Salt weathered skin
Because I have been thinking about monsters and mythical creatures recently, have a story... [CN: allusions to coercive relationships, child birth, and gore.]
When David stole the selkie skin, it almost seemed too easy.
It had caught its eye as the salt breeze indifferently picked at its edges, making it flutter. But even the wind didn’t seem to care enough to pick it up, leaving it caught on a weather-worn rock like so much drift-trash.
A tang of kelp filled his nostrils as he got closer to it. Kelp and something else too, a rich musk like sweat or maybe cooking fat? He thought maybe it was wreckage, a pelt or coat that had belonged to some unlucky sailor. Maybe he could take it to the nearby village to sell?
But once he saw it up close, once he saw its soft spotted texture and its smooth lines, he knew it for what it was. It was clearly a garment, a coat made to be worn, but with no lines or stitching or buttons to fasten - simply fine seamless skin. It reminded him of the way moss grew over a stone, or the way fire smoke or song could be carried along on a gale.
He picked it up, folded it carefully, and carried it back to his cottage.
He left his door - a thick thing, made of many pieces of snugly joined driftwood - ajar. He thought for a moment and took down the horseshoe that hung above it and placed it in his pocket. Feeling a chill creep in from the sea, he set about making a fire to keep it at bay.
The hearth began to crackle. He took an old cast iron pot and put some water on to boil, adding some fragrant nettle and raspberry leaves. He let it stew for a while and set out two clay mugs on the table.
He placed the folded coat in the bottom of his sea chest.
When he heard the door open, he did not turn towards it. Instead, he ladled out two mugs of steaming tisane from the pot and set one in front of him and the other across from it, keeping his eyes on the task.
He heard the door close and felt the air shift as someone sat in his other chair - it did not creak. Only then did he look up at his guest.
The woman in front of him was heavy-set with short hair of the palest blonde that clung to her scalp. She looked at him with eyes like storms and he stared back. He felt air catch in his throat and he was breathless.
Despite her thick build, there was something about her - perhaps the way she held herself - that made her seem barely there. Her silhouette was out of contrast with the cosy surroundings of the cottage. Only her strong, calloused fingers seemed real, as she warmed them around the steaming mug.
They sat there in silence for a while. He was aware, amidst the thickness of that silence, that there was a question that was being answered. He knew, too, that it was not entirely a fair one.
Her eyes cast around David’s home, taking in the few pieces of worn but well-cared furniture, the nets hanging from one corner of the ceilings, the tools and rods on the walls, and the faint lines in the dust that marked the lack of horseshoe above the door. David looked only at her.
“Okay.” She said, eventually. “This will do.”
That night, he made a stew of fish and bladderwrack for the two of them, flavoured with plenty of fresh onions, wild garlic and rosemary.
She helped him prepare the fish, ignoring the knife he offered her and slicing them down the belly with a sharp nail. She licked the guts and juices from her fingers and smiled. He was entranced. He stared at a droplet of viscera on her thin worn lips and she tilted her head quizzically, then she kissed him.
The blood of the sea mingled on their lips. He realised he had not been able to catch his breath since he’d first seen her.
The next day, he went about his business as usual and she went about hers. He did not expect her to help as he sat stitching the thick, coarse threads of his nets, and she did not care to. Instead, she wrapped herself in his thick woolen coat, took a couple of coins from the few in a pot by the door, and returned hours later wearing a shift of oilcloth.
She spent the rest of the day walking by the beach. As he set off to make the daily catch, he saw her picking at stones and skipping them across the waves, or taking limpets from rocks and sucking the flesh into her mouth; the glint of her teeth was clear even through the sea mist.
At the end of the day, after they had eaten and talked softly about this and that, she looked at him earnestly and asked:
He thought for a moment and then said:
“Doris.” Which means ‘gift of the ocean’.
In that moment, the lines around her eyes and face seemed to grow firmer, as she settled into the world a little. He felt a burning in his lungs.
