Chapter One: A Strange Discovery

Aveny’s heart was a drum. Its steady rhythm resounded in her ears, reverberating through the seemingly empty cavity of her head and chest, each beat echoing into a cacophony of sound. It throbbed wildly, beating against the taut drum of her flesh; a summons to war. And somewhere, someone was crying.

Aveny plunged into the darkness, flying blindly in search of the sound she could barely register over the crashing of her own heart. Her skin tingled and her hair pulled against the thick inky blackness around her. The cry was faint, but it pieced her heart and left a frantic ringing in her ears. She searched desperately, yet she could detect no source; it was coming from everywhere.

Aveny did not stop, but pressed onward, certain of only one thing: that whatever it was, she must find it, she must save it, and that she was the only one who could.

The blackness thickened. Aveny could feel it pressing against her. It swelled, wrapping itself tightly around her torso, constricting her movement like a great disembodied boa constrictor. It soaked into her hair, thick midnight molasses. It pushed against her lips, pressing to force its way into her throat.

Aveny fought on, squeezing and wriggling through the grasping bonds, pushing ever onward, searching wildly for the source of that cry, the voice that she knew but had, until this very moment, never heard before.

The inky blackness thickened into tar, constricting her limbs and binding her ever tighter. Its tendrils coiled up and around her neck, crawling over her face, forcing their way into her ears and nose, embedding deep within each individual pore. As the great seizing mass drew her in, Aveny knew that she must reach the source of that cry, not to save it, but because it was the only way to save herself.

But already the blackness was extinguishing all sound, all light, and all life.

Aveny awoke with a gasp, her bedsheets drenched in sweat and a thin stream of tears leaking unwittingly from both eyes. Her breath came in ragged bursts as her mind scrambled to reconcile this new reality. She did not know where she was.

It took a moment for the light blue curtains, pale ivory dresser, and familiar trappings of her childhood bedroom to register in her mind. She had not slept in this bed for nearly a decade but her grandmother had kept everything just the same, just in case.

Each picture hung in the same place, happy images of Aveny, her grandmother Catherine, her great Auntie Miriam and a smattering of school friends. The bedspread and pillows hadn’t changed. Even Aveny’s old backpack still hung off a nearby chair, like she’d just slung it there after a long day of classes. Everything was exactly the same, except the only thing that mattered.

Aveny had never thought that the horror of that nightmare would be preferable to the lived reality of this moment. Her grandmother – the one constant in Aveny’s life – was gone and she wasn’t coming back.

The tears thickened. Aveny swiped them away with the palm of her hand. She had done well so far. Her grandmother would have been proud. She had helped Aunt Miriam with the arrangements, made it through the funeral, greeted all the guests, and even said a few words without breaking down. It helped to have Brand and the kids there, by her side. They made her stronger, like her grandmother had always done.

But now, alone in her childhood bedroom, that strangely familiar cry still ringing in her ears, dangling in the vacuous space left by the woman who raised her, Aveny felt weak, hollow, and empty. There was only one job left to do, but Aveny didn’t want to do it. She wanted to climb out of bed, dash out the front door, and follow Brand and the kids back home to Washington, where she could pretend that her grandmother was still alive and that everything was right with the world.

But she didn’t. Instead, she slid out of bed, her toes recoiling momentarily against the cold floor, pulled on her clothes, and went to help Miriam.

As they sorted through her grandmother’s earthly belongings, Aveny didn’t say much. But then again, she never did. She had always been that way.

As a child, when Collin Kamden accidentally set the Sunday School garbage can on fire, causing Mrs. Jowles to clutch her ample bosom and shriek “the devil is alive!” Aveny didn’t make a sound. And when Brendon Babcock smashed his science project, causing a noxious gas to fill the room and his lab partners to faint face-first into their own bubbling concoctions before Mr. Nimbus noticed and ran screaming from the room, Aveny simply stood, gathered her books and walked outside.

She was always quiet – especially around her mother. She didn’t interrupt when her mother sat for hours silently staring. And when those catatonic traces turned to spurts of anxious pacing and crying, Aveny melted into the walls. Sometimes, her mother would dash from the house, stand barefoot on the gravel drive, and scream into the sky. Aveny never asked why. And she never asked about her father, although she did wonder about him from time to time; who he had been and where he might be now.

And when a sleepover at her Grandmother’s house turned into a four-year stay, Aveny never questioned it. Not even once. All through the police interviews and community search parties, she was still and observant. Long after the missing person posters eroded and fell away, she still said nothing.

It wasn’t the first time her mother had disappeared, but unlike all the others, Aveny somehow knew that this time, she wasn’t coming back. And she was right.

Aveny still remembered that funeral. Somber faces straining to remember someone they never really knew; her shiny shoes pinching her toes; eyeing the copper urn and holding her Grandmother Catherine’s warm hand. Despite wondering where her mother had been during the last few years of her life, Aveny still said nothing. It was better this way – controllable, safe. 

