The sea bear arrived in the lagoon one spring night, stirring up the cockle beds and stranding stingrays. By the morning it had upset the quality of the already untidy estuary, and had thrown half of itself onto the bystanding sand dunes. Here it lay, taking up prime whitebaiting real estate and blocking easy access to the river mouth. It was unmovable in its immensity and rumbled occasionally like a discontented volcano, or an aftershock.
‘It isn’t very much like a bear,’ reported my dad at breakfast. He along with the rest of the community volunteer firefighters had been some of the first on scene.
‘Yeah,’ I agreed. ‘Same as sea lions, I ‘spose!’ I inhaled a spoonful of stewed rhubarb, ‘- and sea cows!’
Dad broke an egg over the mess of onions and leftover mashed potato he was frying and said nothing.
‘I think the ancient Romans believed everything on land had an equivalent in the ocean,’ I said. Dad nodded.
‘I haven’t heard of a sea – …’ he trailed off, grimly stirring his sizzling breakfast. I could sense his disinterest.
‘Hippopotamus is Latin for river-horse!’ I said, vaguely hoping to hold the conversation.
Later on, after breakfast, Dad took me down to see the sea bear. It was sunny and the mud on it’s terrestrial half was drying, turning its shoulders the same colour as the sand dunes. Seagulls were wheeling about in the updraft of its breath, which was coming in hot, yellow, bursts from its blowhole. Our neighbour Tony was amongst the hushed rabble of locals idling about the sands. Dad moved towards him, leaving me alone. Only a bare expanse of mudflat separated me from the motionless animal.
‘Doesn’t look too much like a bear to me’ I mouthed, and then sighed. It didn’t look like a bear. It looked larval, like it was at an intermediate stage in its development. Perhaps it had some grace in the ocean but right now it looked like a disembowelment in a sausage skin. I stood for a while considering the creature. Presently I heard the ‘tick-tick-tick’ of an approaching helicopter, and a ‘yee-haw’ from Tony.
‘Shannon!’ my dad called me to him. ‘The news are on their way to film the sea bear, for the Walt Wright hour!’ He was looking graver than ever, but his cheeks were flushed red.
It was past 3am when Shannon returned to the lagoon, his father’s axe swinging at his side. The moon was up and glancing off the mudflat, which was a masterpiece of footprints and crab burrows; everywhere he stepped the ground gasped and exhaled. Much earlier Shannon had sat down with his father to watch the evening news, specifically the footage taken that day of the sea bear. ‘Functionally extinct,’ asserted a bubblegum marine biologist, from his laboratory in Australia. ‘This means the species’ low numbers are unsustainable, Walt, and sadly, their disappearance from the oceans is imminent,’ bemoaned the field reporter, from the lagoon. She coolly shifted a piece of hair from her face and tucked it behind her earpiece; in the background the sea bear stagnated. ‘Walt, this mighty individual might be over 150 years old and is definitely a male. The prominent tusk you see visible in the lower jaw is the mark of a bull. Our expert tells us that in recent years only females have been conclusively spotted, so this old boy might be one of the last of his sex.’ The frame zoomed in to contain only the sea bear’s fearsome muzzle. ‘This specimen is believed to be dying, Walt, of sickness or starvation. As you can see behind me, he is very sedate.’ Shannon and his father sat in silence for the duration of the segment. A later update announced that the city museum had already put in a hopeful bid to house the skeleton, perhaps in the café courtyard, alongside the pond, where you could feed the goldfish.
As Shannon approached the sea bear in the moonlight it began to impress on him how truly enormous the animal was. Its skull was the size of a golf cart. It could have easily bitten a Hereford steer in half. It seemed to have shifted position since earlier in the day but Shannon couldn’t say for sure. Now its head lolled against a bank of sand, its tremendous mouth slightly agape, its eyes clouded and only half open. When Shannon brought his palm to its vast temple the skin barely shuddered. It was alive, but only just. He lifted the axe, with which chopping firewood had made him well acquainted, and swung it deftly into the jaw of the sea bear. With a gruesome crack the tusk dislodged and thudded onto the sand. Last summer, after a father and son fishing trip, Shannon had watched as insectoid parasites, made of milk in translucent carapaces, vacated the gills and mouths of the snapper and trevally that lay dying in an iced container. Now, he waited for a moment, looking into that tusk-shaped void, waiting for a white face to appear. A single pulse of blood, purple in the night, oozed down the sea bear’s chin, toward the great tooth that lay on the ground. It dulled now, its spell on him uncast, and it was as it truly was: a blunted tusk, probably rotten on the inside. Shannon hovered above it, then stooped as if to pick it up, but his fingertips stopped. He imagined it hidden away, wrapped up in a box, under his bed, forever. Finally he snatched at it, shouldered the axe, and ran back across the plain of crab mud and moonlight.