Skeleton Coast - Kerry Anderson

If this were a dream, she’d be flying. Through sand-sky, down sun-scorched highway, toward the thin, dark blue line of the sea.


From Windhoek, follow the B2 toward the coast; when you see the sea, turn right onto the C34.


Instead, her faded red Mazda rattles down the highway as she sweats in the blast of heat from the dunes of the Namib desert. Desert gives way to the parched white landscape of the salt pan until, finally, the ocean rises from the horizon, dark and angry.


She turns right onto the coastal road, salt and sand gritty beneath her car’s tires. Along the shore, a shipwreck sprawls shrouded in wind-driven sand. She learns the Mazda’s windscreen wipers no longer work.


At the fork in the road, turn right toward Cape Cross.


Her phone lost signal once she crossed the border and the battery died shortly after. But she had memorized the email by then. It had been the only direct communication between her and Dr. Ross.


The ad caught her attention because it was old-school. A typed-out advert on the noticeboard at the Y where she used to swim every week. It had a little tag to pull off, with a telephone number.


It stayed in her jacket pocket for a week. She found it again when she undressed at the clinic.


House-sitting in Cape Cross, Namibia. No pets or plants. One month. N$500 per day.


It was a good rate.


She called the number from her car, the day after she left the clinic. It went directly to an answering machine, a generic recorded message that ended by inviting her to send her resumé to an email address.


She patched together a resumé on her phone, sitting in the empty parking lot in front of a fast food chain, as night became morning. Dr. Ross responded by the time the restaurant opened.


You will take up occupation at the cottage by the first of July.


Yes, Dr. Ross, she says to herself. Of course. The voice she imagines for Dr. Ross brooks no argument. It is stern and maternal. She pulls up to the fork in the road. A corroded metal signboard stands blindly at the nexus. She knows Cape Cross is to the right. But on the signboard, left and right are a patchwork of half-formed letters. She tries to imagine a seaside resort town, tourist shops selling whimsical crafts made from driftwood and shells. But even in her imagination, the town is deserted, windswept and barren. She brushes the sand from her face and drives on, toward Cape Cross and a cottage in the desert.


The wind picks up, blowing from the desert across the salt pan, until she can hardly see for the whiteout of salt and sand. She slows the car, feeling the tires slipping and with the force of the wind, then finding their grip again on the degraded asphalt. Her hands gripping the steering tightly, she leans forward as miles inch past.


The cottage appears as a mirage, aluminum roof glinting through the yellow air, the walls indistinguishable from its surroundings.


The cottage will be open. The keys will be on the kitchen counter.


She pulls up her hoodie and runs head down toward the cottage, her hand reaching out in front of her until she reaches a wall. She scrapes her hand along the wall until she reaches the door. She grabs the handle and pushes it open, using her shoulder, then stumbles forward with too much momentum. The door slams behind her.


Inside the cottage, the sudden silence holds her still. She tries to quiet her breath. The sandstorm whirls around the house, rattling loose things, whining at the eaves. She pushes her hoodie down, sending a soft shower of sand to the floor. The light is dim, filtered through the blinds at the front of the house.


The remote for the blinds is in a holder to the right of the front door.


She reaches for the remote and the blind mechanism hums softly into the silence. Gray sunlight seeps into the cottage, revealing surfaces clean and bare.


In the bathroom, there are plastic-wrapped pink and blue shell-shaped soaps in a porcelain dish.


In the living area, there is a wicker furniture set: sofa, armchairs, coffee table. The chairs have aquamarine seahorse-patterned seat cushions, the fabric still stiff with newness. Glass doors lead onto a deck that looks out over the storm-obscured shore.


On the passage walls are framed prints of watercolor seas much gentler than the one outside.


One bedroom has a pine double bunk bed. The other, the main bedroom, has a queen size bed in the same pine as the double bunk.


As she walks through the cottage, the sharp smell of paint recently applied stings her nose and swells her sinuses. But it is the more organic smell that lingers beneath the paint smell that makes her want to open the windows, in spite of the storm.


