When I was a small thing, all blond cowlicks and knees, not even tall enough to ride the shabby roller coaster at the Jetty, I swore the ocean waves spoke words. The water was off limits, no swimming, no fishing, no boats. But the waves whispered a native language only I could hear. These days, I don’t ride the roller coaster because it’s a deathtrap, and I know it was not the sea speaking.
It was the selkies.
For years they were stories my father told me to help me fall asleep at night. Tales of beautiful boys and lovelorn girls who lived in the ocean and shifted into the sleek dark forms of seals. To have their pelt was to have their loyalty, or something like that. I always fell asleep before the end.
Years later, I heard Maddox. I was seventeen. My heart was full of waves and I wanted to be among them. I waded in, though I’d never doggie paddled a day in my life. I couldn’t stay away. I didn’t know how the waves would pull at my feet and my heart so hard that the shore would seem like more of an idea than something I could reach. I was a good swimmer, natural as breathing.
“Jesus Christ, you’re fast.” The voice was smooth as beach glass in my mind, with a lilt that leaned in funny ways.
“What?” I tread water, searching it out. “Who’s there?”
“Hell, you can hear me?”
“Where are you?”
“You can hear me.” His voice was muffled. “How can you hear me?”
“I have ears.”
“This language isn’t yours, and your accent sucks.” Big brown eyes popped up next to my face, and I swallowed a good bit of sea.
“You’re a seal.”
He bumped my shoulder with his head. “You’re wrong.” But I didn’t stick around to see what I was wrong about. I made it to shore in five minutes flat, and ran all the way up the dunes to the house to wash the sand from my skin and pretend I wasn’t crazy.
But I went back.
The waves hushed at me in the dark and the moon turned the sand to shards of chrome, and I listened to his voice croon the latest Top 40 hit to me.
“Come out here,” he said, when the song was done. “Swim with me, sing with me.”
“Who are you?”
“Maddox. Who are you?”
“Ben,” I said. The water was up to my ankles, and the salt burned a scrape on the top of my foot. My body always felt longer in the water, like I was a foot taller just by being in it. It slipped through my fingers but held me up as my arms pulled me past the breakers and into the calm behind them.
“You’re not supposed to be out here.” I couldn’t see him but his voice was all around me. It was all curves, as fluid as the water I swam in. Warm, too.
“Because the sign says. And because my family might pull you under and then you would die. They don’t like people. People steal our pelts.”
I spun circles in the water, my arms and legs working to keep me afloat. Something tugged at my hair. Fingers. I spun again, and almost inhaled the whole ocean.
“What?” he said. “Am I that ugly?”
His face was smug in the moonlight. “No?”
It wasn’t a lie. There’s nothing ugly about dark everything. Even his tan had freckles. He ran a hand through wet hair and absentmindedly, I wanted him.
“What are you smiling at?” he asked.
“How are you like this?”
“Well, when a boy and girl selkie fall in love–okay okay! Don’t roll your eyes at me. I left my pelt under a rock down below, so human I became.”
“Is that dangerous?”
“Yes. If anyone fucks with it, I’ll be stuck like this. And if anyone sees me with you, they’ll probably come out here and try.”
“Then why do it?”
“I could ask you the same thing, and you wouldn’t have an answer either.”
“No, I wouldn’t.” His smile lit up the dark.
After weeks of nighttime visits, I could swim as well as Maddox’s human form, but his seal beat me every single time. Too many mornings I woke up with my fingers still pruny and sand between my toes.
“Ben,” my mother called up the stairs.
“It’s 7:37. You’re running late.”
“I’m coming.” T-shirt. Hoodie. Homework. What else? Pants.
She handed me a bagel at the bottom of the stairs and I was out the door. I waited for Maddox’s wave before I got on the bus, but he wasn’t there. I could usually just see his hand over the dunes. It was bold of us, but it helped me get through the day until I could swim with him again. Butterflies crept up my spine at the thought, and I didn’t know what was happening, but I wanted it to stay.
“Look, there’s a boat out there.” Loni Shepherd pointed out past the breakers, in the spot where we swam races. I watched it until the bus pulled onto the main road, and real life swallowed the sea.
School lasted forever, and I raced to the beach as soon as the bus stopped on my street. The boat was gone, but I couldn’t shake the worry.
“Madd?” I called into the water. He was never far.
“Maddox?” The sea was dead quiet. I hated it.
I slipped off my sneakers and went in up to my waist, looking. Something dark that wasn’t him hit my locked knees, I went down. It buffeted me until I didn’t know which way was up and I clawed for the surface. My head breached and I sucked air fast. She startled screaming.
“Get out! You’ve done enough!”
“I should kill you, but I’d never do that to him. Leave this place, and never come back. The selkies know you now, Ben, and they’ll take you for this. I waited for you because I see the way you looked at him, but that wouldn’t matter to them. Leave. Now.”
The female selkie pressed her nose into my back a shoved.
“Alright! Where is he?”
“Well his skin is on the boat, but more than that we don’t know. That’s on you, human.” If voice could cut flesh, I’d have been bleeding out.
Shit. I hauled myself to shore, listening hard. The girl was gone, already hidden deep below, her echoes faint and leaving. The waves crashed and crashed and crashed and I didn’t hear him.
Rain started to fall, and I caught the sent of brine and copper. Water was pooling in the sand beneath my feet, and the color was off. Tinted slightly with rust. Farther ahead, the rust was concentrated droplets that hadn’t been diluted. I followed the blood trail at a run.
He had tucked himself into the backside of the dune, where the boardwalk met the beach. A bloody line ran his human form from ribs to knee, deep and oozing red. Crimson sand clung to skin that was mostly bruises and his breath was shallow.
“Madd?” My phone was heavy in one hand while the other tugged the arm that covered his face.
“They cut me out of it.”
He nodded. I pulled him into my lap and he clung to my shoulders like a child, face in my neck. His hair was stiff between my fingers and his blood was on my clothes. I anchored him to me.
“I’m sorry. I’m getting help, okay? You’re okay. I’m so sorry.” I kissed the top of his head and all I could smell was metal and sea.
His fingertips dug into my jacket like he couldn’t get close enough. “You’re stuck with me now.”
9-1-1 please state your emergency.
“I need an ambulance at pier 7 on the boardwalk. My boyfriend’s hurt.” I bent down to kiss the tiniest smile on his lips as the sunset lit the sea on fire.
For more information and poetry by Ethel Veva King, please visit this website (http://www.obscurepoetess.klsparrow.com/1930-1939/ethel-veva-king). Poem © Copyright, Ethel Veva King circa 1930. All rights reserved.
Stay tuned for extra content this week from Julie. Return next Monday for Anne’s answer to this prompt.