Merry-Go-Round the Tides

by Gwendolyn Karpierz

“Better hurry up, or the tide will go out without you.”

So I said it bitterly. I’ve never been shy about saying what I mean, and Lia brought that out worse in me. Sweet—sweet, ha—Lia, a rising tide I had no chance in hell or the deep, deep ocean of surviving.

I didn’t even like the ocean before Lia. Yeah, you can’t live on the coast of Ireland and hate it or you’ll go crazier, but it was just another backdrop—wind and salt and rocks and an incessant crashing. First the noise keeps you up at night. Then you tune it out and you only notice when it’s gone.

Since Lia, that crashing’s half lullaby and half funeral dirge. And it’s never, ever gone.

#

Say what you will about the ocean, it knows how to give up its dead. That’s what I looked for, picking my way through black rocks and slick pebbles. Driftwood, mostly—my grandad taught me whittling when I was a girl, and I needed something to do with it. I filled up my house with wooden animals, then decided I needed a project more substantial than a few hours.

So now I was building a carousel, and I was building it out of Ireland.

I didn’t have a forest out back, but I did have the ocean. The sea remembers some things, and sometimes it gives a few of them back.

Mostly I got scraps from the shoreline, but they made accents just fine: clacking wooden wind chimes, stiff barding and frilly reins, insets for eyes and hooves, little birds to peck around the molding. I worked with driftwood and seashell. Once a crab carapace that washed up in a tangle of fire-orange legs.

And then one day I thought to try bone.

Bones come ashore all the time. Like I said, the sea’s not shy about her dead. I used to throw them back, figuring it better than a restless end in Ireland’s cold coastal wind. I imagine there must be some peace at the bottom of the sea.

Maybe it was a selkie bone I found that day, and thought felt too right beneath my fingertips to throw back to its rest. Selkies are magic all the way down to their bones, or how else could they change inside their sealskins and out—rearranging their skeletons to be people or seals. Of course I didn’t expect it. My belief in fairies was passing fancy some days and others a strange sort of obligation, like you can’t move to Ireland and not believe in them. I might’ve told you that was ridiculous, once, if you pointed it out to me, but that was before Lia.

Right, Lia.

It wasn’t her bone, of course. It wasn’t her magic I used.

But she came for it. She came for it all the same.

#

I never could send it back with her. I never even tried. By the time she was leaving, she’d almost forgotten why she came at all. So I just stood with her framed in my doorway and said to her, “Better hurry up, or the tide will go out without you.” She didn’t move, just looked at me with those rueful dark-kelp eyes of hers.

“That means, in case I’m not being clear, go if you’re going.”

She was waiting for something and I thought it was the bones the sea had given me, so I uncrossed my arms and spread them wide and added, “You aren’t taking them. They’re mine now.” I hated the way my voice broke and softened when I finished, but it did. “I can’t keep you, so I might as well keep her.”

“And I wish you all the joy of her,” she said scathingly. “Maybe the wood’ll be better than the real thing.” I could tell she didn’t feel like sassing—but Lia, Lia had spent more time under the sea than she’d ever spend with me, and down there they know nothing but shrouding darkness and go deeper. Sometimes she still hid things behind murky masks, sometimes she forgot I wasn’t one of… her.

I wasn’t a selkie. I wasn’t a fairy. And I didn’t belong underwater like time could never have me. I’m quite taken with time. Time rolls forward, takes you out of puberty, high school, bad jobs, and bad memories. Takes you into new places, takes you to new people. Brings you someone like Lia.

Takes her away again.

Alright, so I don’t always approve of what time does. I understand why she tried to hold me. I might’ve tried too, if she was the kind who could die and I was the kind who could stop her. Didn’t mean I liked the way she tried it.

I liked what she did after even less, the leaving. But she wore her selkie sealskin like a cape, and she already knew I didn’t want her to go.  So I didn’t say it again. I just stared at her until she turned around and left.

Tide comes in. Tide goes out. Except I can’t say if this tide’s ever coming back.

#

I found the bone first thing. It looked just like any other bone. A rib, curved and slender. I didn’t know what it belonged to, so I carved out a seal from a block of wood and laid its spots with ivory from the sea.

