The Selkie's Song by Timandra Whitecastle
“I know what you want,” I hear my husband tell the three magpies standing in front of our door, the hags all dressed in black. “But my wife has no voice. She’s mute. She cannot talk to you. Please, leave us now, kindly ones, and never come back.”
As they leave—walking down the lane with its trim gardens and white-washed fences, utterly out of place—they see me in our garden, and I raise a hand in greeting. The youngest of them gives me a wink, and they pass me wordlessly by while I rein in the morning glory.
He buried my skin on the grassy plains, far from my home, and since then I have no voice.
But if I had, I would sing of the waves, the tempestuous storms of my mother, the ocean, as she pulls down ship after ship into her ruinous depths. I would sing of my sea-change, and the pain of my legs as they followed him upon the shore. I would sing of being compelled. I would sing of how every blade of the green, green grass cuts into the soles of my feet.
I dig into the rich earth around the morning glory and he comes over to ask me what I’m doing.
The morning glory has spread her roots. She is taking over his garden. I hem her in wherever I can. But I cannot tell him this.
Oh, if I had a voice, how I would sing!
Gardening, my husband tells me, will do me good. Root me to this place. His place. The place where I raise his children.
Always his children.
His mother comes and crows about their eyes, dark like their father’s! Their talents, so like her own!
The words a subtle reminder that my husband has given me everything. I lack nothing but nothing is my own. Not this house. Not this garden. Not the pond he has dug for me to swim in.
Not my voice. Not my legs. Not even my skin.
He buried it deep, I don’t know where.
The women in his village, they gathered around the pond when it was new and crow, oh, he’s so nice! Look at all the things he has done for you. The house, the children, the pond. Isn’t it nice? He loves you very much. You’re so lucky.
They talk loud, as though I were deaf. But I am not deaf. I simply have no voice to use on land, and so I only smile wearily and nod as though what they say were true.
They laugh shrilly. He’s quite the catch, they say.
I was quite the catch, I think. And wonder where my skin is buried.
But all they perceive is the stillness, the ocean in my eyes, and the cane I must use to hobble about the little garden in pain.
For five days he dug out the pond, he and his brothers. And when it was done, the water within was brown like the soil, muddy, trapped, and dead, even as it yet churned while the children, his children, splashed in it, whooping with joy.
I want to know: where did he put the shovel?
My husband is a meticulous man. He takes care of his tools, the bucksaw and shingling hammers and pitchforks and hoes and pruning shears—all hanging on display on the wall at the back of the shed, from nails pounded in. As though they could escape.
He likes his things to be just so.
Too much salt, he chastises my cooking. Too much love, he criticizes my parenting. Too long in the pond, he wrinkles his nose at my puckered, soft skin as I make my rounds in the tiny body of water. Round and around and around. That is enough, he says. Come out now.
He always, always knows what is good for me. For us. And he tells me so. He’s only trying to protect me from myself. From the dangers of the sea. The lure of it.
I feel it in my bones. If I were to walk in the direction of the sunrise, I’d come upon it eventually. But my home is far, far away, and every step is hobbling. I know.
I have tried to go back.And besides, he reminds me as he takes me back to his house in the village, if you return, you would drown without your other skin. You would turn into seafoam. You would die, and then where would his children be?
He’s doing me a favor, actually.
He’s keeping me safe.
He gives me the garden, his whole garden, to do with it as I wish, and he asks nothing in exchange. Except that I do not attempt to talk to those three magpies who lurch down the lane ever again.
I met them in a forest grove on my first attempt to reach the ocean. Can a creature of the air be friends with a creature of the sea, he asks me. Think on this.
Friends? I do not know. But they can speak with me, in my tongue, and when the eldest of the kindly ones touches my throat, I can whisper her tales of another life.
My husband does not like this.
They’re hags, he says, voice raised. He’s scared, his eyes are wild. Witches. They’re chaos, neither here nor there, and they live in the inbetween places. We do not talk to their kind.
I have come to know this word.
We can do the dishes later, he says. And I do the dishes.
We need to pulls weeds in the cabbage rows, he says. And I pull the weeds.
We need to make love more often, he whispers. And I bleed into the sheets at night.
We do not talk to their kind.
This means I must not talk to them.
I dig my fingers into the dark soil beneath the morning glory, trying to grow roots. I too am neither here nor there.
