R. M. Fradkin’s story of a woman who believes she is someone else should resonate, because I think we have all sensed a similar disjointness within ourselves. If we allow ourselves to introspect, then a certain disbelief is inevitable. How did we get enmeshed in these social systems and projects and identities in which we had no hand in making? How did we end up an accountant, a banker, a trader in animal skins, a mother of two? Still, Fradkin’s hero is one of the lucky ones, for she knows and experiences who she really is and doesn’t simply coexist with the unease of being someone else.
I do not wish to suggest that Fradkin’s hero has such comforts. When we enter the story, we are at a window, a woman is looking in and we are standing with her, trying to perceive what she’s seeing. Let us be readers. Let us become her.
— Anil Menon
The Bombay Literary Magazine
Watching from the alley one autumnal evening, Sarah saw a man hanging something in the window, and for a second, it looked like he was hanging himself. He stood on the shelf of the shop display, crunching a scaly purse below his heel, and tilted his head towards a hidden hook in the sky of the window, twisting his neck so that it looked ready to be looped through the noose. But there wasn’t any rope, just an oily coat lifted to the hook and left there, the shoulders coated in some red light that tumbled down from an unseen bulb.
She crossed into the shop and examined the spot of the hanging. The narrow turning of the alley between the bulk of the buildings made it feel like night inside. The man was in the back now, jerking his face towards a moist boa that he was attaching to another hook in the ceiling. His hair was greased with a fishy-smelling pomade and parted down the middle. Each item in the shop was separated from all the other items, with a red or blue spotlight from above.
As she stared into the whirlpool of the fur coat, there was a wave in Sarah’s guts pushing its way out until it frothed in her mind’s eye. Sea foam flecked with gunk, a beast churning in a circle, black water turning into white water, roiling and returning into black water. Something was ahead of her in the sea, and she chased it, moving in the water like water. Her hand flopped forward as if she were swimming and hit the coat.
The sea relinquished her mind, and she was back below the hook, touching dry fur, where she had thought to rub water or spray or foam, and the fur wasn’t oily to the touch, the way it had looked from the alley, just dirty maybe, but dry as grass wizened in a hot landlocked country. There were small pockmarks in the skin beneath, and the whole thing had been nibbled on by something larger than moths. The grubbiness of the skin and the dry-rotting leather buttons contrasted tightly with how alive it made her feel. Only the sharp whorls in the dry brown hair looked like the dips between waves.
“What is this?” she said to the shop assistant who was passing behind her like he was trying to get away with a ships-in-the-night routine.
“Sealskin. 1940s. Holt Renfrew & Co.”
“Not for sale.”
“But it’s my skin.”
“I’m sorry, lady”—and there was almost a question in the way he said ‘lady’—“if you sold it to us and want it back now, but I’m under strict instructions that this particular item doesn’t leave the store.”
“Strict instructions from who?” she said, knowing that it would come in handy later, but he dipped away, in and out of the red or blue lights boring down on each item.
She hadn’t meant her skin like it was something she’d sold to the shop. She’d meant her skin, like the skin off her back, the dry fold over her kneecap, and the moist part behind. I wasn’t alive in the 1940s, she thought. But then, all that was in her wetly calling out for the wet responded: why should your human age be the measure of your true age?
Up until now, Sarah had never known she was a selkie—nothing of the memory of being a seal had ever slipped into her consciousness—and though she could find no gaps at all in her memory of human life when her seal life might have been, she felt it lapping inside her.
Sarah’s long-dead grandmother had told tales of selkies, seals who could turn to women once every seven summers when they came to dance on the rocks, and who could be trapped in this human form if someone stole the hide lying discarded in the tide pools. The man—for it was always a man, for the grandmother—held the woman as long as he held the hide, but the selkie searched from her wedding day on, and in every version the grandmother had ever told Sarah, the selkie finally found her skin, wrapped herself in it again, and was, once more, seal.
Who had stolen Sarah’s skin and entrapped her in this dry body? In the stories, it would be her husband, but it was hard to imagine that mild cheddar in the role of a hunter in the caves by the shore, rough and staggering rock above his head, framing an ancient theft. The roll of the ocean into the cave where the selkies stripped their skins for the septennial dance would trip and scatter him across the ice-blue pebbles that pooled in the caves on that part of the coast. And she loved Geoffrey more for that.
