by Elsa Sjunneson
I dream of oceans.
The gray green water of the Irish Sea is cold. It’s the frozen waters of home, the cold means nothing to me, personally – welcoming instead of a brush with death. The Baltic is a steel blue that will freeze a human in seconds. The cold still doesn’t fuss me, but it’s less welcoming. The Mediterranean is an aquamarine blue that feels more like bath water than the ocean.
I awaken drenched in sweat, not the sheen of salt water that drips off your skin when getting out of the sea. My legs ache to transform, stretching and twisting into muscle spasms in my sleep, trying to swim in the ocean of my dreams. It has become a nightmare to dream of the lacy fringes of the surf, because each time I wake, instead of my delicate fore-flippers slipping gracefully under the waves, I see pedicured toes.
I can’t go home because that motherfucker stole my skin, and I will never forgive him.
I know, I know. Stealing selkie skins is supposed to be romantic. All salt kisses and windswept hair. It’s supposed to be about trust, and love, and the act of giving the skin back and then she forgives him. That’s what all you humans think anyway. That our skins are merely a metaphor for the act of giving trust.
But it is my very real sealskin. My very physical connection to the ocean that is my home.
And that motherfucker took it.
You might be asking: why didn’t you leave it locked up, instead of wrapped in a wool blanket, gently placed in a lingerie drawer?
I never wanted to be in a position where I had to place my soul behind a key and a lock. I wanted it accessible whenever I needed it, so that I could slip out the door at a moment’s notice, whenever the ocean called from just beyond the cracked window in my bedroom facing the sea.
Have you ever been to the British Museum? They have a fetish for objects that don’t belong to them. Collecting objects that belong to other people was his habit – long before he discovered that he could date a cryptid, the man had spent his days working for those old colonialists who kept relics of other cultures behind ivory tower walls.
The man who stole my skin was a museum director.
Like most of living kind, I seek connections. It is not only a human thing to want to be loved and cared for, but something that all living creatures do. Whether a selkie, or a werewolf, a Labrador or a human woman, we all crave caring beyond the bounds of our own souls.
And, as a millennial living on the coast of Scotland, I found myself like everybody else: swiping right and left on one of the many available apps, seeking out the connections I wanted to make.
His profile was charming. He liked to travel: pictures of him on some kind of expedition in Egypt, on a sailboat somewhere in the Southern Pacific (if you don’t like water, we can’t date.) He didn’t have any attachments (Selkies are many things, but non-monogamous we are not, you can’t give your skin away freely to more than one person, you’d literally split yourself in two.) He was seeking a connection with a woman who didn’t mind his long travels (the time I spend in the sea is not insignificant) and who wanted to learn more about the world and its history.
A curator at the British Museum. Back then I assumed he would share more about the fascinating history of the world, the mysteries that ancient artifacts unlock about humanity’s past, not stealing things that don’t belong to him from cultures that didn’t consent.
My profile doesn’t mention that I’m a selkie, of course.
It just says that I love the sea, that I spend more time on it than I do on land. I didn’t expect that anyone would read between the lines, but Jeston did. He wooed me, he bedded me, and one day he asked me the question that I assumed no one would be smart enough to ask:
“Are you something more than human?”
We were tangled up in the sheets of his Bloomsbury flat, overlooking a busy tree studded corner of London. A short walk for him to work, a long swim and a train ride for me to visit but not an unpleasant one. I remember glancing out the window away from him, hoping that I could shield my reaction from him.
My skin pulled to me from my leather valise. A warning klaxon that I would ignore. I liked him, after all. The gentle prickle of his sometimes shaven face, the way that he always smelled vaguely of dust and pipe smoke.
I opened my mouth to speak and hesitated, the skin insisting on my silence even though I thought he ought to know.
“Whatever gave you that idea?”
“There are signs” he said, pulling me closer to him, nuzzling his nose and chin against my shoulder, pushing my nightgown strap out of the way to drop a kiss on my shoulder. “I just can’t figure out how you’re otherworldly, but I don’t think you’re human…”
I stuck with silence, pulling him beneath the ocean blue sheets that reminded me of home.
