Put them in your mouth and suck them.
Squeeze them in your hand so tight your fingers bleed.
Sitting in the far corner, where the boy likes to sit when he comes here. The boy could complain at him. Order him to move. Draw his sword on him, even. ‘If you don’t move, old man, now, I’ll kill you.’ He’s seen it in the boy’s pale eyes. That he can kill. Will kill. Soon. It’s marked on him, might as well be shouting it. And the boy’s hand touches his sword hilt. But there’s an order of sorts here. Has to be. Look at the scars around my eyes, the shadows on my face, look at me sitting here, rooted: I’ve more right to be here than you, boy. When you’ve been coming here as long as I have, when you’ve ruined yourself as much as I have, you’ll understand that. The boy reads it in the way the older man looks up. Sits down quietly at the table beside him. The tabletop is dirty. Filthy. Rotten. He himself must stink of dirt and sweat and piss. He sees the boy flinch as he sits down beside him.
When you stop flinching like that, boy, when you accept it, then you can tell me to move because you like to sit here, in the far corner, where the light from the lamp can hardly reach. When you stink like this yourself when your beautiful black-red hair is matted with puke and piss. Which it will be. You nod, boy. You know it. Don’t you?
Pass me the bottle there, boy; you can have a drink yourself first if you want it.
The boy drinks. Rubs his eyes. Flinches and relaxes and tries not to flinch. Look at you, in your fancy clothes, your fancy manners, so young you are, boy, too young to be here ruining yourself. But you’ll be like me, one day, boy. I can see it. You can see it, I know. Broken up and bitter and trying to forget things. You see it and I see it, too.
Years, I’ve been here. Since you were a child. Sometimes I walk down to the harbour, look out at the sea. But only in daylight.
I lived in a village by the sea once. I could hear the waves break on the shingle when I woke. Calling to me. I was a fisherman, I went out in the dark, in the night, my little boat grey on the grey waves. ‘Tha’, she was called. ‘My hope’. Her sail was red. Lucky, I thought it. Altrersyr red. I’d hang a lantern at the mast that made the sail glow like a jewel and feel the luck when I looked at it. That makes you smile, boy. Good.
I went out as the sun was setting before me over the waters, I sailed into the red road it made. As the light fell away eaten by the water, I turned my boat to the north, sailed up away from my home into the dark cold. I would go further and faster than the other fishermen from my village. Reckless, they called me, for going so far from the land. But most of them had wives and children and families to hold them closer to the shore.
I could go far out on the water. Be away for days.
And close into the shore the married men had certain … advantages over me. Far out of sight of land I would cast my nets, put out my lantern, hang a single candle at the side of the boat above the beating waves. And the fish would come, drawn by the candle’s light. Huge things, some of them. Silver and black in the candlelight. Some of them armed with rows of huge teeth. I saw the surface of the sea itself lit like a flame, once; the water was shining green, it looked like it was burning with green fire. I don’t know what it was. I was afraid and turned my boat away.
My boat cut a black channel through the green like the fire was parting for me. I saw a ghost ship, once, out to the north of me, racing fast north where no living ships will go. The moon was full, I could see clear as daylight, I could see the ship clear as I can see you. Its sails were gold and its mast was silver, and the men who worked the oars were not mortal men. At the prow of the ship, a man was standing all dressed in armour with a light shining like a star was on him. But I was too afraid to look at him. Whales, I’ve seen, and sea beasts, sea monster, sea dragons, a thing with endless suckered legs. I saw two of them fighting once. A black whale and a green dragon, wrestling; the waves almost upset my boat. But it’s good fishing grounds out there. Worth it.
Days, I’d spend out there, alone on the sea out of sight of anything. Sailing further and further on to the end. The grey sea. The grey sky. In the winter the snow would come down thick like feathers, ice would crack over the red sail. All the wood of my boat would shine. I’d wrap myself in my cloak and try to sleep, frozen. Silver fish piled at my head and my feet. When I got back to the land the other villagers would shake their heads, say I was mad for risking my life out so far, alone. ‘One day,’ they’d say, ‘one day you won’t come back. You’ll die a lonely death.’ But the traders from the town would come and buy from me, silver coins for my silver fish-corpses, ‘the best,’ they’d say, ‘the best fisherman for a hundred miles, you must be.’ And me at a disadvantage, as I said.
