The Sea Wife

by Bill Green

 

From the Journal of Madame Estelle, 1894

We are formation, immortal process. We coalesced before memory in oceanic depths for starless eons, becoming strands of protein, sacs of fluid, and then more complex material forms as we absorbed complexities around us. So now I am writing this on land, in shape of human flesh in a clutter of walls, garments, tools, and furniture, categories that still seem alien to me.

I do not mean that we are the afflatus of emergent life—some sort of spirit of evolution. No, we are no-things apart. The organisms evolved in the sea and above it of their own accord. We are elders devoid of inherent form. We watch. We emulate. Sea life was easy to copy, even fish, though we savored and elongated the study, drawing it out over eons, and were satisfied until we began to smell ranker life in water draining the air-lands. At first we explored as lungfish and crocodiles, but one species grew dominant, so we copied it, at first crudely with fish tails or hollow backs, but even as we gave ourselves breasts and alluring songs, so we struggled to directly decipher the human code in corpses and sewage. Some of us, fair copies of females, though best seen in dim light, crawled into the human swarm to draw samples of their seed.

I was our most perfect replica, modeled on a girl drowned (I now believe) for her beauty, whose ovaries I savored for information. My sampling began on the coast of what you call Florida at a port you call Apalachicola in the decade of the 1850s. Your species was not my favorite. Even as I floated under your docks, absorbing your thought-forms, I dreamed of years as a sea serpent, resenting the inefficiency of my internal gills and spindly pectoral and pelvic fins. We can hear your thoughts, but they were at first a tangle of strands it took months to unknot and lay out in intelligible form, floating in the dark water like a jellyfish at night, then sinking deep underwater when the sun glared, almost motionless because my residual gills were taxed by swimming. Others, in the borrowed forms of fish, schooled around me, and we planned invasion of the land.

For months, I floated along the docks and seaside paths, head and shoulders exposed to air until I learned the times and patterns of nocturnal schooling, the uses of shelters along the water’s edge. Humans mask their skin, I saw, so I dragged a solitary woman—one who walked alone every night to meet strangers—out into deep water and took her garments. Sheathed in fabric, I at first avoided contact, watching and learning, attending to your words and thoughts. I veiled my face, fearing my wide eyes and round gill-covers would betray me, and practiced land-swimming on my pectoral fins in shadow until it seemed almost natural, though a pair of he-humans seeing my early efforts said “drunk” as I walked away. Always away. Only after long study of their dry customs did I dare to approach one of them, even by moonlight.

My listening post was a shed by a seawall across from a tall structure where humans gathered, drinking and vociferating over harmonic noises. Wide cracks allowed me to watch this saloon and hotel (I soon learned their designations) across Water Street. I am a rapid study, but had volumes to learn and spent months learning it. I stole newspapers and listened to thoughts and conversations until I understood the obsessions of pale he-humans on the Apalachicola wharf—not only their cotton, cypress, and oysters, but their seed-spilling obsessions as well.

Finally, I dared to walk into their town and test my vocal box in weather words to shes who walked after dark. I understood that speaking to the hes might lead to intimacy sooner than I was prepared for, so I remained mute among them, but the stares under their hats confirmed that the drowned girl I replicated had been well shaped for my mission. After risking talk with human shes and deciphering a habitat-distribution practice called rental (I had long ago understood the shell-worship called money), the school teeming around me on the seabed agreed it was time to begin sampling. I was ready, even eager. The humanlike tissues of my material form wanted work.

His name was Cal Calhoun, a cotton broker in the city on business. It was selection at first sight. He melted out of darkness by a seawall (I was floating in the bay at the time, treading water), and I liked his muscular gait even before he stood gazing over the waves, not seeing me but sensing, I believe, my presence as I read him—a he without family in Apalachicola, a he hunting for a she. So I crawled out of the bay and followed him to Water Street, to the saloon opposite my listening post, where I hid until my clothes were less damp.

