Wednesday, January 18, 2017

The Seal Wife *5


 At first she was nothing more than a bulge in the water and he thought, I’ve been waiting for you, creature who lives in this breathing pond, to reveal yourself to me. He was waiting for a grand monster but it was a seal who rose to the surface. Her whiskers twitched and she snorted away a mist of water and looked at him with black eyes. He put down the violin and she turned and rolled under the surface. He picked up the violin and she appeared again. It was the first time he’d laughed out loud in weeks. He played to her then, Basket of Turf and The Devil’s Dream. She rolled and flipped and twitched her ears. He did not think of her meat or her skin that would warm him. He needed the company more.

After that he played every day, glad for an audience. She swam closer and closer until he could see the oil glaze that protected her eyes and the way she wrinkled her skin sometimes.

The nights were better with a fireplace and shelter to keep the dew off his body. There was plenty of wood to burn, strewn under the big hedges of the heart shaped leaf bush. But he was always hungry. The river mussels growing on the silty bed made him ill, loosening up his bowels. He ate bark, ground to a powder, to compensate and it clogged his stomach. The periwinkles were a staple but there were few left now around his camp. He went further every day. Once he chanced upon some limpets, abandoned by the tide near the entrance to the inlet. He prised two away and ate them raw, after pounding their bodies against rock to soften them. Down by the water, close to the reed beds a little green plant with yellow daisy flowers tasted to him almost like celery but bitter. Some days this was all he ate, grazing like a sheep and then wandering on with the sea celery acrid upon his tongue.

He sharpened a piece of wire, the piece he’d use to mend the hinges of the violin case. As he extracted the wire from the holes in the wood, he remembered fixing the case one evening at home. Frannie swelled heavy with their second child and sat watching him. Now he didn’t know whether it was hunger hurting his stomach or the ache for his wife that left him for a moment almost paralysed with pain. He breathed heavily. He fashioned the wire into a fish hook and then sat, thinking about line. He’d seen what the blacks did with reeds, grasses and hair. He looked at the fiddle strings.

He found himself talking to the seal when he put down the fiddle. His voice needed warming. Sometimes she stayed to listen and sometimes she surfed away mid sentence. A flippered thrust was the last he would see of her until he spoke again. His voice covered for the silence of other creatures. He did not mind if she went. She always came back. Then he told her stories that his mother brought from the home country, stories she carried with her as she carried linen and copper pans. He took the fiddle from its case. He ran his nose along the horse hair, rosin dusting his nostrils. He plucked an open A and listened to it reverberate.

I am a man upon the land
I am a selkie upon the sea
And when I’m far from every strand
My home is Sule Skerry.

She hurled herself out of the water in one jubilant twist, landing on her broad, silky back. “Now, Selkie,” he sighed and loosened the pegs of their strings. The instrument fell apart. The ornate bridge flopped uselessly against the body of the fiddle and he put the empty carcass back into its case. He tried to sing again, to keep her around but she tired of his lacerated voice and left.

As the sun tipped toward the mountain, he threaded wire and hook into the water near the channel and caught three skip jack on a gathering tide. She was nowhere to be seen but he knew she was watching. He wrapped the fish in paperbark and bound it with reeds, cooking it in the hot ashes of his fire. He peeled away the steaming bark that was soft as chamois and then the first sliver of silver skin. He eased a strip of white, juicy flesh between his lips.
He slept, warm and full by the fire, dreaming of the breathing inlet.

For two days in a row he fished at dawn and then made forays into the bush upstream. There lay strange little trails that he followed along the riverbank then out of the trees and into the open ridges that folded against the mountain. On the second day, in a secluded copse, he found the remains of a camp; sturdy beehive shaped huts lined with paperbark, each facing a cold fireplace. He wondered about these people and where they were, whether they watched him. They must like this place. He did. Sometimes the bush felt closed in, joined with these folk, muttering against him. He felt a desire to get out and head back down to the open water, where he could see everything. Never turn your back on the sea. He’d turned his back on the bush and he knew that was not wise either. Still, with food in his belly, he was an optimistic man again.

On the third day he woke to see the silky trails of smoke in the pale autumn sky. Fires burned at three points around him, one on the slopes of the mountain overlooking his hut. He waited.

Monday, January 16, 2017

The Handsome Family

Kinda daggy and seriously bloody cool all at once.

The Seal Wife *4


Eight years earlier, still a surly middle child and not yet a husband, he saw the barque whaler Erica dock in town. He had wanted to go to sea even then and he waited to see the men and the Captain. But they were foul smelling, exhausted vagabonds whose wretched eyes were seared by salt and held the darkness of men who’d been dropped off the edge of the world. Terrible noises floated out the hatch from the bowels of the ship. Two men stood on the jetty and swayed, their bodies expecting the jetty timbers to rise and fall like the sea. “He’s gettin’ his tooth pulled,” one of them said of the howling. But it was a woman’s voice and someone went below. He heard dull thumps and the wailing stopped. They spoke with accents, Americans. They stank of rancid whale fat. Even the ropes, thick as a man’s wrist, were soaked in the stuff and the deck was black with slime and oil.

