When I was a child, my mother would tell me stories of the sea. When I couldn’t sleep, when I was restless, when I burned with some childhood fever, she would sit by my side, and conjure something wonderful and strange, something half-magic, from the ocean for me.
“Mara,” she would say, smoothing the hair from my forehead as she tucked the covers around me, “did you know that to summon a selkie, you must shed seven tears into the ocean? Salt for salt.”
Mara, she had named me, because it meant bitter. Bitter as salt, bitter as the ocean. She told me I was her saltwater child, her ocean girl.
“What happens then? After the selkie comes.” I kicked at the sheets, freeing my feet from their tangles.
“Well, you swim, don’t you? You and the selkie. And if you are very, very lucky, you will learn where the selkie keeps their skin.”
She would tell me stories of impossible things, of seal-skins slid on and off as if it were nothing, of ways people remade themselves and plunged into those salt waters as if they belonged there. They were my favorite stories, these tales of the ocean that was both the same as the one outside and yet also full of wonders, just beneath the surface. When she told them, I would settle in, safe in my bed, and at the same time, carried away on the tide of her words.
• • • •
I wake with the taste of salt on my lips and the scent of the tide in my nose. My sheets, worn linen, cling damply to me. Not the damp of sweat, I realize as I rub the sleep from my eyes, but the damp of seawater. My bed is wet, the outline of my body in the mattress a small tide pool. Green kelp clings in ribbons to my calves.
Outside, waves crash.
I dip my fingers in the water and taste, even though I don’t need to. Even though I know: bitter as salt. Salt as the ocean.
There is no set of drying footprints leading from the beach, no grains of sand stuck in my bare feet. Just a tiny scrap of ocean, filling the space where I had lain. Drops of water weep from my skin, far more than seven, though I am not looking for a selkie.
A seagull cries out, lonely among the stars.
• • • •
A hurricane blew through when I was eleven. Hurricane Abigail. “Is it because Abigail sounds like a gale that the storm has that name?” I asked my mother, raising my voice to be heard over the howl of the wind, loud enough to shake the shutters on our house. We had storms often enough, but even then, far on Abigail’s outer edge, hours before landfall, I could tell this was something different. I could feel the weight of the storm in my bones.
“No, though that’s very smart to think so. No, hurricanes have women’s names because women can call the storms out at sea, where hurricanes are born. They can whistle up the wind to make a storm wild, or they can bare their breasts to the storm, and send it back to sleep.”
I liked the storms that whipped the waves into white and terrible foam, that washed all sorts of interesting things—dull-eyed dead fish that looked far stranger than anything I’d ever seen in an aquarium, large twists of driftwood like some great underwater forest, pieces of glass made smooth—up onto our beach. And I was eleven, and didn’t understand hurricanes, not then.
I whistled. Loud and hard as I could, running to the window, so that I could get closer to the storm, so that the ocean would hear me.
My mother rushed to my side and clapped her hand over my mouth. “Mara, no!”
I relaxed my lips, waiting for her to take her hand away. “Why not?”
“Because you are my ocean girl. If you call the storm, it will come in, and where would we put it, in this house?” She smiled as she gestured at the walls, and I agreed that it didn’t seem like a storm would fit, not without breaking the dishes anyway, though a part of me longed to try. To whistle and wait for the storm to answer. I pursed my lips as I stood by the window, but kept silent.
I remember one other thing from that storm. I remember waking because the howling of the wind had stopped. Everything had grown quiet—so quiet that absence of sound was its own roar.
I crept from my bed. I wanted to go outside, to see what had happened to the hurricane, to Abigail. I wanted to whistle her back up. But there was my mother, standing at the edge of our property, where the straggly grasses turned fully into sand. She had slid the top of her nightgown off, so that it gathered around her waist, and stood, her bare breasts facing the ocean. Facing the now-quiet storm.
She didn’t seem like my mother, standing like that. She seemed like something else. Something great and terrible.
My mouth opened, and I drew breath in to call to her, but instead I stepped backwards, as quiet as I could, and crept back into bed. I didn’t sleep. Not until I heard the door creak open, and my mother’s feet on the wooden floor.
• • • •
The wind picks up. I hear it, whistling through the night, through the cracked windows and gaps in the shingles. I whistle back. I want a storm. I want to raise my voice to the wind and howl along with it.
I open the windows wider. There is a splash as I step, a skittering. My footprint is a tide pool on the wooden floor, a spiral-shelled hermit crab running sideways from it.
There is a tide inside me, too—a pulling at my blood, the moon calling the salt water that courses in my veins.
Another splash, and another tiny piece of ocean where I step. The water runs out, toward the beach.
• • • •
“I don’t like that story,” I tell my mom. “Being a human is stupid and boring. Being a mermaid is cool. She shouldn’t have traded.”
“But she loved the prince. She loved him very much, and the only way they could be together is if she was a human. So she changed because she loved him.” Mom closed the book and set it on my nightstand.
“Why couldn’t he turn into a mermaid?” I asked. “I mean, if they loved each other and so someone had to change, why did she have to become human? Mermaids are cooler.”
“It doesn’t always work like that,” Mom said. “Sometimes people only have one shape. Sometimes loving someone isn’t enough.”
“Well, I still think that if he couldn’t become a mermaid, she should have stayed one. She could have found a mermaid to love. That would have been okay, too.”
“It doesn’t always work like that, either, Mara,” she said. “Sometimes you love someone so much, it changes the very shape of you, whether you want it to or not.”
