Seas of the World
By E. Sedia
Jillian sits on the windowsill, and looks outside, where the first snowflakes flutter in the pale glow of streetlights. It is cold; her breath leaves white patina of fog on the black plastic of the phone receiver. She imagines the phone ringing in Rick’s dark apartment. The answering machine does not come on – he never had one – and she counts the rings. Seven. Eight. Anything to keep her mind from wandering. She can spend all night listening to the receiver. Fourteen. She imagines Rick’s bare feet padding across the cold ceramic tiles of the kitchen floor, his hand tugging up the pajama bottoms riding low on his waist. Last she saw him, he looked like he’d lost weight.
“Hello?” His voice breaks through the twenty-first ring, hoarse. “Jill?”
“Yeah. Did I wake you?” It is a stupid question – it is 4 am, of course he was sleeping soundly in this dead hour. She feels a small pang of guilt at denying him oblivion.
“Yes.” He never lies, not even in the small reflexive way when he’s woken up. “Are you all right?”
“I guess,” she says. And then she is crying, weeping into the receiver, a part of her mind worrying if it is possible to cause a short by crying into an electrical appliance.
“I’ll come over.”
“No need to… I’m all right.”
“I’d like to come over. If you don’t mind.”
The phone is silent again, and she sits on the windowsill, trying to keep her mind away from the horribly missing piece of her existence. She thinks of the ways Rick annoys her.
She thinks of their meeting in court. The divorce proceedings were over with, and there was just the question of custody. Jillian bit her lip all the way to the courthouse, and spilled her coffee down the front of her white shirt as soon as she got there. She despised herself for this, especially once she saw Rick in his immaculate suit. Not an expensive one, but the man made any clothes look good. He owned them, while she couldn’t reach a truce with hers. Her clothes betrayed her by getting dirty or twisted, just like her hair tended to get in her face, and the makeup smeared itself at inopportune moments. How she hated Rick then, how she feared him! Any judge in his right mind would take one look at them and decide that she was a pitiful mess, while Rick was together, a fit parent. Able of providing good care to a child. Reliable.
She mopped up the coffee stain the best she could, and stood before the judge brimming with desperation. She stammered out her reasons why Derryl should stay with her – she loved him so much! – and fell quiet, turning an uneasy gaze to Rick. He didn’t look back, the pale clarity of his eyes for the judge only. He didn’t argue that Jillian should have custody, he just wanted visitations and vacation time. She hated him for being more generous than she.
The dead receiver in her hand comes to life. “If you require assistance from the operator…” She puts it back on the cradle, startled, upset that the delicate silence of the night and the snow was spoiled by this mechanical voice. She cringes and thinks of Rick, willfully, like it is some sort of an exercise. Thinking of Rick keeps her together until the doorbell rings.
She hugs him as he comes in, and cringes at how prominent his ribs are, how gaunt his face looks. He didn’t get a chance to shave, but even the scruff looks proper on him. Like he meant it.
“I missed you,” he says. Looks at her face, searching for clues. Always searching for an indication of how she feels.
“I missed you too,” she says, and forces a smile. “Don’t worry, I’m not going to ask for sex.”
He breathes relief and adds, “I didn’t say you are.”
“But you thought it.”
He doesn’t deny.
“Want anything? Coffee, tea?”
“Coffee,” he says. “Please.” He sits at the kitchen table, his large pale hands lying passively palms-down on either side of his empty cup. She hugs her shoulders and waits for the coffee to percolate.
“I’m sorry I woke you,” she says.
“It’s all right.” He looks at his hands. “I’m the one who is sorry. It was my fault that –”
“No,” she interrupts. “I don’t want to talk about that.” It’s enough to know that he’s feeling what she’s feeling.
He takes the cue. “How’s work?”
“I haven’t been in a while.” She looks at the snowflakes dancing outside the window. It will get light soon. “Don’t go tomorrow… I mean, today. Stay here. Call in sick.”
“Okay,” he says, always obedient.
When they first met, his obedience shocked her. She found him on the beach ten summers back. It was late, and the beach was deserted; she enjoyed her solitary walks, almost dissolving in the darkness and the relentless pounding of the surf. She screamed when she stepped on something that seemed alive; it turned out to be the hand of a man lying in the sand.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I didn’t mean to startle you.”
She squinted as he sat up. In the pale moonlight, he seemed lost.
“It’s okay,” she said. It was difficult to tell what he looked like in that light. “I must be going.”
