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Written by Dan Wolff - Illustrated by Christopher Baldwin
One year before the end of the world, in the breaker zone near Ocean Shores, Washington, a single harbor seal (Phoca vitulina richardsi) turned lazy circles as he hunted for his favorite snack, squid.
Seals, since they can not make sounds underwater, communicate by a poetic system of acrobatics, or aquabatics, which they refer to simply as 'spinning'. On this morning the seal was expressing his satisfaction at feeding, not in any particularly lyrical way, but just with a sort of mantra along the lines of I like squid, squid for me, of a kind sung by children the biosphere over. The seal was only a few months old.
Not far away, the harbor seal saw a northern fur seal (Callorhinus ursinus) performing the Chapter for Escaping the Catcher of Fish. The fur seal's performance was graceful, and, while he darted after squid, the harbor seal watched out of the corner of his eye.
O you net users, trappers and fishermen, O you children of your mothers, do you know that I know the name of that great and mighty net? 'The All-embracing' is its name.
Do you know that I know the name of its cords? They are the sinews of the orca.
Do you know that I know the name of its weights? They are the iron in the middle of the water.
Do you know that I know the name of its floats? They are feathers of the auklet.
Do you know that I know the name of the plateau on which it is pulled tight? It is the iron platform of men.
Inquisitive by nature, the harbor seal flitted over to the fur seal, coming up beneath her in a half-roll that signified I don't know you. To his surprise, the fur seal turned aggressively to him and snapped at the water just by his right flipper. She was a few years old and a good deal heavier than he, and he darted out of range of her teeth.
Easy, he spun. I'm not a threat to you.
She orbitted him, showing caution. You surprised me.
The two turned circles, mirroring each other, assessing.
I liked your performance, said the harbor seal. I didn't know fur seals knew that Chapter.
All seals know that Chapter, she returned. I'm from Alaska, the home territory of the Catcher of Fish. You don't know anything.
What are you doing here? Do they have squid in Alaska?
You're an idiot. I'm migrating.
The harbor seal idly grazed mussels off the sea floor, ignoring the foreign fur seal. But soon he was watching her with puzzlement again. The fur seal was catching moon jellyfish drifting on the tide, swallowing them, and returning for another pass.
What are you doing? he asked.
Jellyfish are dreams, she spun back. Eat enough and you can see the future.
No one believes that.
You don't know anything, she said again.
The harbor seal watched her eat jellies, eventually inspired enough to eat a few himself. They made a watery mouthful that left his stomach growling. He tried to recite part of the Chapter for the Eating of Jellyfish but couldn't remember it.
I don't like jellyfish, he spun, I like squid. Why don't you come with me and meet my pack?
I don't like harbor seals. Go away.
What's wrong with harbor seals?
You're all idiots and you don't understand jellyfish and you're all going to die when the end of the world comes.
We're not idiots. The end of the world? When's that?
How do you know?
The jellyfish have told me. She turned a loop of the Chapter for the Eating of Jellyfish, making a parody of his earlier, clumsy attempt. The harbor seal looked about for threats, but nothing was in sight. A flock of murres was feeding on a school of mackerel and all seemed right with the world, but the little harbor seal was frightened. He chased after the northern fur seal.
What do you want? she demanded.
Did the jellyfish really tell you that? When will it be?
If harbor seals are so smart ask the jellyfish yourself.
That day the harbor seal ate so many jellyfish he was sick, but still he couldn't see the future. He returned to his pack and asked the bulls about the end of the world, but they told him to go away and stop interrupting their discussions. No one seemed very worried. He tried to ask his mother about the Chapter for the Eating of Jellyfish, wondering if he would be able to see the future if he learned it properly, but she chased him away, as she had done since he was weaned. Playing half-heartedly with some of his age-mates, he caught a glimpse of the foreign fur seal and tried to include her in their game, but to his dismay his pack turned on her and chased her off.
No, don't, he spun after them. She's not a threat.
Are you crazy? She's eating our squid.
But I want her to teach me how to eat jellyfish!
He tried to tell them about the end of the world, and for his pains he was nick-named 'Jellyfish' and for the next year mockingly asked for prophesies.
The year had passed and the end of the world had not come. The harbor seal was a young adult (though low in the pack order and with no mate) when he encountered the fur seal on her annual pilgrimage from Alaska.
Well? she spun as a greeting. Have you learned how to eat jellyfish yet?
I remember you. You told me the world was going to end and it didn't. My pack made fun of me.
Doesn't matter because they're all going to be dead soon.
That's nonsense, he spun, with bluff assertion since he was a year old now and didn't need to be frightened of a female. You're crazy.
Call me what you like since you're going to die with them.
If anyone is going to die it will be you since you're crazy. I bet the Catcher of Fish snares you in His net. But his assertion was wavering again in the face of her conviction.
I tried to warn you. I'm heading south now. Good luck. She took off.
No one is going to die, are they? he spun forlornly in her wake.
That afternoon, at pack gathering, he raised the question of the end of the world. He was an adult now, and so granted a voice, but had long been considered a buffoon.
The end of the world again? You better start thinking of something else, Jellyfish, or you'll never mate in your life, said the eldest bull, inciting delighted pirouettes in his cohorts.
The harbor seal was embarrassed but persistent. But isn't there even a Chapter for the Ending of the World? he asked.
Of course there is. There's a Chapter for everything, even eating stupid jellyfish, as you well know. One-Tooth knows it, don't you? Why don't you give a taste to Jelly here?
Old One-Tooth, second in the pecking order and pack historian, never minded displaying his knowledge of the Chapters to other seals. With ostentatious elegance, he began:
O you seals, you children of your mothers, the Ending of the World will be in darkness, and 'Suffocation' is its name.
