The Seal King (Part 1)
by Jennifer Noelle Welch
The girl with apricot-colored hair sits on a dock the color of driftwood, her back against a stone wall retaining the land against the push and pull of the sea. Buoys bob and clang. On this small peninsula on the shoulder of the Atlantic, close-set fishermen’s cottages cluster together for comfort. When the wind rakes the swells into whitecaps, yellow foul-weather waders lift on the clotheslines.
It is early September, and the saline haze of summer still hangs ripe and full over the harbor. Louellen, or Lou, as she is called, pulls the frayed cuffs of her father’s coat farther over her hands and presses her spine against the afternoon of too-busy family and heckling high-school classmates. The splashing kids have cleared the dock platform and small swimming beach for another season, leaving her mind to dance with everything and nothing.
Hidden from the village’s view, she is the only one to hear the sound of water breaking, followed by the sudden motion of a weak hand on the dock ladder. When the form of a young man hoists itself over the edge and collapses on the sun-baked wood in front of her, she confirms his body’s unbroken whiteness before darting her attention away, embarrassment heating her cheeks.
A joke, she thinks. Some prank on a party boat where they stole the young man’s clothes and threw him overboard, yelling “Swim!” as their cruise ferried tourists in a tame circle out to the lighthouse on the point and back.
But the young man doesn’t speak of this. The young man says nothing, in fact, but stares at his hand spread against the weather-cured planks, ragged gasps escaping his throat.
I should leave. I should get help, she thinks, drawing her legs away. Yet at her movement he jerks aware, staring her in the face, and she is reminded of a childhood moment when she held an amber banner of kelp up to the sun. The stranger’s eyes are the same color, like light through a brown bottle, and as he takes in her rumpled pants, baggy work-jacket and checkered blouse, a voice rushes into her mind like wind through sea grass.
They took my skin from me….
His lips haven’t moved. “How did you–?”
His words, more vehement now, startle her again.
I’ve lost the tribe. I’m forever cast out.
He collapses once more, pale ribcage heaving in and out, rivulets of water spilling through the planks to the slow rise and fall beneath.
A drunk. A loony, near-drowned, she thinks. The hair at the back of his neck swirls in dark eddies, like the wet sheen of a cormorant’s back.
Some essence of the tides issues from him, ancient and salt-soaked, as familiar to her as her own village, which with its single general store cannot be called a town. Something about the young man is part of the first breath of air she ever drew, so she sheds the coat and lifts his shoulder to draw the threadbare canvas around his unmarked skin. Still, she shudders when his wet head falls on her leg, like that of a dog.
A breeze tickles the hair around her face, and when she shuts her eyes against it, an image enters her mind of sleek, dark shapes circling in an aura of light. A rocky amphitheatre appears to her, far beneath the fluttering currents, where a colony of seals darts with nervous curiosity, half-watching, half-hiding from a commotion at the center of the sand clearing. She beholds in the inner landscape of his memory a young seal hovering, his eyes regal like those of the youth in front of her, and knows. It’s him.
“Your reign of lies has ended!”
The accusation reverberates from a wizened bull, who rotates slowly, commandeering the attention of a group of Elders. As he uses the mind-speech again, his eyes narrow.
“The old king gave up his life to the moon-tide, like the old queen before him. Gave over his crown to Kells, here before us, ocean-shifts ago. But at last the truth has come, on the sacred currents. I say to you, Kells. You are not the son of the old sire!”
“Rannick, I am as much son as the king ever had.”
“Listen! He does not deny it!” Veeren, the squint-eyed mouthpiece of the females, floats to her mate’s side.
Kells’ thoughts boom out to the gathered colony. “I’ve kept no secrets from the Elder Council. We’ve had our disputes, but this agitation…. You bring discord. Pointless turbulence.”
Rannick’s eyes widen in mock innocence. “I bring nothing but revelation! Are you or are you not the former king’s blood kin?”
Kells’ eyes lift to the perimeter of dark faces, stirring in the folds of the walls above. Even as an eavesdropper on the memory, the girl can sense his indecision.
