They say that when you go to the sky-reflected ocean and strip yourself as bare as the day you were born, the water will take you in. It will hurt—don’t fool yourself. The transition between one life and the next is never without pain or grief. When you hit the water, they say your human form will be stripped away. You will be rendered down, but not away. You will become what you always sought to be: free.
Turning from the edge of the flag-bedecked boardwalk pier, seventeen year-old Louise spied the discarded skin on the sunset beach. Her mother was expecting her, but Louise headed for the beach, the striped canvas sun tents dotting the sand like shadowed doorways she might vanish through.
The fluttering shadows from the pier banners made the skin appear to breathe, though when she kneeled in the sand, the curious lump was as motionless as a drowned girl. She had pictured herself this way, how it would be to wash up on the beach after flinging herself from the pier, distant carousel music reaching through the sunset, but she hadn’t had the courage after all.
When her thin trembling fingers closed onto what she thought was the girl’s shoulder, it collapsed beneath her touch, sodden with the sea. She recoiled, but when the thing didn’t make another move, she touched it again. She found herself holding a handful of sleek brown sealskin, the entire pelt opening before her the way a ball gown might.
Her mother’s summons carried to her over the dunes, but she paid it no mind. With the sealskin in hand, the world grew quieter, the rush of the waves behind her only a sibilant whisper. She was not coughing, nor was she feverish or fainting. Louise drew in a breath, daring her lungs to rebel, and when they did, she doubled over with a fresh cough, blood flecking the sand and skin. The skin opened more, revealing its dark interior.
Heedless, but knowing only that she must, Louise discarded her bathing costume and pulled the sealskin around her naked body, where it lay wet and warm like another body breathing against her. Something in the moment recalled another time for her, when she lay within a womb and was not yet sickened and the world outside slipped by in waves and tides.
Water pattered onto her bathing slippers. Water, and then, from the depths of the sealskin, blood. She thought that her end had come, that her body was at last failing her the way doctors had promised it would, and so she bent to finger her slipper laces loose. She wouldn’t need shoes and so stepped out of them, leaving them on the beach behind her.
And then she was running after the retreating ocean waves as they sheeted from the beach, as it curled under like an enormous sunlit tongue. Louise jumped into the color, into the wet, certain she had never seen anything so beautiful, until the skin, emboldened by the water, swallowed her whole.
For an endless breath, it was as though Louise had lost her own skin. The water clouded with blood and she screamed, for the water seemed no longer water but knives, raking the length of her body. Louise tried to drag herself to the surface of the water, shoulders wrenching in their sockets as she twisted, but the waves and the skin pulled her under and she—
—gulped a bloody breath and sank, and the world grew quiet.
Grand Duchess Maria Romanov, who was neither a grand duchess nor a Romanov, opened her colossal body before the crowd assembled in the tent. They expected her flowing kaftan, beaded with shells and small fuchsia fish, to part, revealing her naked, rotund form. They had paid to see the fat lady of the circus, had paid to see the glory and wonder of her shocking size. It was unexpected that with her kaftan off came her skin, like an eggshell from a hard-cooked egg.
Fabric and skin parted with a wet whisper and those in the tent found themselves gazing at something they did not understand, for the immense body before them had become like a vast aquarium. Maria’s round belly grew clear, showing them strange fish they had never glimpsed before. Her veins became as long streams of seaweed that blue and orange fish darted among until she allowed the creation to spill from her fingertips and flood the tent.
The striped tent became the aquarium, the scent of brine overrunning that of cotton candy and popcorn, the slow-motion spiral of seaweed replacing the carnival’s normal hustle. The crowd breathed the water as if they’d been born to it, and Maria allowed herself a moment’s pleasure at the illusion.
She drew on old memories for the sights, allowing a saltwater crocodile to walk the suddenly sandy floor between the started attendants; she blew jellyfish from her coral-painted mouth, and they blobbed their way from one side of the tent to the other, aimless, often times allowing the current of the crowd to guide their course. Sea turtles fanned across the tent’s roof in a wavering green line that transformed itself into a long-ago pier above the water’s surface.
The sight of the pier gave Maria pause and caused the illusions to stutter. The pier was of her memory but should not have been of her current creation. Still, she watched, transfixed, as a slim woman walked to the pier’s end, discarding her clothing as she went. Every article of clothing smelled like alcohol, the police later determining the woman had been illegally intoxicated at the time of her demise. Blouse, skirt, shoes, Maria followed the familiar trail of clothing to the pier’s end, where she (Helen, Maria whispered in the now) stood naked and steady before the heaving ocean.
