by Corinna Cook
Someone cries out from the water. She thrusts her head and shoulders upward and lingers in the air for a still silent moment, then peels off sideways. Her buoyancy fails and she slips beneath the sea. An eagle rides the air overhead. On the far side of the water, behind the small circles spreading and already dissipating in the silence, mist clings to a muscle of ice. The glacier is jagged and blue beneath an overlay of snow.
I am a small girl standing on the side of the road looking out over the water and clutching my father’s index finger. He is concentrating. He wonders if he has understood. Someone is brokenhearted in the black and silver sea and there is an eagle overhead. Across the cove, the curving tongue of glacier says nothing.
My coat is pink and I wear a muskrat fur hat. Since it is cold enough for me to wear fur, my father surely has his red anorak on, and perhaps his wool White Sox baseball cap. We come here often. Cars seldom drive on this road. It just borders the sea for a few miles at the north end of our island and peters out with a government-yellow sideways square reading END ROAD. The sign is trimmed with a single black stripe.
Together, we do not stir until the cry reappears. We know it will. It does.
“La voilà…” I murmur. My grip tightens around my father’s finger. We gaze at the someone’s oily black head as her face pounds forward, throat cutting through the still water. She is a ways out but not distant enough to mask the exhaustion in each kick.
Though he could not possibly have said so in English, I’m sure my father pointed out to me it was not a seal. “Watch how she goes under water,” he must have said, for I was little, and just learning how to read the shapes of animals in the water.
Yesterday the two of us had taken a sunny winter walk on this same stretch of the North Douglas Highway. Its uphill side is bordered by the steep ascension of rainforest. Sitka spruce and western hemlock stand together like so many Eiffel Towers—strong, silent, noticeably proud. Bald eagles sit high in these trees, yellow eyes flashing with every jerk of their heads. They scan the water and the rocky shoreline for prey.
Yesterday we had probably seen a number of eagles, dark feathers fluffed against the winter chill. There are always eagles here because the cove is quite rich in marine life. But we remember one eagle in particular from yesterday’s walk.
It was not the eagle’s leap from high in the trees that stood out, although the weight of her body hurling off the thick branch hinted at a special urgency. And the moment of uncertainty as she plummeted for a split-second before her wings caught their confident hold on the air was terrifying, yes—but it was precisely in keeping with what one would expect if one kept constant company with eagles. And my father and I did. So we watched the raptor and nodded.
She rocketed out over the water and from our place onshore my father and I saw her pick once at the glassy surface. Success. Something big.
Comment ça? wondered my father. Prey that large is common during the summer gorging season but the winter months here can be lean.
The eagle turned back toward shore, pumping her wings. The weight was too much. She landed in the snowy ditch up the road from us. I pushed my hat up my forehead so that wayward hairs of muskrat fur would not obstruct my view. My father craned his neck, his brow folding in on itself bit by bit. Neither of us could see into the sharp glint of snow over the edge of the road and into the ditch. I wiped my nose on a sleeve.
Soon the eagle had negotiated a better hold on her prey. She began pounding her wings again, gained purchase on the air, and lifted her dark load off the snow. Flying low and heavy she disappeared into the trees.
“Traversons,” said my father. This word has always signaled great seriousness: my father and I took ritualized and unsmiling caution every time we crossed the road. I straightened my shoulders. We looked left. Then we looked right. No cars.
We crossed the road and walked along until we came to the place where the eagle had landed. Bright hot blood soaked the trampled snow. It was a lot of blood—but that was all. We went home.
Today, however, we have come back to the same place. But we face out toward the water, where a moaning, wailing, sometimes shrieking figure is passing back and forth, back and forth before this stretch of road. Her exhaustion is dreadful. I shiver in my pink coat and nudge closer to my father, pulling his index and drawing his hand in toward my face.
My father decides it was her baby the eagle fished out of the sea yesterday. He is pensive: here is a mother in the sea, a mother without her baby, a mother who has searched for it all night. She is a sleek, dark, despairing river otter. Sleepless, she will cry here for five days before disappearing.
My father and I pick our way down the road in silence, turning to look out over the water each time the mother otter howls for her pup. My father is careful not to ask anything of me right away. It can be a wicked thing to disturb a child who is laboring with her thoughts. Still, he does not want me to lose myself in sorrow. He is responsible.
“Tu sais…” His voice trails off. He clears his throat. Then, softly, carefully—touched by my concentration? Fearing it, even? He creates a fragile image, one of two mothers. There is the mother otter and her pup in the sea, and there is the mother eagle and her eaglet in the nest. Both mothers would die for their babies. And both would murder the baby of another to feed their own. The hunting eagle is a good mother—or a good papa-mama, a term our family uses in both our languages, always intermingling meanings of fatherhood and motherhood, merging the roles of nurturing and providing.
My jaw is tense. I hear him but blink half a dozen times and look at my boots, pressing the snow with a rounded toe.
Animals eat each other. They murder to feed their babies. As does my father, for me. Devotion, predation, blood, and love will become the pillars of an ongoing conversation. Thirty years later, the conversation continues.
The woman in the sea breaks the surface of the water again. She wails briefly. She swivels her head, peering over wet whiskers in the four cardinal directions, and gives another yelp before making a halfhearted dive. For a single moment her tail is flung up in the air and it is only a small flop out in the water when she disappears. As I grow, learning to read dark shapes on the water, I will learn that this is the signature of the river otter. This is distinct from a seal, whose head is round and looks like an orb bobbing in the water, and from a sea lion, whose head is triangular and looks sharp like a blade. A river otter is far smaller than either one, which suffices to distinguish otters at close range. But from afar, and because distance on the water is a trick to the eyes, one must always watch to see how the animal slips beneath the surface. For an otter, watch for a smooth curving dive, the small arc of which is followed by a tail momentarily flung skyward. The gesture is always an adieu, always a bon appétit, always a dark and sweet continuation. Watch very, very closely, for there will be no splash at all.
About Corinna Cook
Corinna Cook is a lifelong Alaskan presently chipping away at a PhD in English at the University of Missouri. Her nonfiction appears here and there, including Flyway and Alaska Quarterly Review. She is currently working on collection of essays about northern sorrows and friendships.