October 2nd, 2017


If You’re Going to Shave Down a Seal
Chris Braiotte

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[There's this thing that's been happening around Boston where people read creepy stories over creepy music and it's called Ape's Nest, and we here at Mutable love it so much that we are going to start featuring the print versions of these stories, beginning with this remarkable bit below.]


If you’re going to shave down a seal — and I’m seriously not suggesting that you do — you need to pay attention to the contours.


You see, most of a seal is smooth and uncomplicated, a long curlicue like a hairy Nike swoosh. You’ll get lulled into a long careless shave, and that’s when it’ll go wrong. Because there you are, zooming along, and blammo. Flipper changes the angle. You nick that seal right in the fold of his flipper, and then you’ve got a mostly hairless, bleeding, pissed off seal. And once that seal starts thrashing you’re both trapped in an upwelling cycle of blood and resentment.


Here is a fact about seals. They have magic. They exist in two worlds, like shamans. That’s where magic comes from. Shamans exist in the world of the flesh and the world of the spirits, and seals live in the world of the land and the world of the water. A shaman unlocks his magic with psychedelic drugs, or trance-like chanting. Seals don’t have access to that. They have different keys, and it takes two of them. One of those keys is blood. Like blood raised when you shave them poorly.


Moving on.


I was never very popular in high school. Or ever, really. I think it’s because I’m a singularly unlovable person. It’s almost like I’m half-formed, a simalucrum of human but missing this key quality. I first noticed this when…look I could tell you my whole life story, but you won’t understand my choices. What you need to know is that I, a person who is impossible to love, showed up at my 25th high school reunion, escorting a male seal I’d shaved down and said was my human wife Jenora.


It went…better than you’d think. See, it was still the case that no one wanted to talk to me. Since they were socialized adults, their glances glid past me and Jenora with the effortless, frictionless grace of figure skaters. Even when I walked into the yacht club that was hosting the reunion and claimed our name tags, it was a wordless, vigilantly unobserved exchange.


I propped up Jenora in a chair and used the belt on his dress to tie him in an upright position. My plan for the evening hinged on there being some cedar planked salmon at the buffet. There’s always cedar planked salmon. I figured if I could keep him occupied with fish for an hour or so, we could get through this and go to our respective homes: me to my condo in Portland, and Jenora to the aquarium in town.


Bingo. I was piling a small plate with salmon for him kielbasa spring rolls for me when I saw the folly of what I was doing. What did I hope to achieve? The best case scenario here was that everyone ignored me enough to not look too hard at Jenora, and if that was what I hoped for…why come at all? Was I insane? I cursed my pitiable desire to impress these people who meant nothing to me. But, the die was cast.


The planked salmon had a light cream sauce. This will become important.


Here’s a fact about me. I’ve always loved the song Neutron Dance by the Pointer Sisters. It’s been my favorite song since I heard it on the Beverly Hills Cop soundtrack. Back when I still dreamed of one day falling in love, of meeting a woman who could love me forever or even at all, I used to imagine having the first dance at our wedding to the song Neutron Dance by the Pointer Sisters. Whenever they get to the drum fill in the middle, I always dance so crazy. So crazy. At our wedding, when the woman who pledged to love me for the rest of our lives, when we solidified that joyous chain by moving our bodies to a synchronized dream as if time itself was teaching us how to be one, we would dance to the song Neutron Dance by the Pointer Sisters and at that drum fill I would dance crazier than ever, and my friends would all cheer me saying, “that’s so Shane,” and my wife would look at me with love in her eyes and she’d cry a little and mouth the words, “I love you so much.”


Here is why I’m telling you about the song Neutron Dance by the Pointer Sisters. I was cleaning a little bit of chewed up creamy salmon that had fallen out of Jenora’s mouth when the DJ switched songs. I think you know what song the DJ played. I think you know what that meant…I had to had to dance. And that same mania that caused me to think this entire evening was a good idea, that same mania I had been regretting not four minutes earlier, soared from the depths of my mind. I was going to dance. With my wife. To my favorite song. In front of these people.


I untied Jenora from the chair and dragged him to the dancefloor. And we started to dance. I think he even liked it a bit? Maybe the rhythmic rolling reminded him of him days on the ocean. Maybe he was lonely, too. It might have also been the muscle relaxers I’d filled him with at my house.


