We first met when I saved him from drowning. He was on one of the boats, the ones that floated above us and left us largely undisturbed, concerned, as they were, with fishing, and not with fishing for us.
It was a calm day, and we were playing close to the surface, when I saw him topple into the water. His boots filled and nearly dragged him under.
"Leave him," said my mother, and I should have listened, but I couldn't.
I dragged him to the surface and held him until one of his companions saw him, bobbing there, and pulled him into their boat, coughing water with no shoes.
"A seal," he said. "A seal saved me..."
They laughed, and clapped him on the back as he coughed up more water, and told him he was dreaming.
"You lost your shoes and bobbed up like a cork, Bill!" said one of his companions, as I dipped back under the waves.
I didn't hear what came next, distracted as I was by my mother scolding me.
"What have you done?" she demanded.
"I couldn't let him drown," I tried, but she cut me off.
"It's the way of the world," she said. "They can't live down here, and we can't live up there."
She chided me all the way home, followed me as I dove deep, then resurfaced, again and again.
"I suppose you'll be in love with him now," she said, as though it was ordained, as though I had no choice. "As you saved him."
"He's a stranger," I protested, and she looked at me grimly.
"That won't matter," she prophesied.
We went ashore once a month, if the weather was nice, to sun ourselves and enjoy the warmth.
When we went ashore, my cousins took off their skins, but my sisters and I always kept ours on. Our mother had warned us, what would happen if we pulled them off.
"Do you want to be bound to land?" she said. "To have to learn to walk, like one of them, to never return to the water until they give you back your skin?"
We shook our heads, no. No, we did not want this.
I hauled myself onto land as soon as it was warm. My sisters came with me, all of us together. We spread out on the sand, among the rocks, found places to sun ourselves, turned onto our backs and left our bellies vulnerable. We feared nothing. The landsmen would not disturb us; they knew better. No one would hurt us, or so we thought.
I saw him before he saw me. I recognized him, even without his boots: the man I had saved.
I did not recognize the others that were with him, or what they carried, though I'd come to know it soon enough: long wooden clubs, with curved metal spikes on the ends.
They attacked my youngest sister first. She made little noise as she died. A surprised gasp, and that was it.
She was lucky. She never saw what was coming.
My other sisters, they saw their deaths. They recognized what was coming to them. I could hear them shout, in our language, what it was I had to do.
"Your skin!" shouted my eldest sister. "Enna! Take off your skin!"
I had never done it before, though I'd seen my cousins cast off theirs. There was a trick to it, some magic that I was unfamiliar with. I should not have been able to do it, but desperation served as a catalyst, and before I knew it, I was lying on the beach, huddled beneath the sealskin, without a stitch of clothing on me.
He found me that way, the man I'd rescued. There's poetry to that: a life for a life. I saved him, and he saved me.
He knew what I was, when he found me. He saw the sealskin, recognized the choice he had to make, what the others had done.
"Tell me," he said. "Tell me they were only seals."
I couldn't lie to him, and so he took my sealskin, tucked it under his arm.
"I will make this right," he said.
I didn't know what he meant, but he had my skin, so I followed him.
He did not force me to walk past the bodies of my sisters. For this, I was grateful. It was a small enough thing, and yet he did it, recognized what they had done.
"Leave the pelts," he told the other men. "Bad luck," and he held up my cast-off skin.
The others blanched, when they saw.
"Bad luck, Bill," said one of them. "Shit. Still, it seems a waste..." He looked back to where my sisters were lying on the sand.
"Do you want to curse us all?" asked the man I'd rescued.
"Nah," said the other, rubbing the back of his neck. "Just..."
"Leave the pelts," he repeated. "Bad luck. Let's go."
We went, and left my sisters on the sand to rot.
He took me to his mother, without a stitch of clothing on me, led me around the back way, avoiding the main road through the village, the stares and whispers that would come from my lack of propriety.
My feet were bare and I could hardly walk. I had never done so before. Every step was full of pain, newly-found legs adjusting to the weight of bearing me on the earth, not pushing me through water, my feet seeming to find every sharp pebble or bit of twig to step on. I had never walked before and I wanted to swear that I would never walk again, except I recognized what my life was, what the choices now before me were. Stay, and learn to walk, to stand on my own, and pretend that my world had not ended, or go, and explain to my mother just what had happened to my sisters, take the risk that it would happen to me, as well.
He had my skin. The choice was no choice at all.
"Got one for your, mother," he said by way of introduction, as he pushed open the door to her house, and gently brought me inside. "Another daughter."
She was sitting next to the fire. She stood and squinted at me. "Another daughter? Oh!"
"Found her down on the shore," he said. "There were others, but..."
"I told them not to go hunting," she fretted. "Did they leave the pelts?"
"Then they haven't doomed us all, though..."
She looked me up and down.
“You’ll have to marry this one,” she said grimly. “Hide her skin, keep her bound to the land. She’ll go running back, otherwise, and tell them exactly how to find us, and then what will we do?”
He looked as stricken as I felt. “I’m sworn to marry Clare,” he objected. “I can’t…”
“Do you want to doom us all?” asked his mother shrewdly. “Because that’s what will happen, if you let her go.”
“I wouldn’t tell anyone,” I said, finding my voice. I shifted from foot to foot, nervous and pained, as I said it. “I wouldn’t…”
I was lying, though, and she knew it: if I returned, I would tell, and my family would destroy everyone they found on the sea.
“Can’t trust ‘em,” said his mother, then: “Do you have a name, girl?”
“Enna,” she repeated. “I’m Mary. This is my son, Bill.” She gave me a meaningful look. “Will you consent to marry him, my Bill?”
“I don’t see as I have a choice,” I said softly, and he looked as though he was about to cry.
