Body like a map, scar tissue delineates the flesh into territories whose swollen demarcations evince a history of suffering not unlike those real-world boundaries dividing continents into their own confines of bygone pain. Above the front right flipper, over the manatee's shoulder and down its flank, the choppy fault lines left by an errant boat rudder have hardened to cartilage. Across the animal's tail a thin streak of whitened flesh displays the damage caused by the entanglement of a forgotten monofilament line. A gouge in the snout speaks to the dangers of discarded fishhooks. Even without the sympathy this gnarled skin evokes, it would be a struggle not to cherish a creature so unwieldy, so oafish in appearance.

            Their gentle demeanor and attractive pudge draft parallels to human infants and for this reason she's compelled to forge an understanding with the creature, let it know that there are others who would never inflict this misery. I'm sorry, she wants to tell it, I'm one of the good ones. There are lots of us and we're all so sorry.

            But there are others around and she's embarrassed, so she lets her arm hang out of the side of the boat, hoping that maybe the manatee can sense her proffered kinship, that maybe it will nose out of the water enough to brush against her fingers. That would be enough; she could live with that. I'm one of the good ones, I promise. She would tell it this because she thinks it needs to hear it like she still needs to sometimes.

            The tour is almost over; they're approaching the last turn and then they'll dock and disembark and most of the guests, the noisy children with their frazzled parents, the indifferent youth on their field trip, will leave Wakulla Springs Wildlife Sanctuary and head back north to Tallahassee and this will have been a nice day trip, a good excuse to get out of school, but little else.

            She listens to the dispassionate drone of the tour guide on the boat's fuzzy PA, the whine of a grumpy baby, and she realizes her comparison isn't fair. How could this creature with its swollen ridges of imperfectly healed flesh, with its chubby face and hapless smile – how could this animal even tangentially remind her of the young of her own species? There's a calm, a certain repose the manatee possesses which none of her fellow tour-goers display. And again she's overcome by embarrassment, this time not by notions of her unspoken allegiance, but by the lack of respect with which everyone else regards the manatee's serenity, its vulnerability.

            Rising from her seat, she leans over the edge of the boat. The tour guide crackles an admonishment over the PA, but she's bent at the waist now, dragging her palms through a light film of algae and someone grabs onto the back of her belt, keeps her from falling in, as she whispers, “I'm sorry. I'm sorry. I promise. I'm sorry.”

Charlie Griggs is an assistant editor for the literary journal Fiction International with two stories forthcoming in the Blue Lake Review’s June issue.

I only visited the Wakulla Springs Wildlife Sanctuary on one occasion while completing my undergraduate studies at Florida State University. However, years later I still find myself thinking about the experience.  The narrator of the text is a reflection of my own feelings toward the manatee which, to me, embodies the perfect paradox of gauche grace.




Copyright 2009