To say that a selkie is not human is part fallacy.
A selkie is not born. We are made. We are crafted from the skins of our ancestors, wrapped as infants in the sealskins that become ours, handed down from generation to generation by the women who love us. It doesn’t matter if it is a biological parent or a stepmother or a woman who loves us because we are who we are. Each skin is a gift from family – blood or chosen.
Selkies are made by being loved so much that we are given the ocean as our home. Our mothers, our aunts, they want to keep us safe from those who would do us harm.
But there is a cost to the safe haven of the ocean: what brings us into the ocean can be taken from us. Our skins can be taken – the people we love are able to part us from the very thing that makes us whole.
I had always been careful about who I love. I was not careful enough.
After six months, I decided it was time to invite him up to the countryside for a weekend.
Mine is a small cottage. An old one. The woman who gifted me this house wrapped me in her skin when I was born. We shared the skin until she died, and when the will was read this little home came to me. It is mere steps from the waters of the small isles, and if you have very good eyes you can see the shores of Ulst in the distance.
He came in the spring. When the moss was bright and the sea was inviting. But not to him. When he approached the shore, it roared at him, and I should have known then.
But like any living creature, I do not listen to the warning signs sometimes in search of things I want.
That night the sea called to me as it often does on a full moon. The feeling of swimming in a moonlit ocean is one of the best – it recharges the skin, giving it the ability to live for another generation.
He must have felt me slip out of the bed, he must have heard which drawer I opened. He must have watched me slip out the door and crunch my way to the ocean, stark naked until I wrapped my skin around my shoulders and became a grey dappled seal.
If he had confronted me, I would have been able to tell him to leave.
But instead he kept his smug silence.
He waited until morning and while I slept he crept into my lingerie drawer and snatched what was most precious to me.
And then the bastard ghosted me.
The absence of my skin is not something I will survive. The longer that I stay out of the water, the more I wither. Yes, I was born human, but I am not human any longer. The ocean calls to me, and every time I cannot answer a part of me dies.
Every time I cry the salt of my tears reminds me too much of the ocean.
No one knows why I am so sad, because the secrets that I keep are for all selkie-kind.
So I stop crying. And I start thinking. I’m going to need to tell some truths in order to get help. I’m going to need to find allies. Because there is no way for one woman alone to get that skin back from whatever creepy vault he keeps it in.
It’s time to start socializing.
As I walk into the cèilidh, a woman at the bar says: “It’s such an interesting choice for the British Museum don’t you think? Can the artifacts possibly be real?”
I whip my phone out of my purse and google the British Museum at speed.
And there he is, in his best suit, smiling next to a case in which a grey dappled sealskin hangs on a mannequin, and is labeled “a true selkie skin.” The exhibition description lists it alongside artifacts of other creatures whose identities should never be known. Vampire. Werewolf. Lamia. He has gone on a spree, stealing from the women he beds, I think.
Turning from the bar with a gin & tonic in hand I note the band is starting up a reel. I like reels. I knock back the last of my drink and slide into formation. But instead of facing a man, I am eye to eye with a woman.
She’s wearing her family tartan, and spins into my arms with a wild cackle as she flies from partner to partner in the dance. The spark of joy that I feel when she slides her hands into mine is enough for me to ask her name after the dance is done.
She brushes her curls out of her face as the band pauses to turn the sheets of their music, and between breaths she introduces herself.
“I’m Elin. It’s a joy to meet a partner like you.”
“Lyall Gray,” I reply. “Would you like to dance some more?” I ask, keeping her hand in mine.
Her smile is all the answer I need, and we go through another reel, a waltz and a Blind Scotsman before we both collapse into bar stools to get water and fresh cocktails.
“Want to nip outside for some air?” She asks conspiratorially as we clutch whisky glasses in our hands.
I nod and we go out the doors of the dance hall toward the beach.
