Sea Changes
by Marta Randall

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short fiction


 
It's been a long season, but I made my quota and now I come, with pleasure, down to the coast for the autumn curing. Season's end brings me far south of my usual cove, but this one will do just as well. Sandy hills covered with rough grass slope to a small crescent beach, protected by arms of boulders on either side; the great, warm ocean current piles fog along the mouth of the cove. It looks as though the end of the world lies just beyond the blue-gray rocks; even at mid-day the fog doesn't lift, lying dense at the cove's mouth and never entering the cove itself. In the sunlight, at the foot of the rolling, grassy dunes, it is quite warm. 

The land slips gradually into ocean here. I strip and plunge into the sea, taking my spear with me. There is little to harm me on Greengate, but things still sting, or take occasional bites to find out what an alien tastes like; I've learned caution in three planet-years. Small blue fish pierce the water over a rock and sand bottom. I inspect sea plants with jointed fronds, opalescent crustaceans and, near the breakers, something I can't identify. Whatever it is sports a mass of waving, lavender arms set with brightly colored florets; the mass moves as I move, sideways to the spill of the waves. Those pretty, undulating arms look sharp. I don't like this. Fascinating creatures are of use, but cutting edges threaten my season's catch, fourteen perfect hides, and the high prices they will fetch at McCree's two months from now. I prod the lavender thing with my spear; I come too close and it nicks my hand. I surface, curse, and suck at the tiny wound, then submerge again and prod in earnest. I can't find the body of the damned thing, but it seems firmly rooted in the seabed and not likely to come free. Back on the beach, I stick a plaster on the nick, stretch the season's pelts on their curing frames, and anchor them securely under the gently breaking waves. 

Camp goes up next, foam hut, fire pit, various articles of furniture created at random from the saffron-colored leftovers of the hut. Such luxury, after the long season following the herds, setting and baiting traps, searching for the perfect animal, the perfect pelt. Season of killing and skinning and wrestling heavy sacks from and up to Keam's sagging back, and dirt over everything, and hard rocks under my back at night. The area is cluttered with soft things, but come winter the foam will melt harmlessly into the sand, leaving no trace of my curing camp. 

Keam watches my preparations with mild, silent perplexity. He shifts from foot to foot to foot to foot to foot to foot, six-legged curiosity slouching about the camp, nuzzling into the sacks and containers. As I work I reach out absently to rough his amber fur, or pause to dig my nose into his large shoulder. He muffles softly deep in his throat; his coat smells like a forest after rain. Big, quiet, improbable beast, the only animal I know I'll never have to skin, and for this virtue I am exceedingly fond of him. He wanders off to inspect the pale grass near at the dune's crest while I arrange things to my liking. It's going to be a good camp, I can tell. I  smile, stretch, and fall asleep in the sun. 

Keam rouses me at twilight, prodding my stomach with his ungainly head. The sun falls into the gray mass of fog; the air smells, gently, of salt and sea wrack. I light the fire and prepare my meal. The sky is covered with stars except where the fog hides them. When I crawl into my hut I leave the flap open for the night air and the sound of waves. Keam stretches out between the hut and the fire pit; between myself and the sea. 

I wake suddenly, alert and tense, and reach for the skinning knife. The noise comes again. an uneasy grunting outside the hut. I balance  the knife in my palm and crouch by the door, eyes closed, living through my ears. Keam? 

Keam. He twitches in his sleep, jerking his huge limbs and snorting.  When I put my hand on his neck he comes wide awake, thick back-ridge hairs bristling, teeth bared, eyes wild, before he recognizes me and his fear subsides. Keam having a nightmare -- it's enough to make me laugh but he does not take well to ridicule, and he is scared. We've worked together for sixteen Greengate months and he always sleeps deeply and frightens not at all. The beach is peaceful, unthreatening, and the sea calm. I croon into his big ears. Eventually he relaxes into sleep again. 

In the morning, nightmare apparently forgotten, Keam gallops up the  dune to drink at the spring and devour grass with his usual fierce appetite. I inspect the skins and detour to check on yesterday's lavender  mystery. I can't find it, though I'm sure I'm checking the right place, but  the sea around my skins is clear and I decide not to worry about it. Last  year I wasted a month fretting about what turned out to be a harmless  sea skate; I won't make that mistake again. 

Trappers complain of the enforced idleness of a curing camp, but it's never bothered me. I putter and mend, fish, read through my cubes, ride with Keam to explore the arms of the cove, and make up tall tales to spin at McCree's, over a pitcher of beer. This year I think I'll transform my lavender mystery into a sea monster, something unknown and dangerous and horrifying, something to keep trappers awake during next year's curing. It's a favorite sport among us; I'm not the only one to spend season's end hatching and polishing artistic lies. The thought gives me a moment of warm pleasure; I give my monster another set of legs. 

