I only love girls who love to swim, but I don’t like to see them in the water. Like the sea just fine with nobody swimming in it and me with dry sand under me and a cold beer in my hand. They tell me I’m missing something, but I won’t budge. Maybe that’s why they don’t come back.
Ma said I was born with a caul over my face. She dried it and put it in the hollow of an antique smoky-glass rolling pin, painted in flaking white with old-fashioned sailing ships. Too cloudy to see inside, lid screwed tight. She said it was a good-luck charm.
“This was your granma’s when she was young,” Ma said when she gave it to me. “She was born with a caul, too.”
I was old enough then to have refused to learn to swim, and Ma thought it was because I was afraid. “Sailor’s charm against drowning,” Ma insisted, but she wouldn’t tell me if granma died of drowning. Granma went away, is all she would say, and at the time I thought she just meant that granma died.
I took the gift but it didn’t work because I still wouldn’t swim. Ma sighed and gave up, her thousand-yard stare already too far gone. That was the last time she tried. The glass rolling pin went into the back of my closet.
I can’t swim, is the problem. Tried just once, when I was a kid. All I remember is the awful dragging weight of the water, the cold feeling like I’d never come back up. The sea doesn’t like letting anybody go. I think it thinks we were wrong to leave, even if its been a million years. I still haven’t forgiven Ma for leaving, so I understand carrying a grudge.
Girls who love to swim always offer to teach me.
“What if you fall off a boat,” they say. They all blur together in my head, pale and dark, tall and short, curly and straight. I don’t have a type, except that they have to love the water.
“Won’t ever get on a boat,” I tell them. “So won’t never fall off.”
My dreams smell like brine.
Every now and then some girl finds the glass rolling pin in my apartment somewhere. Never knew what to do with it so it’s followed me from closet to closet along with all my life’s flotsam after Ma left.
One time this curly-haired girl opens up my closet to find a Phillips-head screwdriver or spare rubber washers for the leaky tap in the kitchen or something. She finds the pin instead, and when she wipes it for dust another white sailing ship flakes away.
“It’s my birth caul inside,” I tell her.
“Ew,” she says, coolly. “Why do you have this?”
So I tell her the whole story, and she googles it.
“Did you know,” she says, in that wondering tone she gets after when she’s googled up something weird, “People used to buy these things during World War I because they were afraid of U-boats?”
“Maybe that’s how my granma had one,” I say. “She was a kid back then.” Maybe granma couldn’t swim either.
That was the best reaction any of the girls had to the glass rolling pin and the thing inside it. The others stopped at “ew”, and I had to catch it when it fell from their hands.
When I take a girl to the beach, this is how it goes. I find a spot to sit with my beer. She heads straight for the water and dives like a porpoise, her spine bending in ways that I can’t fathom.
Sometimes she comes back, wet and gone somewhere in her head like the water reminded her of something she lost. Mostly they don’t come back. That’s how it is, when you love women who love the water.
They say birth cauls are a sign of changelings. I’d have liked that to be true, but I know there’s nothing fey about me. Maybe that’s why I like my girls with their thousand-yard stares and their unexplained tears, their tendency to vanish into the ocean. When I plant my bare feet in hot sand I know I belong there, but they run for the water as if they were standing on knives.
One time I’m seeing this straight-haired girl. She’s otherworldly even for me. She loves to swim, sure, but she also likes to cast horoscopes for people. Tarot cards or something. She never gets anything for me. She says I come up blank.
“You’re too there,” she says. “Too much earth, no magic in you.”
Even before I take her to the beach I know she’s gonna be one of those who don’t come back. Sometimes you can just tell.
Ma was disappointed when I never learned to swim, but also maybe relieved. “Thought for sure you’d take to the water,” she said. “But maybe it’s better this way.”
Maybe she took the sea out of me when she put my secret skin in a bottle. But I don’t say that, because I can’t bear her ocean stare.
It’s long years before there’s a girl I love so much I listen when she wants me to go in the water with her.
“You won’t drown,” she says. Smiling but she has the starkest thousand-yard stare I ever seen. When she looks into my eyes it’s terrifying and exhilarating, like looking down from a cliff into the ocean banging into rocks far, far below and I can hear gulls.
“Got your granma’s sailor charm,” she says.
“At home in my closet,” I say. “I don’t think it’s got jurisdiction.”
“Got it here,” she says, and sure enough, she pulls it from her bag and wedges it into the sand next to me. “You got nothing to be afraid of.”
And she runs to the water, like they always do.
I make it down to the waterline. Wade in knee-deep and hands shaking so much I can barely hold on to the rolling pin. The glass is wet with spray and slippery. The water’s cold, and the shivers hit me from the breastbone inward.
Can see my girl’s head break the water like a seal, can’t tell how far away she is.
Lid is stiff after decades. I open it but I don’t take the caul out. Don’t want to see it, my factory seal skin, the mask I was born wearing. I throw the whole thing, caul and all, as hard and far as I can. When it hits water it seems to be moving faster than it should, as if pulled down by the sea’s gravity, and I’m wading forward, and I’m wading forward, and the sea reaches up like a birth canal and hauls me back into her undertow, and when my eyes open at last under water, I can see a thousand yards deep.
“Caul” originally appeared in Black Static #41. Reprinted with permission.