The Sedna, The Seal, and The Last Arctic Char

Gasping for oxygen, the Sedna surged through the ocean surface, the green Arctic ocean now a scene of yellow froth and gray confusion, the sky lost in an ochre fog, worse than any storm that she had ever seen before. All of her body screamed for oxygen, her tail muscles cramping in her effort to raise her nose and neck gills into an atmosphere that previously she only occasionally visited and had never needed before. Her large eyes bulging in distress, she floundered towards a rocky shore. Raised by a wave, her fin claws grasped a rocky ledge and she held on, chest heaving, vision blurred, her muscled tail hanging limp.

The air that she breathed smelled horrible, much like the eggs of seabirds abandoned, broken and left to rot in the long summer days, and was not in much better state than her home ocean. While resting, her oxygen deprivation began to lessen. Not waiting to recover more fully, with the wash of a wave, the Sedna flopped up onto the granite shore, the effort of which curled her tail with cramp and increased her gasping.

This was a new shoreline, not the rock worn smooth and with beautiful colorful swirls found on her previous visits to the land. The turbid yellow grey ocean washed up on rocks blackened with a coating of lichen. Rings, scoops and patches of gray green, orange and rust red also covered the pink, green and black rock. Swimming for the surface, it had not been her imagination that the ocean surface had been farther away than normal, for the ocean level had risen. A sculpin rolled belly up against the rocks, balloon eyes blank. Pieces of torn seaweed and kelp floated on still air filled pockets.

Rising water beginning to lap against her, the Sedna wriggled and clawed her way up away from the water. A patch of orange lichen scraped away from the rock by one fin claw was visually inspected and then eaten rather than thrown away. The Sedna had sampled various types of lichen before and knew that although dry and tasteless, it would not make her sick. She continued working her way up away from the ocean, now a horrifying and alien maelstrom of blown spume and fumes.

Unlike the friendly water and ice worn rocks of the normal shoreline where the sharpest things were the clumps of pale gray barnacles and brown snails attached to the sides of rocks, the rocks the Sedna now climbed over were sharp edged and rugged, fractured sharp edges by months of snow and ice cover. On small gravel patches, between wilted clumps of gray green and brown vegetation, rivulets were etched by fast melting snow. Up a small valley between steep but low walls of stone, sharp rocks and boulders broken off by frost are scattered obstacles on the soft and spongy mat of vegetation. The Sedna shifted forward carefully, using her upper fin claws in an effort to protect her tail scales from being scraped off. Losing a little algae coating was alright, but losing a tail scale would add more to her pain.

Her bosom still heaving from oxygen deprivation, she found a relatively flat rock to rest on some distance above the water. Her blind terror somewhat abating, she began to focus less on was immediately in front of her. She could see little beyond her immediate surroundings and that was not just because her eyes were not designed to see in air. Like the ocean, the air was a foggy yellow gray and pungent with a smell like the gray ocean bottom that the Sedna had sometimes brought up to the surface with the shellfish that she loved to eat.

She had swum over deep clefts and vents in the ocean bottom that had occasionally belched out very pretty bubbles of gas that were fun to chase and ride as they rose to the surface through the years before the hell that spewed out today. Fresh water spewed from some of these orifices and the Sedna drank there when the ocean above was stormy and there were no melt ponds. So when the ocean water began to rapidly warm and change color, she had swum down unafraid to see the ocean floor belching pockets of gas.

She did not know that the vents that belched out gas penetrated deep into the earth’s crust, down to a watery pea soup that the plates of the continents floated upon. And although she was a wise and very old being, she was not old enough to remember the millenniums ago that her mother Earth had been flipped by the seiche created in the planet’s interior water layer, or to know that it was a cyclical occurrence that had happened millenniums before and would happen again. That five thousand year periodic flip of the planet poles had sunk cities, raised mountains, made giant lakes that turned to brine and buried forests that would become fuel deposits tapped by her human neighbors. She did not know that humans had recorded those events as legends but considered it to be a scholarly exercise to debate their veracity.

