This page contains:
- Drug use
- Self-harming behaviors
- Sexism/gender discrimination
- Rape/sexual assault
According to the ways, when the head of a household passed away, his womenfolk had to refrain from lifting their feet in dance and their voices in song until the moon cast its full light down for the third time. During that interval, which, to be clear, could be three months, the mourners remained cloistered in their home and performed ritual ablutions to cleanse themselves of death, while their family and friends slowly entombed them within walls of food containers and condolence cards.
When her mom asked Oona to join her in observing this ancient duty, Oona said nah. The explosion that followed was totally understandable, but through it all Oona remained immovable and flippant.
Her mom spent the nearly three months of mourning performatively demonstrating her grief, while Oona sank down, down, down into a gloom. Though was the demonstration, even if scripted, performative if the two of them were the only witnesses? Oona mulled over the question from her cave of blankets on the couch, way down in the gelid depths where she was pointedly not showering and not otherwise abluting, and digging meals straight out of the containers. Her mom called her disrespectful.
The currents around her were dark and freezing, and her dad’s death hurt so much that weeks passed murkily overhead before Oona could rouse herself to defy her mom. She shot up out of her torpor and made Cian go with her to see a movie. She picked one at random, because any would do for the purpose of spite. Her mom called her shameful, skinless, and so on as Oona stepped out past the latest stack of baking dishes at the door. Oona shouted back into the dark house that decrepit elders who thought females needed to be cleansed of a man before being folded into another harem couldn’t tell her what to do. Then she huddled through what her brain processed as a slow blob of cinematic sound and fairy light, thinking only of her dad.
And now. Now this.
When the light of the moon shines full for the third time on the black sea, the bereaved are admonished that grief indulged in overlong is unbecoming.
Unbecoming? Yes. Unbecoming.
Though the sadness abides, the folk of the sea must be like the sea: always moving, moving on, with grace and joy.
Typically, “joy” was interpreted to mean a gathering with at least thirty guests, preferably about a hundred, and barrels of alcohol. So, a party. Oh, suddenly grief that a day ago required womenfolk to bathe at dawn and literally eat ashes was too much? When the woe was done those sassy womenfolk were down to party?
And that Oona could not stand for.
Cian and Sara, enlisted by Oona’s mom to “get this monster out of my hair,” took Oona to a café while the adults got the house ready for the sending down.
Cian and Sara alternated between acting as if everything was totally normal and fine, and assuring Oona that they didn’t mind her grief blanketing them in a damp silence. Oona just brooded. She kept picking at and adjusting her clothes. She was dressed in a black long-sleeve shirt and black leggings and even black socks, and she was uncomfortably hot.
Sara showed great kindness in being seen with them. She was California cool, golden of hair and tattered of cutoff shorts, while Cian and Oona were dark and slippery enough in looks that strangers started conversations by asking if they could speak English. But Oona had a hard time paying attention to what Sara was saying, because the Oona that Sara thought sat before her was disintegrating and washing out to sea. A new Oona was coming into view, and she was jagged, distorted, and definitely not an improvement.
The thing about this new Oona who no longer brushed her hair or smiled, and who basically looked like Sadako, was that she did not give two shits about pretty much anything. Oona was like a dark reflection of herself.
Oona twisted absently at the fabric of her leggings, which were making her itchy. She didn’t realize that Cian had abandoned the attempt at normalcy and gone down to the beach until she was staring at his figure on the sand. Awareness came slowly as her mind surfaced: the frozenness of Sara’s smile, the way the man at the next table smiled at Sara, how Sara pretended the man wasn’t there as he oozed his face closer, his mouth opening and closing. Oona snapped back to herself.
“Oh, excuse me,” he was saying. “I’m sorry to interrupt, but are you selkie?”
“I can always tell,” the man said. “It’s the eyes.”
It was always the eyes, thought the dark reflection of Oona. When it wasn’t the mouth.
“Anyway,” the man said, “I didn’t mean to interrupt, but I just had to let you know that your English is excellent. Really excellent! I’ve been all over the world. And met selkie just about everywhere. And never before—and I mean never—have I heard such perfect English coming from people with faces like yours.” The man almost twinkled, he was so charmed. “If I hadn’t looked over just now, I would never have been able to tell that you were selkie. Where are you from?”
Shadows passed over Sara’s face, whole clouds of things she could have said, but she said only, “Um, here.”
“I mean originally?” The man did not even look at Oona, though she now stared incredulously at him from beneath her moldering curtain of hair, and of course he didn’t, because she was a shapeless creature wrapped up in a black membrane.
