Karen Rivers

what a wonderful world.

Karen Rivers

The thing you must know about summer by now is that even while the afternoons stretch long and hot into the pink-skyed evening, already the leaves are yellowing and drifting slowly down from the trees.   It's not like this is new, so really, you should get over the surprise of it:   Autumn starts coming the minute that summer takes hold, whispering cool threats into the wind, infecting the air with the oncoming scent of decay.  That's the way it is.  It's the way it has always been.  The way it will always be.  

It all overlaps.  Everything.   The weather.  The seasons.  



You stand at the edge of the raft and you promise yourself that even though the water is murky and bottomless, there is no creature there, waiting.  You are forty-four years old.  You know there is no creature in the water.

(Although what do you know really?)

You force yourself to jump, adrenalin tickling your throat and lightening your head, and in that moment you are every age you have ever been.  The sky doesn't see the wrinkles that splay from your closed eyes, the crepeing of the skin on your upper arms.  It holds you up gently, like a mother, it's ok and it's ok and it's ok and then it lets go, laughing, dropping you into the cold sea, gasping from the shock of it.

You come up, wiping the water from your nose, shaking your wet hair out of your eyes.  From the wharf, your daughter suddenly flies up, the sky's embrace, the splash, her eyes wide.  Your son hesitates on the edge.  He can't, he can't, he can't, he can't.  

"Don't splash me," you cry, in mock horror, and then he's flying, too, and falling, and what is age anyway, everything is the same as it ever was, the same as it never was, the same is it always is:  the sky and the sea and the raft bobbing there as it always has been, forevermore.

"One more time," says your daughter, so you do it.  

And so on.

And again.

Like that.


"Do you believe in God?"  she says.  "Because I don't know how he can be everywhere.  That's just crazy."

"OK," I say.  "Maybe not crazy if you think that God is just a complicated idea of love."

"You're weird," she says.

"Sure," I say.  "So are you.  Weird is the best.  Anyway, I just mean that maybe God isn't an old man in the sky, making us all dance to his songs.  Maybe he's just in us.  How we love.  Like that."

"You don't love anyone," she says.

"Not true," I say.  "I love YOU."

I think of all the people who I love and have loved and my eyes fill up.  Who have I forgotten?  Who have I stopped loving?   Why?  

I don't even think that's true, about God being love.  It's just something to say that is easier than what I think.

On the rocks, you see the shape of a seal.  Your brain does the math:  Too high above the tide line, too small, too still.


"Up ahead there is a dead baby seal," you warn your son.  "Don't freak out."


"Why?"  he says, freaking out.


"OK," you say.  "It's OK.  I mean, it's not.  But that's life.  Sometimes things are dead.  I don't know.  Never mind."


You get closer.   The baby seal moves.


"It's not dead!" my son says, triumphant.   


"Don't touch it," you say, out of habit.  "Its mother might come back."


Its mother doesn't come back.


In the morning, the baby seal is ferociously sad.   You have a number you can call, so you call the number.  You pick up the baby seal.   The baby seal is so tiny and light, you are surprised in the same way limbs are surprised when casts are removed and suddenly they float upwards, without authorization.   The baby seal stops barking and looks affronted.  Stop that right now, he seems to say, before he begins baying again, but he presses his body into yours, for warmth or protection or both.  

You put the baby seal in a box with a pink blanket.  You bought the pink blanket for $3 at K-mart.  The pink blanket belonged to your dog.  Your dog has long since passed.   You can't think why the pink blanket still exists, without the dog, but it does.   The baby seal, wrapped in the pink blanket, looks disgusted and commences the hard work of climbing out of the box.


"No, Baby Seal," you say.  "Stay."


The baby seal does not stay.  

"We should sing," says your daughter, and she starts with how the trees are green and red roses, too, which you sang to her in her incubator.  Your heart swells up so far that you think probably you will die, too.  Things do.  It happens.  Sometimes, there is death.   Skies of blue, clouds of white, bright blessed days, and dark sacred nights.  The Baby Seal lies down in the box and goes to sleep, just like your babies did all those times, all those hundreds of nights, all those times you sang that song, through all those seasons, all that weather.  That song, that one song.   


Your hand rests on the sleeping body of the baby seal.  You can feel it under your palm.  Alive.  A baby.  Like that.  Like all those nights, your hand on their chests.  The singing.  This is a baby.  Another baby.  Does the baby seal yet know that it's a seal?  


Your son waves your white shirt on a pole at the shore line, as instructed.   Everyone waits.   Your daughter whisper-sings.   The seal sleeps.  You wonder if he's dreaming about his mother.  What the hell with seal mothers?   They do this all the time, the vet said, matter-of-factly.  You look out at the reef, covered with seals, and think, "Which one of you did this?  What is wrong with you?"  


"They're really saying, I love youuu," your daughter croons. 


The helicopter lands.  It looks like a toy.  The idea of it is preposterous.  For a baby seal.   What is enough to warrant a helicopter?   A baby orca?   A baby human?  A baby what?  "It's for you, Baby Seal," you tell it, and it barks at you, still ferocious but no longer trying to get out of the box.  The helicopter's presence makes you feel lopsided, crookedly heroic.  It's something to do with the way the blades beat the air down around you, as though it needs to push off, using you to brace itself. 


Then the baby seal is gone.


"I miss the baby seal," my daughter says.


"Me too," you tell her. 


She runs ahead on the hot sandstone, jumping from rock to rock, her hair flying up and back.  Your son gives you back your shirt, which he's accidentally dropped in a tide pool.   Out on the reef, the seals turn over in the sun, like tourists on a Hawaiian beach, trying to even out their tans.   Everything settles back to how it was, the pink blanket in the box rests emptily on the logs, missing the baby seal.  

Goodbye Baby Seal, you say to nothing, to no one.  



Later, lying awake in the tent, the wind lifting and lowering the rain fly enough that you catch glimpses of trees and stars, you think about what you said earlier about God and love, that tired old thing that you say because it's an easy answer.  You think about the baby seal.  Suddenly, you want to wake up your daughter, asleep beside you, her mouth open in a smile that occasionally leaks out a sleepy laugh.  "Wait," you want to say.  "I was wrong before about God."  Because you just finally understood something about rescue that you want to tell her before you forget.   Something about rescuing someone and about allowing someone to rescue you.  

"You rescued," you want to tell your kids, "You're rescued."  But they're asleep, and anyway, there's some kind of creature rustling near the wall of the tent.  A raccoon, probably.  Well, hopefully not a cougar.  But you're forty-four now.  You know there are no creatures in the night.  At least, probably not.   But better to pull the sleeping bag up over your ear for protection, just in case, the dark air sweeping in through the vents, caressing your cheek as you fall into another summer night, same as it ever was, same is it never was, same as it always is: the stars falling in white streaks, the clouds rushing to cover the moon, the sky reaching down as it does and always has, forevermore.