My husband, Tomas, is very sick.
His retching echoes through every room in our stone cottage, a humble place with splintered wooden floors and paint chipping on the window shutters, far too small for a family of four. I’m in our tiny kitchen when I hear the first strains of his agony. My hands are plunged in hot dishwater, my fingers squeezing a sponge so hard I briefly think it may disintegrate in my grip. The water is my only comfort, soft on my wrists as if to say, all will be well, daughter.
We’ll see about that.
“Mary,” he howls, voice muffled by the bathroom door. His voice is plaintive rather than angry, which lessens the frantic pounding in my chest. “Mary!”
That’s not my name, although it might as well be after fifteen years of marriage. It’s the name he gave me after he couldn’t pronounce my real name, although most humans can’t. My name is meant for selkie mouths, to pass through sharp teeth and lay at the bottom of the sea. It is unspeakable on land, unknowable to human tongues like his.
I linger for a moment, my hands in the water, waiting for his groans to cease. I wonder if it’s the last croak before death. But as his voice comes again, my stomach sinks.
I abandon the refuge of the dishwater and pause before the bathroom door. My hand stills on the doorknob. Pale fingers shaking, nails bitten down to the quick. My heart is a frantic bird beating itself against my chest. It’s not his anger that frightens me. It’s the knowledge that if this doesn’t happen, I don’t know what I’ll do.
When I open the door, my husband is huddled against the toilet, vomit dribbling down his chin. His hawkish face is white as paper, the shadows under his wild eyes an ugly, bruised yellow. Dread curdles my stomach.
“Water,” he croaks, and hugs my skin around his shoulders tighter.
My seal-skin—the skin I was born in far below the waves—is grimy from years of constant wear, the gray, slick surface ripped and stitched into a makeshift coat that Tomas never takes off. During the day, he wears it to shield himself from the rain when he’s out fishing, flashing it at the other fishermen like a peafowl’s feathers. They grunt with admiration. It is a rarity to have such a fine skin, to have such an obedient selkie wife—because without their seal-skin, no selkie can return to the sea.
At night, Tomas curls it around himself like a blanket. Sometimes in the dark, inches away from him in our bed, I reach out and stroke the smooth, dappled gray of my skin. It’s only when I’m absolutely certain he’s asleep, because of the occasional dull throb in my wrist from the one time he caught me doing it.
I hurry back to the kitchen, Sahn and Clara watching me with wide eyes from the table. Looking at Clara, my oldest, is like looking into a mirror and seeing my past. Sahn, my youngest, is a sweet little thing with my husband’s dark gaze and the fattest legs I’ve ever seen. Sometimes I’ll pretend to nibble them and she shrieks with laughter, her teeth just beginning to sharpen, the rosy skin of her arms just beginning to sallow to a dove gray.
Most selkie are born under the waves, furred and dappled gray. But for the few selkie who stray—the stubborn few who chance love with humans and shed their skin to do so—their children are born human. My daughters’ seal skin will grow over them in time, until it sits around their shoulders like a cloak.
And then, when their skin is their own, my daughters will be able to slip into their true forms and return to the sea. I’m breathless for that day, aching for it, wishing I could peel back their seal-skin to make it come faster, but I know that would be cruel. I’ve heard of human fathers doing it to their selkie daughters, eager for them to marry. It rarely turns out well.
“Is da alright?” Clara asks.
My hand trembles as I fill a glass from the tap. “He’s fine, my seashell. The food didn’t quite agree with him.”
“I want to go back to the docks soon,” she says, clearly not that concerned. Dread brews in my stomach as I remember she’s just as stubborn as I am.
“Maybe if da is feeling better tomorrow,” I respond, non-committal.
“But I want to see your friend,” Clara whines. “I like her better than—”
When I whip around to face her, her mouth clamps shut. “Enough,” I say. I nod to the dirty dishes on the table, plates and bowls I forgot to wash. I usually whisk them away right after dinner as Tomas instructs, but the anxiety pounding under my skin tore them from my mind. “Dishes in the sink, and then put your sister to bed.”
“My back itches,” Clara sniffs, and then nods at her sister. “Sahn’s does, too. She was fussing.”
I leave them a tub of calamine lotion as I go, and my heart aches for my mother. My mother, who I haven’t seen since I was pregnant with Clara. She’s never lived above the waves, but even so, I imagine she would know what to do about itchy backs, and my colicky daughter with her sharp teeth, and if I should ever apologize to my children for bringing them into this world, and never doing enough for them.
