~ 3,000 words, approx. 14 min read time
There’s a shark lady that comes into the diner on Friday nights. She’s the oldest one I’ve ever seen, but that’s not saying much. Most of them don’t last long on land. She’s thirty, maybe thirty-five, and she’s got the ugliest damn kids I’ve ever seen: redheads, all three of them, with white eyelashes and ears that stick straight out. They’re always scrapping about something whenever they come in, sounding for all the world like the seagulls that fight over stray bits of food in the parking lot.
I like her, though. She’s always nice to me. That’s a low bar, I know, but when you’re a waitress, it’s something.
The only thing that marks her as different from all the other tired mothers in the diner is her eyes: black as ink, no whites.
Tonight her kids are a little quieter than usual, and when the lady shifts in her seat, I can see the yellowed edges of a bruise on her right leg peak out beneath the edge of her sundress. I grab her an extra carton of fries from the trough in the kitchen, and I don’t wrinkle my nose too much when the youngest of her kids stands up in the booth and grabs at the silver key around my neck with his sticky little fingers.
She smiles up at me, says, “Thanks, sweet girl,” and for a second, she almost looks like Mama.
The middle kid spills his chocolate milk across the paper menus, and the next table is flagging me down for a coffee refill by the time I’ve mopped it all up.
I drive past the old house on the way back to the dorms. There’s a gray sedan in the driveway. God only knows who’d be stupid enough to live in a house where a murder happened, if they even bothered to research the history at all. Some rich family from Raleigh, I bet. I picture a horse-faced blonde lady with thousand-dollar teeth showing her husband the listing. This close to the beach, darling, and so cheap!
In the backyard, there’s a wooden box buried to the right of the porch steps. A time capsule. Mama and I put it all together on my eighth birthday, while my father was at work. The whole memory is a little fuzzy, and I have to come at it sideways whenever I try to remember what we put inside of it. I know there were some photos of us in there, a picture I drew in kindergarten, Mama’s earrings, a few other things. She wrapped everything up in this smelly grey blanket to keep them dry, and when we patted the dirt down over it, Mama tucked the key into the pocket of her jeans.
“We’ll come back when you’re all grown up,” she said, “when it’s safe.”
I remember the way her hair felt against my cheek, as soft and cool as summer rain.
That night, Wilmington police responded to a noise complaint from some concerned neighbors.
They found my father in his bed with a steak knife in his belly.
Less than four hours later, I was an orphan.
Sometimes I want to go back for the box, but I know there’s nothing in there that will bring her back.
I crook the fingers of my right hand into a gun and jab it towards the house, imagining the windows shattering and the floorboards uprooting and the roof burning against the night sky. Pow.
My roommate wants to know if I want to come watch the shark girls sing.
“It’ll be fun,” Jackie says, swinging her bare feet off the edge of her bed. “You’re always working, Una. It wouldn’t kill you to relax a little bit.”
I’ve only been to see them sing once, when I was twelve. My foster father at the time took me. His name was Max. Max O’Brien. He was tall, wide in every direction, and he had a laugh like a fork in a blender. I don’t really know why he took me that night, what he was trying to prove.
The women came up onto the shore one by one, their shark skins going loose and slack when the air hit them. They stepped right out of them and slung them over their shoulder the way I’d seen men do with their jackets, hair hanging down past their knees. There were only about ten of them that night on the beach, but the way they sang made it sound like there were a hundred more, so sharp and endless it almost sounded like crying.
Shark women worship the moon, or if not worship, then something like it. There’s no exact word in our language for what it is to them. Mama used to sing to the moon when it was full, when Dad wasn’t home to hear it.
“My brother tried to nab him a shark girl once, way back when, ” Max said. He was on his third beer by then. “Saw it with my own two eyes. He made a grab for her skin, and she beat him so bad he couldn’t walk straight for two months.” He snorted, like the whole thing still baffled him. “And she wasn’t even one of the big ones. One of those little reef sharks, I think. If she’d been able to drag him into the water… I don’t even wanna think about it.”
