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Salt-Skin and Pie

I find it right where I left it, wrapped in an old sheet under a loose floorboard. I remember, a decade ago, wondering if people really hid things that way and searching the whole house for a place where he hadn’t sealed everything perfectly. I couldn’t find one—he always paid such attention to detail; I’d had to wiggle it loose myself and pry it up to fit anything beneath it.

My hiding spot is just under the window that looks out over the garden, and the clean smell of lavender and rosemary is immediately overwhelmed by the sharp smell of salt as I peel away the sheet. Salt has dried in the creases of the sealskin, white crystals now, and it falls, clattering, to the floor as I shake out the skin. It smells like something else, too, something deeper and darker than salt, something cold and silent and soft. I swallow hard against the urge to cry and refold the skin with shaking hands, tucking it into the wide reed basket I usually use when I go to the market. It’s too big, shapeless grey wrinkles spilling over the edges of the basket, making the whole thing look haphazardly done despite my care.

My whole life here might as well be just the same.

There are still two mugs on the table, one wide-based and wide-mouthed with a narrow waist, the whole thing glazed a delicate green-blue (Sean’s), and one round and fat-bellied, with a pattern of yellow flowers on white clay (mine). My cup is empty; I’ve had a dozen cups of tea since. His is still half full, milk going slowly sour even in the cold November air.

I put the kettle on again. I have all the time in the world now; I can make another cup of tea.

I settle at the table, basket in front of me, fingers absently tracing the muted grey folds of the skin inside it. I remember getting out of bed that first night, stumbling but silent, desperate to hide it where he couldn’t find it and steal it from me. I had heard the stories.

Weeks later, I had been just as glad to have hidden it—not because he would’ve stolen it, he wouldn’t, he would never—but because if he’d known what I was, known what I was setting aside to make a life here, with him, he would’ve shoved the skin into my arms and me out the door with it, certain he wasn’t worth giving up anything at all.

Eyeing the congealed tea in his mug, I wonder.

Turning my eye on the skin—and it does feel like the skin, not like my skin, now, after more than ten years—I wonder, too, if there is anything for me if I slip it on again. I have this irrational notion that if I disappear into the water, I will do just that—simply disappear. The world I created with him feels real, concrete and warm and comfortable. Everything before that is a haze of deep, deep blue and the bone-humming cold of the sea.

The kettle whistles. I add another bag to the teapot, not bothering to clear out the four already wetly lumped into the bottom.

The steam burns me a little when I pour the water into the teapot, and I feel as though it’s cleaning me, a little. As though, in one small spot on my inner wrist, the skin is made new, untouched by sea and man. It’s ridiculous, I know, but I feel a little hysterical.

By the time I twitch myself back into the present moment, the tea has steeped enough to pour. My hand shakes a little, but I lift the teapot—a mundane sort of a thing, ceramic patterned with loose interpretations of red and yellow flowers, utilitarian and heavy—and pour the tea into my mug, erasing the tea rings in the bottom of it with the influx of near-boiling liquid. It’s probably not especially sanitary, but I can’t quite bring myself to care. Next, a spoonful of honey from McKenna’s bees and a dollop of cream from O’Leary’s cows, then a quick stir to blend it all together. My hand shakes a little too hard, and a splash of tea goes over the side of the mug, obscuring one of the little yellow flowers and trickling down to form a ring around the cup’s base. It smudges when I lift the cup, hands still shaking a little, and take a too-hot sip so it doesn’t spill again.

It tastes like the life I’ve built here, like the family of neighbors who’ve gifted us with things like honey and cream, like every single morning I’ve woken to find blue eyes staring into my own.

You have such beautiful eyes, he’d say, every morning without fail.

They aren’t even really a color, I’d argue, smiling despite myself.

Black as sloe, he’d quip back, bumping his nose against mine and grinning at me, and bright as stars on water.

It was the sort of poetic thing that men say to women to make them swoon, but he was never poetic about anything else, really, Sean was far too practical a man for that, so I believed him then. I still do, despite the fact that I woke up alone these last mornings. I don’t think he left because he didn’t love me.

That would be better, somehow, I think. Cleaner. I could stand, I think, being unloved. It’s the idea that he loved me and still thought he could make the choice for me, over my head, that I was better without him—it rankles. As though I weren’t strong, weren’t something ancient and capable of surviving the coldest and the darkest places, of gliding, soundless and smooth, through worlds he couldn’t begin to imagine.

Then again, he never knew, so perhaps that part is my fault.

I drink the better part of the cup of tea, letting it burn my mouth a little—unlike the steam, it doesn’t feel like it’s cleansing me, really, and I can’t stand that my mouth still tastes like kissing him. It’s been two days and dozens of cups of tea; you’d think I’d taste sleep and bitter leaves, not—not him kissing me carefully, like he was making sure it was precisely perfect, and saying, while I was still too asleep to understand, much less argue,

I love you, you’ve done nothing wrong, but I ruin everything I touch and I can’t do it to you, too.

