The Seal Wife

by Jane Routley

Connor always dreamt of music. But that night something was wrong in the dream and he awoke with a shout.

His wife, Ardith chided him sleepily. “What’s wrong with you, foolish man.”

She rolled against him and he snugged himself in against her beloved flank. The shabby warmth of their shared bed and the familiar distant thud and shush of the ocean lulled his juddering nerves back to sleep. All too quickly he forgot the dream and his fear.

Every morning he would stumble down to his wooden boat and still only half-awake, paddle it out into the bay. The dawn wind would be fresh on his hot sleepy face, the waves would splash like icy jewels on his long fingers and the joy of it all – the huge sky, the sea and the dawn light – would burst into his muscles. He would cast out the nets and haul them back in with a glorious feeling of strength. Cast and haul. Cast and haul. He would sing as he worked and the music of his dreams would come back to him. When at last the catch was done and the fish lay sparkling in the bottom of the boat, he would be so full of the wild dream music, that he could not help but put his pipe to his lips.

He played for each wave rushing towards the shore in a scrimmage of white foam and for the seabirds that whirled around him, their harsh cries weaving themselves into his song.  He played for his children; six year old Maeve, so earnest and bustling and little Danny with his mother’s strange dark eyes which always looked out to sea. He played for the seals whose round heads would appear above the waves peering at him with luminous dark eyes. Most of all he played for Ardith, his own true love. Sometimes he played for hours, trying to make all this beauty incarnate in sound.

But the morning after his wrong dream, as he hauled the fish up from the sea and the music up from his deepest memory, the evil of the night before came up with it. He remembered the watching figure of his dream and looked towards the land.

And saw her there atop the dunes, standing among the nodding sea grass, a dark shape with long skirts flapping heavily in the wind, head round under a tightly-wrapped shawl that hid her face in shadow.

Fear seized him. He grabbed the oars and row for shore as hard as he could. When he got there the figure was gone, but the fear remained.  His children Danny and Maeve came splashing joyfully through the breakers crying, “Play us the song, Da. Play us the song.”

“Did you see the woman?” he cried.

“There was a woman up in the dunes, but she‘s gone now,” said Maeve. “Play, Da.”

“Watch the fish, Maevy girl,” he shouted and ignoring his children’s protests, he ran home. Running through the sand dunes was a terrible labor that day – like running in a dream when you desperately push forward to stop something terrible happening and seem to get nowhere – but at last the cottage came in sight. And she was still there – Ardith, his treasure, his queen, stacking driftwood under a shelter.

She looked up at him with cynical eyes and said, “Hey there, Connor O’Byrne. What’s the rush?  Is the old Hound of Hell chasing you to claim his own then?”

She was beautiful, a queen of the sea with long dark hair as wavey as kelp and skin whiter than the sea foam. Her eyes had the dark luminous beauty of all her people.

None of the village girls would marry Connor though all loved his music and several gave him welcoming glances. They did not want to live so far out in the dunes even though he made a good living from his fishing and owed tax to no man. Perhaps they did not care for his strange pipe-playing ways. He was not much of a talker and nor did he have the way of being among people. In the lonely time after his Da died, he would sit on the beach at night and play his dream music to the rhythm of the waves and the soughing of the salt wind.

One night he looked up and there were five women dancing on the beach before him, white limbs silvered by moon light, twirling and swaying their arms to the music, their eyes closed and smiles upon their faces. They had come so softly that he felt as if his music had called them into existence. That night he played for their dancing until his fingers were tired and then he sang until the dawn light appeared on the horizon.

He knew what they were. They were too beautiful for human women. They had their sealskins tied around their bodies, perhaps for natural modesty, perhaps for fear of him. He knew the stories about the seal folk.

Many moonlit nights after that he played on the beach and many nights the women came. There was one among them he admired more than the rest, whose step was light and whose eyes met his teasingly.

One night when the moon set early, she followed him back to his cottage. He heard the rustling behind him and his heart beat hard from mingled terror and hope. He left the door open as he lit the lamp and stirred the fire and she came in and closed it behind her. In the soft lamp light she loosened the sealskin and let it drop round her feet. The warm lamp light cast a golden glow on the soft curves of her body.

Her name was Ardith. In the morning when he woke beside her, the smooth skin of her thigh under his hand and her soft hair spread out over his chest, he could not bear the thought of her leaving.

He picked up her skin from where it still lay on the floor by the door, rolled it up and hid it just as the old tales instructed. Then he put fish stew on the fire and while it heated, he played his pipe. Her eyes were wild and nervous when she awoke and she scuttled into a dark corner of the cottage, but as he played his dream of the fine life a man might have with such a woman as Ardith for his wife, she became calmer.  Soft words and kind deeds did the rest. Though of course she had little choice but to stay. Without her skin she could not return to the sea.

The theft troubled his conscience sometimes. At first he watched her carefully for signs of unhappiness and pining, but she seemed content and after the children came, even more so. In the dark of night she came willingly to his arms. He comforted himself that perhaps she was glad to have a human husband. When he went to gather birds eggs on the Seal Rock in the middle of the bay, he saw how the seals quarrled and how mercilessly the big males bullied the much smaller females, biting and thumping them and sometimes killing their cubs.

