It was nearing five o’clock and the breeze, muted here beneath the pines, carried the smell of the marsh. It was a warm smell, dank and fertile, drawing her in.
Devin checked her camera. It was a bad habit she had, leaving the switch in the on position and running down the battery. It’d be just her luck to get to the creek, find her elusive subject — and have no way to capture it.
A cone snapped underfoot, but otherwise she made little noise. The pinewood floor was dry and ochre, a carpet of needles, bereft of any path. She thought she had found one, entering from the road, but if she had it had soon vanished. No matter. She was nearly there.
She scanned the horizon for hints of light playing on water. Nothing yet. It wasn’t surprising, really. The tide was near its lowest ebb and the creek was more mud than water by now. She had planned it just so: it was the perfect time to see them.
If they would come.
How many months had she been coming here, or other such spots along Red House Creek? And, so far, for nothing.
It had been low tide the first time she’d seen them, too, or very near it. (The first time. Ha! The only time.) It was out beyond the city, on one of the beaches: an engagement session. Afterward she had walked the shining sands, wet her feet, snapped a flock of pelicans flying over. At the end of the island, a shot or two of blue crabs by the marsh.
Her lens was aimed at a gull atop a day beacon when the water splashed softly, and, lowering the Nikon, she spotted the first fins. Dolphins. Two of them — no, three — four — slipping in and out of sight. She’d never seen them this near the shore before.
And then — out of the water, onto the slope of sand and mud she stood upon. Not five feet away.
Strand feeding. Devin found the term later on, but she had never heard of dolphins acting that way before. A single blurred fin, vanishing below the waves was the only photo she’d been fast enough to take. Then they were gone.
* * *
But she was ready now. Her camera checked and double-checked, the time of day perfect, if Google could be trusted. They came at low tide when the pluff mud breathed, and fiddlers climbed down from spartina grass to gorge on silt and slip into their warrens to lay low. When the fish had less depth to hide in. They would drive them onto shore where they were helpless, and feast.
Devin’s step hurried as the pines gave way to scrawling oaks, their long arms bent toward the water. The salt air was sharp in her mouth. Below her, in the mud, the sound of a thousand squarebacks fleeing the sight of her rose, rainlike, to her ear.
The marsh was an endless flat expanse. Beyond the creek’s crooked arm, spartina stretched as far as she could see, while beneath her feet the ground fell in a gentle slope toward the wet pluff. Light glossed the mud’s surface; the few lingering trickles reprised the water’s winding shape.
She took another step. Held the camera to her eye, snapped a few shots, braced herself on the smooth bone of a fallen tree. Her cheek thrilled under the fingers of a breeze, warm and soft.
The day was just right. Any moment they would come.
Then she saw it. The spartina wavered, not far out, at the far side of the creek. It wasn’t the wind, couldn’t be. Only a small tithe of grass moved. The rest was still.
Devin frowned. An animal?
There — it wavered again. A shadow formed, thin at first, only a shade darker than the colors around it. But it deepened, gathering, until almost black.
She blinked. Shivered. Was she really seeing it? She stepped closer, quashing deep into mud. Another step — but now her right foot was naked, the boot sunken still in the silty bank. She looked again. The whole hammock of grass and rush was moving now, slow and faint. The shadow moved with it.
The air around it seemed to fill up — not thicker, not more humid, but with something else. Something present. Intentional. A dull dread rose over her and she stepped back and yelled as something bit her bare foot.
An oyster shell. She bit back the pain as her eyes lit on it, saw the red along its briny, jagged edge. They were strewn all along the marsh bed, but she hadn’t looked out for them. Rookie mistake.
She sucked in a breath, hopped backward, sat in the mud. She crossed the foot over her knee, saw it was sliced from one side to the other across the ball, blood flowing in thick trickles. The cut looked deep.
But a movement drew her gaze again — the pain throbbed higher — toward the black thing in the marsh. It seemed to gather all its substance, if it had any, into a small core. Dread bit her deeper than the oyster shell.
Devin fought for breath. It seemed to be looking, somehow, at her. Regarding her.
She couldn’t run. Couldn’t even walk.
But the point faded, spread itself thin again, grey now like smoke, as a sound arose, one Devin knew yet couldn’t recognize. The shadow lingered a moment, uncertain. She could feel the purpose radiate out of it at her. Then the marsh around it rippled and the shadow was gone.
Devin breathed. Allowed herself to move.
Water rippled under an oar — that’s what the sound was. Her eyes turned toward its source and fell on a form that broke her heart.
A long paddleboard, orange, with a single yellow stripe down the middle. On it stood a dog with drooping brown ears and a brown back, the rest of its color melting away to purest white. And behind the dog, standing, moving the paddle with strong, shale-hued arms, a boy. Sharp-browed, lithe, eyes bright and alert.
* * *
She had never felt so much pleasure in seeing a person. “Hey!” she called out. “Hey, can you —?”
She choked on words. Could he — what? Help her? She didn’t know what to ask. She felt small now, absurd. The pain in her foot pulsed again and she cringed as the boy’s glance fell on her.
Surprise, then concern. She could read his face even from that distance. The dog barked. “Hush!” the boy scolded. “You hurt?” he called out.
“I’m, uh…” Devin gestured awkwardly at her foot.
He frowned. “Stay there, don’t move. I got a first aid pack.”
He looked like a figure out of myth, standing tall and steering the board with grace and skill. The dog, heeding his voice and silent now, only added to the impression.
He grounded the board on the mud bank and picked his way around the oyster shells, showing more care than Devin had. He wore no shoes himself, clad only in red and blue striped board shorts. Devin stared, helpless, as he approached.
The boy uncapped a water bottle and poured it over the cut. She sucked in a breath. There was more blood than she’d realized. Cleared now of mud, she saw the pink flesh inside laid bare to her eyes, and winced.
“It got you good, huh,” the other said. He glanced at the shell. “That a sharp one, too. Can you walk?”
“Probably. I can try.”
She stood, keeping all but her right toes off the ground. She couldn’t see the lost boot anymore. The marsh had eaten it.
“That foot need cleaning. You live nearby?”
“No. Up Sixty-one a bit, west of town.”
“Where your car?”
She pointed back beyond the pinewood. “Morgan Road. A block back from the path.”
He looked her over with a critical eye. “All right,” he said at last. “They a doctor up the creek a bit. I can take you to him and he can see what’s what.”
“No, I mean, I don’t—”
He gave a wry smile. “Hey, I get it. My girlfriend’s there — it’s her daddy’s house, so you ain’t got to worry. It be faster on my board, and you won’t have to walk.” He shook his head. “I don’t want to be worrying if you made it back.”
She hesitated. It was hard to think with the pain, and the shine of his smile straight in her face like that. She could feel her heart beat in her chest.
The creek seemed less safe now, less promising. Home sounded better. Where there were no beautiful strangers to rescue you, no perils to be rescued from. But home was a long walk and a good half hour’s drive away.
The boy offered a hand. Devin swallowed. Maybe it was best after all.
They tread across the creek bed, Devin careful to keep from losing the other boot. She rested her weight on the boy’s shoulder when she had to. The camera was bobbed against her chest, awkward and only in the way now, her hopes for dolphins abandoned.
She sat on the board. The dog sniffed her, growled a moment, but kept still. Its brown eyes squinting and soulful.
“Good boy,” the other said, pushing off from the mud with the long paddle. The board gave a short sucking gasp as it slipped into the creek again.
Soon the marsh was passing by them, the gold sun warm on her brow. Devin gave a last glance back to the hammock, where the shadow had been, and shivered.