By Liz Williams
30 August 2004
She came out of the poisoned sea, my mother, out of darkness and winter. When my father found her she was close to death. The December storms had beaten her to and fro and at last the sea had cast her up onto the shingle. My father said that he had been watching from the cliff top, and, thinking that a seal had been washed ashore, he had rushed down to retrieve the fat carcass. It was rare to find a seal this far into the reaches, or fish, or anything that had not been transformed by the waters: things with lumps where their heads should be, things that were eyeless. When my father found her, he saw that she was not a seal after all, but a woman.
Long, long ago the people in Shetland and Orkney called them the seal people, the selkies, and even now, in this year of our Lady one thousand and ten, you still sometimes heard the ancient name. The men of the trawlers said that the selkies had always been there, riding the tide. Sometimes they came to shore and, casting aside their sealskin guise, would sit on the rocks, singing and strolling as one might walk upon a summer Sunday. Who could believe such talk of magic these days, now that we have been abandoned by the world beyond the Pale, our ruined coasts closed? Yet, now that I am grown, it seems to me that if there is a time for legends to come true, it is in this new century, now that science has failed us and truth is open to interpretation.
My father gathered the woman up from the rocks, and she lay heavily in his arms, like a sodden counterpane. There was blood in her hair. Stumbling, he carried her up the beach and along the hawthorn track to the house, where he set her down in front of the fire. Then he sat back on his heels to catch his breath, and looked at her. He could see very little of her face beneath the covering, but as he watched she opened her eyes and stared at him. Her eyes were dark and slanted, and although there was no fear in them, they were beginning to glaze, and then they closed.
My father thought for a panicky moment that she was dying. He did not want to see her suffer, and, thinking that it would be more merciful to make an end of her, he went into the kitchen to fetch his skinning knife. People had become used to making hard decisions in those days: killing the ones who had travelled too far out, and came back with death in their eyes. My father crouched beside the woman in the fire-warmed room, oilskin sealing the windows and the cracks, and when he put his hand to her face he felt her breath against his palm. It was regular, steady. Tentatively, he felt for her heart and to his surprise the heavy skin parted easily, although he could not see how it fastened. Beneath the skin, the selkie had a woman's body and she wore a thick enclosing garment. Her hair spilled out across the rug and it was black as peat once he had bathed the blood from it. Her head was cut and a blue bruise spread beyond the hairline: he did what he could for her, and bandaged it. She was not a beautiful woman, but her face was strong.
Unbidden, the trawlermen's old stories came to my father's mind. You could keep and tame a selkie, if you hid the skin, for then the memory of their life in the sea drained from them and left them only human. So the story said, and perhaps things had not changed so greatly after all. Guiltily, my father dragged the heavy skin upstairs and stuffed it hastily under the floorboards. He told himself that it would only be for a short while, until the woman recovered. The skin was damp to the touch and he worried, vaguely, that it might rot if he left it there. He went back downstairs, to find her still unconscious.
She remained in a half-sleep for nearly three weeks. Sometimes my father forced a little broth down her throat, and water, but she tossed and turned, and murmured fitfully. He began to think that she might die after all, and when the herb-wife made one of her visits over from Stronsay, he asked her to examine the woman. The herb-wife did so and told my father that the woman had sustained a severe injury, but it was likely that she would recover. She gave my father an ointment and showed him how to apply it to the fading bruises. He did so, and the woman seemed calmer, her sleep less restless.
Next morning he came downstairs to find his guest sitting on the couch by the fire, running her fingers through her hair. She looked shocked and numb. My father sat and watched her for a long time, gazing at the even movement of her hands through the long hair, like an animal's pelt. He thought of her legendary cousins, who sat upon the rocks and sang as they combed their hair, drawing the ships close and closer; the whores of the sea who believed that any sailor is good if he is dead. Upstairs, the skin lay under the boards. He could feel its presence flowing beneath the floor, moving in rhythm to the tide. She could not enchant him more than she had done already, and he broke his gaze and turned away.
At last, she said something that he did not understand.
"I don't speak your language," he answered. "I'm sorry."
"Where am I?" Her voice was accented, but she spoke the common tongue well enough. When he told her, she murmured, "I don't know where that is."
"Where do you come from, then? Where, in the sea?"
She frowned. "I don't know. I don't remember."
He said, diffidently, "Can you tell me your name?"
She shook her head. "I can't—it isn't there."
"Don't worry. You're tired. You should rest."
He watched her all the long night, afraid that she might bolt from the house and head for the shore, but the woman slept. She woke the next morning. During that first day, she opened all the cupboards and rearranged the contents. My father assumed that she was searching for the skin, her passport back to the sea, but she continued to investigate even when everything had been opened and shaken. Without admitting to himself what he was doing, he took a hammer and nailed down the floorboard under which he had hidden the skin. And the selkie woman stayed. Since her name didn't return to her, he called her Sula.
