His mother was a selkie, but he did not know that yet, not for sure. All he knew, on the day that he watched her walk into the water and sink underneath it, as if the water itself were a force that could pull her like gravity, was that she was his mother. As he watched her go under, all he could think of was the way she hummed as she cooked breakfast each morning. The songs sounded strange and out of tune, but to him, they felt like safety and home and familiar. He would never be able to disentangle those songs from the smells of butter and toast.
His mother had always been strange, just a little off normal, but he hadn’t really known that either until he watched her go into the water. To him she’d always simply been his mother who wore her hair long and unbound, and who sometimes forgot to put shoes on or took her shoes off in strange places—like outside the bakery—and forgot where she’d left them, so that they’d spend all morning hunting them down, a little game of hide-and-seek, until he found them and brought them to her and she smiled her most lovely warm smile and called him her white knight.
“My little boy,” she’d say. “My knight in shiny armor.”
And sometimes she’d repeat it, as if to herself, as if, in repeating, she was making sure not to forget.
He did not know then that his mother had a secret, that she was more than his mother, that she was something else entirely, a creature biding her time, searching and waiting to leave.
Selkies, he understands now, are cold-water creatures. They’re happiest swimming far out at sea. But sometimes, once a season, maybe, they come toward the shore, attracted by hints of warm currents, made curious by fishing boats, by the humans who are like them but not, who make houses and stay in one place on the land raising families while going, every day, to the same job and coming back home, every night, at the same time. They are, he sees now, puzzled by the way humans can limit their homes to one dwelling, to one single place. To a selkie, the whole ocean is home. And so they think, sometimes, when they turn human and shorebound, that the whole land might someday feel that way too, that the fields and the houses, the trees and the meadows will someday embrace them just as the water did, hold them up like the waves, connecting them to all the other creatures that swim in the same substance and to the same rhythms. But the land never does this. Not for a selkie.
And the humans who seemed to love them, the men and women who wanted them to stay so badly that they stole their skins and hid them so they could not leave, soon tire of their seal-like eccentricities, of the dark, lingering way they gaze into the sea on stormy days, of the songs that they hum in sad minor keys, of the ways they are always shifting uncomfortably in their scratchy human clothes, of their animal habit of staring impolitely at company.
There are, he has heard—and in hearing, has wondered about his mother who he lost sight of, ages ago, in the push-pull of currents and tides— some who stay, some who never find their hidden skins again or even choose, on finding them, to remain where they are. You can spot them by their vacant dreaming eyes, by the way they wither into early old age, hobbled with longing, greying into the weight of the land.
They lived in a cottage right next to the sea, the boy and his mother and his father, a fisherman, who left each morning and returned each night with his boat full of silvery scales and spiderweb nets that glistened when the light turned just right. Now he is grown, he wonders, sometimes, how his parents met. He wonders if his mother came up to his father’s boat, curious, interested, or if she was simply caught like a fish in one of his father’s nets, pulled up out of the ocean and dumped onto deck in a pile of wriggling silver-grey bodies. Did she shed her skin willingly or was she forced out of it? Did she give it to him as a gift or did he steal it and hide it away? He does not know the answers to these questions that, as a child, he did not think to ask, and the not knowing still leaves him wondering what kind of man his father was, and what kind of man might lurk, unseen, under his own skin, hiding out somewhere just beneath the surface of what he can see.
When he remembers his father, which he sometimes does often and sometimes seldom, depending on the season—in winter, when the water turns coldest and the sky starts its storming, he finds he remembers the most—he remembers the beard that smelled of saltwater. He remembers the hands that were calloused and strong from pulling nets up through the waves. He remembers the brownish green eyes, but he cannot remember if those eyes were gentle or cruel. He remembers the voice that rumbled up from his father’s chest, which seemed large at the time, large enough for him to curl up on, sometimes, on cold nights when his father snored deeply asleep, large enough for the boy to feel enveloped by the sound of his breathing and dream he was riding the sea. The voice, though, did not rumble out often. He remembers his father as an almost silent man who spent the evening mending nets and smoking a small wooden pipe.
