How the Ocean Loved Margie
by Laurie J. Marks
Margie had a lot of practice keeping secrets from people. She had taught high school English in Somerville, Massachusetts for nearly fifteen years without anyone, not even her cappuccino buddies, suspecting that she was a lesbian. When she arranged for a year's sabbatical no one, not even her mother, knew that she was pregnant by donor insemination. And when she disappeared abruptly shortly after the last day of school, no one except she herself suspected that she had gone mad.
Going mad was a very English-teacher-spinster-Victorian-melodramatic thing to do. If she were going to do it, she should have worn a flowing white nightdress with a tucked bodice and ruffled hem. She should have done her hair up like a Gibson girl, with tendrils wisping fetchingly down upon her neck. Then, if she had run down the rocky beach and flung herself into the cold Atlantic someone might have noticed and pulled her out again. But Margie went mad in a pair of blue jeans nearly white with age and an oversized t-shirt that declared Parkfield, California, to be The Earthquake Capitol of the World. It was very undramatic. It was, in fact, pedestrian. She did not hear voices or believe she was Catherine of Aragon or want to kill the president. She simply felt an irresistible compulsion to go to Maine. With her dreams and her every waking thought filled by a restless desire such as she had never before felt, it had taken all her strength to finish the school year. Yet, because she was a woman of more discipline than imagination, she had toughed it out to the last day, cleaned out her desk and filled out her forms, graded the last papers and turned in her library books, canceled her newspaper subscription and paid all her bills before finally filling her car with camping gear and getting on the Interstate.
She had gotten pregnant out of simple loneliness. Turning forty turns a woman invisible, and forty more years of being dismissed as insignificant by her students, and of having people see her just enough to keep from walking into her began to seem unendurable. For certain, she'd had her last lover, though at the time she hadn't realized it. "It's not shame," she had insisted. "I just don't want to lose my job."
Now she had crossed the Piscataqua River and was in Maine. "Now what?" she said irritably, addressing the creature that swam like a seal in the harbor of her womb. Surely this compulsion was all the fetus's fault, some kind of new psychosis brought on by pregnancy, or a strange kind of toxemia that had altered the chemical balance of her brain. Her answer came only in the form of psychic shocks of overwhelming anxiety that made even stopping at a roadside service area almost unendurable. She continued northward. For more than an hour she felt an easing of tension, but after she had driven through Portland she began to feel wretched again. The psychic shocks drove her eastward to where the coast of Maine frays away into tattered shreds of land. By sunset, she had been driven to the remote tip of one peninsula, Pemaquid Point, where a lighthouse overlooked the harsh ocean writhing under a red sky. A lobster boat puttered past, the lobsterman standing in the bed of the boat, rhythmically bending and rising to toss his traps overboard. A cold sea wind made Margie wish for the barn jacket left in the car, but she could not go back for it. Waves crashed on the tumbled black boulders of the shoreline, throwing threatening fans of white spray. Suddenly, the Pemaquid light began to flash, and the tourists who had gathered to worship the most photographed lighthouse in the world started clicking their cameras.
Only Margie continued to gaze out to sea. The fetus wanted her to continue eastward, even though it meant throwing herself into the water. This was not the tame Pacific, into which people might lightheartedly fling themselves for pleasure. On her trip to the west coast several years ago, Margie had been astounded by the fearlessness of California swimmers, for she was accustomed to this bitter northern sea, which was not far, relatively speaking, from the Arctic. Yet Margie's mad desire drove her down onto the rocks, until cold spray slapped her cheek and she stepped back in horror. She wrestled herself into the car, and drove west as far as she could endure, which was about a mile and a half.
Ever since she became pregnant she had been craving seafood. She bought herself a lobster dinner in New Harbor, and ate outside on the wharf, where, unfortunately, the cold did not deter the mosquitoes. A small boat tour company had a boat leaving at 9 AM for Monhegan Island, but when Margie looked at her Triple-A map, she knew that the island was too close to the mainland. If she took the boat there, she would only be driven into the sea again.
She cleared away the emptied husk of the lobster and studied her map. Nearby, a dog barked at the edge of a noisy crowd that gathered around the open air bar. When Margie looked up from her useless map, the dog had taken up a position near her, expectantly, as if it were her duty to give him the inedible remains of her lobster.
"Don't give nothing to the beggar," a man advised. Darkness had settled in, and the wharf's lighting was less than impressive. She could hardly see the map anymore.
"That map's no good," the man said.
"What?" She looked up with a schoolteacher's automatic glare. "But it's a Triple-A map."
"Don't matter how many A's it's got. Half the islands are missing. It doesn't show the Duck Rocks or the Thread of Life Ledges. And look here, the map just ends as if there weren't nothing out here" — His blunt forefinger poked the table beyond the map's edge. — "as if it was the end of the world. But it's still Maine out here, you know."
Margie restrained her impulse to correct his double negatives.
"Beyond the edge of this no-good map of yours, is Skerry Island, where I come from," he said. "And after Skerry there's truly nothing else, just open sea, until you reach whatever's on the other side of the ocean — some part of Europe, I guess. Now what you need is a good nautical chart, and you'll see every single island, clear as day."
He just happened to have a chart folded up in his pocket, and Margie's silence seemed a sufficient invitation. With his friends grinning and nudging each other over at the bar, he unfolded his chart in the lobster juice. He wore a flannel shirt and jeans. Besides the beer, he also smelled like diesel exhaust and fish. On his chart, the mainland was merely a blank shoreline, but numbers and geometric shapes cluttered the usual empty blue of the open sea. The man's forefinger touched a flake of land some twenty miles due east of Pemaquid Point. "See what I mean?" he said. "Skerry Island. But according to most maps it don't even exist."