Helen was not a strong swimmer, nor an accomplished diver. Still, when she leapt into the becalmed ocean, it was as if she’d done it a thousand times before, so precise was the impact of her body into the water. Maria recoiled when Helen plunged into the water, past the rocks that supported the pier, and down into the dark. Helen’s human skin unraveled behind her but her hazel eyes never faded, even as they locked onto Maria’s own.
In the tent, the illusions dissolved, fish and jellies exploding into clouds of bubbles as the water rushed from the ceiling to the floor and out. Everyone in the crowd was dry but gasping and spluttering as if they had been underwater. Maria closed her kaftan and without so much as a bow, fled the stage even as they applauded her and demanded an encore. Backstage, Maria gasped for breath, too, holding the edges of her kaftan together with a trembling hand. Her no-longer-fragile heart spasmed in her chest like a fish tossed onto dry land.
It could not be, she thought, but had always known the circus would circle back to this place. Was it here, after all these years? Had she returned to the ocean where Helen had discarded her skin upon the shore and a young Louise, who now called herself the Grand Duchess Maria Romanov, had picked it up, unknowing?
The problem with water is, it circles back. It hits the shore and runs back to the horizon, but there is always something that will turn it back: a reef, a larger wave, the insistence of the moon. And so the ocean returns, gathering speed as it carries itself and those in its path back to the shore. In this way, water wanders. It paces a line in the ocean they call a current. But sometimes, what’s current is past.
Midori came to the water late—seventy if she was a day, her clothes strewn behind her in an uncertain, pause-filled line. Her steps had faltered only because her fingers had, tangled in the confusion of button and hole, of zipper and slip. Her woolen skirt, her silken blouse, each snagged on the pier wood when the police collected them. The dead spouse in Midori’s black and white checkerboard kitchen had been the first clue; the missing revolver the second.
But it wasn’t the gun she held in her hand as she stood looking at the sunrise waters off Ocean City. It was the rosary she had been given on her wedding day, her knotted fingers still counting decades of prayers as her eyes took in the water. She had not been born Catholic, but they had tried to make her so, the way they’d thought to change her nationality. Midori had grown up by the water a world away, so it seemed only fitting to her to return at the end.
She thumbed another pearl on her rosary, whispering in Japanese to Mary that she had tried her best, and her best had never been good enough, but in the water, she’d always been fine. Might have been a swimmer had the world not laughed at that notion. Might have swum channels and lochs and oceans besides. Instead, she married and lived in a land-locked place where the lakes were not even properly deep. She dreamed in her dishwater, fingering iridescent bubbles as if they were seafoam.
She mistook the dark shape in the water for a shark at first, its shadow strangely pointed in the golden sunrise. But as the sun lifted, the shape became more clear, fashioning itself into another woman, a woman who dove beneath the shimmering gold waters then surfaced and waved to Midori. She expected the woman to swim away, but the woman didn’t. She beckoned, and in her wake there trailed a thousand shining seals and one massive isonade Midori remembered from stories of her childhood. A shark, golden in the sun.
Midori leapt, the pier creaking beneath her feet, and was free.
In the carnival daylight, Maria saw no sign of drowned Helen, but she had no trouble imagining the woman around every tent corner. She felt as though she had been outrunning Helen her entire life.
Maria stayed in her train car that day, which was not entirely unusual, and so none of the crew bothered her. What was unusual was that she did not rest for the evening’s performances. She paced her car, naked in all her voluptuous splendor, and strove to not unlock the trunk that contained the sealskin.
It had been a long while since she’d allowed herself the pleasure of slipping into the skin, since she’d allowed the seal to carry her away, but with the ocean so close, the skin was a tide within her, beckoning her as it had the day it had transformed her life. Had saved her life.
She didn’t think too often on those early days—tried to place the confusion and delight at her life being remade away from her mind, because the child she had been felt like another person entirely. Having glimpsed drowned Helen, and being this close to the ocean, the memories came.
