The Sea Bank of Svalbard South – Octavia Cade

Metaphorosis_2016-03Lizzy thought she’d be spared the burying of him. She’d looked for Bryan in the dark waters, in wind and rain until night fell and searching was useless. After three days she thought the sea had taken him.

He had thrown himself from the sea-cliffs. She’d watched him do it and hadn’t understood what he was doing until it was over. Even after, with time to reflect, it was barely comprehensible. South should have been a safe place for people like them. The isolation, the silence. The sheer relief of it all.

Why hadn’t he been grateful?

When she couldn’t find the body Lizzy thought he’d been swept out to sea, or eaten by sharks. She hated not knowing. It made her feel unsettled in herself, as if she were drifting, distrustful, in unknown currents.

Then the ocean had given his body back. She’d found him half washed up on the beach a week after his jump and Lizzy knew that she’d have to bury him herself. Knew she’d have to report it too, now that she was certain of what had happened to him. Perhaps she should have done it sooner, but she hadn’t been able to bear the thought of so many questions when she didn’t have answers for any of them.

The soil was thin and shallow. Her hands were smooth and soft from keyboards, from careful lab work. The shovel gave her blisters, but it was the best part of the job. At least the shovel didn’t squelch under her fingers. At least it wasn’t soft and slippery and obscene.

If she had been able to bury him the first day, maybe the second, she might have coped better but after a week Bryan’s skin had begun to slip, to detach, the scalp dropping away from the skull, and he seemed to break open, to ooze where she touched him. Lizzy considered throwing him back into the tide and waiting for the sea to swallow him up, but she thought he’d just wash up again… probably in pieces. The ocean turned even the bull kelp ragged, and knowing that, she couldn’t bear the expectation.

It took her half an hour to drag the body of her co-worker out of the tidal zone. She was tempted to bury him on the beach, where the sand was crumbly and easy to excavate, but the waves were rough and she was afraid they’d uncover him.

Lizzy nursed her resentment through the whole horrible process of burial. Anger was easier than grief, the small growing stems of remorse and second guessing.

“Stupid, stupid,” she muttered, choking on unfamiliar sobs. Her face was wet with salt and mucus. She wasn’t sure if she was angrier with him or with herself, for having missed what now seemed so obvious.

“Why did you have to do this to the both of us?” she said.

#

Splachnidium rugosum. Swollen and yellow-green, an algae reminiscent of rot and bulging. When the skin splits a clear sticky slime comes out. As a child it had been enough to ward off her cousins, to send them smeared and screaming down the beach, shouting of dead man’s fingers.

Her Master’s degree was on the physiology of Splachnidium.

#

When Bryan first arrived, Lizzy had not been welcoming. South was a science station. It had vaults and computers and algal tanks, a biochem lab, satellite communication. A well stocked larder. It didn’t have a common room. Company was not encouraged.

“Why are you here?” she said. “This is a restricted research facility, not a tourist site. Are you in distress?” There’d been no mayday calls, no flares. The boat that dropped him off seemed seaworthy enough.

“I’m your new partner,” Bryan replied, and though he was smiling there was a fixed quality to it, as if it was something his mouth was unused to.

“I don’t need a partner,” said Lizzy, automatic. “I signed on because it was partnerless.” The isolation was South’s shining virtue. She could move about the facility, between the tanks and the lab, the cryogenics, the shoreline monitors, in blissful quiet, in perfect peace.

“New regulations,” said Bryan. “Didn’t you see the packet? It should have come through a couple of weeks ago.”

There had been an email. Lizzy had seen the subject line – Isolation Risks, Stressors, and Institutional Responses. It had been copied to human resources, the Ministry of Health and the Marsden Grants with their responsibility for funding New Zealand science. She’d marked it received and hadn’t bothered to open it; had assumed it was one of the ridiculous things they sent through sometimes. The last one she’d had was a request from a research student in psychology who’d wanted her to answer a lot of questions and do some exercises in creative writing. Lizzy hadn’t done any of them.

