Chapter 17

When Aveny came to, she found the raven-haired woman’s wild face suspended mere inches from her own. She recoiled at the sight. The woman didn’t even flinch. She starred at Aveny with steely determination, her piercing stormy eyes unwavering in their intent.

“What my daughter did was an abomination,” she said. “It has rent the souls of our descendants ever since. That single rift unleashed a torrent of pain and dysfunction that has ravaged my lineage – physically, mentally, fatally. It is broken. You must make it right.”

How? Aveny cried.

“The skin must be reunited.”

But how? Aveny repeated. Your daughter is dead. I saw her. There’s nothing we can do now.”

Aveny paused, a thought dawning on her. I saw you at the funeral and at my grandmother’s house; you looked like you hadn’t aged at all. How is that possible?

“Our people enjoy longevity,” the woman responded simply. “But my daughter sacrificed that privilege along with her birthright.”

The sting of annoyance in her tone did not quiet Aveny, who whispered, timidly, Are you still alive?

The woman shook her head, no.

Aveny was shocked to feel relief wash over her. If the woman wasn’t alive, then she couldn’t take the skin back.

Then what do you want from me? She asked fearfully.

The woman’s lips twisted into a smile and her eyes flashed like a lighthouse in the night. The look filled Aveny with such wild anticipation, she thought she might rupture.

The woman was breathtaking in her fierce abandon and, despite her fear, Aveny loved her for it.

“There’s a way,” the woman breathed.

What way?

“The only one.”

The finality of her words gave Aveny pause. Your daughter burned her skin, she pressed, warily. Where did this one come from?

The woman’s eyes burned dangerously. “It is my own.”

Did you do the same thing your daughter did? Aveny asked, equal parts intrigued and repelled. Did you cut it off? She shuddered involuntarily at the recollection.

The woman gave a rueful smile. “When my daughter circumcised herself from our true nature, she cut off the birthright of every descendant that would follow. But our people were not meant to live caged half-lives. Her children were bent – and they knew it, though they knew nothing of her treachery. They clung to the land ways she taught them, passed down from her father, but they could not heal the pain nor ease their inexplicable sorrow. I could not reach them and they were too weak to mend, even if I could.”

Aveny saw a softness waft through her eyes.

“The passing of generations dulled the effect, but the darkness and the insatiable longing remained. It touched me too. We are bound together like beads on a sting. We are not meant to be severed. Doing so damages us all.”

The woman inhaled deeply, closing her eyes in meditative concentration. “Many years after my daughter’s death, I felt my own life waning. I made my way to this land and found my great, great, great, great granddaughter – your grandmother. She was far, far away – a young mother herself living in the barren middle of this vast continent. It was not ideal. But I did the only thing I could.

“I rent my skin, much like my daughter once did – a sacrifice to repair her misguided choice. I separated it from my body and prepared it for another. The only way to restore our family legacy was to sacrifice my own, liberating my flesh to one day find the one who would reunite us all.”

Then what happened to you? Aveny asked, spellbound.

 “I traveled back to the sea, slipped beneath the waves and became one with the ocean.”

Does that mean you killed yourself? Aveny pressed, aghast.

The woman gave her a bemused expression. “I did what our people do when our lives reach an end. I became one with the sea – disintegrating into its form, forever to roam on its currents and splash in its spray. This is our way.”

She paused, darkness clouding her gaze. “Although it was only a shadow union, severed as I was from my own flesh.”

Aveny didn’t fully comprehend the woman’s meaning, but there were more pressing matters. Why me? Why didn’t the skin call to my grandmother – or my mother, for that matter?

“They were very deep in the land, cut off from the sea, from our ancestors, from themselves,” the woman whispered. “I waited a long time. I’d nearly lost hope. Then, I felt the shift. You found the sea. You were different. Auspicious, that it should be the first daughter of a first daughter of a first daughter.” 

She paused, gazing at Aveny appraisingly. “When you united with the skin for the very first time, I felt its call and journeyed to reach you. I found you here, reckless, inexperienced, but alive – barely.

“I carried you the night you nearly died – almost losing my skin in the process. I pushed you on the current to a shore where I knew you’d find help. And I was there when you encountered the whale too.”

I was following you that day, wasn’t I? Excitement leapt within Aveny at the thought.

“Yes, and it was I who saved you that day as well.” The woman locked Aveny’s gaze in her own. “These things never would have occurred, had you been in your true form. You are broken – only half of what you were destined to be – bastardized power, instinctless, foreign. You must set it right – to save yourself, your children and all those who follow.

“You must unbend the bent; unrend the rent; heal the wound. Until you do, you will never be truly safe on land or in the sea. You must reunite with the skin. The time has finally come.”

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