First, she thought he was a man. Then, she thought he was a seal. But if you’ve ever seen the way a sea mammal disappears, becomes dark water, you’ll understand why she never thought he was a warm body but a bit of ocean contained for a while. When a slick being emerges fully formed from a void you want to grab hold of it. You want to ask it what it’s seen. Don’t make the mistake of thinking you’re any different, that the deep is darker than your own blood. The body is full of stories. Your blood will always let them in.
Her story begins with rough water. A year of sleeper waves that claimed beachcombers, obscured by pulses of marine layer. They say she was born on a night like this. That she rushed out of her mother’s body in a giant wave and after that, they couldn’t keep her away from water. She learned to swim before she could walk, and before she could swim, her father took her into the swells in a plastic pink floatie, far beyond the break.
By the time she was twenty, no one could navigate a red-flag day like she could. They say she would have made a great lifeguard, better than the stoner boys who patrolled the beaches for extra cash, but there was something about her that was too odd. She rarely made eye contact. She walked the beach by herself and swam at night. The neighbors judged her father for letting her go alone but he believed he had taught her well.
Imagine her: lonely, filled with adrenaline, ecstatic in her held breath as her body curved below fifteen-foot swells. Silver turbulence, sea spirits rising up from the drop-off. How deep could her legs have propelled her? How powerful can a body ever be?
Mornings she’d work for her father, a fisherman. She’d slice each catch and gut it, smearing blood along her arms no matter how careful she was, then wash it off before school, where she studied folklore.
Do you think she did it intentionally? During all of her sea-walks and secret sadness wrapped up inside her like invasive kelp, did she cry seven tears to tempt fate? Or did they just come, unaware of what they would bring?
Before this, she’d dated a few young men she’d met in class. They couldn’t swim, were afraid of water, but inevitably she’d end up in the shallows with them, holding their bodies like a reluctant mother, telling them to kick, to breathe, to cup their hands and move.
Then, one day he appeared like a washed-up flower from a funeral boat. Dark and surprising. Swimming in the shallows where moments before, there had been no movement.
The first thing she loved was the way his body moved. With soft intention, a moonpull. Then, his voice, friendly like he already knew her. Like a shell knows how to whisper intimately into an eardrum.
She had never seen him before. He greeted her, walking up the shore to his belongings. A black canvas bag she hadn’t noticed. He was new in town and wanted her to show him around.
Picture her walking with him, amazed that she could talk with him more easily than with anyone she’d ever met before. He seemed lonely too, hungry to talk about books and folklore with someone who shared the same esoteric interests.
Some say they saw the two eating together, and then they left town and walked back to the beach, where they disappeared beneath a pier. They lingered there for hours between the barnacle-crusted pilings. Imagine his silken hands on hers, his lips tracing her collarbone. Imagine her suddenly wet on top of the sand, wet like a wave spilling over him. Salt concentrated in their mouths, surprising heat overriding the damp cold. His energy like a wave sloshing into a coastal cave, rippling all the way into its back corners. A phosphorescent red tide of wild hormones and tenderness and the idea that they’d finally found something really good. Imagine him cumming on her belly, semen shimming in the moonlight like a silver snake.
After that they were never seen apart, swam together everyday. He kept up with her even when the swells grew into monsters with enough power to kill. He taught her a trick for holding her breath.
Some say what eventually happened between them was the result of great passion. Or of getting what she asked for. When a human and a sea creature love each other too much, it will always lead to destruction. Some say it was her cruel heart, a sealhunter. Others believe he transformed in more ways than one. He was many seals and many men, and mapped the bodies of young women to find deep spaces he could glide into and haunt.
She found it in the black bag in his closet, where she was looking for a lost pair of underwear. It’s glint from the overhead light caught her eye, and she pulled it out, repulsed and terrified. It was a sealskin with the cleanest slits, like a wetsuit, ready to be stepped into and zipped up. Was it fresh? Why did it look so immaculate, almost freshly laundered? She didn’t know what to think, but she knew he had a secret.
And then she remembered the passage from her book about sea legends: “Selkies, or seal people are shapeshifters. They can be summoned by seven tears shed into the sea. Selkies often seduce humans on land, only to quickly leave them again for the ocean. The only way they will stay on land is if their lover hides their seal coat. Then, they will be locked in human form.”
She couldn’t leave it but she couldn’t hide it, so she did hide it because being alone felt unbearable. She buried it in the dirt in a public park far away from the water.
She considered confronting him, but was it worth it? She was finally happy for the first time in her life. So, he had a secret. She spent her days cutting the hearts out of fish. Who was she to make assumptions?
She hid her knowledge like an anemone bloated with water, sucked up inside of herself. Truth is, she was never good at hiding anything. A toxic feeling congealed. In her body, muck built up.
He became moody and withdrawn. When he came over to her house, he touched her with rough hands and foggy eyes. She asked him what was wrong. What did he need from her? He threw a plate against the wall behind her head. Nothing. She ran out of the house all the way to the water and dove in, dropping tear after tear into each indifferent surge. He ran after her, crying too. I’m sorry, he said. How can you ever forgive me. I would never hurt you. And then he held her, warmer and softer than the water did.
So they stayed together. And every week this pattern repeated. Often they would be body-surfing, tethered by their intensity, and then: a comment he didn’t like. A wrong question. And they were like two sharks turned against each other.
Below the surface, who could know what ultimately happened between them? Some say he would take her underwater and breathe into her mouth and it was a sort of high for her, breathing half-air, her blood a roiling boil molten in cold water.
How could she have known he’d find it? That he’d end up in that park with another woman he’d secretly been seeing the whole time? The myths never mentioned that a selkie would be able to smell their own skin and step back into it.
Like that, he dissolved. They say she went to the ocean every day, and that eventually he did approach her, transformed again from a fish to a man. She asked what it was like down there. Surprisingly warm, sublimely bright, he said. If you want to come with me, I’ll take you. Then they’d fuck in the water, so desperate for it that the awkwardness didn’t matter. Salt water inside her, semen dispersing like pale squid ink. Then he’d melt back down into the darkness, and all night she’d ruminate about joining him.
They say there were months more of late-night conversations, of wet trysts that ended in fighting, and then an evening when he grabbed her and pulled her underwater against her will. Fading light, tightening muscles. Love sucked up by the instinct for air. Or perhaps not love, but something else. She fought her way back to the surface and knew. She liked it better up there, away from him. Even if that meant facing a different type of void.
Not long after this, she moved away from town. Some say to the mountains, where she lives beside a river, and has never come back to the ocean again. They still love to talk about it. They call her the sea spinster, or the water witch. No man would want her now, the women say. She was soiled by a figment of the imagination, a dark archetype.
Imagine her now living amongst the trees, bathing in the river filled with pinkly glittering trout. The deep feeling of the body: something dark swimming, rising up and holding her. Perhaps it breaches and disappears, only to breach again, different every time.
Truth is, she isn’t close to water. She knows what it must have felt like for our ancestors when they crawled out of the ocean, fins flailing in the dirt for a chance at something better. Was it for a good reason? If you’ve never known anything but slipperiness, you want something to hold onto. Imagine her now, having made it for herself. Imagine her warm and dry.