Cloud Streets in the Sea of Okhotsk by Jessica Reisman
In our forest, there are many ghosts.
I am an ice bear. As selkies are both human and seal, my siblings and I are both human and bear—we don’t use bear skins, though. We use human skins. We are the last of our kind; but as we live almost forever, we have never felt terribly tragic about it.
As the youngest, it is my daily task to collect branches and withy wood that my siblings use to expand and repair our vast withy wood home, a palace twisted, braided, and intricately woven. One day, I was returning with a bundle big as my body on my back. Having woken on the wrong side of my skin that morning, I had skipped our dawn feed and now my belly rumbled with hunger.
A dark tarn in a rock and pine-sheltered hollow beckoned, the scent of icy water and fat fish drawing me in. A deep spring fed the tarn, the hollow lush with moss. Tiny white alyssum flowers shawled the early, thick grass like lace. The tarn in turn fed a small creek that wandered away eastward to the cold, cold sea bordering our forest.
I put aside my bundle of wood, slipped off and folded my human skin beside it, and slid into the dark water, reveling in its chill. Then I became still among the ice-skeined reeds, waiting for fish.
A flash of movement and a small school of bronze fish like little discs. I caught two, the rest scattering. Two sweet mouthfuls, the crunch of their little bones a blessing. I washed their blood from the pavonine fur and dark pads of my paws.
Another stillness, floating with my eyes at surface level as I digested, my thoughts wandering high and wide as clouds. All gone quiet, only the song of water and forest, the drip of ice a-melt. A silken ripple as another fish came, turning through sun spears shafting the tourmaline water. Scales the pale gold of the winter morning sun, with an undersheen of light colors, blue-green as my fur, rose, and saffron. It was long as my human forearm with fins and dorsal-like membraned, ruffle-edged veils.
Without thought, as one reaches for a glittering bauble, I caught the fish between my two paws. He wriggled slightly and in a voice of silver mail and shiver said, “Forego my flesh and I will sing to you, the most beautiful song you have ever heard.”
“I don’t want to eat you,” I said. Embarrassed for having caught a speaking creature so rudely in my paws, I lowered the fish back into the water and released him.
My siblings and I have lived a long time. Many wonders we have seen, but never had I met a talking fish. Though as the youngest, I have lived less time than my siblings; perhaps one of them has known such a creature.
The fish frisked a circle, then hovered near, face lifted to me above the water’s surface.
“Do you live here? What are you? Thank you!” The fish said all this in that shivery metallic voice, ringing like silver bells.
“Yes, the forest is my home. I am an ice bear. You are welcome. Have you always spoken?”
“No! Three darks ago I ate a glowing thing that fell into the water. It fell a long way, from the clouds above. I watched it. Then I ate it. Everything glowed for the time a bubble takes to rise to the surface. Then I could talk.”
“And sing, you said?”
“Yes, yes!” He frisked in a circle again, then o’d his mouth.
A sound filled the small hollow. My siblings and I sing, of an evening. Birds sing. Nightingales are famed for it. Over lifetimes, I have heard humans singing in churches, temples, smoky dens of music and drink, a single pure voice, a swelling together of many voices that rises through the blood like light; I have listened to the songs of bowhead whales and Indri lemurs. The north wind sings, the south wind soothes.
Was sad and husky. It was joy. It was tears. It was the taste of a kiss in your mind and the fiddle of fingers along soft places on your skin. I was crying in the cold tarn, among the frozen reeds, and suddenly wanted my human skin, wanted my fur on the inside.
The fish stopped singing, watching me. I cried for a long while more, the fish trailing figures in the water’s surface.
I came back to hear him sing the next day. And the next. You see where this is going, or think you do. He said his name was Julung, but I did not know if he meant himself the fish, or himself the ghost that sang in him, the glowing thing he had swallowed down.
I said, didn’t I, that there are many ghosts in our forest?
Every day, I came to the little hollow, set down my load of withy wood. In my human skin, sitting in the long grasses by the tarn, the days passed and the last of the long winter’s ice dripped away into dark earth and hellebores. As russet heath spread fire through the sweet alyssum lace, I cried and dreamed, found and lost myself in the ghost’s song.
One day, I noticed beautiful Julung looked thin.
“Food doesn’t taste right, the bugs and algae and small life I have always eaten,” he said. “I cannot abide them.”
I began to save aside a portion of my breakfast, rice and bird eggs and guava fruit from our volcanic gardens, maple-oat cakes, folded into a cloth.
Julung grew sleek, even more beautiful, a pale golden god in the tarn. When he wasn’t singing, he continued to babble and frisk, full of memories and thoughts both his own and the ghost’s.
When he sang, like foxfire, he drew life to him. As the days passed, other animals joined us. A regular brown bear, big, shaggy, recently woken from hibernation; a silver fox family, curled with their noses in their tails, pointed ears quivering; grey herons, mountain hares, a pair of snow leopards, a gathering of plush, thick-coated field mice. No one ate anyone. We all sat rapt, gathered in the hollow, cupped in Julung’s song.
Eventually, my siblings noticed. As the youngest, I am much dismissed. “Oh, B; they are excitable and prone to ephemirisms,” my siblings say. None of them listen to me; we have all lived a long time, but I will always be the youngest.
“Why are you so late returning with the withy wood?” One of my middle sister-brothers asked the question, but I could hear the echo of all my six siblings within the words. I set down my morning’s load of withy wood, smelling of sharp green sap.
“I am traveling further to collect it, the nearer groves of the wood eldest likes are depleted,” I said. A lie.
“Hmn,” my sibling grunted.
Julung means first, in Malay, language of a place far from here. Ghosts travel like water, drawn into clouds, over the seas; they are cold mist-smoke and glowing moments in the rain.
Rain. Hard, cold spring rain. It slicks his bones, his poor small bones. I scrabble at the earth with my fragile human-skinned hands; tear-blind, I peel off my human skin. Then I furrow the earth, wet and muddy in my claws.
I wrap his bones, all that they left me, in my human skin, set them in the furrow I have dug, bury them in wet dark earth.
Day falls away, hovers in the hour of transition, gives way to darkness. Above, the sky turns, vast and full of ancient light.
I stayed by his bones in the hollow for ten days. Each of my siblings came to speak to me, but I only growled, and once snapped, snarling at eldest, who said “You don’t understand, you were ghost-witched.”
Weather and life moved forward. As the forest verged at the edge of its brief, cold summer, a green shoot slipped from the turned earth above Julung’s bones. Julung’s bones wrapped in my human skin.
A dark shoot, furled with a sheen of pale gold, haunted by blue-green, rose, saffron. A scent of something warm, far away.
They didn’t eat his bones, you see. I am the only one, among my siblings, who enjoys the crunch of a fish’s bones. My siblings find it barbaric.
The shoot grew quickly. It bore a fruit and the fruit was a skin, furled in a tight, spiraled sphere. Unfurled, it smelled of sap and cold tarn, warm spice from far away. An ice bear’s human skin, ghost pelt, fish scale, tegument of song, friend fruit. Tender, haunted, pure and undreamt. I put it on.
First of my kind.
Jessica Reisman grew up on the east coast of the U.S., was a teenager on the West Coast, and now lives in Austin, Texas. She’s been a writer, animal lover, devoted reader, and movie aficionado since she was a wee child. She’s had two novels published, and her first collection of stories, The Arcana of Maps, came out in 2019. Please see her website for more.