Sunday, May 10, 2015

Not Zen 160: Intake

"She's too alone and too dispirited," said the grandmother. "It's dangerous."

"The younger ones haven't seen death before." Her former mate flipped his tail and turned toward her. Bulls could be rough but he had grown more considerate with age. "It's been a few years. Sometimes we lose a child to a shark. But they didn't know."

"She wasn't the mother. She shouldn't be like this."

"What good does it do to say that?" The bull harumphed. "She swam in the same pod with the child. I remember her nephew as a delight. I'm sure he won her heart."

The tribe of manatees roamed along three major inlets of the shoreline. They ate hydrilla, tree roots, and floating hyacinths in the shallows. They dove deeper for muskgrass, pickerel weed, and sea clover. When they couldn't find their favorite foods, they gnawed algae from rocks along the sea bottom and even ate tiny catfish who competed with them for the algae.

Although they rarely gathered all together, generations mixed in the pod groups. Most groups kept three to five members, more in mating season, but less as manatees moved from one group to another. The grandmother herself had lived along the same shoreline for sixty years and she had belonged to more than a dozen groups.

"The young girl blames herself," she retorted. She let herself drift farther from the bull. He took the hint and hung back to let his other podmates catch up to him.

The grandmother followed the despondent female for a week. She and her small group kept their distance. They could see that the female swam alone. Unlike her sister, the mother of the slain calf, the lonely female did not seek company. She didn't search for good foods. She didn't sing to herself. She didn't seem to listen to the voices of other manatees.

At the mouth of a stream, the senior manatee approached. She asked how her younger relative was doing.

"I let the boy roam too far," was the female's response. "I should have stopped him."

The grandmother took a moment to consider how much death was still on this one's mind.

"Boys roam farther as they grow." She gave a slow nod. "That's what they do."

"He didn't notice the shark. Why would he? But I should have."

"He should have felt it earlier, perhaps. And you, and his mother, and his other podmates should have. Perhaps everyone should have seen the shadow. His mother blames herself, I know. I heard her mourn. But she joined a different pod. Your sister cares for other children now. It was good of her to do so. It was wise."

"How is that wise?"

"I can show you. Let's eat while we talk."

"There's not much here." The female spun one direction, then the other, to make her point.

"Over by the outcropping of rocks there's some algae." The leader turned toward it.

"Ugh." Her granddaughter made a sound of disgust. Nevertheless, she followed. "That's black algae, short and nasty."

"It's fine."

"No, it's bitter. No one should eat that unless she's starving."

"It can play a role my explanation."

The grandmother took a few nips of the dark algae. The younger one was right. It was awful. Her granddaughter tried to join in by eating alongside but she soon turned away. She didn't ask about the wisdom of her elders. She complained about the bitter food.

"There is sea clover beneath this outcropping. I'll bring some up." The grandmother dove. The dark reeds lay to her left, deeper than she liked. As she closed in on them with a kick of her tail, she noticed that the sea clover had bloomed despite the depth and dreary sunlight. She surfaced with enough for two or three mouthfuls. Through the strands, she asked, "Do you like the flowers?"

"Grandmother," said the other with a hint of laughter in her voice, "you brought up too much."

"Don't worry. I'll lay it across the rocks. Then you take bites of the black algae and sea clover together."

"Yes, grandma." The despondency returned to the young manatee's tone. Out of respect, she did as she was asked.

"Taste it. Do you feel the bitterness?"

"It's not bitter at all.” The young female kept gnawing. “Clover is good."

"But you ate the algae. You ate the same amount of algae as you did before."

"Oh yes. More, maybe."

"This is like life. You feel the bitterness of your nephew's death in a strong, unending way because your had let your life become as small as you, your sister, and your nephew."

"That is true."

"You've not enlarged yourself since. In contrast, your sister threw herself into the affairs of the other pods. She watches after someone else's child. She entertains the courtships of a pair of young bulls who wait for her to come into season. When you enlarge your intake of the world, the same amount of sadness is not so bitter."

"I deserve bitterness. I'm responsible for my nephew's death."

"I wouldn't deny your responsibility." The grandmother knew it was the approach that others had advised. It wasn't good advice to this one. "Instead, I must point out that you are shirking. You should take on more. Understand that others depend on you, too. Take on everything. Care for everyone you see."

"What will I do with all that responsibility?" The younger one's head sank back down into the water.

Her grandmother replied, "I am waiting to find out."

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