T h e S e a S a w
N u a l a N í C h o n c h ú i r
The sea changed the day Phoebe gave birth to Electra; it went from flat
calm to a roiling mess in just an hour. The water churned and roared though it had been as
smooth as bone china for weeks, and it glowed green and yellow, as if lit up from the inside.
Phoebe held the baby to her chest and fingered her soft-boiled cheek. She sat by the cabin’s
biggest window and looked down at the turning sea, wondering what presents it would have left
for her on the sand. The baby slept, her fingers wound through the holes in the crocheted blanket.
Phoebe heaved herself into bed, Electra still held in her arms, and breathed in her milky smell.
Her dark hair settled like seaweed across the pillow. The wind burst around the cabin walls
all night and waves cracked against the rocks on the shore. Morning crept up to the windows.
Phoebe smiled and the baby sucked at her breast.
‘Greedy little girlie,’ she crooned, and the baby’s fist shot up, punching the air.
This made her mother laugh and Electra’s tiny eyelids opened to reveal navy eyes. ‘Are
you looking at your Mama, baby girl?’
The birth had not been hard; nearly ten months waiting had left Phoebe impatient for the pushing.
She used earth-forces to get the baby out, delivering her into the water-pool like a fish. The
midwife caught her, plopped her onto her mother’s belly, and Electra’s slippery body
uncoiled under the woman’s firm hands.
‘Girl,’ she said.
‘I knew,’ said Phoebe, cradling the baby’s head to suckle while the midwife eased
the afterbirth from her.
‘Storm’s up; I’ll go when you’re dressed.’ The midwife towelled her down
and swaddled the baby; she made tea and said she’d stop by in the morning. ‘The child has
health, that’s the main thing; never mind that you’re alone.’ She moved towards the
door, looked back. ‘New life,’ she said.
A few days later, when a small strength flowed through her bones again, she laid Electra into
a sling across her chest, took up her basket and left the cabin. She felt light, glad the low-hung
weight of the baby was gone from her belly. A full moon lingered in the sky even though it was
morning; Phoebe thought that its edges looked soft. She saluted the moon, hitched her baby closer
in the sling, and headed down through the marram grass towards the beach. The wind sang in her
ears and pulled strands of hair across her face; the salt air tasted delicious after the stuffy
heat of the cabin.
She walked slowly and sang a song about lovers for Electra; the one where the woman dies and
the man kisses her ‘cold corpsey lips’. She made it into a lullaby. Phoebe felt full
up with the wonder of her little girl, she reminded her of a kitten: the tiny face scrunched
in on itself, her gaping yawns. She bent and kissed Electra’s nose and the baby unpuckered,
then snuggled back into her mother’s breast.
The sea was still rough, its surface ploughed up like a field. There was a litter of flotsam
on the strand: driftwood, net fragments, a grey bucket, several glass bottles made dull from
the thrashing sea. Far off down the beach lay the carcass of a seal. Phoebe examined the pieces
of driftwood, placing what she could carry into her basket. She kicked off her sandals and pushed
her feet into the cold sand; it felt heavy on her toes. She lifted a cluster of mottled yellow
shells and slipped the best ones into her dress pocket. They would join the rest of her collection
on the windowsills; little pieces of the sea-world salvaged as ornaments.
She moved further down the beach, her eyes sweeping the debris on the sand, looking for things
to take home. When she got closer to the seal she noticed that it was lying on its side; she
thought she saw it move. She stood for a moment, swaying her body to keep Electra asleep. The
seal’s back moved again. She inched closer, unused to sharing the strand with other living
things. Waves edged over her feet and she bent as she approached the animal, hoping it wasn’t
hurt. Phoebe began to realise that it wasn’t a seal at all; it was the wrong shape. Then
she stood right over where it lay and saw that it was a black-skinned man, all huddled together,
with his legs and arms tucked up in front of him. He was naked, and as wet as an eel.
They eyed each other across the room. He still hadn’t spoken.
She had poked him with her foot until he came round and looked up at her; then helped him up
off the sand and guided him back to the cabin. The sand-grains fell off his skin as it dried
out; there was no hair on his body. He sat in her chair by the window, draped in a blanket,
shivering. She could see his bone-white teeth shining in his mouth. The air smelt of onions.
