The Selkie.

The storm crossed the ocean, gathering strength as it travelled. By the time it reached landfall, a handful of outlying islands some distance from a larger island; it had reached a fury of destruction.

The islanders, the first in its path; were no strangers to violent weather and had built their homesteads low to the ground. The roofs of the buildings were sloped to almost touch the land on which they sat, to deflect the wind upwards, over the tiny settlement. A line of wattle fence carefully constructed with sufficient gaps to let some of the wind pass, surrounded the village. This was uprooted by the storm, whirling inland, crashing against the homes and the few trees surrounding the houses. Broken and dispersed, the pieces would be collected after the storm, supposing that they were both repairable and not lost to the hills. One of the homes lost it’s heather thatch, but this family was still more lucky than the folk nearest to the shore. They had to climb out of a window at the back of their house, to escape the ravenous sea which entered through the front. Very little would remain of this home when the storm finally left the coastline, losing most of it’s strength as it crossed the mountains, and then the channel between island and mainland.

Sometime in the night when the winds had dropped, the villagers gathered in the watery moonlight to assess the damage. The homeless were given shelter by those who had survived the storm, and eventually everybody settled down to sleep; time enough in the morning to start retrieving what could be found, and rebuilding where necessary.

A young man on the outskirts of the village, rather than sleeping what was left of the night, instead took himself down to the water, to see what the ocean might have cast ashore. Finding and dragging broken spars up high above the tideline, his eye was caught by a soggy bundle. As he poked cautiously at it, a smile lit up his face as he realised what the cloak like object was. He picked it up and took it straight to his home which had escaped the wrath of the storm. Burying it under his porch, he hid the evidence of his digging with a large, flat stone which he had been keeping for use as a hearthstone. Once he was sure that all looked as normal as possible after such a storm, he took some rope and went back to the beach.

He did not have to look for too long before he found the woman, little more than a girl, really. She was naked and shivering, searching among the wreckage left by the sea and the wind, and crying. Catching her by her hair, he spoke to her as she struggled to free herself from his grip.

“I have what you are looking for, you must come with me.”

Looking at him with horror, she spat and tried to bite him, and push him away. He laughed, hitting her in the face and knocking her down. Kneeling upon her, he used the rope to tie her hands behind her back, then forming a collar with the rest of the rope, he dragged her away from the beach and to his home where he fastened her to his bedpost.

“You’re my wife now,” he told her, unfastening his trousers and introducing her to the first of her new, conjugal duties.

She cried out against him, her voice like the call of the gulls; she appeared to have no speech. This seemed to him an advantage, who wanted a wife constantly nagging and complaining? Other men would surely envy him.

After he had finished with her, he dropped a blanket over her, and took himself to his bed, sleeping soundly, uncaring of her comfort, tied up as she was.

The next morning the beach was littered with tiny fish which had been dumped and left by the waves. Some were flapping in shallow pools, most were dead but still fresh. Putting off dealing with the damage caused by the storm, the villagers were out with buckets and any other vessels they could find. They collected the unexpected harvest, and the women and children set to cooking a big breakfast for the men, before settling down to salt, to dry, and to otherwise preserve the rest of the bounty.

One of the villagers to have lost her home to the storm, was a widow; an unknowing mother-in-law to the girl from the sea. Her son had been a loving child, but had turned unpleasant and aggressive when his father had drowned, while fishing. She tried her best with the boy, but without a father to check him, he caused more and more trouble in both his home and the village, developing a streak of cruelty which she both abhorred and felt guilty about. She spent many a sleepless night wondering what she could have done to prevent it. When he was fourteen he ran away from home. Nobody knew where he had gone, but he returned two years later and saying nothing of his previous whereabouts, he built himself a house on the edge of the village.

His mother hid her relief at him not moving back in with her. When she had timidly mentioned it upon his return, he had laughed in her face, saying that the last thing he wanted to do was to have to look after a doddering old woman. Looking at her ruined home though, she reluctantly made her way to her son’s house, to beg for help.

To her surprise and relief, he was outside, building a small porch in front of his home; he was whistling and appeared quite affable.

She explained her predicament, and he told her that she would come to live with him, he was extending the property and there would be plenty of room. She had brought a bucket full of the little fish, and he laughed as he took her inside, saying that they were exactly what he needed. She smiled happily, wondering if her son had changed his ways, then she saw the girl, bruised and clad only in a blanket, tied to the bed.

“Meet my wife, your new daughter,” he told her. “She’s a bit wild, you can teach her how to look after me properly.” Pointing to the bucket of fish he said, “You can start by cooking me a meal, better give her some of that, no need to cook them for her.”

As his mother stood looking with incomprehension at the girl, he spoke more sharply. “Well, get on with it, there is a lot for you to do.”

The mother got the fire going on the crooked hearthstone, and started to cook the fish for her son, stealing glances at the girl as she did so. She knew that there was no point feeding herself or the girl, his ‘wife’, until he was fed and happy.

After his meal he returned to building the porch and she took the bucket with the remaining fish to where the girl huddled, watching her. Showing her the fish, she offered them. The girl shrank away from her, holding her hands, now tied in front of her, up to her face to protect herself.

“Don’t be afraid, I won’t hurt you. Look, there is food; you should eat.” She spoke soothingly, hiding her anger that the girl was bound, but not daring to loosen the bonds. “What’s your name?”

The girl neither looked nor spoke to the older woman, who then set the bucket down and started to clean up the house, moving slowly and not watching what was happening with the fish and the frightened girl. Eventually, having settled the embers of the fire, she went back to retrieve the bucket. To her relief it was empty, although she had not heard the girl move, and indeed, she looked as though she had not, still huddled at the end of her rope, still holding her hands up protectively in front of her.

