Fiction: The Selkie

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The selkie lived under the pier, along with the barnacles and kelp and discarded bottles and cans. Everyone in the village knew she was there. She swam there year after year, back and forth and back and forth around the ancient wooden pilings, constant as the seasons. Even the fish no longer paid her much mind, if ever they had. She was just another part of the town, like the Kissing Rock or the place where Sean Kelly once broke Conor O’Sullivan’s nose in a drunken row over whether Dundalk or Derry City was the better team. They called her “the Selkie,” the way they called the only bus into town “the Bus,” or the Drunken Rabbit “the Pub.”

“It’s a bit odd having her here, to be sure, but…” the old men of the town would say, shrugging their withered old shoulders while sitting around the Pub having a pint after a long day.

“I’m glad she’s not got it in her head to come out and steal our husbands,” some of the women would say self-righteously, while others wished she would do just that.

“I wish she would come out and I could see her,” thought every generation of children that grew up in the town.

Most days, the selkie’s dark, mottled skin was barely visible in the choppy blue water, but some days she couldn’t be seen at all, those days when dark storm clouds painted the water black. Even on those days, however, the townspeople knew she was still there, swimming constantly beneath the waves. No one knew how long she’d been there; generations, certainly. Long enough that the fishers spared her no second look as their long, wooden boats sailed by. Long enough that no one even remembered how it had been learned that she was a selkie and not just another common seal like those that passed through looking for schools of cod or haddock. Perhaps it was because unlike a seal, she never came out of the water to sun herself on the narrow, rocky shore between the sea and the town. Or perhaps it was her eyes, rarely seen but hauntingly, heartbreakingly human.

No one knew why she was there, either, and no one had seen the Selkie’s human form. Or rather, those who had never told. In fact, the Selkie had emerged from the watery depths many times. In her lithe and beautiful human form, she had walked the green fields that surrounded the town at night, her long, pale toes curling around the thick grass as she stepped carefully. She did not feel the cold or the wind against her naked skin, for she was used to much colder stuff. The Selkie had come on land to call, like a Siren, for a beloved to join her, but to the townspeople, her voice was nothing more than the wind on a brisk winter’s night. When they heard it, they closed the shutters and banked up the fire and pulled their blankets up to their ears, muttering about the drafty wind. Without anyone else from the town knowing, for generations the Selkie had stood outside a single cottage, pale as a lighthouse, waiting patiently, calling.

“Go away,” said the first woman she came to. “I’m too old for you. My children have children. These bones cannot withstand the cold of the sea anymore. I am not the one you seek.”

“Go away,” said the second woman she came to. “I have small children to take care of and a husband to feed. I cannot join you in the sea. I am not the one you seek.”

“Go away,” said the third woman she came to. “Can’t you see that I carry my husband’s child within me? I am not the one you seek.”

In the town, only the three generations of Murphy women had seen the Selkie. They did not tell their husbands about the beautiful naked woman who had called to them at night, calling at their shuttered door. They told only their daughters, one in each generation, about the pale-skinned night visitor who came calling, calling for a beloved.

When the Selkie came a second time for the third Murphy woman, the wind whipped and stung like a cat o’nine tails, but even so the woman heard the Selkie’s call over the moaning of the wind, baleful as the song of whales. She bundled herself in her heaviest coat and carried her newborn daughter outside, where the Selkie stood lit by the full moon. The Murphy woman asked irritably, “Why have you returned, when I told you I am not the one you seek?”

But the Selkie did not speak. The Selkie just looked at her, the Selkie’s eyes the color of the sea. The woman unconsciously clutched her daughter more closely to her chest, discomfited by the Selkie’s large, unblinking eyes, and then saw the Selkie watched not her, but the tiny infant.

“It’s her you want, isn’t it?” The woman asked.

The Selkie did not move, but the woman knew it was so.

“She must choose,” the woman said firmly. “Only she will decide her fate.”

The Selkie nodded, and that was the last the third Murphy woman ever saw of her. The girl was named Niamh, and she was the spitting image of her mother, with long red locks that cascaded in curls down her shoulders. She was adventurous, and brave. When she was six, she swam too far into the cold ocean just to prove that she could and started to drown, but a spotted seal came up from the depths and carried her on its back to the shore. No one but she saw the seal, and no one believed her afterwards but her mother, who frowned and said nothing when she heard the story.

