Aveny’s paddle made soft, succulent plops as it slid into the deep blue sound. The breeze tickled her face, tingling her flesh with undertones of cold northern air. A chill spilled over her shoulders and she shivered despite the sun’s relentless adoration.
Brand’s unusual work schedule, coupled with Aveny’s flexible hours allowed them to occasionally escape together while the kids were in school. At the moment, they were kayaking Budd Inlet, searching for a mass of floating logs rumored to house a clan of harbor seals. Aveny was giddy with excitement at the prospect of seeing these exotic creatures up close. And fortunately for her seasickness, the sound was still as a pond.
It didn’t take long to locate the strangely buoyant mass. Unfortunately, the area was deserted. Only one lone seagull disturbed the staid monotony of the landscape, its head pivoting back and forth, as if also wondering where everyone else had gone. Aveny resented it for its boring seagullness. Anything she could see eating abandoned French fries in a random parking lot was not exciting.
After several passes, Brand gave up and paddled north, following a trail of billowing jellyfish. Unready to relent, Aveny quieted her paddles and slowly cruised past the hulking log mass, searching for any discrepancies in the camouflage of dark bark and stripped yellow wood.
When this proved fruitless, she turned and gazed out over the open water, searching for any sign of motion. Aside from the small ripples of a few aquatic-feeding birds, the bay was as peaceful as the cloudless sky above. Aveny leaned back and took in the pine covered hills surrounding the sound. Their embrace made it look more like a massive lake than the untamed ocean it really was.
She glanced back at the Olympia shoreline, marked by the iconic Capitol dome, and gasped. There, gliding smoothly along in the slow wake of her kayak was a black-eyed harbor seal. Only its silky grey head and wide, onyx eyes peeked above the surface. It matched Aveny’s pace, a mere three feet behind her kayak’s stern, it’s dark eyes studying her inquisitively as it went.
Adrenaline-fueled glee coursed through Aveny’s veins as she whirled around and half-whispered, half-shrieked, “Brand! There’s a seal behind me!”
“Really?” he exclaimed, whipping around and paddling over to see for himself.
Aveny turned and pointed behind her, but the seal was gone.
“There’s nothing there, babe,” Brand said, slowing beside her.
“It was just here,” she protested.
Brand waited quietly for a moment, studying the still water. Then he shrugged and maneuvered his boat back around.
The minute he departed, the creature reappeared. Its eyes met Aveny’s as soon as it broke the surface. Thick streams of translucent water poured over its round face, failing to eclipse its deep midnight gaze. The sight of it caught Aveny’s breath and bound it in her throat. She stared back, rapt.
The creature expelled a slow, steamy burst of droplet-infused air and slipped beneath the water.
“It just came back again,” Aveny called.
“Are you sure it wasn’t something else?” Brand asked over his shoulder.
“Yes I’m sure. I know what a seal looks like. It was right here. Just stop for a second and I’ll paddle by you. Maybe it will resurface. I think it’s following me.”
“Following you?” Brand said, “Do seals do that?” He slowed to a stop as Aveny resumed her rhythm.
She tried to moderate her pace and recreate her nonchalant attitude of a few minutes prior. She didn’t want to seem overly eager and spook the seal completely – if such things mattered to a seal.
“Do you see it?” Aveny whispered as she passed her husband.
“Um … no.”
“Darn it!” Aveny moaned.
“Listen,” Brand said soothingly, “I know you really want to see a seal, but …”
“It was just here!” Aveny cut him off, gesturing emphatically at the empty sea. “It was! I saw it!”
“You know, there are lots of jellyfish in here; maybe you saw one of those and thought …”
“That a globby, see-through jellyfish was a seal?” Aveny arced her brow to emphasize her incredulity.
Brand broke into a grin. “No – just maybe you, like, mistook its shadow or something.”
“It wasn’t a shadow,” Aveny protested. “It was right there. I could see its eyes and everything.” She flipped around to gesture at her wake – and there it was.
“There! There it is!” She cried triumphantly. “Do you see it?”
“Oh wow,” Brand gasped, his paddle pausing in midair. “It’s so cool.”
Aveny practically vibrated with glee. “I told you it was following me!”
The seal continued to glide effortlessly behind her as they both watched, entranced. Its dog-like nose emitted soft puffs of misty breath that billowed over the water like tiny jet streams. Its long white whiskers trailed delicately in the water, leaving graceful scallops of dark currents around its glimmering face. Its head resembled a mottled gray stone and those eyes – deep black pools of mystery.
Aveny’s heart trilled as she propelled the kayak forward, trailed by this strange tailgater. She paused between strokes for a better look and the seal gained on her. It was a mere foot behind her stern now. It was so close, it could rear-end her if she stopped suddenly.
Aveny dipped her paddle back into the sound and accelerated reactively, expanding the distance between her and the seal. The startling majesty of discovery was being encroached upon by a creeping sense of unease, spawned by one simple question: why?
Why was it following her?
Aveny’s Montana childhood had equipped her with enough second-hand wilderness wisdom to know that being stalked by a wild animal was rarely a good thing.
Do seals hunt people? she thought. It is really big. What if it flips my kayak and drags me under?!
Aveny’s lifejacket felt suddenly flimsy.
As she hovered on the precipice between dawning concern and total panic, the seal disappeared again.
As it did, others arrived – five or six shining heads popped up all around her. To Aveny’s relief, none ventured as close as their pioneering friend.
Aveny spotted a mother and pup peering out at her from the inky depths 40 feet inland. Three lone seals studied her from 15 feet north. And there were more – all watching curiously as Aveny and Brand progressed along the edge of the sound. They were silent observers, aside from one, which flipped and slapped its fin onto the surface about 30 feet off the bow of Brand’s kayak. Aveny wasn’t sure if it was a warning, a greeting, or just a playful display. She chose to believe the latter.
They look so smooth, Aveny thought. You’d never guess they had fur at all.
A pang of guilt pierced her heart at the thought, followed by a wave of awkward embarrassment – as if these seals could ever know that their long-lost relation now resided in a cardboard box on the top shelf of her closet.