The Naming of Seals by Valerie Volk

Delia watches the older woman as she picks her way, step by careful step, down the cliff path. Her lip curls as she notes how the woman totters on those absurdly high heels. Even now, she thinks, after two days on the island!

 “Christ!” she mutters in sudden self-annoyance. “You really are a censorious bitch. Anyway, she’s probably no older than you,” she rebukes herself.

 But secretly she is sure that she does not look her forty years, or as if she has two school children back home. Whereas surely the other woman’s fading prettiness is subtly mocked by her girlish dress and the innocent confiding gestures she affects. Gestures that Luke has mocked so cruelly.

 He has labelled the woman already the first night at dinner, during their survey of their fellow guests across the motel dining room. “Une belle americaine  …” Although she winced even then, Delia now can’t avoid the memory of her reluctant smile. Luke’s jibe has been, as always, ironically apt.

 “But not, I think, a southern belle?” She relives her attempt to match his mood.

 “As faded as Blanche Dubois perhaps, but the accent’s pure California.”

 She has been, as so often, silenced, to concentrate on her plate. She knows no Blanches. She has learned in the months since their marriage that it is better to hide her ignorance. His students may love the serene and scholarly look, but do they too see it tighten into scorn and disapproval?

 But isn’t this ignorance partly why he wanted her?

 “I’m so tired of academic bitches,” he had murmured. “But someone like you … genuine, real, a mother … not one of those balls-cutters. And beautiful. How can you have two children and still be so beautiful?

 Music to her ears, of course. So long alone. She wonders again how she survived. Years with only the children’s hands touching her, only the warm breath of the child sleeping across her shoulder tickling her ear, sending insidious memories, only the stirring of remembered desires. Oh yes, she thinks, I was ready for him.

 Again she melts, feeling the familiar stirring between her thighs as she watches his long finely-chiselled fingers carving the meat, fingers faintly predatory, but so very skilful. Now his eyes are amused, contemptuous, as he glances at the family across the room.

 “He’s a surly brute, isn’t he?” His voice is light, but she hopes it is not carrying. “Hard to believe that between them they produced that child. But then, I suppose some women like that type. All that aggression. What about you, Delia? Do you like that type?”

 For once, she has missed her cue, because her mind has skittered elsewhere. Do I like that type? I’ve never really had a chance to find out what type I like. Married straight out of school. Derek-and-Delia … always a pair. Then the long lonely years after his death, too busy with children to find out what I wanted. Till Luke. And suddenly nothing else seemed important.

 Today she stands at the cliff edge, leaning back against the lookout rail as the trio approaches. Ironical. They seem to be dogging each other’s steps. Granted, it’s a small island, but there’s a certain perversity in the way that in the past two days they have found all the same spots. So as Delia and Luke stroke the soft brown bullet heads of questing kangaroos, or peer through cavernous archways of rock to the shafts of blinding light on the sea beyond, or marvel at the titanic boulders of ancient rock formations etched sharply against skies of dazzling blue, the others are always there – somewhere nearby, or appearing on the horizon, always with them.

 Beside her, Luke turns sharply from his contemplation of the whale skeleton on the beach below.

 “Ye gods,” she hears him mutter through gritted teeth. “Not the unholy trinity again! We came here to get away from everyone. Now we’re haunted by a pack of cretins.”

 “Oh come,” she protests mildly. “Cretins?”

 “The woman is a pathetic wimp; the child a sub-moronic mute, and as for him  – he’s the worst type of transatlantic lout! I don’t see how you can stand them.”

 “But I’ve had nothing to do with them.”

 He makes a sharp gesture of distaste. “Well, here’s your chance. I’ll meet you at the start of the tour. I suppose it’s too much to hope that they won’t be in our group.”

 He sets off up the cliff path towards the ranger station, controlled anger in every planting of his foot on the stony path. My husband, she thinks. This man is my husband. A familiar shock wave runs through her body. He is now the father of my children. But this is not yet a thought that her body has assimilated.

