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Safe Harbor

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Full moon means selkie night, when the seals come out of the sea to shed their skins and dance and sing on the stony beach. Margo can hear them from her house on the hill. If she looks out the kitchen window, she can see their silhouettes against the moonlit sea. Full moons are Margo's favorite nights.

And, just before dawn, she gets to work.

She always re-packs her knapsack after these excursions, but she checks again before she leaves, just in case. A Polaroid camera and biro, a packet of peanuts, an envelope of photographs, and her father's old service revolver. You can never be too careful the night after a full moon; young men will try all sorts of things.

With a thermos of hot, sweet tea in hand, she sets out to the beach, looking for selkie skins.

There are always a few left on the beach after a full moon. Most selkies return to the sea, content with one night in human form, but there are always those who want more. Margo understands, and so she keeps their skins safe until they come back for them. The key is to get there before anyone else, especially anyone who may have aspirations of a selkie wife.

It's an easy morning-- nobody out, and only three skins left behind. The first, she finds behind a boulder by the cliffside. It's a lovely, velvety black, and nearly vanishes against the dark of the rock she lays it on. She sighs, and sets it on her knapsack, where the blue canvas provides greater contrast. Margo snaps a Polaroid and waves it dry, then makes careful notation of the date and location she found the skin. Then in it goes, neatly folded, and she pulls out the envelope. Inside are a dozen photographs of her house on the hill, taken from this very beach. She takes one and puts it in the skin's place. When the selkie woman comes back for her skin, she'll find this picture, and Margo will return her skin to her, safe as houses.

The second skin is much like the first-- safely hidden under a flat stone by the rock pools, and a beautiful deep brown. It makes for a lovely photo.

The third skin, to her surprise, isn't hidden at all. She'd mistaken it at first for a tangle of seaweed, but as she gets closer she sees it's another seal skin, carelessly left out. It's a first, and for a moment she wonders if the gulls have dragged it out from somewhere. But no, it's too early for them yet. Margo shakes her head and shakes out the skin, noting a funny white blaze along the shoulder.

Snap goes the Polaroid, and ten minutes later she's letting herself into her kitchen.

She finishes her tea and puts the kettle on again, and sets about cataloging her find.

There is a wall of shelves on the far side of the sitting room, where half a dozen skins sit, waiting for their owners. Sometimes they come right away; sometimes it takes a month or two. The gray on the leftmost side hurts to look at-- she's had it for years, and she doesn't know what's become of its owner. Margo hopes she's happy.

She puts the new skins on the shelf and heads back to the kitchen to make tea and toast. She watches the last of the sunrise and waits for the selkie women.


Margo doesn't have to wait long. It's a little after six when there's a knock at the door, and when she opens it, there's a brightly smiling woman waving the photograph of her house, naked as the day she was born.

“Hello!” she says.

“Hello,” Margo replies. She keeps her eyes firmly on the selkie woman's face; no use in wanting things that aren't hers. “Come in.”

The selkie trips down the hall, looking around with wide, curious eyes. Her black hair falls in gentle waves to the small of her back, and Margo takes a deep breath before following her.

“Would you like something to drink?” she offers. “Or shall we just look for your skin?”

“Do you have tea?” the selkie asks. “And biscuits?”

“I do.” The selkie looks so delighted at this that Margo cannot help but smile back. “Would you like something to wear?”

At this, the selkie looks down, as if she's forgotten she's naked. Quite possibly she has-- it isn't usual for seals to wear clothing. Then she looks at Margo.

“Something like what you have?”

“If you like.” The woman nods, and follows Margo into the bedroom. “My name is Margo, by the way.”

“Yes,” replies the woman, and pauses. “Aisling.”

“It's a pretty name.” Margo doesn't ask if it's her real name; seals don't think of such things as humans do. Whatever the seal woman wishes to be called is what Margo shall call her. “Well then, Aisling, try these on.” She hands over her Sunday dress and a thick wool cardigan, and laughingly instructs Aisling how to put them on.

Once dressed, Aisling beams at her, and Margo smiles back. She's never met a selkie as joyful and curious as Aisling; even the friendlier ones tend not to do much more than share a drink and call a thank you as they slip back down to the beach.

“Biscuits?” she asks hopefully, and Margo leads her to the kitchen.

