Selkies were Old World creatures; there wasn’t any place for them in such a new land, that modern America, with its sports cars and electric mixers and household televisions. There was no room for fairy tales of seal-women entrancing men’s hearts, and certainly no place to hide a sealskin in a well-organized home.
So said the elder selkies, pleading with their children to stay close to the shores, where they could watch over them. Still, some children rebelled, as they often do, and made the long journey across the Atlantic to frolic on the shores of the East Coast. The ones who made it were surprised to discover that the seals there were only seals, without magic. America had its own, different kind of magic, man-made.
Those daring selkie girls shed their skins and explored the beaches of the New World, exclaiming over differences and sighing, misty-eyed, over similarities. They spied on the young men who came to bathe and sun themselves, marveling at their strong bodies and confidence, fascinated by new accents and new words.
One by one, the women allowed themselves to be tempted into walking out with young men, as selkie women so often do.
Some of these young men, the ones whose families had been in the New World so long that their feet were rooted in the soil, did not think to check the beaches for sealskins. These were the men who, no matter how much they loved their selkie-girls, would eventually lose them to the sea.
There were other young men, however, for whom the New World was still new, and who had been lulled to sleep by tales of seal women. These were the men who knew to comb the beach after dark and find the seal pelts hidden under rocks, and to keep them. And these men remembered how every selkie story ended—the woman eventually found their skin where it was hidden, and slipped away, leaving their human lives behind.
So the men burned the sealskins, instead of hiding them. It was the practical thing to do, really. After all, they couldn’t have their wives abandoning them and their children just for a piece of old fur. They’d buy the women new furs instead, better ones that would tickle their soft skin and keep them warm in the winter and wouldn’t survive a swim in the Atlantic. If they noticed that their wives sometimes stared absently towards the ocean, or took overlong baths, well, women were like that, weren’t they?
Some of the women rooted themselves in the earth to keep from missing the ocean. They gardened and joined committees and moved inland, far away from the sea. Slowly, they lost their old magic. Once a year they would wake with tears running down their face and the sound of the sea in their ears, but aside from that, they may as well have been human. Their time as seals faded in memory as they fell under the spell of the new, modern world they now lived in and loved.
Others were not so lucky. They missed the sea, their seal forms, and their seal family; the loss settled in their chests like stones. These were the women who insisted on trips to the seaside at every opportunity, indulged by husbands who no longer needed to fear losing their wives to the water. Once there, they wouldn’t even wait to put on a bathing suit before running across the beach and wading out into the water. The swirl of salt water around their legs, the soaked hems of their dresses and the smell of brine would all bring tears to their eyes, and if no one interrupted they would stand there for hours. They could not swim home, not in their human bodies built for land, but it was so good to be in the sea.
Happily, the number of selkies who found themselves trapped in the New World was not as great as the number who found their way back to the sea. Those ones who could not return, however, those who longed for the sea, were lonely for their own kind. There were many beautiful, wonderful things about the New World, and they loved their children dearly, but there was nothing like the joy of playing on the chill Atlantic beaches, to the feeling of sliding powerfully through the ocean waters, of playing in the currents. They were lonely, and there was no one who would understand their particular heartache.
One spring day, the first fine one of the year, a selkie wife stood in the ocean, her face turned into the wind to better feel the salt spray. She listened to the waves, the cries of birds and children, the bewildered sighs of her husband. She listened closely, in the hopes of hearing her brothers and sisters, so that she might warn them away from this place, where they could make a life only at the cost of their old one.
The selkie wife listened, and realized that she was not alone. Further down the beach was another woman, standing in the water up to her knees, heedless of her wet skirts. She wore a look of longing that was as familiar to the selkie wife as her own face, for she herself had worn that look often enough. She looked at the woman for a long moment, her mind and stomach churning with hope and possibilities.
The selkie wife took a breath and began to make her way down the beach.
They could not go back, but perhaps they did not need to be alone, either.