By Samir Sirk Morató
Content Warnings: Emotional abuse, suicidal ideation, gaslighting, grief, implied sexual abuse of a minor.
Finlay doesn’t stop believing in fairy tales when he turns nineteen, or when both of his parents – strangers he loved dearly – drown that same year, or when his mind begins echoing the town’s opinion that he’s darkly untrustworthy. If anything, those events make him believe. Why shouldn’t strange things be real? Finlay asks himself. He knows everyone here; no one is familiar. He’s rotting; he’s walking. The place that fed his family killed them. These true contradictions are no more nonsensical than mermaids, sea serpents or selkies. If anything, the fantastical must exist: if it doesn’t, if tortuous mundanity is all there is, why live?
It’s that question that has Finlay Muir quivering on the lighthouse landing as Caleb MacCallan, a colossus of scars and brusque comments, stares at his unexpected visitor.
‘Mr MacCallan,’ Finlay says, ‘I have a question for you.’
Caleb squints. Finlay grips the railing to steady himself. With Caleb’s abalone earring shining in his ear, it’s as if the hermit has three eyes, all of them studying Finlay. Both men are the same shade of brilliant, mermaid-purse black. They’re both scarred from the cannery’s teeth. Both hate formalities. But wiry, tired Finlay is young; husky, tired Caleb is old. While Caleb has nothing to lose, Finlay has lost everything. Whatever goodwill the Muirs gathered before their annihilation may not withstand what that reality entails.
Thirteen storeys of spiral staircase groan beneath them. The lantern pane, imprisoned behind a lattice of bars, stays vacant of light or strange faces. A glint of pity softens Caleb’s glare. Finlay knows it’s a cousin to condolence.
‘Shoot,’ Caleb says.
Finlay exhales. ‘How did you catch a selkie?’
Caleb stills. Far below, beyond the cliffs, Glenport’s weave of dilapidated roads and houses continues its decades-long sink into the ocean. The cannery that consumes them all squats on the horizon, a mausoleum spitting smoke at bloodthirsty seabirds; behind it, mast lines and nets web out from the harbour in unmade nooses. Finlay’s house, a cube downhill from the lighthouse, shimmers miserably in the sun.
Finlay doesn’t breathe until Caleb pinches his temple.
‘Let’s set one thing straight: I’ve never stolen a selkie’s skin.’ Caleb lashes his words against the air. ‘I’ve never made a marriage out of chains, for one. I ain’t ever planning on it. I have no seal children romping around the beach. If you’re searching for someone to help you with a cruelty, I ain’t it.’
‘It’s not a cruelty!’ Finlay protests even as a piece of toast, his first meal in days, threatens to come up. Selkies are real. If Caleb speaks about them this way, they’re real. Caleb has unwittingly delivered Finlay to salvation. ‘I wouldn’t ever hurt a selkie for her skin. I just want some company. The selkies live on the intertidal, don’t they? On Sea Glass Beach. I’ve heard them singing there… and here. Your wife’s voice is beautiful.’
Caleb steps back into the lighthouse. His fingers curl into trembling claws.
‘That’s who she is, isn’t she?’ Finlay says. ‘Your wife.’
Terns scream around the lighthouse. Goosebumps prick Caleb’s arms, then Finlay’s.
‘Finlay, pay attention.’ Caleb, ashen, crams his hands in his pockets. ‘Not a hundred years back, folks like us didn’t receive a whit of freedom. You oughta not forget that. Everyone under God’s sun deserves the right to themselves. Including the selkies.’ He jabs at Finlay’s sternum. ‘If you weren’t orphaned, I’d hurl you down these damn stairs. Stay away from Sea Glass Beach. You’ll get yourself hurt.’
Caleb slams the door closed. Finlay walks several circles on the landing, pulse hitching, unable to bear looking at the lighthouse or the wretched hope kindling inside him. For once, the idea of jumping is unappealing.
