The Seal King
The girl with apricot-colored hair sits on a dock the color of driftwood, her back against a stone wall retaining the land against the push and pull of the sea. Buoys bob and clang. On this small peninsula on the shoulder of the Atlantic, close-set fishermen’s cottages cluster together for comfort. When the wind rakes the swells into whitecaps, yellow foul-weather waders lift on the clotheslines.
It is early September, and the saline haze of summer still hangs ripe and full over the harbor. Louellen, or Lou, as she is called, pulls the frayed cuffs of her father’s coat farther over her hands and presses her spine against the afternoon of too-busy family and heckling high school classmates. The splashing kids have cleared the dock platform and small swimming beach for another season, leaving her mind to dance with everything and nothing.
Hidden from the village’s view, she is the only one to hear the sound of water breaking, followed by the sudden motion of a weak hand on the dock ladder. When the form of a young man hoists itself over the edge and collapses on the sun-baked wood in front of her, she confirms his body’s unbroken whiteness before darting her attention away, embarrassment heating her cheeks.
A joke, she thinks. Some prank on a party boat where they stole the young man’s clothes and threw him overboard, yelling “Swim!” as their cruise ferried tourists in a tame circle out to the lighthouse on the point and back.
But the young man doesn’t speak of this. The young man says nothing, in fact, but stares at his hand spread against the weather-cured planks, ragged gasps escaping his throat.
I should leave. I should get help, she thinks, drawing her legs away. Yet at her movement he jerks aware, staring her in the face, and she is reminded of a childhood moment when she held an amber banner of kelp up to the sun. The stranger’s eyes are the same color, like light through a brown bottle, and as he takes in her rumpled pants, baggy work-jacket and checkered blouse, a voice rushes into her mind like wind through sea grass.
They took my skin from me….
His lips haven’t moved. “How did you—?”
His words, more vehement now, startle her again.
I’ve lost the tribe. I’m forever cast out.
He collapses once more, pale ribcage heaving in and out, rivulets of water spilling through the planks to the slow rise and fall beneath.
A drunk. A loony, near-drowned, she thinks. The hair at the back of his neck swirls in dark eddies, like the wet sheen of a cormorant’s back.
Some essence of the tides issues from him, ancient and salt-soaked, as familiar to her as her own village, which with its single general store cannot be called a town. Something about the young man is part of the first breath of air she ever drew, so she sheds the coat and lifts his shoulder to draw the threadbare canvas around his unmarked skin. Still, she shudders when his wet head falls, like a dog’s, on her leg.
A breeze tickles the hair around her face, and when she shuts her eyes against it, she sees sleek, dark shapes circling in an aura of light. A rocky amphitheatre appears to her, far beneath the fluttering currents, where a colony of seals darts with nervous curiosity, half-watching, half-hiding from a commotion at the center of the sand clearing. She beholds in the inner landscape of his memory a young seal hovering, his eyes regal like those of the youth in front of her, and knows. It’s him.
“Your reign of lies has ended!”
The accusation reverberates from a wizened bull, who rotates slowly, commandeering the attention of a group of Elders. As he uses the mind-speech again, his eyes narrow.
“The old king gave up his life to the moon-tide, like the old queen before him. Gave over his crown to Kells, here before us, ocean-shifts ago. But at last the truth has come, on the sacred currents. I say to you, Kells. You are not the son of the old sire!”
“Rannick, I am as much son as the king ever had.”
“Listen! He does not deny it!” Veeren, the squint-eyed mouthpiece of the females, floats to her mate’s side.
Kells’ thoughts boom out to the gathered colony. “I’ve kept no secrets from the Elder Council. We’ve had our disputes, but this agitation…. You bring discord. Pointless turbulence.”
Rannick’s eyes widen in mock innocence. “I bring nothing but revelation! Are you or are you not the former king’s blood kin?”
Kells’ eyes lift to the perimeter of dark faces, stirring in the folds of the walls above. Even as an eavesdropper on the memory, the girl can sense his indecision.
“I am the offspring he made his own.”
A pock-riddled male with a propeller-scarred shoulder barks out to the listening assembly. “But not of his blood, as our tribe requires. How long have we been deceived, all of us? Have we made one addition to our territory in the moons since this pup became king?”
“He has no right to lead!”
The Elders bob with gratification at the shifting murmurs around them.
The seal king’s flipper, beyond his control, flicks with annoyance.
“This is a colony of plenty. Who among you has gone without? There is no need to seek war and conflict, to hoard the excess!”
