Ourselves We Find In The Sea
What would you do, to get yourself back? What wouldn't you do?
On the island of Kallsoy there is a story. The story says that once upon a time, there was a woman of the sea who fell so in love with a fisherman that she shed her sealskin and walked on new legs out of the waves to be his wife. She bore him many children, and never again turned her gaze to the sea.
The story says: you can make a human out of what is not. The story says: this new human will even love you for it.
This is not that story.
Once upon a time, Ondine is born. They will say later that she was born in the waves, of the waves, wrapped in its frothy upper lip, but this is not exactly true. She is born on a night when there are no stars. A hundred fisherperson faces across the ocean are turned up toward the sky, looking for north and not finding it. The water presses close against the side of their wooden boats. Beneath them, Ondine comes to life in the way of fire and flood: all at once, and without consideration for the consequences.
The other pups are all born on land, but not Ondine. Ondine is born beneath the waves.
Her father calls her Nix because of the way she rolls her shoulders back and roars into the water. She is louder than the other seal pups, but still her mother bumps her nose against Ondine’s side and whispers, “Roar louder.”
Her mother speaks to her constantly. Her mother has a white spot on the top of her head that looks like a wave crashing on the beach. “You are mine,” her mother says, and, “don’t forget me,” and, “how do I sound?”
“Like me,” says Ondine.
“No,” her mother answers. “How do I sound?”
“Like being hungry,” says Ondine.
Her mother nips at Ondine’s fin. “No,” she answers. “How do I sound?”
Ondine sucks milk from her mother’s body. Her mother grows weak but feeds her anyway. Ondine grows strong. Her mother gives to Ondine what she was given when she was born. It is the only taste she has ever known, except for the taste of saltwater. Ondine says, “You sound like the water,” and her mother tells her, “Don’t ever forget.”
Every year, all the new mothers leave. Her mother is thin and tired. Ondine knows it is because Ondine has taken what made her fat and strong. When she asks where they are going, her mother says only, “One day you will have a daughter. Then you will know.” Ondine tries to follow, but her mother pushes her back. Her mother turns away and swims, fast and straight and far, until she has been swallowed by the dark dark dark blue of the water and Ondine can’t see her anymore.
She cries until her father rolls his shoulders back and roars into the water. Ondine echoes him. Miles away, she hears her mother’s voice like the water roaring back.
“Are you afraid, Nix?” he asks, and Ondine thinks. Her mother is gone. Her mother is surrounded by nothing but the emptiness of water. She knows that there are things in the water that are bigger than seals, things with sharper teeth. But her mother is strong. Her mother has scars from all the battles she has won. And Ondine knows how she sounds when she roars. None of the other seal mothers are as loud and fierce as Ondine’s, and so she says, “No.”
Her father lets her go, then, into the dark blue nothingness of water where the other pups are. She closes her eyes and spins, feeling the salt brush against her skin like a kiss. She is different from the others. She can feel the difference in her bones like a current.
“We are what we are,” her father tells her when she asks him why sometimes her skin tickles, why she wears her body differently than the other pups. He corners her against a rock and forces their faces together so that she cannot swim away. “Your skin will itch. You must never scratch it.”
Ondine doesn’t understand. It feels good to scratch. It feels good, the way her skin loosens, curiously.
“Just because something can leave the water, doesn’t mean it should,” her father tells her, and Ondine feels the first fire of discomfort worm its way between her blood and her skin. She blinks up at the roof of the ocean and wonders what life is like on the other side of it. Wonders what it would be like to swim to the shore and then keep going. Her father pulls back. He already knows that these are lessons she must learn through suffering when he says, “Never trust a thing that walks.”
There are things Ondine’s father does not tell her, like:
He is not afraid of killer whales but he is afraid of the way his daughter’s skin looks glinting in the light, the way it barely seems to cling to her.
“Nix” means “nothing.”
He has loved her mother for as long as he has been alive. He had not known it was possible to love and hate in equal measure, but then Ondine was born. He knew that she was different, that she would be the shifting shape her mother carried but never became. He was grateful to her mother for giving him Ondine, and hated her for giving Ondine the itch that would take her away.
