Fiction · 04/15/2015

The Sojourn

The candle flickered, slowly puddling into a ball of wax as Alex bent over the dark gray hide. Dull pain pulsed through her shoulders, her eyes straining to see. I am too young to feel this old, she thought. Soon the sun would rise over the ocean, bathing the cottage in soft golden light, but night was still wrapped around them like an ill-fitting cloak. Alex shuddered from the chill.

She tugged at the heavy material, trying again to pierce it with the glover’s needle. The skin was blubber-thick, nearly impossible to penetrate; Alex had been trying since sunset. She’d sliced the hide with a butcher knife so that it lay flat, butterflied, but the needle was not sufficient to the task. She had a dozen pinpricks on her thumbs to show for it, a starry night of dried brown blood.

This was harder than she expected. Alex had stuffed birds before — two hawks and a duckling — but nothing like this. A mammal was momentous. There was simply so much heft, endless folds of skin and a heaviness that was hard to bear.

A low murmur came from the bedroom. Alex laid the skin down, tiptoeing over to the door to peer inside. “Marina? You awake?”

Marina groaned and rolled onto her side, turning away from Alex to gaze out the window. She always slept naked. Alex’s eyes combed her lover’s body, lingering on the soft slope of her middle. Marina had curvy hips and a tiny, lithe waist. How many times had Alex tucked her hand into that hollow, feeling the supple muscles just beneath the skin? Marina was a swimmer, and a strong one. At the beginning she swam in the ocean before dawn every morning. Alex would stand at the window with a cup of black tea, watching the water glint on her lover’s pale back.

But Marina never swam anymore. Most days she slept till noon.

“I’ll make breakfast,” Alex said softly. “You want lox and cream cheese?”

“Not hungry,” Marina said into her pillow. “Not even for that.”

Alex went back to her sewing, breakfast abandoned. No wonder she’s tired, she thought darkly. Marina had been up late the night before, once again roaming the tall fences that surrounded the cottage. She had cultivated a strange hobby: taking small insects and impaling them on the pickets. The bugs squirmed and writhed there, skewered till their final breath.

“Ornaments,” she called them. “The art of dying: a dying art.”

But Marina had a magic to her; she always had. She made things seem more vibrant than they were, more colorful. It was the same with the insects. They bled the most beautiful colors: the ladybug bled red with black polka dots, smelling of burnt iron. The grasshoppers bled a seasick green, the earwigs waxy yellow. The hues oozed down the fence, mingling like kaleidoscopic candle wax. When one bug expired and the blood stopped flowing, Marina simply replaced it with another.

“I don’t know why you do this,” Alex said. “It’s cruel. It’s sick.”

“If I am made to suffer,” Marina snapped, “why shouldn’t they?”

Alex puffed out the candle; she no longer needed it. The glover’s needle was through the skin now, and she was sewing up the belly in the dim morning light. She had stuffed it full of excelsior, softwood shavings with the most exquisite name.

It isn’t wrong, she told herself. She is sick and I am keeping her safe. If she goes back now, she will die.

Marina had gone back before. Only for short periods and always to return, smelling of algae and warm water. At the beginning Alex found it exciting — her lover’s slick skin, the scent of salt on her breath. Afterwards they lay for hours intertwined on the bed, Alex plucking nibs of sand from Marina’s hair, Marina laughing and telling stories from the deep.

But the trips grew longer, and Marina’s absence at the cottage more pronounced. If it were true Marina led two lives, Alex had always felt their life together was the real one, the other just a sojourn. Now when Marina returned she looked emaciated, her hair matted by oil slicks, barnacles clinging to her thighs. The last time she had been gone for weeks and Alex fretted herself sick, sipping lemon balm tea and spending long hours by the window, awaiting her beloved’s return. She fried anchovies and mackerel just the way Marina liked, but she no longer had the appetite to eat them. As her eyes followed the curl and dip of the ocean, Alex worried she had been the sojourn all along.

