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.
When the sun sets, he comes for her. His hands are not like water now. They are like stones. They are like teeth.
She has taught him too well, she thinks. He has learned to take his want and turn it into a weapon. He has made the force of his want so heavy that it leaves her stunned and frozen on the beach, the water pulling at her legs.
“What have you done,” she says, her voice like shells breaking.
He presses his mouth to her cheek. “You found the boat,” he answers, and pulls her close until her head is tucked beneath his chin. “You tried to flip it but I . . . I didn’t think your kind was real, but you are, aren’t you? My miracle?”
Ondine turns her head. Her hand moves before she can stop it, gripping his jaw between her fingers. Her nails are sharp. She leaves dotted trails of red when she lets go. It is answer enough.
“I love you,” he tells her.
Ondine says nothing.
She lets him take her back to his home, because she has nowhere else to go. She has come this way a hundred and fifty-one times, but everything seems unfamiliar. The cars are loud now, too loud, and angry. The red lights are too red and burn her eyes. His sheets are harsh and unforgiving.
“Stay,” he whispers, “stay with me, stay.”
Ondine does. She has no choice.
In the morning, she wakes him with one of the kitchen knives at his throat. She has never touched one before, but she knows what it does. She has seen him slicing fruit.
“Ondine,” he chokes, swallowing. Beads of sweat eke out along his hairline and she hates him for them, for the water that he carries. She can feel her skin drying out, pulling taut around bones that do not fit.
“What have you done,” she hisses.
His eyes are large. She watches them trail across her face and land on her mouth. “I followed you. I watched you put on that . . . skin, on the beach, and then disappear into the water. I paid a hundred dollars to a neighbor to hide it,” he confesses. “You can’t leave without it. I know you can’t.”
Ondine presses down with the blade until she can hear his heart beating. She does not know what a neighbor is, what a hundred dollars are, but he is not lying. She can hear his fear.
“I am still a hunter,” she tells him, and bears her teeth. “Do not forget.”
“No,” he agrees. He is shaking. He will not meet her eyes.
In the morning, his alarm feels like teeth on her skin as it howls. Ondine waits by the door, knives in her hands. He watches her the way penguins watch her as she circles them. Good, she thinks. Now he knows who the predator is.
“Ondine,” he murmurs, cautious. He sits with his hands on his knees. She paces back and forth, from one side of the room to the other. She feels caged—no: she feels netted, caught like a fish in tangled string. “I love you.”
He has already said this. He keeps saying it. All mouths feel the same to a fish caught in their teeth, she thinks deliriously. Even the ones saying I love you as they chew.
Her skin is too tight. Her skin is too tight. Her skin is too tight.
Her bones don’t fit.
“Take me to my skin,” she demands. She has taught herself to toss the knife from hand to hand. She is still clumsy in this body, not yet sure how to use it for anything but love.
He frowns as he stands, moving toward her with his arms raised in front of him. “Ondine,” he whispers, the words soft like water that she can’t feel anymore, water that won’t satiates the burn on her skin. “You are in your skin.”
“You don't understand,” she hisses.
He asks: “What are you?” It is not the first time.
Ondine smiles. She wraps her fingers tight around his wrist. “Take me to the neighbor,” she demands, “and you will see.”
She still does not know this word, does not know if just one knife will be enough, but she has her nails, and she has her teeth, and she knows how to move quickly enough to stun her prey on impact.
“I’ll go,” he says. “I’ll bring it back.”
He maneuvers her to the bed. He kneels between her legs and presses a kiss to her jaw. “Wait here for me,” he whispers. “Wait.”
Then he goes.
Ondine waits. Perhaps—on some level—she already knows.
She does not pack food. She puts bottles of water into the backpack he keeps under the bed and shoves kitchen knives into her pockets. The blade on one of them folds into the handle. It flicks out again when she presses with her thumb along the bottom edge.
Ondine stands on the front porch and closes her eyes. She listens. She inhales. She waits until the smell and sound of him comes to her, bone-dry and sun-hot, and she follows the trail.
The town is small. Ondine has never explored it before, too busy with her fisherperson, too entranced by his little house that always smelled like fish. She wanders, waiting to catch her own scent, in and out of shops. She walks down hard roads that hurt her feet. Little blisters form on the bottoms of her feet where the ground is too black and too hot.