Rannick calls out. “What king would ban from you your deserved tide-reapings? Not I, I promise you.”
The gray shapes hang nearer over Kells, pulsing with turbulent fervor. Other voices join in.
“You kept secrets from your Council. From your colony!”
Rannick circles. “Yes, a mongrel!”
Veeren’s voice speaks suddenly at Kells’ neck, vicious and close. “You are not selkie-folk.”
Selkies? Lou repeats. Her mind whirls.
Above him, they have begun to slap the rocks, a rhythm, wild and terrible. As though she is inside his body, the girl feels Kells’ heart quicken.
“Mongrel! Mongrel!” The colony has unified in a single voice.
Kells senses the verdict before Rannick speaks. “A deceiver forfeits his skin!”
“Yes! His skin!”
Impossible, now, to go back. To project his single thoughts into that maelstrom. The shapes close in, a vortex of rage, and the blows begin to land. Rough thuds of shoulders and flanks. In the midst of it, he feels his pelt begin to loosen. At the sensation of a foreign, cold trickle, he is gripped with sudden revulsion by the idea of what will happen. He could thrash and dart from them in one colossal movement, he thinks. But just at that moment, his skin ripples and begins to lift.
The change is a sideways, painless dislocation. A baffling chill presses upon his limbs, loosened from their mantle. No longer flippers, but forearms. His body twists at the blasphemy of the sight, every frustrated move, now, separating him from the velvet folds. The last brush of that floating warmth is a tender agony. Spread-limbed and human, he reels with nausea, seeing the other half of his soul now become a living cape around Rannick’s shoulders.
“To the shallows!”
What threat is he, this shivering boy-form, to the new king? Nonetheless, Rannick’s minions drag him, nipping and buffeting. Through miles of middle water, to the mouth of the harbor channel, and further in, where their nostrils clog with wave-dust and strange streams of scent. Leaving him adrift in water where he can now… stand, after all, as that is what befits a fallen king. A cast-off selkie. Now become a man.
He pulls away and fixes Lou with that broken stare.
You see, now, what they have done to me. The sleek voice, again, in her head. But you cannot understand what it means.
For the first time he raises himself to stand, swaying on the balls of his feet.
Without my skin, let the depths take me. Let the ocean drown this worthless half-body on the outgoing tide.
He drops from the dock, then grits his teeth and wades (oh humiliation!—she can see the shame on his face) to sit on a wave-slicked boulder, waiting for the sea to turn. A pale man in a borrowed coat.
She could walk up the hill. She could return to her lamp-lit porch. A kitchen steamy with cooking and damp clothes. A warm, heaped plate. But at the base of the slope she turns, remembering in the fading afternoon a far-off tale. A rocking chair memory. And she knows she will not walk up the hill.
In a moment she stands next to him in the shallows, wavelets slapping against the bulky denim of her jeans.
“What if that’s not the way it has to be?”
Her grandmother’s house with its weathered gray shingles and evergreen shutters still stands like a figurehead on the bluff. Before selling it, the small woman, grizzled, content, lived there alone. Whatever season—dry leaves blowing from bare trees, first grass sweetening the hill-slopes—Lou rode her bicycle to find her mother’s mother sitting on her porch, watching the play of sun on the water.
Lou would lean on the railing, finger extended towards the chain of islands they called the Dumplings. “What is that island, Granny? That last one. With the trees.”
Her grandmother’s eyes crinkled with mischief. “That is the island of the selkies. On the far side of it, the old fisher folk said, you might try to find the Blue Tide. When the full moon appears, a different current comes up deep, from Race Reef. Meet it, and then!” She smiled. “Then, you might dance with the selkies, under the surface of the sea.”
Race Reef. Bluefishing over it from their little skiff, the girl had heard the warnings from her father. The underwater chasm pulled down in strange vacuums wayward chunks of driftwood, the refuse from trawlers on their way back to harbor, the accidental swimmer. She had seen it once. A man overboard who never surfaced. A life ring drifting on the indifferent swells.
But her grandmother told a different story. “Swim down, they say, to where you feel the Blue Tide’s pull. Give yourself over, give up all your breath, and maybe, that stream will enter you. Then, you will hear the song of the sea.”
“The song, Granny?”
“I hear it on the wind sometimes, after a storm. Or that’s my wishing. Such peace, in that sound!”
With no more to offer, Lou stops. During her story Kells’ face has grown wary. When he speaks the words aloud, they are accented with a strange lilt.