Tea, it turns out, is not at all to Aisling's liking. She likes milk, though, and biscuits. And talking.

“I wasn't sure I could get the sounds right, but I think I've got the hang of it, don't you?” she asks through a mouthful of shortbread.

“I'd say so,” Margo smiles. Aisling's accent is unusual, but Margo has no trouble understanding her. It reminds her of her Ma's.

“We talk about you, you know? Out at home. They said you protect our skins, and I wanted to meet you.”

“Oh,” Margo blinks, surprised. She hadn't really thought the selkies noticed. She certainly hadn't thought they'd noticed enough to talk about her. “Well, I'm just doing the right thing, really.”

She doesn't say It's what anyone would do. They both know that isn't true.

“I was wondering what sort of person would do that, so I left my skin for you to find!” Aisling smiles proudly, and Margo feels her stomach lurch. The skin with the white blaze.

“Aisling, you mustn't leave your skin out where anyone can find it,” she says fiercely. “You must always hide it someplace safe.”

Aisling looks crestfallen.

“I only wanted to be sure,” she says. Her face works like she might cry, and Margo hurriedly leans forward to rest her hand on Aisling's shoulder.

“Oh dear. It's all right,” soothes Margo. “It's only that it really isn't safe. I try and get out once the night is over, and I search the best I can, but you can never tell when someone might get there first. Hiding your skin gives you a chance.”

Aisling tips her head to the side to brush against Margo's hand.

“All right,” she says. “I won't leave it out again.”

Margo sighs in relief.


It isn't long after that Margo offers to fetch Aisling's skin. The selkie woman smooths her hand over the pelt.

“Your clothes,” she says, a bit awkwardly. “Do you want them back now?”

“Just leave them under a rock when you change,” replies Margo. “I'll come by and fetch them later.”

Aisling nods and, surprisingly, hugs Margo tightly. She's warm and smells like the sea, and Margo allows herself a moment to hug her back, to bury her nose in Aisling's dark hair.

“You stay safe now,” she murmurs.

“And you,” replies Aisling.


The next month, Margo finds the skin with the white blaze again. It's under a rock this time, and she smiles when she sees it.

Aisling is already at the door when Margo gets back to the house, four new selkie skins in her bag.

“Hello!” she cries, smiling wide as anything.

“Good morning,” says Margo, amused. “Come on in, then.”

Once dressed, Aisling watches as Margo refolds the skins and puts them on the shelves, tacking the matching Polaroids underneath each one. There are eight skins in all, now; the gray is still there. When Margo gets to Aisling's, she pauses.

“Do you want me to pop it up on the shelf, or would you like it now?” she asks. Aisling bites her lip in thought.

“Can you put it with the coats?” she answers finally.

“Of course.” Margo picks the skin up and takes it back out into the hall, where she rests it on the coat rack over her anorak and windbreaker.

“You know,” says Aisling over her toast, “my mother called you plain, but you're really not.”

Margo nearly chokes on her tea.

“I beg your pardon?”

“You're so bright.” Aisling reaches over and touches Margo's red hair, then the freckles on her cheeks. “And strong, and you have a beautiful smile.”

Margo freezes, caught between wanting to laugh at this beautiful woman complimenting her and caressing her face, and shock at the thought that Aisling might, might, be flirting with her.

“Oh,” she breathes. “I- thank you? You're...I think you're lovely, too.” She stumbles over her words, the way she hasn't since she was fifteen and Alice McCormick kissed her in the school library. Then she laughs, because it's been ten years and several girls since Alice, but apparently she's as weak to a seal woman's charms as anyone.

“Am I?” Aisling looks surprised. She glances down at herself. “I think we all look more or less alike, my sisters and I. I would have thought you'd find us all quite boring.”

It's true, that there is a sameness to the selkies' beauty, with their long dark hair and big liquid eyes and slim bodies, but that doesn't make them any less beautiful. And Aisling...

“You're bright, too,” says Margo.


The month after that, Margo nearly shoots a man. Mrs. Kelly had come to collect the gray skin at last, and Mr. Kelly desperately wants her back. Or, failing her, another woman just like her.

“Come now, Margo,” Mr. Kelly pleads. “My girls need a mother.”

“I'm sorry, Mr. Kelly,” says Margo, standing firm over the last sealskin. Aisling's is already in her pack; Margo hopes she's safe. “It's a terrible thing to lose a mother, but it's a worse one enslaving a woman to you like this.”

