Creative Nonfiction

Nonfiction Issue #66

Holy Water

Midnight in Moorea, French Polynesia, and my daughters and I sprawl on the wide weathered planks of the dock beneath our room, the sky studded with stars, the ocean at rest, held together by the saturated black of the night. It is almost as quiet as it is underwater.

Blacktip reef sharks frequent the shallow lagoons of the archipelago. Dockside off the resort at night, they glide through the light cast down from the restaurant’s bright metal lamps. Sharks have thrived on this planet for 400 million years though today, with rising water temperatures, deoxygenation and acidic oceans, they are born smaller and weaker. As the fish on which they prey move to cooler waters, so the sharks must follow, disrupting whole ecosystems and escalating their vulnerability to human interaction. Each night four or five swim below us; leisurely laid back fish, all power, grace and restraint. And I wonder if they can feel the change in the water; if their breathing labors as they log more miles.

Daytime, solitary rays wing by as we read outside on our covered deck. A tight group of blue tangs dart through the clear water off my shoulder; triggerfish, schools of chromis, trunkfish, yellow longnose butterflyfish and moorish idols hang around. This sea is rich. We grab our masks and fins and kick our way over to a reef, floating inches above cumin-colored brain corals and branching stag horns. A peacock flounder pitched to catch the sun winks blue. In our shallow bay, bullethead parrotfish bite at the coral with their beakish teeth; what they chew and swallow is excreted to become the sand under our feet. Nature, undisturbed, knows what it is doing.

Late at night, the girls laugh at me when I hang over our dock and call to the fish, my particular incantation, pulling leftover green beans and the smashed remains of rolls from my pockets. I am not discriminating about what I keep if it will tempt something to surface. Each of us are eager to be the first to call out what we see, a much-loved ritual, finger pointed as we exclaim, “Filefish!” “Turtle!” “Squirrelfish!” “Over there!”

Once, in my late twenties, kneeling on a dock at dusk, a small school of squid, milky white with big black uneasy eyes, rose up to investigate my bread crumbs. It was a beat, maybe two, before they turned in unison to breaststroke back out of sight. If my glance had drifted to the horizon, or I’d been distracted by a sound behind me, I would have missed them. The ocean rewards attention.

The marine life in the South Pacific is the best the girls have seen; as expected. We came here to see fish. They are not so easy to find anymore. In my twenties I dreamt of honeymooning in this part of the world but I did not dream of marriage. Raised with conventional expectations, I had no other way to imagine myself here. Now divorced, vacationing in French Polynesia with my teenage daughters is so sacrosanct to me I smile at the saronged newlyweds who nuzzle at buffet lines and crowd the beach with their crayon-colored cocktails in the ebbing afternoons. We kayak clear waterways between thatched bungalows. I paddleboard out to the edge of the breakwater leaving the girls onshore, lie down and trail my open hands through the thick cool velvet of water, watching minnows investigate my fingers. I have come a long way. I want my daughters to see this.

I spawned my children’s love of water and all things in it since they were babies. It was an intentional, benign manipulation, I believe, though certainly one that worked in my favor. By the time she was three, Carrie was well-familiar with the Boston aquarium—running up to the huge ocean tank to smack her starfish hands across the glass, waiting for the “Big fish!” to swim by. I scooped her up to stare inside dark tanks where amorphous jellyfish pulsed slow motion through the water. She loved to be anywhere with me; what I liked she liked. “I go with you?” she’d ask whenever I picked up my keys. “I call next to Mommy,” when we slid into a booth at a favorite restaurant. My devotion to her was uncomplicated and new. Every morning I couldn’t wait to see her, tumble-haired and grinning in her crib. It was the same when Amy was born. Motherhood changed the way I understood myself; I felt grounded, I felt certain, I felt fluent in love.