“Th—That is impossible. For your people to hear the song. To travel the middle waters. Lou, is it? We have our own myths of the water visitors, who tried and failed. They are tales of sunken hearts and drowned bones.”
She shakes her head. “You can see the island from here. The tide turns after midnight.”
“And the night-orb is coming full circle. What does it matter?” From behind the coat collar, his teeth flash bitterly. “As I am, I couldn’t even cross that distance.”
The girl watches him turn away, before her gaze comes to rest amongst the grasses on shore.
“Not without help.”
So much vocalization for a species, Kells thinks. Rowing the small skiff alongside the peninsula in the direction of the islands, the human female, seeming nervous, has chattered without interval.
“Dad and I scallop just off that marsh. And there’s the East Light.”
He sits in the stern, amazed at the workings of her body, tugging the oars, left, right, left, then in tandem. For a short time they had sought for him to take a turn, but found his hands weakened and unnerved by the motion. The foreign garment, too, he had cast up toward the bow once they left the land, muttering, “Not the same.” She had reddened, then shrugged at his disrobed presence and kept on rowing.
“Scallops, lobsters…. We eat every kind of fish, ‘til we can’t stand it, I swear.” She quiets suddenly, and he spots in her mind the memory-echo of the swimming shapes, the discomfort of an unasked question. Her brief, self-conscious glance is the color of a wave-peak.
Where his whiskers would have twitched with amusement, he feels an odd pull at the corners of his mouth. “You think we, part fish, do not eat fish?”
“Right. You’re a seal.”
By the day-orb, he scoffs to himself. “I am a selkie. Seals surface to breathe. They cannot mind-speak. They live a fraction of our lifespan.”
“Really?” says Lou.
In actuality, he does not mind the talk, which distracts him from the tease of the green sliding deep on his trailing fingers. So thin and terribly exposed, he thinks. But considering the girl’s hands, he is not so sure. Calloused, square and brown, they slide and tug, slide and tug on the ocean-splashed handles, punctuating each stroke with the oarlocks’ clank. She is using her back, now, long wooden blades feathering through the resistance like fins through water. He had never enjoyed shedding his pelt at will, unlike some other selkies, and the sight of his human frame has only just ceased to appall him.
He had asked Lou, when they dragged the small vessel from the reeds lining the harbor, “Your kind. Who is your clan?”
“Up there,” Lou had motioned. “In the village. Don’t worry. I take the boat out all the time.”
“You were—” He tests the word against his meaning. “Separate. Where is your colony?”
“Colony?” The word was a blank. “Like school? My class?”
“The others to which you belong.”
She had stared at him then, before busying herself with the bow-rope. His efforts to explain further flapped like a dropped shell to the bottom of a shallow silence. Together they had righted the boat amongst the fleecing cattails, which were turning bronze in the last of the daylight. When he felt the bouncing of the boat on the water for the first time, his gut had lurched with the sharpest pang of longing.
Then mirrored coves had replaced the harbor, giving off whiffs of strange vegetation and once, the shuff-shuff, shuff-shuff of metal rocketing against metal. “Just the train tracks,” Lou had said, but not before Kells had shamed himself by flinching like an unweaned pup at the sounding horn.
A muffled knocking brings his attention back to the boat.
“Something’s caught on us,” Lou says. “Stupid. I forgot to pull the bowline in when we launched.” They are out into deeper water, and she is hanging over the side, pulling at a massive snarl of rope. At the sight, Kells shudders. Every loop from the land is a noose. The old training comes back. Don’t touch it. Rocks, shells, bones, are playthings. Not this.
“An old trawling net,” Lou says. “Too heavy to pull into the boat, but I can’t steer with it dragging. We’re going to need the keel free, once we come around the point.” Balancing, he moves to her side, surveying with dread the knotted fibers, green with weeds. He had told no one, that time, when Tenny had looped a piece around his neck, playing at something, and they had had to bloody their gums to free him. His thumb moves to the white row of his teeth, testing the points.
These land-walker jaws might sever it.
Whether or not he intended to speak into her mind, she responds, startling him. “No time. The water picks up past the peninsula. I can cut the net without losing our line.”
When she rises from the bottom of the boat with something in her hands, Kells’ heart leaps at the flash of silver, so like a fish. But no. Only a flat length of metal, attached to a stout handle.
“My dad’s shucking knife. We’re too far out for rocks. If you hold the oars flat, nothing will swamp us.”
