Eluned is nine and it’s high summer. The sun has baked her skin brown, and sand dusts her like sugar. The beach stretches away to the left like a golden road, but she turns right and plunges into the jumbled rocks that hide the tidal pools. There are small red jellied globules clinging just above the water line, and when she pokes them they squirt water at her.
“Don’t,” says a voice.
It’s another little girl, naked, small and sleek, up to her chin in chilly rock pool water. Her nose is broad, her skin darker even than Eluned’s. Her eyes are all black, as though someone spilt a drop of ink into each one.
“Why not?” asks Eluned.
“When the tide’s out they keep water inside so they don’t dry up.” The other little girl lifts a handful of water and dribbles it over the glistening blobs of the agitated anemones.
“I didn’t know,” says Eluned. She copies the other girl, splashing water over the rocks. She can use both hands, but the other girl is clutching a bundle that looks like the skins Eluned’s daddy wears when he goes out to sea.
Eluned flicks water at the girl. They both squeal, and the next few minutes are a happy tumble of splashing and wrestling that sends all the underwater anemones snapping shut as tight as their counterparts in the open air. The other girl does not let go of her bundle of skins.
When they’re tired, they retreat from the water and climb up to lie flat on the rocks and let the sun cook them. Eluned scrunches up her toes and squints at the sky. Usually she likes to play alone on the beach, but she feels comfortable with the other girl.
“My name’s Eluned,” she says invitingly.
“Oh,” says the other girl. “You can call me Melusine.”
There’s a brief, warm silence. When Eluned rolls onto her side to suggest they go hunting for crabs, Melusine is gone.
Seven years pass.
Eluned’s limbs lengthen until she resembles a clothes horse more than a girl, or so her daddy remarks. Her mother plies her with creams to keep the callus from her hands. Her hair darkens to the colour of wildflower honey, and she trims the ends often because the sea air roughens it so. She often goes down to the harbour to listen to the old men tell stories, and this is the reason she knows not to waste her time looking for Melusine.
The night before her wedding, she goes down to the beach. The moon cuts a silvery path through the wet sand, and she follows it down to the water. The waves lap at her feet like hungry tongues.
“Arzhel will be a good husband,” she says aloud.
The sea hisses at her.
“I love Arzhel,” she adds.
“Who is Arzhel?” Melusine asks. Eluned knows it’s Melusine. The sleek, beautiful body has changed, but the fathomless eyes are the same. They embrace as though they’ve shared far more than twenty minutes in the sunshine as children.
Melusine still has her bundle of skin, ever-clenched in her tough little hand, but now Eluned knows it isn’t at all the same as her daddy’s oilskins. She keeps her knowledge to herself.
“How long can you stay on land?”
“Till dawn,” says Melusine, stroking her seal skin. “Once every seven years.”
“I know that part,” says Eluned. She looks at her hands to keep from seeing Melusine’s boyish hips, her small breasts and the dark hair between her legs. Melusine exhales.
Melusine looks at Eluned and says nothing. Eluned tastes questions on her tongue, but can see she’ll get no answers. She talks about herself instead, and Melusine is a better listener than the sea.
“Don’t marry him if you don’t want to.”
“I do love Arzhel,” Eluned murmurs. “He’s the harbourmaster’s son. He’ll let me work on the boats, and he doesn’t expect me to do all the cooking. He can play the bombard.”
Melusine makes a clicking sound in her throat. She reaches out and presses her fingertips to the point of Eluned’s chin, and Eluned feels it all through her body. The soles of her feet tingle. She closes her eyes against the moonlight and sighs more loudly than the tide. She loves Arzhel. She’s never wanted him to touch her.
Melusine touches her. Melusine’s hands are deft and steady. While Eluned fumbles the ties of her dress, Melusine’s clever fingers play over her skin better than those of the most skilled bombard player.
“Is this what it’s like?” Eluned gasps.
“Your hair is like gold,” says Melusine, wonderingly. They unroll Melusine’s seal skin on the wet sand and make love on its smooth surface. Eluned catches glimpses of deep dark oceans no human has ever seen. She tastes the briny sweat on Melusine’s breasts and explores her belly, her strong thighs, her cunt. Melusine yelps like an animal as she comes. Eluned’s own voice is lost.
They lie there into the night, trusting the air to keep them warm, and talk, and draw on each other’s skin all the words they don’t have time for.
“Seven years,” mourns Eluned.
“Seven years,” Melusine promises.
Their son looks more like her than Arzhel. Eluned knows it pleases him, and she knows it will please him more if it’s the same with their daughter. She’s sure this one is a girl, because she was sick right up to the sixth month. Now it’s only a month until Little Eluned is born, but she picks her way down to the beach regardless. The sun is setting and the waters look bloody. The seaweed clings to the rocks, looking like afterbirth.
Melusine doesn’t look very different. Her face is a little more angular in adulthood, but her body is as fit and lovely as it ever was. Eluned is glad her dress hides her stretchmarks, if not the bulk of her pregnancy.
“You married Arzhel?” Melusine asks. She clutches her seal skin to her chest, and Eluned nods.
“We live at the edge of the harbour, with his daddy. It’s a very nice house–I can look down onto the flats where the seals sunbathe.”
“I’ve been travelling,” says Melusine in a rush. “I haven’t been here.”
“Would I have been able to tell?” Eluned asks.
There’s a moment of silence. This isn’t as easy as Eluned imagined it would be when they met again. But she knows Melusine didn’t expect this grown woman, her hair pinned up in a cap and her second baby about to drop.
“Tell me all the things you’ve seen,” she requests. She’d like to tell Melusine about her life, about baking bread, washing clothes, learning the bombard from Arzhel and how in seven years she still hasn’t got tired of talking to him. She’d like to tell Melusine that Little Arzhel is a bright, handsome boy and she loves him like the ocean loves salt. She doesn’t think Melusine would like to hear any of it.
