The life of an urchin is very long and our understanding of time is slower than humans. We can live for hundreds of years. Someday, I hope to become a famous philosopher: a leader for those sea urchins who have no memories of human time. I imagine the truths of the world emanating from my mouth like the light of the ancient fanous my mom once told me about. She said that during Ramadan, when she was a girl, the fanous piled outside the lamp shops of El Rabea in Cairo, and their lights were so bright and beautiful down the narrow human streets that everyone journeyed to see them. They came from as far as Alexandria or Tunis to feel the lights’ hope and brilliance. I want to be like that.
But that was a long time ago, when my mom was still human. In fact, she told me that when she was still human she had once slipped on a rock covered with urchins while she was learning to dive off the coast of Oman in the Musandam Fjords. This was before she met my dad and before any of the human soul-to-urchin implantations. She said it was a beautiful day, but the air was worse than usual. The air had changed since the time of her parents; it had become a thick invisible web full of pollutants and dust. She would gasp to find spots of clear air between the web’s poisonous strains. That was the day she first met an urchin. After a dive, she had wanted to stay under the water, explore, not deal with the air again, but an urchin with long black spikes stung her foot. She jumped out of the water and crouched on a rock, her foot in her hand, screaming, “Yil’an shaklek konfoz al bahr!” or “Damn you sea hedgehog!” while she yanked out the spikes. “It hurt like getting a tattoo!” she told me. “Since then I’ve never liked urchins.” But I have never seen a tattoo, and I do not understand my mom’s kinds of pain. It feels useless to me to hate what you are. Unlike her, I have never been anything other than what I am now.
I was alone, sweeping north, off the coast of California, when an E-HIP Inquisitor finally found me. Tarn was bigger than most urchins; he must have been at least one hundred years old. The biggest urchins were always the oldest, and the oldest urchins were almost always inquisitors. Urchin bodies are covered with slender tentacles or spikes; these spikes are our legs, our lungs, and our eyes. At the end of each spike is our podia, which we use to grasp food or weapons. Tarn’s countless spikes clutched countless sharp tiny rocks.
“Tell me your earliest memory, Meera,” Tarn commanded.
I tried to remember the exact words I had rehearsed with my dad. That was the deal my parents had made with me when I was young (too young to understand the agreement); they would tell me about human times, about literature and history and science, but I had to be extremely careful if I ever encountered an E-HIP Inquisitor. They warned me: the inquisitors were convinced that excessive memories of human times would lead to violence and depression among us. Any young urchins with memories of human times would meet a terrible fate. They killed many of the eldest, urchins like my mom and dad, who had disagreed with how things should be run underwater. Somehow my parents had gotten away. Since then though our family had roamed the seafloors for countless years, we had yet to encounter an inquisitor.
Like I said, Tarn approached me while I was alone. I was gliding across the sea floor scraping whatever was below me into my toothy mouth: small animal particles, spongy pieces, algae. Our mouths are located on the underside of our body. We have five pyramid-shaped teeth. Aristotle’s Lantern, that’s what the humans had named our lantern-shaped mouths. Aristotle was one of the great western philosophers. That’s what my mom had told me. Aristotle believed the human soul could not exist outside the human body.
Boy, was he wrong.
I wish I knew why our mouths were named after this particular philosopher. Why him? Aristotle did say humans were political animals, but he was also an atheist. Why not Ovid’s Lantern? My mom had told me stories of Ovid—women turning into trees, ships into sea nymphs, and animals that changed into other animals. Or why not Plato’s Lantern? Plato thought the soul could wander. Wasn’t that true? Isn’t that what the humans had done? What Tarn and I were doing? My mom told me Plato had also believed that a sexually frustrated womb could travel around a woman’s body and make her insane. He thought of the uterus as an animal. Sometimes, when my mom cried at night, I imagined that a piece of her human uterus had somehow made it into her urchin body, latched onto her soul.