“Here,” Sara said. “San Diego. I was born here.”
“I’m sorry,” said dark Oona. “My friend and I were in the middle of a conversation, and we’d like to get back to that, please. Thanks.”
The man wet his lips and said, “I once witnessed a transformation. In Newfoundland, where your kind have a huge colony. First there was a dark creature in the water. Then there was a woman shining in the sunlight. She came out of the froth as naked as Venus, and her skin was as white and pink as any other woman’s. The water cascaded from her like pearls. She was so incredibly vital.”
He went on, in the way of his kind. He gestured enthusiastically. Sara sat in silent embarrassment, smiling but not smiling at all. The girls shifted in their seats, restless like disturbed water, casting their eyes away and off. Where did you step out of the sea, they all wanted to know. From what place did you emerge, chittering musically, the water falling from you in coruscating droplets, your bouncy parts bouncing, your laughter the cry of the untamed.
A typical selkie story went like this:
A man who lived within striking distance of the sea, one day encountered some intriguingly luscious people frolicking on the shore. Near them were strewn what appeared to be fur pelts. Sometimes the man crept up and grabbed a pelt and ran away, and sometimes he charged the group, for some creepy reason, and seeing that they hastily grabbed up pelts as they fled, he grabbed one, too.
The one whose skin got snatched generally turned out to be a beautiful maiden (obviously). She pleaded with the man to return her skin, for she could not go back to the sea without it. But he hid the skin and made the selkie his wife.
The selkie wife proved to be the kind of foreign import that was superior to the domestic variety, like a fine French wine or a delectable Greek olive. She was submissive, docile, and frugal—all the things one wanted in a female.
She kept his house and bore him children, but she never stopped looking for her skin. With the luck of someone who wasn’t trying to find it, one of the children eventually came across the skin, and showed it to the mother. Though she sincerely loved her children, she grabbed her skin and ran straight for the sea.
Sometimes her kidnapper—sorry, her husband—was close by and gave chase, but he couldn’t beat her to the water. She threw on the skin as she splashed in, saying (probably out of panicked fear) that she loved him, but that she loved the sea more. The man’s last vision of her was usually of the shining ebony eyes of a seal disappearing beneath the waves, its expression unreadable, dark, gone.
Oona hated selkie stories.
People did not tell stories about selkie who had lost their skins and lived dry lives. Or stories about selkie who never took their skins off at all. Only that moment of transformation was interesting, especially when paired with loss. Apparently, the essence of a people could only really be captured by tales in which an exotic woman was enslaved to an everyman rapist, whose faults weren’t his personally and simply reflected the way of the world. That was the essence of all sealieness. Apparently.
Oona once confessed to a friend how much she hated selkie stories. To her surprise, he told her that, actually, she just didn’t understand them.
She was too close, he explained. She identified with the selkie woman who had allowed her skin to get taken, so she couldn’t help but feel the story was about her, and that clouded her judgment. As a clear-eyed, unbiased outsider looking in, he could see that the story depicted selkie as powerful in their own right, because it was about the folly of trying to tame the untameable.
Her friend also confided to her, one day, that she smelled like dog fur warmed by the afternoon sun. In a nice way. They ended up attending different high schools, which made fading out of the friendship easier.
Oona’s mom almost had a selkie story of her own, and the incident had been burnished through so many retellings that it was practically family legend.
When they came of age, so the story went, Aislinn and Caoimhe left the Emerald Isle and went journeying to see the sights of the world. The custom was popular among landed selkie, since it gave them the chance to prove that they were still in touch with the ways and the deeps and weren’t skinless. And they got to party without their parents around.
The sisters departed with a group of youths from their North Atlantic clan, and the group grew and divided as they met other folk and chose their own ways. They met the selkie of the world, some of them landed like them, others still living out in the watery deeps.
One afternoon, Aislinn tucked her skin beneath herself and took a nap between some sunbaked rocks. She woke to a stranger trying to pick her up. He had one hand on her neck and one on her skin. At this point in the story, someone sometimes interjected that the man might simply have been trying to help an unconscious girl on the beach. Or that he only meant to cover her with her leathery blanket. Who knows what nonfolk are thinking when they touch a skin? And who knows what men are thinking when they do anything?
But at that moment, panic seized Aislinn. Gone were the days when a woman would go quietly with any man who snatched her skin, if those days had ever actually existed, which they probably hadn’t. But if Aislinn grabbed at her skin and he didn’t let go, it could get torn. A whole dry life potentially stretched before her.
