Sea Wolves

By: Erin Atsma

Tags: A Way In the Wilderness Fall 2022 Issue

Sea Wolves

They call to one another. Bodies dancing across the shore. Heavy heads and light feet tearing into a washed-up carcass. Teeth through fat, claws in kelp. Ribcage exposed and pink tinged fur. Oysters, clams, mussels, salmon. They’re shy. Singing grandmothers, daughters, granddaughters.

I’m seven and wearing pink sandals. Popping kelp and waiting for hermits to emerge from their shells. Moving rocks and chasing crabs when they scatter. Pinching them between my little fingers as their legs fight against me. Boys have a lighthouse and girls keep bees. I drop them in my bucket. Dead sand dollars I’ve stuck in my pockets which mom will find later when she does the wash. And she’ll tell me to stop putting things in my pockets. I won’t. Hundreds of jellyfish littering the shore. Purple and tiger-striped and clear. Seagulls screaming from the pier while water teases the pilings. Sailboats in the distance. Instead of sandcastles I make sea turtles and place shells on their backs. Wading through warm tide pools, avoiding squishing the anemones beneath my toes. Searching for sculpin, fish that camouflage in the sand. My little fingers prying sea stars from their stations. Feet and feet and feet tearing from their bodies and wiggling on the rocks, and I wonder if it hurts; imagine someone tearing the feet from my body. Barnacles scratching my palms and the smell of salt and seaweed is home. 

They stand shoulder deep where the salt of the sea meets the fresh water of the river. Sharing with birds. With grizzlies and black bears and spirits. Snagging salmon from their routes and tearing their heads from their emaciated bodies after they’ve finished spawning. The old teach the young. Scrambling in the current. Just the heads.

First day sailing and I already have my sea legs. Others do not. Heave overboard, heave below deck. And it’s storming, thunder and wind and rain mixing with salt and sea. The sails are up, and the deck is swabbed. My crew is on duty while the others wait below deck, whispering above the storm while we experience it. I have hold of the wheel, soaked to the bone, white-knuckled grip. Can’t feel my fingers or toes or cheeks. And when the ship hits a big wave and pitches to the side, I wonder how we’re still standing. How the ropes don’t snap, masts split, sails fall away. Think of all the ships beneath the waves.

The crew leader gives me a nod, his hair plastered to his forehead while mine has made its way inside my mouth. I can feel the ocean growing within my rubber boots. I look up to where the wooden lifeboats hang above the deck. Imagine plunging down upon the darkness and sitting within its little frame. Would I make it. Maybe a sea wolf would keep me company. But as quickly as it started the sea and sky abate. Horizontal again. Slowly the other crews trickle up the ladder, back on deck where all is calm.

They’re hiding. Masked by the forest and veiled by the sea. Have heard the shots and seen the dead. Fight for their food, fight for their land. Swim from islet to islet to escape being a trophy. Swim to survive.

I’m on the beach on a swing set with my sister. It’s late. The tide is out but the waves against the shore remind of the ocean’s presence. A lone lamppost and the moon fight against the dark. The shore becomes the sea becomes the sky. Our toes dragging lines in the sand and the metal bar squealing with each sway.

And then we’re running for the water. It’s cold and my feet are numb to the sharp points of strewn seashells sticking up from the sand. Cuts on my soles, I’ll find later. Out of breath. Light reflects against wet sand, and it becomes glass. Tiptoe so it won’t shatter. The shells are shards. Then we’re wading and we don’t know what lurks in the water. There is no fear. No words. But then the sea splashes up my legs and the game is on. I turn to my sister and another spray hits my shirt. She stands guilty. And before she can react, I’ve kicked my feet and sprayed water up the front of her body. Stare down. Checkmate. Then we’re tumbling and twirling in the ocean, howling and shrieking, blinded by salt.

They’re endlessly wet. Lying in the rain, the sand, the sea. Singing. Out from the forest and onto the shore. Play in the breaking waves, hunt in the shallows.

I’m thirteen and wearing my black rubber boots and bright blue raincoat and climbing the ladder up onto the main deck. My watch partner is already there, and she doesn’t want to be. She doesn’t have her sea legs. One hour. She takes the stern and I head towards the bow. The only artificial light is the one that glows when I press a button on my watch for the time. 3am. 

I lie back against the base of the bowsprit. Wood firm against my spine. I try not to fall back to sleep. I can’t sleep. Salt has taken permanent residence in my nose and the murmur of the ocean against the hull stills me. Night watch. They call it that because you can’t do anything but stare upwards. Where the darkness consumes but the moon provides. The silhouette of trees climbing the shore we’re anchored near. The stars. The cold.

I run my fingers over the blisters on my palm, my own kind of barnacles. A howling breaks out and I shiver. Sea wolves. The only place on earth you can hear them. I turn towards the shore just wanting a glimpse, so few have seen them, but we’re too far away and it’s too dark. I lie back and listen to their voices melding together and joining the waves. And then the wind picks up with its own voice and carries through the rigging and if the sails were up, we’d be flying.

My stomach and heart and all my insides are fluttering. Butterflies. And a boy has never made me feel that way but the wind, the stars, and the sea do. I don’t want to go back to bed, back anyplace. But my watch partner has wandered over and our times is up. 4am. Inhale the night one last time and then back down the ladder.

They’re waiting for the weather to turn. For the seals to beach and the otters to anchor themselves in kelp. For a dead whale, dead sea lion, to wash up on shore. They swim from rock to rock. Sick of salmon and mollusks and longing for something more.

I’m body surfing. Let the waves crash into me and over me again and again. The ocean and shore playing tug of war with my body. Carrying me metres at a time. Surrender myself to the might. Cold water up my nose, in my mouth, in my ears. If the wave is too big, too heavy, I can’t breathe. And then I’m back on land. The shore has won for now. I lie with back against earth, waves running up my legs. If you were a seagull above, you’d see my hair plastered and blending with the sand, eyes closed, goose flesh legs. Waiting for the ocean to take me, the wolves to find me. Whichever comes first.