Sealskin

They have told the story of the selkie wife up and down the Islands for as many years as memory knows… A fisherman falls in love with a sweet young selkie, so he hides her pelt and traps her in marriage. She bears him children, and pines for the sea. She keeps his house, and pines for the sea. She fades as she lives, until she slips away to the sea, or the grave. 

 

This is not that kind of selkie story. Dania was not that kind of selkie. 

yoann-boyer-7L0UFeeXXHY-unsplash.jpg

Dania stepped out of her door, pausing only briefly to snick the lock behind. They had chosen this cottage with care. It snuggled between two grand houses, just a tiny up-and-down cottage that was just right for them. Turn right at the gate, and the path swept up into the mountains her husband loved. He was not a man of the sea, had never fished a day in his life. He filled his days with fresh air and tending to his land, and black winter nights with stories of forest and hill that could entrance her still, even after years of telling. 

 

She did not turn right. Instead, Dania turned her back on the mountains and walked to her other home. The air held the frost-laced bite of autumn. It nipped at her ankles; lay love bites down her throat. But a selkie knows cold like none on land could. In this, at least, Dania was no exception. She was born on a northern beach, her pelt luminous in the twilight. She would always remember her first plunge into the North Sea; no cold could bite as sharp as the water that day. 

 

Now, her pelt hung loose from her shoulders, worn more for comfort than to fight back the chill. Her feet were fast, eating up the space between self and sea. Cars raced along the shoreside road, halting her steps to a barely leashed bounce. Three… four… five cars passed, then the way was clear. Dania raced over the tarmac, shedding her shoes at the edge where the path turned to sand. The anxious knot in her chest loosened, just a thread; her pace slowed, just a fraction. This was her beach. The door to her other home. 

Her mother had raised her on tales of a different magic. Land magic.

All the wonders man-made with mind and hands. Boats that skimmed over the land, whisking folk away to the place beyond the shore. Pelts of many colours, a new one for each day and every mood. Her favourite tale of all was that of the mòr-bhùithtean - a magical realm where every kind of food is to be found, and all you need is shiny treasures to take whatever you desire. Little wonder she had crawled out of the sea as soon as she was able. 

As a pup, she had bobbed the length of this bay, head popped just above the foaming waves. She had watched the human children as they played on the beach. They ran, and chased, and tumbled - she ached. They laughed, cried, set her heart on fire. Her pelt silvered, darkened to pewter grey as she counted down the moon to her first heat. To the time when she could shed her skin and walk on the land.

She’d wanted noise. Fellowship. Fun. 

The sand pressed under her feet, as firm now as it had been that first day. Her pulse smoothed out as she lost herself in the whisper of the sea. A language she only half-heard in this form, but it spoke to her soul nonetheless. She did not pause to roll up her trousers, but plunged forward through the waves. The sea hit her ankles, knees, thighs, but she did not stop until she reached her goal. The rock jutted up from the waves, barnacled bedecked and stained green by kelp and wrack. Dania scrambled her way up, heaving herself from the water to press her flesh into the rock for one grounding heartbeat, before turning to stare out at the sea. One foot dangled in the water, one knee hugged to her chest. Mind and heart torn in two.

 

When she first walked on land, her pelt had trailed the ground behind her, snagging her feet as she fought for her land-legs. So she had bundled it tight, wedged it into the gap between rocks at the base of a cliff. A quick trip through the village on a moonless night, scrumping clothes from washing lines to cover her newly-formed body. Her sea-lust for jeans was damped by their scrape on her clammy, peltless flesh. In the end, she swaddled herself in layers of cotton and wool, then headed for her beach as the sun peeked over the mountain. 

 

That first day of her land-life, she met Eleanor - a red-haired girl with sad eyes and a laugh that like a mama seal’s bark. Dania spent hours trying to startle the sound from her, each laugh a prize she tucked into her heart. Eleanor spoke of life in the city, Dania of the world below the waves. Neither believed the other, but they each enjoyed the telling. As the north air leached the colour from their hands, Dania longed for her pelt. Not to warm herself, but to share with her first friend. That night, crouched in the lee of a cliff, she took a wicked-edged stone and hacked through her pelt, her hands bleeding as she sliced off a strip. 

 

Dania took needle and thread from the deck of a boat, left her shiniest stones to pay the fisherman. 

 

She sewed all night, made mittens from her pelt with clumsy stitches and weeping fingers. 

