The Taste of Salt by Alex Schreiber
When I was young, my father warned me in a hushed voice about the dangers of the sea. “Be careful and respectful of the sea,” he’d tell me, “but don’t fear it. The ocean is like a wolf, it can smell your fear, and if it knows that you’re frightened, it will destroy you.” He told me not to panic if I ever got caught in a rip current; to either swim parallel to the shore until I was out of it or float on my back until it subsided. He told me to run as fast as I could to the top of the nearest hill if the waves suddenly sucked themselves back away from the sand. He told me to stay away from the shore on stormy days when the ocean was feral.
Most importantly, he told me about the selkies.
“Watch out for the selchidh, Annowre,” he would tell me quietly, as if afraid of being overheard. “If you see a seal’s skin on the sand, turn around and walk away. If you see a girl coming out of the waves with a pretty face and seaweed hair, avert your eyes and convince yourself you hadn’t seen her. Never trust a woman you meet on the beach. She’ll eat your heart and spit it back out at your feet and leave you with nothing but the taste of salt in your mouth.”
My father died when I was fourteen. I grew up alone in our little cottage on the cliffs and remembered all his passionate words. I collected the oysters and mussels and mollusks just like he used to and sold them at a wooden stall in town; I fished every other day and sold my catches to Ailean Fylan, who owned the grocer; and I never feared the sea, but I was careful to never love it either, for both could just as easily kill a mortal girl like me.
I was sixteen and picking oysters when I met a woman on the beach. She had a pretty face and seaweed hair, and when she smiled at me I shivered.
“I know what you are,” I said, averting my eyes, “and I’m not interested in you.”
Her dark head tilted to one side. Her pretty face twisted with confusion. Her seaweed hair tumbled down around her shoulders. “What do you think I am?”
“You’re a selkie,” I told her, and I knew it to be true.
Her pretty face laughed at me. “A selkie! Aren’t you a superstitious one.” I said nothing, and her pretty face fell. “Do you want any help? My mother always said I had a talent for finding the good ones.”
“I’m fine on my own,” I said, and I was. “Please just leave,” I added, and I meant it. I turned my back on the woman with the pretty face and seaweed hair, and when I turned around again, she was gone; in her place was a single oyster bearing a single perfect pearl.
Every time I went to the beach I found little things; oysters with pearls inside, nuggets of gold, jagged shark teeth, vibrant piles of sea glass, chunks of stone worn impossibly smooth. Often, too, I saw something mottled and gray spread out like a blanket by the edge of the waves, but every time I did, I turned and walked away.
When I was twenty-three I was tying up my boat when I met a woman on the beach.
“Hello again,” she said to me. “It’s been awhile, hasn’t it?”
I didn’t look at her pretty face and said, “I thought I told you to leave.”
“And I did,” she told me. “Now I’m back. Why won’t you look at me?”
“I know what happens when I look at you,” I said.
“You still think I’m a selkie then?” she asked, almost concerned. In my mind’s eye I saw her pretty face made beautiful by sadness.
“I know what you are,” is all I said, because I did. When I opened my eyes she was gone, and in her place was a necklace adorned with shark teeth and sea glass with seaweed hair as string.
Every time I went to the beach I found things; piles of strange coins of gold and bronze and silver, daggers and swords with ornate golden hilts inlaid with precious stones, broken and whole shards of rubies and emeralds and sapphires, silver cups and forks and spoons and plates and knives. Nearly every visit I saw a mottled gray blanket further down the sand. Whenever I did, I turned and walked away.
When I was thirty I was standing knee-deep in cold autumn waves when I met a woman on the beach.
“You’re going to catch a chill if you stay like that, you know,” she said from behind me. “The water is too cold these days.”
I looked away from her pretty face and said, “Not for you.”
“Aye,” she said, “but the water is never too cold for the likes of me.”
“The likes of you?” I said.
“You know what I am,” she said, because I did.
“You’re a selkie,” I told her, and I knew it was true.
