Here’s the quote:
According to the Harper’s Index in the September issue of Harper’s:
Secret access code to the computer controls of the U.S. nuclear-tipped missile arsenal between 1968 and 1976: 00000000
Stare at that for a minute, please.
I guess the U.S. had to figure, nobody would have guessed that number, right?
I’m pleased to report that I finished the first draft of Sealwife yesterday. The short story topped out at just below 6000 words. Not exactly a short story, but one that might come down to 5000 words after revision.
The story came to me during the long drive back from Rochester. Long drives in the passenger seat are good for letting the ideas stew. Anyway, I was thinking about the Selkie legends. As you may know, they are stories out of Ireland and Scotland where seal-ladies come to shore and take off their skins to reveal themselves as beautiful humans. Some man walking the shore sees this and typically falls madly in love with one of the selkies, so he tricks her and snatches up her fallen sealskin, thus preventing her from returning to the sea and turning her into a dutiful (though somewhat unwilling) wife. This lasts for a few years. Children are born, and everything seems well… until the selkie rediscovers her skin and makes a beeline for the ocean, leaving the husband to pine away for the rest of his life.
Typically, it’s a romantic legend. Retellings usually have the selkie falling in love with the human in turn but being unable to resist the call of the sea. I myself, however, never quite got over the sexual predator elements of this story. This man steals his wife, after all; something of an indictment of his character, equality between the sexes or no.
So I thought about applying a little twist. What if the selkie is discovered by a young girl who befriends her, and then has to defend her from one of the men of the village who wants to possess her. Somehow, elements of Whale Rider got into the mix, and I was off. The story is a lot darker than is usual for me, and I feel pretty good about it. Still wondering where it can be published, though.
Enclosed is the first section of the story. Remember, it’s only a first draft:
SEALWIFE: By James Bow
Cassie heard the Selkie as she held a wet cloth over her bruised cheek.
She was sitting in the middle of her father’s empty boathouse, stretched out on the weather-beaten floorboards, listening to the patter of the rain on the roof. She heard the cry over the whistle of the wind through the cracked window. Cassie wondered if she had imagined it; but there it was again: a distant wail like a beached animal, rising above the chest-deep rumble of the sea, choking off in a sob.
She looked up, and cast her gaze at the boathouse door, considering. Maybe it was just an animal; maybe it had nothing to do with her. But the sobbing continued, too much like a child. Finally, she stood up, shrugged her ripped t-shirt over her scratched shoulder and went to the cracked window and stared out at the house.
It was dark, save for a flickering light behind the living room window. Cassie’s eyes narrowed and she stared at the lit window for any other signs of movement. All the while, the wailing cries continued over the wind and rain.
No movement. Satisfied, Cassie turned away, grabbed the nor’easter off its hook by the door and lit a kerosene lantern. Then she stepped outside.
The wind blew back her hair. She squinted into the driving rain. By memory as much as by the light of the lantern, she ran up the back pathway into the night. She staggered down the slick rocks, until she reached the coastline.
The waves deafened her. The air tasted salty. The wet slipped past the folds of her nor’easter and ran down her back. The moon was behind clouds. She struggled to see between the shadows left by the slivers of moonlight and the beam of her lantern. She could barely make out the stones, so she stood and listened. At last she heard the cries.
The wailing had stopped, replaced by a constant, bitter sobbing. It was harder to place, harder to hear, but it was closer.
“Hello?” Cassie croaked. Then louder, “Who’s there?”
There was a fearful squeak. Then wary silence. Only the wind and the pounding of the waves.
“It’s okay,” she called. “I won’t hurt you! Where are you? Let me help!”
Cassie picked a direction and walked slowly along the stony beach. The rocks clicked beneath her feet. A frothing wave flecked her legs with spray. She drew one arm around her chest. The light of her lantern wavered from her shaking.
“Come on!” she called. “You’ll catch your death out here!”
Then she stepped in something soft and slippery, like seaweed. She jumped back, then froze. She thought she could hear ragged breathing. It was almost at her feet.
The light from her lantern fluttered and went out. Cassie swore beneath her breath, knelt, and felt the stones.
