The sun rose imperceptible in a sky of steel wool that Saturday. Sally blinked — twice — then turned on her side, away from her boyfriend’s best impression of an elephant seal. 9:15. The clock on the nightstand glowed a feeble green. Sally indulged a grin, directed at no one but herself, as she rose from the folds of the silk sheets and made her way to the window.
Tyler stirred as the copper rings tinged on the curtain rod, breaking the silence of the country home. Cool, grey light spilled past the drapes, washing over Sally’s face like a draught of seawater. His brain took a moment to accept what his eyes were seeing. Sally — the Sally he’d known and dated for close to two years now — would never be up this early on a weekend… not if she could help it. Her morning ritual usually consisted of burying her face in the sheets to block the sunbeams slipping through their apartment window. To see her staring into the slate-grey sky, with such a smile on her face…
His heart skipped a beat as she turned that rare smile to the sound of him moving on the bed. Her eyes — the same shade as the sky outside, hemmed with sea-foam blue — glowed bright as her cheeks. Her smile pinched those freckled roundels toward her hair — hair she claimed was auburn, but which always looked brown to Tyler. Not that he’d change it, or anything about her, for that matter.
He was the one who left much to be desired. His hair was a matted mess of greasy black, especially in the mornings, and his eyes — which his mother assured him were his best feature — were a boring, solid green. The rest of him was just… lumpy. Frumpy, even, once he put some clothes on. He returned her smile and tried to bury the question of why –why? — she’d settled for him.
Sally turned back to the duck-pond vista. They’d left the window cracked last night. It hadn’t been warm — it rarely was in the Dufftown countryside — but the evening air had been libationary. And the morning air? Even more so.
Pale streamers floated over the lily-spotted surface of the pond and meandered towards the house. Sally felt the thin moisture falling on her arms and her thirsty skin drinking it in. She sighed; it still wasn’t the ocean. It wasn’t her real skin either, but…
She skirted Tyler’s gaze as she grabbed the bathrobe from the hook on the door, stepping into the hall as she slipped it over her shoulders. She tasted salt. She wiped her still-glowing cheeks once she was out of sight and pressed on for the kitchen.
Tyler laid back. He scratched his belly, thinking of nothing but her and her smile — as usual. It was like the sun had finally rent the highland clouds and smacked him dead in the face… though that probably wasn’t the best metaphor, he realized, given her opinion of sunny mornings: “Dry,” she called them.
He should lose some weight, he thought — not for his sake, but for hers. She deserved a better specimen than he.
The farm house was utterly still. Grandma Winifred wouldn’t have stood for it, what with the sun three hours up in the sky, but Sally appreciated the silence — as did her mother, still snoring two doors down. Sally’s feet padded the deep blue carpet as she passed the gentle sound and into the kitchen.
The breeze played through the ancient kitchenry hanging over the linoleum island. The pots and pans, along with the refrigerator, the taps, the range, and the stove-top, hadn’t been replaced since the 50’s… and it showed. Her mother, Annabeth, had tried convincing Winifred to replace those “rattling monsters,” as she called the larger appliances, but Sally had no intention of letting her do so now. They’d been wedding presents, every one of them — and this was still Grandma’s house.
Sally brushed her hair aside as she set the dutiful teakettle on the stove, catching the eyes of the old matriarch’s portrait as she did. Her fingers froze between her locks as she stared into the faded colors of that photograph. Auburn. She’d always said her hair was auburn, but it was nowhere near the hearty shade of her Grandmother’s, even as she passed 80 and Grandpa Reid passed over the waves. It could still be that color, for all Sally knew.
She banished the thought, along with all other thoughts of Grandma, as she let the tap run cold. The well-water shimmered as it cascaded from the faucet, unfiltered and untreated. When Grandpa had been a boy, he’d needed to boil it for half an hour before his family could even drink it. When the war finally ended and he found himself in his ancestral home with his new bride, he was surprised that the mineral-laden water of his childhood had been replaced with a liquor sweet and clean as any mountain spring’s. He hadn’t questioned it — must be the newfangled taps, he thought. Grandma had just smiled. That was one of the reasons she…
Sally muttered a curse — one Winifred would hardly have approved — and dammed the wash of memories. She was still too near, and the memorial was still two long days away. Sally refused to call it that. Annabeth used the term freely enough; she’d half-gushed “the purpose for their visit” to the poor customs agent at Heathrow.
Sally hated her for it. She hated her for a lot of things. But they remained below the surface, as always. Nothing short of a tempest could bring them up now… though the air seemed to be growing heavier with every day they spent together.