The wind rises before sunset, while I am at my fish dinner. It whips the fog at the cave's mouth but the breeze in the cove itself is gentle and the waves grow only a little. This is the month of calmness, weather usually comes from the north here and not the south, the cove is well protected, all my instincts tell me the weather will stay fair. I make sure the skins are secure before rolling into bed. Keam shelters in the lee of the hut, tucks his head between front legs, tail between back ones, and leaves his middle legs to fend for themselves. 

This time wind wakes me, high wind and pounding surf. I rush into the waves. A frame soars through the white water and chops down again; the entire chain is loose, the frames battering against each other and the hard bottom. Re-anchoring won't help, not in this surf -- I have to get them out, all of them, but the frames fight me, slapping against thighs and breasts. My eyes sting. One, two, four. I fight them onto the beach, dump them, plunge into the surf again. Another two, and two. I grab for another one as the waves throw something big and solid and animal on me. The cables rip from my hands. I clutch the thing as I go under, grabbing an arm, a thigh, snarling my fingers in .a mass of hair. I'm holding a human, inert and heavy and probably dead. I grasp it and stagger up the beach. Keam snorts and backs away rapidly. I dump the body by the frames and run back to the waves. The person, body, thing can wait - my hides are ribboning against the rocks. 

I can only find three more of them. I curse and mutter, drag the frames higher on the beach, and crawl to the firepit to find out what I dumped there. I flick on a light and stare at it. 

I was right, it's human. Breathing. The back rises and falls, labored but regularly. Smooth cheeks. Long, lank, browny yellow hair. I turn the body over to see the soft tumble of genitals, the flat chest. Whoever the hell he is, he shouldn't be here, not by my firepit or on my beach or by my ocean, but there's nothing to do about it now. His flesh is sea-cold. I drag him into the hut and onto the pallet, cover him with my sleeping sack, and curl exhausted on the floor. 

I wake at dawn. He doesn't, but he's still alive. I uncover him; I'm scratched and welted and bruised, but he looks untouched by the surf. He's not lean and tough enough to be a trapper -- perhaps they've opened Greengate to tourists while I was out of touch. It seems unlikely. I throw the sack over him again, disgusted, and go to inspect my skins. 

Of the eleven hides remaining, two are battered beyond use and the rest are, to one degree or another, damaged. I repair the frames, re-stretch the hides, lug them into the water, and anchor them, and all the time I watch the comforting, fat numbers of my future credit account getting smaller and smaller. And there's nothing to be done about it. I am licensed to kill fourteen and fourteen only. Even were the season not over, I could not hunt again. And I was so damned proud of my fourteen perfect kills. 

Keam has gone up the dune and refuses to come down. I shrug and fix breakfast. The man stirs inside the hut. It's his fault, if he'd stayed wherever he belonged I'd not have lost three pelts, the others wouldn't be this damaged. I slop tea into a cup and carry it into the hut. 

He sits, pushes hair from his face, and looks at me in puzzlement. The sleeping sack lies bunched around his hips. 

"Here." I thrust the cup at him. "Drink this." 

He takes the cup and wraps his hands around it. 

"Careful. It's hot." 

Blank gray eyes over the cup's rim. His hands shake and I wonder if he's feverish, but when I reach to feel his forehead he jerks back, spilling hot tea over his chest. He yelps, I reach for cup and towel, we crash and tangle together. He's not at all feverish and stronger than he has any right to be. The uproar brings Keam barreling down the slope. He slides his head into the hut and glares at the man with a combination of bravery and dread. The expression is irresistibly funny; I laugh, but the man huddles against the far wall and stares at Keam with horror until I shoo the animal out and mop up the tea. 

"Keam's a protective soul, but you shouldn't be afraid of him." 

More blankness. I speak Standard, so why doesn't he understand me? Amnesia? 

Either that or he's an idiot. I am, at best, a common-sense bushmedic, but amnesia seems as good a label as any to hang on the man, so I hang it. Besides, amnesiac or idiot, the label lessens my anger. 

The things he knows or remembers, and the things he doesn't, bewilder me. Plates make sense to him, but not forks. Clothing escapes him completely and I give up on it. He sits in the sun, bare-assed, while light pours over his smooth skin. He resists walking and when he must he minces, grimacing with pain. He must be hurt somewhere, but when I try to put my hands to him, to palpate his body, he bolts into the hut, dives under the sack, covers everything except his eyes, and glares at me. I shrug in disgust and go outside. After a time he totters after me and perches on a foam hummock, watching me with suspicion.

I ask his name, where he comes from, about the windstorm. He listens without comprehension. Eventually I talk just to cover his silence. He doesn't seem to mind. Keam spends the day on the dunes and will not be tempted down, not even when the sun falls into the fog and I prepare for sleep. I enter the hut to find the idiot comfortably asleep on my pallet, in my sack, and can't get him to leave. When I shout his eyes get round and he clutches the sack to his chest. Muttering curses, I make a bed for myself on a couch outside and lie sleepless for a time, listening to his deep breathing and the susurrus of waves. 