Finlay hasn’t visited Sea Glass Beach since he was five when his mother broke her arm at the cannery and used her recovery time to whisk him beneath the cliffs. Today, he returns.
Saltgrass brushes Finlay’s shins as he steps onto the beach. It’s a gorgeous snarl of dichotomies: sand against intertidal, cliff against sea, rot against life. Gulls litter the rocks, some slumbering, others screaming at the thunderhead-studded horizon. Festering kelp cushions tidal pools lush with starfish, sea slugs and anemones. Unseen, in the black, eternal spread of ocean, a riptide sucks at the shore and begs another Muir to enter its mouth. Finlay hunches into his coat. He doesn’t heed its call.
He remembers this beach better than he remembers his mother.
Finlay steps past an ancient folding chair. He shudders at a scrap of dead sea lion. Do selkies mind witnessing pieces of cousin wash up? Finlay trawls his treacherous brain for answers, hoping he doesn’t catch any. Thinking is his enemy.
He tells himself that the selkies will understand. The selkies here must have seen the sea claim countless cannery ships. According to his father, with every drowning, they gain another selkie. The grievers onshore get nothing. So two parents for a companion is fair. Caleb MacCallan’s heart morally points north, but he can’t see Finlay’s collapsing towers of unwashed dishes, or hidden photo albums, or reams of grief. If Finlay doesn’t have someone who stays – for once – then soon, he’ll depart. He knows it. He feels it. Instead of letting death creep closer, Finlay clings to what he knows: selkie spouses stay. No matter what.
A gull, hobbled by botulism, hurries away on its ankles.
Finlay is no beast. He intends on giving the selkie options. It will almost be like she’s free. Almost. Acid splashes Finlay’s throat. He creeps across the intertidal. The shore stays vacant. Finlay is a plover combing the sand: delicate. Powerless.
When he first sees the skin, he mistakes it for another carcass. A harbour seal pelt sprawls on the rocks above the tideline. It’s so grey it shines blue. Dazzling cream spots and rings fleck its surface. It’s someone’s home, someone’s robe. Their channel between worlds.
Before he loses his nerve, Finlay seizes the pelt. It’s heavier and oilier than a promise. He clutches it to his chest. Dawn slashes the shoreline. Finlay crams the skin into his bag before he faces the faceless ocean. Minutes pass. Gulls cry out; the tide cries in. No pleading selkie plunges out of the surf. No pinniped shapes look from the rocks. Whenever the waves ripple, Finlay flinches. Where is anyone? Where is he? Whispers swirl in the ocean. Wind whistles away the cliffs.
The selkie climbs out of a tidal pool.
She is plump, short and curvy. A furry abstraction of a woman. Her eyes – blackened by humungous pupils – almost overflow her face. A cleft splits her lips. A sheet of seaweed obscures her hip. Silt, seashell pieces and fishing line clutter her waves of hair; whiskers dot her tawny face. She looks like a peach, with denser, greasier fuzz. Finlay stares at her. She stares back.
‘I have your skin,’ Finlay says.
The selkie barks more than speaks. Sharp, tiny black nails crown her fingers. Specks of mussel shell stud her breasts. Below them perk a second, smaller pair of teats. Finlay inhales.
‘My name is Finlay. What’s yours?’
‘Finlay. That’s a nice name,’ the selkie says. ‘Could be a monster’s. Could be a man’s.’
‘Really.’ Finlay splutters. ‘What’s your name?’
They know the script. The selkie considers him. Her eyes glitter: due to saltwater or tears, Finlay isn’t sure. She wades ashore, exposing scar-knotted feet and knees. Her feet are slick, her toes almost fused into flippers.
‘My name is Hispi,’ the selkie says. ‘Like the sound sea glass makes when it washes ashore.’ She accepts Finlay’s hand with a quiver. ‘You had better take me away now.’
Finlay walks his limping prize home.
