Chapter Nine: Mystery and Mania

Aveny’s fingers tore over gardening tools, shoved aside half-empty seed packets, and dug between a trio of Elvis-themed lawn gnomes Aunt Miriam had given them as a housewarming present. She’d buried the skin here, in this bottomless bin, beneath four other heavy totes at the farthest, darkest corner of her garage. She’d wanted to trap it – to stop it creeping out in the night and ensnaring her again … as if you could contain insanity.

Her initial feelings of glee had melted into a sensation of overwhelming angst, brought on by one terrifying thought: Is this what it’s like to go crazy?

In Aveny’s family, this was no rhetorical question. Whispers of it hung around her childhood like a haze of abandoned cobwebs. Her grandmother, a stalwart emblem of steadiness, responsibility and diligence, rarely spoke of it, but its remnants were present in the absences.  

“Where did Cora go?” Aveny remembered asking as a small girl, staring up at the portrait in her grandmother’s room.

“She died before you were born.”

“How? Like my mom? In a car wreck?”

Aveny remembered her grandmother’s face, a strange sorrow painted across her eyes. “No. Sometimes people break. There’s nothing you can do about it but take better care of yourself and your loves. Like you.” She pulled Aveny close. “And Auntie Miriam. And our friends at church. My mother taught me that. She learned it the hard way too. We hold ourselves in the light so we don’t get lost in the darkness.”

The words came streaming back to Aveny now, haunted with new relevance.

She had buried the skin to stay in the light. Yet, from the moment she’d left the garage and shut the door, she’d felt it calling. It tugged at her heart with the same urgency she’d felt as a young mother leaving her babies with a sitter for the first time. She just needed to see it again, to be near it. She felt severed without it.

At first, Aveny resisted but she couldn’t shake the yearning desire. She couldn’t focus without the skin near. She realized, from somewhere far away, that Brand had finished his shift and come home. She hadn’t noticed when. The kids finally gave up vying for her attention. She tried to cook dinner but dropped the attempt when she caught herself pouring cereal into the soup. So she said she was sick and went to bed. It wasn’t a lie.

Aveny lay beneath the covers contemplating her situation and battling the urge to rescue the skin from its abandoned prison.

“How did Aunt Cora break?” she remembered asking her grandmother. 

“It’s hard to explain. She was very sick.”

“Is that how she died? She got sick?”

“Yes,” Grandma Catherine answered, then hesitated. “And no. She drowned.”

It was years before Aveny learned the truth; how her Aunt Cora’s death was no accident, but the final tragic symptom in her long and violent battle with mental illness. That photo on her grandmother’s wall was the sole remnant of her, as she was, before the disease took hold.

Most of Cora’s adult life was spent locked in the mysterious confines of an asylum, undergoing round upon round of electroshock therapy designed to evict the demons within.

“She was never the same after that,” her grandmother told Aveny when it finally came out. “But she was never the same beforehand either.”

Was this what had happened to Cora too? She just woke up one day, insane?

Not to mention my own mother, Aveny thought. She’d never been locked up in an asylum, but even as a young child, Aveny knew she wasn’t well; not well at all. Would this have happened to her too, if she’d lived long enough?

Aveny had never hallucinated before; well, aside from the time she got her wisdom teeth pulled and the drugs made her mistake Brand for her deceased mother. The closest she’d ever come to mental illness was an ongoing tendency toward anxious malcontent. It was the one constant in Aveny’s life, always there in good times and bad – a low grade fever that never abated. It settled in her lungs, restricting her breath. It nested in her subconscious, a yearning that could never be satisfied.

The longing, as she thought of it, was present in all her earliest memories. It was, at best, a meandering river dancing along the periphery of her consciousness. At worst, it became a shrieking torrent, an almost spectral, otherworldly force raging through the center of her soul.

Several years ago, she had happened across the term “hungry ghosts” in a book on eastern faith and philosophy. The lost souls populated Buddhist lore, roaming the earth for all eternity, tormented by insatiable desire. The concept struck Aveny a little too close to home. She sometimes wondered if she was more hungry ghost than human.

