Fiction from Shalya Powell
The Other Shore
Lulma has a sealskin and Kayla has a drowning dress. The garments are both, for a time, lost.
That is, until today. Lulma is looking through Kayla’s closet for clothes to borrow, pulling woolen flannel after woolen flannel off cheap plastic hangers until she comes across the dress. There is a brief moment of unreality. The dress is gossamer thin and it leaps out of Kayla’s closet like some vengeful spirit.
Kayla allows herself to think cruel thoughts. Oh, the irony. In the three months Lulma has spent beached in Paloma, she has become something of a magpie, a sharp-eyed scavenger. She stumbles across missing things the way other people trip over pennies. How ironic that Lulma has discovered the one thing Kayla hoped was lost to time, all the while Lulma’s own precious sealskin sits, somewhere in her husband’s house, waiting to be found and worn once again.
“Is this yours?”
Kayla nods. “Doesn’t look like mine, does it?” The dress is something a young girl might dream up, idyllic, green rolling pastures, rough hewn fence posts, a meadow of wildflowers and a single black-and-white cow. It is a pale gown of silk floss and whispery tulle that falls right past the knees. Its neck is a modest one. Soft buttons lead from the collar to the waist, trim without being confining. From there, the eyes are drawn to the sleeves. They are, Kayla concedes, excessive. They billow and trail on the floor, each sleeve enough material to be its own dress. On the bust and hems are tiny, embroidered whirlpools.
“It doesn’t,” Lulma says and Kayla wishes she never pulled it out the closet. “What is it?”
She considers lying. It’s a family heirloom. A crafts project. “It’s my drowning dress. One day, I’ll put it on and walk into the Pacific. That was the plan anyway.”
“God willing, I’ll stay there. Do you want it or not?”
Lulma blinks her big, black eyes and looks over the dress again. She handles it with a lot more care than she did the flannels. What does her drowning dress mean to someone for whom clothes are an uncomfortable reminder of the dreadful state she has found herself in? Lulma owns no clothes. She wears her husband’s clothes now and once wore the clothes of his late wife. Kayla can’t stand the sight of it. She knows Lulma would prefer to be bare like all wild animals do. She would prefer her sealskin and the cool riptide of the ocean around her.
“You won’t need it?” Lulma asks and the dress is already hers. She shimmies out of her husband’s brown slacks and tears off his shirt. Buttons pop off the expensive linen and ricochet across the bedroom. She flows into the dress, a modicum of her former grace restored. She twists and twirls for Kayla, something a little girl might do, something a seal might do beneath the waves. The sleeves fan out and give Lulma wings. Her cool, dark legs poke out from the dress like the legs of some spindly insect. A creature of the earth, sea, and sky, her Lulma.
“It hasn’t really been working for me lately.” I’m still here, aren’t I, she thinks. “It’s yours. You look pretty, Lulma.”
Lulma grins. Her teeth are pearly and blunt. For a time, Kayla imagines they are just this: two woman-shaped beings sharing wine and swapping clothes in a dimly lit bedroom. Her bed is unmade and only a few feet away. They might retire to it, soon. Lulma might lay her head down and smell Kayla in the sheets. If Lulma ever lies in her bed, Kayla is certain she will never let her up again.
It is a cruel thought, but Kayla allows it, for a time.
The Three Sisters Diner where Kayla works lives in the gutted-out belly of an old commercial fishing trawler. Despite its location in the Pacific coastal town of Paloma and its overwhelming nautical theme, Three Sisters only boasts the most typical diner fare—hotcakes and warm syrup, greasy bacon and eggs however you like them, beef burgers and thick-cut fries. There isn’t any fish on the menu, no Catch of the Day, no fish and chips, no salmon over a bed of plain rice with plain vegetables. There are no fish in the markets either.
There’s something not quite right about Paloma’s waters. Kayla has been rejected by them enough times to know for sure. The drowning dress’ banishment to the depths of Kayla’s closet is only a testament to her mounting frustration with the ocean’s intractable stubbornness. The ocean will give up nothing that belongs to her. She accepts no strangers, invites no foreigners, and Kayla is both, despite all her attempts to push the contrary.
