Fiction · 09/10/2014

When the Seas Emptied

In June, marine biologists panicked on the news. Disappearing sharks. Only a couple at first, ones tagged for research. But then they noticed it was wider spread. Populations off the coast of Florida were dropping.

When they decided the other local populations — fish and such — were normal and stable, they expanded their search, looked up and down the coast and found more sharks missing with no clear reason why.

Pseudoscientists threw theories around on cable news. The fish were bad, inedible. The sharks had just migrated away from our coast. It was global warming. It wasn’t global warming, but it was climate change, the other direction. It was pollution. It was over fishing. It was our fault. It wasn’t our fault. It was God. It was the end times. Everyone should panic. Everyone should remain calm.

I watched the circus with amusement. My wife and I always made fun of the news together. Everything had to be crisis-level these days, had to excite. My wife, though, watched these reports with apprehension, as if the whole thing personally concerned her. I figured they were exaggerating the problem because it was a slow news month. No scandals, no elections, no kidnappings or murders. Just some missing sharks. It was silly and unimportant.

More important was the baby we were trying for. The baby we were determined would live. The first hadn’t.

A month into the media’s obsession with the shark fiasco, my wife was late. I gripped her hands while we waited for the pregnancy test. We’d done this so many times before. I was ready for the empty disappointment again. Hopeful but also guarding against unbridled hope, the hope that destroys when not realized, the hope that burns from within and leaves nothing but ashes. She seemed unusually unperturbed. It was annoying.

The news was on in the background. More shark coverage. Speculation on the upcoming Shark Week, whether it should still happen with so many sharks missing. Sure, the programming was shot way ahead of time, but they felt it sent the wrong message or something. They decided to raise money for research that whole week instead of run ads.

They were explaining how we could get involved when the timer went off. My wife was too wrapped up in the discussion on TV to look at the stick, so I grabbed it from her.

Positive.

I showed it to her, waved it in front of her face to pull her away from the TV. I wanted us to have a moment. She smiled at me, said she knew, pushed the test away, and went back to watching. I tried to draw her away again, tried to pull her into me, but she shoved me off, saying she didn’t want to miss anything important. I said this was important. No reply. I tried to have my own moment, but the moment was gone.

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Three months later, just when the leaves had started to change, we threw a dinner party to tell our closest friends. Congratulations were exchanged, and her best friend cried. We were nervous, and they were nervous for us, but we were all hopeful this one would make it. For once, the TV was off, and it was about us and our baby. My wife let me be part of it, let herself be part of it.

That night, as we readied for bed, high on excitement, the news informed us that there was no longer any trace of any sharks anywhere, that experts were declaring all 470 species of sharks extinct. I chuckled and said that at least our child would grow up without fear of shark attack when we went to the beach. I said sharks would be the Bigfoot of the seas, the new Loch Ness monster but all over the globe. There would be periodic sightings but never any real proof. My wife shot me a frown, her eyes empty of their usual laughter, and said I shouldn’t be so flippant about such a serious environmental issue. How could I not be worried about 470 species — all the sharks on the planet — going completely extinct in just four months? And not even just regular extinct but disappeared-into-thin-air extinct. She said I needed to grow up because I was going to be a father soon.

But we’d always joked about these kinds of stories, the things that were probably big deals but seemed too out there to be true. This was something she should have laughed about with me, but every joke I made was met with reproach.

She’d begun obsessing about our roles, as humans, in this mass extinction. Spent all her time online trying to make people understand that this was our fault. It was all she cared about.

I told her that even if it was our fault, it was still happening. We couldn’t stop it. And anyway, it was still nature doing its own thing. We couldn’t really control it one way or another. Nature had clearly just decided that these species were done and no longer had a place here on Earth. There was no way we could have caused something this big, this strange. Nature was bigger than us.

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In January, my wife was happy to finally look pregnant and wear maternity clothes instead of just baggy clothes. Wrapped in layers and scarves, her stomach bulged, and she’d never been more beautiful. But we didn’t yet know the sex of our baby. Something had been wrong with the ultrasound machine. When the doctor consulted the image, he said it couldn’t be right, that it looked like my wife’s womb was full of eggs — thousands of eggs. He ordered some tests and sent us home, said it was clearly a mistake and he’d see us in a week. I didn’t worry because it was absurd. Thousands of eggs wasn’t possible.

We didn’t go back. My wife smiled and said it made sense, it was right. I told her she didn’t make sense. She said everything would be fine, that nature was working itself out. I had no idea what she meant. She was becoming less and less familiar. A gulf had formed and widened between us a little more each day.