When I woke, hours later, and found the house empty of his things, I understood, but it was a sour sort of comprehension. Losing the child was no one’s fault—mine, if anything, not his—but he’s never been good at being kind to himself. His parents were never kind, blaming him for everything, and he took up that work for them when he was grown.

Gently, fingertips hesitant, I smooth my fingers over my belly. It’s flatter than it was when I came here, still soft from the water, and far flatter than it should be, more than four months after conceiving. I’d lost the child just a week ago, after a bad fall on the path down to the water, bringing Sean his forgotten lunch before he went out on the boat. I got nervous, every time, going down by the sea—in this skin, I’m so fragile, and I know exactly how quickly the water can kill these soft, pink people, too thin and too quickly drowned or frozen. I’d been paying more attention to the water than to my feet, and I’d slipped, a loose stone shifting under my foot, and—

And that had been that.

Sean kept saying it was his fault for forgetting to bring his lunch himself. It’s nonsense, really—I could’ve fallen doing anything, distracted as I was by the sound of the water. I don’t even know that it’s my fault; I don’t know that these things have fault; they just are. Maybe that’s the wild creature in me, the predator who has devoured the young of others without a thought. But it doesn’t feel like there’s fault, and certainly not his.

I press my palm, hard, into the thin flesh of my belly, and I realize, a little dimly and with some disappointment, that I can’t leave today. I’m too thin now, and even in a sealskin, I’ll freeze in minutes. I’ll drown. I can bear the uncertainty of putting the skin back on, of not knowing if the magic’s still there, if I still have the sea in my blood at all—I can manage the possibility of death, but, even as much as my heart hurts now, I can’t bear the certainty of it.

Letting my mug bang a little harder than necessary against the table as I put it down, I pick up the sealskin from the basket and tuck it in a folded heap into the chair next to mine. It will have to wait. For now—I look around the kitchen, already knowing what I’ll find. A heel of bread on the counter, stale, destined for O’Leary’s chickens, and an apple in the bowl on the table. Certainly not enough to put on the sort of fat I’d need to survive the water in November.

Humming tunelessly, the sound of water rushing in my head, I put the basket—now smelling strongly of salt—over my arm, and gathering my shawl around my shoulders, head out the door and to the market.

***

“Five pies?” Mrs. O’Neal repeats, one eyebrow sharply arched.

“Five pies,” I agree steadily. “Three fish, I don’t mind the kind, one lamb, one potato and veg.”

“You feeding an army now, are you, Mrs. Delaney?” she asks, not budging a bit, certainly not going off to put together my order.

I flinch a bit at the name. I took the ring off last night, left it on the nightstand, the gold gleaming and out of place on the wood. My hand feels naked and vulnerable without it, but that feels right, in its own harsh sort of way. Even without it, though, the town knows me. There’s no escaping the name I’ve gone by for ten years. “Not an army, just myself,” I say, forcing a thin smile. Just myself, indeed.

“You’ve ordered two pies a week for six years, and never more. I know you’re having a hard time, with your man walking out, but there’s no call to let yourself go.” She pats my hand kindly, face full of pity, and I wonder if the whole town knows already. Probably. There’s few enough folk here.

“I’m just stocking up for the week,” I lie. “I—”

“Just give the woman her pies, Maura, for Christ’s sakes,” Mr. O’Neal snaps, rolling his eyes and elbowing his wife none too gently.

Mrs. O’Neal pulls a face. “Language, John. I’m just worried for the lass’s health, you know, she’s ordering five pies, and she’s only ever—”

Mr. O’Neal rolls his eyes again. “Then more coin for us, woman, my god. Here, Mrs. Delaney, and take a sixth at half price if you like it.” He begins wrapping and stacking the pies without waiting for his wife to say anything, and she just crosses her arms and huffs.

Feeling a little contrary, I say, “I’d love that, Mr. O’Neal, and thank you.”

“Another lamb, maybe?” he offers, and it’s brusque and businesslike and feels a world kinder than Mrs. O’Neal’s sympathy.

“That’d be lovely,” I agree. Lamb is quite fatty, even if I prefer the taste of fish. The taste isn’t really the point.

Mr. O’Neal smiles at me as he transfers the pies into my basket. “Excellent, excellent. That’ll be seventeen and fifty.”

I hand over the money without hesitating, smiling without looking him in the eye, and wonder where I’ll have to go to get my pies tomorrow. Even Mr. O’Neal will start to wonder at me putting away six pies a day.

I make my way to the produce stall next, mostly because I can feel Mrs. O’Neal’s eyes still on me, and I don’t want to head straight for the sweets with her watching. Contrary as I might feel, I don’t really want the whole town sheltering me from eating too much, and I fully believe Mrs. O’Neal capable of convincing at least half of them that they ought to be managing me.

I really do hate being managed. Sean’s leaving feels remarkably like being managed, done for my benefit, in his head, and I feel sick when I think of it. Any shadow of the same feeling is better avoided.

“Anything I can get for you, Mrs. Delaney?” Mr. Ashe asks kindly—too kindly, really, and I know he knows, too.