You know what? I felt good for the first time in…I don’t even know how long. I felt happy. As dumb as this plan was, it was actually worth it for this moment. That was a revelation to me: that I could find happiness solely within myself, whether I could be loved, whether I was loved.


Free. I felt free of the weight of other people.


When the drum solo came, I knew I was going to dance crazier than ever. It was the culmination of every paltry joy I’d scrapped together in this grey iron life. And I did. My legs ran in place. I whooped. I jumped, as best I could with my burden. Unable to wave my hands in the air, I swung Jenora around like a bag of laundry. He actually barked — I think with joy, not fear, but it’s hard to say. I’m not fluent in seal emotions.


And then it happened.


I mostly blame the cream sauce. Also, maybe I screwed up the dosage on the muscle relaxants. That one’s on me.


I felt the convulsing in his stomach, and before I had a chance to process the sensation, it started. The vomiting. I was still flinging him around. And seals? When they vomit? It’s a lot. A LOT. Between the volume and the flinging it was covering the dancers like they were parishioners at some hellish church, getting sprinkled with the rankest chunky holy water you can imagine. Oh, the screaming. People slipping and falling in their zeal to get away from us. Utter, reeking pandemonium was streaming from this seal’s gullet.


Here’s a fact about seals. Seals are social. For all social mammals, a sense of shame is a survival mechanism. And seals? They can feel shame. It wasn’t the barfing, that’s something that happens everyday. For a seal, barfing is just a fun variation on breathing. It was the sense of being pushed out of the herd, a sense made real by the dancers forming an impenetrable circle around Jenora’s barf radius.


Remember how I said it takes two keys to unlock a seal’s powers? And one is blood, such as from a substandard shave job? Well, the shame of a barfing excommunication on the dance floor was the second key. And so, that night, I unlocked that door within Jenora.


I didn’t know any of this at the time, I learned this later, in my studies. What I saw at the time was this: Jenora, lying on the floor, his taffeta dress slipping off his hairless body. Jenora, lying on the ground, ashamed, vulnerable. Jenora, with a look of concentration like you never see on a seal. Jenora, quivering. Quivering with what I thought was fear, but with what was actually…power.


I didn’t see it at first, what he was doing. I heard it. The sick wet crunching, followed by the screaming. Anyone with flecks of barf on them had fallen down to the ground, and was screaming in what had shifted from disgust to pain. One man was clawing off his pants when I saw it: his legs were starting to fuse, his feet broadening out. That sound was the bones in his feet reforming into something new.




His feet were grinding their way into flippers. It was happening to all of them. They screamed in confusion and pain as their bodies contorted. Some tried to run, but it was useless. They no longer had run-friendly forms. Their eyes widened and their pupils grew, first in terror, and then physically as they were becoming seals.


Becoming seals. But not all the way. They were terribly useless hybrids, thirty-some nougat colored seal things, laying on the yacht club floor. In pain, in terrible pain, in bodies that didn’t exist as human and didn’t exist as seal, but in some mawkish twilit space in between those two, the borderlands of magic.


I looked at Jenora. He was exhausted. Was it the magic that had tired him? The muscle relaxants? Food coma? Probably all of it. I scooped him up, and pulled him towards the door. I passed the buffet and grabbed the last of the kielbasa spring rolls and left my broken classmates on the ground, a frenzied basking under the rented stage lights, and trying out their failing barks for the first time.


We left the yacht club. They tried to follow us, but the transformation had stopped, and their bodies simply did not work. And I brought Jenora to the parking lot, which was hard by the water, and we went down the gangplank to the marina. And the smell of the sea roused him a little, and he leapt from my arms into the sea. And his new children tried to follow him but were mostly beached at the door. Except for one guy named Terry Hartford, who’d somehow managed to muscle himself to the water’s edge. Terry was always very strong. He hit puberty before anyone I knew, and I wonder if that played a role here. He made his way past the door, and pulled his way along the gravel, scraping his skin terribly the whole way. And he rolled into the water after Jenora, his mother, Jenora, his creator. And as strong as he was, he was some idiot God’s guesstimate of a seal and he sank, writhing, blubbering, confused, to the ocean floor.