She had observed that the pale humans who visited her realm in the long days of sunlight years before to plan to float blocks of ice to the south had in recent years been concerned with measuring the decrease in the amount of snow and ice and its effect on the animals. These learned scientists argued over the cause and a cure, not discerning the secret held within the Earth. The hunting pattern of the longtime residents, those who ate the creatures of the sea and land and wore their fur, whom the Sedna had watched since she was a little pup, had changed with the warmer weather. They could no longer trust the strength of their icy world which now alternated between periods of extreme cold and longer periods of warmer weather and several had lost their lives going through thin ice.

Diving near the clefts in the pre-dawn today it was almost too late when she realized that her buoyancy in the gas and water mixture was gone and so was the oxygen content of the water. She had struggled and crawled in terror on the ocean bottom away from the vents until the water mixture had allowed her to make a last desperate swim for the surface that was now farther away. Now her long black head hair had clumps of gray ocean bottom ooze mixed with vegetative debris. Licking the fur around the pads on her fin claws, she began to groom the long hair, licking and combing first one side, and then the other. She carefully dropped the debris cleaned off of her rocky perch. A tangle took a while to unravel and when done she rolled on her back to groom her short facial and body fur. She massaged carefully over her wide, flat nose, her ear holes and bumps, around her wide mouth that stretched almost all the way between her ear holes and bumps and around the very short fur adjacent to her neck gills. Flaring her gills and nostrils and opening wide her wide mouth, displaying her short, pointed teeth, she drew in as much oxygen as she could in deep, slow breathes. Tears watered her unblinking eyes.

More fish carcasses floated by belly up. No ravens flew in the air or hopped on the ground to scavenge the dead. On a nearby patch of wilted arctic sedge, an arctic hare lay stretched out in death, mouth wide and eyes bulged out, not able to have obtained enough oxygen for even its small lungs. Almost out of her range of vision, a caribou stumbled on the rocky terrain and its legs folded underneath it and it collapsed to the ground, neck stretched out and nose resting on the ground. Its quivering stopped and it appeared to turn to stone, indistinguishable from the surrounding landscape.

A wide band of yellow gray froth now forming at the shoreline continued to rise, carrying deceased arctic flora and fauna with it. The water was more turbid than even after the biggest of storms with the heaviest rainfall during spring run off. After flowing strongly in one direction along the shoreline, the ocean paused, swirling in confusion, and then began to flow strongly in the other direction.

The land on which the Sedna now perched should have been covered by snow and ice at this time of year, but she now felt the prickles of a rash under her short fur caused by the warm air and water that she had never felt on any but the warmest of days in the southern most area of her range. Even the remaining algae growing on her tail scales appeared to have dried and was falling off. The durable lichen seemed to be the only life forms unaffected by the changed atmosphere, but undoubtedly the sea water would destroy the lichen it covered.

With the ocean rising, the Sedna decided to rest and wait for the level to reach her perch, then slip into the water to go in search of fresh water, not tasty from the rivulets, no longer available from fresh water melt ponds on the ice and certainly not available from the ocean springs. While she waited in a yellow, gray and blackened world, the Sedna began to sing a soft and quiet lament.

Gone was her comfortable cold world of white snow and blue ice, clear water and abundant fish. Delicate transparent jellyfish, decorated inside with pink, red and brown, once free floating now swirled with dead fish. The seaweed of the tidal zone floated with the various yellow algae that had coated rocks in deeper water and with the long strands of kelp that grew deeper yet. Some of the small, low lying land plants that grew such pretty flowers when the sun shone throughout the day of white, yellow, purple, blue and lavender, some no bigger than the tip of a fin claw, were washing in the angry ocean. As hardy as they were in surviving a long and cold winter, salt water immersion would surely destroy them. At least they had no petals to shed as tears. And no more hunters would run their snow machines over the sea ice and bring the Sedna up to peek at them. The short sunlit day had not yet set on disaster.