Smiling what I suspect is a terrible rictus of a smile, I try to come up with something that will actually do me some good. Apples with cheese, maybe, for when I can’t stand another pie. “Apples, please.”

“Apples, apples,” he agrees, waving a hand at the display. “Red or green?”

I’ve only eaten green apples for years; Sean didn’t like the red. “Red,” I say, decisively, “a half-dozen, please.”

He bobs his head—Mr. Ashe is always bouncing a bit, a thin beanpole of a man always on the move, like the wind is blowing him this way and that—and tucks the apples into my basket carefully, nestling them between the wrapped pies and the basket’s edge so they don’t bruise. “Mrs. Delaney,” he says, carefully, like he’s sorry to be saying anything personal at all, “please allow me to extend—”

“I rather wish you wouldn’t,” I say, a little sharper than I mean to.

He doesn’t balk, though, doesn’t flinch at all, just nods. “Take the apples, then, and don’t mind the cost.”

“I couldn’t,” I protest, appreciating this practical approach to kindness but not wanting to accept the sympathy, either.

He smiles, a lopsided sort of thing, and doesn’t look at me when he says, “My Jeannie left me going on six years ago. I didn’t want anyone’s pity, either, but I damn well could’ve used any useful sort of kindness. Take the apples, Mrs. Delaney, and not a word about it.” He nods again, firmly, decisively, handing back my basket and turning away immediately so I can’t argue any further.

I smile, almost a real one, and dip my head in thanks. I can’t actually make myself say the words, but I’m grateful nonetheless.

Mrs. O’Neal is minding her own business for the moment, so I turn for the sweets stall and collect as many fattening treats as I think I can manage without Mrs. Sheehy giving me the eye.

***

I can’t bear eating at the kitchen table. It’s too lonely with Sean’s chair empty. It’s the same problem with the bed—I’ve had to take my pillow and the quilt down to the floor, despite the cold, to sleep at all. To eat, I take two pies to the windowsill and begin to eat standing up, looking out at the path down to the sea. It’s rocky and bare at this time of year, the gorse bushes brown and sharp with needles, none of the yellow flowers to be found, and I can see the line of the beach where Sean’s boat is usually moored. The deep groove it leaves in the sand is gone, washed away with the first high tide, all signs of him gone. I wonder where he’s gone, if it’s far—it must be, he wouldn’t want to leave any chance that I’d find him if I broke down and lost all sense of shame and went to look for him. It’s not shame that keeps me from looking, though—I wouldn’t have any, I think, really—but a certainty that it wouldn’t do any good, and would hurt us both twice over.

I can see the spot where I fell, and lost Sean as well as the baby: a sharp twist in the path as it curves through the rocks and down to the beach. There’s no mark there, but it feels like there should be, some bloody stain on the sand to mark all the things that I’d given up to come here, to live this life, and then all remains of this life, too.

I’ve set aside my pie before I’ve really thought of it, making my way outside with a quick stop to the nightstand on the way. The ring is cool in my hand, unwarmed by skin for two days now. It nestles neatly into the sandy soil by the side of the path at that curve where I fell, sinking in with just a gentle push of my fingers.

I can’t lift big rocks, but I gather as many small ones as I can find and begin to build a little cairn over it, hiding the gold circle with grey stone. The stones are rough and scrape my hands a little, reddening my palms. I’m careless as I go, wind whipping my hair into a black cloud that covers my face and whips away any tears I might be crying—I am, I know I am, but it’s much easier to pretend I’m not—and there’s a spot or two of blood from my hands smudged into the stone by the time I’m done. It feels right that there’s some of it left there, even if the rain will wash it out. All traces of me, swept away by water, like the groove of Sean’s boat in the sand. Self-indulgent, maybe, but symmetrical.

I spend too long there, on my knees by the little cairn, no thoughts that have words in my head at all, praying by way of offering up my own emptiness to whatever gods might use it, and by the time I make my way back to the house, my pies are cold.

***

As I’m making my way to Mrs. O’Neal’s the next day, a hand slips into the crook of my elbow and tugs me off the road, into the shadow between two stalls.

I’d be worried about having my purse stolen, but the woman is small, elfish and pale, and I think I could probably knock her out cold if need be. She’s not familiar to me, her face thin and freckled, and while she’s small, she’s easily more than twenty.

“Can I help you?” I ask, when she says nothing at all, her hand still on my elbow.

She snaps out of it then, face coloring, and she says, “Pies.”

“I don’t have any yet,” I say apologetically, thinking she’s asking for a handout. She’s thin enough to need it. I’m nervous about trying to go back to the O’Neals’ stall again—if the order yesterday made Mrs. O’Neal balk, doing it two days in a row is sure to raise questions. I doubt she’d take I’m fattening up so I don’t freeze to death when I put on my sealskin and go back to the sea as an explanation. She’d probably just take it as an excuse to try to sell me on one of her diets. Maybe I can convince her that eating loads of pies is a diet.

