In the beginning, the story goes like this: a fisherman brings home a selkie wife. He spies the maidens bathing in the salt-cove by the sea, their great, glistening seal skins heaped on a stone. When the sun begins to slip from the sky, the sisters slide into their coats, transforming from lovely women into sleek, dark seals who dive into the water and away: all, of course, except the youngest and loveliest, who runs from one place to another, naked and distressed, unable to return to her skin and the sea.
The fisherman emerges from the shadows with her pelt bundled shining in his arms. “Now you will be my wife,” he says. And so it is.
At home, the fisherman locks the seal skin coat in a chest. He wears the key around his neck night and day. One year goes by, and then another, and another. The selkie woman is a good wife to the fisherman: patient and uncomplaining, a model to the other island wives. The fisherman handles the envy of his friends at the tavern with ease. “No secret to a happy marriage,” he boasts, “except for dedication and good communication.” The fisherman perhaps believes this? He is drunk on happiness. He comes home singing, sweeps his wondrous wife off to bed. He forgets, just this once, to hide the key around his neck as they tumble in the sheets. Or perhaps he wants her to see the key: because their marriage is a good one, a strong one, built upon trust, and in a love such as this there is no need to hide.
In the morning, the mouth of the old oak chest gapes open, the stench of the missing seal pelt lingering ghostly in the air. The fisherman runs through the house, disbelieving—someone has stolen this stinking old skin! Someone has kidnapped my wife! Unable, or unwilling, to put the pieces together.
The fisherman tears out of the house. His feet are carrying him toward the shadow on the horizon before he can properly process what it is: his wife standing on the salt-sprayed cliffs, a lovely, dark silhouette against the gray sea. He shouts something, lost in the roar: wait or love or I can explain. As he draws nearer, almost near enough to touch, he sees that the seal coat is tugged up around her slender shoulders. The bulk of her body already something foreign.
The fisherman cries, “Wait.”
The selkie woman turns back, the sliver of her face waxing like a moon in the dark night of her hair.
The fisherman says, desperately, “You can run, you know, but I’ll never stop coming after you.”
He says, “I love you.”
He says, “You belong to me.” And waits for it to be so.
The selkie stares at him, her face feral and strange. Something flickers in her eyes that the fisherman strains to recognize: a brightness that glimmered when she used to do the dishes, washing away cigarette butts after all of the fisherman’s friends had gone home. And sometimes, too, when they made love—a spark that fled into the depths of her pupils before he could quite catch it. How vital she was, he used to think. How he pressed into her then, deeper and deeper, the unknowable light just out of reach.
In some stories, she disappears into the sea, never to return. In others, the fisherman pursues her, finds her with the selkie husband and sons who have longed for her these seven years, and slays them. The selkie woman, weeping, curses mankind and its unkind island: half of its sons will drown in the sea, and the other half will fall from the air. So many will die that there will not be enough men to link their arms the whole way around the island.
These stories end there: the selkie weeping, the man with bloodied hands. The land beyond the shore already taking on the sweet tinge of decay, centuries of unhappiness beginning to bloom. No escape from romantic tragedy but the end.
What if some things can be redeemed?
What if there is another way?
The fisherman who spies the maidens bathing in the salt-cove by the sea does not bring home a selkie wife. He averts his gaze and leaves them alone and then posts signs on the perimeter of their cove that say DO NOT ENTER, SELKIE BATHING AREA and goes home to his family.
By that time next week, all of the selkies have been kidnapped and bedded and duly wived. Happily ever, et cetera.
The fisherman brings home a selkie wife. Actually, he brings home all of the selkie wives, staggering home under the weight of their glistening and pungent pelts. They flock after him, naked, the harem of them cross and weeping and jabbering in their selkie tongue. He crams their coats into a chest, in the end asking one of the neighbor boys to come sit on the lid to help him lock it shut. He passes the boy a fiver and shoos him away, then turns, satisfied, to regard his house of wives.
They stare back at him, dark-eyed and unsmiling. Even the youngest, her pale face blotchy with tears, has developed a hard grimness around the jaw that makes the fisherman feel just a little. bit. uncomfortable.
“So,” he says, and forces a laugh. He hadn’t thought this far ahead. Or, if he had to admit it to himself, he had kind of assumed they would self-organize. Fall into place. He would have one or two in the kitchen, washing vegetables and preparing for dinner, one fixing him a drink, one sucking his cock, and another massaging his shoulders, and the rest—doing woman things. Making out with each other while bare-breasted in lace cotton panties, or reading O Magazine, or something. But they all just stare.
The fisherman forces a laugh. “Well,” he says. “Let’s get to it.”
He smacks the nearest one on her ass. The cool, luscious skin ripples beneath his hand, but the selkie wife stands stock still.
