A contemporary fantasy inspired by Child’s Ballad #113 “The Great Selkie of Sule Skerry”
Winner of a 1998 Dell Award For Fantasy and Science Fiction
Previously published in Cicada Magazine, Spring 2011
It was the sea that came between my mother and my father, and though for a time their worlds collided, the result was only bitterness and sorrow. I was not of the sea but loved its blue-green presence as though I were one of its children. The sea murmurs constantly as it takes pieces of the land and breaks them, softens the rough edges, turns them to sand. When the house is night-still, I listen as the surf rolls these tiny, silver bones in its fingers until they are smooth, until they are almost of the sea. When the sea returns the sands to the shore, the pale grains are so changed as to seem sea-made, inseparable from water. Like sand, I am worn so no one can tell where I belong. There are voices in the sea, voices of her children as they speak together. At night, I cannot sleep because I hold my breath to hear the eerie sea voices singing. Sometimes the words are familiar.
When honeysuckle and lavender are redolent in the cottage garden and the bees are busy in the thyme—then the land and sea become as one, just for a few, precious days. Late in the summer, when it is time to gather the wild herbs that grow between the river and the sea, and time to snip the fragrant leaves of the garden’s hardier plants, the warmth of the earth flows through the stems and leaves into my hands. The old healer who once lived in this cottage taught me to find that warmth, to feel it in the surging sap. This is the warmth that heals.
Locals ring the bell on the back gate to ask for healing possets for their sick loved ones, potions to catch an unwary lover, bane for an enemy, or heady herbs for their housewifery. They do not come inside the gate. The watch-rose tends to be inhospitable toward strangers, catching them in her thorns like flies in a spider’s web. Human company is never comfortable for me anymore, probably because they are uneasy with me.
I can only treat the children and the animals with my own hands. When I go to people’s homes they watch me from beneath lowered eyelids, wondering if I am really human or if I, like my mother, am of the sea. Women fear for their husbands and their sons, believing I will bewitch them as my mother bewitched my father, and curse them. Because of this belief the adults will not allow themselves to be healed by my touch. Touching them revives their terror and I lose the flow of healing warmth; so I dispense medicines and trust somehow that will be enough. Fortunately, my occupation enables me to live alone.
The view from the garden peers south to where the waves sweep the strand, painting the silver sands with emeralds and light. The window stares west where swells of azure and spray dash their heads against the jagged rookery islands. But I cannot see to the bay where the fishing village is and now, that is a good thing. Never again will I be compelled to look on the silken coats of seals pinned to the hooks on the hunter’s wall. There is nothing to do but wait and hope that midsummer will bring what is left of my family here once again. The story began long before I was born.
Kuræj Stroŋhart’s four fishing smacks were rugged and well fitted. He was greatly respected because his keenness to the tides and moon made his fishing trade prosper, enabling him to employ most of the men in the village. But he was a lonely man. His first young wife died with her child on birthing day and he had never remarried. He buried his guilt and remorse beneath the lash of bitter winds and the sting of the ocean until the brine furrowed deep years into his handsome face.
One morning, when midsummer stilled the wind so the ships could not leave their anchorage, Kuræj walked by the sea to divine when the winds would return. It was then the soft singing of many voices drew him down the silver strand. The voices seemed almost human, yet the language was oddly similar to the music of the rookeries.
He shinnied down between a fold in the windswept dunes and lay on the salt grass beneath a sea grape to spy on the singers. Before him, in a hollow of sand that faced the sea, were two-dozen naked dancers. They wore strands of shells around their necks and had vines of sandpea flowers twined into their long hair. The musicians played lively music on pipes made of reed and conch, harps of shell strung with silver, and tiny driftwood drums. The men were tawny and handsome as they circled like a pinwheel around the women. But it was the women who captured my father, as the sirens had captured the sailors of Ithaca.