Her fingers touched something soft and yielding, cool like kelp, but a single sheet of the stuff stretched out like a beach towel. Water beaded on it. She ran her hands over the slick surface, and then she touched a foot. The toes wriggled. The leg flinched. Something snarled.
Cassie cried out as a flurry of fists came at her out of the dark. “Hey!” Something bit her arm. She swatted without thinking, caught something which went sprawling back. She was ready for it when it regathered itself. She caught its wrists, pushed the thing onto its knees and held it tight. “I won’t hurt you!”
The thing gasped and snarled, and then sobbed fearfully. “I won’t hurt you,” Cassie repeated, her voice like steel.
The clouds parted and moonlight slipped through. Cassie found herself kneeling next to a girl with long hair strung down her back, her skin as pale as moonlight. They were crouched on a pile of strange fabric, black as the girl was white, but gleaming.
“I won’t hurt you,” Cassie said again. “I’m going to let you go, so don’t you swat at me, okay?”
The girl snarled.
Cassie swallowed hard, and let go. The girl looked at her freed wrists in astonishment. She pulled back from the Cassie, drew her arms around herself and eyed her warily, but she didn’t run away.
“It’s okay,” said Cassie. She reached out, then hesitated, and held her hand there, as though for a cat to sniff. “I won’t hurt you, I promise. Are you cold?”
The girl said nothing. Her gaze edged away from Cassie as she drew her arms tighter around herself and shivered.
“Come with me,” said Cassie. “I know a place where you can be warm.”
The girl looked up, curious.
“You understand?” Cassie reached closer, slowly. “I want to make you warm. Please, what’s your name?”
The girl stared at Cassie’s outstretched hand, then she uncurled herself, reached out and touched Cassie’s fingers. She opened her mouth and said a long word that slithered and ended with a click.
“What?” said Cassie.
“S-Silk,” the girl replied, slowly.
“Silk,” Cassie repeated. “I’m Cassie.”
“C-Cassie.” Silk’s tongue fumbled over the name.
“Yes, Cassie. Where do you live, Silk?”
Silk sniffed. “Lost.”
Cassie blinked. “Where are your folks?”
Tears welled up in Silk’s eyes. Her lips quivered. “Lost!”
“It’s okay!” And before she knew it, she was holding Silk as this strange lost girl cried on her shoulder.
“Silk.” The spray from a nearby wave spattered them. Cassie pushed Silk away and held her at arms length. “You can’t stay out here. Come with me.”
Silk said nothing. She sat back and picked at the strange fabric beneath them. Cassie gathered up an edge. “Silk, please.”
Silk looked at her once more, then stood up. Cassie guided her off the fabric,then picked it up, wrapping it around the girl like a cloak. “I know a warm place. Come on.”
Step by step, Cassie guided Silk over the rocks and up the path leading from the sea.
Cassie pulled Silk aside before they reached the house and lead the way to the boathouse. “In here,” she said.
Silk held back. “Dark,” she said.
“I’ll make light,” said Cassie. “You’ll see.”
Cassie pushed open the door and eased Silk inside. She set her lantern on the floor and grabbed a canister of kerosene from a shelf. She refilled it, and struck a match.
Silk gaped at the flame.
Cassie lit the lantern and set it on the weathered wood floor. The light flickered over the shelves of haphazardly stacked tools, cans of old paint and damp sawdust. A cracked window let the breeze in, but they were sheltered from the rain.
“There,” said Cassie, leading Silk to the lantern. “Warmer?”
Silk knelt by the flame. “Warms.” She shivered in her skin-like cloak.
“You’ll need clothes,” said Cassie, frowning at Silk’s bare feet. “Wait here; I’ll get some.”
Silk squealed and grabbed at Cassie’s arm.
Cassie pried Silk’s fingers free and clasped her hand. “I won’t be long, I promise. All right?” She let go of Silk’s hand and stepped back. Silk stared at her fearfully, but stayed where she was.
Cassie reached for the doorhandle. “Back in two shakes!” And she stepped out into the storm.
She ran up the back walkway and halted at the back porch. She stared up at the darkened windows and took a deep breath.