The kitchen occupies the same space as the living area, divided by a marble countertop and high pine stools. She opens cupboards, hoping to find something to drink or eat. There is nothing.


Josiah will meet you on the first day to take your order for supplies.


The things she bought along the way are in the car, outside. A change of clothes, a half-eaten bag of crisps, sour candy she didn’t know was sour, two bottles of red wine. Exhaustion leaks through her veins like lead. The last time she slept she had been anesthetized. She pulls off her shoes and lays down on the aquamarine seahorse cushions, half-dreaming already of rain pattering down on the aluminum roof though it is sand that strafes at the cottage windows.


When she wakes, the light has softened, and the storm has stilled. She opens the glass folding door that leads from the living room to the deck. Briny, drying seaweed litters the high tide line from which the sea has retreated past the black rocks exposed by the low tide. She walks, squinting her eyes, into the glare from the sand.


A swirl of sand settles over a shape like the ribs of an enormous, long-dead beast. As she approaches, the shape resolves into the rusting remains of another shipwreck. Each curved rib part of a hull torn apart by the force of waves and rocks, ending up, finally, on this bleak shore. It is larger up close than it seemed from far. Each barnacle-covered, rusting arc of iron buried deep in the sand, is at least three times her height and as thick as a tree trunk. There are notches in the iron that could work as holds. She tries to lift herself up, feels something shift inside her, a slither or a tear. She falls backwards, panting.


Back in the cottage, she shuts the glass door. A layer of sand already covers the living room floor and furniture. The computer is set up on a desk against the wall, outside of the sand blast radius for now.


There is no wireless internet connectivity. There is no phone. There is a landline to connect to the Internet.


She sighs, looking at the black box next to the computer. A genuine modem circa the days when data transfer was measured in K. She’s thinking about who she would contact, when there is a knock.


A man of sand stands at the front door, the grains trickling from his eyelashes and brows. Sand rests in the crevices of his sand-hued skin. He wears an anorak and rubber boots the color of wet sand.


“Josiah,” he says, holding out his hand. It feels ridged and sandy when she takes it.


“Yes,” she says, “Come in,” and stands aside.


“You left your car door open,” he says to her as he passes, then when he sees her about to go outside, he holds up his hand, “It’s okay. I closed it. Nothing a vacuum won’t fix. Why didn’t you park it in the garage?”


“There was a storm,” she tells him, “I couldn’t see it. You’re the supplies person.”


“Yes.”


“I haven’t had a chance to put together a list. Do you mind waiting while I do?”


“No problem,” he says, “But I brought a few things to get you started.”


She watches as he slings off a khaki backpack. He begins to unpack instant coffee, long-life milk, sugar, rusks, two-minute noodles and packet soup. Her stomach grumbles.


“Why don’t I make coffee and you make the list,” he says, handing her his phone. “Just type it in there.”


The background picture is of a small, pale boy, a fish cradled in his arms, his eyes magnified behind thick glasses.


“Your son?” she asks, looking closer.


“Yes,” he says his back turned to her, “Moses.” He doesn’t offer more.


She pulls up a notes app.


Sand flows off Josiah onto the kitchen floor, crunching beneath his feet as he moves around. She’ll have to look for a broom later. He doesn’t seem to notice and continues opening cupboards to find cups, locating the kettle, making the coffee.


“Is there really no cellphone signal here,” she asks him.


Ja,” he says, “nearest tower is Walvisbaai. Don’t you have a land line here?”


“Yes. And a modem.”


She expects him to laugh. He doesn’t.


“I wondered what this place looked like on the inside,” he says, “You know it seemed to go up almost overnight. One minute just beach and then the next …” he spreads out his hands, looking around. Then he frowns and turns his attention to the coffee, “Not the best time of year for it either.”


She is about to ask him what he means but he hands her a mug with milky coffee and her hunger comes back. He opens up the rusks and they sit at the kitchen counter dipping rusks in the coffee, drinking and chewing. Josiah sits on the wooden stool with his boots wrapped around the legs.