Hispi arrives with her bridal train of seaweed on her hip and her groom-capture on her arm. She halts on the threshold. ‘Is this it?’ Crabs, iridescent worms and starfish froth in her gown. Fishbones pearl the gaps.
‘Yes. Hold on. Wait here.’
Finlay rushes inside as Hispi untangles a fetal shark from her train. He folds the seal skin away in a cupboard, then sprints back to the door, feverish, his mother’s clothes spilling from his arms. Hispi rips a skirt from his grip.
‘I’ll wear this, but I don’t wear shirts,’ she says. ‘I don’t wear underwear. I’m not landlocked. Don’t order me to wear them.’
Hispi crams the shark carcass into his hands.
‘I’m changing outside.’
She slams the door shut. Finlay laughs in disbelief until he pukes.
Though he buries Hispi’s kelp train in the garden that evening, shark included, he can’t hide the other dowries Hispi brings with her. By day two, seal smell permeates the cottage. Hispi’s brazen voice, long whiskers and inquisitive hands explore everything but Finlay. By day three, Hispi’s tears christen the cottage too: Finlay wakes to her sobbing in the kitchen. He hides in bed until her crying fades. Then he cooks breakfast, all his limbs heavier than lead. Hispi keeps her head lowered until it’s time to eat.
‘You’re here a lot.’ She decapitates a roasted anchovy. ‘Don’t you work?’
‘No.’ Finlay avoids meeting her puffy eyes. ‘I used to. After my parents passed away, I quit. We’re using their savings. I’ll have to start working at the cannery again soon.’
‘I’m surprised they hired you. You look younger than nineteen.’
‘Everyone says I look older,’ Finlay says.
Hispi eats the rest of the anchovy. Rows of serrated teeth glimmer in her mouth. So does discontentment. Some quicksilver struggle is missing from her and her meal – some rapt, adrenaline-snarled crunch of life.
Finlay fidgets. ‘Do you want to see the beach?’
Hispi grips another anchovy before saying, ‘No. I don’t want to go. I couldn’t bear seeing it again.’
‘Okay.’ Finlay feels brutish.
‘I hate those cliffs anyway.’ Hispi tears the anchovy in half. ‘If you want to do something for me, buy me more fish.’
‘Consider it done.’
While Finlay finishes eating, Hispi roams the cottage again. She wrinkles her nose at dirty clothes, snatches Finlay’s comb off a chair, and yanks open the blinds. Sunlight contours her curves in oily rings. Finlay pretends not to study her.
Hispi lets the blinds fall shut. ‘When I pictured getting my skin stolen, I didn’t picture someone like you.’
‘What’s that supposed to mean?’
‘Do you want a description of yourself?’
‘Go ahead,’ Finlay says.
Hispi huffs. ‘You’re a pup with patchy whiskers, a soft face, and big, low-tide eyes. You’re not exactly a grizzled sailor.’
‘Stop calling me a pup.’
‘Or what? You’ll destroy my skin?’
Finlay groans. It’s an inadequate response. He can’t summon a more solemn one.
‘I wouldn’t ever do that,’ he says. ‘Alright?’
‘Sure.’ Contempt bubbles in Hispi’s first comb stroke. ‘I bet you’re already destroying it by leaving it folded like some sheet. I bet it’s getting creased. Skinless men are all the same.’
Finlay wants to say, I’ll unfold and keep it the way you like. If my mind lets me remember to do that. I care. The idea of Hispi dashing into the ocean muzzles him. Hispi scowls as her tangles catch in the comb. Finlay frowns.
‘What now?’ Hispi says.
‘Do you want help brushing your hair?’
Hispi slows her combing. ‘Is this a joke?’
Neither of them moves. Hispi glares. She thrusts the comb at Finlay before sitting on the floor. Finlay gingerly takes it and kneels behind her. Hispi’s mane is coarse. Wavy. Finlay marvels at a blob of sunshine on Hispi’s collar. A lump clogs his throat. Does he deserve happiness at the cost of her freedom?
‘You’re not bad at this.’
