“Mama, Mama,” a seventeen-year-old girl called out as she gleefully raced through the front door to her step-mother of sixteen years. The girl wrapped her arms around her step-mother’s waist in a tight hug, holding a brown paper bag behind her back. “Guess what I convinced Papa to buy me at the store today?"
Her step mother smiled. “What, sweetheart?”
The girl produced a heavy, five pound candle from the brown bag. “A candle.”
“A twenty-five dollar candle,” the father said as he walked in. “I swear, they’re just making up the prices these days.”
“Okay, but you gotta smell it. It smells so good.” She held it to her step-mother’s nostrils. “Smell it, Mama.”
“Sure.” It smelled like… the ocean.
As the memories came flooding back, her step-daughters’ arms no longer felt like a loving hug, but a new reminder of her imprisonment.
She thought of the first time she saw the ocean, smelled the ocean where its salty breezes would tickle her nostrils. It was during her birth at the ocean’s shore, hearing the waves lap against Ireland’s rocky shores. The ocean beckoned her as it did all selkies, welcoming her to the world. It was her haven, her safe place, her home. Not this shack in Dublin.
A deep longing that the step-mother had tried to forget buried itself deep in her bosom. If only she had her fur coat, she could return. But her husband had stolen it and hidden it long ago, imprisoning her as his wife.
Throughout the years, he swore he loved her. Regardless of her supernatural good looks. However, the step-mother knew she only loved two things: the ocean and her step-daughter, in that order.
Feeling ill with regret, the step-mother gently undid her step-daughter’s hug. Confusion spread across the step-daughter’s face as she tried to read the pale expression on her step-mother’s face. “What’s wrong?”
“I feel sick. I’m going to go lie down.”
For the rest of the night, the step-mother didn’t leave her bed, locking the door to force her husband to sleep on the couch. It was a small punishment for his crime, and she only wished she could do more. But on land, she was powerless.
The next morning, the step-mother crawled outside to the small salt-water garden in the backyard--only of her few daily pleasures that her husband had afforded her. Red mangrove propagules rubbed against her wrists as she plunged her hands into the cool salt water, hoping to feel something. Some color returns to her human flesh as relaxed.
“Mama?” The step-daughter asked as she sat beside her. “What’s going on? Are you okay?”
Pulling her step-daughter into a close embrace, the step-mother left salty hand prints on her back as she explained, “I love you as the crops love rain, but I do not belong here. By now, you are old enough to understand that.”
“Wait, what are you talking about?”
“I’m a selkie, sweetheart. I belong in the ocean with others of my kind.”
“That’s ridiculous,” the step-daughter defended, a quick panic spreading through her veins. “You belong here, with Papa and me. Don’t you love him?”
“I love you. Can that be enough?”
The step-daughter pushed away from her. “No, it isn’t. I don’t… I don’t understand. You have a salt water garden--that’s like the ocean, isn’t it? Can’t you just be happy with that?”
The step-mother’s eyes glazed with tears as the step-daughter repeated the same words her husband spoke to her when he bought the garden sixteen years ago. “You would not take a tree from a forest, plant it in a wheat field, and convince it is the same.”
“Okay, but that’s totally different because… because…” She snapped her fingers. “Because you’re not a tree.”
“Analogies speak of our lives, but do not quote them.”
“Would you stop talking all fancy for a second?” Her breathing grew rapid between her words. “I feel like I’m about to have a panic attack. So, you’re leaving us? Just like that?”
“I cannot leave--”
The step-daughter’s face flared red. “So why would you tell me this and freak me out?!”
“--Without my coat,” the step-mother finished.
“Without your coat,” she repeated under her breath. “You don’t have it?”
“I believe your father keeps it in his study.”
Discomfort grew in the step-daughter’s stomach. They were both banned from the father’s study with strict punishment if they ever disobeyed. “Why are you telling me this?” She asked, even though she already knew the answer.
“I want you to get it for me.”
That’s what she thought. “Why can’t you get it yourself if you knew where it was?”
“Your father… he watches me too closely. He knows I want to leave. But you… he doesn’t suspect you.” Looking up with big, pleading eyes, the step-mother asked, “I am sorry to burden you with this, but will you get it for me?”
The step-daughter bit her lip. “We’ll see if I can even find it, okay?” It wasn't a promise.
Later that night, while her father and step-mother were camped out in the kitchen preparing dinner, the step-daughter snuck into her father’s study. A warm glowing fire lit up the room from the back wall's fireplace. His red leather chair glistened in the light. Tempted, the step-daughter swiveled in it, imagining what it would be like to be a… ah… whatever her father did as work. She wasn’t quite sure, but it was having-private-study-with-a-big-fancy-red-leather-chair worthy.
Around the fifth spin around, the step-daughter snapped back into reality. Her step-mother’s fur coat. Where was it? Dismounting the chair, she stalked around the room like a predator keeping an eye out for new prey. White cardboard boxes of work files littered the walls’ sides. She started her search by digging through each of the boxes.
