Monday, January 16, 2017

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.

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