A short story, exclusive to this website. Illustration by Amelia Onorato.
By Luanne Rice
I knew right from the beginning that I would kill for him. A life for a life; the one he had saved was mine. Gray-green waves curling into themselves, wind blowing the tops off, trails of dirty foam across the sea. He saw me struggling, perhaps even heard the crunch of my bones. I know he saw the blood.
Red mixed with the wave foam and slicked clear from the pier to the big rock that marks the channel out of Halifax harbor. He didn’t even hesitate. I heard him yell, and then the splash as he dove off the stone jetty.
Gulls and terns circled our heads, diving down for bits of my flesh. He swam directly between me and the shark, put his big hand right on the white’s nose, pushed hard so the triangular head hinged back.
Rows and rows of serrated teeth in the shark’s mouth, and they clicked and shifted as the man kept his hand where it was, gripping the gritty black nose, and my blood ran down his wrist. I’d given the best I could, gouging at the shark’s throat even as he attempted to eat me.
“Arm around my neck,” he said, perhaps more to himself than to me. We are born with the fight-or-flight instinct, and mine had been on high alert since I’d felt the water move around me—neither from waves or tide or current—but from the sweep of the shark’s tail, the exploratory whisk as it brushed by. I wanted to fight the man as I had the shark, but in truth my blood was running out, and I was close to death.
Dreams played through my mind, all my babies in the waves. In sleep I have no language, only images of my life and nature. Hunger, fish, storm seas, rough mating, giving birth to my silky ones. And the sharks: the many I’d encountered, fought, hidden from. Even crueler hunters, the one to whom I had sacrificed Muir. Shark and hunter dreams are as real as one’s own death: because how else can it end?
When I came to, I lay in a white hospital bed, every inch of the room straight and white and glaring. My body was swaddled in white, my left arm bandaged and held aloft by a metal contraption that reminded me of boatyard pulleys.
The man sat beside my bed, asleep. I looked at him long and hard. His face was weathered and deeply lined, almost as if he spent as much time in the wind and sun as I. His hair was the color of a marsh in dawn light: silver with the golden-brown of rushes just touched by sun. He wore clean pants and a jacket, but I saw that his woven belt was stained with blood. Mine.
A nurse came in. She saw that my eyes were open, and she started to say hello, but I closed them right away. My heart skittered so hard. The proximity of a woman, while I was so vulnerable, a prisoner of those tight white sheets, made me realize how close I’d delivered myself to danger.
I gazed beneath lowered lids, watching how she moved: she glided through her job like a swan. Check the machine, clasp her fingers around my right wrist, frown as she counted. Of course my pulse would be wrong. She made a notation on her clipboard, glanced at the sleeping man, and hurried from the room.
There was little time.
“Hello,” I said.
He twitched, but barely moved. Did my voice not work? Was “hello” the wrong greeting? The lessons were so old, nearly forgotten. They had died with my grandmother—my mother a victim of a ship’s propeller.
“Hello!” I said again. This time he jumped, as if I’d barked.
“You’re awake,” he said, leaning close, touching my cheek. “What a fighter you are. You’re here, you’re alive.”
“You must help me,” I said. My right hand was already starting to work. Wiggle the fingers, see how they work. And my legs: stretch them under the covers, held tightly together, more strength and power in one large than two small.
“Do you need the nurse?” he asked, straightening up, looking around. “No!” I said. “She will hurt me. Please. Help me out of here.”
“But you nearly died,” he said. “You lost over half the blood in your body. They’ve been giving you transfusions…” He gestured above, at the bag of red, a scarlet tube running into a needle jammed under the bandage.
My grandmother had taught me words and ways. I knew how to pour tea, how to dance, how to thank my hosts for a lovely evening. But she’d never anticipated this, so I had no lessons or words to lean back on. My wildness came, pulled the needle out with my teeth. Blood sprayed, just like the artery of a shark-severed seal. I used my legs to throw off the sharp white covers. The man tried to hold me down, and I kicked him in the eye.
