As the bathwater cools you tell him about the seal wives. How they crept onto the beach under whispering stars, white and heavy-boned with hair more sea-weed than warmth. How a man, salted and tired with fish-grease, might spot a discarded sealskin in the lowlight as he dragged his coracle up the sand to unload his nets. How he could wrap the skin with his greedy hands, stow it deep under the nets to mend and the rope to weave and his dead wife’s shawls, deep under the oil and stink of things he no longer loved. How he might thrust into the seal woman every night, pressing her pale shoulders into the bedclothes, her head denting the pillow rhythmically.
His eyes are half closed, his head bent back, the roped planes of his throat wet in the candlelight. There is a hollow at the base of his throat that pulses, tastes of salt, dirt.
You tell him how the seal wives usually died of grief. You tell him how the fallow field beyond the churchyard is stumped with white crosses and grey stone cairns for the ones who were first stolen from the water. The last time you walked up the church path the gravel was dark with rain; cloud bellies hung heavy on the hills behind you and the field was long-grassed and boggy. When you left the field, walked past the church, turned your back on the ocean, the clouds opened with vengeance and tried to drown what you were leaving behind.
He shifts in the water. You can’t tell if he likes this story. The wet ripples, sucking at your skin, and you slide under, freeing the shampooed rope of your hair. It tugs at your skull in a heavy fan as you let your head sink, tip back until you feel the water’s meniscus lap at your mouth. For a moment, you are rolling under grey cliffs, warm in the arctic water, belly distended with fish and molluscs. You blink the water from your eyes and push yourself up, reach for him with hands that are free for the first time in years from the rasp and suck of salt.
The water and light in here make a dark pool shot with gold, rose, dusk. You both glimmer, legs twisting, hair slicked to fine sparkles. In the sunlight he is a Viking: Baldur the golden, tender under the sun and burnt rosy all summer, wincing as the air cools in the evening but he burns on. Yet he is unafraid of the sun’s long reach, in love with its heat and your sweat and the long nights you spend at the beach, sanded raw, lazy with cider and salt-sodden limbs. He is like a great dugong in the water; a shadow beneath you, exploding into the air in a burst of laughter and a clamour of arms; he picks you up, tosses you back in. You let yourself sink. That night you dream of death, the crunch and tearing teeth of the swift shadow, your flippers torn, your dark coat leeching flesh and screams.
When he speaks his voice is gentle, not his.
‘I’d like to go with you. If you ever want to go back there.’
The shadows on his face find bones under his skin that are not the same as yours. He is so part of this world; bound to its burnt grass and heat, his feet solid in the dirt, face turned to the sun. You look at him now, but you hear the rush and thump of water, something splashing in the shallows, feel the briny hag’s shriek coming up from the south. The seething sand that bites relentlessly, that edges ever further up the beach, reaching for the ones the sea lost. Reaching for the ones who stole them.
‘I’m not going back, not ever.’
The words are awful in your mouth; you can’t tell if they are a betrayal or a release. He pulls you down, the bathroom floor flooding with the sudden overflow caused by your bodies. You grip him between your legs, holding him. His tongue in your mouth is like a fish, and you need to eat. The dark water-rumble thunders at your back. His lips shape your name but you hear only a sea-bird scream, see it wheel and dive beyond the breakers. Your flippers arc your weight through the waves; your hands press his flesh and grip the edge of the bath. You claw him to you: you cannot lose your skin now.
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