Ardith could have found the skin easily enough had she searched for it. He had done no more than put it in a place where she would not stumble over it unlooked for. He had not the heart to really hide it. Everyone knew how a seal woman longed for the sea. He could not keep a wild thing against her will.

Later in the day after his wrong dream, he was hanging out the fish on the drying racks, when he heard a noise from inside the cottage. He was alone. Ardith and the children were down on the beach digging for cockles amidst swirling clouds of seagulls. Very cautiously he crept round to the cottage door and pushed it open.

It was dim within and at first he could see no movement. The chest that held their winter clothes was lying open and dark shapes of cloth lay crumpled in the shadows around it. As he moved forward, one of the shadows leapt up and flew at him. He let out a shout, grabbed and caught hold of someone who yelped throatily. Something sharp as needles sank into his flesh and with a cry of pain he let go. A heavy limb flailed out and hit him viciously in the chest as the short squat figure pushed through to the door.

It was dressed in raged cloth the colour of seaweed, its head bound in a shawl. It ran away clumsily, but with surprising speed. He staggered through the door after it, but did not give chase. His heart had turned to ice in his breast. Its skin had not felt like skin but coarse like seal fur.

The cottage stank of rotting seaweed and stale fish. He threw open the shutters. Everything was in the room was array and clumps of seaweed were strewn all over the floor. Everything seemed handled. That woman from the dunes had been searching for something and he knew what. She must have come to take Ardith home. Pray to God she didn’t find the skin for then Ardith must… Pray that Ardith didn’t find out the woman had been here.

His wife returned to find him trying to tidy everything away. She gave him the sharp edge of her tongue.

“Stop that you great stupid lummox! You’re leaving blood over everything! Of all the feckless, shiftless, gormless…! Come here!  Why, look how deep it is!  How did you come by such a wound?”

“Sure I’m a fool. I cut myself on the gutting knife, it was in the creel and I put my hand in and …”

He prattled on telling her how deep the knife sliced for all the world as if it were not quite obviously a bite mark, with the shape of the mouth and the punctures of the teeth easy to see.

“Now I shall have to waste one of my good poultices on you, though I don’t know why I should bother!”  Ardith interrupted impatiently. “And my good fool, how would you be explaining the terrible mess in my house?”

“I don’t know,” he said. “It was like that when I came. The wind perhaps.”

“The wind perhaps,” she echoed with disgust. She said no more, but briskly cleaned, poulticed and bound his hand. He was glad of the poultice. Seal bites could bring fever. Ardith was not so handy with women’s work like sewing and weaving, but she was very clever with herbs and potions. He knew there was whispering in the village that she was magical. And so she was, and not just in the way they meant.

She was his wife. How sweet and white her neck was as she bent over his hand. A downy line of hair ran along her spine. It ran down her neck and all the way down her pale back, so human and yet so seal-like. He stroked the back of her neck and for a few moments she let him. Then she shrugged him off with a bad tempered noise.

“Ah men!  Always mauling! Can you not wait until a decent hour?”

By nightfall his hand had swelled up twice its usual size. Ardith’s scolding as she changed the poultice comforted him a little, but when she made him go to their bed and bade him sleep, he was filled with feverish gloom. She just wanted him out of the way so she could get a chance at her lost freedom.

How he longed that she would not go. The longing so unmanned him that he clutched her hand and tried to beg her to stay with him.

“Hush!  What nonsense talk is this?” she said. “Here! Why not play your pipe? T’will ease your heart.”

A sop for a baby. Anyway he could not play properly with his hand so swollen and his mind was too full of gloom to sing. He just lay on their bed and shivered and sweated and drifted in and out of fitful sleep.

That night he dreamt of something dark and sharp-toothed snuffling round the outside of the cottage. He dreamt of its black snout thrusting into the cracks in the walls trying to force its way in and find his secrets. He awoke terribly afraid and leapt from the bed, threw open the door and ran into the night.

“Go away!” he screamed at the frosty stars. All was silent. The wind moaned across the dunes.

“What are you doing, fool of a man?”, cried Ardith behind him.

“Something was out here, snuffling!”

“Dreams, dreams Connor-lad.”

She took his hand and lead him gently back to bed. “You’re feverish. These are all imaginings.”

All through the night, the dark snuffler was in his dreams digging and poking about with its long blunt snout. Twice more he found himself throwing open the door and twice more Ardith lead him back to bed. She cradled his head on her soft breasts.

“Sing,” she said softly. “Sing to still your heart. Sing our song, Connor-lad. The song you played to me on the first day.”

Sweet deceiver. He would not – he could not sing.

At last he woke to light coming under the cottage door. Ardith was sleeping by his side, her face soft in the shadows. As he watched her, full of fear and longing, he heard a sound behind his head. The soft movement of sand grains. Something was digging in the sand beyond the cottage wall.

With a shout he leapt from his bed and raced outside. He dashed round the corner of the cottage. No one was there. He ran to the other corner. Only the pale dunes and nodding seagrass under the grey dawn sky. No sign of any figure, human or otherwise.