When spring came she took to the garden, rooting in the earth with her hands. My father's vegetable crop was, everyone said, remarkable. The sudden appearance of a strange woman in the house required explanation, so my father told people that she was a refugee who had come knocking on the door in the middle of the night, drenched and crying. Perhaps she had come from Leinster, or the closed islands of Wales: people didn't travel much in those days, even within the lands inside the Pale. The neighbours looked at her strange eyes and dark hair, and his explanation may have satisfied them. In any case, they were a people who believed that a man's business was his own. I do not know, even now, whether he believed that she was truly a selkie, or a refugee indeed. Perhaps he believed both things at the same time, as men can.
The woman spent the evenings staring into the flames. My father found it difficult to attract her attention and at last grew content to watch the fire with her, or mend his fishhooks. Before long, however, her own flesh betrayed her.
When summer came, she was pregnant. My father's neighbours came to him and, with their congratulations, brought the news that the annual cull was to begin, far out to the ice-locked north beyond Orkney. Would he go with them? My father thought with unease of his work in the culls. He remembered the blood spilling scarlet against the snow, the cries of the seals as they heaved themselves along the treacherous ice. Once, the ice had cracked beneath him and sent him for a dying minute down into the bloody water. His friends had pulled him out, half drowned, half frozen, and he lay for a long while on the blood-slick ice hauling the bitter air into his lungs. When at last he stood, he put his hand to his face and found it wet with the seals' blood and his own. He had cut his cheek as he lay there, on the icicles gathered in his fur hood. Now, he wonderingly touched his cheek as he looked at his bride of the sea, sitting peacefully by the fireside, and shut the door.
He could not have said why he did this. She was a woman, after all, not a true seal or a fairy tale selkie, and yet the connections seemed to weigh upon him. They would have to do without him this year, my father told the hunters. He was worried about his wife: what if something happened to him? He had seen a vision in the fire: of drowning, going down forever into the reddening sea. She had pleaded with him not to go, he said, and anyway there was the child to think of. His neighbours listened and excused him from the hunt.
In the years to come, he never again joined them, always finding some reason, and then they stopped asking him. He lost trading rights in the process; much of his living depended on the cull. When I was grown, I understood his reasons, and I have always pitied my father, making his living in the old way, and by a single impetuous act becoming the prisoner of a myth. For it was not only my mother who understood pain: her frequent silences across the years seemed to reproach him.
My father began to spend more and more time down on the shore, although my mother never went there. She said that she did not want to, but when we asked her why, she only frowned and said that she had nightmares about the sea. She would sit with her back to the window, and when she took us out we went to the high rocks inland, where the heather still grew and the grass breathed fresh into the salt air. But my father often took us to the shingle beach, and on summer evenings we would sit out on the rocks and watch the waves roll in, blue and untroubled, betraying nothing of the toxins within.
I conceived a great love of the sea. I begged the fishermen to take me out in their boats and I brought home the few strange fish that I caught. My mother had become a good cook, but when my father was absent she would eat her dinner raw, picking the flesh from the bony spine with her fingers. She said that it seemed somehow natural to her. This my sister and I accepted as one of her strangenesses, along with her silence and her fear of the waves.
During my thirteenth summer I spent most of my time out on the boats or on the shore with the other fishermen. It is a hard life, though no harder than any other of the Shetlands. We must make do with what we have, and we have very little. We have only stories left to us now. They say that once, before these western lands were sealed behind the Pale, and before the winter ice came, that we had good links with the mainland. The stone plain at Lerwick was an airstrip, and boats came once a week from Thurso. Now, we have only ourselves to rely upon.
At last autumn came and I drifted back to the white house above the shingle. I did not want to stay for the cull, but I lingered long enough to meet the men who came from the other islands: Orkney and Uist and Skye. I knew one of them, a man named Bill Reith who was my father's friend. With them came a man who had travelled unimaginably far, all the way from the Islands of Mourne in the south. I stayed and listened open-mouthed to his stories. His name was Llyr Macarron and he had been everywhere: to the Welsh hills of Preseli and Ynys Witrin, to Leinster and Comeragh and Arran. He told us of the things that he had seen. I listened and as Macarron spoke he made me see them, too. He told me of great islands that sail the Western Reaches between the Cornish coast and Grosse Bretagne, and of the beautiful, cruel people who live on them. He talked of a woman he had met who came out of the land of the dead; how he had been sitting on a burial mound outside Munster and she had come up from the earth to greet him. He had been unable to see her face, for she was clad in a strange, shimmering garment that seemed part of the air. She had spoken to him, Macarron said.
