The Call of the Running Tide

I wrote this short story some years ago, and it was originally published in Crannog Summer 2012. Five years later, I think it deserves another outing.

All photos are from Flickr and licensed under Creative Commons.

The first two keys don’t work, but the third turns in the lock with a clunk, and I lift up the lid of the chest. My breath catches at the sight of the pelt, and my quivering hand strokes the soft grey fur.

Downstairs, the front door opens. I hastily lock the chest and shove the keys into my jeans, brushing dust from my knees. John is already in the kitchen, checking the vegetables as they bubble in the pot.

“We’ve had an offer for the house,” he says.

My heart sinks. I open the window to hear a wash of wave and wind rush up towards me, and to taste the brine on my tongue.

“I don’t want to move,” I say.

“We’ve talked about this already.”

“And you never listen. I’ve told you I can’t live inland.” With one deep breath, a waft of salty air enters my nostrils.

“Can’t we just eat our dinner?” he snaps.

He sits down and I take the sea trout from beneath the grill, setting it out on two plates. His grey-blue eyes glare, those eyes that I used to think were the colour of the sea. Now they seem more like the colour of the shore, of foam on shale. I close the window and slip into the chair opposite him.

“Is this trout fresh?” John takes a bite.

“I bought it yesterday from the fishmonger by the pier.” It would taste good, but for the bitterness in my mouth.

“You went out to sea, didn’t you?” It is an accusation.

**

Yesterday, as usual, I went to the pier. The breeze lifted the hairs on my arm and the smell of the sea made my blood rush. The bay was sheltered and the wind low; the waves were child-sized, breaking with a fizzle of foam that spread like fingers and sunk slowly into the sand. Spring had not yet given way to summer, so there were few tourists around. A young boy clambered down the rocks, his trousers rolled to his knees, carrying a bucket to collect shells. The Bed-and-Breakfast signs advertised vacancies, and Fergus advertised his wildlife trips: STELLA MARIS BOAT TOURS. BIRDS AND OTHER ASSORTED SEALIFE.

Fergus winked at me. A few white hairs escaped from his peaked cap; his cheeks were threaded with red lines and slapped with sea spray. The Stella Maris bobbed in the water, orange fenders bumping the harbour wall.

“You’ve passed here many times, young lady, and I know you want to come out on the boat.”

“I’ve no money.”

“Ach, there’s always room for one extra.”

I followed his nod across the plank to the boat, where a group of noisy Italian teenagers had boarded and an American couple consulted their guidebook. Fergus’s son pulled in the fenders and the engine started to churn up the water. Seagulls shimmied their wings and squawked as they flew off.

As the Stella Maris sailed out from harbour, she fell into a smoother rhythm: throbbing forward, rebounding up, and bouncing down again. The sun was bright, but any heat was blown off by the wind. A teenage girl held on to the edge, her boyfriend with his arm around her waist as he whispered something Italian in her ear, his face lost in her windblown hair.

We passed Heart Rock, where the cormorants nested and the seals stretched out, sun sparkling on their damp coats – mostly grey, some with brown dappling. One female shook her back flippers and pushed herself, pregnant belly and all, towards the water. One male, with a russet tinge to his coat, lifted his head and let out a bark as his black eyes caught mine. As the boat moved away from the seal colony, I leaned against the rail and stifled a low moan.

**

We go to the pub after dinner, as we often do on a Friday. Sullivan’s is busy, although not as full as it will be later in the summer. The smokers gather around the patio heaters outside, and inside the American couple from the boat are still tracing lines in their guidebook.

By the mock fireplace, under the framed swordfish, a man with russet hair plays a guitar. I sit next to him when John goes to the bar. The strumming hands are dappled with soft freckles, and the chords resonate under my skin.

“Do I know you?” I ask.

He stops playing, but the music is still inside me.

“You should come home,” he says.

“I can’t.” My throat hurts.

“He won’t let you?”

My nod is so tiny, I don’t know if he sees.

John places the drinks in front of us and sits close. One hand goes around my waist, and the other is stretched towards the guitar player, so I am pinned as the two men shake hands.

“Are you two friends?” John asks.

The guitar player says nothing, but resumes playing. From over his pint John glowers at him, and then at me, and I wonder what happened to the man I once loved.

How many years since I first met John? It was the same season as now: late April or early May. I saw him from the beach before he saw me, and on his second glance he nearly doubled back in shock.

“Who are you?” he asked.

I guess he wasn’t expecting to meet a naked woman, gleaming in the moonlight; round of breast, belly and hips.

