Short fiction by Tessa Smith McGovern
This morning I woke at six and couldn’t get back to sleep, so I googled “how to be happy.” According to one article, keeping a daily record of your thoughts is supposed to help. Taking the time to write things down, it said, is a way to find out what you’re really thinking and feeling. So I opened a new Google doc and wrote this:
Those sad selkie stories posted on the Internet are written by the daughters— how sad they are that the mother left, what a terrible person the mother is for wanting to leave. But what about the mothers? What about me?
This houseboat is not my home; the River Thames is not the place where I was born, where I belong. My daughter, a halfling, belongs well enough. She was born on land without a skin eleven years ago. She’s never known the joy of changing into a seal. I love her with all my heart and wish I could be happy here, for her sake. I have tried.
Now I look at the words I wrote and feel guilty. I search again and find a quiz called “How happy are you?” The headline says that 76 percent of quiz takers who practice one of the ten habits of happy people report feeling happier. Worth a go, I suppose.
Question 1: How often do you share your feelings with friends or family? Never. The only people on land who know what I am are my absentee husband and my daughter. Neither of them wants me to leave, and they refuse to talk about it. My husband won’t tell me where he hid my skin, and sometimes I hate him so much I feel like I’ll explode. Last week, when I texted him to ask again, he replied that when Alissa is sixteen, he’ll let me have it back. That’s five years away! If I thought anyone would believe me, I’d report him to the authorities.
Question 2: How often do you do kind things for others? Every day. Every day, I try to be a kind mother and every day I fail. I make breakfast, lunch, and dinner, I nag Alissa to open her homeschool books and get her work done on time, although why she won’t just get on with it I do not understand. I restrict the amount of time she has her cell phone; otherwise, she’d text her friends all night long, and I have restrictions on the TV so she can’t watch mature programming. She says I’m ruining her life. Bottom line, if it weren’t for Alissa, I wouldn’t be trapped. There’s nothing left between her father and me. Once, we were enchanted by each other. After he saved me from drowning in his fishing net, his beautiful face was all I saw in my weeks of delirium. But after my wounds healed, he refused to return my skin. Perhaps he guessed what I would soon find out—I was pregnant. So now I’m sitting in this single berth in the galley, staring through a brass porthole at the river instead of diving and twisting and playing in it. The sun is rising. The tide’s surging in from the North Sea, black ripples lit by shifting rays of light, a flash here, a glint there. It’s mesmerizing. I long to disappear into the waves, to swim downstream to the estuary and beyond, to coves and beaches and cliffs I’ve never seen, but I can’t. Humans drown in the Thames every year, pulled under by the current. This houseboat, a cocoon of wood just seven feet across, will suffocate me one of these days. And sometimes I wonder if it wouldn’t be better for Alissa if I left. Who wants to grow up with a miserable mother?
Question 3: How much time do you spend on social media each day? About four hours. I search forums and post the word “selkie” into search bars compulsively. Nothing ever comes up except for a swimsuit company in London.
Question 4: How often do you do at least twenty minutes of physical exercise? Two or three times a week. Sometimes I can’t get myself off the couch for days at a time, but at other times I feel like running up and down the towpath on the Embankment for hours. Today I woke up with a start, and it hit me that the one place I haven’t looked on this boat for my skin is under the floorboards. Alissa is still asleep in the forward cabin, so I can’t do anything about that at the moment. But maybe, when she wakes up, I’ll send her out for groceries. Then I could look.
Question 5: Do you know what your strengths and virtues are and use them creatively to improve the quality of your life? What the heck does that mean? What’s a strength— a talent? Most of my talents don’t translate to land. In my seal form, I can hunt fish in dark places using my whiskers to sense the movement of their breath. I can hold my breath for more than half an hour. I can swim for hours at a time up to speeds of twelve miles an hour, I can sleep while floating in the water, and, of course, with my skin I can change from seal to human and back again in a flash. As for virtues…I haven’t murdered Alissa’s father. That has to count for something.
Question 6: Do you find a deep sense of fulfilment in your life by using your strengths and skills toward a purpose greater than yourself? Does raising a child count as a greater purpose? I think it must. I’m giving my life for it.
Question 7: Do you have feelings of gratitude toward people and events from your past? I’m grateful to my selkie mother and father for giving birth to me. I know they will have given up on me long ago and will still be grieving the loss of me. That’s the worst thing about not being able to change. Alissa’s father offered to try to get a message to them, but that’s not possible. Selkies know better than to get near humans these days. If I had seen his fishing net, if I hadn’t almost drowned in it, I would have slipped away before he ever saw me.
Question 8: Are you able to focus on the present moment and not get distracted by thoughts of the past or future? No.
Question 9: Do you participate in a spiritual community or group? No, but the hymns from whatever church that is up the riverbank reach us when the wind is in the right direction. If it isn’t too cold, Alissa and I open the porthole to listen. We like that.
Question 10: Do you feel that your life is meaningful (i.e., has an important quality or purpose)? Well, yes. There are lots of ways for humans to be useful to each other, and raising a child is one of them.
The door of the forward cabin opens. I close my laptop. Alissa appears, long, dark hair in tangles, rubbing her eyes sleepily. “Morning, Mum.”
Guilt floods me. How could I think of ever leaving this girl? I love her so much it hurts. I smile and pat the floral cushion next to me. “Come.”
She slides in next to me and lays her head on my shoulder. I smooth her matted hair. It smells clean and powdery, and I think of the quiz question about gratitude for events in the past. I remember the new baby Alissa, asleep on my stomach. We would lie in the forward berth, lulled by the gentle slap of the waves against the hull and the distant calls of the gulls. I’d stare at her for hours while she slept. The tiny eyelashes, the plump cheeks with dark freckles exactly like mine, the soft, jagged fingernails. Was she real? I would touch her tiny arm. She was. Was she? I would wait for her to open her eyes and see me, then pick her up, kiss and smell her neck, her head, as if I could inhale her back into me. I pat her cheek. “Cup of tea?”
She nods, then folds her arms on the table and lays her head on them. Her eyes close.
At the tiny sink, while the kettle fills with water, I tap the BBC iPlayer app on my phone. “Good morning,” says a gentle female voice. “This is the shipping forecast issued by the Met Office on behalf of the Maritime and Coastguard Agency. Today there are warnings of gales in all areas.”
I double-click out of the app and pull the red shade down to shut out the river. Bad weather might be coming, but our ropes are tied securely to the giant cleats on the Embankment. The boat’s not going anywhere. Neither is Alissa. Or me. I can give her five years. I’m not going to send her for groceries and I’m not going to pull up floorboards looking for my skin. It’s probably not there anyhow.