by Pat Murphy from "Points of Departure," (c) 1990
The harbor seal lay just beyond the reach of the waves, its dark eyes open in death. The surf had rolled and battered the body; the mottled gray fur was dusted with white sand. Gulls had been pecking at a wound in the animal's head.
Kate shifted her weight uneasily as she stared down at the body. She was alone; Michael, her lover, was still asleep at the cottage. Kate had come walking on the beach to escape the restless feeling left by a melancholy dream. She could not remember the dream; it had retreated like a wave on the beach, leaving behind feelings of loneliness and abandonment.
She raised one hand to touch the ivory pendant that dangled from a chain around her neck, a circle etched with the likeness of a seal. Michael had given her the pendant the night before -- as a peace offering, she thought.
Michael had come to visit for the weekend to apologize and to forgive her -- managing the seemingly contradictory acts with the competence that he brought to every task. Kate had left Santa Cruz and Michael to live for a summer in her parents' old cottage; she had needed the solitude to finish her thesis on the folklore of the sea. Michael had brought her the scrimshaw pendant to apologize for accusing her of using her thesis as an excuse for leaving him.
She did not think that she was using the thesis as an excuse. But sometimes, in the dim light of early morning when the gulls cried, overhead, she was not sure. She knew that sometimes she needed him. She knew that he was solid and he was strong.
She could hear the distant roar of a truck traveling down Highway 1. The cottage was halfway between Davenport and Pescadero -- south of nowhere in particular, north of no place special. A lonely place.
Looking down at the dead body of the seal, Kate had the uneasy feeling that she was being watched. She looked up at the cliff face, then out to sea where the waves crashed. just past the breakers, a dark head bobbed in the water -- a curious harbor seal. As she stared back, he ducked beneath a wave.
She hurried back to the cottage, scrambling up the sandstone slope, following the narrow path that was little better than a wash eroded by the last rain.
The cottage was perched at the top of the bluff. The waves that pounded against the cliff threatened to claim the ramshackle building someday. The sea fog had begun a slow offensive against the cottage, the white paint was chipped and weathered, the porch sagged at one corner where a supporting post had rotted through, the wind chimes that hung from the low eaves were tarnished green.
"Bad news," Kate said as she stepped in the kitchen door. "There's a dead seal on the beach." The kitchen was warm and bright. Michael was making coffee. "Why's that bad news?"
"Bad luck for the person who shot it, she said. "It could have been a silkie, a seal person who could change shape and become human on land. If a person kills a silkie, the sea turns against him."
Michael was watching her with an expression that had become familiar during the time that they had lived together -- he did not know how seriously to take her. "You've been working on that thesis too long," he said, and poured her a cup of coffee.
She laughed and slipped an arm around his waist, leaning up against him and feeling the warmth of his body. Almost like old times. "Huh," she said, "there speaks the scientist."
"It'll be simple enough to get rid of any bad luck," he added. "I'll call the university at Santa Cruz. There's a class that recovers stranded marine mammals for dissections." Kate released him, and sat down in one of the two wooden kitchen chairs. The cup of coffee warmed her hands, still cold from the fog. "They don't need to get it. It'll wash out to sea at high tide tonight."
Michael frowned. "They'll want it. This is the only way that they can get specimens."
"Oh." She sipped the hot coffee. Far out at sea, over the crash of the waves, she could hear a sea lion barking. "It doesn't feel right," she said. "It seems like the body should go back to sea." Then, before he could laugh or call her foolish, she shrugged. "But I suppose it doesn't matter. In the interest of science and all."
Michael called the university and arranged to have a crew of students come to pick up the seal that afternoon, explaining that Kate would meet them, that he would be gone.
He looked at her when he hung up the phone and said, inexplicably, "is that all right?" "Of course, of course, it's all right," she said irritably. And when he came around the table to hug her, she realized that he had meant that he was leaving, and was that all right? She had been thinking of the seal.