What if her father had trapped a selkie for a daughter instead of a wife? He was a man who locked things away, who loved his cupboards and medicine cabinets, clothes closets, and chests of drawers locked, and yet never seemed to have a key on him. But her mother was not the type to raise her husband’s prey like her own. Both gone now.
What about the fisherman uncle whose boots never looked right on unrocking ground, who came into the inland town for two nights at a time and then was always gone before anyone woke on the third day? The young Sarah hung out the window of his abandoned room, sniffing the trail of seaweed and gulls’ droppings scent he’d left for her, as it seemed to her now that she was newly conscious of her selkiehood.
A favorite high school biology teacher, high in the hair and long in the jaw, who seemed to know her deepest secrets before she knew they were her secrets, who sometimes seemed to create secrets for her. That woman would have been very good at hunting selkies. They smoked together in the supply closet behind the teacher’s desk that had all the beakers and boards with the dissection pins for when they cut open the frogs and the fetal pigs. The smoke did nothing to dry up the teacher’s fundamental wetness, the liquid of her eyes, the damp hands, the objects in formaldehyde on the walls. Even now she might be living in a cave where the seals rolled in on the tide.
Perhaps no one brought selkies to this life anymore, perhaps that was only long ago, in the days of her grandmother’s tales, and now selkies brought themselves into the human world.
Home from the vintage shop, in the kitchen, Sarah chopped and salted carrots and potatoes—the most un-sea-like vegetables she could find. They grew in earth that never felt the sea or the rain on its face. But there were streams below the grass, whole rivers and trickles tightly sliding and tasting their way down the threads of root. She would roast them until sweat oozed from them.
Underneath the chopping board on the kitchen island, her daughter Winnie lay flat on her back treading her arms back and forth as if making a snow angel, and Sarah saw a sea otter, rowing its back along the slippery kitchen tiles.
Sarah crouched next to her and pulled Winnie’s little hands close to her eyes. Winnie sat up in interest as Sarah tried to pry the fingers apart, checking for signs of webbing, but Winnie kept them tightly bunched and all Sarah had to read were the lines between the knuckles. Did the skin between the bases of the joints go up too far or was that normal? Sarah brought her other hand around to tug, and Winnie wailed, because the other hand was still holding the chef’s knife and it came swinging round like a shark’s fin. Sarah dropped the knife, pulled Winnie off the floor, set her on the kitchen island, and fed her raw carrots one by one until the noise stopped.
That night, in the parched and claustrophobic bedroom after making wet seal love to her husband, she lay awake, hearing Winnie’s noise again from beginning to end and wondering if the extended wail sounded more like the cry of a loon or the shriek of a land rodent. Crows rioted overhead, making a noise it was far too late for. She’d never known a seagull to come this far over the land, but she wished for their cries.
It was a fairy-tale home, with funny bits coming off the roof, twists and turns, and mossy tiles, and all going up, because there was no room to go sideways. Their bedroom was at the top, squeezed up into the triangulated roof, with small misshapen windows fitted into angles. She often looked over town, sticking what fit of her out the windows, and the rooves fell over each other towards her like foam.
Fall grew more and more wintery, and every morning she woke up in the same body, only uglier perhaps as time went on in small ways that became noticeable suddenly, but every day she thought she might wake up in a different place, a different body, that everything she thought of as her could be sent into a container more suited to it all. But she woke in the same, and it seemed the unlikeliest thing in the world that her thoughts emanated from that stretch of weak skin, topped with curls.
At the winter solstice, in the grocery store, buying the driest, grimmest goods she could find—a box of powdered mashed potatoes and shredded parmesan cheese that was probably made of sawdust—Sarah was suddenly in shallow coastal waters, scooting above the seabed.
Into the sand went her muzzle, snapping down behind the ears of a fish, and she swallowed it whole, flying on above the weeds until she stopped above a clump of pebbles and mined the sand with her flippers, flinging eels out and into her mouth and chasing the ones that escaped.
