Lucas sat at his desk, pen in hand. These were the last two mementos of his 13-year marriage she had left him. Everything else had been stripped to bare stone. Except the rank smell. That could not be cleansed from the room – chilled rock, ocean salt, fish and blood. This space was more an enclosure for a wild animal. It had never been a home, not the sort you return to gratefully and open the front door to be greeted warmly, with the smells and sounds of love and family. For all he brought her, for all he gave her, she returned it with the coldness of the sea itself, the sea that will kill a man, that will kill an entire ship of men without one sigh of remorse.
Her instructions were clear. He wrote out the document to her exact specifications, knowing as he did so that each word he scratched out would destroy his name, his entire family’s name in the surrounding countryside until the entire island sunk to the bottom of the ocean itself. His people were not a forgiving people and their memories were as long as their beards, but there was a price to be paid when you crossed the old ways, and of all men, none knew that better than Lucas himself.
Good John, Lucas’s neighbor of 27 years, had met him at the shore with the news when Lucas returned from his most recent voyage.
“Lucas, “ he related, “ it was the strangest sight I’ve ever seen. Most every night, Shelley made the trip up to the cliff face and at first, I thought she was just searching the sea for you, like wives are wont to do when they’re missing their men, but then I noticed she never went up empty-handed. She always carried something with her. Some small item like. A dish or a bucket, yet she never came back down with anything. I got curious to know what she was up to so I followed her one night when the moon was three quarters full. When the woman reached the very edge of the cliff she recited the following words: “what belongs to me, belongs to thee” and then she would toss over into the ocean whatever it was she carried. I thought in your absence, the poor woman had lost her senses. I asked Cecelia to look in on her, but whenever she popped in for a visit, Shelley always acted as right as any other woman so it was very baffling. I simply figured you’d sort it out when you returned and I had a chance to have a word with you. I never thought….” Good John trailed off shame-faced, unable to finish the sentence.
Lucas waved him off. “No one could have known, John.
No one that is except a boy who had been weaned on his Gran’s tales of the old ways and good folk. No one except the fisherman who found the seal skin that fated February twilight and recognizing it for what it was, slipped behind a large boulder to wait for the selkie maiden who would return to claim it.
When she did come, Lucas fell under the spell of her beauty as mortal men are fain to do. He wanted her. He desired to possess her. It was natural for a fisherman to believe that anything that comes from the sea was his to have and that this fairy woman was simply another form of bounty that the ocean was pleased to bless with him. This was what he soothed himself with when she cried and pleaded with him to return her seal pelt and in response all he felt was wonder that even in her distress, she was still the most entrancing creature he had ever laid eyes on.
“I love you. Marry me” he impelled the selkie
When her imploring and beseeching fell on indifferent ears, she relented and allowed herself to be taken as a bride, but never did she return his love with her own, for to take someone prisoner is no love at all. She kept house for him and unwillingly bore him children and every night she visited the cliffs and wept for the home and family that had been wrenched from her.
One night, so great was her sorrow, that the winds and the waves were whipped up into a terrible fury. The ocean rose as high as a castle on a cloud and floated there above the cliff face. In the roiling water, the selkie saw her sisters and brothers. She kissed her mother and embraced her father again for the first time in over 10 years. Her father held her closely and whispered in her ear. Her eyes lit like lightening with hope and the first spark of life since she had left the ocean. She kissed him on the cheek as the wind began to die away and the waters recede. The selkie made her way back down the path to her own cottage. She kissed her own sleeping children on the forehead. Her lips were sprayed with salt.
The next night, she began making her routine trek up to the cliff face. It began with the smallest items – a candle stick or a cup. On the darkest of nights, she lugged up the largest of furniture. A selkie is stronger than 3 human men even in her human form and piece by piece, she stripped the cottage down to stone floor and walls. As she tossed each item over the edge, she faithfully recited “what belongs to me, belongs to thee”.
