Breath & Shadow
Winter 2016 - Vol. 13, Issue 1
"Seeking the Seal"
A cumulus cloud drifts across a clear spring sky. To Alana, resting on her sofa, staring out of the window, it seems to be the shape of a seal with a God-like beard. A seal god, she thinks. What'd that be like? Would it ponder the divinity of diving, the worship of waters, the beatitudes of blubber?
Enough nonsense about a seal god, she tells herself. Why not try to see the real one instead.
Seals are rarely seen in Alana's local river. But one, a male grey seal, has been sighted several times in the last week. The village river steward told her it probably ended up here by mistake: came from the Norfolk coast maybe, slipped into the English channel, then drifted accidentally up the river. The seal brought a glut of people to the village at the weekend, hoping to glimpse it. Alana isn't a fan of people so stayed away. Today is Monday, though, when the river walkway will be largely deserted.
She gets off the sofa, arms and chest heavy and aching, as if some sadist has injected them with lead. A sharper pain flames through her thighs and calves. She recalls Freud's comment about toothache: "concentrated is my soul in my molar hole." He understood how pain could draw in the boundaries of a life. But Alana's pain - - and its pernicious twin, exhaustion - - can be worse than today. So she will walk to the river, hoping to see the seal, although part of her wishes it has gone home. Grey seals are social animals. She doesn't like to think of it lost and alone.
Alana flinches inwardly at those words - - lost, alone.
She puts on her blue velvet coat with a button missing. She picks up her walking stick with a fold-down seat, the sort used by fishermen and hunters as much as ill people like her. She is a hunter of sorts, though, of those small things - - the fluty whistle of a curlew, the velvet feel of foxglove leaves, the sight of a stray seal - - that make a difference to a day. All we have are the little miracles, says a fridge-magnet stuck to her hall mirror. Sometimes she even believes that.
She goes down Magdalene Street, the chill spring air scented with cherry blossom and hyacinths, with - dare she think it - possibility. A sudden urge to be her old healthy self: a lithe woman strides off in her imagination, trots - - clip-clop - - down a hospital corridor in a blue uniform, grinning at other staff members. "Laughing Lana", that's what they called her. Today, Alana checks her imagination, reins in that former self and returns to the more sullen, disabled woman who ventures down the pavement of reality, struggling to manage the short walk to the river.
Alana gets to the corner of Ferry Road before, breathless and aching, she puts the seat down on her stick and sits. After a few minutes, the symptoms ease a bit. Something glints on the low wall beside her. She picks it up - - a little mirror in the shape of an eye, an ethnic thing edged by red mosaic, one side chipped. She glimpses herself in the mirror: strong cheekbones, pale skin, wavy auburn hair now flecked with grey. A face which flatters her forty-four years, but reveals nothing of her body's inner landscape, its geography of pain. Alana scrunches up her face and puts the mirror back on the wall.
A woman in a red coat approaches, holding a young girl's hand. The woman looks at Alana, longer than is necessary though not a full stare. The woman checks the road behind her, making sure of no traffic, then steps out. Christ! Not necessary, thinks Alana. She always tucks herself in when she sits, leaving room on the pavement. But people often give her a wide berth, as if being close would contaminate them with her frailty.
The girl looks at Alana with curious blue eyes. "Mummy. Why's that lady sitting on that thing?" she says.
"Don't stare, Ruth. It's rude," the mother snaps.
Ruth smiles at Alana, who smiles gently in return. "You poorly?" Ruth asks.
"Shush," says the mother, tugging her daughter away.
This is a harmless encounter. Not all are: Alana has noticed a hardening of attitudes towards the sick and disabled. Two months back, a woman in a tracksuit, six-pack belly on display, scowled at Alana sitting on her stick, "Get up! Get a job, scrounger!"
Alana forced herself to meet the woman's glare. "How do you know I don't have a job?" she said.
The woman raised an over-plucked eyebrow and strutted off. Alana watched the woman disappear round a corner, trying to stop her hands trembling.
Wasn't it enough that she'd spent sixteen years on the wards before she became too sick to work? Wasn't it enough that she'd lost the job she loved, her independence, her health? Did she have to suffer the unkindness of strangers too?
Alana grits her teeth, stands and lumbers down Ferry Road to the river. She scans the water and mudflats - - the tide is low - - but can see no seal. She sinks down, weighty with pain, on a wooden bench and closes her eyes, grimacing. When she opens them again, she is drawn to the woods on the other side of the river, mottled brown and green, the trees starting to leaf.
"The trees are coming into leaf, like something almost being said."