“Nix” really means “shapeshifter.”
Her mother had felt the itch, too. Her mother had almost scratched it, many years ago. She had popped her head above the waves and stared out at the shore for a long time, then swam back to him. She was too fond of the water, she said, to bear the thought of sand.
What “Nix” really means is that Ondine was born in the sea but is not bound to it.
He does not tell her what he knows she will find out anyway, which is that there is no way to be only part of what you are. Seals must be seals and women must be women and creatures who are both must, eventually, be both.
Ondine knows that her mother is back because of the roaring. The other pups scream and swim in a craze, confused and terrified—are you my mother are you my mother are you my?
Not Ondine. Ondine closes her eyes and listens for the water, for hunger, for herself. She listens for a dragon in sealskin and follows the sound.
“Mother,” she says when she finds her, and her mother smiles.
“Ondine,” she greets, and tosses a dead fish into the water. Ondine catches it her jaws and eats. The fish tastes like being the strongest and the fastest and the best, which is to say it tastes like her mother’s milk, but harder to swallow. “You remembered how I sound.”
“I will never forget,” says Ondine.
She never does.
She does not learn to hunt; she was born knowing how. Ondine can hear the movement of a fin in water, the slip of a penguin through the ice. But more than that: when Ondine says come, the fish obey, drawn to her. She doesn’t know why. She doesn’t ask. She says come and then she eats. She is not afraid of the way a squid can wrap itself around her body and squeeze until the air is gone. Ondine squeezes back, with her teeth. Ondine squeezes harder.
Ondine learns to tighten her body to be like a stone. When she runs herself into things, they are helpless in her path; the force of her want can stun her prey into stillness. She never stops listening to water, or to the sound of hunger. She never forgets the way her mother sounds.
The other seal pups follow Ondine when she hunts. They know that she always finds the best catch. They also know that if anything comes to take her catch from her, Ondine won’t let it go; she likes a fight. Most seals flee when they hear whales coming, but not Ondine. Ondine smiles, and flashes her teeth.
It is not until her second birthday that she feels the itch.
The itch feels like this:
Fire, smouldering just beneath the surface, reaching for air to fan it.
Water, a steady current separating her skin from the rest of her, lapping up against its barriers and desperate to tip over.
Hunger, startling in its intensity, like her whole body is starving.
“Don’t scratch,” her father scolds her. “You’ll only make it worse.”
Ondine’s mother offers no advice. She says only, “You will suffer if you scratch. You will suffer if you don’t. Make your own choice.”
They are taught to fear fisherpeople, who steal their fish and will hit them with clubs if they get too close. The other pups keep their distance, watching the nets warily. It is easy to become ensnared in them. There is nothing worse to a seal than being unable to swim. Nothing worse to a deal than drowning in the thing that you love best.
But Ondine is not afraid. She is curious. She likes the look of their funny hands. She likes the sounds they make when they talk to one another, gentle, musical, soft in a way that ocean things cannot be soft. Fisherpeople: animals who hunt to eat. Ondine understands this. Ondine understands clubbing the creature that comes to steal your food. If Ondine’s body weren’t the only weapon she needs, she might club them, too.
But fisherpeople are fragile, Ondine thinks. They cannot fight with just their hands and teeth. They must invent things to help them.
“Don’t admire them just because they’re different,” her father warns her. “They’re no more admirable than killer whales.”
But Ondine does find killer whales admirable. They are strong and fast and hungry, like Ondine but bigger. If Ondine were bigger she would be like them.
Her father shakes his head. He looks at the sky and tries to find north, but today it hides from him and gives him no direction. “Be happy as we are,” he begs. “We can’t be anything else.”
Ondine’s mother says nothing.
The boat-bottom is wide and flat, except in the middle. Ondine swims beneath it, rubbing her back against the wood, bumping her nose into the engine as it idles. She hears fisherperson-feet adjusting, striving for balance. Ondine nudges again. Ondine laughs as the fishing rod falls into the water and a hand stretches down to grasp it.