The memories I had of my father tended to blur together. There was nothing about him I wanted to keep. But all I could think about right then was the knot of scar tissue where my father’s eye had once been.
My mother did that. She didn’t tell me much about the night she got caught, about how long she’d fought my father, but she did tell me about the eye.
I knew by then where babies came from. I knew that men and women didn’t have to love each other to make one. But it wasn’t until then that I truly realized just how much I wasn’t supposed to exist
“Hey, now,” Max said when I started sniffling. He ran his big hand over the back of my head, the calluses of his palms snagging at my hair. “I didn’t mean to upset you. Earl turned out just fine in the end.”
I tell Jackie that I’ve got a headache, and that makes her sigh.
Jackie’s a nice girl. She doesn’t want to be my friend, not really, but I think she feels sorry enough for me that she invites me to things even though she knows what I’m going to say.
“You had a headache last time I asked,” she says, “but okay.”
The shark lady comes back the next week without her kids. She orders her normal meal: a classic waffle with two eggs on the side. When she’s done, she goes outside and starts smoking, the burning cherry of her cigarette bright against the dark parking lot.
I tell the cook I’m taking my break early and run to the back office where we all hang our coats and purses.
I don’t smoke, but most of my coworkers do. I rifle through their coat pockets until I find a pack of Marlboros, and I run back to the front with a cigarette clenched in my right hand.
I try to seem nonchalant when I open the door, but my heart is pounding so hard that it shakes my voice when I try to speak.
“Can I—can I get a light, please?”
She smiles and touches the tip of her cigarette to mine. I bring it to my lips, inhale, and immediately start coughing.
The shark lady laughs.
“That’s how I was when I first started,” she says. “Nastiest shit I ever tasted. Then I tried it again to see if I was doing it wrong, and—” she holds her cigarette up, pinky up like she’s at a fancy tea party– “now I need this every day.”
I don’t know what to say to that, so I say nothing at all. She keeps smoking, looking me up and down.
“My mom was like you,” I say finally. “She got caught a little over twenty years ago. I know it’s a long shot, but I guess I was wondering if maybe you knew her. She looked kind of like me.”
The woman looks at me for a second, scratching at the base of her neck with one thin hand. There’s a look in her eyes that I don’t have a name for. The thin curls of smoke from her cigarette stretch between us before fading into nothing. “No,” she says finally. “No, I’m sorry. I got caught eight years ago. It would have been before my time.”
I nod, and I try not to let my disappointment show.
“For what it’s worth,” she says gently, “I could tell you were one of us the moment I saw you.”
Something bright and sweet wells up inside me. “Really?”
“Of course,” she says. “You may not have the eyes, but you can always recognize family.”
Another beat of silence. Somewhere far away, a siren wails.
“I’ll help you get your skin back,” I finally say. “If you have any idea where it is, I’ll help you find it.”
She smiles at me again, but it’s the kind of pitying smile you give a stray dog begging for scraps.
“I do appreciate that,” she says softly, “but my skin’s all smoke and ash now, I’m afraid.”
I swallow at the lump in my throat. Of course he would have burned her skin when he caught her. Some men like to keep their shark girl’s skin as a trophy, hide it away in their attacks or beneath their floorboards, but the women have a way of finding it. If you want to keep a shark girl, really keep her, you have to burn it.
“I hope he rots.” The words are out of my mouth before I even realize it, but I mean them.
The woman snorts, a dry ghost of a laugh. “You and me both, but he didn’t burn my skin. I did.”
The cigarette falls from my hand and breaks noiselessly against the pavement.
The woman sighs.
“Joel hid my skin out in the shed behind our house,” she says. “I always figured he burned it, but I finally found it one night three years after I got caught. I’d just had my second baby, and lord knows I couldn’t leave them behind.”