The sea women were lithesome and supple, dancing with a mesmerizing grace. Their dark, huge eyes glinted joyfully. Ropes of tiny shells and pearls covered their round, firm breasts, clattering in time to the sinuous dance. In and out of the circle of dancing men the women wove, their tiny feet flowing across the sand like water, their lustrous hair swaying around their shoulders. Kuræj did not move from his hiding place until darkness swallowed the last breath of the light and the dancers donned their silken skins, turned back into seals, and dove into the sea.
He returned to watch the dancers, the next day, and the next. On the fourth day the dancers did not return to the sea at dusk. The moon rose full and cast a path of braided silver across the hammered water, washing the cove with pearls of light. The sea folk danced into the windless night until they fell to the sand in exhausted slumber. It was then that Kuræj slipped to the silky pile and he took one of seal women’s sleek coats.
When the sea folk awoke and returned to the sea, the darkest of the women stood naked on the shore, watching her companions depart. They lingered in the surf and called to her, but without her skin, she could not return to her home. Her name was Kirith, sea daughter, and she was my mother.
Kuræj loved her, or so he believed, because she flowed around him like the sea for which he held so much passion. He hid the stolen skin in a bag in the darkest corner of the stable, amongst the old blankets and saddles, where no one would note it. He would have burned it if he could have been certain that my mother would not die as a result, but it occurred to him that the skin was a living part of her and to destroy it would destroy her. This notion was confirmed each year when he pulled the skin from the bag to find it warm and vibrantly silky in his rough hands.
My brother was born in the house on the hill the first year that my mother came to live as my father’s bride. She named him Dylan, sea-creature, for he had tawny skin, and huge, liquid eyes like my mother. She was unsure who Dylan’s father was until Yonne came to her from the sea on midsummer’s night.
The moon poured across the floor, and the sheets hung limp at the window when he flowed like water and seafoam into her bedroom. Yonne stood haloed in moonlight at the foot of her great bed, his mane gleaming like pewter; his eyes held visions of seaweed and sea secrets—things for which my mother yearned.
“Show me my son,” Yonne asked gently, and she knew then that Kuræj had not sired her bairn. When she placed my brother into Yonne’s arms, the restless, colicky child looked into his father’s eyes and thereafter became quiet.
“Come home, Kirith,” he begged of my mother.
“I can not find my coat,” she cried in despair. “I have searched. I am lost.”
“The sea is dark without your song,” he told her.
“The man treats me well. I have come to have affection for him, so it is not so terrible as it was at first.”
“I will come to you every midsummer. When the boy is ready, I will take him home with me. Do not give up hope,” Yonne said, his love for her a jewel in his sad eyes. He kept his promise, and every summer he appeared, his face and eyes ancient with sorrow, his voice tempered with patience.
Two years later I was born. With hair pale as moonlight I was nothing like my mother or my brother. Mother named me Blanca for I am like the smooth pearls that come from the heart of the clam. But my eyes are the emerald of the leaves on the wild oak, like Kuræj’s. My father doted on me more than he did on my brother. But he was a good father to us and took us on his ships, to sail the spangled waves, and watch the brown, strong arms of his sailors pull laden nets from the sea. My brother loved to go with my father, but I did not like to see the poor, gasping fish flop on the scarred decks until their brilliance drained away and they became still.
When I was eight I found the bag in the corner of the stable. I loved the stable—the smell of the hay when I lay in the loft to watch dust motes swirl in the beams of light that squeezed between the boards, and the placid munching of the big, good-natured brown horse that lived there. I grew bolder as I grew in stature, exploring dark corners of the barn where the tack moldered in disuse. When I discovered the silken hide, I thought at first it was something alive, for it seemed to breathe in my hands. I shoved it back into the bag and did not disturb it again for many days. But then my curiosity overpowered my trepidation; I fetched the mysterious hide out of the bag again, and took it to show my mother. Her reaction was not as I imagined. A light of such joy blossomed in her eyes that I realized that, until that moment, she had been sad all the years of my life. Her eyes went completely dark from corner to corner, and her hands stroked the skin lovingly. Many times since I wished I had hidden the bag where I had found it and never gone there again; my mother left us that night.
