A man pushes off from shore in his boat, pulling his oars through indifferent swells. He slows to a drift, not too far out, and tucks the oars back in. He steps over the untouched lines and buoy, then settles in the center of the boat to wait.
He has done this a few times now, to the increasing dismay of the other islanders, who watched him grow up a sensible boy. Unceasing work structures and siphons off their lives. Only the smallest children are afforded the luxury of leisure. Inaction invites mischief.
They nurse their superstitions. The sea to them is an enigma, at times shining, at times punishing. He ventures into it with a lack of purpose, as if he sails a ship without a sealed hull, open to salt and rot. He will sit tipping in the idle boat until his mind goes topsy-turvy. He seeks and something will find him.
He sits until his observers have returned to their own work, their own homes. He lies along the bow and drapes his arms over each edge, dipping his hands into the water, allowing them to trail in the cold as the boat wanders. Then, at last, he sits, pulls out his oars again, and rows for shore.
The change expands with a shock, a pulse. It grips the gut. She ascends apace as if pushing through glass. It splits her skin and underneath her new body rises like pink dough, like torn petals, a secret hurt whispered over and over.
A woman lies flat and panting on a slab of rock, bruised and bright with pain. The grit of sand scrapes her thin gelatin skin. Air lights her lungs like a wick.
She looks toward the shore. The man is there, alone, poised with one foot in his boat. The sight of him touches the vague velvet of her memory. She has watched him on the shore from the rock. She has seen the underside of his boat, a dark, seeking curve. And she has surfaced like this twice before, but she sickened on the air and plunged back in.
The shock clears from his face. He musters himself and calls to her in the first voice she ever hears, and the words are solid, strike like bricks. She lifts herself onto her elbows, her knees, her feet, tottering on her thin split limbs. She slides from the rock into the water, its frigid thickness, its new resistance to her startling. The water heaves her forward but clings to her legs, dragging her back.
But that pricking draws her further, until her strides are easy and quick and suddenly the water gives and she stumbles and stands before him. Her gossamer skin, trailing from her legs, is slim as a trickle of water. Each time the sea pulls back another languid ribbon curls out. It could tear, she thinks, on a stone, or on his fingernail as he takes it up, a wet cobweb, and drapes it over his shoulder. She feels the touch of his fingers through the film. His hands in the water were gentler, though they’d spurred her to violent action. She lets him hide her skin.
He covers her with his coat and leaves her there beside the boat and carries her skin up the path. Her bond to her skin and her sense of him fade. She no longer feels his hands and she can’t trace him as he walks. She stands for the first time discrete, an organ excised and set outside the body.
She imagines him ferreting her skin away under the dank frame of a barn, folding it tightly in a trunk, lowering it into a well in a bucket, wet stone moans to keep it company, stretching it thin into the open air like a canvas, hanging it between two trees and watching it dissolve into sky.
Chills run in rivulets down her. A longing stirs and whirls in her, and splits in two. She wants the headiness of his presence and the comfort of her skin.
She looks out over the sea and a startling absence in her mind stays just out of sight, a void into which most of her seems to have sunk. Her only memories rise from the detritus around her and moments not long gone.
The boat beside her, still half in water, its stern tossing over approaching waves. The shore with its slick surface, its reflection of the island and the sky and of her own bare body. Him, her skin, both too distant.
The water, dull like fluid lead, spills quietly onto sand.
He appears again at last, on a curve up the path, a new bundle of cloth in his hands. He has brought her a heavy dress to wear. The weight of it settles over her shoulders and abrades her hips. Her desire for him seems to tumble over her similarly, heavy, unworn, unfamiliar. It pushed her through the surface into the dizzy light; it swaddles her now in his presence.
He leads her to a small house in the crook of a swell of earth. He wraps a heavy gray blanket around her and she winds herself around him. Salt still hangs in tangles of her hair. She tastes salt also on his skin and laughs.
The appearance of the strange woman lights a panic among the islanders. The man refuses to explain her presence in his house. They are certain she crawled out of the sea after him. Perhaps he is bewitched.