“Two weeks?” she said. “I don’t understand.” It was so quick.

“After Raoul Island the Ministry put a boot up everyone’s arses,” said Bryan.

Lizzy stared at him, uncomprehending.

“Department of Conservation rangers. One of them got hit by lightning, if you can believe it. DOC had to get a rescue plane out there quick-smart. And now South’s to be staffed by a minimum of two. In case someone gets injured and can’t call for evac.”

“I’m not injured,” said Lizzy.

“You could go mental,” said Bryan, and Lizzy was stung. “Oh, I don’t think you would. No-one ever has, have they?” South was staffed, always, by extreme introverts. People for whom isolation was a natural state, and preferred. “But some daft sod’s decided they need to fix what isn’t broken. Covering their arse, on the off-chance. Hence me.” He looked at her over one shoulder. “Maybe you should start reading your emails.”

“Clearly,” said Lizzy. It wasn’t his fault, and she knew she sounded unwelcoming. But he wasn’t welcome! Was she supposed to lie about that? It was so hard to tell.

“It’s not my first choice either,” said Bryan. “I wanted South for the quiet as much as you did. We’ll keep out of each other’s way. You’ll hardly know I’m here.”

#

Codium fragile. Dark green and braided like a river bed, with elegant round branches. The surface is a mass of tiny compact hairs, dark soft shadows spreading underwater, the algae is firm and silky and brushes up against. It has a tendency to invasiveness, and Lizzy tests growth against temperature in the tanks, tries to see how far she can cool the water before it dies.

In a warming world, invasion looks set to be a problem.

#

Lizzy did know he was there. She felt him all around her. “You’re being neurotic,” she said to herself, unable to sleep because she thought she heard him breathing. She knew she was being neurotic because for six nights running she’d crept out of bed and sneaked towards him on slippered feet. Four of those nights he’d been asleep in his own cot, on the opposite side of the station. On the fifth she’d found him looking through the technical library, on the sixth he’d been walking round the sea tanks.

Lizzy knew she couldn’t actually hear him. It was only imagination fuelled by wind and waves and resentment, the discomfort of his presence. The two of them had worked out a timetable of duties, one that minimised interaction, but the knowledge that they weren’t alone was a weight that didn’t lighten.

In fairness, he was doing his best to avoid her. The two of them had eaten together that first night, in order to sort their schedules – neither had been comfortable, though Lizzy suspected that he coped better with it than she did. It wasn’t surprising. Even amongst the loners, she’d always stood out.

“It might be a good fit for you,” her mother had said, on a birthday call, before Lizzy had left for South.

“Yes,” she’d replied, definitive. There had been gratitude as well; a small sweet relief that for once her parents weren’t trying to use these scheduled calls as an excuse to encourage socialisation. (Her mother didn’t even ask if she were going out to celebrate. Lizzy supposed she’d given up expecting an affirmative. More gratitude.)

She should have known it was too good to be true.

#

Apophlaea lyallii. Cartilaginous and crustose, an abrasive half-circle that blooms up from the rock as if it were a sea urchin, to be so stiff-edged and hedgehog spiky. In the open it’s the colour of brick, a dark burnt red and rigid, with the cells packed tight together and the holdfast hidden under little branches. She tries transplanting it high on the intertidal, to see if it’ll grow even further south than Snares Island, but has little success.

#

Lizzy liked to spend some of her off-hours outside. The island wasn’t large, just a speck of Sub-Antarctic rock hundreds of kilometres south of New Zealand.

“It’s a good place for a research station,” she’d been told. The original Svalbard, up in Norway and past the Arctic Circle, had been chosen for its remoteness, its repository value. “But then they’re only preserving seeds.” South did that too, of course, although its remit was marine plants and that in itself had been enough to suck up Marsden funding for decades. But it also kept tanks, kept stocks of living algae and phytoplankton, experimented on what it conserved. A supplementary measure, something to reinforce conservation against climate change. It also meant South was manned – at least to minimal standards.

