The Selkie in the Snow
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The night I first saw the selkie woman is a memory that’s been engraved in me since I was a child. I had been walking along the beach of black sand feeling the tide’s piercing water grip at my feet as it pushed and pulled onto the shore. I watched as the tide’s foamy edges clung to me and dissipated urging me to come with it with ever low tide. The roar of the waves muffled the commotion from my village behind me with each rocky step I took, and I felt more and more at home the farther I walked into this icy wasteland.
As I climbed over and under the black jagged boulders that scattered the beach, I heard the faint laughter of women being carried along the salty breeze. Careful not to make a sound, I walked closer to the laughter only to peer over a boulder’s course edge and see dark figures resting within the sand. Confused, I saw no women but little seals huddled together making their way into the sea. Their black and white speckled bodies glimmered in the moonlight as the foamy tide washed over their backs and flippers.
I watched in amazement as the seals effortlessly dove into the chaotic waves, gliding like shooting stars in the sky. It was then that I saw her. Her body floated along the beach glowing like the moon, as she made her way to the boulder I hid behind. At its base, the woman revealed a blanket of seal skin that she had concealed and held the limp flesh against her naked body. I watched as she stepped into the skin and her human form was no more. Just as the others had done before her, she slipped into the high tide and let it carry her into the sea.
That night, I ran home to my mother and told her of the seal woman I saw. A selkie, she called it, a creature of the sea that was half seal and half woman. As my mother tucked me into bed that night, she told me the folklore of the selkie women, the legend of the Kópakonan. They could come ashore only once every seven years. The women would shed their seal skin revealing their human bodies for dancing and merriment in the human world before returning to the sea.
As my mother spoke of the folklore, I imagined the world of these seal women forever engulfed by the black waves that called to me. I could smell the salty air and hear the heavy waves crashing all over again. I wondered what it would feel like to have the icy waves glide against my back as I swam alongside them. I wondered where the sea would take me when I finally surrendered to it.
“Hulda, why do you fill her head with such things?” my father had asked as he knelt by the crackling fire, “These are only fables, Thora.”
I looked back into my mother’s eyes. Was it true? Was it just a fable? Or would I one day see the seal woman again who had skin like the moon? My mother then kissed my forehead and told me to rest. Little did I know that this meeting between the seal woman and me was fated. Our destinies would be entwined forever.
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The second time I saw the selkie woman was the night I lost my mother to Hel, goddess of the underworld. The snow was blowing hard against my face as I followed the warm glow emanating from my father’s lantern. His footprints in the soft white powder were my guide as we walked closer to the frozen lake.
My mother remained back home in the village growing weaker from an illness even the seer, our village healer, could not explain. My father had told me that night, we must get her strength up and took me alongside him with fishing lines and speers.
As we made our way to the lake’s edge, my father cautioned me back. He pressed his large boot against the blue frozen surface and listened for the creaks. My eyes followed the white lines that veined across the blue lake as the wind roared into me. They twisted and turned all around like the aurora borealis above us. My father had said this was a sign from the gods that my mother would be ok. Our food would be blessed and in turn, her illness cured. I watched as my father dusted off the blanket of snow, its powdered sleet fluttering into my boots as it was carried on the wind, before he speered the icy surface.
“Do as I do, Thora!” he shouted over the wind.
I watched as he readied his fishing line into the hole his speer had made. Grabbing the lantern, I took slow and steady steps across the lake listening for the creaks as my father had. Once I had found a promising spot, I knelt down and brushed away the snow covering. My face, pale and pink, reflected on the ice while my blonde hair blew across my eyes. As I pulled my hair away from my vision, two dark eyes were reflecting back at me beneath the lake.
Startled, I shrieked and fell backward on my hands making the ice crunch beneath me. In the distance, I could hear the faintest call of my name being shouted. I turned to see my father waving at me, though his words were lost on the harsh wind. I held a hand up to him to reassure him I was ok and looked back at the dark surface in front of me. Under my frantic breath, I prayed to the goddess Freya for strength as I reached for the lantern, its flame doing a chaotic dance as though the wind was threatening to silence it.
I held its faint glow above the frozen lake, dusting away any new snow that tried to cover it. As I looked closer, I saw the dark eyes again, gentle and friendly this time. As they came closer to the lake's surface, a black nose and wiry whiskers came into focus. I smiled down at the little seal and pressed my glove to the lake. Yet its black and white speckled body began to sink beneath the dark water where my lantern could no longer reach it.
