…child of Tethys, child of Poseidon, child of Neptune—what need have you of a secret, in the deeps?–Susan Cooper, Greenwitch
PRESENT: Nudibranch Central
They say writing honest sex scenes is difficult, probably because no one, especially writers, knows what the word honest means. At my first national writers conference, my friend attended an all-woman panel on writing sex scenes while I went to a poetry reading, too prudish and embarrassed to join her. Meeting up afterward, she told me the writers’ advice was surprisingly practical, and I nodded as though I wasn’t surprised, then we bought giant cupcakes and went for a walk through the snowy city. At the time I couldn’t think of anything to ask her about the session—I certainly wasn’t planning to write about sex back then—but now I wonder if she still has her notes. Last year I wrote my first sex scene: a royal couple consummate their marital love in a kingdom of eternal winter. As far as sex scenes go, this one is minuscule, encapsulated in a single sentence, nine words total. Though white is the most prominent adjective in this story due to the snowy setting, it seems to me that, in general, when it comes to writing about sex, the more colorful the better.
I avoid introducing them as sea slugs for two reasons: the word slug is a turn-off in most adult conversations, and the brief guttural slug hardly does justice to the lithe and lively nudibranch (pronounced nood-eh-brank). Named for the tufted gills that stick up along their backs, these cousins of the brown garden slug are tiny colorful creatures that live in oceans and tidepools around the world, including Antarctica. Nudibranch Central on Facebook lengthens every day with dozens of photographs of nudibranchs located in (NO COUNTRY NO POST, the cover photo dictates) Indonesia, the Philippines, Hawaii, California, Maldives, Thailand, Malaysia, and Australia’s eastern coast.
Numbering over 3,000 species, the varieties of nudibranchs test the limits of written description and can best be described through comparisons to food. This one looks like a peeled sweet potato with grooves made by trailing a fork lengthwise down the orange body. Here’s a pink Laffy Taffy that’s been stretched along the edges to make a dozen red-tipped appendages stick up from its back. This one’s a reverse cracked egg, white body ringed with yellow, then dotted with red food coloring along the back. This one is colored and lightly ridged like a red-and-white peppermint. This one is long and blue like a frozen Otter Pop, its tail trailing off behind it like it’s slowly melting. Those who have eaten roasted, boiled, or raw nudibranchs liken the experience to “chewing an eraser.”
With every photo either zoomed in or close-up, I tend to forget how small they are. Nudibranchs range from four millimeters up to 520 millimeters (almost 20 inches), though most are less than 5 centimeters long. Here is another cracked egg the size of my pinky nail, no yolk, a white oblong circle dotted with a tiny clump of orange gills and two orange horns. And look at this one! A peach-pink beauty tightropes along the tips of a tuft of seagrass. Some nudibranchs are parasites. Some gain photosynthetic powers from the algae they digest. Pelagic nudibranchs are translucent; in the dark their organs and the outer rim their flexible backs—called mantles—glow white and pink like overlapping star clusters. One of my favorites looks like a skeleton of a nudibranch, if nudibranchs had bones: overlapping pale narrow slivers cast in the shape of the slug’s body—there’s the head, the foot, the cloak-like mantle, the rhinophores, the plume of gills—and within this structure, the soft pink balls of the inner organs, exposed to the current.
COLLEGE: The Joy of Sex
I have been intrigued by miniature things since I was young. My grandmother’s miniature kitchen playset with the dime-sized ceramic saucers and teacups, the silver spoons smaller than matchsticks. The Borrowers’ life was intriguing—so much to explore!—yet terrifying—so much to defend against! In college my future husband and I visited the Museum of Miniatures in Prague, peering through a microscope at a grasshopper playing the violin, Jesus grimacing on a grain of rice, ten camels treading the eye of a needle. Back on campus, my Oceanography professor arranged a good old-fashioned poster exhibit, the prize inevitably awarded to the student double-majoring in biology and graphic design. But I was proud of my blue poster with its Did you know? facts and N U D I B R A N C H S lettered across the top in black Sharpie. During the exhibition, I tried to camouflage myself against the wall, but everyone who drifted by wanted to know how to say it.
