Four women stood on the orange sand of the shore, staring in his direction. One woman wearing a red cotton dress pointed to where he lay and talked to the others. He didn’t move for what felt like hours. The other women were naked and stood in the water, working their feet around in the sand. Occasionally they picked up something with their toes, putting them in their bags. Cockles?
He slept eventually, in the sun. When he woke, they were gone and the inlet was still and quiet. The only movement was the bull seal who had returned to the rocks in front of his camp. He strained his eyes to see what the old sea dog was up to. The animal had something in its jaws and was shaking it to and fro as a dingo shakes a chicken. The twang of a broken string floated across the flat water and then the crunch of teeth into thin, varnished wood.
He watched, appalled, as the seal broke his violin into pieces on the rocks. The rage came up again, through his belly and straight up into his head. He ran back along the rocks to his camp, where he found his home unmolested by the women and everything in its rightful place. The axe lay in his bed, beneath the oilskin and seaweed and her seashell scent. He took the axe, leaping over the rocks to the bull seal, swinging the weapon at his side.
The seal watched him approach and growled over its find, pulling away the wreckage of the fiddle and glaring at him from reddened eyes. Every time it moved, a pathetic strum or crunch would answer from the instrument that was now so shattered that only the strings held together the neck and the body. The seal tried to manoeuvre itself off the rocks and keep the smashed fiddle but it wasn’t quick enough.
Julian raised the axe high above his head and clouted the seal between its eyes, cleaving open its skull. It was a clean kill. He felt his power return from the days and weeks of clubbing, shooting, axing one after another, ten, twenty in an afternoon, until some days the beaches they returned to were gone of all life except carrion feeders and flies buzzing around the clean picked skeletons.
He rolled the body into the water and went to push it out, thinking the next tide would take it away like it did his boat. He eyed the skin and changed his mind. He took out his knife and robbed the creature of its hide.
He gorged himself on great slabs of red, half cooked meat and scrubbed with sharp stones at the skin, stripping away the fat until the skin was supple and thin. It would make a fine blanket and cloak, something to warm him now that winter was coming on. The meat could be salted or perhaps given to the men who would surely return after today’s encounter.
He worked and ate and tried not to think too much. Thoughts could be nocturnal ambushes and today was bright and his belly was full. What he tried to think about was the warmth of that skin and where to find salt and how to break the back of the hide once it had dried and hardened like old bull kelp.
She stayed away during the day light hours. A light misty rain began to fall in the evening, flattening out the water. He stood in the doorway and looked at the pink clouds against the black mountain, scratched his belly and then went inside to his fire and resigned himself to the night.
He woke in the dark when the ashes creaked with the last of the heat to hear a peculiar keening. The only sound he could liken it to was the sound in his head when he’d shot his brother. She appeared in the doorway. His heart gladdened. She did not come in. She held out her hand. He followed her down to the water.
She took his hand as the sea lapped and swelled around his feet. She took him into the sea. They swam to the wreck of the Erica and she dragged him down into the depth of the inlet that breathed like the breath of the world.
“You are killing us,” she spread the words out in his mind. “There are too many of you. You are killing us all.”
Panic seized him as tightly as her grip. The stolen black woman, from another inlet just like this one, floated up before him. Her face, last time without any feeling, now gazed upon him with a terrible sadness, maybe even compassion. He could not tell. The thumping in his chest began to spread throughout his limbs. Pressure from the deep squeezed his whole body. His ears ached dreadfully.
She had a strong grasp of his ankle and pulled him down into the stone and kelpy castles. Julian stared at her, pleading, terrified and her black eyes said to him, “Don’t be afraid. Come down with me. Believe in me.”
This is the last episode of the 'Transmutation' section of The Seal Wife. The next section is called 'Autopilot'. What happens to poor old Julian McGregor Stuart is revealed ... later. x