And even now, nearly two decades later, as she knelt between the remnants of her Grandmother’s life, she was still as a wounded lion.

“Why don’t you take this one?” her Great Aunt Miriam asked, gently nudging a rumpled box against Aveny’s knee.

Aveny straightened, pulled the box closer and, almost as an afterthought, inhaled. The air was thick with her grandmother’s absence.

Miriam picked up a nearby binder and began perusing its contents, absentmindedly patting her thick silvery hair as she read. A vibrant rouge flower clung to the side of her wild mane like a moth in a windstorm. Deep crimson lipstick coated her Aunt’s still ample lips, accentuating the deep smile lines that radiated outward from the edges like the glow of the north star. A shiny pearl earring glinted on one lobe while the other bore a small Halloween skull. Aveny smiled involuntarily at the sight. She would have pointed it out but, knowing Miriam, it was probably intentional; some commentary on the passage of time or maybe a creative attempt to balance the chakras.

Miriam caught Aveny’s eye and smiled at her great niece encouragingly. She slid the box closer, nudging it against Aveny’s leg like a persistent pup. Aveny peeled back the ancient packing tape, cracked and yellowed, folded back the box’s stiff flaps and began extracting items. The detritus of her grandmother’s life accumulated before her: stacks of family photos, tattered notebooks, loose postcards and care-worn letters. She extracted a framed picture and recognized the small girl within.

“Miriam, look.” Aveny passed the frame to her aunt, whose eyes widened, then softened in remembrance.

“Oh, Cora. My sweet Cora. She looks well here, doesn’t she? There aren’t many photos of her like that.”

Aveny nodded. She had never known her great aunt Cora, not in real life, but she always felt like she did. When Aveny was small, she often stood before the photo, hanging where it always did on her grandmother’s bedroom wall, wishing the little girl could come out of her portrait and play. There was something about her eyes that drew Aveny in; a kindly wildness. 

Aveny withdrew a large binder, which flipped open to reveal a fluttering wave of pages; her grandmother’s hymns. Aveny smiled. She could almost hear the piano notes. She set it aside and slid her hand back into the box, expecting the smooth finish of another, but an electric shock ran up her arm.

“Ouch!” she cried, yanking it back.

“Papercut?” Miriam asked, leaning in to see. “Damn paper; looks so innocent but hurts like hell – and it has the audacity to rob you of a good war story.” She winked at Aveny. “If anyone asks, tell them you were bitten by a Dokkaebi.”

Aveny smiled. Miriam’s stories of far-flung fantasy creatures had often carried her through the tightrope walk of her childhood. “Remind me,” she prompted, “what’s a Dokkaebi?”

“Old household items that have so many memories and lived experience that, when left alone, they finally just come to life,” Miriam replied. “I wouldn’t be surprised if there are more than a few of them hiding out up here. They’re normally very protective of their families, but they do get snappy when startled. And if you really make one mad? Well, you might as well just let them have the place.”

Aveny repressed a smile. “Well, if that was a Dokkaebi, hopefully it feels sufficiently avenged – and doesn’t try to chase us out.”

Miriam laughed, then clicked her tongue. “You joke, but there is more to this world than you see, little one.”

Aveny flushed. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to …”

Miriam reached out and squeezed Aveny’s knee. “What did I tell you about apologizing?”

“Don’t do it unless the police are involved?”

Miriam nodded. “That’s right. Women apologize too damn much. Aim for sociopathy and you’ll land in the right spot.”

Aveny’s mouth twisted into an involuntary smile. As Miriam resumed her sorting, Aveny subtly examined her hand, searching for a cut.

Nothing.

She peered into the box. The bottom seemed to be lined with the soft, rippling fiber of some strange cloth. Maybe she’d grazed an errant pin, she thought.

Aveny carefully extended her hand and gently stroked the smooth fibers. This time, the sensation felt creamy and indulgent. A soft stream of pleasure surged up her forearm and pooled in the cavity just inside her elbow.

It tickled.

She quickly rubbed the sensation away before grasping the item and withdrawing a large fur coat.

“Where in the world did she get this?” Aveny whispered softly.

Her grandmother had been blessed in a myriad of ways – talents, friendships, an intuitive sense of knowing, a spark of magic – but financial abundance had never been among them.

Her aunt glanced up from the photos she’d been sorting into various monochromatic piles, and a look of confusion danced across her face. “I have no idea. I never saw her wear it.”

Aveny stood and watched the coat unfurl down to her toes. Only then did she realize that it wasn’t a coat at all – at least, not quite. She turned it over and examined the underside, which contradicted the voluptuous fur with its taunt but pliable elasticity. It was a skin of some kind – perhaps a rug? Maybe something her grandfather, a committed outdoorsman, had made?

But this was like no fur Aveny had ever felt before. Its smooth expanse hummed pleasingly at her touch. Its substantial heft bore witness to its presence in her arms, but its fibers were so perfectly silky, she wasn’t entirely sure she was contacting them at all. The fur whispered over her fingertips and roiled luxuriously down her forearms. She ran it across her cheek and sighed.