The metal sling imprisoned me. I heard it clanking as I thrashed, the sound of halyards on the sailboats in Eel Pond when storm winds blew in. The man began to help me. He remained calm, like a good sailor, unhitching my left arm, agony shooting through my bones, grabbing me out of the bed, carrying me down a set of stairs as alarms sounded and I yelped in pain.
“That noise,” I said. It screeched in my tiny, unprotected ears.
“These stairs are for emergency only,” he said.
I wanted to tell him this is the greatest emergency of my life, much worse than the shark attack. But he seemed, somehow, to know as he carried me down. He shielded me with his body as he pushed the door open and wonderful, cold, salt air hit my face.
He ran through the parking lot. It was night, and I felt safe in the shadows. Bright orange lights shined, but he stayed out of their glare. We made it to his truck, and he opened the door and placed me gently but hurriedly inside, making room among the bucket and tackle box and coiled line. A mere brush against that line sent me into panic, but I held it inside.
My bones felt like jelly as he drove. During my day out of the water, I had barely gotten used to being upright. I had emerged before dawn, hidden my coat beneath a granite ledge high above the tide line, walked from the beach to a salt-silvered cottage, and stolen a blue cotton dress from the clothesline.
I’d roamed the village all day, saying hello, practicing my wave, my smile. I’d felt warm tar beneath my feet, felt tiny pebbles catch in the webbing between my toes. There were beautiful gardens. Swimming in the harbor I would sometimes spot flower pots on the docks, in the harbormaster’s window boxes. But I’d never seen them up close before.
“Their…name?” I’d asked a red-haired woman, watering a cluster of delicate white flowers.
“Petunias,” she said. “And these blue ones are lobelia.”
“Beautiful,” I’d said.
That was a word my grandmother had loved to teach me. She’d used it to describe so many things: dawn, twilight, a crescent moon, spring tides, bioluminescent plankton, a hatch of silversides, the herring and mackeral runs, our distant cousins the whales, and my babies.
I’m not sure she ever expected me to use human language. She blamed herself for having left our kind for a long time. It was while she was gone that my mother was killed. My grandmother, in love with her other life, ignored all of her instincts and all of the salt sea’s messages to return to the ocean, find her daughter. Perhaps she would have been too late anyway.
We nursed my mother for nearly one lunar cycle, the gash in her neck so deep it was never to heal. We let her go the night of the new moon, with no light to show her sinking down, spiraling into the darkness of our true and final home.
The man pulled down a driveway covered with broken clam shells. I could smell the calcium, almost taste the mollusks. He parked the truck in a falling-down barn, came around the other side, and lifted me into his arms.
We entered his house through an unlocked wooden door. Inside, he laid me down on a narrow bed in small room off the kitchen. He made sure I was settled on the bed, then left the room. I heard his feet on the creaky boards, and I heard the shush, shush as he closed all the curtains.
When he returned to me, he lit only one lamp. We stared into each other’s eyes for the first time. I saw that his were pale blue, the color of a salt pond in the last moments of starlight before sunrise. His right brow, eye, and cheek were red and swelling, from where I had kicked him. His beard was streaked brown and gray. I thought he seemed ancient. Yet his gaze was bright, in the way of young males.
“Why am I doing this?” he asked.
“Helping you… I broke you out of the hospital. I’m afraid you’ll die.”
“I would die if I stayed there.”
“They were giving you blood, antibiotics.”
I nodded. I knew how many of us died—not from otherwise life-threatening shark bites, but from the fact their teeth were coated with the deadliest bacteria in the sea.
“And your left arm,” he said. “They were treating…”
I looked down at my flipper. It was bandaged short and tight, as if they’d stuffed the healthy and mangled parts into a ball, bound it with yards of cotton, hung it from a hook overhead. I knew that bones had been crushed; I just didn’t know how badly.
“Do I still have my fingers?” I asked.
He laid a rough hand on my forehead. “The shark took your arm at the elbow,” he said. “There was no hand to save.”
Cold death. A seal with only one flipper couldn’t swim or feed. To reenter the sea would be to invite death within the day. I turned my head to the wall so he wouldn’t see my tears.
“I’ll take care of you,” he said. “I won’t send you back to the hospital.”
“Thank you,” I whispered.
