Essay: The Mother Seal by Julia Rocchi

Her shape—long, rotund, dark gray except where damp sand smears her pelt—is the first mass we see at Tunnels Beach on Kauai, Hawai’i. Around her stand yellow signs on stakes, spaced every ten to 15 feet. “CAUTION—Endangered Hawaiian Monk Seal,” they read. “PLEASE DO NOT APPROACH. Seals need to rest on the beach and are protected by Federal and State law.”

The all-caps headline offers flimsy protection against the selfie-obsessed tourists who, in an effort to capture their time in paradise, keep stumbling into her sanctum. A nearby onlooker, as transfixed as I am by the slumbering creature, leans over and whispers conspiratorially: “She’s pregnant. The ranger this morning told me. So we need to be extra careful.”

For this mother seal, the hope of a species rests within her. The Hawaiian monk seal is the most endangered marine mammal in U.S. waters. Both endemic and exclusive to the islands, Hawai’i’s state animal numbers around 1,100, and is subject to a deadly environmental cocktail that includes human impacts, food limitation, and habitat loss. And when I consider the monk seal’s Hawaiian name—lio-holo-i-ka-uaua, or “dog running in the rough seas”—I grasp the innocence they bear and the danger they face.

Not that the snoozing mama-to-be is showing any trace of fear. It’s hard for my untrained eye to tell what marks her as pregnant, when every seal I’ve encountered in either the wild or captivity enjoys varying degrees of roly-poly, with monk seals sporting endearing wide eyes and bald pates.

A wave washes over her. Her whiskers flick. Her head turns. She is no longer sleeping, but staring at me, as if she knows that I too want to hold both present and future within my body.

It is my first cycle of trying to conceive. I arrived in Hawai’i two days earlier wondering, “Am I pregnant?” First was the heightened sense of smell on the drive to the airport. Then light nausea after landing. I grew up hearing my mother’s “One try, that’s all it took!” and I’m convinced my genetics will win the day.

I doubt this seal was burdened by such personal expectations. Despite their chummy appearances, monk seals are solitary creatures with no family life, at least as we humans perceive it. Females are pregnant for approximately a year. They arrive on a shore unannounced, give birth, and disappear six weeks later, when the pups are weaned. For the brief time they are with their pups they focus solely on nursing, transforming their significant blubber reserves into milk that contains an astonishing 65% fat content, taking no time to feed or care for themselves. By the end of the nursing period, their abdomens cave inward from the expenditure, and they return to the sea—alone—to feed, refuel, and resume their travels. Eventually, hunger drives the solo pups to hunt. With moms long gone, they learn by trial and error—nature’s extreme version of a latchkey kid.

The pregnant seal and I gaze at each other, long eyelashes waving at long eyelashes across the sand. I crouch to match her level, to appeal silently to the maternal instinct I imagine we share. But as I squat, a red bloom darkens the crotch of my white eyelet bathing suit.

Fuck.

I tighten my sarong and frantically scan the shore for a bathroom. I spot the concrete outpost half a mile down the beach, which means a long, hot walk of shame with my bloody bathing suit and dashed hopes. There, I will rinse my bikini bottom in the cracked sink. Then I will waddle back with a damp crotch. I will tell my husband we aren’t parents yet. Through it all, I will cry for my failure to reproduce.

Oblivious onlookers continue to gawk and stumble around me. They seem to regard pregnancy as I do—with wonder and awe, no matter the species. Not so for the actual pregnant creature on the beach. She just closes her eyes and rumbles to her other side. Communion will elude us; she does not define herself as a mother, whereas I now define myself as not yet one. I wish I could carry my fallow body beyond the yellow signs and lie beside her—drowsy, untroubled, unreproached—as I wait to ripen.

Julia Rocchi writes prose, poetry, and prayers. She holds an MA in Writing (Fiction) from Johns Hopkins University. Most recently, Julia won first place in the Saturday Evening Post’s 2018 Great American Fiction Contest and was a semi-finalist for Ruminate Magazine’s 2018 William Van Dyke Short Story Prize. Her work has also appeared or is forthcoming in Bourbon Penn, Reflex Fiction, 3Elements Review, Mulberry Fork Review, Ekphrastic Review, and others. Julia blogs about young adult spirituality at www.juliarocchi.com and lives in Arlington, Virginia, with her family.

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