Banks of smooth pebbles rose up the beach. In amongst them, in a shallow hollow, huddled a small, dark figure.
“What is it?” one of the children asked.
My heart sank. As we walked towards it, I watched for movement, hoping there wouldn’t be any. We stared at the sea lion pup, the six of us standing in a respectful circle. It was alive, but barely.
We were two families camping in the Paracas National Reserve – south of Lima, Peru – and had just said goodbye to a third. Our mood was a little subdued anyway, after the farewells, but the sight of the sea lion pup silenced us completely.
He (death makes things personal) was emaciated, his lustreless pelt bunched in folds, his head too large for his body. It was difficult to know how old he was but I guessed, although perhaps not nursing, he was still dependent on his mother. Why was he on his own?
“Can’t we help him?” Saba, my fourteen-year-old daughter, asked. But Cynthia and I both knew the pup was beyond saving.
“Let’s move back a little, so he doesn’t feel threatened.” Even though he seemed too far gone to care, was perhaps not even aware of us, I didn’t want to risk adding to the pup’s misery.
Cynthia and I drifted away. But the kids didn’t move, each frowning as they gazed at the pup. I wondered what Saba and my son, Luca, almost thirteen, were thinking, and tried to remember: was this their first brush with mortality?
“You know, a wild animal tends to want to be alone when it’s dying,” I murmured. Cynthia nodded, but neither of us felt inclined to say anything to our kids. Death was part of life, learning about it a part of growing up.
We continued combing the beach, each lost in our own thoughts. Once in a while I checked on the small group behind me. The kids, stick figures now, were doing something: searching, bending, gathering.
An hour later, alone, I decided it was time to return to camp. As I approached the sea lion pup, I found myself hoping he had succumbed in the meantime and was dismayed to find him agitated, his movements jerky and uncoordinated. Two vultures flapped heavily into the air.
I almost prayed. “Please, please die.”
Waiting nearby, out of the pup’s line of sight, I kept an eye on the vultures; I didn’t want them tearing at him while he was still alive. What would my own end look like, I wondered? It didn’t seem a bad way to go, here, on this wild beach, with the rhythmic sound of the ocean in our ears. But the pup was not dying easily. He was not ready, only a youngster, and should have been with his mother, slipping through the water. Every cell in his body was protesting death.
As I watched, willing him to give up, he raised his head and wailed. A small, desolate cry, quickly lost in the dull roar of the waves. His body heaved, arced back on itself so his head almost touched his hind flippers. Tears pricked my eyes.
And still death teased. His breathing slowed, became more shallow. I moved away, came stumbling back when the vultures swooped towards him. Not yet. They could have the pup when he was dead but not before.
Now I spotted what the kids had been busy with earlier. A square of large, flat stones standing on end, a stack in the centre, and various beach finds decorating the sand around it. Heart-shaped mussels and violet scallop shells. A bleached bone. Several carapaces of crabs. Perched on top of the stone pile was a prize fragment of sea glass. Saba later told me the glass was Luca’s contribution. The girls had done the rest, Cynthia’s daughters and mine.
I looked again at the pup, his breathing now faint. The kids were coming back too, having eventually wandered to the other end of the beach. They slowed as they neared.
“Is he dead yet?”
“Almost,” I replied.
Together, we waited. The pauses between each subtle lift of the pup’s rib cage lengthened. At last, his mouth gaped in a desperate struggle for air. And found none.
“Is that it?” Luca asked.
My daughter touched the pup’s fur and stroked it briefly – velvety, she said, and still warm – and placed a sunset yellow shell on his flank.
As we linked arms and followed the others, I told her I’d write a story about him.
“Yes,” she said. “It would be a way of honouring him.”
Strangely content, I pictured the pup behind us, a small, dark comma in his hollow of pebbles, the vultures closing in, the beating heart of the ocean all around.
About the Entry
- Blogger name | Jessica Groenendijk
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- Entry Number | 48
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