I was twelve when the dead seal washed into the bay.
My grandfather was the first to notice it. He and my grandmother have lived on the land around the bay for most of their lives – the house, the beach, the slender spit of pine-covered land on one side and the spur of gray rock on the other – so I guess it makes sense that one of them would see something out of the ordinary before any of the visitors did.
At first he didn’t realize that the seal was dead, and called out, telling us that he could see a seal and wouldn’t the youngsters like to take a look? We were eating dinner at the time, but children and adults alike got up and followed his calls to the weathered wall of stone that separates my grandparents’ garden from the bay. We looked and, lo and behold, there was the sleek, too-large-for-an-otter mass of blackness about a hundred feet out. Even at a distance, though, I think everyone could discern on some gut level that something was wrong, for there was a terrible unresponsiveness to the seal as it slipped through the breaking waves. As we watched, the current obligingly pushed the creature nearly up to the wall, and we knew then that it was dead.
It was early evening, and the light was fading fast. It’s the sort of orange light that slices the dark daytime bulk of the pine trees into a billion spindly needles at sunset, the sort that transforms my grandparents’ garden into a dusky realm of surreality after dark. It was by that light that we could make out the neat gunshot wound on the seal’s left flank, a small dark pucker scarring the otherwise flawless skin of the animal.
I think we were all taken aback, a little bit.
My grandfather, first to see the seal and first to get over its death, remarked that a fisherman must have shot it, because they competed for the day’s catch after all. My grandmother said oh how sad, the poor animal didn’t stand a chance, and why would the fisherman do such a cruel thing? My younger brother started crying – he liked animals – and my parents led him away, consoling words at the ready. The other relatives talked and muttered and chatted and gradually dispersed.
One of my cousins and I, both of that morbid age when one is old enough to peer tentatively at death but too young to understand the magnitude of it, scrambled over the wall and down the rocks despite half-hearted protestations from the remaining adults above. The rocks were coated in slimy green algae, and we had to move on all fours, like quick inverted crabs, to avoid falling. Below us, the waves – rendered black now by the setting sun – gently pushed the corpse of the seal against the rock below us, again and again. By this ceaseless rhythm, we slipped down to the water.
And then we could see what the others could not see, had not seen, had refused to see: there were two injuries. Aside from the gunshot wound on its side, the seal had also been shot in the head with what I thought at the time must have been an artillery shell, for in the place of the animal’s face was instead a mass of pulped flesh – I could see skin, fat and cartilage, and I think white bone. Fringing the muddle of gore were droopy strands of fur that stood in sickening contrast to the glossy perfection of the seal’s unharmed skin. Dark blood sloughed off the wound and floated on the surface of the water like oil.
I felt nauseated by the gore but that wasn’t even the worst part. The thing was just too messy, I thought, or at least too messy for a place like this. The blood wasn’t floating evenly, and the shape of the pulverized head was all wrong, and the corpse didn’t even have the goddamn courtesy to float neatly in the middle of the bay but was instead bumping irritatingly against the rocks to the right of the beach. My grandparents’ garden, their bay – the place where you could throw caught perch to passing eagles, where I used to make crude seafaring rafts of bleached driftwood every year, where there’s a pine tree, more perfectly crooked than any other, just begging to have a haiku written about it – was being marred. By a dead seal, at that.
For the next few days, I prayed for swells. I’d been hoping for the opposite for a month now, for my raft was clumsy and imbalanced and easily tipped, and I knew it would require calm waters to sail. But now I dreamed of coastlines lashed by rain and grey seas that churned up the beach, for I knew that in such weather the seal might not linger.
It didn’t seem like it was going to leave anytime soon. It stayed there for days and weeks, bobbing ceaselessly against those rocks on the right side of the bay. I tried to do the math in my head: if it bobbed once per second, sixty seconds per minute, for a slew of minutes and hours and days, would it eventually just dissolve into clean blood and gore, easily washed away for good by one afternoon’s low tide? But three days turned into five, and five into seven, and then I lost count, and then there was no clean blood but instead this rent rag of flesh that stubbornly refused to exit my life. I’d take a glance out my window fronting the ocean before falling asleep – looking, I told myself, at the stars – and there it would be, that barely discernable dark shape, bumping endlessly against stone in the moon-grazed water. It was damn creepy, and I told myself so. But I could see that the shape was not quite perfectly oval, and that it bobbed not gracefully but lifelessly, and that it clung, as always, to the right hand side of the bay. That wasn’t creepy. That was defilement.
I devised the typically impractical schemes of a twelve-year old. I wanted to push the carcass out of the bay with a paddle, or tow it into the ocean with a motorboat, or chum the waters around it to attract a hungry shark. And yet I did none of these things, nor did I voice my suggestions to anyone else, for to do so would be to admit that the seal fazed me. I spent less time on the beach, less time in the garden. I took books to my room and closed the blinds. Though my intuition was still new and ill formed, I understood that in acknowledgement lay power. So I refused to acknowledge.
And then, some day, it was gone. The bay, now an uninterrupted expanse of rippling green, lay clear. My grandfather gazed thoughtfully out at the ocean and said that he knew it couldn’t have stayed forever; why, the tides just didn’t act that way, and it was a wonder it had stayed as long as it did. As he spoke, his skin stretched tight over his jawbone, and it was then that I saw how terribly delicate it was, colored a pale thin white that was fading to translucent, such a thin shell for such a fragile mass of flesh and bones, and so grizzled, pockmarked with age, and spider-webbed with wrinkles at that, and it was then that I understood how things that simply didn’t belong in the bay of my grandparents would enter whether I liked it or not.
Age 17, Grade 12