I open the white flap of the tent and let him in. Outside, the waves crest and break against the rocks and the wind beats the canvas. It’s cold. I pull my Himalayan shawl around me, against his judgement, against the night.
He is watchful as he enters. There are crevices on his face that I do not know, a limp that is unfamiliar. It has been fourteen years, but his eyes are the same spheres of onyx. He smiles at me – the same small smile – and makes a bow. His hair is long and dark for his age and there is still, in the turned up collar of his coat and the bronzing of his skin, the faint air of a weathered hero fallen on hard times. He passes close. I can almost taste the salt of the sea and the ash of West Indian cigars.
I step back, letting the night air fill the space between us. Already I feel a crackle in my limbs like Galvani’s spark twitching frogs’ legs. He averts his eyes. I remember the shock of once realising that he was slightly shy.
“It’s a cold night,” he says. Prosaic as ever.
“Yes. Beautiful, though.”
We pause to look back at the sky. It’s clear and indigo-rich, like the ink of a startled squid in a sparkling rock pool.
“I don’t know if I’ll ever get used to those stars, or the moon waxing backwards.”
“No, but I like the difference. The cross in particular.”
“It’s a good navigational tool. If you line it up with Alpha and Beta Centauri it shows you the way south.”
He looks disappointed.
“Of course,” he says.
I pull my shawl more closely about myself. Fourteen years ago I might have humoured him and feigned an ignorance I did not have, but not now.
He glances at my grip on the wool surrounding me, and closes the flap of the tent, sealing out the wind. The outside world grows muted and dims.
“About yesterday – ” he begins, but I turn quickly, loosening the shawl and draping it over a chair. The movement silences him. As I pour two glasses of brandy, I sense his eyes on my hips, my waist, my hair. He looks away as I turn to him with the glasses.
We sit down. He moves with the body of a younger man, although he favours his leg. Part of me wants to touch him, to lean forward and rediscover that terrain I had once known so well. But he has moved on to new territory. We both have. He is here to chart an undiscovered country, to make order of the unknown, to take the dangers of the borderless and make it safe. Corralled.
“I think you know why I’ve asked to see you.”
He looks back at me, eyes limpid and blank.
“My mother,” I say.
He looks down and takes a sip of brandy.”
“You know I missed you. In Spain and afterwards.” When he meets my gaze his eyes are mournful. I have an image of a room in Bath, disordered sheets, a grey dawn creaking over the Roman stone.
I look away.
“You can’t have missed me so much.”
“I wrote to you,” he continues. “Many times. When you didn’t reply – ”
“You got married.”
“In haste, yes.”
In the silence I can hear the sea curling into the shore. I have always wanted to live on the lip of the ocean.
“Did you get them? My letters?”
I look back at him. Spidery writing fills my vision, the writing of a man with much to say and not enough paper. News of him shot and imprisoned in La Coruña. My heart beats simply now, but I remember a time of it clenching.
“Do you remember what you said to me? Before you went to Spain?”
He sits back and inhales.
“I have apologised,” he says. “Many times in those letters. I have regretted it. I have repented and God knows I have suffered since then.”
“Well that is as it should be.” The words leave my mouth before I can consider them. I see a flash behind his eyes.
“You got my letters, then.”
I do not reply.
“All this time, I wondered… That maybe they went astray, or perhaps your cousin burnt them…”
“If you really thought such a thing then why didn’t you try to see me? Why didn’t you try to explain yourself properly? Instead of being such a coward about it.”
An anguished look crosses his face, but it is quickly supplanted by anger.
“I had a musket ball through my leg. It was months before I was mobile. I’d hoped you would come and see me if I wrote.”
My head shakes from side to side.
“You have no idea what you cost me.”
He shifts in his chair. His left hand grips the armrest, tightly. It was always a habit he had when he was tense, or afraid. The silent clenching of his left fingers.
“I’m sorry.” He pauses. “I did ask you to marry me.”
“After how you behaved. After you said I was unfit to mother your children.”
“That is not what I said. And I was wrong. So wrong.”
“And it took near death in Spain for you to realise that?”
“It did, yes.”
