During a time that has come back after being gone forever, on the pier of a coastal metropolis, two friends—both conspicuously larger and taller than the average human—sat across from each other on the seagull-splattered balcony of the Oyster Shell—“fast food with a view!”
Silky, named for her smooth sandy-brown skin and silky soft curls, had ordered a grilled cheese and a basket of steak fries to share with her girl, Lionella, who side-eyed the menu. Lionella found it disconcerting that human food seldom looked like what it claimed to be, a cultural observation true of humans themselves. “Duplicitous traitors of the natural world,” Blubber the bard described them, telling cautionary tales of skin-shapeshifters from across the globe whose skins had been stolen by human men that forced them into marriage.
It nauseated Lionella just thinking about it, far more than the seagull droppings or familiar funk of sea lions from the docks below. She didn’t know how Silky could live with them 24/7. You see, Silky and Lionella came from colonies of beings known as Otariians, sea lion people who took human form when they removed their sea lion skin. Otariian colonies were composed primarily of women—most called themselves “otariidames”—and all members were presumed women unless they stated otherwise.
After exchanging playful banter and catching up about goings-on at the colony, Lionella just had to know—
Silky shuddered, “Lord no—” She then stopped, thinking over the past year, “Well, it’s complicated, Nel.”
“I miss you all, I really do,” Sil began, her words met by Nel’s mock-cynical “mmhm,” “But—how do I explain this—being in sea lion form never felt… right. You know?”
“Well, I love being an otariidae—skin on or off—so I can’t say I do know.”
Silky grasped for words, while her fingers grasped for fries. The incessant barking of sea lions below and the cool sea breeze sprayed her senses. Nel downed the rest of her water while she waited—aah—ever-reliable water. She could’ve dived deep into the ocean right that moment.
“It’s like this,” Silky continued. “When I’m wriggling about in sea lion form, I feel like I’m in sea lion skin—a woman in an ill-fitting suit.”
“Like how I feel whenever I wear these ridiculous human-clothes?” Lionella offered, gesturing to the black-and-blue wetsuit she donned whenever she left the Otarii Islands. “Public indecency my butt. I’d get along better if I could be naked in this heat.”
“Yeah, kinda like that. My arms and legs feel cramped as flippers. While diving, I always worried something would go wrong—that I’d get crushed by the weight of the waves and return to shore broken. I never liked eating raw fish, or hunting in general, and I constantly dreamed of drowning. The one breath of fresh air I got was when we came to shore once a month, taking off our skins, and stepping into our human forms. I never wanted those moments to end. But we would have to migrate come June, which meant more time out to sea, more time constricted by that skin.”
“So you really weren’t down with being a sea lion,” Nel summarized, giving Silky time to work on her sandwich.
Sil nodded, “But just because I don’t like sliding on my skin doesn’t mean I’m not an otariidame! I still feel connected to the sea, still long for it and for the colony, and I cherish the memories I made when I looked like a sea lion. I just need this form to function best.”
Zalo had never come to shore in human form with the rest of the colony, the otariian—that’s what they were called—had always stayed in sea lion form. It mildly concerned some of the colony’s older members and some mischievous pups had plotted to wrestle Zal’s skin from her. Fortunately, a group of elder otariidames caught wind of the scheme and intervened. Eventually, everyone just accepted that Zal held on to her skin, and there was really no harm in that.
“I guess, yeah, it’s… similar,” Silky answered, “But it does feel different since the colony spends most of its time in the sea or on beaches, and that’s a harder life in human form.”
“True, plus your thing about drowning,” Lionella remembered.
“Right,” Silky loved that Nel never tried to shame her for living apart from the colony. “I actually don’t have those nightmares as a human. Practically, though, I know this body isn’t cut out for long stints in the ocean.”
“But, Sil, you know what it is cut out for?”
“What?” Sil was catching her drift, but knew Nel liked to finish a witty comment.
“Them human men we used to watch by the docks,” Lionella raised a brow, nodding down at the wharf where a crew of fishermen were unloading their catch.
“Oh, girl, do I know.”
“Siiiiil,” Nel reached across to shake her friend’s shoulders. “I thought that’s why you moved ashore! I was hoping you’d have something juicy to report back.”
Many otariians found love among their colonies, but Nel and Sil were, as one of Silky’s human friends described her, “hopelessly heterosexual.”
“Girl, please, I’m no fool,” Silky replied, popping another steak fry into her mouth before taking a swig from her hydroflask. “Human men are dangerous. Remember Blubber told us about the selkie?”
“And the swan maiden.”
“And the wolf women.”
“Okay, point taken,” Lionella released her friend and sat back down. “But please tell me you’ve at least dated one. I hear tell the humans have used their technology to optimize the mating selection process.”
Silky dismissed the comment. “Nel, you don’t even know what you’re talking about. My co-worker uses that tech—calls ‘em ‘dating apps’—and hasn’t found anything but sex. If that’s my end goal, I’d be better off with a sea lion. At least they’re bringing a whole territory to the table, and we know they check on their pups—what about you? Found someone?”
“Well…” Lionella fidgeted excitedly and Silky already knew.
“No. Way.” Silky leaned forward, wide-eyed in raptured anticipation, “Girl, who? Are they from the colony?”
Silky jumped up, elated, kicking the mustard yellow backpack she’d brought with her and nearly knocking the table under which the bag was stowed. “Get out. Crest? The woman who always won deep diving races? Kept her hair in a frohawk when in human form? Got the name of each mate tattooed down her back?”