Margie sighed, as a profound relief washed over her. "That is the place I'm looking for." Or perhaps it was the fetus who had spoken, for her words were garbled and distorted, as if they had been spoken under water.
The man continued, "Well, it was settled by Scots and they named it after an island about the same size, in the North Sea. A cold, lonely place, hardly more than some rocks sticking out of the water."
Margie didn't ask or care which of the two islands he was describing. "Can I hire you to take me there?"
She had awakened early to a chilly June dawn and had checked out of her hotel before sunrise. Now, her camping gear jostled the boxes of mundane groceries that filled the bed of Joe's lobster boat, and Joe stood at the wheel. A striped buoy was pierced on the radio antenna. By morning light, Joe was a man without mystery; as interesting as a car mechanic with a hangover. He wore the same clothing as the night before, and had not shaved. Margie supposed he had slept in his boat. The calm ocean shone like polished aluminum until they entered a fog bank. Wearing the barn jacket over her sweatshirt for warmth, Margie perched on the edge of the boat, sipping sour coffee poured from a thermos. The water below, suddenly gray and dark, writhed with shadows. The ocean was full of illusions, and Margie had become used to them when a sleek figure as long as a woman but shaped like a torpedo swam by just under the water's surface. She did not realize that it was no illusion until it broke the water's surface and peered up at her, solemn and incurious. Then it was gone and she was on her feet, startled, with a swimming, spinning sensation deep in her belly. If she had not known the sensation's source was that restless slave driver in her womb, she might have mistaken the feeling for joy.
"You have seals here!" she shouted, so Joe could hear her over the engine.
He slowed the boat. "Eh?"
"You have seals so far out?"
Joe looked oddly displeased. "You saw a seal?"
"They swim so far from land?"
"Depends on what you mean by land. There's a bit of rock not far from here, where they lie around and holler at each other." Some time later, he slowed the engine again, so Margie could hear the seals barking in the fog. They sounded like a pack of dogs just barking to hear the sound of their own voices, but the seal that had peered into Margie's face had not seemed like an animal at all, but like an intelligent alien.
Skerry Island appeared slowly rather than suddenly, a gray shape in the fog bank that gradually formed into a steep, forested mountaintop. The island's seven houses, each of which had to be at least a hundred years old, clustered near the small harbor on the sheltered western side of the island. A dirt track wound perhaps half a mile uphill from the landing, between the houses, which were mobbed by blooming lupines and walled in by lobster traps. Margie helped Joe unload the groceries and camping gear from the boat into a truck, the island's only vehicle. Joe had been in New Harbor the night before because it was his turn to travel to the mainland for supplies, and now he drove from one house to the next, delivering boxes of groceries directly into people's kitchens. The ancient, weather-beaten front doors had no locks. In one house, three children of various ages worked on correspondence course lessons, supervised by a woman who gave Joe a loaf of bread hot from the oven. They all stared at Margie as though they had never set eyes on a stranger before. At another house, Joe chatted with an old man rooted in a rocking chair on his porch. No one else was at home; Joe said they were out in their boats.
The road ended at the tiny, unkempt cemetery, where Joe did a U-turn and took Margie back to his house, which was a seeming derelict with sagging roofline and peeling paint. He'd lived there alone for twenty years, he said. She turned down his offer of supper, bed, and assistance in finding a good campsite, insisting that having a guide would take the adventure out of her vacation. In fact, she was worried that the longer she spent with him the more likely he was to notice that she was pregnant, which no doubt would make him feel entitled to interfere when she just wanted to be left alone.
She promised to let him know when she needed more supplies, picked up her backpack and sleeping bag, left the rest of her gear on his porch to come back for later, and set out to explore the island. Within her, the fetus swam peacefully in its sea, home at last.
Margie had been camping near the shore for six weeks before it finally felt like summer, warm enough that when the sun was shining she dared leave camp without even a jacket, though she always carried a heavy duty, bright pink plastic bucket bought at Costco years ago, along with a fishing knife and a small pamphlet on foraging. The bucket's unnatural color guaranteed that she could find it again no matter where she laid it down. Most of the time she simply carried it with her, because she never knew when she might stumble across something to eat. Although she had brought a fishing pole, Skerry's entire shoreline was too inhospitable and dangerous for fishing, except in the small harbor, which she avoided. She organized her day around the tide table, so that low tide would always find her at the rocky shoreline, wading through cold water in search of sea urchins, blue mussels, and periwinkles. She would then fill her bucket with whatever else she could find that her foraging book told her was edible: Irish moss and kelp from the water's edge; chickweed, beach peas, and wild strawberries from the windy cliffs and rocky headlands. When her bucket was full, she would go back to her camp and cook and eat whatever it contained; then she would gather and chop wood for her next meal, and go foraging again. She had very little spare time.
It was impossible to get lost, for the ocean surrounded her, and she merely had to follow the sound of the crashing waves to find herself again at the shore which, if she followed it, would inevitably bring her back to her camp site. Though the island was thick with trees, she had set up her camp beyond the edge of the woods, for mosquitoes swarmed in their damp shade. Instead, she camped in the wind, among huge stones that helped to anchor her tent on stormy days. At night, the nearby sea went crashing through her dreams: cold and wild, atangle with wrack and the threatening shapes of stone and shore. In her dreams she lived in those waves, twisting powerfully through the forces that should have crushed her, at home in a body that was designed to slide gracefully between the waves. When she awoke, sometimes she was gasping for breath, and the infant swam wildly inside her, as if it shared its crazy mother's dreams.