“You won’t be able to stand.” He takes the handles from her, noticing the smirk on her lips.
“I may be a ‘land-walker’, but I’ve been over my head before.”
As Lou lowers herself over the side and into the water, her boots, thrown towards the stern, captivate him for a moment with their intricacy of undone bows and laces. Between wet gasps and long silences, the boat shakes with the force of her sawing.
“It’s just about there,” she says. “Get ready for the current to take us.”
Bracing her feet, Lou reaches below the water and tugs mightily, and the rope snaps. He feels the knots bumping free underneath. She calls to him in triumph.
Silence presses upon him. Standing, he glimpses, under the water, a flash of checkered shirt in a tangle of line, sweeping down and away in the undertow below the surface current. He does not think. He does not speak. He plunges into the sea.
No wave-music. No breath. Were these paralyzing waters the ocean that had once embraced him? The girl with her empty lungs is borne down easily, the net twined around her and spreading like a sail on the current, drawing her body away. Kells kicks after her, fixated on the tightly pressed line of her lips, willing it not to break. She ceases striking out in fear as he seizes her ankles, working swiftly with clumsy hands, teeth, anything, to loosen her. Lou twists one arm free, and struggling against the weight of water and rope, they work upwards. Air splits their lungs, and immediately he dives again. Somehow, in the fury of his hands, her legs come free, and the net is gone. At the surface he grasps her close, her breath frantic in his ear. Her eyes are reeling, fixed on the heavens.
“We’re safe. You saved me!”
When her grip on him loosens, he barks with concern, “Don’t stop holding!”
“Where—” Her head lolls, twisting to look. “Oh god, the boat!”
Rattle rattle rattle rattle rattle….
Lou’s forehead hurts where it rests, mashed against the keel, and tracing the source of the sound, her brain awakens with a pinch. The coat is wrapped around her shoulders, and somewhere a steel cleat is vibrating. Raising her head, she remembers. The skiff, the size of a tiny teacup, spinning lazily towards the horizon. Are those really the first stars? had been her last thought, before her eyes swam and the darkness swallowed all.
In the stern, the seal king hugs his curled legs, shuddering uncontrollably, his eyes locked on her face.
“You did it,” she whispers. “How did you….”
Forming the words, he seizes, his voice fluttering into her head instead. S-swam. I had t-trouble pulling you back in. I’m s-sorry. He nods at her side, and Lou finds a bleeding scrape above her hip.
Coming sharply back to herself, she notices that his features are tinged green with cold. “You’re sick.”
N-no. Just c-c—
“But the water’s still warm, from the summer.”
His thoughts hold no judgment, only a statement of fact. Without my skin, I—f-f-freeze.
She is shrugging off the coat already, pushing it back to him. “You knew that. And you—”
“Turn the boat around,” he says, finding his voice.
“The water will take us right to it. We don’t even have to row.”
“My loss is not your burden. Turn us.”
“Look how close we are!” she shouts, flinging her hand toward the distant hump of land, low and symmetrical. When he regards her with confusion, she continues, the familiar stiffening coming into her throat. “My Granny was my colony. The only one who understood me. Why would she tell me of the Blue Tide, if I wasn’t meant to see it?”
Kells squints over the bow. She hears him exhale, long and slow. “Very well. Each of our lives is our own.”
Lou flips the end of one oar over the stern to steer them, hesitating only to press his frigid hand where her words can’t make the thanks.
Stars above, now, and stars below. Protected by the island’s lee side, the skiff noses through glossy blackness, Kells standing in the bow. Despite the resentment he has expressed towards his human form, Lou notes he has found the balance of his legs.
“My eyes are different,” he says. “I can see farther above, now. The sky is deep. How deep?”
Lou, leaning on the steering oar, considers the glimmering sprawl of the heavens. “I don’t think anyone knows. Humans used to make up stories about the sea—giant monsters, strange creatures. Funny. Now we’ve turned to outer space.”
“Is that so?”
She smiles. “I never knew what was swimming in my backyard.” She lets the boat coast for the last five yards, then beaches it on the island’s shoal of fine pebbles. Water lapping at their ankles, they drag the shell past the scalloped line of detritus left by high tide.
“I’m here. Standing on it,” Lou murmurs.
In the light from the full moon, the slope looms above them, a handful of wind-sculpted trees here and there among the whorls of silvery grass. Just as she imagined. A wild place that countless storms had ravaged, given over, now, to the hushed sigh of bivalve and wavelet.