“You burned it,” I say, my voice embarrassingly faint.
“The sea calls to you wherever you are, no matter how hopeless things seem. I knew that if I kept my skin, eventually I wouldn’t have been able to resist going home.” She drops her cigarette onto the pavement next to mine and stubs it out with the toe of her shoe. “Things are different, you know, when you’re a mother.”
No they’re not, a voice inside my head screams. My father burned my mother’s skin. She never told me that exactly, but he must’ve, because if she’d found it, I know she wouldn’t have hesitated. A woman who stabbed her husband to death in his own bed wouldn’t have thrown away her only shot at going home because her ugly, unwanted daughter might have missed her. She would have gone back to the sea and forgotten I ever existed, and I wouldn’t have blamed her for a second.
I suddenly want to hurt this woman, to hit her and grind the smoking ashes of our cigarettes into her face. I know that it’s not her I should be angry at, but I can’t help it. I hate her. I hate her almost as much as I hate myself.
I don’t remember saying goodbye to her. I don’t remember walking back into the restaurant or watching her leave through the windows. Suddenly I’m back inside the diner, and a tourist with peeling cheekbones and bleached hair is screaming at me because her hash browns were undercooked.
I’m back in the car.
I’m back in the car, and there are blue lights flashing in the rearview mirror.
We’re parked at the side of the highway, and uncaring cars hiss past us. I can’t see Mama’s face from the backseat; she’s just sitting there, her hands locked around the steering wheel.
Behind us, an officer gets out of his car and walks towards us.
I hug my legs up to my chest. We left the house so fast that I didn’t have time to get my jacket, and I’m cold.
“Mama,” I say, “Mama, what’s happening–”
Mama twists around in her seat and drops something into my lap. It’s the key to the box we buried, small and silver and already tarnished at the edges.
“You keep this good and safe for me, understand?”
I open my mouth, but she’s out of the car before I can even form the words. The cop is yelling something, but Mama is already sprinting across the highway. A semi blares its horn as it barrels towards her, but it’s too late, it’s too late.
I scream and open the car door, but the asphalt suddenly turns to water beneath my feet, and I’m falling though, sinking into nothing—
As soon as I wake up I get out of bed and sprint to the tiny bathroom that connects our dorm room to our neighbors. I barely make it to the toilet before I vomit. I’m crying so hard that I almost choke before I finish.
There’s a timid knock on the door.
“Una?”Jackie says. “Are you ok?”
I hear her footsteps retreat, and I spit to clear my mouth before flushing. I brush my teeth three times before I can finally stand to look at myself in the mirror. My face is still damp and swollen, and there are huge creases beneath my bloodshot eyes. The key has left little indentations at the base of my throat while I was sleeping. I take it in my hand and run my thumb over the edges. I close my eyes.
The only thing in the time capsule that I can see clearly is the picture I drew: a little stick figure drawing of Mama and me at the beach, waving hello to a group of sharks in the water. I remember drawing them all using a nature encyclopedia from school, copying ten different species onto the blue-crayon scribble of the ocean. I scrawled the word “family” across the top of the page in bright red crayon.
I try to remember everything else we put in the box, really remember it, but none of it amounts to more than a few bright flashes of color and metal, all of it disappearing into the fold of that gray tarp—
No, that’s not right. It wasn’t a tarp. It was a blanket, a big gray blanket, but not a warm or soft one. It must have been one we didn’t want anymore. When it brushed my arm while Mama wrapped everything up, it felt like sandpaper—
For a second, I forget how to breathe.
And then I’m grabbing my keys from off my bedside table, not even bothering to put on my shoes before running out the door.
I haven’t seen the backyard in over ten years. There’s a little swing set in the corner now, ghostly white in the dark, but I don’t care about that. I’m standing on the right side of the porch stairs, staring down at the ground.
For all I know, someone might have already dug it up.
For all I know, the new owners of this house will wake up and see some strange woman standing in their backyard and call the cops.