The fetus had ceased to torture her, but her days were not as fearless as her nights. Her watch, without which she could not have kept her appointments with the sea, told her that it was mid-July, and that she was six months pregnant. Impregnated in the bitter chill of January, she was due in early October, when, as far as her foraging book was concerned, there would be nothing on this entire island for her to eat.
Sitting on her wild cliff with the ocean wind tugging at her hair, she had a vision of herself, unable to see the ground around the vast swelling of her abdomen, searching desperately through her foraging pamphlet. Because she was mad, she accepted that she could not leave the island until her child was born, but she could not accept that she would starve to death first. Many weeks had passed since she used up the last of her flour, potatoes, and cooking oil, and her ability to hunt shellfish decreased as her belly swelled. This, she thought, was why human females could not bear their children in solitude. Yet she couldn't bring herself to walk to the settlement and give Joe or one of the other lobstermen a shopping list and a couple of traveler's checks, for she doubted that even this insular community would continue to mind their own business once they recognized she was pregnant.
The blackberries and blueberries began to ripen, and between tides she wandered the woods like a wild animal, eating every berry she could find. Still, she lay awake at night, with her stomach growling and the voracious infant twirling joyously in its little sea. The child took from her whatever it needed; she, on the other hand, went hungry.
Then, one day, the ocean threw her a fish. Having gathered periwinkles until the tide turned, she stood in the water, captivated by the glorious sunset. If she wasn't so hungry, she thought, she might almost be happy. Then a fish, a big fish, went flying through the hectic light of the setting sun, flashing silver red-gold, and landed in a frantic, thrashing splash, practically at her feet. She snatched it up and nearly lost her grip on it, but hung on with one hand while she grabbed a rock with the other, and bashed its head in. It was a mackerel, her foraging book told her later: iridescent green by the light of the fire, easy to filet. She had no oil to fry it in, so she poached the filets in sea water, surrounded by her favorite seaweed, the one called Irish moss. The summertime mackerel run must have begun. Her book said that during a mackerel run you could catch a fish a minute. But this same book told her that mackerel can't be caught from shore because the schools of fish avoid land.
The next morning, it happened again. And again, in the evening. Twice a day, the ocean tossed her a mackerel, as though it knew she was there, waiting, and didn't want her to go hungry. It was ridiculous, declared Margie in her schoolteacher voice, but that didn't stop her from eating the fish. One day, standing ankle deep in water at low tide, she called out, "I don't suppose you can spare some potatoes?"
The next day, the ocean gave her five pounds of potatoes. They didn't come flying through the air like the fish did, but she found them at low tide, half sunk in shallow water, where she hardly could have missed them. On subsequent days, the ocean gave her a tub of margarine and several pounds of flour, tightly sealed in a ziplock bag, and a half dozen onions, so that she could make fish chowder. When the ocean gave her a box of saltines, she had something on which to spread her sea urchin roe, which she could only bring herself to eat if it was served like caviar.
She didn't have to work anymore, except to gather edible plants on her way to and from the low tide potluck. The ocean gave her whatever she needed. Suddenly, almost overnight, she became enormous, and the infant began to struggle inside her at night, as though it were beginning to feel a bit cramped in its rapidly shrinking little sea. She set her watch alarm and dozed between tides, with her swollen feet raised on a rock. For the first time since her arrival at Skerry, she had time to read the paperbacks she had tucked into her backpack: Jane Eyre, Sense and Sensibility. No one ever has a pregnant heroine, she realized, not even the women writers, but she could vaguely remember a pregnant heroine in one of the old ballads, saving her man's life by Ñ as she recalled Ñ simply hanging onto him no matter how ugly he got. "Not me," she said out loud. "I'd have let him go."
"Uh," someone said.
She sat up too fast. Head swimming, she stared at a square, blurry shape, which resolved itself slowly into a person. Joe. "Shit," she said. He stared at her in blank astonishment, a picnic basket dangling from one hand. "Hello," she said. "You startled me." She had not seen or talked to another person in two months, and she honestly couldn't say that she felt like she had missed out on anything.
"You're, uh, pregnant."
She quelled any number of possible rude replies. "Yes."
He said down upon a stone. "Well." He looked around himself rather desperately. "Nice camp. Neat." Silence. "I expected to hear from you by now about supplies, so I thought I'd better check on you."
"I'm doing fine."
"Uh." His gaze skittered around her gravid shape, managing to avoid direct eye contact. "Shouldn't you, uh, be seeing a doctor?"
"Do I look sick to you?"
"I never heard of a pregnant woman camping before."
"Back on the mainland, it's all the rage," she said, before she could stop herself.
Joe gazed at her, humorless and dull as a used hubcap. "You should have told me."
"I didn't think it was anyone's business but mine."
"But I'm the one who gave you a ride out here."
Margie could not quite follow the logic of this statement. Maybe Joe's assumption of responsibility for her welfare was like some people's for their invited houseguests. Though Margie had invited herself to Skerry Island, she couldn't have gotten here without him. So now he felt like whatever happened to her would be his fault. She needed an excuse for being here that had nothing to do with him.
"Actually, I'm doing some research," she said. "It's for a novel about a pregnant woman who gets stranded on an island. My doctor said it was OK."
Joe looked skeptical.
"Besides, this is my last chance to be alone for at least eighteen years. I'll be an old woman by then."
Joe raised his eyebrows. "And the father?"
"A what?" Some people, Margie supposed, might not understand the mechanics of donor insemination, but Joe looked not so much puzzled as sickened. "Fine," he said, backing away. "You want to be alone, that's fine with me. Just do me a favor and stay away from the water. No one who ever fell into the ocean has gotten out alive."
