They rolled up out of the murky green depths, right at the end of my paddle blade. Two triangular fins the size of a Thanksgiving dinner plate.
For a fraction of an unbelieving second, I studied them the way my mom would: no spiny rays, not a bony fish like a big striper or even the rare sturgeon. Cartiliginous. My brain calculated the size of the fins against the size of fins I'd seen on sharks in the Baltimore Aquarium and ended up with two sharks as long as the eighteen foot sea kayak I was struggling to control on the Chesapeake Bay waves.
I had the urge to poke them, to prod them away, away, away with the paddle blade.
“NO!” Mom shouted, “Nai'a! Keep paddling.”
The fins rolled back into the green unknown below me. Fins, just fins. I never saw any back or nose or teeth or any other part of the fish, just big fat scary fins. I thrust the paddle blade into a wave trough, floundered, bobbled, and pulled up beside Mom. Then I realized she'd just paddled backwards to meet me. “You saw that, right? I think we should go back now.”
“Even if it was a shark, it would only be eating fish, not Sea Lions, flesh or plastic.” She pointed to the Perception Sea Lion logo on the bow of my borrowed boat.
“What do you mean IF it was a shark. Those were not bony fins...”
“What other fish have just cartilage...” she swept a hand out to the south, where our guide, Shaughnessy, was drifting a dozen boat lengths away. Another pair of fins surfaced, this time not right next to each other as if the sharks were on a date, but six feet apart.
“What, are they doing synchronized marine biologist eating or something?”
Our marine biologist/educator/underwater photographer/guide continued paddling... or rather drifting, the bow of his long black kayak unerringly pointed into the waves, his paddle dipping casually, occasionally, as if it took no effort at all.
Mom traced a butterfly shape in the air with her hands, her paddle momentarily laid across her spray skirt.
Butterflies? Butterflies with teeth and fins like sharks. Wings. Wings in the water at the aquarium. I did a wet facepalm, dropping my paddle into the drink. “Rays.” I mumbled. “Just rays.”
“Cownosed rays. Hunting the eelgrass beds for blue crabs.”
Ahead, behind, to the south, pairs of fins fluttered across the choppy surface and vanished. A splash like a whale tail crashed behind, I turned to see a ripple where a ray had just breached. Ten feet away, another pair of fins surfaced, vanished. The wave behind me caught my dropped paddle and shoved it under the boat. I floundered, hauling on the paddle leash and tipped.
Mom shoved me back upright, drew the paddle on its coiled leash out from under the boat. “Keep your paddle in your hands, smack it quickly on the surface to brace, and don't poke any rays. They would react, out of instinct and a need to protect themselves. They'd thrash, and then you'd fall out of the boat on top of one and we'd have to go back to the emergency room with a stingray sting.”
I thought of Crocodile Hunter, done in by a stingray. One of my mom's heroes. And mine.
“Usually they don't kill you.” she said. “But... over there, on the other side of the Bay is Stingray Point, where John Smith...”
“...the Pocahontas guy?”
“...the early 17th century English explorer yes, stabbed one with his sword. The ray reacted, and stabbed Captain Smith, who was quickly in such agony that he told his men to dig his grave.”
Ugh. I studied another set of surfacing fins. Shaugnessy had picked up his tiny, waterproof Go-Pro camera and was filming them. Still drifting, still waiting for us to catch up.
“Captain Smith,“ Mom continued, “recovered enough by dinner to have the ray on the menu.”
Great. I just need to not fall out of the bloomin' boat. Which I had been in twice this week, which was all I'd been in in my whole life, that being spent in the farming hills of Pennsylvania. Which was a hundred miles to the north, in another world. A world which did not include flatness and sand and mosquito infested salt marshes. Semi-salt marshes. Brackish marshes according to Professor Mom. The Susquehanna River started up there in the mountains of New York somewhere and flowed down through Pennsylvania and into Maryland and Virginia and into the sea. Along the way it got more salty and flat and endangered. Dead zones, agricultural runoff, fracking, trash, stuff that runs off all the roofs and roads and parking lots in the cities. In Baltimore, they even have boats that slurp up the floating trash in Inner Harbor. Mom was a science teacher up there in PA, but there was this job she wanted, down here in the world of wet, so she was using her summer vacation to try it out. That's why we were headed out into the silvery blue nothing to a tiny blot of marsh with its head barely above water. I wanted to be back home. I wanted to be hanging out with my friends. There was a new video game I wanted to try. Three good films coming up, and our local theater had them in 3D HFR. There was the friend who had horses and trails right out her back door onto the Rail Trail. There were long snowy months where we could go sledding on my other friend's big hill, and there was even a local mushing club where you could learn to ski behind a dog.
