Posted by: Kathryn Hulick | February 16, 2009

Gifts of the Sea

Boston Aquarium. June 7, 2008.


Aman steps into the sea. His toes nestle into tiny crevices between the barnacle crusted stones as his hands wave like the fingers of anenomes, searching.

“Got one!” he lifts out a fat sea urchin and squeals with joy. His Apa is too far down the shore to hear, so he sets it in his basket. If he is lucky, he will find one or two more today. The urchins are few, now, like so many other gifts of the sea.

Aman’s keen eyes wander over the broken colors beneath the water. Green and red seaweeds, purple coral, orange darting fish.

He steps cautiously past the red spots. There could be red combs down there. and those sting like nothing else.

“The urchin’s guardians,” Apa always says. “Nothing comes for free. Same with the sea. Every ten urchins you pay one sting.” Then he holds out his scarred feet, sting marks running up and down his toes and ankles, along with cuts from sharp rocks and bites from angry fish.

Most boys wear shoes for this work, but Aman knows his Apa’s opinion on that, too. “Fishing for urchins with shoes is like an artist trying to paint blindfolded.”

The water brushes against the bottoms of Aman’s shorts, seeping up into the thick cloth. He imagines himself one of the orange fish, darting like a spark of fire here and there, remembering the hidden homes of every urchin and dangerous red comb.

Apa claims that once people knew how to speak with the fish. They traded hunting stories and told tales of the many great secrets of land and sea. Until one day, a man and a fish decided to trade places, and both died–the man at the bottom of the sea and the fish stranded on dry land. God was not happy, and forbade fish and men from ever telling each other their stories again.

The man’s bones became white branches of coral, and the fish’s scales veins of rich iron ore lacing the mountains.

Like so many of Apa’s stories, it doesn’t quite make sense, but Aman tells them to himself anyway when he is alone with the sea.

Hours later, the sun is reaching its last fingers of light across the waves, and Aman has only the one urchin.

He is heading in, when a cry sounds, echoing across the water.

“Help! Man down! Help!”

The voice is unfamiliar, but the place it is coming from… Aman scans for his Apa. He was right there a second ago. Right at the center of the splashing and shouting. Something sinks deep inside Aman, like an urchin burrowing deep into the mud. His paralyzed feet somehow move, running him faster and faster toward the commotion.

“Apa? Apa, are you okay?”

He forgets to look for red, and the sting rips through his young veins like a knife slicing from ears to ankles.

Aman drops.

The rescuers hauling the old man to his feet do not see the young boy. The old man should be coughing up seawater and cradling his bleeding foot, but instead he opens his eyes and calls out in a strong, firm voice. “Aman!”

Apa limps through the waves, ignoring his rescuers feeble protests. He heard the boy’s shout. Apa knows the vein of dangerous red comb well. It is the reason he always took this side of the bay and made Aman fish farther down.

An orange fish brushes against Apa’s scarred feet, and he sinks to his knees.

“Apa, all is well, come, play with me!” The fish chatters, its voice echoing through the old man’s scars.


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