The Taste of Blood and Kelp
Nothing is too weird or convoluted for me, and this is an inherited trait. Waking, enjoying those few seconds enclosed in redness where They don’t see me. The sway reminds me of a time when I was held by something other than the ocean and my hair was touched as if it was the finest catch of the day.
I get out of bed and use the beat-up toothpaste I should have replaced, a pathetic amount spurting out the cruddy end. I have one of those seizures that keeps happening since he left. The doctors thought I was epileptic, but I’m not. This should be good news, but it’s not entirely so. They don’t know what is causing the seizures, and being uncategorisable, Unknown, is dangerous. No one likes things that aren’t easily one or another. Who I am and who I need to be to survive are not always the same, and here they diverge disastrously; I don’t want to be picked out by the Perfection. Not yet. I need to be unnoticeable. I am playing a finely-balanced game as it is, having stopped doing the other things they want, like shaving. It was getting a little harder each day. I can’t anymore. I am not even deliberately trying to be defiant – it’s just how I’ve turned out.
It’s getting harder to collect the scavengings, too. I don’t really care about painting my face, the Perfection’s required ornamental appearance, because that’s just an outward pretence to please others. But the scavenging is survival. It’s history.
Family businesses aren’t allowed nowadays, but the sea has its own patterns of doings things and even the Perfection doesn’t like to alter that. They think we pirate our way up and down the ragged coastline, with its rocks like razors, but this is the vision of an outsider. The Outskirts people might resent us a little, yet we give as well as take. They supply us with the small red apples, the fruits that look like grey stones, and the honey cakes with the mark of protection etched into their sides. We give them salt and information in return. Seems as fair an exchange as any, to me. But it is no longer sustainable – not now that I’m on my own.
I can feel a slight pressure in my mouth before I taste the blood, and I know it’s going to be that kind of a day, already. First, my limbs jerk - and now this. The Perfection are omniscient, yes, but this doesn’t mean that they see every single thing that happens. That is surely the way of omniscience; the vast overlooking the tiny. Because I can taste my own iron, I put on the dress. Some protections come from within and some are external.
With Dad having elected to join the Disappeared before his time, I have to stop practicing and actually engage, otherwise there will be no kind of living at all. Mam’s wedding dress gives me comfort as I conjure. It has huge splashes of red flowers - the kind you don’t often see at sea - but she was like that. Interested in the forgotten, the overlooked. Before, the dress was only for special occasions, like when I visited Dearbhla and her kelp wrapped around my chest, drowning me in salty liquid. Now I wear it day-to-day, a secret written on the body.
Mam was too much for the Perfection. They let us pirate-women escape with some things, but not everything - we might be of the sea, but we are still women. She let the hair grow long across all the creases and curves of her body. This was just about allowed, but then she started to learn the Before-knowledge, to use the dyes of the mosses and the fishes. She loved colour, letting it spill over her and fill the corners of her being. Their eyes fell upon her. It was too garish, too outlandish. Too much. She was forced to Disappear which, as everyone knows, has no honour in it.
Except for us.
The problem with being all-powerful is that you assume you know everything. You make the assumption that what is bad for one segment must be bad for the whole. But only some parts of the fruit are rotten.
That I got to keep the dress is a testament to Mam’s ingenuity. We are not supposed to have heirlooms. They know the danger in connections to the past, to knowing your history. A trickle of blood escapes the corner of my mouth like autumn come early on the burnt summer of my face. It crisscrosses over the scar Mam gave me by accident when I was small. I hope she has forgiven herself for that by now, wherever she is. I smooth the dress, getting ready to face the day as there is no time for reminiscing.
The wind has a bite like regret; this is a good morning for murmurings. I hear the spell on a riptide of air. I might as well have fun before they get me. And I know just the person to be by my side. Licking the blood from the left side of my lips, I begin to speak the words that Mam told me.
* * *
She appears on the faded deck, too clearly of the deep for her surroundings.
“I need a new partner now.”
Kelp in hand, like a whip or an ice-cream cone, I know she won’t be impressed. Dearbhla is never impressed with me, not since I was a young one and I met her in a dream about diving into the depths of another. But sometimes she is amused. Today I would settle for that.
“You only ever want me when you need something, eh.”
Her eyes are all pupil and her mouth a crescent moon. I am in luck for the first time in a long time.
“I would say it’s more of a want than a need.”
The taste in my mouth lessens as it becomes easier to keep her on the deck of the boat. She moves towards me.
“Oh, it’s always a need.” She laughs, like a decade’s good fortune coming at once. Resigned but not unhappy, she touches a snatch of my hair, fresh-green from the dye I smoothed onto it yesterday evening. “You look so like her.” She smiles wanly.
Families repeat themselves, again and again, like a game of musical chairs among statues. I start to slip the dress off my shoulders. There is a cloud to the West, heavy with foreboding and opportunity.
“Keep it on. Who knows what the wet will bring?”
