US1 through southern and central Brevard County is an easy drive of sparse architecture and brilliant liquid beauty along the Indian River. The Indian River is wide and shallow, averaging three feet deep and often navigable by foot from the quarter mile to eight miles between bank to bank. Not a river at all, really, but a rod-straight saltwater sound, it is barely separated from the Atlantic by more than a spit of land.
Along the river are salt-marshes, inlets and coves and it was past one of those many coves I drove Saturday morning on my way from Palm Bay, five miles north, to pick up Evanne. That day we were making a kiln of coiled newspaper at my home, breaking into a bag of terracotta clay with about a dozen people to make runes, Tellstones, whatnots small in size. People were due at noon.
As I drove, the shoulder, commonly narrow enough only for an emergency stop, widened into a grass-filled clearing level with the lapping river. Only about forty feet deep and perhaps one hundred feet long, normally empty and affording a view of the wide river and the narrow division of land which broke the ocean and created the sound, today it was bordered, as the trees cleared, by an upright half-sheet of plywood asking, in large caution-orange paint, that we take home one of the many pit-bull puppies available. Behind it were parked what were certainly to be too many cars to be explained by free puppies. Against the shore were clumps of people – adults, children – with cameras, binoculars, pointing fingers off the bank at a space some thirty feet distant.
At fifty miles per hour I can’t see much. Cars, people, cameras and a boiling of water where they point. In the river’s tumult were dark shapes, significant in size, one breaking the surface of the water. While I cannot see what they are, by the time the tableau has taken its place behind me, as the car curves past the Honda dealership, I have figured out what they were; manatees.
I have been here a year. I have not seen a manatee though I hear about them and their friendly nature, their bad breath, the texture of their skin.
I speed up. I am but five minutes from Evanne’s and reach for my phone to call her, to ask her to be ready so, in the truck, we can go back, park, walk to the bank and, I hope, see my first manatees. The phone rings.
“Are we on for today? I figured we were because you said we were, but Jack said I should check.”
I was due to pick her up at eleven that morning. It was ten ‘till.
“I’m four minutes away. Can you be ready? I’ll explain when I get there but I don’t want to talk while I’m driving.”
I drive too fast. She is ready and gets into the truck.
“I think I passed a group of manatees right off the road. I think. I want to stop and see. We have about an hour. If people have to wait a bit for us, for this, they’ll have to wait.”
“Really? I’d love to see them.”
People rush so much. Everything, it seems, is on a time frame. For picking up Evanne on time, by a clock, at a time designated by us and marked by specific numbers on a clock, watch, cell-phone, I chance not seeing the manatees. I drove by them. I think briefly of passing them by again; people are due at my house. I drive back quickly. Too quickly. Time again. This time I stop, pulling over the double-yellow line into the clearing and between two cars.
There is a whirlpool deep with dark silhouettes of bodies long and broad. I can see this through the windshield and open the glove-box to take out the binoculars, the monocular and we get out.
Approaching the water, I hand the binoculars to Evanne. “I asked for a discount on the binoculars, since I can use only one lens, but they just laughed. I don’t see why I should pay for something I can’t use. You turn this to focus.” She takes them out of the case, I twist the wheel between the lenses as she holds them. I take the monocular out of its case and stuff the vinyl into my back pocket. I put it to my right eye and point it out to the roil in the river.
We are two among a constantly renewing eight or ten people watching the spectacle in the water. Three manatees, it appears, one female and two male: mating season. We watch, one then the other, the one again. Breaching, tails slapping the surface, mist blowing from nostrils, grey backs above the water. At once it appears there is a jostling, it appears one has attacked another. We watch. We listen.
Perhaps the female has told one of the males she has had enough. Perhaps has had all she wants. Or one male has challenged, is ready to fight, been rebuked by the female. Then all is calm and they are taking turns again.
The sound skips over the water and mixes with, spurs on the chatter around us .
“It’s a manatee orgy.”
“She’s tired of them and wants a ciggy.”
Snickering, laughing. Rude comments.