“I am the offspring he made his own.”
A pock-riddled male with a propeller-scarred shoulder barks out to the listening assembly. “But not of his blood, as our tribe requires. How long have we been deceived, all of us? Have we made one addition to our territory in the moons since this pup became king?”
“He has no right to lead!”
The Elders bob with gratification at the shifting murmurs around them.
The seal king’s flipper, beyond his control, flicks with annoyance.
“This is a colony of plenty. Who among you has gone without? There is no need to seek war and conflict, to hoard the excess!”
Rannick calls out. “What king would ban from you your deserved tide-reapings? Not I, I promise you.”
The gray shapes hang nearer over Kells, pulsing with turbulent fervor. Other voices join in.
“You kept secrets from your Council. From your colony!”
Rannick circles. “Yes, a mongrel!”
Veeren’s voice speaks suddenly at Kells’ neck, vicious and close. “You are not selkie-folk.”
Selkies? Lou repeats. Her mind whirls.
Above him, they have begun to slap the rocks, a rhythm, wild and terrible. As though she is inside his body, the girl feels Kells’ heart quicken.
“Mongrel! Mongrel!” The colony has unified in a single voice.
Kells senses the verdict before Rannick speaks. “A deceiver forfeits his skin!”
“Yes! His skin!”
Impossible, now, to go back. To project his single thoughts into that maelstrom. The shapes close in, a vortex of rage, and the blows begin to land. Rough thuds of shoulders and flanks. In the midst of it, he feels his pelt begin to loosen. At the sensation of a foreign, cold trickle, he is gripped with sudden revulsion by the idea of what will happen. He could with one colossal movement thrash and dart from them, he thinks. But just at that moment, his skin ripples and begins to lift.
The change is a sideways, painless dislocation. A baffling chill presses upon his limbs, loosened from their mantle. No longer flippers, but forearms. His body twists at the blasphemy of the sight, every frustrated move, now, separating him from the velvet folds. The last brush of that floating warmth is a tender agony. Spread-limbed and human, he reels with nausea, seeing the other half of his soul now become a living cape around Rannick’s shoulders.
“To the shallows!”
What threat is he, this shivering boy-form, to the new king? Nonetheless, Rannick’s minions drag him, nipping and buffeting. Through miles of middle water, to the mouth of the harbor channel, and further in, where their nostrils clog with wave-dust and strange streams of scent. Leaving him adrift in water where he can now… stand, after all, as that is what befits a fallen king. A cast-off selkie. Now become a man.
He pulls away and fixes Lou with that broken stare.
You see, now, what they have done to me. The sleek voice, again, in her head. But you cannot understand what it means.
For the first time he raises himself to stand, swaying on the balls of his feet.
Without my skin, let the depths take me. Let the ocean drown this worthless half-body on the outgoing tide.
He drops from the dock, then grits his teeth and wades (oh humiliation!–she can see the shame on his face), to sit on a wave-slicked boulder, waiting for the sea to turn. A pale man in a borrowed coat.
She could walk up the hill. She could return to her lamp-lit porch. A kitchen steamy with cooking and damp clothes. A warm, heaped plate. But at the base of the slope she turns, remembering in the fading afternoon a far-off tale. A rocking chair memory. And she knows she will not walk up the hill.
In a moment she stands next to him in the shallows, wavelets slapping against the bulky denim of her jeans.
“What if that’s not the way it has to be?”
Her grandmother’s house with its weathered gray shingles and evergreen shutters still stands like a figurehead on the bluff. Before selling it, the small woman, grizzled, content, lived there alone. Whatever season–dry leaves blowing from bare trees, first grass sweetening the hill-slopes–Lou rode her bicycle to find her mother’s mother sitting on her porch, watching the play of sun on the water.
Lou would lean on the railing, finger extended towards the chain of islands they called the Dumplings. “What is that island, Granny? That last one. With the trees.”