When I return to the bathroom Tomas is sitting back against the wall, wiping his wet mouth. The sharp tang of vomit fills the space, and I have to hold back a grimace as I hand him the water. He drinks greedily. I remember how much I loved that hunger when I first met him, his lips devouring every inch of my body, his tongue running over my skin—my human skin—until it felt like the sea was pulling me under.
Fifteen years have changed both of us, though. That’s the trick of love. It has a way of twisting in on itself, of growing teeth and claws so slowly it’s hard to notice the subtle shift. And by the time I did, I had already shed my skin and molded myself into the wife Tomas wanted me to be. But my husband, I’ve realized over the years, doesn’t want a wife.
He wants a mother he can fuck.
“Thank you.” Tomas wipes his mouth with the sleeve of my skin. “Must’ve been bad meat.”
I say nothing.
He doesn’t seem to care. “Clara’s getting older, isn’t she?”
It’s strange he asks about our daughter as he leans back, pale as death, voice hoarse from retching. Maybe he’s delirious. I want to frown, confused, but he would take it as a slight. He would assume my frown was an offense directed at him, and that would result in shouting, and crying, and bruises.
“Twelve next month,” I say, and even now I feel a smile in my voice. Willful, stubborn Clara.
“I’ve seen her seal skin coming off,” he says. “I’ve a few interested friends who’d make good husbands for her, you know.”
I stare at him. A visceral fear shoots through me like lightning, and I think I may vomit.
“Oh.” That’s the only sound I can manage, a soft rush that hopefully betrays none of the screaming horror climbing up my throat. Part of me had believed it would never come to this, that he would never do such a thing, but that innocent part of me is quickly and quietly being smothered with each passing day. “Oh.”
“Best find her a husband before she grows into her skin,” he says. “Don’t want her being too willful.”
I swallow. “Willful?”
“Like you were. Always running back to the sea.” He pauses, glass trembling in his hand. “Always making eyes at everyone. Human, selkie, doesn’t matter.”
Now, as he drinks, he watches me with a bloodshot mix of lust and reproach, as if he resents me, hates what I am, blames me for his sickness. And he well should.
Because I’m the one who poisoned him.
Selkies make excellent wives, they say. They will never stray, not if you know how to hide their skins.
My mother told me stories about it, even before I came to Tomas on the beach one windswept morning, my skin still shifting as I emerged from the water. My kind has commingled with his for hundreds of years. They skim the ocean with sleek wooden boats to catch our fish, and we occasionally emerge from the foam, our true skins cast off, to live among them.
We don’t need to, of course. We thrive under the waves, safe from stolen skins locked away in chests, or worn around hulking shoulders. But the other stories, the good ones, the silly tales of love that pair a wild selkie with a human who respects what we are—those were too delicious for me to turn away from.
I had watched Tomas for several months before I decided to come to him. I would break from the waves to peer up as he hauled nets of fish, and he would grin at me, radiant in the first watercolor of dawn. It was his strength that was my undoing, I think. I assumed a man that strong couldn’t be threatened by something unfamiliar, something he could and would never understand. I assumed someone like him would value the strength in freedom. In existing between two worlds.
He wasn’t always a monster, you know. The first few years, he used to love watching me change. Slipping in and out of my two forms like slipping out of a silk dress, my seal-skin around my naked shoulders, from a slick snout to a coy, blushing face. He would run his fingers over my skin, capture my mouth in his, and I would drink in his reverence like a drug.
After I made his cottage my home, I returned to the sea every month to see my kin. I had found him, I boasted to my friends. A human lover who granted me freedom, who I could be both selves with. He appreciated my strangeness, my ability to change at will.
Every time I returned from the sea, wet and naked and holding my seal-skin around me, he would be waiting on the beach with an embrace and kisses and eager questions. But over time, I noticed his eyes getting a little sharper. Questions a little harsher. Watching the selkies that splashed from the waves, asking if I wanted to stay with them. Asking if I desired any of them.
Until when, pregnant with Clara, I made my monthly visit under the waves. And when I returned to him on the beach, he took my sealskin from my shoulders, and fashioned a coat from it, and never took it off again.
Love has a way of growing teeth.
Despite the pallor of his skin and the heaving, wet breaths he makes as he rises from the toilet, Tomas insists he can work in the morning. An important fishing trip, apparently, that he cannot miss. And while I offer him the appropriate amount of concern and doubt, it’s only when he leaves at the first light of dawn that the screaming blood in my ears quiets.
Once he’s gone, I bind Sahn to my chest with a blanket and start for the docks with Clara. Our home is nestled in a green parcel of land, soft with clover underfoot, blanketed by birch trees that rustle in the wind. We’re far, far away from the ocean, which is exactly what Tomas likes.