“Give it back!” she screamed, and her fear was so great that her scream was so piercing that the eardrums of all the people around shattered into ten thousand pieces. Everyone, folk and nonfolk alike, shook in their skins. And the man, perhaps realizing that this selkie was actually some kind of banshee, uttered an “oh!” and dropped the prize. The scream had practically knocked it out of his hands.
Oona’s mom was the only person in her immediate clan who had a stranger lay hands on her skin, let alone come anywhere close to having it taken, and people still teased her about it. But that wasn’t where the story ended.
The North Atlantic throng had recently been joined by a group of strapping Grey Sea youths, among whom was a somber lad quite obviously stricken with an unrequited love for Aislinn. A properly snooty North Atlantic girl who was proud of her lineage, Aislinn had promptly snubbed him after hearing that his homeland was just a few slimy boulders. She’d even forgotten about him. But when this grey-eyed rustic heard what happened, the lad ventured across the social divide (shirtless, Aunt Caoimhe never failed to remind everyone) and offered Aislinn his skin, saying that if anyone’s was stolen because of her, he wanted it to be his.
And that, everyone said, was that.
Oona really hated selkie stories.
Cian and Sara bickered the entire car ride to Oona’s house, which Oona found comforting. She wanted to disappear into the back and forth of their voices, but once they were at the house, Cian and Sara fell silent and looked at her expectantly, maybe a little fearfully. She had to assemble herself. Not the her that she was becoming, but that old Oona that everyone thought she still was. She gave them a smile and opened the car door, ready to go. Sara smiled back, but Cian didn’t look like he was buying it.
Inside, people were gathering, putting down food and flowers wherever they could find space. Her cousin Ronan, ever capable, was busy setting out tubs of ice for the liquor. Cian’s mom came forward with a big smile, naively assuming that a few hours away had been enough time for Oona to mellow. She hustled them toward the stairs to get changed, but Oona hung back.
Cian’s mom wilted. “I thought your mum made this clear, Oona. It’s time to put on sending down clothes. Come on now.”
“Mom.” Cian tried to pull her away.
Oona said, “These are my sending down clothes.”
The chitchat near them ceased right fast. The guests doubtless all knew that Oona had been sent away for the day for trying to smash up the memorial altar “like a forsaken skinless,” leaving Ronan to be the good cousin, as usual. She’d only tried to arrange the pictures the way she liked them, but okay, her input had clearly not been wanted.
Everyone was wearing sending down clothes, their swimwear visible beneath the tissue-like fabric. Flimsy, white, and made from dried seaweed fibers, sending down clothes were like those paper robes at a doctor’s office, but less comfortable. Ronan’s sending down clothes made him look all son of the sea, the open collar showing his tanned chest, his dark hair all windblown and his eyes all stormy, though they were stormy because he was trying to mouth something from across the room at Oona and she was ignoring him.
Her mom, the inimitable Aislinn, still stood crumpled and silent before the altar, gazing at the picture of the dead man with all the glam hanging off his chest. But she sensed the North Atlantic chill in the air, that bracing edge that promised gossip on the horizon, and her eyes found Oona in the sea of white looking like an assistant to the grim reaper. Her lips pressed down into the pinched mouth much practiced by her clan.
The air had become polar, which Oona decided she found exhilarating. Ahhhh, the zest of old people disapproving.
Once she was apprised of the situation, Aislinn took Oona by the arms and said, “You can’t wear this. It’s a sending down. You’re disrespecting your father. You’re disrespecting everyone here.”
Cian’s mom averted her eyes and disappeared with the siblings upstairs. Oona had nothing to say to her mom. She crossed her arms across her chest, which caused an audible gasp. Whispers swept back and forth until Cousin Gav parted the crowd like so much water and lifted Oona into a hug.
Her dad did not have nearly as many relatives as her mom. The remains of his clan consisted mostly of a handful of surfers scattered along the West Coast, some of whom were nearly not even blood relations, though they all still called each other cousin. Her mom’s family tolerated these Grey Sea leavings, but let them drift into their natural place, which was the corner of the room.
“You look a bit dour, Oona,” Cousin Gav said, trying to show off his pecs by smothering her in them. “Let’s get you some of Cousin Ara’s fire chili. It’ll put the toot in your horn.”
“Really, Cousin Gav?” she mumbled into his muscles. “A fart joke?” But she didn’t mind. Being an actual first cousin not even once removed, he smelled like a loamy version of her dad.
The difficulties had started nearly three months ago at the funeral, when Oona, the man’s own daughter, refused to join the shore dance.
