Suhaila toed the mass of jellyfish and thought, At least they don’t sting. The tide had deposited thousands of their bodies up and down the beach in thick clumps, clusters of sand-spackled flesh so glossy it might be mistaken for cellophane from far away. The domes of their bells lay scattered everywhere: tangled in kelp, indented by purple-bellied slipper shells, pierced by the black horns of mermaid’s purses.
This had never happened before.
The surf tugged at the knob of bone below Suhaila’s pinky toe. She bent over a jellyfish, a blue-green ring like cooling gelatin, the same color as the veins in her hands. She did not touch it, lest the memories of the things Francis used to love begin to drown her.
Down the strand, the motor of a beach cleaner revved to life.
“Rora, let’s go.” Suhaila brushed salt from her ankles. The beach was filled with bodies, the sand shivering like glass. Suhaila’s daughter waddled up and down, lifting the bell of each jellyfish like the translucent flesh of a candied peach. Behind her, the first plume of orange light hit the SOLD sign beside the beach house.
Aurora lifted the platter of her hands, a jelly spreading its milky mass over her fingers. Its tentacles diffused the light into a prism of spun sugar. “Mama,” she said, ignoring her mother’s call.
“They’re like clouds.”
“Aurora,” Suhaila said. “I mean it.”
The child frowned and dropped the jellyfish, its doughy body still indented with her fingerprints.
Suhaila and her daughter climbed the dunes back toward the beach house. Even at dawn, its two peeling stories loomed like a threat. Suhaila’s mother had told her it was too much house for a widow and a young child, warning her of flooding and of the undertow that could drag a child under like a stone. Suhaila had taken it as a challenge, water-sealing the cracks in the foundation, teaching Aurora to keep to the shallows. Francis would not have feared these things. But Suhaila was not her husband, and she knew how unexpectedly the world could wound a person.
She’d thought that buying the beach house would give her some measure of peace. When Francis was alive, it had been the beautiful dream: a cottage on the shore, the salt air, a place where Francis could watch the sun gild the sea. That man, Suhaila thought, had loved the ocean as though he had been carried in its womb. The beach house was a promise they had made to each other, a promise Suhaila had kept after her husband was gone.
But the house hadn’t brought Suhaila the peace she’d expected. The realtor had told her an old woman had lived alone in the house until her death, but she hadn’t told Suhaila the rest: that the old woman had died in her sleep in Suhaila’s master bedroom, that she had passed away in the very corner where Suhaila’s bed was now wedged against the wall. The woman had lain for days before a neighbor noticed six copies of the local paper on the step.
Suhaila told herself she was lucky—there was no smell in the walls. A new coat of paint would wash the rind of death from the doorjambs and the baseboards. The single-car garage was crammed with cans of paint in a sunny coral hue, a replacement for the sun-faded navy siding. Her mother had told her to be practical, to hire a contractor to repaint the beach house. But Suhaila was determined to do with her own two hands the things Francis would have done.
Suhaila and Aurora stood by the back gate and watched the beach cleaner rumble across the sand. Its rake picked up stray napkins and spent cigarettes, shredding the jellyfish with the debris. It left a track of clean, flattened sand, as though the jellyfish had never been there at all.
“Mama.” Aurora fidgeted with the buttons on her nightgown. “Samar never got to see the jellies.”
Suhaila was surprised Aurora even remembered Samar’s visit. Aurora must have been about four then, back when Francis was still alive and Suhaila’s uncle had brought her young cousins from Syria to visit the United States for the first time. Suhaila and Francis had taken them all over, down to DC and up to Brooklyn, where Suhaila’s parents owned a Middle Eastern bakery famed for its baklawa and ‘atayef. Aurora had been in her sea creature phase then, obsessed with starfish and sand dollars—and jellyfish. Francis, who had loved the ocean for as long as Suhaila had known him, had only encouraged this obsession. At Ocean City Maryland, at Rockaway, at Misquamicut, Aurora had combed each beach for jellies to show the older, patient Samar. None had turned up then. Samar had surprised Aurora with a gift anyway, a charm bracelet decorated with sea creatures that Aurora hadn’t taken off for months. It still pained Suhaila that it had been lost in the move to the beach house.
