WEDNESDAY: A Question of Barnacles


Copyright is held by the author.

MAMA CALLS me a conspiracy theorist.

Her soft tones barely mask the underlying bitterness. To her, my theories are a siren song, a shiny lure with a sharp point. She is backed in her dismissal of me by journalists, scientists, and the governments of more than one nation.

And yet, I do not believe that my sister is dead.

The defining characteristic of a conspiracy theorist is that they think their theory can never be proven wrong. Contrary evidence is explained away, the truth twisted by desire. By contrast, my analysis of what happened to Daisy is grounded in reason, not emotion, and has been since the beginning.

It was six months ago that Mama called me with the news.

“Daisy . . .” Mama’s voice cracked, and the silence that followed was interrupted by wet gulping. “Daisy’s cruise ship didn’t arrive in Barbados. They don’t know where it is.”

“I’m sure it’s nothing,” I said. “Some minor mechanical issue.” As I spoke, I wedged the phone between my shoulder and ear, and resumed typing my report. When Mama worked herself up, she could go on for a while, and I had a deadline.

“It’s vanished,” Mama said. “The cruise line just told me to ‘be patient.’ Nobody . . .” Mama’s voice rose, shrill. “Nobody is telling me anything!”

Later that night, as I waited for the subway, a phrase on the news ticker caught my eye: CRUISE SHIP LOST AT SEA. My hands clenched inside my mitts. This was no mere maternal fever dream. More details appeared. A mid-size ship, with 1600 passengers, 471 of them Canadian, gone. It was inconceivable.

In the days that followed, the chyrons on news shows provided updates which were no updates at all. Meanwhile, Mama gave everyone who called photos of Daisy, stories about Daisy, fed them her agony, which journalists then packaged up in three minute segments for public consumption.

I ignored the journalists’ requests. Scientists and technologists from multiple governments were hard at work figuring out where the ship was. There wasn’t any point in my getting emotional. Nothing I said or did would find it any faster. I continued to work on my reports, summarizing statistics on ionization.

There was only one moment when I faltered. I went for a walk through the woods, the only sound coming from the snow crunching under my feet. Trees stretched against the blankness of the sky, bare branches sprouting ice. Only one tree had a final leaf clinging to it, a patch of dangling yellow.

If it falls, she’s still alive, I thought.

A moment later, the leaf shuddered and then, like magic, it came free. It drifted down, ever so slowly, as though it were lighter than the air, as though gravity itself had loosened its hold. 

When it brushed the ground, I blinked hard. This was madness. A leaf had no bearing on whether a woman lived or died. When I arrived back at my apartment, I found my hands lingering over tables and doorknobs and books, grounding myself in what was solid and substantial.

Then, one day, the task force leading the investigation held a televised press conference. Amid flashing cameras, several grey-haired men shuffled onto the podium. The lead investigator bent his head towards the microphone and announced that a piece of debris had been found on a small island off the coast of Mauritania.

Behind the investigator, photos were projected onto a massive screen of their discovery: a skinny plastic rectangle, around a foot long, white with blue and gold edges. Then several more photos. They were taken in situ, their backdrop grainy sand and the occasional slice of cerulean sky.

The investigator continued. This debris was consistent with the arm of a deck chair from Princess of the Seas. Indeed, there was no other plausible source for this object, its every detail perfectly matching a custom design. To learn where the chair arm had come from, they had conducted an analysis of oceanic drift patterns, leading to a wide expanse of open water as an origin point. They could state with confidence that the ship had sunk. Everyone on board had died.

Reporters had questions, endless questions, but their words faded. I could almost hear the broken sobs that would be coming from Mama, alone in her too-large house. I wondered if she’d accept the explanation. Declaring people dead based on a scientific model seemed incredible even to me, and I was the rational one. But facts could not be rejected.

Throughout the result of the day, I carried out my usual routine, shopping for groceries and cooking dinner. However, when I finally sat down at the table, I found I couldn’t eat a bite.

I went to my bookshelf. One hand, almost of its own volition, stroked the spine of my favourite book: The Double Helix by James Watson. At one point during his work decoding the structure of DNA, Watson’s rival Linus Pauling published a paper declaring he had figured it out. Watson had no reason to think Pauling was incorrect. And yet, despite this, despite all of Pauling’s meticulous reasoning, Watson suspected Pauling had it wrong. He continued investigating, eventually making the real discovery with Francis Crick.

Maybe intuition isn’t always the enemy of reason, I thought. They were intertwined, spiralling together out into the unknown.

I sat down on my armchair, suddenly desperate for rest. My eyelids were heavy. So heavy…

Daisy and I were swimming in the ocean, Daisy’s head as sleek as a seal’s. The water was warm around us, as warm as the air, and Daisy was laughing, stretching her fingertips up towards the sun. I laughed too, buoyant, almost giddy.

A chilly breeze brushed my neck. I tried to ignore it, but the water was getting colder, and in another second, the ends of my hair were coated in frost. Turning my head, I saw a sheet of ice spreading out across the ocean, faster each second, straight towards me.

Then it was there, right in front of me. Instinct took over. I hauled myself onto the ice and lay prone, shaking and breathing hard. My body was frigid against the ice, and at some point I’d surely develop hypothermia, but for the moment, I was safe.

Then, beneath me, I heard thumping.

Peering down through the ice, I saw Daisy. She pounded the ice from below, eyes wide with panic.

“Daisy!” I screamed. I slammed my fists against the ice, again and again, but the sheet would not break. My breath was ragged as I looked about in desperation. The ice was spread out toward the horizon in all directions, smooth and solid.

Bubbles were coming out of Daisy’s nose, each one bringing her closer to death. Time was running out. Her eyes stared directly into mine, and, though Daisy’s lips never moved, her words sounded in my mind.

Help me, Daisy said. Find me.

I woke up.

Just a nightmare, I thought, breathing hard. Fragments of memory had been twisted into something new and strange. The previous winter, Daily and I had gone to the Maldives, but she couldn’t get me to join her in the water. While Daisy swam, I’d read a book, periodically looking up towards the waves crashing in, bringing objects with them. There were pale shells and seaweed and sticks coated in barnacles.

I sat bolt upright. I’d seen countless sticks, and not a single one had been free from barnacles. Why hadn’t the piece of deck chair had any?

After contacting several experts I knew, I got on the phone with Mama.

“Every scientist said the same thing,” I said. “They have never seen or heard of a case where a large object floated in warm ocean water for two months without collecting any sea life. It is highly, highly improbable. They can’t even calculate how small the odds would be.”

“But what’s more likely?” Mama said. “That for some reason, nothing grew on the piece of deck chair? Or that . . . what?”

“Or,” I said, “someone created a replica of the deck chair and planted it on the beach, to shut down the investigation. They want to hide the truth.”

“Oh, Honey,” Mama said. “I’m sure the investigators would see through something like that.” Mama has a simple faith in experts. She reads every book recommended by Oprah and bought her laptop after seeing an ad with Bill Nye the Science Guy.

“If their conclusions are correct, they can withstand rigorous scrutiny,” I said. “The scientific method will reveal what happened. I’m going to book a trip out to Mauritania soon. Sorry, but I’ll miss the memorial service.”

For the past several weeks, I’ve met with resistance to my plans. My boss told me not to quit and Mama insisted she needed me here, sobbing that I couldn’t leave her. But I’m resolute. I’ll follow the facts wherever they lead, until I finally find Daisy.

1 comment
  1. Thanks. Great story, well written up to a point. But I found the ending unsatisfactory unless you finish it off. Mystery stories need to come to some kind of conclusion.

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