Jenny Williams |
THE FISHERMAN'S WIFE
It shouldn't be this hard to tell a story, but the characters keep getting in the way. Stella wants to be twenty, then eighty, then twenty again, and she refuses to answer when I ask where she was born. I try to write and she slams a book over my hands.
But the moment I leave it to her, she gives everything away.
Our tale begins tomorrow, when Stella will turn eighty, and it ends a thousand years ago, when a fisherman rolled over in bed to discover his wife had returned to the sea.
It also begins in a bathroom, in a state of slow epiphany.
It also ends in a suicide.
If you didn’t want to know, you can do as I do and start over whenever things get tricky. Repeat after me: the story begins now.
I fell in love with Stella the day before her eightieth birthday, when she locked herself in the bathroom and stood, naked and sagging, in front of the mirror.
I almost didn’t recognize her at first; I had been thinking about her so much in a different form. Her skin looked baggy and too big for her body. But there she was: pale and pear-shaped with hanging underarm skin and belly creases.
She was almost as surprised to see herself in this state as I was. Had we been expecting something different? Perhaps this was a trick, some sleight of the eye.
Stella prodded at the flab around her stomach and watched it jiggle in the whitish bathroom light.
I’m old, she thought. I’m an old lady.
Something about that moment—Stella marveling at her droopy breasts, her breasts marveling back at her—struck me as beautiful. She had been nebulous in my mind until that point, a vague possibility shimmering beyond my reach. And then here she was: nearly eighty, with vein-lined legs and a belly button. The reality of her was pungent, a punch to my senses. I loved her for it. I wanted more.
Today, Stella sits beside me and tells me stories as I write. She is saying how she was only twenty yesterday, which is curious, considering she is turning eighty tomorrow and has been married for nearly sixty years.
She explains it like this. Imagine you are walking down a road you know well, all the while thinking of something else: a story you’re planning to write, or an interesting article you read in that morning’s paper, or what your lover whispered in your ear last night in bed. A flicker of thought, and you’ve traveled the length of the road one end to the other. You didn’t even know your feet were moving.
I want to ask when, and where, and whether the end of her road is near, but she puts a finger to my lips and smiles. Her eyes become tired around the edges and she looks away, out the narrow window to the distant sea.
The question, she tells me, is not how long can one body live, but: how long can you live in one body, before you begin to die?
Because if this story was ever about anything else, it was about an old Scottish legend that goes something like this:
Selkies were mythical sea creatures in the shape of a seal. The females could shed their sealskins and come ashore as beautiful women; if you managed to successfully capture a Selkie woman’s pelt, she would stay in human form and be an obedient, if melancholy, wife.
However, if she ever found her skin, she would leave her husband and children, and return to the sea.
According to legend, she always found her skin.
Tomorrow, Stella will turn eighty. It will be a day like any other, except it isn’t. Stella wakes up beside a man she has been married to for sixty years—a man for whom she feels a certain amount of fondness, but no real love. She dresses her body in the same clothes she’s always worn, that don’t fit right, have never fit right, but she wears them anyway.
In the kitchen, Stella watches her fingers work cutting vegetables: nimble, pink, and quick. She never ceases to be amazed at their diligence. Cut, slide, slice. Cut, slide, slice. As if they aren’t her own but a team of slender, faceless workers.
Wave-like, her hand rolls up and down in swift succession. One smooth flick of the wrist repeating itself eternally. Cut, slide, slice, slide, slice, slide, cut. Movements drawn by the precision of instinct. Or passion. Or practice.
She can’t tell anymore.
You see, when I started thinking about Stella, she was indeed twenty years old, a fisherman’s brand new Selkie wife. All I wanted was to understand her. I wanted to follow her through the years of her marriage, to the point that she found her skin and went back to the sea, and ask if she would know the meaning of regret. And what of the years between: did she know her fate? Did she miss the sea? Or simply yearn for something better?
The whole thing emerged in flashes in the room around me; sometimes Stella would narrate, and when she waved her hands just so, I could see it all clearly. Stella had a daughter, and the two would have conversations about Stella’s past, of which her daughter knew nothing.
—You know, Mom, you never told me how you and dad met.
—Didn’t I? Oh, it was so long ago.
—Won’t you tell me now?
—The beach. Carnoustie. We met on the beaches there.
Another pause, and now the daughter doesn't wait for an answer.
—Dad always told me you met putting sandbags on the beaches, that it was love at first sight.
—He said he proposed to you then and there, while your hands were still wet and sandy. You should hear him, he makes it sound so romantic.
—It was during the war. Your father wanted to be a pilot for the Royal Air Force. He was still training in Africa when the war ended. Lucky for him he never saw combat.
—Lucky for us, too.
—Yes, lucky for us.
I saw these conversations take place and I wondered, why did Stella give away nothing? What was at stake if she answered with the truth?
But here I listen to Stella’s whispers, and she tells me that it didn’t matter, that nothing mattered because the end of the story was always the same. She always found her skin; she always left.
I ask, what’s the point of a story if it always ends the same way?
The Stella sitting beside me does not reply.
Stella’s granddaughter appeared quite suddenly, a tiny flame in this dark territory. At first, her narrative seemed distracting, irrelevant. But her chatter has been growing stronger, and the implications hit me like the snap of a shut book: she is the one who will find the sealskin and bring the story full circle.
She speaks in long, breathless sentences—a child’s voice—behind me. Her story is touchingly simple: she listened to Stella’s bedtime stories every night and fantasized about the creatures of myth she heard in her grandmother's strange tales. When she finds a chest locked up in the attic, she burns with the thought that it could contain the treasure of the legend.
That night, the granddaughter stays quiet while Stella tucks in the comforter around her shoulders and kisses her on her forehead. Stella turns toward the door. Her granddaughter whispers behind her.
—I have a secret.
I wonder: who is this Stella speaking with her granddaughter? Is she the same as the Stella who would find her skin that very night, folded and musky in the trunk in the attic? Who would steal through the front door without saying goodbye?
I picture, again, the Stella I fell in love with, standing in front of the mirror; I picture the Stella slicing vegetables, and the one deflecting her daughter's curiosity. None of them make sense; she is reproducing, taking on multiple existence and variation, and I've lost track of which one I want to talk to, which one might tell the story straight.
But when I turn to ask the Stella sitting beside me, I find she has disappeared. I send my voice into the room and hear it echo back. A hollow space, pierced by the light of an open window, the low shush of the sea muted in these four walls; I am alone.
Tonight I will dream of being a seal—muscles solid and lean, sinewy and taut in the beats of swimming. I dart back and forth in great zigzags through the water, cutting lines across the shallow ocean floor with my shadow, clean and new and bold.
As the waves close overhead, I might take one last look at the shore, white and gleaming. But I have no need for that now, no need for air. The sand falls away beneath me and the abyss is near. With wet eyes and seamless skin, I let myself slip, slip away into that great deep blue.
The story begins now.
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