They had called her Louise then, a sickly girl who liked to put everything and anything into her mouth, given how good everything felt against her tongue. Such behaviors, the doctors insisted, were the explanation for her consumption, but she could not be compelled to stop. In the water, it was no different. The weight of a stone, the ridges and spirals of shells. She liked the way fish bones collapsed between her molars. She also liked how strong she was in the water, the weightlessness of it all, the way water tried to spit her out or change her course, but the way she could counter both and carry on. It hadn’t been that way that on land, tripping over stones.
Then, the girls started coming.
Or maybe she had only just noticed them, they having been there all along. She heard their sorrows, even when the girls came quietly. Their sorrows rolled out of them in waves, across the water and down. The girls walked to the edge of their worlds, where land met water and one could no longer easily walk. Where one could cross the water on bridges or piers, where one could look down and see eternity. Some were sick, some were running, some were tired of running and ready to leap.
The first girl Louise welcomed to the waters was named Maria. When Maria leaped into the water, her lungs had been thick with a blackness that burst into coal clouds when the ocean broke her open. Stripped of her skin, Maria was sooty and dark, her bones as ebony, her teeth licorice. The coal that had eaten her up over the course of her life could not withstand the water, and, no matter how Louise wrapped her in skins, Maria dissolved away. Louise swore to remember, knowing how easily it was to forget a life, and took her name so as to remember the courage she had brought to the end.
They said selkies were born of drowned women, but they didn’t know the whole truth or never let it slip past their lips: that every drowned woman carried the memories of another within her, and that misery shared was misery halved.
Still no other knew this truth: that Maria had come to carry more than a single other. In the depths of the ocean, the sickness that had anchored her to the earth dropped away and her body expanded, heedless of gravity’s pull. Maria found she could welcome as many girls as leapt into the water, could usher them into wholly new lives as sister selkies who swam along distant shores. She enjoyed the feel of them on her tongue, shell and coral and the grit of sand. Her body grew round and glorious in the salt waters, a weightless vessel for those who would abandon a land-locked life.
A knock upon her train car door caused Maria to pull away from the old trunk. She could not remember kneeling before it, nor taking its lock in hand, but there she was, the padlock heavy within her hand. She took a backward step from the trunk, and the lock thumped into place. She placed her shaking hands against the train car door.
“Not sure what you did last night,” bearded lady Delilah said from the other side of the door, “but they’re already lining up for you tonight.”
She listened to the retreating footsteps crunch in the gravel alongside the tracks. Delilah was a good friend but never one to linger when an answer wasn’t required.
Maria looked at the trunk, thinking for a moment it had moved, that its lock had rattled. She rested her hands on her bare belly and paid attention to her breath, forcing it to slow and ease.
“No,” she whispered to the skin. “No.”
They say to choose a pier, a place you can stand where you can see yourself reflected in the water, where it does not yet touch you. Sinking into wet sand does you no good if you mean to let the land go. The land will hold you.
You want a pier, where you are shadow and rippled water alone, featureless. You will be rendered down, but not away. It isn’t death, they say, but the surrendering of one life for another. It is a choice.
They say to watch your reflection until the water stills. It seems as though the water will never stop breathing against the shore, but eventually it goes glassy, showing you the night sky above. You will be filled with stars in this way, pricked with light, at last a part of something larger than you’ve ever known.
Clara glowed in the dark.
Plenty of creatures beneath the sea were luminescent, but Clara, standing at the end of the pier, glowed outside the water, her body poisoned from years of work painting watch dials. She was neither the gold of sunsets nor the green of the radium she had consumed, licking the paintbrush tip between each stroke, as she and the other women in the factory had been instructed; she was not blue as the hottest part of the flame, nor the red of banked embers. She was as a wraith, washed of color entirely, a wisp of glowing fog. At first, she’d thought it a lark; lovers took pleasure in her glowing lips in the darkness, loved to part them with their dark tongues to see if her mouth also glowed. It did.
Clara waited for the water to go motionless, but it would not, whispering incessantly against the pilings and the distant shore. Wave after wave rolled in until she lost count of them all. She turned and walked the entire length of pier once, the waves chasing her until she reversed and chased them back to the horizon. She stood shaking upon the edge of the pier and wanted to leap, wanted it to be over, but she waited for the water to cease moving. She wanted to see herself filled with stars; wanted to know the stillness of the world around her before she committed herself to the end.
