Jo Varnish


Sea turtles travel hundreds of miles through all but the coldest of the world’s waters. Relying on the earth’s magnetic field, they determine longitude and latitude, enabling them to nest on the beach they haven’t visited since hatching at least five decades earlier.

My mother saves her teacher’s salary to take my brother and me backpacking each summer, and when I am ten, we visit Australia. Lady Elliot Island, southernmost coral cay of the Great Barrier Reef. We spend glorious days: glass bottomed boat trips, wading through low tides, the vivid oranges, reds, blues, yellows of tropical creatures, spiked or squishy. At mealtimes, my mother is a source of fascination for a group of senior Texan ladies; my brother and I tease her with our best impressions, “I hear you are a math teacher.” My mother passes away suddenly the following year.


I use my inheritance from my mother’s mother to take my husband and our children to Australia, recreating the trip of my childhood. My daughter is ten. My sons, thirteen and eight. On Lady Elliot Island, my memory’s snapshots are rendered vivid by reality. The island seems unchanged. Swarms of birds calling overhead, the briny smell of the Pacific, rustic lodgings. I feel my mother here. I am my mother here. I recognize the wonder in the eyes of my children as they discover the black and white sea cucumbers, the purple coral and the myriad sea stars. Each morning, they wake ready to explore, the backs of their legs and necks sunburned from craning over the creatures in the shallows the day before.

We listen to the ecologist leading us to the loggerhead turtle, heavier than my daughter and me combined. We stand silently in near darkness, no light allowed, for the turtle is guided by the moon. We watch in shades of black and grey as she digs, her thick flippers flinging sand. And then, the eggs, round and white. My children count over one hundred. She buries them, before slowly moving down to the shore. In eight weeks or so, the baby turtles will make their way to the ocean, imprinting their precise location for when the biological pull draws them back, just as it returned their mother before them.

It’s our last day. My daughter and I hold hands walking along the shoreline, wearing the heat of the sun.

“Maybe you’ll come back here one day with your own children,” I say.

“And you, you have to come.” I squeeze her hand twice, my code for I love you.

We see a large turtle swimming near the water’s edge, waiting for us. Wordlessly, we run into the ocean, splashing prismatic droplets as we go. We swim with the turtle, diving down as he dives, surfacing for air with him.  He plays and we play. And then he is gone, and what remains is an exquisite memory and, for a while at least, our footprints as we walk back up the beach.


Originally from England, Jo now lives outside New York City. She is the assistant editor at X-R-A-Y Literary Magazine. Her short stories and creative nonfiction have recently appeared in Okay Donkey, Ellipsis Zine, Brevity Blog, The Coachella Review and others. Jo is a 2020 Pushcart Prize nominee and has been a writer in residence at L’Atelier Writers for two years, and is studying for her MFA. She can be found on twitter @jovarnish1.