She feels a stab of pity for fisherpeople, whose bodies are so fragile, who built themselves a world that hurts them when the sun hits it. She shakes it off. This is their trick, she thinks. They play on their own fragility. They make stronger animals pity them, and that is when they strike.
She gets odd looks from the other fisherpeople, but doesn’t care. She had found them charming, once. Now their eyes seem dark and beady and harder than any killer whale.
Do not trust a thing that walks, her father had said. I am a thing that walks, Ondine thinks.
Will she have to buy a boat? Will she have to club curious seals to keep her catches safe? What is this thing that he has made her into without asking?
Then she smells it: herself, wet and slippery, on someone else’s hands. A fisherperson with a cap pulled low over his eyes, hands in his pockets. He is putting something into the back of a truck, the same kind her fisherperson had driven. They don’t have trucks where you come from? he had asked and she had said, it is very far away, I think.
With her elbow, she shoves the seal-touched fisherperson against the door of his truck and flicks the switch at the base of the folding knife she brought from her fisherperson’s house.
She learns nothing except that the man smells of ginger, that her own skin will smell of ginger when she finds it. Her knife tastes blood for the first time, cutting deep into body that defies it, the body that says what do you care about some worthless seal pelt, you crazy bitch?
In the sea, Ondine kills with her teeth. Using the knife feels like cheating, but her blunt human canines are not up to the job. She bites with what she has on hand and watches the blood drain out like water.
In the ocean, she thinks, that much blood would attract sharks.
The man in the hat dies quickly. He doesn’t have much time to think about it, but if he had, he would have thought:
Did I lock my front door?
Will they call my mother?
Will my mother pick up the phone?
What did Will get himself into?
What did Will get me into?
I don’t even like Will that much. He’s not even a good fisherman.
If I had known. If I had known it would end like this.
Will my mother pick up the phone?
Ondine leaves him where he lays. She takes his keys from his hands. She has seen her fisherperson do this hundreds of times. She does the same motions he did. The truck growls at her and she jumps enough to knock her head.
“Don’t yell at me!” she snaps. The truck settles into a hum. Ondine doesn’t speak this language but it sounds pleased enough, so she tentatively pats its dashboard like her fisherperson used to do.
She hits three cars before she masters the steering wheel. The truck is like a seal-skin, with its long tail and tiny flippers. She can smell herself on the seats. Herself, and ginger.
There is a ringing. Ondine casts around for the alarm-sound, until her fingers land on something small and bright. She presses her hand to it, the way her fisherperson had always done. She can hear the waves from the rolled-down window.
“I wanted to warn you,” says a voice that Ondine knows. “There might be some—”
“Give it back,” Ondine snarls, and realizes that she is shaking.
A long silence answers her. Then, “Say you’ll stay. If you’ll stay, I’ll give it back.”
She hears a sound rumble out of her throat, a low growl. “No,” she tells him. “Give it back, or I will take it back.”
He doesn’t speak again. She throws the tiny box onto the seat where her skin had once lay and drives in the same direction as the breeze.
The next time she smells it, she is by the beach. She has been drinking all the water that she’d packed, pouring the leftovers on her skin, but it is not enough. She can feel herself flaking apart, can feel herself shriveling into a corpse.
The smell is stronger, this time, herself and ginger and want, and it hurts to run but Ondine does it anyway. She runs across the sand that burns her blistered feet until she finds the little fishing hut with words she cannot read spray-painted across the door.
Inside is an old fisherperson, her cracked lips curled around a pipe.
“I thought your kind was extinct,” the old fisherperson says. “Just stories. My gran used to . . . well. Guess she was right.”
“Where is it?” Ondine grits out through jagged teeth and a sandpaper tongue.
The old fisherperson shakes her head. “Can’t say,” she tells Ondine. She sounds like regret, and like the breath before the sun starts rising.
“Can’t,” Ondine repeats, and flicks open her knife, “or won’t?”
The old fisherperson watches the way the sun licks up the blade. “Won’t,” she concedes.
“All right,” Ondine accepts, and the knife bites until the old fisherperson changes her mind.
It is the right of all creatures to survive, Ondine thinks as she presses her shirt to her nose and inhales. It is herself and ginger and want, and it is the sound of water as the tide goes out. It is the right of all creatures to do what is necessary.
She does not wipe the blood off the blade.