I don't think it ever snows on the Bay.
We'd have to move down here and I didn't want to. I didn't want to find new friends, the ones I had were hard enough to find. When you're the geeky kid with the huge library and the science teacher mom, and if someone asks you what you want if you're stranded on a desert island and you say “the tardis”, and you can recite The Riddle Of Strider in Elvish, or you can have a heated discussion about who would win in a battle, Magneto or Professor Snape, you have, like, two friends if you're lucky.
Nope. This was a big Nope from Nopeville. I just wanted to go home.
Mom thrust her paddle straight down, it stopped with most of the paddle in the air like a flagpole. “Shallows. Of course everything from here to there to there,” her hand swept around the whole compass rose of the horizon, “is shallows.” She was in teacher mode again. “If you look at it on Google Earth you see the western edge of the DelMarVa Peninsula crumble up into shallows and marshes and little islands with nobody on them. “
“Because the rising sea levels would swallow their houses.”
“It is. Tangier and Smith are vanishing beneath the waves. Slowly, but vanishing.”
We were heading out from a little house on Tangier, our base camp for three weeks. Yesterday we'd checked out a marshy island close by. Shaughnessy had dived with Mom and two other Earth Life Foundation naturalists and a handful of students into the grass beds, logging the various kinds of grasses, if they were healthy, if there was a diversity of life living in them. I had floated around in a mask and snorkel, catching glimpses in the hazy greenness of blue crabs and little fish, finding some mud crabs on an oyster shoal at low tide. Kind of cool, but ... “Wish it was clear like the Caribbean...”
“It was, back in John Smith's day.”
Now I was struggling with this hugemongous boat, which was behaving like my friend's horse when somebody clueless first rode him.
A sliver of marsh grass, broke the line of silver water on the horizon, grew into an island. Sort of an island. A mooncurve of sand, and the rest walls of grass and mud a foot or two high, where the tide had carved the edge of the marsh. A few guts, trickles of water leading inland, grass poking out of mud, then mud, then grass, some birds. Gulls. Big Herring Gull. Bigger Black Backed Gull. Little Laughing Gull with its black cap. A line of brown pelicans like pterodactyls overhead. A black bird skimming the waves' surface. “Is that a skimmer?”
Shaughnessy had drifted closer, held up a hand and signed something to Mom. She adjusted her glasses, squinting, and said, “Yes. At least that's what he said.” She looked back at me, “go ahead, spell skimmer.”
Uh. Sign rolls off her fingers like she was Deaf. I can usually remember finger spelling. Usually. I floundered through it.
“Keep practicing. By the end of the week you should know it better. If you stop texting him and use more Sign.” She raised one eyebrow... Teacher Mode.
Sigh. Texting him was easier. Texting everyone was easier. Even the two and a half friends I had back home.
Mom swung her legs over the side, popped out, pulled her boat up the beach. “Make sure you pull your boat up above the high tide line.” She pointed to a wrack line high on the beach. “And if you walk in the water, shuffle, like this.” She demonstrated sliding her feet along the sand. “That way you won't step on a ray.”
“'kay.” I popped the spray skirt as the hull scraped along the sandy bottom, and fell out.
“And what did I tell you about checking the bottom with your paddle first?”
Yeah yeah yeah, to see if I was getting out into muck or silt or anything. “It was fine for you and Shaughnessy.”
“Check it your self. Always. Be self-sufficient.”
So I didn't do what I did last time, which was step out, in and down into two feet of pure quicksand.
“It's not quicksand,” Mom had said in her Keep Calm And Do Science voice. “It is just detritus and silt.
Whatever. It had taken five minutes to extract myself, and then it ate my flip flops.
“And what did I tell you about flip flops? The words flip and flop should be a clue.” Here, have some old river sandals three sizes too big. At least they had Velcro.