She led Dylan and me to the edge of the sea. Silvery heads of seals broke the quicksilver surface as they played in the breakers, singing their mysterious song as though calling to someone. My mother answered in a language I had never heard voiced; the sounds were hauntingly familiar. Dylan called out from beside me in that same language. My mother let go of my hand. She slipped off her dress and pulled on the skin like a coat. As I watched, she was transformed into a seal. Moonlight ran in rivulets of foxfire along her lustrous hide, and gleamed in her limped eyes. She kissed me on the cheek—a cold, whiskery kiss—turned to my brother to speak strange words, and then she dove into the sea and was gone.
My father never discovered how she found the skin. He never asked. He withdrew more and more each year following Kirith’s return to the sea. Every midsummer Kirith and Yonne came for my brother and me, taking us to dance in a secret place far beyond the silver strand. Then Dylan’s immature, silken coat clothed him briefly for a few days, and Yonne took his son to swim in the sea every night. I came to love the sea then, its wild music, the clattering of the shells against the tawny breasts, and the magic that was in everything around me, even the moonlight. Dylan’s dark eyes and silvery hair were so beautiful it made my heart ache, and I clung to him more and more, fearing how it would be for me when he went into the sea forever.
When Dylan was eighteen, my brother went into the sea and never returned. Perhaps Kuræj had not realized that my brother was Yonne’s child. That summer my father gave up fishing and began to hunt the seals. It was then I went to live with the old healer in the cottage overlooking the sea. Her health had deteriorated and she needed my help with her patients more than in the years when I was her apprentice. My father never came to the cottage to see me; it may be that he thought I too was Yonne’s child. He never said as much; he never said anything. The one time I returned to the house on the hill above the bay was at Michaelmas. When I slipped out after dinner, to get a breath of fresh air, I found the sealskins nailed on the back porch walls. I fled into the night never to return to my childhood home.
Midsummer painted the hills with warmth and the garden blossomed with honey-laden flowers. Yellow bumblebees rumbled slowly from delphinium to chive blossom to hollyhock and bumbled in the bergamot. Hummingbirds zipped from scarlet sage to red gillyflower and even expressed interest in the red bells hanging on the garden gate. And so, when the bells rang early one morning I just thought it was the birds. The bells jingled again and I realized there was someone at the gate.
A young lad stood there wringing a thread-worn hat in chaffed hands. The warded gate frightened him; the rose leaned hungrily over the fence, brushed at his shirt with its thorns. His dull, brown eyes were wide in his flat, brown face, and when I went to greet him, his gaze held a blend of fear and astonishment.
“Ere yeh the ‘ealer?” he asked, probably expecting the ancient crone.
I nodded. He seemed to find a little courage when I smiled.
“Me Ahma sent me ta fetch yeh,” he told me in his thin voice. “We live en Grenock. A man washed up an’ ‘e’s wounded sore. Me Ahma’s been layin herbs on ‘im an’ such but ‘e’s fevered an’ does na git better. She sent me on one o tha fishin boats this mornin’ ta fetch yeh ta Grenock.” He had lost enough of his fear that he watched my face, perhaps hoping he had been convincing enough that the discussion was over. It was not.
“I do not treat grown men,” I stated unequivocally. “I will send you with the herbs and poultices your grandmother will need to treat the patient.” I saw his expression flow from surprise into some inner realization, and he straightened his shoulders determinedly.
“Ahma said yeh wud na come an’ ta tell yeh tis no man bet a selchie. He had tha ‘unter’s spear in ‘im.” The boy’s brown eyes waited for my reaction.