“Your father,” his mother said once, “is like a deep pool of tide. You step in. You think your foot will catch sand. But it keeps going. Deeper. You can’t find the bottom. You can’t float, so you sink.”
The other children—the ones he rarely saw because his family’s house was on the far side of town, nestled in where the land met the sea—did not like to play with him. But he liked to watch them play. Sometimes, when his mother was running her errands in town, ducking into one shop after another, forgetting something and having to circle back to duck in again, he would stand at the corner of the square and watch the other children pretending to be knights and ladies, waging battles on the cobblestones, storming hay-cart castles and dueling with tree-branch swords. Sometimes they’d make themselves armor from old pots and pans, tying plates to their chests with twine and placing pots on the tops of their heads. Sometimes the pots were so big they sank over their eyes, hiding them like turtles pulling their heads into shells. He tried to imagine, as he watched them, what it would feel like to pull that cookware armor on, to clothe oneself in solid objects, heavy and unyielding. Once, as he watched a group fashioning breastplates from discarded wood, he found himself walking toward them, fascinated by the way they fastened the wood together, creating a net out of twine to hold the wood in place so they could tie the breastplate to their chests. It reminded him of his father’s nets, the way they looked pliant and delicate as silk but were strong enough to hold a whole school of thrashing fish as they tried to struggle free.
“Can I try?” the boy asked, and the children looked at him, startled, hardly having noticed him before.
“Sure,” the tallest boy said after exchanging looks with the other children, “You can try.”
They placed the wood on his chest and tied it in back to hold it in place. He could feel the rigid weight of it push against his stomach, turning him straight and tall and knightly. The wood still smelled of trees, of pine and cedar. The grain of the wood wove like a pattern of waves beneath the netting of twine. He watched the net stretch as the children pulled the twine tighter, as the wood pushed harder against his stomach, flattening him, holding him solid.
“Is she really a mermaid?” the tall boy asked as he tied the twine in back so the plate wouldn’t fall off. He didn’t know who the tall boy meant, so he had to ask, “Who?”
“Your mother,” the tall boy whispered, glancing at the shops as if she might hear him through walls. “Does she really eat the bones of dead sailors?”
“I heard,” the girl added, not bothering to whisper, “that she spells them, the men out at sea, so they jump into the water and drown themselves.”
“How would she spell them?” he asked, trying to imagine his mother in a wizard’s hat and cloak, brandishing a magic wand at a ship full of sailors, all the while feeling the wood digging into his stomach, feeling the twine netting tighten around him.
“With her eyes,” the girl said.
“With her song,” said another child who’d wandered over to watch.
“I don’t know,” the tall boy said, “They just do.”
The twine was tied now, and they let him wear the breastplate for a moment, let him raise his arms and lower them to test the range of motion. The wood hardly moved at all when he did. It stayed solidly, stoically, in place. He felt himself breathing shallowly as more children came over to watch him in his armored exterior.
“I heard she could turn into an owl,” one boy said, raising and lowering his arms in time along with him.
“I heard a fish,” said another.
They crowded around him, then, calling out all the animals his mother could change into, asking if he could change into them too, and he tried to keep up, imagining what his mother would look like as a bird, as a snail, as a cat or a dog or dolphin. The shouting turned into a game, and the boys and girls danced around him, cawing and growling and crawling and jumping like animals. The boy found himself almost smiling, almost wanting to leap and howl with them as their antics caught him up in their currents. But the breastplate prevented him from crouching or jumping or twisting with the other children. He could only raise and lower his arms halfway in a restricted imitation of flight.
Then the children grew suddenly silent. Their jumping and dancing and circling stopped. They began to back away, looking frightened and chastened at the same time, eying him warily. His mother placed her hand on his shoulder.
“Home,” she said quietly, and she undid the twine, let the wood fall away, before leading him out of the square. He looked back at the breastplate where it lay shell-like on the cobblestones. The children would not touch it. They stared at it, now, as if it were a dead thing they’d found by the sea.
