Photograph: Renee Fairhurst

The Taste of
the Sea

A selkie takes great risk in transformation

ASELKIE takes a great risk in changing from a seal to a man, for he may not be able to change back again. No matter how carefully he hides his pelt, someone may find it. A child playing along the shore may take it for a plaything, a beachcomber may take it for a rug, a fisherman may sell it to the fur dealer, a woman intent on keeping him in her arms may lock it in a chest. Without that pelt, a selkie cannot return to the sea. Nor can he return if he has fallen in love with the woman who called him ashore to father her child.

It is said that male selkies are the seducers, charming female humans with our fathomless dark eyes and our muscles sculpted from swimming. Although that may be true for others, it is not so for me. I did not choose to shed my skin and walk on two legs away from the ocean, any more than salmon choose to abandon saltwater for spawning and death in their native streams. I was summoned from the water by a maiden who wept seven tears into the cove where I floated, asleep and dreaming.

The taste of those tears jolted me awake, drew me onto the sand, out of my skin, and into the maiden’s bed. As we lay together, she told me her father was a fisherman who had died at sea, washed overboard in a storm. I had been warned about such women, who believe that a son fathered by a selkie cannot drown, and who may trap you on land to help raise the child. But I could not resist her beauty or her sorrow. Her name was Keira. Since her father’s death, she had lived alone, for she was an only child and her mother had died in giving birth to her.

She gave me her father’s clothes to wear, so my nakedness would not alarm the neighbors. She fed me delicacies from the fish market. I found work at the docks, loading and unloading trawlers. Time poured by. Every night I lay with her, and every night she wept.

Eventually there came a night when Keira did not weep. Laughing, she pressed my hand to her belly, which had begun to swell. “A son,” she whispered, “who cannot drown.”

Since her tears had ceased, the spell was broken, and I remembered the taste of the sea. As she slept, I stole away from the cottage, found my pelt, and slipped into the waves.

Seven years have passed since then, one for each of the tears that summoned me to shore. All this while, I have yearned for my son. All this while, he has learned the ways of humans. Fur must be thickening on his body by now, webs must be growing between his fingers and toes, and his eyes must be darkening from brown to black. Once the human children notice these changes, they will taunt him. Once the villagers discover he is a selkie, they may hurl him into the sea before he has learned the way of seals.

All that has kept me from returning to claim my son is the fear of being charmed once more by Keira. But I dare delay no longer or I might lose him. So on the night of a spring tide, in the dark of the moon, I lurch onto the sand, shrug free of my skin, and hide it among the boulders. Keira does not rouse as I lie down beside her. My son is asleep in the corner.

When I wake, he is gazing down at me with eyes as black as midnight. He studies my hands, which are crossed on my chest, and then peers at my bare feet, which have kicked free of the covers. “Who are you?” he asks.

Keira is humming as she stirs porridge at the peat stove. She pauses her tune long enough to say, “He’s your father.” Her smile fills the cottage with birdsong and dawn light. I sit up in bed, the better to see her, and think, Why rush away?

 

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Scott Russell Sanders is the author of twenty books of fiction and nonfiction, including A Private History of Awe and A Conservationist Manifesto. The best of his essays from the past thirty years, plus nine new essays, are collected in Earth Works, published in 2012 by Indiana University Press. Among his honors are the Lannan Literary Award, the John Burroughs Essay Award, the Mark Twain Award, the Cecil Woods Award for Nonfiction, the Eugene and Marilyn Glick Indiana Authors Award, and fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts. In 2012 he was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. His latest book is Divine Animal, a novel, published in 2014.

Comments

  1. What a beautiful piece that resonates on so many levels. I am so very appreciative of Scott Saunders’ works. He continues to inspire and challenge me. I find myself wondering about those first creatures that ventured out from the sea to land. What drew them? Why did they stay? What served as their enticing maiden? Is that memory of our sea time still alive within us?

  2. Haunting…It cannot end well, I think.
    Thank you for publishing it.

  3. Joan Baez,in one of her early albums sings this tale.It is a haunting song that until now didn’t really understand.so thank you

  4. what a spell binding and heartbreaking story but redeeming too…It is really wonderful to read such magical stories rather than science fiction or soft love stories…Much appreciation to your poetic story telling Sanders…

  5. very engaging story, I hope it goes on and doesn’t really end this soon? This is the first I’ve heard of male selkies, I only knew about female ones.

  6. A lovely tale…magical…an “I needed that” story that made me smile and wonder.

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