“Will you tell me your name?” he asked. “My name is Roy.”
“I’m called Muir,” I said. The same name as my mother and my dead, beloved daughter. Perhaps others of my brood had met death—they had swum away into pelagic adulthood—but Muir, my infant, had been the only one torn from me—clubbed to death by a fisherman as we swam by his boat.
In the west of Ireland, the name means “sea.” My family came from Galway and Connemara. We traveled currents across the North Atlantic, coasted shipping lanes on icebergs, swam with shearwaters and gannets, gazed at the Aurora Borealis, watched the blue-green-salmon iridescence shimmer all through the sky. One branch of our family had settled in Nova Scotia. Of all seal families, ours was one of the few affected by the law of humanity.
Every other generation, the eldest girl in our line must leave the sea for one month—from the time of the waning half moon, four weeks later, until the moon has begun to wax toward full. And during those days on dry land, we are neither seal nor human—we are selkie. Seals having a human experience.
If we refuse the gift, we will simply lose awareness and be unable to pass the spell onto our granddaughters. And if we stay beyond the month’s time, we find ourselves in limbo: unable to be human, and unwilling to return to being seal.
That night I slept as if frozen in a block of ice—without light, warmth, movement, or any memory of my family.
The next morning I woke to the sound of knocking on the door. Roy had covered me with thick blankets and I burrowed more deeply beneath them so that I could hear only muffled voices, two men talking. One laughed, sharp and raucous, and I remembered what had driven me straight back into the sea yesterday, without my fur.
After my walkabout, I’d returned to the bay. I had wanted to see how it felt to swim as a human. I’d checked on my skin, shoved into the crack of that glacial ledge. I’d seen it was safe, slipped off the blue dress, and dived into the water. When I came up for air, I’d seen a man staring, heard him braying like a seagull. He’d discovered my secret, he thought it funny.
And then the shark had attacked me.
My nerve endings tingled under the blankets. I felt raw, and the cells of my body screamed out. Roy spoke quietly, his voice calm, as if he and the other man were friends. I couldn’t breath; I felt trapped, and I feared myself, for how badly I had mistrusted the man I thought had saved me.
Moments later Roy entered my room, his eyes both worried and angry. Yet at the sight of me, his expression softened, and he sat beside me, trembling on the bed. He held a paper bag clutched to his chest. My nostrils quivered. I knew what was inside.
“My skin,” I whispered.
“I wondered,” he said. “As soon as I saw the shark attacking you. I thought you might be a selkie. The way you squirmed to free yourself, swam as if you were part of the ocean yourself. “
“But I didn’t free myself,” I said. “I would have died if you hadn’t saved me. Why did you?”
He shook his head. “I don’t like sharks.”
“You thought I was a woman?”
“You look like a woman,” he said. “But when I touched you underwater…your skin was too smooth.”
“Even though I was supposed to stay out the month, I couldn’t resist standing by the water’s edge. I didn’t like the feeling of that dress. I was just letting it slide down to the sand when that man, your friend, parked his truck to watch me. I heard him laugh, just the way he did just now.”
“Well, Inigo did see you,” Roy said. “And he came to sell me back your skin.”
“You paid him for it?”
“I will,” Roy said, stroking my cheek. “As soon as I can.”
What value would a human place on a selkie’s skin? A thousand oysters, a hundred pearls, a sea cave filled with pirate’s silver? I wanted to ask Roy what he was going to do, and how long Inigo could be trusted to not tell others what he had seen, what he knew.
But Roy’s blue eyes reassured me, and I didn’t speak. I lay still as Roy removed my brushed silk fur from the paper bag, unfolded it, and pulled back the white cotton sheet to lay it over my body. He bundled the sheet and goose down comforter back over me, smoothing it out the best he could. My fur enclosed me, taking me into dreams of the sea and my grandmother, of my mother and my lost daughter.
Days passed. Roy brought me delicious lobsters, clams, and sand dabs. When I felt strong enough, I climbed out of bed. He gave me a maroon silk robe to wear while I left my skin on the bed, hidden from anyone but Roy and me by the comforter. I had a fever, and my left side ached. I tugged at the bandages so hard they finally came off.