 She can no longer look up the path towards the sun. Although it is only early spring, it is a day of nearly unbearable clarity and light, one of those days whose piercing brightness throws every twig and every branch into sharp outline. Already the tentative fresh green of the winter grasses is beginning to fade and wilt under the onslaught of the new vigour of the sun. By summer the shoots will be brown and dead; only the dull greens of the Australian scrub will survive the heat.

 Delia turns instead towards the beach below. Dots and splashes of vivid colour show the earlier tour group still moving about the sands, a kaleidescope of shifting patterns caught in infinitely slow motion.

 They ebb and flow, small eddies of reds and greens and brightly patterned florals, the garish array of holiday makers, as they wander aimlessly among the brown shapes lying dormant on the yellow backdrop of the sands. Occasionally there is a scatter, a shift in the configuration, as one of the brown blobs stirs and wallows sluggishly towards the waves. The tourists, a goggling crowd at a royal progress monitored by unseen security guards, jerk puppet-like the regulation four metres back from the advancing seal.

 She looks up, sun-dazzled, as the man approaches her. As always, he is in the lead, a stocky figure that seems oddly foreshortened by the stumpy legs that march below the baggy shorts. He shoots Delia a swift appraising glance that gells the tentative greeting on her lips, then nods his head towards the distant figure of Luke.

 “Stayed to admire the vee-iew?”

 “It’s very beautiful, from here.”

 He begins unloading the camera bags that festoon his shoulders, garlanding the bright Hawaian shirt with a travesty of leis.

 “Too much for Sir Luke? We passed him on the way up.”

 Delia tenses. So he knows their names. Fair enough. But she cringes at the disparaging tone of ‘Sir Luke.’ Attempts a retaliation.

 “Your wife’s having trouble in those shoes.”

 His glance is complacent as the woman joins them on the viewing platform. “Dee-Dee knows I like a woman to look pretty. C’mon hon  – the little lady’s worried about your shoes.”

 The woman picks her way uneasily towards them, her flowered dress billowing in the light wind. My God, thinks Delia. Dee-Dee. No way. Dee-Dees are meant to be bright, vivacious, full of bounce and vim and vigour. They’re cheerleaders and marching girls; they don’t have fluttering hands and desperate eyes.

 But she smiles pleasantly as the woman joins them on the platform. “I’m Delia. It does seem silly that we haven’t met before this. We seem to be doing all the same things.”

 “I’ve seen you in the motel dining room. And I think you’re in the next room. Upstairs? Overlooking the seafront? You were on the same ferry crossing.” The light voice scarcely pauses for breath. “This is Joe. And I’m Dee-Dee. And that’s our son Matthew coming now.”

 Joe frowns, cutting across Delia’s reply. “I thought I told that kid to stay back at the top with the rest of the gear. What does he think he’s doing down here?”

 “Oh Joe, I told him he could leave it. He wanted to see the whalebones, and it’s absolutely safe up there –”

 “Kid’s a damn Mommy’s boy – probably scared to stay on his own. If any of that equipment goes missing, it’ll be his allowance that covers it.”

 They watch the boy’s uneasy approach, Delia glad of the distraction. So these are indeed the occupants of the next room with its paper-thin walls. Last night she has lain there, debating whether to wake Luke at the sound of the woman’s muffled protests, at the boy’s crying. But after the sudden slaps that echoed into the night’s silence, all has been still.

 Skinny and waif-like, the boy cannot be more than seven or eight, she decides. He moves towards his mother, but Joe swiftly interposes a hand.

 “Now that you’re here, you can make yourself useful. Hold this lot, while I shoot the beachfront. Dee, I want you here for foreground. No, hold it a minute while I change the lens.”

 Delia smiles at the laden boy, while his father rummages in the camera bags, but he regards her gravely and incuriously.

 “How old are you, Matthew?” she asks.