“What do you do here, Josiah?” she asks.


“Well,” he says through a mouthful of soggy rusk, “I do deliveries. Like here. And some other places. And other work, sort of seasonal. Fishing. Do you usually do this?”


“Housesitting? No.” She doesn’t usually spend days driving highways either. “I freelance,” she says because it sounds better than saying she’s unemployed.


“Freelance,” he says, nodding his head, but it’s another question he’s interested in. “So how do you get to do this? The housesitting? Does it pay well?”


In the city, the pay would be considered good but reasonable. Now she hesitates, realizing that it’s a rate that accommodates luxuries, extras, things you want but don’t need.


She shrugs, “It’s okay,” she says, avoiding his eyes.


“Anyway,” he says, getting up, “I’d better get going.”


She hands him back the phone, “When do you think you can bring this?”


“Tomorrow,” he says, “that okay?” Then he hesitates, turning the phone over in his hands. “Have you met him? Dr. Ross.”


It takes her a moment. “Dr. Ross?” Josiah nods, “I thought she was a she,” she says, “Dr. Ross.” She had somehow been thinking of Dr. Ross as a Catherine. Dr. C. Ross. Did she see that on the email, or did she make it up? She tells Josiah anyway.


“Dr C. Ross?” he laughs, shaking his head. “Sounds made up. No one here has met this Dr. Ross. We don’t know how he got permission to build on this land either. It’s supposed to be protected.”


She watches him from the door as he drives off. She had not asked a single question before she came here, happy just to take the money and get as far away as possible from where she had been. Far away from the apartment with the overdue rent and the half-empty wardrobe and the cactus rotting from the roots upward.


She sees the sand-cloaked shape of her car and goes to check on it. When she opens the door, sand pours out. She parks her car in the garage and salvages the clothes and wine bottles. She leaves the wine on the kitchen counter while she goes to wash and change for the first time since she left the city.


After she’s clean she decides to start on the sand that has spread throughout the cottage. She opens cupboards until she finds the broom and begins to sweep. When she gets to the legs of the stool on which Josiah was sitting, she sees a dark red smear. She gets a damp sponge from the sink and begins to scrub at it.


The dark red smear follows her into her dreams that night, roiling her in waves of sand, her limbs held down with ropes of seaweed moist and decaying, muffled cries echoing off the white walls of the clinic.


She wakes gasping and blinking in the sharp light of the morning.


She gets up, the dream’s brutality lingering in her unsteady steps as she opens the sliding door and steps onto the deck, into the ever-present wind. In front of her the white sand shifts and rises in great sheets. Waves shed streams of white foam as they crash toward the shore. A small movement farther down the shore catches her eye. A jackal hesitates, facing away from her, it lifts its head, smelling something on the wind. Then she sees it. A dark shape on the beach, the size of a small child. The sea surges forward and the shape rolls but the sand holds onto it.


She runs, her bare feet scalding on the sand. The shape resolves into a dark glistening body, small head, one flipper raised up, away from the body. Panting, she slows, walks around it, coming onto her knees in front of it.


The seal pup lies on its side just within the tideline. The hind flippers are wedged in the sand, so when the wave comes in, the sea cannot carry it all the way back with it. Only this stunted roll. The pup’s one eye, glazed and staring toward the sea, turns to her. Where the other eye should be is a pulpy mess of bone, dark skin and pale, torn tissue. Thin streams of blood and fluid leak onto the wet sand, tracing delicate curlicues in the ebbing water. The flipper beneath it is twisted and turned back on itself. As close as she is now, she can hear the pup’s soft whimpers, its lips drawn back from its teeth.


I’m so sorry, she whispers, reaching out one hand to touch it. What happened to you? How do I help you? I’m so sorry. She speaks to the pup, telling it she will try to help, as she runs her hand over its smooth body, easing the front flipper down from its position of distress.


She guesses the seal pup weighs around forty pounds. Should she move it? If she does, will it still need water? Does the water need to be salt water? Her ignorance frustrates her.