“The sea has blessed this place,” Kells says. Yes, she thinks. There could be no fakery here, where all life is pared down to its rarefied bones. How long had it been since a human touched this land? Decades? Centuries? She summits the hill first, finding, as if in answer, a ring of standing stones set into the flat knoll.
“Sentinels,” Lou says.
Kells joins her. “Made by whose hand? Selkie? Human?”
“Both?” she says. “Who knows.” Down the opposite windward slope, the open sea gradates away from them in pale shallows, then darker depths. She points. “That’s where it will come. The Blue Tide.”
He looks back behind them. “You’ll have a long return to make alone.”
“I’ll know Granny was right. That’s all I want.”
“If your story is true—”
“You’ll have the rest of your life in your own skin, back where you belong,” she says. “When it’s over, the sun will show me home.”
“Then you do have a colony,” he says.
“I don’t know.” She sits next to him against one of the granite spurs to wait for the turning of the tide. “I watch everyone trudging through the halls at school, my mom falling asleep in front of the TV, my dad, who doesn’t really talk. I’m not the same. I can’t stop myself from wondering. Is this all I should expect? Is this what life’s for?” She feels the familiar hysteria fidgeting beneath her sternum. Only Granny had been able to comfort her when it came.
“Our restlessness is why we’re drawn to the sea,” the old woman was fond of saying. “Though the water smothers our sight and sound. We can only make up our dreams about it from the outside, can’t we?” Just once, before the end, Lou had noticed wetness on Granny’s lashes. “If one could slip beneath and breathe oneself a part of it…. How could anyone resist dwelling in that peace forever?”
Kells speaks, breaking her concentration on the horizon line. “Families bring us into the world. Finding kin is different.” He combs the grass with his fingers. “I was a bastard. But for a time, I was a king.” She looks away, afraid to distract him from continuing. “My mother found her soul-kin in Krinn, a selkie from another tribe, displaced by a storm. Our territory codes forbid coupling outside one’s tribe. Krinn’s presence brought tension into the colony, and he was forced to leave. When my mother’s belly swelled with me on the next tide, she knew she couldn’t follow him, vulnerable and alone. So she sought help from the king. He had been a friend, and he and my mother loved each other, in their own way. Knowing his fondness could easily be mistaken for more, he granted her the favor, taking my mother as his mate and claiming credit for me. No one would have known I carried a foreigner’s blood.”
She sees his face darken.
“Except, half a moon ago, Rannick led a hunting party far from our colony. From another group of selkies, they heard of an Elder, Krinn, who on his deathbed rambled about my mother, to whom he thought he’d given a pup. Rannick recognized what had happened, and it was over. Banishment is death.”
“You’re alive,” she says.
Kells shakes his head. “A selkie’s skin is his soul. A tribe takes it away knowing it will call us back to the sea to drown.”
“If the Blue Tide lets you return….”
“I will fight to convince them. But without my pelt, they will not recognize me as an equal.”
“I’ll go there with you.”
“To risk your life, like you did in the channel?”
“It’s my choice.”
“What is it about you?” he says. “You’re so young you don’t even know the world you’re trying to leave.”
She finds her fists clenching. “My world is—” She jumps as he grasps her shoulder suddenly, inclining his head.
“Listen,” he says. She strains, hearing only a breeze lifting the treetops. “The tide has turned.”
Gazing out towards the water, Lou clambers to her feet. “It’s happening. Look.”
Below them, an aquamarine sliver is shimmering, tracing the edge of the underwater drop-off with exploratory fingers.
“The Blue Tide,” she says. “It’s here.”
Running down the slope and charging into the water up to her knees, Lou suddenly stops. A hundred points of turquoise light agitate into brightness when she breaks the water’s surface again, this time with her hand. The luminous specks, like the rim of eyes on a scallop, cling to her skin, and tears spring to her eyes. “Phosphorescence. Jelly creatures. That’s all it was!”
Kells stops short at the water’s edge, staring at her extended hands. “An old human myth. Explaining something they couldn’t understand.”
Silly tales to amuse a child, Lou thinks. Blue Tides. Selkie songs. Her doddering granny, now dead and gone.
“No.” Her voice surges with anger. “It can’t be. The Blue Tide will follow behind. If there’s any chance—” She plods forward.
“Lou.” Kells has followed, wincing at the water encircling his waist. “You’ll drown.”
“I have to try.”