 “He’s nine,” grunts the man. “But you’d never think it, would you? A skinny little weed.”

 A faint flush of protest colours Dee-Dee’s cheeks. “Oh Joe,” the nasal twang is more pronounced. “He’s small but strong.”

 “He’d do better if you didn’t wrap him in cottonwool all the time. Now, over here. I want a shot out this way.”

 Delia watches the woman move obediently from point to point, flinching slightly as the burly arms manipulate her body to block out unwanted trees, bushes, ranger huts. The boy stands where he has been placed, passive under the weight of the bags.

 “Matthew,” she calls. “Come over here. You wanted to see the whalebones. If you stand here, you can look over at them.”

 He comes reluctantly, though there has been no response to his questioning glance towards the man, engrossed in his photography. Below them, the bleached bones lie in their fenced enclosure, but the boy’s gives them only a moment’s attention, then looks further along the beach.

 “Are they seals?” It is the first time she has heard his voice, as reedy, as transparent as the rest of him. He stares down, absorbed in the creatures below.

 “Yes,” she says. “Watch. There’s one in the water  – see, over there! And another one, just about to slide in.”  Again the miracle of the transformation strikes her, as the awkward lumbering body becomes deft, light, playful as the waves wash over it.

 “Oh look, see!” His voice is suddenly alive with wonder. “See the mother with her baby.”

 Delia looks towards the seals in the breeding cove, and the young pups rolling round them in play. “They’re called cows – “ she begins to explain, but the boy has already left her, and is running to the other side of the lookout platform.

 He tugs at his mother’s arm. “You have to come. You have to come and see …”

 “Move, boy. You’re in my way.” Joe’s voice is heavy with anger. “Get out of the picture.”

 Dee-Dee raises an ineffectual hand. “Matthew. Honey. Just one little minute. I’ll come in just one little minute.”

 But his importunity is desperate. “No. Now. They’ll go away. You’ll miss them if you don’t come now.” He pulls again at her dress, and she shifts to keep balance.

 There is a bull-roar of rage from the man. “Christ, you little bastard. Get out of it. You’re ruining the shot.”  He spins the boy round, and shoves him fiercely to the side of the deck. Delia catches her breath as the child, burdened with the heavy camera bags, lurches to one side and lands with a dull thud on the wooden planks.

 “God almighty! If you’ve broken that new telephoto lens I’ll kill you with my bare hands.”

 “Let him be.” She can hear the futile plea in her own voice, but it is too late. The man’s fist has already exploded against the boy’s cheek, and she can feel the crumpled pain on Dee-Dee’s blind face mirrored in her own, as she flees up the path towards the ranger station.

 Luke guides her solicitously down the last steps onto the beach, his brief anger forgotten. “I’m sorry. I really am sorry, darling. I shouldn’t have deserted you like that. Were they very dreadful?”

 “Sh-sh,” she cautions him automatically. “They’ll hear you.”

 “Anyway,” he continues, as they watch the ranger guide the woman in her absurd shoes over the sands towards the seals, “what have they done with the boy?”

 “I think he’s gone back to the car. I guess he didn’t really want to see the seals after all.”

 “Silly child. There’s nowhere else in the world he’ll ever see seals in their natural habitat like this. What an opportunity to miss.”

 “Actually, Tony and Margot would have loved it too.”

 Luke glances at her sharply. “Your kids can see seals any time. They live here. It’s a totally different case. And this is your and my time.”

 She nods contritely, then shivers, watching Joe set off along the beach, in pursuit of a dark-coloured bull making towards the water. Luke turns with deliberation, and walks in the opposite direction.

 “But why do you say ‘sea-lions’?” Dee-Dee is flirtatious, quizzing the ranger. “Why don’t you people call them seals, the way we do back home?”

 “Look at the markings,” says the patient guide. “See that dark line that the old bulls get, on the backs of their heads, and further down.” He is a pleasant young man, and very tolerant. “Now what does that line remind you of?”