The drowning dress might be a work of art, if Kayla let herself see it that way. For now, the dress is only a tool. She studied the habits of seafoam and designed the dress to imitate them, hoping an excess of white, of fluff and flow might trick the ocean into thinking she was not just another filthy thing here to sully her waters. I’m yours, she said once, fourteen years old in her drowning dress, before an ocean churning and boiling under a thunderous sky. Take me. Keep me.
Three Sisters sits right at the beachfront. Kayla can see the lapping motion of the waves when she walks through the front of the house to take orders, but it isn’t Paloma’s ill, fickle waters that capture her attention today.
“She’s gonna get caught in the rip if she keeps messing around out there,” the customer whose order Kayla’s supposed to be taking says. He’s followed her gaze out the window and onto the beach. Lulma stands thigh-deep in the water in Kayla’s drowning dress, as still and moored as a wavebreaker. From here, the water looks calm, but Kayla knows it must be moving incredibly fast. She’s seen bigger men than Lulma swept out to the open ocean in a rip current, but Lulma doesn’t even seem to shake.
“She’s fine,” Kayla says and gestures for the man to continue giving his order. The rest of her shift goes by smoothly. Afterwards, she jogs across the beach, a brown paper bag tucked under her arm, and calls out to Lulma. Kayla thinks, for a time, that the rip has snatched up the sound of her voice and casted it way out to sea, because Lulma doesn’t turn to acknowledge her.
Then, Lulma turns, smiles, and begins to wade her way back to shore, against the pummeling action of the rip. When she arrives on shore, seaweed clings sticky to her calves and seafoam swishes about her ankles. The dress is nearly translucent on her. “Lunch?” she asks, hopeful.
“Lunch,” Kayla confirms.
They walk a few yards up the shore and settle into a spot in the sand. Kayla passes Lulma the paper bag and, as always, Lulma studies the illustration on the bag—two, long-haired women dangling from a ship’s bow and stern, while a third woman waves from the water—closely before opening it. Kayla hopes, a little meanly, that Lulma does as Kayla once did and imagines herself as the woman in the ocean.
Lulma balances the takeout container on her knees and eats the white cheese omelette with a knife and fork. She cuts a square out of the omelette and uses the flat of her knife to smear sour cream and feta cheese on the morsel before bringing it to her mouth. It’s a far cry from how she looked the first time Kayla fed her—whipcord thin, shivering in the booth from an ill-advised plunge into the icy waters of the ocean, eyes black with bruises. Eating Kayla’s honey cinnamon oatmeal with her fingers. She was back in front of Three Sisters the very next morning, the scrappy, starving stray who knew to linger where she’d be fed.
But a thousand times fed is hardly a stray anymore. Lulma is strong now, hardy and full of vigor. The wiry muscles in Lulma’s arms make Kayla’s face warm but she is still envious of the other woman’s strength; Lulma looks as if she could rip into the ocean bare-handed.
They stand as one and climb into Kayla’s car. Lulma draws her legs close to her chest, her toes hanging off the edge of the seat. She gazes at the ocean as Kayla pulls out the parking lot and zigzags down the streets leading to Paloma’s residential area.
“Hey,” she says to get Lulma’s mind off the ocean. “Are you sure he’s not gonna be there?”
“He has class Tuesday mornings and office hours right after. He won’t be back until later.” The man—Lulma’s husband—is a professor at the college, tenured, if Kayla remembers correctly.
“Good. You didn’t start without me, right?”
“I did.” Lulma never feels the need to lie. “I started in the living room. He forgot something and came back to the house. He caught me looking.”
Kayla’s fingers tighten on the steering wheel. “Did he do anything? I already told you to come stay with me.”
“He’s my husband. I have to live with him.” Lulma closes her eyes and Kayla glances at her, admiring the dark of her eyelids, like smooth onyx. “And he didn’t do anything. He just stood there. Watching me. He looked tired.”
She opens her eyes and nods. “Like no one’s ever shown him how to get a good night’s sleep. Exhausted.”
