I can’t drown, but it is not for lack of trying.
I return to the coast where I was born, for college. I am eighteen and Dad can’t stop me. He tries.
“Meris, all that waits for you there is long sorrow,” he says.
I kiss his cheek. “That’s all I have now.”
It isn’t true, but it’s close enough.
Our house is gone. Torn down and replaced with a row of identical villas, purposefully weathered to appear decades old.
I stand with the sand spilling away under my bare feet, ocean wind at my back, and stare at the low fence between two condos where our house used to squat. It is exactly the same place I stood thirteen years ago and saw a patch of color shining on the roof. It hugged the chimney, glistening silver and gray. “Mama,” I asked, when she joined me for tuna sandwiches, “What’s that?”
When I return to my hotel I call Dad. “Did you know they turned our house into cheap tourist holes?”
“I sold it to that contractor on purpose. It’s better this way.”
I am quiet until he asks me about the airplane, and when I’m driving down to college to get settled into my dorm. I tell him, and we have a conversation filled with facts but lacking in any real purpose.
At dawn the next morning, I go for a run on the beach. Dad used to, every day before work. It’s hard. The sand does not want to propel me forward, but rather suck me down. I splash my sneakers through the edge of the surf, hopping over strings of seaweed. The rhythm of the waves seeps into my bones and I want to cry with relief. I’ve missed it more than anything, trapped in the center of the country. Pink and lavender and mauve spread over the horizon like lipstick, and the thin silver moon dangles before it. The moon is the same color as her skin.
I search for seals, a hand shading my eyes. There are large, flat, pock-marked rocks dozens of meters off the shore. Perfect resting grounds. I imagine them rolling with harbor seals. Mama and I used to play in the shallows, slapping our palms onto the surface of the waves. Sometimes, the seals would slap back. I always laughed, but Mama would lift me in her arms and hold me so tight I couldn’t breath. She stared out at the seal rocks, caressing my hair, tears green with brine and salt slipping down her face.
After she vanished, I swam out to the seal rocks. But the seals had gone. I dove down as low as I could – three minutes or more, eyes open, fingers reaching through the water like it was just shadows I needed to tear away from my eyes. They did not come. I choked and fled to the surface.
Again and again, I dove. I swam straight out to sea, as far as I could, resting and them pushing on. I slapped the surface and called her name. It was dark before my legs and arms grew too tired and my lungs too tight to breathe. I lifted my face to the moon and thought of the shining patch of roof. I relaxed, and slipped under the ocean.
I woke up on the seal rocks, and Dad was there with his canoe, dragging me into his arms and kissing my face with his rough lips. His beard scratched my raw cheeks.
We moved away that week.
I swim out to the seal rocks again, in the afternoon when the beach is peppered with vacationers. The water is cold, like I remember, and no one else does more than dip their toes in. I don’t mind the cold. This is how the sea is supposed to feel. I let it run its tendrils through my long hair and stroke my skin.
It does not take long to reach the rocks. I grip them and haul up. I spread out in the sun and let it tingle my back. It is warm. Gentle. After a moment, I go to the far side of the rocks so that none of the beach-goers will see what I do. Crouching, I pluck a small glass phial from between my breasts and uncork it. I tip it over the sea, and seven drops fall out, splunking and vanishing. They are my tears.
I wait. I tap the surface of the water with my hand, sending out a sharp echo.
It is a long wait, and even my hair is dry when the seal pops its head up. I smile. He is pale gray with a spread of dark freckles down his neck, a face like a friendly dog, and round, black eyes. I back away, and he hobbles up onto the rock. He is not afraid of me. “Hello,” I whisper.
The seal slaps one flat fin onto the rocks and closes his eyes. I stare as his skin breaks open under his chin, and a long tear grows down his breast and lower. His head raises, and the seal face lifts back like a hood. The rest of his skin falls off, pooling on the rock like silk and laying before me is a man. He lifts his head and his eyes are dark like mine. Like Mama’s. One hand grips his seal-skin and with the other he pushes himself up to sit.
The low sun shines in his face, and he raises his hand to shade his eyes. “Cousin,” he says. His voice is a whisper of water on sand.
My mouth is moving, but I have forgotten everything I want to say to him.
“You are sad.”
I nod. “My – my Mama. Is she with you?”
“Why did she leave us?”
“It is the way.”
“That you always leave the ones you love?”
“She did not love your father, she was his prisoner.”
“It is the way,” he insists.
“She could have stayed.”
I wrap my arms around my stomach. “She could have visited.”
My fingers curl into fists. I want to hit him or grab him or take his skin and hide it until he tells me. “She could have taken me with her.”
He is quiet, his eyes glancing me over and then out to sea. He longs to put his skin back on, I can see it in the way his lips turn down. “You don’t have the skin,” he finally says.
“Then what can I do?”
“Nothing.” He shrugs. “We are born with the skin we shed. I am sorry.”
I don’t think he is. He doesn’t care. I reach my hand toward the spill of sealskin across his thigh. His fingers tighten on it. I touch with only a finger, caressing the fine, slick fur. I close my eyes. It feels like Mama’s hair, brushing my cheek when she leaned over me to kiss me good night. “Thank you for coming,” I say with my eyes still shut.
I don’t move or look until I hear him splash into the sea. Then I sit, staring toward the horizon until it is full dark. I swim home when the ocean and the sky are both black, and indistinguishable from each other.
I wake with an answer.
We are born with the skin we shed.
I go down to the beach. Dawn is a bloody strip at the edge of the world. I sit where the waves lap at my feet and I am surrounded by foam. I wonder what happens to seal-people when they die.
With a knife from the hotel breakfast, I cut a slit in my chin. I hiss at the pain and feel blood pour down my chest. But I do not stop. I cut down, shallow and long, all the way to my breastbone. My skin is on fire.
I use my fingers to push at the wound. I whimper, and there are tears on my cheeks. I dig in with my nails and grip the edges of my skin. I am panting with pain and I am dizzy. The waves drag at my ankles and the sand tilts under me.
I bite my tongue to distract myself and, holding my breath, I pull.