It was late October, and a girl was carried in by the currents and tides through dark blue water; washed ashore on the rocky beach. Eyes opening in the autumn light, she noticed large rocks cracked by glaciers, and tall fir trees growing up like jagged teeth along the horizon.
Naked she was, and alone: scared and not just a bit mystified. Under her pale body and dark hair, flat on the beach, was a grey, furry skin, as if she lay upon a blanket. But of course, this was no blanket but one aspect of her true self: a seal skin, a selkie, she was.
Gathering her skin around her like a shroud, she peered up the hillside and into the town. The fog was curling around the boats, the trees, and herself as she gazed and wondered at where she was, and how she had come to be there, anyway. Above one eye was a large, red mark, as if a tentacle had stung her across the left side of her face, or she had been hit hard by something long and wooden. Her head felt heavy in her hands; holding it just so, the early morning light stung her eyes, and she began to cry, knowing that she was alone there on that beach.
The pebbles dug into her skin and so she stood up after a while, again shrouding herself in her skin against the cold, against the light, against the unknowns that, no doubt, were roaming unchecked in that tiny town of white houses, grey roads, black, sea-striped stones.
Out of nowhere, as she stood, a prince arrived in a strange carriage. Black and silver it was, and he was like a rainbow. He seemed to appear out of nowhere, for all of a sudden, she found herself in a flower garden, and he in the middle. He seemed to grow out of the flowers, as if they were a part of him, but yet he smelled of sawdust and strange Eastern songs echoed around him, in the autumn light. He whisked her into that carriage, taking her on a long drive through windy mountain roads, through trees whose leaves were changing from green to red, orange, yellow and brown. Suddenly, there was a bonfire in a granite fireplace, and people stood around her, everywhere. She was shrouded again, in another costume: this one of a sprite unknown to them, with antlers growing from her now longer hair, a cape of ivory, face sweet, lips parted to drink and eat intoxicating things from a long and dusty table. A small woman out of the crowd stared and asked: “are you real?”
Time passed, and sometimes she found herself in Italy, sitting at an old wooden table eating olives and garlic and drinking red wine through dark cold nights when the Moon hung in the sky, glowing brightly like a frozen pearl. The nights grew colder, crisper, and one morning, as she went walking, she saw hoarfrost upon all the plants by the roadside and she stopped to see the landscape glitter. The day came when it was time to mark time, and the prince whisked her to a beach and told her stories that made her feel disoriented, fascinated, and protected, in a way. In the light of a campfire, she wondered if she saw the real him, as sometimes his eyes would fill with tears, and then away he would run, again. His carriage changed from silver to black and back again, and picked her up and took her from place to place like the princess he told her she was. After a bit of time, so intoxicated she was with his flowers and his scent and the fortress in which he lived, that she almost forgot where she had hidden her shroud. Many months before, she had taken it and folded it ever so thin, like a delicate piece of origami, and tucked it inside a secret pocket. When she became afraid, she made sure she could feel it, touch it, know that it was still there; she was afraid that someone was trying to find it and take it for their own. She knew, but hoped herself unique, that once her skin was taken, she would stay, trapped, forever.
Over time the chariot began to rust, and the flowers faded. The rainbow cast over the prince became thinner, and she began to catch glimpses of someone else, as if an image was held under dark water, as if she was catching the silhouette of a tree in a puddle on a rainy day. She stayed quiet most of the time, watching and listening, and he liked her that way. His rainbow slipped away, but his beautiful hands gave gifts and his icey blue eyes laughed and she was held in their spell.
One early morning, they were driving through Russia and the snowbanks were piled high on the sides of the carriage tracks. The ocean water, teal and tossed about by wind, was pulled into meringue-like peaks as the carriage was pulled forcefully along another windy road. Above their heads flew eagles, dark against the white sky, and more and more snow fell, spinning in huge spirals, buffeted by a strong Eastern wind. That day his colors were orange and grey, set apart from the white, swirling background of an almost Eastern landscape.
Over time, the snow melted and she found herself living in a tiny fishbowl on a ledge. The fishbowl was very small and in fact most people thought she was a doll living in a dollhouse, and still doubted whether she was real: still wondered where she had come from. Safely inside, she stared out the walls of the fishbowl and watched as people found her, and waited outside to see what she would do. Guarding the now hidden mark above her eye, she ventured outside and painted the veranda a deep green, like the color of the water from which she had come. When the ice left, she kissed the wind and flowers appeared below her feet, and suddenly she found herself living not on a ledge, but in a town, alongside others who wished just to know her, wished to laugh with her, eat dinner, and go swimming, which of course, was her favorite thing to do.
The prince, now old and wizened and thin, no longer a rainbow and full of light, for he had betrayed his mask and shown her his true self long ago, one night while they were dancing, would not let her go, and did everything in his power to give her beautiful things and talk with her about wonderful ideas, and in one moment, even tricked her so as to think that he loved her truly. She slipped, and her precious seal skin flew out of its pocket and later, she found it in a pile under the kitchen table, tethered into place by the leg of a blue wooden chair. Promises of love were circling her head and she was drunk on confusion and bewildered at the prince, for she knew him yet he was promising her the world. Gathering her skin around her, for the first time in many months, she stood upon the veranda, and stared out at her ocean, now a lighter green as the summer sun shone down upon her pale skin. The flowers were every color and curled in great vines through the garden, protecting the spaces that she had made whilst alone in the early spring.
The prince arrived and tricked her again, denying that he had ever promised her anything, that she had misheard him, that she was lying, that she was being cruel. In bewilderment, she cried and saw her face in a mirror, saw the damage above her eye reappearing as her tears fell. She lay under a striped blanket in a train car, and could see, finally, his face, his poor, sad, confused, and afraid face, his body, drawn, his wrist hurt from years of steering that carriage against the tides, his throat sore from lying to himself, his light fading, his hope just barely alive. She looked at him, gathered her skin around her and smiled a perfect, understanding smile, as he lay beside her, battling with himself.
On the last evening, he whisked her away to a castle in the woods, a wooden castle painted of blue with gardens of moss and a small path that led to a lake. He took her there, installed her in a room, and went to sleep. As he slept, and he looked so peaceful for one of only a few moments that she could remember, she kissed him upon the lips and silently slipped out of the locked door: escaping locks had always been a skill of hers, for as long as she remembered. Walking softly over moss, she stopped to pay attention to the curved branches of trees, to listen to the calls of the loons on the water. She walked into the woods, and with each step, pulled her skin in closer, moving back into the body she had lost many months before. After what felt like hours, or maybe days, she reached another beach, this one calm and warm in the early summer morning. She slipped into the water, silent as….
Swimming through warm, summer water, in the early morning, she began to realize that she was not just one or the other, but both, entire. She reached that beach that had once been so cold, so grey, so uninviting and alien, and pulling herself up onto the land once more, basked in sunshine, folded her shroud away again, touched her face, remembering her past injury with her fingers, as if it was a tattoo of white, hidden from all but her. She stood up, saw the fishbowl above her on the hillside with its gardens and train car, and walked. Walked and walked and walked: home.