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art by Stephen James Kiniry

Sea Charm

Ann Chatham was raised in the storytelling community of the Washington, DC area, and has been reading fantasy and hearing folklore told for as long as she can remember. She has worked in a number of strange places, from a dude ranch in Colorado to doing archaeology in the eastern US, where "history" only goes back 400 years. Currently, she shares a small house near Baltimore with her husband, their cat, and his turtle, and spends her time writing, making things, gardening for wildlife, and volunteering at the local aquarium. Strangely, a lot of her stories recently seem to involve the sea and its inhabitants.

"It's not my rule," said the sorceress, crossly. "It's a rule of magic, child. If you want a thing, you must be prepared to offer something you value as much in exchange. If you take my advice, you'll forget about this nonsense and speak to the young man on your own." She leaned on her hoe and watched the girl over her garden fence.
"But, mistress," said the girl, and began to offer some excuse she passionately believed in. The old woman sighed; there was never a drop of sense in them when they were fifteen and in love, or thought they were. Of course, if she'd had any sense herself at that age she wouldn't be living in this little hut on the cliff's edge peddling simples, so she tried to be kind. This latest girl was very pretty, although perhaps she didn't know it, with her gray eyes and skin a good deal paler than most of the people along this coast. She had probably been sickly and sunburnt as a child, and showed no sign of knowing yet that she'd grown into herself and could likely catch the eye of whatever man she wished.
"I can't change the world for you, child," the sorceress interrupted her after a minute, and she stopped before saying that she didn't wish to, either.
"There is nothing in the world I value over his love," the girl protested, "not even my own life."
"And much good it would do you to be beloved and dead. Who is this young man, child?"
The girl scowled. "You are mocking me! You know nothing of love."
It was the sort of thing so many of them said, and the old woman wished that more of these youngsters remembered the value of being polite to those they wanted favors from. Unlike the griping fishwives from the village, she still remembered that their mothers and grandmothers had been no better in their day. The young men, of course, were worse. She leaned the hoe against the fence, gathered up the pile of pulled weeds in her apron, and mustered her patience.
"Child, if you wish to be united with your lover, I'll need to know something about him. That's also the way magic works; if I make you up a spell all unknowing, then odds are you'll end up beloved of the miller's boy when you wanted the fisher lad next door. If you want my help you'll stop looking for offense where there's none meant, and you'll come in and tell me what the trouble is from start to end, and we'll see what's to be seen."
She turned away to carry the weeds to the rubbish heap before the girl could answer, but after a moment she heard the girl's footsteps in the garden, rather than the long path back down to the village.
Inside, the girl sat on the bench that didn't wobble and twisted her hands in her apron until the sorceress put a knife and a bunch of carrots into them. The older woman stirred up the fire, brewed a tea, and steamed open a handful of mussels for her stew while the younger chopped carrots. After a while, the girl began to tell her story as well.
The young man, it seemed, was no fisher's lad or lord's son at all, but a wild lad of the sea with kelp for hair and the slim tail of a fish. In the highest, wildest tide, when the men pulled their boats out of the sea entirely and the women climbed the cliffs beyond the harbor and cast nets into the unruly waves, he had ridden the surf in as heedless as a human boy on a horse riding breakneck across unknown terrain, and caught her net out of the air for a joke. She had fallen in, of course, and he had saved her, with what she took to be a great many fine words of apology, although they had no language in common. But they had met again in calmer tides at the end of that same dock where he had brought her, so she had some reason for believing he cared for her as well.
"What do you want then, child?" the sorceress asked when she had done. "A fish tail of your own so you can leave all you know behind for a green-haired lad you can't talk to? To speak his tongue and lose your own? It's a pretty story, I grant you, but what do you know of his kingdom and what you'd find there?"
"I know what I see in his eyes," said the girl, plunking down the knife in the middle of the chopped vegetables and scowling.
The sorceress sighed and picked up half a mussel shell from beside the hearth. She rubbed at it with a clean spot of her apron, watching the girl's face waver between anger and tears, and then whispered into the smooth bowl of the shell. "I can't just let you leap into a thing like that, whatever his eyes may be telling you," she said, thinking about the eyes that had lied to her over the years. She handed the shell to the girl. "Keep this by you. If you put it to your ear, you'll be able to understand what the sea is telling you. When you know what words this lad of yours is saying to you, then come back if you've a mind to."
The girl took it eagerly, and then stopped with her hand still extended. "What price must I pay?"
"It's only a charm. All you need for that is words and a bit of breath. It'll wear out when the moons change season, but that should be long enough for you." She shook her head as the girl expressed boundless gratitude and ran back down the path to the village, leaving the sorceress with the makings of dinner for two and only one to eat it.
