Humankind has depleted the oceans and destroyed coral reefs. We have hunted, fished, polluted, driven many marine species to extinction. But sometimes the fish fight back.
Today was such a day.
The normal way of things has been inverted: a human has been hooked by a fish. More specifically a small girl has been pierced by the barb of a sting ray.
I am listening to a podcast on the beach, not quite asleep, not quite awake, digesting my lunch in the sunshine. Menna, Matilda and Arthur are somewhere out in the waves. Then somewhere in my half-dream, screams of pain intrude, jarring with the mellifluous but self-righteous tones of Sam Harris.
And now I am awake, up and running towards the sound. Menna is first on the scene and gathers Matilda up out of the waves. As I approach I can see her left leg stuck out rigidly, the thick trickle of blood glistening on her heel. I awkwardly receive her from Menna and carry her back up the beach. She screams and sobs and a crowd gathers. Everyone wants to give advice and practice their English or just be part of this exciting event.
”¿Qué pasó con la muchacha?
“Was it a barracuda?”
“A sting ray no?”
“¿Una raia dices?”
“You have to take her to Emergencias right now.” says a lady with diamanté earrings and a no-nonsense voice. “I’ve seen this before.”
This is not a great option for us. We are a couple of hours from the nearest hospital, which will probably be riddled with Covid, and we don’t have a car. This doesn’t feel like the kind of injury that justifies an ambulance. “No problem guys. Is fine. My husband can drive you.” She cranes her neck and looks around, but husband has slipped off.
“Our buddy Josh got hit by a sting ray in Costa Rica” I said. “He was ok after a short while. I think he peed on it or something.” I’m aware that it sounds like I don’t care much about my daughter’s wellbeing, like I’m just trying to avoid the hassle. I catch Menna’s eye and am relieved to see she is thinking the same.
‘You must put her foot in hot water’ says another woman in a yellow swimming costume, a wealthy Managuan lady down for the weekend I think. “Like real hot. It’s going to hurt, sure, but you gotta stop the acid. Is it hurting now honey?”. Matilda howls and nods.
“That’s it. Hot water! No pee needed. That’s what we’ll do,” I’m liking this scenario more and I give a thumbs up and an encouraging smile to Yellow Costume.
There are three or four kids watching the scene, chattering away in Spanish, laughing. A huge muscled American surfer with a tiny head wanders over.
“Hey man, was that a sting ray? Nooo! I got stung by like five of them last year. That shit hurts so bad! You got to dig out the spine. Hey, look at this” hopping in a circle to show us all a scar on his sole. “Got one went right through my foot here.”
“Take her up to the bar, they’ll have hot water,” says Yellow Costume waving a well manicured finger. We all troop up to the beach bar.
“The barb snapped off inside me so they had to dig it right out with a knife. I was just sitting there, like crying and hollering and drinking rum. Man! So bad!” says Muscles.
“It’s early for sting rays. They only come when the water is colder.” Diamanté is seeing her authority diminish. “Was there blood? Perhaps it’s a scorpion fish, or a jellyfish. How do we know? She should go to a doctor. Don’t you worry sweetie, my husband’s gonna to take you. It’s gonna be ok. Where is he now?” More urgent head swivels but husband is still lying low. “Was there blood?” she repeats.
“I don’t think it’s too early for rays,” says Muscles. “the hurricanes messed up all the currents so it’s running colder than usual. You should go down to Marbella beach, there’s always loads of sting rays there. They like to, you know…”, he mentally tests out options, “…breed, in the bay.”
We assure Diamanté that there was indeed blood. She looks a little sour like we’ve conspired against her. “She still should go to a doctor in case there’s an allergic reaction. No se sabe! We gotta truck, it’s big. My husband gonna fit you all in.”
We are English, we specialise in polite but firm. “It’s alright thanks, my wife is a doctor. Maybe if we just sit her down for a bit.”
We put Matilda down on a sun lounger at the beach bar. She sobs, hides her face away behind the crook of the elbow, embarrassed about the attention. Menna inspects the wound for snapped-off barbs but Matilda is jerking her leg around wildly.
“There was another time I landed on this piece of coral,” says Muscles. “Sliced open my calf through here, under the tattoo. You know that coral can grow inside you? I saw it happen once to this guy. He was like a human cactus! I didn’t know if I was gonna wake up one day with like stalactites growing out my skin.”
The waitress from the bar come up with a bowl of hot water. She’s seen this drama play out before. We put Matilda’s heal into the water and she screams and jerks it out. The waitress gives a little smile, like ‘they always do this…’
Yellow Costume is in the ascendency. Diamanté has faded back to the second ring of onlookers.