Icy fingers of premonition took hold of my insides and squeezed. My knees grew weak and I was uncertain if I could stand. I struggled to breathe, to suck air past a terrible stone beneath my breastbone. At last I gulped down a breath. I opened the gate and took the boy’s hand to bring him past the gate ward.
The boy’s neck and flat face were all I could see above the top of my kitchen table; his bare feet swung just above the wooden floorboards as I dished him up a bowl of hot mussel stew. Silently I gathered the things I needed: bonset and woundsbane, blackroot, and the others, the magic herbs for which names are few and plant resources fewer still. I donned my heaviest cloak and fur-lined boots. The islands to the north lay beyond a channel rough with wind, and bitter even this time of year. The boy wore only a shirt and short pants. I found him a smallcoat, and a pair of my old boots that fit him; though he protested that he needed no handouts, in the end he took the clothes with a look in his eyes that I imagined to be gratitude.
The well smack was smaller than most fishing smacks. She pulled at her tether as her impatient captain paced the rail, imagining, probably, that the wind would turn before he could clear the bay. If he missed the night wind into Grenock, the little smack would spend many hours to tack against the morning offshores. This would mean two days of fishing lost. He had seen us coming from a distance; as we boarded the deck hands were already shaking out sail and winding in the ropes.
The bay was a bowl of azure strung with silver beads. Wind shoved mightily into the slapping wings of canvas, and the spars and ropes groaned. The young captain’s gray eyes fixed on the northern horizon. The boy huddled into his new coat and went to sleep on a pile of ropes coiled on the deck. The smack cleared the point and turned north, making good headway; the captain and his crew coaxed the little boat smoothly into the wind and rough sea.
When we passed the rookery rocks they were empty. No seals sunned themselves on the dark rocks or cavorted in the deep water. I never remember a time we passed them in my father’s ship that the rookeries were abandoned. Frigate birds circled and dived, picking off herring that schooled near the surface. Then a seal head broke through the green roof of the sea—then another, then a dozen or more. The boat drew nearer, shouldering into the wind-driven swells. The seals watched momentarily, then dove out of sight. Moments later, in the port shadow of the bow, several silvery heads surfaced, startling me. I leaned over the rail to see them better.
“Blanca,” they called in Selchie song. When I answered, my tongue stumbled over the unfamiliar sounds.
“I am of that name here,” was the song that stuttered from my stiff tongue.
“Blanca. Seabrother has man hunt bled. Blanca! calls Seabrother.” I knew those voices. Two heads kept up with the boat; they sang with me, and I tried to sing back to them in their own language. It was Kireth and Yonne.
“Kirith—seamother,” I sang with my mother, wind snatching the words away to blend with the seabirds’ calls. The song they sang confirmed my worst fear; it was Dylan who lay wounded in the fisherwoman’s hut on Grenock. A knot tightened in my chest, and the day lost its jewel-like luster. The channel tossed us roughly, the well smack buffeted by wind and wave; but the Captain was a fine sailor and we made good time. Yonne and Kirith left the boatside at the cove-mouth, and the nightly on-shores carried us into Grenock.
Nothing but sorrow waited in the small fishing hut. The boy’s grandmother had bound the wound with woundsbane, but the hunter’s spear had pierced Dylan’s liver—not even magic could stop the slow leak of Dylan’s lifeblood. Before dawn the tawny coat that lay across his cold feet lost its silver, and the breath sighed from him. My brother was gone beyond the touch of sea or land.
We wrapped Dylan in his coat, the young captain, the old woman, and I. Then, I stumbled numbly after the captain as he carried Dylan to the fishing smack. I saw no hint in the Captain’s sun-worn expression of impatience for the loss of yet another workday, though the loss of fishing time could mean his family would go hungry. He laid my brother carefully between the coils of briny ropes.
“I’m sorry you will lose another day of fishing,” I said.