Roy’s face showed pain as he helped me pull the gauze from the bloody, torn flesh stripped from the five long bones of my flipper. Infection had set in—we could see the bubbling green pus just beneath bits of dried crust. I sat still at the kitchen table while Roy boiled water, cleaned my wounds, dressed them with ointment that smelled like oil slicks trailing behind freighters.
“Does it hurt?” he asked.
I smiled and shook my head. But what is “hurt?” In the world between being a seal and being human, I wasn’t sure. I felt pain, yes, but no worse than the time a Polar bear had raked my side with six-inch claws. I ached inside, worrying that with one flipper I would never make it back to sea, never see my children again. But it was easier to smile than to speak of these things.
More days went by. Some mornings Roy left, locking the house behind him. He would return with food and medicine, and I noticed the infection beginning to clear. Skin was starting to grow between the knuckles of my nude fingerbones; soon it would scar. But would it thicken enough to serve as a web, to allow me to swim? Roy held me as I moved the joints, imitating a swim stroke, trying to endure the slashing along my nerves.
At night we sat on the porch and watched the sky. I had emerged from the sea on the waning June half moon. Like a ball of shimmering green seaweed rolled by the waves, the moon grew larger each night. Roy’s house was set far back from the road; we saw headlights arc against his hedgerow, heard engines from a long way off. The air was warm and smelled of sargassum and salt, of shark and mackerel.
“Are we near the place you rescued me?” I asked.
“No more than a mile away,” he said.
I nodded, tucking that knowledge away. The house lights were out, but I stole a glance and saw Roy looking straight at me. I blinked, letting him stare. In return I indulged my own curiosity. With my good hand, I ran a finger around the shape of his face, down the side of his neck.
What had my grandmother taught me about the human world? Seals are inquisitive, she’d told me, and never will you find yourself so full of questions as when you’re among human beings. But sitting with Roy, I could think of nothing I wanted to ask. I desired only to sit with him in the night air, a mile from the sea.
“Do you miss it?” he asked after a few minutes.
“Yes,” I said. I had no doubt that he meant the ocean.
“When you are well enough, you will leave,” he said.
“My grandmother told me that when men find a selkie’s skin they hide it, so they can keep her.”
I cast him a sidelong glance. Perhaps I was testing him. He hadn’t mentioned Inigo since that first night. On the other hand, he had left my skin untouched; I slept on it every night, soft fur cradling me and bringing me dreams of northern bays.
“It’s yours,” he said. “I would never hide it from you.”
“I paid him,” Roy said. I waited to hear more-for him to tell me he’d had to barter, or sell valuables, or agree to smuggle. Smugglers were everywhere in these waters. But he said nothing. Just sat quiet and still, watching the moon make her slow way across the sky.
When the moon had been full and began to wane, I started to feel stirrings inside. Like the first cool breezes that tell you summer is ending, that autumn is coming. Seals follow the weather. We always live up north, in waters tinged with ice flow. But my feelings were unrelated to the weather. They were more like fluttering in my heart, as if I’d somehow swallowed a bird and it needed to escape and fly away.
Roy paid special attention to my wounds that week as the moon waned into nothingness. Did he know how little time I had left in his care? I heard the other seals barking, calling my name from out beyond the breakwater. I could barely restrain myself from slipping into my skin, leaving Roy’s house before the appointed length of time.
He noticed me gazing toward his hedge, in the direction of the harbor. He must have seen the longing in my eyes, but all he did is smile.
“Come on,” he said.
“Where?” I asked.
“We’ll take a ride,” he said.
I nodded, and he let me put on one of his canvas jackets and a pair of khaki pants. Because of my injuries, I’d never really found my land legs. Getting around his small house was no problem, but I had to hop and wriggle my way toward his truck. He laughed, picked me up, and put me in the front seat.
Again, I saw the tackle box and coiled line.
“You’re a fisherman, aren’t you?” I asked as we drove along.
“Yep,” he said. “Lobsters.”
“We’re enemies,” I said.
“A lot of lobstermen shoot seals on sight,” he said.