“Who cares about him? You need to find your skin, Lulma.”
“I know.” This, she says with a furrow in her brow. Determination firms up the softness of her cheeks and jaw.
In the husband’s foyer, Kayla offers up the possibility that the sealskin might not be in the house.
“It’s always in the house,” Lulma insists. “It has to be. If not the house, then maybe in the yard, somewhere on the property. I’ll dig up the ground if I have to. If I can’t find my skin, I can’t go home.”
“I know.” But Kayla knows what kind of man Lulma’s husband is. She’s seen his type before, recognizing a sad story in the way his bedroom closets are organized—loose linens and slacks, loafers and Panama hats, common for middle-aged men in Paloma in one, and kaleidoscope-patterned sundresses and blouses in the other. The clothes in the second closet don’t fit Lulma. When Kayla touched the clothes, dust and schmutz stuck to her fingers, half-memory, half-ghost on velvet hangers. “Let’s check the rooms we didn’t get to last time. If we’re quick about it, we can check out that yard. Maybe he’s got a shed or something.”
Kayla has no hopes for the shed. Lulma’s husband is an office man, which makes his desk his sanctuary. The last time Kayla was here the door to the office was locked. Today, the door swings open before her and bares Lulma’s husband in all his depravity, his utter disgrace.
You are despicable, Kayla snarls at his image on picture frames pinned to the walls. How dare you steal Lulma’s skin, how dare you trap her here, she spits and knocks battered novels and coffee-stained printer paper off the desk. You are so lonely it embarrases me.
When her crusade is done, the business card is among the detritus scattered on the floor, knocked free from its hiding spot in the frame of the computer monitor. A business card for a local storage company. On the back, in a man’s stocky handwriting, is a unit number and a combination code of letters and numbers.
When Kayla goes back upstairs, she doesn’t tell Lulma what she’s found. She tells herself she doesn’t want to get the woman’s hopes up unnecessarily. She tells herself it is a kindness and doesn’t tell Lulma where she’s going when she leaves for the night.
The storage unit place is self-service. Kayla drives toward it, windows rolled down to borrow some of Paloma’s quiet, unhurried atmosphere for herself—the mountain air, crisp pines, and salt ocean. It settles her as she searches up and down the rows of storage units until she finds the one written on the back of the business card.
The absurdity of it all makes Kayla want to laugh. She wonders if Lulma might have been able to find her sealskin herself, had she not been so wedded to the idea that her skin is somewhere in the house, too reliant on the stories of the ones from the other shore who were clever enough to escape the hateful world of man and return to the ocean. She wonders the lengths a man will go to keep a wife, the things he will hide and the secrets he will keep so he will not be alone.
And then Kayla wonders: why hide the sealskin at all? Does it only exist to be hidden? Is it not a tool? A power to be harnessed? Can it not be worn? Can it not be used?
The inside of the unit is not all that interesting. There are boxes, dressers made of real wood from back when they built furniture to last. There’s a mannequin in the corner in a wedding dress. Kayla trips over a hope chest, a thick, solid thing of cedar. She kneels down and opens it. Inside, there are old sheets, worn curtains, an ugly flokati rug. All the way at the bottom, flat against the smooth wood, is Lulma’s sealskin. It’s lighter than Kayla expects. It doesn’t feel very warm. She slides her hand over and under the skin, the short, stiff hairs riding against her palm. It is, once Kayla looks at it under the courtesy lights of her car, a shade of brown only slightly richer than Lulma’s skin.
Lulma’s husband will be home soon. There’s no point in bringing the skin to Lulma now, Kayla reasons. She’ll give it to her tomorrow morning at Three Sisters. She’ll feed Lulma one last time and slide the sealskin across the table as if it were nothing more than another shirt for Lulma to borrow. Then she’ll watch Lulma do what Kayla has never been able to.
Lulma will walk into the ocean and never resurface.