She stays longer and longer. She embodies their dread and confirms the very worst of their fears. The sickening of sheep, the fraying of cloth, the rusting and breaking of iron are attributed to her, as if decay leapt into his boat with her, as if she carried death to the island on her shoulders.
She cooks food over the fire with pots on chains and they eat it, tasting the smoke in the air. She tends the garden soil. She washes the callous clothes they wear and mends them. Her soft skin reddens, dries, splits, hardens.
The best surprise is bread, warm, brown and round like a stone in the center of the table, like a child, kneaded and made with her own hands.
She eats her first slice and thinks she eats flesh.
She stays attuned to the low thundering sound of the sea, as integral to her as the softer rushing of her blood. It rolls beneath her desire for her husband, at times threatening to overwhelm it.
She craves her husband with great precision: the line of his body, the focused stillness with which he waited in that boat, the feel of his weight over hers, all specific to him. Thinking of these things contains her need for him.
Her longing for the sea is visceral and maddeningly unspecific, difficult to confine or curb. She knows so little of herself before she stepped onto shore. When she strains to remember she sees only the unsettled boat, dark with age, waves slapping its hollow sides.
How lost a cause she is, stepping onto a tiny piece of land rearing out of the water, put to siege by the sea. It seethes all around, swelling in the ears, brine and rich rot seaweed burning the nose, clinging to the land and to her.
No women attend her first confinement, or any of those that follow. Her husband tends to her alone. It is one of the long-light days and the interminable illumination pulses time like a jellyfish. A brief relief of night dims the island. As her womb contracts she sees in a ring around her every islander, with back turned toward their house. She delivers her first child into her husband’s hands. He catches her second and her third as well.
The fourth she delivers into her own hands.
Mottled purple skin smooths to tender pink. The first wail she hears does not strike her or slice into her. Instead it catches her under the chest, grabs hold and wrenches, because in the voice she hears for the first time on land the music of her kin. She had forgotten. It releases something in her, and drops fall onto her lips and taste of salt. The longing dampens as her hunger is sated by bread.
When young, each of her children speaks to her with a look or a touch. Their eyes commune with hers, as if it is water between them and not air, carrying their thoughts.
They play around her like currents, extracting her unremembered self, and instead of drawing her back to shore tie her more firmly to the island. They pull the yearning from her body and bind it within themselves. She stands firm and easy between the four of them and between her desires, able to feel the distance of the sea and love it comfortably.
The youngest speaks little. She is calm at first glance but a tension always perches her on the verge of tumult. The girl looks at her as if they share the same trouble, her eyes at once a question and an accusation. She tells herself the girl can’t know.
Though the farm is small she does not find her skin.
So she spends those young years making bread, and making flesh of her flesh.
After each birth the islanders build their bonfires, circling around the flames to mimic the path of the sun, to claim the island with its light. The boys whip over the moor with lit heather, kindling small patches of grass to cast her off the land. Sparks flick on the wind and settle on the bare ground before the threshold of their house.
In the end the children only have each other. As they age and forge their bond, they turn away even from their mother. The true separation, she realizes, happened years ago, in those lengthened days of isolation and animal pain, when they first left her body. They parted from her as easily as a bud from a tree.
An apprehension begins to hook into her that she ignores as nothing, the way she ignores that secret that pools in the corners of the room, that flickers just outside her vision like a bird.
She turns again to her husband’s ardor for comfort, but his hands close on her arms and she sees them grasping her skin and pulling it from the water. At night she falls asleep in his arms and floats into the sleek cool, and a thick gray skin grows and warms her, and she wakes and weeps at the air and limbs around her. She feels all the water wrung from her, leaving her, drop by drop, seeping into the earth and returning to the sea.
Her youngest daughter begins to follow her in her sleep.
The girl did this when she was very young. All the children did. They drifted intermittently into mutual dreams. As they learned to speak they stopped.
The girl has caught in her dreams again, watching her from some moving edge, coming and going as she pleases. Her presence now is more distinct, her thoughts completely closed to her mother. She follows her mother as she traces and retraces her path to the sea.
