by Sarina Dorie
The ocean breathed—not just the mere sound of wind coming and going with the tide, but a restless urgency that drove mermaids and sirens to the surface, selkies out of the sea, and humans—some humans, anyway—out of their beds.
Such was the case with Eleanor. She glanced at the empty bed beside her. Though it was late, her husband still wasn’t home. She rose as if pulled by an invisible string, not so much drawn by the ocean, but by the siren song dipping in and out of the breath of wind.
Eleanor lived at the edge of a small fishing village with her husband. She was lonely because she had no family and her husband was often away fishing, and sometimes he was away drinking, and sometimes he was away even when he was right beside her.
Eleanor followed the siren’s song to the shore, the wet wind whipping her dark brown hair and assaulting her nightgown. She stopped when she came to rocks where the seals often gathered. She watched from behind the boulders above.
On the rocks were two seals, a mother and cub, but they didn’t bark like ordinary seals. Their song sounded half human, half animal and… something else.
Eleanor closed her eyes. Their voices were of wind and water, a lulling beauty that could only belong to a siren.
Eleanor knew at once these weren’t ordinary seals. They were selkies. Though sailors often came home with tales of the mermaids and selkies they had encountered, for the most part, the fair-haired and blue-eyed water-folk stayed away from the land. They didn’t want to be caught like so many others of their kind had been in the past.
Eleanor listened to the lull of their song as if in a trance. She knew she should have gone back to her cottage and waited for her husband to return, but she was too caught in the selkies’ spell to move. The moon rose high above them. It was then that the mother selkie slowly pushed her way out of her seal skin and emerged as a woman. She helped her baby out of her skin.
The woman’s hair was as silver as moon beams. It flowed past her waist and danced with every breath of wind. Her skin was pale as sea foam and eyes dark blue, but round and seal-like. Droplets of water clung to her skin and sparkled under the moon as if she wore jewels.
Had it been a man from Eleanor’s village who had been watching, he would have stared breathless at the beautiful woman and tried to determine the best way to steal her pelt so she would be his. But Eleanor hardly looked at the mother. She had no desire to steal the woman’s pelt. It was the round baby in the mother’s arms she stared at—a baby with sparkling blue eyes and a tuft of silver hair on her head.
There was nothing more in the world Eleanor wanted than to have a child, but she was barren and could have no children. The baby’s gurgles and coos rose into the air in a song that called to Eleanor’s heart.
There wasn’t anything Eleanor wouldn’t do for a child of her own. But steal another mother’s?
Yet as Eleanor listened, it was as if the baby’s song called to her and only her. The more she lost herself in the lullaby of the baby’s song, the less she could hear the wind and waves, the less she could hear the selkie mother. The longer she listened, the more Eleanor’s heart filled with desperate longing.
The Vorguard men of the village often claimed that was how it was with mermaids, sirens and selkies. Their beautiful songs and comely faces made them ache so greatly, a man might throw himself overboard and drown trying to reach them. The Osea water-folk were temptresses and deserved to be captured for teasing with their beauty, Vorguards often said. They were only dumb beasts. There was nothing wrong with capturing them. And so the excuses mounted, especially if it was a hard season and they weren’t able to catch any fish, but a hungry sailor happened upon a selkie in his net instead.
Eleanor was not a dumbstruck sailor. She had never paid their stories much mind. She knew it wasn’t right to blame the water-folk for making them pine. She knew it wasn’t right to steal, yet she snuck up behind the selkies all the same. Her heart thundered in her chest as her fingers stretched toward the baby’s sealskin. Once her prize was in hand, she slinked back into the shadows of the boulders and hid behind an immense rock.
When the horizon grew pale with the coming dawn, and it was time for the selkies to return to the sea, the mother looked around for the baby’s pelt. She searched frantically among the rocks. She was clumsy and awkward on her feet, as if she wasn’t used to walking in a human form. She set down the baby. It was then as the mother turned her back, bumbling along the rocks closer toward the water, Eleanor saw her chance. But she hesitated. This wasn’t her baby.
Voices of drunken men singing a lewd song rode over the sound of wind and waves. After a minute, it was apparent they were coming closer. The selkie mother let out a whimper, her face wet with tears. She picked up her baby, then set her down, combed the rocks again and waded through the water as if searching to see if the pelt had been washed away.
Guilt clenched at Eleanor’s stomach. Yet the coos of the baby were too strong and the desire in Eleanor’s heart overpowered her rational thought. Eleanor descended from her perch, her back cold with sweat. It was wrong to steal. She wouldn’t do it, Eleanor told herself. She needed to give the mother the baby’s sealskin. But she couldn’t stop her legs from moving closer to the baby selkie.