* * *
We sail into the cloud not because we are reckless, but because our destination lies this way. It is easy to paint many things as courage when in actuality they are just convenience. Or necessity. We don’t go far because it is safer to stay on the sea, to travel swiftly. It does rain - of course it does - but Dearbhla creates a canopy out of seaweed and we stay mostly dry. She is taller than me, although not as much as she used to be - that said, it is hard to tell as her shape blurs and shifts when she is on land. I am tired from the summoning and lean my head on her shoulder, eating an orange to quarantine the bloody taste to the back of my mouth.
Dearbhla knew Mam better than I did in many ways. Although she is much older, their childhoods fell around the same time. They made cafes on the beach using the spiral seashells as ice-cream cones. She had stayed away from us since Mam’s disappearance and didn’t reappear until after Dad’s. They had too many disagreements about how I was being reared and Dad could see the way I looked at her, even when I knew other people were watching.
But she is here now, and she didn’t really resist coming back to me. She has always been stronger than me, salt running true through her veins, her blood, her tears. I am safer with her and, though she is not Mam, she is the next best thing. She strokes my pastel hair. She knows.
* * *
We arrive at the Junkyard by late afternoon. It teeters on the edge of a yellow cliff and we are somewhat protected by the lapping waves; Dearbhla never strays too far from the safety of the sea. The tattered boat always remains in sight, but it looks small and fragile from this vantage point. People are swapping body parts to upgrade themselves and finding ways to be better equipped for survival, crawling over the dusty ground like slow-moving crabs. We are not here for that. We need supplies of a different kind to cast off, away from the Eyes of the Perfection.
Only so much can be taken from the Outskirts people before you have to come up with some kind of currency, but Dearbhla has turned some worn sea-glass into jewels that won’t turn into damp sand until hours after we are out of here. We start to collect the stone-apples that don’t spoil, the dry biscuits that provide calm in a storm, and the tiny mushrooms that can be fermented. I pick up a couple of honey-cakes for luck. I am not a haggler and would rather over-pay than have to talk to a stranger a second longer than necessary, but Dearbhla makes sure we are not cheated whilst I pick out the best produce.
With the main bulk of the supplies bought and sent down to the boat, a woman with multi-coloured hair taps her fingers on my forearm, trying to sell me something, and I shiver. For a second I think it is her. But she has none of the grace about the face that Mam had. Her touch lingers on my arm, clammy with a wetness that is not of the ocean. Her skin is strangely smooth despite the dampness. I urge to go, but Dearbhla is holding out a tunic that she wants me to try on. The imposter woman nods encouragingly. I realise this is her market stall.
“It‘s more practical,” Dearbhla says. Ignoring my protestations of discomfort she pulls the wedding dress over my head and drops it, leaving it crumpled on the floor. I had forgotten that her power can make her arrogant.
As the stallholder’s eyes trace the pendulum of my body, my arms and legs fluffy with dark hairs, I notice the woman’s hair has reverted to uniform strands of blonde. Knowing she has seen all the intimate ways I have disobeyed, I want to scream, my mouth forming an empty O-shape instead as I recognise that she was never an ordinary woman at all. She reaches her poreless hand into her pocket to pull out who knows what but, just like that, Dearbhla lashes her kelp around the Perfection’s neck. The body collapses to the floor, slack apart from the tautness at the nexus of the whip.
In the yellowing tent, we have a few moments to communicate a plan through gestures and slight vibrations of our pupils. We may have only encountered one facet of the Perfection as of yet but, once a place has an Eye, it becomes susceptible to more. By osmosis, they will reach us soon enough.
Dearbhla takes my hand for the first time in a good while and leads me out of the tent, onto the scrubby grassland. My palm grows clammy against hers; now it is sticky with sweat, rather than the sweets of my childhood. We descend the steps cut into the side of the crumbling cliff. Despite our fear, we dance and trip down them like children who have been allowed an extra biscuit. I feel light on my toes and in my head – not dissimilar to the feeling I get before a seizure - but this giddiness has a different source. Reaching the boat together feels like coming home. We skip lightly onto the boat, slipping away into the black water as the steps grow busy with half-life forms.
It is only after the sickly thrill is over and we are steadily pulling away that I realise I did not pick up Mam’s wedding dress from the floor of the grubby tent. The people of the Outskirts say that the Perfection has a way of getting to know someone by touching objects once dear to them. But how could they understand the years of tenderness in the threads, the sacrifices hemmed along the seams? It is like trying to read a language with an unfamiliar alphabet. I do not worry unduly; I have a feeling Mam will protect me, confusing their collective thought with the liberty that she imbued in everything she held. My loss will never be their gain. Looking back at the shore, I can see shapes scrambling on the rocks; they look human from this far away, but their cries tell a different story.
I will miss that dress for the rest of my life but, as we sail past Dún Laoghaire and out into the Unknown, where it is rumoured their Eyes don’t see, I realise I don’t need objects to feel her presence.
Elspeth Wilson (she/her) is a Scottish writer and researcher who is currently working on her first novel and poetry collection. In 2019, her poetry has been nominated for Best of the Net and shortlisted for the Streetcake Experimental Writing prize. She tweets about writing and feminism @ellijwilson.