June 1, 2019

Sealskin

by L Chan


“She looks into your eyes. Hers are dark all around.”

You know where the selkies come ashore, where they shrug out of their skins, leaving them wrinkled and steaming on the rocks. Not just the protected parks, because selkies are wild things, and even if they speak in their soft, unaffected tongues, they care not for the laws of man.

She stops you with a glance. The weight of her gaze pins your hand to the sealskin, a bloodwarm puddle of skin and fat. If you want her to wife, you have to take the skin. Take the skin, take the woman.

You hold it up. She takes the skin back; she takes the woman back to the roar of the Atlantic.

She comes again. There are many rock pools and beaches for the wild seal folk, but she comes back to this one. So do you.

You know that it’s easy to take a sealskin. The way it’s always done. Not our way, you say to her. Not our way, she says to you.

She hands you a skin. Sometimes a selkie doesn’t come back, drawn by the rough music of the towns, by wind smoother than current, by the fresh green of pine needles rather than the harsh cut of salt. Hard to be given a sealskin. Hard to mash your legs together, ridiculously reminding you of those novelty mermaid tails at kids’ parties.

You know it hurts her to walk, flippers were never meant for walking. Does it always hurt to walk, you ask her. Yes, she says and then she kisses you hard, tasting of sea spray and mineral breeze. Because she knows what’s next, because the skin knows what’s next. When it cinches itself tight, it breaks your femurs in half a dozen places. Legs were never meant for swimming. Will it always hurt to swim, you ask her. Yes, she says and she spits out blood where you’ve bitten through her lip.

She hands you an awl, a bone needle long as your finger. Easy to sew a sealskin up, piercing furred leather. Harder by far to bind the sealskin to yours, rawhide strips weaving through blubber, thick needle pushing through your pinched flesh, pulling velvety seal fat to clammy skin. Sew it to, don’t sew it up. You’d take it off otherwise.

(When a man takes a selkie to wife, he takes her completely. When a man gives a selkie a husband, he gives wholly.)

You think of this a lot. That you will reject the seals; that the seals will reject you. That you will reject the sealskin; that the sealskin will reject you.

She helps you, hand on yours when it shakes too much to push the awl. She helps you, when your hand is lily white.

(There is so much blood. Such is the nature of birthing.)

You can’t do your head. Not enough skin of your own to pinch. It takes two.

She looks into your eyes. Hers are dark all around. Seal eyes, you can always tell them by the eyes.

You press the needle through the skin of your forehead. Skin and scalp are thin there. Too thin for the drag of arctic water. If the needle doesn’t go deep enough, the ice will rip the sealskin straight off you.

(The ring of the hammer is felt not heard.)

(It takes two to make a seal wife. It takes two to make a seal husband.)

(The needle bites into bone.)

You look into her eyes. You’ll always see your whiskers.

She’ll always see the whites of your eyes. Human eyes. You can always tell by the eyes. She pulls her own sealskin around her; easily, effortlessly as you’d once have put on a shirt.

(Never again.)

(Never again will you put on a shirt. Never again will she take off her sealskin.)

(Into the water she goes.)

You give yourself to her completely, wholly.

* * *


About the Author

L Chan hails from Singapore, where he spends most of his energy wrangling two dogs. His work has appeared in places like Liminal Stories, Arsenika, Podcastle and The Dark. He tweets occasionally as @lchanwrites.

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