That was when she built the fences. First with wooden stakes, then reinforced with metal so no one could slip in or out. When Marina finally did come home, dripping wet and reeking of rotten fish, Alex opened the latch and ushered her lover into the cottage, locking the gate tightly behind them.

After that Alex slept more easily at night. Even when Marina became despondent, staring out at the ocean for hours at a time, tracing the undulating waves on the windowpane. Even when Marina ate so little Alex was forced to call the doctor, who prescribed ample bed rest and constant supervision. Alex was happy to oblige. She liked keeping her lover close, and for a while she deluded herself into thinking Marina thrived under her constant care.

“It’s nice to have you here,” Alex said, stroking her lover’s hair. She had made sure to stash the skin in the dark chamber beneath the stairs, a room to which Marina had no key. This wasn’t punishment, Alex told herself. It was a gift of kindness. Under cover of darkness, she planned to reshape the skin into something stunning. Something beautiful but innocuous: a memory piece. Alex had no qualms about displaying this important piece of Marina’s history — as long as it could never be used again.

“The cottage was so lonely without you,” she told her lover.

“This isn’t a cottage,” Marina murmured. “It’s an aquarium.”

If I don’t watch her, Alex thought, who will? As a girl Alex had kept two hermit crabs in a glass box. They dehydrated because she hadn’t paid them enough attention, and by the time she removed their desiccated carcasses, they had been dead for days. She would not make the same mistake again.

Alex stood up from her sewing, stretched, and peeked again into the bedroom. The sheets were tangled around Marina’s legs. Her calf muscles, once plump, were now thin from lack of use. She hardly moved at all anymore, except for her nightly excursions to spear insects. Every day Alex offered to take Marina on pleasant strolls around the cottage — in the opposite direction of the killing fences — but her lover spurned her invitations.

“I always face them outward,” Marina said dreamily about the insects, as if that justified everything. “They die looking at the sea.”

“So will you, if you don’t eat something.”

But Marina refused to eat. Not even salmon, which used to be her favorite.

Alex twisted on her stool, first one way then the other, cracking her sore spine. Only a few stitches left, then she would be finished. It looked almost lifelike now, the skin shining as if it were still wet, the size and shape of a full-grown seal. A female. The teats hard and swollen like small pink shells.

Alex was closing the throat with her needle when something cool and metallic slid between her vertebrae. A tendril of pain shot up her back, hot and sharp. Instantly her hands went numb. She could not look over her shoulder, but she felt Marina’s warm breath upon her neck.

The doctor had told her Marina was not dangerous, that depression was anger turned inward and Marina would be a threat to no one but herself. But as Alex felt the butcher knife glide beneath her skin, a gurgle rose in her throat.

“You took my skin,” Marina whispered. “Now I take yours.”

The blade tore straight up Alex’s back and toward her neck, severing her vital organs, splitting her arteries wide. What will you do with my skin? Alex asked, though a mouthful of blood made the words unsayable.

“You’ll make the most beautiful ornament,” Marina answered, as if she knew.

Alex’s eyes clouded as her lover dragged her outside and laid her in the tender grass. She would die on the fence, she knew, the reinforced pickets strong enough to hold her, surrounded by the carcasses of bugs. Trapped forever by the woman she had loved, the woman she had saved.

But was she ever a woman, really? Alex knew Marina would rip the stitches out of her sealskin, forsaking the warmth and solidness of their love for some ancient siren song coursing through her watery veins. Marina had never been hers, in the same way the water never could be, the way you cup the sea in a million handfuls and every ounce slips through your fingers, leaving nothing more than particles of salt.

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Bree Barton has published fiction in PANK and nonfiction in USA Today, LA Times, Huffington Post, and McSweeney’s. Her story about sex, taxidermy, and OCD was a finalist for the 2014 Calvino Prize. She swears she does not stab things in real life. She tweets, sometimes, @BreeBartonYA.