At first, on the morning she left, he noticed nothing unusual in his parents. They both woke before him, his mother to start breakfast and his father to eat it before putting on his coat and his boots to go out to his boat. When he crawled out of bed, bleary in the dawn, he caught a glimpse of his father kissing his mother before leaving the house. It was not a passionate kiss, just a habitual peck, a piece of repeated routine. But there was something uncertain about it, like a question mark hung in the air. When his father left, the boy and his mother sat down for breakfast, as they did every morning. But this morning, she did not hum her songs as she cleared up the plates. She was silent as she made the beds and folded the clothing and straightened the shoes in the corner. Then she took a deep breath, exhaled it, and said, “Let’s go out.”
He thought she meant out to run errands. He thought they would go into town. He was prepared, when they left the house, for a day spent trailing his mother down the town’s winding streets, listening to her trying to make grown-up talk with the baker or the butcher and sighing her social exhaustion every time they left a store. He was prepared to stand at the edge of the square watching the other children’s games. When he saw that they were heading to the shoreline, that they were going out to play, not to do errands, he was filled with the happiest kind of relief.
He did not see, at first, the silver thing she carried in her hands, bundled up and held close to her chest, her fingers closed up tight around it.
Some nights before, he’d half-woken to his parents’ angry whispers. The words were muffled by his bedroom door, but the intensity of them was not. The whispers entered his dreams, became waves crashing over the shore. He moved restlessly with them, turned over and tossed by the sound.
Later that night, he woke again, fully this time, and found himself sitting up in bed before the sun or his mother even thought about rising. His room was darker than he’d ever seen it, with only the last glimpse of moonlight to lighten its walls. He could hear the wind move through the cedars outside, gently now, but threatening stronger gusts. He could hear a low hanging branch tapping on the roof, as if the wood of the tree was saying hello to the wood of their house, as if it were longing for it, beckoning it back into tree shape.
He tried to sleep again, closed his eyes and imagined his bed was a ship out at sea and the tapping tree branch was the creaking of rigging and sails. But no dreams came, and he found himself listening more closely to the sounds of the house, to the squeaks and rustles of floorboards and walls, until the house itself felt like it was tightening around him, digging into his lungs, squeezing until he could no longer breathe in anything but shallow gasps.
He sat up in bed and frowned at the darkness around him. He tossed off his blankets and set his bare feet on the cold wood of the floor. Light peered through his bedroom door, and he thought, as he opened the door just a crack to look out, that his mother had woken, ushering the morning in with her. But he saw his father instead, sitting alone at the table, lamplight glancing off something silver in his arms. The silver thing looked neither solid nor liquid. It looked thin and light, as though it could float, but it draped over his father’s arms as if it were something heavy and substantial. It was large like a blanket, but it was not blanket shaped. It was not shaped like anything the boy could recognize. It’s shape looked slightly different every time he blinked, as if the silver thing was moving. He couldn’t tell if it was alive, dead, or inanimate.
His father held it gently in his arms and stroked it. The boy could see his father’s face but he could not understand the expression on it.
That night, he half-wanted to open the door to his room all the way, to walk out to his father and ask him what it was that he held, but he didn’t. He could feel, even then, that he’d stumbled on a private moment, peered in on a secret. He did not want to make his father angry, so he shut his bedroom door, careful not to make a sound, and lay back in bed, staring up at the darkness hovering over the ceiling, listening to the branch tap the roof, until he heard his mother rise to make breakfast.
When the water took her, he believed, at first, that she was only going for a swim. She had taken off her dress and left it in a pile on the shore. She was holding the silver thing in her arms, and by daylight it looked soft, like a coat. He still could not tell if the thing was alive. He watched his mother hold it, and it seemed, sometimes, that it was moving on its own, but he could not be sure. She took it with her when she went to the water, and he wondered why she wasn’t taking him, why she’d said, very quietly with a strange tone in her voice that he knew he was meant to find cheerful, “Go play.” But he tried to obey, tried to occupy himself building a sand castle as she took off her dress, clutching the silver thing the whole time as if she were playing a game of don’t-touch-the-ground with it, as if she could not let its velvet shine brush the sand. He wanted to ask her what game she was playing, he wanted to know what the rules were, but her face was a stranger’s and her eyes had turned sea-colored, grey-green and stormy, as they did sometimes when she was angry. He hoped she was not angry with him. If she was, he thought, he would build her the best sand castle he had ever made, and when she saw it, her anger would melt and her eyes would shift back to clear blue.