All of the wives stand stock still. There is, the fisherman begins to notice, a touch of the feral in them. Something in the eyes. Or in the teeth.
“It was a joke,” he says, angry. He strides to the closet, unlocks the chest to let the coats spring free. But his fingers tremble on the key. “Can’t you bitches take a joke?”
He looks up to find the selkie wives standing in a circle around him, arms crossed, unamused. The air is heavy with the oil scent of seal. The smell crawls up the fisherman’s nostril, chokes his lungs. Fear trickles down his back, settles in the base of his spine.
“Get out of my house,” the fisherman says, as though he has not just brought them in. “I’ll call the fucking cops.” He thinks of the landline in the kitchen, says, desperately, “I know taekwondo.”
There is no movement in the circle. But behind him, the fisherman hears a terrible wrenching sound, and a crunch.
The amputated phone lands at his feet, wires spilling impotently from its side like guts.
And then it begins.
A fisherman brings home a selkie wife, but he already has a wife. There is a furious whispered argument behind a half-closed door as the selkie, naked and doe-eyed in the living room, picks up the wife’s Hummel figurines one by one, setting each back down in just slightly the wrong place. The husband says, I couldn’t just leave her there and the wife says, Yes, you could, that is exactly what you could have done. He stands there and stares at her with the great oily pelt stinking in his arms and says, When did you become so selfish? It’s like I don’t know you anymore. And the wife, staring shocked at her hands, wonders, Selfish? Is this what this is? She thinks, Is that unworthy of love?
The wife tries to be a good sport. She smiles at the selkie wife, her cheeks straining at the edges. She makes sure to serve her first at meals, to be solicitous (but not too solicitous, don’t want to seem passive-aggressive) in offering second helpings. She says nothing when the husband—graciously—allows the selkie wife to choose the movie they all watch together after dinner, and they all sit on the couch together, the husband in the middle, the wife smiling furiously through Maid in New York.
The wife makes the mistake of asking a little desperately, while brushing her teeth, if he doesn’t think the selkie wife is pretty? The husband sighs, says, Don’t be like that.
The selkie wife chooses the movie every night. She doesn’t work, pads through the house in cotton panties and a nightshirt, her breasts soft and loose beneath the fabric. The wife joins a yoga class, a spin class, goes on an elimination diet. One night during 27 Dresses the selkie wife goes upstairs and the husband, after a minute, heaves himself up from the couch with a little grunt and follows, and the wife sits rigidly through Katherine Heigl’s weepy reunion with the Correct Man and the dance number and the peppy theme music of the credits.
Just leave him, her yoga friend Karen urges. Karen is single and in her 40s, has recently dyed her hair red. She tells the wife she is having the best sex of her life. You don’t want him. Let her have him. And the wife nods and nods, but inside, she thinks, I do want him, or, not him exactly, not as he is now. She wants the man she married, yes, and wants the safety and security of not being turned out into the cold sea of the dating world in her approaching middle age. But more than this, she wants to be enough. She wants to be allowed to get a little fat and to not wear makeup and occasionally express feelings like anger and disappointment without worrying that she will cease to be loved.
She goes upstairs after dinner that night, while giggles and grunts whisper down the hallway from the selkie’s bedroom. She goes to the back of the closet, unlocks the old trunk. Then she slips the sealskin coat over her shoulders and vanishes into the night.
We begin to wonder—are there some stories that can’t be fixed?
The fisherman brings home a selkie wife. He is approaching 40, recently divorced. The fisherman has two children, who love, after some adjustment, their new mother very dearly. The little boy comes around easily: after just two weeks he has taken to falling asleep on the selkie wife’s lap each night, calling her Sea-Ma.
The daughter, a young teenager, quietly watches her new stepmother in a blushing kind of awe. The selkie wife is something from the other side of adulthood, something from the magazines (Seventeen, Cosmo) that the girl sneaks from the library. Her wide set, strange eyes, the thick mane of her hair. The way everyone’s attention shifts to her, delighted, when she enters the room. The daughter has begun to sense the first glimmers of this in her own life: what it is to be the youngest and loveliest thing in the room. The terrible power of prettiness, the effect she has on boys her own age, the gazes of adult men. In the mirror, the daughter practices tilting her chin the way the selkie wife does, tossing her hair. She dreams of the day her prince charming will find her, lay claim to her, and whisk her into ever after. She wonders if her stepmother will take her coat shopping later.
We begin to wonder if some don’t want to.
The fisherman brings home a selkie wife. He is 65, divorced from his wife for decades. His adult daughter comes home to visit him, concerned when she begins getting text message selfies of her father and his new young wife, particularly because her father, as she knew him, does not know how to use a smart phone.
