Fiction · 08/21/2013

Beached

The seal is dying. They’re all dying. Maybe a thousand are left in the world to sun on volcanic beaches. But this seal is dying as we speak: a rock juts from its skull. The seal bleeds as we snap pictures. What does a seal, a dying seal, make of our bright floral prints, our turned backs, our hair arranged just so? We keep our faces solemn. We are not unmoved. We’re fresh off our bus, stunned by sunlight and ambulation, our skin losing its vented chill. We’d hoped to dip our feet in the surf, squish sand between our toes, but the sand around the seal is roped off with yellow tape. The seal is breathing. Now we’re trapped in spiking heat and arch-supported shoes.

Off-script, our tour guide still educates. Typically, a beached seal is unbludgeoned. Typically, a beached seal is not a crime scene. Typically, a beached seal lolls and lazes on the sand, fat with fish and octopi — in the ocean, this seal eats everything. Fact: this seal is ancient, flippering onto land eons before humans sprouted opposable thumbs and bashed its head in. Plus, our guide says, the morning busses stopped and found not a seal in sight, implying: We are lucky to witness this eternal struggle of man vs. beast.

We could really go for daiquiris.

A woman steps behind the yellow line. She has a message: This seal is not the enemy! We believe her. We have no beef with the endangered. Her frizzy braid, her gauzy shirt, her flared capris: all white. She is immaculate, fierce, tireless, well-fed enough to starve at charity benefits. We know her type. Her collarbones cast impressive shadows. The seal is slug-like, spotted, clotting, blinking. The woman crouches at its side. We want her to touch the seal. We want to see her shirt blood-soaked, martyred, the seal draped across her lap, her face downcast like the sculpture on our winter Vatican tour. We lose ourselves in memory: the exquisite chiseled marbled folds, the cool white sheen, all protected from blunt force inside a box of glass.

A box of glass would save the seals. Who wouldn’t want the comfort of the herd, a steady stream of squid?

The woman in white greets the beach patrol. We listen: new attack, a pattern, no suspects. We try to focus but the heat, the heat. The cool browsing of the shops, the battered appetizers, the frothy drinks — all past the yellow line.

Finally, the seal drops its head. The seal is dead. The woman in white weeps beautifully. We film her weeping. We scan for panorama until our battery icons flash.

Our tour guide bows her head, exampling. We remove our hats and soon the sweat is rolling down our noses. Condolence has us counting droplets, splats upon our shoes. Condolence will surely melt us.

Later, our foreheads will cool against coach bus windows and we will tap our apps. We’ll scroll for our best poses, our thinnest selves, our most relaxed. We’ll zoom in to erase our wrinkles, and that’s when we’ll notice the faces: lots of faces beyond our faces, beyond the woman, beyond the dying seal. We’ll see boats anchored just off shore, shabby boats, all aglow with cigarettes like distant tiki torches. Inside the boats are dark-haired men, some smaller, maybe boys. Their collarbones cast impressive shadows. We’ll compare screens but we won’t find anything thrashing in their nets.

We’ll relate. Because we all have nets that we can’t fill. We all have lines that snare us.

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Rebecca Meacham’s debut short story collection, Let’s Do, was published in 2004 as the winner of UNT Press’s Katherine Anne Porter Prize in Fiction, and the book was a Barnes & Noble “Discover Great New Writers” program selection. Her fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in in Michigan Quarterly Review, The Journal, Indiana Review, Beloit Fiction Journal, Paper Darts, Wigleaf, Sundog Lit, and other journals. Currently, she is an associate professor of English at University of Wisconsin-Green Bay and a blogger for Ploughshares.