Slime-encased rocks dug like prodding imps into Aveny’s backside. She didn’t even register the discomfort. She felt safe here, tucked in this hidden alcove along the edge of Puget Sound.
Her body was bare from a long swim, but she didn’t feel the cold. She never did – not with the skin around. She used to shiver in full snow gear, but not anymore. It was yet another way her body had changed in the last year.
She ran her fingers across the skin’s saturated fur. How many times had she studied this strange, simple form? Countless.
It was soft and smooth beneath her touch. Its modeled hues shifted slightly wherever she ruffled it.
What did the woman mean – it must be “reunited with us”? Us who? And what in the world did she expect Aveny to do about it?
A thought suddenly overtook her. Did the woman want the skin back? The idea of parting with it seized her breath and clutched her heart. It was impossible. Besides, if the woman wanted the skin back, why didn’t she just say so?
Aveny sighed and draped the skin protectively over her bare legs. She wrapped her arms around it as if doing so could keep it there forever. She rested her cheek on the soft, furry surface and gazed out over the water.
Pine covered hills framed the sea on all sides. The cloudy sky reflected in the water, creating pearlescent swirls of blue gray hues. A seagull landed on the beach, pecking at some newly discovered treat between the rocks. The waves maintained their constant metronome, slowly ebbing and flowing ever so gently along the shore. Aveny couldn’t imagine a more beautiful place.
She stood to go, pulling on her shirt and sliding her jeans over her now-dry form.
“Don’t trust her.”
The voice was back.
“You’re going to have to be more specific,” Aveny called into the empty air. “What do you mean? What do you want?”
And there she was, back on the wind-swept cliff, watching the woman disappear into the waves below.
Aveny jerked, startled by the sudden transition. “Seriously!? Just in the middle of the day now?!” she called angrily into the void. The rustling breeze was her only response.
And then she saw the little cinnamon-haired girl, standing there with hot tears streaming down her face, her father helpless behind her. Aveny sobered and watched.
Slowly, the father reached down and took hold of his daughter’s tiny hand. “It’s time to go,” he said, leading her away.
She turned back only once, whispering “Mama?” into the emptiness.
The man faltered, lifted the child into his arms and trudged away.
And there she was again, a little girl no more, but a young woman, gazing out the window of a bumping stage coach. Her eyes gleamed, reflecting the wide expanse of sparkling, blue ocean outside.
The man sat beside her, older now and more somber than before. Noticing her entranced expression, he leaned over, gently closed the curtains and blocked out the light.
The darkness expanded, engulfing the pair, then giving way to a much different scene. Now the girl was standing before her father in a candlelit living room, soaking wet and exhilarated. His stony rage was drowned out by her glee. She was wild with it … until he sank down on the sofa, his head in his hands, and wept.
The girl quieted and her eyes grew wide and misty. She knelt down beside him, water running off her lightly-hued mane in untamed rivulets and saturating the floor beneath.
She placed a concerned hand on his back, then embraced him until he rose and wrapped his arms around her in return. “Please,” he wept, “please don’t go.”
They stood there, sobbing and clinging to one another, for a long time.
And then the scene shifted; the soft glow of firelight swirled in on itself, and extinguished into a canvas of dark and cold. The moon’s eerie gleam lapped at the waves, casting a strange pattern of silver and midnight blue across the ocean’s choppy surface. One softly gleaming form penetrated the expanse – a strangely familiar seal gliding through the sea. Aveny’s heart leapt at the sight of her.
It’s her, Aveny knew. The girl was just like her mom, just like … me.
The young selkie soared through the water, faster and faster, swerving back and forth in gleeful exploration of the open expanse. Aveny could feel the joy radiating off her as she went.
But as the girl jetted through the blackness, Aveny sensed something more – purpose. She was looking for something. Or someone.
Then, just ahead, a brilliant explosion of light. The girl ducked and turned, a rolling splash of alarm. She steadied then dove beneath the waves, surfacing near the recently ignited blaze. Everything was black save for the blinding light of the fire.
The selkie raised her head above the water, red shimmers cascading down her scalp in silky rivulets. Then, another explosion of light illuminated the night sky, this time accompanied by an echoing boom that shook Aveny to the very core.
Suddenly she was aware of nothing but sound. Explosions, clanking, great heaving creaking, and – yes – screams.
Aveny cringed away from the auditory torrent, but the selkie did not move. She simply stared into the chaos, wide eyed and immobile.
Two great ships locked in battle less than 100 yards ahead. Cannons fired, men shouted orders over the clanging din, and heavy masts groaned against the strain.
The girl started and slid forward, her eyes narrowing. And then Aveny saw why. A shadowy form was climbing almost invisibly up the side of one ship. It reached the railing quickly – almost unnaturally fast. Here, it paused before leaping over the rail and landing squarely on the moonlit deck. Aveny gasped.