Whale watch and dolphin cruises were an easy win with the girls once Amy was a solid walker; the adventure of a boat, the surprise and thrill of a breaching whale’s barnacled body erupting from the sea. The girls staggered rail to rail counterbalancing the pitch calling “Over here! Look!” and I careened in their wake, eager to affirm the slip of tail they found before it vanished. They took to snorkeling young, pulling up their tropical swimsuits, excited enough by the sight of a band of yellow tail snappers or a solo spiny lobster waving its slender antenna to tolerate the water dumped into their bubble-gum pink snorkels. Yellow floaties gripping their arms, they bobbed next to me, faces down while I kept watch on the waves that might carry them away. Florida led to the Caribbean, the Cayman Islands introduced them to deep water snorkeling, and now we are here, on an island in the South Pacific, the farthest we have traveled in praise of fish.


Prayer never came naturally to me in my parents synagogue, a hushed and cavernous place where I spent my Sundays studying their religion. In the fall, on the High Holy days, I held the navy book in my hands, turning the pages back to front, the Hebrew words like doodles, sneaking glances at my father who was allowed to fall asleep though I was required to sit straight in my new dress and patent leather shoes. I could not find communion or comfort in a place of such order and certainty. I came to realize my faith is not inspired by tradition or text; it lives and breathes in the world around me. When I was pregnant, when my body held the sea where my daughters lives began, I would wake in the night, remember them there, and wait for the distant flicks of their limbs or the fleeting press of a foot or an elbow under my ribs. I watched for the random ripple of their sheltered hiccups against my stretched skin and imagined myself breathing into them a predisposition for ease, an emotional setpoint that would minimize their stress and maximize their joy. I trusted the faith embedded in my enlarging body, the astonishment of giving birth, the weight and need of the girls at my breast.

The moment suspended in between my offering and the wait for what will rise—this is where belief is rooted for me. Like the grainy gray ultrasound photos I once stuck to my refrigerator, I fix my eyes toward what I can’t yet see. Photo by photo my girls revealed and remade themselves, from grain of rice to blurry seahorse and finally, full-featured baby. Miracle.

I was twenty-nine on a dive in Bonaire when I saw my first octopus. She unfurled balletic legs, body flashing white to brown, creamy to spotted, altering the opacity and texture of her skin to camouflage against the changing ocean floor beneath us. She shifted shape, from rolling tumbleweed to liquid paint, pouring herself into thin coral clefts and emerging with body wide, blooming orange then red then blue as her own blood, traveling across the sand. Whether she saw me or merely picked up my scent I cannot be sure, as even small declines in ocean oxygen levels can lead to retinal impairment for an octopus. When lucky enough to see one, the girls and I watch from a respectful distance—wonderstruck.

On this trip, Amy is almost the age I was when I left home for college and left organized religion behind. She wears the fresh white gardenia crown left on the bed in our room and looks like a mermaid with strawberry blond hair falling to her waist. She is the only one of us gutsy enough to hold and release a bag of bread when we snorkel, inviting a face full of fish. We walk the beach one afternoon and I see how she gravitates toward mountains, sky and ocean and seems to settle in their presence. It is the same for me, I tell her. I want to connect around these shared feelings, to put them into words. This is what I do. “I think the ocean, and, I don’t know, the beauty of these natural places are what convince me that God, or something God-like exists, you know?” I say as we pick up small shells and chunks of volcanic rock.

“I don’t believe in God Mom,” Amy responds, matter of fact. “Remember? I’m an atheist.”

I don’t remember this, or maybe I do, but I’m sure I thought it was a premature declaration back when she first made it. I stumble and try to reframe.

“Well, I’m not saying God in a patriarchal way, not like, an embodied man up there watching us, I’m talking about—”

“No,” she cuts me off, resolute. “That’s not the way I think about it. I just like looking at the ocean.”

