Sea Change
Susan Stern

"I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each.
I do not think that they will sing to me."
--T.S. Eliot, "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock"

They say around here that drowned men are stolen by water spirits who take them to dwell in underwater castles forever. They say manatees have the souls of mermaids. They say that a woman's blood, dropped into water, summons selkie boys who beget children on human women, leaving mother bereft and child of neither earth nor sea. They say many things. Some of them are true.

They say around here that once a year, on Midsummer Night's Eve, selkies who are seals the rest of the time come up out of the water and take the form of women. And they sit on the rocks, combing their hair. And if you find one of their discarded seal skins and take it home with you and hide it, then the selkie is bound to you until she finds her skin. And she may even love you a little, but she never stops looking for her skin. And she always finds it. It may take her a hundred years, but she finds it, and returns to the sea. Always.

Tonight I have a human body. Tonight I have human legs, human hands. Tonight I will walk on my human feet to the place I lived as a human, and I will leave a gift for my child. A gift from the sea, for my child.

Words are a human thing. I never needed to call anything by a word until I was human. When I saw my child, and they lay her on my breast, I had a word. I called her beautiful. And perfect. But the midwife said to my husband, That child will never belong to you. Look at her hands. So we looked, and he saw that they were strung, finger to finger, with webs so thin that the light shone through. Cut them, he said. I want my child to be perfect. So they cut them. I cried when they cut the webs.

Perfect, he said. And she grows more perfectly beautiful every day, in her human body. But I have swum along the margin of the shore and listened to him walking and talking, and seen into the child's mind, and her mind is as empty of thoughts as a seal's. She rocks in the fireplace with her hands over her face, and she cries to be let outside into the rain. She yearns for the water. He won't let her near the sea. Because he's convinced himself that I drowned. I watch him walking up and down the beach, grieving, looking out over the water--for what, he does not know. Yet he knows. Deep down, outside what he's willing to remember, he knows.

These four years since I walked back into the sea, since I found my skin and walked back into it, I have felt like a cord stretched between that house and the sea, neither of sea nor land anymore. My people don't hold on to their children, and never was a selkie born who knew the meaning of the word love. But my child is back there and I feel her all the time, until I am stretched so thin I know I will break.

I should have hated my husband. He hid my skin and wouldn't tell me where it was, because he didn't want me to go. So I was trapped inside this human body, with my animal mind and my human mind slowly coming together until I had no idea what I was anymore.

He had a word. A human word. Love. And at first my mind was an animal's mind, empty except for instinct, to eat, to sleep, to escape, but he filled it slowly with this word, this love, until the word took shape and became a soul.

We used to make love on the beach, out here in the summer. This human thing, this making love--how can you make love if it isn't there? How can you unmake it if it is?

Regret. Regret is a human thing. Never was a selkie born who could regret, but I am no longer...

One day he walked into the beach house, and I was sitting with my hands against the fireplace. Listening. I could almost hear it calling me--my skin--until he walked in here with his big, clumsy human feet. He took me in his arms and said, Why, my love? Why do you want to leave?

I couldn't answer him; not then. But later there were three stones missing from the fireplace, and I at the door with two sealskins in my arms... I slapped him. He tried to take them from me and I slapped him. And while he stood there, hardly able to believe it, I snatched up the skins and ran. But I stopped at the gate and I said a cruel thing to him. I almost loved you, I told him. I would have stayed, if only you'd have let me leave.

Four summers ago tonight I walked into the sea, and the child I left him is five. Five, and she has no human words, no human thoughts. They have a word.

They have given him a choice, and tomorrow he must make a decision. You can't keep that child at home, they said. She's barely human. And he walks up and down the beach, agonizing over the decision he's already made, because he doesn't want her to go. Because he knows, deep down, that she is no human thing. That she has no words because she never had them. That her mind is filled with the sound of the sea and the voices of seals, and that her soul is tearing itself to pieces like the white waves breaking on the black rocks. But I have seen that the webbing has grown back on her hands. Her perfect hands.

Tonight, this midsummer night's eve, I will walk on my human legs up to the house where I lived as a human, and I will leave the gift that confirms his decision, what he knows he must do, what I should have done.

The second skin.

Susan Stern came to Seattle from New York to attend the 1990 Clarion West Writers Workshop; she forgot to go home and has been in Washington ever since. When she's not writing multimedia text, she's usually doing theater stuff.

InterText stories written by Susan Stern: "A Fish Story" (v4n1), "Sea Change" (v4n6).

InterText Copyright © 1991-1999 Jason Snell. This story may only be distributed as part of the collected whole of Volume 4, Number 6 of InterText. This story Copyright © 1994 Susan Stern.