Even if they don’t say it out loud, I know the other swimmers are judging me for wearing a two-piece swimsuit, even though it was the only one I could squeeze into. Since I judge them for dressing like they’re younger than they are, or feeding their kids aspartame, perhaps it’s just as well that I take my towel and my sandwiches and wander away from the park’s public beach. The rocky shore extends for miles; there must be somewhere private.
For long minutes, the rocks are relentless, but eventually I spot a patch of sand, glowing white with broken shells under the midday sun. There’s no path down — just a natural staircase of heavy boulders and exposed tree roots.
I’m halfway down, my fingernails packed with dirt and sweat dripping down my brow, when I spot a lithe boy sunning himself on a rock.
He’s naked, lying on his back with his eyes closed. The sun glows on his golden skin and glints in a crown of shaggy black hair so careless it must be contrived. All of him is smooth and taut, and I can imagine him beneath my fingers.
I hold my breath so he won’t hear me. It’s wrong to watch, but if I move now he’ll know I was there, so I might as well. Briefly, I think about going down and introducing myself. Then I remember I’m going to die a virgin, that if no one else has ever wanted the fat girl, why should the most perfect boy I’ve ever seen be any different?
Lean muscles flex and bunch as he reaches behind his head for his towel, which he was using as a pillow. As he holds it up, I realize I’m wrong. It’s a glistening white pelt, a sealskin with empty holes for eyes and a drooping mouth with a lolling tongue and stiff, bristly whiskers.
It’s not until he puts his leg inside it that I come to a ridiculous but inevitable conclusion. I’ve heard that folktale.
I don’t know why he’s here instead of Scotland, and I don’t know why he’s a he, but there’s no mistake: he climbs into the pelt like it’s a pair of pants, and disappears into its folds.
A ghost-white seal, plump and sleek, slips across the beach and into the sea. Through the green water, I can see a pale blur spinning and then diving deep, deeper, disappearing.
The beach is mine now, but I don’t want to be alone anymore.
By the next day, I’m not sure I really saw anything.
I tag jeans and daydream about selkies. Do their human forms and seal forms have different levels of intelligence? Are they aware of the advancements in human society, like cars and cell phones and the Internet? Maybe the selkie would want to hear music, if I brought my mp3 player to the beach.
Near my workstation, a hot guy with a shaved head slides hangers along the rack with a piano player’s fingers, his lanky frame bending like a birch tree in the wind. I stop tagging long enough for my daydreams to take a turn: what does it feel like for your pants to hang loose from your hips?
Not for the first time, I imagine unzipping my fat and slipping out of it, tossing it away like soiled laundry.
It feels dirty. I’m not even allowed to talk about it, because if I mention I’m fat, everyone else feels obligated to argue with me, or give me contrived compliments like, “You have a beautiful face” or “But you’ve got big boobs, too!”
“Can you price this?” the hot guy asks. His easy smile is for everyone, not just me. He holds out a hoodie patterned with records and microphones. I wanted to buy one, but I can’t remember a time I could fit into trendy clothes.
The words “forty-four ninety-five” get me a “thanks” and a view of his slim, boxer-clad rear working over the top of his jeans as he heads to the checkstands.
“Aw, Miranda, I think he likes you. You’re definitely his type,” says Brenna.
I don’t know if her remark was sarcasm or racism, but either way, I know she’s talking about the Volkswagen I call my ass. If I mention it, she’ll back-pedal and make it look like I’m just too sensitive, so I grit my teeth and bury myself in tagging. Three hours left.
I wish I was at the beach, instead of here, even though it’s dark and cold and all the seals are probably asleep. I would have been at the beach looking for the selkie instead of listening to Brenna’s snark — except cute punk Barry had called with a super-important emergency.
He has a lot of super-important emergencies.
There was a time when covering Barry’s shifts gave me a stupid little sparkle of hope. I just knew his gratitude would drive him to befriend me, and he’d suddenly appreciate my wit and commend my taste in music, which is exactly like his. He would get past his natural revulsion, perhaps even discover he has a fetish for women who weigh three times as much as he does. Those guys are out there.
But now, almost more than finding someone, I want to say no!, with the exclamation point. I want some hot boy with sexy piercings and tattoos and a tight little butt to beg me to come home with him, to let him worship my body.
Then I’ll say, “No! It’s only eight. Someone better is bound to show up by nine.”
It’s an hour past nine when I get out of retail hell, and surprise surprise, there are no boys waiting to hump the fattest employee in the whole mall.
I see the selkie the next day. I know it’s him because he’s the only white seal in the whole park — all the others are mottled grey. He sleeps with the other seals, on a rock that only gets close to shore at low tide, and even then it’s too deep to wade out there. A bank of sandal-footed tourists splash in the surf, flashing their cameras at yawning, lolling seals.