The old woman does not die quickly. She lays on her back, blinking at the ceiling. She has been alive a long time, and seen a lot of people die. She has imagined her own death a million times, and not once like this.
She had imagined:
Drowning, drowning, drowning.
Setting fire to the hut in her sleep. She is far from the village. There is no way she would last as long as it took for their volunteer fire department of two ex-oystermen to get there.
A heart attack, a stroke, a terrible fall.
When she was young she had worried about childbirth. She had carried a little boy around for months and months and months, feeling him grow and come to life with a raucous kind of joy. She had waited impatiently. She had thought dying during childbirth would be the saddest thing, the most tragic accident, not because her son would grow up without her but because she would have died without ever getting to meet him.
When her son was born, she named him Will. She didn’t die.
She told him stories from her parents’ birthplace, a small island called Kallsoy.
When the moon rises, Ondine lowers herself slowly into the ocean and lets it lick her wounds. They are not soothed, and the burning does not stop, but she can close her eyes and pretend she is herself again. She can pretend to do all her killing with her teeth.
The old fisherperson had not made a sound when Ondine cut her, had been still and silent until finally unhinging the gate of her teeth and letting everything spill out, all at once, in a steady and quiet stream.
She may live. Ondine doesn’t know. She has never hunted for sport before.
She holds a box like the one from the car. The old fisherperson had called it a phone. Ondine waits until it makes a sound she almost recognizes, and then lifts it to her ear. The voice that had whispered I love you warns, “There is a woman. If she comes by—”
She interrupts, “She already did.”
The silence this time is longer. He makes a small and agonized sound.
“Is she . . . ?”
“Ondine.” He hesitates. “Please. Don’t hurt her. Stop this. That’s—she’s my—come home. This is madness. I love you. It doesn’t have to be like—”
“It didn’t have to be like this,” Ondine corrects. She closes her eyes and thinks of him, peering down at her from his boat. His warm eyes. The softness of his hands. The way his laughter sounded like happy thunder, rolling in. His voice is far away and dear, still. She cannot forget how precious he sounds any more than she can forget anything else. “Why did you—you made it like this.”
“I love you,” he says again.
“Why do you keep saying that?” she asks.
He hangs up the phone.
He took it back, the old fisherperson had said. There is an island called Kallsoy, across the sea. There is a little house there, with white siding and black shutters. You will have to take a boat.
Ondine has no boat. Ondine was supposed to be able to swim everywhere she needed to go.
Ondine presses a hand to her belly and feels a swelling there, feels the land-locked life inside her growing. She thinks how far away the day seems that she had been thinking perhaps it was time. Had she known and not known that she knew? Had this been the reason her body told her not this time when he asked her to come back? Did it know that creatures born on land can’t switch to life in water?
She lets the water lick against this false skin that she is sewn into, but knows that it will do no good. It is not a pup that she is carrying.
Ondine lies back. Water fills her mouth, her nose. She is not afraid. It tastes like home.
The ocean nudges its waves against her skin. Time works differently in the ocean. Time moves slow, like honey, its memory stretching back and back and back. The ocean has no favorites but the water remembers. It knows these hands and feet. It knows the other skin these hands and feet belong to.
The ocean has no center and no thought, but it remembers:
Ondine being born, the only one in the whole ocean who was just like her.
Ondine being born of the water and of the land and of her mother.
The north star had disappeared. Its light was gone from the reflection of the water, but the ocean knew where it was and anyway had no need for north.
Ondine means little wave in an old language that only the ocean has not forgotten.
Undine means water spirit.
Nix means nothing.
All names are stories and all stories become legends and all legends are based in truth and the truth is far simpler than seals and fisherpeople would have us believe.
The truth is this: water and land are not separate things. One grows out of the other.
She remembers: how do I sound?
“Like water,” Ondine murmurs. “Like hunger. Like my mother.”
She sits up. It is the right of all creatures to survive. Her own, still-foreign hands rub circles on her belly. Very well, she thinks. Her mother had given to Ondine at cost to herself. Her mother had grown thin and weak. Her mother had given and given and given until Ondine didn’t need her to give anymore. Ondine will do the same. Ondine will give what she has, even though what she has is not the same as what she was given.
She goes back to the old fisherperson’s hut. She is still breathing, and her eyes track Ondine’s movements. “Tell me what to do,” Ondine orders, standing in front of the cupboard the old fisherperson has managed to budge open with her foot.
