Listen to this story, narrated by C. S. E. Cooney:
This story contains ethnic slurs.
The air is curdling with a storm, hot and molasses-thick, when the fisherman and the witch study each other. They lock their wet hands together, interlaced fingers anchoring them against a different kind of tide.
She’s always been too fast: time and again he’d turn back to find ripped nets and the remaining fish thrashing around in a mess of entrails and broken fins. But today, he reaches out of the lurching boat and grabs the witch by her arm before she disappears underwater. He must have been expecting a monster gobbling up his catch, but she doesn’t look like one, with sunburnt cheeks and hair matted with salt.
She stops and smiles, lips pressed together to hide her serrated teeth. A cautious smile of a girl who knows she’s in danger.
He’s been preparing himself for this moment. But now he stares, amazed, at the grayish flecks on her legs as she kicks against the water, her skirt tied around her waist and billowing like a dark jellyfish. He forgets that he should be afraid. He forgets everything he was taught about violence.
She smiles again, this time not hiding who she is.
That’s how you like to imagine it, at least, tracing your story as far as possible. It’s like sifting through sand to find amber. Your best guesses, your mother’s stories, notes that might or might not refer to other people. Can’t tell amber from sea glass and pebbles. Before your grandparents, everything slips out of your grasp, so this is where you start. And since there is no one to prove you wrong, you might as well imagine those two, giddy from the sun and the sensation of being finally, truly seen.
Some time later, your mother is born. A little too soon after the wedding, but this itself is not uncommon, and you can’t expect any better from a sea witch. People talk, and even if the witch is immune to that poison, her husband and her daughter aren’t. But on that day the husband holds her hand firmly, as if he wants to prove that there’s no spell binding his mind.
Your mother is luckier than you nonetheless; she has a home. You’ll be born elsewhere. Her poisoned village will ultimately be blown away when your roots don’t hold it in place anymore.
There’s something curdling the air again, but this time, it’s war.
The narrow-gauge railway rattles on its rails, threatening to throw you and other passengers off the seats. You shift and turn your head so that the sea never disappears from your view. It glints from between pine trees: a brighter, colder band under the slate sky.
You’ve escaped boys in imported jeans, perm-haired girls in flowery dresses. Moved past boardwalks, and air greasy with the smell of fried fish, and the overwhelming, sweet decay in shallow bays. You’ve shaken sand from your shoes. Wiped threads of spun sugar from your cheek. You’re not a tourist. You’re a runaway.
There’s only so far you can escape, to the northernmost point of the country. They won’t let you any further. Stand on that dune and ask the sea to take you, but it won’t. You’ve tried, and so far you’ve always had to go back.
The peninsula, that stripe of sand rising above the sea, looks so fragile you worry the waves will claim it and you’ll be confined to the solid ground.
Your mother is ten when she overhears this conversation; or, the one she later recalls just collapses all iterations into one memory.
She holds still, listens closer, but can’t make sense of it. All she understands, in the way a child narrates the world to herself, is that something is gnawing at her parents. Her mother stands up, hands clasped together. “I need to go back.”
“You can’t go back,” her father says, with an edge to his voice. “It’s not safe, and you know it.”
She chuckles, but even the child knows she’s unhappy. “And it’s supposed to be safe here?”
“Safer,” the fisherman insists, reaching out to his wife. “Please.”
You know how the story goes. The fisherman meets a selkie, hides her sealskin, and forces her to stay on land. But maybe your grandmother’s story was simpler.
Some words don’t have their place in this new regime. They weigh your tongue down, but you learned not to let them out. Your brave new world has no place for selkies or witches: they could thrive among ruins, but concrete suffocates them and snubs the memories out. The regime has no place for certain kind of people, too. You sometimes wonder if you will grow up to be that certain kind of person.
You leave the rattling train and continue your walk on the beach, challenging the sea to grab your ankles. It reaches out for you and tries to pull you in. You swallow down the craving that fried fish won’t ever satisfy. Breathe in, breathe out. The smell of sea and rot is the next best thing to the sweetness of raw meat.
“And you? Why don’t you guarantee our safety?” Your grandmother jabs her finger at the fisherman. He could register in the Volksliste if he just swallowed his Kashubian so that it wouldn’t tangle with his faltering German. He should know that his existence, not fitting the delineated borders, is merely a political inconvenience that could easily be remedied. He should leave the sentiment behind before it gets him killed. He still may have a chance. After all the village boys disappeared and mounds rose among the trees, he is still waking up before sunrise to push his boat into the sea.
