Monday, January 30, 2017

The Seal Wife *7


He saw that she was alive and that she was not Frannie but a woman whom he knew but did not recognise. She smelt of running water and sweat and the smoke of the fire that he burned in his hearth. She crouched in the gloom in front of his bed and swept away his dark moustache with her fingers. She touched her lips against his. Her feral force flowed down his gullet and into his breast. He lay still on his bed of ribbon grass, bewildered and aroused. He did not move for fear of the chimera folding in on herself and disappearing. She was a star; turning his gaze straight upon her would have rendered her obscure.

What a strange rhapsody it was, when she mouthed his fingers, licked his eyelids with a fishy tongue and then slithered under his oilskin and kissed the curve of flesh where he would hold the fiddle against his body. She put soft, damp hands against his shoulders and impaled herself upon him. Her hair fell over her dark face and brushed his chest. He held her then, brushed her lean, aquiline torso with calloused fingers and gripped handfuls of her hair. Her hair.

When she rose up still fused at his loins, she laughed and he saw her canines but he couldn’t think to who or what she was. Something lurked in his mind of the tales from the home country. Her warmth returned as they touched breasts, her hair splayed over the ribbon grass. He surged into her like the salty tide and then he lay still, afraid to move.

She took his hand and pulled him from his bed. Ashes smouldered in the fireplace. Outside a crescent moon dangled over the little harbour. With just enough light to make out the stones that lay scattered down to the water, she led him into the sea lying like dark paper between the hills. He knew the water was cold and she pulled him in anyway. Her strength was incredible. She swam him, holding his left arm and surfing across the skin of the water to the side of the inlet where he’d salvaged the wood from the wreck Erica. Then she dragged him down into the darkness of the inlet. His eyes adjusted slowly and the water didn’t feel as cold. Empires of stone and kelp towered around him and still she descended. His lungs thudded in his chest.

“This is where they fell,” she laid the words out in his mind like the sea rubs glyphs into sand and stone. “I called them down and this is where they fell. The woman ...”
A spectre appeared in front of him, a woman’s face, badly beaten with a swollen brow and a gash on her cheek. She was a native but not from this area. She had close cropped hair and wore several strands of tiny shells around her neck. Part of her left ear was missing.
“She was bound below deck. I couldn’t save her. She came from another place. I look after her now. I look after her things too.” She showed him the bag made from human hair and the mortar and pestle that lay among the wreckage of the ship. The woman, that expressionless wraith, faded.

He remembered the filthy men on the jetty and the terrible cries coming from inside the whaler. “I sung them all down,” she said. “But they survived. They went north looking for gold.”

He shook his head. She glared at him with black eyes.
But when he began to panic in the airless depths of the inlet she fixed her mouth to his and breathed into him. She pulled away when he stopped struggling, little sacs of air escaping her lips and clinging to her face. She glanced at the dog shark that slept in the belly of the Erica, his pectoral fins undulating gently, levitating just above the coral encrusted wood. She lurched in the water and swam down to nip his dorsal fin with her sharp teeth, shocking the fish awake. Just because she could. Glee spread across her tawny face.

Monday, January 23, 2017

The Seal Wife *6


They came mid morn, three men carrying spears shipped to their sticks. One man, taller than the others, wore a small iron axe in the twine of his belt and his chest and shoulders were marked with scars. Another man, shorter and straighter had knobbed his hair at the back of his head and emu feathers floating from a twine bracelet adorned each arm. The smallest man had two straight scars across his breast and to his possum twine belt was attached a long shard of gleaming green glass.

He put out his hands, palms facing upwards and waited. He wondered first if they would head to King George Sound with news of a wild white man hiding at the inlet. Then he wondered if they would kill him. He knew the natives didn’t like sealers and for good reason too.

The shortest man also seemed to be the youngest and was cloaked in a wallaby skin worn with the fur close to the body. He stepped forward, his eyes sweeping the camp. “No more wadjela?”

“No. Me.” He held up the herring he’d caught that morning. He handed it to him. Tithe. “Just me and the seal.” He nodded over to the inlet.

The young man held the fish by its tail, smiled and spoke to the other two. They laughed, the tallest in hiccupping chuckles that belied his authority. They thumped the middle man with the feathered armbands on each shoulder and he muttered and toed the dirt with his thorny feet.

“He loved the seal too. His wives got angry and clouted him and he go back home,” said the youngest. Maybe he was the only one to speak English. Maybe the others didn’t want to. “You go home too.”

“No, I can’t.”

“You go.” The man’s tone changed. He waved the herring in a floppy gesture towards the west.

“I can’t.” He shook his head again.

The youngest spoke to his brothers in Noongar. They stared at his clothes and the tallest man went to look around his hut. When he came out, he spoke to the others again.

“He says, why a stone house? Bark is much warmer.”

He shrugged and smiled for the first time.

They talked again and then the young one said, “Our women come here fishing. You see them. You go away.”

He understood. They would be watching him.

That seemed to be the end of talking. The short man shocked him by gripping his arm with big hands, the herring jammed between both their flesh. Then they left him, laughing, their spears held upright and against their bodies.

He wondered about the seal. He went upstream again and chopped more clay from his mine and continued packing the stone walls. Forcing the slimy, gritty mix between the cracks, he stopped and held his reddened hands in front of his face. He washed them in the inlet and sat to watch it breath for a while.

Three or four fires burned around him. It was difficult to tell how many, now that the afternoon wind was up. He sang one of his mother’s songs, waiting for the seal.

A bull seal lolled on the rocks in the morning sun. They gazed at each other, the seal with a curious lack of fear.  He turned back into the land, looking for firewood and breaking up dry kindling from the dying underneath of the shrubs. Later, he fished off the rocks near the channel. Occasionally he saw a bulge of water across the inlet or closer still but she did not show herself.

He went to his hut hungry that night and dreamt lucid of the quicksilver flash of fish and water that bulged with the living flesh of people. Frannie emerged from the water like a Venus borne across the sea, her blonde hair streaming behind her; a sight unseen to him but for few precious domestic moments when she let it down. Her skin glowed dusky, not pale and freckled Irish skin but brown and shining with brine and her eyes were black pools where he could gaze and see her and himself at once.


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.