She is done with my descriptions and definitions. And I see it this time. She is on the edge of adulthood; she wants to translate her own beliefs. Children are shape shifters too. I had an early and easy belief in myself as a new mother, trusted the instincts that surfaced, shrugged off nursing schedules, deflected Barbie dolls and followed the girls’ lead in hours and hours of imaginary play. But their trajectory of independence is well on its way now. When they choose to turn to me, I hope to have something relevant to say. I am no longer in the current of their daily lives, as it should be, but I am ready to hold what they need me to whenever asked. Amy’s first year of college, the first year of Covid, my anxiety escalated as I tried to discern the level of her own. She spent her days with masked strangers when allowed to leave her dorm room at all, on a campus closed multiple times for all-student quarantines. I sent care packages of cupcakes and Halloween candy and wind-up toys and funny socks to make her laugh. I repeatedly encouraged her to drop by any in-person activity to meet people, many of which she did, for me, only to find pandemic bewildered students stumbling out of isolation; everyone tongue-tied and awkward. It was not what she needed. She had migraines and a mouthful of canker sores; I had stomach pains and lost weight. I have such intimate historical knowledge of my children but they shed their childhood selves at a rapid-fire pace. Mothering at its best is oceanic: fluid and unfixed.

At age fourteen, a new child of divorce, Carrie confronts me in the kitchen. “Mother, is that your underwear in the sofa?” voice sharp, tone disapproving. My hands still, stained orange from the seasoned salt I rub into chicken for our dinner. I turn around to face her, “Ohhh shoot, oh I’m sorry sweetie,” I say. “I thought I got everything out of there.” My new relationship defines the before and after of our lives, my needs prioritized, physical, and on display. Every other weekend when they go to their father’s place my life reinvents itself; I become a woman who sleeps in, stays out, has sex. Independence grows in each of us and it is, at times, disorienting.

Months after the South Pacific trip Carrie tells me I must watch a documentary called “Chasing Coral.” A team of scientists, marine biologists, and one engaging researcher who refers to himself as a “Coral Nerd” use manual time-lapse photography and over 500 hundred hours of footage to capture the reality of coral bleaching. One humid summer night the three of us spread across my sofa, our sleeping dogs warm against our legs. The darkened room amplifies the colors on screen. But the feral beauty fades and undulating purple plumes and blooming coral plates drain to ash. The film immerses us into a sped-up evolution of decay. The most jeopardous environmental damage today, the scientists relay, is happening underwater. By 2050, should nothing change, 90% of the world’s reefs could be lost. We sit in silence, taking in the desolate look at a future that could already be fated. I do more research and this sentence from Terry Hughes, director of Coral Reef Studies at James Cook University, haunts me: “Dead corals don’t make babies.” Oceans flush with fish and coral are the inheritance I hoped to sustain for my children, and their children; a living sanctuary to return to long after I’m gone, where the taste of saltwater and the feel of their bodies dropping weightless through a glassy blue sea would bring back the joy we shared there.

Ten years ago the girls and I snorkeled over Caribbean reefs browning and blanched, the insidious creep of bleaching already evident. Our eyes, magnified through the glass of our masks, echoed our concern and questioned, “Where are the fish?” We snorkeled above a single honeycomb cowfish, a few lemon yellow grunts, a russet starfish holding on to the broken strand of a sea whip. Sea fingers and sea rods and lettuce corals all wore signs of stress, their bodies shredded or encased in furry green from the excreted algae that lives inside their polyps for oxygen and food. The girls and I moved from sunscreens to rash guards to minimize chemical pollutants. We train our breath to stay neutrally buoyant and avoid contact with the reef. We donate. I want to make amends for my complicity in the atrophy of the ocean. But we bear witness to too many of these dying reefs. We grieve.

A year after Moorea, Carrie is twenty and a curious, budding activist in college. The fitted floral dresses, painted nails and flat-ironed hair of high-school are gone. She wears beanies and baseball hats and box-cut shirts. Her texts to me expound on her growing concern for the environment and social justice. She explains mutual aid funds. One afternoon she pulls into my driveway and greets me with, “Mom. I just went to throw out some stuff in your trash—you’ve got cardboard in the can. That should be in the recycle bin.” She is right. She has strong opinions. This is what I want for my daughters. We are in frequent touch but I am aware I have access to a smaller fraction of her enlarging life which feels, at times, liberating, and at others, fragmenting..