“To kill me?” the old fisherperson asks, and Ondine says, “No. To save you.”
The old fisherperson sleeps for days. While she waits, Ondine eats what she can find. She throws up twice, every morning. She drinks water from the faucet and spends all day soaking in the tub. Her skin is still too dry, too taut across her, but it feels less foreign. It feels like an old wound: unnatural but not unhers.
When she finally wakes, the old fisherperson looks at Ondine with clear, bright eyes. “Why?” she asks as she is handed the pipe she had been sucking on, before. There is blood around the rim.
“I need you,” Ondine confesses. She flicks her knife from hand to hand and throws it at the wall. The blade lodges in the wood. She has been practicing.
The old fisherperson sighs. “I already said. He took it to Kallsoy. I don’t have a boat.”
“No.” Ondine shakes her head. “I don’t need you for that.”
Ondine’s hand goes to her belly.
The first two months, the old fisherperson teaches her the words for things. She learns about neighbors and microwaves and bicycles. She learns about concrete. She learns the names of the parts of her that she had not known: elbows, knees, shoulders, ankles. She learns that being pregnant as a fisherperson isn’t that different from being pregnant as a seal. The timing is the same, the hunger is the same. But fisherpeople are fragile where seals are strong. Ondine’s feet swell, and her back hurts. It is hard to walk. She is ungraceful and incapable of hunting. She must be fed by the old fisherperson, who does it bitterly. Ondine knows that if it were not for the baby she is carrying, the old fisherperson would let her die.
That’s all right. If it weren’t for the baby she is caring, Ondine would have let the old fisherperson die, so she supposes they are even.
The month after that, she learns to make fire. It is too hot. She can barely stand the heat. Curled up on the floor while the old fisherperson lays in bed, too tired to do anything other than lay her hand on her stomach, she tells the old fisherperson about her mother. She tells her about what the ocean sounds like. She tells her about her fisherperson, the softness of him, the sand color of his hair, the way he had said her name.
“You love him,” the old fisherperson says, her tone unreadable.
“I don’t understand that word,” Ondine answers. She has been taught so many, but that one still eludes her. “He says it and keeps saying it but he took my skin and left me in this net. He says it but everything hurts. He says it but he took more than I gave him. It hurts but he says it like it’s good.”
The old fisherperson closes her eyes. “I tried to teach him,” she says. “I thought I taught him to be good.”
Ondine shakes her head. “You taught him to be soft,” she says. “That is not the same thing.”
“His father was hard,” the old fisherperson answers. “I thought--if I made him soft. It might undo the hardness.”
Ondine lays her hand on her belly. “Hardness isn’t what hurts,” she muses. Rocks, warmed by the sun, are hard. Shells, scratching up against where she itches, are hard. Sand is hard when it is holding water.
She hopes the baby will be hard. She hopes the baby will be hard enough to learn the lessons Ondine hadn’t, and her fisherperson hadn’t. She hopes her baby will be hard enough to know the difference between soft and good.
She learns to lay with her feet up while the old fisherperson smokes. They don’t speak of Ondine’s fisherperson again. Ondine can hear how it hurts the old fisherperson to do it. She wonders whether her own mother’s voice is different, now. Whether she trips over the word Ondine.
Instead, the old fisherperson speaks of sea-maidens disguised as seals. She calls them selkies. “If a man steals a selkie’s skin, she belongs to him and cannot return to the sea.”
I do not belong to anybody, Ondine thinks. It has begun to hurt when she breathes too loudly. She can feel the hard edges of letters when her lips form them. Everything tastes of salt.
The smoke curls up and around them. It burns in Ondine’s throat, but then, so does everything. The temperature outside has dropped. It is growing cold. Ondine has never grown used to time on land. She has never grown used to its lines, straight like so many things on land. Things aren’t so rigid in the water. They curve and bend.
The old fisherperson boils water for a tea that tastes of seaweed. It coats the lining of Ondine’s mouth and sloshes in her stomach like the warm weight of home. She sleeps in tepid bathwater that cannot soothe the tightness of her skin. But the tea helps.
“Tell me more,” Ondine says, over and around her own cracked lips. She feels herself growing weaker as the baby grows stronger. She eats what the old fisherperson gives her so that she can make her baby strong.
She twirls a knife in her fingers for the practice.