I righted the half swamped sixty pound boat and heaved it up to the edge of the water, my borrowed river sandals collecting every pebble and clump of sand. The boat weighed a ton now.
“Bilge...” Mom began.
“Yeah yeah.” I pulled the bilge pump out from under the deck bungees. It looked sort of like a bicycle pump, one end went in the water in the boat, the other over the side. Pump pump pump, the water went back into the Bay, I heaved the boat up above the wrack line and threw my spray skirt and PFD in the cockpit. I rummaged in the drybag and found my own camera. Not that there was much to film. “So, here we are, lost on a desert island.” I mumbled into the video mic. “Grass, grass, mud, grass grass grass.”
“You know," Mom began, “just over there was a definitive battle between the locals and picaroons.”
“Pirates.” She gave me a grin and swashed a few buckles in the air. She hoisted her gear bag, palmed her camera and marched off through the marsh grass.
Shaughnessy uncoiled from where he crouched at the edge of the wrack line and in a couple of noiseless strides stood beside me. He moved like he paddled, like dolphins. I'd watched them at the aquarium, on a whalewatching trip, and you can't see how they move. I mean, the tails move, the body flexes, but it looks fluid and perfect, like a wave. Magic. He placed one hand over my camera hand, and gently swung the whole thing around to point at a vague bit of marsh.
“What? I don't see anything?” Oh that was pointless, he can't hear me. I did remember the Sign for “what?”.
He gave me a little shove in that direction, and a hint of a grin.
OK, he's taller. Maybe he sees something I don't. Much taller. Like 6'5”. In a wetsuit he looked like he should have his own Marvel comic. Maybe he was secretly one of the Avengers. Marsh Avengers. Saving the Chesapeake from the Evil Corporate Moneyhogs. His wetsuit and diveskin were blocked out in black and white, like a comic book superhero suit. It took me two days to realize the pattern was the same as orcinus orca, the big oceanic dolphins he was an expert on. Even his black hair had white streaks in it... like orca eyespots. “Is he like Hawaiian or something?” I'd asked Mom. She loved Polynesian cultures, and had named me the Hawaiian word for dolphin.
“Close. Pacific Rim.”
“What, he drives a big robot and fights sea monsters?” (irony, Mom).
“No, Pacific Rim peoples. His happen to be Kwakiutl.”
(sigh, Patient Teacher Mode) “The totem pole people on the Northwest Coast. Vancouver. Johnstone Strait? Where many orca studies take place, and where he's worked for many years trying to instill knowledge in recalcitrant teenagers like you.”
I wandered off with my camera on video mode, scanning the marsh grass, hopping from crunchy wet spot to crunchy wet spot. The low marsh grass was stiff and crunchy, no fun for bare feet, and at its roots the sharp ends of ribbed mussels sometimes poked up out of the mud. The tide was low, so the mussels had closed their shells against drying out. A few bare muddy spots teemed with little fiddler crabs and marsh periwinkles climbed the grass stems. I swung around to get a shot of the pelicans (a couple of decades ago, endangered). The skimmer returned, unzipping the water's surface (his lower bills drags in the water and when it feels a fish, snaps shut). A bit of higher ground, a few shrubs, and a small bird flew up. I marked where she'd come from (looked like a female red-winged blackbird) and there was a nest. I got some great shots of the eggs, backed quietly off and found another nest, this one like a little woven bag. A Marsh Wren. Clouds flickered across the sun. The wind stayed steady out of the west. The tide came up, creeping across the low marsh, flooding the base of the grass, covering the mussels.
A hundred yards away, Mom and Shaughnessy knelt, peering at something in the grass. I wandered back toward them. Mom was laughing. Scribbling in her journal, taking pictures with her camera. Her feet were muddy up to the knees, her diveskin, a yellow and black supersuit of spandex kept sunburn and sea nettle stings away, but seemed to have no power over marsh mud. Her hands were black with it, she wiped them off on her new diveskin, and took another picture.
It was clear she loved this place.
I was doomed.
