Jameson saw the selkie three times.
The first time he was little more than a boy, fifteen and gangly with it, walking along the beach drunk on summer and the rum he’d lifted from his uncle’s cabinet. He was alone, for once. The evening’s party had gone well until suddenly it hadn’t, the conversation turning to the summer before, to the police who swarmed the beach and the translators who stayed for weeks in the only dinky motel in town, taking shifts talking at the ocean– asking for a body back, though the selkies never responded. One of the boys had joked that the selkies still had it, had kept it as a trophy. Jameson’s knuckles stung. He knew his friends would be looking for him, but they could wait.
The memories lay thick like fog over this beach, and he walked slowly so as not to disturb them; here was the spot that an unsympathetic cop had told him that no crime was committed, that the selkies were allowed to act in self-defense: that’s the deal the State Department made, son, they enact their own justice. A bit further along was the spot his uncle had grabbed him in a hug so hard it left marks afterward. And out there, in the waves just before the craggy rocks at the mouth of the bay– there was the last place anyone had seen his brother alive. He stopped to stare out there, thinking about what it must have felt like for his brother, to be dragged under those rocks and never come back up.
That was how he saw her, in the mist from the shore, silver-green skin against the waves. He blinked and nearly lost sight, but then he spotted her again, a few rocks further along, dipping underneath the water and back up again, changing shape as she did with a twist of her cloak. The selkies could swim as seals, but they liked the feel of the waves against their almost-human skin just as much. It was one of the few ways they were ever caught, these days.
He wondered if she was the one who his brother had seen. Maybe it was the rum, or the boredom, or the way the air hung low and humid over the night, but Jameson didn’t hesitate to strip his shirt and shoes. What was it about the selkie that had been worth his brother’s life? The rocky shore hurt his feet but he moved confidently across it, eyes fixed on the rocks just beyond the shore. The selkie dipped under the waves and up again.
The water was cool against his bare skin; the ocean smelled of brine and blood. Primordial flavors. Years of swimming in this bay lent confidence to his movement, though as he drew closer to the rocks he slowed, treading water gently. He scanned the waves for a movement against the current– there, past the last rock, a flicker of silver skin against the moonlight. So far, the selkie didn’t seem to have noticed him. He focused on minimizing the splashing of his strokes, cupping his hands sideways so they cut through the water smoothly. The waves bumped against him, trying to push him back to shore, but he resisted. He was so close.
Another flash of silver led him closer, and now if he dipped under the water and forced his stinging eyes open, he could see her smooth body against the waves, silvery skin. Her cloak was clasped at her throat, the traditional style. Easy enough to pull away.
Still she weaved in the current, sometimes diving down to circle low, sometimes swimming high enough that her hair swirled on the surface of the water. It felt almost invasive to watch this dance with the waves; it felt almost intimate. But he watched with a hunter’s eye, looking for the pattern. It was hard, for the selkie’s movements seemed random at first. Yet the more he watched, the more he saw it– the way she rose and fell as the ocean moved, not acting in line with the waves but in harmony with them.
Though he was almost close enough to touch her, she did not seem to have noticed him. He caught a glimpse of her face, and thought he understood why– layers of thick scar tissue webbed over her eyes and trailed down her cheeks. As she weaved through the water, she dipped close enough to touch, the signal he’d been waiting for.
He lunged, pushing forward with a powerful kick. For an awful second his fingers scrabbled at nothing but the smooth water, but then he pulled his grasp in and felt the shock of touching her skin, like a jolt of electricity, like a shark attack. She was slippery, and she twisted around in his grasp as he fumbled to reach the cloak, please, he just needed to grab the cloak, and he was reaching his hand up and feeling for the clasp, and she was almost slipping away, and finally his fingers found the metal, slippery against his hand. He yanked, hard, but the cloak did not come free. For the first time that evening, he felt a flicker of uncertainty.
The selkie turned slowly in his grasp to face him, her scarred face inches from his. She smiled at him, layers upon layers of sharpened teeth. Then she shoved him back against the rock and the world went black.