“No, no,” she says, shaking her head, “sorry, I—I meant, I have pies, if you’d like to buy them.”

My eyebrows come together at that. “You aren’t a merchant here.”

She shakes her head. “No, no, I’ve just—I’ve just come to live with my aunt, and she’s old, she’s—she’s quite old, and I’m meant to be bringing in money, but no one here will hire me, since they don’t know me yet, and—” She stops, hands waving a little in explanation. Her accent is foreign, vowels thick and heavy, and she seems at a loss for words.

“I see,” I assure her, smiling a little. She’s a nervous sort, stammering here and there in her rush to get her words out, and I remember that feeling. The desperation for these people to like me, to count me as one of their own. “Where are you from?”

She goes paler, if that’s possible, and shakes her head. She’s backing away as she says, “Never mind, I’ll leave you to it, I’m sorry to bother you, miss—”

It’s the fact that she doesn’t know my name that makes me put my hand out to stop her. “What kind of pies do you have?” I remember the panic that had set in when people asked me where I was from, what my name was. I had no name until Sean gave me his—even now, I have only been Mrs. Delaney to these people, and Mavourneen, mo mhuírnín, to Sean, at home. My darling. It’s not really a name, even, not one I can tell folk to call me out in the world.

She breaks out in a full grin. “Any kind you like. I’ve a couple lamb ones made, but I can make up any sort you want, as many—I saw you, yesterday? With the baker’s wife, and her not wanting to—it’s none of my business, and I would be grateful for it.”

Falling rather desperately in love with the idea of not having to argue with Mrs. O’Neal every day for the next few weeks, I ask, “Do you think I could get five or six a day, then?”

She nods, not even hesitating, hands wringing at her apron a bit, but no judgment on her face. She’s sort of tucked into herself, shy or frightened and forced into interaction by necessity, but warmed to conversation by the prospect of business. “I can do that, no problem at all. Do you mind what kind?”

“Something fattening,” I say baldly, testing the waters, making sure she’s not going to balk.

“Loads of butter it is, then,” she agrees, grin widening, eyes crinkling. They’re green as sea glass, catching the light, and I think she might be beautiful if she weren’t so scared of whatever made her start to run when I started to question her. “Lamb, maybe, and beef, if I can get it, and fish with cream sauce when I can’t.”

“How much for six today, then?”

“Fifteen,” she says easily, and it’s too low, really, but I know she’s undercharging because she’s not meant to be doing business here.

“Eighteen,” I counter. I’ve nothing to save for, now, really—I won’t need the money where I’m going.

She huffs a laugh. “Maybe tomorrow. Make sure you like them, first.”

I feel a grin start to spread across my own face, despite the hollow feeling that’s been living under my breastbone these past days. “As you like it,” I agree, trying to put the smile back where it came from with no luck.

She leads me back to her aunt’s house—though there’s no one else in evidence—a ramshackle sort of cottage made of whitewashed stone and set with a red door. The wood is warped, a bit, and the roof has clearly seen better days, but there are pots of flowers under the windows, and it’s a cheerful sort of place.

“Just wait a bit while I make up the others, yeah?” she says, gesturing to the small table in the kitchen as we go inside, already heading for the kitchen. “I’ve the pastry made up, they’ll just take a little to bake up.” Her speech follows the local patterns well enough, but her vowels are still strange, unfamiliarly set.

I settle at the table without a word, setting my empty basket at my feet. It still gives off a smell of salt, as though I left it soaking in the ocean for days.

“Don’t mind the cat,” the woman adds, already elbow-deep in pie effluvia. She’s quick with her movements, efficient. “She’s a stray or something, comes begging in for scraps.” Her words are offhand, but there’s something to her tone that says she’s secretly fond of the thing. She’s a stray of her own sort, though, for sure—we both are, at that, and I look around for the cat.

It’s a ragged little tabby, tail too short, like it’s been bitten off by something. She’s hovering in the doorway, hesitant, sniffing at the air. “Hello, you,” I say to her, putting my fingers out for her to examine.

She trots closer, sniffing at each of my fingers in turn and then butting her head against my hand when she finds them satisfactory. They probably smell of pies and cheese, with how much I’ve been eating. She purrs softly as I rub a hand over the back of her head and behind her ears.

“Here,” the woman says, handing me a small wedge of stale-looking cheese with fingers smudged with flour. “If she starts begging at you.”

I break off a chunk of the cheese and offer it to the cat, heading off the begging before it begins. No woman should have to beg for kindness, even if she’s a cat.

When I look up, the woman is smiling at me approvingly. “I’m Nora,” she says, clearly lying, the name obviously unfamiliar on her tongue, but also trying to offer something of herself, to connect.

I don’t push it, because I have no name to offer in return. I feed another chunk of cheese to the cat. “Well met,” I say, eventually, because she’s clearly waiting for a response.

She laughs a little, under her breath, and returns to the pies. “Well met, indeed.”

