What The Ocean Eats – Part One
“What in the name of Chinese food are you doing to that pot sticker?” You look up at your cousin who’s watching you in abject horror as you lift the chicken dumpling from the bowl of ranch dressing.
“It’s not like we had any sauce,” you mutter, raising the food to your lips and crunching down on the crispy shell. It was the last one left from the frozen pack you bought on your previous trip to the mainland. Your Pod mate grimaces as you finish swallowing, his mouth pulled down cartoonishly far on the sides.
“You sicken me,” he says, disgust trailing from the words like water from an oar. You just grin in response and lick your lips mockingly.
“C’mon,” he says, shaking his head. “It’s a swim night.”
You rise from the oak table you helped your mom build five years ago when you all came to this island, the whole Pod settling on its shores and making a small village. The shiny polyurethane coating glints briefly as you turn out the lights before leaving the house, following behind your cousin.
The two of you go barefoot, wandering over the dune grass and loose sand with a surety few others would find in the shifting terrain. You’ve had years to practice, after all. It’s a surety that the newest members of the Pod are still learning. They follow their mothers and fathers clumsily, their chubby legs struggling, trying to find footing on the pale, moonlit shore while their soft, new pelts drag behind them like an over large cloak.
The little boy clutches his mother’s hand nervously. He looks more similar to his human father, with dark skin and curly hair. His cousin of the same age bounces beside him, following her father, stumbling every once in a while. She, on the other hand, bears little resemblance to her human mother, owning her father’s hazel eyes and fair complexion. She seems excited, but there is also a trace amount of fear. Every once in a while she glances at the boy, reaching for his hand.
You can’t carry them for this; neither can their parents. This is their fist swim night, so they must walk on their own. The two human parents you’ve adopted into your Pod are left on the shore in the houses that you built. They have proved themselves worthy to be members of the Pod, but they cannot join you for the swims. Instead, they watch their pups from the doorways.
The night breeze drifts across your nose, the tang of salt gently buffs your skin and tickles your nostrils, making you want to sneeze, but you hold it in. You don’t want to hear the human sound compete with the whisper of the waves.
The grains of sand tickle your toes and stick to the soles of your feet as your Pod descends into the beach cave where the adults store their pelts. You must hide them; the humans on the mainland already think that your Pod is a cult of ocean hungry gypsies. No need to let them see how strange you really are.
The cave is cold as you walk further in, the rocks, slick with water, push the small grains of sand into your toes, making them sting, but you bear with it. It is not much farther. The tunnel will open up into a domed cave with a pool in the center. The still water of the pool will alternatively flood the cave during high tide and sink into the underwater channel at low tide. ‘The tide is low now,’ sings your blood. When you return it will be higher, the thin layer of water will coat the natural stone floor and cover your feet.
The tunnel opens up, the lamps that your Pod set inside glow softly as all of you enter. The light stings your eyes, unaccustomed to the brightness after so long in the dark. The adults and young members who have already had their first swim go to where they have hidden their pelts inside the cracks in the wall. Heavy bundles are extracted and flicked open, the speckled fur mussed in places from being shoved in the wall.
You remove the stone you placed in front of your hiding spot and claim your pelt, burying your face in the soft fur while the whiskers scratch along your cheeks and over your chin. You are excited since you haven’t swum in days. The song of the ocean echoes in your veins, longing to return to the source. You flick out your pelt and begin smoothing the fur. The rock has mussed it more than the stone wall did, but you don’t mind. You must always be careful with your pelt when you don’t wear it so that no one steals it. After all, there are twenty members of your Pod, but there used to be more. So. Many. More. That was before you came here, after the wrong humans found you.
Once your pelt’s fur is straight, you begin to put it on, removing the linen shorts and soft tank top you’ve been wearing all day. It sticks to your skin like saran wrap covered in oil. The inside feels sticky as it slides into place covering your body completely and sealing together across your stomach. The hood covers your face and you are blind. On instinct, you try to breathe through your nose, and inhale nothing but a musty odor, similar to old leather and mildew, layered with a tang that is inherently one of the sea’s. Then you cannot breath and you begin to panic. It feels like you’re drowning. You know exactly how that feels.
You drowned in 1865, just after the end of the war. You don’t remember how you drowned, or why. All you know is that someone forced you into the water and would not let you come up for air. That’s the only memory the ocean gives you. Your birth into this strange new life…
There was a weight tied to your legs, dragging you down into the ocean, taking your air and forcing the breath from your lungs until you felt as if they would cave inward and crinkle like dry paper. Your skin prickled with goose bumps as the cold water closed over your head with a soft plop and all sound was muffled around you. All you could hear was your heartbeat and the soft rush of waves as they thrashed on the surface and rocked your falling body deeper into the frigid embrace of water.
Poor thing… The water cooed. Would you like to live?
Yes… You thought, nodding at the disembodied voice. Yes, I want to live!
Then come to me, the cold voice had said before retreating, leaving you behind. Leaving you to the burning lungs and kicking feet weighted down by a heavy chain. Your heart felt like it was going to burst, but it was all right. It was all right, because you were going to live! The voice had promised.
You’d stilled in the water, more from lack of air than calm.
You were drowning.
You were dying.
The voice had lied.
You weren’t going to live.
You remember waking to soft brushes along your body. Soft pats and taps and coos and murmurs. They surrounded you, your Pod, the faces and whiskers strange as they nuzzled at your new body. You didn’t question it, already forgetting that you had ever been human to begin with. One young seal, almost a baby, tucked their head under your much larger flipper, offering comfort.
“Come with us,” one said, in words that weren’t words or anything you had ever heard before. “Pod stays together.”