I’ve glimpsed one of the monsters.
“You ready for this?” my cousin Ryan asked me that morning on the edge of the Red Sea, and I looked at him and nodded. Of course. I’d lived the past two years in Thailand and gone to a boarding school in Malaysia and snorkeled plenty of times.
Despite its name, the water of the Red Sea was a deep sapphire blue as it lay placidly in front of us just beyond the coral reef. Tiny waves teased our ankles as we waded in, a rented mask swinging from my hand as we carefully made our way over the coral.
“Remember,” he said, “don’t pick up any cone-shaped shells. They might have poisonous snails in them. And there are lionfish, so watch where you step. You might see barracuda, but don’t panic. They probably won’t bother you.” My heart started to beat faster at his words, but I wouldn’t dare let on. Ryan was younger than me by an important two months, and if he and his little sister had done this before, it would be stupid for me to actually be afraid. “There are also sea snakes but—”
I interrupted him. “They’re not usually aggressive and have small mouths, so they can only bite between the toes and fingers, or on your ear lobes.” My seventh-grade science teacher said these words when we saw one at a beach we had hiked to a few months earlier.
Ryan laughed. “See? Nothing to worry about! Oh, and one more thing. Don’t stick your hands or feet into any holes in the coral because that’s where moray eels hide.”
I made a face. “Do you think I’m an idiot?”
We were at the edge of the reef now, and beyond us, the water shimmered in the white-hot June sunshine. Bending at the waist, I put my face into the water and looked down. The reef formed a tall wall, and colorful fish darted in and out of the craggy coral below me. Visibility was so good that I could see down at least twenty or thirty feet, maybe more, and it felt like I was standing on the edge of a building and being told to jump.
I stood up straight and spit the snorkel out of my mouth, placing a hand on my chest and feeling a pounding underneath it.
“What?” Ryan asked. “What’s wrong?”
I shook my head, unsure of what to say. “It’s just . . . I don’t know. I guess . . .”
“It’s fine,” he insisted. “Just push off.”
I nodded and readjusted my mask, bending toward the water again. The water was perfectly clear for such a long way down, but then it melted into a blue nothingness. Straining my eyes, I tried to make out more, hoping to see the sandy floor, to know that the darkness ended. What was there, in the deep blue? How far did it go? Ryan had just given me a veritable laundry list of terrors. From my vantage point, I could see some of them: sleek barracuda zipping around, lionfish waving their leafy fins, a large crevice that probably had a moray eel tucked inside. But I felt paralyzed by what I couldn’t see. Anything might be lurking there—a leviathan for all I knew—ready to surge forward out of the darkness and devour me.
Years later, early in our marriage, my husband and I took a trip to Paris. We were mostly broke college and grad students with meager finances, but we were dreamers, and Paris is a good place to dream. A few nights after we arrived, the telephone next to the bed in our cramped hotel room rang around midnight and startled us out of a deep sleep.
“Hello?” Matt murmured sleepily into the phone. I turned away from him, pulling the pillow around my ears and feeling deeply annoyed at this obvious wrong number. No one in our families knew exactly where we were staying, though I had mentioned to my mother the name of the budget hotel chain in a conversation. Then I heard Matt say, “Okay, here she is.”
Nervousness seized me as I took the receiver. “Hello?”
“Hi, Joy.” It was my mother. I couldn’t believe she found us. “I just wanted to let you know,” here she paused for a moment, “that your grandad had a heart attack.”
“Oh . . . okay . . .” I said, still puzzling over why she called to tell me this when she knew it was the middle of the night. Heart attacks weren’t necessarily death sentences anymore. And Granddad, though nearly eighty-two years old, was the kind of active, healthy man who’d live to be a hundred—I just knew it. As one of my dearest friends and mentors who knew how much the trip meant to me, he accompanied us to the airport, an hour-and-a-half’s drive from his home, to see us off the day we left. This was going to be another story to recount a dozen times around the dinner table. “But he’s okay, right?”
I heard Mom take a little breath on the other end of the line before she said in a voice thick with grief. “No, Joy. He died.”
I folded, a wail coming from me that I didn’t recognize as my own voice. Matt took the phone from my hands and talked to my mother. The next day we headed home for the funeral, our dream trip abruptly curtailed. Flying westward, we stayed for a while right at the cusp of daylight, the rosy glow of the sun ahead fading into darkness behind.
“If I go up to the heavens, you are there.” The words of Psalm 139 flooded my mind as I looked out the window. “If I make my bed in the depths, you are there. If I rise on the wings of the dawn, if I settle on the far side of the sea, even there your hand will guide me, your right hand will hold me fast.”
A phone ringing in the middle of the night remains near the top of my personal list of terrifying sounds. Living most of my adult life in another time zone from family has meant several ill-timed, heart-stopping calls that usually turned out to be nothing, so I was extremely grateful for the arrival of the “Do Not Disturb” option on my phone. If someone needs to get ahold of me, they can—but not by accident. The appearance of the little moon and those three words sliding down the top of my phone screen promptly at nine o’clock pat my back and assure me that for tonight, at least, I’m safe.
Even when I awaken to silent darkness, though, I know the truth. I know there are unimaginable terrors hiding beyond what I can see. My heart races as I try to make them out and deduce the odds that I could survive their fury. I think of times my kids have run toward the street, chasing a stray ball, or fallen down stairs, of my husband and that car that swerved into our lane as we drove home. I live in South Korea, where my children are assigned gas masks, just in case all hell literally breaks loose.
Once again, I see that sapphire water of the Red Sea so far below me, concealing what might consume me whole.
I’m sound asleep when I hear the music of my ringtone, background noise in a dream until I jolt awake, knowing instantly it’s too dark for a call that I would welcome. With a racing heart, I pick up just in time to see the name of my daughter, the one in college on the other side of the world, right before the ringing stops.
An alert pops onto my screen: “Missed call from Skyler.” Then I see a text from just minutes ago, and the words freeze my heart: “I’ve been in a wreck.”
I can’t even think of words to pray as my trembling hand moves to call her back, and I don’t have the breath to say it. My knees weaken as I wait for her to pick up. Suddenly, it’s like I’m looking down into the deep blue water and seeing great, hulking forms in it, the danger I feared most becoming visible and moving toward me.
“Mom?” She finally answers, tears edging her voice.
“Are you okay?”
“And the other people?”
“They’re okay too. But our car is totaled.”
“That’s fine, we’ll figure it out,” I say, still trying to find the breath for my words.
When I finally pushed away from the coral reef in the Red Sea, as deep as the water was, I still floated. My breathing calmed, and I saw incredible beauty. A manta ray glided past a few dozen feet away, colorful parrot fish darted in and out of the coral, and schools of clear, harmless jellyfish surrounded me like crystals. Fear did not leave, but I moved anyway, trying to trust that if something were to come out of that deepest blue, it would somehow not consume me.
Today, I’ve glimpsed one of the monsters. Tonight, I’ll inevitably lie awake at some point, just as I already have done so many times.
“What if? What if? What if?” These two syllables will course through my veins like the rhythm of my heart, faster as more nightmarish possibilities pulse through my mind. But maybe as I remember that cerulean water, an arrhythmia will break in, and I’ll find the words are true: “You are there.”
Cover image by Jack Delulio.