Kisses Like Drops in the Sea
by Ann-Marie Martino
People say their lives are the stuff of fairytales, but mine really was. I've heard it told a thousand times, in a thousand ways, but the most important facts are these: I was not a mermaid, and my love was not a prince—not exactly.
I was the youngest in a family full of daughters. I suspect that my father kept hoping for a son, but what he had instead were six girls.
As the youngest, I was cosseted and kept from anything that could possibly be dangerous. On moonlit nights, when my sisters and my parents swam up onto the beach, shed their sealskins, and frolicked in the waves, I was left behind.
I was sixteen years old, old enough to go ashore with the rest of them, but Mama scolded. Not yet, not yet, she'd whisper into my ear as she tucked me into bed. Remember the stories I've told you.
The stories were all of a similar theme: Humans were evil, base creatures whose very nature leant itself to trickery. A girl on shore could easily come to a very bad end at the hands of one of them.
In spite of the rebellious feeling that swelled my breast at times, I remained a dutiful daughter. I did not creep out of my bed at the bottom of the sea. I did not voice my objections: But, Mama, nothing has ever happened to the others! Or to you!
I never, ever, told anyone my greatest secret: that I longed to see the humans, to take their measure myself, to watch them and learn all the things that made them different from us.
Then, one day, everything changed—on the breath of a storm, the way most changes come.
I was alone when she floated down into the ocean, when she sank like a ship's anchor and landed directly in my bedroom.
I had been warned so thoroughly against humans, but this was just a girl! It was the human men Mama said would steal or burn a skin. This girl looked to be about my age, with fair hair tinted by algae, and eyes that were closed and softened into blurred edges by the rippling water.
I was so busy admiring her great beauty that, for a moment, I forgot that universal truth, right up there with the evilness of men: humans couldn't breathe underwater like I could.
In spite of the knowledge that I held a great advantage, living among the beauty of the ocean and being able to breathe in it, I couldn't stop the envy that flared to life inside me as I stared at her, at her long, shapely legs.
I could hear the storm roaring above, muted by the waves but still audible, the ocean itself a frothing fury. I dipped my head and nudged the girl up onto my nose, then began to swim up, and up.
I didn't know if she would make it. After all, I was only in my sealskin, and she was awkward to carry. A couple of times she nearly slipped away from me, but then I burst out of the ocean and swept my flippers forward, rolling her onto the sand.
The rain poured down, and I think if we hadn't just been in the ocean, we would have been drenched in moments.
She was so beautiful. I think it really only took that one good look at her lying there, rain running down her face like currents in the sea, for me to wish I could stay ashore forever.
I shed my skin and stood up awkwardly, not balancing well at all on the human legs. They actually hurt because I'd never used them before.
I was completely exposed without my sealskin, and I knew that humans always covered their bodies as if ashamed, but this was the first time I had ever slipped my skin and assumed human form.
The first thing I noticed was that it was cold without my skin. My human nipples peaked in the damp, cool air and I glanced down, taking it in: the well-turned ankles, the high, coral-tipped breasts, the slightly curved belly, the strange looking feet.
The girl lay at those queer-looking feet, unmoving as I crouched down and pressed on her chest. I'd never saved anyone from drowning before.
It was foolish and probably did nothing, but I leaned down and touched her lips with mine, breathing into her mouth. It felt like nothing I'd ever felt. It was my first kiss, and it wasn't even a kiss.
Suddenly, she sputtered, water flowing out of the corners of her blue-tinged lips.
I jumped back. Swiftly looking around, I saw remnants of a wreck—perhaps the one that had produced this girl.
There were straggling lengths of scarlet cloth in the water, and without knowing much about human clothes, I tried to cover myself with them. Her eyes were flickering, slowly opening.
How appropriate that her eyes would be the color of the sea where I had been born, where I lived.
"I'm not dead," she whispered in a hoarse croak. I could understand her language, but I'd never spoken it before. "Who are you?" she asked. "Did you save me?"
I nodded. I stepped back a few more paces. By then I was disoriented and had lost all sense of direction. Where had I put my skin? But looking at the girl made me ask myself dangerous questions, such as: does it matter where I put my skin?
Of course it mattered! Angry, I twisted away and tripped over trailing cloth. I flailed and landed in an ungainly heap, all of my human limbs splayed out every which way.
The girl was crawling across the sand towards me.
Her eyes were huge and round, the whites showing like the pearly shade of mollusks.
I shook my head. Too hard. It made me dizzy. The girl reached for me, and I met her eyes.
"What's your name?" she asked.