When Kate stood alone on the porch, waving good-bye she felt uneasy again, unsettled. The fog smelled of salt spray and dying kelp. Michael lifted a hand in farewell and she listened to the crunch of wheels on gravel and watched the sedan until it vanished into the fog. The engine changed in pitch when he stopped at the end of the drive, turned onto the highway, and picked up speed.
Kate realized that one hand was clinging to the pendant around her neck, and she released it. A gull shrieked in the fog and she retreated into the kitchen to work. The papers that she spread on the kitchen table were the result of months of collecting the stories told in the Santa Cruz fishing community. There were so many stories and so many warnings about how one should behave around the sea.
She remembered sitting in the sun on the fishing dock while an old man mended a net and advised her: "If you cut yourself near the sea, never let the blood touch the water. Blood calls to blood. If the sea has your blood, you belong to the sea." She remembered a Scottish fisherman's widow, a sturdy old woman with bright blue eyes, had served her tea and warned: "You must not take the sea lightly. Those who take from the sea lay themselves open to the powers of the sea. And many dark creatures dwell beneath the waves."
The sea dwellers of legend were tricky. The kelpies or water horses could take human form to entice mortals into the water to drown. Mermaids and mermen could raise storms to sink ships.
But the silkies, the seal people that Kate's thoughts kept returning to, were a gentle folk. Kate leafed through one of her notebooks and found the widow's account of a young salmon fisherman who had shot a seal feeding near his boat, and had died in a storm the next month. The old widow had said that the silkies were tolerant of humans and angered only by the death of their own kind. They came ashore on moonlit nights to dance on the beach in human form. Fishermen had captured silkie maidens for wives by stealing the skin they used in their seal form; silkie men had been known to take human lovers.
Kate began listing the elements that the widow's tale had in common with traditional tales of silkies. Just before lunch, she was interrupted by the sound of tires on the gravel drive. She picked up her sweatshirt and stepped onto the porch.
Three students -- two men and a woman -- climbed down from the cab of the ancient pickup truck parked in the drive. "I guess you came to pick up the seal, " Kate said hesitantly. With Michael gone, her uneasiness about the seal had returned But she could not turn the students away. "I'll take you down, she said.
The day was still overcast and the wind from the sea was cold. Kate hauled her sweatshirt over her head. The cloth caught on the chain of her pendant and she yanked at the sweatshirt impatiently -- too hard. The chain broke and she caught the pendant as it fell. "Damn," she muttered. Aware of the eyes of the students on her, she stuffed the pendant and chain into her pocket. "I'll take you right down, she repeated."
The students unloaded a stretcher from the back of the truck and followed Kate down the narrow path. They had to scramble over the jumble of rocks that extended from the base of the cliff to the water. At,high tide, the waves crashed against the cliff, making the broad beach where the seal lay inaccessible from the path. When the moon was full and the tides reached full height, the sea swallowed both the tiny beach at the bottom of the path and the broad beach to the north.
Kate felt ill at ease with the students, unwilling to introduce herself or ask their names. These people did not belong on her beach. She stood several yards away as the two men squatted by the seal and positioned the stretcher so that they could roll the seal onto it. the woman stood at the animal's head. She shifted her weight uneasily, glanced out to sea, then back at the seal. Kate crossed her arms and hugged her sweatshirt tighter around her, suddenly cold. The woman shivered, though she was dressed more warmly than Kate.
She stepped toward Kate and caught her eye. "You must be half seal yourself to go in swimming this time of year."
Kate frowned. "Why do you figure I've been in swimming?"
The woman pointed to a set of footprints, left by bare feet, leading along the edge of the sea toward the body. The prints were almost obscured by bird tracks and boot prints.
"Not me," Kate said. "But that's odd. Those weren't here this morning. And I'm the only one who lives near here."'
The woman shrugged. "Probably just a hitchhiker who stopped off the highway to walk on the beach." She looked out to sea, where the gray waves crashed against the rocks.
Kate nodded. "I suppose so." She squatted beside the footprints and peered at them closely. just footprints in the sand; nothing unusual.