She mounted the steps in silence and clasped the back door handle. She turned it carefully and pushed the door only as wide as she needed. She slipped into the kitchen and pushed the door closed. She listened carefully. The house was silent.
She moved past the sink of dirty dishes and a garbage can brimming with open cans and bottles, careful to jostle nothing. The barren hallway was dark, save for a splash of lamplight flickering from the living room. Within, Cassie could hear the clink of a bottle and the thud of a glass on a table. Her father’s voice was beyond slurred; completely incomprehensible.
Cassie caught her breath, and waited.
A moment later, she heard the bottle hit the floor hard, then silence. Cassie counted to sixty, then crept down the hall. Lantern light still fluttered in the living room. She pressed herself to the wall and peered in with one eye, then with both.
Her father lay slumped on his stained couch, clasping a bottle. The only sound above his snoring was the regular tick of the grandfather clock. Cassie let out her breath, and then stepped lightly up the stairs to her room.
Minutes later, she was back in the boathouse in dry clothes, a bundle under her arm. Silk was where she had left her, staring into the lantern flame. She looked up as Cassie entered and stood.
“I’ve got warm clothes,” said Cassie, holding out the bundle. “Put these on.”
Silk frowned at Cassie’s outstretched offering. Then she shrugged off her black cloak and took the bundle. Cassie cast her gaze away respectfully, but kept watch out of a corner of her eye.
Silk unfurled an Aran-wool sweater and held it at arms length, bewildered. She turned it back and forth, then started to wrap it around herself as she had her cloak.
“No, not like that,” said Cassie, reaching out. Silk looked up and passed her the sweater. “You put it on like this.” Cassie thrust the sweater over Silk’s head. The girl squawked and struggled, but Cassie slipped the sleeves over the arms and Silk’s head popped out from the neck. She stared down at herself, her fingers tracing the patterns of wool.
“Well?” said Cassie.
“Hate this,” said Silk. “Itches.”
Cassie smiled. “But it’s warm, right?”
Silk pulled at the sweater, then let go. “Warm.”
“Good.” Cassie held out the jeans. “Now put these on.”
When Silk was dressed, Cassie gave her some shortbread cookies, a gift from a neighbour. Silk sniffed one and tasted it, then bolted down the others so fast, Cassie had to caution her. “Easy. Don’t make yourself sick.”
Silk swallowed the last cookie and grinned. “Is good.” She took Cassie’s offering of water and drank. “Thank you.”
Cassie smiled. “You’re welcome.”
And because she was hungry, and appreciated the company, Cassie sat down and ate some cookies with Silk. Finally, she stood up.
“It’s late,” said Cassie. “Go to sleep. I’ll come for you in the morning. We’ll… Find your folks, okay?” She reached for the door.
Silk leaped up and grabbed her arm, mewling.
“Silk!” Cassie tried to pull away, but the girl wouldn’t let go. She pressed her cheek to Cassie’s hand. Cassie sighed. “All right, I’ll stay. Until you go to sleep.”
Silk nodded. She lay down on the floor and rested her head on the folded fabric that had been her cloak.
Cassie hesitated for an awkward moment, then sat down beside her. She stretched out her legs and stayed close.
Satisfied, Silk curled up and closed her eyes. Soon, she was purring in her sleep. Cassie stayed a little longer, then she got up quietly, and slipped out of the boathouse.
Her father was still on his back, snoring when she passed up the stairs on her way to her room. There, Cassie pulled her shirt over her head and tossed it in the hamper. She frowned at the scratches on her shoulder, then dismissed them. She changed into her pyjamas. As she raised the battered quilt for bed, she caught sight of a picture on her bedside table. She froze and stared.
Cassie stared at the photograph of her father, his big arms around the shoulders of her and her mom, beaming at the camera. After a long moment, Cassie set down the covers and went downstairs.
She knelt beside her father. Her nose wrinkled at his breath. She reached out cautiously and touched his shoulder. He didn’t move. She touched him again, pushed him. He grunted and rolled over onto his stomach. Cassie caught the bottle that fell from his hand, took it to the kitchen and tossed it out.
A moment later she returned and draped a blanket over him. Then she went to bed.