The rest of his kin, from his closest brothers, who were his first cousins, to his aged Cousin Black, who was some kind of uncle and had come “all the way from Vancouver for this, Oona,” donned their selkie skirts to perform this sacred rite of grief. Loved ones had splashed and sung in the shallows of the sea to guide the spirit into the water, so that it would not dally and become lost forever on the dry shore. Selkie might get jobs driving trucks or working in offices, but their hearts never left the murky deeps, and they never forsook the sealie ways.
Except for Oona, who had started out swaying with the others, but stepped out of formation and retreated up the beach. Cousin Rory reached out his hands as he passed her, but let go when she shook her head. Cousin Mag nodded at Oona and flowed on by. Her mom’s relatives gazed at her with broken glass eyes that warned her that she’d be called on to explain herself. Her mom splashed over to ask her what she was doing. At first Oona just shook her head, but her mom, freshly cracked from grief and not understanding the ways in which Oona herself was cracking, started to get loud.
“I don’t feel like it, Mom,” Oona said.
Her mom was incredulous. Aghast, actually. Feel like it? Feel like it? “No one feels like having dead to mourn, Oona.”
Oona couldn’t find the right words to explain, and in the face of her mom’s anger her throat closed up. She was baffled that her mom didn’t see what she saw.
When Oona pointed out the clueless onlookers up on the bluffs smiling and waving and snapping pictures, her mom said, “Who? Who are you talking about?” She looked up at the bluffs, right at the people. “What are you talking about?”
Her mom was from a generation that had experienced much worse, and in her mind being treated like a performer was downright complimentary. Sometimes she even waved back at people. Oona didn’t know how to explain. She went, “blub blub blub,” and her mom gave up and left her standing on the dry sand.
Eventually, a woman inched over and said, “So what’s going on? I can’t believe I get to see this.”
Her dad only days dead and the world making no sense at all and her heart burning for revenge that she knew she would never get, Oona wiped her eyes and considered the best way to answer.
“The dancing is so pretty. The skirts are gorgeous,” the woman murmured. An older couple wandered over with friendly smiles to catch whatever Oona might say.
Oona said, “Nordstrom is having their half-yearly sale. You know selkie love a good sale.” She smiled at the nonfolk the way they smiled, with all their teeth.
She felt justified in being dickish. In those days, she was still in the grip of a conviction that she would hear his voice again, when he called to explain that this was all a terrible mistake.
During the months of mourning on the couch, Oona’s new attitude crystallized into a shell that her mom could do nothing to break. Oona had challenged everything, which exhausted both of them. She wouldn’t perform any of the ablutions.
“There’s nothing I want to ablute,” she said.
“That’s not how we do things,” her mom said.
“I don’t care. It’s how I do things.”
“You don’t understand how we do things. You don’t understand anything.”
“Isn’t the way I do things part of the way we do things?”
Her mom threw up her hands. “If you think you count?”
The words made Oona’s eyes sore. On the issue of what it meant to be sealie, she had perceived before a faint line in the sand between her and both her parents, but it hadn’t been like this. Before. So she stewed on the issue for days until she had a whole speech, which she launched at her mom:
“When you didn’t do what your parents wanted you to do, was that being unsealie? When your parents decided to do something different from what had been done before, were they not being sealie enough? If you’re sealie, does that mean you can’t like chocolate? Do you betray your people if you like sleeping in a house better than sleeping on the sand? Did the selkie always hang starfish charms in their cars for protection from traffic accidents? Was that how it was done in the Middle Ages? Why is your generation the baseline for sealieness?”
Aunt Caoimhe believed that Oona was “spiraling” and dispatched Ronan to save her life. This was an act of generosity on her part, as Ronan obviously represented the best possible outcome for a landed son. He was typically dark of eye and hair, yet chiseled enough of jaw for nonfolk to consider him decent-looking. And as a varsity basketball player and straight A student who ate AP classes like candy, Ronan was beating the nonfolk at their own game. One would’ve thought that he’d be considered even less sealie than Oona, but somehow the North Atlantic aunties and uncles considered him an emissary instead of a traitor, and the Grey Sea cousins were so intimidated by him they almost considered him an elder.
Aunt Caoimhe was Ronan’s biggest fan. She was convinced that if anyone could talk sense into Oona, it would be her son made of gold. So every time she came over to make up a pot of tea, she brought Ronan. When dispatched to Oona’s room, though, he spent the time either ugly crying over her dad or checking over her homework while Oona lay curled up on the floor. He said typical Ronan things, like “You’re taking algebra? Shouldn’t you be in geometry by now?” and “Your essay looks pretty good, but I read that book in fifth grade so I don’t actually remember all the details.”