That night on the news, we learned that other marine species had begun disappearing, too. All kids of fish. Dolphins and whales. Sea turtles. Crabs and lobsters and shrimp. The oceans were evacuating, but no one knew why or where the animals were going. They just disappeared. Like the sharks. As she watched, my wife rubbed her swollen belly and told me again that everything would be fine. For the first time, I wondered if this even had anything to do with me or if I was just a tourist.

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In April, amid the constant downpour that should have welcomed our baby, my wife did not go into labor. We hadn’t been to the doctor since the first ultrasound. I told her we should see a doctor, ask him about inducing, but she wanted to do it naturally, said she didn’t want to induce, said there was no reason to see a doctor, said it wasn’t time yet. So we waited.

She’d taken to spending hours locked in the bathroom, soaking in the tub, refusing my offers of food and company. Often, she wouldn’t even answer when I knocked. I always wondered if she’d fallen asleep and hoped she was just ignoring me.

By this time, the oceans were almost empty. The only life left were corals and anemones, plants, and algae. Researchers told us that even microscopic life had disappeared. And the little life that was left was on its way out, too.

I wondered what it meant to bring a child into a world with empty oceans. But people the world over were still having babies even as we spoke, so maybe it didn’t mean anything. My wife said it wouldn’t matter, that it meant something but not what I thought. She said her children wouldn’t have empty oceans because they would fill the oceans. Child, I said. I said, You mean our child. I worried that if the baby didn’t come soon, my wife’s mind would be gone for good.

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My wife was still insisting on letting it happen naturally that summer, though the July heat had her drenched in sweat. I worried that it would never happen, but she said she knew it would, that she could feel it, that her baby was coming soon. She’d taken to spending her days at the beach, opting to drag her chair down to the water and let the waves wash over her legs, sometimes reaching her waist. She took bottled water with her, emptied it onto the sand, and refilled it with sea water to drink. She felt connected, like she was supposed to be there, like it was important. I worried as much as ever, so I sat with her when I could and tried to convince her to go home, told her none of this was healthy for the baby. But she said she had to be there when it happened, that it was the only way to fix everything.

Birds began congregating near her. First just local seagulls, probably hoping for handouts. When their natural food supply vanished, so did their secondary supply — food from beach-goers. People were spooked by the absence of marine life and no longer wanted to go near the oceans. My wife always had the entire beach to herself.

Every day there were more birds, different kinds. Grackles. Pigeons. Finches and sparrows. Hawks. Owls. They all sat away from her, watching. Still. Eerie. They were waiting for something.

I searched desperately for the real answer to why all marine life had disappeared. There had to be some scientific explanation, something that would convince her to give up this ridiculous insistence on staying near the ocean. Something to convince her this was crazy and had nothing to do with us. It wasn’t her job to fix the problem; that wasn’t something she could even begin to do. Our baby needed her to be realistic and responsible. I needed her to be.

I showed her statements from scientists who admitted they could find no proof that we had anything do with any of it. I brought her articles about the dangers of drinking sea water, of its effect on unborn babies. Articles about how filthy birds are and how many diseases they carry, how a large number of them become a significant health risk. Stories about women who insisted on giving birth at home, ended up with complications, and whose babies died. Horror stories about pregnancies allowed to go on too long. Pleas from doctors to come in; rants about how dangerous her avoidance of doctors had been.

I brought her all of these things, but her answer remained, “A mother knows.”

On a Sunday in mid-July, my wife finally went into labor at the beach, and she refused to leave. No amount of begging on my part could convince her. She wouldn’t even come away from the water’s edge. I told her there was risk of infections, of losing our baby, of complications the hospital could take care of if only we went. She was immovable, unhearing, so I did all I could do: I knelt next to her and held her hand.

When she said it was coming, I moved between her legs to try to deliver our baby myself. My wife opened up. Instead of a crowning head, tiny eggs spilled out of her. Thousands of eggs, just like the doctor said. As they left her, some broke open, revealing infant sharks and turtles and other sea animals. Most of the eggs, though, floated in the surf, waiting to be carried out, to hatch in the sea. I looked at my wife in awe. She had been carrying the answer this whole time; we’d created the answer.

Then the birds descended. My wife screamed as they scooped up our aquatic children. I tried to fight them off, keep them away. I flailed and swung and raged. My fist connected with feathers and flesh. But there were too many. They continued devouring everything that came out of her. I couldn’t protect them all.

And then they were gone, had retreated back to their nests, bellies full.

My wife, tears still streaming down her face, asked me if anything survived, anything at all. I looked out at the ocean, where all of our children should have been, and saw the truth. I told her, “some.”

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Elise Matthews lives in Denton, TX where she studies fiction at the University of North Texas. She has served on staff for American Literary Review and North Texas Review, and she writes for American Microreviews and Interviews. Her fiction appears in Hobart and Jersey Devil Press.