Shedding Skin—Sarah McPherson

A girl who is born by the sea has salt water in her blood. She is nursed by sea foam as well as at her mother’s breast. Her first toys are pearlescent shells, pitted drift glass gems, many-coloured pebbles polished smooth, driftwood shapes that she fits together into odd, twisted figures. She is as happy on sand as on grass, and as nimble on the rocks as a mountain goat, scrambling the cliffs with no fear.

She knows the tides before she can read a clock, knows when the water is safe and when dangerous undercurrents would wash an unwary swimmer far out to sea. She swims like a fish herself, spending more time in the water than out of it. Her hair is rarely free of salt and sand, and her skin is browned by the sun.

Her mother is a child of the city, who ran from civilisation and found the ocean and a man she loved. The girl never knew him; he vanished before she was born and has not returned. Her mother chose to stay, not to wait for him, but to raise her child in the home she had made here on the edge of the land.

A girl who grows up by the sea knows all the creatures that dwell there. She knows tiny shrimp and fish that congregate in the rock pools and shallows. She knows crabs, large and small, insects that burrow in the sands, shellfish that cling to the rocks. She knows the birds, can name them all; gulls and gannets, oystercatchers and curlews. 

She knows the cliffs where puffins nest, and which birds vanish in the autumn, only to reappear with the spring. She knows where, if you take a boat out at the right time, you might be lucky enough to see dolphins, or even whales. She knows the rocky outcrops where the grey seals bask, and the waters where they swim and hunt.

A girl who plays by the sea too long will always hear their call. Of all the sea’s creatures, the seals fascinate her the most. She comes home each night with stories for her mother, who smiles and nods, but there is a sadness in her eyes that the girl does not see. She has never told her daughter what she suspects: where her father came from, and where he went.

Her mother voices no warning. What good would it do, to forbid the girl from the sea that is as vital to her as breathing, to tell her not to watch the seals. It would not stop her, and would cause a gulf between them that might never be bridged. Day after day she watches the girl go back out to the seals and return with eyes shining, and she waits for the inevitable.

A girl who ventures into the waves with the tide tugging at her feet, sucking the sand from under them, is taking a step towards her destiny. She dreams of transformation, longs to dive and roll, swim and play as they do, elegant and fluid in the water as they are fat and lumbering out of it.

She watches them as her mother watches her, eyes dark with longing. Her presence is familiar to them now, and so for the first time she sees them creep from the water in a group. She sees them shed their velvet coats, shuck them off like blankets and pile them in the cove, sees them wash clean the skin underneath, every shade of pink and brown that humans wear, stand tall and walk on two legs.

When they return she watches again as they dress in their grey, wrapping the skins around themselves and taking on the shape of seals once more. Although she does not look away, she fails to determine how this is achieved, or the exact moment of transformation. It is as though her eyes blur and slide off them, or she blinks at the second the change occurs.

She is quiet when she gets home, and her mother does not press her. She lies awake, wondering what magic she might call on to change as they can change, and truly be a creature of the sea. She has no velvet coat to wrap herself in, and even if she did she feels in her heart that a skin taken from another would not work. The skins they wear are their own.

In the darkest part of the night, she finds the answer; the seals can remove the skin they were born in to reveal a human form and walk upon the land. But the skin the girl was born in is a human one.

Dawn still stains the horizon when she takes a kitchen knife down to the ocean. The seals are far out on the rocks, but she fancies she can feel their gaze. She lifts the knife, its edge sharp as the tang of the sea, and nicks the hollow at the base of her throat. Carefully she draws a line with it down across her chest and peels away her skin, piece by piece. Salt tears prick her eyes at the sting of it.

It takes a long time, for she has never shed her skin before, but she perseveres. She does not see the dark shape of her mother standing on the cliff top above, her face a mask of loss and understanding. And when the girl finally discards the last of her human skin and enters the ocean, the water washes away the blood and reveals the new shape underneath.

Sarah McPherson is a Sheffield-based writer and poet, with work published in Ellipsis Zine, Splonk, STORGY, The Cabinet of Heed, and elsewhere. She has been long/shortlisted in competitions including Writers’ HQ, Reflex Fiction and Cranked Anvil, and had a story selected for Best Microfiction 2021. She tweets as @summer_moth and blogs at

photo by Chermiti Mohamed (via unsplash)