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The Gift

Shades of green

By Lori LamothePublished 3 years ago 11 min read
The Gift
Photo by thewavephotographer on Unsplash

Eventually, after three years passed, Claire did become a help to him.

Jack still wasn’t sure who or what she was — madwoman or selkie — but he’d given up trying to figure it out and he’d long forgotten about his plans to call social services. Sometimes he wondered how he could go on teaching biology at a university while simultaneously entertaining the idea that selkies might be real. Sometimes he told his brain to shut the hell up.

In town, people still talked about storm that washed the strange woman ashore in a coffin of ice. They stared at her fiery red-brown hair that hung almost to the small of her back. They were still a little bit afraid of her. But they, too, seemed to have accepted her for what she was — or wasn’t. They even liked her.

Unfortunately, their affection was contagious.

Claire wasn’t much for housework or cooking, but she was far and away the best research assistant he ever had. The following year, when Jack received a grant to study the ecology of commercially important marine species, he didn’t seriously consider advertising for legitimate assistant, or even to offer a couple of internships to interested biology majors from the university.

He never did. Claire, his new assistant, slept late and her notes were a shambles. She sang her morose songs in the shower and accused him of thievery on a regular basis. Every year on the night of the midsummer solstice she’d get so depressed she would beg him to drown her, a request he consistently refused, despite his not-so-occasional daydreams about doing just that.

To say the woman was a challenge was the most damning euphemism of his life. Because after a period of about three months during which he was the poster child for Internal Conflict, he concluded he might be in love with Claire.

He couldn’t say for sure, because he had never been in love. But the thought of even kissing Claire had come to obsess him.

By Valeria Smirnova on Unsplash

It grew so intense he would manufacture problems on his computer, just to have the chance to exchange a few words with her, to feel the heat escaping from her loosely knotted hair.

He spent hours wondering if she knew, hours trying to identify the exact moment his feelings shifted from annoyance to fondness to unalloyed desire. He spent as much time as possible studying her face, her expressions, her body language, in an attempt to discern whether she might have similar feelings for him.

Or any feelings at all.

Because after years as a resident of his home, Claire still did not appear to experience the same emotions as other people.

Theories about affect

Partly to test his theories about her affect, he surprised her with a black Labrador puppy that Christmas. He was immensely relieved to find Claire adored her. From that time on, Luna (well, that’s certainly in character for you, he’d remarked) soon became a constant companion on their expeditions to the beach, whether or not they were working.

By Patrick Hendry on Unsplash

For another year, then another, he said nothing. Did nothing.

Nothing but go on as he had been: driving to the lab to spend the day working by her side, returning home to cook dinner for her then walk the beach, Luna racing ahead then lagging behind. After they returned they would spend the remainder of the evening reading or watching television by the light of the fire.

At 9 o’clock, Claire would rise from what he now thought of as “her” chaise lounge to make green tea for her and cocoa or coffee for him. Rarely they went out and upon their return she’d fill him in on the latest scandals. More often they would stay at home, comfortably enmeshed in the loose skein of routine.

It all was so beautiful.

But it was very tame.

He chose the night before the midsummer solstice of the seventh year to tell Claire he loved her. Since their first altercation about selkies, he’d read up them and now knew the midsummer solstice had a particular meaning for them.

Apparently midsummer’s night was the sole night of the year when selkies came to shore and sunned themselves on the rocks, shedding their skins for a few hours then returning to sea. The selkies whose skins were taken would be doomed to imprisonment on land, as Claire had been.

The only difference was that the ice storm of ’13 had somehow torn Claire’s pelt from her body, a reality she railed against as particularly unjust. She’d already spent seven years with her “husband,” the lying sex-crazed bastard, before finally escaping and finding her pod. She’d been careful after that and had enjoyed decades of freedom. Then came the ice storm.

Not that Jack was convinced Claire was a selkie. For all he knew she was precisely what he first suspected: a woman drowning, homeless, without friends or family, who had latched onto a girlhood fantasy to save herself. Either way, he didn’t care

If she had the faintest idea of what he had in mind she might disappear from his life forever. Or slap him across the face. Or set the place on fire and burn him as an effigy. He honestly had no idea what she might be capable of if she knew how he felt, the things he thought about as he lay awake in bed at night.

His best chance was to tell her when her defenses were lowered. When she was in her natural element.

So he trumped up a fake research experiment, claiming it could only be carried out by the light of a full moon on midsummer’s night. He wasn’t sure if choosing midsummer’s night was the single most unselfish act of his life (what if her pod showed up?!) or whether it marked the apex of his Machiavellianism. He was never sure, only knew that in his current state he could not endure her despondency in the cottage on that night.

He tried as hard as he could to block Claire from reading his thoughts (one of her inconvenient talents) so she wouldn’t refuse. On the evening when he told her about the experiment he forced himself to think of the green lights of aurora borealis, the state of the stock market, a recent paper he had read entitled, “Traditional Knowledge of the Ecology of Beluga Whales (delphinapterus leucas) in the Northern Bering Sea.”

“I read that paper,” she said absently from her spot in the corner of the room, a forest green blanket thrown over her outstretched legs.

They were so far north that it was cool, even in late June, and Jack had made a small fire. As it had a thousand nights before, the reddish light flickered across Claire’s teacup and the unbalanced stack of books on the floor next to her. It played across her hair, her profile as she read. Tonight it was romance. The Rogue’s Revenge.

“I’m not asking about the paper,” he said. “I’m asking if you’ll help me collect the clams.”

