Rain fell the day he went to the shore, to see the place where his wife left him. Grey weighted the clouds like sacks full of stones, sagging closer and closer to the sea. Grey upon grey, water upon water, the sea and sky took hands. The way he once took hers.
She never held his hand long. Always wrenching from his grasp, her flesh still as slippery as a seal. Sometimes she would oblige him, sit shaking like a penned animal as he made hushing noises and rubbed her knuckles with his thumbs.
Please let me love you, he would say. I’ve earned it. I found your skin.
Only gulls visited this beach, and his threadbare cabin stood alone as if it had washed up there. It wasn’t far, the place where he discovered her skin. Just a brief stroll from his house towards the rocks that huddled like storytellers. After making her his wife, he’d often find her there, standing barefoot in the surf. He would lay down his jacket, sit on it amidst the kelp that stank in the sun. Cracking their bubbles with his nails he would glance up occasionally at his wife who lingered where the water pleaded with her feet. Come back, it seemed to say as it threw itself around her ankles. Endlessly she stared upon the brine, skirt whipping about her legs, hair whipping about her head, her back ever to him.
When he first spied her skin, he thought a dead seal had been spit upon the rocks by the current. As he neared it he saw that the hide was hollow, cut down its length like a cloak. It slipped from his hands the first try, heavy and wet and slick. The flippers, caked in sand, hung limply when he finally managed a hold of the husk. Black eyes peered sightlessly as the whiskers tickled his wrist. She must have cast it there to save it from the thievery of tides. But she forgot about other thieves.
She didn’t see the man at first, when she returned. Uncovered and unafraid, she romped her human form over the rocks. She stretched out long arms ribboned with salt, twirled and flung them in ways her seal body never could. She laughed and sang and bellowed at the wind, exulting in her human voice. She was pure joy and walking sunlight. She held all the beauty of earth and ocean and sky, of animal and human and woman too, and all of his loneliness dropped in piles around his boots because he knew that she would be his.
When she noticed the man, everything stopped. Her body froze. The ocean stilled. Even the wind shut its mouth. She stared at the skin in his arms, and she knew. As he led their mother by the hand, the wind roared in mourning and the waves slammed their fists. Her world split in two, right down the middle, and he warmed his shoulders with the pieces.
But he was not a cruel husband. He did not lock her away in basements or in cells. He did not wound her with hands or with words. Nothing but tenderness he brought his wife. The man filled their home with the sweetest-scented blooms. He draped strings of pearls around her neck. He recited heartfelt verses to the back of her hair as she stared out the window at the sea. But she didn’t want the flowers, or the jewelry, or the poems. Instead she picked leaves of kelp off the beach and held them under her nose. She ripped off the pearls for they reminded her of oysters. She barely heard the poetry, preferring instead the voiceless ululations of the wind.
How little he saw her face. How jealous he grew of the sea.
One day he got angry. I have shown you nothing but love, he shouted. But still you only want the sea. In a rage he shuttered all the windows, toweled the gap below the door, threw out all the shells she’d hoarded under their bed. I found your skin, he told her. Forget the sea. It’s gone.
But the ocean was never far from his wife. Even though she couldn’t see it, or smell it, or hear it, she kept mementos in the pockets of her eyes.
The next day he realized his mistake, came to her for forgiveness on bended knees. He clutched her hands as he sobbed. From then on he vowed to never rob her of the waves again. He would take her to the shoreline every day, and they would share it, together. Maybe someday she would love him as much as she loved it.
The woman found her skin while the man was at the market, rolled into a ball and stuffed into a box, its bulging cover duct-taped closed. He had buried the box in the attic among the junk: a cobwebbed camping stove, dumbbells he’d bought from a late-night shopping channel and used only once, the unworn baby clothes from his first marriage. He always locked the attic, but perhaps when he’d climbed up to retrieve his grandfather’s military medals in yet another attempt to intrigue his wife away from the window, he had forgotten.
He knew it the instant he spotted the front door wagging on its hinges. Footprints rushed from the house. He followed them all the way to the shoreline, heart pounding in his ears as he hoped against hope that she’d just gone to look. Perhaps he would find her standing barefoot as usual in the surf, skirt whipping about her legs, hair whipping about her head. Her back ever to him.
But where the water tongued the coast, all he found was the trail of prints devolving into a smooth smear, the mark of something heavy and plump sliding into the froth.
No longer a husband, the man stood upon the spot where his wife left him, gazing at the infinite brine. The loneliness he had dropped there before nosed its way back to his boots. For a long time he stared, listening to the crash of waves and shivering as one cold drop, then two, then hundreds more fell from the clouds that weighed with grey like sacks full of stones. Grey upon grey, water upon water, the sea and the sky, and the man now too, all took hands.
The way he once took hers.
Shannon Noel Brady
Shannon Noel Brady is a multi-genre author of novels and short stories. Her comedy about an overdramatic houseplant has been published in Vandercave Quarterly and her tragic tale about claw game toys can be found in Jersey Devil Press. You can read her blog at snbradywriter.wordpress.com and if excessive amounts of cute animal photos are your thing, then she’s got the Twitter for you: @snbradywriter
Artwork: Anna Dittman, “Camouflage”