The sea was all he had and if he couldn’t escape it, he’d die.
Callan hated the sea, and the life it forced on him. He hated the house which crouched by the shingle, caught between rock and water. It was no pearl, of smooth layers built by that friction, only damp and dank as a cave. He hated the land behind it – all brackish pools and stunted grass, and far in the distance a line of trees which taunted him.
Most of all, he hated the roar of Valas Rock. It voiced its pain across half a mile of cold sea, as the waves broke on it, and the seals cried, and the gulls screamed, wheeling overhead.
Callan woke each night, choking on salt spray. He lay in the dark, thinking about the death at his side and listening to the rock’s cry and the tide of his brothers’ sleep-drenched breaths. He didn’t fit there. His family fished, until the sea took them. She gave up her quicksilver harvest, but netted their lives in return. He wouldn’t pay the tithe, as his grandfather had done, and his uncle. He wouldn’t go out in the boats.
“What do we do with him?” his mother asked.
“He’s no use to anyone,” said his father. “Like one shoe, when the other’s lost.”
Her answer had been tears. Did she think, as Callan did, of the other shoe? Mhara, who had slipped from the womb at his heels, gasped for air, and died.
His sister, Mhara, who waited beside him in the dark.
He wandered among the sedge, moving closer to the dark trees, willing them to make sense. Each day he resolved to walk to the trees and keep on walking. Each night found him on the shingle, staring at the sea. What would happen if he left? Would Mhara remain? Would he always be alone?
On the last night of his sixteenth year, the sea lay quiet, like a whipped dog. A mist rose, moaned, and swelled with a sound both soft and unbearably sweet. Did it call wilful girls to swim to Valas Rock and take on fur – which they later shed so they might dance in the moonlight for the Sea Queens?
At Callan’s shoulder the air sighed. Did they call to his sister’s ghost? Had Mhara kept him by the sea, so she might hear the song and leave him? Was it Mhara who urged him to the boats, and Mhara who sped them across the black water, so he wouldn’t think on what he did?
Valas Rock basked silent in the moonlight. He clambered over its broad back, to crouch by its crescent of sand. A cold touch caressed his shoulder, then nothing stood behind him.
Alone, he shivered.
The seal girls danced at the edge of the water. They were luminous and beautiful, with unbound hair and lithe naked bodies, sinuous as kelp. Their fur skins lay on the sand, discarded where the girls had stepped from them. Callan inched towards the nearest pelt. It was softer than anything he’d held, and warm to his touch.
He tucked it inside his shirt, feeling the delicious weight of it above his belt. The fur caressed his bare skin. It was fair exchange, wasn’t it? He gave his sister’s ghost, and in return he’d take a seal girl. Then he wouldn’t be alone. He’d go away from the hated sea, past the dark trees, and take the girl with him. Callan studied each of them, willing the dance to end so he might discover whose fur he held.
The Sea Queens breached, water streaming over their majestic forms. Rona raised her arms to welcome them from the deep. They rolled and leapt. Flukes slapped the surf and barnacled tails flashed in the moonlight. Their whistling song praised the dance, and called the selkies to slip into their skins and join them in the water.
Rona ran towards her fur, but it was gone. She turned and turned again, frantic. The others splashed and leapt – back to the inky depths without her.
A young man stood, from the shadow of the rocks, and held out his arms. Rona’s gaze travelled from his smug grin to the lump in his shirt. She whirled to the sea, and a cry tore from her. His arms came around her, and he clamped a hand across her mouth.
“You’re mine now, my beauty,” he whispered against her ear.
But the sea was everything, and without it she’d die.
* Ah, selkies! I love them so. I wrote this piece for the recent Gamma.Con micro science fiction story competition. It had to be under 800 words and sci-fi or fantasy. I didn’t make the shortlist of ten (you can read them here), but I was happy with my tale – even if my heart hurts for poor Rona.