He followed her; she should’ve been scared, but she wasn’t. He followed her not like a prowler but like a lost puppy. He spoke quietly, and she strained, trying to hear his words above the surf. “Caspian,” he said.
“Is it your name?” she asked. “Caspian?”
“Yes,” he said, his eyes wide and dark.
They reached the boardwalk and strolled along the fronts of rickety wooden shops.
“What’s your first name?” she said, just to say something.
His gaze cast about wildly. “Rick,” he finally said. She followed the direction of his gaze to the sign of the Rick’s Bait and Surfing Supplies. She pretended not to notice.
He sips his coffee, his face turning pink in the hot steam. He whispers under his breath, and she strains to hear. He takes a deep breath. “Aral,” he whispers. “Azov, Black, Red, Arabian, Laccidive, Andaman, Yellow, Dead.”
“Dead,” she repeats, and starts crying again.
“It’s my fault,” he says. “I shouldn’t have told him.”
She cries too hard to answer, to react, and he resumes his litany. A nervous habit he has, naming all the seas in the world.
“Philippine, Sulu, Koro, Java, Halmahera, Mindanao, Savu, Sunda, Arafura, Celebs, Molucca, Bismark, Coral, Solomon, Tasman, Bohol, Visayan, Camotes, Bali, Sibuyan, Flores, Timor, Banda, Ceram.”
It calms her a bit, like it calms him. “It’s not your fault,” she says. “It’s nobody’s fault.”
“I shouldn’t have told him.”
“Told him what?”
He swallows hard. “About me. About him. The way we are.”
She stares at him. She thinks he might be finally cracking, feeling the loss more than he shows. She feels selfish for forcing him to always be reliable, to make her feel better. “You want to tell me?” she says.
“Caribbean, North, Irish, Hebrides, Celtic, Baltic, Bothian, Scotia, Labrador, Sargasso, Balearic, Ligurian, Tyrrhenian, Ionian, Adriatic, Aegean, Marmara, Thracian…” His eyes are distant, glazed over. Dark. “These are my seas. His seas.”
It is always like this. Ice and water, jagged black cracks like stationary lightnings running across the floes. The taste of fish, tightly clenched nostrils, lungs expanded like bellows. The shadows of other seals, floating in a graceful arc, their flippers trailing behind them like twin tales of a comet.
Rick does not know if it’s a dream or a memory; neither does he care. He tells Derryl of the slow falls and rapid ascends, of the green depth of water. Of the migration routes, of the ecstasy he felt as the water turned from icy to balmy, with every mile south. Of the coral reefs where water ran clear as tears, of the fishes as bright as they were poisonous, of the quick darting of dolphins overhead, of their staccato laughter superimposed over the short, sharp barks of the seals.
Derryl listens, wide-eyed, as the two of them walk on the beach. “How did you become a person?” he asks when Rick stops talking.
Rick shrugs. “I just stopped being a seal.” He talks about the Sargasso Sea and its streaming grasses, undulating underwater like mermaid’s hair, and of the fat eels that come to this sea from all over the world. He talks about following the stream of eels from the Black Sea all the way to Sargasso, of the Aegian and Marmara, Ionian and Adriatic, of Greeks and Scythians, the deeds of men forever branded into the ancestral memory of the seals.
Derryl looks at his with warm brown eyes. “I want to be a seal too,” he says.
Rick is listening to the surf. “Then you’d have to stop being a person,” he says, distractedly.
It is light outside when Jillian looks out of the window again. The world is dressed in a shroud, a shroud her son never had. A shroud for a boy who did not want to be a person.
“It was an accident,” she says.
He shakes his head, vehement now that he found the courage to tell her.
She sighs. “It doesn’t matter, Rick. It doesn’t matter why or how.” She makes more coffee and they drink it, silently, as the snow is falling outside.
Jillian thinks of the Arctic seas and the ice – so thick – that opens suddenly wide to reveal black water underneath. She thinks of the smooth seals turning cartwheels in the black depths, oblivious to cold and wind whipping the land half to death.
“Laptev,” Rick whispers, “White, Barents, Beaufort, Chuckchi, Lincoln, Kara.”
Jillian thinks of the black seals perched atop white floes, of their sharp barks that tear the frozen air like tissue paper. She wonders, beyond hope, if Derryl got his wish.
Rick calls work, telling them that he won’t be in. Then he settles by the table again, his hands palms down on the stained surface.
“Tell me about seals,” Jillian says.
Seas of the World (c) 2007 Ekaterina Sedia. First published in Sybil’s Garage No. 4.