speculative prose

Salt and Cement and Other Denials, by Sara Saab

Salt and cementAlexander on the East-Looking Face

I feel her pheromones nearly always, flavouring the salt breeze. The waves daub at us and daub at us and we gleam wet in the cold laser light off the sea.

O, my young Paulette!

If I were less honourable, I might note your imperfect form, less like a ripe acorn cupule, more like a broken whale’s molar. Or I might complain that in a moment short on foresight you cemented to our rock untidily, or make caustic remarks about how high the tide must strain for you to suction a fill of dinner.

But in saying these things I would be thinking thoughts shuttered by the underside of my shell; I would be remarking knavishly, scruples washed out to the deep navy sea.


Paulette on the Overhang

An incessant leak of his chemicals floods my shell. He is not the nearest barnacle to me, and cannot reach me for all that he tries, for all the flailing length of his sex organ. When I laid my last clutch of eggs, fertilized by a nearer mate, his chemical howl choked my cirri. For days my mouthfuls of plankton tasted of bitterness and anger.

If I were a larva still, I would have chosen a wiser spot, a rock far, far away. I did not think to survey the selection of companions I would have for the totality of my adult life—may it be short; may I be set free of this whiny creature! I curse at my immovable shell, my cirri waving in the air. I am no longer able to scuttle to a private nook that his chemical bleating cannot penetrate.

Could he reach me, we’d have mated and been done with it. In this way I’m treated to his agony and the irony of his heartbreak. (Irony: we who have no need of hearts, or of tears).

I punch chemicals in his direction, acidic, corrosive, but he chooses not to respond to these. As the sun sets, his chemicals react to my mating pheromones instead. I think I am clear: they are not directed at him.


Alexander on the East-Looking Face

We could not have truly understood what it would mean to forever be trapped in our own cages, unable to run one to the other, unable to entwine our extended limbs in the warm drift of the current.

Surely this is the worst heartbreak there can be. So near, my love, my Paulette, but not quite near enough.


Paulie on the Overhang

For better or worse, I am almost certain I am changing. Tens of fertile female barnacles are within easy reach, tempting my body to react in ways it cannot ignore. They’re in scatterings and clumps along the rock between Alexander and me. If only Alexander would pay attention to this bounty of available mates! Maybe then he would leave me alone.

The burn of changing—of growing—consumes all my nourishment, and I feel my organ go from vestigial nub to potent whip, curving then coiling within the depths of me. And as it grows, so does my sensitivity to the exquisite chemicals of the other females.

Other females. How long can I continue to say that now?

I let the succour of laden waves wash over the cacophony of my morphing, my hot and agitated growth. Picking plankton is a monotonous comfort. I’m famished by my transformation, so busy with the urgency of feeding that I can almost drown out Alexander’s pleas.

When I do hear them, flavouring the salt and overlaying the smacking tides of wet and dry, I register new top-notes of confusion, acrid then bitter, like ammonia, like waste.


Alexander on the East-Looking Face

My Paulette! I’ve never felt so near to your heart, nor so far.

I hear you keening your desperate desire. Your pheromones change with it, your musk more delicate and familiar. Do you strive to match my chemical cries? Do we sing a duet by the side of the wide, unconcerned ocean, the sweet harmonics of our love going unnoticed?

Every dark shadow overhead is a beaked monster that will swoop down in a private gust to stab at you—stalwart and brave inside your shell—until you ooze free. Finally, finally free.

But not mine.

My thoughts take me to terrible precipices. I am consumed by terror. I imagine you dangling a moment against the sky, held and cut, before you disappear from the world.

In shame and woe, I turn to fertilizing neighbouring barnacles. They are no match to your splendour, but I nudge away my imaginative terrors with the sublime thought of your touch. Yet when I reach out to you with the only part of me that is free of my prison—as I do too many times to count—you are still too far. And you are keening, keening. My Paulette! What is it you are trying to say?