The selkie is asleep, and I wonder if he had a late night.
“You’re beautiful,” I say, loudly. People give me funny looks, but I ignore them, staring at the glistening white secret lying in the sun.
The selkie doesn’t look up.
“Ugh, I have to buy new work clothes,” Brenna says. “I’m turning into a mammoth.”
She’s a size twelve, and I want to punch her for complaining. It’s not the first bitchy remark she’s made tonight, and I desperately want to quit, right now, and run away. I don’t know where I’d go, because there are Brennas everywhere.
That’s probably why I force myself to think about the selkie again.
If selkies are real, are there fairies? Are they Tinkerbell-sized or Titania-sized? Are any of them me-sized? Are the boys as pretty as my selkie?
By the time my shift is over, I want to see the seal again. Even just for a few minutes, in the dark.
It’s late. I don’t see another car the whole way, and when I park, the tame Washington wilderness holds only the calls of insects and frogs.
The rock is empty.
I’m still staring at it, forlorn, when my phone flashes orange in my purse, buzzing insistently. When I pluck it out, I see CUTE PUNK on the screen.
I’m busy hating everything, but I answer it anyway. “Hello?”
“Hey, Miranda!” Barry says. “I hope it’s not too late to call.”
“No, I’m up.”
I know his face so well he could be here: the artful flop of his blonde-and-black tortoiseshell hair over his left eye, the chicken pox scar in the dead center of his chin, the delicate ring slung through his lip as casually as if someone had tossed it there and it stuck. When he talks on the phone, he strokes his piercing with his pinky finger, and all I can think about is what it might feel like under my tongue.
“Oh good! You have Brenna’s number, right?” he asks.
“Yeah. She opens tomorrow, though. It might be too late.”
When he tells me he just scored last minute tickets to a Death in the Water concert, my mouth goes dry. I could be there in fifteen minutes.
“That’s my favorite band,” I say. “And I don’t have to work until tomorrow afternoon.” There’s a pause, and even though I know Brenna wouldn’t have to pay him back, I ask, “Could I buy one of the tickets from you?”
“I… I’m sorry, I already promised her I’d take her,” he lies.
With tickets he couldn’t have predicted he’d have? Brenna likes top forty hits and the kind of fake punk you see on MTV. She also takes extra-long lunches when it’s busy, and she cheats on every boyfriend she has, and she will make herself the focus of any conversation. I’ve heard her deride the way Barry dresses when he’s off the clock.
But Brenna is shaped like a Barbie.
The betrayal pulls on something inside me, something that’s been stretched like taffy until it is thinner than a pencil, than a noodle, than a hair. With my next breath, it breaks.
“I think I’m too fat to find her phone number,” I say, and I hang up.
I’m too angry to drive, so I’ll take a walk.
My little pen light doesn’t do much to light the trail, but if I point it almost directly at the ground, it helps a little.
The aroma of pine needles and damp moss in the forest mingles with the scents of salt and seaweed. I walk toward the place I saw my selkie and peer hopefully into the stark black shadows between the boulders and tree roots I climbed before.
He’s lying on the same rock again, as if the moonlight feels just as good as the sun did. His nipples aren’t even hard in the brisk night breeze.
I’m afraid if I try to breathe, it won’t happen, and I’ll realize this is just a dream. His skin has slipped off the rock behind him, and it’s lying on the ground. It’s so close I’ll land on it if I jump. He would never get up and climb down in time.
Would I really take it? Jesus, what kind of a monster am I? Maybe if I just said hello, like a normal person, he’d talk to me. Even selkies must have respect for a romantic evening. Sterling moonlight pours down from the deep blue sky and pools on the waves slinking up and down the beach. It’s just the two of us.
No. He’ll run away. If I’ve learned anything, it’s that.
Even if he is sometimes a seal, he’s still a painfully beautiful boy. And I could cover every one of Barry’s shifts, I could give the cute black guy an illicit discount on his sweatshirt—but they’re not going to sit around and chat with me.
Still, that’s all I want. Just to chat. Then I’ll give the skin back, and he can leave me behind.
I take a deep breath, and it’s not a dream, and on the count of: one, two, three, I clumsily slide down the last two rocks and grasp his pelt.
My selkie is on his feet with the grace of a cat, his narrow eyes staring at the soft bundle in my arms.
“It’s okay,” I say. “I just want to talk.”
His shoulders slump, as if that would be torture, and I swallow my annoyance. Maybe he’s just wary that I could be lying. I walk toward him, jealously clutching his skin. He can’t have it yet. Not yet.