When I was little, my dad taught me all the anatomical names of the body. He taught me in English and Taiwanese. I can’t say I remember all the words. Nor has my memory categorized the words into two separate languages. I don’t understand where one language begins and the other ends, exactly. I like the words ām-kún and clavicle best. My mom, meanwhile, taught me about the body’s textures and desires. She said she had been the size of a dolphin calf, but narrower. She described her skin as stretched over like a smooth brown sponge. Human skin, unlike urchin skin, she said, could be easily punctured. My mom’s human body had been covered in tattoos. Tattoos were paintings on the human body created by needles, and humans got more and more of them towards the end of their era. I knew all about paintings and literature, because my mom was always talking about the past, and what she liked most about the past was human art.
I remember another time, when the three of us were still together. We were slowly migrating north up the seafloor near the coast of California, trying to escape an epidemic that had broken out among the starfish. We glided north avoiding the clumps of star pieces on the bedrocks and coral skeletons. Some starfish were still alive but they were puffy and covered in white lesions, too sick to attack us. My dad said it was a wasting disease like what had happened to the humans as the temperatures rose. To pass the time, my mom described the frescos she had seen in Florence when she was a young human studying there. Her favorite was inside the San Marco cloister, one called Annunciation, where the mom of a god meets an angel. When describing the colorful striped wings of the angel, my mom’s spikey body began convulsing and my dad had to lean up against her.
“Maryam, come on now. Cheer up, my little red Christmas garland. We’re so lucky, we have each other. And if we ever break a leg, we’ll grow another!”
My dad had lots of funny jokes like this. Other times, he’d say, “Maryam, my little sea gallbladder, perk up, don’t make me get cannibalistic.”
The cannibalism joke always made my mom shake happily, because it was common knowledge in our family that my dad was a great lover of uni when he was in human form.
Before we lost my dad, I could always rely on him to help lift mom’s spirits.
The truth was that my dad didn’t mind being an urchin, even though he was born in the time of humans too. He was the second child of a midwife, born in the milky grey port city of Keelung.
“I was Taiwan-ren. I could swim before I could speak English,” he boasted, but that meant little to me. Our speaking didn’t sound like any human language (or so my mom told me).
We didn’t speak through our “Aristotle’s Lantern”; we spoke through vibrations in the water. We somehow willed what was inside us into the water and if lucky, it reached someone else. My parents had learned how to communicate in urchin form before the implantation. They had worn special masks and suits inside ocean-water pools in Sicily that E-HIP had arranged. My dad said my mom had thought it was fun. My mom said that whenever they finished their trainings, she and my dad would run home and have sex.
My mom was explicit with me. She had no reason not to be: I feel no shame for how we use our bodies to receive and give pleasure.
My dad’s positive attitude about urchinhood might have had something to do with loving the ocean from an early age or maybe because he had been a Buddhist or perhaps, even a small pride in his contribution to the Echinoidea-Human Implantation Program (E-HIP). While my mom studied languages and philosophy as a human, my dad was an evolutionary biologist. They had both been comfortable with change in their own ways, but my dad’s research on the evolutionary paths that marine echinoderms were taking to adapt to the planet’s harsher environment had proven a more useful comfort. His research team was able to demonstrate the urchins’ unique ability to adapt to the rising acidity in earth’s oceans, and his work caught the attention of the head honchos at E-HIP just as they were searching for the most viable species to transfer the human soul onto. Other companies were looking to the sky. My mom once teased that she should have fallen in love with an astronaut, maybe she would have gotten to keep her body that way. My dad was quiet when she spoke like this.
E-HIP was based on the tropical island of Sicily. My dad told me the lab facilities were near the bluest waters and surrounded by avocado farms and mango trees. Sicily was a hot place during the end of human times; the average temperature was already 7 degrees Celsius higher than it had been in so-called pre-apocalypse times, but the island had plenty of drinking water and dromedaries for folks to get around on and there was hopeful buzz in the air about E-HIP’s potential solutions. Wealthy pilgrims had made homes near E-HIP, clamoring to be part of the implantation program. My mom had been there to teach the children of the wealthy pilgrims. That’s how my parents met and fell in love.
