That summer, my sister ate nothing but water crackers. With a magazine shading my eyes, I would watch her line them up one by one on the railing. Six pale pepper-flecked moons, each a quarter inch apart, never touching. She placed them lovingly. By the evening, they would be gone. Into her stomach or the trashcan, I didn’t know, and was too afraid to ask. All day long I swam in the lake and read on the swimming dock, toes poking at the water, hungry seabirds circling above, minnows nudging at the kelp-covered rope below. Twice a day I went inside to fry an egg or toast a bagel. We didn’t eat meals together as a family that summer. It was too hot. Out there with water reaching towards the mountains, the world felt lonely. Maybe it was because of the stories about the lake my mother had told us when we were young. If you drop a stone into the middle, they say it will never reach the bottom. My mother said she liked to think that the bottom of the lake didn’t even exist, but she was always obsessed with things like that. Things without endings.
Sometimes Margot joined me on the dock. Once, in the haze of midday heat, when I twisted towards where she lay with knees curled into chest, I thought I saw her shiver her hand into the water and draw a school of minnows to her. They nibbled at her fingertips, tiny fish teeth nourishing themselves on her skin. When I looked again, no fish were there. I knew it was a daydream, some strange permutation of the stories my mother had told us, the ones about boys who drowned in their reflections in the water, about white trout who could never be caught, and, of course, about the women who turned into seals. I knew it wasn’t real, but I still wished it was the other way around. That Margot was the one eating the fish, even if they were raw. Even if they were alive. When I pushed her into the water, she starfished her limbs, floated on her back, and smiled her old smile, the one that had leapt across her face so frequently when she was younger. She pulled me in and we swam, splashing at each other, but she was fast. Too fast. I knew it was because she kicked just as our mother had taught us: hard, but beneath the surface so she didn’t send up noisy spouts of foam. I had never mastered that, but I tried to keep up anyway.
Every summer we rented this lake house, one of the ten Crescent Houses, named because they ringed the crescent-shaped lake. When Margot was small she had called them the Croissant Houses. Near the end of July, my mother made croissants, ostensibly as a joke. But we all knew without saying it that it was because Margot was sick. Because Margot was sick, and needed to eat. She’d always been skinny. She was skinnier, that summer. Beneath her bathing suit, her ribs jutted out: the timber skeleton of a ship. Like she was going to float away to sea on her own body. Even the way she walked was more like drifting. “Oh, Margot, you look so beautiful,” my mother would say, cradling Margot’s chin in her hand, although that was not what she meant at all. Me, I had my father’s body. Stocky, squat, broad-shouldered. People always commented that it was astonishing how different Margot and I were. You’re your mother’s daughter, Margot, they’d say. And you, you’re your father’s. Through and through. It took the entire day for my mother to make the croissants, hunched over the counter, pressing butter into layer after layer of dough, eyes fixed on her work. It was strange to see her so focused, when she sometimes spent hours sitting on the windowseat, staring out, although she’d busy herself with a book or her computer if Margot or I entered the room. At 10 p.m. she pulled the tray out of the oven. The pastries were rounded like moons, and steam spiraled from their browned tops. My mother split one in half, exposing the flaky whiteness within, and handed me the larger section. “Don’t you think it’s too salty?” she said once we had finished, but I shook my head. It was perfect. She set one on a plate for Margot. “Let me soak up the butter first,” I said as she stood. “She doesn’t like when it’s greasy on top.” My mother handed me a paper towel and I patted the oily shine until the butter seeped through to my fingers. I knew it wouldn’t help. “Thank you, darling,” my mother said. “I’m sure Margot will appreciate it.” She carried the plate Margot’s room, but the door was closed and no light filtered from underneath. Margot was already asleep. I watched from the kitchen as my mother set the plate down on the living room table. Outside on the beach, my father was laughing with the fathers from the other houses. The kitchen was strewn with measuring cups, greasy bowls, wax paper. “Never again,” said my mother, not quite under her breath. I watched as her fingers crumpled the napkin she held into a ball. “Never again.” It was true. She never cooked for us again. The truth was, she hadn’t ever cooked for us before those croissants anyway. In fact, normally she stayed out of the kitchen, leaving our father to cook us pasta and prepare us salads. I’m just not cut out for it, she said, whenever my father tried to show her how to make tomato sauce. But that day I’d noticed how she’d been surprisingly skilled in the kitchen, as she shaped her palms around the dough that rose and fell and rose again.