I wake to find him crouched by the fire pit, the teakettle in one hand and a cup in the other . 

"What are you doing?" I swing my legs off the couch. 

He gives me an innocent smile, holds out the kettle, and says quite clearly, "Tea." 

"Tea, indeed. So you can talk after all. Give me the kettle and I'll make some." 

I hold out my hand but it seems that "tea " is the limit of his vocabulary. He says it again with great satisfaction. I take the kettle and make tea. He sips cautiously while I lay fish on the grill. Then he points up the dune and says, "Keam." 

I rock back on my heels. "Minnen," I say, tapping my chest. He rests his palm over his own chest and repeats my name. "No, listen to me. Tea. Keam. Minnen." 

When I point to him he says .'Minnen" again.

"No. Keam. Hut. Kettle. Tea. Pot. Fire. Minnen." I point to him again and he does a perfect imitation of my shrug before extending his empty cup. 

"Tea?" 

I fill the cup and serve breakfast, wishing I knew more about amnesia. 

I'll have to take him to McCree's with me after the curing, unless someone comes looking for him. That, on Greengate, would be highly unlikely. And somebody may be looking for him, may even be offering a reward for him. Perhaps enough to make up for the losses the storm inflicted on my fourteen perfect hides. The thought does much to reconcile me. But he'll have to walk to McCree's, Keam can't carry him and hides and camp together. I coax him to his feet and bully him into taking steps. He totters and minces and tiptoes, glaring at me through his mop of hair while Keam watches from the top of the dune. When I finally let him sit he cradles his feet in his hands and hunches over them, rocking. "Hurt?" He understands the word perfectly, first time. I go up the dune to scratch behind Keam's ears and try to talk him into coming back to camp. He nuzzles me but won't leave the mare's-nest of grass he's made for himself by the spring.

I force the man to walk and he toddles along the shoreline twice a day, morning and evening. He hates it but I don't give him much choice -- I can still scare him by offering to touch his skin. Within a week he is walking well. I am relieved, but Keam is not impressed and still keeps his distance. 

It's ten days since I dragged him from the surf. He stands with me in water, watching as I lift each frame and check the hides, testing the firmness of the cable knots and inspecting the joints on the frames. 

"What is it?" It's his favorite sentence. 

I tell him. He listens without any spark of remembrance and runs his long fingers over the skins.When I reach for the next frame, he touches my shoulder. I turn, surprised. It's the first time he's touched me willingly. 

"Look." The lashings on one corner of the frame are working loose.

"Damn. Why didn't I see that?" I fumble for one of the cords around my waist but his fingers are quicker than mine. He takes a cord, binds the frame, and beams at me. He's done a good job of it. I'm not entirely pleased. 

"What is it?" he says again as I reel in the fish traps. I explain. He frowns, then comprehension lights his face.

"Fish," he says and flops into the water. He surfaces coughing and sputtering. I grab his shoulder and he jerks away from me.

"That's not air, stupid. You have to hold your breath." Then I have to explain to him what that means. He hyperventilates gravely and is gone. I shout and Keam, from the shore, answers me with grunts. The man pops up in front of me, grinning, with a fish flapping in each hand. 

"Did you get those from the traps?" I demand. "Damn it, if you've broken them --" 

I jerk the trap cables. The traps are full of fish, the openings undisturbed. It's not possible - and how the hell can he swim if he has to be told how not to breathe? I yell questions at him, waving my arms. He smiles and shrugs. Later, when I go up the dune to be grumpy in Keam's company, the animal accepts only a few pets before moving away, putting the spring between us. I sit by myself, hurling pebbles at the sea. 

A few days pass. Now, when he's not following me around asking endless questions, he lies on a couch scanning cube after cube through the reader: novels, history , first aid, trapping and curing manuals, veterinary medicine, poetry. I ask him if he remembers how to read and he shrugs without looking up. The shrug annoys me, it's too expert a copy of my own, dangerously close to mockery. Is it fair to dislike an amnesiac? I don't know and I don't much care, either. I start spending my free time  up on the dunes with Keam, who barely tolerates me. 


Is today the fifteenth day after the storm, or the sixteenth? I can't remember. We walk up the dune to the spring, carrying water pouches. It's hot today, sunlight pouring from a cloudless sky. He squats beside me at the spring. His skin is dark brown now, his long hair streaked with yellow-white. His beard has grown in thick and brown, although for a good eight days he had no beard at all. The newly-sprouted hair on his chest and groin is brown too. Can bodies get amnesia? No, he's probably one of those who like full-body depilatories. It's only a minor mystery. His eyes are still childlike, inquisitive, as he watches my hands move on the pouch. I hadn't noticed before, but he's beautiful. Well, I'm not given to noticing things like that. Child. Pretty, ignorant child. This overgrown immaturity exasperates me; I've never been the parental type and am not about to begin now. 

