The Tide Pool

[fiction]

It was the usual things: missing mother, bed-wetting, the problem with the pets. They found a dead rabbit under his bed, strawberry blood seeping floorboards. They found a jar of old beetles hard as quarters. It was only a matter of time. A matter of growing muscles and bones. Bigger meant bigger rabbits, meant eyes that didn’t just hum black but cracked when pain struck. The boy liked pretzels and soft cheese. He liked being naked in the neighborhood pond and he liked gouging holes in bars of soap. One day he lost a photo of his missing mother. His foster family hadn’t thought to hide the kitchen knives yet. The one still smelling of Thanksgiving meat sat in his hand for hours as adults negotiated favorite desserts and unlimited television. The knife ended up jammed in the fruit bowl; cantaloupe and kiwis weeping clear juice onto counter tiles. That night the missing photo of the missing mother was returned to his bedside table. It was the last practical joke.

Soon after, a social worker arrived carrying a file thick as femurs. She took the boy on a walk. Loose chickens gathered underfoot as they curved around a dike. The boy heard keys clink against other metal objects in the social worker’s pocket.

“We don’t know where your mother is,” she said. “I’m sorry.”

The boy stripped off his shirt, then his flip-flops and his shorts. He ran down the side of the dike and disappeared into water dark as outer space. The social worker shook her head. She was a mother too. She knew children like she knew her own breath. This one was missing critical parts. It wasn’t his fault, but still, here he was. Missing parts meant problems down the road. Meant badly buried hitchhikers. Meant strawberry dirt, meant target practice, meant search dogs recovering a few strands of hair miles north of where a body was found.

When the boy stood from the water, his head was encased in sunlight and his rose-red heart radiated from within his chest so bright she thought he would burn.

*    *    *

The first warning signs were never perceived as warning signs. That’s not how warning signs work. A paper on the stove isn’t noteworthy until there is the release of heat and light. Nobody cared about the rutabaga bruises, or the silence, or the missing toothpicks. He liked rope. He liked nails cut so close to the skin they bled. He liked to pretend he was a television screen, declaring sitcom lines like they were feelings. Bang, zoom, to the moon, Alice! On his eighth birthday, he asked for a pop-up book on whale anatomy. He wanted to see the ribs rise up from the pages like steeples, the organs, the muscles, the genie-blue skin that stretched and stretched across a body bigger than a globe, bigger than anything he could comprehend.

After the final warning sign (because there is always a final warning sign, this one a cat nursing a stump for a paw), the social worker picked the boy up at the foster house for the last time. Driving across the state to a blue ocean with flickering silver light, she said, “new policy.” She said, “high success rate.” She said, “risk-benefit assessment.” The boy thought she looked nothing like his mother, but maybe she was pretending. Maybe she was wearing a mask to make him believe she was something different than she was.

They stepped out of the car and walked along a rocky spit caked in barnacles and driftwood. Waves built of froth licked at their ankles as they moved down the narrow tip.

“Pick any spot,” she said.

The boy scanned the rocks. He found a space beside a patch of neon kelp. “Here,” he said.

She helped him lie down against the craggy surface, his spine against a starfish, his legs pinning a quivering, washed-up flounder. She said, “Did you know an entire ecosystem can be supported by algae? It’s a beautiful thing. A tide pool, they call it. A piece separated from the whole, thriving on its own.”

The boy said nothing. He felt his feet sink into the thrashing fish, into the rock. His back and neck began to soften and fuse into the seagrass beneath him. The waves sent water against his belly, collecting in the space that was forming there.

*    *    *

The social worker returned the next day carrying a loaf of sourdough. She sat beside the sinking boy, watched the sandflies dance along the surface of his forming pool. Beneath the water, translucent shrimp darted in and out of his dissolving shirt. A bright pink anemone had taken shelter in the crevice of his collarbone. His face was nearly level with the rock. She looked into his eyes filled with sea creatures no bigger than a pin.

“It’s not your fault,” she said, “but someday you will do things that will be your fault, and there is absolutely nothing we can do about that. Our hands are clean. Someday yours won’t be. So, we had to do this. It is the only thing we could think to do. And you love the water so much.”

The boy closed his eyes. He loved hearing the voice of his mother, soft as skin. When he opened them, he was underwater. He saw the social worker standing above, a blurry figure dropping chunks of bread into his waters, bubbles shooting up from the yeasty holes. Colorful fish the size of knucklebones darted to the offered food. An orange crab crawled from his armpit and clawed wilting crust into the space below its eyes. The boy’s face was hard as a Halloween mask. His sinuses were forming caverns for mollusks to cling to. He wanted a pop-up book of tide pools. He wanted to see all the parts of him fanned out into separate layers, a network of panels that would show him what others saw. He wanted to see the parts of him that were inevitable, and the parts of him that were not.

*    *    *

The social worker stood hand-in-hand with her six-year-old daughter.

“Wave ‘hi’,” the social worker said. The little girl peered cautiously into the depths. He was all rock now, rock and salt and life.

“This is him,” the social worker said. “Look, he’s nurturing all these creatures. Isn’t that amazing?” Pigtails nodded up and down. The little girl squatted and sank her hand into the pool. She felt the fish kiss her fingertips, felt the soft yarn of the anemones and the recoil of the sea stars. She reached her hand deeper, into the silt of the floor, the smooth under-rock collecting broken shells. Here she found a heartbeat, and though it felt different from her own, and though it might have been the pulse of the waves bringing in a tide, she recognized it as something lonely, as something vaguely human.

*    *    *

The cat healed. The floorboards were cleaned. A therapist was brought in to mend the minds of the foster children traumatized by the boy’s stay. The world was ever so slightly better. At night on the coast, the stars were bright as flashlights. The tide pool glowed electric blue. It was during this time that the boy could see all that filled him, all that he was. Animals came and went and were born and died here. Aquatic families gathered in the caves of him. Generations expanded, died off, expanded again.

Bailey Cunningham lives in coastal Washington, where she is the consulting editor of the Bellingham Review. Her work has been nominated for the Best of the Net, and appears in places such as Contrary Magazine, The Journal of Compressed Creative Arts, The Sandy River Review, and Spry Literary Journal. She received her MFA from Western Washington University. You can find her at baileyrosecunningham.com.

Photo Credit: Jennifer Ecker