J.L. Peters

The Seahorse Difference

“…because what they do has nothing to do with us at all.”

– Helen Macdonald, H is for Hawk

There is a whole strange world underneath us where things are done differently. That startling moment where, once the goggles are properly adjusted, you can really see what’s going on. Where all who swim become clear. The ones who exist in that constant state of float, that hug of wet air, that slow moonwalking dream.

And the zombie-faced puffers, the ghostly slick freaks, the Monet-bellied clowns; they become the real ones. Instead of walk, there is flutter. Instead of run, there is dart. Instead of jump, there is breach. Also, alongside means something else.

Imagine he is pregnant.
Imagine he is pregnant and his smooth, flat stomach is swelling.
Imagine he is pregnant and his smooth, flat stomach is swelling and imagine him waking just before dawn. He is standing in his front doorway, bathing in new sunlight, and his wife comes up behind him. She is lovely and long, like him, ethereal almost. She has curves like no other. This pair could be mistaken for twins. She moves in a slow circle around him, appreciating all his body is doing for her, for them. She wraps one leg around him, runs that leg slowly up and down his bulging body, and presses her forehead lovingly to his. After their eyes lock, after they’ve said I see you and I know you without opening their mouths, after this pre-dawn dance, she floats off to work, leaving him to putter around the house all day.

Until I started staying home, I never realized how many nicks there were in the walls. Especially in the living room where the kids play. White flaking out from under all that Sea Foam Blue. Gouges, really. My husband tells me I’m going to have to re-paint the whole thing. But who has time for that? So I take a Q-tip, blob the white spots back to blue and there you have it. My living room is back in order.

While she is gone he eats and waits. He sucks food into his mouth like a vacuum. While eating and waiting, he hangs on to the furniture as if his life depended on it, as if he might be carried away by the slightest breeze. As if he never quite learned how to stay.

Recently, at my annual appointment, I told my doctor I needed to be tested for everything. She raised an eyebrow and asked how many partners I had. Just the one, I said, looking up at the ceiling where a mobile of cardboard seahorses bobbed in a slow circle above the exam table. My doctor rested her hand on my knee for a long moment and didn’t ask me any more questions after that.

After many days of eating and dancing slow and resting, when he has more than doubled in size, things will begin to happen. His bulging body will begin throbbing subtly at first, it will feel like cramps or a dull backache, but soon enough contractions will rip through his skeleton (yes, he has one) and consume him. He will writhe in pain. He will wrap his leg around something tall and straight (think of a floor lamp or a cat scratching post) and he will cling to that as he pushes. Finally, after some time, after he thinks he can no longer handle the pain, he will open up all the way and one thousand tiny babies will explode quietly from his body like underwater fireworks.

One night after having enough, I dragged my two little boys from their beds and buckled them into their car seats. I sat in the garage gripping the steering wheel, holding on until my knuckles turned white. I didn’t have anywhere to go so I just started driving. After only thirty minutes I turned the car around and headed home. When I got there, I curled my limbs around my husband’s sleeping body to check for signs of life.

When this is done, when the pushing is all over and there is nothing left, his body will go limp and he will fall, as if in slow motion, to the floor in exhaustion. He will lie there on that floor for a short time, maybe two minutes, maybe four, until his wife comes home and sees that it’s all over. She won’t wonder about the thousand tiny babies, she already knows they will be gone. She won’t take any pictures. There will be no glass of water. She won’t even shake her head slowly back and forth. She will react exactly as if exploding this much life into the world was normal. She will lie down next to him and gently nudge him until he is sitting up. He will not want to do this, but he will.

He will sit up because now is the right time for sitting up.

It is the middle of the night and I am in my bed. One has a fever of one hundred and three. The other has the croup, his ragged breath wheezing out from between his bluish lips. It sounds like air being torn.

And I am alone.
And no one is with me.
And somewhere, I later learn, a phone has gone dead in a bar.

And because they only have up to five years, and because only one out of their one thousand tiny babies will even survive, and because they could be plucked out of their home at any moment, their small still-breathing bodies dumped onto concrete and left to suffocate, crack and dry in the sun, because their dead, shriveled flesh retails for as much as three thousand dollars per kilogram, because both of them could easily be lost in storm-roiled seas, and because many before them, most before them, have been ground up and ingested by others who wish to bear life but cannot, for all of these reasons she will not waste any time. She will wrap one leg around him and slip herself into his empty body, filling him with one thousand new eggs.

Under the cover of water, nestled between whispering blades of sea grass, together, the two seahorses let go of their anchors and drift upward nose-to-nose, spiraling slowly as they rise. And they begin again.

My foot reached for your foot in the middle of the night and you quickly kicked it away. You don’t like to be bothered while you sleep. I need to understand this.


J.L Peters essays have appeared in or are forthcoming in: Seneca Review, Alaska Quarterly Review, River Teeth, Passages North, and the anthology River Teeth at 20, University of New Mexico Press.