Despite these Ronan-isms he was a good enough cousin and friend that Oona was able to tell him that she didn’t like this new family she was in. This new Oona or this new mom, or this new way that people looked at them. She told him that she felt like she was cracking, but not apart. Cracking open. And it hurt to think that the Oona that her dad had a part in shaping had just been a shell, and that the awful person now emerging might be the ultimate Oona. The real her. When she said stuff like that, his eyes got red, and he rubbed at them and sniffled. Sometimes they just sat in silence, though when they did they could hear only too well what the sisters were saying downstairs.
The phrases that floated up were complaints about Oona's behavior: It’s like she wants to go completely skinless. He was always torn about how landed a life this generation must endure. He would be shocked to see her now. We didn’t raise her to be like this.
Well, well, what can you do, Aunt Caoimhe would say. We’re on the Pacific Coast now, she pointed out. What do you expect? And remember how we suffered as children. In a way, it’s a good thing that Oona doesn’t know what it’s really like to be selkie.
Her petite mom annihilated Cousin Gav with one glare and dragged Oona into the kitchen, the better to harangue her. Oona flopped after her bonelessly. Oh, she could move like water, could Oona, no matter what they said about her.
Aunt Caoimhe and Uncle Donncha had taken over the kitchen and were laying out the entire troupe from Under the Sea on the counters and crooning old sea chanties at each other, which was gross, and inappropriate, actually. It was totally inappropriate. Aunt Caoimhe looked up and half her smile froze in place as she took in Oona’s blackness, though whether she took issue with the outfit or the scowl was unclear.
“Apparently, she still finds selkie clothing ‘touristy,’” her mom nearly shouted.
“You’re taking that out of context,” Oona said. “That’s not what I said.”
Aunt Caoimhe pursed lips at Oona that said we’ll talk later and handed Aislinn a glass of wine, and the sisterly discussion that followed felt like it could have been handled outside of Oona’s presence. Uncle Donncha, who not very secretly thought that Oona could be righted with some special algae supplements sent for from Galway, waggled his eyebrows at her and handed her a plate of shellfish.
“Eat up,” he whispered.
Oona knew that Aunt Caoimhe would start in on her as soon as her mom was done venting, so she hunched down and slunk out of the kitchen. Ronan found her downing the contents of an unattended wineglass.
“So you’re really going through with it? You’re sure about this?” he asked.
“Angry sure or rational sure?”
“You can still be rational when you’re angry.”
Ronan was quiet in the way that meant he disagreed, and yes, he was right about everything, literally everything, but sometimes Oona had to be left to do things her own wrong way.
Eventually, Aunt Caoimhe dropped her hands on their shoulders and asked Ronan to give her some “girl time” with Oona. She took Oona up to her room, told her to sit down, and leaned against the doorjamb with her hands on her hips. She wore stilettos, even when draped in a seaweed shroud, and smelled like fruity diamonds, and was always ready for battle.
Looming over Oona, she gave her niece a talk on respect and what you do for your elders, and Oona put her hands together in her lap and tried to look attentive. Even if these old customs are pointless to you, they mean something to those who are folk. You are supposed to wear sending down clothes at a sending down. Our traditions are our connection to the ancestors who came before us. They’re how we reestablish that connection and express who we are. This is not the time. (When was it ever the time?)
Oona’s head felt like a balloon. She was floating somewhere near the ceiling and surprised that Aunt Caoimhe couldn’t tell. She didn’t feel light, exactly. She felt empty, emptied out, filled up with emptiness, an unbearable amount of emptiness that kept rushing in and was going to make her skin pop. She started to cry, but Aunt Caoimhe didn’t let up.
"Just put on a show for one night, Oona. You can be whoever you want to be any other day. You can put on a show for one night."
“Fine,” Oona intoned, to make her stop.
Aunt Caoimhe stayed watching in the doorway to make sure she actually changed. Oona peeled off the fitted black clothes that she had carefully selected, revealing her skinless skin dotted with light freckles on her arms and a mole on her knee. She stripped down to her bikini, which she was allowed underneath the shroud in deference to modern mores. Somehow that didn’t violate the injunction to be clothed in nothing but the impermanence of sea foam, and was that in any way consistent? No. Once she stood pale and unencumbered, Aunt Caoimhe nodded.