“Mom, she’s awful,” she whispers into the kitchen phone as in the living room, the selkie wife laughs delightedly over The Kardashians, polishes her nails gold. Her father looks on blankly, half-smiling, nursing a beer. “No, she’s—Dad said 24. He thinks.” She listens, then says, “Nothing. All she does is flounce around the house, looking in mirrors with mock surprise and saying, ‘Oh, am I lovely? Oh, am I lovely?’ all day long.” She sighs into the door frame. “Yes, that’s basically a conversation she and I had. No, not verbatim, but—can we please just get power of attorney over Dad?”
On the phone, her mother sounds tired, distracted. She has a fundraising dinner to get to. The daughter grits her teeth. How is her mother not more upset? This is the house the daughter grew up in: the house where her mother was once young and idealistic and happy, building a life with the man she thought would be her husband the rest of her life. These are the curtains she once picked out, dreaming—of what? Not the same dreams as the selkie wife, certainly. Just that day, the selkie wife had turned and said, “I was thinking of bringing in some of those Japanese paper blinds. They’d really lighten up the space, do you think?” And stood, the daughter thinks, waiting for somebody to be impressed that she knows a thing about interior design. As if anyone asked her to come in and lighten the daughter’s entire childhood.
“I don’t get why you hate her so much,” her brother says on the phone. He’s out in LA, trying to make it as a screenwriter. He picked up his phone after the fifth ring, taking several minutes to understand that she wasn’t somebody else. The daughter thinks he is probably on drugs: that he is probably high on cocaine or ecstasy or whatever LA people do, right at this moment. “Is it a gold-digging thing? Do you think she’s after his money?”
“Of course she’s after his money,” the daughter whispers into the phone. “Why else would she be here?”
She turns around and finds the selkie wife standing behind her in the kitchen, regarding her with wide, cool eyes. The daughter flinches, cups the phone to her chest. As if to hide it. But the selkie wife’s gaze sweeps past her, and she glides gracefully to the fridge, pulls out a bottle of fresh pomegranate juice.
The daughter watches her. She cannot bring herself to ask, How did you and my father meet? Or even, Are you actually happy here? She feels the full weight of her 36 years beside this creature: feels the softness of her chin, the inevitable droop beginning in her breasts. There is nothing about this girl-child that I want to know, she thinks. Not why she smells so heavily, beneath her BCBGirl perfume, of wet dog. What lost thing has her pausing, running her delicate fingers through every corner of the daughter’s once unshakeable home.
Or: perhaps they don’t know how to.
There is one selkie wife who doesn’t wait for the fisherman. She climbs from the water with her coat bundled and dripping in her arms, marches into his house, and stuffs the skin into an old oak trunk. She has no sympathy for the other selkie wives, with their whining and complaining, their restless search for their husbands’ keys. She starts a blog called SELKIE NOT HARPY, a Twitter account. She goes on talk shows and denounces these shrill, ugly women with their weeping and their scheming, their total disregard for family values. “They should be grateful,” she says. “Nobody else would want to marry them.” And when the talk show host, taken aback, says, “Grateful for being abducted?” the wife says, “You know what abduction is? Let me tell you about abduction. The only thing that’s being abducted here is our common sense, listening to these fat harpies complaining about their perfectly good lives. When there are children starving in Africa, let me tell you—and whole families, right here in our own borders, who can’t keep food on the table. That’s abduction.”
The sound bite goes viral. The selkie wife becomes a media darling. She goes on tour, sells posters and faux sealskin shoes with the motto: THESE BOOTS ARE MADE FOR WALKING NOT WHINING. All over the island, selkie wives watch her on their televisions and laptops and phones, leaning into the lonely blue light that plays, slowly, across their faces and living room sofas. Their Pomeranians and Shih Tzus and toy labradoodles drowse at their feet, their children sleeping in the next rooms. Some of them nod, thoughtfully. Some wonder if she, like they, wake in the night gasping with a thirst that no amount of water seems to quench.
Or: perhaps they have no choice.
The selkie sits alone in her underwater grotto.
She is not sure where her sisters are. She can see, above, the shadowy form of her future lovers pacing the shore. And others, too: the vague hordes of them, the fishermen yearning. The boys and men, the neighbors and hiring managers and strangers on trains. The ones who will covet her second skin, or detest it, or tell her what it means, or where it belongs. For years she has told herself, if I wait just a little bit longer, maybe things will be better by then. She has swum around the island in vain, looking for an empty stretch of shore where she can step out into the clear and yet unscripted air.
But the urge is getting stronger now, to go walking without her skin. There is a light burning in the selkie’s dog-brown eyes, an itching that zigzags hot and white and feral where the sinews knit to bone. Hope, she thinks it is on some days, or rage, or terror. How closely they seethe together within the fragile human form.
The selkie takes one last look at herself, strong and fierce and sleek, and thinks, you could run, girl. You could run, run, run, and never look back. But she has to go outside sometime.
She takes a breath. Then she sheds her skin, and rises.