The Saltwater Wife
by K. C. Norton
Herr Drejlp arrived alone, but with him came more luggage than a traveling circus requires: great
striped boxes packed with jackets and furs, a traincar's worth of dresses in every cut and color,
myriads of hats -- the local haberdasheries combined could not compete for stock -- and 314
pairs of shoes. We had guessed his purpose already, but begged him to tell us the reason for his
"I've come for a wife," he said.
He could have had his pick from the girls of the shoreline, any one of whom would have gone to
him for his wealth and stayed out of common sense, any one of whom would have made a good
wife. But, in the manner of his kind, Herr Drejlp was after the rarest, the finest, the one and only
sort. No freshwater or sky-flying wife would do. He thought to win a wife, not trap one.
Too many gifts, I could have told him, are a kind of cage. This is a thing some husbands will
When Gernot was invited to dinner, I went at his side, knowing that I was the reason Herr Drejlp
had come to town.
He was a tall man with peppercorn hair, conch-bright teeth with unusually sharp canines, and a
particular smell that even my husband, with his blunted human nose, seemed to find captivating.
He wore a purple velvet coat -- deep royal purple, only the least bit gaudy -- which struck me
as a little window into a character at least as eccentric as privileged. I admired him for it. It made
me wonder what would have happened if a man like that had stolen my skin, rather than harsh-faced Gernot whose arm I clung to so dutifully.
"Ah," said Drejlp, when first he saw me. "This is your wife?"
"Annika," said my husband -- the name he had given me. A beautiful name, which neither
suited nor pleased me. Drejlp smiled, revealing those too-sharp teeth, as if perhaps he felt the
same way; his kiss lingered on the back of my hand until Gernot's eyes bulged with jealousy.
We sat around the table sipping gin and letting raw oysters slip down our throats. It was the
fashion, of course, but all the while we ate Herr Drejlp kept his eye on me; I made sure to keep
my smile serene and to let the chilled lumps of meat slide down my throat in unbroken arcs, the
better to expose the murky expanse of my skin. He knew what I was, more or less, and what I
liked. Drejlp watched my face with some interest, while beneath the table Gernot clutched at my
thigh to remind me whose I was.
"A particular kind?" I asked. "There are so many."
Taking a slow sip of gin, Herr Drejlp mulled this over, gazing at the ceiling. "It's so hard to
articulate what one wants in a wife," he said ruefully.
"They can't all be trusted," said my husband, resting one hand on my knee.
"Can we?" asked Drejlp, cocking his eyebrows at me.
I lifted an oyster and tipped it back; my other hand drifted across my husband's lap. "Saltwater
wives are surpassingly faithful," I said. "If you can catch them."
Drejlp only smiled at me. My hand lingered. My husband coughed.
"I would like to enlist your help," said our host. "I know so little about saltwater women. If, of
course, you don't mind lending her," he added, with a glance at Gernot.
I folded my hands on the table and glanced over at my husband.
"Certainly," he said. He was looking at the boxes of frippery which lined the rented manor, and
at the expensive dinner laid out before us. He was thinking of shipping costs and taxes and good
taste. This is the way in which my husband calculates friendship, and the math was undeniable: I
would have to be lent.
There are species within species. Even husbands are not quite alike, though they spend their
whole lives on two legs, walking upright and grasping with their hands. We have tails and wings
and fur and scales, until they steal our freedom and make wives of us. They make us look like
them, but we are not. We are not even like ourselves, sometimes.
That night my husband lay in bed beside me. "He'll ask you to steal him a wife," he said.
"Oh, most assuredly," I answered mildly.
I laughed to myself. "I'll help him a bit, if he can convince me."
Gernot grunted and rolled away from me, turning his face to the wall. In the darkness, I could
feel the hum of my skin, locked away -- I did not know where -- in the house of the man I'd
married. I was naked and pink, with rough cuticles and chapped lips. Sometimes I had to remind
myself of that.
"Don't be angry, Gernot," I said, and rolled toward him across the bed that even in my own head
I'd begun to refer to as ours. "He's just not clever enough to catch one of us on his own."
Gernot reached for me and snorted. "What a silly coat he was wearing."
I felt my throat close. "But so expensive."
While Gernot was kissing me, the darkness behind my eyelids was royal purple, soft as velvet.
Herr Drejlp sent for me on Thursday, and I went.
The day was cool, and I was not surprised to find that he was wearing that jacket again. He met
me in the hallway, bowing politely and brushing his lips across my clammy hand. "My instructor
arrives," he said, leading me into the house. "Something to drink? Are you thirsty?"
"Always," I laughed. The white walls of the rental were already lined with pictures: a few opera
posters, but mostly scientific lithographs of saltwater fish. Dories, parrotfish, drums, and gobies,
even a marine iguana with its crested head. I paused before The Grouper, plectropomus
pessuliferus, and rubbed my thumb across by bottom lip.