There was still the occasional cruise ship, the occasional Department of Conservation vessel – heading down to the Antarctic, or the larger islands with the albatross colonies, the petrels and penguins and shearwaters, the right whales off the coast. But South was off limits, marked on the maps and left carefully alone.

Still, the weather could be challenging and, with a storm coming, it was foolishness to stay outside. Lizzy replaced her boots carefully in their cubby, her waterproof outerwear dried down and folded on adjacent shelves, and started on the sand and water she’d tracked onto the floor.

When the mop was wrung out Lizzy gave the room a final check, making sure she’d left no mess behind her, nothing to indicate she’d been there. Bryan wouldn’t be going out tonight but he might like to go out sometime, and she didn’t want to burden him with signs of her presence.

It was the considerate thing to do.

#

Bryopsis plumosa. Little feather plumes, kept green and unbleached out of direct sunlight, huddled under crevices and in the sides of rock pools, the water shallow and salty above. When taken out of water it wraps around Lizzy’s fingers, the small delicate fronds cramped down into a thick fibrous mass. She dunks it again and again to see the way it fans out under the surface.

Fascination with shape aside, Lizzy hates being asked to experiment with Bryopsis. It infests the tanks, clings on and spreads from tiny fragments. She has to spend her days sterilising.

#

With the storm so loud about, Lizzy found it hard to sleep. She wasn’t afraid of structural failure, of loss of integrity – South had been built for the exposed environment, the harsh winds and heavy waves – but she’d been cooped up for days in terrible weather, without exercise, and it had left her fidgety.

She’d tried reading, had watched some of her shows, had even meditated, but none of it worked. She felt cooped in, trapped, and though her bed was warm and snug, the blankets kept twisting up around her so she threw them off, stuffed her feet into the bunny slippers her parents had given her and made her way to the technical library.

She didn’t bother with the lights. Lizzy knew her way around the station, knew it as if it were the walls and veins of her own body: contained, curled in on itself. Sufficient. The lack of light also gave her warning – if Bryan were up there’d be a thin line under a closed door, and she’d know to slip quietly past, to find another place.

The library was empty, but when Lizzy turned on the light she saw that the chair had been pulled slightly back, as if someone had been sitting at the desk and only recently gone away.

On the desk was a diary.

#

Macrocystis pyrifera. Bladder kelp. The older leaves are rough to the touch – pitted and heavy and less flexible, their surfaces scoured with sand and worn in patches. Lizzy monitors the kelp sometimes; checks for parasites that might endanger the beds; that might spread to other populations. Her checks are superficial. She’d never dive there, not by herself. The beds are so thick around they make her nervous; she might get caught or lost.

#

Lizzy didn’t read it. That was the easy decision. As soon as she opened the book she knew that it was Bryan’s. He wrote on station checklists as she did, noting down fluctuations and recording data, and the writing was the same.

There wasn’t any virtue in closing the pages, though Lizzy liked reading more than she liked anything that wasn’t science. Much of what she’d brought with her had been books – her favourites in print, their weight familiar in her hands and the rest electronic, but she had enough to get through without prying.

She hated it when people pried. Her parents had taken her to a therapist when she was a teenager, so she could “learn to express her feelings”. “What for?” Lizzy had said. She didn’t want to learn to express herself like other people did. It was off-putting: they were always so noisy with their feelings. She’d thought she might have learned to cope with that if they hadn’t expected her to be noisy too. But she’d written the diary, just to keep the peace – and of course it had been read. Of course.

The problem wasn’t to do with reading. It was what to do with the diary now that she’d found it. Picking it up had disturbed it. She could leave it where it was and hope that Bryan didn’t notice the disturbance. If he did, he’d think that she read it.