But those times of dismal self-reflection fell into the cracks of Aveny’s life, which was paved with more pressing and considerably cheerier concerns – kids, laundry, work, cooking, driving, cleaning, movies and books …

Over time, that unquenchable thirst, that inexhaustible drive to run became as imperceptible as her own heartbeat; the silent rhythm to which she lived her life. And it was a great life, by all considerations. She’d found joy and love, had adventures, cultivated a career and a home. She wanted for nothing. She just … wanted ….

Aveny wondered if she should tell Brand what happened. But she couldn’t imagine herself saying the words aloud. If no one knew, it hadn’t really occurred. But if he knew – if anyone knew – then it was real. Perhaps she would be locked away, just like her great aunt had been; just like her predecessors before her – the ones Aveny knew about only through quiet allusion; the ones whose psychosis had left a mark so deep on her great grandmother, she had spent her short life taking in every stray child she could – a poorly masked attempt to right the world’s wrongs; to heal the pain in others she could not heal in herself.

The thought sent thunderous shivers down Aveny’s spine. She wished her own grandmother was still alive. Would Aveny have told her, if she was? Probably not.

She’d always expressed her love for the woman who raised her through demonstrated stability and level headedness. Expressing anything else was, well … the stakes were too high and the past too close.

Clutching the skin, Aveny retreated to bed and recoiled deep into the safety of her sheets where she trembled with fear. The sheer intensity of this reaction surprised her. But of course the thought scared her, she reasoned. How could she stand the idea of losing her mind? Being separated from her family? Anyone would feel this way.

But it was more than that. She could feel the truth skittering around just beneath the surface like a frantically pacing rat.

She couldn’t stand the thought of being locked up.

Something had ignited inside her; something wild and unhinged. She wouldn’t survive containment – not anymore. The mere act would smother her. She suddenly knew – her body would eject her very soul if it must, to be free.

She couldn’t tell.

She would have to weather this storm alone. And to do that, she’d need answers. Nestled deep in her bed, the skin wrapped protectively around her torso, Aveny picked up her phone and started pecking questions into the search bar. But the characters danced incomprehensibly in her vision and suddenly she couldn’t quite recall how the device worked. Her eyelids drooped and sleep began its descent.

Aveny had never known an exhaustion this complete. It felt good to rest – like she’d never really done it before.

Then, from the blackness, revelation dawned. Suddenly, she knew. The kids had never hidden the skin in her bed – she had brought it there. She’d felt its pull and risen in the night, drawing it near and wrapping herself in its familiar comfort. It was the skin all along.

The realization roused her with a gasp.

She pulled the skin closer and examined it from every angle, as if expecting some magical twinkle of affirmation. Its soft fibers merely bristled with each movement. It seemed so ordinary.

Aveny pressed it to her chest, willing a reaction.

Nothing.

She wrapped it around her feet. Again, nothing, aside from a slight tickling sensation from the fur brushing her toes. She wrapped it around her shoulders and draped it over her scalp like a holy veil. It felt delightful, luxuriant even, but ultimately, impotent. The wild sparking of transition failed to materialize. She felt suddenly foolish, lying in bed, trying to coax life from a vacant carcass.

Then a thought blossomed in the back of her mind.

Water.

Aveny rushed into the bathroom and flipped the water on high. Hot steam billowed up around her and she began to cough from the initial rush of chlorine fumes. She flipped the handle to cold and the steam subsided. When the water was about a foot deep, Aveny lifted the skin ceremoniously in both hands, suspending it above the chilly liquid. She took one deep, cautious breath and – with only slight trepidation – plunged her arms into the drink.

She recoiled with a yelp, her flesh burning from the heat.

“Everything ok in there?” Brand called from down the hall.

“Um … yeah – just got the water too hot.”

Aveny ran a hand down her forearm, expecting the skin to be burned hairless. Yet, her flesh was untouched and her dark body hair remained as sturdy as ever. She touched the bath with one fingertip and quickly pulled back. The water felt hot … and chemically. Too … dry. She wasn’t sure how that was possible but it was. And now she was faced with a new dilemma.