Oona came back down in the shroud shirt and pants. Cian was at the foot of the stairs scratching at his collar, looking like a child sacrifice waiting for a chance to flee. Fully aware of her plan to wear something dark into the water, when he saw her his mouth dropped open. Ronan followed Cian’s eyes, then shot his mom a look. Aunt Caiomhe smiled triumphantly back at him and spread her arms wide. Girls get it done, boyo.
The old ways dictated that during a sending down the grieving were to array themselves in clothing like sea foam and carry the last mementos of the dead into the sea. Now that Oona was dressed in defeated white, the walk to the beach was done in contented harmony. Oona and her mom held hands as they led the way over the sand down to the water. They passed out mementos and candles to the guests, who lined up facing the sea.
Night had fallen, and the third moon glowed in the darknesses above and below. The folk stood pale over the dissolving waves as shadows loomed near them. Great-Aunt Kenna started singing, and of course she chose the song that took its words from Seal Lullaby, which was a whole other thing. Oona would have said something, but she had lost all her battles, so she just sang with the rest of them.
Black are the waters that sparkled so green.
A breeze played with their hair and tugged on their seaweed tissue shrouds, and the shadows opened eyes, extended curious fingers. As they sang, aged Cousin Black lit his candle, then used it to light her mom’s candle, and her mom turned and lit Oona’s candle. They looked like cultists, Oona knew. Her voice still failed her as they came to the end:
The storm shall not wake thee, nor shark overtake thee,
Asleep in the arms of the slow-swinging seas.
By the time the song came to a close, the candles formed a line of lights down the shore. They placed their mementos in their mouths and moved into the water, which seized their bare ankles in a grip of ice. The shadows whispered and loomed, pressing closer, but stopped short at the water’s edge. Oona shielded the flame of her candle in her hand and walked into the cold.
Her sending down clothes came apart and began to drift as the liquid ice closed around her. All around, the flickering forms of her clans faded into the gloaming, and as they disappeared into the depths, the candles above winked out. The trappings of the landed world fell away from their bodies. She kicked down and slipped through the ocean’s door. The water swirled and clicked, almost warm after the initial shock.
The heavenly vault above had no weight to carry them, and in it, they had to crawl as if maimed. The watery vault below was where they flew with grace and speed, though they had to clothe themselves as beasts to do it. Where did the selkie belong, after all?
Even among folk Oona was considered a good swimmer, with or without her skin. Her dad was teased for having to live such a dry life, though everyone knew he couldn’t help where he was sent. His cousins maintained that he was still one of the best swimmers among them. Oona was his proof. Cousin Rory liked to tell anyone who would listen that she could find her way home in a storm during a new moon.
In his own way, her dad hadn’t wanted her to be too landed, either. He wanted her to know the ways and the deeps, and understand the nature of the sea. The water seemed to be shapeless and forever changing, and dry land solid and unmoving. But the shore was what changed over time, grain by grain, while the water stayed the same.
The old story about her dad offering his skin to her mom was maybe true, maybe not. Her dad never admitted it, so it was probably true, sadly. But the dad she knew was practical. He was determined to train her so that she could always keep herself safe and whole. Being selkie meant surviving on both sides of the shore, her dad said. Folk and nonfolk alike thought of them as people of the sea, but that was only because nonfolk were definitely not of the sea. That’s not the way things really are, though, her dad said. Selkie lived between sea and shore, sea and sky. At the boundaries.
He had trained her to master the movement of air in her lungs. He had made her swim against the currents, and find her footing on sludge-covered rocks. She had perfected her dive until the power of one breath was enough to take her to the bottom of the sea. Together they had burst out of the waves like cannonballs and smashed back into them yowling. He taught her how to get in her skin in half a second, and made her do it in the dark, or while running, or with one hand behind her back. He made her practice snatching it up from the ground without breaking stride, and catching it in the air while hopping over rocks.
A couple years ago he started teaching her how to navigate. One evening, back when the sea was still green, they lay side by side on the water perusing the sky’s map of the world. He tried to quiz her on the instructions in the stars while she poured forth her latest thoughts about the world. She was so happy to be out on a swim that she missed the shadow.
“Sharks?” her dad muttered. Sharks were always around, but for some reason he seemed concerned. Only once he started casting around did Oona feel it, too. An electric tickle in the water. Small head and black eyes. A hunter angling its way closer. Her dad ducked down, and when he surfaced again he looked more puzzled than ever.
Then his eyes went sharp and animal. “Oona, are you bleeding?”
