“What’s that Daddy?” Sarah asked, extending her pudgy finger towards the shoreline.
Jack leaned down, wrapping his arms around his daughter. She was big for her age (five and a half, as she would proudly tell anyone who would listen) but had still not quite lost all of her “irresistible-to-pinch” baby fat. Dropping down to a squat, he brought his head to her level and followed her gaze.
A flock of seagulls circled low in the cloudy sky, right at the precipice between water and sand where a brownish blob lay. There almost appeared to be an order to the chaos of flapping wings and snapping beaks as the gulls dove one by one like fighter jets to the beach before, as though rethinking their kamikaze intentions, pulling up sharply and returning to their holding pattern.
“I don’t know, looks like the gulls mighta got something,” Jack replied. He furrowed his brow as he followed the trajectory of the birds, watching them dive to the beach again and again in their unsettlingly hypnotizing assault.
“Actually, looks like a skate, kiddo,” he said as he drew closer to the blob, grabbing Sarah by the hand and swinging her over his shoulder.
She shrieked with glee as she soared away from the ground but, as she looked down at him, Jack could see the momentary joy leaving her face as she watched the feast unfolding in the distance.
“Whats a skate, Daddy?” she asked.
“Well, they’re kind of like rays. Remember the big stingrays from your sticker book? Only difference is, these guys are nice: they can’t sting.”
“The birdies aren’t hurting him, are they?” Sarah asked, her somber gaze locked on the blob.
Jack carefully placed his daughter back on her feet and turned to face her.
“Well, the birdies are just looking for food, same as us when Mommy takes you to the market and you buy eggs n’ milk n’ bread. Only difference is the birdies way is a little bit…messier than ours. And because of that, they go after other animals, like skates.”
Sarah continued to stare at the hurricane of wings, lost in contemplation of Jack’s words. Jack, however, had a feeling he already knew what was coming next.
“Can we help Mr. Skate, Daddy?” Sarah asked.
“Oh so the skate’s a Mister Skate now?” Jack asked, smiling wryly to himself. But as he glanced down at his daughter, he met her eyes, the eyes he had come to know almost too well, her I’m-Daddy’s-little-Princess eyes, the eyes that he knew would move mountains so long as he lived.
Sarah sprinted with the speed and precision of a missile at the whirlwind of feathers ahead of her, and the gulls, although reluctant to end their feast, scattered into the wind. As Jack, who had broken into a jog, neared the sight, he found Sarah sitting in the sand next to the mud-colored amorphous puddle.
“Yep, that’s a skate alright,” said Jack as he slowed to a walk.
The creature wiggled feebly and arched its tail to his back in pain, creating a “C.” As Jack drew near, he found it reminded him of a cobra preparing to strike, but flipped flat on its face. Mr. Skate’s right wing had been nicked badly near his whip-like tail, and Jack could see where the seagulls beaks had made their mark on his thin, beige skin, leaving pink gashes where they had struck. However, it was not until picking up a nearby stick and flipping him partially over that Jack could see the true damage. A scarlet river had disrupted the skate’s otherwise snowy white belly and had begun to pool underneath him, coloring the salty water a thick and morbid burgundy as it spread. Jack could see the source: a small but deep wound on his naval which revealed ropes of sinew and muscle under his skin. As the skate wriggled his tail meekly, he managed to right himself, but not before Sarah too had seen the gash.
Jack held her to him as she began to sob softly. “Is he going to be OK, Daddy?” Sarah asked, her voice filled with concern and tears pooling in the corners of her eyes.
“He’s going to be just fine sweetheart,” Jack replied, mustering up a smile. “He’s just a little shocked to be out of the water is all; once we put him back in, he’ll be right as rain.”
“Promise?” asked Sarah, gazing up at him with those eyes again.
“Promise,” replied Jack, wiping the tears from her face with a finger.
But even as he said this, Jack could see the creature entering its death throes. His spine was arched in pain and was bent at such an angle that Jack thought it resembled some kind of bizarre winged scorpion.
“Just watch,” he said, inserting his hands under the skate on either sides of his wound and balancing him precariously as he lifted him. He had taken only a few steps towards the water when Mr. Skate arched his back again, propelling himself like an Olympic diver end over end.
There’s the first…the second…the third…and he sticks the landing! Jack found himself thinking morbidly. Mr. Skate hit the sand with a dull thwack and lay still.
“Don’t worry sweetheart; he’s just excited to get home,” Jack said, giving his daughter a reassuring thumbs-up. She smiled back.
This time, the pair made it to the water and Jack gently lowered the skate into the shifting tide. As the freezing, salty water made contact, Jack could see some faint signs of life in the creature. Freeing one of his hands, Jack began to roll up the base of his pant legs while wading deeper into the icy depths.
As a fresh wave of frigid seawater broke over his face, Mr. Skate appeared to be reinvigorated, and his primal urge to survive burned with renewed strength. Sarah cheered from the shoreline as Mr. Skate flapped his wings and slid from Jack’s fingers into the waves.
“Daddy, you did it! You saved Mr. Skate!” Sarah cried, dashing towards him without regard for the oppressive cold of the water and wrapping her arms around his thigh.
“I suppose I did Sarah dear. But I wouldn’t have even noticed Mr. Skate if it wasn’t for you,” he said, giving her nose a playful pinch. “What do you say we head on home sweetheart and see what Mommy has cooked up for lunch? I’m star-ving!”
Sarah’s shriek of laughter was answer enough, and he lifted her once more into the air and situated her firmly on his shoulders. Sarah reached down and plucked his sunglasses from the top of his head, giggling as she attempted to put them on her far-too-small face.
The cool sand felt good on Jack’s toes as he carried his daughter up to the beach path leading to 47th Street, as did the warmth of his daughter pressed against his shoulders. While securing her feet with his left hand, he reached his right upwards and encompassed her small digits with his own, smiling to himself as she giggled.
As they reached the sign marked “47th Street,” Sarah leapt from his back and turned to face Jack. “Race you home!” she shrieked, already sprinting off up the path before her shrill words had even registered with him.
Jack grinned and shook his head. “Not if I have anything to say about it!”
In the distance, a brownish blob washed up on the shore.