I slogged around the edges of the island, found a dead and really stinky horseshoe crab. Mom has pounded it into me that they were more closely related to ticks and spiders... and had actual blue blood and were important in Medicine, and now I sound just like her. Then I found another crab that wasn't dead. I lifted it by the edges of its shell, turned it over and found the first set of feet,shaped like boxing gloves, that showed it was a boy. I set him back in the shallow water at the edge of the island. Watched more fins surfacing and vanishing as the rays swept over the grass beds in search of dinner. I waded in, shuffling my feet, sank into the water, still chilly from a rainy spring.
I looked down the beach at the boats pulled up in the marsh grass; one boat two boat black boat yellow boat...
wait, where was my blue boat.
A couple of boat lengths offshore, blowing on the wind, out into the endless reaches of the Bay and down to the sea.
I thundered down the beach, yelling for Mom.
“Get my PFD!” she shouted.
I grabbed it, dangling it in one hand, not sure what I was supposed to do with it.
She wrapped it around me, and shoved me toward her boat. “Get in, zip up, and go after it, NOW!”
Oh right, I could barely paddle one boat, how was I supposed to catch another one and bring two of them back...
She pulled the adjusting straps on the PFD tight and shoved the kayak into the low surf.
I struggled with the paddle, got it across the boat.
“Other way!” Mom shouted.
I flipped it, dug in and hit bottom.
“Not like that, you'll break the blade. Wait...” She shoved the boat, heaving its bow into the waves, heaving farther, a boat length from shore, two, water still only up to her waist. “Paddle! Get to it, grab it, or herd it back here. We'll catch up in Shaughnessy's boat.”
I dug in and paddled, shot past my blue boat, and began thrashing with the paddle to turn Mom's yellow boat around so I could catch mine.
And then a scream.
I stopped, yellow bow banging against blue bow, both kayaks dead in the water, sideways in the chop.
Mom had vanished into the shallow water, except for her head. She shouted something, and began thrashing toward shore.
I paddled, shoving both boats toward shore as best I could. Where was Shaughnessy? I was too busy looking at the side of the blue boat, shoving the yellow boat into it. I looked up in panic to see if Mom had made it to shore.
The boats washed up, the blue one surfing up the beach on a wave, the yellow one I occupied collecting the next wave and filling its cockpit. I fell out, threw mine over dumping most of the water, and dragged it up on the beach.
Mom sat there clutching her leg, running red into the sand. “...get... the... boats... up... there. In... the grass.”
Yeah. Right. There was no other way off this island. I dragged them, one, then the other, up into the grass. That's when I noticed then there were two wrack lines. One higher than the other. I must have left my boat below the real one. I stood up, panting, searched the flat horizon for our guide.
There. I waved frantically.
“Go... get him.”
He turned when I was half a dozen boat lengths away, as if he had felt my footsteps or smelled me. He read my face, then looked past me to Mom. He swept up his gear bag and ran.
“Stingray.” he said out loud.
Mom tried to Sign, it looked sputtery and faint. “Stepped on it... trying... to launch... the boat.”
Shaughnessy looked at me, the boats in a new place, at me. I felt my face go nuclear sunburn.
He glanced at the sky, at the horizon, rose, found the first aid kit in his boat. “Turn the boats over.” He made a picture with his hands: shaped like boats, upside down, next to each other.
I rolled the blue boat over in the grass, then shoved it up against the yellow one.
Shaughnessy made a sort of bed from gear bags and PFDs and hoisted her on it. He handed me his phone, a high tech monster that was probably a flatscreen TV in another life. “Call Base.” He knelt over Mom's leg, pulling things out of the first aid kit.
I poked at the screen... zero bars. I looked up at him, made a big fat zero out of my fingers. He waved me off with a Sign, the one for “find”. Find a phone zone.
The horizon ran silver and blue and grey and green all around. A faint smudge in the distance was Tangier, and Base. Over it the afternoon clouds had rolled up into tall shapes.
Threatening shapes, dark, with tops going flat in the winds beyond bird flight.
I ran down the beach.
I made a circle, panting, splashing through the rising wet in the low marsh, stopping to poke at the screen.
I ran back to them, gasping.
Shaughnessy nodded, like he expected it. He had his hands wrapped around Mom's bandaged leg, maybe applying pressure, it worked that way with puncture wounds. Was it a puncture or a laceration or both, They're venomous, right? I couldn't remember if stingrays were actually venomous or if it was just bacterial infections that were the problem. Venomous, must be venomous, otherwise John Smith wouldn't have had such a horrible reaction. He didn't die. Crocodile Hunter did, but he'd had a more mortal wound. John Smith. Mom had to be like the Pocahontas guy... better by dinner. Please.