The question was embarrassing. She was, in fact, having her period. One of her first. An unexpected and unwanted gush of red. She hadn’t wanted to miss the night in the water, so she endured the gory process of using a tampon, which she was reasonably confident she had not inserted correctly.
“Uh,” she said. “Yeah.”
“Did you cut yourself?” His accent hardened in times of stress. The r became a mere feather touch, and the s a hiss of sea foam.
Her dad moved forward to examine her, and Oona leaned straight back and flowed away. The water between them was her wall, but it blocked off nothing. It hid nothing. Feeling cornered, she said, “I’m having my period.”
That stopped him. Right in his tracks. Of course, his senses should have told him that, too, and she saw him realizing it. He stared at her in a way that made her feel so stupid, so alien.
The r wasn’t back yet. She didn’t elaborate.
“How old are you?” he asked.
“Dad, I’m twelve!”
Twelve: still just an irresponsible baby, despite the blood of womanhood. Oona floated in shame, while her body continued to spread its fragrance through the sea.
He turned away from her, toward the open water, facing the threat that she had caused by thinking like someone who wasn’t folk. “You better head back.”
She wanted to protest that she could handle a shark, but Oona knew that she couldn’t. She swam back to the shore biting herself in her mind. Following at a distance, her dad escorted her out of the sea. He would be mad at her for being so unsealie in her thinking. Despite having to live a dry life for much of the year, he was the most sealie person she knew, at least according to her personal definition of sealie, which maybe didn’t count.
He took the ways of the water seriously. He had scars curling all down his arms and back that attested to his intimate knowledge of the dangers of the sea, this one from a shark, that one from a walrus, this one from damn Cousin Gav when they were exploring a wreck. The jag down his shoulder was from a harpoon, don’t ask. Oona thought his scars were cool, but he reminded her that he’d gotten each one because someone had been dumb. I don’t want your skin to have these kinds of scars, he’d said.
Her dad got out of the water and turned to her looking as black as night. He just stood there with his hands on his hips. Oona could say nothing. The distance between them yawned wide.
Then her dad pulled her into a hug, squeezing her so hard her bones creaked and the water ran out from between them, and whispered, “My girl.”
He didn’t say anything else, and he didn’t say anything afterward, either. Instead, he gave Oona her first dive knife. The traditional coming of age gift was usually a stone blade, but her dad did not intend for her knife to be symbolic. The one he gave her was steel and shone like a wet tooth. He ramped up the training, taking her on swims so long she wobbled and fell to the sand when they returned to shore. He taught her to identify the shape of the land around her by the way the water moved. He made her memorize the stars of both hemispheres.
Now Oona hung alone in the cold and lightless deep. The rest of them had released their mementos to the sea, and the edge of the ocean speckled with the patter of feet stepping onto the sand. They would all be congregating at their cars to wrap themselves up in towels and put on clothes for the drive back. Oona stayed where the water felt thick enough to hold her.
He was long gone, she knew. He was a bunch of memories, and even those were unraveling. He was scattered shadows in the water and the smoke from candles already gone cold. She held the very last scrap of his skin in her teeth. She put her hands to the bit of pelt and squeezed it between her fingers. She bit down so hard that if it had still been a part of him, he would have bled. Then she let go. The smattering of inky speckles fluttered away into the dark.
She shot upward like the water was sending her on her way. On the surface, the movements of the sea cracked the light of the moon into countless jagged reflections that winked in and out around her.
With this last rite done, the period of mourning was officially over, and everyone would be heading back to party. She watched as folk made their way up the beach and didn’t particularly want to rejoin them. What she wanted was to grab her skin and disappear forever. Eat seaweed and clams all day. Swim with dolphins. Of course, she’d have to go home and get her skin first.
When she climbed out onto the sand, she was so focused on her thoughts that she missed the shadow.
“Hello, selkie,” it said.
He stood not more than a few steps away, and her terror at his sudden appearance made Oona nearly fall back into the water. She took in his gray hair, his polo shirt and boat shoes, his amused smile. Stupid. She was so stupid. The shallows were where a selkie was most vulnerable, a fact that had been drilled into all their heads since they were toddlers, yet this beige guy had taken her by surprise. Oona stood before him in a bikini and not even a thread of seaweed left on her. She felt her skin practically glowing in the dark.
“You’re selkie, aren’t you?” he asked, his eyes on her skin, all over all that skin, following the water trailing down, down.
Which was exactly why she had wanted clothes.
