"They're around here," said our guide, as we slowly motored up the Homosassa River. It was late afternoon, a mildly sunny day in midwinter. My boyfriend David, his son Jordan, and I wore wetsuits, which we had rented along with snorkeling equipment. We'd been assured that a group of five overwintering manatees had been grazing all day in the oxbow.
"Look!" Jordan yelled, and pointed. Across the river, a pair of seal-like heads had surfaced.
"Well, thar she blows," said the guide, and let the motor die. He tossed a small metal anchor into the blue-gray water.
We'd been in Tampa for one of David's conferences. We had heard about the Homosassa River, an hour's drive north and one of just a few places on earth where it was possible to swim with wild manatees. I had mixed feelings about the venture, but we had Jordan, who was thirteen, with us, and he had been extremely bored and brooding for the three days of the conference.
Since the proximate cause of Jordan's moodiness was not apparent, I chalked it up to the obvious, larger issue we were facing. Six months before, David had been diagnosed with leukemia. He had recently gone into remission, but the odds were that the remission would not last more than a year. Though Jordan had not been briefed yet on the prognosis, his father's bald head and skinny frame were enough to suggest that something was vastly different. This three-day trip also marked the first time either Jordan or I had gone with David to a conference. Perhaps it had not been a waste of money, though Jordan and I had spent most of the time playing backgammon in our motel room while David agonized about his presentation.
In our rented car we'd driven up to the town of Homosassa right after David finally gave his talk about the latest trends in the population dynamics of the long-spined black sea urchin. During the ride I offered David my impressions of the talk while Jordan tuned us both out with his Sony Walkman. He was thirteen, after all. Somehow he'd managed it. His mother died when he was six, but he'd come through it more or less okay. I attributed this to David's good and loving nature, and I reluctantly gave some credit to the two twentysomething budding marine biologists whose thesis committees David had more than chaired. That was during the years between his wife Deborah's death and our first meeting, on the occasion of his bringing Jordan into my office with tonsillitis. It took three years before we started discussing marriage, but then his diagnosis came, and so instead we discussed my plans to adopt Jordan, if David died.
I thought about this as Jordan jumped into the river. He liked me now but I wondered if he would still like me as his mother. I guessed the grad students were more sisterly than maternal, and that maybe this had been a safer enterprise. I also guessed I wasn't anything like Deborah. She was a dancer. David once told me she had a habit of getting extremely lost while she was driving. Sometimes she went to the store for milk and took an hour to get home. Jordan swam calmly up to the nearest manatee and dove down, as if to take a few bites of whatever species of aquatic grass was growing on the river bottom. When he resurfaced, the nearby manatee approached and seemed to nuzzle him. Within seconds, he appeared to have been approved as a new member of the herd. David followed Jordan in. With the same unlearned skill Jordan had inherited, he too was quickly welcomed by the manatees. For twenty minutes or so, I watched the two of them swim around with these floating teddy bears, one of whom seemed to be continually demanding that David tickle him. "Go on," said our guide, a tall, skinny young man who looked to be in his early twenties. He had blond hair and a very bad complexion, and I had noticed that he kept glancing at my chest.
I said, "I don't know that I want to."
He said, "Why not?"
I didn't answer. I almost told him that as a young girl I had lived in a small village in eastern Poland, that we didn't have any marine mammals, and that I'd once seen a dead man floating facedown in the river Bug. But that would have been melodramatic. The truth was I was afraid that I would not be made as welcome by these manatees. That they would sense a certain problematic energy in me — or worse, I would find that I was terrified of them. As rationalization, I was reviewing various environmentalist arguments against fostering interaction with wild animals. These ranged from ethical problems related to ecotourism to the dangers these manatees might face thanks to their willingness to tolerate human presence. Of course, it also occurred to me that they'd been tamed long ago, that their nature was genuinely docile in the first place, and finally, that I had never seen creatures more beautiful in my life. So I went in with my rented mask, fins, snorkel, and too-small wetsuit. I swam toward them with far less ease than David or Jordan, veering away, then toward, then back away, and at last choosing to swim in the general direction of a single manatee on the periphery. It was the wrong choice, I quickly realized. This manatee was the only member of the group that appeared to be the least bit skittish. I stopped swimming when it drew back from me. I prepared to face unprecedented manatee rejection, but thankfully, it did not turn its whiskered snout away. With the most placid, unearthly face, it watched me. Its tiny eyes looked to me like stars. It let its tail fluke sink until its body was almost vertical. When I looked down I saw that the tail was horribly disfigured, sliced into several leaflike segments by the blades of an outboard motor. I knew what to do, somehow. I swam away from the manatee and it followed. I took a few more gentle strokes, let myself glide, and did not look back. When the creature swam up beside me, I kept going. It stayed with me for a minute or so, once even nuzzling me, and finally I turned toward it. I saw more scars on its back, including one that was shaped like the letter Z. It moved up close and pressed the side of its long body against my shoulder. Then it drew back again, submerged, swam under me, and was gone. Our guide had told us that if you stay where you are and do not try to follow, the manatee will usually return in a few minutes. I treaded water until its head popped up near the main group. It stayed away and submerged again when Jordan swam out toward it. I didn't see its head resurface, although I waited ten more minutes. Then I swam back to the boat and felt as if my heart would burst.