Shaughnessy turned his head toward the long black boat lying in the grass. “Take my boat, go back to base. Get Bran and the Clipper.” The Clipper was the fast little expedition boat with the big engine.
“Your...b...” No way. It was nearly four miles. Into the wind. With Thor threatening to slay some Frost Giants along the way. I glanced up at the growing thunderheads. And Shaughnesy's boat was even bigger than my borrowed Sea Lion.
He touched my face with the tips of his fingers, “I must stay here with your Mom, and help her. You must go.” I stared into eyes the wrong color for somebody from a Northwest coast tribe, greyish greenish storm sea or something... like looking into the depths of the Bay when those rays surfaced.
My mom's face was pale, despite the half a week of sun. She, who knew SCUBA diving and tai chi, was breathing in a way neither of those skills had taught her. And she didn't have to hear me say 'I can't' . She's a mom, she reads minds. “You ...can. You ... MUST!”
My eyes went from one to the other, like a little fish trying to figure out which way to flee. I got up.
Shaughnessy pulled the big black boat down to the water's edge, handed me my own PFD, found a couple of bags we hadn't used in Mom's makeshift emergency bed and packed them in around my hips so I fit the boat. He shoved it out through the rising waves with me in it, then pointed it toward Tangier. He tapped the deck compass, that heading, right there, no matter what happens, that heading. “She'll take care of you.” At first I thought he meant Mom.
No, I had to take care of her.
He meant the boat.
Boats are always “she”.
I dug the paddle in and shoved for Tangier.
Around me, more fins surfaced. Feelings thrashed through me like rays thrashing on the end of a fishing line. I hated them. Then I thought what Mom would say, they're just fish, doing what fish do, I got in their way, they reacted to protect themselves. That's how she was.
The big boat sliced through the waves rolling toward me on the wind. 'A kayak has a low profile', Shaughnessy had texted in my first lesson. A quartering wind might weathercock it, swing it broadside into the wind, but flying before the wind or running straight into the wind, there isn't much for the wind to push on.
Paddle low, not above shoulder height, low. Too high and it wastes energy. Hands too high, outside 'the box', and a wave could grab your blade and dislocate your shoulder. Quick smack on the waves if you feel tippy. Low, efficient stroke. You have miles to go, miles to go, miles to go.
I flailed at the water.
Don't fight water. It's the strongest stuff on earth. Some martial arts person said that, maybe Bruce Lee. Mom loves Bruce Lee. She does tai chi every morning.
I settled into a rhythm, like breathing. Like walking. Like the cantering rhythm of a horse. Riding the kayak, it was sort of like riding a sea horse. Your hips move with it.
“Gotta be a little hippie to do this!” Mom had shouted at me two days ago, demonstrating how loose hips don't sink ships.
The big black boat rode over the waves. Sometimes I'd touch it as I paddled. It was warmer than it ought to be, and I couldn't figure out what it was made of. Not plastic. Not fiberglass. Not wood, or frame and skin like the ancient arctic ones, or even carbonlite.
And nobody built black kayaks. They were always bright crayon colors, reds and blues and yellows and greens.
The waves shifted, coming now from off my starboard bow. The kayak leaped over them, twisting a little as the waves rolled under it.
Boats are “she.” She wrapped me in warmth, like Mom with a winter blanket.
The fins vanished. The rays maybe had gone to deeper waters.
The thunderheads darkened. I saw a distant flash of light in one.
Stroke. Stroke. Stroke.
Mom had a necklace, a Thor's hammer she wore alongside her Maori hook, the Hei matau. The hei matau for the People of the Sea, for protection on the water, Mjolnir for her own Norse ancestors who had made their own incredible voyages.
Stroke, stroke, stroke, bobble, stroke.
I thought of the story Mom was always telling. The one about the selkies. There's a fisherman, and he goes out one day and finds a bunch of women sunning on a rock, in the middle of nowhere. They have these fur coats lying around beside them because they're Seal Women. He nabs one of the coats and all the rest of the women grab their sealskins, put them on and vanish into the waves.