My mother spent her days walking endless circles around the lake, often returning with soggy sneakers and hands full of birch leaves, pine needles, and rose hips. She’d hand them to us, more often to Margot than me, and tell us to brew them in our tea, especially if we had a sore throat or a headache. While she walked, Margot painted. She spent her days on the balcony in front of the cheap easel and canvas she had bought with babysitting money. On our first day at the lake, she’d dragged out a footstool on which she’d arrayed her watercolors, acrylic paints, and pencils. She’d settled a fluted glass of water with three paintbrushes on the ledge. Now it was almost August, and she hadn’t touched any of it. Not since she’d laid it out. Mosquitoes were starting to breed among the waterlogged paintbrush bristles. “I’m sketching,” she said when I leaned towards the seemingly empty canvas. Her pencil flickered back and forth, skimming the cloth. With her free hand, she batted me away. From afar all I could see was a weak haze of intertwining pencil marks. And my sister in front of them, shifting this way and that, chest hunched over the canvas. I noticed a parch of darkish hair on her arm. It looked like down. I wanted to hug her so hard I could feel her ribcage against mine. I wanted to hug her harder, until she passed through flesh and bone and was lodged inside my body, where it was safe. But when I reached for her, she pushed me away again. “I’m sketching,” she repeated. “I’m not done yet.”
On the local radio station, they were talking about the lake. I sat eating a popsicle with my feet propped up on the railing. I knew if I jiggled my foot, the water crackers on the ledge would fall, but I didn’t. Margot was sketching. The reporter said, The lake is one of the deepest in the world, and is sometimes referred to as the ‘mother lake’ of its seven daughters throughout the area. I swung my feet to the ground, leaned towards the radio. “Hey Margot, they’re talking about us!” “Well, not really us,” she said. In this lake lives a unique subspecies of freshwater harbor seals. These seals have been separated from the ocean and their oceanic brethren for 8,000 years, when land shifted due to retreating ice sheets. “There are seals here?” asked Margot. I avoided her eyes, which now tracked the waterline. “I’ve never seen any.” “Me neither,” I said. “Maybe tomorrow. Definitely tomorrow.” Despite the many reports and works of fiction written about these seals, less than one hundred of them are left, due to the impacts of climate change, pollution, and hunting. If something doesn’t change soon-- “Why don’t you turn that down?” my mother called from inside. “I’m trying to nap. Margot, come join me.” I hesitated, but Margot raised her eyebrows and hissed, “Turn it off,” so I did. After a moment, she stood. “I’m tired,” she said, and walked inside.
If only the seals could breathe under water, I thought, they would be journeying deep. Building up their blubber, then swimming themselves past where humans can venture, safe from their stories, family dramas, pollutants, fishhooks. Down so deep they’re untouchable.
When we were little and scared of the darkness and the tall fir trees and the loons that called out to each other, my mother would spirit us to the hammock on the lakeside and tell us bedtime stories. She liked to tell us about when she was pregnant with Margot. She’d read about this lake in the newspaper after she’d learned she was going to have a girl, and had declared that once her daughter was born, she’d take her there. She’d been housebound for much of her pregnancy, my father insisting she take a leave of absence from her work at the local newspaper. Each morning he would swaddle her up with blankets, oranges (her pregnancy craving), and library books. She obeyed, wanting to do whatever she could for her this thing growing inside her. This thing she had hinged everything on. He hadn’t even let her buy groceries, once her stomach swelled. What if you tripped and fell down the stairs? What if you started vomiting? Sometimes on weekends he’d take her out walking in the park. She said that she’d dreamed a lot then, of enormous glaciers, ancient fish, and the lake. Once she’d dreamt that she drank the whole thing and awakened thirsty, with the taste of salt in her mouth.