Her grandmother’s eyes crinkled with mischief. “That is the island of the selkies. On the far side of it, the old fisher folk said, you might try to find the Blue Tide. When the full moon appears, a different current comes up deep, from Race Reef. Meet it, and then!” She smiled. “Then, you might dance with the selkies, under the surface of the sea.”
Race Reef. Bluefishing over it from their little skiff, the girl had heard the warnings from her father. The underwater chasm pulled down in strange vacuums wayward chunks of driftwood, the refuse from trawlers on their way back to harbor, the accidental swimmer. She had seen it once. A man overboard who never surfaced. A life ring drifting on the indifferent swells.
But her grandmother told a different story. “Swim down, they say, to where you feel the Blue Tide’s pull. Give yourself over, give up all your breath, and maybe, that stream will enter you. Then, you will hear the song of the sea.”
“The song, Granny?”
“I hear it on the wind sometimes, after a storm. Or that’s my wishing. Such peace, in that sound!”
With no more to offer, Lou stops. During her story Kells’ face has grown wary. When he speaks the words aloud, they are accented with a strange lilt.
“Th–That is impossible. For your people to hear the song. To travel the middle waters. Lou, is it? We have our own myths of the water visitors, who tried and failed. They are tales of sunken hearts and drowned bones.”
She shakes her head. “You can see the island from here. The tide turns after midnight.”
“And the night-orb is coming full circle. What does it matter?” From behind the coat collar, his teeth flash bitterly. “As I am, I couldn’t even cross that distance.”
The girl watches him turn away, before her gaze comes to rest amongst the grasses on shore.
“Not without help.”
So much vocalization for a species, Kells thinks. Rowing the small skiff alongside the peninsula in the direction of the islands, the human female, seeming nervous, has chattered without interval.
“Dad and I scallop just off that marsh. And there’s the East Light.”
He sits in the stern, amazed at the workings of her body, tugging the oars, left, right, left, then in tandem. For a short time they had sought for him to take a turn, but found his hands weakened and unnerved by the motion. The foreign garment, too, he had cast up towards the bow once they left the land, muttering “Not the same.” She had reddened, then shrugged at his disrobed presence and kept on rowing.
“Scallops, lobsters…. We eat every kind of fish, ‘til we can’t stand it, I swear.” She quiets suddenly, and he spots in her mind the memory-echo of the swimming shapes, the discomfort of an unasked question. Her brief, self-conscious glance is the color of a wave-peak.
Where his whiskers would have twitched with amusement, he feels an odd pull at the corners of his mouth. “You think we, part fish, do not eat fish?”
“Right. You’re a seal.”
By the day-orb, he scoffs to himself. “I am a selkie. Seals surface to breathe. They cannot mind-speak. They live a fraction of our lifespan.”
“Really?” says Lou.
In actuality, he does not mind the talk, which distracts him from the tease of the green sliding deep on his trailing fingers. So thin and terribly exposed, he thinks. But considering the girl’s hands, he is not so sure. Calloused, square and brown, they slide and tug, slide and tug on the ocean-splashed handles, punctuating each stroke with the oarlocks’ clank. She is using her back, now, long wooden blades feathering through the resistance like fins through water. He had never enjoyed shedding his pelt at will, unlike some other selkies, and now, the sight of his human frame has only just ceased to appall him.
He had asked Lou, when they dragged the small vessel from the reeds lining the harbor, “Your kind. Who is your clan?”
“Up there,” Lou had motioned. “In the village. Don’t worry. I take the boat out all the time.”
“You were–” He tests the word against his meaning. “Separate. Where is your colony?”
“Colony?” The word was a blank. “Like school? My class?”
“The others to which you belong.”
She had stared at him then, before busying herself with the bow-rope. His efforts to explain further flapped like a dropped shell to the bottom of a shallow silence. Together they had righted the boat amongst the fleecing cattails, which were turning bronze in the last of the daylight. When he felt the bouncing of the boat on the water for the first time, his gut had lurched with the sharpest pang of longing.
Now, mirrored coves replaced the harbor, giving off whiffs of strange vegetation and once, the shuff-shuff, shuff-shuff of metal rocketing against metal. “Just the train tracks,” Lou had said, but not before Kells had shamed himself by flinching like an unweaned pup at the sounding horn.