But all around the cottage the sand was piled away from the sides making a rough ditch.

“Connor, Connor, what are you at now?”

“The woman,” he said his defenses lowered with the icy realness of it all. “The woman. She WAS here.”

“Well fear not,” said Ardith. “She’s seen you in all your glory now, so she’ll not be back. Now come inside and put on some pants like a decent human being. You’ll catch your death out here.”

She led him unresisting inside and made him hot tea with whiskey, normally a sabbath day treat. It seemed to him that her tongue was less sharp that day. Was she being kind because she was going? He wanted to ask her but dared not in the faint hope that maybe, just maybe, she had not noticed anything unusual.

He did not go out to sea that day, but spent the day in the dunes watching the cottage. The day was pale grey with a chill wind out of the north. It would have been a good day for fish.

And for seals.

His hand throbbed. The children were quarrelsome. Only Ardith went about her chores calmly. When Maeve hit Danny and he kicked her in return and they were both sent to their beds in tears, Ardith came and said, “Will you not sing and soothe the children?”

“I’ll not sing. I have no heart to sing.”

She shrugged her shoulders and turned to go.

“Do you care for me, Ardith?”

“What sort of a question is that. Connor O’Bryne. Of course I care for you. Who would trouble themselves with a man otherwise?”

“Do you really Ardith?”

“Oh don’t be such a fool,” she snapped.

He could say nothing more for fear he might drive her away. What could he offer her against the pull of the sea?

He had another dream that night. He dreamt he was in the sunlit water of the bay, curled up in his boat, playing his pipe, while the great green waves rolled under him. The surface of the sea was liquid silk, the air was full of golden light and in the clear water, the seals were dancing, their tails flicking powerfully as their sinuous bodies weaved in and out of the water. They moved as elegantly as a noble lady he had once seen, their flippers trailing like the sleeves of her gown. Their shapes reminded him of Ardith’s when sometimes, wrapped in a blanket, she got out of their bed to tend to one of the children.

One of the seals lifted its bewhiskered face toward him.

“Where is the skin?” it said, in a voice so delightful it could have charmed the oysters from their shells. “Where is my sister’s skin?”

At that, a vision of the place in thatch of the cottage were the skin was hidden came unbidden and unwelcome to his mind.

With a feeling of urgency, he pushed heavily up out of the dream, as a man rises out of deep water. Still wallowing, he rolled and following some instinct threw his leaden arm over Ardith’s side of the bed. Too slowly the thought seeped into his mind that she was not there.

Alarm sparked him awake at last. Pulling on pants, he dragged himself from the bed and across the dark cottage, a shipwreck victim on the shores of sleep. The children still lay sleeping; safe in their beds, but there was no sign of Ardith.

Outside the sky was lightening towards dawn. A faint line of pink in the sky foretold a day of rain. The thatch of the cottage was disturbed, the dried grey seaweed straggling out on the ground as if the cottage’s hair were falling loose down its back. He stared open-mouthed at it, before the truth hit him like a freezing wave.

The skin was gone.

He turned and labored though the soft silver dunes towards the sea. As he came over the last dune and the dawn sky and the white-capped sea were spread out before him, he saw two figures struggling on the wide beach below him. Even as he watched one of them pushed the other away. He saw that the one pushing was Ardith and that stopped him in his tracks. The other figure, stumbling backwards, had women’s skirts, a smooth head and a squat hunched shape not quite human.

Ardith stood with her hands on her hips scolding it. The sound of her voice was blown to him on the wind. Often he had seen her thus – defending the children from other children, bartering with the village women for bread, chasing the gulls away from the fish racks. She flung up her fist and made a shooing motion and the other woman turned and ran towards the fine little waves that smoothed ever over the flat beach.

First the woman ran upright and then she began to flounder along slower and more clumsily until she was down on her hands and knees lolloping along, a seal bedecked in streamers of seaweed.

Ardith was not watching her go. Instead she was holding something spread out before her. Her seal skin.

Tentatively, not daring to speak, he moved down the dune towards her. A stronger man would certainly have rushed out and seized the skin from her while he still had the chance, but Connor was too afraid of breaking something that could not be mended.

She sighed a deep sigh, wrapped the skin up into a bundle and turned to walk away from the sea. When she saw him, she froze.

He went up to her and looking into her beautiful eyes, gently touched the bundled seal skin.

“Here,” she said brusquely, thrusting the skin hard into his arms.

Suddenly his chest was full of wonderful music.

“Will you not be leaving us then, my love?” he asked softly.

“What are you thinking of, Connor O’Bryne?  I’ve children and a feckless man to feed and clothe. Take that thing and put it in some safe place. Some better place, where no one can steal it away. Any fool could find it in the thatch. I did long ago.”

“You mean… you always knew… Then why…?”

She leant into him and put her hands on either side of his
face.

“You poor idiot. Did you really think you took that skin against my own will?  Now come home and sing me a song to tell me that I chose right.”

Then she gave him a little shove and went back towards the cottage with a proud flounce of her skirt.

The End