When Jameson awoke, the grit of the shore was caked into his hair and the morning sun was unfriendly against his skin. He arose and limped back to the cabin, each step a benediction as the rocks cut into his feet.
For three days he did not speak, and for three nights he lay awake, staring out at the sea. He had been given a reprieve, he knew, though he was not sure why.
Twelve long years passed before Jameson returned to the cabin by the ocean. His uncle had borne no children and never remarried after the death of his wife, so it was up to his nephews to sell his possessions when his body was discovered, four days after the heart attack that had cut short his life.
His brother Sam suggested they stay at the cabin, but Jameson flatly refused. Better the cheap, despondent motel than the weight of memories past. The first time he walked into the cabin, he stopped in the doorframe, unable to move, thinking about the last time he’d slept under that roof. Sam, following close behind, put a hand on his shoulder.
“I can’t stop thinking about him dying here, alone,” Sam said softly. Jameson nodded, but he felt a rush of guilt, too; he hadn’t been thinking about his uncle. A wave crashed against the rocks behind them, and he shivered, stepping firmly into the cabin. He’d just keep the curtains drawn, that was all, so he couldn’t see the ocean. It was worse right now, he told himself, with the last light of the day fading over the waves, so that the water seemed dim and vast against the night.
Sam disappeared into the other room, and Jameson stole one last glance out over the bay as he closed the curtains firmly. His breath stilled as he saw a glimpse of silver among the waves.
“Jameson?” Sam asked from the other room, startling him. Jameson forced himself to
“I just need some air,” he muttered, pacing toward the door.
He ignored Sam, shutting the door loudly behind him as a sign to not follow. Hopefully, he’d think that Jameson needed some space. He didn’t need much time, after all; the beach was only steps away.
As he drew closer to the water, though, he slowed, unsure of why he’d come. It was more dark than dusk now, the sun set an hour past, and he could barely even see the waves against the rocks. The moon, a slim crescent, offered little light. No, he could mostly just hear the waves, hear them and smell the salt of the bay.
Despite himself, he strained his eyes, searching for that flash of silver, hoping against hope that it had been some kind of trick of the window. The bay was relatively still; the waves lapped against the sand in even strokes, leaving a light line of foam along the shore. Nothing moved out in t.he water, and he breathed a sigh of relief. Still, he felt a flicker of disappointment that he had been wrong. He would have to apologize to Sam for disappearing like that.
He sensed rather than heard movement behind him and spun around, holding out a hand. Just beyond his reach, the selkie stood ankle-high in the tide, head tilted to the side. The scarring across her face and down her neck obscured her vision; she stared straight at him anyway. Jameson shivered. He wanted to look away, but he was transfixed.
“Why did you let me live?” Jameson forced out each word. The selkie tilted her head the other way, slowly, an alien gesture.
He’d expected her voice to be soft, seductive, like the myths, but when she spoke her voice was low and rough, brine against the rocks. “I was sorry to hear of Gabriel’s death.”
“He was kind, for a man. Men are not often kind.”
Jameson stared down at the ground, stubbornly focusing on the jagged shells as he blinked away a sudden rash of emotion. It was stupid of him, he told himself. It wasn’t like he’d seen Gabriel much over the last decade. Gabriel rarely left the cabin and Jameson never visited the ocean. But when Jameson was young, they came to the shore every summer. Hell, Gabriel’s cabin was the last place he saw his brother alive.
“Is there another reason you came here?” the selkie asked. Jameson frowned. Could the selkies read minds? He’d never heard that they could, but then, he’d avoided information about them as much as possible. Perhaps his thoughts were just written on his face.
“Brendan,” Jameson said, heat rising in the back of his throat, unbidden, an anger that had never really left.
“Brendan?” the selkie said, and that stung more than anything, that she did not even know his name.
“The selkies killed him,” he said, each word its own razor on the way out. “Thirteen years ago.”
“The brown-haired man?” the selkie said. “We did not know he was Gabriel’s kin. Not that it mattered. What he did was unforgivable.”
“Brendan was a good man.” This he knew, as surely as he knew the sun rose in the east and the grass was green. Elementary facts.
