Justin J. Brouckaert

The Only Thing Blue

I am a marine biologist.

I repeat it like a prayer as I scrape the barnacles off the rusted bulbous tool that collects specimens from the depths. I pry them one by one from the metal with a dull blade—sometimes there is resistance; other times, the deck rains crustacean.

I pick the finest ones to preserve in formaldehyde and bring back to the scientists who sent me. They are important scientists who make their livings with gauges and probes. They expect much of their students.

I take this picking seriously, pinching each barnacle between my fingers, turning it against the moonlight. I trace my nail along the shell—such a thing, that shell.

To each winner, a blessing: You, I whisper, and drop it, like a pill.

I place the jars twenty to a box and stack them along the walls of my cabin, pile them feet high beneath my bunk. On the mornings I’m more sick than awake, I think of them as insulation, a wall that braces me against the churning of the sea. I try to forget that they, too, are floating.

It takes the three tan, wiry men all of the morning and most of the day to work the instrument up from the depths. These are hours I spend inside my cabin, measuring the highs and lows in the cavity of my chest. I often try to think of home, what it feels like to be solid and full. It is not easy.

In the beginning, I tried to fight the sickness. When I heard the men laughing on the deck, I walked out to watch them, but they turned silent when they saw me. One of the men showed me the yellow of his teeth. I realized I was the only one swaying with the sea.

If I were braver, I would smile and sit and watch them, take the silence as my own. I would listen to their arms stretch and burn in the sun. I would press my back against something hard. I often feel myself inching toward moments like these.

When the men are done, one of them bangs a cable-cut fist on my door to call me. They leave me a meal from their day’s catch, and I eat it without sickness. I work through the night to split husk from metal, rooted in moss and exoskeleton. Scrape, examine, record, preserve. This is science, I think, though there are moments when the slap of the waves on the hull makes me think it’s something else.

We dock three times, on islands with more men than women and more fish than men. The fourth will be home, to labs and classrooms and charts and the ones who sent me. I think of what I will do when the only thing blue to look at will be the sky. I think of what I will do with my hands when I am alone.

On the long days, when we are farthest out, I wait for a response to my call—a rap at the door. When it comes, I will not be worried and sick, like I was. I will breathe deep and press my fingers into the spaces where they fall. I will try not to latch onto anything.

I am a marine biologist. I am a researcher. There was a time this meant something different, but the sea makes things difficult. There is nothing here to stand on.

The truth is, barnacles make me shiver. They’re only a fungus on the sea floor—hundreds of crusted, swollen eyes that lash at me when they’re hungry, mistaking my fingers for prey. The truth is, there is not much difference between a good specimen and a bad one.

If I were braver, I would say such things, even if only in a sigh.

If I were braver, there are some things I wouldn’t do at all.

Justin J. Brouckaert is the author of the chapbook Look at This Fish (Burning River Press, April 2014), a collection of flash fiction and prose poetry. He is a James Dickey Fellow in Fiction at the University of South Carolina.