So she listens to Melusine talk about the far north, where there are floating lumps of ice the size of mountains, and bears as white as snow. Melusine talks about a cold sky filled with colours that move like a shoal of rainbow fish.
The summer air is stifling. Eluned thinks longingly of the north wind, and almost doesn’t notice when Melusine’s small brown hand creeps into hers.
“It gets lonely,” Melusine murmurs.
“Are you on your own?” Eluned asks.
“No,” admits Melusine. “It’s still lonely.”
Eluned understands that. She trembles as Melusine’s hot mouth closes on her sweaty collar bone. The small of her back aches, and her ankles hurt. She unlaces her dress, and Melusine kisses her breasts and her heavy stomach.
“You’re still Eluned,” Melusine whispers, and Eluned can hear the relief in her voice.
“I’m still Eluned,” she agrees, and feels lighter for having said it. She’s still Eluned, and Melusine still washes over her like a tidal wave, her hair soft and always half-damp, her fingers finding the right places to make Eluned lose her voice and close her eyes and see colours in a faraway sky.
She has just enough time to get home and wash herself and pin her hair back up before dawn creeps onto Arzhel’s face and wakes him. He looks childlike and vulnerable this early in the morning, his short, pointed beard like something fake stuck on for a game.
“Why are you up so early, Elu?” he asks.
“I couldn’t sleep,” she lies. Once every seven years. No need to feel guilty.
She brings him breakfast in bed.
Once during the next seven years she tells him she’s looking forward to turning thirty, and he laughs at her. But she wonders later if that ill-considered remark is what gives him the idea.
“I thought you’d be pleased.” Arzhel is puzzled, the children crestfallen. Little Arzhel is just reaching the age where his bones are almost outgrowing the rest of him, stretching him into the beginnings of adolescence, but he’s as dismayed as chubby Little Eluned.
“I am pleased,” says Eluned slowly. “You’re all so thoughtful. But we can’t go away for the whole summer. Not this year. Next year. We could go next year.”
Little Eluned screws up her face.
“I kept the secret,” she complains.
They all kept it secret. A nice surprise for Eluned’s thirtieth birthday–a whole summer off, up in the hills, staying with Arzhel’s cousin. Eluned feels as though her every breath is shorter than the last. All the seagulls outside the window look like albatrosses to her.
“Not this year,” she says. “Arzhel.”
Arzhel has always been a good man. It’s not his fault he’s given her everything she has. He looks at her now and she knows he’ll cancel the trip if she tells him no.
Melusine is seven years away, the promise of a handful of pretty hours. There are three disappointed faces Eluned will have to look at every day.
“All right,” she says, like she’s choking, but she smiles for them all.
They all agree it’s a wonderful summer.
“Fourteen years!” Melusine screams. It’s a cold summer. The sea is grey and the air smells of rotting bladderwrack. Eluned grabs Melusine like a drowning woman.
“You didn’t.” Melusine sobs once against Eluned’s shoulder, one hand fisting in the back of her dress, the other still clutching her seal skin.
“There was a family trip,” says Eluned.
Melusine makes angry animal sounds, but they both know one day isn’t enough time to hold grudges. They have no choice but to put it aside, heaped up next to everything else. Eluned has brought blankets, and they retreat from the chilly sea up into the reeds that poke through the sand, where they wrap themselves in wool and sealskin and relearn each other.
Melusine has some lines by her eyes, but she’s still strong and lithe. She traces Eluned’s stretchmarks, pokes her soft belly, then slides a hand between her thighs and touches her.
“That’s the same,” she observes.
“Why can’t you stay longer? Would the land roll up and tip you into the sea if you were with me at dawn?”
There’s a moment of quiet. Eluned enjoys the working of Melusine’s fingers and the faint whisper of the rushes. She doesn’t really expect an answer, but then Melusine withdraws her hand. Her dark eyes are half-closed.
“My skin would dissolve away to nothing. If I stayed until dawn I’d have to stay forever.”
Eluned moves, making sure the blanket is tucked securely over both of them. She can feel the seal skin beneath them, warming them like a third body.
“Of course you couldn’t do that,” she says in a faint voice.
Little Arzhel marries a local girl and settles nearby. Little Eluned meets a man up in the hills where Arzhel’s cousin lives, so they see her often enough. Eluned has to chide her grandchildren for poking the anemones when she takes them down to the beach. She is fifty-one and they think she’s old.
“We are old,” says Melusine. There’s white threads in her hair, and creases by her mouth when she smiles.
“Speak for yourself,” says Eluned. This year the summer is dry, and it’s pleasant to let the incoming waves lap at their toes as they kiss. Melusine tells her about a part of the ocean, half a world away, where fish have wings like bats and fly over the surface of the water.
Eluned frees her hair from its white cap. It’s ashy grey now, and rolls down her back in coils, unsure how to behave without pins in it.
“I’m so lucky.”
“Are you?” Melusine cocks her head.
“Yes,” says Eluned firmly. “What about you?”
“I’m free,” shrugs Melusine, and pulls Eluned down into the surf for another kiss.
Danielle Coombs is a Creative Writing MA student at the University of Surrey, where she also obtained her BA. In her day job she works as an administrator, and she enjoys using the office spiral-binding machine almost as much as she loves writing. She says:
This piece was inspired by the selkie legends I read and loved as a child. In most selkie stories the women are held against their will, and I remember how much it used to upset me. Rather than sticking to that traditional narrative, I wanted my story to explore a more complicated way of being trapped.
Photograph of Fanore (Ireland) is in the public domain.