My father is a fisherman. Which makes my mother a fisherman’s wife. Just like in the stories.
I mean the stories where the fisherman finds a beautiful woman by the sea, on the beach or on the rocks, and falls in love with her. So much that he steals her seal pelt so that she can never change back into her seal form and return to the water. Then she has to marry him, and he takes her to his home and they have children. But one day, the children find where her pelt is hidden, and they bring it to her. Then she abandons her family and returns to the sea.
My mother is a selkie.
My mind reels with the realization as I stroke my fingers over the silver pelt speckled with storm grey. It’s so soft.
I didn’t mean to find it. It was in the storm cellar, in a chest full of old things. I try to convince myself it’s nothing, just an old seal skin, but I look at the mouse and moth eaten dresses and work shirts it was hidden among, and I know there is magic in this fur. The vermin have not touched it.
Is this why my mother has always been so distant? Has she been pining for the sea my whole life? My father, who has always been a dutiful husband – has he been hiding this from her all this time?
I can hardly believe it of him.
I press the folded pelt to my chest, still stroking it. I should take it to my mother.
If I take it to my mother, does that mean she will leave? I have never doubted that my father loves me, but suddenly I am afraid of losing my mother, distant as she has always been. Would she leave me and my younger brothers?
Would it be better to wait until I am older? Until I’m old enough to clean and salt the fish my father brings home myself? I help mother, but I couldn’t do it all myself. Not yet. Should I wait until until my little brothers and I don’t need our mother so much?
And yet, I was raised always to do the right thing. To treat others as I would wish to be treated, and put others needs before my own.
Taught this by my father, who has hidden my mother’s seal pelt from her.
I shake my head and rise to my feet, blinking back tears. I wipe my eyes and clutch the pelt to my breast. It’s heavy with magic, and I carry it out of the storm cellar, and around to the house.
Father is out fishing and won’t be home until dark. Mother can leave, and he couldn’t stop her if he tried.
I push the door open and my mother is seated at the rough-hewn oak table, peeling potatoes with a knife. Her golden hair is bound in a braid down her back, and her storm grey eyes are distracted. She looks up at me and the colour drains from her face.
“Where did you find that?” she asks, after she recovers.
“In the storm cellar,” I say.
She doesn’t look relieved. She doesn’t look happy. She’s never looked happy, in all the time I can remember.
I walk forward from the front door and hold the pelt out to her. She seems reluctant when she takes it from me, strokes the fur. But she is still frowning at it.
“Will you go back to the sea?” I ask, finally.
My mother looks up, seeming confused for a moment. I think she is deciding what she loves more – her children, or the sea.
She looks back down at the pelt again, as if measuring her words carefully. I don’t think she wants to hurt me.
“Tess, love,” she says, “children need both their parents.” She hands the pelt back to me. “Take this back to the cellar. Don’t go down there again.”
Maybe my mother loves me after all.
There’s nothing for me to say, and yet I find myself angry as I climb the ladder back down to the storm cellar. How could my father do such a thing? My gentle father, who has always provided well for us, who would never harm me or my brothers. My mother didn’t even dare spank us in front of him. How could he have hurt my mother so?
I stand in front of the old cedar chest, holding the pelt. I need answers. I deserve answers.
I take the pelt to the seaside, to our little dock where father will moor his white sailed boat, and I wait for him. The sun is setting.
His little white sail appears in the distance. It grows larger as I sit, trying to work out what I want to say to him.
He trims the sails as the little boat glides up to the dock. He waves to me, a smile on his face, as always. His curly hair, so black it looks wet, his dark eyes shining. I have his eyes.
He throws the mooring rope over a dock pillar to secure the boat, and hoists one of his big nets full of the day’s catch.
When he sees what I have in my hands, he drops it.
Whatever I planned to say, I have forgotten.
“Where did you find this?” he asks, finally.
“In the storm cellar,” I say. “I know what it is.”
He makes a pained face I’ve never seen before, and closes his dark eyes when he looks away. When he looks up again, he glances over my shoulder. I look behind me, and see my mother coming down from the house. She’s begun to wonder where I am. She sees us – sees the pelt – and she starts running towards us.
“You have to give it back to her,” I say, and hold it out to him.
He climbs onto the dock takes it, clutching it as I did when I first found it. He holds it, stroking the silkie fur as if he will never let it go. A tear trickles down his cheek. I am sorry to make him so sad. He has always been a good father, but this is not right.
Behind me, my mother’s footsteps clap on the wooden dock and she slows. I step out from between them to let him face her.
My father turns to her with a look of unmistakable betrayal. My mother stops, mouth open, but not speaking.
“You said it was lost,” my father says. “You pretended to help me find it.”
He didn’t hide it? I want to ask, what happened before I was born, but it seems a terrible time to interrupt.
My father shakes out the pelt, all silver fur and brown spots. It drapes over his shoulders when he wraps it around himself as it it is a part of him. I begin to understand the answers to my questions.
My mother offers her empty hands to him. “I don’t know what I was thinking. I was in love with you.”
My father steps back, shaking his head, tears still falling, his face more hurt and sad than I have ever seen it.
He tears his eyes away from my mother, and leans down to kiss my forehead. I know he will miss me. But a Selkie cannot be kept from the sea. That’s what the stories say.
Then he turns, and leaps off the end of the dock.
I hear my mother fall to her knees on the dock behind me. Her sobs fall between the sounds of the waves washing up on the beach.
I don’t know what I feel. I had prepared myself to lose my mother. Now my father is gone, and left me with my mother, who lied to him and betrayed him.
I glance at my mother and shake my head. “You should not have done that,” I say.
She chokes on a sob and I’m shocked by the distain I feel for her. She can’t even bring herself to scold me for disobeying.
“Come on,” I say. “We have to bring the catch in.”
I go to the boat and start dragging the fish filled nets onto the dock and my mother stumbles to her feet to help me without a word.