Eleanor hadn’t quite made it to the baby when a jug crashed against the rocks. The men had stopped singing and one of them was retching. They were dark silhouettes against the gray horizon.
“There’s a naked woman down there!” one of them slurred.
The selkie mother looked up in horror. Eleanor froze, halfway between the baby and her hiding place.
The selkie mother’s teary eyes locked onto Eleanor’s. The mother raced back to her child, lifted her baby into her arms and looked to Eleanor with pleading. She cooed a few mournful notes.
The fog lifted from Eleanor’s brain, and she fully realized what she’d done. Her eyes burned with tears. How could she think of stealing this mother’s child? Eleanor had to give the pelt back to the mother. She turned to get it. The men were stumbling down the rocky incline and would be on the beach in a matter of seconds.
The mother put a hand on Eleanor’s arm, looked to the ocean and down at her baby. Eleanor understood the selkie woman couldn’t take her baby back to her watery home without a sealskin.
The men’s calls were louder now. The mother pressed the baby into Eleanor’s arms. She hurried to her own sealskin and slipped inside.
Eleanor stared at the baby, too surprised to move. Did she know Eleanor had her baby’s sealskin? Or did she think the drunken men were the thieves? Perhaps she was so desperate she didn’t care; she just wanted the baby safe and away.
Eleanor stroked the baby’s soft skin. The baby—her baby—cooed in her arms and snuggled against her. Eleanor inhaled her child’s scent, a mixture of ocean spray and warmth.
A jeer from the drunken men staggering toward them broke Eleanor’s rapture. She ran around them to her hideaway and snatched up the pelt from the rocks before they found it. Then she ran home.
Eleanor’s husband was cross with her, for usually she was a good wife, even if she couldn’t give him children. But she had been gone all night and hadn’t fixed his breakfast in the morning.
When he saw the silver-haired baby, he shook his head. “What do I want with some water-folk’s child? It doesn’t look like either of us, and there will be talk,” he said.
Eleanor could only hear the baby’s coos. She kissed the baby and tickled her chin. Eleanor laughed, and it felt as though she hadn’t laughed for a very long time.
Eleanor’s husband threw up his hands in exasperation and gave in. He could see the baby did make his wife happy. And there was no getting rid of it now that Eleanor had set her mind to keeping it.
Eleanor hid the baby’s pelt in a trunk when her husband wasn’t looking. She then named the baby Sela.
Sela grew up to be a good daughter. She always minded her parents. She often sat at Eleanor’s side sewing. Most people in the village didn’t speak to Sela and avoided her even though she was very beautiful. Children in the village often made fun of her, for it was obvious she was different from them. She lacked their brown eyes and brown hair. No matter how often she went out in the sun, her luminous, white skin remained, and her silvery hair danced on the ocean’s breath even when there was no wind.
Sela didn’t mind her solitude, for she was a quiet child, hardly speaking a word—an unusual quality for a selkie. But when she did speak, it was obvious her voice wasn’t human. It was a lilting lullaby riding on waves of water and wind. She often sat on the rocks staring out at the sea with longing but not understanding why.
Her only friends were the seals. She sang to them and spoke with them and sometimes thought she could understand their sad songs. Her favorite was the silver seal with mournful blue eyes. Sometimes the seal set her head on Sela’s lap and remained at her side when Sela sat out there sewing or knitting. Sela remained at the rocky shore with her favorite friend each day until Eleanor called her in for dinner each night. And if Sela had known the silver seal was her true mother, it would have only made her long for her real home and real family even more.
Eleanor loved her daughter more than anything in the world, but she could see Sela’s unhappiness. She tried to make her daughter happy, to sing to her and tell her stories, to spoil her and give her gifts. Yet nothing she did could make Sela long any less for the sea.
Over time, Sela became a beautiful young woman. But by her fifteenth birthday, her complexion had become ashen and waxy, her hair losing its shine and luster. Her eyes were dim flames compared to the brightness they once had been. She spent every waking chance at the sea, staring out at the waves, her heart breaking a little more each day, but not knowing why. She inhaled the salty perfume of the sea air, her lungs aching. Sometimes she wept, hugging the silver seal. And on such days, Sela could only hear the wind and water, not Eleanor’s calls for her to come in for supper.
By this time, Eleanor had also grown ill. Some said it was guilt, but more likely it was pining. Often humans pine away for siren and fairy-folk, never happy because they cannot possess what they have stolen, even when it’s right beside them. Eleanor, being an expert at yearning for what she couldn’t have, didn’t want Sela to also wither away to nothing.
As Eleanor lay ill in her bed, she confessed her secret to Sela. Horror stole over Sela at the idea that Eleanor would steal another woman’s child. Though she felt shocked, then angry, she couldn’t hate her mother, for Eleanor truly had loved her as she would her own child.