I might have waited and accosted him in shadow, avoiding even the moon, but eagerness overcame me and I trusted my recent facial restructuring (informed by the donor of my clothes) and pulsed toward the light. I touched his arm and spoke for the first time to a man, as his kind is called, and, yes, I risked the bare lamps in the saloon, sitting for the first time in a chair and replicating words of the women I had listened to for months. Cal bought me a glass of white wine that I did not drink. He insisted I should have a name, so I let him name me.

He called me Luna.

I led him to a side street where an upper room was available and told him to rent it for a year so that I would have a place to collect his fluids. Of course, that was not how I worded it. Not for nothing had I listened to the breed-words of humankind, so long that I was impatient to know their referents in the tubular meat-form I had borrowed, a form that my ancient sentience—remembering the forms of eyeless worms to microscopic jellies—found oddly charming.

Cal wanted talk, but I did not. We removed impeding fabric and swam together on a bed soon moist in the summer night under a single moonlit window. I was surprised and my human tissues inexplicably pleased by the motions (admittedly inefficient and desultory) required to fully drain him. The day before, making plans with my seabed school, I had imagined sampling a different specimen each night, but in the darkness with pelvic fins intertwined, I decided that all others I had cataloged in Apalachicola were inferior. This one demanded exclusive study. I suspected this from the beginning. Otherwise, why would I have told him to rent the room?

The mere promise of further sampling—a procedure he-humans value—might have brought Cal back, but I felt an impulse to favor him by helping him in his cotton trading, reasoning that this would ensure his loyalty. I had listened to thoughts of schooner captains and knew which ones were little better than pirates, selling shrinkage from their holds and promising impossibly quick delivery. I read Cal’s plan to ship with such a scoundrel and was able to save him hundreds of dollars with trade advice before the rising sun drove me back underwater. Cal extended his visit to Apalachicola for days, and each night I gratefully collected the scant product his glands were able to synthesize, so that by the time he boarded a riverboat for his inland home, a human habitat called Eufaula, the nescient mortal was bound to me by both sentiment and greed.

In his absence I returned to the sea, resisting urgings from my piscine handlers to meet other he-humans. But some nights I crept back into the town, hiding from mortals but reading their thoughts for information to profit my Cal, and after only two weeks away, he returned. His warehouses were empty, but his loins were full. He invented lies to come to me, and my intelligence was such that he made profitable trades in the docks that were my nightly study.

His mortal appetite was contagious. What had first promised to be a tedious extraction became much more to the tubular form I had borrowed, and even my then-immortal part responded to our nightly swimming (as it seemed) into and out of each other’s identities. If I was eroding his selfhood, as I read him thinking, dissolving his identity like a coin in acid, a similar process was compromising me. I never confessed to my teeming handlers that in his arms, forming about him and taking fresh templates from his several juices, I began to feel almost human. My body, governed less by biological law than by our ancient formlessness, changed under his hands, as my face grew (I think) more like his under his kisses, and my non-self, that mutability that our kind has sustained through endless ages, was affected.

When he left me, as inevitably he did, I felt oddly restless. I taxed my internal gills by circling under the water until my human eyes grayed with anoxemia and I was forced to scull hard for the surface, bursting with a waterspout into the sun, gasping for air. None of my school suspected that intimacy with a man had atrophied my gills. During interludes of air breathing, exposed to sunlight, I realized I was no longer confined to the night. The same mad restlessness that drove my circular swimming drove me to decorate my flesh. I knew well that human shes (when they could) changed clothing, and my human autonomic system spasmed with a glow called shame that I had but one dress (though Cal saw it only in darkness and removed it at once). It was a small concern but seemed to matter. Now that I could tolerate sunlight, I could visit a dressmaker, select colorful garments, and adjust my size to fit them.

