Just a week short of turning eighty, he decided it was time for his life to be brought to an end.
Following the natural flow of the tide outside his window, an effusion of loved ones had long since rolled in, lingered, and then all been drawn away to explore the horizon or to make a final plunge into the depths.
He was ready to join the latter group.
Whether in the water or on land, the man had always navigated his surroundings with fluid, unhurried movements. With the bait of his lithe fingers, the neoprene gradually swallowed his body and the mask encased his eyes. Flippers soon extended from his toes. The only item left was the snorkel. That could wait until he was in the ocean.
It was an unusually calm afternoon, particularly during the season of high tides. A marine layer tucked the beach under a lull of stillness and the encroaching waves responded in kind, generating a glassy surface all around him up to his waist. Once the mouthpiece was negotiated between his teeth and lips, he sucked in a long breath of air and dipped under the soft ripples.
One solid trumpeting expelled all the excess droplets that had sloshed into the tube and before long he could hear his labored but regular breaths filling his ears. Now he could focus on the world where he really belonged, the place where he felt most alive.
In his youth, he had traveled to many lush terrains. Exotic jungles, swamps. But they were incomparable to the overwhelmingly verdant, teeming density of the sea in his backyard. This vitality was palpable; a pulsating energy that physically nudged you into constant awareness and wonder. He had witnessed a plethora of different forms of sea life over the years. Kelp fronds were his most common companion, but he often caught a glimpse of smelt, or better yet, of seals.
At this point, where the pier ended, was where he usually stopped. Today he followed the sun that slipped from the sky and began dropping into the darkening liquid.
A minute went by.
His lungs began to protest and his limbs flailed around involuntarily, pulling him above.
Another attempt yielded the same result. Frustration and doubt welled up behind the plastic visor.
But then a pair of waves caught him by surprise, filling up his snorkel. When he surfaced and instinctively blew to clear the tube, he discovered something now was stubbornly obstructing the flow of air. By now he was too exhausted to remove the mouthpiece or continue treading water.
He took this turn of events as a sign that he could finally let go. He smiled one last time as he accompanied the day’s descent far into the night.
At the beginning, it was all about basking in a deliciously dark bubble of sleep.
Soft currents kneaded and patted him meticulously on all sides, thereby cultivating this trance of incubation for months on end.
Once the eggs ruptured, mother was already dead, and he and his other 200,000 or so siblings were dumped into the salty atmosphere to try their own luck at survival.
For an additional four weeks, the young octopus had ridden a cloud of plankton that swirled near the surface, sustaining himself on larval crabs and narrowly escaping the mouths of passing smelt, or worse yet, an occasional seal.
Then came an afternoon of the king tides, when the entire marine universe gravitated towards the shore.
Everything took on an eerie, effervescent tone as beings moved to adjust to the change. He was ripped from the community of plankton, his eight spindly limbs scrambling to keep up with an amplified rise of the waves. In a moment of complete disorientation, he was swept up then dropped to rest inside a strange narrow enclosure.
There was only one other time in his brief existence when he had felt so safe.
A blast of pressure came from below, working to push him out, but he established a firm suction with his tentacles along the sides of the hiding place and held on. The force at the bottom finally ceased, and he and the tube were falling downwards, being dragged by a weight. But before long the weight was released and he began to float in his new craft, eventually landing in a shallow lagoon at the shore. He remained inside, feeding on the mussel that had accompanied him. In no time he had grown so much he could not leave this space even if he had wanted to do so.
The snorkel was either overlooked or ignored by the traffic of the vacationing adults who waded by. It was a 9-year-old boy who noticed the blue object in the water, picked it up, and held it close to his face, unperturbed by the fetid stream of liquid that it emitted and trickled down his arms.
There was something alive in there.
After finding a less populated area of the beach, the boy squatted down and worked on twisting the mouthpiece off from the tube. With this done, he saw the parts in the remaining snorkel still would not allow the contents to be emptied. He reached into his pocket and pulled out the knife his mother had told him he was too young to use. One hand steadied the tube and tilted it at an angle to assure that the creature was away from the projected path of the blade. The other pierced the plastic with the tip of the knife, and then began a frenzied sawing with the serrated portion of the tool. Two agonizing minutes later, the plastic gave way and the snorkel was in three separate pieces. The kid picked up the heaviest portion, tipped it, and a diminutive octopus slid into his hand along with a pool of water.
The shock of the encounter rendered both parties utterly immobilized for some moments. When the octopus began to squirm in his palm, the boy cupped his other hand on top and began running to the surf. He waded out until the water reached his chest, and delicately released the animal. As the cephalopod propelled itself further and further away, he was reminded of the message in his fortune cookie at lunch:
You discover treasures where others see nothing unusual.
For the little guy who didn’t actually make it…