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[Essay] How to Rescue a Skate

By L. Danzis

If I close my eyes, I see your dock stretching into the White Oak River. It’s sunset, the last golden fingers of light reaching across the gentle waves. The spiky grass prickles the balls of your feet as you cross the yard to get to the dock. The mid-June day has finally cooled from its 80-something-degrees to a mild warmth punctuated by the occasional brackish breeze off the marsh. The conditions are optimal for a little evening fishing before going back inside to do a crossword before bed, or chip away at the novel you’re supposed to be reading for book club.

I watch as you fix the lure onto the line and cast; the last flecks of sunlight catch the hooks like falling stars before they vanish into the dark water. This is the moment you like most—the waiting, the stillness. There are just the night sounds of the marsh—the water lapping against the posts of the dock, the rustle of the breeze through the live oaks and sedge grass, the occasional splash from a far-off bass, maybe even the call of a distant owl. 

The scene plays out in my mind like a dream. There are skips and lapses, blanks I have to fill in, like the time my wife and I went to the movies and a snowstorm cut the power. When it came back, the sound returned but the picture was still gone, so we had to use our imaginations and context clues until the projection started back up. Maybe you reel in your line a few times before casting again; maybe you catch a few small fry for bait in the crab trap; maybe you try closer to or farther from the reeds. Maybe the hair on the back of your suntanned arms stands up as the breeze blows, and you tell yourself, One last cast

Only this time, when you reel in your line after feeling the familiar tug, your excitement dims. It’s no whopper that wriggles through the water toward the dock—no late-season trout, no red drum, no flounder—but a skate, probably Raja eglanteria. It looks like a southern stingray (Dasyatis americana), but it’s got some key differences—most notably no stinger, but instead a thorny ridge down the middle of the wings and tail (hence its common name, “brier skate”). 

Shoot, I imagine you muttering in the same tone of mild annoyance that you use when I’ve stolen your spot on the Scrabble board or when you’ve found whiteflies in your tomatoes. But you sigh and get ready to haul it out of the water to unhook it and turn it loose. 

But the skate doesn’t come out of the water. You tug on your line, and it’s then that you look back down and see that the skate—in its thrashing resistance—has tangled the line around a crab trap. I would’ve cut my line and left it, and I wonder why you didn’t. Was the lure valuable or sentimental? Would you feel guilty for leaving a hook in the sound and a skate tangled in a trap? Or are you just a better person than I am, one who doesn’t like seeing other living things in pain? 


My teen years are another part where the film cuts out—but this time, I’m the one who cut it. 

When I got my first iPad, around tenth grade, I had full access to Googling the questions I’d started asking myself, questions with no Google-able answers, but the first wonderings of someone not at home in their body or mind. 

How do I know if I’m gay?

Can I be straight with a crush on a girl friend?

Do all gay people go to hell?

My searches yielded personality quizzes and unhelpful self-help articles. Without answers from the internet and without any queer adults to ask for advice, I held my breath and jumped into experiments headfirst. 

I don’t know what you thought as you watched me break one box only to try and force myself into another. I’d realized that heterosexual femininity wasn’t for me, but even you could see my attempts at masculinity weren’t suiting me either. You realized long before I did, long before either of us had the vocabulary for “nonbinary” or “genderfluid,” that I was somewhere in between—the skate that needs both fresh water and salt water to thrive. 

But at the time, I perceived your attempts to tell me I could still be feminine as a lesbian as a rejection of my fledgling identity, so of course I didn’t want to believe you when you tried to point out that my first girlfriend was isolating me from my other friends. I said I was grown (I wasn’t) and that I knew myself well enough to make my own choices (I didn’t), and that you were rejecting me (you weren’t). But despite our screaming matches, my icy aloofness, my biting sarcasm, you still saw your child, your weird little girl hurting, and you reached out even when you knew you might get stung. 


Last winter you wanted to make a mosaic.

I suggested the shape of a stingray. We epoxy-pour-painted over old coasters and leftover bathroom tiles, and once they dried, we took them out to the garage with a hammer and finally spread everything on the dining table to assemble our masterpiece. 

“Why’d we make it so big?” I asked after the first hour of trying to fit the shards onto the cutout and, standing back, realized I’d only pieced together the tiniest sliver of a wing. 

In the same predicament, you laughed and kept puzzling. “Think how cool it will look when it’s done!” 

That’s how I feel about piecing things back together with you. I’ve tried to atone through actions—coming home when I can, asking questions about your interests, learning your recipes, trying to know you as a person instead of only “my mother.” And still, sometimes that never feels like enough, like I’ll always be piecing together this mosaic without ever seeing the end result.


I watch as you ask your neighbors to help you shove out your kayak, and you paddle into the water that stretches like an indigo sheet between the shores. Had the skate stopped thrashing when you arrived? Had it resigned itself to its fate? That paints you in a heroic light—the savior rescuing the helpless animal—but that’s not what I picture. Driven by the stubborn instinct to survive, the skate keeps flailing. I watch you reach out; the kayak wobbles as you recoil from the whiplike tail before trying to tug the line free from the wires of the trap. Paradoxically each tug only traps the skate further. In trying to draw it closer, you only push it farther away.

When the line finally snaps, I wonder if you consider giving up. I wonder if you continue your rescue only out of a sense of obligation. You’ve come this far, and your neighbors are watching from your dock. Or I wonder if you’re doing it for your teenage daughter, independent but trapped. 

You reach out, bare-handed. The kayak tips as you lean in to get your hand close to the trap, close to the thrashing tail and spiny ridge, close to the hooks. I feel the back of the skate’s wings under your hand—prickly, but also smooth and sleek and fragile as wet glass. You try to grab it, and it struggles harder, its wings flapping as if it can shoot out of the water like a seaplane. And as you grip it tighter, the lure’s hook embeds itself in one of your callused fingers. 

I wonder if your first instinct is panic, if you try to shake the skate free or pry the hook from your finger to leave it there. Instead you grit your teeth and guide the skate from the trap until at last it’s free. It’s still attached to your hand by the other hook, and you’ll have to paddle back one-handed, and you’ll have to get the hook out of your finger. But the skate is safe. 


You sent me a picture of the mosaic when you finished it. 

Aqua wings outlined in a ring of royal blue, a vibrant orange stripe to highlight the purple ridge, wide-set blue eyes, a shimmering silver tail. It hangs on your wall with its nose facing out toward the sound, ready to swim. 

It’s the most beautiful thing we’ve ever made. 


When you get back to the dock, your neighbors hand you up from the kayak and help cut the skate free. Its lip is bloody, and it’s none too happy to have been out of the water for this long, but you know it’s time to turn it loose, to let it fend for itself.

“Alright,” I imagine you saying as you gently drop it in the water. “Now make better choices.” 

Your neighbors probably laugh before telling you to go to urgent care to get the hook out of your finger. And the skate—taking a stunned moment to process everything that happened—darts fearlessly back into the dark water. 

L. Danzis has a BA in Creative Writing from the University of North Carolina Asheville, where they help coordinate the Great Smokies Writing Program. They are also a certified Inward & Artward Creative Facilitator through the Asheville-based arts venue Story Parlor, designing courses on how collaborative tabletop roleplaying games can be used as catalysts for independent writing projects. When they aren’t learning about marine biology (especially cephalopods), they procrastinate writing by hiking, playing RPGs, and pursuing the perfect gin and tonic.


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