He hollers at her again. “I have nothing to lose. To go down, not returning, not seeing the sky again, that does not bother me. But for you…. Lou!”
She pulls free from his hand, striking with her arms against the resistance of the water. Ten strokes out, her feet leave the island. Twenty strokes out, no longer sensing Kells behind her, she takes a last breath and kicks down, fighting the air’s claim on her body.
Give yourself over, give up all your breath, and maybe, that stream will enter you.
A new plane of coldness brushes her face, and she opens her eyes upon bright blue veins, streaming through the sediment before her. Forgetting herself, she gasps with surprise. The light meets her lips, dissolving the thumping ache in her chest, and whether it is death or liquid breath filling her with song, she cannot tell.
Fathoms deep, the seal king dreams he is a pup again, dozing in the old kelp grove, sunlight slanting through the brown ribbons. Something nudges the side of his face, and he jolts awake to find himself in an azure haze, his cheek on the ocean bottom. He had followed Lou, fighting his lungs’ agonized clamor and the coldness tightening around his skull. But then—
You will hear the song.
Some gentle draught moves in his chest. The old music is back in his ears. His vision clears. Not far away, Lou hovers, her feet pointing delicately towards the sand, her face crowned by the wreath of her hair. He has never seen a human form so beautiful. She beams, her tears one with the sea, and peers beyond him to the open waters.
“Please,” she whispers into his mind. “I love it more than ever. Show me.”
He looks down. His body is still human, but the selkie gracefulness has returned. Hope buoys his heart. With a grin he takes her hand and they are racing, out beyond the islands, beyond the reef, to the deeps.
They revel with abandon. He lets his seal-nature emerge. Playing the merman, showing her gardens of lavender anemones and sand as soft as fur. He catches her flying body, riding the currents in a laughing spin. When a rough surge sends them tumbling, they come to rest with Lou’s arms around him and his nose buried in the hair behind her ear. As they separate, their lips brush as unconsciously as a wave folding onto the land. He forms a circlet of golden-green pop-weed for her hair and surprises her with a cave lined in glittering quartz. Breaks open mollusks, reveling in her reaction to the tastes and textures.
They race across boulder fields and canyons. Only once does she stop to marvel at the distance they have come.
“Your homewater. Is it far?”
“How far is far?”
He grins, holding out a hand. But reaching to take it, she glances up. Two shapes are watching them. Slick fur and whiskered faces. Wise black-brown eyes, taking in the levitating pair, joined by hands.
“Look. A human that breathes. And the one shunned.” Kells starts at the sight of a wound torn in the larger selkie’s side.
“We have to keep on!” says the other, and muscle-propelled, the watchers dart away, dissolving into the distance.
“Those were tribal Elders,” Kells says. He frowns. “Time is shorter than I thought. We must go.”
The absence of singing impresses him before anything else. Where hundreds of voices in the colony would have been ringing out in chorus, he can sense only hushed murmurs. Rannick has broken them already, he thinks.
“This is your kingdom?” Lou asks.
“It was,” he says.
She glides to look over the edge of rock, and her eyes widen at the sight so familiar to him: a massive crater, extending down through jagged ledges, thronging with selkies.
“Like a coliseum.” She glances at his body. “There are so many. Without your skin—”
He draws his fingers into his palm, feeling only frailty there. “I know.”
“What will you do?”
“Go down and reclaim my pelt. I have no other choice.”
When she moves to clear the crater’s edge he puts out a hand. “Alone.”
“Why?” He has come to recognize that defiance on her face, more selkie-like than she knows.
“Your presence as a human won’t help. Whatever happens, I’ll bring you back to the boat.”
“We’ll both return.”
“Yes. Before….” An image of a floating, orange-haired body escapes from his mind before he can prevent it. “Before the dawn ends this,” he finishes, gesturing to their water-breathing forms. If his darkest thoughts have transferred to her psyche, there is no indication on her face. She accepts his hands, ushering her into a rocky cleft.
“If they murder you?” she asks.
“There would be no purpose. I’m dead to them already.” He squeezes her hand. “But I promise. Before the Blue Tide recedes, I’ll bring you home. I owe you that.”
“Even though I’m human?” she says.
“I know, now, what it is to be both.”
He hovers a moment on the crater’s rim, studying the look of concentration on her face. Then he swims down.
Kells immediately locates Rannick at the grotto’s center, with no one but Veeren beside him. He has driven off the Elders, then, Kells realizes. At the moment he spies his pelt around the bull’s shoulders, his stomach twists sharply, like a caught fish. For an instant, those plush dark folds are all that compel him.