The water level was now high enough that the Sedna could reach down from her perch with one arm-like appendage fringed with claw tipped webbed fins and poke at the flotsam in examination. The sculpins would no longer wait on the bottom in tidal water, blending in with the color of their surroundings, waiting for a passing baby fish to stray within reach of a lunge and a swallow. The long and graceful tendrils once trailed by a pink jellyfish to snare food were now retracted. A raven floated past with the current, spinning belly up on slightly spread wings.

The Sedna carefully cleared a pathway and slipped into the ocean, holding onto her rocky perch with one fin claw and stretching to keep her head and neck gills above the water. The water was smelly and warm but she lowered herself carefully until one gill flap was covered by water. While her oxygen deprivation had eased during her rest on land, her natural place was in the water, her movements fluid and not ungainly as they were on land. But the Sedna could not make her gills work, they were swollen and sore. Touching her neck gently with her free fin claw, the Sedna decided to swim with her head and neck abnormally raised out of the ocean in search of fresh water.

Disoriented by the high water levels, she now decided which direction to travel along the shoreline. Lowering one ear hole and bump into the tepid water she listened for the sound of running water. Gone were all the normal sounds of ocean life, the clicking and clacking of tiny crustaceans, the distant songs of whales, the barking and yipping of seals and walruses. The ocean was silent of life, now just a smelly, bubbly chemical soup.

With no running water audible, the Sedna decided to float along the shore with the long shore current, and then decide again if the current changed direction. Very cautiously, she finned out into the current and then rested floating while the current carried her along. The fear of not being able to float and suffocating while crawling on the ocean floor kept her head swiveling around to look for bubbling water.

She floated along, passed by the caribou that had turned to stone, paddling with only her fin claws to keep her head up, the eyes with large irises that filled their cavities searching their bleak new world. Swells surged against lichen blackened pink granite walls, picking up and dropping off debris with each rise and fall. She avoided larger mats of debris and carcasses, but still had debris collect and tangle in her long head hair and short body fur. She slowly and carefully extracted her tail from some long kelp that she had strayed too close to in the current while looking the other way. Even expending so little energy she would have to stop to rest soon. Then a little movement from a silver gray mound on the shore attracted her attention and she began to swim in with a flick of her tail fin. The normally silver gray fur blotched with black spots was now also marked with white and red patches. Desperate dark brown eyes that dripped tears and blood peered at the Sedna from a head laying on a rock, mouth open and gasping for oxygen as just she had been not long ago. Too weak to do more than twitch a front flipper, the seal pleaded for assistance with nothing but the sound of its labored breathing.

There was little that the Sedna could do to help the seal’s breathing. By carefully sniffing the air the Sedna assessed that the immediate air quality was little different in odor than elsewhere. Likely the seal had been farther out in the ocean and had become distressed swimming to shore as she had. More comfortable breathing air than the Sedna, the seal might recover if the rising water level did not overwhelm it.

The Sedna hauled herself out of the water next to the seal and reached out a fin claw to massage the seal’s side. Twice the water level rose enough that they had to crawl farther on shore over sharp and jagged rocks, the seal needing the Sedna’s nudging encouragement to move. The seal made no sound but that of labored breathing. The seal’s breeding season was over and if this seal was pregnant she would likely abort the pregnancy from stress. A little assistance might prevent that. The Sedna scraped off lichen for herself and munched, not offering any to the seal which would only eat live fish and none of the dead that floated nearby. The Sedna’s normal diet of yellow green kelp, algae, shellfish, crustaceans and the occasional fish was varied enough to allow adaptation, but the seal would not quickly adapt and the Sedna had seen no live fish to catch for it.

The seal’s breathing now quieter, the Sedna considered leaving to continue her search for fresh water and search for fresh fish for the seal as well. She would have to go soon as the current might change direction again and she would have to wait or pass previously inspected shoreline. Deciding to go, she left the seal with a friendly pat and now able to raise its head to watch her crawl gingerly over the rocky shore, clear a path through the froth and flotsam and lower herself again into the warm yellow gray ocean.