He stalked away, still carrying his basket. Belatedly, Margie realized that the basket must have contained a picnic lunch that Joe had planned to share with her: fried chicken, maybe, and chocolate chip cookies. The man had lived alone for twenty years, and Margie surely was the only marriageable woman to come his way for some time. No wonder he had been so disconcerted.
Low tide that day came right on the cusp of the late sunset, and she stood there, vaguely worried, as the red sky turned a deep, translucent blue which slowly darkened to black. Her pink bucket was empty, and the tide had long since turned.
Surely the ocean, so kind until now, wasn't jealous? She abruptly shouted, "I don't want him, or his fried chicken! I sent him away, didn't I?" She stopped, feeling much more foolish than she had when she asked for potatoes the first time. The waves crashed, startlingly close, for in the darkness, the danger of the rising tide had crept up on her unobserved. "The hell with you," she muttered, not sure who she was talking to. She turned toward the safety of the shore.
The bitter ocean mugged her from behind. Off-balanced, Margie went down, and the water sucked her away from the stability of shore. She thrashed herself up to her knees, but now another looming black wave fell onto her, like a shower of black crockery. She breathed water, and envisioned herself battered to death upon the rocks, and no one but she would know it was a lover's quarrel. Another cold wave loomed. She struggled feebly, but the stones rolled underfoot like marbles. Then, a new force jerked her forward, out of the crashing waves' grasp, and again, out of the writhing water and onto stones, like a sack of wet laundry. She lay on her back, coughing, retching, with the stars starting to come out overhead in a sky of midnight blue.
"The ocean will not give you up so easily. Get on your feet now. You're not yet safely on dry land."
She rolled onto her side, and the same hand that had jerked her out of the ocean's grasp hauled her briskly to her feet and supported her as she walked away from the water's writhing edge. Safely out of the range of the tide, she collapsed onto a boulder, still gasping, starting to shiver now in her soaking wet clothes and the chill wind of evening. Her eyes burned with salt, but through the haze and twilight, she thought she saw another woman, utterly naked but carrying some kind of heavy clothing under her arm, stride through the shallow, starlit water and bend over to pick something up. She came back, and the thing in her hand resolved itself into Margie's pink bucket.
"You'd better get those wet clothes off," the woman said. "That wind's not so cold, but it's cold enough to give you hypothermia if you're not careful." She tossed the bucket and her own armload of wet clothes onto the rocks, safely out of the ocean's reach. Self-conscious, Margie took off her shirt and pants. "Come on," the woman said, and helped her up. "I'll come back for our things."
Margie went with her, shivering, her knees rubbery from shock. She could not tell where they were going, and even though she though she knew this shoreline pretty well, soon she had entered in an unfamiliar place, starlit and filled with the shapes of great, looming stones, with the trees sighing nearby as the wind flowed through like the tide, and the sound of the crashing waves far enough away that Margie's fear began to ease. A door creaked open, a lantern was lit, and she found herself indoors, sitting in a chair crudely cobbled together out of driftwood, wrapped in a Hudson Bay blanket. The naked woman knelt before a rusty old wood-burning stove and blew energetically on the tinder within until it burst into flame.
And then she was gone, leaving Margie alone in the faint, warm light of the crudely furnished shack. Its walls seemed to be made of rimed planks salvaged from the sea, with the gaps and knotholes filled with mud and grass. The cushions on the furniture were handmade, with bits of the grass that stuffed them poking through the seams. Blankets lay unfolded in one corner; the bed appeared to be the floor, where an unlikely pile of oriental carpets lay several layers deep. An open doorway led to a dark second room, which seemed to be for storage; Margie could see cardboard cartons, and clothing hanging from hooks.
On one wall, near the stove, an Olympic gold medal hung from a nail, it ribbon faded with age.
The door opened, and the woman came in, hauling a tangle of wet clothing and what seemed to be a substantial wetsuit, which she hung in the storeroom. Calmer, warmer, Margie took a good look at her this time, as she pulled on a worn pair of jeans and a faded flannel shirt. She had a swimmer's big shoulders, and had a layer of fat to insulate her from the cold water. Her hair was already starting to dry, and in the firelight it seemed almost red, but her eyes were dark, almost black. She turned and looked at Margie, as though she felt her stare. She had to be forty years old, or close to it, and her face had the closed-off look of one who had lived long enough to lose all her trust of the world.
"Abigail Macauley?" said Margie in disbelief.
The woman gazed at her for a moment, then glanced at the gold medal. "I never could figure out what to do with that thing. For God's sake, don't call me Abby, like they kept doing on T.V. It's Gayle."
"It's not every day a pregnant woman gets rescued from the sea by an Olympic gold medal swimmer."
"I suppose not." Having finished buttoning her shirt, she added wood to fire, which started to put forth a welcome warmth, and put on a pot of water to boil. "Some tea will warm you up."
"I've been here two months and never realized I had a neighbor."
"I rinsed your clothes with fresh water." Gayle hung Margie's clothes by the stove to dry.
"You swim in that ocean? Even in a wetsuit — "
Gayle smiled suddenly. Her crow's feet pleated like the folds in the a paper fan. "I'm no more crazy than you are," she said.
Margie eased herself back into the grass-musty, crackly cushions of the driftwood chair. The scratchy, stiff blanket smelled salty as the sea. The sea really did love her, Margie thought, sleepy in the aftermath of having almost drowned. After weeks of giving her everything she needed, it had tried to kill her in a jealous rage, but then had regretted it and sent instead this island hermit, rising up out of the wave to save her life.