Lizzy didn’t want that.

She sat at the desk and scowled. This was why she preferred to be by herself! When she was by herself there was never any question of what to do. What not to do. She tried to understand how to relate to other people, how to keep them from being upset, but it rarely worked. They got their feelings hurt so easily.

In the end, she left the diary outside the door of the room where he slept, crept away on bunny feet. He’d know that she found it. He’d know that she was the one that put it there. But he’d probably understand, because she was so obvious with the returning, that Lizzy hadn’t read it.

#

Pachymenia lusoria. Each blade looks so different from the others – the fronds are flat and forked and fringed in pieces. Some look as if they have bites taken out, others as if they have been stretched in strange directions and pulled out of shape. The odd round curve of some of the blades is an awkward thing but the pieces fit together, somehow, even if the fit is clumsy.

Bryan has an interest in Pachymenia. It’s his Splachnidium, so Lizzy stops working with it, passes over all experimental responsibility to him.

#

He didn’t leave his diary in the library any more. Lizzy counted that as a relief, although she’d spent several uncomfortable days on edge, fearing that he’d ambush her in one of the labs, that he’d come up behind her while she was testing salinity in the sea tanks. There’d be stilted small talk, the kind that floundered and branched in unsteady directions she never meant to go. She’d never understood why people couldn’t say what they meant. For her words had always been coralline: crisp and spiky and not something to savour, lest they prick the insides of her mouth and made her bleed. “You’re welcome,” she would have said. “I didn’t read it. Please go away.” The “Please” was important. It showed she had manners.

Her mother had been determined she have manners. “It’ll make your life easier,” she’d said. “Think of them as rules that everyone has to follow.”

Courtesy dictated that she be thanked. Lizzy would rather not, if it meant being stalked amongst the sea tanks, but probably Bryan’s parents had tried to make him assimilate better as well, so the two of them would just have to muddle through.

Or not. The days passed and Lizzy was never confronted, never thanked. There were no notes left for her on the borders of checklists, which would have been embarrassing anyway as copies of those went to the Board, went back to Marsden in return for grants. She’d just begun to relax again when she opened her door one morning and found, laid carefully outside on a plate, a single cupcake.

It was a vanilla cupcake which wasn’t the best but it was all hers and no-one was going to ask her to share it, which was a happy thing because people who asked her to share got cross when she went for a ruler. “I’m only trying to make it fair,” she’d say but it never stopped them looking at her funny.

Fairness was important. Maybe Bryan thought it was important too. A cupcake for a diary. It wasn’t the same but it was something. Reciprocity.

The icing was sweet on her tongue, and Lizzy licked it off carefully, in quarters.

#

Ulva lactuca. Sea lettuce. Two cells thick, a green so bright it’s almost grass and the sheets are layered and lobed and leafy. Lizzy rubs them between her fingers, slick and sea-wet and so slippery, the square cells sliding against each other, the thin tissue fragile under her flesh. Sometimes the sea lettuce is free-living, the substrate a pebble or shell and Lizzy tosses these into the wave-tank to test how much stress the lettuce can take.

The leaves are ruffle-edged and worn ragged by waves. Some are the size of her palms, and some could cover her hand if she measured it against, if the leaves lay flat in the water and didn’t stick to her flesh, didn’t wrap around and cling, as if she were something to hold fast to.

#

There was a cake at her door the next morning, and the next. Lizzy didn’t understand at first, until she recollected that cupcakes were made in batches. He probably had to get rid of them before they went stale, if he didn’t want to eat them all himself.

Yet it disturbed her. Reciprocity she understood, but this had gone beyond that. Certainly he valued his privacy but a single cake was enough to show understanding, and gratitude. This felt like something else.

Lizzy knew his schedule as well as her own. They’d worked it out between the two of them, that first night, so she knew when he took his share of shifts, when he bathed. While he worked she made custard, thickened it with carrageenan and let it cool with a little nutmeg dusted over the top. While he was showering she left it outside his door, for when he retired to his room for the night.

