Tending to seal pups, one woman sees rapture on earth
“With 9/11, the blessed countdown for the Rapture has begun,” my neighbor George informed me almost casually.
He caught me off guard. After decades of giddily anticipating the end of the world and getting no response from me, most of the true believers in my family had stopped asking if I’m ready to be swept up in the Second Coming. Plus, this was the last place I expected to be proselytized. George and I sat perched on driftwood, keeping watch over a seal pup that had hauled up onto our backyard Salish Sea beach. Concrete walls barricade most Seattle city beaches, so natural beaches are precious to harbor seals, a place where they can give birth, nurse, rest. Every spring through September, mother seals leave their pups here while they fish. Staying 100 yards away as recommended by the National Marine Fisheries Service, we neighbors keep watch over the vulnerable pups in four-hour shifts. It’s a startling stretch of time to spend with people whom we usually whiz past in our busy lives.
“Hmmm,” I answered, hoping my neighbor would lapse into the companionable silence we usually enjoy while we’re seal sitting, as we call our beach communion. “Hand me the binoculars, will you?”
This pup was about two feet long, round and robust, its speckled fur camouflaged against the rocky beach. It was breathing regularly, with no discharge from its mouth or nose—all good signs, according to the expert on stranded marine mammals from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) who trained us. We didn’t see any wounds, such as orca bites or propeller gashes. But only time would reveal its fate. If the pup is injured or doesn’t leave the beach after 48 hours, we call NOAA, which might send someone to take it to a rehab shelter for treatment. Though Washington has a thriving seal population, 50 percent of juveniles don’t survive the first year, and every seal season we witness the death of at least one or two pups.
There are 24 of us who patrol several beaches. We keep a phone tree and Internet contact, and when someone spots a lone pup, whoever is available heads out to keep watch. Our primary job is to politely shoo away dogs and curious people, partly because diseases are communicable among the three species. We also chat with passersby and educate them in seal etiquette. If the mother returns and finds her pup surrounded by too much human activity, she might abandon her baby.
“This pup looks plump and healthy, don’t you think?” I asked George.
“I sure hope so,” he murmured.
A foghorn suddenly moaned in baritone blasts, and the seal pup shuddered. He lifted his head, his black eyes huge, tiny ear slits opened wide.
“That’s how it’ll happen, you know,” George said quietly. “The trumpets will sound, and we’ll be lifted up far away from here.”
For a moment I considered not engaging in this loopy, no-exit dialogue. But we had a lot of time and a pup on our hands. It was April; perhaps Passover and Easter were on my neighbor’s mind. After a particularly chill and rain-soaked winter, spring seemed a resurrection with its blizzards of cherry blossoms along our boardwalk, its tulip trees and bursting scarlet rhododendron bushes. “Listen, George,” I began. “Why are you so, well, cheerful about the end of the earth?”
This gave him a moment’s pause. Then he said, with some chagrin, “You can’t blame us born-agains for wanting at last to get our heavenly rewards. We’ve waited thousands of years.”
His dark eyes flashed a fire I’d seen in my childhood, in preachers’ faces at the tent revivals where sinners dramatically fainted, from either the heat or the paroxysm of their inner demons. It always was bewildering to witness usually straitlaced adults flail about speaking gibberish and then transform again into upstanding believers just in time for the potluck.
As I watched our seal pup settle back into his vigilant scanning of the waves, his belly rising and falling in the deep drafts of breath that only the very young of any species seem to enjoy, I persisted. “Why would you want this world to end, George? What’s the hurry?”
I could see my neighbor studying me as if I were the pup, as if he already had passed me in the slow sinner’s lane on the freeway to the apocalypse. “The hurry is that right now we see signs and wonders proving that the end times are upon us,” he said. “We’ve got holy wars, globalization, Israel’s military power, Islamic terrorists, and even global warming.” This last sign he pronounced brightly, as if our climate was gleefully graduating into a hot time in the old world.
I felt claustrophobic in the grip of my neighbor’s intensity. I wondered if my restlessness was anything like the anxiety fundamentalists seem to feel about the world, as if they’re trapped by the gravity of their sins. Perhaps to Rapture hopefuls, global warming signals that our world has become what they always suspected—hell, the “fire next time.” Perhaps the Rapture prophecy is a biblical lullaby to calm their environmental terrors. As one of my family assured me, “There are no drowning polar bears and melting ice caps where I’m going.”
“Sandwich, George?” I rummaged in my backpack for a pimento cheese sandwich. Though I’ve backslid from my mother’s Southern Baptist religion, I carry on her fabulous food rituals.
My neighbor shook his head. Not to be put off, he said, “I’m afraid you’ll have a rough time of it here during the tribulations.”
“Don’t you love any of us who will suffer in those tribulations?” I asked. “Those of us you’ll leave behind?”