“The moon is nigh on full,” he replied, “and fishing is poor at best. The best fishing days are at the new moon. ‘Tis the selchie moon now. We don’t fish the selchie moon for fear we might trap them in the nets.” His eyes met mine, gray and honest, without the slightest hint of fear.
“My family has always honored their magic. We don’t hunt the selchie, healer. Will you na tell them that I, Brinngaar, don’t hunt the selchie?” His weathered voice was course as sand, worn by years of commands called into the harsh wind. His expression hardened. “Will you tell them?”
I nodded, unable to speak—unable to swallow. How I would tell the selchie my seabrother was lost? A pit of darkness opened and my heart fell in; the weight of earth pressed and pressed and pressed. The deck spun and I could not breathe. Haunted sadness flooded me, sorrows for which memory was lost and there was no name. Then, the day righted itself and the horizon straightened. Captain Brinngaar’s hand on my arm prevented me from tumbling over the rail. Under his troubled gaze I felt foolish—until the thought of life without Dylan cut my heart.
The fishing smack reached mid-channel at half-noon and the wind died. Life fled from the sail; it drooped against the mast and spars like a ghost. The sea was as undisturbed as well water in a bucket—glass smoothe to the horizon. In the bones behind my ear threads of music began: a swelling throb and thin, rising strands of sounds. Seals ringed the boat; their eerie singing was a welling magic that shimmered and wove a binding, joining what we could see around us with a wavering world not our own. The singing ascended and the circle of weaving tightened around our boat, turning the sea to turquoise and the sky a blinding white. Time vanished; we were engulfed in sound and distorted colors. The world blurred completely out of focus except for a single, clear path back across the sea to Grenock.
The sailors cowered with their hands tangled in the dead rigging. The captain stopped at my elbow.
“Tell them,” he told me.
“They know,” I replied.
He nodded. “They want to close the circle,” he suggested, nodding toward Dylan’s skin-wrapped body. For just a moment I wondered how this rough fisherman knew so much of selchies—but the thought slipped away when the selchie-song began to weave pure light. It rose like candle flames above the heads of each seal in the circle, until the brilliance became an aura that haloed the becalmed boat, a brede of many colors. Light transfused the sea with fire, and flamed upward in a wall encircling the smack. A reflection of this fiery light plunged deep into the water until we were the center or an iridescent magic. The sides of the humble well smack flamed like burnished copper. The sails were a blue-white torch. The captain’s gray eyes were polished silver. Yet still he showed no fear.
“Blanca,” Yonne’s voice called from the ring of fire. “Sea-child is calling to be home.”
The captain lifted Dylan’s body and held it over the sea. Measure on measure crescendoed higher in concent, and the ring of fire blazed brighter than the sun. The captain dropped Dylan into the glass face of the sea and the body slipped away like shadow.
As suddenly as it began, the song faded and a broken, harsh cry shook us from the spell. Gold drained from the sea, leaving flat, gray steel. From beyond the ring of seals, another ship bore down on us, cutting swiftly though the water. The seals dove away in fear.
Kuræj’s ship surged into the ring. Four harpooners dangled from netting fixed to spars slung over the gunwhales; they swung out over the sea, watching the surface, waiting to strike. Our Grenock sailors manned the ropes and pulled the wind into the sails. They bellied out and the little well smack heeled around, turning her shoulder to the wind.
“Flee,” whispered the sea.
The wind gathered force as my father’s ship came about to make another pass across the churning ring. The sleek, plunging cutter headed straight toward us while our small smack wallowed and struggled to collect wind at her heels. Kuræj’s ship had more than twice the cloth. The distance between our vessels closed.
There was a cry from the harpooners. Seal heads breached the water to starboard. The hunter’s ship tacked away at a sudden angle, and our captain trimmed the little boat’s sail to gather speed. We watched helplessly as the harpooners aimed their weapons. Wind became gale—so much wind that Captain Brinngaar ordered the topsail reefed to belay burying the smack in the sea. Before we could unwind the ropes, before the harpooners could unleash their darts, the sea turned dark, shadow fell across us, and the wave struck.
