On Phytoplankton

Anna Sheppard


Pop Culture

My sister and I watched shows that took place underwater. H2O, about teenage mermaids that I don’t think either of us ever really liked. The Deadliest Catch, my dad’s favorite, though I know now how little of it I understood. And, of course, Spongebob, which Sarah loved unconditionally and irrevocably. I didn’t recognize most of the characters’ species, all of them an amalgam of blues and yellows and high-pitched voices that somehow didn’t add up. In those days, Sarah wanted to be a marine biologist. We were living in the low country of South Carolina, our backyard swallowed by a creek, the Atlantic barely half an hour away. The water was what she knew, what she cared about. For every question I had, she was ready with an answer. Patrick was called a sea star because, when he died, he’d turn into sand and sand is the underwater equivalent of our sky.  Spongebob, a sea sponge, would eventually gather so much water in his spores that one day he’d just fade into the ocean. Plankton, the villain, belonged to a species called phytoplankton. God knows where Sarah learned that word. I believed it immediately, thinking how grateful I was to have a sister who knew so much.  

     It would take me years to realize that Sarah was just as blind to the mechanics of the show as I was.  Sitting in a middle school science class, my teacher explained those phytoplankton are microscopic creatures. Invisible to the human eye. They’re too small to make it into a kid’s TV show, into conversation, into anything other than a documentary, maybe, or a few minutes of a class lecture. Never mind that they’re considered to be the fuel of the ocean, the first step of energy in a food chain that we still don’t have the capability to completely understand. Even now, it’s amazing to me that phytoplankton can do all that and still get so little back. If anything, Plankton was a zooplankton. More animal than plant. More visible, more noticed. Something you know is there the second you see it.



From the Greek. Phyto, meaning plant. Planktos, meaning made to wander, to drift. To move along the path of least resistance, least commitment, least expectation of what you’re getting yourself into.

     Sarah drifted. As a kid her favorite pet changed with the moon: from our hamsters, to dogs, to the rabbits we ended up selling to a farm where they’d be kept alive for their fur. Admittedly, we took on more with those than we could handle. And then the mice. Five small, slick creatures, like cotton balls dipped in tar. Sarah had acquired them in secret from a girl in her class and kept them as pets without telling our parents. It took three weeks for my father to find them, near death in a fish tank Sarah hid in the attic. He told her to set the mice free in the woods behind our house, but Sarah didn’t have it in her to release them. I let her hold the shoebox as I scooped them out one by one and dropped them on the ground, where they waited a second before running off into the forest, where they could go the rest of their lives without being seen again.

     Sarah never loved a pet after that, never got close to that kind of attachment or dependency, but as we got older, I still noticed her tendency to drift: between friends, between cigarette brands, between the backseats of cars belonging to boys who couldn’t call her by her name if she ran into them in the grocery store. Between therapists the year Dr. Martin pinned the word depressive to her forehead and I sat on the sidelines of her disorder like a benched athlete waiting for a chance to jump in and make up for a season of mistakes. We hadn’t even finished our first year of high school. I didn’t know what to do. In that respect, I guess I was a drifter, too. I could never stop long enough to understand or help her. Just pried her from my thumb like that last mouse we had to let go, eyes big and desperate, wishing someone would see how bad he wanted to stay.



Now, Sarah’s better, or at least my family pretends to believe she is. We take her new focus on healthy food and dating short girls as a sign that we did something right. Now she goes to school hours from our home on the water, only comes back when the residence hall kicks her out for the weekend. Now I wonder what we’d talk about if we curled up like we used to in front of the TV and pretended the weight of all those times she held a hot iron to her wrist or tried to overdose on my dad’s pain meds isn’t there.

     It was the last weekend before the weather got cold again. Sarah said she’d drive home to see me, even though the dorms were staying open that weekend, even though she didn’t have to. I was with my boyfriend at the time, Glenn, a long-haired boy from the hills. We waited for Sarah on the front porch, scraped off the moss growing on the steps with our fingernails. But when high tide came at nine and she still wasn’t there, I decided I couldn’t wait anymore. I texted her and said to meet us at the water.

