“Sealskin” by Haley Kennedy

I remember mamma in pieces. Fragments of memory worn down like seaglass. When I was little, she made a mobile from bits of glass we scavenged. When we opened the window, the breeze would clink the glass and their tinted light would dance along the kitchen tiles.

From this came the first word she taught me.

phosphorescent light in the sea

Break it down and the meaning is clearer.

the sea
I liked having this word that no one else knew. I felt close to her in those small phrases, the broken bits of her mother tongue.
faren i dorafelar
broken into pieces
gone, obsolete
* * *

My memory of my father is static, like a photograph. An insistent sort of man. A proud Scot hellbent on reclaiming his heritage. His heat could blot out any other in the room.

* * *

Mamma used to make her promises when dad wasn’t listening. She promised I’d meet her family too. She promised to show me her secret places. She promised grandma would spoil me.

I hoped she’d give me new words.

* * *

When I was seven, my aunts came to us. They looked like mamma. Dark, alien eyes. All fat in the middle and thighs, like creatures of the cold. They hardly spoke English, but they watched me carefully, perhaps affectionately.

I joined them in the tiny sitting room and tried to understand. A few words stuck out.

resemblance, likeness
veð bånni
with child
But there seemed to be a gulf between us.
gånga fyri
to descend (as in the sea)
Or maybe it was
gånga frå
to be taken from

One of them scratched her forearm raw, like she wanted to unwrap her skin. She brought out a small cloth purse and handed it to me. Inside was a collection of polished white shark teeth. I imagined the mobile mamma could make.

Dad took them away, saying they were unclean. Mamma tried to argue with him, slipping between her two languages. But dad was more articulate. He said I wouldn’t be like her. “Damp, without fire.” It didn’t seem fair that they were fighting in English.

* * *

My aunties disappeared, and sometime thereafter, mamma stopped mentioning grandma. She started scratching at her neck. I wondered if it might be contagious, that itch. When I asked her why they hadn’t come back, she claimed “uru.”

restlessness, the agitated state of the sea
After that, she watched the ocean more, as if waiting for a fair tide.

* * *

In the summer, the wild swimmers came. A crew of all-age, untethered women. They bobbed with the cold waves, clustered together in joyful gossip. They laughed in loud, uproarious barks.

One Sunday, they were out early. Some left their wetsuits strewn on the sand, preferring to meet the water as human.

An older one returned to the sand for a drink, and she found mamma, knee-deep in the tide, wearing just her shift and clutching one of the wetsuits.

* * *

This sleepwalking had happened before, mostly right after I was born. Mamma called it a “mar genga.”

long walk
the sea
mar (alternate)
desolation, great sorrow

Dad called it her adjustment phase. We fixed new locks on the doors. I got up early to make sure she couldn’t unbolt them.

* * *

While dad slept through the mornings, mamma would walk me along shore. We watched the seals sunbathe on the pier. “Beautiful,“ she said. “Grip.”

a valuable object or possession
grip (alternate)
husband or wife

Mamma pointed out the females. Their coats were more silver, with a scattering of dark spots. “I had a coat just like that,” she said. This horrified me, the idea of my mother wearing another creature’s skin. But she looked at them so tenderly, as if they were something precious.

* * *

For her birthday one year, dad bought her a new winter coat. A sleek gray hide. It smelled like furniture cleaner. She held it under scrutiny for a moment and then spat on it. “Eftergerd,” she said.

imitation, counterfeit

They didn’t speak for a long time after that.

* * *

We took the coat to a charity shop. The place teemed with junk. I thought it pitiful how priceless items might be lost between unwanted wool and china.

Mamma thumbed through the racks of disheveled clothing. I dug through an antique chest full of thick blankets. I could feel something luxurious at the bottom and wanted to bring it into the light. I pulled up a silky fur coat, silver with speckles. It smelled musty and slightly sulfurous. “Look, mamma,” I said as I held it up to a nearby lamp. The dim light reflected in subtle rainbows across the fabric.

“Good quality,” said the woman at the counter. “But I can’t get the smell out.” Mamma’s stare was familiar. The same focus she laid on the wild swimmers, the seals, and the morning waters. I held the coat up to her figure. I could see she had forgotten her purse. “Grip,” I said. “Do you want me to buy it for you?”

a valuable object or possession
grip (alternate)
tealing, robbery

I gave the woman £54. Mamma didn’t take a paper bag, but clutched the coat in her arms. When we stepped out into the light, she was crying. “It’s fine, mamma,” I said. “I’ll wait for you.” She leaned forward and kissed my head. “Mammu piri bodda,” she said.

mammu piri bodda
mother’s little darling

From the coat pocket, she pulled out a handful of sea glass. She cupped my hands around it. “What’s this?” I said.

She looked at me, unspeaking, and the chasm between us seemed infinite. But our few shared words floated to the top.

“Mareld min,” she said.

mareld min
my sea fire

Mamma draped the coat over her shoulders. We headed downhill toward our seaside home, but when we came to our lane, she kept walking.

Haley is a computational linguist. She was previously published in
MAYDAY Magazine and The Ghost Story. She would like to thank the researchers working on the Nynorn Project, an effort to reconstruct and revive the Norn Language. Their resources were indispensable in writing this story. You can reach Haley at haley.kennedy.fiction@gmail.com.


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