“Good girl,” she spoke gently. “I’m just going to collect some things and we’ll see about cleaning you up and getting you something to wear.” Picking up the bucket she said, “I won’t be long, don’t fret; things will improve.” She wondered if they would, though.

Walking past her son she told him that she was going to collect some things from the remnants of her cottage; food, cooking utensils and the like. He told her to make sure she collected plenty of the fish too, as they had an extra mouth to feed, then he got back to his building.

Back at her ruined cottage she started collecting her meagre belongings. Her nearest neighbour came to see how the widow was coping, and was told that everything was good, that she was to live with her son and his wife.

“He’s taken a wife?” was the astonished response. “When did that happen?”

The widow had to admit that she was uncertain of the actual timing of the wedding. “She’s a good girl though,” she boasted. “A little quiet and shy still, but she will soon come around.”

Both women stood quietly for a moment, both wondering how a quiet, shy girl, would cope living with such a bully of a man. The widow spoke first, looking away as she gaily told her neighbour that she must be off to welcome her new daughter properly.

Back at her son’s house she put her belongings tidily away. The girl was still where she had been when the widow left, but lowered her hands to peep at the older woman. Seeing the extent of the bruising to the girl’s face, her heart sank. “You poor thing,” she spoke softly. “Let’s clean you up first, then we’ll see about trying to get you more comfortable.”

Heating water on the fire, she brought a bowl and a soft cloth, and started to gently wash the girl, cleaning blood and dirt and tears from her face. “Good girl” she spoke softly as to a wild animal. “Will you not tell me your name at least?” The girl remained mute, looking at her warily from pale, sea green eyes.

It was only when the woman took her comb from her pocket and started to untangle the young woman’s hair, that the girl became more animated. She leaned against her new mother, and started to sing. The song had no words, but was hauntingly beautiful. As she combed and listened in enchantment, she suddenly realised what her daughter in law was. She did not have to look in the girl’s mouth, past her swollen, bloodied lips, to know that her daughter would have sharp, curved teeth, like those of a fish.

The song suddenly stopped as the husband walked into the room. Looking at his mother, her arm protectively curved around the girl, he sneered.

“How touching, but you can get out now. Take the bucket and fill it before the tide washes everything back out to sea. My bride and I will spend some time making you a grandchild.”

Her heart heavy, his mother picket up the bucket. “Your bride” she queried sadly? “No god ever blessed that union.” He merely laughed at her as she left the house, trying not to hear the birdlike cries of distress.

Down at the beach she found herself alone. After collecting the remains of the fish she walked to the edge of the water.

“There is a daughter of yours” she spoke to the emptiness. “I will do what I can, and if I find what is rightfully hers, I will return her to you.” A few yards out to sea, a seal raised it’s head. “I’m a mother too,” the widow continued, “I would not harm another’s child.”

Gradually the village was rebuilt, the villagers got on with their lives. In the house at the edge of the settlement, the unhappy trio lived a reclusive existence. The mother altered some of her own clothes to fit the girl, and persuaded her son to untie her. “After all,” she reasoned, “she can go nowhere without her belongings.” Life in the cottage became, if not happy, then at least routine.

The two women became friends, each sheltering the other against the moods of the man who controlled their lives. The girl never learned speech, but mother and daughter were able to communicate well enough within time. When they knew that the husband was out and would not come home until late; the mother would take her comb and pull it through her daughter’s hair, gently removing any tangles until the long, golden mass rippled through her hands like waves in silk. The girl would sing and both women would relax, happy in their temporary respite from fear.

At night, when the husband had finished pleasuring himself with the girl, she would sneak over to her mother’s cot, and the two women would wrap their arms around each other and sleep. Both women spent any spare time they had free from the man’s influence, in looking for the girl’s cloak, but they never found it.

After some years had passed, the old woman became sick. Her breasts pained her, and she got more and more unwell, until it became obvious to all that she was dying. Her daughter tended to her, keeping her as comfortable as was possible, but one evening it became certain that the old woman would not make it through to the next day. Her son was out somewhere, avoiding the house as the smell of his mother’s sickness and impending death revolted him.

Her daughter lay next to her, holding her gently, stroking her hair and murmuring small cries of sympathy. Her mother looked at her with love. “Who will care for you when I’m gone? You must not stay here with him, but where will you go.” She shivered, and her daughter got up to light a fire.

She looked at the crooked hearthstone and in pain and anger at the coming loss, she hit it with the iron poker, trying to assuage her grief. The hearthstone split, and she just looked at it.

Thinking hard, she took the poker and used it to try and lever up the perfect, flat stone in the porch. This would be the new hearthstone, and the two broken pieces; well they could make a new floor in the porch.

Dragging the newly loosened stone from the porch, a box was exposed. Lifting it from its hiding place, she took it to show the old woman. Both were sure what it must contain, both held their breath as the daughter opened it and smiled.

Lifting out her sealskin cloak, she leaned down and put her arms around her mother and kissed her. “Take me with you?” her mother asked.

Draping her cloak around her shoulders she lifted her mother from her cot. She carried her, feather light from the ravages of her illness, down to the sea; singing all the time. As she stepped into the waves with her precious bundle, the old woman sighed, “You must help me”.

Her daughter lowered her into the cold water, watching and singing.

“Thank you”. Her mother sank below the surface of the water, gratefully, and after a short time her features, blurred by the water and her daughter’s tears, relaxed.

The seal stayed with the woman until she was certain, then swam out to where her birth family waited for her beyond the surf.

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