Our hands touch, reaching out over the rocky beach and finding each other in the moonlight.
“You’re beautiful,” I mutter as our fingertips fully entangle, a smile edging its way onto my lips. “I just got out of… well… a situation. And he took something precious from me.”
Her eyes widen.
“… and you’re not ready…” She starts to finish my sentence for me but I stop her with a squeeze of my hand.
“It’s not that. It’s just that I’m not whole. He took something from me that can’t be replaced.”
I hesitate, but the ocean is calm. Encouraging. The ocean tells me it’s all right to tell her.
“I’m a selkie and he took my skin.”
Instead of shock, or revulsion, or horror, or inherent curiosity, I am enveloped in an embrace that can only come from someone who knows.
The grand opening of Unseen Worlds is chaos. People who want to get in the door but can’t swarm every entrance like locusts. I don’t know how Elin got us tickets – the woman is clever – but we arrive in style. Me in a navy evening gown wrapped in my family tartan, her in the kind of gown that you’d call subdued, except it wraps her body like a glove.
I hide my face in her shoulder as my ex walks past in his tux with a white bow tie. Her hand presses against the small of my back, and she whispers in my ear:
“He doesn’t get to keep it. Neither do I. It’s yours. You choose where it lives, and it belongs with you. We’ll get it.”
I lean against her, breathing in the scent of her, remembering that this is a person I can trust with my truth and my soul and my ocean.
Because she is a selkie too.
The entrance to the special collection is covered in illustrations of creatures from everywhere. Faery, vampire, werewolf, lamia, witch… and selkie.
An exhibit intended to unmask a hidden world known only by those who live in it. A perspective breaking installation by Jeston Pierre.
Just seeing his name makes me feel a frisson of rage. Elin squeezes my hand and we move through the open doorway.
The first thing that we see makes a wave of nausea roll through my whole body. A pair of fangs, I don’t know how he got them. I cannot even imagine. But the small sign next to the gruesome display says they are real vampire fangs. I wonder who he took them from. Did she consent? I can’t imagine a vampire consenting to the removal of what she uses to eat.
We move through the throngs of humans gawking at wolf footprints and pressed pixie wings, and all the while a thread pulls me through the crowd. I can feel my skin, feel it calling out to me, feel it pulling me closer to the display case.
It lies on a deep blue pillow that reminds me of the Baltic, stretched out over a faux seal body shape so that the skin (which does not look like a seal when it is not wrapped around me) still mimics a shape that a human would recognize.
The label is what pushes me over the edge:
Selkie Skin, origin unspecified, acquired by Jeston Pierre in Scotland.
A moan escapes my lips. My skin is practically screaming at me through the glass. It wants to be in my hands and I need it in mine. Elin’s soft touch pries me away from the glass, and when I turn around I see that I’ve made enough of a scene to gather attention from the crowd.
“Why don’t we find a bathroom, Lyall?” Elin says, her eyes filled with concern. The crowd parts, eyes following us with curiosity.
When we reach the bathroom I run cold water over my wrists and splash some on my face. I’m hoping that activating the diving reflex will help me think.
“It can’t stay,” I say after a moment.
“We have to take it back.”
“He must be stopped.” I continue to focus on the running water over my knuckles, reminding me of home.
“Bet the other… subjects” she says that word with distaste “Might want their parts back too.”
A smile crosses my face. Two selkies aren’t an army. But a couple werewolves, a vampire, a Lamia, and whomever else he stole those other artifacts from would be.
It’s not hard for Elin to break into his dating profiles. His passwords are predictable. GenuisCurator105, GeniusCurat0r, BetterThanDarwin69.
How did I ever find this man attractive?
I don’t realize I’ve said it out loud until Elin’s giggle registers with me.
“Well he did have nice pictures.” She says, turning her tablet around to face me. On the screen, all of Jeston’s matches are lined up. We scroll through, reading through profiles and chat histories until our eyes ache, trying to find clues to the cryptids’ identities.
