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 onward. A cone snapped underfoot, but otherwise her steps made little noise in the pathless pinewood, covered as its floor was in dry ochre needles.
She was nearly there. Any minute she would feel the blaze of spring sun on her face, see the gleam of light on water as the trees gave way to the creek bank. The tide was near lowest ebb, just as she had planned. The perfect time to see them…if they would come.
And Devin wasn’t sure they would. How many months had she been coming here, or to other spots along Red House Creek? To the inlets between barrier islands off the coast? Searching for them, hoping and waiting. But there was luck in it, she knew — you couldn’t just show up and expect to see them.
So far she had seen them only once. Months ago, on one of the islands, after shooting engagement photos all afternoon. She had lingered on the beach for an hour or so after the couple left, capturing the waves, the shining sands, a flock of pelicans. It helped her to relax, taking shots for her own pleasure rather than for work, so she hadn’t been prepared for it. Her lens had been aimed at a gull perched on a day beacon when the splashing started, but she lowered the Nikon in time to spot the first few fins.
Dolphins. Two of them — no, three, four — slipping in and out of sight beneath the silvery glass of the water. She’d never seen them so near to shore before. And then it happened.
They had launched themselves out of the water, onto the slope of sand and mud at the island’s edge, writhing in ecstasy not five feet from where she stood. Strand feeding: she found the term much later while researching, but at the time she had no word for the magical thing she was seeing, the feast and the revelry, the wild hunt. It was a revelation.
A single fin, slipping back into the ocean — the only photo she had been quick enough to snap. And then they were gone.
* * *
Devin was ready now, though. She’d checked and double checked her camera, made sure the switch was off lest the battery run down — a bad habit of hers. Her lens was polished, the memory card cleared, her timing perfect.
They came at low tide, when the pluff mud could breathe. When the fiddlers climbed down from no-longer flooded grass and gorged on soil, slipped into their warren of holes to lay low. When the fish the dolphins chased had no depth to hide in. She had read up on it, worked it all out to a science.
And now she was here. A sharp, salt-laden air filled her lungs and the pines gave way to scrawling oaks that bent long limbs down over the water. Her eyes trace the flat expanse of marsh, and her ears took in the sound, rainlike, of a thousand squareback crabs fleeing the sight of her. Beyond the creek’s crooked arm, spartina grass stretched as far as she could see, while beneath her feet the bank fell toward wet pluff mud. Light glossed the mud’s surface, the few lingering trickles reprising the creek’s winding shape.
She took another step. Held the camera to her eye, snapped a few establishing shots, braced herself on the smooth bone of a fallen tree. Her cheek thrilled under the touch of a breeze, warm and soft. The day was just right. They had to come — they would. Something was bound to happen.
And it did.
At the far side of the creek the grass wavered. Not in the wind: only a small tithe of it had moved. The rest of the marsh was still.
Devin frowned. An animal? But the marsh was not thick, and she would see whatever lurked in the grass, certainly anything large enough to move this much. And there: it was moving again.
A shadow formed. A mere shade darker than the colors of the marsh at first, and then it deepened, gathering until almost black. It had no clear shape, but pulsed and shifted in darkening moods.
Devin blinked. Was she really seeing this? She stepped closer, felt her boot quash deep down in the mud. Another step — but now her right foot was bare, the other boot stuck in the bank. Her heart was lead in a hollow chest.
The creek felt alive now, spartina moving windlessly, and the shadow moving with it. The air around the thing seemed to fill up: not thicker, not more humid, but with something else. Something present. Intentional.
She took a step back, then yelled as something bit her bare foot.
Devin swore, sucked in her breath, hopped backward. She sat in the mud, crossing her foot over her knee. Not a bite — a cut. The foot was sliced from one side to the other, blood flowing out in thick trickles. It looked deep.
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 been looking for them. Stupid mistake.