The kettle screamed. Sally let it. She liked the sound — though she’d ever heard a siren herself, she’d been convinced they sounded like teakettles ever since Winifred described her memories of their songs. The sound rose higher and higher — and then she remembered Annabeth, still trying to sleep just down the hall. She grimaced as she pulled it from the fire, hoping she hadn’t awakened her.
Two mugs were set on the spotless vinyl countertop by the time she turned around. One was little more than a tin cup with a soldered on handle, later painted a deep blue and speckled with white. The other was ceramic, still unchipped after years of service. It bore the carefully finger-painting of a tabby cat, drawn by the little girl who’d sat mesmerized at Grandma Winifred’s stories of the sea and its denizens.
She dropped a bag of earl grey into the utilitarian cup for Tyler. He’d been a prolific coffee drinker before they’d started dating, but he’d given it up a few weeks after he moved in. She couldn’t stand the smell. Even the sight of it turned her stomach; so much good water, muddied. Tea was little better, but she knew how hard men had to work at change, and was grateful Tyler even tried.
She poured half the scalding kettle over the teabag and half into her empty mug. She set it down and glanced up the hallway: Tyler was still abed. Unless she was quick, his snoring would resume well before she returned; Tyler was no morning fanatic either. Still, as she snuck over to the spice cabinet and pulled Grandma’s oversized container of sea-salt from the shelf, she tried to stay as quietly as she could.
Whenever Tyler asked, she said her breakfast brew was honey and mint. He’d be stunned — and probably disgusted — to see her pour three servings worth of sodium crystals into the steaming mug, stir them in with a long sugar spoon, and take a tentative sip.
Salinity cut through the haze; her throat and her mind filled with a saltiness that burned far less than soothed. This was her succor — her daily reminder of the life she might have lived. Just another gift from Grandma: a trick she’d learned from the old selkies who’d returned to the waves once their lives ashore were done. Her mother drank it every morning too, though she took hers with all the icy cold of the north Atlantic. It was one of the few things they shared; something to keep them both sane in the world of men.
Another, more confident sip. The concoction was hot, but already cooling in the thin air of the highlands. She caught a whiff of Tyler’s drink as it steeped, and her self-indulgent smile only grew. Sometimes — if she bought the right kind of tea and it caught her unawares — the smell reminded her of the ocean. This bag was left over from Grandpa’s stache… Winifred must have bought it for him for the exact same reason.
The smell only carried her mind further out, and she finally stopped fighting the memories… she had to, eventually. Winifred had told her that her brain had currents and eddies she could swim against — but when the tides came, she had to flow with them.
So she flowed; out from herself, out from this kitchen, out of Scotland and across the Channel, to the southern shore in a different time…
. . .
Winnia surfaced, three tides after the land-dwellers had cut the surf with their noisy boats to retake this stretch of sand from other, far worse land-dwellers. With all the grace and stealth which she could manage, she heaved her fuzzy bulk into the nook of an outcropping, just beyond the ranks of the cruel, steel crosses. Blue-grey eyes peeked over the rock from a whiskered, oily snout, searching for any signs of watching man. She was relieved to see her precautions were unnecessary; all eyes turned inland, looking for the führer’s troops, not back to the sea.
Winnia slipped her skin and rose on two legs for the first time in years.
The young creature remained cautious; she knew the game, and had played it well. All through the chaos on the surface, she’d skirted the paths of the U-Boats, avoided the powerful spyglasses and even more powerful rifles of the men on the shore, learned to fear the sound of engines on the water… Winnia, and the kingdom of the channel, had learned to survive — painfully. The bootheel grinding Europe into the dust had pressed down like the weight of a second sea, even in those unsounded depths forever beyond its conquest. Hitler loved his legends, and when he heard the fishermen talk of mermaids and sirens and selkies swimming beneath their boats… well, he’d sent his S.S. on a fishing trip or two.
Winnia — as she called herself when her voice was carried on air rather than water — shivered; both from the memory and the seaward breeze upon her bared shoulders. She reached into the empty, fatty shell she’d worn for seven centuries and pulled a cotton shift from the pocket formed by the left foreflipper. It was an old trick, keeping dry clothes there; if she wanted to walk the world of men, she could hardly go about as she was. And besides, she was used to the coat of fat she’d just stepped out of; this far north, she’d freeze to death.