For all I know, I came here for nothing.
The sea calls to you wherever you are, no matter how hopeless things seem.
I sink to my knees, and I start to dig.
The sky is turning gray in the east by the time I pull the box out of the earth. My fingernails are broken, and my hands burn and shake when I put my key in the lock.
The gray bundle probably only weighs a few pounds, but to me it feels like I’m holding the entire weight of the sky in my lap. I unfold it slowly, taking in what Mama didn’t let me see: the pale underbelly, the ragged dorsal fin, the delicate folds of the gills—
A piece of paper flutters to the ground. I pick it up and unfold it. It’s my drawing, exactly how I remember it.
On the back of it, I see my mother’s shaky handwriting:
You’ll meet them all when we come back, and they’re going to love you almost as much as I do.
The sun is rising, and I’m standing in the ankle-deep surf, my mother’s skin wrapped around my shoulders. The moon has faded to a pale smear in the sky, but I can almost swear I hear singing.
I walk deeper into the water, and the skin begins to fuse to mine, the bones beneath shifting into something greater than the sum of their parts.
I’m up to my neck now, and my mother’s gills, my gills, open and close. Some small part of me wants to turn back one last time and say goodbye to Wilmington, to the jagged teeth of the houses that line the beach. I don’t look back. I keep walking.
The water closes above my head, and I’m alone with the sound of my mother’s heartbeat, the sound of the current that carries me home.
Caroline Diorio‘s work has been published in Joyland, the NoSleep Podcast, Daily Science Fiction, and Flash Fiction Online. She lives in (and is endlessly inspired by) North Carolina.
Photo by Nariman Mesharrafa on Unsplash
Author of “Shark Girls”
What inspired you to write this story?
I was a little girl when I first read about selkies, creatures who are beautiful women on land but seals in the ocean (courtesy of seal skins that they put on whenever they’re ready to go back into the water). The classic selkie story goes a little like this: a man sees a selkie woman sunbathing on the beach. Overcome with desire, he steals her seal skin, making it impossible for her to return home to the ocean. In some versions, the woman sees him steal her skin and begs him to give it back. In others, she doesn’t see him steal it at all, and she believes she’s lost it. Either way, she’s naked, alone, and has nowhere else to go, so she allows the fisherman to take her back to his house. They get married and have a few children, but the woman never stops longing for the sea. Eventually, one of her kids discovers her seal skin from the place where the fisherman hid it all those years ago. The kid brings it to the woman, wondering what it is. The selkie woman takes her skin and immediately returns to the ocean. When I was a kid, I felt so sorry for her family. Now, as an adult, I don’t blame her one bit. I wanted to write my own version of a selkie story that focused on the evil of the husband’s crime, and how it would reverberate through the life of his child. At the same time, I wanted to write a story about a deep, unconditional love between a mother and her daughter, a love that even death can’t conquer.
Why sharks instead of seals? Well, I just think sharks are cool.
What do you hope readers take from this story?
I’m not really sure. If you have a mom that loves you, I hope you find a way to tell her that you love her too.
To give other writers hope, would you mind sharing with us how many edits and/or submissions this story has been through?
My first selkies-with-sharks story was quite a bit different than the one published in Apparition. I submitted it to just about every magazine I could think of, and got rejections from all of them. However, the basic concept of the story was so dear to me that I knew I had no choice but to create a new story for it and try again. This version got a quick edit for typos and such, but that’s about it.
Recommend something to us! This could be a book, a short story, a video game, a project you’ve heard about, something you’re working on, etc. Anything that has you excited and that you want people to know about.
Sometimes I create entire soundtracks for my stories, but the only song that I really ask the readers of “Shark Girls” to listen to is “The Water Cycle” by Panu Aaltio. It’s the song I imagine playing when Una puts on her mother’s skin and takes her first steps into the ocean, and it’s one of the most beautiful songs I’ve ever heard.