I am a man upon the land
I am a silkie in the sea
And when I’m far frae every strand
My dwelling is in Sule Skerry
The waves slap against the wooden hull, jostling the boat’s occupants slightly.
Nicole likes it like this; enough breeze to keep them cool, while the ocean, just barely stirring, looks like crumpled parchment.
The old man prefers it calm, always happiest when the water looks like a single sheet of glass. Everything was easier; from sailing to hauling nets to searching below the sand for green ormers.
All the same, Nicole liked the reminder that she was on open water. The smooth movements of a fair swell pleased her best of all; it felt soothing, but was still a warning that, as mere tourists on the waves, they were never in control. Often blue, occasionally green, and sometimes grey and white and all broiling anger, the sea was always their mistress, always in charge.
They might know how to cast nets or mend rudders or plug a hole in the stern, but they held no real power here.
A soft south-west breeze starts up and Nicole, who is always happiest on the water, sighs contentedly.
The old man, who seldom talks and is always greedy and cruel, turns to her, attention piqued by the sound.
“Grab a hold of that rope next to the starboard and get to hauling. You don’t get free rides out here w’me girl.”
Nicole had lost both her parents by the time she was fourteen. Her older - and only - brother joined the Navy as soon as he could and, the last Nicole had heard, he was floating somewhere half a world away. The Leopard, his last letter said, had 50 guns and was nearly 150 feet in length. Nicole longed to see it. In fact, she dreamed wistfully of a life in which she herself could sail around the world.
As a child, she pretended she was a pirate captain, sailing the high seas like Anne Bonny. Only women were allowed aboard her imaginary ship, precisely because, in reality, they were rarely allowed to sail at all.
Mere months ago, her sister married a farmer’s boy. After Nicole herself had turned down three marriage proposals, no one had asked since. She had long since decided that there must surely be more than depending on a husband she didn't want.
She was all alone in her family’s cottage now, but she didn’t mind. In many ways, things were better like that.
The catch is good. The pots are full of squat crabs and lobsters of a blue so deep they look to be almost black. One snaps its claws and gets a pretty good grip on the soft flesh between Nicole’s thumb and forefinger.
Generally humourless and uncommunicative, the old man chortles to himself at the stream of blood that runs down Nicole’s arm.
When their buckets are full, Nicole guides them back to shore, glad that the gentle breeze helps them along, saving her from using the oars today.
With the old man’s cart loaded up and her day’s pay sat in her pocket, Nicole is free until tomorrow.
She scours the tideline for anything that might be of use. Some days, when the tide is low, she digs for ormers and razor shells, seeking out the strong shells and opalescent nacre.
Her grandmother taught her how to use everything the sea offered, and no-one else could shape and carve and craft treasures like Nicole. Strange as it was for a woman to live and work alone by the beach, the men who wished to woo their sweethearts seldom complained.
Nicole thought of each woman she made a precious brooch or pretty box for, envious of the men who so easily could make them their wives.
Today, however, she instead collects sea glass and pockmarked driftwood. She wades, happy and silent, through the treacherous deposits of seaweed, and watches as a nearby bob of fat grey seals cries out from their distant sentry-point on a cluster of slick brown rocks.
Nicole had lived her whole life in the tiny, weather-beaten wooden cottage by the sea. She had survived squalls and storms, could sleep through a wind of fifty knots or a rowdy party of angry, quarrelling herring gulls, but that night, the ceaseless braying and barking of seals on the rocks keeps her awake.
When it must be close to the witching hour, Nicole finally leaves her pallet and sets about stoking the fire.
Waiting for the flames to heat a copper pot, she stands at her window, eyes immediately catching a shape at the water’s edge. In the dark, it takes her a while to realise that it is a person - a woman - wading out to sea.
Heart in her mouth, Nicole dresses quickly and douses the fire again. She is all too aware of the strong currents out here - and of the sad, bruised women who seek them out.
Lantern in hand, she reaches the sand in record time, traversing past the spiky marram grass and bright, incongruously cheerful little faces of countless dusky sea pinks, with practised ease. When she makes it to the tideline, she finds an unfamiliar woman up to her thighs in the water. She is not someone from the village, Nicole knows that immediately, but there is a magnetic energy about her, as though lightning crackles beneath her skin.
“It’ll be cold if you get too deep,” Nicole calls out softly, and the other woman visibly startles. She whips around and Nicole freezes on the spot.
She has never seen anyone more beautiful in all her life. Dressed in a pale nightgown, and with honey skin and blazing hazel eyes, the stranger disarms Nicole completely. Obviously afraid, she regards Nicole with eyes as wide as dinner plates as her long, flowing hair dances loose around her waist in the breeze.
“I’ve seen you. You know the fisherman,” the woman calls back, her voice afraid, but strong like the ringing seashell wind chimes that hang beside Nicole’s front door.
“I work for him, no more. Please, just come out of the water.”
“I’m more at home here than you.”