Except one. He has her sealskin and she can't go back to sea. So she follows him home, and becomes his wife. A pretty good wife, so the story says. She has his kids, seems to be happy...
Only she starts to fade. To die.
She gets greyer and wrinklier and sadder and wheezes and her skin dries out and peels like a week of sunburn and...
One day one of her kids brings a big leather coat that he found in the attic. “What's this?” he asks.
She is thunderstruck, ecstatic. She grabs the coat, and hugs the kid and runs out the door, toward the sea.
They never see her again, unless those big sad seal eyes surfacing beside the fisherman's boat are hers.
Dad thought Mom would make a good wife I guess. Pretty, nice education, good job.
But she was fading in Pennsylvania Dutch farm country. She could teach science to disinterested middle schoolers, bored high schoolers, she could tell them about the dying Bay, about coral reef bleaching, about endangered sharks.
But she wanted to be there, with the sharks and stripers and rays.
He'd stolen her sealskin.
And now she had a chance to get it back. To work with the Earth Life Foundation. To teach the stuff she really loved.
If she didn't die. Because I was stupid enough to not know what a real high tide line looked like.
The faint smudge on the horizon that was Tangier faded, darkened again, faded into the silver sky and sea as the weather shifted. I glanced down at the compass, Stay on that heading, stay on target, stay on target, stay on target.
The wind picked up. I hunkered down but couldn't paddle that way, so I braced myself against the seat back and the foot pegs and paddled. The boat rolled slightly, yawed a hair, but thrust its nose forward and ran.
I can do this.
I can do this.
I can do this.
What am I thinking!
It's four miles!
I could hear the thunder now. Shaughnessy hadn't said anything about how kayaks work in thunderstorms, or if it has lightning deflector shields or something. I glanced up, “Hey Thor, you know you're my favorite Norse character as well as my favorite Marvel one.”
If he heard, he wasn't answering. Thunder rumbled on. Mom should have loaned me her Mjolnir.
Behind me the sky was darker, rain already coming down on an island where the best shelter was the foul weather gear we'd packed in the boats. She was gong to need Mjolnir and the hei matau herself.
The sky turned to iron, the sea to iron and steel. Wind began to whip up “wild horse manes” off the tops of the waves.
Parting the wild horse's mane. That was one of Mom's tai chi moves. It sort of looked like paddling.
My legs ached. My fingers cramped around the paddle shaft.
“Don't grip so hard. Hold it lightly, like kittens.” That's how my friend told me to hold the horse's reins.
Wind in my face. Spray in my face. The first wave of rain shot across the water in a curtain of cold steel. I peered hard at the compass through the rain. I couldn't see past the fin shape of the black bow cutting its swath through pewter sea.
Stay on target.
Stay on target.
What if I had drifted south on the wind? What if I missed what was actually a pretty small island?
Shaughnessy had said something about that, in our first lesson. Compensating for wind drift when trying to reach a distant and small object in the water.
I couldn't remember a bit of it.
Maybe he'd already done those calculations... that heading, right there, no matter what happens, that heading.
Stay on target.
Stay on target.
Stay on target.
Something splashed nearby. Then a sharp sound, like someone blowing over a soda bottle.
A fin surfaced at the end of my paddle blade.
I gasped, swallowed rain. Looked again as the fin rolled gently across the surface and vanished. A mooncurved fin, rolling like a wheel.
Or at least, a very small one. It surfaced again, breathed with its soda bottle phoosh! Tursiops truncatus! Then another, and another. Around me, a whole pod of dolphins. I bobbled on the next wave and the paddle caught a crab, snagging itself in the wave and leaping out of my hands. I grabbed for the paddle leash, but a shining grey back shoved the paddle back into my hands.
My hand brushed against the dolphin's back for a moment.
Much warmer than expected.
Like the boat.
It seemed like forever that they were there, whooshing and diving right beside the big black boat. Then they veered off and I looked at the compass, but didn't need to, because there was the dark shape of a boat ahead, a thirty foot power boat, and a line of dock and pilings. I shoved the black kayak under the dock, found the ramp, and heaved it up. I dragged it until I found a place to tie it fast, then ran toward the nearest building.