A rib doesn’t make too many pieces, just slivers of bone so thin I thought I might break them by breathing on them. I shaved them into rings and freckles that I set into sleek wood like puzzle pieces. Carving relaxes me. It’s a different kind of rhythm than mucking out stalls. Hard works makes me calm, but standing in the middle of a paddock with my hands etching away at ragged wood, the sun bleeding down from the clouds, looking out over the carousel that I built up from the ground while curious horses watch me—that’s peaceful in a way that wearing yourself out doesn’t match.

My seal already looked like it—she—had been swimming for weeks by the time I hefted her down to the carousel. I painted everything with weather-proof colors, but the Irish coast has a lot of wind for weathering. I liked it that way—it’s why I built the carousel outside, in one of my fallow fields. Sure it breathed that saline wind, but at least it was breathing.

I could see it, too, when I twisted the pole through the hole in my wooden seal’s arced back. I could see her breathing in the wind that danced around us, smelling like salt and fish and things you don’t know. I carved her post into the long spiraling shape of a turritella shell. It tapered to a stake that drove through her center, giving her a heart, something to fill the emptiness in the middle of her so she could stand against that wind.

She may’ve been set with bone, but she was no dead thing needing a place to rest. Her coat, painted a chocolate so deep I could taste the cocoa in it, was speckled with sprays of misting rain that might as well have been left by the sea. And she moved, muscles flexing beneath hardwood coat.

No, she moved. It wasn’t the illusion of rippling fur and curving flanks created by my artistic touches and the weather. She was really moving. I mean it, moving.

I didn’t believe it for a second. For several seconds. But I couldn’t deny it—she was arcing and gliding, rolling sideways in place, twisting and writhing

And her movements became desperate wriggling in place. All of a sudden my seashell pole wasn’t support—it was a pin through a butterfly in a shadowbox, and I’d driven its point through the living creature with my own two hands. I swore incoherently, scared out of my mind. I grabbed the pole, ready to yank it out. Instead, I pushed.

There was nothing mechanical in my carousel, but it turned. The seal, she surged forward with the others, leaping and undulating like some wild thing. She wasn’t wood at all—except when she came around again and I put my hand on her side, her coat was nothing but sanded timber and enamel and paint.

The carousel coasted to a stop, and I sat down on the edge of it and stared. Not really at anything. Just sort of stared, trying to screw my head on straight. I jumped six feet straight up when something brushed my leg—but it was only Theseus, my favorite of the barn cats. I grabbed him and squeezed like I hadn’t since I was a girl. He squirmed and bit me, and I let him go feeling like it was all right to breathe again.

And the seal, she creaked and writhed, pinned in place amidst the lifeless wooden animals I had carved before her. I hauled the post back out of her, and she just flopped at my feet, pathetic in a way that made me sick and sad, a fish—a seal—out of water. Like once she had a heart, I couldn’t take it back.

Maybe I should’ve thrown her into the sea. Let her have that whole wide grave of freedom after all. But I’m a bit selfish. Protective of things that are mine. You grow up with a younger brother, you grow that way, determined to keep ahold of things so your kid brother doesn’t take them.

And anyway, if I’d done that, Lia never would’ve come.

So I stood the seal back up, with her seashell-pillar heart, and gave the carousel another shove. And another. And another. It turned, and the seal kept swimming, somehow free in salt air instead of brine.

I tried to sleep that night, but the carousel couldn’t turn on its own. I just lay there in bed next to Theseus—the fattest and craftiest of yellowing old toms, always the first barn cat inside at night—and I thought I could hear it. The carousel. Running out of momentum. The seal fighting to go forward.

So I got a torch, blankets, and all my fairy books. I went down and sat beneath the canopy of my carousel. I’d carved the cresting with all my favorite Irish myths. Macha racing the king’s horses, heavily pregnant with twins. Emer berating Cú Chulainn out of sickness. Lugh’s horse Enbarr, who could cross the land and the water. Underneath all the stories I knew already, I read and read, ’til all the pictures were water-spotted and all the pages wrinkled and wavy. I didn’t find anything about bones that brought carvings to life, but there was plenty else.

I read ’til I was hardly awake, cradled by wind and tide and that saline chill that tells you you’re alive, even when it feels like a dream. And every time the carousel slowed, dragged towards a standstill, I got up and pulled it around and around, until momentum kept us spinning again.