"Come on," one of the men called. The two men had picked up the stretcher and started back in the direction of the path. Kate and the woman walked in silence. Over the sound of the surf, they could hear the men talking and laughing.
"I don't see how those guys can joke about picking up bodies," the woman said. "I always feel like a grave robber."
"Yeah?" Kate glanced at the woman's face. "That's just how I feel. My boyfriend called the university. I would have just as soon let the body wash back out to sea. I don't know why."
The woman nodded sympathetically. "It must be something about the ocean. And the fog. And the time of year -- we're almost to the shortest day."
"The winter solstice," Kate murmured. "A bad time to mess with the ocean."
"Yeah?" The woman shot Kate a curious glance. "Why's that?"
Kate shrugged. "According to folk stories, the winter solstice is when then powers of darkness are at their strongest. It's a dangerous time."
The woman hugged her jacket closer around her, hunching her shoulders against the cold wind that blew from the sea. "You almost sound serious about that."
"I'm studying folklore and the old stories kind of get to you after a while." Kate hesitated. "It's not that I believe them. It's more like I respect them. This is old stuff. Strong stuff." She shrugged again, then fell silent.
The men lifted the stretcher into the back of the truth and the dead eyes of the seal gazed mournfully at the rusty metal of the tailgate. The woman paused before she climbed after the men into the cab. She laid a hand on Kate's arm. "Take care of yourself," she said. She hesitated as if she wanted to say more, then climbed into the cab.
The tires crunched on the gravel drive; Kate lifted a hand in farewell. She turned her back on the highway the drive, but she did not watch it drive away.
The fog had lifted but the sky was overcast. The horizon was marked by an almost imperceptible difference in shading between the gray-blue of the ocean and the blue-gray of the sky. The ocean was calm. A gray beast waiting at the foot of the cliff, not impatient for an end, but certain that an end would come. The setting sun was a hazy circle behind the clouds on the horizon.
Kate shifted her feet and the gravel made grinding noises. To reach the beach, a hitchhiker would have had to follow the drive to the path. If anyone had passed the cottage, she would have heard him walking in the gravel. But there had been footprints on the beach.
The sun sank out of sight. A night breeze ruffled Kate's hair and she shivered, then retreated to the cottage.
After dinner, when the warmth of the cottage had chased away thoughts of silkies and solitude, she stepped out on the porch to watch the moon rise. The lights of the kitchen glowed cheerfully through the curtains behind her. The moon would be full the following night, full and round like the ivory circle of her pendant.
She dug in her pocket to touch the smooth ivory. Her pocket was empty. Her fingers found a hole in the cloth and she cursed herself for carelessness. She must have dropped it on the path or on the beach.
No gleam of ivory rewarded her search of the path. She walked toward the broad beach, searching the sand with no luck. The tide was rising. A breaking wave washed among the rocks at the base of the cliff. When the wave retreated, she hurried across.
The dry sand of the broad beach just above where the wave had reached was marked by footprints. Bare feet. The prints led away from the path, toward the spot where she had found the seal's body.
"Hello, " Kate shouted. "Is anyone out there?" No answer.
She looked back toward the jumble of rocks that separated her from the footpath. The tide was rising and the water lapped higher with each wave. Kate broke into a run, following the footprints. She took long strides and when the waves hissed under her feet she ignored the spray that splashed up to wet her jeans. Beside the rocky outcropping where she had found the seal, she stopped and scanned the beach.
There. In the shadow of the cliff at the end of the beach she saw a flickering light and a moving shadow. The light was too pale and too bright to be a campfire. A flashlight beam, perhaps. "Hey!" Kate called. "The tide's coming in. Hey, you!"
The light remained where it was. Kate raced toward it, shouting, then saved her breath for running. When the light moved, she could see the outline of the person holding it.
She was a hundred feet away when a wave crashed against the cliff and sent an arc of spray over the flickering light. The shadowy figure moved, a darting movement too quick and graceful to be human. Like a cat. Like a sea otter. Like a seal in the water. And the light vanished.