As the pain throbbed her eyes darted back to the dark shape again. It seemed to gather all its substance now, if it had any, into a small core. Dread flashed through her veins, biting deep like the oyster had. She fought for breath. The shadow seemed to study her, gathering resolve.
She couldn’t run. Couldn’t even walk now.
Then something splashed, soft like a silk, and the shadow hesitated. It spread itself thin again, grey now like smoke. Devin heard water moving but couldn’t see the source, and the shadow too seemed to hesitate, confused. She could feel conflict radiating from it, purpose and indecision — at her, and at the sound. Then the marsh around the shadow rippled a single moment, and it was gone.
She breathed. Allowed herself to move. She heard the splash’s soft whisper again and turned toward the bend in the creek. What she saw nearly broke her heart.
A young man stood on a paddleboard, rowing with taut, slender limbs, his skin the hue of berries dripping from shaded forest vines. Strong and lithe, eyes bright and alert that flashed as they met hers.
“You see that thing?” his voice shook, betraying an outer calm. “The hell was that?”
“I don’t know,” she said. “Hey — can you—?”
Could he what? Help her? She didn’t know what to ask. The pain in her foot pulsed and she cringed when his glance, surveying where the vanished shadow had been, returned to her again.
His eyes widened. “You hurt?” She gestured at her foot, still at a loss for words. A drop of blood fell on the creek bank.
The other frowned. “Don’t move. I got you.”
He grounded the orange board on the mud and picked his way around the oysters, showing more care than Devin had. He wore no shoes, only sea-green swim shorts and a white tank, tight against his sweat-damp skin. Devin stared as he approached. He looked like a figure out of myth, tall and grasping the oar like a mystical staff.
“Let me see,” he said. He knelt, uncapped a bottle of water, and poured it over the cut, flushing away blood and stray silt grains. Devin drew a sharp breath. She hadn’t realized how much had bled. Clean now for a moment, she could see the pink flesh laid bare inside the cut and she winced, looked away.
“Got you good, huh?” the boy said. He glanced back at the reddened shell. “That’s a sharp one, too. Can you walk?”
“Probably. I can try.”
Devin stood, careful to keep the ball of her foot off the ground. She looked for her lost boot and wondered if it was worth extracting. She sighed.
“That foot needs disinfecting. You live nearby?”
“No. Out west of town, up Sixty-one.”
“Where’s your car?”
She pointed back through the pinewood. “A couple blocks that way, give or take.”
He looked her over with a critical eye. “I can’t leave you here,” he said. “Not with that thing…” She shuddered, eyes falling on the ranks of spartina grass again. He followed her gaze, flinching a moment, and drew a soft, rattling breath.
“All right,” he said. “I can take you on my board. There’s a doctor lives up the creek a bit. He can take care of you, get you something to drink. Okay?”
“No,” she stammered. “I mean, I don’t—”
“Hey,” he assured her, “it’s okay. If it helps, think of it as doing me a favor. I don’t want to spend all day worrying if you got back. Plus, it’d give you a chance to keep weight off that cut. You won’t have to walk for a while.”
Devin faltered. It was hard to think between the pain and the shine of his smile straight in her face. Her heart beat heavy and she swallowed hard.
The creek felt less welcoming. Less safe. Home sounded better, where there were no beautiful strangers to offer their hand. But home was a long walk and a good drive away. Her fingers clenched. It might not be a good idea, but it was better, maybe, than walking shoeless and alone through the woods on a cut foot.
She took his hand and they tread across the creek bed. Devin tried not to lose the other boot as she draped her arm on his shoulder, the camera bobbing against her chest, awkward and in the way now. The evening was over, her hope for dolphins abandoned.
She sat in front of him and the stranger pushed off with his long paddle. The board gave a short, sucking gasp as it slipped off the mud into the creek again.
Soon the marsh was passing by, the sun gold and warm on Devin’s brow. She gave a final glance backward, to the bank where the shadow had been, and shivered.