“The Selkie” is a short story I’ve written as part of a back story to THE CHARMED CHILDREN OF ROOKSKILL CASTLE. I’ve posted it here in its entirety. I hope you enjoy!
Leonore slips out the door and makes for the burn. She flies across the heath and through the bogs, the peat wet and spongy under her bare feet, as the sounds retreat behind, the howls of anger and coarse insults. She bears a bruise on her arm from his grip, from where she twisted away, but it’s only a single bruise. This time.
Water splashes down the hillside. Bracken arches over, and Leonore finds the rock between two ferns where she can sit and dip her feet into the icy water. As the water numbs she rakes her fingers through her dark hair until it falls past her shoulders, only a few knots left. One tear slides down her cheek and she rubs it away.
She’s only a child, though she’s twelve. She still clutches her rag dolly at night, though her brothers tease her. She still pretends, because pretending is one way to leave it all behind. She wants to escape, and would do almost anything.
So she looks at the water and wishes to make herself new. She would do anything to make herself new.
She will be a selkie. She will take a sealskin form and run to the sea and away from the father who makes her life miserable. She will be a selkie, and become magic and live forever under the foaming whitecaps.
She will be a selkie. She will be free. And more.
She finds the deep pool where the water is captive before it cascades down the kill to the sea. What will it take to become a selkie? She never asked when she had the chance. She closes her eyes and wishes, and wishes. “A changeling,” she whispers. “I wish to change.”
Leonore dives under the water. It’s so cold she can hardly breathe. She doesn’t mind because soon, she thinks, she’ll change and she’ll live under the water like a seal and breathing will not be a problem. She opens her eyes.
Her hair floats around her in the green light of the pool. Bubbles float from her mouth to the surface. She waits and wishes and waits, but instead of becoming silky seal-skin smooth her human skin is covered in small cold-bumps. Instead of breathing underwater she feels a pain in her chest like a rock pressing hard.
She has to rise out of the water, gasping.
“Please let me change!” she cries. She’s so sure it’s the only thing that will save her from a life of misery. She climbs out of the pool, shaking all over, and collapses into the moss and weeps. “I wish I could be a selkie.” She presses her face into the moss. “Take me away, please, to be a selkie. Change me. Oh, Mother, please.”
Be careful, the leaves overhead whisper. Be careful, swish the grasses.
Be careful what you wish for, comes a thought that lifts out of the very earth.
Leonore remembers her mother.
When Leonore is old enough to walk, she follows her mother everywhere. To the well, where the other women cast dark glances at the pale-haired, pale-skinned Fiona. To the cooper, who stands at his doorway watching them as they turn for home. To the woods, where Fiona gathers mushrooms and berries, all while singing quietly.
Leonore doesn’t understand the mutterings of the other women.
Her father didn’t drink so much when Fiona was still with them. He didn’t hate Leonore then. That comes after.
Leonore remembers first seeing a selkie.
She and Fiona are hunting for crab along the rocky shore when the selkie rises from the water, its dark head shining.
“Hallo, Mother,” Fiona calls. “Bless us with food from your treasure-stores.”
Leonore cannot close her mouth for amazement, as she watches the selkie slide back beneath the waves. Later, she remembers nothing but those eyes, so large and round. And her mother’s greeting, as if Fiona knows the selkie, as if Fiona herself comes from the sea.
Leonore confides in her friend Beatrice, that her mother is a selkie, aye, for sure.
Bea’s eyes grow wide, as she asks, “Then she’s no a witch?”
Leonore is shocked. “Nay! A witch! Where do ye hear such a thing?”
“That’s what they say,” Bea says, pouting. “Me ma and the others. A witch, with her beauty, they ken.”
“She’s no witch,” answers Leonore.
A selkie, she thinks, but no witch.
“And a selkie’s a grand thing to be,” Leonore says. “No like a witch.”
A selkie is a grand thing to be. And there is, Leonore thinks, a difference between a selkie and a witch.
Fiona leans against the wall of the mill, gasping. Leonore sees the blood on the dust at her mother’s feet, as her mother clutches her round belly.
“Lass,” says her mother, “fetch the midwife. Quick, now.”
Leonore hides behind her ragged curtain, listening to the screams. She plugs her ears with her fingers, and rocks. Her mother has gone through this before. Leonore swears that she will never bear a babby, never, never.
When all is over, and the midwife gone, Leonore hears no small wails. She knows the wee thing has not survived. The second one, she thinks.
Leonore hears her mother’s soft cries, her father’s attempt to comfort. Three stout sons and Leonore, that’s enough, he says. No need to weep over this one or that.
Fiona stops weeping but the women of the village now give her glowering looks.
Leonore hears the muttered words. Words like cursed. Madness. Evil. Now she understands.
Fiona is still a beauty, but her eyes are dark and round and haunted. Deep gray circles nest above her pale cheeks. Her hair has turned the color of ash, and is full of snares and tangles. She spends more time alone, and Leonore’s father spends more time at the ale-house.