She started walking back, pulling her hair around to the side to shield her face from the beige man, as if a curtain of sodden hair would do anything. He fell in step with her as if they knew each other. He commented on the nice night, and how he had seen this shape zipping along in the water and known it was a selkie. He asked her how her swim was. What her name was. If she lived in the area. He told her she reminded him of a selkie he’d known. He spoke casually, just being friendly, his eyes still taking it all in.
She couldn’t believe she had just done the whole emerging from the water thing for this guy. Stepped gloriously out of the sea right into him. She tried to angle in toward the sand, but he didn’t move away to maintain the distance, and she didn’t want to get closer. She gave up and kept splashing in the shallows.
Oona felt her bikini bottom riding up but didn’t want to draw attention to the area by pulling it back down, though she wondered which was worse, showing more skin of butt or drawing attention to the curve of butt by trying to cover up the skin? She considered diving back into the water to get away, but that felt like letting the man win, and she didn’t want to give him the satisfaction of seeing her ass go wiggling off into the sea. He wasn’t giving her enough space in the sand, though, and she was eventually sloshing along deep enough in the water that she was splashing herself in the face.
“You look just like her,” he said. “Your eyes and your face. It’s the eyes. Your mom’s name doesn’t happen to be Molly, does it?”
She laughed, but sweetly, like he was delightful, and that disgusted her. She should be like stone. Obdurate. Immovable. Impossible to deal with, her mom said. Strong. But hardness wasn’t what mattered, was it? Water seemed to lap and lick powerlessly against stone, but the water would win in the end.
Embarrassment at her uncleanness welled up in her, then anger, and abruptly she was aware of the dark, crystalline Oona within her, who had been transformed from her original material into something not just hard, but filled with edges. Dark reflection Oona said, “I have to go now. Sorry. Have a good night.”
“Sure,” the man said, and took her elbow.
Oona jumped back into the water. The whorl his lingering fingers traced as she pulled her arm away made her skin burn. He almost tried to take her by the hand.
The man backed up immediately, too. “Sorry! I didn’t mean to startle you. I was just going to give you a hand.”
Master your breath, her dad said.
“No. Thank you,” she said. “I’m fine. Thanks.”
“It’s not a problem,” he said, holding his hand out again.
“Sorry, but do you see that group up there? That’s a funeral gathering. For my dad. I need to get back over there.”
The man looked up at the road, where the last few people were drying themselves off. Oona could make out Ronan and Cian perched on the hood of a car, waiting for her. She wasn’t sure if the man could tell they were folk, since they weren’t teenage girls in bikinis. Then, for the first time he actually looked into her eyes.
“I’m so sorry to hear that,” he said. He glanced out at the water, funeral clearly making him think burial.
“Yeah, he went for a swim. My dad,” she said. She felt the nastiness rising in her voice, and it felt good. Aunt Caoimhe’s disapproval whispered in her mind. Would her dad not have known her? Well, then. Maybe he hadn’t known her. Or was this the her that he had wanted Oona to be? This new black Oona emerging from her own ashes had to be someone her dad had meant to exist. Her skin crackled.
“What happened?” the man asked, eyes wide, and because of his ridiculous behavior Oona was furious that he dared to ask this not entirely unreasonable if kind of impolite question.
“Gored by a walrus.” Her hands were shaking. “You can’t win every fight.”
He had gone to pick up pizza to celebrate Oona acing her algebra test. Fair was fair, he said, even if Oona just had to get double chili peppers. He met a car blazing through a red light. A man like him, the Grey Sea lad who had swum across the Atlantic by himself at sixteen and hitchhiked across what would become his adopted country, a conqueror of shipwrecks and decorated warrior, was still no match for a little passenger sedan. It crushed the pizza into his guts and a brick wall into his bones.
And so had passed Conor, a son of the sea.
“Gored by a walrus,” Oona said again.
She scooped up a handful of water and flung it at the guy’s face and took off running. She ran as fast as she could, and every stomp sent water fountaining up around her, which at least hid both the skin and curve of her fleeing butt. That short span of sand between land and water was treacherous for a shifting girl-creature like her. And those between steps when her feet first took hold were the most treacherous of all.
She heard the man swear at her. Calling her something. He yelled at her to come back, and she glanced over her shoulder to make sure he wasn’t following. His voice blew rudely around her, but his words were just sea spray drying on her skin.
She still listened to them. She had to listen, just as she had to watch, because the black shadows would always be there, lapping and reaching. Some crouching figure would always be lurking just out of sight, waiting to catch the one for him.
Editor: Vanessa Aguirre
First Reader: Rachel Ayers
Copy Editors: Copy Editing Department
Accessibility: Accessibility Editors