“While their skin is hidden, selkie can only survive on land for short amounts of time,” the old fisherperson murmurs, and presses a hand to Ondine’s forehead. She has gentled, over the months. Sometimes Ondine recognizes a softness in her eyes. She brushes aside Ondine’s brittle hair and tucks it behind her ear. “If they don’t return to the water, they will die.”
Ondine is quiet. She does not have to ask whether she will live long enough to have the baby, because the old fisherperson can read the question in her eyes. She says, “I don’t know,” and moves her hand to Ondine’s belly. The baby kicks.
It is warm inside Ondine. Her baby doesn’t know any other world except this warm one, red, soft, and tightly wrapped. Her baby doesn’t know much except what her mother feels like. Her baby doesn’t know much except that her mother loves her, and her mother is the whole world.
Her baby doesn’t know:
That this warm, soft world is not the whole world.
That the world is neither wholly warm nor wholly soft, but sometimes it is a little of both.
That her mother is dying, because her mother is not the same as the baby. Her mother drank milk that made her strong and blubbery and split in two, half land half sea. The baby is not split in half.
But the baby is split all the same.
The baby will not feel the itch as her mother felt it, but she will itch all the same. Sometimes her skin will feel cracked and dry. Sometimes she will go to where the ocean meets the sea and lay down and let the water roll overtop of her.
It will feel warm and soft.
It will feel like the whole world.
“You are wrong,” Ondine rasps into the dark. “We are not sea-maidens disguised as seals.”
“Then what are you?” the old fisherperson asks.
Ondine turns her head to look out the window. She cannot find the north star, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t there. That doesn’t mean that north has stopped being north. “Seals,” she says. “Disguised as sea-maidens.”
They sleep side-by-side now, both in the bed. The knots in the old fisherperson’s body press up against Ondine’s. She never wants to trace the curve of the old fisherperson’s smile, never wants to touch her the way she had touched her son, but when trembling old hands reach for hers, she holds them.
When the baby comes, Ondine does not scream. She stands with her knees bent and breathes deeply. She closes her eyes. She is on the beach, giving birth the way that all the other seals who were not her mother had given birth. The sand is soft, waiting. The old fisherperson hooks her arms beneath Ondine’s armpits to hold her up, both of them bending beneath the weight of the new life trying to spill out.
“I am too old for this,” the old fisherperson mutters, widening her stance. Ondine leans her head back until it hits the old fisherperson’s shoulder. She cannot speak, but she tries to nod.
“Am I?” she asks. Has time run out? Will Ondine’s fragile fisherperson body give up just when she needs it most?
She can feel the old fisherperson tremble. She shakes her head.
“I don’t know.”
The sand is soft because it is dry. It hardens when Ondine shuffles toward the waves, reaching for them. Ondine was born underwater but most seals are born on land, where air can reach them. The sand is soft and it shifts and is always shifting. Softness allows for change. Softness allows it to embrace and to hide its own sharp edges, rocks and shells and bits of glass.
Sand has no memory. Sand has no need of memory. Sand has already forgotten:
Where the blood was, when the baby came, when Ondine pushed and screamed and leaned into the old fisherperson until the little girl came rushing out into the world outside her mother. Ondine collapsed against the sand and did not stop bleeding, could not raise her head.
What time it was, where the waves were, how the cold water seemed to clasp Ondine’s hands in prayer.
That the baby’s first touch of being alive was not with her mother and not with the old fisherperson but with the sand, her tiny land making a little print in dusty top layer.
The baby’s second touch of being alive was the lip of a wave, kissing her.
That the baby was quiet quiet quiet until suddenly the baby screamed, louder than any baby the sand had ever heard, louder than any baby who was not born to seals, not a scream but bellow, a call, a roar.
When Ondine wakes on the first day, her skin is not tight. Her lips are smooth and wet. She can feel water sloshing around inside her, coating her bones and making waves against her toenails.
Beside her, the baby roars.
There is smoke drifting in from the kitchen, and Ondine stands on what feel new legs to follow it. The old fisherperson is smoking. There are two mugs of tea on the table.
“I didn’t think you’d make it,” the old fisherperson says. She does not meet Ondine’s eyes. “There was a lot of blood.”
“There is always a lot of blood,” Ondine answers. She can count the scars on the old fisherperson’s face, her hands, her stomach. There are many, but Ondine knows all of them. Ondine created them. Seals do not feel regret, but Ondine is not a seal.