Leonore will never bear a human child, no never.
Leonore no longer dogs her mother’s heels, but she follows nevertheless.
She follows Fiona to the sea, where Fiona raises her arms to the waves, where she even wades into the icy water, lifting her skirts so that her white legs show.
Leonore follows her mother into the woods, where she watches from behind the tall bracken as her mother dances in the failing daylight, dances barefooted on the springy sod, a crown of flowers laced through her pale hair.
Leonore fears a thing, which is why she talks to Bea, for Bea is that much older.
“What does a witch do?” Leonore asks, as they sit plaiting the flax for rope.
“Dances in the moonlight. Casts spells and such,” answers Bea. “Especially over bairns. Why, a witch would make a changling child, a sith, and steal the real babby for her own.”
Leonore leans away. “But I’m no changling. And my mother doesn’t dance in moonlight, only by day. So there’s no need to fret.”
Bea stops her handwork and narrows her eyes.
When the men come to their hut Fiona is not there. She has wandered again to the sea, Leonore following at a distance.
That’s why her father blames Leonore. Because she leads the men to Fiona. And because she has said things to Beatrice, her friend.
When the men rush past Leonore in their pursuit of her mother, the cooper grabs her by the arms and holds her tight, so tight she wears the bruises for days, so tight she lets out a high-pitched cry, like a babby’s wail.
At the wail Fiona turns and sees the men, and she dives straight into the sea, pushing into the water and out and out, as the men gather by the shore watching, as Leonore watches until she sees only the sleek head of her mother, who turns and looks straight at Leonore, great round eyes staring at Leonore before Fiona’s head slips beneath the water, slips away and disappears.
Leonore watches the waves long after the men return to the village. She watches until she sees the sleek brown back of a selkie rise in a curve and then disappear, and she knows her mother is a selkie.
Leonore doesn’t know when he notices her first. She is, after all, yet a child – though she’s old enough for marriage by some laws.
For a time the miller’s son follows her around like a faithful dog, and the boy who mends nets brings her posies, but her father threatens them and they now avert their eyes when she meets them at the well.
That’s fine, she thinks. She will find a way to become a selkie like her mother and when she does, she’ll drift away with the tide on a moonlit night when her father and brothers are all asleep. She will be a selkie – and maybe even a witch, like her mother – and find a new life far from the hovel that is her prison.
Her father blames Leonore, and so he should.
But the lord of Rookskill Castle has other plans for Leonore. Plans she knows nothing about.
She’s unaware of him entirely until one spring morning when she hears the rumor that he has sent his third wife to the convent for her failure to deliver him a child. Leonore sees the black coach with its curtains drawn, watches as it disappears in the mist that drifts in from the forest, chased by dogs until they lose interest and return to the village, tongues lolling in victory.
She feels sorry for the woman, but that’s the end of it. The lord of Rookskill Castle is a mystery to Leonore and to her that’s just fine.
She enters the hut as quiet as a mouse. But her father is there, at the table, the leathern jack before him. She tries to slip along the wall, but he catches sight of her and his mouth curls into a grin.
“There she be,” he says, and she begins to tremble. “My ticket up in this world.”
She stops, wondering what he means. Even the trembling stops.
“Aye. Your bonnie looks buy me a place. I thought you were my useless, witless bairn, but there it is.” And he laughs.
He hasn’t growled at her yet today. He hasn’t hit her. And she’s got no clue what he means.
“Take care of those looks, lassie, for a bargain has been struck. Four months.” And he laughs again. “And stay away from those village lads.”
Four months? Leonore makes her way through the hut to the back, where she climbs the ladder fast and quiet to the loft, and slips behind the rag that makes her private space. She folds into herself, clasping her arms around her knees, and rocks. In four months she turns thirteen.
Beatrice wed at thirteen. Her friend is now big with child, and tied to a farmer who lost his first wife to childbed fever. Leonore doesn’t see Bea except at the well, and Bea is pale and swollen and fearful, and trailing behind her three wee bairns that are her stepchildren.
Does Leonore’s father mean that he’s promised her? She rocks, and thinks about the possibility. The smith is unmarried, a scowling bull of a man. The boys in the village are young, and of them all, only the miller’s son has a kind heart. But her father sent him away before and once again warned her against him.
The smith could snap her like a twig. Leonore rocks and rocks, back and forth.
Leonore will become a selkie, and then she’ll bear no human child, and fear no death. “Please let me bear no human child,” she whispers. She will not wed but remain a selkie forever.
Changelings are made by faeries as well as by witches. If Leonore can find the faerie king, she can beg to be made a changeling. Beg to become a selkie. She weaves a basket of willows as a gift for the faerie king and a crown of fair wildflowers as a gift for the faerie queen, for she knows she cannot go to the faeries empty-handed.
She makes her way across the heath, singing, for her mother used to say that the faeries are enticed by song.