“Your skin is in the trunk under the bed,” Eleanor explained. “You are free to go when you like, but I beg of you to stay by my side a little longer, for it is my dying wish that you are the last face I see.”
Because Sela loved her mother and knew Eleanor had loved her, she obeyed her. Despite the way she pined for the ocean, she waited at Eleanor’s side, sometimes sewing, other times doing what she could to make her mother more comfortable as she grew thinner and weaker over the following days and weeks. Sela sang to her and fed her when she could no longer feed herself. When Eleanor died, it was both a moment of great sadness at her loss and expectancy for her new beginning.
As soon as her mother’s funeral was over, Sela took the trunk from under the bed and opened it.
It was empty.
Her father stood in the doorway now, the sealskin in his hand. It was large, the size of an adult seal’s, for as Sela had grown, her seal pelt had also grown.
“Everyone knows you are not my real daughter,” he said. “People will speak ill of us that such a comely maiden remain living in the house of an unmarried man.”
Sela nodded and reached for her sealskin, thinking he meant her to take it and leave as soon as possible. Instead, he held it aloft so she couldn’t reach it and held her back.
“It is against our laws for a man to marry the same day as his wife’s passing. I will find a priest and have him marry us on the morrow,” he said. “I am doing you a favor. I am saving your honor.”
Sela shook her head, horror stealing over her. She sang the sorrow of a lullaby in her words, the reedy beauty of her voice almost too low to hear. “I cannot marry you. You are my father. Please, I need to go to the sea. I need to go home so I won’t wither away and die.”
“Nonsense,” he said, only hearing the siren’s song in her voice and thinking such beauty was meant solely for him. “It’s your duty to obey. And I tell you, you will be my wife, so there is no more to discuss.”
Tears filled her eyes.
He stared into the flames of the fire, smiling as he thought about his future. He saw none of her suffering at the moment. He could only think of his own suffering if she left. He would have no one to cook and clean for him, no one to talk to, and no one to lie beside him at night. Though he was not home often, he would be lonely. Sela was very beautiful. Though people in the village feared her and stayed away from her, women couldn’t help feeling a little jealous of her comely face, and men couldn’t help feeling lust, even if she was some strange creature that obviously wasn’t one of them.
Sela’s father was human, after all, and didn’t have the strength to resist the calling of siren song and selkie magic. He admired her beauty, and though he had lusted for her, he had at least managed to wait for his wife to die before acting on this.
Sela shook her head again. “I will not marry you. I wish to go home.”
He held up her seal skin and stepped closer to the fire. “You will marry me, and if you refuse, I’ll burn your seal pelt in the fire.”
“No, please, you are my father,” Sela insisted. “Please let me go to my home of wind and waves. I need the sea like you need air.”
He stepped a pace closer to the fire.
“You have no need of a wife,” Sela said in desperation. “You are never home, and even when you are, you aren’t here,” she said, echoing words Eleanor once had told her.
He slapped her for her insolence and threw the seal skin into the fire.
“You are mine, and you will marry me,” her father told her.
He held Sela back from reaching in the flames. In his arms, she shrieked and writhed in pain, for it felt as if her own skin were on fire, though she remained untouched. Sela wailed with such grief, it hurt her father’s ears to hear such an inhuman trill of noise, and he let go of her to cover his ears with his hands. Now Sela had lost the only mother she’d ever known, as well as her chance of ever going home and finding her real mother.
“I will find a priest, and we will be married on the morrow,” her father said.
Sela ran to the sea and wept, for she didn’t see that she had any other choice. The silver seal waddled up to her, and Sela unfettered her woes upon the seal. The sun slid below the horizon, and when it did, the seal’s song changed to a low, melancholy that reflected Sela’s own pain. The silver seal quivered, her pelt slowly sliding down. Before Sela’s eyes, the seal shed her pelt, and a beautiful silver-haired woman emerged. Sela knew at once that this must be her real mother. They had the same silvery hair, pale skin and dark blue eyes, though Sela’s were just a touch lighter. Sela was nearly as tall as the woman, though slightly more slender.
The selkie mother embraced Sela and kissed her tears away. She held out her seal pelt to her daughter, and Sela understood she wished her to take it.
Sela shook her head. “No, I cannot.”
The selkie mother pressed it to her again, her entreaty made clear in her siren’s song. She helped Sela out of her human-crafted clothes and into her sealskin.
They say a selkie cannot grow back their coat once it is destroyed, and it can only fit but one selkie and not another. But Sela’s real mother was the same size as her, and they looked almost identical except that time and sorrow had aged the mother’s face.
As Sela stepped into her mother’s sealskin, it fell around her soft and smooth and cozier than blankets warmed by a fire on a winter’s night. It felt like someone hugging her no matter how she moved. Sela felt complete.