At the docks, the sky brightens above seal-gray water. I crane my neck, catching a glimpse of a proud, dark fishing boat at the very end of the dock. She’s there again, hauling rope on the bow of the largest ship in the port, her tawny shoulders dappled with water and shining in the light. What little sunlight there is warms her like an old friend. Aoife is best like this, I think, painted against the sky like a saint.
When she looks at me, her smile is kind but reserved, and mine is the same. It’s the way it has to be, in public, amid so many large men who know Tomas. They watch me with curious and lustful eyes that betray what they think.
Aoife jumps down from the boat. She’s tall and hard from years of work on the docks, forearms smooth with downy hair like a newborn chick. Despite this, her face is kind—even though she knows what I am and how I long to return to my kin. Her face is always kind, a lighthouse on the horizon, a respite amid rough shores. It’s what drew me to her in the first place, what turned our innocent conversations into stolen touches and heated drags of the tongue.
A selkie without her skin may not be able to return to her kin, but I can find plenty of other ways to stray.
“Well, hello there.” Aoife leans down to tap Clara on the nose, which elicits a giggle from her. She would be a good mother. A great mother. “Would you like to learn a song?”
Clara nods, her skin just beginning to fray at the edges of her arm. I can see it from behind, the gray skin meeting the white, and I adjust her scarf to cover it. Everyone knows what we are, but hiding it makes the stares hurt less—and some part of me hopes it will dissuade the men on the docks from thinking what a loyal wife she’ll eventually be.
Aoife straightens, smiling. “Why don’t you all come aboard for a few minutes?”
She hums a tune as we follow her up the gangplank to the boat. When my foot catches on the lip of the vessel, she takes my hand to steady me—her sun-warm hand, calloused by the sea. It doesn’t stay in my own long enough to cause suspicion, but her touch still soothes me.
The sea is radiant in the blooming light, the crests of the waves glinting in the sun. As Clara, holding Sahn, clambers over barrels and rolls over great canvas ropes—I’m not worried, she’s an excellent swimmer—I wander off and sit at the lip of the boat to trail my fingers in the cool water. The feeling is like mist during a years-long drought. Hope, but never enough.
I hear Aoife’s footsteps, steady boots on creaking planks. She sits beside me, leaning back against the wall that hides us from the rest of the boat. The spray of freckles across the bridge of her nose invites me to take her face in my hands, and then I feel her full lips against my own, tongues snaking against each other, warmth growing in my belly like fire.
I lose myself in her kiss, pulled under her waves into a darkness I welcome every time. Love may be a cheap lie, but I continue to buy it eagerly.
The thought wakes me, makes me remember my husband’s fishbelly skin, the sallowness under his hateful eyes. I pull away, my voice almost a whisper. “It wasn’t enough.”
Her eyes widen. “They said one dose could practically kill two men.”
“He’s big. And tough as an ass.” Even though her fingers are laced through mine, I can feel us slipping away from each other, the walls closing in. My breath goes shallow at the thought of it. “And now he’s talking about marrying off Clara. I can’t let that happen.”
“It won’t.” The rough pad of Aoife’s thumb traces my cheekbone. “Does he drink? Wine makes men stupid and sleep-happy.”
“If the poison didn’t kill him, I doubt wine would.”
“No,” Aoife says. “Feed him wine and meat and cheese, make him so drunk a storm wouldn’t wake him. And then slip away with the children. I’ll meet you outside your house. Tonight.”
“Tonight?” The word is a boon, a glimpse of sun on the horizon.
Aoife’s voice is kind but firm. “It has to be. You’re running out of time.”
The flutter of hope in my chest quickly dampens as I spring back to reality. Sahn is a colicky babe who screams at the slightest disturbance, and I severely doubt Clara could keep such a secret if I warned her of it. She likes to play girlish games at the dinner table, cutting me with a sly gaze as she tells Tomas how much we enjoy visiting the docks. I thought I was good at hiding my roaming eyes, my ravenous hands, but Clara is like me. Too curious for her own good.
I want to curl up against Aoife and beg her to save me, but my pride is all that I have left. Instead, I tighten my jaw. “Tonight.”
I am nothing if not stubborn.
Tomas returns home that evening, his face still wan and drawn, a spot of dried vomit flecked on the side of his mouth. Each time I come from the docks, I keep a close eye on him for a few hours. I’m discrete, but he has too many friends who haul nets and gut fish for a living, lurking around the docks with the smell of blood about them. I know they talk about my children and me, so of course they watch us as well. Many of them are wary of selkies, cousins to the slick creatures they kill so readily.