Coming up empty, she slumped against the back wall next to the fireplace, letting the soft embers comfort her. Where could it be?
A tiny mix of sparks and embers drifted from the fire, biting at the step-daughter’s toes. “Ow,” she muttered, pulling them away.
Despite the pain, the embers allured her, and her eyes moved from the burning logs to the dizzy circus of sparks flying through the air. Her mouth dropped into a small ‘o’ shape as she watched them. One spark flew outlandishly high, touching the roof of the fireplace… against a metal door hidden by the curvature of the bricks.
She gasped. A secret compartment. Reaching for it with her bare hands, the fire bit at the step-daughter’s skin until she relented. She snapped her fingers as a new idea popped into her head.
Picking up the fire irons, she unlatched the secret compartment, letting the door open and her step-mother’s fur coat drop onto the fire irons. Quickly, she pulled it out before it could catch fire. Though, one lone spark reached it, so she jumped on fire multiple times to quill it.
She wiped her forehead. “Woah, this is pretty flammable. Must be all the oils from the seal skin.” The step-daughter stared at the coat on the ground. “Pretty flammable,” she repeated.
Her eyes darted back to the fire. “Pretty flammable.”
A new story drafted in her head.
I’m sorry. There was a secret compartment above the fireplace where the coat was hidden. It fell and I couldn’t save it. I’m sorry. I tried my best, I really did.
Just one action and her step-mother won’t leave. How bad can she need to be in the ocean anyway? Her father had a fancy study, a fancy job, maybe they could get a house on the beach or on an island. Her step-mother could still be happy as part of this family… She doesn’t have to leave.
The step-daughter woke her step-mother early the next morning by gently shaking her. As she stirred, the step-daughter hushed her, gesturing to sleeping father beside her. “I have something I need to tell you,” the step-daughter said.
Quietly, they snuck out of the bedroom and into the back yard by the garden. The step-daughter’s empty hands nervously fiddled with each other. “Um… about your coat…”
The step-mother’s face fell. “You didn’t find it?” She sighed, but pulled the step-daughter into a hug with a sad smile on her lips. “It’s okay, sweetheart. I know you tried your best. I’m sorry for putting you in a difficult position to break your father's rules."
The step-daughter choked on her tears and she pushed her step-mother away. Moving slowly, she pulled out a fur coat with a small burn from behind one of the garden’s large rocks. “It’s a little burnt… but I found it.” The step-daughter wiped her snotty, teary nose with her arm. Sniffling back, she said, “Now you can return to the ocean.” She shifted from foot to foot. “But I don’t want to lose you. I know you don’t belong here… I know what that feels like to not belong. Yesterday, I realized, I don’t know much about Papa. I don’t even know what his job is…” she sobbed. “I don’t belong here either--not without you. So, I guess, what I’m saying is… can I go with you? Please?”
“You are my child though you are not my blood. But you are still a child. You have that learning building to attend. You have a life on land. You have feet, not flippers. So, you cannot come with me. The ocean is not meant for you.”
The step-daughter wiped her teary eyes with her snotty arm, not even caring what disgusting fluids she just mixed on her flesh. Her eyes stayed glued to the ground. “Yeah, I’d figured you’d say as much. Papa’s gonna wake soon.” With one final hug, she said. “I guess this is goodbye.”
“For our bodies, but not for our hearts. I will always be with you, my child.”
A year later, on the step-daughter’s eighteen birthday, as she was mulling over what college to accept--none of which felt ‘right’ for her, to her father’s growing frustration--her father delivered a small letter to her. A letter addressed from her step-mother. One written in preparation from her escape. The step-daughter anxiously tore into it, eyes eager for the message. “She gave it to me right before she disappeared--left a note to give it to you on your eighteenth birthday,” the father explained, still unsure how she got her coat back.
But the step-daughter wasn’t listening.
My dearest child,
If you are reading this, then I have gotten my coat back and left. I apologize to have left you, but your father loves you and will take good care of you. I realize I have nothing compared to your father’s wealth, but in the sixteen years I was trapped on land, I grew and sold some plants from my seawater garden. It isn’t much, I still hope to offer you something as you enter the adult human world, where you belong. I love you and am proud of who you have become because I know it’s someone amazing.
With your Mama’s love,
Inside the envelope, a thick wad of bills fell out. “There has to be at least a couple thousands dollars here,” she muttered. “I could buy so many candles.”
But she didn’t. Instead, the step-daughter bought a small, but sturdy, one person boat, keeping her original ocean-scented candle by her bedside as she took to the seas.
She named it the Sailing Spots, because spotted seals were unusually fond of it and kept close to it. One spotted seal in particular with a burn mark on her side seemed to follow the step-daughter everywhere she went…
As she cranked back the sails and gazed into the sunset, she spoke. Perhaps not to herself. “Let’s go sailing, Mama.”
Because the sea is where they both belonged.