The moons were divergent and nearly opposed, and the waves had slapped listlessly at midtide for nearly a week. The sorceress found a slanting rockfall along the cliffs where she could climb down to the water's edge with only a little anger against the age of her knees. It wasn't, she told herself, that she owed the village girl anything, but when the sea started taking an interest in the land it was worth her time to investigate. She found a broad rock that lay nearly level, half in and half out of the water, and sat herself down to listen.
If the sea had anything new to say, it wasn't saying it; the birds and the waves and the seals basking among the rocks looked just as they had any time this past decade. The sorceress sighed, and leaned over creakily to dip her fingertips in the water and whisper to the drops that clung as she lifted her hand, glittering in the evening light. Then she flicked them away from her and watched the little ripples disappear into the waves.
For a time, nothing changed, and she watched the sea with a hard-learned patience, listening to the pointless gossip of the gulls. Then a dark shape moved up through the water towards her rock, and rested its chin on the submerged half. It stared up at her silently with large dark eyes, its sealskin held close about it, but the sorceress could tell the difference between the seals who could speak and those who only swam and fished.
"You have nothing to fear from me," the old woman assured it, spreading her hands to show that they were empty.
The seal snorted, but it was a noise of amusement, and it tossed back its head, shedding fur like a hood until the dark eyes looked out of a human face, with a cowl of sealskin tumbled about the neck. "You are a nosy old human," said the seal in a pleasant alto that could have belonged to either a woman or a young man.
"Perhaps I am," said the sorceress, "but you must be a nosy young seal, or you would not have come up to talk to me."
The seal grinned, showing pointed carnivore's teeth in its human face. "Perhaps I am." It flapped its hind flippers a bit and pushed its belly a little way onto the rock, getting comfortable. "You asked for someone who would tell you a thing about the sea; well, I would like to know a thing or two about the land. Will you trade, old human?"
"If it brings no harm to my people or to yours, I will and gladly."
The seal nodded at the traditional phrase, a strange motion from a head already mismatched to its body. "What will you ask, then?"
It was being cagey with its questions, but the sorceress didn't mind; tradition allowed them each three, trade for trade. "There is a young man of the sea, fish tailed and kelp haired but a little bit human to look at, who has taken an interest in a human girl by the bay. I wish to know who he is, what he might want from her, and how ill the sea might take it should he get what he wants."
"That is much to ask," said the seal, grinning. "I have seen the one you speak of; he is a lesser male from the court of the near depths. You know of such creatures?" The sorceress shook her head. "They swim in schools protecting one of the greater males, in the hope that when a queen chooses to court the school, they may have the chance to mark a few of her eggs." It eyed her for a moment and then added, "Only the lesser males and the queen cubs look like you land things at all."
The sorceress had heard of stranger things in her long lifetime, so she just nodded.
The seal's grin sharpened, and she had a moment to be grateful that she was not a fish. "Tell me," it said, "what the humans say about seals."
She considered telling it only that, but she knew what it meant and did not want to start a game of deceit with two more questions still unanswered. "They say that there are two kinds: those who are only seals, and those who can shed their skins to become beautiful women. The stories are all about some young fisherman or another who steals a skin to get a bride, and they all end about as badly as you'd expect of someone who tries to give slavery and get love." The seal looked disappointed, and she added, "I did hear a tale once where the seal was a man, but that went worse than the others for everyone."
A pair of gulls chased each other noisily over their heads, and the sorceress thought that perhaps she still hadn't answered what the seal wanted to know; she did not think it was looking for the things she had learned by watching and asking the right questions of the sea. She shifted her legs to ease the growing pain in her knees and moved more of the fabric of her skirts between her old bones and the rock, but she didn't know what else to add to her answer, and the seal did not choose to use another question to clarify.
"I expect that the lesser courtier finds novelty in a human because she would look to him alone, rather than his school. There are stories in the sea about such pairings that produced pups, and perhaps he would rather have part-human children all his own than fight to add to the court." The seal shifted moodily, and she wondered whether holding itself half transformed with its head cocked akimbo to its body was as uncomfortable as it looked. "Lesser courtiers are always up to trouble. I think it's from being so much smaller than the greater ones. They have to be quick and smart enough to stay away from larger hunters, and so they get bored."
Like foxes, the old woman thought, remembering all the legends told about those farther inland. Small predators with a trickster's heart; it was a kind she knew fairly well in men, and was surprised that the seal sounded disapproving. She would have placed it as one of the same sort.