But I wonder—all the tidy tools in the back of his shed. Where did he put that shovel?
The women of the village they move in groups, like shoals of fish, dancing around me in wide circles, drawing me in, then pulling away.
She does not belong here, they bray at my husband, leaning over the white-washed fence, as though I could not hear them. We talk to her, she does not answer. We tend our gardens, and she lets yours grow wild. She is forever swimming in that pond and your children go with her, the webbing between their fingers growing day by day. It is not right.
Yes, he nods sadly. I know. But be patient with her, please. Her mother is an unruly one, full of brim and fury. Untamed, she is, and wild, but look at my wife. She is gentle and kind, so unlike her mother. She loves my children, she does her best to make my life good, but she suffers much pain and remains isolated because of her being mute. Have pity on her.
He strolls over, when they disperse.
Did you hear me just now, he asks. Did I not speak well?
I say nothing.
I have no words of my own. My voice lies buried within my skin.
I love you very deeply, you know? he says and kisses me on the cheek. You make me so happy.
The shovel, I think, where is that godsdamn shovel?
The magpies have come, and the women of the village scatter before them. The three witches stand by the fence of my garden and the middle one leans over, beckons me to come nearer.
The women here, she says, they are cattle. They are sheep. They have forgotten they were once selkies like you. Their skins have been buried too long. And now they fear the sea. Do you?
I shake my head. I long for it.
Look at the morning glory, she says, one hand cradling the petals gently. You plant it, and it sends out its tendrils, probing, growing. Ambitious and unruly, its aim is to take over the garden, and yet you must cut it back, back, back because otherwise it wants to explore. Nature is wild. The ocean is wild. Why do witches live in swamps? In forests? At the edge of all things, neither here nor there? Because these places are dense with life. Remember who you are, she says. Remember where you came from, and send out probes, grow, and never be cut back.
She hands me a vial with a potion, and the eldest leans over to whisper instructions in my ear.
My heart races.
We do not talk to them, my husband reprimands me over dinner.
He pulls a face over his plate, and grumbles: too much salt.
That night I watch as he sleeps. His hard white skin like a shell, the crooked hands like pincers, the thumb and index fingers pinching together like crab claws. I watch him dream and thrash his short lobster-legs, and I wonder from whom he is escaping in the dreamscape of his mind. I smile as I watch his hardened flesh turn that perfect shade of lobster blue.
I watch the potion at work.
It’s not revenge, I tell myself. It’s not retribution for the wrongs he has done me. For I know that he did not do so with ill intent. He didn’t know better. All the men in this village have stolen our skins. This is the way it was always done.
I only cry because I know how hard his life will be from now on, alone, out of his element, and mute.
I know the despair at the sea-change, that awakening when you realize you have passed far beyond who you are, that feeling of being trapped in a cage only you can touch and see.
It is cruelty, I know.
Just like his hiding the shovel.
I rise from his bed and sneak upstairs into the attic. There, hidden behind chests of memories, between the drying herbs, I find the shovel propped against a painting of us when we were newly wed.
My youngest daughter told me where to find it when I said I needed it to uproot the morning glory.
The moon is full as I swim out into our pond, right into the middle, and dive down with the shovel in hand.
Here, I had always felt happiest. Pain-free. Here was where my selkie skin had been buried deep in his concession to my true nature, in his effort at containment.
I dig underwater, moving the mud, going up for air, then moving more, until the shovel hits the sea-chest. And there within, my selkie self lies.
When I return to the side of his bed, he has completed his transformation. A bright blue lobster sleeps entangled in the sheets, bathed in moonlight. I take him up in my arms, kissing his shell before fastening string tightly around his powerful claws.
I had decided it would be cruel to take him with us on our long journey to the ocean, on the cart I had loaded up with a few things and our sleeping children.
It is better this way, I think. Kinder to quickly end his suffering.
Outside, the witches fly in the wild sky, skimming across clouds, and bathing naked in the moonlight as they howl their eerie tunes.
And in the nightly kitchen, the pot is filled with water, pleasantly salted like sea-water. I bring it to a rolling boil, then drop my lobster husband into it with the gentlest splash.
We leave in the morning, and behind us, I let the morning glory reign supreme, tearing up the lawn, digging through the flower beds, uprooting the fence. I leave the garden behind me and go home.
If I had a voice, I would sing.