They spent their days like this. Him: doing his work amongst the waves, his skin growing ever more salt and windworn. Her: walking the shore, gathering thistles and herbs, collecting interesting rocks, and going to market to buy what things they needed and learn the workings of the creatures who walked on the dirt.
Some time later, Doris became with child.
The birth was surprisingly easy, the babe almost slipping out into the basin in a burst of blood and brine.
The child had a strange undulous nature to them. Their skin was thick, sheened with ichor and sea foam, their nose sleek and button-like. But their eyes were big and round and baby blue.
“What will they be?” David asked with wonder.
“They will be what they choose to be.” Doris replied, in a tired whisper. “And they will live between the waves and the shore until they decide.”
David stopped for a moment, something hard felt caught on the edge of his thoughts, pressing with sharp edges on his brow.
“They can’t go to school or learn a trade in the waves.” He said, eventually.
Doris sighed and leaned back, settling into the bed.
“Then you must decide for them.” And she nodded towards the knife that still sat on the counter where David had prepared their dinner the previous night.
David looked at his child and looked at the knife. He did not reach for it, but instead reached out for the child with one finger. He was surprised to find that his nail was sharp and the flickering cast a wicked, hooked shadow.
He put the tiny garment in his sea chest along with the one he’d found on the beach. Sometimes, as the child grew, he would open the chest and look inside. His chest felt tight when he did so, in a way he didn’t like to think about. And, as the child grew, so did their coat.
In the years that followed, David began to become ill. He had thought, at first, that the feeling of breathlessness whenever he looked at Doris was something wonderful: a sign that no matter how many years past, she still made him feel like the nervous young man who had hoped and prayed his selkie bride would stay. That this life just past the sea’s edge, with him, would be enough for her.
But as the feeling grew ever stronger, his breath ever harder to catch, his lungs burning even on short walks inland … he began to fear he was ill.
The village wisewoman examined him. She counted his breaths. She scrutinised the colour of his blood between two lenses of green sea glass. She gave him sweet tinctures of peppermint and thyme and goldenrod. But she could find nothing wrong, other than growing the feeling of never quite being able to trap a full catch of air in his chest.
It became so bad that it was difficult for him to take fish to market or even mend his boat and nets. Strangely, though, he always seemed to find the breath to take his boat out onto the water. He began spending longer and longer at sea...
Doris went to the wisewoman next. They spoke for a long time. When they both returned to the cottage, they brought no potions or balms or contraptions. Instead, Doris simply took David by one hand, and their child by the other, and led them all over to the sea chest.
Doris had never approached it before. Had never shown the inclination. But she did so now, leading the trio with careful steady steps. The wisewoman opened the latch and pulled out the linens, spare nets, trinkets and sailcloth - at the bottom, two sealskin coats.
Doris picked it up and looked at it fondly. But she did not put it on.
Neither Doris nor David moved. In the silence, they were both aware that a question was being answered. They were both aware that the answer was a fair one.
They kept not moving. They looked at each other and both saw that neither of their outlines seemed quite real amongst the cosy surroundings of the cottage.
Then the wisewoman patted their child on the shoulder, and the child reached out towards David with one finger. In the flicker of the fireplace and the oil lamps, that finger seemed to cast a hooked shadow.
David nodded, slowly. There were no more questions to ask.
The hooked shadow descended.
A few moments or perhaps an agonised lifetime later, David covered up his silvery fishlike blood with the selkie coat that he’d found all those years ago.
Doris, too, put on a new coat of faded pink skin, weathered by sea and salt.
David left the cottage and took to the sea. He left his boat behind.
The wisewoman followed to see him off.
Doris and the child did not. They sat down and both went to work mending their nets; they would sell them tomorrow at market, along with the boat and the cottage, then begin a long comfortable walk inland. Their silhouettes, as they walked away, would seem perfectly at home in the bright light of the country morning.
When the surf struck David’s chest, he found he could breathe again.