I am insane, Margie thought, waking up a little.
Gayle's kitchen included an ice chest, a small but sturdy table, and a wooden box of kitchenware. Waiting for the water to boil, she took a knife from the box and opened the ice chest to remove a mackerel. Dumbstruck, Margie watched her filet the mackerel with one brisk swipe of the knife. Gayle turned the fish over and did it again, then tossed the remains out the door for the seagulls. She poured the water for tea and brought Margie a cup with the teabag still in it — peppermint, the same brand the sea had given her last week.
Margie said, "Do you swim all the way to land for supplies?"
"Now who would sell groceries to a naked woman carrying a wetsuit?" Gayle seemed utterly serious. "I've got a boat over at the harbor."
Gayle was accustomed to silence, of course, and as she rolled the filets in cornmeal and sliced some peaches while the fish fried, Margie felt no pressure to engage in idle talk. There was a question she had to ask, but she had a feeling the answer would not be simple, and perhaps there would be no answer at all, but just a reproving look from a woman who clearly placed great value on her privacy. Once that woman had been a slightly fat girl with big shoulders who swam to fame on television one hot summer's day between Margie's sophomore and junior year in college, twenty-three years ago. If Margie let go of her assumptions about how the world worked, their meeting like this began to seem too inevitable, not the result of a mysterious accident, but a choreography. Margie was comfortable in this chair; to be handed a plate of hot food that she had neither gathered nor cooked was a great luxury. She did not want to risk losing this sudden comfort by asking paranoid questions.
So she finally said, "Thank you for helping me."
Gayle managed to seem preoccupied with her food, but when she looked up she was still a little flushed. She didn't pretend like she thought Margie was referring to saving her from drowning. "You looked a bit hungry," she said. "But it seemed like you wanted to be alone."
They never directly mentioned the subject of the food from the sea, but that was because Margie thought she knew everything she needed to know: that Gayle had and would continue to feed her, and that she would not otherwise interfere or intervene with Margie's life. When Margie's fear lifted, as she sat eating the mackerel filet, she realized how afraid she had been, for much longer than just two months, how, in fact, it had been out of fear that she got herself pregnant in the first place. Now she knew that she would not die of hunger, or give birth alone.
Gayle offered Margie another slice of bread, and gave her a shirt and socks to wear, and asked if she should buy Margie some larger maternity clothes the next time she took her boat to the mainland. By eleven o'clock, she had heard with apparent equanimity the entire story of Margie's secret madness, and had commented, as though it were only common sense, "I guess your baby wants to be born here."
About herself she volunteered nothing, and it seemed only courteous not to inquire how a champion whose face had once appeared on cereal boxes had wound up in a cobbled-together shack on an island so remote it didn't appear on auto club maps. But when Margie cautiously mentioned Joe's visit to her campsite that day, Gayle's occasionally expressive face hardened. "Joe's the kind of man who'd strip off and incinerate his own skin if he thought it would make him more like everybody else."
Years, perhaps even a lifetime of bad blood, lay behind that bitter declaration. In Somerville, a city of apartments, people stayed for a few years, and if anything irritated them, they simply moved on. Margie had forgotten what hatred was like. She managed to say, "Well, I hardly know him, of course, but he just struck me as being rather dull."
"Yes," Gayle said venemously. "Exactly. Pathologically ordinary, that's Joe."
"Is he the reason you don't live with the others, by the harbor?"
Gayle said after a moment, "No, I can deal with Joe. But I'm just too queer for the island folks. I don't belong with them anymore."
* * *
The mattress of layered oriental rugs was much more comfortable than Margie's air mattress, which lately she had found difficult to inflate, since the breathlessness of late pregnancy had set in. She awoke at dawn and went out to pee in the rocks, and as soon as she got a good look at the shoreline she knew exactly where her own camp lay in relation to Gayle's. But she felt no desire to rush back to the increasingly awkward cookfire, the tent she could just barely crawl into, the sleeping bag she could no longer zip up. She stood in the cold wind, thinking, but she did not have to think for very long. The shack was all but invisible even in plain sight. A simple comfort waited behind its camouflage. Margie went back inside, and shut the door.
Gayle stirred among the blankets, with her red-brown hair in a tangle and her shirt rucked up to her armpits. Margie put her hands on bare skin and stroked up to Gayle's lush, flannel-framed breasts. Gayle caught her breath and mumbled, her words thick with sleep, "You don't know what you're — "
"Oh god, your skin!"
"My skin?" she repeated, groggy and strangely startled.
Her skin smelled like the ocean, but she was warm and soft and quickly ceased her incoherent protests. Her hair had seaweed in it, and her whole body tasted of salt. Margie tasted the length and breadth of her. Between them, the infant rested peacefully in its little sea.
* * *
That day, Gayle helped Margie to collapse her tent and pack away her camping gear, and Margie moved into the shack. Neither one of them had ever lived with another person, but Margie found she could put up with almost anything if that meant she could lie on the cushions of the simple driftwood bench with her feet up. The energy of early pregnancy had evaporated, and Margie found the smallest effort exhausting. Gayle went to the mainland and returned with desperately needed larger-size maternity clothing and some ice cream which had stayed firm in the ice chest on the long journey from the grocery store, and a fresh supply of batteries for the radio, and a half dozen more classics in paperback. She wouldn't take Margie's money.
Gayle spent almost every day from dawn to dark making her solitary living from the sea. She gave her catch to the bread-baking woman's husband, who during the mackerel run daily hauled everyone's fish to the mainland in his big boat, in exchange for a portion of the take. Sometimes, though, when Margie woke up in the morning, Gayle's wetsuit would be gone, and Margie knew that Gayle was in the sea, not on it.