Hispi speaks with softened surprise.
‘Thanks.’ Finlay ensures his hands don’t brush Hispi’s skin lest the contact stings them. He soothes her waves of hair into a braid. Time slips by. Hispi basks in slivers of sunshine. Her eyes close. Their teardrop shapes prime Hispi’s expressions to appear suspicious or melancholy. Right now, Finlay can’t place her expression.
‘I suppose I don’t mind being your prettier half,’ Hispi says.
Finlay laughs, astonishing himself. With braided hair, Hispi’s ears show, small, round and smooth.
‘Besides,’ she says, ‘your sad eyes are cute.’
Over the next three weeks, boy and selkie exist in elated misery. Sometimes, they wake to each other’s sobbing, then pass the day in separate weepy realms. Their attempts to cohabitate manifest through muttered compliments and awkward meals. Neither Hispi nor Finlay seem certain of themselves. Other times, Finlay wakes to mad, unprompted housekeeping. Hispi oozes self-assurance, then. She slaps laundry on midnight clotheslines, laughs at her own jests, and scrubs every available surface. She’s sleepless; she’s ceaseless. Hispi’s housewife highs always dissolve within days. Finlay cannot say she’s feigning enthusiasm, but whatever intense elevations seize her aren’t contentment.
‘You’re lucky to have me,’ Hispi tells Finlay one Friday. ‘You need me.’
‘I know,’ Finlay says.
Hispi resumes cleaning with a smile. Finlay’s gratefulness trips on his unease.
Maybe her sporadic initiative is necessary. Despite everything, nihilism engulfs Finlay at random moments. Flashes of apathy torment him. Rage, too. Why isn’t he better? He has company. Soon, he will work again. It’s time to be whole. If he isn’t, the cannery will finish rearranging his exposed innards.
This isn’t fair. Not to him or to Hispi. Finlay simmers. Disgust occasionally warps Hispi’s face when she looks at him. Finlay can’t fault her for that. He imagines his parents with identical repulsed expressions. Maybe they hated isolation too. Besides necessity, it would explain why they abandoned Finlay on the hillside for days while they sailed out to sell their sweat and blood. Any child capable of bearing that didn’t need their guidance. Since Finlay wasn’t at risk of joining the selkie choir, it was the smallest sacrifice he could make.
Years later, he’s still making it.
A month into Hispi’s stay, Finlay wakes to the squeal of hinges. Then a tempest: the thunder of objects falling, the lightning of glass shattering, the rain of shards hitting hardwood.
‘Hispi?’ He stumbles into the living room. Grogginess clouds his brain.
Pictures and slivers of wallpaper litter the floor. Hispi lies next to an upturned chair. Her hair drips into her face. Finlay doesn’t know what scares him more: Hispi or the scattered family photos. The cupboard hiding Hispi’s skin sits untouched.
‘Hispi! Are you okay?’ Finlay edges closer, blood cold.
‘I’m fine. Just tide-blessed.’
‘What do you think?’ Hispi rears, raking wallpaper from beneath her nails. ‘I want my skin back! I want to go home! This place is hell, and I’m the only one trying to improve it.’
‘That’s untrue.’ Finlay fights the scathing whispers in his subconscious.
‘Yes, it is! If you were trying, you’d let me go to town.’
‘You can’t go into town. People won’t be kind to you, Hispi.’
‘Like this is kindness! Who’ll stop me from going?’ Hispi stands in her wreckage. ‘You? You’re always sleeping or crying!’
Mortification floods Finlay. The past week’s perpetual exhaustion tears at him. ‘If you want to leave so badly, then leave,’ he grinds out. ‘Skin or no skin.’
Hispi barks in rage. ‘Maybe I will! Look at how generous man is. You stole me from the water, and you won’t even let me go to the beach!’
‘Hold on.’ Alarm bells ring in Finlay’s head. ‘I never said that.’
‘I asked if you wanted to go. You said no! You’re delusional.’