Sailors often tell tales of freak waves. Brinngaar, whose gray eyes even now refuse to acknowledge fear, speaks very quietly of the mountain of water that ripped me from his deck, and hurled Kuræj’s ship to the bottom of the sea. Cold, green engulfed me, swallowed me into the heart of the past. I recalled a former time: a time of swimming, when all creatures could shed their skins and walk on land at will; a time when those who walked on land for too long lost their way back to the sea, and came to fear the sea folk. Land folk hunted the sea folk then, to stifle their fears. This was the dream that came when I was in the sea.
Eventually, the ocean loosed her grip, the dream lost its green thrall, and I crawled from the water to sprawl shivering and not quite drowned on the hot sand of the silver strand. Emerald water lapped at my cold feet and I must have slept. The tide was low when I woke, the sun was high, and everything was warm. It was midsummer’s day. Yonne and Kirith sat beside me in the pale sand, their eyes filled with such a huge sorrow the ocean itself would have drowned there. They walked with me to the cottage.
“Dance with us,” they pleaded.
They tarried each day in the garden, the watch-rose never noticing when they passed the gate. They contrived each night to get me to dance with them, but I would not—I could not. Unbearable days fled in swift indifference to the pain I could not shake. Before we could discover a single thread of solace there came an end to our time together. At the water’s edge they gave me whiskery kisses and slipped into the silver water.
“Blanca,” they called, and I answered.
“Swim with us,” they called.
“I cannot,” I cried. “I am not of the sea.”
Today the bells jingle at the back gate. Captain Brinngaar stands in a shaft of sunlight with his faded cap in his hands; he is out of his element and almost nervous. Word came to Grenock that I had returned home, but he had to see for himself. The wards do not stop him, though the rose caresses his faded coat and tangles in his salt burned hair. He sits at the table and shares hot mussel stew with apparent pleasure.
His hands close around the cup of tea.
I meet his grey, steady eyes across the worn boards of the table. Unexpectedly, it is his gaze that drops. Light falls through the window onto his hair; it is full of sun.
“When you washed overboard,” he says, unsure where to go with conversation or what to do with his hands, “I searched everywhere. I even threw out my nets against the chance I’d skein you up. There was only a white seal. It swam beneath the boat twice before it vanished. Was it you?”
I cannot answer. Memory batters the bonds of my mind.
“Are you selchie, healer?” he asks in bewilderment, his gaze searching the depths of my emerald eyes as he might search the sea for fish.
“I am not of the sea,” I answer, as bewildered as he.
“I think, healer, that you must heal yourself,” he says, as he reaches across the table to take my hand in his calloused grasp.
“How? I do not know how to heal myself.” Something wet slips down my cheek and his rough finger brushes it away.
“I can’t answer that for you, but I can help, if you let me.” His gaze is fearless, and unexpectedly gentle. His touch is warm. “You are selchie, healer.” His voice is tinged with awe.
“How can that be,” I ask, “when I am not of the sea?”
“You’re the healer.” His acceptance is overwhelming and I feel warmth, like sap, flowing from his hand to mine. “You’re like a myth come to life, like the people who once could be both of the land and of the sea. You’re why the Grenock fishermen don’t catch the seafolk in their nets.”
“How can this be?” I ask, wanting and not wanting this to be so.
“You have to answer that.”
“You will.” His hand cups mine and there is such warmth as I have not felt from a human in all my life. Sea voices—waves breaking on the rocks and seabird’s thin cries—flow in the open window. He draws my hand to his lips; the warmth of his kiss spreads from my fingertips like fire, and I feel something fine, something that knows nothing of sorrow growing in my heart. It is a smile, and it spreads to all of me.
Brinngaar nods when he sees this. He too smiles.
“You will,” he says, and I know he is right.