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eulogy to a jellyfish.

Updated: Sep 21, 2023

I've been home alone for the past four days and, to be honest, I'd gone feral by the evening of the first. See, on the first evening I was lucky enough to be invited to the album launch of local band, Roark. As de rigueur at these things, alcohol was had. Too much and unwisely.


Generally speaking, my body is a temple. I eat veggie, often vegan, drink water and herbal teas, do yoga, lift weights, walk for miles, and can go months without a drop of chenin so much as dampening my lips. See, I've never really cultivated a taste for booze. I can take it or leave it. I much prefer food and ~ don't hate me ~ my favourite meal is a salad. (What can I say? It's a variety and texture thing.)


With alcohol then, I'm never quite sure where my limits are, so when I do finally drink I err on the side of caution and exceed them. The temple is not only ransacked but razed to the ground.


But it was one of those excellent nights. Of regrets, I have rien. Memorable gig, spine-tiggling riffs, the presence of one or more of my favourite people, finger food, pub after-session, quayside blether with a can, slow walk home, and deep meaningfuls until 3.30am and a sky that's beginning to lighten. I woke up two hours later with a raging thirst and a liver still cowering in the brace position.


I know. Not big or clever. But mad good fun with just enough messiness to tip an older, wiser, nod to escapades past. (Not the ones, it has to be said, where the tarmac needed hosing down in the morning.)


As an aside, have you ever woken up the following day to discover feet as filthy as a coal miner's? You have no memory of being down a coal mine, and you feel quite sure coal-mining is not something you'd enjoy. There's that moment of careful consideration, isn't there? Did I sleepwalk? Was I demonically possessed? And then the memory shuffles in, all sheepish and awkward, pointing out how shoes were an excellent idea at the beginning of the evening because they were so on point with your outfit, but swiftly became dispensable when faced with walking on cobbles while under the influence of a blood alcohol level that comes with an automatic two-year ban.


Still, nobody lost an eye. Two pints of water, a round of paracetamol followed two hours later by ibuprofen, and I was good to sit in a darkened theatre to watch the National Theatre's streaming of the marvellous Fleabag. Sixty-five minutes later, I felt quite restored. Things continued their upward trajectory on the arrival of a takeaway that left plenty for breakfast. By bedtime on the second evening, life had purpose and meaning once more, even if it still felt a little ... off-kilter if I moved my head too fast.


Talking of life and purpose and meaning. The other day, I wander up to my bench. It's about a mile upriver from the estuary, clinging heroically to tussocks of marsh and cotton grass as the tide takes small bites at the land around it. Kip lies behind me, stealing my shade. Another hot day, the late morning sun bouncing off the water.


It feels good sitting there, no place to be, no thoughts that need thinking, listening to the geese nibbling at weed and the general irritability of the crows. For whatever reason, I look down just over the bank. It's low tide, the river has fallen away leaving behind an uneven carpet of mud, driftwood, rocks and slime. Even this far from the estuary I can taste the salt in the air, feel it deep in my nose.


I'm surprised to see the jellyfish. Think of a jellyfish and you imagine open sea, or warm shallows and a ruined day out. At first, I think it's a clear plastic bag, swollen with water, catching the light. The body lies on the bank, resigned under cloudless skies. I'm sad for this little death in a casual, oh-well way. Then the light shifts. Or rather, the light doesn't shift. A closer look, I see the jellyfish pulsating. One, two ~ every third count, a twitch. Its whole body breathing itself.


Did you know that jellyfish don't have lungs? They breathe through their skin, absorbing oxygen from the water. There's a lot of things jellyfish don't have. No blood, so no heart for a start. No brain or nervous system, no kidneys or a formal digestive system. Jellyfish manage to exist despite having an anatomy closer to nothingness than something.


As jellies don't have a brain, they don't have sentience. Oh, they know up and down, light and dark, they feel environmental stress, but they don't feel pain the same way as us or think in a way that would keep them up at night. They largely drift on the tides and the currents and the breeze, their nomadic life mapped entirely by chance. This little moon jellyfish finds himself stranded on the roulette wheel of prevailing weather conditions. What sustained him now condemns him. It seems particularly cruel.


I know he's a boy, by the way. What look like scribbles of pink graffiti set in aspic are actually gonads, reproductive organs. Brown for a girl, pink for a boy. Good on 'em. They may not have self-determination but jellies everywhere are quietly subverting cultural norms.


His pulse is becoming erratic. Sometimes two, then four seconds. Quite strong though, so the beaching must have been recent.


Did you know that jellyfish are 95% water? Ninety-five per cent! Humans are 60% which seems positively arid in comparison. I feel my shoulders burning as I lean out over the bank, but at least I don't have to worry about deliquescing. That's what happens to jellies that beach. They literally melt, evaporate, leaving nothing but their shadow. And now I wonder, does he seem as plump? Squinting, I bend lower and count. Still pulsing, yet that little throb of life is tiring.


As I say, no nervous system, hurrah, so I'm wishing him a painless end. What must that be like, simply to evaporate, turn to water vapour and become weather? It's not the same, I know, but I think of Peter Parker in Avengers: Infinity War disintegrating into dust. It appears that being without self-cognition has an upside ~ after all, the jelly isn't thinking "I don't wanna go" like Peter right before he shivers into hundreds and thousands.


There are definite pauses in the pulses now. They've become choppy, hesitant. Unexpectedly, I'm overcome with a profound sadness. The sun that I find so welcoming is literally undoing my fellow passenger. It sounds daft but I can't leave him to die alone. He's not even aware of me, not even aware of what's happening, least of all concerned, but still I can't leave him and just go about my day.


Strange. Yet I feel we're in this together. Yes, he's somewhat more invested in the outcome than me, but still ~ I owe it to him, one life-form to another, this noticing, this marking. Sentient or not, he is as much part of this world as me. His appearance in this grand, frantic tango of life is of equal value to mine. He may not have a brain or consciousness, but his kith and kin have been around for more than 500 million years and in all that time never, not once, have they set the smoke alarms off. Humans have been around for a fraction of that and there's never a moment when we don't have to flap a freakin tea towel. Looking at it that way, who's the more considerate dance partner? I owe it to him to stay, as a thank you.


So the sun continues to shine, my shoulders pink and the pulse stops without the slightest fanfare. Nothing much becomes even less or a whole lot more, depending on your perspective. Kip and I walk home quietly, overtaken by the turbine sweep of swans flying in formation.


I'm not telling you all this as a call to activism or to impart thoughts of much depth or wisdom. I just wanted to share with you the time I cried as I held vigil for a jellyfish.



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