The bay of Vieques is black as an inkwell, and I am here, pink as a sunburn. The mud of this mangrove nursery squelches between my toes, while mounds of clouds rise bilious in the distance. Over the Caribbean Sea, the moon is shining: pearl white, reaching down, painting the tips of waves. Here the air is still. Stagnant, almost, were it not for the scent of flowers. Pushing off from the muddy shore, I brush against mangroves. Their arrow-straight seedpods are knocked from a tenuous grip on the stems. “Slurp!” they say as they plummet, heads down, and with perfect aim, into wet sand.
Now I see, as I paddle deeper into darkness, there is something in the water. It begins as a mere hint of light, like a piece of grit in my eye, or a memory coming back unannounced in a flash. But as I stroke, there is more. An iridescent ripple. A luminous wake. Yes, even my fingertips are glowing now. And then, there is a fish.
This is how the whole ocean is: so vast and glassy, so ominous and interminably rolling, it is easy to say, “There’s nothing out there.” And then, all of a sudden, so many fish. This one is small, but it leaves in its wake a glowing trail of effervescence, bubbles rising like aquatic stars. Then, there is another. Bigger. Scarier— as large as a runaway train with ripples like fireworks. Soon there are explosions all around me, and life beneath the bay is no longer a secret. Some are large as fireflies. Some are comets, some meteors. I can see minnows, I can see rays. I could even, if they were here tonight, see alligators and sharks.
Sliding from my kayak, I enter the water. There are my legs, awash in blue beneath me. Here, up above, my fingers trail in rapid circles around me drawing designs, impossibly, in liquid. I float, suspended in a luminous mixture, the electricity in my body and the pulsating of my blood is enough to keep the water alight. The bay is as bright as the night sky.
Now I am standing on the dock of a boat. New place. New time. This is the Pacific. We are offshore of Isabela, in the Galapagos archipelago. A breeze is worrying my hair, smarting my cheeks as it whips fiercely in my face. We point due west, striking boldly out into impenetrable seas, lunging on the crests of waves as we topple and surge on currents. Down below, the bow of the boat churns white water. Foam froths and seethes and, quite suddenly, ignites. We have sailed into a bloom of the tiny flagellates that create bioluminescence. Shuddering in their unicellular bodies, they whip and flail, sending forth that characteristic eerie glow. A dolphin breaks the water, playing in the ship’s waves. Then, like my fish in Vieques, another dolphin comes, bigger. Soon there are 10, five on each side, plunging and leaping in perfect synchrony, each alight in the sea’s flame. Water slides off their gleaming backs in shining blue streaks, the foam churns brighter as they agitate the water with their leaping. And as quickly as they arrived, they are gone. The ship chugs onward, unchanged, resolved. The ocean is a slick, well-oiled sheet, quiet and full of secrets.
Straining over the rail I can make out specters rumbling in the depths, perhaps 30-feet below. The faintest shapes, gargantuan, lurid, glow pale through layers of water. One must be a manta ray flying on table-sized wings. One is surely a whale, bending and bowing, rising and falling as it traverses the water column feeding. They come on and on, these ghosts, these apparitions, lingering only long enough for me to rub my eyes and wonder if I am seeing things. Before too long, the ocean is, once again, black as an inkwell.
Now I am far north. It is end of summer in Maine. Blueberries hang ripe for picking, the first flush of red is in the maple’s leaves. Buzzing across Somes Sound are a handful of fireflies. Nearby a loon halloos. I dip my fingers in the Atlantic’s cold, cold water, and there it is again: glow. Here in these frigid shallows, light plays. I pat the water. Skip a stone. I cup it in my hands and jostle it. My pants are wet where I’ve waded in and I notice––they too are bright with light. And now I can see each and every shimmering speck, winking with the secret of the sea. So I step back and take myself, bright as the night sky, home to land.