Though most nudibranchs can only crawl along the seafloor, without a doubt these incandescent slugs are the mermaids of the mollusk world. Those who are in the family Tethyidae (named after Tethys, the Greek Titaness of the Sea and mother of the sea nymphs) can swim. They move forward by extending their flexible mantles all around them, then undulating up and down to gain momentum. Among online nudibranch aficionados, the most admired swimming sea slug is the largest dorid nudibranch, growing up to 20 inches long. The Spanish dancer is a vibrant red with a hem of white around its mantle that moves like the skirts of a flamenco dancer as the sea slug hunts for food at night. Watching a video of a Spanish dancer undulating above a bed of coral off the coast of the Marshall Islands, I wonder why humans felt compelled to give female mermaids stiff phallic tails instead of soft undulating mantles. Perhaps because men wrote mermaids into existence, and like any sea predator, they knew to stay away from the brightly-colored, boneless body gliding through the water. Given her own body and voice, these stories warn us, a woman becomes a threat.
During my final week in college, I walked down to the basement to scavenge the share-box for books one more time. Tossed on the pile, beneath a few layers of torn dresses, ugly sweaters, and stretched-out bras, I saw the spine, and glancing around me I pulled it out. (It’s important to note here that I attended a tiny Christian college where sex before marriage was forbidden, and I grew up in a family where sex was censored out of movies and books in what I now see as an honest attempt by my parents to maintain my childlike innocence.) The Joy of Sex is a practical guidebook from the 1970s, the title a play on Irma Rombauer’s Joy of Cooking. Speaking of honesty, it is well-known that Rombauer did not test all of her recipes before she published the best-selling cookbook in 1931. However, the pencil illustrations in The Joy of Sex attest the verity of each intimate position, as well as the authors’ insistence on the beauty of natural hair, wherever it grows on the body. Flipping through the pages, I considered sneaking it back into my room to peruse in more depth, but without a partner, the joy of sex was still a continent away from my untouched body.
HIGH SCHOOL: The Mermaid Chair
My English teacher insisted we use pens to annotate The Odyssey. My desire for neatness led me to print exactly one line of summary along the wide margin of each page. In 500 pages of epic poetry, only three stanzas mention the Sirens: Circe tells Odysseus about the Sirens. / Odysseus tells his men what Circe said. They come to the Sirens’ island. / Odysseus and his men go past the Sirens’ island. But the Sirens have loud voices, and they will not be passed over so quickly. A few centuries after Homer writes his tale of a single man’s fate, these winged women will evolve to have tails themselves.
Every nudibranch has the same form: mantle on top, foot underneath. Like its homonym atop a fireplace, the mantle displays an assortment of colorful doodads: horns, tentacles, and either a burst of gills or dozens of finger-like appendages. With black pinprick eyes (each about a quarter of a millimeter in diameter) on the top of its mantle, a nudibranch can discern shades of light and dark, but it cannot see color. Underwater predators know to avoid the brightly-colored (a.k.a. poisonous) slugs, but the slugs themselves cannot see their own vibrant mantles or the colorful fauna they crawl over in search of a sea sponge snack.
The Mermaid Chair was my introduction to sex in contemporary adult fiction. If mermaids were involved, I could try being an adult. The cover was a simple drawing of a bland sky and ocean framed by brown seashells with no hint of the deeper feminist, mythological, and religious themes in the narrative. In other words, nothing for my mom to suspect when I brought it home from the library and read it on the living room couch. Nothing to give me away as the protagonist’s jeans were unzipped by a kind man on a cliff overlooking the ocean, even though my cheeks turned rosy when my mom walked in to let me know dinner was ready. I wondered why they would want to make love on the ground. When I finished the book, my mom asked if she should read it. I told her I didn’t think she’d like it.
EIGHTH GRADE: The Beet Fields
In A Mermaid’s Tale: A Personal Search for Love and Lore, Amanda Adams writes, “Wing and fin are the same word in ancient Greek; in Latin, only one vowel separates pennis from pinnis. Hence, the sirens’ acquisition of scales may have been…the slip of a scribe’s quill during the translation of an ancient text.” I want to time travel to be a fly on the wall in the monastery when this—the slip of a scribe’s quill—happens. The young Greek scholar, his eyes strained from hours of writing, reads the next line from the original script—the candle flickers in a draft—then turns to his half-filled manuscript and touches quill to vellum. With the dotted sliver of an i, the tailed mermaid is born.
Dorid nudibranchs (named after the Greek sea nymph Doris, daughter of the river goddess Tethys) have a single cluster of feather-like gills sprouting like Pebble Flintstone’s ponytail from their otherwise flat mantles. Some look like a tuft of lime-green leaves. Others like narrow mandarin-orange slices. Or pink polka-dotted feathers. Or the white-lace cuffs of little girls’ dress socks. Imagine your lungs collecting air from your back, swaying as you walk through the grocery store, quickly curling in on themselves when they brush against the glass olive jars. Without our bones, we’d all be stomach-crawlers, living short vibrant lives in the shallow tide pools beside the ocean. We would never dream of having wings.
