguard.

        She sees movement in the water. Her hand is itchy for action, ready to press the button, but what if someone’s drowning out there? What would this picture mean, then? She can’t do it. Not without knowing the story behind the scene.

        He walks down the sand hill, into the water, and paddles out. Slowly, no hurry. Sanderlings fringe the edges of the lapping waves. Deep roar from farther out, then the lighter hiss. Salt spray.

        Perhaps the movement she saw was just a trick of the light. She forgets the lifeguard, makes a labyrinth in the sand with her feet and footprints, her feet sinking in with a shush, shush. Bits of shell scrape her bare feet: other creatures’ homes. She’s never seen a picture of the creatures who live inside. Why not?

        She walks around and in, searching for a room of her own. She walks out and around. Now she’s in again. She stops in the center and looks out at the water. A pelican dives, military style. Sits on the water with a gulp of fish, efficient. Then she sees a rotation of fins, a disturbance in the water: fin, fin, fin. One after another. Spaces in between. Like cogs. Like wheels. Like sharks. Not sharks. Whales? Too small for whales.

        He’s out there near them, on the board, sitting on it like a boat captain or a poet. Fin, fin, fin, fin. The cogs are moving to the right, out of the picture before her. Then they’re gone. He paddles back in and back up. She waits. He takes a towel to his reddened back; she can feel it scratchy against sand and sunburn.

        “Dolphins,” he says, knowing the question. He keeps his eyes on the water.

        The wind blows strands of hair into her eyes, stinging. “Did they let you get close?” she asks.

        “It wasn’t about me getting close.” He speaks to the wind. She feels ethereal, like she is not there to him at all. As if only the dolphins were real. But she keeps asking. “Who were they?”

        “There was a medium one with calves. The bigger one kept himself between me and the family. He was just checking me out. Another male did the same. The aunties herded the calves away.” The lifeguard tosses the towel into the truck but stays on the sand, eye contact only with the ocean.

        She feels him tolerate her earthbound, human questions, but understands that he prefers the solitude and sway of the waves, the company of wind. Still, she’s curious. “I don’t remember them. I grew up here, lived here but never saw them before. Do they come around much?”

        He is silent a moment, his mind elsewhere. Then he returns to his body to answer again. “The past five years. Right now, the bait fish are out: grunion. You see the birds diving for them. Mackerel eat the grunion. Dolphins eat mackerel. Plenty to eat for everyone.”

        When the bay was dirty, there were no grunion. When there were no grunion, there were no mackerel. When there were no mackerel, there were no dolphins. The sea is warming. No one understands the effect, yet. The dependencies make her feel very small in comparison.

        She thanks him and goes to gather the shells of herself: bag, towel, black purse. Camera inside, untouched. Balances on one foot, then the other to tug on socks then shoes.

        The lifeguard is her age, but with a toughened face, hair weathered by the sun. He could have gone to her high school. She imagines a yearbook photo that doesn’t exist. A surfer’s longing in his eyes, his mind elsewhere, waiting for another wave, the ocean, the place where he feels he most belongs. His home. She envies the confidence, the certainty she sees. She’s always felt uneasy coming back. Like she was being watched, judged. She hopes that one day, like the bay, her old home will become healthier.

        She’ll be flying home soon, to her other home, her chosen home. Pulled back and forth between families. One foot in water, one in air, shimmering between them. How do dolphins know to stick together? Could she be one that herds, rather than the one who is herded?

        She looks back at her labyrinth. One way in to the constricted center, reverse the way out to loose ends. She can’t get to either place without the journey. Now, a pigeon is walking the path. And over it. Going its own way. Like all the animals who make their home here. She will make her own way.

Alisa Golden reads a paper newspaper at breakfast, walks her inner dog daily, and edits Star 82 Review while imagining she saw another bird. Her work has been published in Blink-Ink, Gone Lawn, and One Sentence Poems, among others. She is the author of Making Handmade Books. |

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