As we clean dishes from the dinner table, Clara offers me a secretive smile. For a splintering moment, I wonder if she heard Aoife’s promise to wait for us at the door tonight. I’m trying to put it out of my mind—it would never work. Even so, I still offer Tomas a generous pour of wine and a full plate of beef stew for dinner. He doesn’t touch it, muttering about exhaustion and long days as he disappears into our bedroom for the night.
I slip into the darkness a few hours later, slithering under the blankets to curl up in a tight ball on one side of the bed. Although I’m pretending now, I’ve always slept like this—all selkie do when we take our human forms. Like an infant without a womb.
When we first met, it worried Tomas. He always wanted to know if he had done something wrong, if I didn’t like sharing a bed with him. I thought it was sweet, until I realized the truth would never satisfy him. .
It’s pitch black when I hear his voice.
“Do you love me?”
My body tenses at the question, at his sudden wakefulness. He’s never asked that before, never in fifteen years, not even when he took my skin from me.
I did love you, I want to say, because that would be telling the truth. I did love him for longer than he deserved, even after I found myself loving a monster.
“Of course, dear,” I whisper.
My lie lays heavy in the darkness. His silence makes fear pool in my stomach, makes me consider how quickly I could enact my plan to escape. Aoife could be waiting outside at that very moment—but the children are still in their beds, and it would take too much time to rouse them enough to flee. And while my husband is still ill from the poison, still slower than normal, I can see the ropy muscle of his arms in the faint moonlight.
“I loved you,” he says.
It’s so quiet I have to strain to hear his voice, almost plaintive in the silence. My blood roars in my ears, spine tingling. My body is older and wiser than my mind. I can taste animal instinct on my tongue, even though I haven’t been an animal for years.
“Even though I don’t understand what you are, I loved you.” He doesn’t move as he speaks, his body like a stone in bed. “Even though I knew I would never be enough for you, I loved you.”
My tongue is suddenly thick in my mouth, the weight of his words sinking into me. He loved me.
“You are enough for me, my love,” I lie, pushing as much sincerity into the words as I can. And it was true at one point, even if it isn’t now. Even if my husband’s own jealousy made his fear a reality.
“If that’s true,” he says, “than why are you fucking that sailor out on the docks?”
My mind only has enough time to go blank, my spine ice cold, when Tomas turns over in bed to press a heavy hand over my mouth.
He pins me to the bed before I can move, my eyes bulging as he wraps the other hand around my throat, fingers digging into the soft flesh of my pulse. He is so much stronger than I am, too strong for me to fight in this form. My breath rattles in my throat, a fish deprived of air.
My children, I think as my mind flutters. This will be their mother’s legacy, her skin and life stolen.
This will be what Clara remembers me as. Clara, who will make an equally trapped selkie wife, who will be just as foolhardy as her mother.
And then, just as my vision begins to blacken, I realize that can’t happen.
My husband’s knee presses into my stomach, the other on my right thigh, but he’s neglected my left leg. I jerk up, driving my knee into his groin.
He chokes, crumpling into himself. My throat is still on fire but I throw myself from the bed, wheezing as I stumble from the bedroom and into the hallway. Clara is already awake, standing wide-eyed in her doorway as she takes in my bruised neck, the panic etched into my face. I know that memory will stay with her for the rest of her life—but even if I don’t survive, I will make sure she never knows the pain I have. She will always be safe in the sea.
“Outside, now!” I grab Clara’s wrist and yank her towards the staircase, a whimpering cry bubbling from her throat as she stumbles. She looks back at me just before she disappears down the steps, but I’m already ducking into Sahn’s room. There’s no time for gentle platitudes.
Sahn squalls in her crib, tiny fists pumping the air, sharp teeth shining in the sliver of moonlight from her bedroom window. I lunge for her, arms out in wild desperation, when something yanks on my hair.
My head snaps back like a whip, body following as I crash into a corner. I feel my forehead crack against the wall, and then I am stumbling up through blur and blood, watching as Tomas looms over me like a shadow. My skin hangs around his shoulders like a corpse.
Before I can wrench myself up, he is over me again, digging his thumbs into the meat of my throat. Searing pain lunges down my neck. And just before my vision spots black, I see the bedroom door slam open.
Aoife rears up behind Tomas, forearms taut as she pulls a rope around his neck. She yanks him back, rope digging into his throat, his face a violent red and eyes bulging in animal terror. Her grip strains against his brute strength, and as his arms wheel my eyes lock onto the flapping sleeves of his coat. My coat. My skin.