Kate's momentum carried her three more steps. She stared at the cliff, which suddenly seemed clearly lit by moonlight. There was no one standing beneath the cliff. There was no flashlight beam. There was no nook, no cranny, no crevice where a person could hide. Just moonlight and water and a tall black cliff. Just a vanishing light and a fleet shadow.
Over the hiss of a retreating wave, Kate thought she heard a sound -- a long sigh like a seal taking a breath of air after a long dive. The moonlight gleamed on a white circle on the sand before her. Her pendant. Here, far from where she had walked. She stepped forward and reached for it, aware of eyes on her. A wave rushed in to snatch the circle of ivory away before she could touch it. She groped after it in the surf, but it slipped away, lost in the foam and the moonlight.
Kate turned and ran for the path. She passed the rocky crag -- her heart pounding, her breath rasping through a dry throat. The waves splashed high against the cliff and even in retreat left no dry rocks. Moonlight glistened on the swells.
A wave washed among the rocks and Kate plunged into the water, hoping to cross before another broke. The icy water sucked at her legs, dragging on her jeans. Beneath her boots, the rocks were slick with kelp and eel grass. The water was knee-deep, waist-deep. The ocean tugged at her legs. Another wave broke, and a rock shifted beneath her boot. She slipped and floundered in the water, her ankle caught between two rocks. She wrenched the foot free and stood, sputtering through a curtain of wet hair. She struggled forward, hampered by wet jeans, crippled by an ankle that gave beneath her. Stumbling again, but recovering. She limped through water that was waist-deep, knee-deep. Onto a sandy bottom. Onto a tiny beach.
She collapsed on the dry sand and drew in a long shuddering breath. And another. Only when she lifted her right hand to brush the wet hair from her face did she realize that she was bleeding from a ragged gash across her palm. Cut on a rock. She staggered to her feet, and her ankle throbbed with dull persistent pain. The waves hissed in the sand, leaving an innocent line of foam.
Droplets of blood fell from her clenched fist to stain the foam.
A shadow moved beyond the breakers. A flicker of pale white light. A will o' the wisp. The eyes were still on her; she could feel them. And the loneliness that had touched her that morning had returned.
"Not me," she called hoarsely to the light. "I didn't kill her. Not me." The light dipped out of sight beneath the crest of a wave.
Kate turned away to stagger home to the sanity of a warm kitchen, a cup of tea, a hot shower. But the rush of water from the showerhead rattling against the metal walls of the shower did not cover the sound of the surf. Even as Kate washed sand from the cut on her hand, she could hear the rhythmic crashing of the waves, gentle and steady. While she was heating water for tea, a storm began with the soft touch of rain against the windows, a persistent whispering like many soft voices speaking so quietly that she could not understand them. When she caught herself listening for words in the soft rainfall, she turned on the radio.
The storm picked up in force, competing with the wailing of pop rock. The wind howled across the chimneytop. The rain lashed against the windows and blew in through the bathroom window, which was warped partly open. Kate stuffed newspaper into the gap and the paper soaked up the rain. Once soaked, the paper dripped on the floor, beating a steady counterpoint to the pealing of the, wind chimes-high and furious outside the window.
Kate paced within the kitchen, trapped but unable to sit still. Once, when the wind rattled the door, Kate thought she felt the cottage shake and she thought of mud slides and collapsing cliffs,. The silkies, like the mermaids, could raise storms to shatter ships. A storm could also shatter the timbers of an old beach cottage.
The cut on her hand throbbed; her ankle ached, but she paced. She picked up the phone to call Michael, but the phone was dead. No doubt the lines were down on the highway. And if she had been able to get through, what could she have told him? That she feared for her life in a storm that the silkies had raised.
So she paced, reminding herself that the seal people were a gentle folk -- not like the mermaids, not like the kelpie. She had done nothing to harm the silkies, really.