Samar must be grown now—she’d been in high school the last time Suhaila had seen her—but the war had made it impossible to stay in touch. First Suhaila’s uncle had stopped calling; then the Internet connection in Samar’s town had grown spotty for weeks on end. Suhaila wondered if they had been able to stay. She wondered if they had been able to leave.
Through the open window at their backs, the television hummed. Suhaila had forgotten to turn it off when they’d walked out the back gate, unpacked boxes littering the halls, Aurora still in her floral-print nightgown. Francis would never have allowed that, but Suhaila was softer, less sure of herself. Last week, Aurora had run across the gravel driveway in spite of Suhaila’s warning, tripping and skinning her knee. Aurora had covered the wound with her hands in the bathroom, shaking her head when Suhaila held up the dropper of iodine. Suhaila had wanted to say: I told you not to run so fast. Aurora had refused to move her hands. Francis would have had the soothing words, the kiss to make it better. Suhaila had cleared the knot from her throat. “If you keep holding on to it,” she’d said, “it won’t stop hurting.”
The words of a reporter drifted out to them, erased by the surf like fresh footprints. —refugees drowned this week attempting to cross the Mediterranean—trying to reach Greece or Italy in an unseaworthy craft—
Suhaila told herself Aurora either didn’t hear or didn’t understand. She’d thought it would be better to let her daughter walk the beach rather than seeing children her age pulled from the surf in Lesbos or Lampedusa. Suhaila wondered how far these jellyfish had traveled on the tide, whether death spreading in the water four thousand miles away could be carried here with their gelatinous bodies, whether death painted itself across oceans the same way it had settled into the liners of Suhaila’s cupboards and the backs of her coat closets.
The tide was coming in, nudging the delicate bells of the jellyfish further up the dunes.
Aurora tilted her head back. Her damp curls plastered themselves to her neck. “Won’t the jellies die if the cleaner gets them, Mama?”
Suhaila parted her lips, unsure of how to respond. “Maybe,” she said, though that felt like the wrong thing to say.
Aurora said nothing. The sun freckles she’d gotten from Francis were coming out this time of year, looking both odd and perfectly at home on the coffee-colored canvas of her face. It was those tiny remnants of her husband, like the raw, unceasing presence of the ocean itself, that pained Suhaila the most. She had always expected her daughter to come out looking like a perfect mix of her and Francis—her own sharp cheekbones and dark eyes, Francis’s attached earlobes, the way her second toe was longer than her first. And Aurora did, in a way, look like a blend of both of them. What Suhaila hadn’t expected was the way Aurora looked like neither of them, too. Her daughter looked more like Suhaila than she herself had ever looked and yet also like someone Suhaila had never met. It reminded her of all her ancestors and distant relatives who, were Suhaila to have met them on the street, would have seemed like perfect strangers. Perhaps, she thought, this was true of the entire human race.
The beach cleaner lumbered across the field of stranded jellyfish. Suhaila watched its broad wheels and tried to imagine what Samar would look like now. Glassy bodies yielded to the pressure of the beach cleaner’s tires, the roiled surf cloudy with torn flesh.
Later that morning, when Aurora smashed her Jell-O with a fork, Suhaila would feel a stab of regret. Panic would rise in her, and she would grieve the cruel timing that had made it impossible for Samar to see the jellyfish, the timing that had brought war to her country, the timing that might separate them for the rest of their lives. Suhaila would wonder again if she should have tried harder to convince Samar and the rest of the family to stay when they had visited. On the beach, the surf would bleed with a bluish glow. Suhaila would tell herself there was nothing she could do.
But Aurora would press her face to the window and point out at the wounded jellyfish. “Look, Mama,” she would say. “The ocean’s crying.”
The migration did not stop that day or the next. The jellyfish rolled in with the tide like living clouds, washing up from the distant reaches of the Mediterranean and the Atlantic. Suhaila took to getting up early so she could watch their bodies twist like round flasks of light, when the peaceable night was transformed into a mirrored carpet of stars. Waiting for the beach cleaner to turn their broken bodies into the sand, Suhaila would hum to keep herself from weeping. It was as though she were waiting for her husband’s passing again, looking at something she knew was going to die.