On one of those days, Margie awoke from a long nap to the bizarre sensation of the baby practicing a flutter-kick against her ribs. The small, windowless room was faintly lit by a red light which seeped in between the boards. The battery-powered radio murmured news of a world so distant Margie could hardly make any sense of it. Margie got awkwardly and heavily to her feet and opened the door. The loud crashing of the waves told her it was high tide. There was a chill in the air, and when she glanced over at the nearby woods, she saw a hint of red among the leaves of the sugar maples. Was that just the red sunlight, or was autumn already so close? What was the date? What had she done with her watch?
The waves crashed. In the moment of silence that followed, Margie thought she heard a voice calling. She started hastily down the narrow path. Gayle was not usually so late on the days she went swimming. There was another silence, and she heard the voice again, calling, "Margie!" But it was not Gayle's voice. More slowly and more carefully now, for the pregnancy had utterly confounded her sense of balance, Margie made her way down to the shore. At a distance, a square figure wandered the rocks, shouting her name.
"Joe!" she yelled. "What the hell is the matter?"
He heard her, and turned, and hurried toward her. "Thank God," he said. "Your tent was gone and — I didn't know what to think."
"I moved my camp," she said. "I told you, I need to be alone."
He looked at her, taking in her dramatic shape, her backward tilt, her legs, straddled like a sailor's upon an unreliable deck. "How far along are you, anyway?"
Margie gazed at him, baffled. He had become as incomprehensible as the radio news. "How far along what?"
"How many months? When are you due?"
"What? Oh." After a bit of effort, she managed to get her hands into her pockets. She should have brought her jacket out with her; she was standing in a cold wind. "I've kind of lost track, I guess." Then she realized how strange that would sound to someone who was accustomed to pregnant women brooding over every week of development, hauling ultrasound pictures around to show their relatives, reading baby books and pasting yellow duckies on the bedroom wall.
Joe's face was suffused with hectic light. "You can't have your baby on the island."
"Why not? You were born here, weren't you?"
He looked at her blankly for a moment, as if her simple question were too convoluted for him to answer. Then he said, seriously, "There's things an outsider don't know about this place."
"Such as what?" she asked impatiently. Joe reminded her of nothing so much as a sixteen-year-old trying to explain why cruising around all night had been more important than writing an overdue paper on Hamlet.
The waves thundered suddenly, close by, and wind-carried spray chilled Margie's skin. Gayle had told her that the seals never come ashore on Skerry Island because they remembered having been hunted long ago. Gayle often made statements that suggested she had a rather eccentric view of the world, but Margie was hardly in a position to criticize. Joe, on the other hand, was the last person she would have expected to turn superstitious. Margie said, "In evolutionary terms, seals are just dogs that learned to swim."
"I'm talking about a different evolution," Joe said. "I'm talking about the seals that followed the Scots across the sea when they settled here. The kind that ought to be extinct — "
There was a silence. Margie said briskly, "Well, I really don't see the relevance — " Then she noticed his face, and stopped. She had only before seen an expression like that on a witness to a recent gruesome auto accident. "What is the matter with you?"
"Gayle," he said.
Margie turned, and saw that Gayle had risen out of the ocean like Aphrodite, and stood knee deep in water, naked, with her wetsuit under her arm. "Well, hello, brother," she said. "What brings you to this end of the island?"
"I'm not your stinking brother!"
"Stinking cousin, then," she said amiably.
Joe seemed to lean towards her, like a dog about to bite, while simultaneously recoiling from her nudity. Riveted, Margie struggled not to laugh. "You did this to her!" he shouted.
Gayle said mildly, "I got the girl, if that's what you mean."
His head jerked, and he turned on Margie the horrified stare she had always feared. Folding her hands across the belly, she felt the baby give an idle kick. "Yes," she confirmed, and felt a giddy rush of euphoria.
"But you don't know," he said. "You don't know what she is — "
Margie said, "I do strongly suspect that she might be a lesbian."
The waves crashed. Gayle uttered a snort of laughter. "There's not a thing you can do here, brother — cousin. Go home to the house you stole from me — go home to your warm, safe little fire and your two television stations. You've gotten everything you ever wanted, so go home and enjoy your little life."
Breathing heavily, as though her contempt had struck him a physical blow, Joe stood swaying. Then, he turned and said weakly, reaching for the arm that Margie hastily snatched out of reach, "Come with me, please. You have no idea what she's capable of."
Gayle was a dark, still figure, her shape defined by the writhing, vivid sea.
Margie said, "Don't be ridiculous." She saw him give up, a physical movement, almost like collapse. He walked away.
Without speaking, Gayle and Margie watched him travel towards the little bastion of house and harbor, where even the boats were anchored. Margie felt an impulse to make a joke, but Gayle's silence was too profound, too strange. Her shadowed face had an unsettling expression: not angry or distant, but simply alien; an expression utterly undomesticated.
Margie said, "Let's go in." She wanted the light of the lantern, the interplay of clever voices on National Public Radio. "We'll have some corn and peaches with our fish."
Gayle nodded, distant. From across the restless water, voices seemed to call: Gayle, Gayle, Gayle. She turned and looked out to sea. "A storm is coming. Do you hear the seals?"
"I'm afraid I haven't really listened to the weather reports."
Gayle abruptly took Margie's hand; her skin was cold and wet, but she did not seem chilled. "Corn and peaches," she said. "Sounds good."