“That’s probably not the cleanest thing,” Miriam cautioned. “Who knows how long it’s been stuck in the attic. The mice up here defecate like the winning pull of a slot machine.”

Aveny grimaced and withdrew from the skin’s tantalizing touch. She lowered and spread it out across the rough-hewn wooden floor. Stretched out, it appeared flat and strangely oblong. The luxuriously soft, mottled grey fur was smooth edged and oval in shape, aside from three strange protrusions and two vacant punctures at one end.

Recognition hit Aveny like a rogue wave. She gasped. “Is that a seal skin?”

Miriam moved closer, adjusting her glasses to examine the form. “You know, I think it is.” She gingerly brushed the soft fur with the tips of her fingers, before retracting them suddenly and swiping them hastily on the hem of her sequined cheetah print sweater.

“You know, I do remember something about this. Catherine mentioned it once – an old family heirloom. She didn’t like it much, as I recall. It made her uneasy.”

“Why did she keep it if she didn’t like it?”

“Because it was an heirloom, I guess. Our parents didn’t have much and what they did have was spent taking care of all us kids.” She paused, seemingly lost in thought.

“They never differentiated, you know, between the ones born into the family like your grandma and Aunt Cora, and all the rest of us. They took us all in and loved us just the same. I think not having stable parents of her own made our mom want to be that person for everyone else. But there were a lot of kids who needed her and that meant there wasn’t always much to go around. My guess is that Catherine kept this because it was one of the few things she could. And maybe she thought someone else in the family might want it someday.”

“How old do you think it is?” Aveny asked, gently stroking the mottled pelt. Her fingers left a gradient of grey lines in their wake, like waves nearing the shore. A strange and nauseated yearning vibrated along her spine and arched downward into her core. She didn’t want to like it.

“Well, I’m Catherine’s little sister and I’m ancient, so pretty old I think,” Miriam said with a laugh. She stood, lifted a stack of dusty books and then released them into a large plastic bin with a sound like cascading dominoes. “And when was the last time anyone hunted a seal, right? It’s got to be at least turn-of-the-century.”

Aveny pursed her lips in consternation, her brow furrowing over the mystery of this unexpected discovery. “I can’t believe she had an actual seal skin,” she whispered. “Poor seal.”

“It’s not coming back to life just because you don’t like it,” Miriam quipped with a wry smile. “It’s like the piano. Those keys are real ivory, you know. We don’t have to condone it, but there’s no sense getting all worked up over it. They’re not going back on the elephant now.”

Aveny laughed. “I guess not.”

Her grandmother had learned to play on those ivory keys, as had Aveny herself. So had her mother, long, long ago. Now Aveny’s children would learn on them as well. She smiled at the thought.

“Where do you think it came from originally?” Aveny asked, returning her attention to the skin.

“No idea,” Miriam said with a shrug. “Your great, great … wait … great, great, great … no. Hold on. Was it your grandmother’s grandmother? Great grandmother? Oh hang it all. Your grandmother’s grandparents – that sounds close enough – emigrated from Ireland. Maybe the skin came with them. I imagine sealing, just like fishing, was a way of life there. It probably wasn’t uncommon to have seal skins back then. Might have been significant – like a wedding gift or something for your great, great, great, great – wait, no. How many greats did I say? This really shouldn’t be that hard. Anyway – who knows how long it’s been passed down.”

Aveny was vaguely aware of her Irish ancestry but it hadn’t been an obvious part of her upbringing. Traditional food and customs had been lost along with her ancestors but Grandma Catherine had mentioned their Irish roots on occasion, in an offhanded way, like when Aveny’s skin swelled with Rosacea just after her 25th birthday. She gently brushed her cheek at the memory, the skin still warm and bumpy beneath her fingers.

“It’s that hot Irish blood,” her grandmother had said with a smile. “Sometimes it just can’t be contained.”

Aveny lifted the seal skin and draped it across her lap. “It’s hard to imagine a dead animal as a wedding present … I’d rather have a toaster.”

“That’s because you’re a millennial,” Miriam quipped with a laugh. “In the olden days, the best presents were dead animals: candles made from beef tallow, skins to keep you warm in the winter, a nice antler rack to hang on your wall, and a big dead pig for the wedding feast.”

Aveny wrinkled her nose.

“Don’t give me that look,” Miriam said, waving a sheaf of papers at her and clouding the air with an explosion of dust. “I know how much you like bacon. If you don’t want the skin, you could pass it on to a museum or something, or see if it’s worth anything online. Or – now here’s an idea – I have a friend who makes fiber-art vegetables. She could make good use of that fur.”

“No,” Aveny answered reflexively, her fingers stitching themselves deeper into the skin’s luxuriant folds. “It’s an heirloom. I don’t want to be the one who gives it up.”

Click here to read the next chapter

One thought on “Chapter One: A Strange Discovery

Share your thoughts!

%d bloggers like this: