‘Glow in the Dark’, Rachel Linn

Illustrations © 2016 Cécile Matthey

 [ Phosphorescent Sea, © 2016 Cécile Matthey ] It had to be significant. People rarely entered the university’s ocean sciences library—and never this often. Ivy felt her curiosity justified when the woman returned for a third time in a week to make copies of articles from The Journal of Alaskan Seal Fisheries.

January 17th, 8:03pm. Ivy noted the date and time on a slip of paper upon which she had already written down the two other occurrences. She tried to find a pattern in the information, adding the numbers together, multiplying them, and finally rearranging all of the digits at random. The “7”, she thought, could also be an “L” as long as it doesn’t have a line through it. Which it doesn’t, since I wrote it down myself. She tried, but flipping the “7” into an “L” altered nothing. She told herself, you are bored. You are boring. She put down her pen. She would try again later, when it got darker outside and easier to pretend.

She took hold of the pen again. Ivy knew she was perceptive. Before she stopped attending college, she had often understood what others did not or would not—the many possible meanings of a single word or precisely where to put a decimal point. An answer would come. I am like a sea star, seeing light and dark in five directions at once. She smiled—she was actually a Library Assistant Level 2. Though classifications can be deceiving. Bears and seals are cousins within the infraorder Arctoidea.

When she finished writing and reflecting, she returned her note to its hiding place on the underside of the desk and carefully smoothed down the tape holding it against the wood, feeling the toothy edges under her fingertips.

Ivy called the decaying seal fisheries journals The Epic of Baby Seal Clubbing. She only knew of their existence because she had moved every single book in the library twice—before construction workers tore down the sagging old plywood shelves bolted to the floor and after they installed modern rolling ones. The new shelves moved together and apart as Ivy turned the metal wheels attached at their sides. Encyclopedic ships, rolling shelves, periodic tides. Sometimes she would turn the wheels solely for the momentary sense of being at the helm. First starboard, and then the other direction—what was it called? Better than simply right or left. Out—to sea.

The librarians said how wonderful it was to be able to compress the size of the collection, to bring everything out and shelve it, but most of the stored books were like The Journal of Alaskan Seal Fisheries, hauled out of a damp basement room in disintegrating cardboard boxes in response to no particular demand. It wouldn’t make a difference whether they were hidden away in the dark or shelved under harsh florescent lights. They would collect dust and merely take up space.

Most people fail to notice things unless they are on fire. She imagined the rows of books ablaze, melting, snapping, glue-scented. No, she thought, they might not even notice that. If a book hadn’t been checked out in a very long time, she would hold it snugly under one arm as she walked home, its dust rubbing off on her sweater, and then bring it back again the next day.

Ivy’s fingerprints marked every book—her skin cells invisibly adhering to the dust jackets and falling between the inner pages. There and there and there, she used her right pointer finger to cover the eye of a giant squid, the curves of the capital “s” in its name and the page number. She wondered if people ever sensed her presence in books as they read.

The first time the woman came into the library, Ivy was curious but could not summon up the courage to spy. It was harder now with the new shelves—someone might accidentally turn the metal wheel then you could only remain hidden if you allowed yourself to be compressed between the rows of titles. Even then, you might not be concealed—they might feel the resistance of your body. Luckily, the copy machine stopped working and the woman asked for Ivy’s help. She was invited.

Ivy saw the journals stacked untidily on a wheeled library cart as she began to push and pull at the copier’s compartments. Only a few of the spines faced out and the woman stood too close for Ivy to inconspicuously write down the volume numbers. Ivy’s fingers turned black with toner, leaving dark prints on everything she touched. The woman frowned and asked if the ink was poisonous. Ivy shrugged.

When she kneeled to open part of the machine close to the floor, Ivy noticed one of the woman’s shoes was untied and resisted the urge to tie it for her, fingerprinting herself on the white laces, or along the white ribs of her socks.

Instead, Ivy thought to herself, only half of seal pups born in the wild survive, even when they aren’t being hunted. Though she was still in the room, still fighting with the copy machine, her thoughts swam so far that it was as if she was not, as if she had escaped the claustrophobic closeness, drifting on an undemanding current. Ivy eventually yanked a mangled, creased page out of the machine, the copy so smudged that she couldn’t tell what she held. Her own dark handprints further obscured the image.

Later, when the woman completed whatever she was working on and left, Ivy slipped away from the desk to re-shelve the journals, but they weren’t on the cart. They had all been put back where they belonged, exactly in the right order by call number in the correct location and precisely even with the shelf edge. This was unusual—the call number system was a mystery that most library patrons had not yet solved.

Ivy named the woman SH361, using her shorthand system for designating unnamed library patrons based on the call numbers of books they had used. Ivy thought she was about the same age as the woman. SH361 looked as if she was trying too hard to appear harmless, unnoticeable. Faded jeans, scuffed tennis shoes, shoulder-length hair. Nice try, thought Ivy, but you have been noticed. Ivy was better at invisibility than most people, and she had an unfair advantage over SH361 because Ivy was plain and the other woman was not. Even carelessly dressed, she was hard not to stare at.

The second time she came in, Ivy noticed an unraveling snag under the woman’s right arm. She always wore the same threadbare blue sweater with white paint marks or chemical burns around the cuffs. Ivy could see about an inch of fabric—or perhaps skin—through the gap. A ship’s porthole or the view through a microscope. The third time, the hole had been sewn up with uneven stitches in mismatching navy blue thread that was darker than the original wool.

Ivy and the woman shared the habit of holding their left elbows with their right hands, though Ivy crossed her arm in front of her body and this SH361 crossed it behind. As she considered this, Ivy rolled up her sleeve and touched her own elbow, wondering if they both felt the same rough dryness or if it was not the same at all.

After the woman’s third appearance, Ivy piled all 41 volumes of the Journal of Alaskan Seal Fisheries next to her desk on the pretense of replacing the yellowing checkout tags, which had not been stamped for decades. She ripped out a few tags and placed them on her desk to make it appear as if she was in the middle of working. She paged through the journal, looking for slight wear on the pages, trying to guess which ones had been recently photocopied. This was more fun than putting magnetic security strips in books, which was her main project for the next few months when there were no library visitors to assist. The security alarms might be exciting to other people, but she knew they were there and how they worked and she didn’t have much use for mysteries that she had authored herself.

It didn’t take much examination to discover that the journal had lost its relevance. Even the methods of killing were out of date—Ivy had checked. Ivy disliked the intangible, unless it was also inscrutable, but she knew she might find out more if she checked online. She brought up an academic database on her computer screen. The only pinniped fisheries articles she could find were written in Russian or Chinese or described heavy metal poisoning in seals that had eaten contaminated shellfish. How did it feel to be poisoned slowly, to be dying and to not know it? Ivy looked at graduate student and faculty profiles. None of them studied mammals. Cyanobacteria, coriolis, chromatophores. She could find no clues, not even the tenuous connections she usually uncovered quite easily—which part of her rejected and threw back into the water to catch again after they grew larger.

Ivy glared at the sheets and sheets of new security strips gleaming silver in her desk drawer and closed it abruptly, shaking her head. She returned her attention to the journal and noticed wear patterns on the edges of the pages, especially at the corners. There was a fold—and another. She recorded the bent pages by number and article title and smoothed out each one afterward.

After staring at her notes and reading and rereading articles until the automatic light went on outside, Ivy returned to the security strips. Placing them in books required nearly breaking the spines so that the magnetic piece wedged in deeply and invisibly between the pages near where they were sewn or glued together. On the corner of her desk, there was a growing heap of balled up strips that had stuck to themselves or the wrong part of a page and had to be discarded.

Two more hours passed and it was time—again—to close the blinds, shelve stray books, and make sure that the door locked firmly behind her.

Ordering, scanning, and shelving. Security. Ocean currents and algal dispersal, the hard jaws of sea urchins, shellfish infested with parasitic worms. For the next few weeks, Ivy waited for whatever would happen next—she would know it, even if it was something muffled, something small and soft like the sound of a book dropping onto the pillow at the bottom of the returns box.

A scale model of the library building sat mounted on a low table in the lobby above a plaque, an award for the design given to the architect in 1963. Ivy thought the building unattractive in either dimension, a taller-than-usual concrete barge with windows striating the sides. The rounded end pointed toward the water and the boxy side—including loading docks that were rarely used—inland. Not a shipwreck, but a boat in dry dock, awaiting repairs.

On an otherwise ordinary day, she passed the miniature model of the building and realized that there was something in it: a tooth with three distinct curving triangles, the longest in the center, approximately half the length of her thumb. It was like an iceberg with the gum line marking the dividing line between above and below water—the roots closely mirrored the three sharp points, though they were longer and duller at the ends. It was precisely what she had been looking for.

Ivy could guess what class of creature the tooth belonged to—it was clearly made for hooking fast, slippery things—but later that night she dreamed of all kinds of teeth, jumbled together in rows and rows and rows in the mouths of different animals and sometimes in her own. The tooth-like inner edges of crab claws, the blunt knives lining the mouths of orcas, the toothy suction cups of the giant squid—hundreds of circling mouths attached to its tentacles.

The miniature version of the building was cut down the middle and she could walk around it, to see the outside and inside. She had never paid much attention before because of the obvious monotony of the interior structure, equivalent to most parking garages—though it occurred to her now that you could hide all kinds of things in bland, functional buildings because no one examines them with any kind of carefulness.

She took a photo of the cross-section with her phone and paced the long hallway on the second floor comparing the picture of the model with the actual doors, windows, and other recognizable details as she passed them. Somewhere near the middle, there was a blank wall where there should have been opening. Her break was nearly over and she had to be back at the circulation desk, so she merely ran her fingers questioningly over the wall and then walked speedily away.

As she left the building that evening, Ivy walked backward slowly and scanned the second floor with her eyes. She noticed a window that looked different from the others. It was a darker shade than the other windows and entirely opaque, though all of the glass in the building was slightly tinted. The slanting angle of the winter sun illuminated the glass more directly than usual, making the contrasting shades suddenly obvious. She counted the windows from either end of the building in the model to confirm that this window belonged to the room without a door—it did.

Now, it was possible that the scale model Ivy referred to was not completely accurate, or that a renovation project had altered some of the interior spaces. She told herself that something so blatantly suspicious might merely be an awkward disguise for ordinariness. The facilities crew frequently cut rooms in half to create an office for a new professor or storage space for an important project. She had to admit to herself that this particular detail was not so strange on its own—various labs on campus had their windows painted over to protect sensitive equipment or make it easier to read the computer screens. This window and the room concealed behind it might disappoint her.

She knew from her earlier investigation that the missing door had empty classrooms on either side, and the wall they appeared to share was not, in fact, the same wall. There was definitely a space between the two rooms, but she couldn’t discover how to access it no matter how many times she passed by it the next day. She ran her fingers over the wall in the hallway over and over again, trying to find a seam. Again, she walked outside to look up at the window.

A few days later, when Ivy was sitting at the circulation desk creating accounts for imaginary library patrons out of boredom, she thought of accessing the hidden room through its ceiling or floor. She checked the first floor first, on her way to the vending machine during her break. Halfway through a flat can of soda, she couldn’t see or feel any way to access the second floor through the ceiling. She stared at the blank walls, finished her soda, and returned to her desk.

On her second attempt, later that afternoon, Ivy climbed the gray concrete steps to the third floor. She found a dusty storage room above the space she wanted to access. The overhead light popped and went dark when she flipped the switch, so she had to rely on her sense of touch and the dim light from the room next door. Crawling on her hands and knees, she ran her fingers over the grimy floor, eventually encountering a wider seam than those between the rest of the linoleum tiles. Tracing it with her fingers, she discovered the outline of a trapdoor nearly hidden beneath damaged office furniture and out-of-date computers—but it was padlocked, she realized with disappointment as she moved a stack of old keyboards out of the way and felt the rounded metal dial cupped in her hand.

Outside the storage room, she blinked as her pupils narrowed and stared for a moment at her grey, furred fingertips. Running down four flights of stairs to the basement, she borrowed a bolt cutter from the janitor’s closet, but when she pried open the trapdoor, quietly thrilled, the space below was too dark to see even after she allowed her eyes to adjust. Reluctantly closing the trapdoor, she held the broken lock in her hand, thinking, before dropping it into her pocket. The padlock sounded quietly against the tooth and heavily stretched the pocket’s fabric into its own shape.

The next morning, before the official start of her shift, Ivy lifted the trapdoor and pointed a flashlight she had brought from home into the dark the room below her. Something gleamed. She remembered shining a light into the water alongside a pier at night and seeing the glowing eyes of shrimp, paired stars in the inky sky. She had done this more than once when she was a child, to scare herself pleasantly—the shrimps’ bodies so vague and shadowed that their eyes could belong to any creature.

She stepped back from the edge of the trapdoor, out of view. No sound came from the room. What quiet things wait in the dark? She inched forward and shone the light down again. As her eyes adjusted, the indistinct shapes on the floor developed clearer edges, long rounded bodies that tapered and squared off at one end. She realized that they were seals with glass eyes that reflected her light. She counted seven of them, all lined up carefully in one row side by side.

It was time for work. Sitting at the circulation desk, Ivy set about some additional research. She found and checked out a handbook for marine mammal hunters under one of her fake library accounts. It was from the 1953 and reminded her of old cookbooks filled with black and white photos of gelatin molds and casseroles. It included chapters on butchering, cooking, and preserving the hides. A man with thinning white hair in a heavy leather apron was featured in the photos that accompanied the instructions. His broad, grandfatherly smile never shifted as he demonstrated how to remove various body parts or set glass eyes into the nearly-finished taxidermy piece. The diagrams of the process and images of viscera were strangely acceptable to Ivy because of the age and colorlessness of the book. There seemed nothing violent in it, though her imagination recoiled from the idea of using her own small hands to skin and gut an animal. There were instructions on how to preserve every part of the seal for everything from soup stock to lamp oil. This made her wonder, somewhat in awe, if all animals could be turned into so many useful things or if it was just seals. What about humans, what about myself?

She also checked out a field guide to North American seals with full color illustrations of every species and a book on how to draw seals.

 [ Seals, © 2016 Cécile Matthey ] Ivy borrowed a ladder from the janitor’s storage room. It was tough to maneuver through the hole in the floor without knocking into things, and she felt she must not injure the seals though she could not possibly harm them more than they already had been. She finally managed after a few tries—the only mishap was that she shattered the darkened screen of an boxy old computer. She would clean it up during her lunch hour, an empty time.

As she stepped onto the top rung of the ladder, she fought a sudden fear that the seals were merely dormant, staying very still until she got close enough for them to seize her ankles in their mouths. She would try to haul herself up the ladder, fighting against teeth perfectly designed to grasp and hold. I see too much, she reassured herself, I have articulated too many skeletons.

She flashed her light around once more and none blinked or breathed. She continued down the ladder, stopping every few rungs to look again, sweeping the beam of light across the floor to make sure nothing had stirred. Reaching the dusty linoleum, she stepped off the last rung slowly and silently, afraid to disturb the room, and then circled the seals cautiously, guidebook in hand, shining her flashlight up and down to make sure she’d identified them correctly and gently running her fingers over their stiff hairs. Ribbon, Harp, Leopard, Grey, Ringed, Weddell, Ross. All true seals, all inhabitants of polar regions. Striped, mottled, neutral grey.

Other than the spots and rings on the seals’ hides, there were no discernable patterns. She was alarmed when she realized they weren’t fur seals, the kind most easily linked to The Epic of Baby Seal Clubbing—but she had found out during her research that Harp Seals were still frequently hunted in Canada, so perhaps there was still a connection.

Her eyes began to water. The tips of her fingers felt filmy. The room smelled musty and at the same time like a harsh cleaning product. There were no other clues to the identity of the seals or their purpose in the room—the walls bare of decoration, pale in contrast to the window, which had been darkened with paint, she could see the brush strokes now. Up close, light shone through the places where the color had been applied too thinly and a pattern of light lines was visible on the floor and walls now that her eyes had adjusted. Unable to discover anything else, she climbed back up the ladder, returned it to where she had found it, and bought her usual brand of soda from the machine in the basement.

She drank her soda at the circulation desk, in direct defiance of library policy, and considered whether she had come across the trophies of a murderer or an eerie memorial to a research project. She imagined spectral seals rising through the concrete floor as if it did not exist. They would stare across the expanse of desk at her, silently pleading with their dark, damp marble eyes.

The library front entrance door clicked as someone turned the knob, and Ivy was so startled that she rolled a few inches backward in her chair before she could stop herself. A man she recognized from the research staff biographies entered the library, walked up to the circulation desk, and asked after the whereabouts of the microfiche machine. His arms were covered with tattoos, and when he leaned closer with his elbows on the desk to speak to her, she found it difficult not to stare at the drawings instead of meeting his gaze.

The zooplankton drifted toward one palm and a blue whale with an arched tail swam into the fingers of the other. From wrist to shirt sleeve and from sleeve to wrist. He was so close she could see a thin, faint scar shaped like a half-circling bite mark on the back of his right hand. She nearly touched his shoulder—it seemed like her fingers were drawn closer to him, against her will—as she pointed to the microfiche room in the far corner of the library, behind shelves and shelves of books, straining to keep her arm steady, worried that it might actually touch his.

When he turned to walk away, she saw a seal curling around his neck, almost concealed by the collar of his shirt. She stifled an impulse to reach out and trace the inked lines.

“What kind of seal is that?” Ivy asked abruptly.

“A harbor seal. The most common kind,” he responded automatically, as if he had heard this question many times before. Without turning around, he pulled his collar down a few inches so that it would be easier to see.

“Why is it all by itself, not on one of your arms?”

“It’s not alone, the design continues across my shoulders—but it is at the center. I like seals because they are hard to observe. They do almost everything underwater.” He faced her again.

“Why would someone have taxidermy seals?”


“Why would someone collect dead seals?”

“For teaching purposes, most likely.”

“Are there classes about seals?”

“Not really, you’d have to take something more general. Marine Mammals. Are you a student here?”

“No.” When Ivy offered nothing else—though she secretly felt as if biting tentacles were encircling her lungs and heart—the man continued toward the microfiche machine. Ivy waited a moment and then started after him. She paused when the phone at her desk rang and darted back to answer it. Holds, fines, renewals.

When the man returned to the desk a few hours later, carrying photocopies and a stack of books on bivalves and ocean bacteria, Ivy quickly hid her taxidermy handbook on her lap, underneath the desk. The book immediately slid off her legs and made a hollow thump as it hit the carpet. She pretended not to hear it and the man merely looked around briefly, searching for the source of the sound, glanced at her with mild suspicion, and then shrugged.

Ivy touched the dust jackets of his books and then flipped them to scan the barcodes. She asked, “Wouldn’t it be terrifying if seals were dangerous? It always startles me when they rise out of the water.”

“They are dangerous, in a way,” he said, “they can pass diseases to humans.”

“I heard one breathing oddly once.”

“Probably pneumonia—they can get it just like us. Are you interested in studying them?”

“No,” she replied, and bent her face down to discourage further questions. She knew she was turning slightly pink, as she always did when there was too much sunlight focused on her skin. She finished scanning the books and held them out to him, vaguely noting that her fingers seemed unusually numb against the smooth dusk jackets.

He walked away, and Ivy raised her eyes to meet those of the harbor seal peeking above his collar and staring back at her, like a real seal hidden underwater, when he turned around abruptly, right before passing through the book security alarms. He looked at her with a slight frown and said, “Actually, we’ve got a whole collection of seal specimens right here in this building.”

Ivy’s shoulders slouched more than usual, she sank, though she knew the difference in posture was only slight because she already sat in an old, listing rolling chair behind the high desk.

She recalled a time when she was very little and her mother rowed her out at night to one of the northern islands near the coast to look at the blue-glowing bioluminescence in the water. A seal watched them as they headed toward the shadow of the island to find the darkest place, away from the moon and stars. Her mother told her that seals spend the most important parts of their lives underwater. The paddles stirred electric blue circles.

Ivy imagined swimming through spiny castles of sea urchins and watching seal pups bowl rounded moon snails—tightly compressed inside their shells—across the sea floor with their noses. Seals need the same amount of time to grow a baby as people do, her mother also told her.

Ivy was inconsolable when her new brother arrived in human form—and also upon discovering, after filling the bathtub in the darkest part of the night when she was supposed to be in bed, that not all water glowed blue in the absence of sunlight. It was hard to understand how one liquid, transparent substance could be so entirely different from another. Ivy felt it unfair that this man knew about her room.

The man interrupted her thoughts, continuing to speak when she did not respond: “The room is sealed off—something about the experimental preservation process leaving a toxic residue. One of our graduate students found a couple of articles written by the man who originally made them. We’re trying to figure out what chemicals he used—so we can get rid of them safely and use the room for something else. Something more useful and less dangerous.”

He paused, then ripped off a strip of paper from one photocopy and wrote rapidly on the back, the tattoos on his arm swimming alive on the waves of his muscles, and handed the paper to her. “Can you post this?” he asked. Ivy read his clear, bold handwriting: “Have you found a leopard seal tooth? Please call 206—xxx—xxxx.”

Watching Ivy read the note, he said, “It went missing after I set it in the model of the building to mark the place where the seals are stored for the person who’s working on disposing of them. I forgot and left it there overnight.”

Ivy stood up and walked a few steps to where her coat hung over the end of a bookshelf and reached into the pocket. She had carried the tooth for days, holding it secretively in her hand inside her pocket while she picked out bruised apples at the grocery store or clung to the metals poles during her bus rides, pretending it was a signal or coded message that she could translate if she could only learn to read it with her fingers. The man stared at her uncomfortably.

Holding out her fist, the tooth still hidden in her palm, Ivy slowly uncurled her fingers, willing herself to let go. After she had revealed the tooth, she placed it carefully on the desk, pushing it forward with one finger until it was right in front of him. She said nothing. The three curved points of the tooth and its jagged roots left angry red marks in her palm, which she hid below the desk as soon as she noticed, though not quickly enough, not before he had stared at her hand.

The man handled the tooth cautiously, as if it might bite him—or as if Ivy might—retrieved the torn sheet of paper with his phone number written on it, and quickly exited with his books and copies. Ivy watched him leave, certain he would set off the book alarms as he passed through them—but he didn’t. She must have demagnetized the security strips in his books when she had checked them out, though she had no memory of this, or there was the possibility that the books he carried did not contain strips at all. She circled her fingers over the spot on the desk where his elbows had rested.

Through the condensation-veiled windows, Ivy saw the man stop to greet someone very warmly, with a long hug—too long really, uncomfortably so. Ivy couldn’t be sure who the other person was, but her hair color matched that of the woman who had made photocopies from the Journal of Alaskan Seal Fisheries, and she wore blue. Ivy watched as the man pulled a small object that must be the tooth out of his pocket, gestured back toward the library, and laughed. He laughed hard, she could hear the sound whispering through the wall of glass.

Picking up the taxidermy manual from where it had fallen to the floor and sliding the other books slowly out of a drawer, Ivy scanned them in, reactivated their security strips, and carefully set them on the returns cart to be shelved later, most likely by herself.

The carpet beneath her feet, always a dull and serviceable color of gray, gained a dustier and more worn down appearance as she stared down at her hands and curled her shoulders into herself. She reached under the desk and ripped down her notes, tore them into small pieces, and pushed them through the cavernous open mouth of an empty can of soda.

Shortly after, Ivy yanked magnetic security strips off a plastic sheet and inserted them into books with a mechanical regularity she was usually incapable of. The library was quiet. She paused, looking at her fingertips. The numbness had intensified, though she wasn’t sure if that was the right adjective to describe loss of feeling. Her fingers had touched the creatures’ hides. Had the chemicals damaged and dulled her? It seemed so blandly factual that she could scarcely believe it.

Ivy let a security strip fall to the floor and left it there, not knowing how persistently it would cling to the fibers of the carpet when she tried to detach it the next morning. She gently slid open a desk drawer to reveal the featureless green cover of the library’s non-circulating rare edition of Art Forms in Nature—which was supposed to be locked in the safe—and lifted the oversized book onto the desk using both hands, opening to a page filled with intricate drawings of microscopic life. Intransigent snowflakes. Unseen life surrounded her, at every moment—now and now. A slight breeze rustled the pages and Ivy heard feet scuff along the carpet past the circulation desk, but she did not look up.

She understood all at once that the toxins were altering her cells in ways that could not easily be seen, shifting walls, creating new forms—tiny, elaborate, and unphotographable. I will be studied, traced carefully by hand. She smiled, and saw the tips of her fingers begin to glow as the darkened windows of her cells—painted shut long ago—opened.

© 2016 Rachel Linn

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