Workshopping Sealwife


This painting is by Ted Stuckless and is courtesy the Government of Canada Digital Collection

Thanks to Erin and others, my short story Sealwife has shrunk from 6,600 words to 5,300 words, and I’m hopeful that we’ll get that final word count down to 5,000 words.

Line editing has taken out most of the extraneous actions and detail, giving the story a pretty sparse feel. I hope that enhances things. Here is the current version of the first scene. Compare and contrast with this version

SEALWIFE: By James Bow

Cassie heard the wailing as she lay on the floorboards of the empty boathouse.

She was on her stomach, wrapped in an old quilt like a mummy, listening to the rattle of the rain on the roof. She heard wailing over the whistling wind and lay frozen, ears alert in the dark. She wondered if she had imagined it, but there it was again: like a hurt seal, rising over the distant rumble of the waves.

She rolled over and eyed the boathouse door. Maybe it was a seal, but it sounded too much like a child. She shook off the blanket and stood up, shrugging her ripped t-shirt over her scratched shoulder. She stared at the house and focused on the lantern light within, looking for movement.

No movement. Cassie grabbed an oilskin coat off its hook and lit a kerosene lantern. She crept outside.

The wind blew back her hair. Squinting into the driving rain, she ran up the back pathway, staggering over the slick rocks to the coastline. The waves deafened her. The wet slipped past the folds of her coat and ran down her back. Even with the lantern she could barely make out the stones, so she stood and listened. At last she heard the cries.

The wailing had stopped, replaced by a constant, bitter sobbing — quieter, but closer.

“Hello?” Cassie croaked. Then, louder, “Who’s there?”

There was a fearful squeak, then silence.

She picked her way along the stony beach. A frothing wave flecked her legs with spray. The light of her lantern wavered from her shaking.

“Is anybody there?” she called.

Then she stepped in something soft that gave beneath her feet like quicksand. Cassie fell. The lantern flew from her grasp and smashed on the stones. The waves scotched the flames. Blinded and sore, Cassie struggled to her hands and knees, and froze.

She was crouched on a sheet of seaweed, spread out like a beach towel. She smelt musk. She also heard ragged breathing. Cassie ran her hand along the slick surface and brushed a bare foot. The foot flinched. Something snarled and fists came at her out of the dark.

“What— Hey!” Cassie fell back as something leapt on top of her, biting and scratching. She swatted and hit something that sprawled back. She was ready for it when it attacked again, catching its wrists. “Easy!”

Clawing fingers breezed past her face. Something growled and snapped. Cassie held on tight. “Stop!”

The thing hissed and spat. Then it went limp. It began to sob.

The clouds parted and moonlight slipped through. Cassie blinked to find herself kneeling in front of a girl. Her skin was as pale as moonlight; her long hair strung down her back like seaweed. She wore—

“Holy—!” yelled Cassie. “Where are your clothes?”

The girl mewled. She pulled at her wrists pitifully.

Cassie watched. She took a deep breath. “Don’t swat at me, okay?” She opened her hands.

The girl blinked at her freed wrists, and then pulled back, eying Cassie warily.

“It’s okay.” Cassie reached out, then stopped as a low growl slithered through the girl’s lips. She held her hand there, as though for a cat to sniff. “Are you cold?”

The girl looked away from Cassie. She drew her arms around herself and shivered.

“Come with me,” said Cassie. “I know where you can be warm.”

The girl looked up.

“Do you understand?” She edged closer. “What’s your name?”

The girl stared at Cassie’s outstretched hand, then reached out and touched Cassie’s fingers. She opened her mouth and said a long word that slithered and ended with a click.

“What?” said Cassie.

“S-Silk,” the girl replied, slowly.

“Silk,” Cassie repeated. “I’m Cassie.”

“C-Cassie.” Silk’s tongue fumbled over the name.

“Yes. Cassie. Where do you live, Silk?”

Silk sniffed. “Lost.”

Cassie blinked. “Where are your folks?”

Tears welled up in Silk’s eyes. Her lips quivered. “Lost!”

“It’s okay!” And before she knew it, Cassie was holding Silk as the strange girl cried onto her shoulder. The spray from a wave spattered them.

“Silk.” Cassie pushed away and held her at arms length. “You can’t stay here. Come with me.”