I borrowed The Beet Fields from my Language Arts classroom because of its sexy cover: a teenage boy standing in a green (presumably beet) field, his back lean and tan, one hand raised to his sweating brow. In the final chapter, the boy loses his virginity to an older woman named Ruby who teaches him how to find her g-spot. Standing beneath a poster that defined IRONY as water water everywhere, nor any drop to drink, I handed my teacher the book opened to the sex scene, my cheeks burning as she thanked me for bringing it to her attention, then tucked it somewhere inside her wide desk. I never saw the book again.
The mermaid’s accidental tail makes me wonder what else in our lives is a remnant, a slip. A form evolved from erasure, erosion, imposition. Once mistaken, misspoken, misread. How can our stories be honest when the very materials we build them with—our words—were created with the slip of a scribe’s quill? The word nudibranch is a compound word from the Latin word for naked and the Greek word for gill. Consider how similar the words gill and girl look on paper.
SEVENTH GRADE: The Raging Quiet
The Raging Quiet was my companion during puberty, on the hour-long bus rides to school, at the kitchen table while my mom flipped grilled cheese sandwiches, in my room at night with the moonlight blooming on my bedspread. My family stopped being surprised when they saw me reading it yet again on our annual summer road trip. I was enamored of the story of a young widow in a medieval village who discovers that the young man, whom the superstitious locals believe is insane, is deaf. Marnie names him Raven for his black hair, invents a sign language for them to use, and their hand-words soon lead to more hands than words. How I relished those love scenes every time I read them, turning the pages back again and again. How I longed for a man to adore my words the way Raven adored Marnie’s.
Aeolid nudibranchs have long wiggling appendages called cerata that stick up all over their mantles. Like human fingers, they can wiggle, tickle, distract. Unlike human fingers, some can be dropped in order to escape a predator and regenerated later. For defense, the aeolid nudibranch ingests tiny stinging capsules from its cnidarian prey, such as coral, hydras, and small jellyfish. Once digested, the poisonous nematocysts are stored in internal cnidosacs at the tips of the cerata. If a predator tries to eat them, the tiny slug releases these capsules and flees to safety.
The book opens with Marnie marrying a handsome nobleman in order to save her family’s farm. Their first night alone, her husband gets drunk, forces her to sit on his lap, lifts her skirt, and rubs circles on her bare thigh with his thumb. (The first time I read this, I tried rubbing my thumb on my thigh, but it just felt like circles.) He is rough with Marnie and ignores her protests. This is her first time. The next day, Marnie prays that he’ll die, and he falls on his neck while thatching their roof. Earlier that year, our history teacher had gathered all the girls in my class together to watch a short film about sex, and we’d all giggled into our hands when an older man described it as “beautiful.” Later, my friend and I were astonished to realize that our parents had made love not just once, but once for each of their children—her parents twice and my parents five times! Standing by our lockers before lunch, I held out my copy of The Raging Quiet to her. Instead of taking it, she raised her eyebrows in surprise and told me she hadn’t been able to make it past the first chapter. She said she didn’t think I’d like a book like that. As we walked to the cafeteria, I wondered who she thought I was to love a book like that.
SIXTH GRADE: Anne Bonny
Aeolid nudibranchs have two sets of tentacles to help them maneuver the various terrains of the sea floor. The propodial tentacles move beneath the front of the mantle like a pair of feet to help the sea slug balance and find its footing, so to speak. The cephalic tentacles poke out in front of the mantle. Though they look like pointy mustaches, these tentacles act more or less like a pair of outstretched hands or a walking stick. Put together, all four tentacles lend the sea slug a semblance of vision. Seeing by feeling.
For my history project, I chose to study the pirate Anne Bonny after finding her portrait in our textbook. Pirates of the Caribbean: The Black Pearl had come out a few years before, and though the screeching skeleton monkey gave me the creeps, I had already memorized Elizabeth’s lines and quoted them with fervor every time I rewatched the movie. After Pirates, no one else in history stood a chance beside the female pirate who snuck aboard her first ship wearing boys’ clothes and fought with pistol and sword alongside the men in the Caribbean. This was the first research project I conducted entirely online. Though my family wouldn’t own a computer for another decade, school research had already shifted from smelly hardcover encyclopedias to the computer lab.