She stood crying above the rush of the ocean, glowing tears dripping like stars down her chest, into her luminous hands. Over the years, every bit of her had become contaminated, every line and ridge of her skin aglow when the lights went out. Her breasts, her belly—even the deepest parts of her she could not think of without blushing—radiated brilliance as if she were becoming a sun. As if, within her body, there had been born a new galaxy, unnamed and unknown. She pictured these stars wheeling in her bones, fracturing and pressing against her skin for release. She pictured herself waking one morning to the ruin of her body, pulling herself from its wreck to stare at the stars that would surely spill from the bed.
As Clara’s glowing tears fell into the ocean, it was then the water began to grow still, so still that each teardrop seemed to become the pinprick of a star in the summer sky above. Each drop floated on the surface of the water, burning splatters that brightened the dark and made a path. Clara took a breath, savoring it as her last. Her lungs had a weight she would never know again and somewhere close, driftwood was burning.
She took comfort that no one would know—no one would understand the way her body mirrored the stillness of the ocean before her in this last breath. She would not be able to explain how she finally felt at peace when she saw the sleek, dark bodies in the water, deeper than she should have been able to see.
Aflame as a comet, she leapt.
At her second performance, Maria readily spied Helen’s thin face amid the crowd in the packed tent. From the stage, Maria thought Helen was a hallucination, for surely the Helen that stood before her was a ghost. Time had not been kind to her; Helen was thinner than a rail, as pale as the crescent of moon in the sky. She had wrapped herself in a brown cloak, a hood covering her hair but not disguising the fact that she was soaking wet. She shivered despite the fact that she was packed against sweating bodies all clamoring for Maria to perform.
Maria was clad in ruby, a cascade of crimson as she took the stage. This time she intended to draw the crowd into her cathedral heart, to show them the chambers of their own; to walk with them the pathways of veins and muscles that made their interiors landscapes so remarkably identical. But when she opened her robes and skin, it was Helen’s haunted eyes she found in the crowd. It was Helen’s memories within herself that she connected with. Maria shook the robes off. The tent around them vanished and they all stood elsewhere, a place of Helen’s choosing: her old speakeasy.
Silence Dogood’s Library rose around the audience in its Prohibition splendor, polished wood floors protected by lavishly hooked Turkish carpets, doorways softened by the fall of silken and velvet draperies, corners mystified with deep private booths and flourishing ferns taller than a man, meant to disguise the inhabitants of said corners. Maria had never actually entered the speakeasy; had only seen the door of it, in Helen’s memories. Neither had she ever conjured it for a crowd, but now that she did, the audience applauded the wonders and lost themselves within the wonder of another place entirely. Pearl-draped dancers writhed upon the light-burnished stage and tuxedoed men lingered alongside the mahogany bar, the air fragrant with perfumes, cigars, and alcohol alike.
A freshly opened case of bootlegged French champagne sat upon the floor, and Maria found herself intrigued enough to move within her own creation, taking one bottle in hand and carrying it behind the bar where she uncaged the cork. She poured for herself and drank alone, but watched the circus patrons as they experienced Helen’s speakeasy around her.
They appeared astonished by it, curious about the heavy curtains that could be drawn to transform the room into a long hallway as harmless as houses. They behaved as if they belonged, taking their lewd behavior to the nooks that populated the darker walls. Maria supposed the alcohol was what was lewdest of all, illegal for years now; the champagne was extra sweet upon her tongue when Helen sidled up beside her.
“It was just like this,” Helen whispered. “A glory.”
Maria dared look at the woman beside her, the woman she’d been outrunning for so long because she didn’t want to lose what the sealskin had given her—her life, her entire life. Maria had known Helen a long while but through memories only. They had never spoken, because Maria surely knew what Helen wanted, that she wanted the skin Maria had plucked from the beach and worn into the water. Maria’s body quaked at the idea that it would be taken from her. The idea that Helen had known the same sense of loss was a whisper against her ear, a secret not yet entirely voiced.
“This isn’t California,” Maria said, but it was also a question.
Helen shook her head, water dripping down her cloaked shoulders. Eternally drowned. “No. California was later. I went there twice. Once to give up my life and once to give up my skin.”
Maria’s skin seemed to crackle with electricity at the admission. She knew the feel of that skin, the warmth of it, the blood of it. But to give it up?
“Yes. I left it there, because I wanted...” Water cascaded down Helen’s body again, pooling cold around Maria’s feet, the spilled Pacific between them. “I wanted to go back, back to the land.”