My lack of money was easily solved. Hidden in the shed by Water Street, I read thoughts of passersby until I detected one who had just sold a crop of cotton and carried a roll of bills in his vest pocket. Drunk and lonely, he was easily led to a deserted seawall where, on the pretext of a kiss, I took his roll and pushed him over the stones. Forms of sharks and jellyfish dragged him into the depths as food (our meat forms have to eat), and his bones scattered on the seafloor. I had more than enough to buy dresses, shoes, and hats and rent a room to leave them in, a refuge I hid in days when I felt crowded by my handlers. And what of the hundreds left over? Do not think I was a savage. I opened a bank account.

Cal did not seem to notice my new dress on his next visit a few weeks later, or the next one. He visited more often than his brokerage demanded—more often than I could discover profitable news, even sitting at a bay window over the street where I spent my days, a sunny place where I breathed sea air and listened for thoughts that were becoming garbled, fainter in the distance.

Our heads together through the nights of his visits, I read his thoughts clearly enough. He was feverishly drawn to me, but it frightened him. He worried that I was taking, not only his seed, but something he called a soul, a construct of human superstition. Someone had been talking to him, sensing my influence and doubting the innocence of my motives. It would have done no good to reassure him that his soul—if such a thing existed—did not interest me. Nor would it have helped to say that I myself felt the same undertow, the same blurring of my separate being into his, the same loss of identity.

As for his seed, his human code continued to obsess me. When I first met Cal on Water Street, I formed behind my navel a serum-proof sac to fill every night and deliver the next morning to my handlers on the seabed, a faithful courier. But slowly, one renegade cell at a time, my tubular flesh began to resent surrendering all his keepsakes, and I modeled on Cal’s human code, female as well as male, another sac behind the one I voided on the ocean floor, a secret and blood-gorged organ that stole a tithe of his gift and studied what to make of it. This all happened in less than a year, a time of deep confusion, so that now, years later, I cannot count his visits or the warnings of my handlers. But I do remember—and it will darken my deathbed—his summer of absence, a painful withdrawal into what was left of my non-self, and the horror of his return.

By the end of his four-month truancy, my identification with humanity was ebbing, and I strangely resented it, as if it has ever been anything but a curse. I again spent most of my days on the seabed, hard as it was to breathe there, near the seawall where I had first seen him. I grew angrier each day—a feeling my handlers did not understand—so angry that, although my plasma ached for him, I did not come the first night he returned, but sulked on the sandy bottom. The second night, I dressed in human cloth and met him at our rental. If I had wanted, I might have assumed nothing had changed, but I read that his mind was being poisoned against me, that a she-human in his upriver habitat had set herself against me, aided by my cotton broker’s own fear of losing his imaginary soul to me.

Before he undressed me, I held us apart, and we spoke of his fear for the first time. I challenged his trust in me. Of course, I had earlier made him promise not to ask who I was or whence I came, which implied not asking others or describing me to them—not exposing my nature, abhorrent to human prejudice. I was not only his lover, but his friend and advisor. It was for his own good that I protected his ignorance. Unless I became fully human (an alternative I had not yet imagined) and surrendered to the iron law of entropy, I knew that our love must remain hidden from his world, and so I challenged him. Many years have passed, but I remember the words today as I write on this lap desk in what may be my deathbed.

“You have been speaking to others about me,” I challenged him.

He stood on the plea that he had never asked questions, but I refused this and held him away with hands strong as tentacles. All my mind-force demanded that he speak in words:

“I can’t stop wondering, Luna,” he admitted (or words to that effect), “where you go when you’re away, your name, your origins, the watery secret behind your eyes.” My stare forced him to continue. “I sometimes imagine you exist only in what you take from me. And yet you see through me like glass, and it seems that the more I love you, the more I cease to exist.”

I told him that he had begun to understand, and he begged me to explain. He did not ask questions. No, he stood on that technicality. He merely begged me to explain. I refused:

“If I didn’t leave you, you would leave me. No, my mortal darling.”

I must be wrong. I could not have used those words. Or, if I did, they were darkly ironic. I understand now that the sac behind the sac, my contraband organ, had grown and crowded out its precursor. I did not know then that his germ-plasm was calcifying me, subverted my ancient plasticity and dragging me into deadly entropy. He was transforming me into a woman.