“Never did I say I wasn’t.” A long pause. I listened as the sea sang to me. “You’re going to catch a chill,” she repeated, and I knew this was true, too, but said nothing. I stared down at the place I knew my feet to be, though I could not see nor feel them. “Won’t your husband be missing you?” she tried.
I didn’t look at her pretty face and said, “I have no husband.”
“Not yet,” she said. Silence fell once more. “Won’t you look at me?” she asked finally, her voice crashing with the waves.
“I know what happens when I look at you,” I said, and the words felt familiar between my lips. Night fell, and when I glanced behind me she was gone; in her place was a ring made of coral inlaid with ghostly gray pearls.
Every time I went to the beach I found lovely things; coral carved in the shapes of tiny goats and cows and sheep and dogs, dried-up seahorses in all shades of yellow and pink and violet, harps and flutes and cups made of twisted driftwood, pearly white conch shells covered in beautifully vivid paintings that sang when I put them to my ear. Every time I saw a sleek gray seal’s skin nearby, but I always turned around and walked away.
When I was thirty-seven I was building a castle of sand when I met a woman on the beach.
“It is so cold here these days,” she said beside me. “But it is warm under the waves.”
“Wish that I could go under the waves, then,” I said softly. Out of the corner of my eye I saw her pretty face turn towards me.
“But you cannot,” she said. “Your husband and children need you.”
I didn’t look at her pretty face as I said, “I have no husband or children,” because I didn’t.
“Why not?” she said. She pushed her seaweed hair back behind an ear.
“There is no man I want,” I said, and though I had never spoken nor thought the words before I knew them to be true.
“Not yet,” she said, and sighed with the ocean breeze. “You still will not look at me,” she remarked hopelessly.
“I know what happens when I look at you,” I said, and when I turned she was gone; in her place was a bracelet made of braided seaweed hair.
Every time I went to the beach I found the most precious things; seashell lockets that sang with the sea’s own voice, a seaweed cloak warmer than any wool, pocket watches that ticked with the rise and fall of the tide, garlands of alien flowers that smelled of salt and glowed sickly blue and white at nighttime. Once or twice I all but stepped on a shiny, wet seal’s skin when retrieving my treasures, and every time I turned and walked away, pretending I didn’t feel the shaking of my hands or the fluttering of my heart.
When I was forty-four I was waiting when I met a woman on the beach.
“No husband yet,” she said softly. “Nor children.”
I didn’t look at her pretty face and I said, “No husband ever.”
“Is there no man you love?” she asked. Her pretty face was inches from mine. I could feel her salty breath on my cheek, burning my nostrils.
“There is one man,” I said.
“He will not marry you?”
“He cannot marry me.”
“Why not?” she asked, her fingers caressing my shoulder. I flinched as hard as if I’d been slapped. She did not move away.
“He is dead,” I told her, for I knew it to be true. “He has been dead for thirty years.”
“Yet you still will not look at me,” she said.
“I know what happens when I look at you,” I whispered, but I could feel my eyes being lured in. When they reached her she was gone, and in her place was a seal’s skin.
Every time I went to the beach I searched for things. I searched for nuggets of gold, for daggers with ornate hilts, for dried-up seahorses, for garlands of alien flowers, but I found nothing but oysters and mussels and mollusks. Every time I saw no sign of seal skin, and I wondered if I could muster up the courage to walk away if it had ever returned.
I was fifty-one and picking oysters when I met a woman on the beach.
“Many years ago, you told me you were fine on your own,” she said, standing before me, her feet planted firmly in the ocean. “You asked me to leave.”
“You did,” I said. “But you came back.”
“Yes,” she said. “Four times I left. Five times I came back.”
“Why leave if only to come back? Why not just stay?”
“Twice you asked me to leave,” she said. “Never once did you ask me to stay.”
I looked up at her pretty, freckled face. I ran my fingers through her soft seaweed hair. I looked into her wide dark eyes. I kissed her full pink lips.
“Stay,” I said, and I meant it.