In daylight the girl begins to stray to the water’s edge whenever she likes, and does not heed warnings, and only comes away when her siblings fetch her. She stands, ankles in water, peering out at the waves, mussels and pebbles strewn about her, great ropes of seaweed stretching to shore like ladder legs. She listens as if the sounds are some kind of speech. Her oldest brother seems to understand her. He stands with her a moment and the two of them watch the crests, locked in some shared thought. But he always touches his sister’s shoulder, takes her hand, and leads her away.
Her daughter’s will burns brighter, and slowly instead of merging with her mother’s thoughts, her mother begins to tangle into hers. The first time is in daylight. They kneel at a washtub by the water’s edge, and as she scoops the soft soap with her hand she is pulled beside her daughter, standing on a rock far out at sea, waves tall all around them. The girl is unafraid.
That night the girl traces the path in her sleep and her mother follows her, her steps speeding until she feels her daughter’s feet touch the water. She cries out, the words hurling from her, and wakes breathing the air of panic as she tumbles out of bed to check for her daughter, who is still there, sleeping deeply, her limbs warm. Again the next night, and again and again, the girl escapes and her mother chases her.
They all begin to watch her, to cage her up. Her father forbids her from the shore entirely.
One night they sit cramped in the house as a storm wails around them. The door flings open and like that the girl is gone. Her mother crosses the threshold, bursts into the tempest. She screams the girl’s name but a gust carries her voice away as it has carried her daughter. She staggers down the muddy path, blinded by rain, feet slipping, ignoring the clamor growing white-hot in her mind that they are too late, she is gone she is gone she is gone.
She feels it the moment the girl hits the water, as she did in the dreams.
Her mind unravels. Her last moment of clarity, as she feels her husband’s hands gripping her, is a dream she had long ago and forgot, when she was still carrying her daughter. The girl had come out of the swell of her, detached, her face wrapped in her caul. The caul glowed, the sea rolled in the distance as she departed.
If time without the girl is a singular straight path, narrow and night-lit, her mother is well along it, small and far away from where she started. The only way is forward and there does not seem to be a destination, though at times she suspects she is moving toward that blank velvet spot in her mind, approaching its vague question. Though each step feels the tiniest measure closer, each also brings her further from the house, from its inhabitants, from her body.
In some other place, his arms and legs tangle with hers. At times she reaches across the vast distance and with great effort moves her limbs like a puppet’s. She feels as if she is playing a joke.
Sometimes she rushes back for an instant. She is scrubbing or tending food. She is feeding them white fish or soft potatoes. She is putting the children to sleep. He holds her at night. She rises in the morning cold. She opens the door and vanishes.
The sea inhales. The tide withdraws.
Fathoms later, something catches, and in spite of itself her mind is knitting, loop over loop, stitching her back into her weary browned body. She visits the house in longer stretches. The path has doubled back and the house seems close, her children loud.
A noise invades, a shriek. It muffles first against the silence but then tears through. One of them has bellowed, and another tumbles into something hard, and then out bursts a laugh, and the scuffle slams her fully back into her flesh.
She stares at the youngest boy, who is sprawled on the floor. His laugh breaks off and he looks ashamed. Is this the first laugh since the girl left? The oldest is taking great gulps of air. She breathes hard because the air is heavy, her lungs are thin again, and the sunlight streaming in the open door assaults. A great medial root of anger rises and splits her open, and she grabs them by their thin arms and pushes them out the door and slams it shut. She is reconnecting with all her parts, with her quivering stomach, her weighty thighs, her rasping throat, the rich blood churning into and out of her heart. She clambers into the bed, seeing the black of her eyelids and feeling her weight pressing down. She opens her mouth and like a wet flower, out pour rotten seeds.
Her feet take her down a winding path along a long, flat arm that descends to the edge of an inlet. The wind and water crescendo to dull thunder. It startles her, the mounting intensity of the noise, as if her ears are suddenly unmuffled. From here she sees the shore, the water line that recedes and approaches, a strange, self-determining edge.
She looks down to the bank, and she sees her daughter washing there as they used to do. The girl wads cloth in the tub, wets it, holds it up glistening in the sun.