Halfway to the bottom, his presence draws gurgles of surprise from a nearby selkie and calf. Others turn, and the gray bodies begin to circle quizzically, the stares like pinpricks on his sprawl-limbed body.
“The old king’s changeling.”
“Bare, yet he lives!”
“A land-walker, but look—he breathes!”
Closer, now, poking with bristled snouts, curious.
Among them a voice, afraid to hope, pipes up.
“Kells has come home!”
Could I have a chance after all? Kells thinks. He can imagine the spectacle he present—an angular boy-man with black-sheen hair. But behind the colony’s fear, he can sense wonder stirring.
A voice thunders from below. “Are we a haven for deceivers?” Rannick whirls, catching the attention of the assembly, his nostrils wrinkling in disgust. “I warn you! Do not be taken in by this liar a second time!”
“Rannick,” Kells hears Veeren caution from her mate’s side. “The outcast breathes!”
Kells can hardly concentrate, so close is he now to the cloak of his own fur.
“No one can take from another the skin in which they were born, Rannick. I travel here at the will of the ocean itself.”
“Listen!” says Rannick with a bitter laugh. “The whelp demands his disguise!” Murmurs of agreement toss back and forth above him, and Kells stiffens as Rannick draws close. “What is he? This body—” The old bull noses intrusively at Kells’ spine, and it is all he can do to avoid crying out and grasping like a newborn for that part of him that flutters by his shoulder like a live thing. “Inefficient. Protectionless.” Rannick’s hind claws rake across the small of Kells’ back, and for a moment, he thinks he hears Lou’s voice above him.
Ignoring the tang of his own blood in the water, Kells calls out. “It is not my blood that makes me who I am. Nothing has changed!”
“Right you are. You remain a liar.” Rannick rears up to his full length. “A liar who in twelve moons did nothing to expand our territory!”
The selkies close by are averting their faces. But they’re still listening, Kells thinks. I haven’t lost them yet. He presses forward, projecting his thoughts to the upper ledges.
“This is what it’s about? Not bloodline after all, but territory? What plenty results from greed, and tribe warring against tribe? Not more to eat, but fewer mouths to feed!” He feels their dark gazes back upon him, the old loyalty emerging. “It was not my father’s way. It is not our way!”
“Hush, outsider!” Veeren hisses, and then, with a bulleting rush of muscle, she and Rannick have slammed Kells against the crater-wall.
“Half-breed,” the bull taunts. “Your rags are no use to me. I’ll send your hide on the outgoing tide. You’ll stay and watch it dissolve in the day-orb’s light.”
“Stay?” They would hold him here. And then—Kells’ dread spills the words from his mouth. “No. Destroy my skin, but she must return.”
“She?” Rannick scoffs. “Mother? Mate? You have no one. This colony will prosper long past the memory of you, the bastard son. Do you hear the waters turning, impostor? Do you feel it?”
With Veeren’s bulk pinning him low against the rock, Kells notices, for the first time, how the sky-circle has lightened above them. Then Rannick shrugs his pelt from around his neck, shoots upwards and sets the garment free. The colony quiets, and Kells’ heart keens. The mantle waves away, further with each moment, a dark void against the surface.
“Watch the dawn take it!” Rannick cries, delight in his eyes.
But like an arc of light, a girl shoots across that silvery sky, catching the yielding pelt in her arms. With uncontrolled speed, Lou flies to Kells, racing downwards, flinging the skin over him and sprawling headlong over the sand.
And there is a hush.
Like the soft fragrant flank of his mother, under her flipper, where no roughness could ever be, the velvet cape enfolds him, and he is home again. He tests, and yes, there are the webs between his claws, there is the contained might of his tail. He opens his eyes, and the colony resumes its song.
“His skin. Regained!”
“The king! The king!”
Rannick’s roar splits the melody. “He is not your king!”
Kells whirls to find that Veeren has already ground Lou into the grotto floor. Before he can think, he has barreled into the other seal, striking with his teeth again and again. Veeren bawls in panic and bolts, streaking unbalanced over the rim.
He turns to find Lou dumbstruck, taking in his new form from nose to tail. She scrambles against the rock as Kells, back in touch with the power of his body, takes his place before her.
“I want my kingship returned.” He glares fiercely at Rannick. “You had no right. You never had a right!”
“You’ve already lost everything!” the bull retorts.