The song of wind and water called to her, and she forgot all else. She dove into the sea. She splashed and swam, her heart feeling light. She was finally free, the yearning in her at last subsiding.
Sela sang with delight. Then others joined in her song, the voices of her brothers and sisters swimming around her. Her selkie family cried out to her in welcome, for they recognized her as one of their kin, looking just like her mother, though with slightly lighter eyes.
When Sela turned back to thank her mother for this gift, she saw her standing on the rocks above, cold and naked and alone.
“Come join me,” Sela cried.
But her mother smiled sadly and shook her head. She didn’t know how to swim in this human body.
As the gray ebb of dawn crept over the horizon, another figure stood on the rocks.
Sela’s human father.
“I no longer have a wife, and I no longer have a daughter, but it is no matter,” he said, taking Sela’s selkie mother by the arm. She didn’t resist, for she couldn’t return to the water. She had sacrificed her own freedom for her daughter’s.
Sela’s heart broke a second time, for she realized that if she wore her mother’s skin, then her mother couldn’t join her.
That is where tales of selkies often end—at a tragedy.
But Sela was unlike most selkies, content with her helplessness. She couldn’t allow her father to steal her mother from her home of the sea as she’d been stolen herself. But she also didn’t wish to return to the land. Her brothers and sisters mourned the loss of their mother, yet they had no idea what to do to help her.
An inkling of an idea tickled in the back of her mind. Her mother had given Sela her own seal skin. It had fit her, perhaps because they were family. Sela no longer had a seal skin of her own and it was impossible for Sela to grow another. But was it possible to make another?
Sela told her brothers and sisters her idea. She returned to the rocks and removed her mother’s seal skin, her brothers and sisters doing the same. All of them, silver-haired and blue-eyed, sat on the rocks, their seal pelts in their hands.
Sela studied the size and shape of her mother’s seal skin. She took out a needle and spool of thread from the pocket of her apron that had been cast away only hours ago with her other human clothes. She cut off a bit of her mother’s sealskin suit and then cut out a bit of her sister’s. Her sister gasped as she cut into the sealskin and looked as though she might be ill all while Sela sewed the two skins together. When her sister again put on her seal skin, she was whole, but a pink scar the color of human skin marred her back. Sela cut off a bit of her brother’s sealskin, noticing the way he cringed and touched his shoulder. Then Sela took a piece from her younger sister’s and after that her youngest sister who was only about ten years old and cried out when Sela cut into her pelt.
After Sela had taken a piece from each of her brother and sisters, she still didn’t have enough to make a sealskin suit. Her brother and sisters understood this from the tears in her eyes. The selkies called out to the sea. Soon more seals joined them on the rocks. A selkie male with a silvery blue pelt shed his skin. Out came a man with silvery blue hair and cerulean eyes who embraced Sela. He kissed her forehead and called her his daughter.
Sela blinked in surprise. From the way he looked at her with such love and sorrow in his eyes, she was quite sure this selkie father would never force her to become his wife.
He allowed her to take from his pelt, and so did the others until she had enough to make a new sealskin for herself. Sela sewed all day, not stopping to rest. She sewed until her hands ached and her fingers bled from pin pricks. She sewed into the night until she was finished. It was multicolored, some patches silver, others dark gray, some parts black and other parts brown.
The seals cried joyous songs. Sela hid her patchwork skin and her mother’s in the rocks where she hoped no one would find them.
She snuck to her cottage where she found her selkie mother asleep. Sela woke her and silently they stole away toward the rocky beach. But Sela’s human father woke when he felt the bed beside him was empty. He ran out to the sea calling for his new wife.
Sela hurriedly handed her mother her sealskin and then picked up her own. Her selkie mother slipped inside with ease and dove into the water below. Sela squeezed into her seal skin, but it was slower work, because it was slightly smaller than her mother’s.
She heard her human father’s voice now, calling above the wind, his footsteps clambering over the rocks. Sela tried to pull the seal skin over her hips and up over her body, but she was stuck. She struggled and whimpered, half woman and half seal. Her father scrambled closer. Sela just managed to pull the skin around herself when he reached her.
His brow knit together in a moment of shock, simultaneously awed and disgusted to see a person he knew change into an animal. Sela took advantage of this to slide down the rock ledge and into the water.
Now Sela and her mother both were truly free and able to go home because of the sacrifice that all their family had made. Sela was a most unusual looking selkie with her patchwork coat, but she didn’t mind. She was used to being different.
As time passed, villagers and sailors sometimes spotted a selkie mother with a multicolored coat, singing on the rocks with her own pups. They too had the same patchwork coat of their mother.
And the seal cubs’ songs, a strange ethereal blend of human and animal, wind and water, were just as joyous and free as their mother’s.