“I have,” he said. We drove a moment in silence. “I won’t again.”
We drew near to the harbor. The smell of salt water was so fresh and bright I nearly jumped straight out the open window, onto the rough road. I would have crawled into that ocean without my skin, just to feel it on me.
Boats plied the calm water; I saw their red-and-green running lights, the white lights on the mastheads. Off to the east the beam of a lighthouse swung through the darkness, left it in despair. I gazed at the black harbor, aching for the depths.
“My children,” I whispered.
He kept driving slowly, hands locked on the steering wheel.
“How many do you have?” he asked.
I was thirty-one years old. I had had one litter every other year since my fourth year.
“Many,” I replied. “And you?”
“I have none.”
“Have you had a wife?”
“Once,” he said.
“I’m sorry,” I said, for I could see in his sad eyes and hear in his tone of voice that he was a man for love: desire in his flesh and mind, sorrow for the woman who’d come his way and left again.
When we got to the ledge where I’d hidden my fur, I took so deep a breath he turned to look at me. And he knew, and he stopped the truck.
“Do you want to leave?” he asked.
Yes, I started to say. But I stared at the water, and I heard him breathing and felt his warmth beside me, and I couldn’t speak.
“Do you need to feel the water?” he pressed.
“That I do,” I said.
He drove the truck a little farther, to a more secluded cove. There were no streetlights here, and the harbor’s loom was hidden by thick pine trees. I heard the gentle slosh of shallow waves, and my heart began to race. Roy turned off his headlights, shut down the engine, and came around the truck.
When I was in his arms, head against his chest, I reached up to fumble with his shirt buttons. My good hand was ungainly at best, and I barely got the first button through the hole.
“What are you doing?” he asked.
“Swim with me,” I said.
He kept carrying me toward the water. But when we got to the edge, he helped me out of the canvas jacket and cotton pants and eased me onto the sand. I heard him kick off his shoes. In the reflective bounce of starlit waves, I saw him slipping out of his clothes. We slid into the cove, side by side. The water felt warm against my cold skin, and when Roy pressed against me, I felt him shiver. He had to hold me afloat, letting me try out my left flipper.
“Try swimming on your own,” he said. “I’m going to let you go, but I’m right here.”
I made the first feeble attempts to paddle, flipped over on my side like a weighted sea buoy. Roy put his hand beneath my shoulder, righted me. He swam along side me while I worked my glide, letting my legs propel me, finding that my ruined flipper would never catch another fish, would fail to assist me as anything but a rudder, and fail, perhaps, even at that. In that moment, held by Roy, I shimmied with a swimmer’s joy.
My body was alert for any large fish, but there were none. I knew never to fear the same shark. All a shark ever was was hungry. His great hunger kept him in constant forward motions. The water was ours. Oh, I let Roy hold me, and I lifted my lips to his. My grandmother had warned me against men’s kisses, but I wanted to face the danger.
We stayed together, floating, sinking, floating, sinking. His kisses were so tender, then so biting. We became part of the cove, and part of each other. The sea blazed around us, bioluminescence kicked up by our love. I clung to Roy, or perhaps it was he holding me so tightly.
He carried me out of the sea, and I barely noticed. We had become part of each other. He gathered our sandy clothes, and we wriggled into them. The ride home must have lasted ten minutes, but it seemed forever. All I could think about was the sweetest lesson my grandmother had taught me.
We parked out back, in his barn. He began to carry me, but I pushed away, onto my own two feet. Time was a shadow, walled off from me by the invisible moon. I’d crossed the selkie line that night, from seal to woman. And I wanted to dance.
“Do you hear music?” I asked, because I did: the wind in the leaves, branches, tall grasses.
“No,” he said.
“Will you…” I began to ask. But he knew what I was asking, because we were one. He turned on the truck, found a radio station. The headlights beamed outward, over the night-damp grass.
Roy took me in his arms, and we began to move. Slowly at first, getting my legs to work properly. The joints were stiff, and my ankles wanted to stick together and form a tail instead of legs. But gradually my body did what I asked it to, and my ankles separated, and my legs began to glide.