She nips at the fingers, light, testing.
Two days later, the boat is back. Ondine tries to tip it over, but the fisherperson throws his weight in the other direction. She nudges again, and he laughs like dry land. He laughs like rocks baking in the sun. He laughs like the whisper of the breeze against too-dry skin that tastes like salt.
Ondine pushes her face out of the waves and looks at him. His fingers are curled over the lip of the boat as he looks back. His eyes are brown like earth, his hair yellow like sand.
“Hello,” he says. “Are you the one that’s been giving me trouble?”
Ondine rolls her shoulders back, but doesn’t roar. She lets him reach out to touch the top of her head. His hand is dry and soft, like his voice, like the top edge of his boat. Ondine is delighted by the softness. Ondine is delighted by how gently he touches her head, like a baby just learning how to touch things, how to move them.
“Well, friend,” he says, “I’m out of luck here, fish-wise. Any ideas?”
Ondine looks at his empty net, then back at him. He isn’t a very good fisherperson, she thinks. Not even as good as she was when she was a baby. He has no club to fight off the others with. What will he do if he meets a killer whale?
She dips back into the water. She will find him something to eat. It is good to help those who need it.
She listens and waits. When she hears what she is looking for, she takes off, leaving her sad, empty-handed fisherperson behind.
When she returns, fish trapped in her mouth, the boat is gone.
The next time, Ondine is smarter. She catches the fish and then goes looking for the boat. When her head breaks the surface of the water, mouth turns up for him, the fisherperson blinks in startled surprise.
He reaches down cautiously, wrapping a hand around the fish’s tale. Ondine lets it go, pleaser.
He looks at the fish, then at her, then back at the fish. “. . . Thank you,” he says.
“You’re welcome,” she answers, but it doesn’t come out right, he doesn’t understand her. He breaks out into a smile and leans forward to touch her head again. His smile is wide and flat and warm and Ondine can feel it like the sun on her skin.
The fisherperson gestures at the empty net. “This is enough for me, but if I don’t get some more soon I’ll be out of luck,” he muses. “You’ve fed me for the day, though.”
Ondine frowns. Why do fisherpeople need so many? How many children do they have to feed?
She dips her head below the water. “Come,” she roars. For a moment, nothing—but then she hears them, drawn to her, obedient. The fish swim into the fisherman’s net, eager. His mouth drops open.
He hauls the net up frantically, then puts it back in. Soon there are more fish than room in his boat. He stares down at Ondine. She stares back.
“You’re a miracle,” he tells her, and she wrinkles her nose, pleased.
She helps him again the next day, and the day after, and the day after. He thanks her every time, diligently, delightedly, with the softness unique to fisherpeople. He pets her head. He calls her miracle.
“My name is Ondine,” she tries to tell him, but he doesn’t understand. It frustrates her. Her skin itches. When he scratches her head it almost feels better, but not quite.
Desperate for him to keep scratching, she follows him to the beach. He gets out of the boat and waves to her, then turns his back and hauls his fish inside.
Ondine stays at the ocean’s mouth and wonders what that feeling is, that stirring in her muscles. She tries to shrug out of it, tries to rub against the sand until the itch is scratched.
It is not until she is scratching with fisherperson fingers at skinny legs that she realizes what she is.
Ondine roars. It sounds frightened, like a scream.
“Who are you?” the fisherperson asks, breathing heavily. He has just run from the hut she had watched him disappear into. He does not see the skin at her feet. “Where did you come from?”
“I,” says Ondine, and claps her fingers to her mouth. She bites down hard enough to bleed. None of her limbs are where she thinks they ought to be. Her fins are arms, her tail feet. She feels like she has been in the sun too long, dry and cracked.
The fisherperson shrugs out of his shirt. He holds it out to her. She reaches out foreign hands and does not understand. They stand in silence, eyes on the cloth between them, and then he takes a step closer. He touches her arm. “Do you need help?”
“Water,” says Ondine, not a plea but an answer.
