Jan 20th 2023
Thalia finds the skin in her late grandmother’s safe and wishes she was naive enough to mistake it for a simple seal pelt or a fancy fur blanket.
Stumbling back, she overturns one of the book towers in Grandma’s study. Marine biology textbooks and bestiaries alike, featuring sketches of sea creatures such as sirens, merfolk, even aspidochelones.
Selkies, too. The myth goes that the seal women fell for human lovers only to become trapped on land once those humans stole their skins and hid them away from the selkies. But Grandma hid her own skin, it seems, under lock and key.
And now Thalia holds it in her shaking hands, this priceless skin that smells fresh and salty like a day at the beach.
She doesn’t know whether to let it fall on the ornate carpet or hug it to her chest and never let go.
The seal skin doesn’t fit Thalia, which is no surprise. According to the books of sea lore gathering dust in the study, every skin is unique to its bearer. This doesn’t stop Thalia from standing before the mirror, moving this way and that. The velvety hide feels cool against her body where it hugs her sides, back, and head, but it still doesn’t accept her as its rightful wearer. It refuses to knit itself around her and let her transform like the books describe, only hangs off of her in loose, swaying flaps.
The funeral is tomorrow. Thalia remembers all-too-well another service. The pitying relatives, the chemical-scented, open-casket goodbyes.
Her fingers dig into the soft surface of the selkie coat. What would it take to wear it as a second skin and escape all her problems into the sea?
Thalia goes into town to pick up her black dress from the tailor, her ex girlfriend from school. It’s been a while since she attended her last funeral. She’s taller and curvier now, but no more used to people close to her ceasing to be.
“How are you holding up?” the tailor asks.
Thalia ignores the liquid sympathy in the tailor’s dark eyes and carefully lays out the skin on the counter.
“Can you alter it to fit me?”
The tailor’s pierced eyebrows furrow. “Honey, I can’t do that. Seal skins are too mercurial. Like the ocean. You’ll surely drown.”
Well, Thalia thinks. I’m already drowning.
The priest’s voice, recounting Grandma’s long life, reaches Thalia as if from underwater. Fierce seafarer… abandoned all adventure to raise her beloved granddaughter.
She remembers Grandma taking her in after her parents’ deaths. How she dried Thalia’s tears and told her, I love you, you are not a burden. How grandmother and granddaughter kept living together even after Thalia graduated high school and started at the local university.
A little voice pipes up inside Thalia’s head, much louder than the priest’s monotone. If Grandma lied about who she is, what else did she lie about? Did Thalia’s sheer neediness trap Grandma on land? Was Thalia no better than the humans in the old selkie stories, dooming the seal women to a life of servitude and misery?
Grandma died on land, and she will be buried here, too. So close to the ocean, yet unable to return to it.
Thalia looks down at her lap. The hem of her tailored black dress is torn and twisted like a blight between her fingers.
She meets the tailor for a coffee date in a quaint shop sat above the promenade. “You’re not still obsessing over that seal skin, are you?” the tailor asks, her needle-callused fingers dancing over Thalia’s clenched knuckles.
She doesn’t know how to explain that the sea speaks to her in a way it never used to before, even when she was growing up right beside it. Her pillow becomes a conch shell at night singing saltwater shanties into her ear. Without Grandma she feels unmoored, battered by the waves of her bleakest thoughts.
She wants to step into the sea wearing Grandma’s skin, that she knows for certain.
But do I want to sink, or swim?
The sea sparkles onyx at night, the lights from the oceanfront arcade and the distant shore across the water no brighter than a swarm of fireflies. Thalia stands barefoot on the beach, her lips tasting of salt, Grandma’s skin bundled in her arms.
Thalia pulls the skin around her shoulders like a cape. Its whiskered snout doesn’t tighten over her head to help her stay underwater, nor do the flippers merge with her own too-human hands. The beach is empty. Going into the sea all alone is an exceptionally bad idea. Regardless, she needs to know. What it feels like to be a seal swimming in her natural habitat. What Grandma had given up to spend her last years on land looking after Thalia.
She hugs the skin close and steps into the water. The first contact against her feet and shins is a shock of cold that travels all the way to her gasping lungs. Yet the skin around her shoulders feels like a warm, dry embrace even as the water laps at it.
All the thoughts in Thalia’s head–thoughts of going deep, going dark–flee. All but one: Grandma, patiently teaching a younger Thalia how to swim.
Instead of letting her body glide forward, she stays in the shallows where she’s safe from undercurrents, whirlpools, and other oceanic whims. She splashes around and whoops with sudden laughter, her breath crisp with fresh air and salt. The selkie pelt becomes heavy and glistening in the starlight. Not a second skin, but a secondhand, well-worn coat. Thalia closes her eyes and dances with it, Grandma’s arms around her body, keeping her afloat.
Avra Margariti is a queer author, Greek sea monster, and Rhysling-nominated poet with a fondness for the dark and the darling. Avra’s work haunts publications such as Vastarien, Asimov’s, Liminality, Arsenika, The Future Fire, Space and Time, Eye to the Telescope, and Glittership. “The Saint of Witches”, Avra’s debut collection of horror poetry, is available from Weasel Press. You can find Avra on twitter (@avramargariti).
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