"What did she say?" Bill Reith asked, eyes as wide as mine for all that he was twenty years older.
"She said she came from a place where there were many wonderful things. It lay beyond the Pale, and there people can fly through the air and see events that happen many miles away." He glanced at me, half smiling. I had heard about aeroplanes and DVT systems, but it was still magic to me.
Macarron continued. "She said that she had come to help us. I asked her why she kept her face hidden, thinking that she might be too beautiful or"—Macarron gave me a dreadful teasing scowl—"too horrible to look upon. She said that the air was dangerous to her and she could not breathe it. 'Why am I not lying flat at your feet, then?' I asked her. She told me that our people have become accustomed to the poison in the islands, that we have grown beyond it."
"Why tell such stories?" I asked. "Do they think we don't know what happened to us? Do they think we're children, to swallow a fairy tale?"
"Hush," Bill Reith said, smiling. "It's a story, boy, not a scientific analysis. Listen and learn something."
"The world," Macarron said, in the bard's traditional way, "is a stranger place than you might realise. A long time ago—oh, a hundred or maybe a thousand years now—the sea level rose in a single summer and it drowned the land. The people had put poison beneath the seas, in an effort to contain it, and the boxes in which they put it were disturbed and released the poison. And the places that made that poison were also swallowed by the rising water and drowned. The remaining governments closed off the affected areas: the whole western coast of Britain and the northern coasts of Scotland and France. But we were left behind. . . ." Reith and I listened as he told the tale to its close; we'd heard the old story before, of course, but it bore telling again. When Macarron was finished I gathered up my courage and said, "Please, it would be an honour if you would come and eat with us tonight."
"Ah, there you go, Llyr," Reith said. "Here only an hour and already it's invitations to dinner."
"I'm just a lucky one," Macarron laughed. "Certainly, I'll accept."
It was dark when Macarron and I walked up the path between the thrift and the sea grass to our door. My father was not at home, but my mother was sitting by the fireplace with a skein of wool in her hands. She looked blankly up at the stranger.
"This is my mother," I said. "Her name is Sula. My father's name is McLein."
"I'm Llyr Macarron," he said. "Forgive me. Your son invited me to eat."
"You must excuse my house," my mother said, in her soft accented voice. I caught the dark look she gave me behind Macarron's back. "It's poor enough." He made the usual noises of protest and sat watching her as she busied herself with the pots. There was a stew already on the stove, and she set herself to adding to it. Above the pot, she looked up and I saw her gaze meet Macarron's. He blushed, surprising in such a big man.
"I'm sorry, Mrs. McLein. I didn't mean to keep staring at you. It's just that you remind me of someone I once met."
"Was that the woman who came out of the mound?" I said loudly, hoping to draw attention to myself. They both stared at me.
"What was that?" my mother asked in an odd voice. Macarron told the story once more, diffidently this time. He added, "And, Mrs. McLein, I hope you don't mind if I tell you this, but if ever I met anyone who looked like her, it's yourself."
"I thought you didn't see her face," I said, bold now that he was by our own fireside.
"I saw her eyes," he said. He seemed to feel a need to add something more, for he fished inside his collar and brought out a flat piece of metal, the size of my palm and carved into odd grooves and channels.
"I don't really like to talk about it," Macarron said uneasily, "but she gave me this. She told me to take good care of it, not to get it near water, and that if ever I needed her, I could call and she would come."
"Let me look," my mother said and held out her hand. Macarron passed the talisman to her and her fingers closed over it convulsively. I saw something begin to dawn behind her eyes.
"Look," Macarron said to her. "Maybe you should keep it . . . I don't know. I don't think it was ever meant for me. And I don't think you're supposed to be here, either."
My mother stared at him dumbly. In that long moment, the door opened and my father came in. He stood still when he saw Macarron.
"This is Llyr Macarron, from the Islands of Mourne," I said importantly. The two men greeted each other warily and my mother got up to serve the stew. I did not see what she had done with the talisman. Over dinner, Macarron told his stories and I saw my father's stiff expression thaw like ice in summer. Eventually he was listening to the stranger as eagerly as I. My mother sat quietly at the table and her face was still and closed.
I was kept away from the seal cull. My father kept me busy down on the lower shore with his nets and lobster pots and although I saw the men set out towards the icefield, I was not permitted to go with them. Nor did I see Macarron again, though I later heard that he had taken a good catch and was headed south once more. As my father and I worked, my mother would sit by the open window and sew. Sometimes I would catch sight of her as she raised her head, scenting the wind which blew from the sea and tossed the grass in its salt-laden breath. On the days of the cull, when the wind carried a smell of salt that was not from the water alone, she would not go out, but stayed locked within the house, and on these days my father remained outside, uncertain. Once I heard them arguing. My mother was crying.