Hispi stomps on a framed photograph of Finlay’s parents. They crunch. Cracks web the glass. Hispi looks satiated, then horrified.
‘Get out.’ It’s worse than seeing the empty coffins lowered. Finlay kicks the remains of a lamp, catapulting it into the wall. It explodes. ‘Get out!’
‘I hate you!’ Hispi wails. ‘You’re worthless! All of this is your fault!’
She flees into the kitchen. Finlay runs outside to curse at the hillside.
At dusk, long after sandflies have feasted on every bare iota of his body, Finlay re-enters the house.
Debris spots the hardwood, artificial abalone peering from sand. Several pictures adorn the wall again. The Muir family portrait is among them. Finlay’s parents smile at him from behind a prison of cracks. Finlay almost bawls when he sees them. Their absence makes him aware of every familial fault he holds and the inherited integrity he lacks. What will become of them if they return as selkies and meet someone like Finlay? He dry heaves until that thought passes.
This is his fault. Finlay kneads his cramping abdomen. He subdues his self-doubt. Real men are supposed to right wrongs. Finlay knows what his father would have him do. He trudges towards the kitchen.
After a waver, he raps his knuckles on the wall. The curtain sways.
‘Hey.’ Finlay looks at the floor to avoid his own cowardice. ‘I’m sorry I hurt you... I shouldn’t have said those things. You were right. This is my fault.’
‘I appreciate the apology.’
Hispi sounds venomless. Finlay leans against the doorframe. He wants to ask why she accused him of something he’s never said. He lacks the faith in himself to do so.
‘Do you want to be alone?’ he says.
‘No,’ Hispi says. ‘Do you want to be alone?’
‘You should come in, then.’
Hispi hunkers on her makeshift bed. Exhaustion rims her eyes. Finlay hovers until Hispi pats a spot next to her. He sits. They stare at the wall together.
‘I’m sorry,’ Finlay says after the silence stretches. How worthless words are!
‘We both are, one way or another.’ Hispi rubs her nose. ‘I put the photos back.’
‘I saw. Thank you.’
The breeze coming through the window is a third participant in their conversation, breathing pauses and collecting their secrets. The lighthouse singer’s crooning drifts above the hill. Hispi cocks her head.
‘How pretty,’ she says. ‘How empty. That’s me too. I say a lot of things I don’t mean.’
Finlay crosses the abyss between them to place his hand on hers. Hispi doesn’t recoil. The webbing between her fingers resembles sail canvas. Finlay’s coherency dissipates.
Hispi shakes her head. ‘I don’t understand you. Most men show off their selkie. Am I not good enough?’
‘No, no. That’s not it.’ A scream suspends itself in Finlay’s lungs. ‘I’m terrified of being by myself again. I’m so lonely, even with you. I don’t want to imagine how it would be if Glenport took you away. If you left, it’d be fine. But I couldn’t live with myself if the townspeople sold you to a circus or something. I don’t want us to both be imprisoned alone.’
‘You don’t have friends,’ Hispi says.
Hispi tugs on one of his curls. Finlay arches his eyebrows, then shyly offers her his back. Hispi twins his hesitation before she begins braiding his hair.
‘I don’t have anyone either,’ she says. ‘I miss the rookery. I can’t ever go back. There’s nothing for me there. Just bottles with no notes. Every time I think it’ll get better, it doesn’t. That hurts more than hating it. Maybe now I’ll escape.’
‘I hope you do,’ Finlay says quietly. ‘You deserve to be in a better place. Emptiness isn’t good company.’
He isn’t good company. Finlay aches. Hispi releases his half-braided hair. Finlay’s mane covers his other eye. He peeps out at her.
‘Hello,’ he says.
‘Hello.’ Hispi smiles. ‘You look stupid. Turn around so I can even this out.’
‘What do you mean?’ Finlay poses. ‘I look great.’
Hispi laughs, clapping her hands, her canines flashing. She braids Finlay’s hair again. They touch.