But her best story was the scariest one, which she told us when we were older and begged for werewolves, vampires, things that moved and changed in the dark. I remember how we curled into her in the hammock, that first time she told it, how I could hear her voice above me in the night air, but also within her body, reverberating through her chest. It was an old story from her homeland across the sea. One day a handsome young man with copper hair was walking on the beach when he found three naked women lounging on a rock. They were beautiful, and he fell immediately in love with one of them. It was her dark hair and long legs that reeled him in, she said. The way she moved so freely, flowing like waves. Unlike any other woman he had seen before. And then, just before he left, he watched each woman step into a sealskin sitting on a nearby rock, transform into a seal, and jump into the sea. Margot had gasped, lifted her head. “They were seals?” “Shh, shh, they were seals. Or women inside seals. Or seals inside women. Most of all, they were good swimmers,” said our mother, ruffling our hair. She had taught us to swim earlier that day. At dinnertime, she had barely been able to lure Margot out of the water as she bellied around in the shallows, blowing bubbles, claiming she wasn’t the old Margot anymore because she was floating. “They got to live in the sea?” asked Margot. “Shh, shh.” She told us how the man hatched a plan to catch the sealwoman he loved. When he saw her lounging apart from her sisters, he stole her sealskin. The other two sister seals slid into their skins and tumbled into the waves, but the third sister couldn’t find hers. She began to sob. The man ran over to her with a blanket and asked if he could help. She could barely speak. He covered her up and took her to the fire in his cottage. There, with his blanket around her and the firelight flickering over her water-specked face, she looked more beautiful than ever. They were married within a week. In another, he took her to a land across the ocean so she would stop staring out the window at the sea. He brought the sealskin with him and hid it somewhere he thought she could never find, and she bore him two children and hoped they would never be ripped away from the things they loved. Margot and I didn’t believe her at first. We had only ever heard the fairy tales that ended with marriage and feasts and monsters turning into princes. My mother pulled us close. “Lots of stories from my home are sad, but that doesn’t mean they’re not worth telling.” I wasn’t satisfied. Not back then, not now. “Did the woman escape?” I asked. My mother responded, “There was nothing to escape from, or to. The woman loved her children.” She kissed us on the forehead, then added, “For me, the worst part of the story is this: that the woman was separated from her sisters for forever.” At least, this is what I remember her saying. When I asked Margot, she didn’t remember any of it. Except the story.
The night after the radio story, I awakened to the croaking of a frog outside. I was lying on top of my arm, had cut off the circulation, so I twisted in my bed. It was a full mooned night, the light slicing silver through the slats of the window blind. Through half-shadowed lids, I saw Margot in the mirror. She was wearing only her underwear. Her whole body was silvered, like a coin. She was smoothing her hands over her outline, pressing at the curve of her waist, the outline of her ribs. The down of hair on her arms shimmered in the light. It looked like she was trying to mold her body like clay, or shave it down to a razor blade. I could hear her labored breaths. She pressed the gap between her thumb and finger deep into her waistline. Her hair waterfalled over her shoulder. She looked beautiful. She looked like she was hollow enough to float. She looked like my mother. My eyes drifted closed and in the space between dream and wake I tried to reach out to her, but my arm still danced with pins and needles. I thought of my mother’s old story. In that moment I knew that the worst part wasn’t that the woman was separated from her sisters forever. It was that her sisters didn’t wait for her before stepping into their own safe sealskins and skimming into the waves. The worst part is that they left without her.