"Now that I have remembered—"
But I heard my father's angry shout, "If you want to find it, keep your gaze on the fire. It's smoke and ashes; I burned it years ago. I burned it."
When I went downstairs, he had gone. She was staring out to sea, and for the first time I saw that she looked older, and ill. There was something in her face that made it resemble a mask over the smooth skin, and I thought then of the poison to which we islanders were said to be immune.
Autumn took its hold on the north. The coast of Shetland was lashed by storms that raged for days. The ice came closer to claim the sea almost as far as the shore. I took myself up to the attic. I was restless in the storm-trapped house. I preferred exploring and clambering among the dusty eaves to sitting in front of the fire and working on my hooks. I pretended to be a pirate, a ship's captain, as the attic creaked like rigging in the wind. But then I caught my foot and fell, and was again no more than a boy. I lay for a minute stunned behind the boxes, with the breath knocked out of me. The board on which I lay had come loose, rocking downwards like a seesaw. Beneath, crammed into the space below, was a heavy stifled thing that looked to me like a dead animal. Repelled but fascinated, I put my hand into the crevice. The thing was cold, furry with dust and cobwebs and bearing a curious smell of the sea; ice and salt and blood. I pulled it out—there seemed to be yards of it, falling in slow folds across the floor. It was not like an animal's coat, nothing like a sealskin, in truth. It was grey and puffy, almost oily to the touch. I bundled up the skin, as my father had done in the past, and dropped it through the hole that led into the loft. My mother was coming up the stairs to see what all the banging was. We met on the landing.
Time then seemed to slow and cease to pass; I remember little of that long moment except the skin flowing soft around my feet and my mother's avid eyes. She grabbed my hand in a painful grip and dragged me into the bedroom.
"Gwyn," she said. "You are to listen to me and not speak. I am leaving. I have never had the choice before. You don't understand where I come from." All the old stories came back to me.
"You come from the sea," I whispered.
"Gwyn, you have to understand. For so long, I had no memory of it—nor of who I was. But when Llyr Macarron came, bringing that object with him, it freed something in my head and I began to remember. More and more each day. . . . My name is not Sula. It is Omi, and I come from the world beyond the Pale. It's not so bad, now, out there. Even though the contamination can last for many lifetimes, they have cleaned the area as much as they can. They clean it by means of great ships, bigger than anything you have seen, and sometimes in the south they ride over the waves, just as Macarron said. But in the north it's icebound for too much of the year, and so the stations are beneath the water and move along the seabed, filtering for radiation. I came from one of those stations. This thing you have found is the suit that protected me, and Macarron's talisman is a communication beacon. I am outside the radius, but now I have the suit again, I can use it. They won't be able to come close enough to shore to send a boat. I'll have to go out under the ice to meet them." Her gaze was fixed on something very far away and she was smiling, as though she was thinking aloud. "I was an engineer," she said. "From Kyoto. A third ranking nucleo-chemical engineer." She looked at me. "But you don't really know what that means, do you?" she asked. I shook my head. I should have understood, but I felt so numb. The words spilled out of my head like poison beneath the waves. "Tell your father I'm sorry," she said. "But it never was my world."
She picked up the heavy skin and without another word she was through the door. I sat quite still, waiting. I heard her going down the stairs and then the sound of the front door opening. The noise released me. I sprang after her. My father and my sister had come into the hallway and stood appalled and unmoving. My mother turned and looked back at me, holding the skin tightly in her arms. My father cried out in an awful voice of loss and she said to him, "Your turn now." Her voice was as cold as winter. Before any of us could move, she was out through the door and running towards the shore. She left us all behind as she ran for her old life. I was the last to see her go, but I do not know where she went. My sides burned with stitch; I sank to my knees on the shore and my father carried me home. That night, I lay tossing and turning with sickness, but I must have slept, for I dreamed of my mother, walking under the ice.
We lived for months without her. My father would not go down to the shore again. His guilt ate at him, until he underwent a transformation of his own and in the autumn once more joined the seal hunters. We did not see him again. His fate gripped him at last, the destiny that he had created for himself when he told the hunters why he would not join the cull. Perhaps he really had seen it, a vision in the fire. Our neighbours came to tell us the news on the first evening of the hunt. He had fallen through the ice, going down without a sound into the water. Though they ran to the place and searched, they could see no trace of his body through the foam. His coat, the fur-lined oilskin, lay upon the ice and they could never explain why he had removed it.