Money exchanged hands. The crew looked up from the jetty to the public bars and saloons that lined the seagoing side of town, with desirous, pleading eyes. The Captain laughed and told them to load the stores so they could be gone from this “godforsaken place where the whales are naught and the women are fucking ugly.” Someone said they had been gone from their home country for two and a half years.

Months later news came through of the Erica going down along the coast east. A sealing expedition discovered the wreck but found no bodies and people muttered that the big sharks that dogged the smoky trails of whale oil through the open seas had eaten them.

Julian stared at the name board for a long time. Then he dragged plank after plank to a reedy clearing nestled in the tall trees, just above where the river poured into the inlet. They would make a fine roof, layered with bark and clay. He tried not to smash his fingers on the stones he gathered, one by one, to build a fireplace and then some walls. He stopped to pick the spiralled fish out of the periwinkles and chew on their gritty flesh. He eyed plants with caution, remembering the stories about the herb that could kill a man with three of its little heart shaped leaves.

Days went on like this, with hunger and desire always in his belly. The dry stone walls went up until he had a little hut he could just straighten himself in, with a slab roof. No windows. There were holes enough between the stones. Lizards began to claim corners and crevices for their homes. He piled ribbon weed against one wall and that was where he slept. Nights clamoured with creatures and something that lived in the depths of the inlet made an appearance in his dreams almost every night. Frogs sang and another noise mimicked. Someone once told him that sound was the tiger snakes calling to mating frogs, calling to their prey.

He went upstream until he found a clay reserve where the river ate into the banks. The rich ochre he packed into the walls and the roof. It smelt good. He was almost a happy man, until he thought of his mother. Two sons in one blow. Sometimes he could feel her tumult, see her when Boss spoke to her and then her face later, alone.

Finally, he got the fiddle out of its case and sat down by the water to play. He jammed the fiddle against the hollow of flesh between his collar bone and neck, leaned his hoary head over the blemished woman of the fiddle and stroked the strings with the horsehair bow. He drew out Rights of Man, like a string from a ball, slowly, so as not to get tangled and then faster and faster, until it became a dervish and his fingers fell true with every note. The music spun and bounded around the inlet. It became a cacophony, an orchestra, sounds which this place had never heard before. When he slowed and finally stopped, the inlet was silent, as though the birds and the cicadas and the crickets were all in shock and gathering themselves for a suitable retort.

That was the first time he saw her.

Friday, January 13, 2017

The Seal Wife *3


No one was watching him. He was alone. He spat and grabbed the oar before he had to swim after it. He cursed himself and the fickle dinghy that would go to any tide’s beckon. That night he ate raw periwinkles that he collected from where he stood with the oar. They gathered in colonies on the tide line and they reminded him of Frannie’s little black buttons, the ones that traversed up her chest to the brooch at her throat on their wedding day. He wriggled the tip of his knife into the shell and prised each black doorway open, extracted the tiny fish that spiralled into the shell. They were no bigger than a finger nail and tasted of iodine, their ink leaving black marks on his fingers.

He spent a cold night on the mound of ribbon weed, wondering what he was to do. The night hummed and clicked around him, scratched with furtive sounds but he was used to that. It was being alone he couldn’t enjoy and he thought again of Frannie and that clock that ticked beside their bed at home. He forced himself to remember the sound of the clock and like a baby he began to feel comforted ...

... a baby in the dark night squalls for its mother, the storm harasses the house and there is no fire left in the hearth, the clock, tick, tick, tick. The owl and the wind outside but inside just ticking. She picks up the baby and settles into the easy chair and gives him suckle. He gobbles at her breast until the milk begins to rush. She rocks to and fro until the baby sleeps, milk trickling out the corner of his mouth and she comes to my bed. She turns me over so I spoon against her body, cupping herself into me. I harden in the cleft of her buttocks and enter her, half asleep in the darkest night and move inside her slowly, mindless, until my chest is suddenly wet with sweat. I soften and stay there and we sleep together again, no words, just bodies and warmth.

In the morning his oilskin had peeled away and he lay exposed to the slanting sun and stared straight into the sky at an eagle that lay in the warm air above him. He wondered where its mate was. Those tawny, ragged creatures always had a mate.

Something splashed out of the water but when he looked all he saw was a disappearing black fin. His body ached with cold and sadness. He climbed to his feet and brushed away the dried seaweed. What to do.

He spent that day with hunger thudding in his gullet but there was fresh water plenty. It roared down off the mountain and splashed through the black earth into the little harbour. He followed the river upstream to where he found a pool bordered with stone that was grey green with lichen. He crossed the water at the shallow point and scrambled around to the other western side of the inlet.

Long planks of wood poked out of the water like bad teeth. He retrieved one. Then another. Finally, he found a piece with Erica cut into the grain.