That morning, Suhaila had woken to find the old woman lying next to her again. It had happened every morning since they had moved into the beach house. Suhaila had opened her eyes to the dead woman’s face beside her, cheek propped up on one elbow, gazing at Suhaila like a pitying mother. Suhaila had not been afraid. After all, hadn’t the woman breathed her last in this very corner, her last swallow mixed with the liquor of dreams? Surely, Suhaila thought, the living must yield places of rest to the dead.
But as the dawn gathered and the helpless, pulsing creatures sifted in, Suhaila thought again of what Aurora had said about the nightly visitors. Everything around her seemed to grieve for something. Even the brutal sea wept for the suffering of men and women not very different from her at all, men and women whom most of the world had forgotten. There was a palpable weight to this strange mourning, like the uncurling of a fist. Suhaila examined her fingers on the pull of the blinds, her knuckles spotted with flecks of coral paint. The summer that Samar had come, the sun had burnished their skin the same shade of brown.
The blade of the sun broke the horizon, and the beach cleaner’s engine groaned to life.
Suhaila hesitated with her hand on the blinds. She pictured each drowned refugee’s name written on the trembling bells in the sand, the invisible language of grief. Suhaila’s own name was the Bedu name of a star: Canopus, the white supergiant in the constellation Carina, the keel of the great ship Argo. Once, her ancestors had used that star, Suhail, to navigate under the canopy of night. Its yearly dip below the horizon made the Bedu call it changeable, the shadow-brother of fixed Polaris.
And Suhaila thought of how, north of Richmond, Canopus never rises, how she had never seen her namesake appear in the sky. She took it on faith that it was there, but still it was invisible, this star her ancestors had seen from Damascus hundreds of years before her birth. Suhaila asked herself how people came to believe in things they had never seen. She asked herself if God was more present in anything than in the changeable violence of our own bodies: the touch of a dead woman’s hand, a husband in a child’s face, the bodies of fifty thousand stranded jellyfish. Fifty thousand stranded creatures that had seen the dead and the drowning, had brushed the refugees’ cheeks and fingertips with their soft bodies. This stranding was not an accident, Suhaila realized, but a cry.
The sea itself was grieving.
Suhaila grabbed a stack of plastic containers from the rack and ran out the back door without her shoes, cinching the belt of her housecoat with her free hand. She dipped the containers into the surf, gathering silted seawater and coarse sand.
She started with the jellyfish closest to the water, the ones that had the best chance of surviving. A half-mile down, the beach cleaner lumbered toward her. Suhaila scooped the jellyfish into the containers, setting them further up the dunes and racing down for more. When she had filled them all, she ran into the house and dumped the jellies into her stockpots, her sink, her mixing bowls. Every countertop was filled with viscous, inconstant life, tentacles swaying like hair against plastic and ceramic and glass.
Finally, the beach cleaner overtook her. Suhaila went inside and rested her head on the metal rim of the kitchen counter. She listened to the machine blare past, feeling cords of blades sift her gut.
That night, Suhaila dug a trench beyond the back gate, down to the wet sand. She lined it with a plastic tarp and filled it with seawater. Then she emptied the containers of jellyfish one by one into the trench. Aurora knelt beside her. When Suhaila was finished, she sat back on her heels, tugging a strand of hair from between her lips. Salt painted itself across her tongue. The trench was so dense with luminous jellyfish that it seemed as though she were nose to nose with the moon.
Suhaila put her daughter to bed that night and lay down to wait for the old woman’s ghost. When she could not sleep, she turned off all the lights in the house and watched the gentle things glow.
In the mornings that followed, the trench was a curve of otherworldly blue. Suhaila would lift the latch, her bare feet breaking the crust of damp sand, to save what soft bodies she could from the blades of the beach cleaner. Aurora would watch from the back gate. The days passed in this way, and the summer got on, and the trench filled with light—until the old woman touched Suhaila’s face.
It was her touch that was new. Each morning, Suhaila and the dead woman had gazed at each other. Bitter joy would crease the woman’s face, as though she were trying to describe to Suhaila something exquisitely beautiful for which she didn’t have the words. Suhaila wondered if this was universal, this desire of the dead to comfort the living. When Aurora woke, Suhaila would rise and blink the woman’s face away like sleep.
But this morning, the old woman had touched Suhaila’s cheek.