‘Phoebe,’ she said, pointing at herself. Then she pointed at him, but he said nothing.
said, holding up the baby. He nodded and parted his lips in a slow smile; then he nodded again.
She stood and put some more driftwood into the stove.
‘Nearly ready,’ she said, pointing at the pot of soup on the hob.
Electra started to whimper. Phoebe sat back into the rocking-chair beside her bed, pulled a shawl
over herself, and fed the baby. The little one stayed a long time at the breast, nodding off,
then waking again to feed some more. Phoebe rocked and watched the man. He rose from the chair
and fixed the blanket around his waist, tucking the edges in to hold it in place. He held up
his hands to show her he meant no harm; his palms were pale. He went to the stove and ladled
the soup into bowls that Phoebe had left there to warm. He knelt beside her chair and, after
blowing gently on each spoonful, fed the soup into her mouth. When she was finished he ate his
own. Then he pointed at himself and said ‘Tam.’
It was getting near dusk and the water was choppy. Electra plunged out of the sea, water streeling
from her long hair. Tam was scouring the sand, kicking at piles of razor shells and putting driftwood
into the basket. She sneaked up behind him and launched herself at him, soaking his clothes.
He roared at her, then lifted her high and marched across the sallow sand to the water. She screeched
and laughed, but Tam dropped her into the waves. Electra managed to snag his leg and drag him
down with her. They tumbled in the water like seal pups.
Phoebe could hear them from where she lay; every sound travelled to her. Tam had left the door
open a little to let in the breeze; it carried with it the tang of seaweed, salt and oil. Her
head felt hot against the pillow and her hair, which was fish-belly grey, clung to her neck.
A dull light fell across the bed from the window. The cabin walls were lined with shelves, each
one filled with a clutter of beach-finds: fossils, sea-urchins, lobster armour, a Jesus statue,
a baby’s shoe. Phoebe could see it all from her bed; each shelf a shrine of hers, or of
Tam’s, or of Electra’s, each item weighted with memories. She could remember the
day, the weather, the exact spot on the beach where everything was found; even those things that
were not hers. She heard Tam whoop and, seconds later, Electra’s answering laugh.
‘Be careful with her, Tam,’ she called out, knowing he wouldn’t hear; they were too
far down the beach. She pushed herself up onto her elbows, reached out for her shawl. It lay over the
arm of the chair and she couldn’t get her fingers to grasp it. She collapsed back against the
pillow, her forehead heavy with sweat. It couldn’t be long now. The wind had started to lift;
it was chilly. She tried again for the shawl.
Electra and Tam fell through the doorway, dripping water from their clothes and hair, and giggling.
Electra saw her mother’s stretching hand.
‘Lie back, Mama, I’ll get it for you.’ She plucked the shawl from the rocking chair
and tucked it around Phoebe. She pushed her soaking hair out of her eyes. ‘Tam, close the door.’
He did as he was asked and then lit each of the tallow candles that stood around the room. Phoebe’s
chest rose and fell under the strain of her breathing.
‘Get changed, both of you; this is no weather for swimming. Tam, you need to take better care
of her,’ she wheezed and lay back on the pillow. Her breath came in short blasts as she watched
the two of them dry themselves down with towels. Tam sang as he changed out of his wet clothes; it
was a song with strange words that he had told them was all about a kingdom under the sea. Phoebe felt
herself getting warmer, her breath became more relaxed. She looked over at her daughter. Electra’s
time was coming near: the orb of her belly was stretched tight and moving lower each week; her nipples
were wine-dark now, ready for the baby.
‘We need to tell the midwife,’ Phoebe whispered, moving to make herself more comfortable
under the bedclothes.
‘I’ll go and tell her tomorrow,’ Tam said, sitting into the rocking chair and rubbing
Phoebe’s hands to heat them up. She patted his arm and smiled up at him.
‘Good,’ she said, closing her eyes, ‘very good.’
Down by the shore the wind whipped at the surface of the water, tossing the waves this way and
that. It reared up, howling and spinning around the cabin windows. Tam stood and lifted the broom.
He swept the sand they had brought in on their feet into a pile, before hooshing it out through
the door. Phoebe drifted towards sleep, and Electra sat in the chair by the window, her hands
folded across the mound of her belly. She looked down towards the dark boiling sea and waited.
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