Who wrote that? Philip Larkin maybe? She is fond of it. "Like something almost being said."
Persistent pain's almost a language too, she thinks, albeit one remote from the lovely green grammar of spring. Pain's language - - the bits she understands - - has repetitive and remorseless phrases; the verbs are vicious, the adjectives exacting. Ultimately pain's language is unintelligible, though. Alana spent sixteen years on the wards working with people in pain but never really understood it - - that is, never comprehended how incomprehensible it is.
Being ill is bewildering, she thinks.
A black cat leaps onto the bench, startling Alana from her reverie. It sits near her, looking in the same direction. "Hello you!" She strokes its head. Alana sits with the cat, contemplating the vista. The river has a blue-silver sheen and carries the reflection of clouds, like sunken islands; ahead is a ramshackle wooden jetty with small boats in primary colours - - red, blue, yellow; the nautical clink-clink of boat-masts sounds in the air.
Alana and the cat stare. Just stare at the world.
The cat scampers off. A woman is jogging towards Alana. She envies the fluidity, the thoughtlessness, with which the woman uses her body. Alana's attention draws inwards again to the throbbing and burning in her own arms, chest and legs.
The woman stops. "The seal!" she exclaims.
"The seal?" says Alana, excited. "The seal." The woman catches her breath and points behind her. "About thirty meters back, on the mudflats this side of the river. Almost missed it. Hard to see from the walkway. You'll have to go along a bit to see."
"Thanks," says Alana.
The woman smiles and jogs off.
Alana gets up and shuffles determinedly down the river walkway. Forget the Harlem shuffle, she thinks, I do the harmless shuffle. This is a slow, measured movement that puts least strain on her painful legs.
She stops as she sees it: the seal, she thinks, the seal! She sits down on her walking stick and gazes.
The animal has mottled grey fur and doleful eyes. Bigger than she expected - - probably two meters long - - with small flippers tucked into its belly. She imagines stroking it, feeling its soft, wet pelt under her palm. "You're beautiful," she says. It turns its head to look at her staring down from the walkway, then turns back nonchalantly.
The seal seems relaxed and regal, gives the impression it could be wearing a bow-tie and have a butler in attendance.
"Bring me a fish on a platter," she imagines it saying, and, "A crab cocktail too."
Don't anthropomorphize animals, Lana, they're not us, says a soft male voice in her mind. Her Dad, always quietly honest. One of the few who has stayed loyal and supportive to her during the last six years of illness, despite living two hundred miles away.
“Okay, Dad,” she says in her head, “a seal's a seal.” In fact, its fate is sealed.
“Enough dodgy puns, honey,” he replies.
Her Dad would enjoy this encounter with a seal. He often took her bird-watching as a child, patiently pointing out the oystercatchers, the lapwings, the avocets.
"Are those black and white ones the avocados?" she'd ask, grinning.
"Yes, just don't put them in salads.
“They peck," he'd reply.
She takes a photo of the seal; she will text it to her Dad later.
The seal has a large scar on its belly, which looks to her nurse's eye like it might be recent. Must have been some battle. Maybe that's why the seal is here alone. Because it was wounded. Who knows.
Alone because you're wounded, she thinks, and winces.
The seal wriggles down to the water's edge and dabs its nose in. Don't go! she thinks. It squirms into the water and plunges under. It reappears downstream, Roman nose poking from the water; it dives under and resurfaces again, heading the right way for the sea. Go home, seal. Go! She stares after it longingly.
She downs a strong pain-killer and waits for it to take effect. An arduous journey awaits her--twenty minutes or so with stops for rest--and she will need more drugs and heatpacks when she gets home. Been worth it, she thinks, to see the seal. Chronic pain and illness dominate and deflate her, but she feels she adds to her distress and subtracts from her experience by not appreciating the little miracles.
Alana looks up. Cumulous clouds coast across a cerulean sky. She feels the warm spring sun on her face, hears the rolling "krrah, krrah, krrah" of a crow. Her mind turns to the seal. Then an unexpected thing happens. In spite of her body, aching to the marrow, something lifts through her, something serene, expansive, almost holy. She smiles quietly. Maybe I have met a seal god today, she thinks, and stands slowly to make her way back.
Katy Wimhurst studied social anthropology before doing a PhD in Mexican Surrealism. She's also worked in publishing, but now suffers from M.E./SEID. She's been published in various magazines, including Café Irreal, The Casket of Fictional Delights, Guardian.com, Breath and Shadow, GlassFire, DogVersusSandwich, and Kaleidotrope. She won the Tate Modern short story competition TH2058.