Carrie is the first person with whom I lived who I did not ask to leave. For years I avoided the inevitability of her transition to college and pushed away the queasy unease that came when I pictured her absence: not seeing her walk up the stairs in the morning or talking together across my bed at night. But parents know, the older our children, the faster time forwards. After she moved out, distance bred between us during her own tumultuous relationship. I became alert to intrusion. Her expansive conversations turned compact; information condensed. It was the first time I became self-conscious with my own child but would not be the last. Which distance to bridge and which to relinquish was mine to determine. Today, I schedule dates to talk to my girls; we have long, long-distance phone calls, largely unfiltered, but I am aware that none of us fills in all of the gaps. They were born to breach the world I created for them. I knew this all along.

Just before Moorea, we traveled to the tiny island of Taha’a, 128 miles away, arriving by small ferry from Tahiti, jet lagged and wired from the wild green and blue beauty we speed through. Taha’a is a ring of white beach fading into teal water, slender palms angled out over a long, placid lagoon and rough roads that cut through jungle and vanilla farms. The island is renowned for drift snorkeling and this is why we came. In the coral garden off our hotel, where a strong east-west current runs from the tumbled ocean and breaks against a long, large reef, channels lie between shallow walls of corals, carved and fed by the constant surge. Snorkelers enter the area and the water, abundant with vibrant fish, pulls them into flight.

To reach the entry point we walk or swim, depending on the tide, across a shallow lagoon to a neighboring small Motu (a sandy strip of island), then tread the broken bits of coral along the length of opposite shore and wade back in where the tumult generates. I pick my way around roots and broken coral bits, careful with my body. My daughters wear their masks and look like big-eyed amphibians striding ahead of me. Cool water clutches our ankles as we step back in and synchronize raising our flippered feet in an effort to stay together. We navigate by body weight, leaning into the turns of the reef, and sail by suspended lemonpeel angelfish, checkerboard wrasse and doublesaddle butterflyfish. The girls struggle to hold themselves in place over giant tridacna clams—they love their frilled lips of electric blue—but the current is insistent; it pushes them forward.

Though the water’s pull is potent we are able, at times, to haul ourselves into openings sculpted into the coral and stand on small patches of sand catching our breath. A marbled grouper floats in place, holding my eye, slack mouthed. A lanky yellow trumpetfish reveals her tiny underbite. I study small neon fairy basslets and brush my hand above a diminutive feathery blue Christmas tree worm to watch it retract and inch back out again, fully fluffed. More than thirty years earlier I learned this game of hide and seek from my instructor on my baptismal dive.

Barrelling around a bend, I nearly sideswipe a six-inch round moray eel freestyling out of a crevice. Morays are notorious introverts who backtrack into coral when they catch the scent of possible predators but their hiding spots are disintegrating. This rogue eel just keeps swimming, a four-foot muscular brown ribbon with a mouthful of teeth, close enough to reach out and touch. Mouth-breathers with double sets of jaws and a weak sense of both hearing and sight, morays are a good fish from which to socially distance.

I signal the girls through my ungainly backward dog paddle and they mimic me, avoiding collision before they see the source of my concern. The eel becomes our conversation that night, a moment of magic from the day as we dine beachside, the tropical air salting our showered skin. We shift water glasses and silverware out of the way to cluster around Carrie’s camera, examining her close ups of what we found just hours ago, words overlapping. When an unidentifiable fish or coral comes into view, one of us grabs a phone to research. Tomorrow we will name what we weren’t able to today.

At age seven Amy caught a rough respiratory virus she could not shake for weeks despite my relentless caretaking. After dinner one night, the hollows of my face reflected in the chalky light above the bathroom mirror, I glanced down and saw on top of the wastebasket the pink prescription pills I gave her earlier, nestled in a crumpled piece of toilet paper. I was, at first, beside myself, angry at her recklessness, preventing the recovery I’d canceled two weeks of plans to secure. I had yet to acknowledge that part of motherhood, so idealized in my mind, was accepting that my diligence could be so casually disregarded. Amy came into the world claiming her body and her space as her own. In grade school, she was the child who shook off my proffered hand for annual vaccinations. At eleven, she could not wait to fly as an unaccompanied minor to summer camp in Maine, her Southwest Airlines lanyard swinging as she waved a gleeful goodbye on the other side of security.