The vise around Maria’s heart eased a little at her words, but the water chilled her feet and she knew it was not that simple. “But?”
Helen turned her gaze from the dancers to Maria beside her. Helen’s eyes, as blue as the sea at sunset, were dry as if she had never shed a single tear, as if the water that still flowed from her couldn’t actually touch the depth of her. Maria stared, trying to understand the woman before her, if truly they occupied the same space.
Maria reached for Helen. Holding her champagne in one hand, she slid her free hand up Helen’s arm, surprised the woman did not evaporate at the touch. Helen was as solid as anything in the world, but she was cold, as if she’d spent her days at the bottom of the ocean. Maria knew that coldness well, how a body could float between wakefulness and sleep while the world passed on overhead.
“I am as real as you,” Helen said, “but this world wants nothing of me.” The words were quietly spoken, Helen reaching toward Maria. It was the champagne Helen tried to grasp, but under her touch the glass shattered. Champagne spilled over Maria’s hand, across the bar, to dribble over their feet. “When you give up the land, it’s forever. Had a man taken my skin and hidden it away—”
At this Helen broke off, her jaw tightening.
“My human guise was not meant for this world,” Helen said, “so yes—” Helen’s eyes met Maria’s once more. “I have come for my true skin. It’s your turn, to give back what you have stolen. To abandon the land as you made me abandon the water.”
Maria’s reply was instant. “No.”
Around them, the world fell down. Silent Dogood’s Library crumbled, fire scraping the building from the sky. In clouds of illusory ash and soot, the circus tent slowly returned, but it too seemed aflame, genuine fire sparking across the night’s darkness. Maria shrieked in surprise, and the crowd erupted in screams as they fled. It was ridiculous—a tent burning, when they were of the sea, when even now water darkened Helen’s cloak.
“You will give back what you have stolen!” Helen cried, and lunged for Maria.
But Maria, not made hollow by the world the way Helen had been, easily avoided her. Helen stumbled to the ground where not even the fire seemed able to touch her. The flames licked straight through her. The water flung by bucketfuls from the troughs onto the burning tent was what carried Helen away, dissolving her as though she’d never been there. But she had been there, and Maria’s heart did not cease its panicked hammering until she was once again in her train car, kneeling before the still-locked trunk that contained the skin.
—rendered down, but not away.
I don’t know. Was it that?
They say the first time you hit the water, you’ll regret it, that you will instinctively turn for the shore, because your lungs fear the water. But the water, once given a sacrifice rarely lets it go. The water knows how to pull you down, suck you in. The water knows how to turn your legs to jelly, how to exhaust your arms the more you struggle.
What is certain is this: in the cold dark, everything momentarily does not matter. My lungs collapsed, breath streaming for the surface as I sank, and it did not matter. The womb that had held and lost a daughter beneath his pummeling fists did not matter. My bones were not fractured and the police were not searching the library speakeasy for illegal hooch. Everything was impossibly, beautifully quiet.
The cold of the sea stole into my summer-hot marrow and calmed me. Arms that were not exactly arms enfolded me and drew me down, giving me new life, wrapping me in a skin no other had worn. A skin that had not been abused by careless lovers. A skin that was mine to do with as I wished. I could allow it to protect me, I could shed its shelter and shamelessly abandon it.
They say you never will.
They know better.
Ruth Howard visited the cold gray waters off Grand Manan island, smiling soft when they said no lady should go to the lighthouse alone. It was the singular thing that made her reconsider her decision—they had thought her a lady after all—though she’d taken her time about it. It wasn’t a thing to do lightly—nothing about her life had been undertaken lightly, though everyone she knew seemed determined to argue to her that it had. Couldn’t she be at ease in the body God had given her? God didn’t make mistakes, they insisted. Ruth knew otherwise, for God had also given her a heart and a mind. She’d never felt like the man she had been born as but rather something other. Woman didn’t entirely encompass it but perhaps came closest, but the world would have nothing of it, so she sought the cold waters that licked the hard northeastern stones to pieces.
Swallowtail Lighthouse was squat and pale in the evening’s gloom, looming over Ruth’s shoulder when she sank to the stones to sit a while. They chilled her right away but were smooth under her bottom, solid. She closed her eyes and reveled in the way the stones held her up and wondered if the stones beneath the water would be so kind, so strong. She never imagined herself floating, but sinking and staying sunk, in the shadows where she’d bother none.