I look back to the entrance of the tent. The sea continues to murmur. I had dreamt it at the time. I had seen him, half delirious with pain, somewhere in La Coruña and thinking of me. But by then I had already turned my face to the wall.
Early autumn and the oak leaves ripen to gold. I could never have Eurasian children, he says. Not after what I’ve been through. I used to wonder why I was born at all.
For weeks afterwards, I carried a quiet shame. I sought out my face in mirrors. I imagined excising my amber skin and almond eyes, that strange complexion that melded East and West. I pictured removing it, like a Dionysian mask, a foreign doll face, and casting it aside among the dying daisy beds. But what did it leave? I took off my face and saw only emptiness.
I had thought we were well suited. Me with my Hindu mother and my Hertfordshire father and he with his more mysterious origins. A Suffolk father and a mother that might have been Thai or Malay and perhaps half-Portuguese. I had thought our differences unified us. I had not counted on how much he wanted to change his skin.
“It doesn’t matter now,” I say. “How wrong you were. I’ve asked you here to talk about my mother.”
He draws back into his chair, then leans forward and drinks more brandy.
“What do you want to say?” His voice is clipped.
“I want to know who she was.”
He looks back at me. “You know.”
“I know her name, and nothing more.”
“That was all I knew of my mother for many years. It should have been enough.”
“I know you met her when you went to India. You never told me about it. I’m trying to find her.”
He sighs and runs his fingers through the top of his hair, leaving it tussled and untidy. He taps his bad leg.
“You’re better off without her.” There is a silence. I want to insert my anger, smooth as a hot knife, but I hold back. He turns to me again. “You need to let it go,” he says. “You’re safer as you are.”
A sound escapes me like a hiss. I stand. The night has stilled around us with a suffocating intensity. He watches me as I move to the entrance of the tent and lean my head by the cool opening. Beyond the strains of our conversation, there is the sound of water rolling into the shore. The air is scented with burning eucalyptus.
When I was a child, I wanted to live by the ocean. I remembered its briny taste and lazuli blue as the labyrinth thread that would guide me home. On the voyage to England, a Scottish passenger told me stories of strange women in fur pelts who could transform between woman and seal. I thought of the freedom that would bring, to slink back into the ocean and chart my course home to the Bay of Bengal. That is what the selkie mothers did. They left their half-human children, took up their darkened sealskins and slipped away.
A selkie’s child, they tell me, has webbed feet.
Behind me, he calls my name but I do not turn. I have seen his maps and felt his cartographer’s pen. He would have me peel back my skin and leave my natural space to live, skinless and bleeding, in his orderly house.
I leave the tent. He stands and moves behind me but he’s slow. The hard soil scrapes against the palms of my feet as I run down the hillside. Smoke coils through the air. Around me, the tall trees lean in, ghostly in the night, their trunks white and stripped back, stripped of skin. Thoughts of exodus fill my mind, of onward movement, chasing currents, sea-foam skin and island archipelagos. I run until the earth is loamy, until it is soft. The sand embraces my toes. On the distant shore, embers glow with shades of vermillion. There are people here, already. I’ve seen them watching the ships arrive on ballooning sails, men unfurling surveyors’ chains and precise theodolites. Carving up the land. I’ve heard the people here burn off the trees to let the new life grow.
I walk knee deep into the ocean, tossing aside my dress. For a moment it gleams red in the night, like fire. The gibbous moon casts shoals of light across the surface of the water. It froths around me, the wet sand sinking beneath my heels with each ebb of the tide, the glittering water clutching my skin. Perhaps, in the deep, there are selkies. I try to picture them, but I see only seals with questioning eyes, rolling with the flotsam of the shore. A selkie’s child has webbed feet.
I close my eyes and taste the sea. My skin shines, sleek with moisture. The sea foam clings like snakeskin, bubbling over me in iridescent mother-of-pearl. My legs coalesce into shining scales of silver. My toes web. I inhale night and release my hair upon the surface of the wine dark sea. Beneath me, my feet blossom into fins of agate. My legs shine, writhing and powerful, a gleaming shield over marine muscles and tendons beating in time to the water. I gaze into the night then, breathing once, slip beneath the waves.
In the moonlight he sees only this. A serpent’s tail, a translucent fin, a burning dress on the glistening shore.