As she explained it, she was relaxing under a mango tree, translating a sonnet called “Del mondo e sue Parti” by Tommaso Campanella when my dad came over and broke her concentration. He had long dreaded hair and a sparkling smile. His skin was patched with ugly scars from the sun and he wore a large floppy hat. “I still remember some of the lines from when he interrupted me.”
I had begged her to tell me them, and though her spikes pointed downwards whenever she recited from her fading memory of verse, she agreed. She stated, “The world is a great and perfect animal, that God lauds and stimulates, we are a family of tapeworms, imperfect and vile, who have, within God’s belly, life and shelter…something something… we must measure how much every being is worth, then you will learn what part is left to you…or for you. Maybe it is for you. Not to you?” her spines leaned lower. “I can’t remember it all.”
On days like today, when I miss my mom, I try to imagine her in her life before the sea, even if that means I wasn’t born yet, because I know she was happier then. I try not to picture her in her red urchin form, though that is the only form I know her in. When I picture her human body, I see her skin tattoo-painted in the most beautiful Italian frescos, winged-humans and toga-wearing great thinkers and bosomy fruit trees and storm clouds covering every part of her, swirling over her arms and her neck, a red stingray’s tail curling around her kissing lips. She is perpetually under that mango tree in Sicily. In some memories, she is reading and just about to meet my dad. In other memories, she is reading and she never meets my dad. He walks right by her and she never marries him, and therefore, never qualifies for the E-HIP implantation program. She dies in her human form when the sun finally heats the land to oblivion.
“Meera, what is your earliest memory?” Tarn asked again.
Nervously, I clenched my anus on the top of my head. “I remember bobbing along among the plankton, the blinding sunlight.” I said it exactly right. My mom and dad would have been proud. Tarn nodded his dark pinchers.
“Anything else, Meera?”
“There were roaring sounds and choppy waves, geese, and my larval body—.” I wanted to say my body fell from its transparent spaceship to the seafloor like a parachuter out of an airplane, but I could not admit to knowing about parachutes and airplanes and spaceships, so I said, “My body fell to the ocean floor as my soul turned itself inside out like a sock—”
“A sock?” Tarn froze in his glide and dozens of his black-stripped spikes converged and pointed erect at me. Tarn’s urchin kind originated from the reef slopes of Hawaii. His kind of urchin was called a wana. The wana’s long razor-sharp spikes were especially venomous.
“A swell! What’s a sock?” I hoped Tarn would think the lights were on but nobody was home (as the human saying went). He stayed erect another moment and then finally released his predator stance. He nodded and we continued gliding forward crushing over the skeletal remains of a flathead fish.
“Anything else, Meera?” Tarn asked, his sticky manner was as misleading as a sea otter’s friendly whiskers. We know what sea otters do to urchins.
“I remember descending through turrets of kelp and the light becoming dimmer and dimmer until I could barely see it anymore.”
He nodded approvingly. “Yes, Meera, our species sees light better when we are young before our skins harden. Then, we exist in darkness and we can only see certain lights with the tips of our tentacles.”
“Wow? That makes so much sense.” If it saves my life, I’ll act as dumb as a brainless urchin. Or as they would have said in human times, according to my dad, I’ll act like a fox.
“Yes, Meera, it is better that way.”
He asked me a few more questions and then left. I froze, overcome with relief and a strange sadness. I wondered if Tarn had known my parents. Had they been humans together in Sicily? Probably. If he had been less brainwashed and zealous, could he have told me stories of my mom and dad? It would have been so good to have another educated urchin to talk with, especially since I am alone now with my thoughts and memories. I also wonder about what Tarn would have done to me if I had failed his questions. Would he have grabbed my weakest spikes and dragged me up a stalk of kelp? Led me to the surface of the ocean and into the light? Would I have become food for some larger animal, another soul that was trying to survive too? I am sure of it. What I am less sure of is what happens after a soul dies. My mom had said she once believed in god, but that god had abandoned her.