***

Nora’s pies are better than the O’Neals’. I feel a bit blasphemous thinking it, given how many years I’ve been buying from the O’Neals, but Nora’s are rich with butter, and she doesn’t hesitate with spices. She’s from somewhere far away, then, some city where Eastern spices are easier to come by, because there’s paprika and turmeric in some of them, just little pinches, but the flavor is worlds away from the local fare. Starved as I am for the unfamiliar, for things that don’t feel like the decade of patterns with Sean, I devour them. I stand at the window, looking at the little cairn mourning the life I chose, and I eat them, one after the other, and hum the tuneless song of light filtering through water.

The fat is slow to come, but builds quickly once it’s started. Over the weeks, my face grows rounder, pushing out the lines carved by years of smiling, making it smooth and moon-shaped. My belly and hips grow fuller, my bosom deepening, my fingers growing fat. It feels more like my real skin than the seal flesh waiting on my kitchen chair, even—I recognize my own face, now, apple-cheeked and dark-eyed, when I catch sight of my reflection. Mrs. O’Neal gives me pitying looks when I pass her stall in the market, but I let myself go years ago, lost in the full feeling of love, forgetting to eat and doing my best to keep the figure in fashion among the women of the town. I wonder, if I’d been well-fed and softer, if maybe I wouldn’t have lost the baby so easily. I won’t ever know—there is no life for me here without Sean, nothing to make me stay and try to find another man, even for the sake of having a child to love. I will not find a lover among my own kind, either, I know.

I mourn the thought of future children more than I thought I could. Not the baby I lost—that was an accident of life, unavoidable—but the idea of the chance to try again, to have a child with my black curls and Sean’s blue eyes, laughing up at me with a face shaped by both of ours. The thought of that child never walking in the world at all guts me.

I eat another pie to fill the aching hole in my belly, and relish the way the layer of protective fat grows. There is no shame in this softness, whatever Mrs. O’Neal and the women of the town might think, regardless of what’s in fashion. This softness is safety, is protection from the harshness of the world, and even if I weren’t building it up for the sake of going back to my home, my people, I think I would be pleased with it anyway.

I lick my fingers clean, tasting paprika and turmeric and the work of another woman who has chosen to lose herself for a new life. I spend time imagining what her real name might be, rather than what my child would have looked like, because it hurts much less, and there is a chance of knowing one of those things, if not the other.

***

“I think she needs a name,” Nora says to me one day, gesturing with a large wooden spoon at the tabby curled up in my lap. The cat twitches an ear, to inform us that she’s listening, but doesn’t otherwise deign to move.

“Don’t we all,” I mutter under my breath, feeling a wry smile tugging at the edge of my mouth.

Nora cracks a smile of her own and sets down her spoon, hugging herself a little. She does that often, like she’s hiding something broken in her middle that she doesn’t want anyone to see. It’s a familiar gesture. I wonder what’s been taken from her, what sent her here. “Not anything silly, you know, like people generally give to cats. Not Whiskers or Boots or anything.” She leans against the counter, letting the pies finish up in the oven and considering the cat with a critical eye.

“No,” I agree, stroking careful fingers over the cat’s head, “she deserves something dignified.” We’re too often stripped of our dignity, I think, women.

“Jeannie, maybe,” Nora muses.

“Everyone here is named Jeannie,” I counter, laughing a little. “There’s Young Jeannie and Jeannie Mac, and then Jeannie O’Leary, the fourth daughter of the O’Learys, and the Jeannie who was married to Mr. Ashe but ran off, and—”

“So not Jeannie, then,” Nora cuts in, laughing properly. “What’s your idea, then, miss knows-everything?”

I have no idea how to go about naming things. I was never even able to name myself. “I don’t—”

“Fiona, then? Kathleen?” she tries, watching the cat for any sort of response. The tabby yawns, unimpressed. “Coleen, Mara, Aoife, Jenny—”

The cat’s ear twitches, just a little, and I nod. “Jenny it is,” I say, rubbing the ear between my fingers. She purrs a little louder, assenting, and Nora snorts.

“Bit of a common name, Jenny,” Nora says teasingly.

“Plenty dignified for a cat, though, I think,” I say, and it feels, for the first time in weeks, like I’m conversing normally, just a woman talking about day-to-day things with someone, easily, without choosing every word like it’s a sharp thing, handled with care. I could miss this, maybe, and that feels terrifying in its own right, but I savor it, anyway. I can still leave even if I have something small to miss.

“Right, then,” Nora says, all business again, as though she noticed the easiness and found it odd, too. She wipes her hands needlessly on her apron and gets the pot holders, pulling the pies from the oven. They smell magnificent—mostly fish today, stuffed full of a heavy cream sauce and vegetables as well—and I breathe deeply, letting my eyes drift shut.

Under the rich smell of pies, I can still smell the salt in my basket, and it jerks me back to the moment, sharp and real, reminding me of home and the fact that absolutely no one is waiting there for me.

“I should go,” I say, swallowing against the lump in my throat. The cat—Jenny—feeling my tension, jumps lightly off my lap and begins to twine around my ankles.

