You take her, because she is beautiful, and you want her. You call it love.
You take her, and she does not struggle or try to break free. You call it love.
And you build her a house by the shore, and you do not reprimand her for her odd ways; the strange songs she sings in her crying, crooning tongue, and the way she always stares out at the sea. You are gentle to her, and she does not complain. And she is still beautiful, and you still want her. So you call it love.
You always ask her what she wants, what she needs, in everything except the most important thing. You want to forget that she is a captive, so you never ask if she wants to be free. You want her to be happy, so you ignore the sadness in her eyes. You want her to love you, so you kiss her salt-rimed lips and press your warmth into her cold body, and believe that her tongue in your mouth means everything you want it to.
You want her to forget she is chained, and so you hide the key. She smiles at you, now, and she does not object when you twine your fingers through her dark hair. She is perfect and beautiful, even if she does stare too much at the sea. When she bears your first child, you are overcome with joy, and a little of the sadness lifts from her as the dark-eyed baby boy is placed in her arms. His skin is soft and fair, and you do not notice the slight webbing between his fingers and toes. You come to forget that she is chained, and you forget where you hid the key.
The children (the years have flown and there are three of them now, dark haired, eyes like the seals’, with sturdy chubby bodies made for playing in the waves) swim in the ocean and catch fish with their bare hands, three more links in the forgotten chains. You hear their laughter, and smile, and never wonder why it is that your wife never laughs.
You have almost forgotten how this started, your family in the cottage on the shore. You no longer taste salt on your wife’s tongue, or feel any coldness on her skin. Her voice is familiar now, and the odd inflections and rolling consonants that puzzled you at first cease to be noticeable at all. She is still beautiful, and you are sure that she loves you.
One night, when the full moon is shining brightly, the seals come in to shore, and cry like children in the waves. You have not seen a seal since the day you took her. Your wife runs down to the strand and cries back to them, speaking in the language that she still uses to sing to your children. And fear runs through you.
You follow her out, and shout at the seals, and throw rocks at them (seal skins are fetching a good price, now, but somehow you know better than to bring out your gun). They dive into the waves, leaving the sea dark and blank, and your wife collapses sobbing on the sand. You stroke her hair and whisper words of comfort, and lead her back to the house, ignoring the way she falls against you, as though she’s forgotten how to walk. (Long ago, you supported her in the same way, and she left a trail of water behind her as you walked her to your home). Inside, you pour her a dram of whiskey and watch over her until she falls asleep.
She is quieter after that, and often you catch her walking on the beach, looking out at the sea. Your fear grows, for you need her now, and you believe that this is the same thing as love. She sleeps more often now, and sometimes when you come home the children tell you that she has not been able to get out of bed today.
You do not ask if she is sick.
The fourth child is born, and this one has yellow hair and grey eyes, eyes the color of a stormy sea. She does not look like either you or your wife, and for a moment, you wonder…. But you love your wife, and you put this out of your mind, forget it as you have forgotten so much else. And the child has one good effect, at least, for your wife seems happy again; she smiles at the baby, and plays with the children, and your worries fade….
Until the baby is four years old, and wants to climb everything: the rocks on the beach, the furniture, the walls….
And she climbs into the attic, back in the rafters, where none of the other children ever tried to go.
You are out fishing when she tugs on her mother’s skirt and asks the question: “Mother, why does Father keep an old fur coat in the rafters?”
Her heart skips a beat. For through all the years, she has never forgotten that she is a prisoner, nor has she ceased to feel her longing for the sea. Her voice scrapes in her throat as she says, “Show me.”
And there in the darkest corner of the attic, cobwebs clinging to her face and hair, she sees the bundle wedged between the rafters. She reaches out with trembling fingers and takes it, and a shock goes through her, like a stroke of lightning. Suddenly, she is alive again, alive after years upon years of feeling like a corpse made to walk and talk, living in her own grave… The pelt is still soft and smooth after all these years, and it smells of oil and fish. For a moment, all she can do is stand there, holding it to her cheek, remembering.
The children know that something has changed when she walks down the stairs, holding the pelt to her like a baby. They stare at her with wide, dark eyes, and she tries to smile for their sake, pitying them. “I must go,” she says. “The ocean is calling me, and I must go home. You’ve felt it too, haven’t you? The sea longing?”
They nod. The oldest, Ronan, says, “But we cannot live in the ocean.”
“No.” She clutches the pelt to her, a voice in head crying that she must go now, now, now! “You cannot, for you are not of the seal folk. What I have given you is… not an easy gift to bear. But the tides will obey you, and your fishing nets will be full, and—if ever you need me—truly need me—you may call out to the ocean, and I will come.”
They are looking at her with sad, wise eyes—seal eyes—and she feels both regret and pride when she realizes that they understand, that they will let her go. “Tell your father…” Her fists clench as she thinks of you, as she thinks of what you’ve done. “Tell him that I was never his for the taking. And I will never be his again. Tell him that the seals will remember the wrongs done to us. He will pay.”
“He loves you, Mama,” says Aine, the youngest. “He says so.”
She almost chokes, mouth twisting, and spits, “He doesn’t know the meaning of love.” She looks at the boys, Ronan, who is thirteen (he soon will be a man, she thinks) and Breen, who is eight. “Boys,” she says, seriously, “Promise me this: that if ever you love someone, you ask them to love you of their own free will. And if they do not, you must leave them be.”
“We promise,” they tell her. Breen is crying, and Ciara, eleven, is trying to hold back her tears.
She doesn’t want them to be unhappy, but she cannot stay here, in this tomb, any longer. “I love you,” she says, and hugs them one last time, and walks through the door.
The children follow her, silent, to the water’s edge, and watch as she drapes the pelt around her shoulders, as she dives into the waves.
After a moment, a seal’s head breaks the water. She gives them a final look, then swims away, rolling and playing in the waves, before she dives and disappears.
You come home to a silent house, and the accusing stares of your children. You don’t believe them when they tell you that she’s gone, until they show you the space in the rafters where the pelt used to be. When you want to cry and rage, they tell you it was your own fault. That you didn’t really love her.
It takes a long time for this to sink in.
You stop fishing, for your nets always come up empty and broken, and storms become unpredictable, the winds dangerous. You begin to believe that this is the seals’ revenge. They will not forget. They will make you pay.
And so you pay.
You wait until the children are grown and gone, off to be fishers and sailors far away. And on a moonless night, you take your boat (old now, and leaky) down to the ocean, rowing out across the black waters, away from the protection of the bay.
Long ago, you took a seal woman, because she was beautiful, and you wanted her. You called it love.
Now, when it’s far too late, you think that perhaps you did not know the meaning of love. You hope that you know it now.
The boat is found a few days later, washed up on a beach far from your home. It is empty.
The seals remember the wrongs done to them. And now, you have paid.