A muffled knocking brings his attention back to the boat.
“Something’s caught on us,” Lou says. “Stupid. I forgot to pull the bowline in when we launched.” They are out into deeper water, and she is hanging over the side, pulling at a massive snarl of rope. At the sight, Kells shudders. Every loop from the land is a noose. The old training comes back. Don’t touch it. Rocks, shells, bones, are playthings. Not this.
“An old trawling net,” Lou says. “Too heavy to pull into the boat, but I can’t steer with it dragging. We’re going to need the keel free, once we come around the point.” Balancing, he moves to her side, surveying with dread the knotted fibers, green with weeds. He had told no one, that time, when Tenny had looped a piece around his neck, playing at something, and they had had to bloody their gums to free him. His thumb moves to the white row of his teeth, testing the points.
These land-walker jaws might sever it.
Whether or not he intended to speak into her mind, she responds, startling him. “No time. The water picks up past the peninsula. I can cut the net without losing our line.”
When she rises from the bottom of the boat with something in her hands, Kells’ heart leaps at the flash of silver, so like a fish. But no. Only a flat length of metal, attached to a stout handle.
“My dad’s shucking knife. We’re too far out for rocks. If you hold the oars flat nothing will swamp us.”
“You won’t be able to stand.” He takes the handles from her, noticing the smirk on her lips.
“I may be a ‘land-walker’, but I’ve been over my head before.”
As Lou lowers herself over the side and into the water, her boots, thrown towards the stern, captivate him for a moment with their intricacy of undone bows and laces. Between wet gasps and long silences, the boat tremors with the force of her sawing.
“It’s just about there,” she says. Get ready for the current to take us.”
Bracing her feet, Lou reaches below the water and tugs mightily, and the rope snaps. He feels the knots bumping free underneath. She calls to him in triumph.
Silence presses upon him. Standing, he glimpses, under the water, a flash of checkered shirt in a tangle of line, sweeping down and away in the undertow below the surface current. He does not think. He does not speak. He plunges into the sea.
No wave-music. No breath. Were these paralyzing waters the ocean that had once embraced him? The girl with her empty lungs is borne down easily, the net twined around her and spreading like a sail on the current, drawing her body away. Kells kicks after her, fixated on the tightly pressed line of her lips, willing it not to break. She ceases striking out in fear as he seizes her ankles, working swiftly with clumsy hands, teeth, anything, to loosen her. Lou twists one arm free, and struggling against the weight of water and rope, they work upwards. Air splits their lungs, and immediately he dives again. Somehow, in the fury of his hands, her legs come free, and the net is gone. At the surface he grasps her close, her breath frantic in his ear. Her eyes are reeling, fixed on the heavens.
“We’re safe. You saved me!”
When her grip on him loosens, he barks with concern, “Don’t stop holding!”
“Where–” Her head lolls, twisting to look. “Oh god, the boat!”
To be continued in Part 2!
About the Author
Jennifer Noelle Welch grew up in Mystic, Connecticut, and currently writes fantasy, speculative fiction, and the occasional YA story in Portland, Maine. Her short fiction has appeared in such publications as Aoife’s Kiss, Penumbra, and InterGalactic Medicine Show. She is a Writers of the Future semi-finalist and a graduate of the Odyssey Writing Workshop. Currently, she is at work on a novel. When she isn’t writing, you can find her exploring the nearest museums, junk shops, and barbecue restaurants. Find her on Twitter @jen__welch.
About the Narrator
Your narrator – Paul Cram – is a scrappy actor who’s character in movies always seems to be the one that dies. His latest role in Anniversary has him awake at night seeing things that no one wants to admit are happening. While Paul still considers his voice to be somewhat new to the world of audio books, he has a few full-length novels under his belt, including the love story Flirting With Death set against the beauty of Lake Michigan & the Zombie Apocalypse. When not acting, Paul can be found out in the woods of Minnesota, arguing pop-culture with his little brother.