→ BFA ILL 2025
He found me in the moon pools. I smelled him before I saw him; the barnacles bit into the soft soles of his feet, and that ruddy, cloying smell of human blood sang out, dulled by the clean brutality of water. She was cold that night and lapping at me. I’d taken off my skin and was wallowing in the creature I was without it. Listening to her whisper sweet nothings. He interrupted this small solitude, just like all the others.
I’d expected another fisherman, desperate after a poor day’s catch, scrambling for anything, clingfish, mussels, the slower lobsters. I would be patient and silent. The brine they’d stir up with their slapping feet would draw nearer until I was no longer a mystery, their eyes falling on my pearlescent innerthings and burrowing there, devouring.
The tight drum of hunger drew up within me. Men with their wanting mouths and fading strength. Men like barrels waiting to be opened, brimming with the red wine of life…thousands lay beneath me, half-forgotten, and here was another.
Tonight, though, this man’s hands are pale and empty. His name is Colin. I love him before I know him.
2. HONEYMOON LOGIC
Once quick to anger and trailing fishheads, once all haddock-scaled sneer…arrogance convinces me that this mercy is momentary. Something about his eyes, which are honest, and ask nothing of me. The pelt around my ankles whines needfully and I itch to pull it on. My fingers twitch. All around, that tallowy smell of man pushes in, and I swallow it down. I feel my voice rising from where it has slept for so many leagues.
Illustration by the author
Why were you wandering the shore?
Had to clear my head.
Don’t believe you.
(Long waterlogged pause. His glassy sympathetic gaze. I am overcome with the desire to believe him. Bite my cheek.)
Do you know me?
I’d like to.
(Another pause. He looks so worried about me. I want to claw the concern off his face.)
What’s it like out there?
(And now I see that worry is really longing. What was he looking for? Has he found it? How can I describe that ageless, porous expanse? There aren’t enough words but for him, I’ll choose a few, poor landbound fool.)
The ocean deals in absolutes, but really she is grey. Gentle. Angry. Neither. When I leave her I always return, tell her what I’ve seen.
(He blinks. His pants are wet from kneeling and he doesn’t seem to notice.)
I wish I could know her as you do.
(I think You tempt fate I think Watch what you wish for. To know me is to know her. His innocence burns, red ache of a stove. I’m slipping back into my skin, the moment is closing out. I feel her tugging at me, Come Away From There.)
And then he says something ridiculous, like come have a drink with me, his mortal voice punctuated by the thundering of his heart.
His hot blood and my cold tongue. The way he’d taste, all melty and burning. He’s blinking at me nervously. And then I laugh (a monster’s laugh), and miraculously, he smiles. I think about indulgence. I think about how quickly he’ll die. So when he drapes me across his shoulder and carries me over the threshold of the shore, I play conquest, and find myself sitting at a dive bar smiling back at him.
Our first kiss is brackish. I feel my world shrink together. There is a well of water in his hands where I swim, now small, now comprehensible, circling. I am in love. Selfish, monstrous love.
I am not a girl, but I am a great pretender. Nothing wrong with half-truths. When have you ever been above a lie? She asks me. What do I have left to keep from him? I shrug back. When this thought crosses my mind a flash of the Before sears through me. (Of course, I hardly know what I feel yet. This is earlier, and it takes a long while for me to name the Before, During, and After.) His mouth on my neck. Whirling eddies trail in the wake of his fingers. Even this far inland I’m chastised by the roiling crash of the waves.
Things move fast for us. Long nights spent laughing at each other. I delight in beer, fireplaces, gas stations, church bells. Humanness is so fleeting and naive. I hardly notice the fever of it. All the joy that once glanced off of me pours into me and sticks.
He explains regret to me (as in Let me make you a copy of my key. No, my dear, I won’t regret it.) I have a hard time understanding why he does the things he does. It’s the bewilderment that keeps me spellbound, I think.
Oh, don’t look at me like that. After all this time, wouldn’t you, too, be entertained by selfless acts?
At sea I’d noticed all the man-made islands. Vibrating hoses and truckfulls of sand, billowing and melting as soon as they were placed. Huge monoliths rose up, built on dust. From below, always watchful, I’d smile at the humour of architect’s warbling ambitions, their silly dreams degrading before my very eyes.
This is a little something like that. And I’m hopelessly charmed. Fistfuls of sand cast into one big blue yawn, and he’s beckoning me, so earnestly, asking me to stand as if I have anything to walk on.
When he takes me to the city and
marries me it feels like
we are inventing something. It’s loud here and
I’m new. When he gets handsy I
smile but hide it behind
I never knew how simple it
was to be a possession until he
possessed me. It’s quieter
in the recesses of my mind where there is
still that wanton violence, sleek
cold deep black places
that are only mine.