“That’s the one,” Nel verified, her dark cheeks flushing with pride.
“Nah girl, I love Crest and she loves me, but we both be gettin’ ours elsewhere. She probably the only woman I’d ever get physical with, though….” Nel reassured her friend. “Besides, those sort of labels are for humans. We otariidames like who we like when we like ‘em, and if it works out, then cool, if not, then that’s cool too. I’m sure if you really started searching the colony for a partner, you’d find a woman you could work somethin’ out with. Heck, if you started searching land for a man, I’m sure you’d find someone too—you just need to start searching!”
“Well, I don’t have time for a mate right now, anyway,” Silky said, and Lionella lit up, knowing exactly what this meant.
The two bolted up and squeezed each other, unable to contain their enthusiasm. Silky had been working diligently, determined to get a foothold in human society so she could more effectively advocate for her colony, other skinsliding shapeshifters, and most importantly the animals and oceans humans threw under the proverbial cruise ship.
“The colony will be overjoyed!” Lionella exclaimed, pulling her friend into an embrace. “I’m so proud of you, Sil, I know you worked your tail off–it’s not easy figuring out these human schools.”
Sensing the discomfort of onlookers—and Lionella having reached her threshold for prolonged exposure to the human gaze—the two friends swept up their respective bags, tossed their trash, and walked briskly out of the restaurant. Then, they shouldered through the crowd of sweaty people in their rainbow skins, running all the way down to a little-known beach where the land slid into the sea. They held hands, flipperclapped, jumped, barked, and thrashed about in the coolness of the salty blue until they were exhausted and the sun kissed the tip of the Otarii Islands peeking over the horizon.
“Well…” Nel trailed off. They had both noticed a dozen otariian sea lions heading for the island their colony called home.
“Time for you to go, I know,” Silky acknowledged, sand and salt clinging to her, “But before you swim off, I have something for you.”
Silky unzipped her well-loved mustard yellow backpack, while Lionella struggled to unzip her wetsuit (“darn thing always gets caught on itself!”). The frustrated whizzing stopped as Nel saw her friend unravel a gleaming, sandy-brown sea lion skin. Nel was already shaking her head ‘no’, eyes watery, as the otariidame in human form handed her a pelt as soft as silk.
“Sil…I can’t,” Nel protested. “What if you change your mind? Or you need to be in sea lion form for something, or—?”
“Trust me, Nel,” Silky draped her skin over her fellow otariidame’s shocked shoulders, “there’s nothing that’ll make me wear it again. I’ve got the skin I need right here in my human form.”
“Please, Nel…I want you to have it,” Sil smiled, “I feel more at home with you than I ever have in this skin.”
Nel gulped, “That means a lot, Sil… but how am I supposed to swim with this?”
Silky’s eyes widened as she chuckled lightly. Lionella shook her head, it was just like her friend not to consider logistics.
“How about this,” Nel offered, handing the pelt back to her pal, “Save up for a boat back to the Otariis. Then, the whole colony can keep it safe for you.”
Sil nodded, running her fingers over the skin to distract from the heat in her cheeks. It still amazed her how soft it felt when she wasn’t in it.
“Hey, Sil,” Nel said, placing a hand on her friend’s shoulders. “Goodbyes don’t have to be a big deal. We know that we love each other, that love keeps us together always, and I know it’ll make sure we see each other again. How is this time any different than the others?”
She had always been wary of sentimentality.
“It’s just, you know, it’s hard being surrounded by humans all the time. And sometimes it does feel like I’m drowning…. I want to know there’s a part of me with you.”
Nel nodded, understanding, “Close your eyes.”
Silky obliged, sending her mind into a soothing darkness as she heard the other woman rummaging around in her bag (“Girl, keep them eyes shut!”). Sil felt Nel tie some sort of cord around her wrist and felt the electric mystery run through her.
Silky looked down at her left wrist and saw Nel had braided a lock of her human hair into one of her sea lion whiskers.
“Don’t thank me yet, now you do the same for me,” Nel handed her a knife.
Silky took the blade and chuckled, appreciating Lionella’s characteristic get-to-itiveness. She unwrapped her hair and cut off a lock of curls, then plucked a whisker from her skin before entwining the two around her friend’s right wrist. Nel squeezed Sil’s hand, their bracelets brushing each other.
“Thanks for everything, Nel.”
Once her friend’s little glistening head was no longer in view, Silky hefted the weight of her bag over her shoulder and trekked up the sandy shorelines. As she neared the city, vehicular exhaust and the cluttered din of human traffic hit her with tidal wave force. She took in a deep breath, stroking her left wrist before stepping on to the sidewalk. It was a good thing she could swim like a sea lion.
Author’s Note: The concept of “otariidames” was inspired by a narrative arc and themes found in what some scholars call “the swan maiden motif,” which appears in the folklore of cultures across the globe. I first encountered the motif in the Celtic tale of the selkie bride or “seal woman” depicted in a work of art by one of my father’s friends. Later in life, my mother read the Inuit version of the seal-maiden folktale told under the title “Sealskin, Soulskin” from a book she owned called Women Who Run With The Wolves: Myths And Stories of the Wild Woman Archetype by Clarissa Pinkola-Estes, Ph. D.. (This version has been adapted for performance by The Boxtales Theatre Company). Thus, I dedicate this piece with love and gratitude to those in our lives who keep us grounded and give us a sense of home or belonging, even when we may not feel at home in the world. For me, these people are my friends and family.