Mr. Kelly lunges toward her with a cry. Margo shoots, hitting the sand in front of him. He pulls up and stares at her despairingly.

“I love her,” he says, voice thick. “I love my Nancy. I thought she loved me, too, and little Grace and Annie.”

“It's the way of selkie women, Mr. Kelly,” Margo answers. She keeps her voice even, even as tears spring to her own eyes. “They leave when they feel it's time. And she may come back to you still, but if you take a skin, I swear to you you will never see her again.”

As the sun rises, Mr. Kelly seems to lose the last bit of his fight. He stands still, head hanging, very different from the proud man he usually was.

“She may come back,” Margo says again, softly. “If she doesn't, though, turn your eye to the women in town. I'm sure there will be someone for you there. I'll mind Grace and Annie for a spell, if need be. But you are not to come down here again after a full moon, you hear?”

“I hear you.”

Margo stands on the beach until she can no longer see Mr. Kelly. Only then does she fold the last skin and place it in her pack. She breathes the fresh salt air, and tries to stop shaking. She'll have to talk to Mr. Kelly again, and others besides, but that can wait.

Aisling is already inside when Margo gets back. She's wearing a pair of Margo's trousers and a jumper, and she's put the kettle on for tea.

“What happened?” she asks, her eyes large and worried.

Margo sighs.

“The other week, Mrs. Kelly came to me and took back her skin. Seven years she's lived here; she has two little girls and a husband, but she came to me anyway. I didn't even know the skin was hers.” Margo rubs her face. “It was one of the first I found, and I'd near given up hope of anyone claiming it. I didn't even know she was a selkie woman, for all she had the look about her.” She smiles tiredly at Aisling. “There's a lot of folks around here with selkie blood in them.”

“Like you?” Aisling asks.

“Like me,” agrees Margo. Against her will, she starts crying. Aisling make a soft, shocked noise and pulls her into a hug.

“There, there,” she says, stroking Margo's hair. “There, there.”

The tears don't last long, and Margo pulls back to wipe her face.

“Sorry,” she says. “I haven't slept much, and with all the unpleasantness this morning...”

“Yes.” Aisling still looks concerned, though, and Margo has to turn away. She busies herself making tea, and pours a glass of milk out for Aisling.

“You wouldn't think it to look at me,” Margo starts. “All I got was my ma's eyes, but she was a selkie woman, sure as anything. I was ten when she found her skin. I loved her, but she left anyway.” She wraps her hands around her mug, still keeping her back to Aisling. “And I loved Da, for staying, but what he did was wrong.”

“Is that why you do this?” Aisling asks. Margo's never heard her sound so serious, so sad.

“What he did was wrong,” repeats Margo. “So I want to do my best to stop it from happening to anyone else.”

Aisling's arms wrap around her from behind, and Margo's breath shudders out of her.

“You're a good soul, Margo,” Aisling murmurs. Margo chokes back a laugh.

“It's the right thing to do.”

She turns around in Aisling's arms, to hug her back, but Aisling moves before her and they're kissing. Aisling's hands are cool on Margo's cheeks, but her mouth is warm. Margo kisses her back, fiercely, because she has thought of this many times, and because she knows never to take the affections of a selkie for granted.

Aisling stays for a week, this time. Margo shows her how to fish the way humans do, and she plays with Grace and Annie while Margo does her odd jobs about town. And in between all that, they learn the feel and sounds of each other's bodies, trade stories of stories of their lives, eat their dinner together.


The fourth month, Margo finds the selkie skins have already been collected, folded in Aisling's lap as she perches on a rock.

Margo sighs, and smiles.

“I hope you remember where they came from,” she says. “I don't want any mixups later.”


Aisling doesn't come back every month, Margo learns. Sometimes she loses track of time, or doesn't want to spend any time longer than necessary in human form. There are times when Margo can't choke back thoughts of the fickleness of selkie women. Sometimes she stays with Margo an hour; sometimes she stays for months at a time. They learn the rhythm of their life together. Aisling loves both worlds too much to ever choose one for a permanent home. It is one of the many things Margo loves about her.

It isn't always easy, loving a selkie woman. Aisling always returns to the sea.

But she also always returns to Margo, and that is worth the world.