She stretched deliciously and let the long shirt slip over her head. It’d been too long since she — or any other creature in the Channel — had been free to walk the shore. She doubted the humans would ever know what really happened beneath the waves of Utah beach; how she and the other selkies had held their siren sisters back as the soldier’s blood — hot and bitter in the rolling surf — called them to feed. They were no better than sharks when they got the scent, Winnia thought, but once their heads had cleared, they’d swam to the castle and begged forgiveness. The council gave it, but forbade them sing; bound them by their father below to remain beneath the waves a while longer — at least until the troops had gone. There’d been no malice in the sunken throne room that day; malcontent, perhaps, but not malice.
She still felt no ill-will for her sisters — or any creature, for that matter — as she made her way towards the nearest seaside village, leaving the empty sealskin where it lay. She thought it well enough concealed. All the soldiers were gone, after all: the troubles of men lay inland.
In all her long years, no one had explained tactics to her; there’d been no need. Wars beneath the waves were rare, and as different from men’s as land was from sea. Her temple tutors had taught her far more of wars in the heavens than those of the land-dweller’s, and they were high and holy affairs — bloodless, for the most part. She didn’t know what “reinforcements” were, nor of man’s need to maintain lines of food and bullets across the water.
So it was no one’s fault — except, perhaps, those imperfect tutors’ — when a certain Scotsman, crossing the channel to fight for someone else’s queen and country, found what Winnia had hidden. He’d thought it strange — killing a seal and leaving its skin behind — but not so strange that it didn’t return to camp with him.
Win — as she’d taken to calling herself among the peasants and G.I.’s peopling the sleepy hamlet — returned three days later, drunk on wine and air and open countryside. France was free at last, and she wondered afresh why the other sea-peoples so feared man’s world. She’d swam in seven seas, each more beautiful than the last, but in her long, young life, the southern sun lighting castles of Carthaginian coral ablaze could not compare with the smell and sound of a shoreside café or the taste of morning mists on vineyard hills.
She didn’t mind that her skin wasn’t where she’d left it; in the afterglow, she hardly noticed its absence from the sand. She was whistling. It was a pastime she’d taken long ago and hadn’t been able to practice — or give up — for many a year. Winnia smiled as she thought of the last time she’d tried, bubbling clumsy noise into the dark water. It was a human game, and she…
La Marseillaise trailed off. Her heart quickened as she rounded the rock, searching every cranny cut by the unrelenting ocean… and found them all empty.
Lieutenant First Class Reid Albert Reid was back on patrol. He was whistling — his own variation on The Sun Rises Bright in France — when he froze, reaching for his gun. He could’ve sworn he heard another song, carrying over the sand. That’s when he noticed the girl in white, crying on a rock just beyond the waves.
He never questioned why Winifred — as she decided to call herself — chose to go back to camp with him. Or why she’d stayed there in that little town, counting the last days of that terrible war with the tides. Or why she’d accepted the ring he brought back — from the pocket of a dead stormtrooper, no less — and the proposal which accompanied it. He just counted himself the luckiest man to walk the earth.
As the years passed, he never asked why she didn’t seem to age, or grow sick, or talk about her life before the war. He didn’t question her demand for seaside trips where she didn’t even wet her feet. He didn’t wonder what it was in her morning cuppa that didn’t smell like either mint or honey. He just loved her and loved their children, their grandchildren, and even their one great grandchild; Tabitha, born just as Reid’s health began to flag and hints of grey began frosting the tips of Winifred’s ruddy hair. He’d died with a thousand questions in his heart and nothing on his lips; Winifred, sitting by his side in that empty country ward, had only one — only one which really mattered.
What did you do with my skin?
But the time for such questions had passed, like the moon on the tide, like the waters of winter… like the breath of life from the empty shell which had been her husband.
. . .
Tyler had made his way down the hall as noiselessly as she had. Leaning in the doorway like the statute of David in boxers and a ragged Star Wars t-shirt, he’d watched her ruminations for several moments before he’d spoken.
“Are you okay?”
Sally flashed one of her grandmother’s most disarming smiles. She’d had the best in their family; Sally’s was a pale imitation. Still, it disarmed his concern neatly enough. He returned a toothy grin as he picked the mug from the counter; Sally was unsure how long his tea had been sitting, but he gave no indication it was cold.
“I think your mom’s awake.”
The smile vanished from Sally’s face. Tyler kicked himself for pointing it out — so much for their quiet morning in. Tyler couldn’t understand why the two of them fought so much, but soon — very soon — the war between mother and daughter would be rejoined, sure as eggs is eggs.