“Can we bring Luna?”

“No.” He forced himself to think about the Red Sox trumping the Yankees the night before. “And would you mind putting down that book?”

She kept the book open but gave him her full attention. “We always bring Luna.”

At the sound of her name Luna raised her head off the oriental rug.

“Not this time.”

Luna’s gaze went to Claire, then to Jack, following their exchange like a tennis match. Finally, bored, the dog lay down again and fell back asleep.

“Why not?” Claire wanted to know.

Jack was thinking about the delphinaterus leucas. “Because she’ll compromise the integrity of the data.”

Claire looked baffled. “How?”

“Is it too much to ask — ,” he began, but the loose threads of his thoughts unraveled in a thousand different directions. “For the sake of the research?”

By the light of fire, she studied him closely. “I’m not going.”

“Do seals have sex?” he asked, throwing up his hands in surrender.

Claire looked at him as if he were crazy. “Are you really a biologist?”

Luna was awake again, roused by the rise in the pitch of their voices. Sensing disaster, she shook herself from lethargy and trotted out of the room.

“I’m asking you a question,” Jack repeated doggedly. “Do seals have sex?”

“Of course they do.”

“It’s been seven years.”

“I’m not a seal.”

“Excuse me,” he said. “I meant to say, SEL-KEY. Let me rephrase the — “

She cut him off. “I’ve got the pelt. I’m leaving. Tomorrow night.”

“If it wouldn’t trouble you too much, could you perhaps elucidate the process by which —

“Shut up, Jack.” Claire got up off the chaise and came over to where he was sitting. She knelt before him. Lifted her hands as if she were going to touch him. Let them drop. “Don’t be an idiot.”

Her voice didn’t sound quite right. It was a little raspy. At least that’s what he thought.

He fought the urge to touch her hair, tried to think of the proper method for grilling peaches. “When did you find it?”

“I didn’t find it,” she said looking up at him, a little guiltily. “Mrs. Bennett gave it to me.”

He was too shocked too think of any irrelevant recipes or academic articles, too shocked even for high diction.

“Mrs. Bennett?” he echoed dumbly. “Why the hell would Mrs. Bennett steal your pelt?” Could Cindy Bennett — a string-bean thin soccer mom who lived in one of the cookie-cutter developments at the edge of town — be in love with Claire enough to have stolen her pelt and hidden it all these years?

Yes, he thought grimly. Why not, Mrs. Bennett.

By John McArthur on Unsplash

Claire looked up at him from where she knelt, her hair escaping in wisps, her sea-blue eyes dark but unwavering. “She didn’t steal it. It’s hers. She gave it to me because she doesn’t need it anymore.”

Her voice sounded a little better. A little steadier.

The realization took forever to dawn. It was too unthinkable. “Mrs. Bennett’s a selkie?” he said at last.

“I leave tomorrow night.”

“So you said.”

“At midnight.”

“How dramatic.”

Claire nodded, silent, and — was it possible? — morose. “Her husband — you know Pete who owns the tire place — he stole it, years ago, on midsummer’s night when she was asleep on the beach. Cindy looked and looked, for years, but never found anything. She told me she even thought about killing Pete, she hated him so much for doing it, but she knew if she actually got rid of him there’d be no chance of ever getting the pelt back. She’d just about given up when one day her daughter knocks on her bedroom door and when she opens it, Naomi is just standing there, the pelt weighing down her outstretched arms.”

Claire began fiddling with The Appropriate Use of Regression Analysis in Marine Biology, which lay unread and unhighlighted on the little table beside his armchair. “After all those years of waiting and wishing and being half miserable all the time, when it came down to it, Cindy couldn’t do it. She couldn’t leave her daughter.”

He nodded in a tired way. “Where was it?”

“The pelt?”

His mind felt heavy. There was no other way to explain it. “What else.”

“Hidden in the bottom of a locked truck in the attic.”

“You’d think that would be the first place Cindy looked.” If nothing else, he was up on his selkie lore these days. “The pelt’s always in the trunk.”

Claire wasn’t impressed. “That’s what Pete was counting on.”

He understood. “Sort of like the letter in the card rack in ‘The Purloined Letter.’”

“Nil sapientiae odiosius acumine nimio.”


Claire opened her mouth, shut it. “Nothing.”

Jack was unnerved. Maybe he hadn’t gone to Harvard, he thought distractedly. Claire was a selkie. Mrs. Bennett was a selkie. Maybe anything was possible — he may as well just chuck logic out the window for the rest of his life.

Either way, it didn’t matter. “So it’s tomorrow night then?”

“You could come down to the beach,” she offered. “Take some photographs. Measure the pelt — maybe you could write a paper or something.”

“Where’s the pelt?” he asked. “Maybe I could get started tonight.”

She got up off the rug and stood gazing down at him in much the same way he had stood over her on the ice-covered beach seven years before. “It’s not here.”

Afterward, when he thought of it (which was rather often) he felt pleased that he hadn’t thrown his arms around her and begged her to stay. He took great satisfaction from the fact that for maybe the first time in his life he had not permitted himself to flaunt his vocabulary. That he had not cried or even attempted, just that once, to touch Claire’s hair.

When he thought of the interchange afterward, Jack was always glad that he simply pushed himself up off his armchair and (a little absurdly, it was true) gave her a slight, a very slight, bow.

“Till Tomorrow then,” was all he said.


About the Creator

Lori Lamothe

Poet, Writer, Mom. Owner of two rescue huskies. Former baker who writes on books, true crime, culture and fiction.

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