It was a much more joyful bacchanal than going to the supermarket—something she’d always enjoyed—but here above the seabed, no decisions were made, or they were made so fast that they didn’t count. Because she just kept flipping up, taking a breath. Then she was tugged down again by her whiskers, trembling with every bubble left behind a fish swimming away or an octopus crouching in the weeds. Her whiskers could tug her across half the world’s oceans, and it would never be a choice.
She found her human body scooting her unmuscled belly along the cool linoleum, enjoying herself up until the moment she realized that no one was in the aisle, and how lucky that was, and that she better get up before someone saw her. Her gums bleeding from biting down into the linoleum, she rushed back to the seafood counter, stared for a long time at the cod, the eels, and the crustaceans, with blood dripping over her lips, then ran to the cash register, paid for the potatoes and parmesan, and left.
The winter moved towards grim dinners of ugly, boiled food. The house was darkness and dryness, so that she welcomed the snow and sludge that seeped into her boots outdoors. The children, especially Nana, the older, started to whine about the food that Sarah was shoving down their silky necks, because she swung wildly between meals with all wet ingredients—broths with runny egg yolks floating on the oil—and meals like the powdered potatoes and parmesan, where she’d avoided anything remotely moist. That night she’d considered adding celery to the potatoes, but blanched when her knife came to rest over the stalk and she thought of the river that would leak when she pressed the knife into the green. She ended up shying the whole stalk into a chest and locking it.
But her skin was bathed in red light all day and all night in an unimpressive, spatially- mismanaged vintage shop, which she visited each time she left the house. Her arguments with the surly shop assistant about selling her the coat grew longer and more one-sided, with her following him around the shop as he refused to acknowledge her presence or talking through the door after he’d shut himself in the back room. There never seemed to be another salesman, but once when he had hidden in the back room, and her hand had strayed toward the neckline of the coat as if to pull it off the hook, he reappeared and chased her out the door brandishing a 1920s pump with a spiked heel.
The crackle of the skin around the wrists belonged to her and would ease as soon as she could get it back to the ocean. Despite knowing where her skin was, she searched for a sealskin coat in every wardrobe in the house and took apart the roof above their bed, the day she remembered another grandmother story of a man hiding his selkie woman’s coat in the thatch of his cottage. Winnie below in the garden saw her mother on the roof and screamed, so Sarah banged down the tiles she’d pried up, and ran down to give Winnie a long, deep hug.
Then there was a leak in the roof just above the pillows, which made her husband flip his over his head and mutter about fixing the roof the next day, while she nuzzled up to the drip, every hair on her face alive to where the next drop would fall.
Into spring, she stood in the rain and felt bewildered when it dried off her body in the warm house and her children ran to the steam coming off her clothes, smelling of dirt and dry, peppery mashed potatoes. Where did they come from? What had replaced her seal life with this?
She made sand art with them, and they glued dozens of boxes of dried pasta to construction paper. But, when Sarah had the glue bottle poised over a piece of macaroni, memories arrived of dancing her skin off her onto slime-covered boulders. There was never any question of tripping, because her feet were still flippers, and even as her seal head peeled back from a human head and hair tufted out of the receding skin, and the skin rolled down so that eventually feet were lying in the husk of the flippers, her feet gripped the slime whenever they rested. This was an art they seemed to have lost now. She didn’t cling especially well to slippery surfaces when she crossed them in her current, neutralized state. What were the slippery surfaces of her life now? Ice cream spilled on cobblestones; blue sand that Nana poured from a plastic sand art bottle; water that Winnie flooded over the bathtub’s lip until she couldn’t walk across the tiles without skidding.
But there had been a moment, she now knew, when dancing was a halfway place between the human and the sealine. Why had she ever stepped out of the skin, leaving it so vulnerable on the rocks? Why hadn’t she danced with her sealskin clutched in her arms, so that no one could ever slip it off the boulders, rinse it in saltwater, and pack it in ice, with a layer of fat folded up inside? And then memories arrived from the short timeline of the human life she fully remembered, as opposed to the only intermittent memories of selkiehood—human memories of dancing with her purse clutched into her armpit, and how inevitably the purse ended up in a corner of the bar, or under a railing, or stuffed beneath her feet under a jacket. Her arms flailed, her feet gradually kicked away the bag, if it was still caught around her shoes, and the purse could now easily be swiped, though it never was. A human willing to go home without money and keys, just for the freedom of spinning without her purse, had sprouted from the careless seal dancing on the rocks.
