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January 26, 2010 by · 2 comments

Joan Donaldson

Photo: RonAlmog

From the foam

I pulled myself from Lake Michigan and peeled away my selkie skin. Waves tugged at my lengthening ankles. My new toes dug into the wet sand, weathered bits of quartz and feldspar. The last rays of the angled sun mingled silver and apricot across the ripples, as I rolled my gray seal skin and hid it midst the dunes. My feet slapped the stairs, two at a time; the smell of creosote flowed from the sun-baked wood. I slung open the cottage door.

“A glorious sunset, wasn’t it?” Miss Bartow sat on a sun porch with a plaid blanket tucked around her legs. Her cane leaned against her chair.
“Magnificent.” With the sole of one foot I rubbed the sand off the other ankle. Miss Bartow’s eyes followed my toes. Her swollen feet spilled out of black pumps.
“When I was twenty, I never dreamed that some day I wouldn’t walk the beach. Dive into the waves.” Miss Bartow’s eyes, trapped by thick lenses, bulged like fish staring through an aquarium. Parkinson’s disease sifted and shook her words.

Rolling the sand beneath my feet, I stomped on her words and pressed them into the earth. Like the locust larvae, let them wiggle and grow through the decades, turning into nymphs and winged creatures. The destroyers would emerge and gnaw at my youth someday, but not now. Yet from beneath the waves, I heard the voices of the half-human selkies warning me to slip into my sealskin. But how could I abandon Miss Bartow who depended upon me? I dropped two crinoids in her palm. The stars in the center of the fossils turned pink.
“Lucky stones.” she said.
“You left a few,” I teased.

In 1898, Miss Bartow’s parents had built the cottage on a dune they had bought from a sheep farmer. They raised a cottage with one great room flanked on two sides by short wood paneled partitions that separated off four small bedrooms. As a girl, Miss Bartow’s long fingers had threaded hundreds of flat, round crinoids into four long garlands that looped across the paneling. Even in the gloaming, the gray and bone-colored fossils glowed against the dark wood, a blessing from the beach.
“A good find,” Miss Bartow said.
“Probably tossed up by last night’s storm,” I answered.

Once the disks had formed the feeding tube stem of a sea lily, a small marine creature, with feathery appendages like a starfish. The plumes had brushed the toes of selkies, before time and storms had worn away the connecting tissue.

Miss Bartow leaned on me as we shuffled towards her bedroom. Her gray wig matched the sweater stretched over her spine; like a nautilus, her body curled inward. Her knee bones crunched. Little lines, like the swash marks on the strand washed over her forehead. Her cheeks puffed while she muttered “ oooh, ohhh, until she sank onto her cot with an “ummph.” My fingers slid down her dress buttons, lifted off her wig, and eased her into her nightgown.

Sixty years divided our ages. Miss Bartow gazed backward at her graduation from Vassar College, at earning a PhD, and teaching chemistry at the University of Illinois. She had returned to this brown-shingled cottage for seventy-five summers. A decade ago, her knees had betrayed her. The cartilage between the joints had leaked between the waves of time. Now she relied upon my strength and agility to cook her meals, run errands, and sweep the floors. My feet walked the shore so that I could bring her smooth brown pebbles spackled with white lines or crinoids that drew out her shoreline memories and for a few moments washed away her pain. If only I could find Miss Bartow’s seal skin, but she could not remember where she had concealed it.

The next day, while de-boning a chicken, I held up a joint and examined the cartilage. Pinkish. Swishy. Like small pillows, it cushioned the bones as they bent. But how did a person lose their cartilage? Did the stuff rub away, step by step? How had Miss Bartow lost the cartilage in her knees? Her words nibbled me. Would I lose mine?

The crest

The following summer, I unrolled my selkie skin and sprinkled it with Lake water. I would return to the waves, someday. But for now, I tied the skin with green ribbons, stuffed it into a cliff swallow’s hole and flew to Tennessee.

The green crests of the Great Smoky Mountains flowed about the community center. Fiddles, guitars and banjos vibrated the night air, as steamy as a bowl of collards. I clogged in a circle with gray hair elders and tow-headed toddlers. The cartilage in our toes and knees slipped and slid as our bare feet slapped the floor. Shuffle-step-rock-step. Toes brushed the wood, step on the right foot, rock back on the left heel and step right again. One fiddler clogged on the stage. Suddenly, the dance caller grabbed our hands and led the line of the dancers into the knotted figure of a grapevine twist. He spun around and cracked the whip. We flowed like a wave, rippled out, twisted around and rejoined hands while our feet beat the floor, matching the rhythm of the reel.

At the end of August, I brought home the dance. Sixteen-bar and thirty-two bar reels and jigs metered out the years. From college classrooms to music festivals, and finally in my barn, I led new converts in Kentucky running sets, contra and Irish ceili dances. Bodies twirled, joints bent. My feet sprang from the floor.

The trough

My toes ached. Hot coals burned the joints.
“Must be those new work boots.” I waited for the foot doctor to return to the examining room.
She held up the X-ray of my toes. “See the hairline cracks on the big toes? You’re losing the cartilage in your toes.”

Waves of locusts crawled from the earth. They swarmed around me, screeching. I brushed them away from my ears and tried to concentrate on the doctor’s words, but Miss Bartow’s prophecy taunted inside me. Orthotics. Cortisone shots to numb the burning. Cementing my toes together, but only as a last resort.
“But I’m a dancer,” I said. “What happened?”

“Dancers tend to develop foot problems. And did you ever drop something heavy on your feet? Or stub them badly while barefoot?”
The thirty years of farming flocked around me. The pointed hooves of my goats pranced on my feet. A log fell onto my toes while stacking firewood. Manual labors had leached me while the twirl of the dance had ground my bones.

“But what about now. What do I do now?” I swatted a locust and crushed him. “I won’t give up my feet.”
“I’ll give you a prescription for shoes. We’ll start there.”
“Shoes? I hate wearing shoes.”
She handed me the slip of paper.

I buy clogs in different colors. Red. Green. Blue. I wear them trudging through the dunes, searching for my skin. I cool my joints in the waves and hear Miss Bartow singing among the selkies.

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