Three, four, five, six. I count as the current works against me. Seven, eight, nine.
I've always hated June, the time when we leave for land. Dozens of tails swim in front of me, all fighting to reach the beach first, I wonder if they dread it as much as me.
The waves break and I fill my slowly turning lungs with air that burns through my throat and chest. Once my body is completely washed up I wiggle out of skin into a more pink one, I am no longer grey and sleek and made for the ocean. My human legs long and thin from a year of hunger, my human hair pale and salty.
I hate it all.
Around me everyone steps out of their seal skin and into their human skin, we all look roughly the same. Thin face, dark brown eyes and water dripping down our every inch. Not quite human, not quite seal but selkie. That's what we are.
The group, excuse, herd of selkies is laughing, dancing. They like June, apparently. I try not to show my disappointment with them too clearly as I stay seated in the sand, my arms crossed and my seal skin laying abandoned next to me.
"We aren't here to fool around," I start, my human voice raspy and low. The unfamiliarity of it scares me. "We need to start collecting."
I look at the sky as the herd lets out soft sighs of dissatisfaction, the sun is low on a red painted sky that is already turning light blue in the distance. Morning. From the harbor the loud cries of seagulls can be heard. I can't help the scoff that escapes me, hateful birds. At one side, not too far from the shore stand pearl white cliffs tall and high, the sea crashes against them trying to tear away at their pride. They don't yield. On the other side the harbor is filled with small, long stands set up by fishermen to sell their, no, our, fish. This is what June is for. Collect food, make sure nobody loses their skin, return to the sea. I already look forward to the last step.
If the humans hadn't nearly emptied the seas with their dreadful nets and stupid, loud boats I wouldn't have had to be here now, I wouldn't have had to lead this expedition.
But I am here.
So I stand, and I go.
The sky is a perfect clear blue, safe for a few spots of white. I smile as the wind playfully lifts my hair as it would tear at a plane. Early mornings like these are my favorite.
The sea carries the scent of salt and something strange towards me on a rough wind. I gaze at the beach but there is nothing. Out on the harbor the fishermen are setting up their stands, their shouting can be heard all the way over on the cliff.
Buy our shit, basically. The scent of their fresh fish carries back into the sea and slightly into the town, but not the cliffs. No, up here it smells of nothing and everything. It smells fresh and wild and pure and intoxicating. Again, a wind blows up against the cliff, carrying the scent of the sea and I watch the shore again. To my surprise there are women laying in the sand, their sleek bodies covered in nothing but the sand sticking to their skin and hair falling atop lucky places. Sea foam clings to their pale, long hair and their eyes gaze out every direction. Some stare at the harbor, curious as to the noise, some watch the sky slowly drift away from light blue to cloudy but one girl solely gazes out at the sea. She is the only one who isn't standing but she sits cross legged towards the waves lapping at her knees like a dog begging forgiveness. Beside her lays a grey thing, it looks like a blanket but I can't be sure.
I wonder why they are naked and catch myself staring, quickly I avert my gaze and feel a hard pang of shame through me. Even if nobody caught me.
As quickly as I can I leave the cliff and run towards the harbor, suddenly remembering my mother's demands: fish, fish, fish. This close to sea, she would say, it would be a waste to not eat fish.
Waste or not, I'd like to eat it less than each day. Maybe chicken, or beef for once, just something different. I've had enough of already.
I trail up the path carved out in the cliff, my bare human feet scrape against rock and bleed. Behind me the herd complains of pain, of heat, of wind, of complaining itself. I ignore the pain and I ignore them.
Along the path are signs nailed into the whole cliff side, I don't bother to read them, already aware that Mary doesn't use the selkie language anymore. A less knowing soul questions the strange letters behind me.
Slowly a small hole starts to grow into a cave entrance the farther along we walk. I realize this must be it and enter, inside the wind takes on a howling quality. The cave walls are stream lined and drawn on, drawings I do understand. They show the process, seal, skin off, human, skin on, seal. A selkie. It's Mary's home. I bang on the walls, three short times and soon she comes running on human legs. I don't envy her skill or her smile.
"It's June already?" She says, her human voice more like silk compared to my iron. Most surprising of all, she's wearing clothes.
"Yes, a while already, it's Mid June Day."
Behind me the herd is silent, all are staring at Mary in awe of her human skin and darkened hair, her eyes and accent the only indicator of her selkie status. "I'll get you girls some clothes, make you all blend in." The smile doesn't drip from her face.
"Where is your husband?" I ask, seeing the smile fall doesn't feel as satisfactory as I hoped.
"He's out, on sea."
"You said that last year."
"He will return."
I don't know if she wants him to, even the defiance in her voice sounds weak. She leaves into some back room carved out in the cliff. We all knew Mary always preferred land, losing her skin to a random fisherman was a pure stroke of luck for her, losing him and the skin while he was away was a miracle for her.
Mary returns, thirteen sets of clothes are stacked in her arms. Feeling a bit guilty I take half of them in my own arms, the cotton scrapes against my skin.
"Don't make that face."
I glance at her, she's quickly handing out the clothes. She wants us gone. "What face?"
"That face of absolute misery," Mary says. "As if you can't make it clear enough that you're too good for the land."
"That's not it, I just prefer the sea."
She humms, unconvinced. I don't bother trying to convince her.
She hands each of us small pouches we stuff our skins in, some rough, some careful, I with dread.
As soon as the cotton is hugging, no, scratching my skin, I leave.