“Perhaps to you.” The selkie stepped closer and he froze. He could feel her cool breath, ocean breeze against his neck. She looked as if she was about to speak, but instead she brushed her hand across his cheek, and he recoiled from the sensation, wet but rough, like sand.
Then she was gone, running in three long leaps through the surf and jumping into the deeper water. He stood there, his cheek tingling. He stood there for a long time.
When he walked back up to the cabin, the night was starting to give way to the dawn. His legs ached like he had run a marathon, though he had not moved, not even when the tide came in and soaked his legs up to the knee. When he opened the door to the cabin, Sam was there, coiled tense in a chair, staring out at the sea. Of course.
“I’m sorry for running off like that,” Jameson said, hoarse. Sam did not respond. “Sam?”
Sam looked up, then, and Jameson saw what he hadn’t before, how the tension behind Sam’s shoulders wasn’t anxiety but roiling anger. Jameson took a step back from the intensity in his eyes.
“If you ever loved him you wouldn’t speak to that thing,” Sam said in a ragged breath. Jameson realized he had been crying with a shock. He hadn’t seen his brother cry in years.
“What?” he said.
“Our brother, or have you forgotten him entirely?” Sam hissed.
“What about Brendan?” Jameson asked, still confused. He seemed to be everywhere today. Even the dim light in the cabin reminded him of the way they sat up all night after the police knocked on their door, how his uncle slung a shoulder over each of them and squeezed them so tightly they still had bruises a week later at the funeral.
“A selkie? Really?” Sam said. “After those bastards drowned him and didn’t even leave us a body to bury, you’re really fucking around with some webbed-fingered bitch?”
It was such a ludicrous accusation that Jameson laughed, and immediately regretted it, because Sam’s face closed off. He didn’t even look angry any longer, only frighteningly calm.
“Sam,” Jameson started desperately, but Sam cut across his words.
“Sam, I wasn’t–”
Jameson held up his hands as a gesture of peace. “It’s not what you think.”
“You have no right to stand here.” Sam enunciated every word clearly, like a promise.
“I’ll– I’ll call in the morning,” Jameson said, backing out the door. Sam would understand when he calmed down. He had to. It wasn’t as if Jameson had been doing anything wrong. The selkie had come to him. He didn’t even know its name.
“Don’t,” Sam said. When Jameson was through the door Sam slammed it shut behind him.
Jameson called the next morning, and the morning after, and for a week after that, until Sam’s voicemail box was full. He never picked up.
The last time Jameson saw the selkie he was 72, and the doctors had just told him that the ache in his leg wasn’t arthritis after all. He smiled and nodded and thanked them and told them no, it was okay, he understood, he’d had a good life, and he drove home in the late-afternoon sun, alone. When he was home he thought he should call someone but there was no one to call, with his wife dead three years now. He could call Sam, he supposed, but he knew his brother wouldn’t answer. He sat there instead and watched dust motes in the light, imagining he could feel the cancer growing, multiplying, until there was more of it than there was of him.
So he locked up the house and drove down to the bay. It was a long drive, 10 hours, and when he pulled off the highway he was surprised to find the exit paved. The cabin was long-since gone, replaced by a line of identical apartments that coiled around the cliffside. A bold red banner proclaimed Time-Shares, Affordable Prices, Get Away to the Bay! He parked in front of the front office, a cheery enough little building promising zero money down on a vacation rental today! There was a sign about reserved parking, but he ignored it. He wouldn’t be here long.
It was harder to walk down to the shore with his bad knee, but the development company had helpfully put a rope railing down the cliff path, and he picked up a piece of driftwood too as a walking staff. He gripped it tightly, his feet skidding on the loose rocks. When he reached the bottom and saw scattered umbrellas and lawn chairs across the beach, he felt his heart sink. Surely the selkie wouldn’t have stayed in a place that was so developed.
He bent over with difficulty, leaning against a rock, and stripped off his sensible shoes and wool socks. He rolled his trousers up too and then waded into the water. It was cool and still. He counted to three hundred, staring at the sand between his wrinkled toes, and then turned to look along the surf.