He bought me a gold band
cushion cut three months salary how
can I tell him I’ve only ever worn
silver how could he have known anyways he
He works in oil and you fold up your opinions and tuck them somewhere safe, eat well, think quiet, think less, sleep long with black dreams. In the total absence of thought there is the sound of waves clawing and dragging. Time is difficult to fill. Loamy seafoam pushes up the sink drains. You turn on the taps and wash it down.
The thing you are without your skin is lovely; so lovely, in fact, that slowly you forget that you’re naked, and where there should be fear there is only his warm gaze. You become uncalloused and weak.
When he comes home smelling like too much cologne and wants you, all you can think about is how if your teeth grazed against his just right they’d spark flint steel fire and he’d light up burn crisp be gone. Maybe you’d remain, some part of you still too cold and damp to catch that killing heat. This is, of course, wishful thinking.
You get pregnant quickly and spend that heavy spell wondering if (what) your body wants. This is another sort of immolation. Real, not imagined.
On one of the last days, underdressed and streaked with old tears, you walk across the highway to the water. She is flat glass and done beckoning. The cold is fierce and biting into you and all you can do is miss the way it would glance off of you Before. A thick spread of clouds hangs, low and ripe above your head. You stand there long until snow starts to fall. For a moment, you are humanly placated, the flakes drifting, landing in the seawater, the white dust making the beach pristine and virginal. The water grows a skin. You gasp painfully in recognition, step closer, but she shrinks away from your touch.
Colin had said something about tsunamis, how the water will draw back endlessly before something terrible happens, and you laugh bitterly at the way men ascribe wrath to sorrow.
The baby kicks you fiercely and you feel the grit of this life all over you, chafing.
Labouring in the hospital and all I can think about is how I want to be within again, buzzing, my nakedness so pronounced when I’m swollen like this.
Before, before, before, not just a sheath, but the cruel hidden blade…
I am bloodless and dulled.
Colin is next to me, and isn’t.
Big needles full of air.
They draw a curtain to keep me from seeing myself.
I writhe imagining glittering abalone and strands of kelp beads discarded thoughtlessly on the surgery table.
She’s born and I missed it.
Dry as bone and grey as me.
I hold her (they say ‘skin to skin’) and it’s like two stones
perched on top of each other,
creek bed in drought,
parched paper tongues.
The world is a salt flat drinking of us.
7. TERRIBLE TWOS
When they tell you that mundanity sneaks up on you please know that they are lying. You’ll watch it come to you. This doesn’t mean that you will be ready when it does.
In the supermarket you set her in the cart seat and push her till she laughs, placated, if only for a moment. The fluorescents are too slow and you catch their blinking. The cart drags and squeaks because there’s a whole head of hair wrapped around the wheel, but it’s too late to go back and grab a new one, and you’re trudging on, and suddenly she’s crying, and they’ve moved Colin’s favorite granola to another aisle, and then there’s a smell like a slap in the face, the fish butchery, a pinkish shimmer of endless flat packed salmon like a hundred hands in prayer, or maybe pointing, out, away, anywhere but here.
On an arid day, sitting outside at a cafe, Colin wipes his face with a paper napkin. I watch as he places it, crumpled, on the lattice of the table, noticing the stains of oil from his nose, the food still left in the corners of his mouth. Beneath the layer of rubber that holds him together is an inch of butter, and beneath that, the meat. Gulls scream and flap around us. I know they sense it too. A kelpy smell wafts over me, shying away when I gulp for it. Things have been torturous lately. He took us to the seaside.
I dab at the corners of my own mouth. There was nothing there to wipe away. I shake salt onto my saucer, press my finger into it and lick it off.
I don’t respond, stare out past him. An ambulance passes by us, so close it hurts, and my hair lashes my face in its sudden breeze. The baby’s sitting on his lap and reaching across the table for my salt.
Knees bouncing, her head is tossed wildly and she’s jerked away from me. Cooing has never worked on her. She whines haltingly, her cry warbled by the jostling.
She looks up at him, irritated. And then she looks at me, and we stare at each other, feeling how neatly his edges contain him. There is pity there. Also envy, for the simplicity of it.
Love is a weak seal I couldn’t
keep the yearning out.
The ocean doesn’t miss you but there’s something
similar, remembrance, the way
your volume, once removed, makes her body smaller,
even minutely so.
I’d never thought about it much, the simple fact that I’d
in the difference I’d make
I took my skin from where I’d hid it, took my misgivings
I’d shelved them, felt all at once years of black poison
bitter from that hidden place, and then finally empty, the
the relief God I’ve Missed This
to be reunited with her lull, her dark bloom, her
Swathed in such ambivalence, weightless, soundless,
nothing expected of me but my eventual end.
The strength in that old body I’d tucked away, finally
worn again, as if
I could ever be anything but this strong, cruel creature,
darting into the glacial blue, resenting that numbing
of being kept, wanting only to be a tooth in her cold
biting at the hands that hold.
Mina Troise is struggling with soda-induced hiccups.