by Tais Teng
This story is the third place winner in the 2018 Glassing Magazine Mermaid Fiction Contest
It was a perfect day when Joachim set sail with his father for the first time. Not a single cloud in the sky and the wind blew just hard enough to fill the sails.As usual, there were three seals swimming in the wake of the boat. Their round heads gleamed in the sun. One raised a flipper and seemed to wave to Joachim.
Joachim felt a stab of envy. They have it ever so easy. They just paddle around and when they open their mouth a fat fish jumps in.
When they pulled in the net, Joachim counted no less than three huge salmon and at least two dozen flapping mackerels.
"Such a great catch!" laughed his father. "Ran must love us." He took the biggest salmon by the tail and threw him to the seals.
"Now why did you do that?" Joachim asked.
"Every twelfth fish belongs to the selkies.
"They drive the fish into our nets? Like sheep-dogs?"
"Yes, with their briny magic. Selkies are the people of the sea. When they don their seal-skins, they turn into sleek animals."
"Ah, like werewolves. And without their furs they look just like us?"
"Well, quite a bit better. The hair of a selkie girl never gets tangled and shines like the purest satin. Their men all have shoulders as broad as our blacksmith’s."
Joachim could almost see them. Their men would walk on legs like tree trunks. The girls would be prettier than a jarl’s daughter and could probably wrestle a black bear.
"Today I’ll just set out on my own," Father announced two weeks later. "The sea, she is like a mirror and I can row until I am past the headlands. You can lug some stones from the beach and finally fix our chimney."
In the afternoon, however, the sky suddenly grew dark, with tattered clouds streaming across the heavens. Three heartbeats later the sea turned into a churning mass of foam. Joachim jumped down from the roof and ran to bar the stable doors.
The two ships of Big William limped into the harbor with torn sails and a broken mast. Four other boats followed. That was all.
Three days later Joachim hiked all the way to the grave of his mother. On the grave-pole the wired skeletons of sea-gull flapped their wings. Every dead woman was given three gulls to guide her soul to Maryam’s White Cliffs.
"Father didn’t return," he told her. "So I guess he drowned. No, I am sure of it, even though the sea didn’t want to give up his body. We raised a triple cross on the cape and I draped a net over it. A sailor’s grave, eh?" He rubbed the tears from his eyes and tried to swallow the lump in his throat. It would have been easier to swallow a sea-urchin. "With no boat of my own I have to work for Big William. William is as fat as the Green Abbot’s pig and there is meat on his table every day, even on Friday." He fell silent and listened with all his body, but the ash-tree above his mother’s grave only rustled. Not a trace of his mother’s dear voice. Joachim’s shoulders slumped. "I thought you should know all this," he whispered. "I am not complaining. Don’t worry. I am big enough to..." He didn’t finish his sentence. A fourteen year old boy was nothing and nobody, less than a slave, especially without family.
Joachim slept with the other drudges and thralls in a disused sheepfold. There was no roof and a circle of stones formed the only windbreak.
William had confiscated Joachim’s own house. "A month ago I lent your father money for a new net. Good gleaming silver. I’ll take your hovel as a part payment."
William commanded enough fishermen of his own, so he sent Joachim every morning down to the reefs to pluck mussels. Dragging his leather pail he waded through the ice-cold water.
"Behind that rock you’ll find the a whole bank of fat oysters," a clear voice told him. "They taste ever so nice."
He turned around, reached for his skinning knife. A young girl sat on a driftwood tree-trunk. She wore a tunic of sea-grass, just like him, and her feet were bare. She had a face as smooth as porcelain, without a single pockmark. Her hair gleamed like satin.
"All oysters and mussels belong to my master," Joachim told her. "If he smells oysters on my breath, he’ll beat me."
"Such rubbish! Why don’t you fill your belly and just walk away?"
"Walk away to where? Skaghorn is my village. Nobody wants a dirty vagrant."
"Then dive down with me to my palace. Dance with me on a floor paved with golden ducats." She smiled and her teeth gleamed like a row of pearls. "I am Alyssa, the Sea-King’s daughter."
"The daughter of a king," Joachim laughed, "and you are wearing a ball-gown knitted out of sea-grass?"
“O, I have much better dresses. Like a mantle made of seal-fur." She reached down below the tree-trunk and held up a fur mantle fit indeed for a princess.
"You are a selkie!" Joachim exclaimed. "A were-seal." He felt like a lummox, like the village-idiot. A face without a blemish, a smile without a single crooked or missing tooth?
“Well, that is true. Is it a problem for you?”
“Without you selkies we had never caught more than a bony herring or a handful smelt.” He swallowed. "You belong to the sea. You are the sea. My father..."
"He drowned. In a hurricane we are as powerless as a human." She slapped the tree-trunk next to her and he only now noticed that it was much too straight for just a tree-trunk. "This here, it is the only thing that was left. His mast."
Strangely enough Joachim only felt relief. Now I know that my father is truly dead and gone.
"Close your eyes," the girl ordered. "I have to hide my seal-skin in a better place. If a human ever takes it I have to obey him the rest of his life." Joachim kept his eyes tightly closed until he heard the pebbles of the beach rattle again.
"I have a sprig of mint here," she said. "Chew it afterwards and your master will only smell peppermint on your breath."
So they ate mussels and oysters, crunchy crayfish until Joachim’s belly was so filled, stuffed like a jarl’s suckling pig, that had to burp. Then Alyssa helped him to fill the bucket with mussels and oysters.
"Can I see you again tomorrow?" he asked when the sun had changed into a red copper coin.
"Be sure of it." She bowed down, kissed him on his brow. She was a whole head bigger than him but that bothered Joachim not at all.
Big William woke his drudges at the first light of dawn, blowing on his silver-banded auroch’s horn. "I have been a widower long enough, sleeping in a cold and empty bed! This is my new wife." Alyssa stood next to him, pale as sea-foam.
"He spied on us," she told Joachim. "He took my seal-skin and now I have to obey him in all things."
"My heart-felt thanks for the mussels and the oysters, boy," Big William boomed. “And of course for my new wife who is as fresh as a tender mint-leaf!"
Weddings were uncomplicated in Skaghorn. A girl had only to say: "Yes, I want" to the priest and that was it.
Ten days passed before he saw her again. She was dipping a jug into the waterhole, waiting for the mud to settle.
"He keeps my skin in his big money-box," she told him from the corner of her mouth. "The one with the iron-bands and the copper lock. He wears the key on a cord around his fat neck. All the time. It is hopeless."
"Isn't there anything magical you can do to set you free? A spell? Conjure some sea-monster?"
"A sea-monster... Well, you don't really need a sealskin to change."
"You mean a wolf-pelt? Become a were-beast? There haven't been wolves around here for generations."
"No, wait! If your fisher-men catch a shark, what happens to the skin?"
The next morning the drudges found the money-box smashed to splinters and William's bed empty. William and his new wife were gone, vanished without a trace. It was the afternoon before anybody noticed that Joachim was gone, too. And even longer before the blacksmith missed his dried sharkskin that he used as sanding paper.
Deep down, far below the waves, a girl and a boy are dancing on a floor of golden ducats. Or perhaps they are not really ducats but only flecks of sunlight. And sometimes the girl sports for a moment the round and happy face of a seal while the boy’s wide grin shows row after row of jagged razor-teeth.