There’s a story about the truck with an empty driver’s seat that they say patrols the East Coast.
My Alli was born on a new moon night, on the soft sealskin in the back of the black pickup truck, right where she was conceived. We’d barely made it halfway down the rough farm track before I stopped and clambered into the back to help deliver her.
She was held tight in her mother’s arms while I navigated bumps and turned onto the highway to reach the city hospital. Next morning, when they sent us home, we parked by the grey-sand beach where we’d met, watching the waves while our daughter slept in her second-hand car seat between us.
After Alli came, we needed more of a future than mustering sheep for Mr McEwan. I borrowed money from my brothers overseas. Her mother found a suit in a charity shop, combed her hair into a neat bun, and sweet-talked a bank manager. Mr McEwan lent us the rest in a charitable mood after a few beers. Even before Alli could walk, we threw everything we owned in the pickup and moved far inland to our little high-country farm — to dusty dry summer days where the hills were scorched gold, and to icy winters that left feathery frosts on the truck windows. The two of us shared the work, and we’d find a couple of boys from the township to help during lambing. Alli’s mother yearned for the ocean, but here we could make a proper living and, one day, repay our debts.
Alli did her part too, once she was old enough, but she was restless. On the bus to see her friends in town. Riding the farm bike, mustering the sheep and taking them across to the far paddocks with her collie Sooran. Up the mountain for a run. In the water, too, whenever she could, though there was little enough of it in the high country: collecting pebbles from rocky braided rivers or long hikes up in the Southern Alps to find a tarn. When she turned sixteen, we started teaching her to drive. She itched for her full license, to get out on her own, on the open roads.
If I worried about others blasting their horns and speeding past, it was she who reassured me. “It’s a Pavlovian response to the learners’ plates, Appa. But they don’t care if you drive badly, as long as you don’t drive slowly.” And she never drove slowly.
We offered to buy a small automatic, less of a petrol guzzler, but our daughter was never more at home than when she slid into the drivers’ seat of the battered pickup. Its grinding transmission gentled, the gearstick moved smoothly only for her. And she reciprocated — she was always in good humour behind the wheel.
I remember once, with her mother leaning out the passenger side window as I half-dozed in the back, Alli said playfully, “Stick your hand out like you’re waving, Mama. Now bend down your fingers. First the little one, now the ring finger, the thumb, the forefinger.”
Alli’s mother complied. The car tailgating us dropped back with a furious honk before she realised she was flipping them off. Because even after eighteen years, ours was a foreign world to her.
One morning, the winter after Alli turned sixteen, the three of us rose early and drove all the way to the beach. Her mother kissed us both in the blowing sand, put on her dark, sleek, sealskin, and vanished into the tingling cold ocean. I still see, in my mind’s eye, Alli clinging tight, pleading in hiccupy sobs for her to stay.
I could understand why she returned to the sea. But for all that they seemed identical in temperament and nature, Alli could not.
“Mama loves you. She’ll come back one day,” was poor consolation for a girl whose mother had left her. Alli had never been a stereotypical teenager until then. She began to sulk in her room, sleep late, forget her chores — or claim to. It was weeks before she could be coaxed out for a driving lesson. For the next months, those were the only times I saw her smile, and so I took her out whenever I could.
That’s why she got her license that spring. I baked a soggy carrot cake to celebrate, and we stayed up remembering family stories. I told her about her uncles across the Tasman, how we’d left our parents to flee the war to find refuge in colonies of the Empire we’d only read about in books. I didn’t need to tell her that, after eighteen years, this land still felt foreign to me, too.
Alli retold stories her mother had shared with us both. In the dull lamplight, listening to our daughter’s low voice, I closed my eyes, tried to imagine nets of white sunshine falling through clear water, the taste of salt, wild waves and rip tides of the East Coast, deep dives into the breathless cold.
The next day, Alli and Sooran were gone, and so was the truck. The boys who’d come for lambing said they’d seen it heading towards the road, collie on the passenger side but no-one in the driver’s seat.
I guess Alli takes after her mother in more ways than I thought. Now, she searches the coast, perhaps awaiting her mother’s return, or a way to join her. I wonder what she will become as she learns the freedom her mother once believed she had found on land.
Here in the hills, caring for the ewes and their shivering newborn lambs, I must remember that leaving is freedom, for her, as it has been for all of us. I must remember that she has chosen this, that she is older than I was when I left the first of the many homes in my lifetime. I cannot go back to most. But there are debts to pay before I leave this one.
Some of us always live in our skins. Some have the privilege and tragedy of a skin they can remove, that lets them move between worlds. How can I resent those I love for changing forms, for seeking lives that make them feel complete? They’ll remember me. One day, I hope, they’ll return to me — or I to them.
© Copyright Tehnuka
Tehnuka is a Tamil tauiwi writer and volcanologist from Aotearoa-New Zealand. She likes to find herself up volcanoes, down caves, and in unexpected places; others, however, can find her on Twitter as @tehnuka, and her words in Apparition Lit, Memento Vitae, and the Daily Drunk Mag. She was a finalist in the 2020 Dream Foundry contest and highly commended in the 2020 NZ Sunday Star-Times short story competition. This is her first speculative story publication.
Read the Rest of the July Issue
- seal bride by Jennifer Mace
- This Is How You Make Selkie Skins by Priya Sridhar
- The Land Wife by Phoebe Farrell-Sherman
- Clutch. Stick. Shift. by Tehnuka
- Three Magic Seals by Rhys Hughes
- Moving In by Alice Pow
- It Wasn’t A Mermaid by Wilda Morris
- Fish-Fish by Cherry Potts
- Ocean’s 6 by Elsa Sjunneson
- Seal by Eefje Savelkoul
- Fluke by Jennifer Bushroe
- Selachimorpha Selkie by Cislyn Smith
- Below Salt-Heavy Tides by Andi C. Buchanan
- Girlfriend Jacket by Benny Kim
- Diving Selkie by Vicky Bowes