 “Oh, of course.” The Californian drawl is a marked contrast to his laconic tone. “It’s a lion’s mane.”

 “Exactly.” He smiles at her. “So they’re sea-lions. It’s a sub-species.”

 “My, you people know such a lot about it. All those things you were telling us on the way down. Where do you learn it all?”

 “We do courses and workshops. Reading.” His manner is friendly, but he moves a little further away.

 Delia draws closer to the pair. “But you said – before – on the way down – that the seal population isn’t increasing. Why not, when you take such care of them?”

 He is clearly pleased to include her in the conversation. “There’s a long gestation period, about eighteen months. So the pups will be born mid-summer one year, then there’s a long gap till mid-winter eighteen months. Seals are really unusual. They don’t have a fixed seasonal breeding pattern. And only one pup at a time.”

 “But even so – ” By now Delia’s curiosity is aroused. “Didn’t you say they live to twenty or so?”

 “Yes, but there’s a very high mortality rate among the young.”

“Why? Are they sickly? Or do sharks get them?”

 “Not so much the sharks. Seals tend to stay close to the breeding grounds while they’re young. It’s more the bulls who get them.”

 A wheeling gull swoops closely overhead, and there is a gutteral call from a vocalising seal. An older pup separates from the playful group and lumbers to its mother, who sprawls in the late morning sunshine, idly flicking a random fin. It burrows into the sand, nuzzling at the mother until it settles to contented suckling.

 The two women watch, lulled by the still tranquillity of the scene.

 “What do you mean?” Delia asks. “The bulls?”

 The ranger looks uncomfortable. “It’s an eighteen month cycle, alright? But the cows come on heat about a week after the pup’s born. And the bulls make straight for her. If the pup’s sucking, it’s quite likely to get crushed. And if it’s getting in the way, the bull’s as like as not to pick it up by the scruff of its neck and chuck it to one side. They’re powerful beasts, and if you ever look at those teeth you’ll see why not too many’d survive that.”

 “But that’s terrible!”  It’s Luke, who has come unnoticed behind her.

 “Yeah,” agrees the ranger. “But it’s not deliberate. At least not usually. Though we did have one bull last season who killed six pups. We wondered about him.”

Delia leans back against Luke, sickened. “But surely you do something, in a case like that. Don’t you get rid of him? In the interests of the young?”

 “No-o-o.” It is a drawn-out sound, but decisive. “We don’t interfere. It’s nature. And our job’s to preserve the natural environment.”

 They stand still, the two women carefully avoiding each other’s eyes, but locked in a mutual complicity older than time or the midday sun that glares around them.

 “Anyway, time to go. There’ll be another group coming in a moment. Can you get your husband, ma’am?”

 They look to where Joe crouches, camera poised, sharply exposed in the dazzling white of the noonday light. He straightens, and waves hugely as Dee-Dee beckons to him.

 “I’ll just wait here until he comes; it won’t be long,” she assures them. “I really can’t go get him in these shoes.”

 “Come on, darling; we’ll go ahead. The others can catch us up.” Luke propels Delia determinedly towards the steps, a possessive hand on her shoulders.

 “Luke,” she pleads. “I really miss the children. I’m worried about them. I know we said we wouldn’t get in touch while we were over here, but I really want to call them. Please, Luke, please.”

 “I want you. You. Not the children. This is my time with you. Not theirs.”

 She swallows, but his lips are pressed firmly against hers, and as she feels his seeking hands her weak protests die.

 But she wonders if, far below, in the breeding cove, the old bull is emerging from the waves and lumbering up the sands towards the waiting cows.

Valerie Volk is a South Australian writer of both prose and poetry, who has published ten books, ranging from historical fiction novels, travel writings, verse novels and poetry collections, as well as hundreds of poems and short stories in Australian and international journals. She enjoys travel, reading, theatre and music, especially opera and jazz – and people watching!

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