Switchbacking the mealy drifts and softening ice slicks, I found dry rock where I could, comforted by Shannon’s ease up on my shoulders. Though she was six now and had yet to say a word, her intuition often plugged that gap. As soon as we’d stepped off the lip toward Narragansett Bay, then, she’d arrested her bodily fidgets in deference to sensed perils underfoot. Besides, it was time. Equinox had passed, and with the gusty, blizzard-heavy winter finally giving way, the billow of sun, salt, and windless water numbed us through.
Out front, past the outcrops exposed by low slack, the fowl seemed likewise dazed. Eiders, a thousand or more split in three rafts, bobbed in lazy solace. Up top, Shannon shifted. A pair of gulls, silent, yellow-billed, materialized above, tracing sleepy, downward circles to see what might be thefted. Unsatisfied, they made their way over an eider clan and settled, blanching into the white-backed drakes’ patchy albedo.
Bottoming out, I tucked into a favorite channel that only low tide allowed. Winter hadn’t changed a thing. As we came to the top of the tide pool chain Shannon bounced on my shoulders then kicked up her feral vocalizing. Other than shoulder rides, splashing is the only thing that engages her beyond a few seconds, and she threw a leg over my head, hooting and rasping like an owl wrestling a mink. Picking out a bare patch among the mops of bloated bladderwort, I sat her by still water, where she nestled in, dunked a hand, and tasted. Months of chlorine and soapy bathwater evaporated, and her smile pulled one out of me.
“Salt, Shan. Salt.”
Stirring and licking, she quieted, fixed by the sea lettuce draping the slipperier rocks all around. We hadn’t seen green in five months, let alone so much so deep. Trapped sunlight blurbed about each verdant ribbon like bulbous organisms coming out of winter. Whatever they etched in me, Shan’s wordless mind took a deeper hit. She was gone, and I settled on a rock, listening to the feeble swells hush in and out of countless crevices.
Twenty yards off another duck, tiny, squirted through glassy water, flaring its white head patch. A male bufflehead, another winter resident. Waiting for his harem he didn’t wait long, turning to watch four dusky hens snap through the surface. Popcorn ducks Shan’s little sister Flannery calls them. Soon, maybe today, they’d be off, bound for breeding grounds up the coast.
The five ducks turned in unison, pat-patting pink feet before lifting toward the eiders. They’d heard what I did, something I hadn’t in years, air popping its valve. Slick, smooth, and gray, the big-eyed seal head cut a wake around tilted slag. Sipping breath, it dimpled beneath, then as suddenly returned, launching on an outcrop twenty yards away. I hadn’t been this close to one since leaving Alaska, when Karen called years before to say she was pregnant. The animal slid forward, stopped, then lowered its head, deflating into kelp and sun. Like the ducks, it had its calendar. Soon enough the pods would bunch, finning out of the bay for northern pupping waters.
The bears, I thought, would stay, not the seals. For ten years I’d worked for biologists gathering salmon data. Count fish, catch fish, tag fish. All of it was in the Southeast Alaskan rainforest, most on the spawning grounds, where bear tracks, bear scat, bear stench, bears alive were a subcutaneous presence. Trails up and down every creek, muddied from pads and claws and the drip-drop persistence of spruce. Fish carcasses everywhere. Sockeye and chinook, pinks and cohos, bellies torn, roe stripped. Heads on moss, heads on stone, heads in mud. Back bones, rib bones, gill plates. Blood on leaves, blood on rocks. Ivory milt sacs, jay-poached guts, sapling-snagged, dangling. Bodies in half, skins flayed, skulls nipped for brains, and everything, everywhere, even you, rank with rot and abundance.
The dreams come heavy, at night, in day, all winter, where the big, brown, blubbery forms transmute to whatever slumbering brains might make. Moonlit bears, the marbled ones, bathed in aurora, regimenting the tide flats, gold-plated chinook columns filing by, unmolested. The slithering one – bear head, snake body – coiled round your spine, loving, or lethal, hard to say. Bear faces – sleeping, dead, meditative – hung in stars, hung in the moon, inlaid in spruce, in rock, twirling round the blue bergs littering glacial outflow. Now, here, the winter bears, the sow and two yearlings, sloshing downstream with last night’s snow sloughing off spruce, plopping sunny creekwater. Fungused-up and wine-red, the last cohos lilt alone and in pairs, a bit of final protein before the big sleep. Magpies watch, ravens watch, eagles watch, and by the tracks on the near bank you know that wolves, in their way, watch too. With her offspring trailing, the sow slogs forward, passing through each plumed breath, buttressing the glistening rime up and down that greasy coat. You should say something, but don’t. As groggy as her, you’re too bemused anymore to tease real from imagined, and you stand mute, happy among the hybrids.