I shrugged. I didn't know how to speak her language. In fact, I'd never before had the opportunity to hear it aloud. It must have been some sort of inherent magic that allowed me to understand her words, even though I didn't know how to form them myself with this newly human mouth. Like a baby, condemned to silence until I could learn.
I was supposed to have gone up to the surface to see the humans when I turned fifteen—and would have heard their language then—but my mother had not allowed it. Perhaps she had worried this might happen, this strange magnetic pull toward the unknown.
"Ah," she said. "It's all right. I can call you anything you like. How about Mariah? Or Grace—?" When I shook my head at the second name, she smiled. "Can you write? You could—no, I guess you probably can't. Do you have any objection to Mariah?"
I shook my head again, this time offering a tentative smile. My selkie-name could only be spoken in the musical trumpeting of our kind—not by a human. I'd never had occasion to be given an above-shore name because of my Mama's restrictions. Grace was something I'd never possessed, hence my objection, but the first name she'd given me sounded lovely, and I wanted it.
It made me feel lovely, though I had absolutely no idea what I looked like in this form.
"I should... you look half-drowned. Won't you come back with me? My home is up there, on the bluffs. You can't really see it from here, but I want my parents to meet the girl who rescued me." She shrugged one shoulder and gave a diffident little laugh. "They always said I'd wreck my boat someday."
I nodded, but I was searching for my skin with my peripheral vision. If I had lost it—if I couldn't find it again—I could never go home.
Then she was staggering to her feet, and though she had nearly drowned, she had the strength to pull me to my own.
"My name is Alera," she said, linking her arm through mine. "You can visit with us awhile, I think. Are you poor? Do you have any parents? Are you sure you can't talk?" The barrage of words came almost too fast, like an approaching riptide.
I shook my head and, without a way to speak a word, I found myself towed up a set of steps hewn out of the rock and up to Alera''s house.
'We shall be the best of friends," Alera said. But she and I would both learn—and soon—that it would be far more than that.
If I had known about the heartbreak that was coming, I would've gone back into the sea.
* * *
"This girl rescued me," Alera told her mother. "I think… she needs a place to stay for awhile."
This wasn't strictly true, but I had found no way to dissuade her and, in all honestly, didn't particularly want to. I wanted to be near her, even though it was the height of madness.
"Well…" her mother said, drawing out the word. "Is this one of your sailing friends?"
Alera nodded, too quickly, I thought. "Yes! Yes. Her parents are very poor. Couldn't we provide shelter for her for awhile?"
"Is there work she can do? We can't just let every peasant live with us, you know."
"For me, Mama? But couldn't we, just for me?"
"Your father has always had a tender spot for you," her mother said in concession. "I don't suppose he's going to turn her away, not if you want her here. But doesn't she speak?"
"Uh," Alera fumbled, but recovered. "Not anymore. There was a terrible trauma."
I was beginning to think the only trauma I had suffered was to be taken away from my home, but Alera still had that shine of newness to her, and I wasn't quite ready to go back down underwater.
"Then I guess it's settled," her mother said with a definite sigh. "Just make sure you clear it with your father."
"Of course I will," Alera said happily, linking her arm through mine and pulling me away.
I let myself be tugged along. Right then, there was nothing that could make me try to pull away from her.
* * *
The first thing Alera did once we were alone in the castle was yank me down a side corridor, toss aside a tapestry, and lead me into a room dominated by a huge, full-length mirror.
"This is the only mirror like this in the manor," she explained. "Papa doesn't like his 'womenfolk', as he calls us, to grow too accustomed to our looks. He's afraid that we'll—me, mostly—" she laughed "—become vain. But I sneak in here whenever I can. Not, you know, because I'm actually vain. It's because I know it irks him." She giggled behind one pale, well-formed hand. I could already say with certainty that her beauty deserved a little bit of vanity, even if it wasn't something to be prized.
I smiled at her, as if I understood, but I didn't, not really. Why would she want to irk the man who gave her everything she seemed to want?
"Here, take a look. I'd wager you've never seen yourself up close."
I shook my head in the negative. I wanted to tell her that I had never even been human before, but there was just no way to communicate that to her. Still, somehow she'd already surmised that I was curious about my appearance.
She moved to the side and I stepped forward, letting the image in front of me wash over me, trying to take it all in.
I wore a long yellow-silk dress, and my hair was dressed with flowers. All of that was Alera's doing, of course.
But what she couldn't do was give me the milky-cream complexion I had, or the peach tint to my lips, or the length of my lashes as they fluttered with my surprise.
I had thought Alera beautiful, but I had never considered I might rival her in looks. It was strange, to see this lovely creature standing there and know that she was looking back at me. That she was me.
