Fiction – “Sealskin” by Ann Chatham
Deep in the back pocket of his favorite pair of jeans he found a piece of paper: just a scrap, torn out of a wide-ruled notebook. “I love you,” it said, in her handwriting. “Don’t forget.” He stared at it for a long time, half-unseeing, before setting it down on the dresser, where not long before her jewelry box had sat. On top of the other paper, the one that said, “I must leave now. I’m sorry.” They could have been torn from the same page.
He’d come home to that, after the business trip to Japan: walked into the house to find it empty, and then that blank space on the dresser filled with just a little scrap of paper that didn’t even say goodbye.
In the mirror, his face looked very pale, and his eyes shadowed. The beard stubble was beginning to look intentional. He frowned at it. She liked him clean-shaven, but he just hadn’t had the energy. Maybe this morning. He looked down at the second note again. It was still there. He went into the bathroom in search of his razor.
In the medicine cabinet, taped to the back of the door, was a sketch she’d drawn for him years ago. It was a seal, looking at him with its big lovely eyes. “That’s my little sister,” she’d told him. “Mara.” Later on, when he’d met Mara, he had been surprised by the resemblance. Now he carefully untaped the sketch and set it aside to join the collection on the dresser. His world might still be shaking, but his hand was steady with the razor.
Outside, the day was wet and windy. Reaching for his jacket, he found another thing gone. Her coat. The stupid fur Eskimo parka that she’d kept, even after he’d pointed out that it was never cold enough for it, that nobody wore fur in San Francisco, that she couldn’t work protecting the seals and wear a sealskin coat, for God’s sake.
“It was my gift from my mother,” she’d always say. And because he knew her mother had gotten killed working on the Exxon-Valdez clean-up, before he’d met her, he understood why she couldn’t give it away. Not that she’d ever mentioned that; Mara was the one who’d told him. “Best kept secret. It wasn’t just birds and crabs that died.” Even Mara wouldn’t say more than that.
But the coat was gone. He brushed his fingers past empty space that should have been coarse seal-fur and pulled the hanger out of the darkness. Another note was taped to the wooden cross-bar. “Keep everything else. My coat is all I’m going to need.” He untaped it slowly, wondering, remembering the empty space where the jewelry box used to sit. It didn’t really matter; she was what he needed. He put the hanger back and pulled on his jacket.
In the street he hunched his shoulders against the wind, turning his head away from the house, from the coffee shop down the street, from the little sushi place where they’d gone to celebrate the latest laws passed to protect her beloved seals. Just the two of them and Mara, because the co-workers she got along with were mostly vegetarians. That evening hadn’t been so long ago, but just now it seemed like forever. They’d acted like moonstruck kids, or newlyweds, and Mara had slipped off part-way through the evening to pick up a date from the bar, leaving them to themselves.
The rain swept down again, suddenly, and he ran the rest of the way down the street to the garage, fumbling in the pocket where he kept his loose change and car keys. His fingers found something round and smooth. He pulled it out with the keys: a smooth round stone, about the size of his thumbnail and the dark lightless color of her hair. She’d given it to him seven years ago, on the day they met. He finally realized where his feet were taking him: to the road that led to that beach.
Today he had the dunes to himself, with only the birds and the wind for company. In another season there would be segments roped off for the elephant seals, but just now he could wander as he pleased, towards the distant point where he, seven years younger, had met a girl to whom he had tried to explain the concept of a nature preserve, and why it was necessary.
She had nodded solemnly, wide-eyed. “The old ways are dying,” she’d said, and handed him a sea-smoothed pebble. “The world used to be like this, all smooth and connected. Now it’s as full of holes and garbage as the beach at the high tide line.”
Two weeks later, she had knocked on his door, saying she needed a place to stay until she found an apartment, and then before she could start looking, they’d realized that neither of them wanted her to leave.