The first one we find is a witch. She’s a librarian in Oxford. Her profile describes her lifelong interest in occult history, a vast library of “interesting books” and a cat who she jokes is her familiar. The clues are all there. I note her name and start hunting for a librarian at Oxford named Hess. An unusual name, easily found doing archival work at Magdalen College.
Hess responds instantly when I suggest we have an ex in common named Jeston.
The cafe she invites us to is close to the Radcliffe Camera. It looks out on cobbled streets filled with stressed undergraduates in robes and bow ties. Exams are afoot. Hess is a prim looking woman in her early thirties. I don’t know how she got a head librarian job at Oxford at such a young age, but based on the way that she talks about the occult, it shouldn’t be a surprise.
“Yes, he came and courted me and then stole some of my tools when I was out getting us croissants.” she sips her coffee and eyeballs me. “So what did you come here for?”
“We know where your cauldron and books are.” Elin says, sliding the bright purple Unseen Worlds At the British Museum brochure across the metal cafe table.
“That bastard put my Book of Shadows on display?” she snarls, after flipping through the glossy pages for a moment. “He took a selkie’s skin for profit?”
I nod. “It’s mine.”
“So how are we getting our things back? I can do spells, glamours, possibly a hex? Though those can get a bit messy.”
“I have a slightly more mundane question than that…” I say as she sets down her coffee cup. “Do you have access to the British Museum as a researcher?”
There’s a quiet pause.
“You don’t want me for my magic? You just want me for my badge?” She cackles “I think that’s a first.”
And just like that, we have a Face. Elin is the Hacker. I’m the Mastermind.
We still need people to do some sneaking and fighting. Fortunately I know where to look.
Chloe the vampire is lurking in a burlesque bar as a bar back. How did we know she was a vampire? The lack of legs on her “red wine” was a clue. She tries not to smile when we tell her what we’re planning, but she says her fangs will settle back into her mouth once she has them.
Olivia (a pissed off werewolf) is working out her anger at a boxing gym, beating the pus out of a hapless human who doesn’t know he’s fighting the Big Bad Wolf.
There’s another witch named Ora leading tours at Stourhead, making flowers grow with her fingertips.
As we speak to each woman, we discover that Jeston took not just what’s on display, but dozens of sacred objects, jewels, and body parts all of which he’s stashed away at the museum, waiting for the accolades.
And we make a plan.
We arrive at the museum at opening.
We buy tickets to the museum like everyone else. We wait in the long line, spaced out so that we don’t look like a group. Ora, the flower witch cast glamours on all of us before we walked in. I don’t look like myself at all, we don’t want any security guards to remember me.
Only once we’re inside the entrance to Unseen Worlds do we gather up close. Other museum attendees grumble about our pushing and shoving, but even in non-wolf form Olivia is imposing enough to quell most overt arguments. We make sure that we step over the threshold into the exhibit as a group, and as soon as we do, it’s go time.
Hess drops a sachet on the ground, a purple fabric wrapped package of herbs that explodes in dust, slamming a ward down over the entrance to the exhibit. Just like that the horde of tourists stops in its tracks.
Do you know what it feels like inside a museum exhibit before it’s open to the public? The energy is electric. A quiet hum of anticipation, the artifacts waiting to greet their adoring and curious public. The quiet settles on my skin, I turn to see the tourists all frowning at the entrance, unsure why they cannot follow us.
This is where my gorgeous, slightly terrifying girlfriend comes in. She pulls out a small device from her purse, and presses a button. The room goes dark.
“We don’t have long. Go, get your stuff.” Elin says with a smile.
There is a second of complete silence, before Olivia smashes the glass surrounding her wolf pelt and grabs it in a vicious hug.
Hess systematically places each of her books and cauldrons into a massive tote bag, double checking a list on her smartphone to be sure everything is hers. The vampire gleefully shoves her fangs back into her mouth with a sickening noise I wish I hadn’t heard.