     When we made it to the dock, I didn’t stop to drop the ladder down, didn’t bother taking my jeans off, just dove in head first with all my clothes on. “It’s not even cold yet,” I said, wishing he’d get in with me, though he’d made clear earlier his disinterest in being in the water. “It feels perfect.”

     “It’s dark,” he said, shaking out his ponytail. I rested my arms on the dock, my chin on my arms. Our faces were close, but I was half-underwater. I felt like we were in different worlds. “I don’t trust it. We can’t see anything.”

     I shrugged. I was pushing myself away from the dock when it happened. All at once and then suddenly everywhere. A thousand small lights scattering across my skin, like a Christmas tree plugged in and thrown in the water. I screamed when I saw it. “Do you see them?” I asked Glenn. “The plankton?”

     He couldn’t. His unwillingness to swim put him at a bad angle, drew some invisible barrier between him and the light. He was too far away, too distant. Might as well be.

     “Sarah will see when she gets here,” I said. “She’s the one who told me about these.” When we were younger Sarah would drag me down to the dock at sunset, promising it was finally dark enough this time, that we’d finally see the phytoplankton some people called “sea sparkle” lighting up in the dark and in the cold. She told me to move my arms as much as I could, that their light could only be triggered by movement. A defense mechanism. But our mom always called us back up before dark, and by the time we made it back out there it was afternoon, when the sun was out and bright and the plankton were back to being invisible, unknown strangers.   



It’s all produce stands and marsh grass between our house and Hunting Island beach, and when we were younger, Sarah and I always promised we’d retire there together. Now, we only go to the beach on her bad days, days when the threat of her relapse is so close, I can smell its breath. The last time we went together, it was February. Temperatures had dropped to a record low. There was more sea foam on the shoreline than I remembered ever seeing before, long clouds of it floating up with every wave. Every time the foam-clouds got close enough to us, Sarah kicked them until the entire clump dissolved. She picked up what was left in her cupped hands and blew the foam into my face.

     I asked Sarah what she thought was causing the excess foam. She said that it had to do with the cold weather, that half of what we were seeing was chunks of ice from the Atlantic, disguised by the foam. I didn’t believe it, but I couldn’t bring myself to tell her different. I looked up the real reason later and found a website that explained how cold water creates a higher amount of nutrients in the ocean. This allows more phytoplankton to be born, which inevitably leads to more phytoplankton dying. Their skeletons create a change in surface tension, and this change is what creates the sea foam we saw washing up on the beach.

     Sarah kept stepping farther into the cloud, kept stepping until it was up to her knees. She jumped and spun and threw her hands around, leaving scars in the foam where her body had been. I knew that, if the foam was tall enough to encapsulate her whole body, she would have gone all the way, would have disappeared into the fog of the foam until I couldn’t tell her from a stranger. She’d find comfort in the anonymity, and I’d have no choice but to let her go.

     The phytoplankton’s death was a bittersweet loss, one that resonated with me for longer than it should have. No matter how small they were, they lost everything, down to their final bones. I want to say, At least they have something to show for it. But I know that’s not right. What I should say is that sometimes we fall apart and have no say in what happens to the pieces, and sometimes that’s better than what happens when we have a say, when we think we’ve done something right, really right, and then we’re finished and we realize we didn’t do anything, didn’t even leave a mark. The surface stays untouched. Silver-blue and blank, clear enough to see all the way to the bottom.



ANNA SHEPPARD is a senior at the South Carolina Governor's School for the Arts and Humanities. She has won numerous awards in the Scholastic Art & Writing Awards, and her work is published or forthcoming in The Adroit Journal and Teenage Wasteland Review. She was a runner-up in the Skylark Poetry Contest and in the Muriel Avellaneda Prize for Young Poets. She loves crime TV shows unironically and spends most of her time wishing she was with her twin sister.