Given the legends, she sometimes imagined the seals welcoming her, but the waters stood indifferent and empty before her. There was no pier to walk, no place to stand that she might wait for the waters to calm and receive her. And so she sat, until her bottom grew uncomfortably cold, until she had to stand and pace along the rocks, the lighthouse her only witness.
“I have wanted for company,” she said to the sea and sky, balanced on a rock that would have to do as her pier. Given how those in her life had shunned her once they knew the truth of her, she thought that perhaps it was only right, that she was also alone at the end. Audubon had come here searching; Willa Cather, too. What had they found?
She looked behind her only once, at the stain of orange sunset across the far western sky. A dark line of birds moved into the shadowed tree line, and then all was still, at peace. Ruth looked back to the waters before her, to find they had also stilled. She bent from her hips, to look at her own reflection; her hair, once so carefully allowed to grow, now cut in uneven chunks by a violent straight razor. Her hair had grown nearly to her shoulders when they’d come for her, the razor leaving glancing kisses against her stubbled cheek.
In the water, a small hole made itself known, a blackness that reflected nothing. Ruth stared for a long while until one hole became two, and nostrils blew out an impatient breath. Her eyes widened, but she did not retreat or run away shrieking. From the water emerged a face, sleek and brown, wide eyes blinking up at Ruth. The toothy mouth moved in what seemed like a grin a second before the seal shot back beneath the water.
“Will you wait?” Ruth asked, unbuttoning and shedding her cardigan on the stones. In the waters, the seal peeked its head out once more, then flipped over, delighting in the swim.
Ruth ached to do the same. She stripped her clothing from her body, leaving it in lumps upon the rocky shore. Her shoes came last, still her work boots because she couldn’t find anything proper in a larger size. But she supposed, as she stuck her bare toes into the chilled Atlantic, that shoes no longer mattered. She wouldn’t need any such thing at the bottom of the sea.
The water stripped away everything the land had demanded she to hold on to. The deeper she walked, the more the water took—but also the more it gave. The seals came in earnest now, their sleek bodies ringing Ruth when the land slipped from under her feet. Fear told her to paddle herself back, but the desire to be who she truly knew herself to be was stronger. Ruth sank into the water, blowing the air from her lungs. In the bubbling darkness, she shed her skin. The seals brushed past her and there came in the dark the emergence of something tremendous and strong, something glossy and brown and wholly true. Something that had been just under the surface all along.
Once the circus had gone to bed and the tents were empty but for the salted California wind blowing through them, Maria opened the trunk. The lock stuck a little and was cold in her hand. The hinges squealed a low warning when she lifted the lid.
The skin was neatly folded beneath the billowing burgundy crepe silk of a ball gown. Maria pushed the gown aside to lift sealskin out. It was heavier than she remembered, as she closed the trunk lid and spread the skin upon it. She folded back a corner to expose the fine fur on the other side and found it more gray than she remembered, strands of silver shooting like stars through the mahogany. She stroked her fingers over it, fearing for a moment it would pull her in, swallow her up, but it did not move.
Maria left her train car, carrying the folded skin against her naked chest and belly, holding it almost as she would a child, cradled and secure. She walked toward the water, which was not distant at all, just on the other side of the circus and its boardwalk. Her steps through the shifting sand were straight and true, and when the water licked at her toes, she unfurled the skin. It was smaller than she remembered, but as she stepped into its soft shadow, the skin proved itself large enough to encompass her as it always had. She drew the skin over her shoulders and imagined it was her mother’s coat; imagined that she was indeed a duchess, striding into the gentle, moonlit tide. A child’s dreams, still, but she was not disappointed in herself.
In the water, the human world fell quickly away. Maria pushed herself into the depths of the ocean, following the line of the boardwalk pier until she was in open sea. It was here the world fell away again, that water became something else entirely—a gateway, a conduit, a doorway to an island no human would ever find. The island was stone, but deeper inland were soft meadows, and everywhere the air smelled like salt and sweet fish. Soft clouds of sphinx moths whirled around buttery plumeria blooms, lifting into the star-flecked sky when their search for nectar proved fruitless.
Maria hauled herself from the water, breathing heavily from the long swim. Her limbs were heavy, muscles happily burning as she stretched in her loosened sealskin upon the moon-cooled stones. There, she found her sisters.