You probably ate my fish yourself, boy, when you were a child. And the silver they paid me for it – that’s what you’re drinking now. That’s the piss staining my clothes. Yours too, soon, boy. Drink and piss and vomit. I know and you know.
It was midwinter when it happened, just before the feast of Sun Return, when the year dies and is reborn. Five days, I’d been out on the northern sea. The ice on my boat was thick as bones. I brought back a catch to make my fortune. Struggled through waves higher than the mast. The lamplight on my sail was my luck sign. There were more stars that night than I’ve ever seen. I came home at dawn with the sky burning. Dragged my boat up the shingle and the stones beneath the keel seemed to scream and to sing.
Ah, gods, stones. I heard them. Felt them.
She was standing on the beach, watching me.
The older man drinks. Closes his eyes. Frowns. Drinks.
I tell you, boy, I tell you, years ago it was, you would only have been a child then, and the years haven’t been kind, as you can see. But I tell you, I remember her face as clearly as if I was looking at her now.
I could barely see her, in the dawn darkness. The memory, her face and her hair – that must be from a later time. Indeed, in the memory, I seem to see her in the flicker of warm firelight or in the wash of winter morning, dappled through the bare branches of an apple tree. But in my memory, it is on the shore I see her, in the half-dark, the sun too low to cast shadows, the movement of the light on her face cast by waves at her feet.
She had dark hair, dark like the water. Streaks of silver in it, like the water also. Oh, she wasn’t young, no, boy. There were lines on her face, her skin was worn as driftwood. Her hands had done years of work and her wrists were thick with veins like rope knots.
‘Can I help you?’ I asked her when I’d stared at her and she’d stared at me. Her pockets were full of stones. They rattled as she took a step towards me.
So I knew then why she was there.
‘My husband’s dead,’ she said. ‘And my children.’ She said, ‘There was a fire.’ And in the cold now I could smell the smoke on her clothes. A sad smell.
‘You have no family?’ I asked her.
Fool, I thought then.
‘None but those.’ She said after a moment, ‘My husband’s sister… But….’ Her eyes moved, big and dark in her worn-out face. ‘Is that your catch?’
‘Yes.’ We were talking about your dead family, I thought. She opened her mouth, looking. Her tongue came darting out.
So I knew, then, what she was. And why her family was all dead, but she was unharmed. And why she couldn’t walk out as she wanted, into the water, with her pockets weighted down with stones and die in peace. But, gods and demons, still I pitied her.
‘Have one,’ I said. She came up to the boat, treading very lightly on the shingle; as she came close, I could feel it, the way you sometimes can with her kind, if you know. She took a fish from the great heap of them in my boat, half frozen in the cold, it gleamed all silvery in the light. She ate it raw, standing there before me, spilling blood down her smoke-stained dress; when she was done, she washed her hands and face in the salt water, and turned, and sighed, and looked at me.
It had been a long time since anyone thanked me for anything. Especially a woman. The last time I’d heard a woman thanking me … Perhaps that’s why I said it. ‘I have to sell my catch,’ I said. ‘But look, if, when I’m done …’
She looked blank and sad, and I shuddered. But then she smiled at me, and I was glad I’d said it. If you ever find someone who smiles at you like that, boy … there’s nothing else you’ll need in your life. So you’ll think.
You look at the bottle you’re holding. Caress it like a woman. Wise, you are, boy, maybe.
So then she smiled at me, bright as sunlight, and said, ‘You’ll sell your catch. You’ll get the best price you’ve ever had for it.’ Her voice was very hard and dry. A kindness I’d done her, and kindness she was doing me in return. I took my cart into town, all wet and cold and salt-crusted, fish-reeking, tired and hungry and my mouth dry as stones; the rich merchants who buy from me, they like to see me like that, think it shows how fresh my catch is, how hard I’ve worked. Think it makes them fishermen themselves and think how much better they are than me, both at once. Two hours there in my cart, an hour to haggle, two hours back. And more money in my purse than I’d ever made before, as she’d promised me.