“Right,” Nora agrees, nodding her head, gesturing at the pies, “just, ah—just give them a minute to cool off and I’ll wrap them right up for you.”

I wait, feeling tightly wound, for what feels like years, until Nora breaks and starts wrapping the pies, brown paper crinkling. “You could—I mean, if you wanted to, you could stay to eat. Sometime, I mean.” She’s facing away from me, head down over the pies, shoulders drawn up tightly, like she’s as nervous making the offer as I am with the idea of accepting it.

“Thank you,” I say, because I know she doesn’t know what’s happened in my life, isn’t offering out of pity, so the offer feels genuine, feels clean. I haven’t seen her aunt even once, and I suspect she’s lonely, and, well, I’ve been something uglier than lonely for weeks now. “I—I might like that, sometime, maybe.”

Her shoulders relax a little, and when she turns to beam at me, she’s beautiful. There are lines around her mouth, and I think they’re from hurt rather than smiling overmuch, but her eyes crinkle up and sparkle a bright green, and the freckles beneath them make her look younger and hopeful. “Any time,” she says, utterly sincere. “Tomorrow, even.”

“All right,” I agree, meaning it. “Tomorrow.”

***

I’m nearly fat enough, now. My belly hangs out over my hips, soft and round and yielding to my hand when I smooth a palm over it. I’ve had to let my dresses out. I can leave in a week or two, I think, when the weather warms up.

I spread the sealskin out on the bed, now empty of linens and pillows—they’re all huddled in the corner of the kitchen, by the stove, where I’ve taken to sleeping, a sort of messy little nest for myself. Somehow, there’s still more salt in it, and it makes a soft clattering as it spills to the floor.

I step back, admiring the smooth greyness of the skin, little pebbles of salt crunching under my bare feet. I have had feet for a long time. It will be strange to lose them.

The kettle whistles. Leaving the sealskin where I’ve laid it, I put a fresh bag in the teapot—on its own, this time; I’ve cleaned out the soggy stack of its predecessors—and pour the water over it. I think I’ll leave a note that Nora may have my things when I’m gone, if she’d like them. Such a sturdy teapot would do her delicate hands good, and the things I’ve collected in my time here deserve to be loved.

I remember buying this teapot with Sean, remember choosing carefully between the row of them with different colored flowers decorating their bellies. I remember loving my mug when he brought it home for me, marveling at the little gorse flowers in their elegant abstractions. I remember making the quilt that I’ve spent the last five and a half years sleeping under out of our old clothes when they wore too thin to wear any longer. I don’t love any of the things on their own, though—the gorse flowers are too garish a yellow, the teapot too sunny in its colors, the quilt too bare and ragged. It was the warmth of the space between us that I loved, that brought me out of the water in the first place. When he looked at me, I’d felt flooded with sunlight, like he couldn’t imagine anything better than me in all the world.

I’ve started to look again like I did then, rounded and soft, smooth and fat as a river stone. I wonder if he’d look at me like he did that first time, if he saw me again, or if his human need to feel broken and guilty would outweigh whatever charms I had, even back then. I don’t think the man he’s become would even know how to fall in love. In the beginning, the way he hurt was like a beacon to me—I think it is for many women, human and other alike; we have this call to nurture, to heal and soothe. We all want to be needed, I think. I didn’t think I could fix him, of course not, but that was because, of the two of us, I was the only one who didn’t think he was broken. Perhaps I was wrong. I do not know if an unbroken man can leave a woman he loves while she still loves him.

I wonder if he thought I could fix him. If my strangeness was a balm to him, the promise of some magical cure for whatever hurt in his heart. I hope not; no one can live up to such a thing, and if that was what was in his mind, I hate to have offered him any false hope.

I wonder if my heart is broken.

I rub a hand over the soft flesh shielding my breastbone and feel the ache beneath it. The hurt there is jagged, brittle and dangerous, but I don’t think I am broken. Perhaps the thicket of humanity I have grown in these long years is cut away, bleeding sap and trailing brambles, but I think the core of me is too inhuman to be broken. I wish otherwise, a little—I think there would be something cathartic and awfully beautiful in breaking entirely, in falling to the ground to weep and wither.

I pour the tea into my round little gorse mug and mix in the cream and honey. It has begun to taste foreign to me again, as it did when I first stumbled through the doorway on new, awkward legs. Sean had sat me down, poured me tea in his blue-green mug, and wrapped my hands around it to keep them warm. As if I would be cold, this close to the sun.

Almost involuntarily, I mimic the gesture now—the fingers of one hand overlapping those of the other, the warm clay cradled between my palms.

It is not the same, I think, to comfort yourself as it is to be offered comfort.

***

“I’ve made—I’ve made us something other than pies, if that’s alright,” Nora says, nervous again for the first time in weeks. She’s rubbing her hands shakily over her arms, hugging herself a little. “I mean, I’ve your pies here, set aside for you to take with you, but—I mean, if you’re still wanting to eat here—”

I laugh a little, I can’t help it, as I settle at the table and gather Jenny into my lap, fingers rubbing carefully under her chin, waiting for the purr before I begin to stroke my hand across her back. “What are we having?”