#

“Why a carousel?” Lia asked me when she was still new to my shore, when I was still staring at every motion she made as she walked around the merry-go-round. She swayed like self-contained liquid, but her steps were short, a little wobbly. She crouched and watched the carousel roll by, then caught at the sealskin she wore like a cape and turned rueful eyes on me so I remembered she’d asked me a question.

“You move like you’re on the water,” I said instead of answering.

Her lips quirked. “In the water,” she corrected, then stood. “Permanent sea legs. Why a carousel?”

I stepped up onto the spinning base, grabbing the swimming seal’s post for balance. I leaned up against the side of her, tucking my hip into the curve of the wooden body and watching Lia stand still while I sailed a circle away. “My mom never let me ride them as a girl,” I said as I came back around. Lia’s gazed followed the seal’s movement with a sad-eyed look of disgust. I held out my hand as I passed her, but she let me go by like she didn’t notice. I lifted an eyebrow and then curled my hand back up to fold it across my chest.

“And?” she said.

I walked against the carousel’s rotation to keep my eyes on her. I still could hardly take them off her, all those freckles and curves, like a gravel shoreline. “What d’you mean, ‘and’? And now I ride it whenever I want. There’s no and.”

“You can tell me the rest of it.” Her lips quirked upward, smugly, like she knew she was smarter than me.

I jumped down. “If there was more for saying, I’d say it. It’s not a secret. Look.” I presented my hand again, half just because I wanted to touch her. Make sure she was still real, real as she’d been yesterday when she’d come glittering with salt out of the sea. “Come up. I’ll get to hold your hand and you’ll get to see that the pleasure of riding round on a carousel’s reason enough to make it.”

Lia’s eyebrows twitched higher and I thought she bit her tongue on a grin. “It takes more cunning than that to hold my hand—”

“I’m not cunning.”

“—and besides.” All suggestions of a grin went away, and her face was left still and grey as a windless ocean. “I won’t touch that thing.”

My hand dropped, muscles going stiff. “I made that thing.”

She didn’t answer, crouching down so the version of Theseus I’d just finished carving trotted right by her eyes. “This one’s your favorite,” she said. She had one palm out, inches back, letting Theseus pass without touching him.

“Yes.” I felt a little sick, remembering carving him. Sickly cold blood and a smell like you can’t believe. And he was my favorite. “How do you know?”

“Magic,” she said, and flicked her bright gaze to me. “This one has magic.”

“They all do,” I said pointedly. This wasn’t really true—I had a horse or two, boneless, who only moved with the usual lurching wave of most carousel critters. “Or except for the old ones. But if they move, they’ve got magic.”

“No.” Lia shook her head and stood up again, backing away from my carousel. “They all move. But only that seal and your grumpy old cat have magic.”

#

I needed something to make my carousel spin all by itself. I couldn’t stand out there turning it all day. And I couldn’t let my seal—my seal, which I’d brought to life with my hands and some gift from the sea—struggle on in stillness alone.

So I bought a motor, and after I got that working, it was all experimenting. I whittled little things, birds and fairies and grasshoppers and your like, and they didn’t do anything but amuse Theseus, who liked to bat them across the floor like they had come to life. I got nothing more until I hunted back up the bones from the sea.

The next was a little dog with bone-sliver fur, who jerked her head like she was barking and tried to run when the carousel was still. She cavorted and bounced and grinned back at me when it spun. Then I spent two and a half months on a whale, setting splintery jawbone-baleen into his yawning mouth.

He wasn’t full-size, that whale, but he was big enough for two. Lia and I proved it, once I’d finally talked her into climbing aboard. We reclined against each other while the carousel turned and my hand-carved menagerie leapt around us. She ran broad toes around the whale’s blinking eye in a sloppy circle. Her fingers and toes were all like that, short and webbed, robbing her of some of her ocean’s grace. She didn’t like it, and made another circle, determined to find some fine motor skills in there.

Then she said, “I wonder if I knew him.”

“Can’t you tell by looking at him?”

“Oh yes, he’s the exact size and shape he would be underwater. I’m just terrible at faces.”

I grinned and shifted against her so I could keep whittling. I’m not good at having idle hands. I could’ve just filled them with Lia, with her slick masses of hair, with her bare shoulders and sleek-muscled arms and hips. It was all tempting. “Don’t have room for a whole whale on my carousel.”