On the last night of all, nothing remained except a desk, a pen, the children and herself. The neighbors had grown suspicious. Tonight would be the night or she would be locked up and likely slaughtered like the beast her husband accused her of being. It was true she had been cold to him. As cold as most any captive would be to their captor. Just because she wore a golden ring and dresses of fine cloth did not make her any less a prisoner. Lucas could give her nothing that the ocean had not offered her previously. And he had not even provided a choice. No woman, fairy or mortal, can be compelled to love. No, she felt no regret for her treatment of her husband/jailor. Not even this last little bit that she was leaving behind.
She grabbed the hands of Mary Beth and Jayla and made one last, slow ascent up the cliff. Cecelia waved at them from her window as if she wanted them to stop, but the selkie just nodded a courteous greeting and moved on. She did not refer to herself as Shelley. That was the name Lucas had chosen for her. In her home, there was no need for such triflings. Selkies recognized one another by the pitch of your voice, each was unique and utterly irreproducible. Names were a trivial and silly thing that only creatures who die so quickly feel the need to give themselves. When she returned, there would be never be anyone to call her by that name again. She shivered in pleasure at that.
The three females made it to the top of the cliff and stood there. The children instinctively huddled closer to their mother and peered apprehensively over the side.
“Now don’t be afraid, girls. I want you both to close your eyes. We’re going on a journey together. “
“Here, mama? Where is there to go from here?” asked her eldest, Mary Beth, her girlish voice sharp with the edge of anxiety.
“Somewhere you could never imagine and I could never quite explain, but that will be beyond wonderful when we get there. Have faith in me, girls. I wouldn’t deceive you. I’ll even close my eyes too.” The selkie closed her eyes and grasped a hand in each of hers. She inched them forward one step. Two steps. Three steps. Stopped. The wind was dead still. Three hearts beat in syncopation for a moment.
She cried out “WHAT BELONGS TO ME, BELONGS TO THEE” and without hesitation, leapt forward, flinging all three of their bodies over the precipice and into the endless plunge down the ocean’s throat.
Cecelia reached them just in time to watch the three figures go over. Her cries were unheard by anyone but her. She ran down to the village to share the terrible news and to fortify her nerves with a few shots of whiskey.
For the next 3 months, no one in the village caught a single herring or even the sight of one. Folks said it was because of the suicide. It had tainted the waters. Good John kept this bit of news to himself when he spoke to Lucas, but he needn’t have.
All these thoughts ran rampant through Lucas’s mind as he finished up the document he was working on. It was nearly completed. At quarter past 7, the thing was done. He signed his name to it. One last thing remained.
Lucas went out back of the cottage, three paces to the south. He rolled a large boulder to the side. Beneath it was a depression he had dug. In the depression was a chest. In the chest was the precious pelt. He retrieved it.
On his walk up to the cliff face, he put his completed last will and testimony on the doorstep of Good John, secured with a rock. He thought about how it would be received.
I, Lucas Ironwilde, do declare that I knowingly took a selkie to be my human bride and held her captive as a mortal woman all these years because I selfishly desired her to be mine and when she threw herself and our progeny into the sea, she was not committing suicide, but rightly taking back what was hers all along until the day I return the pelt that frees her to her true and immortal form. The curse of barren seas was not caused by her actions, but by mine and I seek to make amends and to warn other mortal men not to follow in my foolish footsteps. I leave my property to selkie-kind as a refuge against those who would hunt them and force them into barbaric propositions against their will.
Yes, his name would be ruined alright and whether any man would take heed of his warning or not remained to be seen, but the chance remained that he might see his wife and his children at least one last time before the ocean took his life in repayment.
At the cliff’s top, he paused. He looked up at the sky, a sight he had lived with and taken for granted his entire life, yet would likely never glance upon again. To surrender your freedom, your world, everything you have ever known – it is a terrifying proposal.
Lucas looked down into the sea – the vast and unyielding stranger that it was.
“What belongs to thee, does not belong to me” he intoned and with the pelt clutched to his chest, toppled over the edge into the ocean’s embrace.