Kayla’s drowning dress was never meant to see the light of day, only the black of the ocean or the unforgiving rocks at the bottom of the cape. The plan always was that, after the salt of the ocean scrubbed Kayla clean of all her cruelties, the drowning dress would be all that was left of her. To see that dress now, on Lulma’s body, under the semi-flush lights of the diner, is far more unsettling than Kayla previously imagined. Lulma sits, tucked into a booth, the long sleeves of the dress piled in her lap as to not drag on the dirty linoleum floor. When customers compliment her on the dress, Lulma smiles prettily and ducks her head in a way Kayla knows she doesn’t realize is charming.
In the breakroom, the image of Lulma in her drowning dress comes again. How lovely Lulma looks in it, how the ocean would not dare refuse her if she came to the water as she is now, sealskin or no. And Lulma is bare beneath the dress, Kayla knows. She hasn’t worn anything else since she pulled the dress from Kayla’s closet.
Kayla strokes the skin, imagining how it might feel against her bare chest or naked thighs. She wonders if it might work for her. A twister of ocean water, the euphoria of transformation. Could she slip beneath the waves like Lulma? A seal, sleek, powerful, bastion of the ocean, commander of the waves. Could Kayla be like that? Would the ocean welcome her home? Home with Lulma too?
Kayla thinks, rather suddenly, about the small inlet of ocean behind her house. The beach is shielded from view by her house. No one would see her. There, she could try on the sealskin. There, she could borrow Lulma’s power. There, she could see if she is worthy of the ocean’s embrace.
The thought is gone, as quickly as it came, but Kayla has no shortage of cruelties for herself; rarely has she shown her body or her mind any mercy. Kayla summons the thought and stands in it and all its awfulness, even as it makes her eyes wet and her heart pang. Could she do that? Could she do such a thing to Lulma without knowing the outcome? Lose her sea-rough laugh and her charming calm, all on a whim, over the most selfish of desires?
The sealskin gives off its own heat, as if attached, through invisible tissues and muscles, to a living, breathing body. Kayla sinks her fingers deeper into the soft, smooth-grain skin over her shoulder. It smells like brine, the musk of some mammal from an ocean shore far, far from here.
Kayla takes a deep breath, holding the smell there in her nostrils. Only when her lungs are empty of all air does she wrap the sealskin around her shoulders. There is a door in the breakroom that lets out into the parking lot. The wind outside is cold and sharp through the sealskin. Kayla clutches it closer and heads home, imagining already the water at her ankles and, perhaps, even above her head, filling her eyes, her nose. Her mouth.
The next day, Lulma comes to Three Sisters, a wildness in her eyes and a set to her teeth that Kayla hasn’t seen since the very first days after Lulma’s arrival in Paloma. Kayla makes some excuse to leave work and the two head down to one of Paloma’s abandoned beaches, where the waves lap at the shore in unnatural ways. Thigh-deep in the shallows, Lulma tells her a story of life coming into being in waters so far and so deep from here that it is another shore altogether.
Lulma tells her about her family.
“They live in warmer, sweeter waters than these. Sisters, aunts, cousins, and grandmothers. We are family but we are different. They do not lose their skins. They are hunters. They lure prey with song and smile to the darkest parts of the shallow and then they drag them down. They do not fear men. Men cannot harm them, capture them, or make them theirs. They have a freedom I cannot fathom.” All this Lulma says with a measure of exhaustion, the weary hull of a ship encountering yet another unwelcoming shoal.
Kayla feels that weariness as if it were her own. It drapes over her even heavier than the sealskin did the night before where she could not bring herself to go down into the ocean. Kayla thought the sealskin might free them both. That all seems so foolish now. “I envy them,” she says. “I wish I was like them. I wish I was like you too.”
Lulma lifts her eyes from the bright stirring inhabitants of the shallows and laughs, as if Kayla has made a particularly unfunny joke. “What’s to be envious of? I’ve lost my skin. I’m never going home.”
