Without a Barrier Reef
Craig Santos Perez
I hold my wife’s hand during the ultrasound. “That’s your future,”
the doctor says, pointing to a fetus floating in amniotic fluid.
One night a year, after the full moon, after the tide touches
a certain height, after the water reaches the right temperature,
after salt brines, only then will the ocean cue swollen coral polyps
to spawn, in synchrony, a galaxy of gametes.
We listen to our unborn daughter’s heartbeats; they echo
our ancestors pulsing taut skin drums in ceremony and arrival.
These buoyant stars dance to the surface, open, fertilize, and form
larvae. Some will be eaten by plankton and fish, others will sink
to substrate or seabed, root and bud. “She looks like a breathing
island,” my wife says, whose body has become a barrier reef.
The weather spawns another hurricane above Hawaiʻi. Rain drums
the pavement as flood warning alerts vibrate our cellphones. In bed,
we read a children’s book, The Great Barrier Reef, to our daughter,
who’s two years old now, snuggled between us. “The corals have mouths,
stomachs, and arms,” we tell her, pointing to our matching body parts.
“They form families, like us. They even build homes and villages.”
She loves touching every picture of tropical fish and intricate corals;
I love that the pictures never change (and isn’t that, too, a kind of shelter).
We close the book, kiss her forehead, and whisper: “Sweet dreams.”
She is our most vulnerable island, and we are her barrier reef.
A few years from now, we’ll go snorkeling. The water will drum against
our skin. The ocean will be warmer, murkier. No fish,
anywhere. All is bleached and broken. When we return to the eroded shore,
she’ll ask: “Daddy, are the corals dead?” I won’t tell her about dredging,
pollution, or emissions; I won’t tell her about corals struggling to spawn,
frozen in vaults, reared in labs and nurseries. “Don’t worry,” I’ll answer:
“They’re just sleeping.” She’ll look into the water and whisper:
“sweet dreams,” as the surface of the sea closes like a book.