"Ah," said my host, pausing a few steps ahead of me. "I wondered." I could feel his eyes on me,
pausing on my broad mouth, my wide shoulders, my heavy thighs. Equating me to the picture,
which was not a bad one.
Still looking at the grouper's mouth, still touching my own, I shrugged. "What about you, Mister
"About me?" His voice was soft, and for the first time I caught a hint of some accent, rich and
thick, stuck in his teeth like toffee.
I waved one hand to indicate the pictures. "What do you want?"
He ran one thumb across his lower lip, mimicking or mocking my earlier gesture. "I want a wife
like nobody has." And then, turning to the pictures, he added, "No seals. No sharks. None of the
usual. I want someone I cannot guess about."
The Grouper stared out at me. "A drink," I reminded him.
"What? Oh yes, your thirst." He shook his head. "Forgive me."
"Soon," I said, "you will have a wife to see to your guests."
He raised one rimed eyebrow. "As you see to your husband's?"
The laugh escaped from me before I had a chance to bite it back.
I followed him into a study that would have been cozy if only it hadn't seemed so temporary.
Meeting Drejlp in this house -- which for all its flim-flam was still little more than a temporary
biviouck -- told me almost nothing about him. The lithographs I understood: they were like
maps, or mounted heads, a reminder of his current obsession. The white walls of his study were
like journal pages that he had not yet taken pencil to. I sank into an overstuffed chair, settling
myself further in and tucking one leg up beneath me; limbs were still an oddity to me, a constant
mystery. Drejlp smiled at my posture but said nothing, and instead poured me a tumbler-full of
"I am so glad you have come to help me, Frau Durr." Drejlp reached out to pat my hand. "You
do me a service that I can never hope to repay."
"I have done nothing yet," I reminded him. "Why come out to the sea? Surely you could snare a
woman closer to home."
He smiled. "All this talk of catching and stealing. Can you never be convinced?"
I let my smile fall away, and my natural full-lipped sorrow overcame my face. "If you convince
her, Herr Drejlp, it will not matter. If you catch her or steal her, it will be the same. My husband
is bound here as long as I am with him. If he moves inland, he must either release me or kill me.
We don't survive long in a landlocked place."
Drejlp nodded, nibbling one thumbnail. "So he must bind his life to you. As he bound yours to
"Herr Drejlp," I said, and could not meet his eye, "I love Gernot."
"I will convince her," he said, leaning forward and placing one hand over my own. His eyes
were very blue and very human. "I will win her, and be good to her. 'Til death do us part."
My heart was deep and craggy as the reef, murky as the bay roiled by a winter storm. "I know
the one who is right for you," I lied.
Wearing human skin is not like being peeled out of my own; it is like being zipped up inside a
jacket made of something I am not. This wife-skin is too tight. It itches constantly.
"Where are you going?" Gernot asked. He watched me dress in a striped bathing suit, showing
my knobbly elbows and my plump knees.
"To help steal Drejlp a wife," I answered, folding a striped bathing towel over my arm.
"He convinced you?" asked my husband, as he tugged on one curl of his mustach.
"He convinced me," I replied. To Gernot, the man who had never convinced me of anything.
Drejlp did not bring a bathing suit. "I'll wait here," he said. "If you bring her to me, we can talk.
There will be no stealing, no catching."
"That is very reasonable," I said, with a stab of irrational anger.
The water was cold at first, and it felt strange between my human toes as I kicked down, my
breath held tight. But I can dive deeper than any husband, and more swiftly besides, and in time
the water recognized me and let me pass more easily. I kept my eyes open, despite the salty
sting. The ocean was nothing but downwardness, and I went into it, my knees brushing the rough
and sandy bottom.
It was nothing like going home. It was lonelier. The way a husband might feel, if he wandered
into his childhood house only to discover that all the interior doors were locked and his old
friends were holding a party to which he had not been invited.
I could not look the sea-creatures in the eye. I hated them too much for that; and they, in turn,
glanced once at me and then moved on, indifferent. Down I went, and down, until I found her.
She was long, ribbon-like, but thick-skinned. Her freckles were as numerous as the stars, which
we could not see from all the way down there.
"I've come to ask you for something," I said, in the Other Language. "A would-be husband hassent me."
She smiled up at me, all points and curves. "I'm nobody's wife."
"But I am," I said. I sunk lower in the water beside her. "We've hunted together, you and I."
"We have." She nodded, the motion rippling down the length of her. "Yes, I do remember."
"Then trust me."
"I'm slippery," she scolded. "I'm no tuna, content to be wrapped in their nets."
"Nor me," I whispered, drifting closer. "But think what fun you'll have, to wreck their traps and
then slip free of them."