She was still there. On the shore where my boat was drawn up on the shingle. The tide had gone out now, the beach is shallow, a long way the sea runs out over shingle and mud and banks of white sand. There were two seals resting on one of the banks, and she was standing watching them with tears running down her face. Wringing and wringing her hands, and the scent of smoke still on her. More than I could bear, tired and hungry and cold and rich as I was, to see her like that, as I hope you can understand, boy. So I unhitched my cart, turned my horse loose on the common, and I went up to her and told her to come back home with me.
She was grateful. I’ll swear that — that she was pleased, that I was doing her another kindness there. She smiled again, bright and weary, her teeth were bright in her mouth as she smiled; maybe I was nervous, then, seeing that, yes. Maybe. It’s a fool’s thing, meddling with her kind, gods yes; in my village, we’ve never had many dealings with them, unlike some. But she looked so tired, and so grateful, standing there smelling of ashes with the salt on her face that might be from her tears or might be from the sea.
It’s a long walk to my house from the shoreline. The path runs up the cliffs and along, over the crest of Mai Head and down; my house is in the lee of the headland, looking over the black rocks of Mai Cove where the seals go. There’s a godstone, up on the headland, three fingers of rock like a tomb and a hollow place beneath that I’ve never dared look at; she shuddered as we went past it, averted her eyes dark as pebbles; there was a smell of wet earth up there as we went past it and I heard her breath come sharply
Where the path runs down again to my house there’s the ruins of a well-head, a blackthorn tree growing beside it; that, too, is a god place. She stopped there and bent her head like she was saying a prayer; I had to stand and wait until she went on.
My mother died when I was a boy of thirteen, not much younger than you are now, and they buried her in a coffin made from the wood of a blackthorn tree.
The fire in my hearth was still smouldering, the place was smoke dirty as she was, fish-smell, tar-smell, salt-smell of fishing nets. It was getting dark now, the room was full of darkness that showed up the dust and the mildew worse somehow than sunlight. The air in my house felt damp. Made my hands and clothes feel damp. I banked up the fire with turf, got the flames going; she sat at the table with tired eyes. When I’d got the fire burning properly, I fetched out bread and cheese and a jug of well-water, put the kettle on to boil to make tea. Then I sat in silence. She sat in silence. Outside over Mai Cove, the gulls screamed.
‘Thank you,’ she said.
‘It’s no trouble,’ I said. As though I had her kind sitting in my house in the normal course of things.
I made the tea and we ate bread and cheese. I wished I had apples or honey I could give her. I didn’t even drink ale, then, unless I was down in the village on a feast day, or in the town needing a meal after I’d sold my catch. Even then just one cup.
We drank the tea, ate the bread, ate the cheese. It was full dark now; my eyes were sore from going so long without sleep.
‘You can sleep there,’ I said, pointing to the corner where my bed was. A good pile of heather and bracken, new-made in the autumn, the cloth over it good goat’s wool. Her face in the firelight was pale as fish scales. She nodded, took off her cloak, lay down there wrapped in it. I banked down the fire in the hearth, wrapped myself up in my coat, lay down by the door. Tried to sleep.
The boy looks up, attentive. Pale eyes searching the older man’ s face. Waiting for the older man to tell.
I couldn’t sleep, of course. I lay there in the cold from beneath the door so tired it felt like I was falling, like the floor of my house was moving up and down like the sea. I could hear all the night’s noises: a fox shrieked, a gull somewhere still crying, the wind was up calling around the house making the stones of my house creak. I could hear her moving, breathing. She wasn’t asleep. Of course, she wasn’t asleep.
I said this before – she wasn’t young. She’d born children, she’d toiled as a housewife for ten years. Her eyes were pouched and weary. Her hands had a housewife’s red thickness to them. Her hair smelled of smoke from the fire that killed her husband. She …
I could feel her, over there across the room, in my bed, trying to pretend she was asleep.
