Chapter Thirteen: Puget Sound Selkie

Slowly, Aveny became acquainted with the sound’s murky depths. Bit by bit, she memorized each open expanse and explored every well-hidden crevasse. Some she knew better than her own home. Their inhabitants, she knew much better than her own neighbors. But then again, what lived beneath the surface of the sea was much more interesting than the Henderson’s next door.

There was otherworldly wildlife down there. Dancing jellyfish bobbed and swayed with the gentle current. Mollusk-encrusted crabs scuttled lightly across the debris-littered ocean floor, hiding away beneath wafting patches of seaweed and piles of old junk. Schools of fish darted around her in anxious busts of movement. Aveny studied all of them up close.

She’d spend hours watching starfish – which she’d only ever seen hard and stiff with dehydrated death – maneuvering their limbs gracefully in the current. She lingered with fat sea cucumbers, their lovely feelers stretching out like the probing ends of a tree branch – mesmerizing and beautiful.

She found enclaves stuffed with tiny octopi and populated with sneering Wolf Eels – intimidating in their sheer hideousness. She recoiled from them instinctively whenever she came across one lurking in the shadowy darkness of its obscure hole.

Once she happened upon two scuba divers being swarmed by a hoard of the snake-like creatures. She nearly dashed to their rescue, but stopped herself just in the nick of time. And in that moment, she realized the eels weren’t attacking; they were frolicking around the divers like eager puppies begging for a treat – which is exactly what they were doing, as Aveny soon discovered. She watched, intrigued, as the divers plucked catastrophe-bound crustaceans off the ocean floor and feeding them to the eager eels by hand.

From then on, Aveny always brought the Wolf Eels treats. Sometimes she’d smash a small crab and carry it to them in her mouth. Other times, she presented miniscule fish or other marine morsels. Soon they recognized her and swarmed happily around her whenever she approached.

The octopi weren’t so easily charmed. They chose to keep their distance rather than engage this strangely inquisitive creature. They peered out at Aveny from their tiny enclaves, their faces smashed into the gaps like colorful caulking in a mended crack. She loved to study their strange stony tendrils, entwined and camouflaged so perfectly with their surroundings. 

Once, she inadvertently startled an unsuspecting octopus, which erupted from its hiding place like a spooked spider, unfurling its serpentine appendages and jetting away in a flash. Its thin body stretched as long as Aveny herself. She trailed it curiously for a moment, but then it vanished in an explosion of inky blackness.

Another time, she uncovered an odd reddish fish with giant staring eyes and a series of sharp spines running along its back. She accidentally grazed it with her fin as she passed and an odd tingling sensation rippled across her flesh. She shook her fin and the sensation dissipated. She made a mental note to avoid the rouge fish in the future, before getting distracted by a large, completely flat creature working its way along the bottom of the sound. She remembered this fish from her family’s visit to the Marine Life Center, where she’d met its cousin, the resident rescue flounder, Mr. Waffle.

Aveny encountered other seals too – lightly hued and spotty specters observing her quietly from afar. They did not try to approach.

Occasionally she encountered much bolder, deep brown sea lions who swam nearly as fast as she did – almost. They gazed at her inquisitively and trailed her curiously, their tiny ears tucked back and their flippers propelling them expertly forward. But she seemed nothing more than an odd curiosity to any of them and they left her largely in peace. Although, sometimes she thought she detected a slight mistrust, like she could see her own foreignness in their eyes.

She didn’t push their limits, avoiding mass gatherings or especially large specimens. Although she would occasionally stop and watch, hidden discreetly behind an outcropping of rock, a high patch of waving seaweed or even a sunken boat, car or refrigerator – its coolant having long since leached into the sea. 

Aveny found many things at the bottom of the sound – including a whole pile of teal ceramic kitchen sinks. Who had deposited so many sinks into the sea? She couldn’t guess. But they weren’t even the weirdest thing down there. She also discovered four separate toilets (two white, one ivory and one mustard yellow), a lawn gnome holding a pink begonia, and a broken hotdog cart. There was a life-sized nutcracker with barnacles encrusted to its nose – a sunken Davy Jones in the plastic flesh. Plus, an Easy Bake Oven, a bag of volleyballs and a pair of tennis shoes, still in the quickly eroding box.

Once, she swam directly into a floating six-pack of Klean Karma Vegan Water, which both startled and confounded her.

Vegan water? Wasn’t all water vegan? Have I been wrong about the contents of water this whole time?!? She wondered.

And who had gone to the effort of purchasing environmentally responsible “vegan” water, just to litter it into the sea?

The logo, which was hard to see bobbing about in the sound, depicted a mermaid hugging a person, who was hugging the sun … whatever that meant.

Some places were relatively garbage free. In others, stray hunks of trash, plastic bags, plastic cups and general refuse pooled everywhere. There were some areas even worse, where Aveny didn’t go. The water didn’t feel right there. It was thick and acidic. It burned her nose. It didn’t wash over her so much as it clung to her skin and singed her flesh. There was still sea life there, but they were slower, odder, broken.

Aveny favored the wide-open expanses where water flowed in subtle currents, smelling of far, far away; tasting of limitless possibility.

When she wasn’t exploring the sound, tending kids or trying desperately to catch up at work, Aveny was researching the many creatures she encountered below. There were giant green anemones, grunt sculpins and a pig-faced fish that liked to hide out in the rocks, emitting tiny grunting sounds each time she approached. There were starfish and pipefish, Hermit crabs, urchins, sand dollars and too many schools of fish to count. 

Aveny especially loved trailing the sound’s undulating jellyfish. She could watch their delicate dance for hours. They performed in all shapes, sizes and colors – a well-orchestrated ballet. There were ghostly white ones with frilly tentacles and brazen red ones glowing in the deep with hair-like trails swirling behind them. One type with an orange center and white border reminded Aveny of a fried egg.

She explored every bay and inlet in Puget Sound, and followed the coastline from Boston Harbor to Arcadia. She loved the calm waters surrounding Hope Island most. There was something special there.

Once, she was following a school of fish along the shore when golden talons pierced the surface, snatching a fish in a flurry of bubbles and disappearing in an instant. It was both heart-stopping and invigorating.

The shore of Hope Island was littered with raccoons. They rambled through the underbrush to the sea, solo or in small familial groups, then sat at the ocean’s edge, methodically harvesting shellfish. Aveny loved watching them wash their tiny hands obsessively and then diligently crack each round shell, greedily slurping the contents before discarding the rest like peanut shells at a cracker barrel. She’d watch them work their way along an entire section of coastline this way. She’d get as close as she could, sometimes locking eyes with their opalescent black gaze until they chittered, hissed and backed uncertainly away.

After a long and invigorating swim, Aveny often found herself floating lazily in the sun near Hope Island, watching eagles circling overhead, majestic in their hierarchical certainty. Out there, Aveny hadn’t a care in the world. It was freedom from everything – including herself.

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