Nora relaxes a little. “Goulash. It’s a sort of stew that we make where I come from,” she says carefully, shoulders still pulled up high to her neck. It’s the most she’s given away about herself in the weeks I’ve known her, much more of an offering than her fake name or the food she’s making. “There’s meat and onion and vegetables and spices, and—”

My stomach rumbles a little, giving me away, and the tension breaks. “It sounds wonderful,” I assure her, shooing the cat off my lap and standing up to help her get the dishes. She makes room for me in the kitchen, and we move around one another with the sort of practical grace of sea birds, one swooping in, the other gliding out, as we gather the dinnerware and set the table. Nora ladles the stew into wooden bowls, laying out slices of boiled egg on dishes beside them, sprinkling them with paprika and salt.

“Mavourneen,” I say, quietly, so she can ignore it if she wants to. I feel selfish, taking this offering of her past, her self, without giving anything of my own. This isn’t a name, not really—an endearment, if anything, but she isn’t from here, probably doesn’t even know it’s anything other than a name.

Nora smiles, a small, private sort of smile, and repeats it to herself, mouth shaping the sounds carefully. “It’s beautiful,” she says, as quietly as I said the name, keeping the whole of the conversation in the air between us, secret. She puts a dainty hand on mine and squeezes, as if to reaffirm the unspoken promise of secrecy. “It suits you. Mavourneen.”

I ache, then, sharply and deeply, from the middle. It does suit me. I feel wrong, being no one’s darling, being naked of affection, of intimacy. This moment, this sharing of this one thing I have kept tucked away, safe and hidden from everyone but him, is like remarrying a world I’d abandoned when Sean left. I feel sick to my stomach, turned over and dropped from a very great height. Hearing that name, that private name, on someone else’s tongue makes it real, makes it mine, and the fact that I can’t live up to it any longer is a vicious sort of pain.

“I’m sorry,” I hear myself saying, numb. I push back from the table, the motion abrupt and sloppy, and the chair screeches on the floor. Jenny jumps back, startled, as I stand on shaky legs. “I’m so sorry,” I say again, hands trembling.

I’m out the door before I can look at her. I don’t want to see the look on her face.

***

The sealskin is heavy across my shoulders, foreign and thick and reeking of salt and a world I left behind a lifetime ago. The wind is high today—March is not a kind month, oncoming Spring or not, and the waves are whipped into frothy white peaks like meringue on top of a churning slate of grey-blue. I make my way down the path on numb feet, slipping here and there and paying no heed.

I pass the cairn without looking at it. I have given too much of myself to this world already, let it carve away at me, let it feed me and clothe me. Let it name me.

I make my way past the naked gorse bushes, feet tripping over stones but pressing forward, the wind shoving me along, as if to say, go, go, do not look back.

The place where Sean moored his boat every day is etched in my mind—it was the place where I first came ashore in this pink skin, first gave up the green and the blue for the smell of peat fires and the taste of apples and potatoes and lamb pies and tea. I find the spot blindly, following the will of my feet, and throw the sealskin down on it.

With shaking hands, I begin to take off my clothes. Coat, apron, dress, petticoats. It’s cold, even with the layers of fat I’ve built up over the last months, and I’m shivering by the time I’m done. I can imagine my people, far out in the water, sleek black heads bobbing among the waves.

Fingers stiff with cold and trembling, I take up the edge of the sealskin. It’s still spilling salt everywhere, somehow, pouring little white crystals out onto the sand, and that reassures me, just a little, that the magic hasn’t bled from it entirely. Carefully, so carefully, I drape it over me, wrapping it around me like a blanket, leaving my head bare. The tension eases from my shoulders a little as I feel the hum of it recognizing me, clinging to me. Quietly, afraid to give voice to my relief, I sigh.

“This explains more than it doesn’t,” Nora says with false levity from behind me.

I close my eyes against the smell of baking pies and paprika, swallowing down the unexpected guilt that rises. “Does it?” I ask, to have something to say. Clouds of my dark hair whip across my face, stinging like tears.

“Did he steal it from you, like in the stories they tell here?” she asks. A shaky hand rests on my shoulder, fingers barely pressing down, tracing the line of my shoulder blade under the thick grey of the sealskin.

I choke on a laugh. “Not at all. He used to throw me fish from his boat and tell me stories. I followed him home, and didn’t stop when we reached the shore. He never even knew what I was, just thought I was some half-drowned girl who’d hit her head and forgotten where she came from.”

Nora’s other hand comes to settle on my other shoulder, and they both squeeze, just a little. “It is too cold for this, Mavourneen. Wait for warmer weather.”

My darling. I’d meant to. “I can’t,” I tell her, a little raggedly, a little desperately. “I can’t wait at all.” If I don’t go now, I won’t go at all. I can tell.