Paul on the Overhang

As far as living a life goes, I have no cause for complaint. I survived my larval beginnings, the puny light of my new mind the only fortification against the near-certain death that watched me, salivating. Sheer ignorance pulled me through, ignorance and luck. Once I cemented and grew a respectable shell, I had already made it farther than most of my siblings, farther than every likelihood said I should.

A barnacle’s life is not an adventure. Our cirri are the keyhole through which we feel, taste, smell the world. Motion is not a luxury we have. But this—becoming a male, knowing others through this new frame—this is the most excitement I’ve felt.

I feel other things too. Satisfaction? No: joy. I fertilize the females who, beforetimes, I had barely distinguished from our craggy rock. My mission fills me with fresh verve.

Alexander. He is there, somewhere, behind it all. I still hear him, but in the richness of my new life, his bleating is just noise, fading out of existence, his desperation declawed and no longer viable.


Alex on the East-Looking Face

The sky, the sea, the sharp edges and smooth curves of our rock. I drag my thoughts to any elsewhere in hopes of freeing them from the tug of love that torments me.

Were it only Paulette, her new chemicals, her indifference, her badly chosen spot upon our rock! I am afflicted; I feel loving spread from me like seawater tracing a crack in stone. Why devote myself only to her? She who has never crooned her feelings back, she who years ago, mobile and choosing, struck her own course, resettling in a blatant act of rejection when I ventured to cement myself within mating reach.

Sky, sea, sharp edges. Love. Giving love and receiving love.

We are all the same. Lonely barnacles, tragic and trapped. Why eschew the only companionship allowed to us, as far as we are able to share it?

These are the things that worry at me when I flare my cirri to scent the chemicals of the dozens of us; females, males, and in-betweens.


Paul on the Overhang

The seagull found us this morning and stayed for too many beats of the waves. Perhaps the fishes knew to hide well today, or perhaps this seagull liked a hard-won meal: she pecked at each barnacle shell methodically, pausing between attacks. The rock was fogged in a miasma of our alarm, too-sweet chemicals that tasted like dying.

She broke through one time, then another, plucking each barnacle’s soft body from its armour, swallowing with a ratatat clamping of her beak.

My own shell bore her attack. Cement and keratin—my entire world—cracked and shifted under hammering blows. One, two, three, and I was sure that the fourth peck was all I could take. My inward-set head nuzzled warm rock. Recklessly, I extended my cirri to drink deep of the last chemical messages of our harassed group.

My life had been lucky, but luck runs in tides too. It seemed my tide had receded too far down the shore.

Then the seagull lost interest in me.

It turned and hopped towards Alexander, sending a springy vibration tickling through the rock. I considered Alexander with a mixture of contempt and pity. I had survived for the time being, and my body was overwhelmed with living. The coil of my new organ had quickened, dosed with adrenaline. At the seagull’s first blow, Alexander’s fear and confusion swept into my damaged shell.

Did I care if he died? It seemed a stretch of my finite prowess for survival, especially now that Alexander was irrelevant as a mate.

Still. He had been part of my world for so long, since the hazy, humid day he hurried after me, larval and new.

I did not wish for his death, and yet a sated seagull would be a little more appeased, and more likely to flap off into the horizon.


Alex on the East-Looking Face

Now the sun is dancing on the horizon, but this morning, a vicious predator came pounding at my door. Under attack, my confusion reached new heights; I was not my old self, and I was in pain, and the two torments swilled through my shell as if it were a cocoon of mist.

I tried not to think of Paulette. It was hard to think of her as I remembered her, for she had changed enough to be a new creature. She too was at the mercy of a great beast’s hunger. She too survived.

Many of our rock’s barnacles have not. After the beast departed, the bouquet of chemicals perfuming the salt air settled into something much sparer, wilted and straining. There is Paulette, still no nearer for the tremors of the attack, and there is me. Two or three other survivors dot the rock between us.