Suhaila went out the back gate before the sun rose, setting the latch down quietly so as not to wake her daughter. It was still dark enough for the jellies to shimmer like cut crystal, a luminescent arc between Suhaila and the grey ocean. Not for the first time, she wished Francis could have seen them.
“Mama,” came Aurora’s voice from behind her. “I found it.”
Suhaila turned. Aurora held something silver, reflecting the blue light. In the half-dark, the small silver charm of a sand dollar flashed.
“I found it in one of the boxes,” Aurora said.
“Samar’s bracelet!” Kneeling beside the trench, Suhaila helped her fasten the clasp. Then she kissed Aurora’s hair and motioned for her to sit down beside her. She said, “So you found it after all.”
“Maybe sometime,” Aurora said, “I can show her I’ve still got it.”
Suhaila set her arm around her daughter and said, “Maybe someday you will.”
It was a cloudy morning, and the sun did not break the clouds. The violet sky began to lighten, graying at its edges like stale chocolate. The jellyfish rose to the surface to greet the coming light, their glow flickering across the sand like the flames of cold candles. Suhaila’s cheek burned with the dead woman’s touch. She tried to picture the day all this would be gone, the day she would wake to an empty house, to bare sand and iron sea. But there was no telling what the days after this would bring. The world was full of invisible things, and there was no imparting what her daughter would not, could not, remember, no matter how precious the things they had lost. The life Suhaila had known had vanished, and all that would sustain her was her daughter’s faith in a world she could not yet see.
Suhaila dipped her hand into the water, and Aurora did the same. Tentacles brushed the creases on the insides of Suhaila’s knuckles, sliding formless over her palm. A single jelly rose to the surface, trailing strings of sapphire. Its tentacles reminded Suhaila of the time during her pregnancy that she and Francis had driven up to Maine to see the curling ribbons of the northern lights, the almost-dawn for which they had named their daughter. She had not thought about the memory in years. She cupped her hands beneath the jellyfish without touching it. Perhaps, she thought, some things were most beautiful when one did not hold onto them so tight.
The last morning of the summer dawned pink and orange, the color Suhaila had yet to paint the house. It was the last morning the beach cleaner’s blades would rake the sand. Outside, the trench was the intense blue of polar ice reflecting the sea.
In the distance, the engine started up like a lathe. An empty jar on the countertop shuddered. Suhaila laid her hand on her own cheek. The memory of Francis’s touch hummed through her like an electrical storm.
Suhaila waited for the beach cleaner to pass across the bare shore before she stepped out the back gate, the painted night still cool on the sand. She knelt and touched the water in the trench. The brightest jelly rose to the surface, the four blue rings on its bell pulsing as with breath.
Suhaila scooped the jellyfish into the wide mouth of the jar and held it to the growing light. She looked again at the blue-green veins in the backs of her hands. Her thighs would not move; the balls of her feet would not push up. Aurora waited, a plastic bowl crowded with jellies in her arms. The cold Atlantic pitched and shuddered. The sun hit the edge of the bottle like the domed head of a cloud. Suhaila wondered if it was possible to love something so much that it became a burden, if holding on to a wound meant that it would never heal.
She walked the bottle down to the surf, froth swelling at her ankles, and emptied it into the water. Tentacles stroked her feet like tender wrists. The tide carried the jellyfish out toward some other beach, rocking it toward the sky. Suhaila envisioned the dawn to come and all the dawns after it. She imagined the first rays of sun casting their bronze tint on the coral siding of the beach house.
The surf filled the bottle with salt and bits of blue sea-glass. Aurora came tumbling down the dunes. Suhaila helped her daughter tip one bowl of jellyfish into the water, then the next. From the house, the television was a low hum of braided voices. Suhaila turned her ear toward the silver distance, some far-off touch flinging out the ripples that brushed her hands.
Jennifer Zeynab Joukhadar is the Syrian American author of the forthcoming debut novel The Map of Salt and Stars (Touchstone/Simon & Schuster, 2018). She is a member of the Radius of Arab American Writers (RAWI) and a 2017-2020 Montalvo Arts Center Lucas Artists Program Literary Arts Fellow in fiction. Her short stories have appeared or are forthcoming in The Kenyon Review, The Saturday Evening Post, The Normal School, and elsewhere.