I closed my eyes and wavered on my feet. It was too much to absorb. I had come to this place looking only to be in Alera's shadow, and now I saw, abruptly, that I could hide in no one's shadow.
I tightened my arms around myself and turned around. I didn't need this incredible beauty, though I suspected it came from being an enchanted creature. Hadn't the stories Mama told me at night always consisted of great beauties and magic?
"I'm sorry," Alera said, sensing somehow that I was more upset than pleased by my physical form. "I just wanted… but it was stupid. Come on, I'll show you my room."
I tried to strike the images from my mind, to concentrate on Alera's friendly, cheerful chatter, but part of me couldn't help but reflect on it.
What if the fact that I was beautiful made someone take notice, helped them figure out what I was? What then?
* * *
It seemed someone found my skin at some point, because several days after being made an unofficial prisoner in Alera's home—I wasn't, not really, but since I couldn't ask to leave, I might as well have been—a man from the fishing village brought it to the house—the great manor, which was more like a medieval castle than anything.
"A selkie-skin!" he cried, holding it up for Alera's father to see. Alera's eyes immediately tracked to mine. She knew—I think. But then, didn't she know that I might have family waiting for me? My poor mother. I was her youngest child—and I was missing. After all those warnings, had I fallen prey to humans, just as she always feared?
Was it trickery that led Alera to bring me here?
"Nonsense," said a man sitting at the great table with Alera's father, dipping his meat into his trencher and lifting it to his mouth. "'Tis naught but a seal-skin. Common enough." He gave a queer look to the man holding it, as if suggesting he had poached it from the lord—Alera's father.
"But perhaps..." Alera's father said. "Leave it with my wife Madeira. Just in case someone—or something—comes looking for it."
Was it my imagination, or did his eyes land on me, if only for the briefest second?
The man frowned. "Do you not think we should burn it? Whoever it is... they could easily lure one of our daughters away."
Alera laughed, too loud. "But Papa! Selkies are just myths."
He scowled at her. "Not to the men that fish these waters," he said, clear warning in his voice. Alera subsided, but not before she gave me a helpless look under her lashes.
"It's time you retired," he told her. "Take your friend to the bedchamber prepared for her and blow the candles out, both of you."
But with my skin in the hands of a human, I couldn't rest, and Alera must have known it. For the first time—but not the last, no, never the last—she snuck into my chamber.
"I wish you could tell me your real name, Mari," she whispered as she tucked her nightgown around her legs and slid into bed with me. "I'll get it back, I swear I will."
I smiled at her in the darkness. She was half in shadow, but the moon silvered one side of her face and glinted like metal in her hair. She snuggled into the bed, her arms pulling me into her embrace.
It could have been strange, when her lips met mine for the second time, and in a fevered darkness we learned each other's mouths. I could tell she hadn't been kissed much either, and so we taught each other, even as the castle quieted down and creaked as it settled, like old bones.
* * *
Of course, I still felt guilty about leaving my underwater home and my family, but… what was one last young, silly daughter? Silly enough to get herself kidnapped willingly by nothing more than a teenage human girl?
I had been in Alera's home for months, and in all that time there wasn't a single murmur of someone searching for a missing girl, and I began to feel abandoned. As if Alera knew it, she started spending even more time with me.
We'd go down to the ocean, and she'd sift through the pretty shells and make little necklaces of them. She'd put them on me, and proclaim, "Perfect! It really goes with your skin."
Late nights would find us curled in each other's arms like two lengths of seaweed braided together, impossible to separate. I think Alera was unsure, though, because we hadn't kissed since that first night she crept into my chamber.
Despite that, we'd wrap up in each other and sleep that way, as if neither she nor I could sleep without clinging as tight as a barnacle.
* * *
There were times, too, that she took me out on her boat—the new one her father had commissioned for her. Not for the first time, I thought Alera was spoiled by being given everything she asked for—including me.
The part of me that felt wanted, desired, didn't mind. That part of me was the traitor to everything I'd grown up knowing, but I couldn't just push it aside.
On her boat, I'd sometimes feel the strong pull of the water, like the song of the whales, the tune one I couldn't quite recall anymore. I'd lean over the edge, so tempted to dive in—but without my skin, I knew it would mean my death.
As if Alera knew this, we went sailing less and less, even though it meant she spent much more time on land, away from the boat she loved.
I sometimes suspected that Alera wanted to be a part of the sea as much as I wanted to be a part of the land. Or her land, at least.
* * *
I'd mastered my human legs. Alera had even spent a few hours for several days teaching me to dance, which was something I wasn't exactly born to.