I ducked inside and half a dozen patrons of Earl's Dockside Diner looked up in surprise at the bedraggled swamp thing that had just crawled out of the deep.
I looked down at the phone.
I called Base.
Bran came back to Earl's to collect me and the black kayak. We lashed her down on his bright sky-blue Jeep and drove to the little house we were renting. The rain had let up, swept by as afternoon thunderstorms do.
“Mom?” was the first thing out of my mouth, even before he could ask where I'd put Shaughnessy's kayak.
“Fine. She's at Base.”
“Shouldn't she be at, like, an ER or something?”
“We have some great healers.”
(What? Like in those fantasy video games my friends and I played. Really? Come on...)
He paused for a moment, head cocked as if he had the Mom Superpower of reading minds too. On the Jeep's door was his own “Raven Maniac” logo of a dark silver raven in flight. Same color as his own hair. Wrong color for a face that wasn't old. Beyond the silver raven, on the Jeep's flank, was the one for the E.L.F. Bran shot me a pirate grin.
She was there, sipping hot chocolate, which she liked any time of year, any weather, and chatting in Sign and English to Shaughnessy and a couple other E.L.F. educators. She looked up at me and smiled.
“How...” I said.
“Fine.” She read my disbelieving expression. “Really.”
I stared at the floor for a moment. “Promise I'll find the real high tide line next time.”
She raised an eyebrow in 'I Don't Believe Your Dog Ate The Homework Teacher Mode'.
“Really.” I said.
“You want a next time?”
“Well...” like she was waiting for me to say what I thought.
Her diveskin, ripped on the left leg, was hanging over a chair, drying. I pointed to it, “You know that story you always tell me, about the selkies? Well, this is your sealskin. So. Yeah.”
To my left, Shaughnessy and Bran shared a slow grin, as if they knew something I didn't. Well, yeah, of course they knew stuff I didn't, which was why they were cool to hang out with.
“Nailed it.” Bran said. “So I guess,” he turned to Mom, “you're working for the E.L.F.”
She grinned wider than a selkie with her skin back.
Shaughnessy was poring over the waterproof tablet he always carried, editing some video footage from the marshy island. I sat next to him and watched for a few minutes. Finally I picked up my phone and typed a line...
“Good boat.” I said.
He stopped and looked at me with sea grey eyes, lighter now than when I had set out in the teeth of a storm.
Or not. I mean, somebody named this outfit the ELF.
I said it again in Sign, 'good boat'. “Definitely handled better than the blue one.” I added in type.
“The blue one is plastic, a good boat, but plastic.” He Signed and said it at the same time.
Um... “there were dolphins.” I couldn't remember the Sign for dolphins, but I did remember the one for whale.
He smiled and made the 'dolphin' Sign: a D-shape leaping over his other arm . "Your mother named you well."
"This is the Bay, you almost never see dolphins in the Bay."
"They have been seen as far as Baltimore, and the Chester River." He Signed it while he said it.
“One bumped the paddle back to me when I dropped it.”
He nodded as if that happened all the time. Of course, this was the ELF.
“They came when I wasn't sure if I had overshot the island.”
Like of course, that's how it was. In the ELF.
"I stayed on your compass course, but..." I wasn't sure? Not of his course, of my navigating. "I stayed the course."
“I touched one.”
Nod. Smile. Of course. Happens all the time. In the ELF.
“Why is your boat warm... like a dolphin."
He looked up from my typing on the screen, eyes focused like he could see through me, like I was seawater.
“My mom's favorite stories are the ones about the selkies.”
“I know those well. Every place there are seals, there are selkie tales.”
“And everywhere there are orcas there are other kinds of selkie tales.” Ones I'd just researched. Ones where the whalefolk take off their fins to walk on land in human form.
Mom had found her sealskin. And me?
Shaughnessy's eyes shifted color again, from deep silver to something like looking over the edge of the abyss. He gave me a slow smile.
I handed him one more text. He nodded, smiling.
It said, “You loaned me your fin.”
The author has, in fact, had the moment of stark raving terror when two fins surfaced at the end of her paddle blades. Yes, they were rays. No, I didn't step on any. I continue to paddle the reaches of the Bay, enduring the odd thunderstorm or lack of phone zone. And yes, dolphins do sound like that five feet from your kayak.
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