It was one of those foggy mornings that nipped at your nose and froze your toes but burned away by noon. They rode the mirror-world bus to drama rehearsal at six in the morning, reciting lines like scripture. There was the rumble of an other-world streetcar instead of the perpetual sway and tug of ocean waves. The cement and stone sidewalks always took some getting used to. The road was hard, and their feet slapped against it.
They were brother and sister, twins most likely, with tan skin and thick, unruly brown hair. They lived with their father on Pier 39 and sometimes helped him operate his glass-bottom boat. They visited the shops occasionally, riding the carousel and eating bags of miniature donuts and running up and down the piano-key stairs. Oftentimes they just sat on a bench and watched the throng of tourists. The carousel was always an attraction, and so was the aquarium, but to their amusement, it was always the sea lions that caught the most attention.
The sea lions. Mirror-world animals dozing on salt-baked pier planks, waiting for high tide to carry them to loftier sleeping rungs beneath the wharf, streaking through the water to tear into cod or rockfish. They hung around the pier, barking at all hours of the day, the subjects of photographs. To humans, they were sea lions, mascots for the pier. Occasionally, though, some would look up and look back with intelligent eyes.
The brother and sister left their seal skins with their father on his glass-bottom boat and left for school. The old man rarely assumed sea lion form now. Too much work to catch food when you could just buy it from Trader Joe’s, was his explanation.
The twins arrived at school too early. The school gates were still closed. The sister tugged on her brother’s sleeve and demanded coffee. They strolled down a waking street and read the signs as they went.
There were no storefronts in the bay. No streetlamps, no oak trees lining sidewalks, no pigeons, no people. The ocean was bottomless and endless, and the bay just as empty. The selkie siblings flew through the water fishing and playing, and they were free with only seabirds and porpoises and animal seals for company. Half their lives was an ocean, broad and gray and wild and lonely.
They found a Peet’s Coffee and Tea. It was still closed, and they saw a waiter exiting the kitchen bearing two tin trays of cellophaned pastries on each shoulder like Atlas holding up the world. The brother wanted to return to school (their play group must be there by now), but the sister wanted a white mocha (on the verge of short-circuiting). Peet’s opened up at last and they were the first customers of the day. The sister was nervous about ordering. What if she pronounced something wrong? (Is mocha pronounced “mow-ka” or “mow-cha?”)
They arrived fifteen minutes late to rehearsal with coffee, something their fellow cast members wasted no time joking about. They ran through the scenes again and again. Antigone: stupid humans doing stupid things which lead to stupider consequences. Something like that.
Selkies were nomadic. They had no society, or at least not a society as structured and rigid as humans. Selkies swam without worries any bigger than incoming sharks and marine biologists. (The twins’ father was a special case, because it seemed he has given up sea lion life for an anchored life of glass-bottom boat tours.)
The twins went through their school day like any other school day. It felt like they were anthropologists on a visit to an extremely foreign country. Worries, worries, worries. Humans had so many worries. Grades and sports and relationships. Colleges and tests and part-time jobs. Their futures. Each one of them a Tiresias.
During lunch when the sun cleared away all residual traces of fog, a bespectacled biology teacher approached the twins.
“You’re the Tide siblings? Marin and Alamar?”
They nodded and followed her into the classroom. Both of them rather liked the biology classroom. It was airy and spacious, gold with sunlight, the shelves full of taxidermied birds and snakes and rodents as well as a few skulls and skeletons. The room always smelled slightly of vinegar ever since the project where they used vinegar to soak an egg as a model for a cell wall.
“Good job on the marine biome test,” said the teacher. She nonchalantly took off her glasses, wiped them and added, “Not that big of a surprise though, since you two are both selkies. You spend half your life in the ocean.”
The brother tensed and the sister snatched a textbook off a desk, ready to throw it. The teacher saw their alarm and said, “Don’t worry, I won’t tell the world. I’m a friend of your dad’s, and he told me to return this to him.”
The teacher handed them a suitcase, which they took with them. The glass-bottom boat, a little yellow thing with peeling paint and dirty white smears of bird droppings. Their father sat beside an old weather-beaten sign reading:
The suitcase held a sea lion skin. Their father, who wore a thick beige San Francisco windbreaker despite the temperature being nearly eighty degrees, looked at it somberly and zipped it back up.
“I gave it to her because she was a science teacher,” said the father. “I didn’t realize she would return it.”
They rode the boat into the sea. They tried to talk about school: come see our play, okay sure when is it, in two weeks, okay awesome I’ll go and throw roses on the stage, guess what we aced the bio test, I’m so proud of you keep up the good work.
Their father gave them their seal skins kept in backpacks. They pulled them on over their clothes, and their form changed, two little sea lions with flippers and voices that could only speak in barks.
Their father tossed fish feed into the water, and the twins caught the fish swimming up to the boat. They laughed barking laughs and sped away, diving into the deep blue and gray-green and tearing away through thick fronds of kelp. In the sea, there was nothing. No streets, no stores, no schools, no people, no underwater cities or palaces or anything. There was a dark, sandy bottom, rocky crags, and underwater cliffs falling away to an unknowable depth. There were schools and schools of fish, flocks of seabirds, drifting shiny trash. In the ocean, they tasted blood and scales and salt instead of milk and chocolate and coffee. The twins floated, their gravity compromised.
They returned to Pier 39 at midnight during high tide to bark with the mindless sea lions and revel in their wildness. They knew their father watched them, further away on his glass-bottom boat. They wondered why he wouldn’t don the seal skin too and join them. Did he think their world as sea lions was too small, or too empty? And that teacher, too. What was she thinking, accepting a selkie skin? Maybe she thought they had a secret underwater world just as rich as the one humans had on land, and maybe she’d thought she’d learn something amazing. Was she disappointed, then?
Their father looked so lonely, sitting there in his glass-bottom boat. The twins swam to his side and joined him, dripping but warm. The sister tried to give him a hug, forgot her flippers weren’t arms, and flopped over. They laughed together, the three selkies, and listened to the dull lug of passing cargo ships, the lapping of the high tide, the mechanical mooing of a distant foghorn.
A mirror-world family sleeping in the fog.
Story by Serina Fang
Images manipulated by Michael Falsetto-Mapp