Selkies, they call her kind. Seal women. Little strange gods. They swim in the sea in their seal skins, witless as beasts, they shed their skins to dance on the sand as women. Beautiful, with hair like the waves, slender-ankled, crowned in red coral and white pearls.
The men row out to the islands and the coves where they gather, hide and wait there. The selkies come, one of them, or two, or a dozen, swim up as seals, grey in the grey water, strip off their skins and dance as women on the yellow sand. The man leaps out, seizes the grey seal skin. Holds it close in his strong arms.
The woman pleads with him. Begs him. Entreats him. Threatens. If he is a coward, sometimes, very rarely, he gives her back her skin, lets her go. If he is a strong man, he takes her back with him to his house, marries her. Hides her skin away in a locked box or in a deep pit in the earth or beneath a great stone.
For as long as he keeps her skin hidden, she must stay with him, bear his children, keep his house clean and his hearth bright. And because she is a god thing, he will have luck in his fishing. His nets will be full. He will be kept safe from storms, from the beasts of the deep, from drowning. From dying of thirst on the dry waters of the pitiless sea.
A luck charm and a charm against evil and a woman. There, dancing, on the beach, in the moonlight, beautiful, just calling out for a man’s arms, surely…
You’re going to ask, aren’t you, boy?
What’s the catch? There’s got to be a catch.
A selkie is a wild thing. A god thing. She … Maybe, you’ll be guessing, she doesn’t want to stay in a man’s house, be his wife, clean and cook, share his bed every night. ‘Please’, she’ll whisper. Beg him. Weep. Scream. ‘Please.
‘It’s cruel,’ you’ll say.
The boy nods, drinks from the bottle. ‘It is cruel,’ he says.
‘It is.’ The older man drinks, wipes the neck of the bottle, gives it back. The boy doesn’t take his eyes off the bottle. His hands move, pick at his lips, rub at his eyes until the older man gives it back to him. ‘But if you’re a strong man, you’ll ignore it. Think of the good things. Why else is she there, boy? Beautiful like that? Lucky? If not because she’s waiting for him?
‘Being a fisherman is a cruel life,’ the older man says.
He’ll marry her. Be faithful to her. She’ll love her children, care for them, sometimes she might even come to think without hate of him. But she’ll never stop searching. All her life, she’ll be searching. And if she finds it, she’ll leave him, and leave her children, run back into the sea as a seal and be free.
And from that day his nets will be cursed, he will never catch anything, and his children will die of slow hunger, he will be drowned, or die of thirst on the dry waters of the pitiless sea. Her seal’s head will bob on the dark water, watching with her pebble eyes full of grief.
But he’ll still do it. Take her skin.
You shake your head, boy. But you’ll see, one day.
That night I lay in the dark, trying to sleep; I could feel her, a god thing and a luck charm and a woman, over there across the room from me, in my bed, trying to pretend that she was asleep.
She could feel me.
It must have been hours we lay there. Both of us awake listening to the other’s breath. I’d done her kindness and she’d done me a kindness, and she’d smiled at me. I was so tired, but I couldn’t sleep.
I’d seen her kind once before, long ago. Years ago. Dancing on a beach, in the moonlight, naked, her hair like the foam of a wave, her eyes like pebbles glinting beneath the sea. But ‘please,’ she’d said, ‘please,’ and once long ago I’d listened, and she’d thanked me. And the other men had the advantage over me, so I had to go far to the north to fish, where there are sea beasts and dead men’s ship sail, where the other men don’t go.
I got up, went over towards her. The moon was out, the sky was clear; the moonlight came in through the shutter on the window so that I could just about see her lying there pretending she was sleeping. She’d wrapped her cloak all about her. I could smell the smoke on her very strongly. I could hear the waves breaking on the shingle. I could hear her breath.
She was waiting for me. She must be.
I put out my left hand to her. Reaching. The moonlight seemed to come very brightly then through the shutters. In the moonlight, the skin of my hand looked grey.
I could hear the waves breaking on the shingle. The moonlight was brightly reflected on the waves.