“I can’t,” he says, and hopes she will see his sole act of rebellion, silent and persistent.
He knows what the people are saying. That he’s hiding a Jewess, a Gypsy, a communist. A collaborator, a traitor, a German bitch. All those names slapped onto one quiet woman whose biggest crime was sneaking to the dunes at dusk.
The fisherman hides the sealskin, the woman weeps, but stays with him, until she finds it again. Then she returns to the sea. She meets the crashing waves and dives under, into the depths that aren’t her domain anymore.
A nurse once said that those discolorations on your arms were just memories of all the toxic waste no one bothered to clean up after the war. God knows what was there: many things, and you knew they weren’t safe because, when you were children, your cousin had run onto a squib and lost his leg, so it was better to stay away from scarring battlefields.
But the earth and the sea, they soaked it all up, and so did your skin.
The discolorations are kind of nice, you think, as you enter the marine wildlife centre.
Perhaps your grandmother was Jewish, or maybe she had looked the wrong way at a German soldier. For all you know, she disappeared into the sea she loved so much. Sea witch or not, drowning must have hurt her human lungs the same. You have to guess who she was, there’s no way to know, histories shifting through your hands, and the unknowing is your phantom pain.
For years, your mother looked for her. She combed through the sand, carefully avoiding charred metal and brushing ruins with her fingers. Your grandparents disappeared without a trace. Nothing but your mother’s memory gives evidence for their existence. There’s not even a single photograph.
The land where your grandparents’ cottage used to be was given to someone else. Those people know nothing but steppe, and you can tell they can’t grow roots into the loose sand. You secretly hope the sea will take them away, too.
There is something left to be said.
The sea witch discovers her skin, tucked away in her husband’s chest. She has no rage left in her, just helpless, word-less grief. She knows he decided to keep her safe while her people were being murdered. They need her now, she says.
Hugging the skin to herself, she runs to the dunes. In the grayish dawn, vines tangle around her feet. Other days, she’d unwrap them gently; today she tears at them and runs barefoot, heels digging into cold sand.
The fisherman comes after her. They fight and scream, yesterday’s tenderness becoming a sharp weapon.
She thinks her anger is justified.
He thinks he knows better.
She makes her own decision and throws herself to the waves, leaving him with a piece of skin in his hands. Not human, not seal. Where she disappears, the sea foam is pink with her blood.
Maybe no one saw it, or maybe your mother did; this would fit with her other so-called memories. Strange tales from a woman with strange habits. (Who on earth eats raw fish for breakfast?) That was called a coping mechanism, said your friend, the one studying in the GDR. Her mind couldn’t bear the weight of war memories, so she invented stuff instead.
You inherited this habit from her. Just like you inherited your mysterious grandmother’s awkward gait, like your feet never got used to walking on land. In water you’re graceful, your body finally lets you own it. But you don’t want anyone to say that your way of being is just some sort of survival strategy too.
The seals are let out into a shallow pool. They look happy, playful. Well fed, even if their bellies are also full of coins the visitors threw into the water for luck. It’s not that this place is particularly good; but the outside is worse.
You wonder if the wild pups have their own maps of ship-wrecks and places haunted by man. Don’t go there: there’ll be fire underwater and the waves will boil.
The workers come in, your eyes immediately lock on the bucketloads of fish they carry, and only later you spot the one seal you come to visit every summer.
She’s speckled with gray, old, her eyes gone from deep brown to milky blue. There’s a large scar on her side.
Caged, again. Captivity mimicking her natural environment hardly makes it better.
Perhaps she could get out. You imagine her changing shape again, climbing out into chilly air. She’d steal workers’ overalls and wrap them around her shivering body. Would she remember how to use feet and hands at all?
The seal looks at you as if she wanted to say: Escape from your own cage first, smartypants. One of us witches finally has to.
After the wildlife centre closes, you walk out to the twi-lit, deserted seaside. Ah, but this is not your escape yet. You can’t wish yourself to disappear.
Patience, child. Yours to inherit is the yearning for the taste of salt, long silences, and missing names. And those things won’t hold you back when you run.