She makes her way into the woods where she stops singing, for the woods are gloomy and damp, and her voice echoes, and she fears calling out a bogle.
She finds the faery ring where her mother danced but it is empty. She leaves the basket and the crown in the center of the ring and closes her eyes and makes her wish.
“Make me a selkie. Help me bear no human child.”
On her way back to the hut she passes, at a distance, the castle. Rookskill. It spikes into the sky, the square keep glowering, the parapet walls like teeth. The lord of Rookskill lives there, the lord who sent away his wives, all three, one by one.
The lord who has no wife, now, because none of them would bear him a child.
Leonore stops dead in her tracks.
“Buy me my place.”
“A bargain has been struck.”
No. Not possible. She’s a village maid, not noble-born.
At the next burn she pauses, finds a still side pool, stares down into the water. Dark hair, black as coal. Eyes as blue as the sea. A fair face.
“Your bonnie looks.”
But not noble-born. And desiring to bear no human child.
Leonore reaches into the water, whispers, “Take me away. Make me a selkie.”
Be careful, calls the swift as it wings by.
In midsummer a large carved casket arrives at the doorstep. It is delivered by a man dressed so fine that the village children have gathered at a distance to stare. Not his lordship, no, but a man from Rookskill itself, carried in a carriage drawn by four black stallions.
The man hands Leonore’s father a fat purse. He bows low to Leonore’s father, and then to Leonore herself, while her brothers gape, before he turns and leaves.
People hover, waiting. Bea is there, near to her time, hugging her belly.
Leonore’s father opens the casket, points. “That’s yours. This,” he says and hoists the purse, “is mine.” He laughs and slaps the shoulder of his oldest son, and together they make for the ale-house, followed by the crowd of villagers all wagging gossip.
Leonore reaches into the casket, and her hand finds something so soft and slick that her heart speeds up to a race.
She pulls it out, but, no. It’s not seal-skin. It’s a fabric she doesn’t know, that feels soft and slick but also furry. It’s dark as midnight. She pulls, and it becomes a kirtle, and underneath a shirt so white it looks like snow, and more garments underneath, more than she has ever had, more than she knew existed.
Leonore sinks to the bench, the garments spilling out of the casket.
She wishes to be a selkie. To be a selkie and to bear no human child. “Take me away.” She wishes…she wishes…
She touches the fabric. What does she wish for, after all?
She wishes to be away. She could be away, in this fabric that feels like seal-skin.
There are rumors about the village, of a ramshackle hut inhabited by a wee man, a bogle-like, out near the boggy end. They say he has arrived in the village only lately – or perhaps he’s been there all along, his hut so broken as it is. These rumors are whispered in the quiet, in the dark.
Leonore doesn’t hear the rumors until much later, because her father has now forbid her to even go to the well, sending her grumbling next-older brother in her stead.
“Keep you from mixing with them,” her father growls. “Can’t spoil this.”
The rumors Leonore doesn’t hear are full of words like spells. Enchantments. Magic.
If she had heard the rumors, she might have gone to this ramshackle hut. She might have begged a favor of the wee man of magic.
“Make me into a selkie,” she might have said.
But, after the velvet kirtle, she might not after all.
If she had known then. If she had known, it’s possible that none of the rest would have happened as it did.
She weds the lord of Rookskill on Lammas Eve. She wears the sealskin-velvet kirtle.
She hopes she will not disappoint her new master. He’s kind enough. He has lifted her from the misery of her young life, and she now has maids to dress her, and shoes for her feet, and velvet to touch. They teach her how to speak and how to eat like a lady, they show her how to behave.
But his lordship is a distant man, so much older, so far from her, and he wants one thing only: a child. A boy. A son to be his heir.
Leonore will give him a boy, she’s sure, despite her earlier misgivings. She’s changed her mind.
But by Christmas, she does not quicken. Her maids can show her how to behave but will not speak of other matters in her presence. And Bea, who could have told her a thing or two, has died delivering her own son to the farmer now saddled alone with four wee bairns.
Leonore’s only friends are the rooks who gather nightly at her window, so she begins to feed them scraps from the kitchens, and they return the favor with fidelity to her.
A gift appears on her bed one dark night. It is a silver chatelaine, lovely to look at, and she wears it every day after although no one can tell her who placed it there.
She hopes it is a secret gift from her new husband, because she wants him to care for her, even if he does so in secret.
Sometimes, in the dark night, she rises from her bed and throws open the window, disturbing the roosting rooks. Despite the cold she leans out, and listens to the ocean beating, beating on the cliffs while the rooks wing wide around her. She gave her mother to die for this, this thing Leonore has now.
She strokes the velvet blanket that is draped over her shoulders, and thinks of sealskin, and of becoming a selkie, that old wish, that former wish.
Her wishes have changed, that’s certain. Her mind has changed.
She would change herself body and soul now to bring her lord a son. She would be a changeling.
She would do anything, including change.
Be careful, whisper the rooks. Be careful what you wish for.