Two soft horns called rhinophores act as the nudibranch’s nose, helping the sea slug find food and avoid predators. How nice it would be to have a set of soft rhinophores atop my forehead, sniffing the air ahead of me as I shop for groceries on a busy day, alerting me to any lingering eyes, any slippery predatory thoughts.
Doing research in the computer lab after school, I found a new word in one of the articles online. Three hundred years ago, when women—harmless creatures on land but bad luck at sea—were cast off ships like albatrosses in petticoats, the men aboard Anne Bonny’s ship ____ her. Peter, the pudgy boy who couldn’t run a lap but remembered every type of plane used during World War II, was typing in the row behind me. Leaning around his computer monitor, I asked, “What does the word rape mean?” He looked at me with an odd smile, thin lips twisting upward, “You don’t know?” Suddenly warm and aware of everyone else’s keyboards clacking like teeth, I faced my own screen again and asked Google instead. Within moments, history, biography, and pornography stitched themselves into a single sail above a shoreless internet I hadn’t known existed. I quickly shut off my screen, knowing I shouldn’t be looking at those images at school. I returned once I was alone in my bedroom and wondered why—if those bodies were so bad, so unwholesome —there were so many.
FIFTH GRADE: The Care & Keeping of You
Dorid nudibranch have small tails that extend beyond their foot and mantle. Consider the fact that the word penis comes from the Latin word for tail.
I found the American Girl book on my older sister’s bookshelf, an illustrated guidebook for young girls that points the way to menstruation, pubic hair, and breasts. I remember the word glands and a five-panel storyboard of a girl watching her breasts grow in the mirror. The next few pages discuss the benefits of different types of bras: training, sports, 28-60, A, B, C, D. I’m still waiting for that final panel to manifest in my bathroom mirror, though I doubt it ever will, unless I have a baby.
Nudibranchs are hermaphrodites, having both male and female reproductive parts. Because they are so small and slow-moving, being both male and female increases the chances of finding a mate in the immense ocean. When nudibranchs mate, they align foot-to-foot and face opposite directions so their genitalia line up. Then they each extend a tuber-like penis (in one photo, the penises are white with a blue fringe at the end—even their sex organs are fancy and colorful) and fertilize each other so they can both lay eggs when the time comes. One dorid nudibranch— mottled reddish-pink mantle, stark-white foot and tail, tuft of white gills with matching rhinophores—detaches its penis after mating and regrows another by the next day.
Greek mosaics from the second century A.D. portray Tethys, Titaness of the Sea, as a plain woman with a pair of small wings on her brow, where horns might be if she were an animal. In order to protect Earth’s waters from the pollution of mortals, Tethys brought forth 3,000 sea-nymphs to protect every spring, river, sea, and ocean on the planet. Generations later, Hermaphroditus (son of Hermes and Aphrodite, the gods of sexuality) has sex with Tethys’ granddaughter, a freshwater nymph, and becomes part male and part female. Hermaphroditus is often depicted as a naked winged youth with a female chest, male genitals, and two feathers sprouting from their back.
FIRST GRADE: My First Book of Words
When I was six, I fell in love with a book. I would carry the DK hardcover around the house and open it whenever I stopped moving—on the kitchen table while my sister did her homework, on the living room floor while my brother watched Blues Clues, in the study while my mom read The Alchemist, the golden paperback perched on her fifth and final pregnant belly. I’d trace my pointer finger across the words, ponytail waving as I moved my head back and forth, mouthing the words again and again. My First Book of Words gave me confidence in letters, in language. My favorite page listed various rainy-day garden things: a pair of shiny red rainboots standing atop RAINBOOTS, a round dimpled puddle above PUDDLE, a plump fish above FISH, floating in the white glossy water of the paper. The columns provided me with certainty. Definition. Word beneath Thing. Thing above Word. In those pages, the world was structured, stable, serene. My First Book of Words told me: if you can see it, you can name it. If you can name, you can know.
As a larva floating among the plankton along the ocean currents, a nudibranch has a shell called an operculum that will fall away during its metamorphosis and subsequent transition to the sea floor. Though the nudibranch will never know its parents, it will live for up to one year, eating coral, crawling over coral, having sex on coral, and perhaps, just once, rising up from the coral and gliding on a brief current of the water like a tiny mermaid.
Jessica Hudson (she/her) received her MFA in creative writing from Northern Michigan University, where she was an associate editor of Passages North. Her work has been published in Fractured Lit, CHEAP POP, Gigantic Sequins, and White Wall Review, among others. Jessica currently lives in Albuquerque with an experimental artist and a black cat.