It restored the balance between them, she thought, and it seemed he didn’t object because after a while the cupcakes became orange flavoured, and then chocolate. Each batch had a different flavour, but Lizzy didn’t know how to make any custard but one.

One night she went to leave it and he was back from his shower, back early, and there was an awkward encounter. “Sorry,” she said, holding out the custard. “I didn’t mean to bother you.”

“I don’t mind,” he said. “Really I don’t.”

It was polite of him to say, but she took to leaving his custards in the kitchen anyway.

He left her cupcakes there as well.

#

Cladhymenia oblongifolia. The blade leaves grow in parallel and they are rounded at the ends, a warm pink-red. There can sometimes be seen a darker midrib, faint-drawn along the length of thallus. The most extraordinary thing about this algae’s appearance is the fertile fringing set about the edge of the blades. Lizzy finds it comforting, how it’s all on the surface. It grows so very obviously; assessment is quick and certain.

She cuts the fringing off, to test how long it will take to grow back.

#

They crossed paths in the kitchen, sometimes. Lizzy kept to her schedule, but Bryan seemed looser, more likely to pop in unannounced.

“It’s not so bad, is it?” he said. “Working together. I thought it might be difficult, with the two of us. But I think we’ve got a system going, don’t you?”

“Yes,” said Lizzy.

“Didn’t you ever get lonely, on your own?” he said.

“Yes,” said Lizzy. It had been a welcome sensation after the cramming of mainland life, the total inability to live and not be encroached upon.

“I get lonely, too,” he said.

“I’m glad,” said Lizzy, and couldn’t understand why he left so suddenly. They might not be very close but surely he didn’t think her that selfish, that she’d begrudge him what she’d come so far for herself. Perhaps it was that she’d been so obviously unhappy at his arrival. Perhaps he still thought she blamed him for it.

Lizzy left him two custards that night. The next day he seemed happier, so she thought it was alright. But then he left his diary out again, and when she gave it back he said something very strange. “It wouldn’t bother me if you did read it, you know.”

“It would bother me,” said Lizzy, who hadn’t forgiven that long-ago therapist. “I don’t keep diaries anyway. They’re nothing but a nuisance.” She’d been given them for years, after that first disastrous attempt. They’d piled in corners of her old bedroom, until she kicked them all under the bed, blank-paged, so she wouldn’t trip over them.

He didn’t leave it out again. “I’ve stopped writing it,” he said. He didn’t look happy. Lizzy didn’t ask, because she didn’t know what to ask, but she didn’t see his writing again, outside the worksheets, until she came into the kitchen one morning for baking and found a note instead.

I’m sorry, the note said. It’s too much. Too much alone here.

It didn’t make sense, Lizzy thought, the note crumpled in her hand. Hadn’t he come here to be alone? Why would he be sorry for that? She could see him, out of the kitchen window, heading for the cliffs. She thought she might go after him. The weather was terrible, and it looked as if he’d forgotten his jacket.

She wasn’t much of a nurse. If he got hypothermia they’d both be screwed.

#

Hormosira banskii. Neptune’s necklace. Branched and cartilaginous, with a string of hollow spheres that are evenly spaced although the sizes can be different depending on growth and habitat. The beads help to maintain buoyancy, and Lizzy snips them off one by one in the tanks, to see how much bladder area is needed per 100 grams of wet weight to keep the seaweed afloat.

#

She wondered, while she was scrubbing her hands after the burial, if there was a point where she could have stopped it. Was it the diary? Should she have read it all along? Had he left it out so that she could read it?

Lizzy found it afterwards, when she was packing up his things. She felt it was something she should do, parcelling up his effects. Someone would come, eventually. Someone would want them. She would hate people going through her own things after she died – another reason not to keep a journal – but he had kept one, had chosen to keep one, and he must have known there was a possibility that others would read it if he died.

