By Inessa Chandra
I squirm on the creaky snitching floorboards of the closet, body convulsing with silent sneezes as the dust dances up into the air. The particles swirl surreally through the faint beam of light shining from the crack between door and wall, and for a moment I consider watching those little whirls of microcosms forever. But the worn cover of the picture book presses into the pads of my fingers, fragile like the thin loose skin of a grandma, insistent though soft.
I frown at that weak ray of light, wanting more, wanting to see a whole page, my whole book bathed in light. Holding my breath, my hand reaches up slowly, shakily to test the handle of the door. It gives the tiniest bit under the slow pressure of my hope, but stalwartly refuses to go further. I release the handle, only to freeze at the small thud as it grunts back into place. Poised, I wait for the rustling that heralds the gale of stinging curses and the blossoming of ugly indigo bruises, but no. I’m safe. For now.
Tentatively, I tuck my arm back into my body. After the trembling stops, I reposition my arms to cradle the book so that the sole stray ray of light coaxed out a specific figure from the dark page of illustrations. There. The supple body flows in dark-inked strokes, proclaiming freedom in the movement of each whimsical contour from flipper to goodly stout snout. The seal slips its way between each curling wave, undulating with the rhythm of the sea.
“Look, honey, she’s a selkie.” The honey warmth of that voice flows like a phantom through my veins.
“What’s a selkie?” I ask.
“A selkie is a magical seal who’s able to shed its skin and look human. Just like you and me.” She lightly chucks my chin, and I giggle.
I lower the barely bound pages and flip the tired paper by heart to the picture that drew me most. Carefully, reverently, I raise it in offering to the light. My breath balloons achingly in my chest as the picture whispers into view. Yes.
A woman dressed in a classical gossamer dress is being led by the hand by a richly dressed gentleman whose satisfied smirk scrawls across his lips. He is joyful, knees raised high in a triumphant march as he promenades his prize down the road, a seemingly innocuous blanket draped over his free arm. But he’s not the one who draws my eye. It’s the woman. Not her beautiful dress, whose train is plucked up delicately by the wind, or her dainty bare feet, but her face. She’s not looking to the man who covets her so, but to the sea in the receding background, sadness and longing the only emotions flickering in her otherwise empty eyes.
My eyes are drawn back to the picture. “Why does she look like that?”
"Like… like you do when Grandpa and Grandma drive away.”
My finger strokes over the selkie, and my heart matches the painful beat of her still face, ricocheting inside my chest like a bird caught behind gilded bars, barely resisting the downward pull of a force stronger than gravity. My hand clammily presses the skin above the rat-a-tat-a-tat.
“She wants to go home. She misses the sea. She misses her family, her real self.”
“But the sea’s right there. Why doesn’t she just go?”
I flinch at the sound of cursing and banging glass, but as it settles, I sink into the neglected garments shoved into the corner of the closet. The picture book falls out of the light, but I still see the illustration, black-and-white in my mind.
“If someone steals a selkie’s skin, the selkie is bound to her human limbs and to the person who holds her pelt. She cannot disobey them, but will always long for her home, the sea.”
“But the prince saves her, right? Then they fall in love and live happily ever after, right?”
Her hand stops stroking my hair, and she presses my head into her chest.
The back of my head smarts a little as it thunks into the closet wall. The book lies heavy in my lap. I remember the day I got this book. It was autumn, and her hand was warm in mine. We went to the library, for the first and last time. I never returned it.
“Even if she learns to love her human life, it will never be enough. She needs the sea. She can either steal back her pelt and return to the sea, leaving behind her human life, or stay trapped and forever miss who she really is.”
“There’s no happy ending?”
Her back was the straightest I’d ever seen it, the last day I saw her. She had a coat draped over one arm and nothing else.
“No. There’s no happy ending. There’s just an opportunity, a choice, and consequences.”
The awkward rhythm-less percussion jolts me into the present. Heart tearing out of my chest, I scramble to hide my treasure in the darkest corner of the closet, suffocated under hats and mothballs and a fallen coat. That brave beam of light falters into darkness, and the crescendo of noise cuts out like a flame. I inhale but I don’t, and my back nearly welds itself into the plaster of the back wall.
I close my eyes to the harsh fluorescent light, duck my head to avoid the reality before me. But the stink of alcohol and sweat brushes through my defenses, and my pulse taps erratically against my left hand’s fingers clasped around my right wrist.
His hand lands on my shoulder, but cruelty itself claws the flesh there. My body jerks up at the coercion of the sharp yank, but my ankles collapse from beneath me. I want to fall backwards, into the dust and darkness, but instead my weak frame wilts into stained and torn mesh that abrades my cheek. My wrists are fettered by vehement fists, and the air is stagnant around me, in me.
In my mind, I hope he’ll never find her, hidden under the coat in that dark corner. I hope she’ll have a chance. I hope she’ll have a choice. But there is no happy ending.