At midnight, the wind lessened and the rain eased to a gentle rhythm. As Kate lay in bed, trying to ignore the twin pains in her ankle and hand, she heard a sea lion barking from the rocks below the cliffs. It sounded much closer.
She slept uneasily and woke shivering when the wind chimes rang lightly. The rain had stopped and the sea fog had crept up the cliff to wrap itself around the cottage. She had dreamed again, though the memory of the dream was not clear. She remembered an overpowering loneliness, a fierce yearning, a hunger for something unattainable.
Kate hugged the blanket closer around her, but the chill of the fog had seeped into the cottage and into her bones. Reluctantly she left her bed to get another blanket, crossing the cold kitchen floor to the linen cupboard and pulling a quilted comforter from the stack on the shelf.
The wind chimes jingled again, and Kate thought she heard another sound-a long sigh that could have been the wind. But it did not sound quite like the wind. The floorboards creaked beneath her as, she stepped toward the door. She hesitated with her hand on the doorknob.
What did she fear, she wondered. Her mind formed an image in answer: she feared a slender manshape, standing on the porch with the fog swirling around his waist and hiding his webbed feet. The fingers of the hand that she imagined to be resting on the porch rail were joined by a thin skin. From his other hand, her pendant dangled. He smelled of the sea and a strand of eel grass clung to his shoulder. When she reached out to take the pendant, she touched his hand. It was cold -- as cold as the sea.
Kate stopped with her hand on the doorknob, only half-aware that she was listening for the sound of breathing. Then she twisted the knob and jerked the door open. Shadows of the fenceposts shifted and moved in the moonlight and drifting fog. The posts teetered this way and that, barely supporting the single strand of rusty wire that was all that remained of the fence. Nothing to hold back the sea.
The porch was empty. No webbed hand rested on the porch rail, but at the spot where she had imagined his hand lay a circle of white. With fingers that were suddenly as cold as the fog, she picked up the pendant by the chain and held it in her bandaged hand. The breeze stirred the mist and the wind chimes jingled faintly. She backed away, retreating into the kitchen, and from the doorway, she noticed a single strand of eel grass trailing across the top step. She locked the door behind her.
She did not sleep after that. With the kitchen lights blazing, she wrapped herself in the comforter and made hot chocolate. She worked on her paper and tried to ignore the ringing of the wind chimes and the crash of the waves.
In the light of dawn, with a cup of coffee in her hand, she opened the door and peered out onto the porch. The strand of eel grass still lay on the top step, and she told herself that it must have fallen from her boot when she staggered into the cottage. Just as she must have put the pendant on the railing when she broke the chain rather than stuffing it into her pocket.
She called Michael from a pay phone at a gas station, saying only that she had twisted her ankle and was coming to town to see a doctor. She arranged to meet him for dinner.
In the restaurant that evening, the traffic noises ebbed and surged like the sound of the waves. The sound distracted Kate and disrupted her thoughts as she told Michael of the storm. She did not mention her vision of the silkie, but talked of mud slides and her feeling that the cottage could collapse into the sea. Even so, she felt like a fool. In the warm cafe that smelled of coffee and pastry, the crashing terror of the storm seemed far away.
He gently took her bandaged hand in his hand. "Some thing really has you worried, doesn't it?" he asked.
She shrugged. "The ocean gets to me when I'm out at the cottage, that's all," she said. "The fog and the waves and the sea lions barking..." And the madness that lingers at the ocean's edge, she thought.
"I told you it was a lonely spot," he said.
"Not lonely so much as..." She hesitated. "I never feel quite alone anymore. And I get to imagining things. The other night, I thought I saw a light dancing on the waves just beyond the breakers. I don't know; I guess my eyes were just playing tricks."
Michael grinned and stroked her hand. "Don't worry about your eyes, he said. "You probably did see a light. Have you ever heard of bioluminescence? There are microorganisms that glow..."