“Mm. Maybe you need a bigger carousel.” She started making knots in her hair, like she always did when she thought she wasn’t graceful enough and wanted to practice. Her fingers made messes of her hair, but her hair was always storm-tied anyway. A few more knots hardly made a difference. “He could’ve seated my whole family, if you’d done him right.”

“Family, huh?” I brushed wood-dust off the tines of the comb I was whittling and twisted it into her knots. The comb was rough and unsanded. I imagined if she took it to sea with her, it’d be smooth someday.

“Family. Haven’t you heard of it? I’ve two sisters myself. Two sisters, two parents, some estranged cousins. You know. The usual.”

I don’t have any estranged cousins.”

“How do you know? They’d be estranged. You wouldn’t have heard of them.”

“Brother’s a historian. He’s all about family history. No estranged cousins.”

She nestled against me, abandoning her knots. “Well if you did have some, they wouldn’t fit on the back of your whale. So I guess it’s good you don’t, eh?”

#

It was near on two years I passed bringing my carousel to life whenever Ireland’s waters sent bones my way. When you live all alone, with cats and horses—who are good company, but don’t know much about human manners—you go a little feral, forget that you can’t always have your way. I took feralness almost into madness by the time Lia came. Two years without her, going wild, and scant months with her, being hardly less. Always demanding my way. I was wild when she left.

But she didn’t even arrive until after Theseus died.

I had an inconsistent herd of cats inhabiting my barn, and sometimes I saw them and sometimes I didn’t. But Theseus was the one I always counted on to leave his passel of feline lovers and warm my bed. Any night without him, then, was too many.

I went walking, and I found him, half ripped open, half eaten by something. I found him by the crows perched on my paddock fence, cawing victory to grey sky as their fellows chewed on my cat’s insides.

A flash of yellow fur and scarlet ran like a rare Irish sunset between black-feather silhouettes. That was the second my throat froze up and my heart got a little jittery. Then I charged straight at them, and the crows launched into an apocalyptic cloud of indignation.

I shouted back at them, wordless wildness as I gathered up the tattered bits of my cat. He was cold and stiff already, and there was hardly anything left inside of him.

Except for bones.

#

Lia’s a stranger to death. She lives in a fairy place, with a wall of sea-glass between herself and the predatory ocean. She belongs to endless summer. The day she realized I was going to die was a long one; I didn’t get a word out of her for hours. She just followed me around while I mucked the stables and fed the chickens, and stood in silence watching me carve. Well, before things got drastic, anyhow, and she tried to keep me from the death on that distant horizon. She wasn’t used to the idea of losing.

Me, I was plenty used to it. I’d lost cats and horses and family, too. But I never liked it.

#

I carried Theseus—what was left—back to the barn. I’m fair sure I was shaking. The horses snorted and fidgeted themselves near to sweating at the smell of us. Dio kicked his stall door when I passed. I didn’t even yell at him. There’s a difference between seeing death and holding it in your hands, and it was getting to me. I breathed shallowly, trying not to taste the iron and salt scents of dying that were all over my hands, but they were making me sick all the same.

I nearly dropped him in the empty stall where I did my carving, but managed to settle him properly on the straw. I wanted it all to stop there, feeling afraid of the way I was shaking like seafoam in a storm, but it wasn’t going to do me any good.

My tools were all around me, chisels and saws and lathes and all the things that brought animals to life from wood. I thought of the little yapping dog. Somebody’d lost that pup and I’d saved her, after a fashion. There wasn’t a reason I shouldn’t save my own cat, too.

I grabbed the nearest chisel and drove it into the mess of my cat. I should’ve stopped thinking of him as my cat then, since he wasn’t more than bones and blood with some fur left in, but I still was, and that made it worse. The chisel blade hit a rib, cracking it away from the spine. It was sticky with blood but I yanked it out, then had to turn aside to throw up. I had a rib, I could’ve stopped—I’d made a seal with just a rib, after all. But it didn’t seem like enough for him. It was this strange obligation, I couldn’t have much explained it, but I splintered another rib away, spraying myself with something slithery and red. And then the next, and the next, and I laid them out in a cracked mockery of a cage on the dusty gold straw.

