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The Reef

My father said our world is a hostile place. Cold, cruel, unforgiving. Fit for life to begin but not to survive. His life was short; he died before I was barely out of the pouch, I being one of his first and only brood.

       The world I know does not marry with the world my father painted for us. My world is vibrant and teeming with life. I feel free and jovial as I weave between the rocky stems, occasionally letting the ripples of soft disturbances around the reef carry me. There are dangers, of course, and I navigate them as best I can; I avoid dark crevices that I don’t know, I don’t go out at night, and I never venture into the open sea. The reef protects me, and I protect the reef. There is inherent contentment in this symbiosis.

       Today is a big day for me. I don’t know how or why, but I finally feel ready to find a mate. My siblings who survived to maturity are much further ahead than me, and I have an incalculable number of nieces and nephews. While it’s nice to have such a large extended family, I look forward to having a brood of my own. I was beginning to worry it would never happen. As peaceful as the reef feels most of the time, my father’s warnings are deeply ingrained, driving an urgency for most to start a family as soon as possible. That urgency seemed to take longer to bubble to the surface for me.

       It’s not easy finding another of my species. We aren’t abundant compared to others inhabiting the reef, and most of us have already found a companion.

       I flit about, acknowledge friendly neighbours with a slight nod of my snout and avoid those that look at me with hungry eyes. Today is the day; I can feel it. There is something in the water this morning that gives me hope I’ve never felt before. The colours of the reef are somehow brighter, the sun is warmer - maybe a bit too warm - and there is a frenzy about the other inhabitants. Something big is about to happen, and it’s going to happen to me.

       In my meanderings, I pass an old hollow occupied by the oldest of our kind. It is part of the older reef that has lost colour. The hole he lives in is tiny and crumbling, yet he remains here in this place he calls home. I approach the entrance and bubble a hello, softly to avoid damaging the weary calcium carbonate skeleton.

       He comes to greet me. I call him the elder as he has no name. He bows his head hello before recommending with a tail flick that I do not linger. A ray has taken up accommodation nearby and has been snacking on locals for days. There is less camouflage in the older, whiter reefs, and this makes us easy pickings.

       I invite the elder to move into our territory. I would not be so accommodating in harsher times, but our reef is thriving. As always, he declines. He believes our reef will crumble soon, too; moving will make no difference to him. The change is in the water, just like before, he says. It feels strange to me that the atmosphere is ominous to him, where I sense nothing but opportunity. I acknowledge his warnings and turn away, signalling that I accept his refusal to join our community. It does not mean that I will not try again. Elders fear the future and hold fast to what has come before. Maybe one day soon, I can show him that he is wrong.

        The daylight is fading, and the promise of a fateful day fades with it. Crestfallen, I return to my home, nibbling at the plankton I find on the way. I tell myself I still have time. I have a suitable perch and strong genes. I’ll find a mate soon if I keep trying.

 

I get up just before dawn, determined to have a better day than yesterday. I burst out from the reef only to retract back into the safety of cover. I emerge more slowly this time. Either lurking predators did not fall for my trick, or there are none nearby.

       Hoping for the latter, I swim along and through the jagged tentacles of the reef, careful not to scrape my soft body on its hard surface.

       I dive down past the vivid pink polyps and surf across the seabed. Pockets of sand between each coral look barren in the thick of the reef, but once you are under the dense forest of colour, the floor explodes with activity. There are risks here, rays are harder to spot when hidden in the sand, but there is opportunity too. My brothers have often urged me here on the promise that it is fertile ground for finding a mate.

       It is not long before I spot a lone member of my species bobbing unaccompanied, dappled in streams of sunlight. She is nibbling around a small patch of kelp that was once rare. I approach her slowly yet confidently, hoping she recognises that I am strong and virile but of no threat. I keep my head high, my eyes focused in her direction. She does not swim away as I move toward her. A good sign.

She allows me to drift ever closer, her eyes down but upon me nonetheless. I am within range of touch when she raises her proud head to meet my gaze. As she does, our snouts touch slightly, releasing a wave of euphoria. She flutters back, and her light green skin seems to shimmer in response to my touch. I enthusiastically morph to match her colour.

       Seemingly pleased, she moves closer, so we are snout to snout. I stare into her eyes, as black and fathomless as the bottomless sea.

       The feeling I have been chasing, it is here. I am charged with boundless energy, and yet I feel sated. I do not move for fear of losing her. We stay locked in this elevated state, oblivious to anything else, protected only by the camouflage of the kelp.

As if making up her mind, she dips her head slightly to graze her cheek against mine. I respond with a gentle bump of my abdomen on hers.

      She retreats a fraction, and I bow an apology; I must take my time. I circle her, my tail clumsily catching hers as I do. She forgives me by enticing me to follow her.

      We swim together upwards in circles for what feels longer than my whole lifetime, spinning until we are dizzy. Finally, we drift back down to the seafloor, separate and bow. She lingers in front of me, considering my bulk, deciding my fate.

       She does not survey me long before gifting me her eggs. There are so many, but they are no burden. I am going to be a father.

      From that day forth, we dance daily, strengthening our bond. We meet at our spot but wander together to different parts of the coral. Her colours change with every new landscape, but she is always magnificent no matter how she transforms. My feelings for her grow deeper as our young grow bigger.