I pulled myself up the rope ladder that our guide had hung down the boat's side.
"That one, she likes you," he said.
"She swam away from me."
"She's just a shy one. See any markings?"
"What kind of markings?"
"Propeller scars," he said, and glanced down at my chest again.
Fixed action pattern, David would say. All part of preprogrammed neurophysiology. He'd claimed his attraction to the second of the two grad students, a top-heavy girl named Stacy Bennett, could be blamed on the phenomenon of "supernormal stimuli." Just like the oversized claw of the fiddler crab or the inflatable red neck of the magnificent frigatebird. David conveniently ignored the fact that these and other supernormally stimulating appendages typically cited in college textbooks were, almost exclusively, traits that occurred in males.
"Oh, those markings," I said. "Yeah, her tail was mangled. She also had a scar shaped like a big Z along her back."
"That's what I figured," he said. "Zelda. She's a real shy one, like I said."
"Do you have names for all the manatees?"
He nodded and said, "We get to know them."
"And this is all you do? Take people out to see manatees?"
"No, ma'am," he said.
"I work on boats."
"You're a mechanic?"
He said, "Yes, ma'am."
"What's all this ma'am stuff?" I asked.
"Did you grow up around here?"
"Born and raised in Homosassa." With a twinkly smile he added, "Ma'am."
"That's very nice," I said, and stared at his vaguely Germanic features.
"I also play the guitar," he said. "We have a band. We're called Dee Luxe. That's because Dee, she's the lead singer and she started the band with her boyfriend. He plays the drums."
"Is his name Luxe?" I asked.
He smiled again and said, "It's Jerry."
Jordan and David were swimming up. By then they'd been in the water close to an hour.
"Hey, Beverly, did you see us?" Jordan said, as he climbed up the rope ladder.
I said, "Yes. You turned into a manatee."
"Maybe I did," he said, and appeared to be assessing the possibility. He reached behind himself to unzip his wetsuit. I helped him peel it down off his shoulders and draped a towel around his neck. Jordan was wearing a little necklace he'd won last summer playing Skee-Ball at an arcade in Cape May, New Jersey. He and Rocky, my younger daughter, had each cashed in their win tickets for a pendant of polished light green stone that hung from a thin black cord. They called them "wonder stones," which, apparently, was how they had been marketed.
"We saw you swimming," Jordan said. "With that one manatee who wouldn't go near me and Dad. It had a messed-up tail, from all the boats."
I said, "Our guide said her name's Zelda. She has a Z-shaped scar across her back."
"What about that one with three scars on its head? What's his name?"
"That must be June," said the guide. "The others were Lana, Kate, and Francie."
"How do you know?" Jordan asked.
He said, "I came here with another group this morning. They swam right up to the boat, so I got a good look at their scars."
"Can you tell who they are without the scars?" I asked.
Jordan said, "Dad," and looked at David, who had just climbed up the ladder. "We were with Lana, Kate, and Francie."
"That's good to know," David said softly, and pushed his mask up to his forehead. He'd started growing a new mustache, which made him look like a big, wet seal.
On the ride back, I sat with David, pulling him close with my arm around his shoulder. For the first time in a long while, he seemed relaxed, even serene. I recognized his mood. He'd been this way after a whale-watching trip we'd taken during the past fall. For all his scientific deconstruction of wild habitats, for all the academic bureaucracy and political maneuvering he had weathered, David had somehow preserved his fundamental love of nature. For me it was long gone, beaten out of me in my twenties, during med school, when I was taught to recognize the many horrors that nature can bestow. This was a problem, I later realized, and maybe one I'd hoped to remedy by falling in love with David. But in the three years since we'd met, I hadn't healed much or gotten any softer. And in the months since David's diagnosis, I'd often felt — more than he — that I wanted to give up trying.
Excerpted from Day for Night by Frederick Reiken. Copyright 2010 by Frederick Reiken. Reprinted by permission of Reagan Arthur Books.