Encounter: The Rays of St. Joseph Bay

Anne-Marie Oomen

  1. I can’t leave the country. I live so far north I need a passport to go further. So I drive south, masking the whole way, to a part of my own country where I have never been, the Forgotten Coast of Florida. I rent a one-room house to stay safe. There, on the Florida panhandle, I also rent a paddleboard—a short Yolo Yak sans any finesse, slow but sturdy in the Gulf chop. I carry the fiberglass monstrosity into St. Joseph’s Bay and plop it down in the swash. I am a skilled boarder but usually only paddle freshwaters: the Great Lakes, northern Lake Michigan, or, if it calms, Lake Superior. I have two solid state boards, eleven and twelve feet. On them, I feel confident, but here, in unfamiliar St. Joseph Bay waters, I’m cautious. I’ve heard about the currents, unpredictable winds, so a short, bulky board will be more solid. Of course, these are waters laden with salt, the contradictions of residue: The Apalachicola River runs rich with sediment but was also infected by spills that leave shadowy water and tarry clumps. In Michigan, invasive species leave our waters too clear and thus unable to mitigate algal blooms. Even with these declines, there are days when, from my board, underwater stories thrust up through the bottom-sand in the forms of wrecks wrapped in zebra mussels, hulls still marked with corroded iron or centuries-old piers where the tall ships once landed. But this southern bay, this new cape that hooks its little finger north and south of the knuckle of Florida’s panhandle, this riparian flyover, this feels like even older water, more ancient and more tainted with mystery. I have come to warm myself from winter, to seek out new waters in my land, which is not my own. When in doubt, go to the waters. That’s the home; that’s where I find the broken answers that serve as a guide to my restless nature. But these are not typical, not the tourist waters of the southern part of the state. This is forgotten coast—less developed old Florida. What did I want, entering this bay? Connection with new water? Or old water, mother water? I wish I knew these waters better. Always, I wish I knew myself better.  
  1. At first, I paddle only the shallows, getting a sense of this board and this bay. The water is clear enough here that the seabed topography spreads wide below me. A conch over a foot long, dark foot trailing in the sand, making a soft underwater river among tiny snails and starfish. Without thinking, I lie prone on the board and reach into the water, thrusting my hand through the surface. But the conch is deeper, further away, so my hand reaches toward the wrong place, my fingertips off-kilter, the reflection and vision at different angles. How do those terns, osprey, eagles do it, diving for fish? And what did I think I was going to do? Take it home and eat it?  I merely wanted to stroke the shell, to feel the cold ripples, to turn it over once and look at the silky mother of pearl cradling its body. I wanted to touch and use my own body’s sensory apparatus to connect to the creature. What would it think of me? The conch moves on, undisturbed.  
  1. I pull up to my knees and, using the paddle as a rudder, drift out where the wind flips direction. This way, my body sails, and I can tack along that underwater ridge where the shallow sea beds contour to darker water, Yak floating over the just visible seagrass. At the surface, chop rising a little; below, it’s a tea-colored evening, but I can still see far enough into it. I work the paddle, tacking against, then with, the wind. This is one of the joys of paddle boarding, seeing down into the waters all around you, different from a kayak or canoe, because on the board, your entire body is involved, head to toe. A paddler’s eyes are high and can look directly down into, almost vertically, but at the same time, you must attend an invisible point about six feet out from the front of the board—that’s a balance point. When you are good at it, you shift from that point to the depths under you and then to the horizon, always touching back to your feet and your paddle. It’s easy for some but demands attention to get that full-on balance. I remember falling so often my body sang only the tight song of tension, of muscles learning to feel a vibration through the fiberglass, sensing currents with my feet, my legs, and torso discovering uprightness until I knew its melody by heart. Now I feel it as a kind of second nature. I’m on my feet, feeling the wind, just starting to sing, the only time I sing, the water listening to my quatrained questions, my thought enlarging to the size of the great sturgeons. Or that’s what I’d like to think. Is that when it happens, when I feel the acuteness of presence?  
  1. Let me say it as they first appear. Broad, half-visible darknesses that are darker than the Gulf water. Five. Moving as one. Flat-topped, napkin-shaped, long-tailed. I dip and pull against the current but can’t close on them—light shifts.  Light shifts again, the sun breaking clouds, clarifying. At last, I understand who they are. Five rays, cow-nosed (I know only from pictures), dorsal surfaces mottled with patterns, dark sweeps gracing the dusk-graced water, hunting perhaps, their barbs trailing. They live in the beneath. The place where the unanswered is alive, the places we “fly” over.  Their darkness would not be unexpected to any local, and they would laugh at my delight, but for me, this is pure gift. They are flowing away, and I paddle hard, trying to keep up with them. They are there, I am following, almost caught up, then they pull away, effortlessly, almost disappeared, dark shapes into that dark immensity. I feel bereft, but suddenly, as one, they arc back and break water around me, all five in unison, a choir of steel-flying, long-tailed kites. They came back? They splash down. Then, while my mind is still shocked, they slip deeper. Seconds only. It is done—the encounter over. But then, a small miracle: one ray swings back to the side of the board, it floats just under the surface, staying with me, tips itself diagonally, revealing as it does, part of its underside, a grey dawn-tipped wing, as if the kite, flying, leans sideways in the wind. Is it looking at me? I see, for a flash, what it might see. I am studying myself from inside the bay waters. I am studying myself from another universe, looking up, my oversized board becoming a flat, fish-shaped shadow blocking the ripple of surface, which is their sky. I am something odd, elongated and large, with only one lone fin—a strange, incomplete, perhaps dying, and thus likely ineffectual, predator. I hold, paddle stilled in water, breath stilled, watching it watch.  It gives me the moment to study it back, and then, dismissive as an emperor, swoops away. 
  1. I follow its direction, searching the depths, longing for it to return, but the shoal is empty. Though it is not cold, I ache suddenly, as if my body had stood too long on ice, not in these warmer currents. I am a long way out from the safety of shore, from the other routes I know, and I can’t stop the wind. I am a mystery off course. I dip deep and pull the paddle, and even as I regain control, swing a slow arc back toward the dry sand, I can’t help but wonder: What was her assessment? Was I to her what the conch was to me, a thing she wondered how to touch? 

  2. What would the ray have reported to the others—in whatever way they do. As I struggle to swing the board into the shallows, it is coming to me: I was to them as a bird is to me. I was flying shadow over fluid currents, over water that is no mystery, but their version of a glass ceiling—which they break but not easily. And they to me? They were revealed inhabitants, these beautiful observers, holy. They gave me, for a moment, new lakes of being, a gulf of thought. They seemed, for the brief dip of the paddle and without any evidence at all, to want to know me.

BIO: Anne-Marie Oomen co-wrote Lake Michigan Mermaid, (Michigan Notable Book), Love, Sex and 4-H (Next Generation Indie Award, Memoir), and Uncoded Woman (poetry), among others.

Photo by Elianne Dipp at Pexels

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