The Carnivorous Sea

Jessie Ulmer


We think the ocean is trying to eat us. No one ever says this, of course, but our children are advised to stay in the shallows while we pace the shore. The ocean doesn’t eat children. But if one were to stray too far out or fall prey to a deceptive current, its parents would have to risk the carnivorous depths. Our children are liabilities. Perhaps all children are.

The ocean is dangerous, that much is true, but we don’t keep our children from it. The day will come when they, like us, have to decide, but for now they are free to cross the border between sand and sea, the transparent margin where water meets land. We do not enter the sand when our children run shrieking towards the waves. We stay by our cars, with our tablets and magazines and false sense of security. We pretend to read sales reports and answer emails, our clammy skin wrapped in high-collared coats, oversized sunglass balanced on our delicate noses. We keep wary eyes trained on the tideline. The waves tumble our children’s small bodies and we clutch at the unnatural metal of our cars’ fenders, hearts roaring like the tide. But then their faces break the water’s surface and air rolls back into our lungs. Their eyes are surf bright; their smiles gleam like sea glass. We know that under the water, beyond our sight, their toes push into cool, soft sand. It holds them. Our feet flex against the stiff sides of expensive shoes. 

No one gets any work done while our children play in the surf. We all pretend differently. Later, while our children sleep within the remembered warmth of sand and sun, we will make up for the lost time with long hours in home offices, the dark kept at bay by nothing but the click, click, click of our keyboards and the bioluminescence of our screens. The phosphorescent glow sends shapes swimming across our retinas. 

The ocean will not leave us. The whisper of waves finds us in our offices. It follows us down the long, sterile halls and into staff meetings; bubbles up from beneath the whir of the coffeemaker; creeps along the titled floor to tug at our ankles where they rest underneath our desks. When we bend to look, we find nothing but our briefcases, just as we left them. But we have straightened to find small piles of still-damp sand resting beside our coffee cups, drip castles sculpted by invisible fingers, with seaweed flags and driftwood turrets. Sometimes, in the midst of emails and paperwork and charts with colored numbers we secretly do not understand, we pick up our ringing phones to the sound of crashing saltwater. We let the receivers drop, smooth our faces, blame wrong numbers. The office sways around us.

As we drive home in the evenings the ocean laps at the corners of our eyes, sending waves further up the beach with each push, reaching for the tires of our cars. The ocean devours the sand between us. Long fingers tighten on steering wheels. We speed towards our exits.

When we arrive home, our children great us in our yards, sun-brown arms covered in mud, shirts a mess of twigs and grass clippings. They grasp our clean hands with their dirty fingers, lead us to the hollows they have carved from the hillsides. We see doormats fashioned from slabs of tree bark, walls woven from long-stemmed grass, the seamless way the earth claims our children. They are achingly of the land. We wipe the dirt from our pale skin. Our children look so little like us. 

By night we wake from dreams where our bodies are rocked by the push of invisible tides. We turn on the news and let the over-bright colors wash over us. We watch the reporters’ mouths make shapes. Their words are drowned by the hiss of the sea. In the rooms across from ours, our children sleep on. We think of their faces pressing into their pillows, of the delicate shadows cast by their eyelashes, the gentle curve of their cheek. We wrap our arms around our quivering legs and hold them steady until the gray light of morning pushes through our windows. We squint against the incoming sun. The unfiltered light stings our eyes. 

By morning we review paperwork at the kitchen table and pretend not to notice our children making waves in their cereal. They gleefully push their spoons back and forth, until the momentum creates current, creates pull. Milk sloshes out of bowls and for a moment we see sea spray, see bracing waves. Our phones beep. Cheerios are taken by riptides. When it is time to leave, our children wrap chubby arms around our knees and press salty kisses to our legs. We hold this moment like smooth, curved shells.

Sometimes, when the wrong numbers come in, which are not really wrong numbers at all, we stay on the phone for long moments.  The lights above us swim like the sun seen from far below the ocean’s surface. Air slides like water into our lungs. We see the shadow of webs between our fingers. 

We think the ocean is trying to eat us. The waves curl like grasping fingers. The tide beckons. We know it is trying to save us. The surf pushes soft sand onto our feet. Saltwater soothes our skin. Sometimes it is easier to be afraid. Miles from shore, our children sleep on in our quiet houses, their chests rising and falling with nothing but air. The weight of their bodies rests in our palms. We stand with our toes at the tideline and look out at the dark water. 



Jessie Ulmer is a recent graduate of Western Washington University where she studied creative writing and participated in Western's vibrant literary community. Her fiction has been published in Labyrinth, Jeopardy Magazine, The Yellow Chair Review, Pins and Needles: A Journal of Contemporary Fairy Tales, and From Bellingham with Love. She believes all seas are carnivorous, but doesn't hold that against them. It's only fair.

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