Michael explained it all -- talking about red tides and marine chemistry. Kate let the reassuring words wash over her. Michael never had time for the vague, ill-defined feelings that plagued her. She listened to him, and when he was done, she managed a smile.
"You've been working on that project much too hard," he said. "Why don't you just stay in town tonight and spend the night with me?" She stared at her coffee in silence.
"Don't be afraid to come back to me," he said softly. "You can if you want to."
She did not know what she wanted. "I have to go back tonight," she said. "I have work to do."
"Why tonight?" he asked. "Why not wait until tomorrow?" The answer came to her mind, but she did not voice it: the moon would be full that night.
She freed her hand from Michael's grasp and held her coffee cup between her palms. "I have work to do, she repeated
She drove back that night, speeding around the curves in the twisting road that led from Santa Cruz to her little, patch of nowhere. The old Beatles song on the tape deck drowned out the whisper of the waves: "I'd like to be under the sea in an octopus garden with you."
The full moon hung in the sky over the cottage as she rolled up the drive. She turned her key -- The music stopped. And the crash of the surf filled the car.
Kate walked to the edge of the cliff. Below her, the sea shimmered in the moonlight, the swells rising and falling in a rhythm as steady as breathing. She felt eyes watching her from the ocean below.
She slipped three times as she descended the path. The third time she caught herself with her wounded hand and the cut flared with a bright new pain. Her ankle throbbed but she continued to pick her way down the slope.
The waves had not yet reached the bottom of the path. The tiny beach was a silver thread in the moonlight, extending away in either direction in a shimmering line. She stood on the silver strand and gazed out to sea.
A light danced on the wave. Loneliness swept over her as a wave swept over the sand, touching the toes of her boots with foam. Involuntarily, she took a step to follow the retreating water. The next wave lapped around her ankles and a fierce pain touched her wounded hand so that she longed to soothe it by touching it,to the cold water. Somewhere in the back of her mind, she heard the echo of a voice saying: "Blood calls to blood." She took another step forward and the water lapped at her knees, dragging on the legs of her jeans.
The light danced out of reach. The water was cold against her ankle. It eased the pain. The water could ease the stinging in her hand. If only she waded out farther.
With her bandaged hand, she gripped the pendant that hung around her neck. Michael would not believe that there was a watcher in the water. But the light was there. And the loneliness was with her. She watched the dancing light and thought about the glowing microorganisms that Michael had described. The water tugged at her legs.
"No,"' she said softly to the water and the light. Then louder, "No." The water tugged at her, urging, insisting.
She could feel eyes on her as she trudged up the path. Turning her back on wonder. No, turning her back on cold gray waters that would beat her against the rocks.
There was no storm that night. But she heard the sound of the waves against the cliffs calling, calling. She slept uneasily and she dreamed of a lover: a salt-sea lover with hands like ice and the face of a prince. Between his fingers, webbing stretched; his teeth were pointed; he carried with him the scent of the sea. He loved her with a steady rocking as rhythmic as the sea, and he held her when she cried out -- was it in pleasure or pain? -- at the chill of his touch. She stroked his dark hair, sleek as the fur of a seal. He came to her for comfort, this silent lover whose kisses tasted of salt. He came to her to make a truce.
She woke to the scent of the sea and the sound of a gentle thumping. Half-awake, she fumbled uselessly for the pendant at her neck. It was not there, though she could not remember taking it off the night before. She left her bed, wrapping the quilt around her and stepping into the kitchen. The door to the porch swung wide open, moving slightly in the breeze and bumping gently against the kitchen wall. She picked up her pendant from where it lay on the porch railing. She did not put it on. She did not need it. No fear was left in her.
The single wire of the old fence was strung with drops of dew, one drop on each rusty barb. The old fence should come down, she thought. It served no purpose anymore.
The waves washed against the base of the cliff; the ocean moved in its endless rhythm.. Drops of her blood ebbed and surged with those waters. And the strength of the sea surged in her. Far away, a sea lion barked. And the bright sunlight of early morning glinted on the two strands of eel grass that lay across the steps.