• • • •
My hair is soaked with salt water. It feels like kelp, like sea-wrack plastered against my skin. The scent of the ocean, mineral sharp and heavy, fills the air.
I never knew my father. He was a tide that went only in one direction, and that was away from us. So I don’t know if it’s from him that I am what I seem to be becoming—a small ocean bound in skin, a tide going out—or if this sea change is some other thing. I don’t know if he was a human who just didn’t want to stay, or if he was a selkie my mother wept over, more than seven tears, as she gave him back his sealskin, or if he was a storm, calmed at the sight of her.
I asked. Of course I asked. It’s so much more interesting to think of a father who is a merman or a sea monster or a tide than to think of him as a man who walked away.
I never thought to ask my mother what she was. She was there, after all.
A gust of wind blows through my chest, and flings open the door in front of me. The moon silvers a path across the surface of the ocean. I walk toward it.
• • • •
Here was one story my mother told me: “Once upon a time, there were two monsters who each lived on either side of a narrow bay. One who had many tentacles that could grab a ship and drown it. Another who was so enormous that she could drink down the entire ocean and swallow everything in it. And there was a ship, trying to sail home, and the only way to get home was to pass between the two monsters.”
“But how did the ship leave?” I asked. “It must have gotten past the monsters once.”
“Sometimes they hide,” she said, “and so you don’t know there’s danger until it’s too late.”
Here was another: “Once upon a time, there was a sailor who set out to discover the edge of the world, where the water poured over into nothingness.”
And another: “Once upon a time, there was an island full of beautiful voices, so enchanting that no sailor could go past it, but would instead steer their boat onto the rocks.”
So many of her stories were of someone lost at sea, someone never coming home. I didn’t realize at the time that they were also stories of the sea stealing someone away. Luring them onto the rocks, trapping them between monsters, drowning them, even, if that was what was necessary to keep them on the waves, and not on the sand.
• • • •
I walk out past the sea grass and onto the beach, into the wind. The roar of the waves is a summons—no, a welcome. Here, here, here, the waves say to me as they break upon the beach.
I cough, and a fish slides, silvery and finned, into my hand, flopping and gasping now that it is here in the air. I drop it in one of the pools of salt water that have formed behind me.
I am a tide pool myself. My bones are corals beneath my skin. Here, here, here, I tell the ocean. I am coming.
• • • •
This is the story that my mother told me the most. It was about mermaids—all of my favorite stories were about mermaids. I wanted nothing more than to be able to live under the sea.
It was about a mermaid who sang, and the sound of her voice was so beautiful that anyone who heard it would follow it into the waves.
“But not drown?” I asked, even when I knew the answer, because that was the magic part to me.
“No, not drown. The mermaid’s song was so beautiful that it turned the person who heard it into the sea.”
“To be salt water and waves.”
Mom nodded. “To be salt water and waves and to be just like an ocean.”
“Except . . .”
“Except if someone called out, and interrupted the mermaid’s song, then the person wouldn’t turn into an ocean. Then they would drown.”
I shivered with delight under the covers. It seemed so perfect, so perilous.
• • • •
After my mother disappeared, even though by then I was eighteen and too old for games, I would play a game I called mermaid. I would walk into the ocean, and then swim out as far as I could. Then I would float, singing songs to myself, pretending that I was a mermaid, that I could sing to myself and turn into salt water and waves. Eventually, if I didn’t hear anyone, I’d turn and swim home.
But if I heard a voice, and I would swim down deep. I would sit on the bottom of the sand, watching the sun streak through the water like stained glass above me. I would sit down there until my lungs ached, until my head felt like it would burst from lack of breath. Until my rise back to the surface and air would feel as if I had drowned because it hurt so much to breathe.
I did it because sometimes when I stayed down there long enough, I felt like I was hearing voices. Like maybe, just maybe, there was a mermaid singing to me. Like maybe, just maybe, the mermaid was my mother.
On those days, I would weep at least seven tears, bitter as salt, into the sea.
• • • •
I wasn’t there when my mother disappeared. I came home from work, two days after my eighteenth birthday, a Wednesday in that hot sticky summer between high school and college, whistling, and telling myself that the anemic breeze that I felt was the beginning of a storm I was calling up.
The house was quiet. There was a slick of water in the kitchen, iridescent scales floating on its surface.
The back door, the one that lead out to the beach, was open. There were . . . there were what looked like drag marks, leading down to the waves.
“Mom?” Barely a whisper this time, as if something had stolen my voice.
And then I ran, and I ran to the shore and I ran into the water and I swam out as far as I could, calling for her, tears running salt down my face.
They were kind. They called it a disappearance, and not the other word that gets used when a woman goes into the water alone and doesn’t come back. I tried to tell them about the marks on the sand, but I had run through them, and the only marks were my own.
I didn’t tell them that I heard my mom’s voice on the wind, singing in the storm.
Or that she’d left the copy of The Little Mermaid by my bed. That she’d scrawled a message inside the front cover: I stayed as long as I could. I love you, my Mara. My ocean girl.
• • • •
I am whistling up the wind and the tide is pouring from my hair and I am weeping pearls and when I look down into the moon-streaked water, I cannot see my feet. I am salt water and I am tide and then, above the storm, I hear my mother’s voice.
“Mara,” she says, and it is bitter as salt, bitter as the sea, but she is a mermaid and I am the ocean, and she is singing, singing.