Silk sat back and picked at the strange fabric beneath them. Cassie gathered up an edge. “Silk, please.”

Silk looked at where Cassie held the fabric, and stood up. Cassie guided her onto the stones, then wrapped the black tarp around the girl like a cloak. Step by step, Cassie guided Silk over the rocks and up the path leading from the sea.

Cassie opened the door to the boathouse. The smell of dust smothered the bite of the sea. “In here.”

Silk held back. “Dark,” she said.

“I can’t take you to the house; I’m sorry. I’ll make light.” Cassie eased Silk inside. Shutting the door behind her, she fumbled along the top shelf, knocking a box of candles onto her head. She cursed, picked one up, and struck a match.

Silk gaped at the flame.

Cassie fixed the candle to a holder and set it on the floor. Light flickered over the haphazard jumble on the shelves. “There,” said Cassie, leading Silk to the light. “Warmer?”

Silk knelt by the flame. “Warms.” She shivered in her skin-like cloak.

“You’ll need clothes,” said Cassie, frowning at Silk’s bare legs. “Wait here; I’ll get some.”

Silk squealed and grabbed Cassie’s arm.

Cassie struggled to pry Silk’s fingers free. “I won’t be long! I’ll come back! Promise! All right?” Silk stared at her fearfully, but let go of her hand.

Cassie reached for the doorhandle. “Two shakes!”

The house was dark. The back door was ajar. Cassie crept into the kitchen, slipped past the dirty dishes and into the dark hallway. A light flickered in the living room. She froze, her heart pounding.

She heard the clink of a bottle and the thud of a glass. Her father’s voice was beyond slurred. A moment later, she heard the bottle hit the floor hard, then silence. She pressed herself to the wall and peered into the living room. Her father lay on the couch, snoring. Cassie counted to sixty. The bottle rolled from his fingers and clicked against the wall. Cassie slipped upstairs.

Minutes later, she was back in the boathouse in dry clothes, a bundle under her arm. Silk was where she had left her, staring into the candle flame. Cassie held out the bundle. “Put these on.”

Silk frowned at Cassie’s outstretched offering, then shrugged off her black cloak and took the bundle. Cassie cast her gaze away respectfully, but kept watch out of a corner of her eye.

Silk unfurled an Aran-wool sweater and held it out, bewildered. She turned it back and forth, then started to wrap it around herself as she had her cloak.

“Not like that! Like this.” Cassie snatched the sweater and thrust it over Silk’s head. The girl squawked and struggled, but Cassie slipped the sleeves over the arms and Silk’s head popped out of the neck. She stared down at herself, her fingers tracing the patterns of wool.

“Well?” said Cassie.

“Hate this,” said Silk. “Itches.”

Cassie smiled. “It’s warm, though.”

Silk pulled at the sweater. “Warm.”

“Good.” Cassie held out the jeans. “Now these.”

When Silk was dressed, Cassie gave her some shortbread cookies, a gift from a teacher. Silk sniffed one and tasted it, then bolted down the others so fast, Cassie had to caution her. “Easy. Don’t make yourself sick.”

Silk swallowed and grinned. “Good.” She took Cassie’s offering of water and drank. “Good.”

Cassie smiled. “You’re welcome.”

Silk held out a cookie. “Want?”

Cassie shook her head. “It’s late. Tomorrow, we’ll go across the bay and get the police to find your folks. But now I gotta go to bed. I’ll come for you in the morning, okay?” She reached for the door.

Silk leaped up and grabbed her arm, mewling.

“Silk!” Cassie tried to pull away, but the girl pressed her cheek to Cassie’s hand. Cassie sighed. “All right, I’ll stay. But just till you go to sleep.”

Silk nodded. She lay down on the floor and rested her head on the folded fabric that had been her cloak. Cassie sat down beside her and stretched out her legs. Soon, Silk was purring in her sleep. Cassie stayed a little longer, then got up quietly, and slipped out of the boathouse.

Her father was still on his back, snoring as she passed. In her room, she pulled her shirt over her head, and frowned at the scratches on her shoulder. She changed into her pajamas. As she raised the quilt, she caught sight of the picture by her bedside. It showed her father, his big arms around her and Mom, beaming at the camera.

After a long moment, Cassie set down the covers.

She crept downstairs and draped a blanket over her father. Then she went to bed.

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