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The Selkie

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I have only seen a Selkie once.

I was seventeen, walking alone along the quiet, rock-strewn beach of a sleepy little English town. He was shirtless, sitting chest-deep in the water with his face to the sea, his hair black and ragged around his shoulders. Something about him, his stillness, his bareness even though the water was cold and the wind was blowing, the way he sat almost silhouetted against the coast and the rocks, caught my attention. I slowed to a stop, and putting aside my usual caution, slipped my camera from my coat pocket to snap a picture of him.

With the first click of the shutter he spun around to face me. I had taken him for a villager or tourist, or one of those wandering students who always seem to be backpacking around Europe like nomads and camping under the stars. But I saw his face, saw his hipbones naked over the the top of the rock he clung to, saw the fierceness in the set of his shoulders and the wildness in his eyes and instantly I knew he was none of those things.

His gaze swept over me like a wave and then darted away to settle on the silvery-wet seal skin that lay on the rocks just a few feet away from me. I gazed at it almost stupidly, breathless, so numb with little-girl excitement that I could barely think. Then suddenly his eyes were boring into me, dark and wary and afraid. He stood frozen over the rock, motionless save for the damp swinging of his hair in the wind, and neither of us breathed.

I cannot say that I didn't want his skin, that for a moment I didn't contemplate taking it for myself. It was a piece of magic, magic that I had dreamed of and longed for since childhood; it was power, sudden and intoxicating. But how could I keep it; how could I keep him? Home was so far away, and I was so young. What would happen to us? And how would he live, mired between endless miles of land, without even the taste of ocean-water in the air? I found my answer in his eyes, in the deep, desperate fear I saw in them; I knew then that to take his seal-skin would be to kill his spirit, and I knew I could never be that cruel.

So I smiled instead, and took a few steps back. Immediately his eyes softened, growing bright with understanding, and at last we both let go of the breath we’d been holding. A wonderful grin of relief came over his face, and my heart skipped a beat. Then he turned away, sliding back into the sea until the waves came up over his arms. I turned away then, too, and moved down along the beach the way I had come. When I glanced back again a few minutes later he was gone, with nothing but fading ripples to show he had been there at all.

It was hours before I could bear to look at the photo I’d taken. I was filled with horrible dread, certain I would turn on my camera and find nothing but ocean, or at best a grainy Bigfoot-blur. But when at last I was brave enough to look, I found him just as he had been at that moment; twisting round to look at me, shoulders tensed, his face lost in the windy sweep of his hair.