First, There was the Comb Jelly

First, There was the Comb Jelly

We are excited to present in full our featured story from our inaugural issue, Beginnings, by Kirsten Reneau. Reneau is working on her MFA in creative nonfiction at the University of New Orleans. Her work has also been accepted into The Threepenny Review, Hobart, Hippocampus Magazine, etc. You can purchase Issue 01 on the shop page.

Find our video interview with the author here. 

In the beginning, there was only darkness. Then there was light. Then the waters. Genesis 1:1 and my grandfather told me that the condition of the world when God took hold of it was untamed and shapeless, until he said “Let there be light”. This, of course, implies that there was a world prior to God, a world of darkness and wild waters before those with power started claiming the great everything – first the mountains, the rivers, then later the oceans, and eventually the cosmos themselves.

But I cannot help but think of those days – when it was only night and only water. What moved across the earth then? 

I think of the comb jelly.

Until pretty recently, scientists believed that the first animal, in the traditional way we think of animals, was a sea sponge. A basic, simple creature capable only of survival. It would make sense, wouldn’t it? That the tree of life, the hierarchy of evolutionary movements and relationships, would begin with the basics. At the start, there was only darkness. And the sea sponge.

However, a recent turn of events has us reconsidering who the first, the original, animal may have been. New research from scientists at Brown University has determined that it could be the shockingly complex comb jelly sitting at the base of the tree of life. 

In one of my first memories, my parents took me and my sisters to the beach. I ran in and out of the ocean, screaming and laughing as we plunged our bodies into the water before running back out again. It was a game we played, running in and out of the water, following the white surf of the tide as it disappeared against the shore over and over again. Sometimes I dove underwater and shut my eyes, which allowed my body to be rocked and moved by the water until at last I popped up and ran back to shore again. At the time, my body felt weightless and alive.

My mother read on the beach, though she stopped to check on us now and then to make sure that we had not found a way to sink under the ocean. I know my father was there, but in my memory, I don’t know where. He moved like the surf, vanishing past the edge of existence yet still vital to the memory.

This was my genesis – my mother and father, who gave me darkness, then light, then water to swim and play and live in. Over time I learned this came with a weight too. Like all parents, my mother and father had expectations for their children. There was never time for resting – we were always striving for something. 

I took lessons. Played sports. Tutored. Worked in the summer. Joined extracurriculars. Volunteered at the local food pantry, then the library. Went to a good college. Continued volunteering. Joined more organisations. Took leadership positions. Added more scholarships, more majors, more and more and more. I felt the weight of my parents’ expectations around my neck like an invisible anchor. I begin to develop a hunch, my back and shoulders tired. 

You should never be satisfied, my father told me once. You can always be better.

I imagine floating in the ocean alone, hiding in the darkness of the water, my body moved only by the push and pull of the ocean, shapeless and untamed.

The comb jelly is not a true jellyfish like how many think of them now – floating, bell-shaped creatures with long, stinging tentacles, perfectly safe until they’re not. Looking at images of the comb jelly, however, you can see early traces of what the Jellyfish would become. It has the same soft body and small tentacles. They look like baby teeth, not quite in their full form, but hold possibilities of what could come. He would have floated alone in the ocean, covered in a world that knew only darkness and water, a womb for all creation. 

Could he have understood that he was the first? Was it lonely, or liberating?

Sometimes my partner urges me to just sit down. I am constantly in motion. I have learned that there is always more, that there is always something wrong and something to fix. Doing is a way to control. I no longer imagine floating in the middle of the ocean; I don’t want to slow down or stop, because that means I have to be alone with myself. 

He reminds me: Even God took a day of rest.

It’s funny because we don’t believe in god, but I don’t point that out. I tell him I have more work to do. I worry that if I sit for too long, I will sink. It doesn’t matter that I always feel like I’m on the verge of sinking. 

So I do more and more and more until it all comes crashing down. One day I wake up and realize I have nothing to do at all; I am suddenly unemployed and out of school. My only commitment for the day is to go to the beach with my partner. 

I thought it might feel freeing if I was forced to stop – that it would feel like I was floating. Instead, I feel like thrashing, like fighting, unable to calm my body down long enough to come up for air.

Two evolutionary scenarios explain why the comb jelly may be the first among all animals. The comb jelly may have evolved independently of other animals, not branching off the tree as much as splitting it in half, forging its path independently from the creatures to come. 

The other explanation offers a theory: Perhaps the sponge evolved its simple form from the jelly’s more complex one. Perhaps evolution is not a straight line, with each generation becoming more complex than the last, always having to do more and then more and then more. 

Maybe it’s simpler than all that. 

In the beginning, there was only darkness. Then light. Then the waters. My partner sits on the shore. Lying in the ocean, I am alone. I pull my body below the water and close my eyes and my body feels weightless and alive, the way it did in the beginning.

Epoch Press
Epoch Press

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