“Then you read the situation rightly,” said his mother, not unkindly. “Well. Bill? Clare will understand; she’s a good girl.”
“Yes,” he said.
The if I must was only implied, but I heard it, too.
We married in the village church. The priest refused this, at first, until Bill explained the importance of this minor ritual to him, lest they all be doomed. I was a sea-thing, after all, mercurial and not to be trusted.
God help me, I loved him. We have always been prone to ritual, my people, and when the priest said the words over us, made us promise to love each other no matter what, that was all it took. I knew my role, and I took to it.
He didn’t love me. He was kind to me, but he didn’t love me.
The only unkindness he ever did me was in hiding my skin. His mother had told him it was necessary, something that had to be done, and so he’d ferreted it away somewhere I could not find it, while she kept me occupied, teaching me the things I needed to know, as a wife.
This he did to me, to keep his village safe, for otherwise (he was told), I would take my revenge for the deaths of my sisters by telling the rest of my family, and drowning all the men of the village, one by one.
He cried as he did it. I saw his face, afterward, and how red his eyes were. He wanted me gone as much as I wanted to be gone, whether I loved him or no, and his eyes said what he could not voice: that in hiding my sealskin, he had hidden away the last hope of his own freedom.
Apart from this one cruelty, keeping me from my family, he was kind to me, always diligent in his duties. He was a fine husband, and never minded that I was not much of a wife. I couldn’t cook, but he could, and he did this, while I went out on the fishing boats.
The other villagers tolerated this oddness, our reversal of roles. They knew what was at stake. They knew what he’d had to do. They did not question.
In time, I bore him a son and a daughter. Both had my eyes, and his fear of the sea.
I thought he might grow to love me, someday. I thought that perhaps the ritual we had undergone, which had bound me to him (but never him to me) would take, and he would realize, after some time had passed, that he loved me.
When he didn’t, I consoled myself: it does not matter, you were never his first choice. He married you out of duty; he cannot help not loving you.
He was gentle with our children, he was faithful, and he never begrudged me by time by the sea, and so I never grew to resent him for his lack of affection toward me, though another woman might have.
When our son was fifteen, he twisted his ankle, helping his father remove a rock from the field near our house. He came hobbling home on his own, leaning half-over on a shovel the entire way.
“You should have asked your father for help,” I said, and he shrugged.
“We had it most of the way out,” he said, grinning. “Didn’t want to have to do it all over again with him in the morning. Is there anything we can bind this with?”
“I’ll check the rag-bag,” I said.
“What about the old sealskin Da has stashed in the attic?” he asked.
I froze. “Sealskin?”
“Wedged between the rafters,” he continued. “I thought you knew.”
“Oh,” I said, as I fetched the rag-bag. “That. It’s got moths. It wouldn’t do to bind your ankle with it.”
I fished a long piece of muslin out of the bag. “This will do,” I said.
I helped him bind his ankle, and he hobbled back out to help his father.
Once he was out of the house again, I went up to the attic and fetched the sealskin.
Bill came home to find me sitting at the table, the skin in front of me.
“I would have thought you’d gone by now,” he said, sitting down heavily. “I thought…”
“I wanted to,” I said.
He looked at it, then at me. “Then go,” he said. “Get out.”
I pushed the bundle back across the table to him.
“No,” I said simply.
He let out a breath I did not realize he had been holding. “I was unkind,” he said. “I’m offering you your freedom. I release you from whatever claim I have on you. Go.”
“No,” I repeated. “I’ll say it a third time, too: no.”
“You’re a good man,” I told him gently. “I love you, and I love our children. I would not forsake you for the sea”
He fingered the sealskin. “Then what shall we do with this?”
I looked at it, at the vestige of my old life. I remembered diving and playing the waves, the smell of the salt and brine, the way the water felt, surrounding me, how different it was to walking on land, how I had never quite taken to earth the way I had to water.
I remembered the sight of my sisters, dead on the beach, and what my mother would do, what my family would do, if they knew how I had been bound here, some seventeen years.
He clasped his hands over it.
“I’ll put it back in the attic,” he said.
He left me a path to freedom.
I have never used it.
He loved me, then, after I refused to go, once I was no longer a prisoner, but had the ability to leave if I pleased.
My mother would not have understood, but I did. In telling me to go, he had not wanted me to. In telling me to go, he assuaged the last of his fears: that I had stayed only because I had not found the sealskin.
“It had never occurred to me,” he said, in the months after its discovery, “that you weren’t looking.”
“I saved you once,” I said. “It bound you to me, and then the wedding ritual bound me further. We are one.”
“You,” he said, and laughed. “You were the seal, the one that saved me.I had never realized, before…”
“I am the same,” I told him. “I could not save you from one death, only to send you to another.”
He kissed the top of my head. “Beautiful woman,” he said. “I owe you my life twice over.”
That was when he began to love me.
When it rains, now, I sit in the attic, finger my sealskin, and think about what might have been. It has been twenty years since I last went beneath the waves, and I still dream of it.
I have thought about leaving. I have never done it.
I never will.
[explanation.]"Take a hike" can be taken in a few different ways: literally (go hiking or walking), or in the figurative sense of telling someone to get lost.
I wanted to explore both here: the physical sensation of walking for the first time, as well as the sense of alienation from being told through actions though not words that you are not welcome, closing with the push for someone to "get out" (no matter how spurious the reasons they're told to get out).
Here, Enna is told to leave by her husband, but in a twist on the original selkie stories, makes the decision to stay, out of love and loyalty. It's a gentler, kinder, "take a hike", but the sentiment is still very much there, rooted in fear: "if you don't actually love me, leave me now, and I'll face my doom alone." She does love him, so she stays, even when told deliberately to leave and given what she *should* want most: the way that things occasionally work out.
Thank you for reading.