I am haunted by a leatherback sea turtle. Her 2000 pounds bob in black ocean. But once, she fit into the heart of my palm. That’s how I meet her. Under the thatched grass of a conservation outpost on the pacific coastline of Guatemala.
In the hatchery, I record her width and put the slide rule down. When I hold her up to my nose, my eyes cross. She is a miniature of her mother, down to her white-starred, black-ridged shell. The hatchling’s eyes, hooded, blink back at mine, but she doesn’t stop paddling. Her winged arms swim in my hand.
I put her down, and like a wind up toy, she paddles sand. She won’t rest until she reaches the sea. It makes me wonder whose hand winds up this will-to-live. But at age twenty-six, with the hatchling in my palm, the answer is too big for me to fathom.
Ten years later, my daughter is ten days past her due date. A week of being battered by waves of “false” labor expires my patience. I instruct my husband to take messages but not relay them to me. Even if the cramping retreated, I would not sleep. The skin on my ankles is stretched so tight it might split. My belly is tiger-striped by my nails scratching an unreachable itch. The eight pound baby sits on my bladder, and on my ninth trip to the bathroom one night, I give up. I yank a blanket from the bed, my husband un-roused. I shuffle to the window, lean against cold glass, and am startled — by the rising of a near-full moon.
The pregnant leatherback entrusts her nest to an earth womb. But what she doesn’t know is this black sand beach has warmed to new temperatures. Lethal temperatures. A birthing sea turtle is in such a trance she does not notice us behind her. She scoots back into the ocean without looking back. We rebury her eggs in cooler sand behind protective wire.
The hatchling’s instinct is sharp; when she breaks ground, the air is cool. By headlamp, I pencil in carapace measurements. I hug the bucket with two arms as I walk to the tideline. There, I lower the lip of the bucket to the sand. As the hatchlings begin their frenzied race, I stroll to the water, turn around, and lay down the beam of my flashlight. If it mimics moon or horizon light, I’m not sure. But the hatchlings paddle toward it.
Male sea turtles swim into the sea and never come back. But a female — by some unresolved scientific mystery — maps the land and her mother’s phantomed path. That she may find her way back.
On the eve of a “Blood Moon,” my water breaks. In a dimmed room, between pummeling contractions, I crawl on a padded mat under a picture window. I don’t open my eyes for the doctor or my husband or my doula. But I find the moon, framed between slow blinks, arcing across black sky. My cervix dilates from six to ten centimeters as the moon travels into eclipse. Under a full red moon, my daughter is born. I name her Riva. It means, “from the shore.”
If the leatherback hatchling escapes the clutches of lizards and seagulls and trawl nets and plastic debris and chemical run-off, she might swim into a phase of life scientists call her “lost years.” And if, in those ten to fifteen years, she evades sharks and engine blades and oil spills and plastic-bag-jellyfish and men who pull turtles from the sea to slash their white abdomens for meat, then she will be 1 in 1,000-10,000 that survives to adulthood. And if she finds a suitable mate from the males left — another 1 in 1,000-10,000 — if she decides not to shake him off when he nibbles her neck, if she lets him crawl onto her back and if her eggs ripen, then maybe she will make the pilgrimage home. Which may take time. Leatherbacks travel as far as 10,000 miles a year. But she is faithful. Faithful to a cycle unbroken for 110 million years. In faith, she swims home.
I hold my newborn in my arms. I see my journey of pregnancy and labor and birth reflected in her eyes. I don’t remember a beginning. I wonder who held the beam of light. I see my mother’s journey. I see her mother’s journey. And the planet lights up with moon-pulled tides and blood-pulling moons.
With my baby’s body nestled in my arms, sunrise comes. Someone draws the window curtains back. But I still see the moon framed. Burned in memory. A lingering shadow of hours I was guided only by instinct and a single light in a dark sky.
The leatherback swam on a planet shared with Triceratops and Spinosaurus, one hundred million years before humans. Today, the tracks of birthing leatherbacks on Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian coastlines are scant. The headline I pull up says, “Leatherback Turtles may Become Extinct within 20 Years.” This conclusion from 2013. Seven years ago.
Maybe she’s out there. Bobbing in the surf, paled by moonlight, waiting for instinct to tug her forth. Maybe she is waiting for the wave that will carry her closest to the only land she’s ever known. To the shadow of her mother’s path she has remembered and retraced. Maybe her hooded eye is looking. Except, on the beach there are new lights. Resort lights and street lights and restaurant lights and house lights and lighthouse lights and bouncing cigarette lights. So many lights that she cannot discern the moon. And her belly, maybe it aches with contraction. Contractions that whisper of urgency. Of trance. If only she could reach land and close her eyes.
Out there, my leatherback ghost bobs. She has traveled so far. She is full and aching.