I pounce at him, Aoife releasing a shout of surprise as I begin to tear at my skin, wrestling the fabric from his flailing arms. He roars when part of it rips from his shoulder, a sickeningly wet sound that makes a moan push up my throat. My skin, that’s my skin tearing apart—
“IT’S MINE!” I howl suddenly, wildly, releasing my grip on the half-shorn coat to claw at his eyes with my bitten nails. “GIVE IT BACK, GIVE IT BACK—“
Arms now free from my grip, he grabs the rope around his throat and yanks it away. The motion pushes me backwards as I make one last grab at the hanging skin, just as he wheels around to hit Aoife in the face. She falls backwards with a cry of pain, shock-red blood and broken teeth spilling from the hand clasped to her mouth.
Tomas turns back to me, ready to pounce again, but stops when he sees what I’m tugging over my arms.
My skin is torn, and dirty, and ragged, but the moment it touches my body it clings to me like a child reunited with its mother. I hug my skin around myself tighter, tighter, tighter, until I can feel my legs slip away, my arms flatten and smooth, my whiskers bloom from my face. And then as I feel my smooth belly against the floor, I know that I am complete for the first time in fifteen years.
Tomas’s eyes are wide in his face, as if just now realizing what I am. And that is the last look he will ever make, because I lunge forward, jaws wide, and tear out his throat.
My sharp teeth sink into his flesh and he collapses backwards. A horrible, wet hissing noise comes from the hole in his neck. His blood is hot iron in my mouth. It is fifteen years of rage, coating my fangs as I plunge into him again. And again. And again. There will never be enough blood to steal back everything he has ripped from me, but the last wheezing cry he makes before his seizing body stills is a savage ecstasy.
It’s the sound of Sahn’s heaving sobs that brings me back, blinking at Tomas’s torn throat. And then I realize the cries are coming from my own throat, and it’s my own chest that feels like it’s going to split open with sudden grief.
I force myself to separate and return to my human form—naked, wet, huddled under a slick gray skin. Aoife is immediately next to me, wiping the blood from her bruised mouth to cup my face in her hands.
“He’s gone,” she whispers over and over again like a prayer. “He’s gone. He’s gone. He’s gone.”
His body lays slack next to us, blood pooling on the splintered wooden floor. He is gone.
And for the first time in years, I am myself again.
Aoife knows I can’t stay.
She’s known this since we first met. I could stay, I suppose, but I don’t want to. I could find a home near the docks, raise my children half on earth, half in sea, but my false skin prickles at the thought of it. I’ve had enough of this strange world, and although I will visit Aoife on her boat, I cannot promise my life to her. Not after it ended so poorly with another.
After we hide Tomas’s body in the forest to make it look like a wolf attack, my daughters and I return to Aoife’s boat. Just as the sun begins to rise, I dip my toes into the sea from the lip of the boat’s deck, legs swinging like a schoolgirl’s. Clara sits next to me, frowning at the lapping water. While Sahn already splashes around, barking with delight, Clara still doesn’t understand what I’m trying to explain to her.
“Your skin is your own,” I tell her, tracing a finger down the fraying edge of gray on her shoulder. “Wrap yourself in it.”
She frowns at my own skin, draped over my shoulders like a cloak. Its tears and rips are already slowly healing, the soft sheen of its fur regaining its oiled elegance. It will take some time to return to its former beauty, but it will happen.
“I’ve already got my skin on,” she protests, holding out a sun kissed arm.
As if no time has passed, I slip into my skin and fall into the water, letting my warm pelt envelop me as the sea kisses my face. When I breach the surface with a snuffing nose, Clara stares at me. As if I’m not her mother. As if I’m something unknowable. And I realize I am—for all of her life, she’s known me as something small and pale and sad.
And that’s all she knows herself as, too.
Before, the knowledge might have swept over me, dark and choking. But now I let it wash over me like a wave. There will be time to mend. Time to strengthen. Time to unearth ourselves after being buried for so long.
“It’s time, my love,” I say, although my language is of the sea now. Her ears may not recognize the words, but her soul does—and it only takes a moment’s hesitation before she wraps herself in her skin and plunges into water.
Aoife watches us from the deck of the ship, the softness in her smile betraying the sadness in her eyes. But she doesn’t try to stop me, doesn’t try to draw me back to shore. I will return to her on my own accord, and she trusts me to do that. And that’s why I know she is true.
It’s dawn as I turn to face the endless horizon, the sea like glass for eons. My daughters whip and jump around me, wild with freedom, drunk on the sleek power of their new forms, hungry for whatever lies below the depths.
I am hungry too, I realize, for whatever awaits us. And as I dive into the dark embrace of the sea, two young seals trailing behind me, my skin begins to sing.