* * *
When Margie's contractions began, Gayle was out in the ocean. Margie went down to the beach to look for her, and got herself trapped there, lying among the frosty stones as the contractions washed over her like the sea washing over the beach. October had arrived all of a sudden, and now a bitter wind blew across open ocean, all the way from the Arctic. The trees crowded beyond the beach, shivering in their scarlet costumes. The ocean crashed into shore, and the spray seemed to freeze in the air, suffusing the light with glowing particles of ice. Margie felt lifted out of the cold, out of herself. The ocean drew back, then came rushing forward again, and drew back, now leaving behind a half dozen visitors to land. The seals undulated out of the water, humping their bodies across the stones. More arrived behind them. They surrounded her: gray as salt-aged cedar, speckled with bits of white and black, earless, with deep, human eyes. They enclosed her and ended her solitude, making her one of them. She lay fearless in their midst as the tide of contractions washed over her.
On a bitter beach, surrounded by the seals, Margie felt the baby break free of its harbor. The seal beside her rolled onto its side and Gayle emerged naked from its belly. The living flesh that had enveloped her fell slack, like an empty costume. She carried the seal skin into the rocks where it would be secure, and returned a woman, though her eyes were still the eyes of a seal. She sat beside Margie, holding her hand as the contractions, nearly continuous now, rolled across her like waves herded before a storm wind. She told her a story:
Many years ago, an island girl found an injured seal in the harbor, and she began to feed him fish stolen from her father's nets. The island people had long since forgotten that the fin folk were their kin, but still, the selkie came to trust the girl so that he dared to drop his skin, and the girl came to love him, so that one day she turned up pregnant. When her child was born a selkie, she would not give her daughter to the sea, even though the father came for her. Out of revenge, perhaps, he seduced the island girl's sister, and she also bore a selkie child. Both mothers hid their children's' sealskins away, and the entire island conspired to forget that they were selkie children, though I suppose that in their dreams the old ones still remember. The two children grew up in the same house, both of them loving the sea, and — this is the part you know — the girl became a competitive swimmer for a time. Still, her heart yearned for the island, and she felt that part of herself was missing, though she did not fully understand why, until one day she came home for her mother's funeral and found the sealskins hidden away in the attic.
By then, she and her half brother were the last of their family alive. She put on her skin and went home to the sea, but he built a bonfire on the beach and burned, not just his skin, but his soul to ashes. He hates me because he hates himself, and I hate him for his cowardice. So we have been enemies for twenty years.
But the choice I made was a lonely one, Margie. The seals do not remember that they once were human, and the humans don't remember that they once were seals. Me, I am alone in both worlds: on land or in sea, I am the only selkie. I know now what moved my father to get his children on these island women: human sperm will not kindle in me, and with seals I am fertile but only to bear seals. In one of my many skins, I am a man, and I thought what I did would be no different from what a sea urchin does, when he sends his sperm out upon the waters, to find an egg or die. Margie, I am your baby's father.
Margie uttered a shout, for the seal child was emerging: sleek and soft, with ancient, gentle eyes. As it broke loose from her, her old English teacher self enveloped her. Smothered in this heavy and unyielding skin, she struggled, but she fit the skin so easily and it felt so safe and familiar that she quickly succumbed to it. I am myself again, she thought, and saw the seal child in Gayle's embrace, and she screamed with horror and could not stop screaming.
* * *
Going mad and running away to a remote island for five months, pedestrian though it had seemed at the time, began to seem rather lurid and romantic in retrospect. Like with most lurid romances, the appeal of it was a mystery to outsiders. So Margie, now an outsider to herself as she lay in Gayle's shack recovering from childbirth, considered the past months with a bewildered embarrassment. What in the world had come over her? Periwinkles and sea lettuce for breakfast? She could not imagine how she could have been so contented in this shabby and most unsanitary shack. And as for Gayle, had she always been so reserved?
Gayle scarcely left the shack. She kept the fire burning, produced food, changed diapers, and heated water for baths. Margie slept, nursed the red-haired baby, and sang to her sleepily, a lullaby Tennyson had embedded in a longer poem:
Sweet and low, sweet and low,
Wind of the western sea,
Low, low, breathe and blow,
Wind of the western sea!
Over the rolling waters go,
Come from the dying moon, and blow,
Blow him again to me;
While my little one, while my pretty one, sleeps.
When she was awake, she talked about the spare bedroom in her apartment which she'd paint and fill with baby furniture, now that she was herself again.
Gayle was cooking the laundry on the stovetop, stirred it with a wooden spoon and said, almost inaudibly, "There is so much you don't seem to remember."
Of course, the entire birth was a haze to Margie now, a hallucinatory memory that included peace and fear but not pain. Gayle had been there, though, she remembered that clearly, putting the baby into Margie's arms, saying, "Look, there's nothing wrong with her; she's perfect. Let's get you both inside."
There had been something wrong with Gayle's face, though. Margie shook her head, unable to remember what had been wrong. "It's a blur," she admitted. "But it's over now, and everything's fine."
The baby uttered a squawk in her basket by the fire, and Gayle bent over and picked her up. "What, hungry again?" she said to the baby. Her face seemed unutterably sad.
"You will come back to Somerville with me," Margie said. "I've got plenty of room, and I'll help you find a job — "
Gayle said, "I think you should name her Ianthe."
Margie was surprised; she would never have expected that Gayle would be versed in Greek mythology. "Because she was born on the beach?" she said.
"Because she is a daughter of the sea," said Gayle.
Margie said, "Isn't it best if we return to the mainland as soon as we can, before the winter storms? I'm sure I should bring her to a doctor, get a birth certificate...And I should call my mother, for heaven's sake — she probably thinks I've dropped off the face of the earth."