So he focused on his castle, shaping the sand with his hands, piling it up and scraping it down into the shapes of turrets and battlements, towers and gates, a fortress impenetrable and solid and safe. He added sticks to hold flags and rocks for a moat. He carved little windows so the inhabitants could see out, could know when the enemy approached. And when he looked up to see if his mother was watching from the shallows of waves, to see if her eyes had changed back yet, to see if she would walk back up to shore to offer him praise for his castle, he could not find her. There was nothing but her dress tangled up like a skin shed in the place where she’d stood.
He scanned the beach, feeling a panic rise up in him like the rising of waves in a gale. He felt his throat and chest constrict, felt his breathing turn shallow. It was a familiar panic that had, he realized, always churned just under his surface. He was surprised by how unsurprised he was by it, as if he’d known all along that one day this feeling would come to overcome him.
His mother was not on the beach anymore. He could not catch sight of her out in the sea. He stood alone on the sand. He listened to the wind and the waves and the quiet. There was nothing but empty around him: no father’s chest, no mother’s arms. He felt more alone than he’d ever known it was possible to feel. And he knew that she had left him, but he did not know to where.
Then he saw—he thought he saw, he could not tell for sure—a flash of silver in the sea, far out on the horizon, a bob, a wave, a hint of solid motion.
He felt his body move before his mind. He was in the water and swimming out before he knew he’d left the land at all. The water pushed against him, tried to force him back to shore, but he fought it, pulling himself farther out than he’d ever swum before, calling after her every time he managed to raise his head to gulp the air. He glimpsed her sometimes, as he swam, a silvery head in the distance. He couldn’t tell if she saw him. He kept swimming until his limbs felt both heavy and light at the same time, until the water began pulling him into it, and he went under, deeper and deeper. He could not push his head up to the air now, could not lift it out to draw breath. He gulped water instead. When he opened his eyes, he saw no sky and no land. He saw only the greying green sea. He felt himself stop fighting, felt the water surround him and claim him. He felt himself sink, felt the waves move his limbs on their own.
He would never know how long he floated there beneath the surface, how many breaths he tried to take but couldn’t, before he began to change, felt some other creature breaking through the netting of his skin. He watched his arms growing into his body, felt his skin itself turn soft and velvety, felt his ears recede and his head become smooth, his eyes widen, his legs grow together, felt his feet become fins and his hands growing claws. He knew, in a deep-down bone-knowing, that the creature coming out of him, turning into him, was seal. He knew also that he could resist it, could hold himself solid and human, a land creature lost in the waves. But he didn’t.
He seemed almost a part of the water now. He moved with it, and then he flicked his flippers and it moved with him, like a dance. As he began to swim in his newness, he felt a kind of joy burble in him. His new eyes saw colors within the grey of the waves that he had never seen before: blue-purple-red, yellow-green-orange, seven different shades of silver, and eleven hues of indigo. He felt now that the water did not have just one current, but many that wove in and out of each other and rippled around him. And the water held music, familiar songs that sounded full and tuneful when he heard them in their element. The songs called to him, a liquid summoning that echoed through the hollows of the sea.
When he pulled himself up to the surface to look at the sky, it was as still and grey as the shore seemed to him now, as if all the color, all the motion, had been wrung out of it and into the water. He saw, again, the shape on the horizon. He imagined it looked back at him with two longing eyes, brown-black now, and deep, and pulling him toward her. And, with a flick of his fins and a bob of his body, he went like a wave in the water.
He does not regret it exactly, but he understands now what he didn’t know then, that in his last moments on shore, in those first seconds at sea, he set himself on a course that was to be irreversible, chose the water instead of the land. Now he cannot imagine, though he still wonders sometimes, what his life would have been had he remained where he was, standing beside his child sand castle, his feet rooted to ground, in his one human skin, resisting the waves as they pulled him.