by Dave Gregory
“Bioluminescence often appears at night,” the youth hostel manager told us. “Microscopic plankton light up the entire beach.”
Curious, we walked half an hour in the dark and weren’t disappointed. The nearest electricity was a kilometer away but the sea glowed a soft blue wherever waves rippled onto the sand. We waded in, a dozen intimate strangers. Like a music video special effect, a fluorescent ring surrounded whatever we submerged: toes, ankles, shins. Flicked water transformed into drops of azure light, blazing brighter than the murky, submerged fog illuminating the shoreline. Each splash resembled a hyperactive pyrotechnic display.
We dried ourselves and sat on warm sand. Twist-off caps fell from our hands as we drank bitter local beer. Cherry-scented esters from a bottle of cheap red wine mingled with salt air. Toppled stones and skeletal arches of lost civilizations littered the valley behind us but we stared ahead at a narrow, radiant edge of the Mediterranean.
“It’s otherworldly,” someone said. “Wicked sorcery is going on.”
A squeaky male voice added, “What if a halo appeared in the water and a mermaid rose through it, her body shimmering as she walks ashore.”
An Australian woman next to me said, “Mermaids don’t have legs and can’t walk. You boys just want to see glowing breasts.”
Three guys laughed like conspiratorial twelve-year-olds.
“Oh, come on. Be more creative,” she said. “Feel the magic. What’s the most incredible thing that could emerge from an ancient, phosphorescent sea?”
Under a moonless sky, we pondered. There were so many nightmares and miracles to choose from. I clenched a fistful of sand.
A Nigerian man conjured Poseidon, trident in hand, iron face corroded, holes for eyes. Someone with a Southern drawl suggested the Creature from the Black Lagoon. Few understood, so he described scaly skin, gilled cheeks, and fingers both webbed and clawed.
Other travelers imagined deceased family members arising, or future children frolicking in the waves. One woman hoped to meet her older self coming ashore, bearing investment advice and wisdom from the future.
“I picture that cold blue haze rising from the water and engulfing us,” a British voice added.
“Does it kill us?” a frightened Argentinian asked, above a chorus of crickets and the steady surf.
Someone else replied, “No, the light zaps us back to when the Romans operated a thriving seaport here.”
“I see a torpedo bursting through,” belched an American. “A World War Two submarine fires at Mt. Olympus. It erupts in flames. Then the entire landscape, mountains and sea, will blaze through the darkness.”
“Such violence.” The accent was German. “For this sublime level of magic, I picture an orchestra slowly surfacing. Dozens of musicians play a Beethoven concerto, their bodies and instruments shine as though painted with stars.”
“How could they play wet instruments?” the American asked.
The German replied, “How could an eighty-year-old submarine launch a torpedo several miles through the air?”
“It’s fascinating how the sea mimics the milky way,” interrupted the Nigerian. “Overhead is a palette of spangled stars and celestial gases, while below, an army of plankton create a mirror image.”
Wind increased, ripples grew, and the eerie blue incandescence beamed with greater intensity.
I said, “You’re letting your minds wander so far, you can’t even see something actually coming ashore.”
Heads turned. The Argentinian, using the beach as a coaster, wedged his beer bottle in the sand. He stood and prepared to run.
A tiny blip of light swerved and folded in the swell. It wiggled and glowed brighter than the iridescent fog that tinged the shallows. It was a small leaf, olive perhaps, riding a glimmering wave that crested on the beach. Its luster faded as the water receded. The next surge rolled in and the leaf flared again as it floated back to sea, only to return on the next pulsing wave.
I collected the slender foliage and its light extinguished. Once resubmerged, its brilliance regenerated.
Intending to steal bioluminescent water, I’d brought a small jar from the campground. I lowered it to the sea and the leaf was sucked inside as the container filled. I sealed the lid, watertight. The hovering leaf shone like an electric embryo in a glowing test tube. The gleam faded. I shook the jar until a sparkle returned. I held it high, jiggling it like a rattle, wondering how long the power might last.
Everyone on the beach agreed that bringing something tangible ashore meant I’d won the imagination game.
Back in my northern home, my proudest souvenir rests on a bookshelf in my cramped studio apartment, next to the journals I filled during my travels – plus another that remains empty. I dim the lights, shake the glass, and the tiny olive leaf dances in swirling water. When I close my eyes, an academy of phosphorescent plankton transforms into a million pinpricks of light, forming a star map, that beckons.
Dave Gregory is a Canadian writer, a retired sailor, and an associate editor with the Los Angeles-based Exposition Review. His work has most recently appeared in MoonPark Review, Welter & The Summerset Review. Please follow him on Twitter @CourtlandAvenue.