An old, old goddess creature. A creature of the sea and the stony shore where the sea breaks. She knew what I wanted. Her face was cold as stone. She lifted stone hands against me
I don’t know how and why I fled out of the house, how I got down the rocks to the cove where the waves were coming in. On the shingle, the seals were resting. Sleeping. And piles of seal-skins crumpled like rocks. They were dancing, the selkies, the seal-women, sea-goddesses, her sisters, beautiful, hair like the sea-foam, crowned in coral and white pearls, they broke off their dancing when they saw me.
The sound of the waves was very loud, churning up the pebbles on the beach, I could feel stones in my hands. Taste stones in my mouth. Their stone eyes and her stone face looking at me.
I went back to my house the next morning when the sun had risen. It was a cold day. The mist had come in, the clouds had come down, the wind moved the air and sometimes I could see the godstones on Mai Head, and sometimes I could see the bare branches of the blackthorn, and sometimes I could see nothing I couldn’t see the sea. The door of my house was open; I went in, looked around; I think, I hoped, that she was still there, waiting. I could see her there in my mind. She was gone, of course. The house was dead and empty, full of mist, the fire in the hearth was dead.
What I would have done, if she’d still been there, I don’t know. I like to think now that I would have begged her to forgive me.
I sat in the house looking at the bed where she’d been lying. And I like to think now that I felt shame.
But I did her a good turn, I kept thinking. I still think it, sometimes, if I’m honest. I didn’t steal her skin away. I helped her. And she was a selkie, who shed her skin to dance as a woman on the shore of the pitiless sea. Beautiful and wild. All the men of the coast here, they do it. Why else would she have been there? Waiting for me?
‘Looking back, I doubt that I felt shame,’ he says.
I sat in my house for hours, cold and tired. So tired my body ached, my eyes ached. I was hungry, I stank of fish and sea-salt, I was thirsty, I needed to shit and piss. I just sat and looked at the bed and the table where she’d been sitting, eating my bread and my cheese, drinking water I’d drawn from the spring that was once a sacred place. Sea-woman, seal-woman, mer-woman, old god, luck charm. Her stone face looking at me, blank grey stone, mute, blind, looking at me, hating me.
I looked at the bed and the table and the doorway that stood open with the mist coming in. I thought of her stone face looking at me. Grey and smooth and dry. I thought of the feel of stones in my hands. The smell of stones, walking on the shingle. The sound of them shifting beneath my feet. I could feel a stone in my hands. Hear it. Taste it. If I drink enough, sometimes, it goes away.
Look, boy, there’s a stone here in my hand, now, I hold it, and I squeeze it tight in my hand, my fingers curling around it, and I grind my nails into it until the blood and the dust come. If I drink enough, sometimes, it goes away.
I wouldn’t say this was my punishment. Not exactly. The men who take her kind as wives, steal their skins away, imprison them … they know what they’re doing. But what they see when they look at their wives, look at their children, I don’t know… There are men all over the White Isles, all up and down the coast in every village, who do it, no different to me.
I see stones. I taste stones. I feel stones grating dry against my skin, against my teeth.The older man says, ‘Would you have done it, boy? If it had been you there?’
The boy hesitates. ‘No.’
‘You’re lying, boy. Anyone would have done it,’ the older man says. ‘Anyone.
You know. The men marry their selkie brides, and their nets are full and plentiful, and the people of the White Isles eat the fish that they catch. And don’t tell me no one knows how cruel it is.’ He makes a crude gesture, obscene, with his fingers. ‘A woman in your bed at night, her stone face, her stone hands trying to push you away. But she’s your luck charm, isn’t she?’
The older man says, ‘And here’s another of my coins to buy another bottle, boy. So we can both drink the thought away.’
They sit side-by-side in the far corner, where the light from the lamp can hardly reach. Piss-stained and bitter and weary. Drink and drink and drink.
‘I walk by the sea sometimes,’ the older man says. He clutches a stone in his hand tight. ‘Looking for her. But only in the day. Maybe I’d ask her to forgive me. Tell her I was ashamed. Help her to find her skin and set her free. But you know, boy, and I know, that’s not what I’d do.’
The older man runs his fingers over the stone he’s holding. Caresses it. The boy says nothing, and nods his head, and raises the bottle, and drinks.