She tries to pick it up, sliding her arms all the way underneath but it is too heavy for her and the pup’s whimpers turn to rasping bleats of pain. Resting her elbows on the sand to keep its body weight off the damaged flipper, she slides her legs out from their kneeling position until she lies on her belly. The pup quietens again, its face only inches from hers. Something that smells like sour milk dribbles from its mouth. She continues to talk to it, but her breathing is messed up from crying and her nose leaks snot that she can’t wipe away onto the sand below her. She keeps saying she’s sorry, that she doesn’t know how to help it, it’s too heavy. She wants to turn it onto its back to release the flipper, but she’s scared to make it scream again. She feels helpless, useless, unable to take away the creature’s pain.


The pup’s undamaged eye blinks, its gaze drifting away from her. She hopes to somewhere safer than here. Her arms stiffen, grow numb, as she keeps the seal raised off the broken flipper. She doesn’t think it helps it at all; it is the only thing she can think to do.


By the time the tide is fully out and the sand beneath her is drying, the pup’s eye has glazed over, and the weak pulse of leaking fluids, has ceased.


She lays the pup down and pulls her arms out from beneath it. She tries to stand up but falls back on her knees with the pain. Her arms are scorched bright red from the sun, now directly overhead. Her neck and unprotected head throb with burn.


She stumbles back to the cottage, crashing onto the wicker sofa.


She wakes to banging on the door. She forces her eyes open. They feel as though they have been glued shut. Her body like a cement block, she drags herself to the door and opens it.


“Oh no,” says Josiah, “What happened?”


He stands at the door with a box in his hands, his face reflecting back at her how she feels. He unfreezes and brings the box inside, leaving it on the kitchen counter. She tells him about the seal in a monotone. “I don’t understand,” she says, “What happened? How did that happen?”


Josiah stiffens. “I thought you knew about the cull.”


“Cull,” she repeats, the word a small and inexact match for what she has seen on the beach.


“Just wait here a bit,” Josiah says, “I’m going to unpack these things for you. Also, I have some aloe vera in the car. You’ll need that for the burns.”


She sits down on the sofa. When she looks out through the living room windows, the jackal and the seal are gone. One returned to the desert, the other to the sea.


Josiah finishes up in the kitchen and joins her on the sofa. In one hand he has a small jar. “For the burns,” he says, twisting it open, “Do you mind?” She shakes her head and allows him to apply the salve to her burned skin. The cool gel stings first and then soothes. “My boy, he burns so easily,” Josiah tells her as he works, “So I always have this stuff.” She nods thinking of the small too-pale boy in the photo. He stops, “It’s a bit early, but can I get you a glass of that?” He tilts his head at the wine on the counter. She nods. He goes to the kitchen, finds water glasses, which he fills with wine, then joins her back on the sofa.


She accepts the glass from him and gulps a few mouthfuls in quick succession. The liquid is dry and rich and bitter. She coughs, wipes her mouth with the back of her hand. It comes back red. She puts down the empty glass. Josiah reaches over and refills it.


“I told you it wasn’t the best time. But Dr. Ross probably doesn’t even know,” he says, “The towns along this coastline have only survived because of the fishing. But we always have to compete with the seals,” he shakes his head, “those buggers are better at fishing than we will ever be. So, we have to control the population you see. That’s all it is.”


“That seal was suffering when I found it,” she’s crying again, the tears cutting hot furrows through the cool aloe vera gel.


Josiah gets a wet cloth from the kitchen which he hands to her, gesturing toward her hands and face.


“I’m sorry. We don’t like that to happen. It’s not supposed to be like that.”


“What about tourism?” she says, thinking of Dr. Ross and the cottage, maybe the first of many. She tries to picture a row of these cottages, a hotel, a swimming pool, umbrellas and loungers dotting the space where the desert meets the sea. Like a colony on the moon.


“This is a wild place,” says Josiah. “Maybe Dr. Ross thinks it can be tamed.” He shrugs. “Some places you just have to let them be. Why did you come here?”


“I chose to come here. Why do you stay?”