They came to her with caution and curiosity, seal noses blowing air and water upon her as they drew in her scent. Maria had been gone so long, she wondered what scents the sealskin carried: train exhaust, cotton candy, the vague perfume of those invited back to the car after a performance. The selkies breathed deeply, some remaining as seals before Maria, others pulling themselves onto the rocks where they melted into their human forms, skins pooled around their waists.
Ruth Howard leaned against Maria’s shoulder, her hair long and pearl-tangled, falling to her thighs. She clutched at Maria, crying softly at the return of the woman who had seen her through the transformation.
“Hush now,” Maria said, and though Ruth quieted, the tears did not stop. Maria supposed it was how the ocean stayed full, the salt water coursing down the woman’s cheeks and breasts.
Clara came glowing from the waters, partly human and partly seal, resting against Maria’s thighs. Maria could not remember what year she had brought Clara to the island, for in this place they were ageless and eternal, safe from the cares of the wholly human world. And yet—the pleasures of the human world were not without merit. It was one thing to be safe; it was another thing live fully.
Maria thought of the sickly creature doctors had said would not live to be eighteen, nineteen, twenty. In the waters, how old had she grown? How large, so that the land could not whittle her into nothingness. Might it yet? Without question she had lived a life she never would have otherwise. But was it a life that was more properly Helen’s?
You will give back what you have stolen!
Not merely a skin. A life.
With a grunt, Maria pushed herself into the water, startling both Clara and Ruth. She didn’t want to think about it, about losing the life she had built. About how it was perhaps not her life at all but a debt owed to Helen, who now came asking for recompense. She floated weightless into the lagoon where her other sisters frolicked. Clara and Ruth trailed behind her but Maria outpaced them, then sank into the depths where she could watch their dark forms circling above her. It was not a life that felt untrue, yet in the depths of the water as she tasted seaweed and shells upon her tongue, she recalled her life that had been, the life of Louise Barnard, who perhaps should not have lived at all.
Water always circles back. It runs to the horizon and even if it slips over the curved edge, it finds its way back. Even if it is pulled into the air to become a waterspout, it collapses once more to the body that held it. Thunderstorms shred themselves across ocean horizons. Cyclones spin themselves into fathomless whirlpools—Moskstraumen, Saltstraumen, Charybdis, Naruto.
Water will not be denied.
Under the water, Louise could not hear her mother’s cries but watched through a wavering landscape as her mother found her discarded shoes. Her mother cringed at the sight of the blood-speckled slippers and refused to pick them up until the police came. Until others guided her away, shrieking. Through the sheet of the ocean, her mother’s flailing arms looked like sea birds, jumping into the hazy sky, then gone.
Then, Louise knew only the touch of the cool water around her and the way she was breathing the liquid as if she always had. She dared her lungs again, and this time they only expanded with every breath, strong and capable. The skin tightened around her.
The whole of the world above retreated and new sounds made themselves known to her; the ocean rumbled through her body, alive, fierce. Somewhere in the chasms of the sea, life sang. Louise pushed herself through the water, away from the shore and into the darkening depths where her breath streamed like bubbling pearls, where she swallowed fish and gnawed on coral, where the ocean and others like her made her welcome.
Maria draped herself in a kaftan made from circus tents. The canvas was rough, unadorned, and ragged where the hem dragged the ground, but the self-proclaimed duchess did not care. Perhaps it was the most true of her costumes, for the circus had taken her in much as the ocean, had given her the anchor Helen never quite found.
The fat lady of Jackson’s Unreal Circus and Mobile Marmalade smiled serenely upon the gathered crowd, their faces strange and unfamiliar as a whole, but among them she saw some of her circus family, there to witness what she hoped would be her best performance yet. Her best because it would be more than performance; for once, it would be real and true. The truth was the most difficult thing Maria could think to give them, and she was terrified at the idea. Her life beneath the sea had gifted her with the ability to open herself in a way no other could. Normally, she consumed, be it food or memories, but tonight, beneath the flickering gas lanterns, she hoped to give back part of what she had taken.
And if it hollowed her out and left her gasping? Maria had to trust it would not, and she had never been more frightened than she was when she strode off the stage and into the crowd. They parted for her on either side, though Helen alone did not move. Maria walked toward her, extending a hand. Helen’s expression was unreadable, but Maria suspected she felt something similar: fear, uncertainty, terror.
