3LBE logo

Negligible Senescence

by Mel Kassel

1200 words
Listen to this story, narrated by Briana Finegan

The sea is rife with immortals and healers. Soft things with cells that never quiet, but keep dividing into pouches of seething organelles. They need never fear that their children will cart them off to a retirement home that smells of nectar and licorice. Much of the time, their children are themselves, cloned afresh.

I say this to defend my actions. I have accepted the sentence for disinterring my husband and borrowing equipment without permission. I know I shall not return to my university post. But the astonishment you express, gentlemen, is entirely undeserved. I assure you I had every wit about me when I embarked on this project.

Consider the life cycle of Turritopsis dohrnii. Popular science has nicknamed this cnidarian “the immortal jellyfish.” They are born as larvae, which take root as polyps, which spawn free-swimming medusae. And if they are injured, or subject to infection, these jellyfish do not send for a notary; they do not expire with a last rancid breath against white hospital sheets. They simply revert back to the polyp stage.

Imagine! Your body gone all Picasso after a bus crash, femurs pointing out of your legs toward the ceiling, and you sigh and say, “I suppose it’s time,” before compressing yourself into a fetus!

I did not anticipate that Gavin would transdifferentiate his cells in this manner, no. That would be absurd. I suspect, gentlemen, that you are missing the point.

A more familiar example, then: the lobster. These creatures are negligibly senescent — that is, they do not appear to age. They remain fertile and virile all their lives, and they never stop growing. In fact, they perish only when caught for human consumption, or when the act of molting their shells becomes too taxing. Or, yes, when they are diseased.

Gavin had no exoskeleton, and the more’s the pity, for he was a sunken mess when I retrieved him. As a species, we are quite structurally unsound, and death underlines this fact in red ink after just a few days in the casket.

I should hope you understand how hard it was for me, seeing him as a battered, stinking marionette. No wife ever hopes to watch her husband’s head loll back until the Adam’s apple splits the skin of his neck. No loving wife, I should clarify.

But here, again, the ocean’s most persistent fauna needn’t worry. Have you seen the hydra? Small underwater animals, resembling tentacled plants. Each time they eat, they must tear open a wound between their fronds. Each new mouth, a ripped-apart hole. Would any of you have the fortitude, when presented with your favorite dish? Mine is coq au vin, and I promise you, if Gavin could cook it for me again, I would gladly take a knife to my flesh and make a prettily bleeding door.

The hydra, they can seal their mouths back up, quick-as-you-please. They see no sense in leaving themselves agape.

I tried to do as much after he died. I thought I might interlock my cells until they were airtight, so as not to admit the miasma of grief. But it spiraled up from inside me, grew like strangling kelp from my stomach to my throat, kept my face damp and my breathing quick.

I had no help, so I had to carry him home alone, terrified that he would come apart at the waist, he felt so loose. But then I thought it might be a good thing, this new slackness he had, because isn’t that how sea creatures feel? Like they might slide out of your hands, like they flow on their own.

I took him to the cellar, sat him in my makeshift laboratory full of tanks and thirsty pipettes.

Did you know there are clams that can live to be more than 500 years old? Clams that, had they been perched on a groundling’s cap, could recite memories of Shakespeare premieres. Clams that are just as alive as you or I, only their innards do not mount an attack on themselves, growing masses that glob onto vital things.

And I thought, maybe it’s the medium in which they live. Could their DNA have been strengthened, in the saltwater, through some hidden osmosis I hadn’t yet observed? If I exposed him to the sea, to the cells of its undying citizens, could he bud a polyp colony of his own?

It is not so foolish a notion when you’ve seen what’s already siphoning through the water: chains of transparent salps, like the necklaces of fragile gods; squid that flash moving faces across their skins. A cancer copies and copies and copies, breeding defects. But those in the sea, they make no errors. No edits. They birth themselves whole and glistening.

So, I had to try.

I cut him open to dig out the tumors I could find. I harvested unblemished tissue. I kissed him, flayed as he was, and promised to love whatever form he took.

It is tiresome work, gentlemen, injecting medusae. Hard to find their nigh-transparent borders under a microscope, harder still to pierce them and leave them with your lover’s nucleotides. But the process kills two birds, you see: once injected, the medusae think themselves injured, and drift to the bottom of the tank. Tethered to the substrate, they transform into their younger selves, those sprouting polyps — my incubators.

I thought I had failed when the polyps did not produce new jellyfish for several days. Gavin’s leaking corpse became a mockery of my effort, and I half-expected it to start demanding answers from me, his voice pouring from its ruined torso. Perhaps he would ask the teasing questions he often posed while I was researching: What’s your favorite nudibranch? How smart is a brain coral? Do you think humans should reproduce like seahorses, with the father bearing the young? Will you miss me, when I’m gone? Will you find another? What color would you want his hair to be?

But on the eighth day, the medusae were there.

I don’t need to tell you how spectacular they were. You saw them when you confiscated the tank — a task, I recall, that took six of your lackeys. By then they had grown splendidly. The one with Gavin’s eyes had taken to surfacing and looking about, and the one with fingers had learned to grip my hand, to squeeze, to pluck a whole shrimp from my grasp and pass it up into itself. You didn’t get to see the third: a pinwheel of human teeth arrayed just above a mass of tentacles. It had begun to attack the other two, and so I punctured its bell with a pen. Its polyps were almost mature again when you discovered us.

I only ask, gentlemen, that you release them into the ocean. It will be satisfactory for me to know that Gavin shall never fully exit this world. He may regress, and be reborn, but he won’t be absent. Why should anyone be snuffed out, when the sea promises such a legacy?

Please. Ferry them out to open waters, away from the nets and the gulls. However perverse you find my devotion, let it live.

And live.

And live.

Mel Kassel writes speculative fiction in Chicago, where she also works as a client care coordinator at an animal hospital. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Gamut, Pseudopod, The Sockdolager, and The Toast. You can follow her on Twitter @MelKassel and visit her website at melkassel.com.

Issue 28

October 2016

3LBE 328

Front & Back cover art by Rew X