My mom told me in the beginning of human times, the people had many stories of metamorphosis, so it made sense to her when the governments and scientists became interested in metamorphosis again at the end. We were off the coast of Oregon when she had me start memorizing the stories of Ovid’s Metamorphoses. “Oh habibi, I wish you could have read it. It was beautiful. I’d give anything to hold a book again. Even an electronic one.”
My dad was nearby giddily chomping on a ribbon of kelp. He hollered over, “Oral storytelling, my sweet porcupine, powerful stuff!”
But my mom ignored him. “You just never think you’ll be the one who transmogrifies to something so much lesser, lesser than you can even imagine,” she said, her spikes crestfallen. I looked outward at the purple carpet of laboring urchins, shuffling in long rows along the ocean bottom, clearing the algae away, without any nostalgia or complain. “Kharoof” my mom usually called them, “ignorant sheep.” I wondered what my mom thought when she looked at me. I wondered if she could imagine me in a human form. My mom was beginning one of her rants against god and E-HIP and urchins…
That’s when it happened—a swoosh of bubbles and micro-plastics and blurry ocean came charging our way, and before we could move a centimeter or decide what was going on, a furry paw stretched out of the shadows of the kelp forest and tore my dad off the plant. The sleek otter carried him up and away to the water’s surface. I can’t remember any thoughts in my head. I watched the blob of dark color rise until I could see it no more and then the ocean was dark and undisturbed again.
If we could have screamed, we would have.
Instead, my mom began slowly beating herself against the fallen rockweed.
“No, no, no,” she cried. The army of laboring urchins continued grazing unmoved.
“Mom,” I said, “Stop, stop. It will be okay.” But I was lying.
For hours, she went on in this torpor. She was mystical. As the days passed, my mom stayed inside a crevice of half-alive coral and I brought her pieces of drifting kelp I caught with my spikes. I encouraged her to move, to chomp, to recite poetry—but quietly. I told her I could understand her, but she didn’t want to speak to me anymore. She flipped herself over, her “Aristotle’s Lantern” faced the sky. She slurred words from “Del mondo e sue Parti” and ancient Egyptian love poems. Worms. God’s belly. Her womb. We are all worms in her belly. I worried we could not travel together. I worried her pain and sadness would attract an inquisitor and the inquisitor would drag us both out of the coral and kill us. I believed there must be others like us and we had to find them. We could start a new civilization. There must be inquisitors who had fallen out of rank, fallen angels like Lucifer, like us. I told my mom this, but she only fell deeper into her self; she stopped vibrating the water with her thoughts towards me. The last thing she said was that I had it all wrong. I had mixed up all the stories. But I think there is only one long human story. I can’t categorize the human stories and languages and nationalities and histories the way she does and my dad did.
The night I left, while my mom was sleeping, I whispered into her long spikes, “I’m so sorry. I hope you can forgive me someday for doing this to you. You are rohi, my soul.”
I don’t know if she heard me. I remember her red tinsel body becoming smaller and smaller as I drifted away. Sometimes I imagine myself as the piece of her womb that made her crazy. I imagine that I have run away for her sake. I like to think she is better now. Couldn’t that be true?
I have been traveling north since I left her. I believe there is a colony of large urchins above Alaska. I believe they are different from other urchins. Where does this belief come from? I don’t know, but what can I do but wander?
My body is small and dark, but I feel like a lantern. I am lit with hope. What will I find? Do I have a special mission? Or maybe I am truly the lantern and others will find me. I survived the E-HIP Inquisitor. I have inside me the knowledge of human times and urchin times. I once asked my mom what was the difference between a philosopher and a prophet. Her answer did not satisfy me. She said prophets’ messages came from god, not just from intellect. She said that philosophers weren’t worshipped and remembered in the same capacity as the prophets. But I think she is wrong. She cannot see that they are the same; this is her defect from once being a human. If she were better and here with me today, I would tell her that the intellect is god, wandering among us.
Photo by Pascal Kobeh