The skin sat submerged at the bottom of the tub like shaggy sea kelp.

Aveny longed to grab it – but she couldn’t force herself to go through the pain again. She couldn’t even pull the plug without reaching into the toxic concoction. But she had to save it. What if the water dissolved the skin right before her eyes?

She swaddled each arm in a towel and attempted to clasp the skin between her two mummified appendages like a windup circus monkey. The human salad tongs failed dismally.

 After a few moments of fretting, she discovered an industrial sized package of toilet paper beneath the sink. She shook each roll into a pile on the floor. Then she inserted her arm into the plastic and wrapped it tightly around her elbow. Carefully, surgically, she reached in and extracted the skin, dropping it safely on the bath mat. She used the last remaining towel to dab it dry and then wrapped it securely in the textured cloth. Relieved, she turned back to contemplate the brew.

“Hey Brand? Can you come check this water?”

“What’s up?” Brand asked, stepping through the door moments later.

“I think there’s something wrong with the water.”

“What do you mean, ‘wrong?’”

“It just feels like there’s something wrong with it, like maybe they added too much chlorine or there’s some other sort of chemical in there. I don’t know. Just feel it. But be careful, it’s really hot.”

Brand dipped a muscular hand into the water and quickly retracted. Aveny exhaled with relief. She was right.

“Geeze, it’s freezing!” he gasped. “Why do you have it so cold?”

“I, uh, thought I had a fever so I ran a cold bath…”

He looked at her askance. “That’s not a thing.”

She shifted her weight uncomfortably. “So does it feel weird or not?”

“Not besides the arctic temperature,” he replied, casually toweling off his hand. “I think you need to go back to bed.” He laid the back of his hand across her forehead. “Yikes, you do have a fever. You’re burning up. Have you taken your temperature yet?”

Aveny shook her head.

“You should and maybe take something to bring it down so you can sleep,” he said.

That made sense. This was all just a fever dream.

“Do you need me to get you anything?” Brand asked.

“No,” Aveny said. “You’re right – I just need some sleep.”

As he left the room, Aveny grabbed a thermometer out of the medicine cabinet and ran it across her forehead. The gauge beeped and she glanced at the blinking number. 110 Degrees. That couldn’t be right. Must be broken.

She retreated to bed with the skin still safely enclosed in the balled-up towel. She clutched it protectively over her abdomen like an expectant mother cradling her stomach. It may have been a fever-induced fantasy, but she still wanted it near.

Aveny slid under the covers, shed the towel, and pulled the skin tightly around her. She closed her eyes, but sleep failed to descend. She reached for her phone and scrolled through the answers that had populated in response to her search: “seal skin, transform, ocean.”

The results were all factual articles on seals and some information about poaching. Not helpful.

She paused, chewing the edge of her lip thoughtfully, then typed in, “Seal skin turned me into a seal.”

The first response was a Wikipedia entry for “selkie,” followed by a torrent of similarly themed results. “Mermaid wife,” “Legend of the Seal Woman,” “Selkies in Scottish Folklore and Myth.”

She tapped the first result and her eyes raced hungrily across the page. Of course, these were just fairytales and her experience nothing more than hallucination, but what else did she have?

When the light disappeared from the window and Brand came to bed, she was still reading.

“You look like you’ve fallen down a rabbit hole,” he said.

She barely heard him.

“You feeling any better?”

She nodded.

“Good.” He rolled over and snuggled into a deep, snoring sleep.

Aveny woke the next morning with her dead phone still in her hand and the skin wrapped securely around her waist. Brand still breathed heavily next to her. She exhaled a deep gusty breath of relief. She was still exhausted but at least she wasn’t laying naked on the shore. It had been a fever dream after all. And now, the fever had broken.

She’d liked the stories, though. Her head still hummed with the mythical accounts she’d read from around the world. Their phantoms still lingered, imaginings of this creature called “selkie.”

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