Her laugh raised the skin along my human spine.
"Sharks," I reminded her, and, "barricudas. Gulls," I pressed, knowing I'd won. "You've
escaped them all, left them chasing their tails. What's left to outwit, but a husband?"
She looked at me -- oh, how I well I knew those eyes -- and then coiled herself about me like
an enchanted girdle. "I will come, Grouper," she said, using my Other Name.
No one had called me that in such a long, long time.
I took her to Herr Drejlp. She staggered out of the surf behind me, shaking on her new legs. And
oh! She was beautiful, with long lines and small breasts and phosphorescent hair. More beautiful
Drejlp was waiting for her, and when he saw her his ocean eyes grew wide, his mouth open and
his black hair ruffled by the sea breeze.
She went to him, and stood a little ways off, talking. He gave her one of the dresses he'd brought
in a striped brocade box, and she put it on carefully, looking up to see what effect her nakedness
had even as she covered it.
Something skimmed between them, a flying-fish of desire, and it was not only Drejlp's. She was
such a hungry thing.
Then they went away together, arm in arm. Drejlp turned back once to smile at me and mouth his
thanks. She turned back once to wink.
And in all the excitement of meeting his new and lovely wife, it did not occur to Drejlp that her
skin was not in his possession. That it was, instead, in mine.
I was myself one day -- I do not have words for it except those in the Other Language -- and
then there was a net. I recall it like that: my whole life as one long, ordinary, perfect day, and
then the net. And Gernot. And I was lying in his boat, fat-bellied and gasping, the sudden gravity
of the waterless world crushing my organs upon themselves. That was before his skinned me,
which was a violent messy process, as I struggled so to keep it.
And then he folded my wet, slippery skin into halves, then quarters, and tucked it away where I
could no longer see it.
And then I was his wife. And he thought me tamed.
For the rest of the summer Herr Drejlp and his saltwater wife celebrated their engagement with
dances and garden parties and feasts; she cut her dark hair short and wore it loose about her face,
and wore a different dress every night. She wore his gift-shoes and more besides. She
commissioned hair-bands and earrings and gemstone chokers.
All the men were wild for her -- the unmarried ones especially, but even Gernot looked at her,
though not entirely with approval -- and she danced with all of them. And the eel-wife loved to
dance, all the lines of her body turning into curves as she swirled around and between her many
admirers. She flourished in Herr Drejlp's rented mansion.
Her fiancé, meanwhile, grew pinched and thin.
I was peeling potatoes in Gernot's kitchen -- such an earthy, wifey thing to do -- when Drejlp
knocked at the front door. I called out for him to enter.
He let himself in by the side door and came to me, kicking off his shoes. "I wish to thank you,
Frau Durr," he said.
I looked up into his pale face. There was not another soul in the house, for Gernot was in town
on shipping business. "Do you?" I asked, smiling.
"She is killing me," he answered, slumping into a chair. "The money I don't mind -- I was
prepared for the expense -- but it's all the dancing and parties and shopping trips. She's
bottomless. Nothing fills her up."
"It is a kind of famine," I said softly, turning a damp potato over in my fingers while the rough
brown skin fell away and revealed the pale meat beneath. "Being captured."
"I'm grateful, Annika, I am. But . . ." Drejlp sighed. "It is so much work. That's all I meant to
"What did you think you would get?" I asked, putting one tuber aside and choosing another.
"Someone dutiful," said Drejlp. And then, in a whisper, "Like you."
He leaned toward me, looking very intently at my eyes. I looked back and did not move. And did
not blink. "Saltwater wives," I said firmly, "are surpassingly faithful."
As if anyone wants to be desired for being dutiful.
"Well," answered Drejlp, sitting back and resting his hands on one knee. "Yes. If you can catch
The question was, where did he put it? I could feel it somewhere in the house; it was one of the
things that kept me close. Sometimes when Gernot was away, I would wander through the
rooms, my eyes closed and my feet bare, stretching myself in all directions to find it.
But my true skin was like a missing limb: I could only be certain of where it was not.
In the third month of their engagement, Drejlp and his wife-to-be invited us to their rented home
for a dinner party. They served oysters by the dozen, and escargot in butter, and a lime-cured fish
salad called ceviche, which I had never had before but thought very fine.
The eel-wife sidled up to me early in the night. She was wearing a slim dress the color of the
starry sky. "I have named myself Aale," she said, winking at me. "You must call me that from
now on, Annika." And she kissed Gernot on both cheeks before dashing off to dance.
We did not stay long. Gernot looked between flirtatious Aale and her weary husband, and his
eyes grew darker with every passing dance and every partner Aale took. At last he lurched to his
feet and walked around the side of the house; I waved to Aale as I hurried after him.