I thought that was maybe all I needed, his ribs to protect his heart. But Theseus was the craftiest cat I ever knew, and it seemed he might need his head, too.

I cut myself trying to slice enough skin and muscle away to get Theseus’s skull without taking his head off. I wasn’t crying; I’d gone too numb. But I threw up at least twice more.

The Irish rain washed the blood off me and the bones. I didn’t eat anything, or sleep hardly any, until I had Theseus carved up and posted in the carousel. I don’t know how long that was. His fur was the streaky yellow of marmalade, his tabby stripes made of his own bones, feathered with orange-gold paint. His claws were bone, too, and the whites of his eyes. And there were strips of it beneath the surface, pieced under sections of wood to form solitary ribs, a half a skull, bits of him he needed and nobody but me could see.

His post was embellished all the way up with butterflies and dandelions. I twisted it through him and nigh on collapsed when I had him back, had Theseus chasing little wings around the carousel again.

That was it. That was the moment Lia came out of the sea.

#

I was delirious. I was shaking. I thought she had to be some Irish goddess come out of the water for me and my carousel.

There was no chance in any hell of mistaking her for some regular swimmer arrived up off the beach. She was all glittering curves and salt streaks, and she was naked but for freckles and a tumble of night-azure hair striped with seal greys. She smiled to see me staring and swept up the mottled material trailing from one hand, swinging it across her shoulders like a cape as she climbed the grassy hill.

I blinked at her and said very carefully, “What the fuck.”

She stopped in front of me, an eyebrow cocked, and said, as saucily as anyone could, “Too soon.”

I sat down on the edge of the carousel. Except I forgot it was still turning and hit it awkwardly, landing in the wet grass instead. I blinked real slow, trying to clear blurring vision and the soreness around my eyes. It didn’t work.

She crouched a few feet away, the ocean trickling off her just to be replaced with cold Irish mist. “Long night?” she asked, voice like sand over hidden rocks—soft and thick and broad across her brazenness. “Not to be rude but—”

“I look like roadkill,” I said, watching water trace the muscles in her arms. “What are you?”

Her webbed fingers gathered up a fold of her cape, stroking chocolate spots in silvery fur. “I’m Líonadh,” she said. “The rising tide.”

“Is that some kind of title?”

“No.” She looked away from my haggard eyes and frizzing, unwashed hair, canting her gaze toward the carousel. “It’s just what it means. My name. But I like it.”

“Do I have to ask wrong questions to get right answers? I asked, what are you?” I squinted at her, damn sure I was hallucinating.

“Oh, I thought maybe that was sleep-deprivation-speak for ‘who are you.’” She looked back at me. “I’m a selkie.”

I stared and repeated some earlier profanity. Lia laughed—she always thought human swearing was funny. I just kept looking until my eyes watered with pain and dizziness.

“Are these things you often announce on the first date?” I demanded. My tongue stumbled a little on tiredness. “Selkies… The… meaning of your name?”

“Not usually.” Her eyes were just about level with mine, and I finally took a moment to look into them. It wasn’t quite like drowning—more like dreaming you’re tied up in weeds at the bottom of a lake, and it isn’t the drowning that’ll kill you, but the feeling like it’s okay to drown here. “It’s kind of liberating, isn’t it?” She stood up, taking the air with her. “But you won’t remember I said anything about it after you sleep it off.”

I ran out of energy to crane my neck at her and looked down at my hands. I imagined there was blood still settled in their cracks. “Guess the solution is to stay awake then,” I said.

“How long have you been awake now?”

The answer was I don’t know, but that didn’t matter much, since my blurred vision went to black and stayed there. I didn’t even dream. Or maybe I dreamed of being dead.

#

Lia used “I’m a selkie” as an excuse the day she left, too. First day, last day. Tide goes in, tide goes out. “I’m a selkie,” she said. “I have to go back to the sea.”

“I live on the coast of Ireland,” I said. “You can’t go two meters without tripping over the sea.”

It might have been a winning argument if we’d been having the same conversation. But I was right and she was just avoiding what she didn’t want to say.

#

Despite her assurance, she was still there when I woke up, that day the rising tide came in. I didn’t know how long I’d been asleep any more than I knew how long I’d been awake before that. I was cold, wet, stiff, awkward, and still laying forgotten in the grass. Pangs of hunger stabbed down to my gut. Then I recalled why I was out here, the feel of Theseus’ insides, and my stomach settled back to discontented nausea.