When my pouch is full he fills his own, caps it, and walks beside me toward camp. Halfway down the dune he stops and looks across the cove to the bleak fog-bound promontory. I stop a pace further down, wondering what he sees. 

"It's very big, isn't it?" he said at last. 

"The sea? Yes, it's big." 

"Bigger than the land?"

"Not on this planet, no." 

Silence. Then, "Cold and heavy," he says with loathing and starts down the slope without me. I almost shrug, but catch myself in time. 

His language improves. His stance improves. He strides around the camp, he brews tea and grills fish and makes conversation. Between one day and the next he has become an adult male human being. And desirable. It's been a long time, I've been looking forward to finding a suitable bedmate at McCree's and should not mind finding one before then. But I do mind. I can't read the seasons of his eyes. I start avoiding him, spending long hours checking the half-cured hides, sitting on boulders polishing my monster story , mourning my credit balance. I can't keep my mind on any of it. Distracted, grumpy, upset, I slouch about the beach and feel uneasy when I strip to enter the water. I would take my troubles to Keam, but Keam won't come near me now. When the man calls me to dinner, I go reluctantly and keep the pit between us. 

The stars cluster everywhere but to the northwest, where they are eaten by fog. I watch them from a couch I've dragged away from the camp, and on which I spend my nights. White star, yellow star, blue star, red star: birth world, home world, school world, training world, trade world. The stars above are not stars I know, despite my naming of them; I name them without conviction and without desire. The man moves around my hut, sifting through the detritus of my life. I hadn't realized he was this close. I drag the couch further down the beach, almost to the high-tide line. I can still hear him. I cover my face with my arms. 


I've lost time. The beach doesn't tell me, or the sky, or the sea. I touch my hides and don't know if they are curing, or cured, or on the verge of rot. I detach the most damaged one and bring it to the beach, sit on the warm sand to prod and poke and sniff. Color? Scent? Sheen? Softness? I don't know anymore, it doesn't matter, I don't know why I worry about it. I leave the hide on the beach and go away. When I come back, the man has taken it into the hut and is working on it. Leave him alone. 
 

The days fall one by one; meal to meal, sleep to waking to sleep again. He leaves food for me on the beach. I eat it while he is in the water checking the frames. Later he works on the hide, at night he sits in the lamp light and studies maps. I lie near the water's edge and watch him. Firelight dances over his skin, making shadows make dances. Water touches my feet and the image flees. I clamber onto my couch and face the waves. 

When the dark is over I walk up the dune to Keam. He backs away from me, retreating pace by pace until he is gone and I sit alone in the grass. The wind blows in my face. The man stands up to his slim waist in water, pulling on lines; after a while he emerges, radiant and dripping, with fish in each hand. How strange, to want to play with fish. The sun is too hot. My head hurts. Time goes away. 


"Minnen." 

Maybe seabirds say it, or the waves under my hands. 

"Minnen." 

He wears the battered hide slung about his hips, stands by me in the water, he has a pretty face. I touch the line of skin above the hide, along his belly. He takes my hand and leads me to the beach, I hold him between my palms, taste the warm salt. He is gentle, careful, he moves in me like the sea and there is something I should know about that but it doesn't matter. Inside the hut it is very warm. He smiles when he sleeps. 


Today is smaller than yesterday .Yesterday was smaller than the day before. I don't know what this means. I walk in the foam while he fixes food. The dunes are empty. I walk in water, in water, in the foam. 

He says the winds will rise soon. He sleeps outside to watch the skins. The hut is strange with only me in it. I sit in the doorway. The waves shiver with moonlight. I walk into the water. Cool on thighs and fingers, cool on breasts and arms. The sea glows. 

When the sun comes up, all red and angry, the sea looks angry too. The sun makes my shoulders sore. He walks into the water and removes carefully, delicately, one by one the skins from the frames. He folds them and puts them in gray sacks. Something comes down the dune, six-legged, curious. The man takes things around the camp and puts them all together in a bunch with cloth and ropes, puts them on the creature's back. They hold their faces together. The man smiles. I move closer to the beach. Clear water slides around my knees. The man comes to me. He says things that I don't understand. I shrug and stand in water, in water, watching. He turns to the beast and says something else and they climb the dune and go into the hiddenness on the other side. 


The waves are higher now. The wind is cold. Sand moves and shifts beneath my soles. I look down through the clear water. Underneath it is pretty and blue and shine like colors. 


There is in me a changing. 



 

© Marta Randall 1985, 2002
originally published in
ISAAC ASIMOV'S SCIENCE FICTION MAGAZINE, 1985

home
short fiction