We exchanged caresses and again became lost in each other, again dissolving into liquid anonymity. When I came to myself, cool in a dark morning on the edge of fall, my cotton broker was asleep and void. I left him so, standing a long time in the open door, staring at his furry flesh on the twisted sheets, knowing that something was ending. The next day I sat dishabille in the bay window of my rented room, recollecting months of love in a frame of overarching millennia. Ominously, I heard few thoughts from the street below.

But when the sun was setting and I had dressed to meet my lover, walking on impulse to the saloon where we first met, I heard his voice through the doorway. I have not burdened my story with references to mortals I cataloged in Apalachicola, but now I must name one, a feckless slug called Augustus Key. Months before, I had advised my Cal to buy out Key, and now I heard him describing me in shameful detail to this worm. Who else had he betrayed me to? Human feelings blinded me. I braved the public place to curse him but then thought better and ran into the night, into the sea.

Betrayed by its exemplar, I hated the species—even the whole primate order for their resemblance to him—and thought to hide forever in the sea, borrowing the more pleasing forms of ray, sheepshead, or conch. But the sea spewed me out. Swimming angrily toward the sandy bottom, a prodigal returning, I heaved oxygenated water over my inner gills but had to kick to the surface to gasp in air. Only by floating like a jellyfish—only by confining my movements to tiny flutters—was I able to reach my waiting handlers, who swarmed me, their thought-speech garbled, thronging my apertures in a diagnostic frenzy. I heard no welcome, only roaring, and under it a few intelligible thought-words, the most damning of them human and another word with no translation, perhaps the closest English equivalent of it is entropic.

I tapped all my ancient formlessness to enlarge my gills and restore natural breathing. Transitions from species to species may take years (and explain sea monsters reported by sailors), but enlargement of a simple organ can be done quickly, like a change in facial shape. Mad hours passed. My handlers thronged me as an alien, swirling and bruising. Finally giving up, I snaked toward the surface. Maybe they buoyed me up—eager to expel me from their realm—until I drank air as if it were my native fluid. Seawater stung where their fins had scored my skin. There was nothing to do but climb over the seawall, my torn gown streaming over the shells of the street, skeletons of my lost kind.

In the following months, I understood what had outraged my handlers. The second sac had become a womb, and a mortal growth inside me had stolen my immortality. Exiled among a species that a few years before had seemed like beasts, I used the remnants of my bank account to move to Mobile. I disliked drowning humans now that I was one, so I adopted the profession for which I was best qualified. Enough of my biological plasticity remained that I was able to seal off my womb after Antoine was born. And scraps of my old telepathy—forehead close to a customer’s—empowered me to read his lusts, so that I was soon the most sought-after whore in south Alabama, entertaining only wealthy gentlemen and rejecting offers to become a kept woman. There were even marriage proposals, but I never cared for any man after Cal Calhoun.

I do love my son—that is a different thing—and, even though he spent his childhood in a brothel, I have given him a gentleman’s education and a family, a fictional one of course. The truth would never do. I borrowed the identity of a dead girl in Apalachicola, one Jane Slade, and persuaded Maurice DuBessant, one of my ardent clients, to pose as my ex-husband from New Orleans, claiming to have divorced me after my son was born. Though Antoine was not his biological child—for I could not lie about my affair with the cotton broker—Maurice (following my script) volunteered to fund his “son’s” education. Of course, all the money was mine.

My house, known as Madame Estelle’s, has been for many years an exclusive and profitable enterprise, where I advise some of the most powerful men in the state. I am retired now, my body having aged rapidly under the burden of the millennia, but Mad Estelle—her old beauty in ruins—still rules a seed-drenched palace from the gilded gallery overlooking its parlor. Tonight, I saw downstairs an old man who might have been Cal Calhoun, wrinkled and paunchy but still walking as he did along the seawall decades ago. No doubt, this customer gave his name. Cal would be too proud to offer a false one, but I will never ask. I turned away and locked myself in my upstairs room, writing this memoir through the cold night.

 

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