The woman’s wild black hair was unmistakable. Turning, she saw the same streak of recognition in the young selkie’s eyes.
Nothing made sense – least of all the horrific scene unfolding before her. But there was no time for contemplation. No sooner had the woman landed on deck than a young sailor approached her, brandishing his sword.
She sidestepped, unleashing her own glinting steel. He followed. She parried. He lunged. She spun. Then, an abrupt halt as his eyes widened in disbelief, the woman’s blade impaled through his chest.
She didn’t immediately withdraw, but held him there, suspended, one heartbeat longer. Then, she cast his limp remains unceremoniously aside and lunged further into the fray.
He was only the first.
How many was it? Ten? Twenty? It was almost impossible to track them for the clashing swords and spraying blood. Aveny thought she might be sick. Some jumped overboard. Others hid. But all those that stood their ground were cut down like overgrown weeds on a deserted path. The woman was an unstoppable torrent of death.
“No,” Aveny whispered aloud.
She felt the shift before she saw it.
The girl floated beside her in full human form, her eyes locked on the carnage before them. Disbelief and horror etched in her gaze. And then she was gone.
But Aveny remained, spellbound, unable to pull her eyes from the woman fearlessly striding across the ship, meeting each obstacle with ferocious strength and skill. She parried and thrust, turning men easily on their sides like she was simply shoeing flies away on a hot summer’s day. She was ablaze. Aveny was entranced by her blinding power.
As the woman took hold of the wheel, the vision faded to black and Aveny readied herself to wake.
But she didn’t.
Instead, she found herself on another darkened beach, the sky also punctured by flames.
A large bonfire shot fiery darts into the starry night sky. The wind caressed her face and caused the flames to flicker, dancing wildly against the open black of the sea.
The cinnamon-haired girl was there before her, standing alone on the beach. She looked older, her face rougher and more careworn. Her eyes were darker, more depleted somehow.
How many years had passed?
The girl walked calmly, purposefully to the water’s edge, a cloth bag slung over one shoulder. She sat, dipping her legs into the inky blackness. And then she did something Aveny had never dreamed possible.
She transformed – right there on the beach.
There was no skin at all. The girl simply morphed, the strange unraveling motion starting at her toes and radiating upward to her torso where it suddenly and inexplicably stopped. She sat on the shoreline half seal, half human. Aveny stood transfixed at the strange and unbelievable sight.
No skin. No skin at all.
Then, the girl reached into her bag and extracted a knife.
Before fear could even begin to well in Aveny’s chest, the girl plunged the blade vertically beneath the flesh of her own torso. Aveny shrieked and rushed forward but she was impotent in this place – incapable of intervention.
Blood pooled along the knife’s edge but the girl did not hesitate. The fire crackled and storm clouds brewed overhead as she sobbed strange words, drawing the weapon along her skin, seemingly flaying the flesh from her own body. It peeled from her in milky white petals, the exposed tissue like raw fish. Blood seeped from the widening incision, tinting the edges like the tips of a rose.
Aveny sunk at the girl’s side, still scrambling to stop the madness – to save her – but she was nothing more than mist. She prayed the clouds above would unleash their torrent and wash away the pain. But they merely rumbled, issuing dry, hot spikes of static lightning. There was nothing Aveny could do but silently scream and quake.
She dropped to the blood-soaked ground and heaved into the surf. She could no longer process anything around her. All effort was spent simply attempting to remain conscious … did she even want to remain conscious?
When it was over, the girl lay shaking and bloody on the sandy beach. A strange shadow lay beside her. A selkie skin; the sick remnant of who she once had been. The girl whimpered, moaned and then fell silent, panting heavily.
Aveny couldn’t move. Shock had fully seized her mind and body. She stared down at the bloody carcass beside her and bile rose in her throat. Was this how her seal skin had come to be? Was this sickening scene the origin of her freedom?
The questions paled in comparison to the only thing she really wanted to know.
Why? Why had the girl done this horrific thing?
The strange dissonance of this horror both confounded and terrified her. As she lay on the ground, delirious with panic and fear, two feet approached. The girl bent and lifted the castoff skin. Aveny watched it rise, framed by a star speckled midnight sky. Its form seemed to dance in the flickering firelight. Then the girl turned and cast it into the flames.
Aveny was on fire.
The pain scorched through her like a mine explosion. She woke back on her own beach, screaming and covered in sweat.
She wasn’t alone.
The cinnamon-haired girl was waiting for her, her translucent visage hovering just within Aveny’s consciousness. “I did what was required to free our family of our corrupt nature,” she whispered, her voice ethereal and light. “I performed the ceremony to sever the connection to our barbaric ancestry. By removing it from my body, I was able to eradicate it from our lineage – to save us from ourselves, to save our family from becoming sinful, heathenish, murderous monsters like my mother. Don’t let my sacrifice be in vain. Don’t trust her. Please, don’t trust her.”