Gayle said, "But a nor'easter is bearing down on us right now, and it'll be a few days before it'll be safe to make the crossing." Gayle brought the snuffling baby to Margie. Gayle's eyes and the baby's eyes were the same: a blue so dark the iris almost disappeared. The sperm donor also had blue eyes and red hair; Margie had chosen him specifically for that unusual coloring, and because he was an athlete. It was indeed remarkable that Margie's pre-partum mania had brought her to this island, to be befriended by this woman who looked so much like the child.
Margie said, "Why are you so sad?"
"I'm not sad," Gayle said. "To have a child is such a gift. How could anyone be sad?"
* * *
At dawn on the day they would be leaving, Margie awoke to a strange sensation of emptiness and silence. Their gear lay in a pile by the door, covered with a tarp lest the storm wind blow rain in through the cracks as was its habit, ready to be hauled to where Gayle's boat waited in the harbor. Sunlight gleamed in the cracks; the sun was well risen. Margie sat up in bed and called, "Gayle?"
The ocean, still turbulent from the storm now passed, crashed upon the stones. The baby made no sound in her basket. Margie crawled over to the warm place by the stove, and found the basket empty, except for Gayle's Olympic gold medal, laid there deliberately like a payment or a message. Besides the baby and Gayle's wetsuit, nothing else was missing, not even the baby's blanket or the box of disposable diapers.
Panicked, Margie dressed in haste and went out into the cold sunlight, but no voice returned her shout, and no one moved among the trees or along the shore. Inside the shack again, she threw a few things into the pink bucket: diapers, the baby's blanket, a first aid kit. She set off, almost running, along the shore to the harbor, but she tired quickly and soon could scarcely walk. In the hour it took her to follow the island shoreline to the settlement, Gayle had surely journeyed far out to sea, and the baby would get hypothermia in this bitter wind.
She found Joe down at the harbor, working on his boat in dry dock. He didn't have to look at the cluster of bobbing boats moored off shore to be able to answer Margie's question. "No, she ain't been here. Her boat broke its mooring during the storm and washed up on the rocks." He pointed at the lobster boat that lay crazily tilted upon the shore near the harbor entrance, deposited there by the strong winds and storm tide. "It might still be seaworthy, but it'll take the whole town to get it back in the water."
"Joe, she's taken the baby."
Joe said, "And now you're surprised."
"She must still be here on the island, somewhere."
"She took her skin with her, didn't she?"
"She's not swimming with a baby! In this rough sea! Unless she's stolen a boat, she's still on the island.
Joe looked as shocked as Margie's students would have looked if she had uttered an obscenity at the chalkboard. "Steal a boat? Steal a boat? "
"Are you going to help me find them or not? For god's sake, Joe, I gave birth not six days ago."
Joe put his hands in his pockets and looked grimly out to sea. "All right. But you listen, Margie..."
She wasn't listening, though. She was a high school English teacher; she could tune out almost anything. Later, she would try to remember what he had said, and to what she had consented, but her memory was like a muted television show. She could see Joe's mouth move, but no sound came out. Instead, she heard her own impatient thoughts: Why had Gayle walked out on her like this, and what did she want with the baby? What was she planning to feed her; with what would she diaper her? If she had some kind of problem with raising the child in a fully furnished room equipped with modern electricity, why hadn't she simply said so? What did Gayle want from her? Surely Gayle had not expected Margie to remain mad forever.
* * *
It was a gorgeous day, but cold. Margie managed to trail Joe halfway around the island, though she could no longer manage to climb the rocks, to cling to their slippery surfaces while the ocean covered her with its bitter rain, peering over and around the places where ocean meets stone, searching for some sign. Why Joe was so convinced that they would find Gayle and the baby here at the water's edge, Margie couldn't imagine, but she finally gave up the argument when he turned on her and shouted, "Do you think I don't know my own cousin's queer ways? Do you want my help or don't you?" Margie sat beside the trail, which was scarcely wider than a single foot, and waited for Joe to come back. She had never in her life waited for a man before.
She felt a dull pain in her heart. Her breasts ached, and she knew that more than enough time had passed for the baby to freeze to death. Numbly, waited, and Joe came, and they walked some more, then he went down to the shore to search again, and she waited again. The sun was setting, and here on the windward side of the island the cold cut to the bone.
Once, she had almost loved this stalwart, ungenerous island, but she could not remember that now, no more than she could remember how the sea had once courted her favor. She only knew that she had been a fool, and perhaps had been made a fool of. Oddly, she longed for a policeman, though it surely would be mortifying to have to explain what had happened.
On this side of the island, the wind-driven waves crashed into unyielding stone with shattering explosions of sound. Numbed by cold and misery, Margie was slow to notice the sound of voices, almost inaudible beneath the crash of waves. She came to her feet and ran confusedly through the rocks. Was that Joe's voice, or Gayle's? Or was it the barking of seals carried on the wind? And then she teetered above the shoreline, thwarted by an impassable ledge.
The light of the setting sun set the maple leaves ablaze behind her, and the ocean aflame before her. Despite all this garish light, the long shadows of encroaching night lay across the shoreline, and the writhing shapes in the water shifted and changed so that Margie could make no sense of them. Perhaps that was Joe, gesturing grandiosely, knee deep in water. Perhaps that was Gayle he struggled with, or perhaps they were only senseless shadows. Perhaps they were seals, all of them, and there was nothing human down there at all. Perhaps that was a gun shot, or perhaps merely a wave crashing. And now the sky went dark, and the dark shapes she might have seen, flailing or fleeing or spasming in death, were gone. The waves drew back, the ocean gave a sigh, the seals fell silent, and nothing was left.