“One-two-three,” I whispered, “one-two-three…”
The music played from Roy’s truck, a song with guitars and fiddles, and under black moonless sky we waltzed. I remembered the joy of swimming with him, and marveled at how like swimming it was to dance. The music moved us like the current, and when he held me tightly to his chest, I felt our hearts beat in rhythm. I had the pulse of human woman now, not a seal at all.
And when I was tired, and my legs began to buckle, Roy knew it was time to stop. So he lifted me up, turned off the truck, and carried me toward the house. Our mouths were hot on each other. Sand gritted from his skin into mine. Love rained from my heart, a summer storm of rain squalls racing across the sea’s surface. The feeling was so powerful, I missed the first pass of the big fish, the quick flick of its powerful tail.
Roy didn’t notice. I stiffened, but he had drunk our love, swallowed the great joy we’d created together. My eyes slitted, gazing into the darkness as Roy carried me through the kitchen into my room. I looked at my bed and knew what I would see: my skin was gone. But the thief hadn’t had time to get away.
His lips on mine, Roy began to lower me onto the bed. Our bodies had found each other in the sea, and they wanted each other here in this other element. But I felt my humanness draining away. Seals are deceptive. We must be to outsmart fishermen, steal fish from their nets, lobsters from their traps.
My eyes went straight to Inigo, standing behind the closet door. He held my skin clenched in one hand, a gun in the other. And he saw me see him: our eyes locked. Would he have tried to escape otherwise? I have no way of knowing.
“Roy,” he said.
As if he couldn’t believe his ears, Roy turned very slowly. I saw Inigo step out of the shadow, show Roy his gun. Roy immediately put me on the bed, stood in front of me, shielding me.
“Put that down,” Roy said, pointing at my skin.
Inigo only smiled. The price of a selkie skin was beyond that of a blue pearl. Inigo gestured with the gun. He wanted something else from Roy. More of whatever Roy had paid him? But no. Roy realized before I that what Inigo wanted was me.
Oh, shark. Hungry, moving through the water, doing what you do. My grandmother had taught me that humans had their reasons as well. But what I knew best, what lived forever in my heart, was being a seal. We appear sweet, with our big eyes and innocent expressions, but we will slice your nets and trash your traps, and bite into the backbone of the fattest fish.
I sprang off the bed and sank my teeth into Inigo’s face, biting it off. I spit his nose onto the floor, scraped the gun from his hand with my bared fingerbones. I heard the cry—but not Inigo’s: Roy’s. My name echoed in my ears as I clamped my teeth down on the vein in Inigo’s neck, biting as I felt Roy tearing at my shoulders, attempting to pull me off.
“Muir,” he wept when I was done, when Inigo lay dead on the floor.
“He was going to kill you,” I said.
Roy knelt by Inigo, shocked by what he saw, by what I had done. I reached for my skin. While Roy crouched there, I slipped into my skin and felt myself transform.
The memory of being human began to fade even as I smelled his scent on my skin. He opened the door, and I slipped through. Harbor smells were stronger than before: the salt wind made my fur stand on end. I could have made it there myself, but Roy drove me.
Every beat of my heart took me farther from my humanity but brought me closer to my love for Roy. My pulse would never be taken for a woman’s now. The idea of Roy’s house as shelter slid away; my consciousness sharpened, the closer we got to the harbor.
“Muir,” he said, but his voice was dull. Was it because I no longer looked even slightly human, or was it because he’d see what I was capable of?
My vocal chords had changed, along with my shape. I couldn’t form words. I could no longer say his name, or what was in my heart. If I’d been able, I would have said I love you. You are my beloved.
He pulled close to the boat launch and opened the truck door. I slid out, bounded down the ramp, let the water lift and hold me. I felt his gaze follow me into the darkness. I dove, to disappear from his view. Deserted by another, I thought. My beloved, my Roy.
My right flipper worked the sea while my left flapped helplessly. I hoped he wouldn’t hear the sound, register the distress. I hoped he wouldn’t realize what lay in store for me, a seal who couldn’t swim or feed herself. A seal who had left the best part of herself in the cool, green grass where she’d waltzed under a black night without a moon.
Illustration by Amelia Onorato