Sarah left the children gluing macaroni to their hair and took their crinkle-cut scissors to the upstairs bathroom. Looking into the mirror, covered in the residue of Winnie’s mouthwash, she skinned herself. She stuck the point of the scissors into her bellybutton and pushed down until it ached and chafed, then dragged the blunt scissors in bloody scrapes down her back and yanked at the pieces that would separate from the pelt, the arms and legs and the ears and eyes that would stay where they were while the rest of her lifted off in one piece and hung itself in the window, billowing with half-life. She felt the violence of the loss of her seal skin, even if it had slipped off her like seaweed. Her human face felt like a pulsing brain, her guts spread wide open, and her two legs merely the muscles inside a larger tail.
Nana was so much a dirt creature that it made Sarah doubt her diagnosis of herself as a selkie. Dirt even in her eye sockets, and her eyes looked so dry that Sarah wasn’t sure if the dirt would slide into the corner of the eye to make tiny mud pies, or if the grains would just ride abrasively over the ball. Nana rubbed herself raw in the sandbox at the park, even though she was too old for that and some of the other mothers and fathers of the squirming beasts called for forcible removal. She even ate dirt and sand sometimes, which came out in clumps in her bowel movements. This was what finally convinced Sarah that Nana was the child of a selkie, trying to moor herself to land, because she felt herself being hauled out to sea. But still Nana was dry and chalky.
After baths and when they came screaming into Sarah’s bed pursued by twin nightmares when reenacting a skinning felt natural, she worked her hands down their pelts to the legs, keeping the tension in her tug so she could get a clean skin, imagining a sealskin lying below the cut of her imagined knife. She had to look out for scars, in case they caused holes in the human pelt that would slip off her seal daughters, and then try to cut cleanly out through the mouth area to lift it off their heads.
“Why are you doing that?” her husband said when he woke and found her thumb worked inside Winnie’s mouth and tugging upwards on her lips.
“She likes it.” And it was true.
He kissed her with the sweet taste of blood in his beard from a hidden cut.
The next day, Nana shoved whole fistfuls of sand in her mouth, and Sarah remembered that she also ate sand at the bottom of the world when she was a seal. Her belly scratched itself in flight against the shifting floor of the sea and her eyes shone darkly into the bubbles, guzzling sand and salt and seawater and squid and sculpin, all whole, all full, nothing minced by teeth.
When her flight stopped, and the gulping was over, and her belly hung heavy over the wasteland of what she had consumed, she regurgitated all of it, letting the sand and salt and seawater go back to the sea, and taking back again the sculpin and squid.
“Mom!” Nana shrieked as Sarah vomited into the sandbox before Nana followed suit and threw up her sandy snack.
Every seven summers, so said her grandmother, the selkies could go ashore, and then they couldn’t return to land until that time was gone again. Sarah’s human life had also followed cycles of seven years. Seven years of early school, then seven years at older school, seven years as a young mouth, devouring the world, seven years with her mate without offspring, and now seven years with offspring. She had followed the human patterns of her day perfectly. Even her hesitations were natural aberrations. So when had her seal life happened? Before being born as human? In a lost whirlpool of time between school and meeting Geoffrey?
The only way for a selkie to stay on land more than one day every seven years, her grandmother said, was to be held against her will. And no selkie’s desire could ever be quenched away from the sea. But grandmother said some selkies loved their families enough to stay ashore, even when they knew where their skin was, until some raging night, their humans were lost at sea, and they could either let them die or take back the skin they’d been avoiding so long and rescue their men. Only to be separated from the men and their half-human children for the rest of their lives. Because once a long-ashore selkie returned to the sea, they could never set foot on land again—no, not even for the septennial dances.
Sarah wondered now if, when those selkie lovers in the tales nosed their half-drowned men ashore and bobbed away again, they weren’t secretly relieved that the whole struggle was over and that there was no choice ever again, and love could sit on shore for them in a chest they never had to touch. That wouldn’t work for her, though—no chance of leaving heroically.
