Puddle

by Ferris Jabr

Every day the furless seals come to the shore, stomachs swinging at their side. They promptly regurgitate for us. Finned morsels fly toward our yawning mouths—slender, bloodless, half-thawed. They land as heavy as raindrops on the tongue. Then the seals hide their paunches. They start to bark and wave.

We are still hungry. We know what we must do. Down we go, nose-first, skimming the myopic floor of our world, rebounding with a single wag. We are out. We fly, briefly—big black birds, more rubber than feather, more will than wing. The fat slap of our return. We dive and turn again, hurling ourselves across that liquid membrane. We tumble forward, collapse on our backs. Ecstatic, the seals breach our domain. We let them rub and ride, indulging them like children, lifting them up like gods. We are their legless palanquins, their pedestals of meat.

The seals routinely invite their friends. They gather in enormous herds, perching awkwardly on their rears. Few are as lean and smooth-skinned as our keepers. Most never stop eating, except to clap and squeal. They are infinite, arriving and leaving in ceaseless waves.

Sometimes we try to remember how we got here. It is easy to mistake mirage for memory. A depthless expanse hovers at the horizon of our mind. Yet it seems we have been in this pinched puddle all our life.

There is nothing for us in such meek water. Nothing to see or hear or hunt. We live in cellophane. There are others nearby, though, similar to us. We can almost understand them. But they tend to speak in painfully high tones, their syntax rapid and erratic. Occasionally the seals drop enemies among us—rival shadows. They are of our kind, but not of our clan. They should not be here. They threaten to divide us, to replace us altogether. We try to push them out—with sound, with weight. We maw and rake. We break our teeth upon shoulders of rock, barred eyes, passing flesh.

All tongue and gum, we call out. For kin, we presume; for family we remember but have never met. We convulse our cerebral lips, half shouting, half singing. It does not matter. Our words never leave the confines of this strange loop. We coast along its shallows, drift near its surface. We follow its curve, first one way, then the other, swimming into our own wake.

Our scallop of water warps both light and time. Monotony mangles our moments. The past is garbled, the future easy to sketch. What legacy we have is manufactured for us. We have seen many generations. Always the same. We are milked and seeded. We swell and deliver. Then the abductions. We sear the water with our screams, with messages meant to travel miles, only to swallow their sudden echoes.

Night is hardest to endure. Helpless before the immense stillness. We are suspended in nothingness. Paralyzed by it. So we sink into the lethe between sleep and wake. Only to be roused by a noise or light we cannot identify. This is when we most keenly perceive our circumstances. We are monsters too precious for the slaughter. Living ornaments on display. We have been bottled for someone else’s pleasure.

 

Ferris Jabr is a writer based in Portland, Oregon. He has written for The New York Times Magazine, Scientific American, The NewYorker.com, The Awl, and McSweeney’s among other publications.

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