She sighs, and I feel a shift in her as she steels herself. She wraps her arms around my middle from behind, tucking her chin over my shoulder and squeezing me. I don’t know if it’s to show affection or to keep me from running into the waves, but it’s warm, so I don’t pull away. “Solymár, to the East. Eleonóra.”

“What?” I ask. The cold is settling in, and my cheeks are burning from the wind.

“Where I’m from, and my name,” Nora says gently, like she’s talking to an animal that might startle. I suppose she is. “I had—I had a husband there. He was not a good man. I ran away. I do not have an aunt here. I have nothing here; I had to go where he would not look for me, where I had nothing.” She squeezes me a little tighter. “I have nothing here but you. Do not go yet.”

I shake my head. “I don’t even have a name. Not a real one. I am not made for this place. I cannot stay without him. I came here for him, and he is gone.” I look out at the water, at the blue-grey sea where my kin are waiting.

“You did not come here for him. You came here for you, to be with him. To be happy. Stay for you, too. Be with yourself, choose to make your own happiness.” She huffs a soft laugh, warm on my neck. “Be with me. We will eat too many pies and get very fat and grow old without men, and all the town will whisper and wonder if we are lovers.”

“Is that what you want?” I ask, genuinely curious. It had not occurred to me, but the thought is not a frightening or unpleasant one.

She shrugs, and I feel the gesture all along my back, muted by the sealskin. “I do not know, to be honest,” she admits. “Love has been only hurt and fear for me, so far. But I know that I want to give you a name. Let them whisper while we decide the rest, yes?”

I consider. The sealskin is growing heavy, buzzing with magic, salt still raining down as the wind ruffles the smooth pelt. “What would you name me, then?” I ask, hearing myself say the words as if from very far away, dim and distant.

Nora hums for a moment. “Gyöngyi,” she says, after a moment, or maybe longer. The vowels are strange, and the word sounds like her pies taste—familiar, but not really. “It is my language; I do not know enough of the language here to name you in it properly. Gyöngyi.”

I laugh a little, trying to wrap my mouth around the sounds to repeat it, but I do not look away from the sea. “That’s quite a mouthful.”

She grins against my shoulder. “It means pearl, because you are this shining, round, pale thing from the sea.” She presses her palms into the softness of my belly, hugging me tighter. “Do you not like it?”

“I do, actually,” I say, feeling the edges of my lips curl into a smile. The wind is not so bitter, now. “You must be cold,” I realize, feeling guilty for the first time that she is out here, trying to call me back, at the expense of her own comfort.

“I am,” she agrees. “And of the two of us, I am wearing more clothes. Come inside with me, we will have tea and something warm to eat. Little Jenny is guarding the goulash.”

I grin at the idea of the spindly tabby standing guard at the stove in that ramshackle little house. I wonder how long it would take to fatten her up, too, her and Nora both, until they are moon-faced and happy. Mrs. O’Neal would be scandalized. “I have tea at the house,” I allow, slowly, taking my eyes from the waves, finally, and turning my head enough that I can see her.

She beams at me, green eyes shining. “Tea is good. Warm. We could have tea, then goulash.”

“Jenny would miss me, if I left,” I try, cautiously, testing out the idea of having something tying me here again.

“Jenny would miss you if you left,” Nora agrees. “She would not be the only one,” she adds, bumping her forehead against my shoulder.

I breathe a shaky little sigh and let my shoulders drop. The sealskin slips down around them, grey folds pooling around my arms. “The goulash did smell good,” I allow, trying to hide a grin. I turn all the way around, turning my back on the sea and the sense of my people. I press my forehead to Nora’s, wrapping the edges of the sealskin around her shoulders, too, to share our warmth, burrowing my arms around her middle. “Very good.”

Nora laughs, a little hysterical with relief. “It is good,” she agrees. “Lots of spices, lots of fat.”

“Jenny is too thin,” I tell her seriously, not caring that it follows nothing in the conversation at all. “You are, too.”

“We are,” Nora agrees easily, unbothered. “You will have to help us fix that. Teach us your wise seal-woman ways, Gyöngyi. We will learn.”

“You’re the only one who knows this, you know,” I say, gesturing with my chin at the sealskin.

Nora smiles, her private sort of smile that tells you she has kept bigger secrets than your own and been glad to. “I will tell only Jenny,” she promises.

“Good,” I say, relaxing into her arms. “Take me home?”

Nora says nothing at all, just takes my hand, twining her long, slim fingers with mine, and gathers my clothes with her other hand. Pressing a kiss to my temple, smile on her mouth, she leads me up the path to the house that was mine, once, and might be again.

My heart only twinges a little, like an old bruise, when we pass the cairn.

A bit about the author:

Alena Sullivan, 24, holds a degree in Cultural Anthropology and works as a nanny for two wonderful human children. She lives in an apartment-gone-witch-cottage in Decatur, Georgia, with three birds and a cat, all of which still refuse to help her get dressed in the morning. Alena works as a fiction writer, poet, and visual artist, focusing on identity within narrative and the repeated cultural pattern formed by fairy and folk tales. Visit author page