She remembers her when she was very small, bundled in dark cloth, only her face showing as she rocked in the cradle. So large, the girl’s eyes had been, always watching the flicker of the fire and its shadow. As an infant she would peer into the dim corners as if they lived and moved. And of course, the shadows fairly breathed with hidden things. She had become almost blind to it.
The girl holds up the white cloth; it glints.
She watches the winking light and understands. She stumbles back up the path, her feet unloosing pebbles. Her daughter had found and stolen her skin. This is the suspicion she had ignored and denied. The isolate motions of her husband’s hands, his separateness, concealed it from her forever. But the girl was flesh of her flesh, and flesh of his, and the secret must have unfolded to her.
She begins to dream of finding her skin as her child did. One night in sleep she stumbles to the sea, pulled not by the usual futile longing, but by a wild and nonsensical delight. She steps to the water’s edge and sees across the surface a thin layer of ribbons. She watches the ropes of color mingle and split, beckoning.
She holds out a single finger and touches a frond that blooms, colors unfurling over the surface. She knows, at that touch, that this lacquer is her skin, that it has always been there. Her fingertip forms a soft hollow, and around that dimple her skin grows thicker, darker. The bands of gold and red deepen, hush to the color of dusk. She steps into the dark and the familiar softness enfolds her. A tiny fish flashes by.
The next night she dreams a silver tree has sprouted by the house. On it spangled stars dangle like a queen’s ornaments. She approaches the tree, as she did the sea, and touches one of the stars, and sees her skin just there, under the illusion. A small tree grows nearby beside it.
The next night she finds it again, a blanket of new-fallen snow. She falls with it onto the ground; she spreads into the snow, dissolving, white and scattered.
The next night her skin melts off and runs into the ground, and through the ground to the sea.
She dreams of seals and their pups, stretching out on an infinite shoreline, glistening lumps spawning tinier lumps. Their tails wave casually and they bark. They multiply and multiply, their pups filling the landscape until she can’t see beyond them.
Then she dreams she is just outside the house, her skin buried in the unfrozen ground. Her son is there, unearthing it with his hands. He digs into the ground and thrusts fistfuls of wet, mealy sod into his mouth, looking back at her with eyes now dark. A silvery slick substance webs the soil together, spreads between his fingers.
She heaves and she wakes, her head clear.
She rises unclothed, keening swelling in the distance like threatening head pain. Her husband’s naked form sprawls under thick, warm blankets. She leaves him. He does not stir. Her children do not wake.
Outside, a rare new snow comes down and fat wet flakes fall on her cheeks. The air too warm to sustain it, it slips down her skin like a salve. As she stands there it falls colder and steadier, building to tiny heaps on the ground. The trail becomes clear to her. The landscape opens and she understands. Her daughter is laughing at her.
She sees her daughter that night chased by a storm that rolled like fields of grain. She sees the girl lift her face and arms, sees the furor drench her and bestow on her a skin of rain.
The girl has not stolen her skin. She has asked for her own, and has been granted one. Her daughter howls to her, the sea violet and bruised. Her clarion call takes up all the water and all the air.
She looks at the house, and all its hiding places, and knows at once that to her they are closed. The secret of his hiding will not open to her. She must ask as her daughter asked.
So she goes to the shore, which moves like the skirt of a ghost. She stretches out her palms in supplication. The waters churns, and rain shudders down faster. It gathers on her hands and arms, slicking up and over her like oil. It is not thick, but it covers her completely. She steps into the water, her arms out and her face to the sky.
Again that dull diffuse shore. As she walks it lengthens before her, each bend approaching and then retreating to reveal further shore. Her feet don’t sense the curve. The arc in her path stretches to imperceptibility, but still nudges her, until at long last she comes around again. In her time away the conspirator sea has hushed her footprints. She is new. She has smoothed to baby’s skin growing smaller and newer with every step. She has shed skin after skin by the wayside and her blissful heel treads the sand and confirms the erasure unknowing.
Rebecca Kallemeyn is working on an MFA in Creative Writing at the University of Colorado, where she also teaches. She spins wool and silk into yarn in her spare time.
Artwork: John Collier, “The Water Nymph,” 1923, public domain.