Beauty Unframed author Lisa Elmers writes about life, loveliness, and seeing something where you thought there was nothing.

Krøyer's Angler

Krøyer's Angler

The deep oceans, hidden from the sun, moon, and guiding stars, have lights of their own: phosphorescent jellies, krill lucent as opals, chemical bulbs that bob in the earth’s basement. Down in crushing depths they swim, water into water, liquid bodies drifting like plastic bags in the blind dark. Somewhere off the coast of California – it might have been the underwater canyon of Monterey – or the trenches off the Peruvian coast – there lived an anglerfish that is called by the superstitious the black seadevil. She was the unloveliest of fishes but she didn’t know it, for she could neither see herself nor any other fish. But she could be seen. William Beebe had spied her from his Bathysphere in 1934 and then in 1947 that pale Norwegian, Thor Heyerdahl, had written in his diary about her species from the night deck of his balsa raft. To look at her they shuddered as at original sin – her chitinous scales, her triangle mouth agape like a trap, needle-toothed, primeval. And her milky cataracted eyes, nearly sightless, as if cursed by a creator who regretted their making. Alone she swam through a midnight field of phytoplankton.

She had a guiding light. Always before her a still blue point, hung by an invisible hand. She followed it as a child trails its mother, or as an explorer dogs the calculated light of Polaris in the swampy night. But no matter how she swam, how hard or how far, the light remained out of range, receding from her as fixedly as the past recedes, moment to moment. It was her pillar of flame in the wilderness. The light brought food. Small fish were drawn to it as shards to a magnet, hypnotically, from the other side. They swam practically into her mouth, which was always open. The light brought her, too, a lover – a small parasitic male that found her by its glow and coupled her dumbly. They were two ships careening in the helpless fall of marine dust.

She followed the light as faithfully and fruitlessly as a hamster on a wheel. Of course she was unaware that the star she sought shone from the tip of a proboscis attached to her own head.

An accidental predator, innocent of her own predation, she swam and ate and mated and lived and birthed another just like herself. And her daughter and her daughter’s daughters swam and swim the same ocean track toward a trembling flare always already beyond touching.

Poor dumb animal, we say. But how do we know that those stars above us, grave and holy, are not also moved by the swimming head of some unseen and monstrous fish?

Onionskins

Onionskins

Nocturne

Nocturne