by Emma-Rive Nelson

Ocean waves crashing onto a sandy beach

The night was very dark, and very cold, and Lars was waiting in the dunes as the stars shivered into existence up above.

His eyes were slow to adjust in the dim, frigid light, but he had spotted what he was looking for–a little bundle folded neatly on the sand, looking for all the world as if someone had abandoned their clothes to dip into the killingly cold water.

Not clothes, though. Something else.

A glance down the beach told him that the figures were still there, slim figures outlined by starlight. They knelt amongst the seaweed, long fingers prodding and poking for Lord only knows what.

Lars held his breath. This was his chance–they were distracted–

He dug the toe of his boot into the sand and kicked off down to the water’s edge as the figures raced towards him in a panic. There were other bundles there, but he dove for the closest one, his arms encircling the strange, rubbery material as the shallow water churned with figures transforming, legs turning to flippers, batting their way into the shallows as they pulled their skins back on. Lars watched them go, chest heaving, as they sped out into the dark water and disappeared. When they were gone, he turned away.

A single figure remained. She watched him–no, she watched the bundle he held in his arms–with the strange dark eyes of a seal. Her short hair (as sleek and as thick as fur) was plastered to her head with sea spray.

Lars extended his hand to her, and she stared at it for a long while before sliding her hand into his. Lars felt the webbing between her fingers as he twined them together.

Lars’ cottage was close to the beach, and the woman (now his wife–married hastily by a sea captain friend) would while away hours staring out the window at the water visible in the distance. Come away from there, Lars would try to coax her–come sit by the fire. And she would–but her gaze would drift away, back to the window, and what lay beyond. Though Lars would beg her to speak, imploring her to talk about anything, whatever she liked–her home, her life underwater, what caused her dark, dark eyes to flicker so strangely–but her answers were terse, if she answered at all.

When he went out fishing, he always wondered if she would still be there when he returned. Dark shapes swelled under his boat as he pulled his nets up, her sisters following and doing their best to chase away his catch. What if she was down there? What if she had found her skin while he was gone and returned to the water? If she was one of the swift bullets under the surface, she was paying more attention to him than she ever did as a human. But every time he returned to the shore, holding his breath, she would be there—tall and silent and watching from the doorstep, looking through him to the water beyond.

“You’re crazy,” a friend told him one night. A heavy, smoky evening in the fishing village’s sole pub. “A selkie?  I can’t even imagine.”

“I wouldn’t recommend it,” Lars said gloomily. 

“Then why?”

Lars watched the crowd inside the pub. There were pretty girls here—not many, it was a small village, but a few—and their cheeks were flushed with the heat of the pub. Their conversations as they brought food and drink to the tables were overwhelmed by the chatter of the crowd, but Lars could see them laughing, tilting their heads back with their hair tumbling down. Lars thought of how opposite his wife was to all of this—upfront, honest girls who were what they looked like. His wife, a dark and silent shape under the water.

“I suppose I wanted to understand something,” Lars said at last.

“And have you?”

“Not really.”

He didn’t realize she was with child until, one night, he felt the swell of her stomach as his hand glanced across its planes–the faintest tremor of flippers quivered within, flinching away from a foreign touch. She turned to look at him as he gasped (what would it look like? Human? Seal?), before wrapping herself in the sheet and wandering out the door like a ghost to stare at the water as she so often did, regardless of the ice and the cold that stretched between her and the ocean.

When the baby came, there were two–twins, twined around each other like squirrels nesting in winter. Though Lars looked closely, they seemed perfectly human; he couldn’t stop smoothing their soft, blond hair, so much like his, even as they opened their eyes to reveal their mother’s cool gaze. He felt as if he couldn’t take his eyes off of them–watching them twitch in their sleep as they chased quicksilver shoals in the liquid darkness of their ocean dreams.

Their mother seemed to show little interest in either of them, but they had a connection that Lars struggled to understand. A look between the three of them seemed able to communicate everything that needed to be said–a glance from their mother, and the children would be sent shrieking with laughter or yips of mischief. It was a secret language that connected them, one that echoed through the deepest canyons of the ocean, in all of those cold, inhospitable depths that Lars could never hope to understand.

And as soon as they were old enough, they ran for the water.

At the time, Lars was standing on the shore, mending his nets. It was summer, and the sun was finally throwing heat on the back of his neck as he stretched the webs across the sand, picking out spots in need of fixing. It was a father’s intuition that made him look up and see the racing duo behind him.

The twins were running for the water, pellmell and wild-eyed. This wasn’t one of their games. They ran like captives breaking for freedom.

Lars took off after them, thinking suddenly of one frighteningly cold November night when he raced across this very beach in the starlight. The twins were fast, faster than such young children should be, and they were just reaching the lapping waves when Lars caught them and slung one over each shoulder. They squealed and fought, trying to scrabble back to the water, but Lars held them tightly as he carried them back to the house.

“I know you’ve never cared for me,” Lars said to their mother, once the twins had been thoroughly scolded and put to bed, “but if you care about anything, please don’t let them run for the water again.”

 His wife turned to look at him, her dark eyes appraising.

“I don’t think I can stop them,” she said.

And she couldn’t. When Lars awoke one night, months later, to find the cottage freezing and the front door ajar and clattering in the wind, he raced to the shore without even pausing to throw on a coat or shoes. He followed the duel trails of footsteps as they skipped and wove down the beach before ending, inevitably, at the water’s edge. The water was still and black, like a mirror in the dark.

Lars had never been prone to passions–but now, on the beach, he started to scream, wading into the water and slapping at its surface. He screamed and clawed at the ocean as if he could beat it into submission, and make it pay for what it had taken. When he finally dragged himself out of the water, his throat torn to shreds and shivering with cold, he looked up to see his wife standing in the doorway of the cottage, watching, with a fierce grin on her face.

Lars kept the skin in the shed. Locked up with two padlocks in an old sea chest, packed and folded under layers of blankets and fragrant cedar. The cedar scent wafted around him now, as he cradled the skin in his arms and stared into the water. Something flickered far out, and his breath caught.

Despite it having been years and years since he snatched the skin up off the beach, it was still damp and a little fishy. The strange, rubbery flesh of it almost squirmed underneath his fingers as if it was attempting to escape. Lars held his breath. Putting it on felt wrong, as he slipped one leg in, and then another. The skin was too tight as he pulled it up, up, onto his shoulders, up to his neck…

And then there was no more Lars. As he tugged the skin up over his head, and as he felt his very own flesh seem to pull and expand to fit the one that now covered him, Lars slipped away, pulled down by the current as he dove into the water, new limbs propelling him through the water away from shore and towards the two pale seals waiting in the distance.

From the beach, the woman–a woman now, nothing else, not ever again–bent down to pick up the discarded shirt. A skin not stolen, but abandoned.

Category: Featured, Fiction, Short Story