We found my mother’s sealskin a month before we left for the lake, right around the time Margot stopped eating. Our parents were both at work. I was on the kitchen stool, Margot sitting cross-legged on the white tiled floor, as I braided her hair. There was a hairpin in my mouth and my hands were full of her thick dark hair and she was telling me about the art portfolio she had to turn in for her class, how she wasn’t sure whether she should submit her sketches or if they looked unfinished. The portfolio’s theme was home. The timer for the pizza went off and I startled, releasing my fingers from her hair. The braid slithered undone and Margot’s hand jumped to the back of her skull, as if to grab my fingers. The timer dinged once, twice. “Shit. I’m sorry, the—“ I rushed to the oven and pulled the pizza out. Its smell reminded me I hadn’t eaten since breakfast and I lunged for plates, a knife. “Margot, where’s the garlic powder?” I asked, remembering how she used to pour it on top of pizza slices. “The garlic powder?” “Chill out, I’ll find it.” She hopped up, her hair still holding my braid at the crown of her head, and started opening and closing cabinets as I sawed through the pizza. She opened the left cabinet above the stove. When she tugged at the right, it creaked but didn’t budge. “Hand me your hairpin,” she said. “Why would it be there?” I asked. “Just a feeling,” she said. “Now give me the pin.” So I did. She jammed the pin into the tiny lock and wiggled it around. But the door didn’t open. I watched the way her gaze gripped the shining lock. In that moment it seemed endlessly important that we opened the cabinet. If we didn’t, I was worried Margot would crumple to the ground. Or disappear. I was worried a lot. About Margot. “Can I try?” I asked, and she handed me the pin. My heart was beating fast in my chest. This seemed like a test. Could I unlock the unlockable box, when even Margot couldn’t? What obstacles would I overcome to entice my sister towards a slice of pizza? I slid the pin into the lock, then put my ear against the lock too. The metal was cold. I was so good at listening. I turned the pin and listened to things clicking. I turned it again. It seemed almost as if the pin warmed when I turned it in the right direction. After a minute, I tugged the handle, and the door opened. We both knew immediately what was behind the rack lined with the spices we never used: cinnamon, nutmeg, dried basil. There it was. Grey, slimy, spotted, whiskered. Larger than we’d imagined. A sealskin. And what could have been a better hiding spot than the kitchen, which my mother avoided at all costs? Margot looked at it like it was a birthday cake. A liferaft. An heirloom locket passed from generation to generation. She looked at it like it was something she could move through and into, and then she looked down at her body. Hunched into it. At the front door I heard our father’s voice and I slammed the cabinet closed. “Girls? Are you there?” Margot pulled me by my elbow to the the table where I’d set out plates. When our father entered the kitchen, she took a hasty bite of pizza, and I felt happier than I had all week. But I couldn’t bring myself to eat.
In the following days, Margot was strange around doors. She either ran through them so fast she kicked carpets askew, or she entered them slowly, tracing the doorframe with her hands until she was ready to pass through. I could see she was thinking about leaving. She was thinking about moving fast through cold water, and the theme of home. She smiled with buoyancy. She finished a new painting instead of handing in her sketches. When I tried to bring up the skin, she shushed me with a smile and winked. Leave it be. Just wait. She didn’t know what I had done.
In the early morning after the discovery, before anyone in the house was awake, I had returned. Stood on my tiptoes on the kitchen stool. Clicked my pin into the lock. This time it opened with almost no resistance, as if the hairpin itself was the key. The skin was there, just as we had left it. I sunk my hands into it.
A week later, as I was packing for the lake, Margot tapped me on the shoulder. “Where is it?” she asked. I tried to maintain eye contact. Couldn’t you tell someone was lying if their eyes shifted to the left? Or was it the right? “I don’t know.” Down the hall, our father hummed to himself. “Maybe he moved it?” “Bastard,” she whispered.
Since I was young, I’ve been a sleepwalker. Margot was always the one who found me smoothing out wrinkled papers or knotting our dolls’ hair together with peanut butter. More than once she said she found me in the kitchen, peering into the depths of the cabinet. She said that all she had to do was put her arms around my shoulders and lead me back to bed. “You fall asleep so quickly,” she said. “It’s kinda cute.” I didn’t remember any of it, except the time my mother found me. Her soft fingers on my neck, her cooing voice, Wake up, wake up. When I did, there she was in her bathrobe at the kitchen table, holding a red mug. She was making hot chocolate. I watched as she sprinkled cinnamon on top and whisked it in. I remember how my eyes caught something shining on the tabletop—a key—before she slipped it into her pocket.