       Each day before we part, she nuzzles her snout into my belly, making me shiver, and our babies wriggle a fraction more than they did the day before. I can feel that they are as excited about the world and as desperate to explore it as I am.

But not yet, I whisper to my little ones. I am not ready to let you go. At night I try and count how many there are, but there are too many. I love them all.

       With each passing day, my love looks more radiant as she glows in reds, blues, and greens. We continue to explore but never to the old reef. Those that blend there look like the dead, and I do not wish her to see her skin turn a deathly bone white.

Her eyes do not change but stay an opulent black; there is a sparkle in there she reserves just for me. I see it flicker to life each time I approach and slowly dull when it’s time to leave.

       She speaks her feelings to me through amorous glances. In return, I hope my eyes express how I feel, how I wish we could stay together always. But that is not the way. I know she must go as the day draws to a close. When we come together again, our spark alights anew, and we dance with fire in our bellies; perhaps this would not be so if we were never apart.

       On day 15, my mate does not come. I search for her in vain until night comes, and I must retreat to the safety of the reef. There was a time when I’d be more reckless, but I know my duty now is to protect our young.

       On day 16, she is still missing, pushing me to search more widely. Scanning the seafloor produces no clues, so I begin searching within the tentacles of the reef. As I search, I come across the old reef again. The branches are not just lifeless now but have crumbled to dust. I look for the elder, but he is gone too. His forewarning of the fate of my reef circles in my mind, but I push it away. We are safe, my little ones and me. I will not succumb to the fear caressing my mind with razor-sharp claws.

 

Three weeks after I met my mate, the world around me shakes. I am startled awake by an ear-splitting, dragging sound, like the scraping sound of crab claws trying to prise open shells. Sound can travel strangely here, but the vibrations tell me the noise is coming from the old reef. The violence gets closer, and I feel a knot of worry just above where my children rest. Can they feel my panic? Hear the dreadful noise? Their fluttering is keener, and I know I must try and remain calm for their sake.

       My neighbours are scattering away from the sound, heading for the danger, or maybe safety, of the open sea. I hesitate; the reef has always kept me safe. But this strange noise and violent tremors are new. They feel dangerous.

       Against my instincts, I follow the crowd into the darkness, but I am too late. I feel a swoosh overhead as a strange web encases me with others who were too slow or hesitant to flee.

     We crush together, crammed into an ever-tightening space as more of the reef’s residents are sucked in with us. I am jostled towards the back of this strange, roped cage, slipping through the small gaps between large fish that thrash and squirm, dead-eyed with panic.

       I narrowly avoid several lethal tail swipes and duck under a frantic eel just as the web that encases us changes direction, pulling the ropes around me taut. As the cage begins ascending, the force of the water pushes me back down to the sandy floor. I reach the bottom of the enclosure and slip through a hole. I am free. I rebound quickly and stare in disbelief as the bubbled prison carries away my friends, family, and even some of my enemies. I watch as the ball fades and then disappears above the water, carrying my home away with it.

 

The day finally breaks, the sun’s rays piercing the sea floor. Now we can see the harsh reality of the wasteland that was once our home. The thing that came ripped through the coral like it was nothing but sponge. Body parts sprawl across the landscape where the beautiful reef once stood.

      Above us, we can see shadows ebbing along the surface. Intermittent loops of webbing scoop across the surface, and the remaining bodies of my fallen neighbours disappear.

       We that are left mourn our losses as we look to find new places to live. A sense of urgency floods over me - I still have the most significant responsibility ahead of me and no place to deliver my babies safely.

       Day 27 approaches, and I feel a ripple in my belly. The children are ready, but I am not. Their mother is still missing, and our whole world has changed. I live in constant fear of another attack, but it doesn’t come. There is so little left of the reef and what is left is turning, becoming a ghost of itself. It is as if the old white reef is spreading its grief across our home.

       The next day my abdomen contracts and begins to undulate. With each rhythmic wave, several of my young emerge. They are so small and fragile looking I want to catch them and push them back inside my pouch. Soon, countless offspring are zooming off in all directions. I move frantically, trying to catch just one to hold onto, but they are too quick. They are filled with the youthful recklessness I once had.

       Soon I am empty and alone. I have no mate to console me or to offer the promise of more young. I settle into my new patch of seagrass and feel the weight of time press down.

       I eventually stop looking for my mate, but the hope that she will somehow find me doesn’t die; this hope keeps me alive.

I dream she is still out there, slinking through the kelp, fluctuating in all shades of green. Perhaps she searched for me too, and we simply missed each other, passing by like frantic strangers in the aftermath of the disaster. And so, I stay hidden. I survive on what I can find close by, and I wait. I wait so that we can’t miss each other again.

       It is not long before the young ones call me the elder. I watch them flit by as the colours of the remaining reef pale. The chilling white reaches further into my home as the water around me warms to almost unbearable degrees. With white comes green; kelp has anchored in the graveyard of the old reef and spreads like a disease. The blanket of leaves has already smothered the polyps weakened by the destructive giant webs; my friends have migrated further into the centre of the reef, the only area still intact. Competition is fierce in the centre, and an old soul like me does better in less desirable places. I hunker down into the seagrass and wait. I tell my story with urgency to all that will listen, my fight with fear long ago lost. I tell them and hope that, unlike me, they will listen.

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