“You’re shivering,” Nicole counters, watching the stranger tremble with cold.
The other woman stares a little longer. “Do you promise no-one sent you?”
“I promise. I haven’t seen anyone for hours.”
The stranger glances in the direction of the loud, clamouring seals. Then, slowly, she wades towards Nicole.
With some coaxing, the woman follows Nicole back to the cottage, but she will not step inside. Nicole brings her warm milk from her sister’s farm, and a little of the cockle stew she made that evening.
“It’s cold here,” the woman remarks twice as she eats and drinks with careful, delicate concentration.
“Where are you from?” Nicole asks in response.
“Somewhere else,” is the only reply.
They sit in the light of Nicole’s lantern, and, when the stranger says nothing more, Nicole tells her of her life by the sea. She speaks of the mean-spirited fisherman, and tells her about the jewels she can make.
The woman listens, head cocked and eyes bright and inquisitive in a way that feels familiar, but she says very little.
As dawn sweeps its playful, rosy fingers over the skyline, the woman rises and states simply that she must leave. “He mustn’t find me gone.”
Unable to persuade her to stay, but heart aching at the thought of the woman leaving, Nicole simply asks desperately, “what’s your name? Mine’s Nicole.”
“Nicole,” the woman repeats, smiling. “It’s not one you’ve ever heard.”
She turns, making as if to leave.
“But - ”
The woman pauses, back still to Nicole. She adds, “but if you must call me something, call me Waverly.”
All day, Nicole thinks of Waverly.
She says nothing to the fisherman, instinct telling her to keep silent.
The seals’ cries drift across the blue sky, mingling with the wispy, feeble cirrus clouds.
Somehow, Nicole knows that Waverly will return and, sure enough, in the dead of night, she does.
This time, she tells Nicole tales of the ocean; of the gossiping, incessant voices of the mackerel, of the patterns of the waves, of the playful chattering of the wind as it sweeps up seafoam and feathers, and dances with them on the horizon.
These are all things Nicole knows well, but when Waverly speaks of them, it is like another language.
For two weeks, Waverly returns. At the paling of the sky every morning, she leaves. She never says where she is going and she bids Nicole not to follow.
They speak of all manner of things - of their dreams and their fears and everything in between - and Nicole feels as though her soul has come home.
“I think maybe I could like it here,” Waverly announces sadly as she leaves one day, “if only I could always be with you.”
“I know what you are,” Nicole whispers one night, voice afire.
“And you love me still?” Waverly asks, her words a landslide.
Waverly is ocean water and shimmering sea glass. Nicole cannot help but love her.
Waverly kisses her, and Nicole pours love all over her skin until dawn.
“Where is it?” Nicole asks, when Waverly leaves again. Their love is blue like the rippling shallows, still rocking them gently.
Nicole knows now that somewhere in the old man’s house is a skin of beaten silver. She loves Waverly, and Waverly loves her, and they both of them love the sea. Nicole knows what she must do.
“I don’t know. I’ve never found it. If he catches you trying, he’ll kill us both.”
But, with Waverly, Nicole thinks that she is not afraid of anything.
At night, the seals cry for Waverly and, curled against Nicole, she cries for them.
A week later, when the fisherman takes their catch to market, Nicole makes for his home, only a short way on foot.
Unbeknownst to him, when the lazy, greedy old man had dozed in the early summer sun that morning, Nicole had plucked a grand golden key from his jacket.
Everyone knew that you locked the soul of a selkie in a wooden chest.
Together, they lift a heavy wooden lid and find it there, a seal skin, burnished silver and shining bright.
Waverly takes it, and holds it tight to her body.
She looks at Nicole, stricken and delighted all at once. Nicole knows that dream of freedom; the siren-song of the big, deep blue. She could no more keep Waverly from it than she could anchor her very self to the shoreline.
Waverly kisses Nicole, soft and sure and full of the force of a strong sea breeze.
“I’ll come back for you.”
Nicole shakes her head sadly.
“Go, little fish,” she murmurs. “You must swim and I must sail.”
Waverly waits for her to follow, but Nicole knows she cannot watch as her first love takes her new love away.
Later that evening, the fisherman’s angry cries can be heard cutting through the night air.
Nicole matches them with her own sad and silent tears.
The night slips by and she is alone.
In time, the fisherman’s bitterness keeps him from the sea - too angry that it has taken something from him.
But Nicole could never leave and, as the fisherman’s absence grows longer, she starts to notice the bob of seals come closer to her boat as she fishes. She spots one in particular watching her closely, head cocked sideways, with its bright, keen eyes.
In time, many an onlooker would note the one, intrepid seal that followed the red-haired ocean lady wherever she did sail.
The more eagle-eyed might note the hazel-eyed stranger who came and went from a weatherbeaten seaside cottage with joyful, wild abandon.
And always, swirling and surging, night and day, the big blue of the ocean sang its eternal lullaby.