“I’m from the sea,” I told him.

He laughed. “The sea brings in some fine treasures.”

He took off his jacket and wrapped it around my shoulders, fastening two buttons in front of my chest. We both sat on the rocks, and I tucked the ends of his jacket around my knees, the arms hanging down like flippers.

He stroked my hair. How gentle he was! For the first time, I longed for someone of the land.

“You went for a swim this early in the year?” he said.

“I don’t mind the cold. I had this to keep warm.” I patted the seal pelt that lay on the rock beside me.

He laughed again. “What are you? A mermaid? A sea nymph? A selkie?”

He leaned forward and his lips met mine, his hands caressing my neck. How strange it felt, bare skin against bare skin.

“I’ve heard about selkies.” His hands reached beneath his jacket and around my waist. “Half-human, half-seal. Is it true that if you take their sealskins, they’ll be yours forever?”

How warm his lips were! My blood rushed so fast that my heartbeat drummed any sense from my head.

“It’s true. But I’m yours now because I choose to be.”

He unbuttoned the jacket and I peeled off his clothes. He laid me down on the sand and after our coupling we were washed clean by a wave. Then we curled up together like two pups, but the moonlight cooled our bodies and I shivered.

“Where did you leave your clothes?” he asked.

His arm was on my shoulder as we walked over towards the rock. I reached for the sealskin.

“No, I meant your real clothes,” he said. “You can stop playing now.”

“Playing?”

He frowned, the colour draining from his cheeks.

“Oh, come on! You’re going to tell me now that you’re a real selkie?”

I lifted one eyebrow and smiled.

“Are you going to swim away and leave me?” he asked.

There was a sparkle in his eye that made me want to stay a little longer. I took my sealskin and draped it over his arms, where it dangled awkwardly.

“I don’t have to leave yet. But when it’s time, you have to let me go.”

“I will,” he said.

I believe he meant it, then.

**

A full moon lights our way home from Sullivan’s, but the wind smells of approaching rain. John stomps ahead, and when I dawdle he grabs my arm. His fingers dig into my flesh, and the more I resist the more he jerks me forward.

“John, stop it!”

“Who was that man?”

“Someone from long ago. Why don’t you trust me, John?”

“How can I trust you, when you’re always planning to leave?”

He really is hurting me now. I stifle a whimper and push back against his chest.

“You told me you’d return my skin when I asked! How many times have I asked, and how many times have you refused? You can’t keep me with you forever!”

What happened to the man who gave me his coat and stroked my hair so gently? Is there still kindness walled behind that hard face?

“I can keep you with me as long as I want,” he says.

A seagull squawks overhead, and the sea grows louder in my ears.

**

For if you take the skin of a selkie, they cannot return to the sea.

I found the chest on one of my explorations when John was out of the house. It was an old-fashioned thing, faded red and gold. I tried various keys, pins and hairclips, but only managed to dislodge a few rust chips from the lock. Until today, when the flowerpot fell over and the keychain tipped out with the soil. The third key unlocked the chest and I found my old skin at last.

**

When we arrive home, I switch on the lights in the kitchen to see the unwashed dishes on the table, still stuck with fish bones and potato peel.

“Come to bed,” John pulls at my wrist, but he’s had a few drinks so he loses his grip.

“Not now.”

I kiss him once, behind his ear, and his hair smells warm. If he gave me the choice, would I still want to leave? He climbs the stairs and enters the bedroom, but I stay down here and open the window to breathe the night air. The keychain is hard in my pocket, but I wait. I am good at waiting. When I’m sure he is asleep, I climb the stairs to the attic and reopen the chest to lift out the pelt. A tear falls as I stroke the grey fur, but I wipe it away.

On the road to the beach, I pass the young Italian couple, huddled together against what must be, for them, intolerable cold. Yet I feel warmer than I have for a long time.

Down on the beach there is no-one else around, no-one to see me slip out of my clothes. How strange this human skin feels, how bare, the toes feeling every grain of sand, the breeze lifting goose pimples on my belly. How right the soft, streamlined fur feels as I fit it over my body. My feet slip in first, and soon they are flippers. My head is furry; my whiskers twitch with new smells. I shuffle myself forward awkwardly on the sand, but then a wave hits and pulls me into the sea. Oh yes, the sea, my salt-tear home, running over me.

My seal-eyes look back once, at the lights of Sullivan’s and the Bed-and-Breakfasts. The Stella Maris tinkles as it bobs; I will see it again, I’m sure. But now there is a russet seal out there waiting for me. I dive under and leave the shore behind.

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