It’s silvery and supple, as warm as a live seal, heavy in my arms.
“What’s your name?” I ask.
He gives me a sharp look, spitting out the word as if he could hurt me with the sound. “Cailean.”
“I’m Miranda,” I say.
He doesn’t respond. I stare at his perfect features, so delicate and beautiful I’ve never dreamed anything like him. With his dark, carelessly ragged hair and pouty lips, he looks like Barry’s trendy friends—but the selkie is prettier, more perfect. He’s all of them incarnate. I know that if he asked me to come home with him at eight o’clock, I wouldn’t see a better option by nine. Not by ever.
“Are you the only selkie?” I ask. I want to remind him we’re alone. I pet the seal skin almost without noticing, my fingers drawn to the silky warmth.
The selkie shakes his head, hunching his shoulders and wrapping his arms around his chest. “No. Please just let me go.”
“I will,” I say, nettled. “It’s just I’ve never met a selkie before. I wanted to talk to you.”
I know he’s afraid I’m lying, which is why I politely ignore his tone. I try to remember all the questions I came up with while I was unpacking freight and putting it on hangers, but I can only remember one.
“Do you still understand human things when you’re in your seal body?” I ask.
“Yes.” He stares at his pelt, as if I’m not there, just some furniture he flung it on so he could admire it. But he doesn’t reach for it, and I realize I don’t know why. I read about his kind in a book of fairy tales — maybe not the most reliable textbook.
“So how does this skin thing work?” I ask.
“I can’t have it back until you hide it and I find it. Until then, I do everything you tell me, whether I like it or not,” he says, and his voice dries out on the last few words. He swallows.
“Everything?” I asked. I hate myself for thinking it, but I just hadn’t imagined the full range of possibility until I heard it from those plush lips.
I’m going to ask. I can tell he’s going to run away and never come back, that he doesn’t want to talk. I don’t see how this can hurt.
“Will you kiss me, just once?” I ask.
I stroke the pelt harder as I wait for his answer, aware that something is different, a strange feeling warming my fingers. But nothing could be as important as his reply.
“Yes.” The selkie sounds like he wants to die. He reluctantly tilts his head down. He flinches.
I flush so suddenly my cheeks sting. I can tell what the selkie thinks.
I walk away from him, humiliated by my own audacity. I never would have asked Barry, even before I hung up on him, and yet I just asked it of a guy so amazing that the modern world insists he doesn’t exist.
My arm is still warm under my fingers, but it’s wrong somehow. I glance down to find one of my hands has slipped inside the selkie’s pelt—and now, when that hand should move, the seal’s right flipper moves. My heart jerks like a train leaving the station, picking up speed as I covertly stuff my arm farther inside. When I stroke the seal flipper with the fingers of my other hand, it feels like my own skin.
I don’t have to think about it for long.
He’ll be okay.
He has beautiful, narrow eyes, a pert mouth, and a svelte, muscled physique. His wet hair hasn’t even been styled and it falls artfully around his perfect goddamn face. I know without a doubt that everyone else will want him just as much as I do.
Even as I disrobe, I keep a death grip on the seal pelt.
And then I slide my other hand inside, and pull it over my head, and with one moment of vertigo it’s over. I’m lying on the beach, sleek and thick where I used to be jiggly and lumpy. I race toward the surf as fast as my flippers and tail can propel me.
Sharp barnacles slow the selkie as he runs after me on bare feet. He throws rocks, so desperate to stop me that he’ll risk harming the pelt I wear. I plow through the waves, ignoring the bruising edges of stones, enjoying the surf as it splashes over my new, svelte body. I dive and twirl, spin and flip, win and dismiss.
Behind me, the most beautiful boy I’ve ever seen cries to the tide.
No! I think, and I turn my nose out to sea.
Cory Skerry lives in the Northwest U.S. and works at an upscale adult boutique. In his free time, he writes stories, draws comics, copy edits for Shimmer Magazine, and goes hiking with his two sweet, goofy pit bulls. He took a break to be the class clown at Viable Paradise in 2010. When he grows up, he’d like science to make him into a giant octopus. For more, check out plunderpuss.net. He says:
I was watching seals eat salmon in the estuary by my house, and somehow I daydreamed about whether it was possible for a human to try on a selkie pelt. I’ve had friends who wanted to escape their bodies for many reasons, from gender dysphoria to cystic fibrosis to being ashamed of their size. I suppose I wanted to explore how it made me (or you) feel to witness Miranda’s choice, and maybe whether or not we would do the same. (If I’m honest? I’d totally take the pelt for a joy-ride, but I’m sure I’d bring it back.)