That night he lay in his tent, flat on his back, watching the flimsy ceiling growing darker and darker as the sun vanished for its brief summer intermission. For the first time in decades he was scared to close his eyes. It was not fear of bears or the mystical kustaka that held his eyelids open but his own mind, a terror at what would happen to be transported again. The minutes moved leisurely by, apathetic to the knot of tension in his stomach and the anxiety in his head. As the first tendrils of morning light began to materialize Reed could fight it no longer, his eyes shut, blackness enveloped him, and his spirit left.
It was loud here. The foul smell of rotten fished filled his nostrils, his body crushed by the squirming masses on either side. The roars and barks of his neighbors seemed to travel from his ear flaps down his spine, the sound waves of the deepest calls rumbling in his chest. But he could breathe easy here. And when he opened his mouth he felt a deep bellow radiate from his chest, rushing up his wind pipe, past his massive canines and into the throng of brown fur surrounding him.
There was no peace here and he hated it. Couldn’t understand how those around him could sleep in the noise and smells that seemed to be their own living organisms. He looked across the passage to the distant beaches and rocks. It looked peaceful and quiet, perhaps there was even salmon. That was how haul outs started wasn’t it? One brave pathfinder seeking something bigger, better, more. He was that pathfinder, that rebel.
With a gigantic heave he leaped clear of the rocks, the sound of his peers echoing in his ears before being muted by the concussion of his splash. He let his body sink beneath the waves, worshipping the silence and peace. Finally he flapped his long flippers and felt his body glide forward. The water flowed smoothly past his long whiskers as he rose back to the medium of breath and life, thrusting his nose above the surface and exhaling.
The passage was not wide, surely it would take less than an hour to swim, and he lolled near the surface, rolling onto his back, letting the sun warm his outstretched flippers before turning back on his belly to swim a few feet more. Everything was quiet and still. A voice drifted across the water as he rose above the waves, orientating. There was his face, a hand outstretched pointing toward him, mouth open in exclamation. For a wild moment he considered swimming over in greeting, than the water exploded.
He felt his stomach burst, his spine snap, his body helicopter, his human face cartwheeling before his eyes. With a feeble splash he hit the water, saw the muscled black and white mass of supremacy dive into the ocean beside him. Desperately he swam for the shore, his breath coming in gasps, electric shooting pain radiating down both flippers. He had to make it. Had to reach the rocks, start the new rookery, prove it could be done. Behind him he could hear them breath, saw a flash of white slide beneath him, saw the fin cut the water beside him. And in the kayak he sat there. Helpless, unrecognizing, accepting that to live meant to die. That he was a living sacrifice so that his predator could live to swim another day. He closed his eyes, paddled furiously, and braced for the next strike from below.
The searing pain in his gut brought him back to consciousness. His chest heaving, his arms held out above him. still paddling furiously. But the pain was in his stomach, not his lungs. Where the orca had hit him? Where he had hit himself? Where he had watched the orca hit the sea lion? Were all three of them true? Were any of them? Light filled the tent as he unzipped the sleeping bag, pulling his wool shirt up to his neck to stare at his undulating belly. A great bruise covered his lower abdomen, shades of purple, blue, and yellow sprawled across his skin. With a shaking hand he brushed the wound and pulled his hand back as if seared. It was tender, as if he’d been head butted by a massive animal.
Reed brought both hands up to his eyes, rubbing them as if to clear his mind, to exorcise whatever sorcery had inhabited his body. He was alive, he was Reed Brown, 70 years old, male, and human. Not sea lion, not orca, human. As his life faded, the bay seemed set on absorbing what was left of it into its very being. Somehow the thought settled him, calmed him. He saw himself not as a visitor, or passerby, but a living and vibrant family member of the land he cherished. He took another steadying breath; feeling the ache flow from his lungs to his stomach, and unzipped the tent, on tenderhooks for whatever else the vision may have left for him.
But the stretch of bay was innocent and unassuming, and Reed swallowed his breakfast of oats and raisins without tasting a bite. As he paddled away from shore he glanced into the water, shining emerald today in the partly cloudy skies and let his mind drift, imagining the black and white thunderbolt rocketing toward daylight, the exhilaration of the hunt, the terror of the collision, the necessity of it all.
Reed looked ahead toward Tlingit Point where it stood at the base of the two arms and paddled on, pushing the fantasy and nightmare of swirling, unseen creatures from his mind.