The tide was out, leaving a long expanse of beach before the dunes. His sneakers left shallow footprints as he walked across the packed wet sand below the tide line, swerving around the long bits of kelp and seaweeds that trailed across his path.
Scanning the beach ahead of him, he saw a figure half-way up the slope of one of the dunes, hands dug into the pockets of a sealskin parka, watching the sea. For a moment his heart leapt, trying to tell him that she was waiting for him here. But his eyes took in that the dark hair was cropped into a short cap, not her long flowing strands that would have whipped about in this wind.
“Mara,” he said, coming up to her.
She turned slightly in his direction, faintly raising her eyebrows.
“Where is she?” he asked, not knowing what else to ask.
There was a bit of silence, except for the wind. “She went home,” said Mara, uncompromising.
But he’d never really known where that was. “Please,” he said, watching her too-familiar face watch the sea. It might have been carved from walrus ivory, for all the sign it gave him. Another silence. “Are you angry with me as well?”
She glared at him, suddenly much more human. “What do you think? It’s your fault my sister couldn’t stay past her seven years. You and your stupid sensible nonsense. You never listen when we try to tell you things outside your own damn head.”
He shook his head, not wanting to understand, even though at the back of his mind seven years of unanswered questions were trying to make sense. “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he protested, knowing it wasn’t really true. “I just want to know how to get her back!”
Mara rolled her eyes in contempt. “I’m trying,” she said with exaggerated patience, “to help you work that out.” But then she turned away. “I don’t know why she ever put up with you. God. Anybody else would have figured out something by now.”
“You think I could just tell you? If it worked that way, I’m sure she would have told you ages ago. Look, Clueless, if you want to know, you’re gonna have to figure this out for yourself for once. It’s the only way you’re going to believe it, anyway. We’re geas-bound not to say.”
He couldn’t think of a thing to answer. And suddenly he was remembering her, one evening years ago, when he’d laughingly called her his little seal, how she had turned away and burst into tears, but wouldn’t tell him why.
“Oh, God,” said Mara, seeing the tears well up in his eyes. “Here.” She pushed something into his hands and walked back down the beach.
He shut his eyes tightly until he could open them and see. It was her jewelry box in his hands. A big polished wood thing with pictures of exotic fish burnt into the sides and top. He turned his back to the wind to open it, shielding the contents from the rain.
Nestled inside was a book she’d given him for his birthday one year, a little illustrated book of folklore of the sea. A scrap of paper marked a place, and he opened it, knowing what it was going to be: the story of the selkie, seal-wife, trapped for seven years on dry land by the fisherman who stole her sealskin and forced her to marry him.
He looked up at the sands, remembering the story that she’d told him, after he read the book, another tale about a selkie, one who had wanted to stay with her husband, but could not because she was afraid to tell him what she was. After seven years she’d had to return to the sea, or die as her sealskin crumbled from disuse.
And his eyes tracked what he was seeing, and he realized that the trail of Mara’s footprints ended at the tide line, and beyond it in the waves, he thought he could see a sleek dark-furred body, swimming away from him. He stared out at the waves for a long time, but the seal didn’t return.
Looking down again, he realized that he was still holding a scrap of paper in his hand, pulled from the book when he’d shut it and the box. It was just a scrap, torn from a wide-ruled notebook. The ink had run a bit in the rain, but it was still unmistakably her writing. “Wait for me,” it said. “I’ll be back.”
About the Author
Ann Chatham was raised in the storytelling community of the Washington, DC area, and has been reading fantasy and hearing folklore told for as long as she can remember. She has always wanted to be an author, but she’s been very lazy about getting around to it. In the mean time, she has worked in fabric stores and offices, on a dude ranch in the mountains of Colorado, doing archaeology around the DC area, and most recently running a shop on etsy where she occasionally sells a variety of handmade goods. She lives with her husband, a small turtle, and a large black cat in a small house full of too many books and craft supplies. This is her first story in print since her high school literary magazine days.
She blogs at http://thanate.livejournal.com/.