Slowly, since my neck hurt like the devil in heels, I sat up. I focused after a few seconds on Lia. Líonadh. The selkie in my backyard.

“I thought I was supposed to forget you.”

She made a face and said, “It was silly to think anyone could forget me.”

“Yes.”

She was cross-legged on a cracked boulder, blanket—cape—sealskin—wrapped around herself, hiding all but her knees and her short fingers holding it closed. “It’s my curse,” she said. “But since you’re not a fisherman, I don’t think I have to worry about you stealing my skin and trying to marry me.”

“Don’t bet on it,” I said.

She grinned, looking pleased. Her attention turned to the carousel. “There’s too much of you in it now. I couldn’t remove it without you. But I’ll have to take this back.”

“‘Back’ is only if you had it before,” I said irritably.

“The sea did,” she said.

“And you’re, what, the sea’s dog?”

“Seal,” she said, and smiled.

I stood up—a risky process, the way I was—and said, “I made it. It’s mine.” The whale passed behind me in its stately, undulating glide, followed by a stationary lion, carved before the seal’s bones had woken up my carousel. I could see them moving out of the corner of my eye.

Some days I can still see them moving out of the corner of my eye.

“You took its life from the sea.” Lia unfolded herself from the rock to match my motion. Her posture was less cramped and sore than mine. Her sealskin robe pooled across bare feet with toes webbed as her fingers. I stared at them for some seconds, trying to rationalize them. I really only came up with the Irish were right as an explanation. Rational thoughts were in short supply.

“Did you think you could work seven days of hard salt-magic on the Summer Court’s doorstep without calling the attention of the King of Seas?”

“I don’t know what any of that means.”

She looked amused. “Clearly you don’t know much of anything.”

“You can’t have it,” I said, finally managing to rip my eyes off her. I turned to face the carousel. Theseus dashed by, leaping up to swat at a butterfly fanning its wings on his post. Theseus, who I’d saved. Who else could I save? “It’s mine.”

#

“I wish I could have met him,” Lia said. She sat by the carousel again. She always did that, sat right by it, but never close enough to touch it. She said they were all corpses. She didn’t say she was afraid.

I turned the carousel off.

It coasted to a stop. The animals writhed and fought. Lia looked sick. I felt the same. But I pulled Lia to her feet and led her to Theseus. He strained against his motionless pole, mouth opening in silent, pitiful meows.

“Lia,” I said, “meet Theseus.”

She stared at him, then me, and she couldn’t hide the horror in her eyes. I gripped her hand, lifted it, and pressed it against Theseus’ side. I could feel his coarse fur feathering the edges of our fingers. Not wood, but real.

We stroked his side together, mostly me guiding Lia’s hand, her arm stiff. Theseus calmed beneath our attention, turning happy circles in place, vibrating with a noiseless purr.

Lia relaxed, too. I pushed her forward, until she climbed onto the carousel’s base and knelt beside the cat, who was pleased as punch to greet her.

I turned the carousel back on, letting out a few short breaths of relief to see the animals moving free again. I rejoined Lia, stepping up and walking round to sit against her side. “Now it can be ours,” I said.

#

“Do we split it all halfway?” I snapped when we fought over her leaving. “Should I go out and saw the carousel in half?”

Sarcastic and smiling, she retorted, “I don’t know, did you marry me while I wasn’t looking?”

I pointed. Not at her, but at the bundle of mottled fur in her arms. It was still the only thing she wore. Aside from the hair I’d unknotted and braided and looped around itself a thousand times. Aside from the constant scent of salt and stone and something vaguely animal. Aside from her freckles and her sass.

“I didn’t ever steal it.”

“What, and now you want half of it in the divorce?”

“I never held you here,” I snapped, and she went from sassy to rueful in that moment, her veil of irreverence dissolving like sugar in the rain.

“So don’t try now, Callie,” she said.

I made a noise of frustration, because she wasn’t getting my point, and I wasn’t saying it plainly enough, no matter how I tried. Maybe I didn’t know what it was.

“I haven’t been holding you prisoner,” I tried again. “So why does the sea need you now?” I swallowed, knowing I was crying a little bit. Lia wasn’t. “I want to know why you’re leaving me now.”