Food is plentiful. The sun will rise and set. But loneliness will only worsen. Even in-between like this, open to love from anyone willing, I feel my life stretch before me, a prison, and after the light of day drains into the horizon, I hope the winged predator will do me the mercy of returning to finish the job.


Paul on the Overhang

All of the females in our group are dead—not just dead, but gone, their broken shells whistling in the wind. I reach out with all my might, unravelling the impressive new length of me. I brush against the mossy slickness of our rock, desperately looking for a mate.

I do not find one. I retract, fold away the never-before extension of my arousal, and let the cooling waves wash over my shell. A junkyard of suspended plankton does lazy cartwheels into my extended cirri, but I have no appetite. I only wish to drift companionably alongside microbugs and frills of algae towards the horizon.

I wish to be away from this rock, and away from Alexander’s bleating.

Instead of drifting to sea, I focus on returning to my female self, or to some halfway place. There are unhurt males nearby; I can scent them. I wonder if I can compel this change, this reversal. And Alexander? I know he is not as he has been. None of us are, after the changes wrought by time and death.

I think about him a lot. It is not warmth that suffuses my thoughts, but the comfort of an age-old witness to my life.

For the first time, I let myself digest the meanings of his latest chemical platitudes, message by message, thought by thought. I let them roll over my cirri, giving them my attention. My mind is blank with astonishment.





Alex on the East-Looking Face

Paulette, my love, my only! As hard as I might try to move on, there will only ever be you.


Paul on the Overhang

My body insists on its new guise. My remaining femaleness becomes tiny and dense, a grain of sand embedded in flesh. The organ coiling within me gains length and girth until I believe I can touch the ocean, the sand, the sky

I know I can reach Alexander now, with an ease that would put his years of straining to shame. Is it that the waves have been rich with plankton, or that I am well suited to this form?

Knowing I can do what Alexander never could dispels my grief, and leaves me rapt with desire. My chemicals turn rich, sooty, overwhelming. I mark our rock with obnoxious pheromones.

And Alexander dares to respond, signalling his readiness, matching my desire.


Alexandra on the East-Looking Face

It is a forgotten hour of night, the sea singing its crashing dirges and melancholy whines to the backdrop of preternatural silence.

A trailing sensation against my cirri. A shy, lengthy sentinel groping from across the rock.

Surprise stills my heart. I do not know what to think, how to react. I certainly have no desire to resist. I let the probing tip find its way.

Certain as the hold of my cement, I know. It is clear, the peal of a bell, encoded in the chemical vanguard that wafts with that brave and tentative touch.

All of me flushes alive. I am fortified, open. My prison is wide as the endless ocean, its walls pliable like moss.

It is Paulette, my Paulette, my love!


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Issue 9 (Winter 2016)

Story copyright © 2016 by Sara Saab

Artwork copyright © 2016 by Paula Arwen Owen

Sara Saab lives in North London, where she works on transport systems for the future. In her spare time she boxes, runs, and hunts for the perfect almond croissant. A 2015 graduate of the Clarion Writers’ Workshop at UCSD, she’s recently had fiction in Clarkesworld and The Dark, and you can find her on Twitter as @alixanaeuphoria. Sara did not know barnacles were alive until embarrassingly late in life—this story may be considered penance.

Paula Arwen Owen is an artist who works in hand-cut paper silhouettes and collage, using the contrast of darkness and light, of dreams and reality to create compelling illustrations. Her work has appeared in magazines such as Mythic Delirium and Strange Horizons, and on book covers by authors including Cherie Priest and Catherynne M. Valente. She lives at the edge of an enchanted forest in the Catskill Mountains with her husband and a variety of creatures domestic, wild, and mythical. Paula’s unique cut paper greeting cards, artwork, and decals are available at her Etsy shop and in retail stores.



This entry was posted on April 27, 2016 by in Stories.
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