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Sealskin

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On Michaelmas Catherine first saw the selkie, who stood naked on the black wave-licked rocks at the bottom of the cliffs. Catherine gathered the skirts of her kirtle and ran down the cliff path, the rocks sharp on her narrow bare feet.

The selkie gathered her sealskin about her like a cloak. “Stop!” cried Catherine. She slipped on the seaweed and scraped her palms on the cliff.

The selkie stopped, her sealskin gathered beneath her breasts. She gazed unblinking at Catherine with green-gray eyes, wild black curls blowing in her face.

“I want to speak with you,” cried Catherine. But the selkie drew herself into her skin and swan-dived into the sea.

***

The next week Catherine met the selkie again. The selkie sat on her high rock, her knees drawn to her chest, and when she saw Catherine she offered her a webbed hand to help her onto the rock.

She kept Catherine’s hand in hers as Catherine settled herself beside her. “Who are you?” the selkie asked, hoarse-voiced.

“I am the bride of Sir Hubert who keeps the cliff castle for the king,” said Catherine. “Although now he’s in Calais, and I live there alone. My name is Catherine.”

The selkie inclined her head. Water streamed from her hair down her neck, channeled between her breasts, and pooled between her thighs.

Catherine wanted to touch her, and felt shy. She took back her hand, clasping her fingers in her lap. “You’re a selkie,” she said.

“A daughter of the sea,” the selkie said, and her gray eyes brightened green.

Catherine reached out and touched the selkie’s wrist with a finger. The skin was wet and chill. “You must get cold,” said Catherine. She clasped the selkie’s hands between her own warm ones.

“No,” said the selkie. She lifted Catherine’s hands her face.

“Do you get lonely?”

The selkie blinked, black lashes lowering like a butterfly’s wing. They brushed against Catherine’s fingers.

Catherine’s hands convulsed on the selkie’s. She drew their clasped hands to her breast. “Come live with me,” she said. “I’ve a kirtle the same sea green as your eyes you can wear. Come to the castle and live with me, and be my sister.”

The selkie lowered her head to Catherine’s hands. “I don’t want to be your sister,” she said, lips brushing Catherine’s skin. She kissed Catherine’s palm, and breathed, the print of her kiss growing cold beneath her breath. The shiver spread up Catherine’s arm and caught her breath.

Catherine fled.

Until after the gathering of the sloes, Catherine didn’t see the selkie again. But that time the selkie slid back into the sea before Catherine even reached the lip of the cliff.

***

A week before All Soul’s Day Catherine sat on the selkie’s high rock, watching the waves. Sir Hubert had not come home. The wind was cold on her face.

The selkie clambered from the sea. She slipped out of her skin and drew her legs beneath her, kneeling. Her black curls brushed her hips as she shook them, water drops falling on Catherine’s face. Catherine licked the salt water from her lips.

“You came back,” said Catherine.

“You stayed,” said the selkie.

Catherine drew her feet beneath her red wool skirts. “I can’t leave,” she said, and pressed her mouth shut against her knee.

The selkie flipped her hair behind her head, arching her back as she twisted the seawater out. Her ribs showed through her skin like the ribs of a shell, and her veins were blue-green in her breasts.

“You are so beautiful,” Catherine said.

The selkie smiled. She clasped her webbed hands at her shoulders, drawing them over her breasts. Catherine looked away, digging her fingers into a crevice in the black rock. The waves roared.

“You would be beautiful too,” the selkie said, and reached for the laces that bound Catherine’s kirtle at the base of her throat. Catherine lifted a hand to cover them, and the selkie stroked her fingers and laughed.

“Tell me,” said Catherine. “Tell me what you’ve seen in the sea.”

“Everything,” said the selkie. “I sank ships in the northern fjords and danced beneath their ice, and married a man who wore a horned helmet. I swam up a river with crocodiles and met in the dessert a camel-rider who made me his wife. A pirate also in the inland sea wanted to marry me too; but he couldn’t rip my skin off in the open waves.”

Catherine closed her eyes. “I thought Sir Hubert might take me to Calais,” she said, and sighed. The selkie’s long fingers touched the base of her neck, and Catherine kept her eyes closed as a bead of cold water spilled down her breastbone. “Why come ashore if men make you marry them?”