At this, the selkies’ voices resound as one from the walls. No. You have sought for yourself alone, Rannick. Though you are born of our blood, we do not know you.
“Moments ago, this was a man!” Rannick bellows. When the singing continues, he rockets into the seal king’s right flank. Kells’ side explodes in pain, and in a frenzy they roll, jaws fastening and shaking. Then the bull’s teeth clench deep into his neck.
“No!” Lou shouts.
Wrenching free, suffering the tearing of his flesh, Kells knocks the Elder clear with his tail.
“Rannick,” he pants, rising, haggard. “Stop this madness.”
The selkies echo around them. You are offered mercy, Rannick. Take it. This colony will heal.
Shaking with rage, Rannick sneers. “And let him muddy our path? Your skin may be your own, but I promise, I’ll take it from you piece by piece!”
With a roar, Rannick sets upon him. A fury of adrenalin courses through Kells’ limbs, and he loses himself momentarily, savaging the older selkie’s body with his claws. Coming back to his senses, he discovers Rannick tiring, one flipper dangling half-free. Blood clouds the water.
“Don’t make me, Rannick. Yield,” Kells says.
The fallen Elder lurches upright, his ripped muzzle twisting in a grin. “I will not yield.” His gaze drifts sideways. “And if I cannot kill you, I will do the next best thing.”
Setting his head, the bull courses towards the girl with his remaining strength. Kells sees Lou draw her knees to her chest in fear and cries out, his every fiber seizing at the impact. But Rannick’s massive body inexplicably lifts, floating upwards in a dead spiral, revealing Lou, his human girl, her fists around the silver shucking blade’s hilt. Her smiling eyes meet his a moment before following her departed breath up to where the gold of dawn has just broken the Blue Tide’s spell. And she is gone.
Current, pulling on their bodies. Dragging against them, but Kells fights it, muscles afire. Streaking through the middle waters, past the last traces of the Blue Tide, now expended and receding. Past the reef, to cast her onto the pebbled shore of the island.
He has shed his skin once more, all cold legs and hands, now, pulsing upon Lou’s heart as he has seen the humans do. Water dribbles from her mouth. Gone. She is gone. Like the night-orb. Like the scent of his mother. Like the foolish tide that led them from the land. On the barnacle-scabbed beach he rubs her in the folds of his mantle over and over, and as the full force of the sun slants over the horizon, he feels her limbs twitch. She shudders and coughs, her face full of disbelief and pain in the coppery rays of morning.
“I don’t have to wonder anymore,” she gasps. “Where I belong. What life is for.”
Tears stream into her wet hair, his sob is a bark in his throat, and she is caught in his kiss.
Miss Lou, they call her. The lady running the corner store with the milkshakes and the jars of penny candy is one of the young who stayed. Of which, in the village, there are few.
Was she married? She acted married. But no, no one had seen her wed. Through the years she had lovers come and peaceably go. But whether they never got close enough or whether she favored her solitude more, they never knew. She waited customers at the breakfast counter. She sewed doll clothes for the local children and kept up the flowers by the docks, where the boatmen ate their lunch. In middle age she bought back her grandmother’s house with the narrow steps down the hill-slope to the foot of the sea, where there was a tiny dock and beside it, a tiny boat.
The locals paid scant attention to the island. Not much more than a low hump of earth, grass, trees, and stone rising out of the Atlantic. Nothing there but bird droppings, a man said to his son from their lobster boat passing through on the far side of the channel. Can’t stop. Too busy. Oh, and that story about the Blue Tide? That was just a fable.
But month after month, year after year, she saw him. Leaving the fabric of her land-bed, no matter who shared it, leaving the gray-shingled house with the evergreen shutters. Rowing out, though she could never be a part of his world again. That was all right. For that was her great secret. Her great surprise, discovering, after he had pulled her from the sea, that he could return. Each time walking up the slope to meet her, carrying his skin. Each time laying her on the grass amongst the standing stones, beaming, smelling of that beloved foreignness, tasting of the tide. They laughed like children, girl queen and seal king, and the moonlight melted all else away. Out of all her life, and for all her life, that would be the best part. For the girl with the apricot-colored hair, it would be enough to know, at the end of her story, there would be a full moon, and an outgoing ebb, and a note, reading:
When I am too old to keep on, take me to my little boat and push me out to the arms of the deep. Let the current carry me, where going out meets coming in, and the Blue Tide will take me. To my home. To my soul. To the sea.
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