dog-lit by daybreak, the fisherman hauled his nets to shore. he liked to watch the seals coming in,
watch them bundle themselves, all flesh and thickness.
his mammy had told him about the seal-wives. their heathen love, how they played on the sands.
there were four today, whiskering up the cove with barks and flaps. he wondered if they were sisters.
there was no telling what went on in the water.
the next morning, as he dragged his boat in, there were no seals – but there were three women. lovely
women, women bathing in the sea. he’d never seen a woman fully naked before. on the sand were
three swathes of greyed hide.
he dropped his nets and ran. the seal-women grabbed their skins, then slipped in. their mothers had
told them to fear land-folk: our theft, pity, church spires.
he remembered the fourth seal from yesterday, tracked the shoreline round, found her bathing at a low
point in the bay.
her seal-skin was draped over a rock. this was no common woman. this was no common seal.
she was all alone, no sisters to save her.
he knew what to do. no woman in town would have him. he stepped closer to the skin.
he grasped her seal skin with his flab fingers. she said something then, but he could not fathom her
yelps. I believe it was something to the tune of: my sisters will come for me.
the skin on his back, he gript her hair by the roots. she nipped his cheek, so he broke her nose, then
bound her arms with his net. he dragged her howling home.
he tied her to the kitchen table, then sliced off a piece of her flipper skin, and shoved it in her mouth.
she was quiet then. he hid her skin in a place she would not spy.
he filled a bucket, and soaped her down. after a full towelling, she was soft and dry.
next, he combed her hair till it hung lank as Jesus. he spent time picking out her clothes, and was
pleased with the outcome.
she wore a sagging dress of his mother’s, and a chain of pearls like an albatross. each sphere weighed
her down. she longed for her sisters. he stared at her like he’d eye his toenails – filthy, but ripe for
he fried mackerel for their dinner. he offered her a spoon, but she could not get the grasping right.
she’d never held anything but her sisters. she gagged at the heat. they spat the bones out two by two.
that night, he slept in the fish cellar for decency. she stared at the ceiling. wondered where he‘d
hidden her skin. she cursed her carelessness. her sisters had warned her not to linger on the sands.
they’ll take your blubber for bread. men have no love for the sea-women.
she dreamt of her sisters fishing on the roof, hooking sailors off the sands and eating them for supper.
she woke to barking. her sisters had hauled their blubbering bodies from the waters, crawled up the
land to bring her home.
roused by these cows, the fisherman flung his door open. the seal women snapped at his shins, but his
gut-hook slit skin.
the next morning, a baptism was followed by a marriage, the bride fit only for a funeral. there were
blood tracks stretching all the way from the house, to the sea.
the village had some consternation about the marrying of beasts and men. but, after the gift of a barrel
of eels, the reverend agreed – even sinners among the seals could be saved.
the whole parish came to watch. she gazed at these creatures with their fat eyes. the holy water
inspired tears in the selkie.
after the fisherman bound her with his ring, he would not let her within ten yards of the sea.
wary as a fox, she regarded him, her black eyes unblinking. even his hands were ugly. she could have
wept at them. she longed for the beauty of her sister seals, their sweet ears, the lick of whiskers on her
belly. when he first felt her, she snarled. she would not open to loving touch. her love was for her
sisters alone. she tasted like the sea.
the first time he left her in the house untied,
she smashed every object. she was
looking for her skin. amongst the pieces
of crockery and his pride, she found nothing,
save a lock of his mother’s grizzled hair. this, she pissed on.
when he came home, his fists taught her to keep the house
well-kempt. he learnt how to tread on a heart like a waxed drum,
to stop her trailing off to see her kin.
the crook of a selkie’s tongue cannot manage abstractions,
speaking his tongue was swallowing stones.
she had lost all the words for water.
every meal, she’d point out the window to the sea,
he’d gaze at her swollen belly, shake his head.
once, he found her face down in a pail of water,
swallowing. if she could will her skin to grow back, she would.
in spring, she gave birth to a son with a seal’s face,
round black eyes dreaming of the wet. he lived
just two yowling days. her husband would not allow
a sea burial, so they placed him in the ground.
selkies do not believe in death, only the moving
of a body’s breath from wave to wave. held by the soil,
she did not know where his soul had gone.
soon, her gut bloated to the swell of his next child.
after years of breaking in, the men in the village
joked that they should sell their wives,
catch them a seal, that mouth so open,
you could see the pink inside.
the second whelp lived, with only webbed feet to show for
her sealish mother. he named her Merrow.
the selkie still searched for her skin, dreamt of seals gliding.
one stormy day, Merrow asked what the shadow
in the ceiling was. standing there, she saw
grey in the crook of a beam.
he’d sealed it into the ceiling, while she slept.
she tugged it down, breathing sea-musk.
she nuzzled Merrow, then ran to the ragged sea.
slipped into the wet of her skin, slid in.
three scarred seals rose to greet her,
licked her clean of house-dust and men,
together, they dived and spun and sang.
Now, fifteen, Merrow waited at the shore for her mammy. the silvering had spread up her calves. she
was hiding it from her daddy. any mention of her mother sent him into a fever. for months, he’d slept
clutching a haddock to his chest. he’d promised her to a man in the village. he stank of pig-breath.
there was a stirring in the water, then four grey bobbing heads rose. the first seal spoke to Merrow
through her nose,
this silvering is a sign of your body changing. come to us when you are full silver. you will be both
human and seal. you can live your life on land or in the sea. no man can hold you back.
Merrow nodded. her mother stroked her hardening toes with a tattered flipper. her seal aunts licked
her hands. then, they turned and slid into the sea. she did not know where her mother had gone, only
that she had – from wave to wave – carried by the sea’s intention. she would be back soon.
Annie Hayter is a Barbican Young Poet and a London Writers Awardee for Poetry. In her youth she won the BBC Proms Young Poet Award and was a runner-up for Times Young Poet Award. She has performed at the Barbican, Hoxton Hall, Walthamstow Garden Party, Hammer and Tongue, and at the Barking Broadway, as well as on BBC Radio 3.