Geoffrey wasn’t a fisherman, and though he liked shellfish, it gave him a rash. The chances of him foundering at sea on a vengeful night seemed unbearably slim, and anyway, none of her grandmother’s stories gave any wiggle room for returning to the water without your sealskin, whether you were abandoning your children or saving lives. Without a skin, you rotted on the docks until the end of the life of the human pit that came inside the seal.
The seal memories, for which she couldn’t find any date, came flooding through every crack in her mind and dissolved her body into the wrong body, her place into the wrong place, everything into wet and not wet. Not being in the sea was a sickness, a hole at the bottom of her stomach that let everything fall through. And she loved her husband and her children more than before and more than the seal babies, whom after all, she’d only ever spent four to six weeks with. There were vague memories of pleasant pain from the nuzzling pups, but nothing to compare to the lump in her throat when she sat on the roof to watch Winnie glitter glue dirt together, which gave Sarah as much distance as possible from the child to fill with love.
At the summer solstice, in the damp spot of the bed after sex, Sarah imagined that it was the sea curled around her instead of Geoffrey. But then, lost in the wet, she wanted him again and couldn’t feel him in the ocean. She wanted every part of her to go to someone else—she couldn’t be trusted with it. There was a price on every fiber covering her skin, on every moment of pleasure she’d spent in his company. And she’d walked into it all willingly, knowing it would kill her on the other side.
She woke up as the same person over and over. She ran to the wood-framed, toothpaste- flecked mirror and thought: How can I be this?
She clung to her children until they squealed and ran away from her. Now that the summer sea was calling for her, she feared that Winnie and Nana as anchors could not sink her forever against the tug, and she wanted to be with them as much as she could before she answered the call. They were strange beasts with fur and eyelashes and toenails. There wasn’t much webbing between their fingers after all.
The gardeners of the area put up deer mesh against Nana, who liked to nibble their roses fresh in the bud. Winnie frightened people by going from crumbling roars to blank-faced silence suddenly. And she enjoyed too much, perhaps, raking herself with small, sharp pebbles until she bled.
Nana’s teacher came over at the end of the school year to suggest that they enroll her in a special school the following fall, but because the teacher refused to articulate the form that Nana’s specialness took, Nana stayed where she was.
It was Winnie hiding the dead raccoon that gave Sarah the plan. Winnie’s room smelled wretched, Geoffrey said, and though Sarah couldn’t smell anything, he rooted under the bed and pulled out a rotting raccoon skin with only other things now living inside. Then another of her grandmother’s tales came back, a tale in which the half-human son gave his mother her skin, because he had poked, spied, and rooted more even than the desperate selkie, with smaller claws and a nimbler brain. He brought it to his selkie mother, curious about the shriveled scrap of hide, not knowing that when she took it from his hands, he’d never see her again.
Winnie and Nana would get her the coat.
Sarah took the children past the vintage shop on an expedition to buy a sprinkler, then created a mud patch that even the dry Nana enjoyed, though at a distance, instead of rolling in it, the way she did in less damp grit. The second time they went past the shop on an ice cream run, Sarah pointed out the coat to the pups, telling them how beautiful it was, because that wasn’t something they would know on their own, or perhaps anyone could know without her. They liked the powerful lights blasting each item in the shop, red on sealskin, blue on snakeskin. By the third time they came back and stood in the alley behind the shop, watching for a moment at the end of the day when the customers were gone and the shop assistant was busy taking trash to the curb, the half-selkie daughters slipped into the shop to reclaim their mother’s coat. She waited in the back alley because she knew that if the shop assistant saw her, he would suspect her of some scheme, as in fact she was now engaged in.
But when too much time had gone for her children to still be safe, she circled the whirlpool where they had disappeared, regretting having ever brought them to such shifting waters and looking for the right opening to dive after them. From the alley out front, she saw both her half-children of the sea hooked, hanging from the wall, red light for Winnie, blue for Nana.
They hung by the back of their shirts from hooks that held things for sale, and they flailed their arms, but couldn’t reach back to pull themselves off. Nana swept her body to and fro as if trying to get enough momentum to swing herself off the hook and Winnie was trying to squirm out of her clothes, but couldn’t roll her blubbery elbows high enough to get her arms out of her shirt. And they were separated from each other at slightly more than a wingspan.