I took my gloves off and began to dust away more of the snowy surface in hopes of finding the little seal once more. As I squinted into the dark water searching for movement, I found nothing. I rested my weight on my hands and hung my head low watching my foggy breath escape me. I had to accept defeat. Then suddenly, a thud hit the ice just beneath me. My eyes flickered over to my palm and just beneath the lake’s frozen surface, I saw my hand being reflected on the other side.
I reached for my lantern and let the glow reveal a woman swimming beneath me. I followed the glow of my lantern from the woman’s pale face to her breasts to her hips where the bunched-up seal skin rested, her human legs still concealed by her flippers. Her pale skin glowed like the night I had first seen her and her dark hair danced in the water like seaweed. I gazed into her eyes, now ghostly, and saw my reflection within them. I dreamt up the underwater world her eyes must have witnessed and wished to join her in the dark icy water.
I faded from her vision as my lantern’s flame blew out, and suddenly, a speer was spiking the ice between us. My eyes grew wide as I looked up to see my father. His large frame towered above me as he came down hard again with his speer, the ice giving way to its pressure. I watched as the selkie beneath the ice flinched away from the surface clutching her hand to her chest while little trails of red rippled into the dark water.
“Hurry, Thora, before the fish gets away!” he shouted motioning to the fishing line.
Frozen in place like a glacier, I remained unmoving staring up at my father, his nose now chilled red and his beard powdered with snow. As he mumbled curses under his breath, panic grew inside me as I worried for the selkie’s safety. I wanted to jump in after her, feeling the piercing cold water surround me. My father warned that this was a bad omen from the gods and rushed us back home to the village. It was then that the gods decided to take my mother from us and she left this world that night.
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It was in my fifteenth year that my destiny with the selkie woman became clear. My father had come to me one day as I sat on a jagged rock watching the tide push and pull its way onto the beach’s black sand. As I flicked the water up with my feet feeling the cold water nib at my toes, my father took a seat beside me. He looked at me with worry in his eyes, a look I had seen ever since my mother had left us. I knew whatever he was about to say would not be in my favor.
“My dearest Thora, there is something we must talk about,” he swallowed hard.
I studied his face closely with a quizzical brow.
“Magni Finehair has asked for your hand in marriage.”
My stomach churned and felt as chaotic as the tides in front of me.
“My child you are of marrying age now. The man is to become Earl of the village!” he pleaded, “He will give you a good life.”
I felt my father’s urge to persuade me though it swayed me no further. If only my mother were here to hear these words escape my father now. She would rise from the underworld just to make certain this arrangement would never happen. The man was a brute and much older than I. The thought of marriage to him had me praying to Odin to drown me at sea right then and there.
“The celebration will take place tomorrow night on the day of your fifteenth year.”
He looked at me and sighed holding my face in his calloused hands.
“My child, it is written by the gods. It is destiny.”
My eyes remained on the waves and I felt a warm tear trickle down my cheek as my father cradled my head to his chest. The warm stream trailed over my lips and the salty taste felt like the ocean was trying to comfort me with a kiss. This was not my destiny.
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On the night of the celebrations, I can remember looking at my reflection in my mother’s old mirror, its wood-carved frame made from her very own hands. I looked at my pale face, my eyes now covered in kohl and my long hair adorned with flowers and the crown of a countess. I was the epitome of a beautiful bride-to-be. I tried to revel in this moment. This moment that would be my last time as a human.
As I was led through the dining hall by two women in the village, the commotion of singing and dancing all around me was disorienting. The dining hall glowed from the warmth of the fire and sang loudly with the voices of the men and women of my village. Children ran around as people ate, laughed, and cheered upon my entrance. The music pulsated to the rhythm of my nervous heart.
As we walked closer to the throne chairs, I felt my legs growing slower with every step as if I was walking along the seafloor. When the crowd began to part, Magni Finehair came into my view. His fiery red beard cradled crumbs in it and his bare gut bounced with every loud laugh he made. His hands were stained with blood and dirt that ran up his arms into the dark markings that cascaded over his chest. The crown of the Earl rested on his head and red hair trailed out from beneath it.
