The other day, I rang up my friend, the Ordinary Lady. Her six year-old had been out of school for a while, and I wondered how she was faring. She asked me, quite seriously, if a mom could develop harmful side effections from playing too much Star Wars. The only guy she knew sho would give a decent haircut for less than $16 had flitted the coop; her house was peeling and needed a new coat of paint; she missed easy access to Chain Bridge; even her bird wouldn't chirp. You need a change of pace, I told her. Get thee to an island in the sun. She did me one better. Here is her report:
Friday morning we went down to the bottom of the sea. We creused out of Hamilton, Bermuda, on a 69-foot glass bottom boat bound for Mangrove Bay. In our wake, the harbor sported a jaunty air: sunlight, shimmering on the water, the starched whiteness of sailboats, and the gaily colored flags of the cruise ships fluttering in the breeze. The boy learned the true color of aquamarine in his Crayola box.
Just past the trust hull of HMS Vixen -- she was sunk to blockade the channel in 1914 -- we stopped to explore the "underworld" splendor of Bermuda's coral reefs. We spotted the ridged, mustard-colored brain coral, the bronze fire coral with its white tips resembling deer antlers, and the bright yellow sponge coral, knobby like cauliflower.
There were soft sea rods with wildly waving tentacles, fluffy brown when feeding, thin and gray asleep. And sticking to their sides were Atlantic wing oysters, camouflaged as cotton balls to escapte the octopus. Lacy purple sea fans, organ pipe sponges and sea puddings (a member of the starfish family, the pudding looks like a dried shoe or slug) appeared before our eyes.
And the fish! Queen angels trailing yellow streamers, silvery bream, blunt-nosed Bermuda chub, speckled slender gray snappers, and blue-gray garfish with long snouts. But the little sergeant-majors -- so self-important scurrying to and fro in their yellow, black and gray striped uniforms -- were our favorite. We tossed them some of Dr. Ballard's Champion Dog Food.
Later, we visited the Bermuda Aquarium to take a closer look. The tanks contain sea water and natural coral and rock formations gently pried from the reef. Also: vicious moray eels, creeping spiny lobsters, flipper-flapping sea turtles, the swift, stealthy dusky gray shark, and a rainbow of reef fish -- like the luminescent turquoise queen parrotfish, the paint-bright yellow and lavender triggerfish, the red and yellow Spanish hogfish, and the willowy four eye butterflyfish that adorns Bermuda's 20-cent stamp.
The boy, nose pressed to the glass, was at once horrified and fascinated by the wriggling mother octupus. She will not eat after she has laid eggs, exhausts herself guarding them and may die after giving birth. Such devotion is not for the orange, S-shaped mother sea horse. The curio dad broods the eggs and young in his stomach pouch.
The next day we went snorkeling. A native Bermudian/ had told us there were wonders to behold off Mermaid Beach. Replete with masks, fins and snorkels, we looked like the invastion of the frogmen. Buffeted by waves, we clung to a narrow raft and drifted out toward the reef. The boy looked down first. As he wrote in a wavering hand on a picture postcard to his grandparents: "We went snorkeling and guess what we say? We saw the bottom. That's what."
The Bermuda islands are buildt on the summit of an extinct volcano and composed of lava, coral and sandy limestone. Craggy, slate gray outcroppings of ancient-coral carpeted with moss fringed our beach. In a variation on cloud pictures, we guessed at their shapes: a yawning mouth, a graybeard, a throne, a giant stone reptile, a skeleton face, the pocked craters of the moon, a theater of the gods. We stretched out on a "banquet table" shape and basked in sumptuous solitude.
The boy, grown restless for adventure the way boys will, scrambled down and found a natural hideaway between two rocks. "Come see my cave," he called, and I followed his little footprints across the sand.
Inside the boy's cave, it was cool, "air-conditioned." There was a patch of blue sky above, sand underfoot; a apiky cactus fern poked out of the rock The cave behaved as if it knew a secret. We waited, lullabied by the shushing of the wind and waves. The sun winked.
It told no secrets, but then, neither did it tell any lies.