She set the diary on top of the carefully folded clothes, then took it out again. Put it on the table by his bed. Clasped her hands together in her lap, then reached out and adjusted the diary so that its sides were parallel to table edges.

Would there have been something in there that would have told her? Was she supposed to read it now? He was dead. It wouldn’t do any good. But maybe they’d ask, when she radioed it through. Maybe they’d want to know. What was she supposed to say? She couldn’t tell them the truth. If there had to be two people here now and they knew she couldn’t adapt then she’d be replaced as well, with someone better suited to company and nuance. “I was supposed to be here alone,” she said, to herself and plaintive. “I was fine.”

Of course they’d have sent someone who couldn’t hack it. Of course they would. It would have come out of a committee meeting, a group of people who’d never been to South, who’d never cope with the isolation and who wouldn’t want to anyway. They’d made this stupid, stupid policy and now she was paying for it.

“I’m not going to read you,” she said. She put the diary back on top of the clothes and closed the lid on it. She couldn’t sit sulking forever. There were tanks to check, and the cryo, and she wanted to walk along the shore and see the kelp, see how much the storm had damaged them.

The blades were more ragged than normal, but only one of the holdfasts had been ripped out. The kelp was strong, and it steadied her.

#

Durvillaea antarctica. Bull kelp. Leather against her skin, it beats at her thighs in time with the waves. The holdfast is yellow and big as platters, and if she cuts a blade across she can see the broad honeycomb structure that allows the blades to float and doesn’t drag them down into darkness.

Lizzy cuts the ripped out holdfast free of its lightening honeycomb blades and takes it back to the lab for study. There must be some experiment she can perform, she thinks, something to make use of seaweed and storm, but there’s nothing she can think of to do.

#

“It’s not my fault.” She wanted to blurt it out, spit those coralline words over waves and let someone else deal with it. “You knew what I was.” Her psychological testing was very specific. She was perfect for a place of preservation, of conservation and isolation and frozen genomes. She wanted to spit it out, to stop the slicing and stabbing that filled her mouth with blood, but Lizzy wasn’t sure that the bleeding was worst.

If she told, they’d come and take him away. They’d dig him up and ship him back to Dunedin and she wouldn’t have to avoid the place where she buried him and remember how his skin felt in her hands, slipping and oozing and the memory of it made her want to avoid Splachnidium now, and that wasn’t fair. She’d always liked it.

They’d take him away, but they might take her too. And she fitted here so well. Lizzy hadn’t fitted anywhere like she’d fitted here.

But it was wrong to lie. Lizzy knew that it was wrong to lie and she wasn’t very good at it anyway. People always knew and got cross when she tried, but they got cross when she told the truth too so she’d never bothered trying to learn to be a good liar because it wasn’t worth the extra effort.

They might take her away. They might take her away.

“I’m here,” she said, when the Portobello Marine Lab radioed through, their usual monthly communication. Lizzy had always thought it silly when she could – and did – email their status, but Portobello insisted on regular checks of the satellite radio, to make sure it still worked in case of emergency. It was one of the jobs she’d fobbed off onto Bryan.

“Roger that, South. Anything to report? Portobello out.”

Lizzy’s hands were wet, slick with sweat as if she’d dipped them in sea water. She wanted to be sick. She wanted to turn the radio off but they’d only call back, again and again until she answered them.

“South? Are you there, South?”

Carefully, she leaned over the microphone, and tried to breathe evenly, lest they hear her hyperventilating, hear her trying not to panic. Lizzy clenched her fists, her fingers shaking and clammy, and blurted out the first thing that came to mind.

“I like cupcakes,” she said.

###

One Comment

  1. I loved this story, I read this a couple of weeks ago and it’s stayed with me ever since. Lizzy’s character was so delicately done and even though we don’t see much of him, I still got a great sense of Bryan’s loneliness.

    And that last line is golden.

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