When Niamh had just turned eighteen, she was sitting on the shore reading a book of poetry when a pale-skinned woman with brown hair that fell to her waist approached her. Niamh had never seen the woman, who didn’t seem much older than she was, but her large, dark eyes almost seemed familiar.

“How’s it going there?” Asked Niamh politely.

The stranger smiled gently, almost bashfully, and sat down beside her.

“Well then, you’re not from around here. Where are you from?” Niamh asked.

The stranger said nothing, but looked apologetically at Niamh, drawing her knees to her chest and wrapping her arms around them.

“Right,” Niamh said uncertainly. Then after a moment she said thoughtfully, “Maybe you can’t talk? Is that it?”

The stranger looked at Niamh sadly, and Niamh decided it was so.

“I’m Niamh,” Niamh said. “I live just over there in the white house. Are you in town visiting?”

The stranger nodded.

“Did you come from far away?”

The stranger hesitated, then shook her head.

“Did you come to visit someone here?”

The stranger slowly nodded.

“Have you been here before?”

The stranger nodded again.

“Will you be in town long?”

The stranger shook her head.

“It’s a nice enough place. Glad I’ll be getting away soon though,” Niamh said, looking around at what could be seen of the town from the shore.

The stranger seemed surprised, so Niamh explained, “Uni and all in a few months.”

The stranger looked wistful and sad. She gazed out over the ocean and sighed. Niamh noticed that the stranger was lightly dressed, even though the air, like always, had a damp chill to it. She said, “Surely you’re cold with no coat.”

The stranger shook her head and smiled ruefully, then shrugged, signifying that the cold weather didn’t bother her. She tilted her chin at Niamh, indicating she wanted her to go on talking. Niamh continued, “It will be nice to get away. I’ve lived here my whole life. Have you always lived in one place?”

The stranger gave a half-smile, then shook her head.

“I figured,” Niamh declared. “You don’t look like you’re from around here. From the south?”

The stranger shook her head.

“Ah well, it doesn’t matter,” Niamh sighed. “Anyway, sometimes I just want something else. You know, my family’s always lived here. Might as well have founded the town, you know? I just think…that I don’t want that to be me, maybe.”

The stranger nodded understandingly. Niamh checked her watch and saw that she would be late for dinner if she didn’t leave now. She stood and stamped her feet, bringing feeling back into her cold legs. She said, “Well, it was nice to meet you. I’m gunna head on.”

The stranger turned her head and smiled the most beautiful smile Niamh had ever seen, then waved. As Niamh crossed back over the fields to her house, she could just barely make out the stranger’s silhouette against the ocean, still sitting there watching the waves. Niamh thought, “What an unusual person.”

***

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When Niamh was nineteen and home for the Easter holidays, she unexpectedly saw the stranger again. Niamh was walking along the docks on her way to the bus stop when she happened upon the woman coming from the other direction. Niamh recognized her immediately. The woman wore the same long skirt and blouse as before, and her long brown hair danced in the wind.

“Howya!” She called, waving. “Are you visiting your friend again?”

The woman nodded, smiling warmly. Niamh thought that she was a very beautiful woman indeed, with high cheekbones and porcelain skin. She wondered where the woman lived and what she did. Impulsively, she said, “The Bus won’t come for a quarter of an hour yet. Fancy a quick gargle?”

She led the woman to the Pub, where only a few old men were having a pint, and sat her down in a corner. She ordered two Guinness stouts from the bar, then came back to the table, where the woman was waiting patiently. Niamh asked, “Pint of Gat alright?”

The woman nodded. A moment later, Eoin, the young bartender, brought them their drinks. He looked long and hard at the woman, but said nothing. Niamh took a long draught, but the woman didn’t touch hers.

“Been visiting here much lately?” Niamh asked.

The woman shook her head and raised an eyebrow, encouraging Niamh to talk. Niamh said conversationally, “I was back for Christmas, but that’s it, really. Back again in the summer, unless I can get a job in the city, of course.”

She paused, then said, “Sorry, it’s just…you’re just really very beautiful, do you know that? Have you ever been in modeling or anything? You must get that all the time.”

The stranger shook her head and then ducked her chin bashfully. Niamh laughed. She said, “I’m sorry. And here, I don’t even know your name, and you can’t tell me. You could write it though.”

