The thing we found washed up on the beach was the size of a small sofa, and made of flesh-- but it didn't look like a whole creature. There were some holes in it--one swollen and bloody, another smooth and round--maybe a blowhole? Then an indentation covered with skin, and something that was likely a gill beneath a small, useless-looking fin. From a distance I thought it might be a couple of dolphins--I'd seen dolphins stranded here before. But no. I wondered if it was part of a whale, hit by a boat maybe.
A policeman was coming toward it from the other side, having been called by another passerby.
"What is it?"
"I don't know." He'd picked up a garbage can lid when he parked his car and stooped at the water's edge to fill it. "Maybe a sunfish?"
I'd heard of sunfish but never seen one. This creature had two big fins, at top and bottom, no tail: the back end was scalloped as neatly as if it had been done with a cookie cutter. The cop poured seawater over it and went back for more. The tide was low and it was hard to scoop more than a few inches of water at a time.
My husband and I ran home and got pails. Others had gathered by the time we returned. A couple of men-- my neighbors, it turned out, though I'd never met them, were asking whether we'd called animal rescue. One of them had a picture up on his smartphone. Apparently the creature was a sunfish. Then my next door neighbor came along with his dog. Animal rescue was on the way, from Brewster, an hour's drive away. We took turns pouring pails full of water over the creature--that's what you do with dolphins and whales.
"A lot of unusual creatures around, after Hurricane Sandy," someone said. "They get caught up in the current. Did you hear about the pelican at Herring Cove?" The man with the smartphone read to us about sunfish: The largest bony fish alive, often weighing over a ton.
"A fish," someone repeated. Of course. Whales and dolphins are mammals-- when they're stranded they breathe the air. "It's suffocating."
I poured water into the gill.
"Wrong way," the cop said. "In the mouth, out the gill." I imagined myself washed up somewhere, surrounded by strange creatures who tried to help by pouring water into my nose.
My neighbors turned out to be named Hans and Weber. They're Dutch and usually only visit in the summer. Weber got down on his knees and dug into the sand, finding the creature's mouth. He poured out his coffee, filled the cup with water and tossed some in. A large tongue moved in there, and the more water we poured in, the more the tongue moved.
A woman ran toward us, upset. Had we called Animal Rescue? Did we know what to do? "It's female," she said, pointing to swelling I had mistaken for a wound. Of course. Now we had a mouth and genitals we had a better sense of the fish. It had a wide scar on its belly-- hit by a boat, bitten by a shark? Exasperated with our ignorance, the woman rolled up her pants and barefoot into the water to get a fuller pail.
"Look," Weber said. What I had seen as a fleshy dent in the head was in fact an eye-- the lid had opened and the fish looked anxiously up at us. The next time we poured water into its mouth, it seemed to swallow. And a face came into focus-- the big round eye, the gulping mouth, and a bulbous, cartoony nose. She wasn't just any fish anymore, but our fish, not an it but a she, who bore a scar from some trouble in the past, who looked at us with what seemed like trust.
"Maybe we should cover her with eelgrass, to keep her wet?" I suggested. Everyone, even the exasperated woman, agreed. I felt the deepest satisfaction as we gathered the seaweed and spread it over the fish.
There was a burst of static on the cop's radio-- a message from the dispatcher. Animal rescue was at a different stranding and wouldn't be able to come. If we could get the creature back to water, that would be best. Otherwise we'd have to give up.
More neighbors arrived-- Ilidio and Fernanda, whose daughter is in my daughter's class at school. Ilidio is a fisherman guessed the creature's weight at 400 pounds. "Just comparing to a tuna," he said.
We had six men now and three women-- maybe enough to lift four hundred pounds? No. "She's like cement!" Yes. Her skin felt like sandpaper, and it was heavy for me to try to lift one fin.
"Maybe we can just slide her?"
We took our places. "If people can push a Volkswagen we can push her into the water," I said.
"Volkswagens have wheels," Weber pointed out. On the count of three, we pushed. We got her about ten feet. Blood trickled out behind her; her skin was tearing. Her eye looked up helplessly.
"We're hurting more than we can help," the cop said, his hands out in front of him as if he couldn't bear it. There he was in his uniform, with his radio and his taser, and still there was nothing he could do.
And the tide was ebbing. It was twenty feet to the water's edge but a quarter mile to water deep enough for the sunfish was more like a quarter mile away. The police radio crackled again. The cop was needed on another call.
"The reality is..." he said, but his voice flickered. Her body was collapsing under its own weight. It was eight hours until the tide would be back to float her. She was on the edge of suffocation even with all our efforts. The exasperated woman's feet were turning blue from the cold. She looked away so we would see her tears.
We stood in a circle around the sunfish. I doubt I was the only one who wanted us to join hands and say some kind of blessing, or to lie down beside her and keep her company as she died. Or something. But one by one, we went on our way. All day the image of that face was with me-- the way it only became a face bit by bit, as we learned how to show it kindness.
By the next day, her suffering was over and the tide had moved her body up the beach. Animal rescue arrived to autopsy her, and to carry her dissected body away. Sunfish become disoriented in cold water-- this one probably got pushed north by the hurricane and was unable to get her bearings again.
So we met, and through small attempts, failures and successes, came to know a creature much different than ourselves. It took patience and kindness and we had our own ignorance to overcome. And it ended with grief. But the grief, as it often is, was the measure of our connection.