In Moorea, she is ready to get into the water with sharks. We book a boat to a remote site where they are known to congregate. Dominating our view back to shore, a long slope of mountain range, like the spine of a green dinosaur burst from the land, seems to keep watch. With us are a captain and a guide, two barefoot men, one French and one Polynesian, with a robust knowledge of the Pacific ocean. A stopover to pet some stingrays shows us Matthieu’s affinity with marine life. The rays fly around us but are so drawn to him they cloak his face and head with their big soft bodies again and again as he tries to gently push them toward us with his hands. Finally we too make contact and their bodies feel like sponge and satin. Back onboard the men use their binoculars and see ahead of us the notched black fins of sharks cutting through the water. As we slow, Amy positions her mask and finds her fins. Carrie and I peer over the side of the boat to assess the sharks’ behavior. Matthieu laughs and says, “No worry.”

I have seen my share of sharks. Once in my twenties, I saw a foot long baby hammerhead in Galveston bay, fending for itself as all newborns do the moment they are born. Nurse sharks are more skittish than I imagined, they hug the white floor of the Caribbean sea and whoosh clouds of sand at a diver’s slightest advance. In the waters off Thailand, leopard sharks take their time swimming past me, far more at ease around humans. But in Moorea, we will jump into a group that circles in wait for us. I bend over to snap on my flippers and when I sit up Amy is already in the ocean. Carrie broad steps off the boat with the Go-Pro in hand, intent on her videography. I jump in behind, eyes open, locating my girls, locating the sharks.

Six of them swim through the water with an agitated energy as they pick up the scent of Matthieu’s chum, cutting each other off to feed. Sleek gray bodies flash by us, streaking toward the camera, advancing off my shoulder, pitching toward my daughters; elegant and minimalistic, lean with blunt heads. I hear the sound of my own accelerated breath and feel the lushness of water against my skin as I witness their wildness, their austere beauty, their lack of fear. Broad rays of sun slit the water and the sharks swim through the light, their skin shimmers under the illumination. Against the eternal blue of the open ocean, the girls look like sea creatures and I imagine that must be how the sharks see us; one of them. Carrie keeps her arm outstretched with her camera, sweeping the scene, exhilaration and focus on her face. I am present but also alive to the memory we are making here and the ways in which we all put ourselves at risk in the world. Keen black eyes look straight at me but there are also my daughter’s eyes, brown like mine, adrenaline wide, and for a moment, the proximity of our fragility closes in on me, and I remember that loss is the shadowy underside of love. Since the tidal shift of motherhood, the weight and consequence of life above ground adds a density to my days; I am forever vulnerable to the gravitational pull of my daughters. Though silence above ground can unnerve me, the quiet of the ocean is wholly different. Underwater, I cancel out the noise of the world and the clamor of my own mind—I like it that way sometimes.

The Big Dipper hangs low in the sky above us our last night on the dock, brilliantly apparent. Random splashes signal nearby fish; silvered bodies streak across the surface like shooting stars. The girls, attuned to all of it, shift their heads toward the sounds, their faces pale velvet in the distilled light. It grows late but we stay as we are, keeping the night in place like a prayer. Carrie’s hand releases the last of our pocketed bread; it fades fast into the water where something we cannot see will gratefully rise to swallow it whole before it disappears.

By Suzanne Siteman

Suzanne Siteman is an essayist recently relocated to Colorado though she is most at home in the ocean. She has a long list of dream dive destinations and hopes that her daughters, and their future families, will explore many of them with her. Suzanne is a recent Pushcart nominee and her work can be found in Pithead Chapel, Brightflash Literary Review, Mothering magazine and other publications. When not diving Suzanne can be found above ground hiking and hanging out with her new rescue chiweenie Billie.