“Is it better where you came from? Is that why you’re here?” He drops his eyes, his shoulders slumped. “Sorry.” Then he sighs and stands up, “This is not a good place for you. Don’t you have a family?”


“Almost,” she says, “I almost had a family.”


“Almost,” he repeats. “Almost is something. Isn’t it?”


She doesn’t hear him leave.


She pours herself another glass of wine, her hand shaking. She could still leave, she tells herself. She wonders if Dr. C. Ross has ever set foot on this shore. She opens the next bottle.


Then it’s dark, and she is outside, the sand still warm beneath her feet. She talks to herself as she heads toward the beacon of the iron carcass. Her words floating apart and coming together like fragments of a broken song.


She raises one hand to the first of the corroded frames, harsh with barnacles. With the other she pulls the bottle up to her lips and drinks. She feels around to find the holds she remembers, then, finding one, she drops the bottle to the sand and begins to pull herself up one hand at a time, ignoring the slithering pain in her belly, her toes spread around the barnacles for purchase.


The seal pup’s face softens, lengthens, becomes more human. A child that never was. Her child that could never be. In the clinic, the nurse going through the questionnaire. No, she does not have the means; no, the father is not present; yes, she understands the procedure.


She slips and barnacles scrape her palm and leg. She reaches up again, finding the hold.


She almost had a family she had told Josiah. Maybe she could have found the means. Maybe the father would have changed his mind. Maybe she would have found the courage to stay.


She grabs on to a ledge and pulls herself up again, then another handhold, another foothold, she inches further up.


Josiah is wrong. Almost a family is not something. And it is worse than nothing at all.


Panting, she clings, the metal scraping at her palms, her legs, the raw skin of her face as she slides down, unable to hold on any longer. She tumbles backwards as her feet touch sand, smashing the bottle into painful shards beneath her. She lies unmoving, staring up at the far away night sky. She closes her eyes, thinks she hears the jackal’s soft steps, hopes for small sharp teeth, a sudden pain.


Josiah finds her and carries her back to the cottage, her head jolting against his one shoulder, knees drawn up against the other. His boots squeak against the sand and she thinks about the blood smears.


Then she is back at the cottage on the sofa, and she wants to tell him she can’t leave stains on the cushions, but he is trickling cool water into her mouth, laying her head back on when she has had enough. She raises bandage-swathed hands to him. She means to say thank you, but she sinks back into dreamlessness.


When she wakes again, he is sitting on the chair opposite her, his head turned to look out over the shore. The wind has started its low moan around the walls of the cottage, the aluminum roof creaking as sand sighs through the eaves to the floors.


“Thanks,” she says, then, hearing the croak of her voice, clears her throat. With clumsy hands, she gropes her way to sitting. Josiah looks toward her but the light outside is too bright and she can’t see his face.


“You should get the cuts properly looked at,” he says, “Maybe you should go home.” His voice is low. She thinks he means well.


She gets up and walks toward the doors. They’re open when they’re supposed to be closed. There’s no protection here. Josiah stands up and follows her to the open doors. Wind rises from the shore ahead and from the desert behind them, vortices spinning toward them. Sand trickles from Josiah’s nose, from the gaps where his windbreaker pulls away from his wrists. In her own eyes she feels the sand that has gathered in the corners. She lifts her hands and shakes them and sand sheets out of her bandages.


“There are forgotten towns here on the Skeleton Coast,” he says, “the wrecks taken over by the desert. They say that there are still clothes in the wardrobes, sheets on the beds. There are tables, chairs, plates all set out for a family meal.”


She feels herself sinking. She looks down at her feet and finds that they are covered in sand.


“Where did they go?"


She pictures him with the little boy and a mother for the little boy. Did you choose this too? she wants to ask him but when she opens her mouth only gusts of sand come out. She coughs, choking and he puts his arm around her, his eyes never leaving the building storm outside.


The End

Kerry Anderson is a former coder figuring out the language of her own world. She lives in Hong Kong with two small girls, a big fella and as many rescue cats as our space allows.

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