She was exactly as he remembered, all smooth grey skin and long wet hair. It shimmered, even in the dim light of the early dawn; at midday it would be blinding. She turned her head, slowly. The scars on her face were raised, so that her silhouette was uneven. It was the only part of her that was not smooth. He leaned on his stick.
“You haven’t changed,” he said.
He couldn’t deny that, not with the ache in his bones and the way his back never quite let him forget it was there, these days, the coil of tension a reminder of each and every year. His hair had been thinning for twenty years, so there wasn’t much of it left, but he ran a hand through the grey anyway.
“Why are you here?” he asked, though he winced even as he said it. Of course she was here; it was he who kept coming back to this beach, to this bay, where she made a home.
The selkie tilted her head to the side. She did not answer for so long that Jameson thought she was going to ignore his question, and then: “We don’t age in the water, you know.”
Jameson didn’t bother to answer that; she was as young as the day he had met her, a lifetime ago. This was not a surprise. Even he, who’d avoided information about the selkies like a religious man avoided his mistress at church, had known that.
“Over a thousand years,” she said softly. “The oceans of my youth were clear and beautiful, the water warm and clean.”
Jameson looked out over the bay, at the waves crashing over the rocks. Then he glanced down at the beach, at the shattered glass of generations of college parties and, disingenuously, a child’s shoe. Detritus of summers past.
“The oceans change,” the selkie said, “and all I can do is watch and remember.” She faced him, and there was something pleading in her voice. “I don’t want to remember, but I have no choice.”
“I don’t know how to help you,” Jameson said.
The selkie hesitated. When she spoke, she seemed to be choosing each word carefully. “The fishermen,” she said. “My sisters came back from their homes hardened and cruel, their skin rough, their bodies aged and weary.”
“I’m sorry,” he said, thinking of his own youth, how close he’d been to stealing her cloak.
“We’re creatures of the ocean, you know. It doesn’t take much time on the shore to kill us.”
She let that hang in the air between them for a minute. Jameson shook his head. There was no way she could be asking for that.
“You can’t possibly want me to do that to you. You can’t– I don’t want that.” Yet even as he said it he knew it was a lie, because there was some part of him that whispered you wouldn’t die alone. He strove to keep the thought off his face; he felt guilty for even entertaining it.
She chuckled. “No. My sisters couldn’t leave the fishermen because they needed their cloaks to return to the sea,” the selkie said. “I don’t intend to come back.”
“Then why not just leave?”
The selkie faced the waves. She was hard to read, but Jameson thought there was something almost wistful in her expression. “The ocean is crueler than the ocean of my youth, but she whispers to me. You have no idea how hard it would be to walk away.”
Jameson looked away. It felt intimate to watch her listen to the sea. “I don’t,” he admitted. He thought this was something he might never understand, something he wasn’t built to know.
She traced small tracks through the sand with her foot. “I won’t have much time, maybe thirty years. But that’s a lot of time for your kind, isn’t it?”
“What would– what would you even do on shore?”
The selkie smiled, not kindly. “Make them pay.”
Jameson hesitated, and her smile twisted into a grimace. She leaned forward, and he instinctively took a step back.
“Set me free,” she murmured. “Consider it one last kindness.”
“I’m not my uncle,” he said, thinking of Sam, how he wouldn’t look him in the eye for years, how he didn’t even acknowledge Jameson at their uncle’s funeral, how he thought he’d have all the time in the world to apologize until suddenly it seemed he had no time at all. Trying to catch the selkie wasn’t the last mistake he’d made, or the worst.
“You’re not,” the selkie agreed. “I know who you are.”
She stepped closer to him, tilted her head up to his, like a lover. She smelled of the sea and a slight tinge of blood, or maybe that was him tasting the hammering of his heart on his tongue. The selkie could not see but he could and she was so close to him that he closed his eyes reflexively, could not bear the sight of her. Over the ocean, the sun was rising.
Jameson reached for her cloak.
Amanda Bertsch is a graduate student at Carnegie Mellon University’s Language Technologies Institute, researching machine learning for text generation. She is an University of Arizona alumna. Outside of work, she reads and writes speculative fiction, gardens, and hikes as much as possible.