“Because you’re the only one who gets to hold onto things.”

“What does that mean!”

“When they die,” she said slowly, “you save them. The ones you love. They don’t keep aging. And if I go home, no one will age for me, either. Not like—” She stopped, and her voice dropped, and the sound of her so soft and sad is as haunting now as the absence of the ocean’s lullaby will ever be. “You shouldn’t want me to stay,” she whispered, “after what I tried.”

I took a step toward her, and she took a step back, and we both stopped.

“I would’ve done the same,” I said. “I mean, I did.” I held out my hands, like inviting her to the carousel again, though my farmhouse walls protected us from the view of the perpetual merry-go-round. “You know I still want you to stay.”

Lia closed her eyes and said, “But I don’t want to watch you die.”

It was the straightest thing she’d ever said to me. Somehow that drove me back to anger. “And I don’t want to watch you walk out that door,” I said. “I guess we can’t both get our way.”

Lia took a deep breath, mustering herself for opening her eyes and putting on something that was probably supposed to be a grin. It was a bitter mimicry of what it usually looked like on her.

“Difference is,” she said, “I’ll look pretty darn good walking away.”

And then she proved it. She turned her back and took herself and her sealskin out the door.

#

That day we talked about death, the first words she said to me after hours of silence were, “If it’s ours, I want to add to it.”

She came up behind me carving; her voice was quiet but surprising, and I jumped near a foot to hear her after so much quiet. My chisel cut deep into the pony I was carving, giving him a new scar on his neck.

I pivoted. Lia smiled wryly, her eyes flicking to the cut. “It’s very dashing,” she said.

“I didn’t know you could carve,” I said.

“Not with my hands.” She held them up and wriggled them at me. I captured one of them and stroked the webbing with the tips of my own callused fingers.

“With magic?”

“I am a selkie.”

She hadn’t done much magic in front of me. I’d never even seen her put on her sealskin and lose her human shape. She didn’t need to remind me she wasn’t from my half of the world: I could see it every time she moved, or in the way she watched the waves, or in the texture of her skin. Hell, sometimes I still thought I was hallucinating her. Wildness gone to loneliness gone to dreams.

“What do you want to add?” I guessed it could help her deal with death, with me dying.

She reeled me in by the hand I held and whispered against my mouth, “You.”

#

It was like being caught in that moment right before you suffocate, where all your air is gone, where you’re so close to dying that it wouldn’t matter if you finally got air. You don’t want it. You aren’t quite dead, or maybe you’re not quite alive.

You’re trapped there for three days, and all you have is yourself, your empty lungs pressed against unyielding wood. Yourself and a distant rhythm of the ocean taunting you. Breathing for you. Tide goes in. Tide goes out. You’re too paralyzed to dream.

#

I had walked amidst my carousel creatures for two years before Lia made me one of them. Made me stand still between them. If I saw anything while I was frozen in undying wood, it was my animals—mine, that I had saved—moving while I could not. I, Lia’s, that she couldn’t save. That she couldn’t keep from death, not and still have my breath on her skin, my hands in her hair.

I don’t know what Lia did for three days; I couldn’t see her. For the first time in the months she had been here, I couldn’t watch her sway like she had never left the water. Maybe, like me, she didn’t move at all. Maybe she sat frozen while she came to realize that what she was watching was not me at all.

She could leave me or watch me leave her, and Lia was just as selfish as I was.

#

Lia’s magic in my lungs—when she was bored of watching me walk around my own carousel, made of wood that looks like me and feels like me and isn’t me—was like CPR three days too late, dragging me back to a life too bright and cold and loud, with the tides thundering in my ears.

She cried, the only time I ever saw her do that. I told her I’d never leave her.

#

The day after Lia left for the fairy court beneath the waves, I took the engine out of the carousel. The living animals ran scared circles in place. The seal thrashed for a freedom not forthcoming. Theseus meowed in noiseless confusion, asking to keep going forward.

I hooked my horses up to the merry-go-round and we pulled it to the edge of the hill and tipped it. It smashed through the paddock fence, hitting more than a few rocks. I held my nervous horses and watched gravity drag it down to the sea.

The ocean can keep its dead.

More stories like this by topic: , , , , ,