Written for the Last Author Standing contest (original fiction division, round 1, challenge 12), April 2011.
I have never been quite right. That’s what they say, anyway. They think I don’t hear them, but I do: You know what she’s like. Poor thing. I’m sure she does her best, but well... And it’s no wonder, really. You know the story, don’t you?
And most of them do know, because it’s a small town, and everyone knows everyone else’s story. And your story defines you, lays down the boundaries of who you are, who you can be. No matter how much I smile and say please and thank you and follow the rules, I am my story, and my story says I am not quite right. And that, I suppose, is because my story itself isn’t quite right. There isn’t enough of it. No one knows the beginning of it, not even me.
They say I washed up on the shore, almost ten years ago now. That Billy found me, pulled me out of the water, half-drowned, saved me. That I was physically all right but mentally — not. Not quite. I couldn’t talk, at first. Couldn’t read. And when I learned how to speak again, gradually, couldn’t remember anything from before. Probably shipwrecked, they said. And, when they thought I couldn’t hear them, Possibly brain damage. Or possibly just trauma. No way of knowing.
I learned — to talk, to dress myself properly, to read, to behave like an almost-normal person. Almost. It’s always been difficult. So many rules to remember... But Billy helped. Billy took care of me. Took me home, so I didn’t have to stay in the hospital, full of bright lights and strange smells and demands. Home to his little house by the sea, where I could look out the window, watch the waves, and try to remember. Other people worried when I watched the sea for hours. Tried to pull me away, distract me. Whispered to each other: Well, it’s no wonder. She probably lost her whole family out there. But we mustn’t let her dwell on it... But Billy didn’t mind. He seemed to understand. Sometimes he sat with me, and we watched the waves roll in together, not needing to talk.
But he didn’t like it when I walked down to the edge of the water. He always seemed afraid then, like I’d wash away, dissolve into the sea while he wasn’t looking. I suppose I mustn’t blame him. There were a few times, they say, early on, when I slipped away and was found standing in the water, my clothes soaked, looking out at the sea and crying silently. But that hasn’t happened for a long time now. Not since — well, there was that one time. After Billy died. They say it was a traumatic reaction, that his fishing boat sinking flashed me back to — whatever happened to me.
But I don’t know — I don’t remember why, exactly, but I think it just... felt like where I needed to be. They say I was trying to drown myself, but I don’t think I was. I wanted — wanted something. I’ve always wanted something, but I don’t know what. I only know it’s out there, somewhere. That when I stare at the sea, I feel something inside me that wants it, something bone-deep, a desire so strong it’s almost physically painful. But I don’t know what it is. I don’t remember.
All I know is, I have to be strong. I have to resist it. Because I have Little Billy to take care of. I can’t think about what I want, even if I knew what it was. If they catch me walking in the water again, they’ll take him away, and he’s all I have left. They almost didn’t let me keep him, after his father drowned. I am, after all, not quite right. There were interviews, inspections, tests. Social workers still visit. But I smile and say please and thank you and follow the rules. And somehow, I get by. I cook, and I clean, and I play with him, and read him stories. So many stories... Once I learned how to read, I couldn’t stop reading. As though if only I read enough of them, I’d find my own.
Little Billy loves the sea as much as I do, even though it took his father. He walks with me on the beach, gathering shells and seaweed, sits with me up on the ridge, looking out at the sea with his big dark eyes, like mine. And sometimes the thought comes into my head, unbidden, he will save me. Like his father? But sometimes I think Billy didn’t save me at all, that he — but that’s crazy thinking. That’s what they tell me. I should smile and take my pills and not think crazy thoughts. I am a mother. I have to be strong.
And then, one day, I am sitting on the ridge, and Little Billy comes up to me, dragging a ratty old piece of fur. And he says the words that change everything. The words that go through me like lightning, like an orgasm, like a crashing wave. And suddenly I know my story.
“Mama, why did Daddy keep this old sealskin up in the attic?”
Tears burst from my eyes, and he stares at me, alarmed, afraid he’s said the wrong thing. But what he’s said is so very, very right, words that have echoed through stories forever, told in every seaside village. I reach for the sealskin — but stop. Because I can’t leave him.
So I whisper “Do you trust me?” He nods, wide-eyed. “Then close your eyes and hold on tight.” He puts his little arms around my neck, and I wrap the sealskin around both of us. A small voice in my head tells me that this is crazy, there are no such thing as selkies, that I must take my pills and stay away from the sea. But that voice is very small and far away now. I take one last look at the village that has been my home for nearly a decade... and dive.
Such a tragedy, they say. We should have known better, they say. She’d never been quite right. That poor little boy...
They think I can’t hear them, as they walk along the rocks by the sea, but I can. I want to tell them that it’s all right, that Little Billy is fine, but they can’t understand me.
All they hear is the barking of a mother seal, and her cub.
Story prompt: “Deny your desires and you will find what your heart longs for.” — Saint John of the Cross.