I walk slowly, deliberately, forward toward my skin. I lift the case off carefully, not wanting to damage it in my rush to get it back. I pick the dappled grey fur up off the seal form, my fingers sparking with magic as I reconnect with my skin once again. It feels like the ocean rolling over me.
But there’s no time to spend on this moment now. The plan still has to move. I stash my skin in the bag I brought for it, and follow the other women out the door.
We leave, not by the exhibit entrance for guests, but by the exit for staff.
Hess removes her disguise, swaps an Oxford University badge onto her natty blazer, and leads us forward, our glamours already wearing off as we step through Hess’ magical barrier.
The alarms going off in the distance urge me to move faster. But I hold Elin’s hand and remember that we have a plan, and that plan relies upon us being clever, and slow, and deliberate. The plan relies on us looking like we belong here.
And when we turn a corner in the labyrinthine back-end of the British Museum, we see Jeston running down the hall. Clearly the wards have broken.
Jeston stops in his tracks – shocked to discover that the subjects of his “research” and his relationships have come together.
“Hess. I’m surprised to see you here…” he says, tentatively.“With these other women… how did you meet?” terror threads through his voice. He knows he’s been caught.
“University business.” She replies tartly. “Re-acquiring artifacts that didn’t belong to the museum.”
“You can’t do that!” he says with the air of a man who has never been told no in his lifetime.
“I think you’ll find we already did.” Hess says, smirking.
“I’ll just find new subjects.” he says, his face darkening with rage. “You can’t stop me from showing the world what you are.”
I step forward.
“I think you’ll find we can. Do you really want to be in a dark alley and run across any one of us?”
“You’re a selkie, you can’t possibly do anything to me.” he says, smugness rolling off of him like fog over a deep bay.
“She might not be able to, but I will.” Hess says, with a smile. “I can curse you until you beg for mercy”
Elin steps forward next.
“And if you think about harming a hair on her head, just know I have the skills to make your life very complicated.” she smiles and wriggles a tablet. “I know where all your digital skeletons are buried.”
A growl comes out of Olivia’s throat, unbidden.
We don’t wait for an answer, but brush past him. As Hess leads us out through the exit, I expect the security guards to arrive, but no one does.
We exit through a back door, out onto a brightly lit London square, and we part ways. I don’t know that I’ll ever hear from these women again, or for that matter, what becomes of Jeston.
But none of that matters now. We won. It’s over.
The rocky shore greets us at sunset. Both naked but for our sealskins. As I wrap up in mine, my feet transform into a seal tail with flippers, my hands into forepaws, my head shrinks down, and my eyes grow big and brown.
I jut forward, sliding into the ocean next to Elin. Where I belong.
© Copyright Elsa Sjunneson
Elsa Sjunneson is a Deafblind author and editor living in Seattle, Washington. Her fiction and nonfiction writing has been praised as “eloquence and activism in lockstep” and has been published in dozens of venues around the world. She has been a Hugo Award finalist seven times, and has won Hugo, Aurora, and BFA awards for her editorial work. When she isn’t writing, Sjunneson works to dismantle structural ableism and rebuild community support for disabled people everywhere. Her debut memoir, Being Seen: One Deafblind Woman’s Fight to End Ableism, releases in October of 2021 from Tiller Press.
Read the Rest of the July Issue
- seal bride by Jennifer Mace
- This Is How You Make Selkie Skins by Priya Sridhar
- The Land Wife by Phoebe Farrell-Sherman
- Clutch. Stick. Shift. by Tehnuka
- Three Magic Seals by Rhys Hughes
- Moving In by Alice Pow
- It Wasn’t A Mermaid by Wilda Morris
- Fish-Fish by Cherry Potts
- Ocean’s 6 by Elsa Sjunneson
- Seal by Eefje Savelkoul
- Fluke by Jennifer Bushroe
- Selachimorpha Selkie by Cislyn Smith
- Below Salt-Heavy Tides by Andi C. Buchanan
- Girlfriend Jacket by Benny Kim
- Diving Selkie by Vicky Bowes