During the walk home he did not speak, but after a time he slowed his pace so that I could walk
beside him. He was staring at the ground beneath his feet, although he glanced up once or twice
at the sky.
In our room, we undressed in silence and slid into our familiar bed. At last, Gernot murmured, "I
am not sure the wife you brought Herr Drejlp is the wife he was expecting."
I thought of the boxes piled high with hats and shoes and lacy dresses. "I brought him the wife
he thought he wanted."
"He is regretting it now," my husband said.
"I think you are right," I answered.
"Well," said Gernot, rolling on his side to kiss my cheek, "I believe I was wiser in my choice."
I swallowed, for my throat was dry. "I believe he agrees with you."
Gernot was suddenly stiff and cold beside me.
"He was here not long ago," I said, "when you were in town. He admitted that . . . that Aale is
sometimes too wild for him. He said he had hoped for a wife more, well, like me." The best lie is
the lie sown in truth. I closed my eyes and blessed Herr Drejlp for flirting with me, for deeming
me obedient. "I am afraid, Gernot my darling, that he may fancy me."
"And you him?" asked my husband woodenly.
"No!" I cried. "Of course not. But do you think . . . well."
"Well what?" my husband whispered.
"That he might try," I said, ever so softly, "to steal my skin?"
My husband's breathing stopped for a long moment. "He will never find it."
"Oh please, Gernot," I said, taking up my husband's hand in mine, "see that he does not."
Late that night, when my husband thought me asleep, he crept out of bed and tiptoed down the
stairs. I heard him in the library, and then the main room, then coming back up the stairs and into
our bed. He held me close then, with his chest pressed against my back, and I shifted as if
So it was that I learned that my true self had been hidden in the family Bible -- which I, lacking
any natural inclination toward human religion as well as the ability to read, had never thought to
open -- and was now hidden in the back of the picture frame which, at its front, ornamented a
faded daguerreotype of Gernot's grandfather arm-in-arm with his wife.
Who had once been, if I recall correctly, a porpoise.
I could not let another day pass, or risk Gernot thinking of a cleverer hiding spot. I waited until
Gernot really was asleep before tiptoeing down to the living room and prying back the
paperboard which held the photograph in place.
Oh, my skin! It was fluid as water between my fingertips, and it clung to me with static
electricity, as if it longed to be reunited. But I could imagine the look on Gernot's face when he
staggered down in the morning only to find his wife flattened upon the carpet by her own bulk,
eyes glazed and dry scales papery to his touch. I tucked the skin in the pocket of my nightgown
and stumbled out the door, leaving it slightly open behind me so that Gernot would not hear the
Back I went to Herr Drejlp's mansion. The lights were all out, the music was gone, and the
remnants of the party had been cleared away. From my other pocket I drew out the eel-wife's
skin and waved it above my head, hoping that she could feel, as I had with mine, the strange
intensity of its proximity.
It seemed that I stood there for a very long time. Should I go down to the water? I wondered. I
could not risk Gernot finding me, and Aale was a slippery thing who would surely find her own
way. But what if Drejlp locked her up? Or, worse, moved her far away from the sea until she
My musings were interrupted by a series of loud cries, and then a succession of thumps,
followed by one long scream that was suddenly cut off. I stood there, struck dumb, until one of
the doors flew open and a lone figure rushed out across the lawn.
"Hurry!" cried Aale in the Other Language, snatching up my hand and pulling me away toward
the beach. She had something large and lumpy clutched under one arm, but I could not make out
what it was.
"Are you all right?" I gasped, staggering in her wake.
"We'll leave them chasing their coattails," was all she would say. "Hurry!" So I did.
My bare feet slipped on the dewy grass, then over the smooth stones along the shoreline. But that
did not matter. I could feel my skin tingling in my pocket, and Aale's in my hand; soon I was
pressing it into hers, and then tossing my nightgown away. Aale did the same.
I was halfway into the water, my skin already pulled loosely about me and changing my shape,
when Aale laughed and pointed behind her. A strange silhouette, like a low-lying dog, was
moving toward us. It had an odd, blunt nose, and spines all along its back; for a moment I
thought, It is a very small dragon, before I realized that I had seen this sort of thing before, and
that it was nothing but a marine iguana. Its body had a reddish-purple color, though its head was
I took all this in at once, and then turned to the eel-wife. She made a face at the lizard as she
threw the bundle into the water; I saw then, though it turned black as the water took it down, that
it was Herr Drejlp's purple coat.
Then Aale was in the surf, her body looping into its old familiar curl. She blinked one golden eye
at me and was gone.
I followed her in. But enough was left of Frau Durr that I lingered for a while and watched the
scaly form of Herr Drejlp struggle with his skin, until he put it on and became a man again.
And then I was the Grouper, plectropomus pessuliferus, and I dove.