[Seal Skin (Therian Tales) / Katieanne Randolph]

Therian Tales

A palm reader told her once that she had salt on her skin, crusted into the creases of her hands. She remembers this, remembers the lights flashing on the fair rides and the smell of funnel cake and corndogs, the sweaty La Jolla night, the dry wind and the noise.

The palm reader told her, “See this? Every time I see this, I see the salt from the ocean, like it’s still crusted. It clings to you like a second skin, yeah?”

She still hears the bubblegum popping in her ear from the kids waiting in line behind her, still remembers the way the dust from the fairgrounds felt on the back of her throat.

So when the nurse tells her that her granddaughter is the one who left the flowers in her room, she gets angry.

She doesn’t have a granddaughter, and even if she did, wouldn’t she know that Lorena hated roses? Roses were for weddings and funerals, and she wasn’t getting married, so what did that say?

“Your granddaughter Susan, remember? She came to visit last Thursday.”

Lorena shook her head. “My favorites are marigolds.”

“You told her last week you wanted roses, yellow ones because they reminded you of your wedding.”

Married on the beach, no shoes allowed. The sand would feel nice in the evening, when it wasn’t scalding from the sun. He’d taken her quickly that night, rushed, as if he were afraid she’d leave.

She looked at her bare fingers and frowned. “Where’s my ring?”

“You don’t have a ring, sweetheart,” the nurse said.

Something loosened in her gut, chattering and making her skin prick. She covered her eyes and leaned heavily against the armrest of her chair.

She couldn’t swim in this skin. It was too loose, didn’t fit right—when she swam she struggled and couldn’t go far. She didn’t like the smell of the chlorine, it made her think of sick colors, and they wanted her to stay in the shallow end to stand with the group.

When the aerobics instructor asked if anyone had swum when they were younger, Lorena answered, “I used to race in the Rough Water Swim.” Only one other person seemed to know what she was talking about, so she added, “That’s in the ocean.”

When they were done with their stretches, she waded to the rope dividing the pool and wiggled her toes over the drop-off. The pool water was stale and the air stung her eyes. Ripples lapped with gentle claps against the cement walls while voices bounced against the tile, the sounds reverberating hollowly in her chest.

She sits on the sandy beach towel, her skin feverish with tanning and her eyes sore from squinting. Her children play by the water with nets, and she wants to get up and go to the water too, but she’s so tired that she doesn’t move.

Her children move too fast, her husband speaks too loudly, and she can no longer race in the water like she used to. She reapplies her sunscreen and sighs.

Where did all these lines come from? Whose skin is this that looks withered, like beached driftwood?

She was cold and suddenly felt vulnerable, like she’d forgotten to close a window overnight. Naked in open water, not able to see any deeper than her toes, and a greatness, she felt, was just below that, a yawning mouth, and she didn’t know when it would decide to snap its teeth together.

Where is it?

“Lorena? Speak up a little bit, I didn’t hear you.”

Where did she leave it?

“You left your clothes in the locker room, remember? Don’t scratch your arms like that, you’ll hurt yourself. Let’s get you dried off.”

There was a paintbrush in her hand, a dollop of blue teetering on the fine hairs at the end. Jazz music crackled with staccato pops from a pair of busted speakers on a boombox, but mostly she heard the thrum of murmured conversation and running water.

She lost her grip on the paintbrush and it spattered against the tile floor.

“Hey, Lorena? Is everything okay?”

Her throat felt tight, making it hard to swallow.

“Here’s another brush. Don’t give up, it’s looking great!”

She took the brush from the nurse’s hands but it didn’t feel like she was holding anything, or maybe it was that her fingers were so stiff that she couldn’t get a good grip. She put it on the table in front of her, afraid she’d drop it again.

The tables and people and crafts and the music felt connected to her by a gossamer web that just barely held the weight of the moment. If she moved too quickly, she thought it might snap and be lost like an earring she dropped in the ocean once.

She likes the ocean. Her Auntie takes her there every other weekend, when it’s her mom’s turn to watch her. Her mom moved back in with Auntie, but mom doesn’t like the beach. She doesn’t like the sand getting under her nails and drying out her skin, and she says the sun will be the death of Auntie, who is teaching her to swim while they’re at the beach, and she’s really nervous but also comfortable with the way the open water makes her feel. She can’t see into it, and sometimes she imagines a shark coming at her from the empty space, mouth open and teeth scissoring like a chainsaw.

But that’s only a little bit of it. Mostly she feels fast, like the little fish that dart around in the tide pools. The water is always cold, makes her feel clean and like she’s what Auntie calls finfolk, not two-legged Lorena. Who needs dirt and concrete and moms and dads when there’s swimming?