“It’s got to be as hot as she can bear,” she says, “that’s the only way to neutralise the acid”. She makes the waitress add further boiling water to the pot.
“Or are they stalagmites? Which ones are the ones that go upwards? Though I guess they would have grown straight outwards really, so could be either. Like a dinosaur!” says Muscles enigmatically.
Matilda will not submerge her heel in the water and is converting her pain into rage. She howls and spits like a little wildcat, tenses her leg upwards, kicks out. I test the water temperature, it is really very hot. But probably bearable I think. She can do this.
“Come on sweetheart,” I say, “let’s just give this a go. The hot water will take the venom away. It’s hurting right?”
“Go away!” Matilda screams at me, “You’re hurting me!”
“I’m not touching you darling but you do need to put your foot in that water. Otherwise we’re going to have to take you all the way to Granada to a hospital there,” I say, really working on my calm tone.
Morwenna does her doctor thing.
“Let me explain from a medical point of view why we need to do this Missy,” she says in a soothing but matter-of-fact voice, “you’ve been injected with a venom that is irritating your skin and working it’s way up through your blood.” Matilda screams again. “We need to flush out the venom with hot water. It will take away the sting and reduce the risk of infection.” Menna gently pushes Matilda’s foot into the water.
“I don’t care! I don’t care about venom in my skin.I’m not putting my foot in that water,” says Matilda kicking her leg high into the air.
“You see your nervous system is getting agitated by the toxins,” Menna continues.
”And we’re getting agitated by your screaming,” I add. “It can’t hurt that much surely.”
“It gotta to be real hot honey or it don’t work,” cuts in Muscles, “they actually poured water from the kettle onto my foot when I got stung. I got blisters all over afterwards, but hell, even the burns were better than the stinging.”
“I bet it won’t hurt anyway. I’ve checked the water and it’s fine. Look! I’m putting my finger in now. Hardly hurts. This is a great chance for you to practice being brave!” I say with a smile. I try to hold her hand.
“Shut UP Daddy! You’re making it worse! You don’t know what it is like!” screams Matilda through clenched teeth, snatching her hand away. “You’ve never even been stung by a sting ray.”
“No you’re making it worse.” I snap, calm voice lost, “You’re making such a fuss. And we’re all going to have to drive all the way to Granada and hang out at a bloody hospital if you don’t put your foot in that water. We’ve all spent enough time in hospitals already. Come on!”
Yellow can see that I’ve lost control of this situation. She squats down next to Matilda and grabs her hand.
“Look at me girl. Your foot needs to go in that water to get rid of the stinging. It’s gotta happen. I don’t care if you shout. Shouting’s fine. You shout at me all you like, but you get your foot in there at the same time. This is for your own good.”
Matilda has never experienced a complete stranger ordering her around in a tough-but-warm-hearted American-Nicaraguan accent and is unsure how to respond. She’s taken aback and stops screaming for a second.
“That’s right girl. Now put that foot in the water. You look at me. You look into my eyes. You’ve got this honey.”
“Yeah. That’s what I said. Good stuff!” I murmur, feeling kind of displaced. Matilda lowers her foot into the now-cooler water. She jerks it out again theatrically, and then allows Yellow Costume to gently push it back down again. She writhes and makes some extraordinary grimaces but keeps it in there.
Yellow costume has prevailed. She owns this situation now.
“You gotta watch out for an allergic reaction, like if she gets bumps or something,” says Diamanté quietly. It is a last gesture, she knows she is defeated. “Come on honey, we got to go find Daddy.” A shape detaches itself from behind her and we see she has a girl with her, about Matilda’s age, who has been literally hovering in her shadow. “Hope you get better now,” she says to Matilda and they walk off down the beach.
“I broke my leg one time,” I say to Muscles, “snapped the femur clean in half!”
“What, surfing?” he says.
“Nah, on a scooter. Crashed into a lorry.”
“No way!” he says.
We huddle around the invalid for the next twenty minutes. Some people drift off . The amused Nicaraguan waitress periodically tops up the tub with hot water, Matilda groans and writhes, puts a weak hand upon her brow. We bring her fries and ketchup and horrifically sweet cherryade. People put damp towels on her head and shield her from the sun. Yellow Costume talks to her the whole time in a low monotone, murmuring encouragement and words of wisdom. Menna hugs Matilda tight and whispers in her ear. At some point Arthur wanders up with his surfboard under his arm to see what all the fuss is about. He’s impressed with the injury but he’s made a friend in the waves and after a minute or so he runs off to play with him.
After a while I see that my presence isn’t required and I go back and finish off my podcast.