She looked around, but there were no pens to be had. Frowning, she said, “Can I call you…Saoirse? It’s quare weird to just give you a name, but I feel bad not knowing what else to call you.”

The stranger, now dubbed Saoirse, shook her head and smiled. The name would do just fine, she seemed to say. Continuing the conversation, Niamh asked, “Did you go to Uni?”

Saoirse shook her head. Niamh said, “That’s alright, it’s not so great. Do you work in retail maybe, or like, in an office?”

Saoirse shook her head, making a face. Niamh took another drink. She said, “Right then, not that. Are you married?”

Saoirse looked surprised, then shook her head emphatically.

“Seeing anyone?”

Saoirse shook her head.

“Well come on then!” Niamh exclaimed, “Want to be seeing anyone?”

Saoirse didn’t move. Niamh shrugged.

“Me neither,” she said.

She checked her watch.

“Oh bollocks, I’ve got to go. Put on a jumper, won’t you, Saoirse? It’s fierce weather out there!”

Niamh jogged out of the pub and just caught the Bus just as it was about to pull away. She thought of Saoirse, still sitting there, and wondered who it was in the village that she came to visit. She resolved to find out next time she was in town, and ask that person more about the mute woman.

***

The third time Niamh saw Saoirse, Saoirse was walking along the shore at night, barefoot. Niamh was twenty, and she was just stopping by during the summer in the few days between when her job at an advertising company ended and when her classes at the university started again. Although the night was black, the moon was round and white and lit the ground with soft and gentle light. Niamh was surprised to see Saoirse, having completely forgotten about her since their last meeting. When she saw the woman, however, she felt a thrill of unexpected delight.

“What are you doing here?” She exclaimed. “You must be mad as a box of frogs to be out this time of night!”

Saoirse held her right finger to her lips, and with her left hand copied the rhythm of the waves as they lapped against the shore.

“It’s right lovely,” Niamh agreed. “Is that why you’re out?”

Saoirse nodded. She pointed at Niamh, her face quizzical.

“I couldn’t sleep,” Niamh explained. “Thought a walk might do me some good.”

Saoirse sat down and patted the ground next to her. Niamh joined her. She said, “It’s odd running into you again, but now that I have I feel like I almost expected it, you know? Do you feel the same way?”

Saoirse nodded, and tucked a stray red hair behind Niamh’s ear. Niamh found the action to be disconcertingly intimate, and it unsettled her although she couldn’t say why. Changing the subject, she asked, “Well, what news? Found someone yet?”

Saoirse looked away and shook her head. Immediately feeling bad, Niamh said, “But you could have anyone, you know. You’d just have to try. Maybe you’re not trying?”

Saoirse shrugged apathetically, then pointed at Niamh, asking the same question back. Niamh shrugged, “There’s a bloke, alright. It’s early, but maybe.”

Niamh thought Saoirse looked sad at the news, which made her feel guilty without knowing why. Niamh pointed at the water, which was black as oil in the night.

“I almost drowned there once, you know. I was six, I suppose. A seal saved me. Of course, no one ever believed me. Your eyes, they make me think of that seal.”

She added after a pause, “I haven’t thought of that in ages. I don’t know why I thought of it now. You must think me right mad.”

Saoirse shook her head, then put her hand over Niamh’s on the ground. Niamh was surprised that she felt a small electric jolt from the contact. It made her heart beat a little faster and her breath came a little heavier. The two sat that way for some time, silently listening to the waves lap against the shore. Then Saoirse looked into Niamh’s eyes, and for a moment Niamh could have sworn she heard the soft notes of an unsung song. She shook her head and unconsciously rubbed her arms. She said, “There’s something different about you, isn’t there, Saoirse?”

But Saoirse did not answer. Niamh left her and went home, still mulling the question over in her mind. That night, she dreamed of Saoirse and what it felt like to be near her. In the background, she heard the quiet music.

***

When Niamh was twenty-one, she brought her boyfriend Daniel home for Christmas. Daniel was tall and good-looking. He was a rugger, with broad shoulders and an easy smile. Niamh’s parents adored him. Niamh left him at home one day to get messages from town. As she was walking along the road to town, the one that passed along the shore, she encountered Saoirse coming the other way. Niamh smiled when she saw her.

“Oi!” Niamh called. “Howya?”

Saoirse smiled brightly and crossed the street to meet her. Niamh hugged her warmly. She said, “Best not bring my bloke around. You’re a sight prettier every time I see you!”