“All right,” he agrees, not understanding. He pushes the shirt down over her head. It falls down below her knees. She can feel it scrape against calves she shouldn’t have, thighs she can’t find purpose for. What am I, she thinks.
She stumbles as she walks. The fisherperson holds her up.
It is not until later that she understands. It is not until the sun begins to go down that the hunger starts, the fire in her belly, the tingle in her fingertips. She sheds the shirt like another skin and presses her human mouth to his, her blunt teeth sinking down into his soft, soft shoulder. He is so breakable. He is so easily starved. Ondine must teach him how to fish.
“What are you?” her fisherperson wonders, and she wants to trace the outline of his smile with her new fingertips.
And oh, thinks Ondine as he slides against her like a wave on the beach, oh yes, this is what I am.
“A miracle,” she answers. “But you can call me Ondine.”
He asks questions in the dark that she doesn’t know how to answer.
“Where did you come from?” he asks, and Ondine says, “I followed you.”
He touches the bone beneath her eye, running his fingers from her fisherperson nose to her fisherperson ears. “Were you—did you come from the—?”
“Yes,” Ondine laughs, and bites his ear. He is warm, warm. He is like the sun in her hand. She can feel the currents of his blood, taste the salt of his skin. Fisherpeople are ninety percent water. She thinks she could swim the length of him. She thinks he might let her.
Fisherpeople! she thinks, delighted.
In the morning, while he sleeps, she goes back to the sea. Her skin lies on the beach where she had left it, defying the rise and fall of the tide, glittering loyally in the sun. She steps inside and burrows down and bites her lips until blood leaks out.
The water laps up and sews her skin up around her.
When she returns, her mother nudges up against her side. She says only, “Remember how I sound. It is the same on land as it is under water.”
Her father does not ask her where she has been. He knows, he knows.
On the island of Kallsoy there is a story. The story says that once there was a maiden who gave up all the things she knew for just one thing she loved. The story says that she held open her hands and fish sprang from them, enough to feed a village. But the people were ungrateful. They wanted more than she could give. They took and took and took until there was nothing left to give. The maiden gave until she was empty, and then she lay down on the beach and quietly died.
The story says, you will suffer if you do and you will suffer if you don’t. The story says: so don’t.
This is not that story.
“Where do you go?” her fisherperson asks, when she has spent a hundred nights lapping against him, re-making the ocean in his little bed. She can feel him dry and warm beside her, hungry. He is always hungry, his fingers always coarse and salty against her stolen skin. She does not belong on legs, Ondine knows, but they are useful.
When his alarm shrieks in the dark of the morning, Ondine smiles. Her teeth grow sharp in the dark, sharp enough to draw blood when she nips his ear.
“Shhh,” she whispers, and, “don’t forget.”
They go out into his boat and Ondine sits at the stern. She calls to the fish, and the fish come. They leap gleefully into his nets. Ondine tries to teach him the song, but he cannot sing it. He listens to her with his eyes closed, hand on her hip. Sometimes she jumps into the water, but doesn’t like the way it feels on her fisherperson skin; it isn’t the same. It feels like an unhome: the same in all ways except the ones she can’t describe.
“What do the words mean?” he asks her. “What are you saying to them?”
She laughs. “I am saying, ‘come feed my starving fisherperson,’” she tells him. “He has too big an appetite.”
“They’re not all for me,” he points out grumpily. “I sell most of them.”
This is a peculiarity that Ondine has not yet been able to work out: not all fisherpeople fish. Some wait for others to fish for them, like Ondine had when she was only a baby. But the fisherpeople do it their whole lives.
“All mouths are the same to the fish caught in their teeth,” Ondine points out, shrugging.
Sometimes, when she is back in the skin she was born in, she thinks she feels a difference in the way it fits. She looks at the other seals and thinks they seem unfamiliar, strange and unknowable in a way that she had not realized. Her fisherperson likes to read and to think and to dance. Seals don’t do any of those things. Seals hunt and lay in the sun and fight when they have to.
“Where do you keep disappearing to?” ask the others and Ondine doesn’t know how to answer.
“Not so very far,” she says. It is not a lie but it is not the truth either.