The seals I saw mostly from afar and rarely dreamt them, not until Shannon anyway. Lined in their liturgies, they crowded the deltas or speckled the ocean just outside, pilfering thronged fish. Sometimes, though, I’d hear those breaking valves close by a canoe or near shore. A head would rear, look, and it wasn’t hard to see it, that old Celtic notion of seals as drowned souls. They’d made a new life, mostly at sea, human when it suited, coming ashore to seduce, kidnap, or play, depending.
Once I took a canoe up a small, winter-barren river. Coming out of the headwaters I hadn’t seen anyone in days and hit the estuary at peak tide. Early March. A few sea-run rainbows, steelhead, ghosted calm water beneath overcast skies. Drawing a stroke, I drifted toward a tight school, scattering them like well-whacked billiard balls, though I was their lesser demon, as just offline of the canoe a submerged, shadowy bulk glided upriver.
Inverted, it rolled, close enough to poke with the paddle, then lifted its lids, where I looked into dark glass looking into me. Flippers flapped and it was gone, silent. I wasn’t a threat, but creatures live by what they see, what they remember, what ancestry couches in mythology. The Natives there, the Tlingit’s, still hunt seals, and a handful of times I watched limp bodies lumped onto skiffs. Looking upriver, I saw the steelhead chaser peer down from bankside alders a hundred yards north. It turned and I turned, and it seemed that was it, though years later, maybe ten, with the bears long faded from New England dreams, Shannon dipped beneath lake water for the first time. Swimming, somehow, comes easy, and as her little form breasted open-eyed for the surface, all I saw was that seal.
With meltwater seeping downslope, the hour lazed on. Focused on the tide pool now, Shannon gazed cock-eyed at the countless ringlets made by flickering fingers. When the water stilled, she re-showered, astounded by patterns whose nuanced distinctions I’d never see. With each spray she hunched over, extending her arms, working ten fingers to shape whatever she saw in those ripples. Hers was about the only motion around. Catatonic, the eiders moved just enough to hold position, while having drifted back in, the buffleheads swayed in like moratorium. The seal, too, seemed dead. Stuffed with squid, maybe a few flounder, its mottled form blended into rock. If I hadn’t seen it haul out, I wouldn’t have seen it all.
We met a woman across the bay, a mother whose teenage son has similar afflictions to Shannon. No words, spoken or understood. Little grasp of, or maybe interest in, customized human bustle, either our practical protocols or kaleidoscopic subterfuge. Such people are uneasy curiosities, revenants from our outset, before language and all that ensued pried us loose, but to passersby they remain just that, primitive baubles, and are as quickly dismissed.
Parents, though, maybe through bias, see more. Orbiting their wordless kids as moons might white dwarves, they lock in, wordless themselves, imbibing through gravity influences language can’t grant, and this mother had an identical perception to my own.
“Seals. Whatever thoughts flow through his mind are seals, swimming deep. They’re his world, but I’ll never know, hear, or understand them.”
“My God,” I said. “Me too.”
With the bay so still, I looked down at Shan, at the wresting fingers, the splashes, her concentration, and speculated on that flippered shadow and light coursing her depths. Unbarnacled by words, by any history but her own, they silk the dark fluid unimpeded, free-forming cosmologies neither I nor anyone I know would think to conceive.
I’ve read seals have gone back. If fossils can be believed, seals and whales and all the rest were on our trajectory, leg-bound, but for some reason turned, inhabiting two realms now, water and air.
As she does, Shan eventually roared. All that input bundles tight, needing release, and she let it out in declarative fashion, re-animating the buffleheads while startling a purple sandpiper, who lifted out of a nearby crevice, peeled, then re-stationed a few ledges down.
With a huff, the seal turreted its head our way, shuttering those black eyes once, then twice. In kind, Shannon reared her own head, swiveling it side to side. So much of the day it seems she has a wasp’s eyes, a dragonfly’s, dialing her hexagonals to find the proper frame. Fixed, she tilted, recording. God knows what they saw in one another, but doesn’t God, all of it, traffic in that unbent light between us? The seal oozed forth, making hardly a crease as it slipped back to water.