Sally frowned; why was he asking forgiveness? He hadn’t done anything; it was her mother who should be sorry. Still, if she was getting up, they should make themselves — and any reminders of Winifred and Reid — scarce. She let her thoughts flow again. They didn’t go so far this time, just lapping gently at the shores of Tyler’s mind as she emptied her mug. Someone else had drank most of it while she’d floundered in her grandmother’s memories. She hadn’t fought the tide, true — but she’d nearly been lost in it
“Still want to go to the aquarium?”
Sally had mentioned her well-remembered excursions to the Macduff seaside late last night, but he wasn’t quite sure why he’d remembered it then. She smiled (three times in one morning!) like she’d been expecting the question and nodded. Tyler resumed breathing and sipped his lukewarm tea. He had to work at hiding a disappointed look. It was good tea, but even hot — god, did he miss coffee. The ancient faucet let off a cloud of steam as Sally rinsed her cup.
“I’ll get ready.”
He set his unfinished drink down on the counter beside her. Sally exhaled as he disappeared down the hall. It suddenly felt like she’d swam the Channel and back that morning; in a way, she supposed she had.
Sally gripped the edge of the basin, steam drifting up to kiss away her tears. She hated doing that to him, but she needed someone — anyone — to put an hour’s drive between herself, Annabeth, and Annabeth’s demons… demon, to be specific. Tyler wasn’t the least qualified to navigate the narrow lanes of the U.K. backcountry, but when Annabeth had pushed him — jet-lagged and dumbfounded already at the wash of strange new accents — into the left-hand seat of their newly-rented Land Rover, he, not wanting to disturb his potential mother-in-law any further, acquiesced.
Sally hoped she’d be able to take the wheel from him when they were a safe distance from the Reid family farm and her mother’s piercing eyes — those eyes which were almost, but not quite, the same Atlantic hue as her Grandma’s. Sally smirked as she set her mug away in the cupboard. In spite of a wide brimmed hat and excessive sunglasses — especially for Scotland — Annabeth had been spotted and recognized the moment she entered Dufftown. Growing up, the townsfolk had told her again and again she was her mother’s splitting image.
If so, her looks were the only thing they had in common. When Winifred had taken an eight-year-old Sally to Macduff and explained that the seals on the rocks below might be her distant kin, she’d responded with wonder and joy… and gratitude. She’d had a good life on land, even if Dad was gone a lot and Mom yelled too loud sometimes… mostly at him. When Annabeth took the same trip decades before, she’d spent the following weeks tearing Grandpa Reid’s things apart to find her mother’s skin. Find the skin, and Winifred could go back to the ocean. If Winifred went back to the ocean, she reasoned, so could she.
Never once did it occur that Winifred might not want to go back.
Sally shook her head as she emptied Tyler’s mug, setting it beside her own and shutting them out of sight. She wondered why her mother had even returned to her hated hometown with them. Sally suspected it was to look for the skin again, or, even worse, to confirm that Winifred was actually dead.
Sally thought of the heart-wrenching notice that’d slipped beneath her door a few weeks ago. International mail. First class postage. As soon as she’d stopped crying, she tasted salt on her cheeks and began to wonder if her grandmother was really dead. Maybe she’d found her skin and slipped away after all, making arrangements to fake her death ashore. Or maybe she’d just spent too long on land, her days used up in long, dry years.
She did know one thing: if Grandma had found a way to go back to the sea, let her. With Grandpa gone, she had nothing to keep her. Sally did.
Tyler’d just poked his head back through the kitchen door. The shredded graphic tee had been exchanged for one which held together a little better, and a pair of jeans had been slipped over his boxers. The keys dangled from his hand.
Sally shook her head; she needed to get dressed too. She slid past him in the hall — sneaking a tip-toe peck onto his cheek — and tried to ignore the sounds of movement from behind her mother’s door as she crept past. Tyler rubbed the side of his face, smiling as he stepping into the kitchen. With any luck, they’d both be out the garage door before her mother could stop them.
Sally loved her mother. Grandma Winifred had loved her too, near as she could tell — old selkies were hard to read, swimming in their own strange thoughts most of the time. But Annabeth…
Sally loved the stories, but they were just that — stories: they were true and they were wonderful, but they had a place. At times, her mother looked at her and Tyler like they were less real than the pictures of sunken sea-castles and mermaid courts drifting through her mind.
Tyler called from the kitchen before kicking himself again; he’d wanted not to disturb his potential mother-in-law when they started this trip. Seems he was making a botch of that, as usual. He had to make sure, though; the object sitting on the counter was even stranger for Sally than her smiles had been.
“Did you leave the salt out?”