Ondine’s mother waits. She waits from the moment Ondine sheds her skin to the moment she puts it back on. Ondine’s mother knows the itch and understands why Ondine goes to the beach. But she says nothing. She knows too well her daughter’s stubborn streak to bother.
What Ondine’s mother does not say is simple:
There is no inside and no outside. You are not a maiden disguised as a seal, not a seal disguised as a maiden. You are always wholly both.
What is new is not always what is better.
What is old is not always what is better.
You will not find what you are looking for on land, because what you are looking for is you.
“Don’t go,” her fisherperson says after a hundred-and-fifty nights. “Just this once. Don’t.”
Ondine laughs. She sifts her fingers through his hair, his beautiful fisherperson hair. He likes to press their hands flat against one another—his are large, and swallow hers at the second knuckle. “I’ll come back,” she promises, but after she has said the words aloud she knows them to be wrong. Not this time, her body tells her. She has been so long out of the sea and it is almost time for mating season. Ondine is old enough to learn why the mothers leave.
But Ondine does not want to lie, not to this man with his eyes like earth and his hair like sand. So she tells him gently, “It may be a while.”
He pauses at the dresser. “How long?” he asks.
Ondine shrugs. She doesn’t know. Time on land doesn’t seem to pass the way it does in the sea. In the sea, time is wide and deep and dark blue; on land it runs in a straight line and never looks back.
“I don’t know,” she tells him.
He doesn’t look back as he closes the door. She waits for the truck’s rumble but it doesn’t come. She hears his boots outside. She hears him reach for the handle, hesitate, then close his fingers around the metal. She knows that it is cold to the touch, this early, before the sun has had time to breathe warmth onto it.
“Ondine,” he says through the wood, not pushing it open. “One more night.”
She hesitates. This skin pulls at her, prickly, painful even. It is loose and wet when he is pressed against her, but it burns and bites when she is alone.
“Just one,” he breathes, and she can hear his breath against the door.
“All right,” Ondine agrees. “Just one.”
Fish! Fish and fish and fish. Ondine sings him hundreds and hundreds of them, more than he could need, more even than he could sell. But he will have to be fed for a long time, while she is away. She has done him a disservice by making it so easy. She ought to have taught him to fend for himself, but she had liked providing. She had liked being needed.
“Enough!” he laughs. “Ondine. That’s plenty.”
She shakes her head. She wants to leave him with something. She is afraid of how time passes up here. She is afraid it will leave her behind. When they bring the fish in, she waits with her feet at the edge of the ocean and watches it lap at her toes. She followers her fisherperson home and curls up at his side, twisted in his blankets like a whirlpool.
“One more night,” he begs in the dark, and Ondine shakes her head.
“Not this time,” she says. She looks at his dark form in the half-light and reaches out her arms. She pushes her fingertips into the skin on his collarbone, wanting to imprint herself there. Ondine closes her eyes. She bumps her nose against his hand and nips, testing, like she had the first time. “Do not forget.”
His eyes are dark. She thinks it is the sunrise she sees lighting them up in flame. “No,” he promises. “No, I won’t.”
When she goes back to the beach, her skin is not there.
This is what the fisherman does not tell her:
He has never been a very good fisherman. He feels too sorry for the fish.
He has tried to tell himself every lie about Ondine because the truth is impossible.
He knows the truth anyway.
He follows her after she thinks he has fallen asleep. He watches her step into the sealskin and slide back into the water, as easily as she slides through his front door.
On the island of Kallsoy there is a story about making monsters human. He has heard it a thousand times.
He loves her.
He thinks this matters.
He thinks this matters more than anything else.
Ondine sits at the water’s edge. She keeps her feet in the water, but it does nothing. Her fingers burn like she’s touched the stove. The sun is hot, too hot. She lies back and lets the waves lap over her, lets them soothe the fire and the ache, but it is not enough. It is not enough. It is not enough.
“Mother,” she says aloud, but there is no reply. She could hear her mother above the sound of a hundred screaming pups, but there is no roar loud enough to overcome the silence of the beach.