When I came into his view, he immediately grabbed my face and kissed it in a harsh embrace, his wiry bristles scratching into me. The dining hall erupted in cheer as Magni took my hand in his and raised it to the villagers. As we took our seats on the thrones, I waited for nightfall to draw closer, for my freedom to draw closer. When the time was right, I slipped out of the dining hall and ran to the beach where I had first seen the selkie woman.
I raced through the harsh wind that fought against me, my white dresses blowing frantically in the wind with my hair leaving flowers behind me. Nothing would stop me this night. With every sinking step into the black sand, I prayed she would be there all these seven years later. I hoped the roaring sound of the celebrations would lure the selkie from their water wonderland and onto the shore once more.
I braced for impact as I came to a halt at the very boulder I had climbed onto all those years ago. I caught my breath and peered out from behind the rock, though I only saw the black beach and the crashing waves. My eyes searched the sands looking for those plump little seals wiggling their way ashore but only more waves remained. I walked around the boulder and slumped down in the sand, feeling its icy grit in my palms, as my heart sank low. My only hope was now lost.
“It’s you,” a voice whispered.
I looked up and there she was hiding behind the boulder looking at me as I had done to her as a child. She walked in front of me dragging her seal skin behind her. As I glanced at the seal skin she clenched, I noticed a red fleshy scar on the back of her hand. Suddenly, the memory of my father’s spear piercing through the ice came flashing back to me.
Her skin was even more enticing to behold so close up. I watched as little glints of moonlight twinkled throughout her dampened figure with every move she made just as they had on the back of her slick sealskin. The selkie crouched down to me and pulled a remaining flower from my hair and put it behind her ear never taking her eyes off me.
“Why do you wear this crown on your head?” she asked.
I watched as she looked mesmerized at my crown the same way I was looking mesmerized at her.
“I am a countess,” I replied.
“What is a countess?” she asked as she ran her opalescent fingertips over gems that rested within the ornate metal headpiece. This was my moment. This is when I would rewrite the stars and change the fate the gods had written for me. I thought back to my mother’s story of the selkie women those seven years ago and I knew what needed to be done.
“I am royalty. A ruler over my whole village!”
I stood up and brushed the sand off my white dress now standing tall with pride.
“I’ve just come from the most wonderful celebration in honor of my crowning.”
I glanced at her as she lit up at my words.
“Oh, yes! I’ve been singing and dancing all night with my wonderful husband. The gods shall hear of our merriment all the way in Valhalla!” I giggled.
The selkie woman dropped her sealskin beside her and grabbed my hand in hers.
“Where is this celebration?”
“Oh, not too far from here. You can follow the flower petals on the sand all the way back to my village. Can’t you hear the music?”
Her ears perked up as she searched around for the sound.
“I would just love to come, but I haven’t any clothes,” she said as she glanced down at her naked body.
“You’re right. You would surely cause a commotion in the great dining hall. The celebrations would only be halted at your ghastly presence.”
Her brows fell together.
“I guess you better be on your way back to the sea then. I’ve caught my breath now, so I shall go back to the celebrations and rejoin my husband.”
As I began to walk away the selkie grabbed my wrist.
“Could I borrow your clothes?” she asked, “Just for a moment and I shall bring them right back to you.”
I felt a smirk tug on the corner of my lips.
“If you take my clothes, what should my village think of their new clothe-less countess?”
“I will only go for a moment, I promise you this! And then, I will bring you back your clothes and you can rejoin your husband.”
I crossed my arms and paced the beach pretending to ponder her offer.
“You promise to bring me back my clothes?”
“Oh, yes, yes! I will only be gone for a moment.”
I pursed my lips and nodded. The selkie smiled from ear to ear and radiated at my agreement. I undressed before her and watched as she put my clothes on one after the other. Lastly, I placed the crown of the countess atop her wet hair and smiled.
“There now, that should do it.”
I looked at us then, places now switched, and felt as though we had reflected each other once again as we had through the ice when our hands first met. The selkie giggled with excitement and I watched her on her way as she followed the petaled path I had left behind me. When she was finally out of sight, I picked up the sealskin and slipped it over my body.
As I made my way to the ocean’s tide, I looked back once more down the beach at the warm glow emanating from the dining hall. With a gentle caress, the tide washed beneath me and pulled me closer to it. I could finally give the sea the surrender I had always wanted to. The ice-cold water poured over my back as trails of seafoam guided me farther into the waves. As the dark sea washed over me, I felt myself finally coming back home.
This short story has been published by Honeycomb Literary.
Power in Numbers