On the swimming dock, I tried to focus on my book but sunspots danced across my vision. I was beginning to get a migraine. Inside, I put two bagels in the toaster, just in case. While I waited, I leaned against the glass doors on balcony and watched Margot as she rummaged through her pencils. I wanted to hand her a bagel, and her to refuse it, and me to pull her hand towards mine and tell her to eat something, anything. I needed to ask her, Margot, aren’t you hungry? Margot, what is that strange hair growing on your body? Margot, why did you let the fish eat your fingers? Margot, how can I help you? In the heavy afternoon light, Margot stretched out her arm towards the six water crackers on the ledge. To pick up, or to push away. She reached, and I closed my eyes. I walked towards the kitchen. Away from Margot, and whatever she did with those water crackers.
In the bathroom after my bagel, I knelt beneath the sink and grabbed the bottle of Ibuprofen. The migraine pulsed strangely inside my forehead. Behind the pipes of the sink, my fingers searched for the green trashbag, found it. It was heavy, and each time I had picked it up since that early spring morning, it seemed heavier. I opened it, let my hand travel over the smooth greyish blubber within. Still there. I thought of my mother’s perfect croissants, her hot chocolate with cinnamon. The kitchen cabinet she had left locked for many years, despite the key she had found. The bobby pin I had stuck into that lock, shiny with grease from Margot’s scalp. We had all made tactical choices. When I stood, Margot was there, in the doorway, cheeks like sunken ships. She wrenched me up by the wrist. “What is that?” “Nothing.” My pulse moved from my forehead to my wrist where her fingernails pried at me. She snatched the bag. I didn’t resist. The sealskin slithered out and hit the floor with a smack. We both stared at it. The thing that had lived so long in our imaginations as a fable, a history, a door, now made corporeal there on top of the blue tufted bathmat. Margot stretched her free arm around her ribcage. Before she could say what I had done, I spoke. “Everyone says you look like mom, but do you remember when we were really small and a lady on the street said we were a beautiful pair of twins? She couldn’t even tell us apart. And none of us corrected her. Do you remember that? For a long time I thought she was right and the rest of them were wrong. That we were identical. But it’s true. You’re just like our mother. You’re sick like her, like when she stares out the window all day. Margot, you’re just like her. You’re sick.” And I don’t want you to leave. She closed her eyes, tight. She looked so small. “Well,” she said finally, opening her eyes. “Then you’re just like him.” She straightened up, maybe for the first time that summer, and let go of my arm. Against my side it hung like a dead thing. I turned from her. “Wait, I don’t mean it,” she said, her voice rising an octave, but I closed the door anyway and the latch clicked and I knew I had made a mistake. That this closed door was the last scene in a story whose ending I had just chosen. I dug my fingers into the gouges she had left on my arm until they stung again alongside my pulse. I wondered if the sealskin had felt as heavy in his arms as it had in mine.
The next morning when I awoke, the sealskin was gone, and so was Margot. I stood on the balcony with my hand shading my brow and tracked the water for a foot or a flipper, but I saw nothing. Dawn pushed at the mountaintops. I understood that I would never see Margot again. As I opened the sliding door, I saw that Margot had taken the canvas from the easel and propped it on my chair. Across the top she had written for my sister. For a moment, the sketch below appeared to be what it always had looked like: a tangle of scribbles. But it slowly resolved itself into a picture of my own face, looking out over the water. A slight smile on my lips.
Before we leave at the end of the summer—my mother sobbing into my father’s shoulders, the leaves beginning to change—I stand on the beach, watching the waves for a trace of a sister who has left me behind. I think of how the lake used to be connected to the sea, but isn’t anymore. How it will be separate until the ocean rises with melted glaciers to meet it. Which maybe isn’t that far away. All I see is a tiny silver fish wriggling in the froth. I toe it back into the water.
At the waterline, I forgive her. Again and again. I forgive her so that she will forgive me too. I forgive her. Like dropping a stone into deep water.
Zoe Goldstein is a recent high school graduate from Massachusetts. She has attended the Kenyon Review Young Writers Workshop and the New England Young Writers Conference at Bread Loaf. Her work appears in Body without Organs. She also edits Sunbow Zine, a zine about identity, social justice, and the climate.