Swimming out to the current she again placed an ear hole and bump into the water. This time in addition to the ominous silence of life, she heard the faint sound of running water meeting the ocean. It was enough to inspire her to add the strength of her tail fin to swimming forward with the current. Her breathing beginning to labor, she neared the source of the sound, a small stream emptying into a bay. The mixed water was wonderfully refreshing and cool and for the first time since her panicked surface, she completely submerged, rolling in delight underwater until oxygen debt forced her to surface panting.

Although the water was fresh and cool, no small fish darted away as she entered the stream, which was now lead gray in color. None of the gravel bottom glittered with shiny minerals as in her past journeys up streams and rivers to visit inland lakes. The low mountains that the stream valley lay between were covered in the same yellow gray fog that lay over the ocean, but a fog that held no moisture. The ground was wet from melted snow and ice.

In shallow water, the Sedna swam against the current, but she felt less physical distress than before. The water level of the stream had been raised by rapidly melted snow and ice and had dropped when the accumulated melt down has washed into the rising ocean. Now the Sedna slithered around rocks and boulders, grasping the bottom with her fin claws as well as thrusting with her tail fin.

No pretty flowers adorned the gravel banks of the stream, their season was very short anyway. Many had been uprooted by flood waters and lined the high water stream side along with the bodies of ravens, hares and one arctic fox. While the water was cool, it was not as cold as even an all day summer sun stream should be.

As the Sedna swam higher, the ocean behind her disappeared under the fog. The stream narrowed but there were no waterfalls to climb. Nothing moved except the swimming Sedna, the flowing stream and the quietly shifting fog.

In an area of washed out muskeg the permafrost was exposed and melting, which would again increase the stream’s flow. The Sedna reveled in the feel of the frost, raking it with her fin claws for the joy of feeling the cold on her and rolled and rubbed her body in the frost shavings until they melted.

She felt impelled to move on upstream though she would have preferred to play in the frost. No caribou ran over the muskeg meadow on their very large feet, no wolves loped behind in pursuit of the weak and no human hunters waited watching for their food. I n that meadow was the small lake that fed the stream.

The lake water was much clearer than the stream, but the Sedna knew from previous experience that if she dove too deep in a fresh water lake that the water would turn from clear to yellow and then to black and that her gills could not extract oxygen from those two lower water levels. That was very much like what had belched out of the clefts and vents on the ocean floor, but this lake appeared affected now only by melted snow and melting permafrost. The Sedna swam slowly near the shoreline of the lake, choosing not to venture over any deep water as she wondered what had turned her world upside down. Ahead, splashing on the shoreline was the long silver and pink body of an arctic char. Somewhere in the gravel below there might still be roe laid by and fertilized by the once plentiful arctic char during their last end of summer breeding. The Sedna doubted that any would survive the elevated water temperature to hatch and live in water with lower oxygen levels. She did not think that her world would return to normal as rapidly as it had changed for the worst.

But the arctic char was still alive, having somehow missing the flood flushing everything down to the ocean and its delicate pink flesh was so very tasty, it would be just what the seal needed to have a chance to survive. Being the only thing left alive besides lichen was too painful to think about so the Sedna swam up and gently seized the arctic char, holding it with one fin claw between her hairy breasts.

She swam quickly downstream, clutching her trophy carefully, pausing only briefly to rub her tail over the permafrost. The ocean level had risen some more and the current had changed direction and now flowed back towards the seal. She hoped that the seal had been strong enough to survive the rising water but weak enough not to move on. Now the fading daylight was dimming a dull day even more. She made sure that the arctic char had oxygen available to its gills and was still moving. The seal ahead barked at a desolate world and she homed in on the sound.

It was completely dark when she delivered her prize to the seal, still resting on shore. Seeing the wriggle flash of scales between her breasts the seal lunged forward off target and fell floundering to be upright on the shore rocks. The Sedna waited for the seal to re-orient itself and held the arctic char out, her fin claws penetrating the flesh to make certain that it did not escape. This time the seal succeeded in biting into the fish. Contented, the Sedna peeled away a tasty strip of pink flesh for herself.