The admission is more than Kayla can take. A sense of trying to soften a blow that has already been dealt submerges Kayla. “Oh, Lulma,” she says and reaches for the woman. “Oh god, Lulma, I’m sorry—”
“You don’t have to apologize,” Lulma interrupts. There is a wildness in her eyes, steadily gaining purchase. “I’ve made my peace with this. And knowing you—you’re all the good the land has to offer. Even now, the ocean calls to me but I know I cannot go to her.” The wildness gives way to tears, fat glistening ones that carve paths down her cheeks and drip off the rounded edge of her chin. “She will drown me. Dash me across her rocks, waste me against these shores! She has no more love for me. Kayla, how am I going to live a life like this?” Her lips turn angry and cruel as she spits out, “Half-measures from the ocean, when I used to be one of her beloved!”
“Lulma,” Kayla says again because it is all she can bear to say, because it is easier than saying she hoped Lulma’s sorrow would be indecipherable to her, the long whale singing at a frequency no one can understand. She wanted to close her heart to it.
Lulma’s suffering is all too familiar. The dewy-eyes, the angry, downturned mouth, and the drowning dress slicked with saltwater. The only thing separating Kayla and Lulma now is the fact that Lulma belongs to the ocean, has always belonged to the ocean and has never needed to fashion a drowning dress out of floss, tulle, and impossible dreams.
“Stay here,” Kayla whispers to Lulma and sprints up to where her car is parked on a flat strip of sand. She opens the trunk and grabs her bag from where it is hidden under a damp beach towel. By the time Kayla returns to Lulma in the shallows, the sealskin is cradled in her arms, the hairs taking on the reddish glow from the setting sun. “I do want to be like you,” she rambles, pushing the sealskin into Lulma’s limp hands. “I want to feel what you feel. I’ve wanted to feel it for so long but not at the expense of you. Never you. God, Lulma, I’m so sorry. I’m sorry.”
Lulma says nothing. Something as unfathomable and tremendous swells in her eyes. Her jowls shake with it and Kayla closes her eyes, readying to accept any punishment Lulma is willing to dish out.
Kayla hasn’t let go of the sealskin. Lulma hasn’t made her yet so they hold it together, fingers clenched in the sable fur. “What do you want to feel?” Lulma asks, after a gulf of silence, and Kayla all but leaps at the opportunity. She tells Lulma about a childhood spent in awe of the ocean, the preternatural yearning to go down beneath the waves, the first drowning dress she made for herself, a repurposed summer dress with a long, white skirt. She tells Lulma about every drowning dress and every attempt, even the one that ended with her staying overnight in the hospital, residual saltwater sloshing in her lungs. “I haven’t gone back since,” Kayla says, “not until you.”
At the end of it all, the moon high above their heads, Lulma calls her an idiot. “You fool,” she says and it is impossibly fond. “You fool. Don’t you see why I love your dress so much? There’s so much ocean in it, Kayla. It feels like my own skin. Here, here, you feel.”
Lulma gives Kayla her sealskin. She strips out of the drowning dress, her breasts dark in the moonlight. She gives Kayla the drowning dress, a bundle of sopping wet material, and motions for Kayla to undress. Kayla has never gotten naked in front of anyone before but she does so now. She puts on the drowning dress for the first time in years and it is cold, but not clammy. The sleeves, logged with water, envelop her hands and make them look like flippers. Beneath the salt, Kayla can smell Lulma’s musk.
“See?” Lulma dons her sealskin over her shoulders and head and takes Kayla’s hand. Kayla can feel the webbing growing between Lulma’s fingers, the blunt tips of her claws. “Do you feel it?” She begins slow, tugging Kayla away from the shore. The ocean rises from Kayla’s thighs to her hips to her neck. Her braids take on water and start to weigh her down. “It’s alright, you are with me,” Lulma says and her voice sounds like a song, echoing eerily on the empty ocean. “You’ll come with me. I’ll take you to the other shore. We will never part. Is that what you want, Kayla?”
Kayla cannot speak, cannot move her head to nod. She squeezes Lulma’s paw as hard as she can. Lulma barks in glee, pushing her whiskery snout against Kayla’s temple. Her nose is cold and wet.
And with that, Lulma draws Kayla underwater.
Shalya Powell is an undergrad student pursuing an English degree in western Massachusetts. This is their first published story.