This is the opening of a short story I dusted off this week. Comments and feedback welcome. Further scenes forthcoming.
The Chasing Waves
There are selkie women on the rocks at Arcol. In the lavender light of dusk and dawn they peel off their velvet sealskins and lounge on the shingle to suckle their slate-nosed little ones. Their older offspring run bare-skinned on the sand, peering into the rock pools where their eyes are reflected like nights bereft of stars.
Sometimes, depending on the tides, the more adventurous fisherman can walk along the beach and share a few words with these strange creatures, but they always slip through the green veil between land and sea before he draws too close.
They offer no more than brief conversation to even the most avid visitor, and have no interest in sustaining any relationship with the people of the shore. They tempt and taunt and tease, and slide into the water without looking back. Call it meanness, but they would only laugh like children if they knew the yearning they bring upon the hearts of men.
The males are seldom seen, even from the boats. They are elusive, and do not jest like their daughters on the beach. I know this as well as they do. I know this because when I sank into the queer, murmuring land below the waves I saw them swimming there.
I woke with the force of my body expelling its unwelcome content, flapping like a fish thrown to earth. I woke knowing them as thieves. Selkie brides give the sight of their bodies, and take no more than hearts. Selkie men, I know, are stealers of souls.
If my feet were webbed I would go to them and never see my home again. My mother lost her husband to the sea, and I am half-drowned, even with the rope she often fastens between our waists, but she holds onto me with a desperate kind of love.
Ours is a fishing village, but we have no fishermen. My father walks upon the seabed, and my five brothers have homes of their own. I was young when they went, and they are shadows to me. They exchanged our mother for the soft, plump arms of their nubile wives, and do not look back at the ghost we represent. History is a dead thing. When it stirs, it must be left alone until it sleeps again.
My mother and I live on the back of the hill, invisible to ships and walled from the waves by earth, but at night I still hear the sirens singing. I lie awake and their voices lull my mind to the eerie quiet of the deep, where I lost all thought.
The water extinguished the flame that licked out my lungs, and when the selkie men came to me with their mourners’ black eyes I slid into their arms. They breathed my soul between their lips, and carried what was left up to the waves to be washed in.
Like all driftwood, I am no longer what I was. My encounter in the sea has altered my state of being. The blood I spat into my mother’s tin pot for three days was a purge, an effort to make my loss physical. I was trying to spit out a vital component, to leave an emptiness in my body to match the one in my mind. They saved my life. In return, they took from me all but the shallows of my character.
I vomited splinters, fishbone, even a long black thread and sharp fragments of shell. My mother threw these things outside, but something crept in on her skirt fold. My dreams are underwater, and even if am dry as a mouse in its nest I feel submerged.
The hags who darn the nets say my soul is buried in the sand off Redruth. They say that is where the selkies bury all that is precious to them. Sirens treasure gold, but selkies hoard souls because they lack them. Their women are happy because they cannot be sad. Their men are sad because they cannot be happy. They drink human memories to feel what they cannot.
I believe this to be true. Like I told you, I have seen them swimming in the cool, quiet deep, where only dead men wander, and the eels twist and tangle among the pale green weeds.
I wake with the light. The wind off the sea rustles in my ear. The sound is like the scuttle of an insect inside my skull. I rise and break the ice that has formed a silver film over my water basin. It is winter. There have been few storms, and the black sea is quiet. The cold is the kind that will freeze a man’s chest. It creeps like a spectre, cracking stones and coating the boats with oyster-white needles.
We live off pickled herrings, the half-liquid fat stored over the summer, and our own wasting flesh. Children will die this winter. Cold like this singles out the weak and the unlucky. The coastal path is lined with white, skull-sized rocks. When the wind is high it howls between them like an old, vengeful ghost. The hags say it is the children laughing as they play, and on Beltane the white rocks are known to move. Children are unfinished articles. Small wonder they fidget in their graves.
Sometimes it takes a specific circumstance for anything to happen. Of course life itself is only a series of circumstances and consequences, but most happenings do little to disturb the steady flow of normality. Great change only happens when the natural rhythm is upended, and it takes a specific circumstance indeed for this to occur without will or warning.
The storm that took my father beyond reach of the living was a beast that stirred from some older, primal reach of the world. Its violence was beyond hate. At its heart was a berserk kind of rage, the kind which no appeal to gods and mercy can tame.
As soon as its great mass bloomed over the ocean, a purpling bruise under which the water had the hue of old blood, I believe my father knew that he was to meet his end.
Life is seldom inclined to surrender before it is vanquished, however, so we lashed ourselves to the frame of our tiny vessel, and as the waves swelled around us we made our appeals to any divine being, weather or force that might hear.
Gods are jealous creatures. You cannot buy their graces in an instant, but the moment before death is a time for begging. We screamed for mercy with such fervour that the storm and our ragged voices seemed to be animated by the same power.
The boat was upended, and we, bruised and bleeding from the bonds we had tied in vain hope, saw the bottomless maw of the black depths. I tasted fear in its purest form, a dread so thick that it was a syrup in the hollows of my body.
My father took my hand, white-lipped and wide-eyed, and as the boat splintered we were parted, pulled down, dragged our own separate ways by the force and temper of the ocean. When the water stuck its tongues into the caverns of my ears there was no storm. It raged on another plane, and its brilliance was a murmur in the faraway world above the surface.
As I’m sure you can imagine, memory serves only in part from there on out. It is more by intuition that I recall the strange creatures who swam around my broken form. Dreams and reality are tethered by much the same post, and pain blurs the two. What I have dreamed and what my body underwent are no longer two things.
I cannot tell you what it was to taste their lips and know their bodies with my own, feeling loved. Illusions are beautiful things – we cling to them in the hope that they will last, and I was weak, I confess. Life is never sweeter than when it is slipping away. Their kisses were air in my lungs, their touches strength to my broken limbs. Their lies were an elixir, a precious thing they gave in exchange for the sweet nectar of my being. I did not refuse the bargain – my soul in exchange for my life. My life, for the price of wanting to live it.
© Deanna Scutt, 2016
Update: find part two here.