George took my arm a little too tightly. “But you could come with us, you know.” George was closing in, just as surely as the tide was rising, the surf coming closer to our pup’s whiskered snout. I politely disengaged. I was a little worried. It had been 12 hours since the discovery of this pup. In a few hours it would be high tide again. Where was the mother?
George pulled his laptop out of his backpack.
He often brings his home office to the beach while he’s seal sitting. We can tap into dozens of wireless halos shimmering unseen around nearby apartments. “I’m sending you this link,” he said. “It’s the home page for the non-Raptured.”
Squinting in the morning marine light, I could barely make out the computer screen, which read, “Inheriting from the Raptured.” A very official last will and testament followed: “Contact your saintly friends now. Offer to let them use the convenient form below to keep their fiscal assets from slipping into the hands of Satan’s One World Government agents.”
“But, George,” I protested, “this site isn’t serious.”
“It doesn’t matter if it’s joking,” he said. “It will still work.”
The will had blank signature lines marked “Infidel Witness #1” and “Infidel Witness #2.” “Well, I suppose,” I suggested with a smile, “that we can ask some of the other seal sitters to witness this for us.”
But George was serious. My neighbor was signing me up to inherit his worldly possessions—his world.
I was strangely touched.
With a pang I realized that while some end-timers might not have the stamina and constancy for compassion, many, like George and my family, feel real concern for the infidel loved ones they will abandon. And watching George’s expectant face, I was reminded that his spiritual stewardship, like that of some other evangelicals, includes other species as well as the natural world.
George has helped me bury the pups who don’t survive. We bury them deep under beach sand so their bodies nourish the whole ecosystem. Once we had the sorrowful task of burying a pup as the mother swam in the surf, cooing to her newborn to come back to her.
“Oh, look,” George exclaimed in a whisper. “He’s up!”
Our pup intently scanned the waves for his mother and the beach for predators. For the first time, he fixed his full attention on us. Through the binoculars, I could see that his breathing had steadied and he was rolling over on his side into a more relaxed position. As he lifted his front flipper up to scratch his whiskers, his huge eyes held mine with an unblinking gaze at once wild and familiar.
George and I tracked the seal pup’s every move—and now there were many. Repeatedly, he lifted his head and hind flippers to scan the waves and beach, then scratched, scooted, rolled over, and then gave a long, leisurely yawn.
“George,” I suggested, “why don’t you take a break? Go join your family for supper.”
“Anytime now,” George murmured, “the mother will return. That’s my favorite part.”
And then I understood something about my neighbor and about myself. All of us know what it feels like to wait for someone to call, to finally come home, to recognize our love, to reunite with those of us who long for something more, something greater than ourselves. Maybe it will come in the night, in that twinkling of an eye. Maybe it will save us from a lonely beach.
As if in answer to our longing, a glossy head popped up in the waves. The seal pirouetted to find her pup on the beach. George and I sat absolutely still, hardly breathing. A soft cooing call. The pup fairly leapt up, flippers unfurling like wings, then an undulant body-hop along beach stones as the pup inched toward the surf.
“Ah, you’re safe now, buddy,” George sighed as the pup slipped into the water. There was tranquility in George’s face, a sweet calm that comes from sitting on the beach all day with nothing to do but watch over a fellow creature. From our driftwood seat, we saw the two seals dive and disappear. Nearby, comic black-and-white harlequin ducks popped up in the waves. Even though our seal sitting was over, we didn’t move.
The driftwood creaked slightly under our weight. It was a madrona log, its soft ruby bark peeling from years lost at sea. I surprised myself by going back to the subject I had worked to avoid. “What if we’re sitting here to make sure that there will be something left for our kids?” I asked.
He seemed to ponder this for a while. “You’re a really good neighbor, George,” I said. “We would all miss you so much if you zipped up to heaven. We’d all say, ‘Well, there goes the neighborhood!’ ”
George took the compliment in stride.
“I’ll miss you,” he admitted, “and . . . and all this, too.”
“You know, George,” I said softly, “I really want to be left behind.”
My neighbor looked at me thoughtfully and then fell quiet as we watched another harlequin float past, bright beak dripping a tiny fish. Happy, so happy in this moment. Wave after wave lapped our beach, and the spring sun glowed on our faces. We sat silently, listening to waves more ancient than our young, hasty species, more forgiving than our religions, more enduring. Rapture.
Brenda Peterson (www.literati.net/Peterson) is a novelist and nature writer. This essay appears in her forthcoming memoir, I Want to Be Left Behind: My Rapture Here on Earth. Excerpted from Orion(Jan.-Feb. 2008). Subscriptions: $40/yr. (6 issues) from Box 469090, Escondido, CA 92046; www.orionmagazine.org.