You know the story. The seal who came ashore by night, whose skin split and fell to reveal a woman, beautiful and wild as the sea. Who danced on the sand, white as salt in the moonlight. Who slid back into her skin and back under the waves, thinking herself unseen.
The man who watched from rock or from window. Who longed for her. Whose boat drifted and whose nets went uncast until one night he crept to where she climbed from the water and took hold of her sealskin, slippery and damp. You wouldn’t think a life would be so easy to snatch and hold, but he held it bunched in his arms and conjured her to stay, to stay ashore, to stay with him.
She cried but she loved him back and stayed in this long-legged land form, sharing his home, sharing his bed. Bearing a child.
But the sea does not let go and she was part of the sea. She was drawn again and again to the harbor’s edge, trailing her fingers through the foam. She held fistfuls of wet sand in her pockets. The hems of her skirts were stiff with salt. She smelled my father’s hands when he came home, pressing her face into the brine and the tang of the halibut that lived in the crease of his palms.
One night he found her weeping over the crab pots and knew she could never truly belong to a place of crockery and firelight, that the water would call her until it broke her heart. He could bear his own grief, but not hers. And so he let her go.
Back when my father still spoke to me he spoke of her hands, of the way she could twist a length of her hair or a length of rope into braids and coils. He told the way a fishing net would mend under her long fingers, the knots tying and untying under her sure touch. He spoke of her feet, restless and small. He spoke of her pale arms and her dark eyes and the way she would kiss him while watching the waves.
My father’s words ebbed and flowed, some hours talking of wind and water and her dark wet hair, some hours staying silent as a shell. I waited and listened and hoped to hear my name. I followed him from room to room, from dock to shore. I touched his nets where they lay in piles. I rubbed my thumb along the salt lines on his boots. I crept into his room and lay beside his bed, head upon hand upon floorboard worn smooth, listening to his breathing until I fell asleep.
I never wished for my mother. The stories say they come back, to peer into a window, to tuck a stray lock of hair behind a sleeping ear. I did not want that. I did not want to know her. I wanted her to let him go. She went back, she went home, but she took his love with her. There is no rival like the sea.
As a child I wished to be water. I wished my father would look at me the way he looked at the waves. I used to stand with my feet in the water and beg. You have the waves, I would say. You have the waves and the sand and the endless cold depths, give me this one man. I asked for a piece of my father’s heart for myself, but she filled the hollow spaces, the way water fills. I called, I cursed, I pleaded. I cried and wondered why I could not be as consuming as the ocean, as desirable as the sea.
The sea does not let go.
My father’s nets are always full when he drags them from the deck. The other men tell of seals in the water, swimming in the wake of the boat, and of the luck my father casts with each throw. He does not now come often ashore. There are nights he empties his nets back into the ocean and sails on, staring past the gravel spit, lips moving in what might be conversation or grief or prayer. He does not speak at all to me, these days, or to the men that heave and throw and drag beside him.
The rare nights I find him beside me in the kitchen I still try to fill the silence with myself, to fill the room with comfort and stability, to offer the kind of warmth the water cannot. I wait by the door. I keep the floors clean. But I am solid and I am still. I do not roll with the waves and I do not move in and out with the tide.
They whisper, the men from the boats and the women who love them, when they do not see me mending nets or gutting fish or watching for my father from the docks. You’d think, they say, with a mother born from salt and tide and a father that lives more on deck than ashore, that she’d go too, that she’d make her own life with rope and fish and the horizon spread before her. But I will not become friends with the sea. Water does not sustain. Water will not give. The land has never held a heart in its grip and held and held and waited. A heart might be broken on land but the land would let you choose. I have found comfort in the certainty of the cottage, in the way the beams meet the walls and the way generations of footsteps have worn the floor to a shine. I have found joy in the parsley that stretches towards the light from the sill. I have found that ashore I can create and I can transform. I no longer wish to be water.
When I leave I will plant a garden, inland, far from this harbor, where the salt’s bite can’t touch the leaves. Where the earth is brown and smells of warmth and damp. I will press in seeds with my hands and I will watch what grows. I will crumble handfuls of soil, the sunlight dry on my hair, and I will let her have him. I will let him go. And the only water I will know will be the rain.
Gina L. Grandi is a doctoral candidate and adjunct professor in the Educational Theatre program at NYU. In her former life, she was a public school teacher in San Francisco and a teaching artist and arts administrator in New York. She is currently the co-founder and artistic director of The Bechdel Group, a new play development company dedicated to challenging the role of women on stage. Her writing has appeared in 100 Word Story, Apex Magazine, Fine Linen, and Rose Red Review. Gina has a BA from Vassar College, a Masters from New York University, and an extensive finger puppet collection. She can be found on twitter at @yonderpaw. “The Selkie’s Daughter” was originally featured on the Postmasters Podcast.