The old fisherperson nods. “I worried for the child,” she says. She holds up a knife in the sunlight and it glints like a question.
“What have you done?” Ondine whispers, so tired of asking.
The knife is placed in her hand. The old fisherperson waits. “I told him to burn it,” she says. “The story says that if you burn a selkie skin, they will become fully human. The story says they will forget that they were ever anything but, and that is the only way to keep them.”
“This is not that story,” says Ondine, and the old fisherperson smiles when she says, “No. This is not that story.”
Ondine spins the knife. The old fisherperson raises her chin and bears her throat. She murmurs, “There is another story. Its ending is sad. The only way back is through blood.”
“All fisherpeople stories are sad,” Ondine says, and bears her teeth. “And they always end in blood.”
She carries Nix in a sling across her back. Nix doesn’t cry a lot. She struggles in the hammock but doesn’t complain. Her fingers are small, but she learns to carry bits of sunlight in them.
“Are you afraid?” Ondine asks as they walk. The trail has been cold a long time. Even if her skin weren’t gone, it would be too long-gone to track it.
Nix gurgles her answer.
They walk for a long time before they find a boat that will take them. It is cold. Ondine has money that she took from the old fisherperson and it buys her a bed, but not food. That’s fine; Ondine doesn’t need help to fish. She stands on the lower deck, Nix nestled in her arms, and sings her the same song she sang her father. She catches the fish in her free hand when it leaps up to her, eager.
Nix cries. Ondine is grateful that suckling works more or less the same in fisherpeople. She knows now that they are called humans. That Ondine is a human. But she cannot think of them as anything other than what they have always been to her, two eyes peering over the side of a wooden boat. Nix sleeps in a little box beside Ondine’s head and sings infant songs over the wind across the windows.
The boat is crowded and no one tries to speak to her. It is clear she has no patience for any company but her own. At night she presses her hand against her chest and feels her heart beat the way her fisherperson’s heart beat.
Her bones feel well suited to her skin. They do not bump together when she walks. There is no tightness around the joints. She does not taste of salt.
I am ninety percent water, she reminds herself. Nix giggles on the bed, and Ondine can hear the liquid sloshing around inside her. They are the same now. Ondine gathers her baby into her arms and presses her nose into the stitch of her neck.
“How do I sound,” she asks, breathing the words onto her daughter’s skin. “How do I sound, how do I sound.”
Nix curls her fingers around Ondine’s nose. She does not understand, Ondine knows. She cannot answer. She was not born knowing how to hunt, was not born when there were no stars in the sky but in broad daylight, on soft sand.
“How will you recognize me?” Ondine asks, and there is no sound to roar over the fear in her voice.
She pinches Nix’s chin between her thumb and forefinger. “Do not ever forget.”
Nix bites down on her hair and chews until it hurts.
The captain does not ask questions when he takes her money. He gives her a box for the baby. He watches her sometimes, solitary, pale, fragile in a way he doesn’t understand. Fragile but not breakable. Fragile but hard at the same time.
From the helm, he can often hear her singing. He doesn’t understand the words, or even understand if there are words. But her voice is crisp and clear. It rings out across the water. The first and second mate often go still when it begins, straining their ears. There are things the captain notices that he does not mention:
When she sings, the fish come, trailing behind the boat like they are chasing it. Sometimes the fish bring dolphins. Sometimes the fish bring whales. Sometimes it seems like when she sings the water reaches for them, speeding their journey toward wherever she is going.
The baby has dark, water-colored eyes, almost inhuman. They watch everything around her with a brightness he can’t quite place, almost like they understand.
Sometimes, at night, he things he sees a seal following them. He knows it is the same one from the white spot on the crown of its head, in the shape of a wave crashing against the beach.
She is tall and lithe, her hair brown and full and down all the way to her waist. She always wears it down, and when it catches the wind it looks like water rippling.
She is what he had always thought women in stories looked like.
He had always thought he would want to live inside those stories.
She sings and the fish come and her baby watches him with big, open-water eyes and she is frail and strong and sad and he is glad to be a ferry captain that everyone will forget.
The house is white. It has black shutters. It is where the old fisherperson said it would be, nestled against the rocks that rise out of the water. She stands with her daughter strapped to her back and watches as the light comes on inside. The porch lights up. The door opens.
“Ondine,” he says.