Saorise stiffened and pulled away.

“Hey now, what’s this?” Niamh asked.

In Saoirse’s eyes, she saw tears brimming. Saoirse leaned towards her, her expression sad and longing. She reached forward and ran a gentle hand along Niamh’s face. Niamh felt her heart beat faster, as it had the last time she had seen Saoirse, feelings she had forgotten since. Unexpectedly, Saoirse kissed her. Saoirse’s lips were soft and warm. Niamh kissed back, but when realized what she was doing, however, she pulled back in shock.

“I…” She stammered. “I’ve got to get on.”

She fled, hustling past Saoirse without looking back. Her fingers pressed to her lips, still tingling from the contact. When she was well away, she collapsed against a wall, breathing heavily. In her ears was the sound of the ocean, and the same soft, intriguing music. She hurried home and tried to forget Saoirse, because she was with Daniel, and he was a good lad.

***

When Niamh was twenty-two, Daniel proposed to her. They were graduating from university, and everyone said it was time that the well-matched pair make it official. Niamh didn’t answer immediately, however. Instead, she went home to think about it. Her parents told her that she was being foolish, that Daniel wouldn’t wait forever, but it was a big decision, and her heart was uneasy. She walked along the seashore in the afternoon, the wind catching at her hair and pulling at her clothes, and as she somehow knew would happen, Saoirse appeared.

“Who do you come to visit here?” Niamh demanded of her.

Saoirse looked at her blankly, providing no answers. Niamh sighed and looked out at the water, which was wild and dark. As confused as she was.

“Daniel proposed,” she said simply.

Saoirse looked sad, but nodded.

“I haven’t said yes yet,” Niamh continued.

Saoirse’s eyes filled with tentative hope.

“I should be happy that Daniel asked me to marry him. He’s a good lad, with a right proper job. So why do I still think of you, at night when he’s asleep? I don’t even know you,” Niamh complained helplessly.

Saoirse stepped forward and pulled Niamh into her, cradling her against her chest. Niamh smelled the sea when she breathed deeply, as though Saoirse carried it with her all the time. Niamh melted into Saoirse’s body. It was a different feeling than when Daniel held her. She felt Saoirse kiss the top of her head and smooth her long red hair with a with her pale, thin hand. Niamh pulled back.

“You’re not really human, are you?” She asked, knowing the answer already.

She thought that somehow she must have always known, but she was surprised that she didn’t mind. Saoirse shook her head. Niamh suggested, “You’re from the sea.”

Saoirse nodded. In that moment, Niamh knew those eyes with certainty, but she didn’t know what to do about it, so instead she left, turning on her heels and fleeing from the beautiful, pale woman who always seemed to know where she was. That night, Niamh was sitting before the fire, staring into the crackling flames, when she heard the call of the Selkie outside. It was the first time she’d heard the song in full, and it was both mournful and hopeful. It pulled at her, drawing her irresistibly to the door. When she opened it, the Selkie stood outside, beautifully naked in the moonlight, her skin still wet from the ocean.

“Go away,” Niamh whispered, so softly the Selkie could not hear. “I am not the one you seek.”

But Niamh knew she was the one the Selkie sought, and the Selkie’s call sounded more beautiful to hear than any sound she’d ever heard. She took one step out of the house, then another. Her feet carried her to the Selkie, who was inhumanly striking in the moonlight. Niamh looked back at the house, where her parents were sleeping, then back at the Selkie. The Selkie held out her hand to Niamh, and all the possible futures she could have flashed before Niamh’s eyes. Niamh hesitated, but the Selkie waited patiently.

“It was always me, wasn’t it?” Niamh asked.

The Selkie nodded.

“There’s no going back?” Niamh asked apprehensively.

The Selkie shook her head. Niamh’s legs trembled. The choice seemed too big for her to make alone. She wanted to flee, to shut the door and pretend that she did not hear the Selkie’s call. But she did not. She looked into the Selkie’s eyes and her heart chose. She put her hand in the Selkie’s.

The next day, the Selkie was not in her usual place under the pier. In fact, the Selkie was nevermore seen again, and the townspeople quickly forgot she had ever been there, although some townspeople swore they occasionally saw two seals swimming past together, one of whom looked remarkably like the Selkie. Only one woman in town knew what had happened, and she said nothing.

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