The front was locked, and Sarah circled the shoals where her children had been captured again, but the back was locked as well. Panicking, she took a loose cobblestone and mashed the window. As soon as the hole was large enough, she dove through, and reached one arm for each girl, but couldn’t unhook them at the same time—her arms weren’t strong enough to unlatch the flesh from the hooks simultaneously. But she didn’t want to pick Winnie before Nana or Nana before Winnie. In the end, she squeezed her eyelids and stumbled forward, trying not to remember which child hung on which side. Winnie came down and then Nana. Their arms were bruised from flailing. Sarah’s eyes hung very wet, but Nana was dry as ever, and Winnie only made sounds.
There was no sealskin coat, of course. By the time she came in at the window, the only things on the hooks were her children. There was no shop assistant either, though she grabbed up her cobblestone again, as though waiting to mash him like his window. Winnie scrabbled towards the window as she’d seen her mother do, but Sarah was starting to feel the pricks from her glass dive, so she put down the stone and shuffled them out the door, which could be unlocked from the inside.
She was a danger to them. She must go. In the heavy dawn that followed, Sarah went deliberately away from her house, along the path that most quickly ended the experience of the town and unraveled most quickly the tightly bound ball of associations she held to it. Then a train.
Then a bus. At some point on the bus, the new old associations with her life as a seal picked up their new old leap around her, for there was sand in the air and flecks of gull odor, so she could imagine the cries of seals on rocks, waiting for their mothers to bring home dinner. The bus stopped in a place that smelled strongly of the sea but where the sea was not visible yet, so she walked towards the smell, enjoying each step, because it seemed the last time she would ever use her feet.
Her shoes were the first things she ripped off, without undoing the laces, leaving red circles where the metal lace holes had to be pried over the horn. The socks came with the shoes, peeling off her skin in a clump. Then the glasses that had dangled from the button crook of her shirt and breasts for years flew in the shape of a distant gull into a bush beyond. The hair tie fell off the hair, dark, damp, and released, and the curls looked like they were growing down her back, gluing themselves into a thicker pelt. Earrings were yanked downwards and thrown into the earth, leaving red cuts in her ears, as if from fishing hooks. A necklace was twitched tightly enough that it broke, and the beads scurried in different directions as she kept walking towards the sea.
Then the button, bereft of her glasses, plucked off. Then the next and the next, until the blouse hung open. Most challenging were the pants, which she tried to wriggle out of. On her belly now, shaking her body forward through the grass, trying to leave them behind. Eventually her backside dislodged from the ledge of the pants, and the limbs moved forward without them. She kept crawling over the getting-rougher ground, shedding the flapping blouse with a quick backwards roll of her shoulder blades.
Who was left now? Her breasts had risen from the dismantled blouse, rocks when the tide fell away. She had never worn anything under her shirt—maybe it was her years as a seal that had forbidden it. Though she had never minded the rest of human clothing, until now when she needed to feel her skin, moist and supple, break the air. She stood, snagged her underwear on a thorn, let it rip down them, and stepped out and over the hanging shreds and onto the rocks that faced the sea. It was a staircase of rocks into a bottomless world. She walked down, and finally slipped off the shore, falling her chest into the waves and flicking her toes off the rocks, together in a V shape. She swam swiftly, slipping further into the ocean, no sealskin coat wrapped around her. Nothing of her seal self wrested back from her captors, just a woman undulating two legs held tightly together until no one left on land could have seen her at all.
Adam’s much-praised work often revolves around the hybrid self. For us, his embracing couples, inter-connected through longing and diaphanous tissue, resonated with Fradkin’s hybrid narrator. It is tempting to make a great many profoundly silly remarks about the nature of such art, but we will be content with the oldest and simplest response to great work: it is beautiful and it moves us.
Author | R. M. FRADKIN
R.M. Fradkin has short fiction published or forthcoming in Terrain, Fiddlehead, J Journal, Cherry Tree, Cleaver Magazine, and SAND Journal, among others. One of her stories was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. She just finished her MFA at Oregon State University and is at work on a novel set in an experimental forest.