There's a lot more of it, spun One-Tooth, all equally depressing. It's one of the oldest Chapters, so far as I've heard, and I've heard them all.
Does it say when the end will be? asked the harbor seal.
Of course not. It's useless no advice at all.
At that the discussion turned to other matters and the harbor seal was ignored. He drifted away from the gathering to find someone to play with, but the other seals his age shunned him - he was becoming a pariah in the pack, and no one wanted to be associated with a pariah. So instead he went in search of the one seal who might be able to answer his questions.
It was December 22nd, 1988, around midnight, and the oil barge Nestucca was approaching the entrance to Grays Harbor on the Washington coast, towed by the tug Ocean Service. Approaching the bar, in preparation for the difficult crossing, the captain of the Ocean Service took in about a thousand feet of the cable that separated the two vessels. No one had any warning of what happened next: as the Ocean Service turned into a heavy swell, the towing cable parted, setting the barge free to drift on the tide towards the north jetty. The tug, attempting to drop two crew men onto the Nestucca to hook a new cable, was picked up by a swell and slammed into the barge, once, twice. The crewmen who had jumped aboard attempted to get a line attached, but the seas were too heavy on deck, and they retreated into the wheelhouse to wait for morning. Both of them had seen the black oil spilling out of the gash in the side of the hull.
On the morning of the 23rd, the harbor seal was half-heartedly looking for the fur seal, and fishing further south of his own grounds, hoping to find mackerel. He'd heard the cries of a flock of murres and was shadowing them under the water, diving deep in an attempt to drive fish to the surface. After one particularly deep dive where he spent fifteen minutes underwater, and just as he was returning to the surface, the harbor seal almost collided with the fur seal, who flashed past, spinning panic with every gesture. It's here, it's here, it's here, she said. Don't surface! Don't surface!
I have to breathe, the harbor seal conveyed with a toss of his neck, and continued towards the surface. But there was something wrong at the interface between water and sky. The water was leaden, motionless, like the strange dreams he sometimes had after eating too many moon jellies, where it crouched in wait to attack him. Sunlight did not dapple through it. The surface of the water itself was casting a shade over the depths. Badly frightened, he checked his ascent and turned tail.
What's happening? he asked.
It's the end, it's the end, it's the end, said the fur seal, diving deeper and almost out of sight. The harbor seal struggled to follow, feeling the air in his lungs compressing with the depth.
I can't keep up, he signed, and was ignored. I have to breathe. Don't breathe, he read in the agitated paddling of the fur seal's posterior flippers. You'll die.
They stopped talking at that point, concentrating all their effort of gaining distance from the heavy, monstrous surface. It was perhaps the first time since he was a pup the seal had not spun habitually while he swam, and the absence of that singing comfort increased his panic. He struggled to keep up with the fur seal.
The air in his lungs had reached ten percent of its volume from the pressure, and the harbor seal had to check his dive and level out or risk passing out, or worse, surfacing too fast and getting the bends. The fur seal seemed to come to a simultaneous conclusion, and the two kept level formation for another fifty or so feet. Then, unable to fight his mounting oxygen starvation, the harbor seal felt himself inclining towards the surface.
Don't do it, the fur seal managed to spin.
The harbor seal could not answer. He was unable to check his ascent.
Wait, said the fur seal. Ahead.
Through darkening sight, the harbor seal thought that ahead looked lighter than the sea around him. The sight spurred him, and he aimed for that blue patch, and, breaching like an orca, he snatched a single enormous breath before hitting the water again. Instantly his sight returned and he spun several times in all directions, looking for the dreadful thing that had loomed over his head before. It was gone.
The fur seal surfaced next to him and breathed. Now they had their heads above water they could talk without spinning.
"We have to keep going," the fur seal panted. "We need to put some distance between us and it."
"What is it?"
"Something covering the surface of the water. I don't know what it is, but if you get covered in it, you'll die. Listen to the murres."
The harbor seal had just become aware of a sound the rising chorus of murre squawks broadcasting panic from the center of their flock. The fur seal had dived again and he chased her.
They're dying, he spun, but she didn't reply. I have to warn the pack.
It's too late for them.
The harbor seal was faced with a choice: follow the fur seal who had known this was coming and knew what to do next, or return to his pack and let them know about the black surface of the water. The Ending of the World will be in darkness.
I have to warn them, he spun, but she was gone.
The harbor seal burst upon his pack like an attacking orca, scattering them in panic. There was no mistaking the authenticity of his warning. Flee north, flee north, flee north, he spun over and over, overriding their queries with his urgency. No time, no time, no time. The pack fled down to the eldest bull, outracing the spreading oil, away from the piteous cries of the murres, until they were exhausted. Over the next few days they watched the coast, saw the rocks become coated and slick, saw the water-logged oil sink and smother the oysters and mussels and seaweeds on the ocean floor, saw the drifting carcasses of the murres amidst the monotonous flotsam. Not a single member of the pack had been caught.
O you seals, you children of your mothers, the Ending of the World will be in darkness, and 'Suffocation' is its name, spun One-Tooth. How did you know, Jellyfish?
A prophetess from Alaska told me. She taught me to eat jellies and I dreamed of it but didn't know what the dreams meant until now. The harbor seal had a new status in the pack, and One-Tooth was teaching him the entire Chapters. The two surfaced and talked at they swam side by side.
"We will thank the prophetess on her next migration," said One-Tooth, "but one thing puzzles me. We survived the Ending of the World, and that is not figured in the Chapter. Yesterday I met a murre who told me he had been rescued by people dressed from head to foot in yellow, who cleaned him and returned him to the sea. What does it mean, this encounter?"
The harbor seal mused. "I don't know," he said at last. "I'll have to ask the jellyfish."