He made good progress as he paddled resolutely onward, stubbornly insisting on paddling the full 65 miles from Bartlett Cove to Margerie Glacier at the northern tip of the West Arm. The paddling did what the medication had never been able to do and he once again began to feel invincible, half a century younger, pushing the ocean behind him with every stroke. The sun moved across the sky, dipping for an innumerable time beneath the Fairweather mountain range. Still he paddled on, savoring every stroke, ever riverlet of water that fell from his paddle’s blade, marveling at the perfect vortexes that materialized behind him as his paddle churned the surface. At long last fatigue reemerged from the muscles in his back and shoulders and he succumbed to the limitations of his body, bringing the kayak to rest near Tidal Inlet. The clouds had fallen away, leaving the sky the palest of blues in the late evening light. Eschewing the tent Reed curled up beneath the limbs of the alder and faded into sleep.
He awoke early, feeling surprised at his dreamless sleep. With the practiced movements of countless mornings he devoured breakfast and continued his vigil up the bay’s timeline of his life. He slipped past the “the bay the moose swam across,” the “mountain where the wolves howled,” and finally past, “the beach where she said yes.” Here he stopped in mid afternoon sun, walking the beach toward the massive glacial erratic. When he had asked it had stood at the top of the tideline. Fifty years later the rising land had pulled it into the meadow, the bay, like life, never stops changing.
But it would take more than her isostatic rebound to hide the memories Reed held here. He found the small groove in the rock where he had kneeled, holding out the small gold ring to her, could still see her face glowing even as the rain fell in torrents, their rain jackets like their lips pressed tightly together. Here he uttered his first words since setting out.
“I’ll see you soon, beautiful,” he whispered, a withering hand running down the rock, squeezing a hand he couldn’t see or feel.
Unable to stand in this place a moment longer he turned and sprinted for the kayak and pushed clear of the beach, apathetic to the crunch of fiberglass on the sharpened rocks as he paddled hard for Russell Island, Tarr Inlet, and Margerie.
He paddled in silence the rest of the day, watching the brush shrink away to bare rock that stood creased and scratched by the receding ice, leaving its own graffiti on the land’s geologic story. The east side of Russell Island was alive with life. Dozens of Marbled Murrelets bobbed in the sheltered water of the island, their peeps filling the landscape with the flawless communication of the mated pairs. With practiced grace they dove together only to be separated below by the allure of herring. Breaking the surface they would call to one another until their voices brought them back together. Not until they were side by side would they dive again, filling their bellies until they could barely fly, skipping over the water like flat stones, struggling to gain the lift that would take them to their homes in the old growth forest.
A small sandy spit crawled into view, an inviting bed of moss and shrubs just beyond the tide line. For the countless time Reed brought his kayak onto the beach where so much had happened. It was the beach with too many names to number. But this time there was no ambling bears, no screeching heron, no comfort in his empty tent. He sat up into the early morning hours, listening to the murrelet’s call, watching the lovers come together, suspended on the ocean’s surface tension for a second that lasted eternity, and than dive together once more.
The clouds crawled back over the mountains, the respite was over, and rain began to fall again, rainwater collecting in pools along the creases in his jacket. Finally he submitted to the call of the thermarest, and crawled into the shelter of the tent. Exhausted his eyelids fell like stones through the ocean and he felt his weightless body float through the soft tap of raindrops on the roof, tasting the sweet liquid on his tongue.
He bobbed gently on the water’s surface. The smallest ripple buffeting his body like four foot seas. But he glided with practiced grace over each crest, watching the horizon and mountains disappear from sight in the trough before coming into sight as the ocean held him above. She was near, and his head darted in precise and practiced movements back and forth, even in a crowd of their kin she was unmistakable with her lone patch of bright white feathers along her back.
Reed called out her name, his voice a singular note that peeped through the crowd of feathers, wings, and beaks, seeking out the only one who would know it was him. She answered instantly, the sound serenading his spirit and he paddled vigorously towards her, calling out her name again and again.
“Reed!” Came the reply, “Reed!”
And he saw her. Bright black eyes dilated with excitement as if they’d been apart for months in lieu of minutes. A tiny wave sent him barreling into her, their tiny torsos bumping together as he let out a final call of greeting. For a minute they sat still, staring into one anothers eyes, letting the higher powers of tide and current take them where they wished. Below their friends dived in the wake of herring that fled beneath the surface. He gazed into her face, his 8 ounce body feeling even lighter in her presence. With another call they dove, wings outstretched, brushing gently against each other they plunged into the frigid medium, lightening flashes of herring zipping past their vision. He dove away from her, turning hard to the right, following the fish down, weaving through schools of surging salmon, their eyes wide in surprise, constantly awaiting the next threat, the next predator.
A minute later, a single herring clenched tightly in his beak, he allowed buoyancy to pull him back to light. Even with his mouth full he called, the sound muffled by the dangling fish, saltwater dripping from its tail back to the ocean, the tiny ripples spreading out into the crowded cove. In a sudden rush she broke the surface next to him, her beak empty and he hurriedly forced the fish into her mouth, imploring her to eat, to nourish the egg steadily growing inside her. She let out a tiny bleat of thanks and nestled against his feathers, the current and tides resuming their control over their lives.