Fiction from Kathryn Kulpa
What the Selkies Know
It’s easy enough to become human if you really want to. The mermaids are so dramatic about it, tongues lopped off in terrible sacrifice, filling the ocean with their blood, their silent tears. Dry air rasping through their lungs like fire. The agonies they bear, these martyred fish-wives.
But changing skin isn’t painful, no more than shrugging off a silk-lined cloak. Knowing when to leave and how to find your way back to where you belong: that’s the art of being a land wife. We selkies have rules, and the rules help. Never let a land man find your true skin is the first rule. One that goes without saying, for then he would master you and bind you to the land forever.
Tradition says to bury your true skin under a willow, at midnight, beneath a gibbous moon, but really any safe spot will do, as long as humans aren’t likely to build a house on it.
They do love to build houses on things.
Keep your water-stone with you always and you’ll never forget the way home: that’s the second rule. I set my water-stone into a golden ring and wore it on my right hand, so I’d never forget. It was a keepsake from my mother, I told my land husband. Of course I had to tell him that, or he’d never stop searching for evidence of lovers.
He never stopped searching anyway. These humans and their fearful, jealous hearts. They sense we aren’t prizes they can keep for long, and how that makes them cling!
The mermaids enjoy the novelty of it, for a while. A man who won’t just fertilize a purse of eggs and swim away! A man who’ll stay, and stay, and stay…
You want to strike out that final “stay,” don’t you? I know I do. Fidelity is novel for us, and what’s novel is fascinating, until it becomes a cage.
And that brings us to the third rule: do not bind yourself with a bond that can’t be broken. For the land world is not our home, and to stay there forever would wither our souls.
I won’t deny the delight of it all, at first. There’s nothing like a change of body to chase away those restless blues. Me, me! we cry, counting our new, human fingers (those opposable thumbs!), our toes (so many)! Picture us all, mermaids and selkies, lying on our backs in a circle, kicking our remarkable, long, naked legs to the sky in synchronized rhythm, like an Esther Williams film.
Not many in the land world remember Esther Williams. But I can tell you every mermaid and selkie knows her name.
Some of us slip from our land homes at night and wander, drawn to rivers and seas. Others spend hours with their faces pressed to the fish tank, dreaming like a suburban housewife touring a model home. Our land husbands ask why all the food we cook is so salty.
Once I learned the alchemy of kitchens and fires, I took pleasure in seeing what I could transform. When my first loaf of bread came out of the oven, tall and shiny-topped, I ran to show my land husband, both of us burning our tongues in our eagerness to taste. He brushed flour from my flushed face, soothed my stinging tongue with kisses. I thought then that I might stay longer than a year. I thought then I might bind myself to him.
And so there came the day that my land husband set out fishing and caught me sampling the bait fish, dropping them whole into my mouth, crunching their tiny bones. He looked at me so strangely then, as if a cat he owned opened its mouth and spoke to him in a human voice, but then he patted my belly and smiled.
Cravings, he said.
And he was right. In the months to come—so many months, such a long becoming!—it seemed the water I had left behind had come back to find me, swelling my body so that I took my ring off, hiding it in my trunk to keep it safe, and after that it did truly seem I belonged more and more to the land. No more did I long to slip from our bed at night to sleep on rocks; no more did I mind the pinch of shoes on my feet, the chafing of stockings, the way the smell of a fire curled up beneath a roof. It pleased me now to think of another being in the world who would belong wholly to me—for daughters always do belong wholly to their mothers, and I knew, even then, that I carried a girl.
To bear a child the human way takes patience. So much time, so much blood. And all for just one.
At first I thought she’d have my skin, and there would be questions, but only her sleek head held that dense, dark fur. Look at her splashing like a little otter! my land husband said when I bathed her, and I smiled at such fancy.
Mermaids always expect forever. Our folk don’t. Land husbands, be they princes or peasants, bear the curse of earthly things. Things they will hold, and trap, and mark as their own.
And here I will keep you and bind you
Till the water has boiled from the sea.
The land men sing that song, and they think it’s about us, about what water folk can do to unwary men, but they’ve got it mixed up, the way they always do. It’s a song we wrote about what land men can do to us. I sang it to my daughter in her cradle. I wondered if my mother had sung it to me. Somehow I couldn’t remember her voice, or if I’d had a mother at all. But my child’s eyes found mine. Her hands reached for me, and that was enough.
As the days grew warm I walked through the village, wheeling her in a carriage my husband had brought home. We stopped before a shop window glittering with gold and jewels. She laughed to see the sun sparkling on shiny stones. And I stared, and stared, and stared.
That night, I dreamed of riding the waves, the moon smiling down at me, and suddenly the moon was cold and distant, shining through my bedroom window, and the sheets beside me were smooth and cool, and I knew I had slept too long.
I crept to the room where my daughter lay in her new crib. Did she dream of the sea? I watched her chest rise and fall, her sleep steady as the tide. My hands traced the carving on the crib, its polished oak, smooth like the stock of the new hunting rifle my land husband had brought home. So many new things—and he was not a rich man.
I climbed the attic stairs, opened the trunk where I’d left my ring, my water-stone. It was gone, as I’d known it would be. Known since I passed the shop window.
When my husband came home I smelled her on him—his land woman. But she was not important. I asked him about my ring. He said I must have lost it, claimed he’d never touched it, and when I told him what I’d seen in the jeweler’s shop he pointed to the crib, said he’d done it for our child, to give her a better life.
You’re a weak, small man, I said.
He hit me.
He hit me, and everything went still. There was only the sound of flesh striking flesh, but that sound carried. It stilled the birds in the sky. The grass bowed down before it. It found the river, flowed over rocks and rushes, rode a current to the sea, telling its terrible tale, and every selkie and every mermaid heard that tale, felt that fist hit their own skin.
I followed that sound to the place where my true skin lay waiting. I followed it into the sea.
The land world is cruel, the mermaids said.
You are home, sister, the selkies said.
Yes, I said. I am home.
I’d told him when we met that I’d not abide a violent hand on me. And when that blow came I was gone, as I’d said I would be.
I couldn’t take her. Her human skin won’t slip off, not yet. Maybe someday I’ll change again, and come back for her. Or maybe she’ll change, in seven years, or twenty-one, and find her way back to me. Maybe it will be her daughter who wakes one night to find webbing growing between her fingers and toes, a soft fine pelt covering her skin, and a longing for the sea in her soul.
I can’t know how the story ends. You never can, when you’re in one. I only know that, land or sea, she is mine, and I will keep her safe. I will wait, and I will watch. When she creeps toward the fire, and he pulls her back, but too roughly, I’ll be the wind that slams the door. When she splashes water over the side of the tub and his voice rings out in anger, I’ll be the thunder that splits the sky.
Kathryn Kulpa was a winner of the Vella Chapbook Contest for her flash fiction chapbook Girls on Film. Her work has appeared in Monkeybicycle, Smokelong Quarterly, Superstition Review, and other journals, and she serves as flash fiction editor for Cleaver magazine. Kathryn leads a veterans writing group in Rhode Island, has been a visiting writer at Wheaton College, and was an instructor at the Writefest Conference at Rice University in Houston, Texas. Find her at kathrynkulpa.com/@KathrynKulpa.
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