Which was how we found ourselves, six months after I'd left home, in the arbor surrounded by roses and apple trees, swaying gently to music only Alera could hear.
She began to sing, and held me so close I felt impossibly free, as if her embrace were nothing more than the ocean's kiss on my skin.
After awhile, Alera slowed the pace and though we kept turning, kept moving just so slowly now, she stopped singing and said,
"I don't know where they're keeping it. But I will find out."
I closed my eyes and inhaled the scent of fresh apples, of cut grass, of sweet roses. It reminded me of everything about Alera that I found so fascinating.
In her arms, blind to my surroundings, she surprised me with the kiss. It was warm, and soft, and felt like peaches against my lips—yet another human thing that I had learned to love in my time on the surface.
She kissed me sweetly, as though we would always remember it and it should be the best it could be, and I followed her lead in that just the same as I followed her steps in the dance.
Finally, I opened my eyes and tugged myself away, just a bit, breathless. I don't know what Alera saw in my eyes, but she closed hers and a tear ran down her cheek.
"My father has settled it with a local baron. I am to marry his son." She glanced up and met my gaze squarely. "I'll get your skin back, and you can go home."
And just like that, our perfect dance, our sublime kiss, was over.
* * *
Alera began to avoid me after that; at least, it appeared that way. I saw her less often during the day, which left me nothing to do but gaze at the sea and miss... well, I ought to have missed my family, but it was the sea that called to me more than anything.
Guilt followed me around like a persistent school of fish, the guilt that I had somehow pushed Alera away; guilt that I did not even miss my family; guilt that I yearned to be back in the water, amongst the fish and the other selkies.
It was at night, however, that it became most apparent that Alera was, like I, longing for something—someone—else. She ceased coming to my chamber. I tossed, and I turned, and I missed her fiercely; she, it seemed, wanted only her baron's son and not the pathetic sea-creature she'd taken into her home.
Did she regret it? Those times when I was restless, I asked myself this question over and over.
The only times I saw her now were at meals, when her father kept us seated far apart at the long table.
He never spoke a word to me, but I could not help but wonder: did he know?
* * *
As Alera's wedding drew closer, she slowly crept back into my life. There were no kisses, no embraces, no secretive, furtive touches—but she must have been anxious about her upcoming nuptials, because she began to seek me out again.
I had known we were friends, and now it was obvious it was so. Perhaps it was nothing more than that, though she was careful never to say anything that might injure my feelings.
I was lying in bed, tossing and turning, unable to sleep in this incredibly dry place. I'd thought I wanted all the surface had to offer, but now all I wanted was my home. With Alera being so distant, I could not even hold to her as if I had reason to stay here.
But as I twisted again in my bed, a sliver of light broke the darkness in my chamber. Moments later, Alera was stealing blankets and drawing her knees up against my belly.
"I couldn't sleep," she said, her voice a glad sound in my ears.
Her feet were cold, and I wondered what time it was. It must have been late, if she'd walked all the way here and the fires had gone out.
"Don't be so dramatic," she whispered. "My feet are fine." She had read my mind, like she so often seemed to do. She raised her arms and settled them over my shoulders, her hands working through my hair. "I am nervous. I don't want to get married yet."
She didn't recoil when I kissed her shoulder, so I closed my eyes and inhaled her sweet fragrance, the one that was so very different from anything else my nose had come across.
"I knew you'd be here," she said sleepily. "I don't like to think of life without you. Please say you'll come with me to my new home."
I held her gaze, and she smiled.
"I knew it."
* * *
I'd finally begun to think I'd fallen in love with her the first moment she opened her eyes and trained them on me, but now I was pretty sure I loved her with my whole heart. Since that night, things had settled back into a rhythm; I frolicked with her during long summer days and she held me till I slept in those equally long, sweaty summer nights.
If she was worried about her wedding or her baron's son, she didn't mention it again; foolishly, I believed it would last forever.
So when she brought my skin to me, my heart sank like broken timber in the ocean. Did she not return my feelings? I'd thought the kisses, the illicit nights in each other's arms said otherwise... but had I read everything all wrong? I knew nothing about humans. I could be so easily led astray.
She was marrying a local baron's son. The whole thing was mysterious. Why grant me her kisses, if she loved someone else? Hadn't she asked me to go along when she married and moved out? What did this mean?
I remembered about the time Alera had stopped sailing as much. I had questioned how she felt about me then. Now I questioned it even more. Could I have been wrong about Alera the whole time? Maybe she had only ever wanted me for practice.