I think to myself, talk to myself, I wonder at the anthropomorphizing. Why put them into a human frame? Have we done such a good job of it? After all, they’re the ones making love in the water, having sex in the river, taking turns, out in the open, no worries, no cares, procreating, playing (perhaps), not thinking of tomorrow, not yesterday, just now, in action and moment, life lived as present-tense verbs.
What’s our problem? We want to live, be healthy, or, at least, be comfortable while we live long. We want to live and live and live. Quantity over quality and tomorrow over the moment. We want to have things, more things, one more thing, then something else, another. More and more. We want shelter because we will be more comfortable, live longer if we are out of the cold, out of the heat, out of the sun. Longer, more, tomorrow, worry, next year, better place. Then, we look at the manatees in the river and give them our thoughts, our desires and our reactions when it is we who wish to feel like them, give up the home, live in the water, have sex on the shore, think of nothing and have only now. But for the fear, we would. But for fear of the end, we would. And so, we pretend they are like us as imagining we are them simply begs dissonance, wonder, confusion.
It is quarter ‘till twelve. Evanne reminds me we have people who will be waiting for us. I respond by going to my truck and getting my polarized sunshields – big enough to fit over my glasses. With these, I can cut out the reflection of the water, see through the surface. They are one more thing. I bring them back and hand them to Evanne. We pass them back and forth. Finally, binoculars, monocular are put away. I’m reminded it’s time to go and, back to the truck, we do just that.
We drive way from the water, out to US1, and, as we recross the double-yellow I can still see the swirling of the water in my mirror.
The afternoon comes, the company does as well. Stones are made, a kiln is built. I make a dinner of salmon and steak, both on the grill for hours now, lowly, slowly and vegetables cooked fast in a large, flame-surrounded wok.
Over dinner, Craig tells us about the park nearby, Goode Park, and the manatees. He lays on the dock, the one that floats. His hands lay in the water, waving gently and the manatees come to him and to have their bellies rubbed. Bellies rubbed? I have never heard of that. Manatees again.
I am to do a workshop that evening: a singing workshop. Old Aramaic chants. It is at Goode Park. I picked it because it was close by; six blocks away and I plan to walk there. Goode Park is on Turkey Creek, which connects to the Indian River.
Walk there we do. It is seven in the evening and the workshop starts at seven-thirty. It starts when I get there but I would not start late. I will start on time, by a clock, at a time designated by us and marked by specific numbers on a clock, watch, cell-phone, and, if there are any, I chance not seeing the manatees.
I walk with Evanne and Valerie to the dock and, as we step, it moves beneath us. I see nothing but lay down on my belly, as do the ladies. I put my hands in the water and wave them in and out just under the surface. In and out. Nearly instantly, surprisingly, a nose, four inches across, breaks the surface, closed nostrils open, hot air expelled and it smells of old vegetables., eyes are wide, focused on my face. Eyes like mahogany shooters surrounded by grey flesh. A short-nose elephant in the water.
I reach over and pat the head. It is smooth, warm, comfortable. Round, firm, comforting. Another comes up, sleekly, quietly, graceful in way I have seldom seen and I am thinking how something so impossibly shaped, so ungainly on land could be the utter animation of grace and flow and while I am thinking this another sneaks up, unseen, unheard. So large and so quiet.
I pat it with both hands, rubbing either side of its head. As I do, it snuffles at my palms, left then right, opens its mouth, licks my fingers and moves forward placing its head once more between my hands.
It turns over, deftly, silently as I rub and my hands are on it’s belly: soft, muscular, warm and I rub it as long as it will have until it moves back and my hands are on it’s chest, its flippers are thick, nails large and tough and I can’t help but feel them and I hold its hand. Hand, so much like my hand, five nails, fingers joined by skin and cartilage but five fingers, five nails. A moment passes and the hand I’m holding places, easily moves, mine back onto its chest, making its desire well and clear; it wants its chest and neck rubbed.
It is raised from the water, belly and a portion of its side above the surface, visible. On the grey skin, in the flesh, are four yellow scars, at regular distances, at the same angle, nearly and inch wide and each about a foot long. I would see this again and again as the manatees would come up, each in turn, scars and scars.
And so, our bellies to the ground, theirs to the air, we rubbed them, as long as they would have, into the warm night.