By Angela Teagardner
They met at low tide, when the beach was deep, and rock pools teemed with crabs and blennies. She saw him watching her as she picked her way down the misty coast, a pail in one hand and rubber boots on her feet. The seals watched, their eyes shining in smooth, damp faces. They weren’t uncommon on that pebbled coastline, but the intensity of their curiosity was new. The largest seal sat perched on a rock above the others and followed her with his dark eyes. She kept clear of his pod and scooped shellfish into her bucket while the wind tossed her ginger hair.
She was a half-mile up the shore when his silvery head broke the surface of the water nearby. She pretended not to see and went about her work. He splashed ahead and disappeared behind a rocky outcrop.
He’d never shed his skin—never even wanted to, he told her later—before that fog-drenched morning. Something about her called to him, he said, and he stepped out from behind the boulders on trembling, human legs. She, having cut her teeth on stories of selkies and water horses, could see only the wonder in it, and none of the caution.
She wept over his wedding gift to her, which was his own precious sealskin, cut to ribbons. Her tears soaked into the soft strips, but he tipped her chin up and looked long into her eyes. “I don’t need the sea. Not if I have you.”
And because she loved him, she ignored the stitch of sorrow that tightened inside her. “You have me,” she vowed.
He promised her a normal life, never once asking her what she preferred. She watched him build a churrach, and watched him row out to catch fish in nets. Each morning she kissed him goodbye, and each evening when he returned, he’d lost some unmeasurable fraction of wildness. Bit by bit, he became more complicated, more human.
She thought often of that bright-eyed seal and wondered what it must be like to ride the currents and dive deep beneath the waves. She watched him sail away each morning and wondered why he chose to come back, day after day.
“Do you miss it?” she asked whenever his eyes strayed out over the water.
“Not while I have you,” he always answered, although sometimes his gaze lingered on the horizon, and sometimes his breath was sharp with whiskey.
They were happy until they were not. Two long years passed before she thought to sew the strips of sealskin. On the nights he came home raging, stitching was her only comfort. She waited until he slept, taking the strips from their hiding place in the cupboard and carefully piecing them back together. The soft fur smelled like the sea and filled her tiny house with wide horizons and crashing waves. It reminded her of who he’d once been and of all the dreams she’d pinned on him. But he’d shed that life long ago, and all she had left was the hope she stitched into his discarded skin. On the nights he didn’t come home, the weight of it on her lap let her feel less alone.
Over months of stolen moments, sewing became her final, desperate hope.
It rained on the night she sewed the last stitch, tied the final knot, and bit the thread free. She held up her work and studied it by lantern light. The skin was strange and puckered but intact. She was proud of the stitching—weary of it too—and glanced at her husband who lay senseless on the sofa in the aftermath of yet another drink-fueled tantrum.
Wearing only her rubber crabbing boots, she stepped out into the rain and down the rocky path to the sea. Foamy water swirled around her ankles, sucking out and then rolling in again. She glanced back at her small house, her small life, and then gazed toward the vast, darkening horizon.
The sealskin was waterproof, warm, and dry, and she draped it around her shoulders. The tide neared its zenith. The rocks were slick beneath her feet, and yet she hurried. She splashed into the tumbling waves, at long last, free.