When Helen at last took Maria’s hand, their grips trembled together. Maria gently squeezed Helen’s hand and Helen leaked seawater. After all these years, after all this time. Maria cupped her free hand beneath the splattering water, licking it from her palm to taste the brine that was as familiar to her as breath.
“Tonight,” she said for the crowd, “you will be witness to something extraordinary.” Helen’s hand shook again and Maria tightened her hold. “You will be witness to the truth.”
Still, even the truth could use a flourish or two, so it was with an upswell of wind that they departed the circus tent, the striped canvas blowing back to reveal the boardwalk, the pier, and the ocean beyond. Maria guided Helen out of the tent and the crowd followed, some murmuring their discontent. This was not what they had paid for. And yet, Maria knew, it was. Everyone came to the circus seeking truths; even her.
“This is what I did, after all,” Maria told Helen, as if they walked alone toward the water. “I found my way and showed the same to others—those in need, those who could no longer live in this world.”
“But without that skin—” Helen faltered.
Maria allowed the circus kaftan to fall away. Beneath it, the sealskin draped her shoulders, but she was otherwise naked. She thought of herself as a pearl, tangled in a bit of seaweed, and behind her the crowd gasped at her outrageous display. Her wide feet imprinted the boardwalk beneath them, wet footprints made possible by the flood of water that rushed from Helen’s skin.
“I think it’s less the skin, and more the person,” Maria said. “Will I die?” She drew in a breath, her lungs as strong as ever. “Someday. But how could I live, knowing your pain?” Fresh sea water gushed between their joined hands.
Where the boardwalk met the pier, the crowd hung back, hesitating. Maria guided Helen toward the pier’s end, never faltering. One by one, some of the spectators followed down the narrow walkway, whispering their curiosity. Did the women mean to jump? Were they going to kill themselves?
At the pier’s end, Maria and Helen stood as still as statues in the evening light. The sky was a soft wash of orange and blue in the wake of the sunset, pelicans cutting a sharp line across the color. The sea was restless, and though the tide should have been coming in, Maria extended a hand and the water stilled. Those behind the women grew quiet, only gasping when Maria leaned toward Helen and softly kissed her.
“Who came for you?” Maria asked Helen. “That first time, who?”
Helen’s breath hitched in her throat, her breath sweet against Maria’s mouth. “Midori,” she whispered.
Maria understood then, because both women had known violence at the hands of their lovers, at those who should have respected them above all others. So it was that Midori came from the ocean depths, an ancient and silvered isonade chittering to Helen from the waters at the end of the pier. Maria could feel the way Helen nearly shook herself apart at the sight of the shark.
Helen did not have to be told to disrobe; she untied the ribbon of her cloak with clumsy fingers and shoved the cloth from her body. Her skirt and blouse were simple, her feet bare but for the seawater that still clung to her. Her knees did not buckle until Maria draped the sealskin around her shoulders.
“It will hurt,” Helen said, as if to remind herself.
“It is never without pain or grief,” Maria returned.
It was also never without beauty, and Maria had forgotten that aspect of it, as the sealskin reclaimed the woman before her. Rendered down, but not away. Maria stepped back and allowed the transformation to be its own spectacle for those on the pier behind them. The crowd spluttered as Helen leaped from the end of the pier and, in the vast space between here and there, became something other. The skin enveloped her, consuming feet, legs, torso. The sealskin writhed as if it too had missed her, and together, they dove into the water.
Maria breathed and the waters moved again, welcoming and deep, as shark and selkie frolicked. The crowed stared and Maria did too, the skin now well and truly out of her reach. She stood naked on the pier and had never felt more vulnerable than she did then, while the thing that had given her life moved farther and farther from her hold.
She extended her hand once more, to see if she might have sway over the sea, but it did not still, waves licking Midori and Helen into the depths. Maria drew her hand back and shuddered. Part of her wanted to leap in, wanted the beasts to carry her away. Would they? Would they come for her again? But the other part of her, the larger part of her, felt the pull of the world behind her. Its scent and its gravity were as compelling as the ocean, and she longed for the train that would take her to places she had not yet seen.
Grand Duchess Maria Romanov, who was neither a grand duchess nor a Romanov, straightened and turned, and walked naked through the gaping crowd. Seawater trailed in her wake.