"What does the human girl see in him?" asked the seal with a certain note of too-careful curiosity, and she blinked, understanding.
"You want her too."
The seal frowned crossly. "You still have to answer my question."
"I rather suspect that she's had her head turned by being pulled out of a high sea that was about to kill her," she told him dryly. "Not to mention being lonely and having a handsome young creature playing admiring but out of reach, unable to say anything she can understand to put her off, which are none of them particularly good reasons for thinking you've fallen in love, but they're what most girls her age use instead of reasons."
"He can speak your land language as well as I can," said the seal, still cross.
"Really?" She shrugged. "She'll find out, then. I gave her a shell to hear him with."
There was a bit of a silence, and the sorceress wondered if the seal were male or female, or if perhaps it belonged to that class of magical beings who made their own choices, either once or repeatedly as the whim took them. Whether a girl who allowed herself to be moonstruck by a man who was half-fish would be distressed by any of these options, she didn't care to speculate. Eventually the seal, its face carefully blank, went on to answer her third question.
"His school hasn't cared yet, and isn't likely to, unless others of the lesser consorts decide to play some sort of grand joke or another. That wouldn't change if he decided to leave the sea somehow. If she went into the waves... there are stories about that too, and they don't end well either."
She wondered how much to trust the seal's opinion on a rival, but what it said had a ring of truth to it, and many of the sea folk considered themselves bound to literalism by the exchange of questions. It would likely stress the darkest possibilities, but that was what she'd wanted to know about anyway. The sorceress stretched her knees again, trying to shake the fire out of them, and wondered what it was about this particular girl, or whether the sea were merely taken by her brief presence at high tide.
"She would glow in the waves like moonlight or the underbelly of a fish," the seal was saying softly, "and things of the deep sea would rise to follow her..."
"You want her as bait?" asked the sorceress, shocked.
"What? No! But that is what would happen, and the queens would encourage it until something kept her from being a threat to them." She watched the seal narrowly, but saw no reason to disbelieve it. Perhaps that was just the discomfort of sitting on the cold rock for so long breaking her concentration, or perhaps this trickster was telling the truth for one reason or another. Given how much influence she had over the girl, she didn't suppose it mattered what she believed.
"What is it like to live on the land?" the seal asked, startling her completely.
The sorceress stared at the earnest face framed by its ruff of seal fur and laughed so hard she began coughing. "How in the seven worlds and time do you think I could tell you that?" she asked, gasping for breath. "Could you tell me what it's like to live below waves? Come ashore for a while and see for yourself."
The seal gave her a cross look. "I could say that the sea is cool and dim and full of fish to eat and greater things to avoid." It shook its cowl of skin back closer to its face, disappearing as a man with a hood drawn close in the rain.
"Well, then I could say that the land is bright and broad and changes temperature from night to day and season to season, and it is full of fences that tell you which creatures you may hunt and what food you may gather, and that most of the things to avoid are men, or look like them. Would that be of use to you?"
The seal's eyes narrowed, but thoughtfully. "Perhaps. Tides go with you, old human." It tossed its skin back over the human face, and only a brown seal looked at her for a moment before sliding off the rock.
"Tides go with you," she told the waves over the seal's head and watched its dark shadow slide into the darkness of the sea, feeling no more enlightened than she had been when she'd made her way down from the cliffs. And now she still had to make her way back up.
Three days later, she found half a mussel shell on her doorstep, shattered as if by the step and twist of a boot heel. The village gossips said afterwards that it was just what you'd expect from taking up with someone not your kind, and wasn't it so much nicer that the girl had married the brewer's foreign cousin. Though it was strange, wasn't it, that no one remembered hearing the brewer had a cousin until he turned up like that.
The sorceress kept her peace and said nothing, even when the brewer's stocky cousin grinned at her in the street, dark eyes dancing, flashing pointed teeth. The sea had made its decision, and so had the girl, and even a nosy old woman knew when to leave be, some days.
The End
This story was first published on Friday, October 21st, 2011

Author Comments

I generally write short stories from the top down, without a great deal of idea of where they're going until I get there. This began partly as a reflection on how people's priorities change over time (and my difficulty with trying to read YA that does a bit too good an imitation of certain teenage mindsets.) For a little while, it looked like it was going to turn into something reverse-little mermaid, but it turned out that I was writing a selkie story. Funny how these things creep up on one. I hope other people who have a passing familiarity with folkloric selkies will appreciate a tale in which the selkie becomes the trickster rather than the one trapped or deceived.

- Ann Chatham
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