The selkie drew the laces of Catherine’s kirtle open and pulled the shift aside so the cold sea air licked Catherine’s collarbone. The selkie’s lips followed, cold against Catherine’s skin and wet, but warming as she kissed Catherine’s neck, her jaw, her ear. Catherine turned her head and caught the selkie’s lips. The selkie laughed.

Her breast, taut with cold, pressed Catherine’s bare shoulder. The webbing of her hands tickled Catherine’s throat as the selkie lifted her chin, and kissed her. Seawater seeped through Catherine’s kirtle. Warmth flowered in her breast, pressing her heart in her throat. She could not breath.

Catherine drew her kirtle closed again. She opened her eyes. The selkie sat back on her heels, rubbing her palms along goose-pimpled thighs.

“That’s why,” said the selkie. “The sea is cold alone.”

***

On All Soul’s Day the freezing sea frothed against the rock. The selkie crouched by Catherine, webbed hands spread on the black rock.

“The tide comes,” the selkie said. “You must go back.”

“Winter is coming, and storms,” said Catherine. “Won’t you be cold?”

The selkie shrugged, a roll of her shoulders. “I might.”

“Will you leave for warmer climes?”

“I might.”

Tears sparkled in Catherine’s eyes. She stood, and paced the spray-slick rock. The selkie watched her. “My Catherine,” she said.

Catherine flung herself to her knees beside her. “Stay with me,” said Catherine.

The selkie took up her sealskin. “I am a creature of the sea,” she said.

Catherine snatched the selkie’s sealskin, but the selkie would not let go. Instead she smiled, dark lips parting. “Sweet Catherine,” she said. “You would drag me to captivity in your castle?”

Catherine’s weak fingers clenched on the fur. “Castles, like oceans, are cold alone.”

The selkie smiled, sharp teeth showing. She ripped her sealskin in twain.

“No!” cried Catherine. “Oh no, no! You’ll be trapped –”

The selkie put a cold finger to Catherine’s lips, and the cold slid down Catherine’s spine. She caught Catherine’s hands and pulled her to her feet, Catherine’s kirtle tangling around the selkie’s legs. The selkie kissed Catherine’s lips.

A wave arced against the rock, spraying their faces. “Come with me,” the selkie breathed.

“Where?” Catherine asked.

“The whole sea is mine, and every river in the world.”

“We could swim up the Jordan in the Holy Land,” whispered Catherine.

“Anywhere,” the selkie said, and pressed half the sealskin into Catherine’s hands.

Catherine looked at Sir Hubert’s dark castle on the bluff, her hands clenched and trembling on the sealskin. Then she ripped from her hair the red ribbon Sir Hubert sent her from Calais and dropped it into the sea. She shook out her hair so it fell in brown waves to her thighs, and turned to face the sea.

The selkie crooned. Like yarn on a spindle she twisted Catherine’s hair about her own hand.

Catherine twirled, unwinding her hair, and laughed. She undid the tie at the base of her throat. Her red wool dress fell from her shoulders onto the low black rock. She threw her white linen shift into the wave that crashed over the rock. The cold wave spray dotted her pale skin, and Catherine shivered and hugged herself, hands pressed over her breasts.

The selkie wrapped her sealskin around Catherine’s shivering shoulders. “Come with me,” she said, pulling Catherine’s hands till they fell open at her sides. She kissed Catherine’s collarbones and caressed her quivering arms. “Come to sea,” she said, her breath warm against Catherine’s lips. She slipped her long fingers over Catherine’s breast and her belly, pulling the sealskin closed.

A cold wave washed Catherine’s red kirtle to sea.

Catherine lifted her arms around the selkie’s shoulders and kissed her. The wind twisted their hair together, and the spray dotted it like pearls. Catherine cut her tongue on the selkie’s sharp teeth.

She drew away, lips red with blood. Her teeth grew jagged as the seal’s. “To the sea,” said Catherine, and her laugh echoed off the cliff.

The selkie swirled her own skin about her, and took Catherine’s hand. The tide roared over the rock, and they rode it into the sea.