I used to tell my children a story about a fictitious little girl named Nessa who lived with her mother in a cottage by the sea. One night, Nessa is restless. Her skin is dry and scratchy, as if all the moisture has been sucked out of her. She hears the song of a magical moonfish, which beckons her to sea, where she learns that she is descended from sea people and will need to return to the ocean herself if she wants to live.
The story is about me. I yearn to be among the mammals of the sea — whales, dolphins, and particularly seals. I want to cross the border that separates us into a world of diffused light, musical language, weightless movement. I want to be singled out for their attention and embrace because they can see I understand their ancient secrets and the humanity and loss behind their eyes.
On Martha’s Vineyard, with its migrating whales, dolphins, and seals, I fantasize about my dream coming true. A short walk from my home, I keep a kayak on the edge of Stonewall Pond, a small body of brackish water that connects first to Quitsa Pond, then Menemsha, and then out to Vineyard Sound. I set out on the water on as many days of the year as I can.
My first push away from the shore is like a sigh. In the dip of the paddle, I take flight. I am on the level now of the cormorants, who duck their long, snaky necks as I glide by, and the herons and egrets which, if I pass with enough stealth, will not break their steady stare at the water waiting to pounce on passing prey. Terns execute headfirst dives to grab their morning catch. The water roils with flashing fish tails and mouths — breakfast is being eaten by some, death comes to others.
One late September morning, the conditions for kayaking were perfect. The sun was just beginning to illuminate the weathervane on my roof — a selkie shedding her seal skin, revealing the woman underneath. Spiderwebs laced the fields as if during the night a giant net of silk thread and pearls had been cast by an unseen hand.
My husband said, “Be careful.” I scoffed. The water was calm. I am a strong swimmer. But I was also aware of what lurked beneath — snapping turtles the size of garbage can lids, fields of jellyfish attracted to the warmer water, sea grasses that, as I learned in junior lifesaving, could grab me, hold me under, drown me.
John’s caution came when I was trying not to think about the 15-foot, 2,000-pound great white shark off the Elizabeth Islands, just across the sound. It was unlikely it would make its way to Menemsha; it hadn’t moved in days. But if it left now, we could both reach the harbor at the same time.
When I turned the kayak over from its upside-down position at the water’s edge, I saw a spider — maybe the dreaded brown recluse — where I usually put my feet. As I tried to figure out how to get it out, it crawled under the seat. I watched for 10 minutes and, when it never reappeared, I decided it would probably stay there. So I dragged the kayak to the water, climbed in, sat, pushed, and paddled.
The sigh, the liftoff.
But I couldn’t achieve an effortless glide. The spider under the seat, the great white shark, even the fish that jumped out of the water right in front of me, on the hunt for smaller brethren, made it impossible for me to relax. The head of a river otter popped up ahead of me. Normally I would talk to it as if we were of the same mind. This day, I experienced a frisson of concern. Does it mind that I’m here? What would it do if it decided it wanted me to leave? I hugged the shore, on the lookout only for the slicing path of a triangular fin.
The same imagination I used to see myself at one with the undersea world made it impossible for me to sustain the notion that I ever could be.
Later that day, at the beach with my friend Patty, I dove into a wave and swam out a few strokes when I heard Patty calling. She was pointing wildly at a spot next to me. I turned, and there was a seal, no more than eight feet away, surfing the very same wave I was.
It was huge. Up close, I saw its clammy skin and knew it hid no beautiful dark-haired selkie. I couldn’t communicate with this seal. I couldn’t search its eyes to see if it grieved for a life it could never have on land. I ran out of the water.
I decided this was a commonplace seal, not like the ones of ancient Irish myth I imagined meeting. My seal would evoke haunting music played by a lone tin whistle, meteor showers on nights so dark and clear the sky would appear dusted with limitless numbers of stars, mysteries that foster awe rather than fear.
I want the sigh and liftoff of fantasy.
The seal continued to make its way down the beach. It stopped to examine each of the bathers it came upon. My imagination flickered back on. It had wanted something. Disappointed, it went in search of others.
And all I had left was a sigh.