"I've got it back, see," she said, and held my skin out to me. I could not tell if this was a kindness—or an attempt to send me away, out of her home for good. I didn't know if she knew it, but legend said that if I left her now, I wouldn't be able to see her again for seven years. Would she even wait that long? Did she want to wait that long?
That question assumed she did love me, a fact of which I was quite uncertain.
I shook my head. I lowered my face so she couldn't see the anguished expression on it.
If she gave me that skin, I would slip back into it and disappear into the ocean forever. I couldn't fight that, no matter how much I loved her.
Worse, I didn't know if I loved her enough to try to fight it. I missed the ocean with the keenness of a knife's edge, and staying ashore, even for Alera, might be more than I could bear.
"It's all right," she said, though, laying it carefully on her bed. She came over and kissed me gently. "I know you have to go."
This girl, who lived like a princess and had been not only my friend but so much more, could not possibly just say good-bye.
I held out my hands, the invitation clear that she should take them. She gazed at my palms for long moments.
"I can't," she said finally, and I let my hands drop to my sides.
So she did love her baron's son. She didn't want me after all. I had been nothing more than a plaything.
She went on, as if she read the uncertainty, the tragedy, on my face.
"I'd drown, Mariah, you know that." The name she'd given me all those months ago suddenly sounded even more foreign. Inappropriate and broken-edged and wrong.
I shook my head and reached for her again.
"Take it," she said. "Go home, where you belong."
The words might have been harsh, if not for the sparkle of tears in her eyes.
I ran to her, wrapping her in my arms and letting my own tears dampen her shoulder. When she disentangled herself, I put my palms on her cheeks and kissed her for as long as I could. It was almost like being back underwater, without the need to breathe air.
Then I was gasping, reminded that I was in human form right now.
Alera was breathing just as hard, her heartbeat ringing in my ears. She touched my face. There was a kind of desperation in her eyes.
"You don't understand, Mari. I don't have a choice. I have to marry him. Papa would be so angry if he knew... If he knew the truth about me, he'd turn on me. I know it seems like he's always given me everything… but this is the only thing he's ever insisted I do."
I was not entirely sure what she meant. It didn't seem strange, to me, to love a girl. But she seemed to be saying that there was something inherently wrong with it. It all began to look so bleak. I could take my skin and go back to the ocean, alone. But that would doom Alera to her marriage—a marriage she didn't seem to want.
She stared hard into my eyes, as if she knew what I was thinking. I think she must have known. We'd been so close, after all.
"I trust you," she said only.
In that moment, I knew what we had to do. We couldn't be separated, and I knew also that I would give up the whole world—the entire ocean, too—to make her happy, even if it was the last thing I did.
I grabbed both of her hands next and pulled her to me. I didn't get my skin. I didn't get anything but the girl I loved. I would go home—I would take her with me—and we'd be together, there at the end.
I left my skin on her bed, and I turned to face her. We walked down to the ocean together, the sunrise turning the water molten shades of pink and green and gold; one foot in front of the other we went, my eyes never leaving hers and hers fixed on mine.
When the water was deep enough to be lapping at our lips, I lapped at hers, then thought, We'll take our last breaths together, and fused my mouth to hers. As if she read my mind, she didn't pull away.
We ducked under, and kissed until there was no breath left. The current tugged at us, as if trying to pull us apart, but she held fast to my waist and I kept her in my arms. Nothing was going to take her away from me.
But then something strange happened. Light filtered into the water all around us, like the tentacles of a jellyfish.
I felt my human legs slowly changing, and when I peeked downwards, Alera's were too. I kissed her harder. I knew instinctively that if I stopped kissing her too soon, it would all be over—and we would die.
And then I flipped the length of my brand-new tail, and let Alera go, except for her hands.
I wasn't really a mermaid, not exactly. But the tales that have grown up around my story call me 'the little mermaid', which isn't quite true.
I was the first mermaid. Alera was the second. I never understood why it happened, or how; there must have been some magic in me—in us—beyond that of a simple selkie. If my mother knew the truth of it, if that was the reason she'd always kept me close to home, she never said.
And, as they say in these things, Alera and I lived happily ever after, in a new home, together.
* * *
Ann-Marie Martino attended Emerson College and graduated with a B.F.A. in Creative Writing. She lives alone in Connecticut and enjoys writing both poetry and fiction. She is currently at work revising her first novel.
What inspires you to write and keep writing?
I write because sometimes, I have a really great idea and I just have to be able to put it down on paper (or in this case, screen). I keep writing because of the sense of accomplishment every time I finish something. It's important to me to have a portfolio of stories that I can point to and say, "I did that." The feeling that I've made something--that's a great feeling. There aren't many that compare to it.