 

She gave away a piece of her pelt, and tied herself to the land. To her first soul-kin. 

pina-messina-qQKv7r1BaRw-unsplash.jpg

Now she is known for the clothes she sews - the whole island wears them. Her stitches conjure the flash of light on the iron grey waves; the precise purple that bubbles at the heart of a storm; the pulsing heart of the sea. Every day, her gate clatters with another customer. The first time, she plies them with tea and asks for their story before she’ll even sew a single stitch. Sometimes they go quickly, perfectly pleasant with a commission to match. But other times…

 

How does it feel to meet new soul-kin? Different every time. Sometimes, it feels like swimming in synch - slick twists and turns as you move together to try and hunt down something that keeps slipping out of reach. Another, its the opening chord on an acoustic guitar, the first haunting note piped as a seishun begins in the pub. Her husband was a perfect poem that lingered in her head for weeks. Months. Years. 

Each and every soul mate she’s met has a piece of her pelt, gifted freely as a pledge of her love. She has not been bound to the land, this selkie knitted herself into the fabric of the island until she glows in the weave. She has sewn gloves, trimmed hoods, lined the inside of her bairn’s first coat. Her husband has worn a sealskin sporran every high day and holiday since their wedding night. 

 

The first time she met Isla, it was a primal drumbeat that ripped through her. They had sat all afternoon, chatting about this and that and nothing in particular, but Dania felt every word thump in her chest. Isla had a quiet kind of beauty, bundled up in a cardigan grey and fluffy as a cloud. Dark, short hair, soft brown eyes, a smile so shy it seemed to surprise her every time it was nudged into life.

 

The silver of her pelt ran through every design Dania sketched for Isla. She wanted to drape her in it, cover her in silver until every curve shone. Seal-skin to skin, the softest caress she knew how to give. 

 

There was just one problem. In all her years on land, Dania had met many soul-kin. A whole tribe of them, each one warming a different corner of her wild and dreaming heart. After that first gift, she had learned how to ration, to make clean cuts and find the perfect shapes to leave enough of her pelt to return to the sea. 

 

Her mama had taught her well, afraid of a fisherman’s snare: ‘if your pelt is taken, you don’t need it all’. If a selkie can snatch back enough to cover her head, she can twist her way back into the water and win her freedom. So Dania had practiced wrestling herself into an ever-shrinking skin, packing herself in, inch by inch. Fighting against the resistance, waiting for the final snap-pop-stretch as limbs switched for flippers and she felt the tremble of water on her whiskers once more.

 

But every design she dreamed for Isla gleamed with silver, more fur than she had left to spare. 

 

So Dania sat, pelt round her shoulders and her foot in the water, staring at a freewheeling gull riding the thermals with a flick of his wing.

 

She knew that she couldn’t have both - the wild and the woman - but she didn’t know how to choose. 

 

She felt the pulled apart by the tide and the fine silver threads that anchored her to the land. To her soul-kin. 

 

A shout bounced across the bay, knocking from rock to hill to Dania’s ear.

She turned, and saw Isla wave at her from the shore. She was wrapped

in wool again, layers of grey from dove to storm cloud. The wind dragged

fingers through her hair, a tangled riot in need of taming. Isla waved

again, then laughed as Dania jumped down, legs drenched anew as she

waded back to shore. 

 

“Your husband said you might need this,” Isla said, holding a towel out

towards her. 

 

“He’d be right,” Dania said. “I’m soaked.”

 

“That’ll happen, when you go waist deep in the sea.” 

 

They walked up the beach in companionable silence, across the road and the green to the waiting gate. Inside, a fire blazed in the hearth and her work-book lay ready. Dania left Isla with the sketches as she went upstairs to change. She rubbed the goose-flesh from her skin, chose her favourite dress from the rack, pulled on the fresh clothes. Put her pelt away. Pulled it out again. Bundled it up into a tight ball, then smoothed it out again. Knotted it tight round her shoulders, then braced herself as she went back down. 

 

Isla’s hands were wrapped around a steaming mug,

 

Dania fed her a line - about ethical pelts and traditional crafts and every part stitched with love - but Isla batted it back. 

 

She told her a half truth, then at Isla’s narrowed eyes 

 

She breathed out her full truth, into the space that hung between them.

 

“I am a selkie woman, and this is my pelt. Something in you strikes an echo in me, and when I find my tribe I gift them my pelt. It’s no big thing.”

 

“No big thing? There’s so little left.”

 

“My soul-kin are all here, on land. I’d give up the sea for them. You’re worth it.”

 

Isla lent over and kissed her, lips soft on her downy cheek. 

 

“Dania,” she said, voice as soft as her lips, “I could never take the sea from you. Just like you’d never take the sky from me. Wind a braid through the trimming, weave it in as tight as you’d like. But leave enough that you can still be free.” 

 

Dania took Isla’s hand, looked at her soul-kin as they smiled in her parlour. At each other, and at her. 

 

Dania was a selkie of the water and the world. She was not tied to the land; not trapped, nor taken, nor fading away. Her loves did not trick her, they trusted. She bloomed as she lived, each day vibrant and free, until she slipped through the veil to the world beyond this.

erik-dungan-lNUi7W4iwok-unsplash.jpg