A paintbrush fell from her fingertips and splattered against the tile floor. There was blue all over her hands, caked to her cuticles and the creases of her wrinkles. She frowned and tried smoothing out her skin, thinking of the sleekness of polished furniture right after it’s been sanded. There was sandpaper across from her, next to a wispy-haired man working on a birdhouse, and the texture of the paper brought her back again to sand on her arms and thighs, and the saltwater clumping her hair. But she likes the way it feels when she rolls down a dune after coming from the water; sticky with sand powdering her hair and face. She pretends she’s reborn from the sand, and when she’s back in the water, she swims with her legs pressed together, knobby ankles jabbing together. Like a mermaid.

“Hi Grandma.”

Lorena was looking out the window, at the Queen Palms and at the way the heat shimmered off the pavement of the parking lot. When she stared outside long enough, she could feel the heat soaking into her, and the sound of her heartbeat in her ears could be mistaken for the sound of waves. “I don’t like roses,” she whispered.

“I know. Karen, your nurse, told me. I brought you marigolds this time.”

When Lorena looked at the girl speaking to her, she smiled. “Maria! I miss you, why don’t you come more often? Where’s your brother?”

The girl arranged the flowers next to her bed and then came to sit with her at the table before she spoke. “Dad passed away, remember? And I’m Susan, Grandma. Maria is my aunt.”

“Yes, yes, but where is Edwin?” The girl breathed and bit the inside of her cheek, and for a second Lorena thought she knew her.

“Dad had a stroke, he passed away. Four years ago.”

“No, no, when did that happen?” Lorena squeezed her fingers in her lap and felt heavy within the folds of her skin. That greatness was beneath her again and she felt like she was slapping uselessly to keep afloat. “Why didn’t anyone tell me? He’s my son, no, I would know if he died.”

“We did tell you. He died four years ago, you were at the funeral.” The girl sighed and got up to hug her. She didn’t know whether to push her away or stay still, and the indecision in her and the not-knowing and—her own son’s funeral—and the salt on her skin felt stiff, cracked, like it might break her worse than the arms squeezing her. “Don’t scratch,” the girl muttered, pulling Lorena’s hands into her own.

“I would have remembered,” Lorena told her. “He’s my son.”

The girl nodded against her hair. “I know, I know that you try. He’d understand.”

She’s swimming, but it’s like swimming in honey. Her gut pulls her down, and each stroke is exaggerated and weak. By the time she makes it back to shore, she feels like the race is already over.

But there’s shouting and a trophy and music and she’s happy, god she’s so relieved, and people are slapping her back and congratulating her. She doesn’t understand why she’d felt so sticky in the water, so heavy in comparison to her usual swiftness.

Her husband kisses her on the cheek. He rubs the beginning swell of her belly—and she remembers.

The jaw snapped shut.

“Oh my god.”

Lorena had remembered the way she sanded down garage-sale furniture to make it smooth. All it needed after that was a new coat of paint and it would look store-bought.

“Get her other arm, and—Jesus, she did her legs too. Has someone called the doctor yet?”

She felt like she was going into labor again, being wheeled around everywhere. She hurt a lot, but it wasn’t the same kind of hurt, and more than anything she felt a keen sense of disappointment.

“Where did she even get the sandpaper from?”

“Maintenance or Crafts, but she’s never done this before. We’ll make sure to keep it out of her reach from now on.”

Oh.

Her arms were wrapped and felt sticky. Her legs too. There was a girl sitting next to her bed, reading.

“I want to go back,” she whispered. The girl startled.

“What?”

She was supposed to be swimming in the sea.

The girl put her book down and ran a hand down her face. “Grandma? What are you talking about?”

Lorena tasted the salt in her tears and felt homesick.

“I know you are, but you have to stay here. Do you remember why you have these?” The girl gently ran her hands down the gauze on Lorena’s arm. “I’ll take you to visit the house when these get better.”

No, no houses. The ocean, she wants to go to the ocean.

Sand scattered and flaking off as she itches her skin; yellow petals trailing behind her, clinging wetly to her heels and calves; the sunscreen smell hot on the back of her neck; her hair stiff and dry from the salt air, her scalp itchy and sore. She’ll bend her arms and her skin will feel too tight, and as she wades into the chilly water, she’ll feel that word she doesn’t know, the one that may not exist in English, the one that means a yearning for a place you’ve never been. She wants to be pulled under the water, daintily by her toe, and taken to the reefs and grassy beds she knows exists deep in the ocean, in a place she cannot reach.

But Susan is calling for her from the shore. Her granddaughter is too intimidated by the waves to venture in on her own, and so Lorena trudges back onto land to take her by the hand. They cannot go too far because Susan is scared of the deeper water, so she stands with her son’s child in the frothy shallows. She is forever stuck there, holding that child’s hand, always holding a child’s hand in the shingles and shallows of the sea, where the water only reaches the ankle or the thigh.

The girl next to her bed moves from her gauze to hold Lorena’s hand, she thinks, in comfort. She doesn’t know this girl. There is no comfort here.

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