The Selkie Warehouse
by Hazel Compton
I feel his hands on my skin the moment his fingers wrap into it. Feel how he holds it close to his chest, his arm clamping across the soft fur and crushing it as his sweat mats the underside of my belly. He shoves my face into his armpit, folding the whiskers back against themselves so that they’re kinked, follicles broken.
The shock of it stops me dancing. My sister crashes into me and reels back, ready to shout at me before she stops, a look of horror crossing her face as she realises. She knows. It was a miracle that she got her skin back; she had found it wrapped into the tarpaulin of the fishing boat her land-husband had gone out in every day. For a second, I wonder if it’s the same man. If he had been looking all this time for my sister and thought he had found her.
But it isn’t. We get back to the shore and my sister rubs her face with mine one last time, her feet already stepping into her flippers in the shallows. I want to stay like that forever, her briny breath in my nostrils and her slippery skin under my fingers, but I have to let go. I have to go get my skin.
One final look at my sister as she slips beneath the waves. I feel the tears on my cheeks and count seven that drop into the ocean before he finds me. The human man, standing a head taller than me and barking directives at me.
“You took your time to meet me,” he says, eyes widening as I step closer to him. I wonder if I can ask for a present from him to prove his love. If he loves me. The human man had told my sister that he loved her. I wonder if he will give me my skin if I ask for it. It already looks a bit tattered. The bottom of it scraping in the sand. I can see him stepping on my tail as he walks if he’s not careful.
However, the man is looking at me the way sharks look down their noses. It makes me wonder if his teeth are as jagged and angled as a shark’s. Wonder if there are three sets, all hooked to hold me in his grip while he rips out chunks of my side. He turns, walking away from me, pelt scrunched in his huge fist.
“Come on. We have work to do,” he says and I start up the slope after him, the soft, callous-free skin on the soles of my feet burning as I slap them on the ground, again and again.
We walk close to a village, skirting the outside just enough to only get glimpses of lights in windows, human face turned away from the outside world. The man keeps a firm distance in front of me, leading me up a track to the side. The smell that hits me hurts my nose; fish guts and ocean brine. Both nauseating and compelling. As we walk, I feel it sticking in my throat, burning my eyes, and I know where we are heading. I know what will be my fate.
My sister was taken as a lover, but there were rumours of what happened to the other selkies taken from the sea. Our mothers and daughters, all lost to our world. When we poked our heads out of the water, we saw the building chugging steam and smoke into the air, perched on the top of the hillside. We knew that was where our family went.
We take a side door into the factory, the man throwing plastic, chemical-smelling bags and an apron at me before getting tired of me staring back at him and pushing the apron over my head, wrapping my hair up onto my scalp with a dull squish and pushing a hair net over the top. He binds my hands in more plastic; oversized, cartoon-like hand shapes that stick to my skin and take away all my grip, and then he places little dishes of plastic over my feet. I am package-wrapped. All the while he holds my skin tantalisingly close, his hands gripping into it so hard I know if I touched it, he would rip it in half.
I don’t touch my skin; I let him push me into the middle of the warehouse. I watch as the eyes of the other women, their hands trembling and eyes wet, all look up at me. They are all reflections of me, and I recognise every single member of my forgotten family as they look back at me. In their bloodied hands, they hold fish fillets.
I get sat at the end of the line, where the metal tins come out. I look at each tin and pick out any that are damaged in any way. That’s my whole life’s purpose now. After three hours of working non-stop, my fingers are numb. I ask when we get to stop and the selkie next to me looks up with saddened eyes.
“We don’t stop,” she says. “We eat from the belt. We sleep under the belt while one of us covers our shift. We don’t clean ourselves.” The selkie goes back to her position, looking at the fillets of the fish.
Three hours later again, and I see the man walking along. He has my pelt over his shoulder. It’s still slippery, and I watch in awe as it slips over his frame, feel the splat as it lands on the floor within reach of my fingers.
I grasp it at the same time as the man. Feel his fingers tighten into what would be the crook of my neck. I watch him lift my skin up like a rag, shake it free of the bugs. And my plastic-wrapped, useless fingers slide off.
“I don’t want trouble,” he says, taking my pelt by the scruff and me by the ear. He leads me out of the factory, moving up the cliff.
“You want to go back into the sea?” he asks, holding my pelt out over the rocks. I can hear someone screaming. It takes a moment to realise it’s me. “You want your pelt back?” he lets go, the pelt taken by the wind and falling, falling down the side of the cliff into the water. “Go get it.”
I don’t hesitate; I run at the man, slipping past the man in my plastic ‘shoes’ and plummet over the cliffside. The air rips away my breath as I fall, tumbling head over feet overhead as I plunge into the water. The sea around me, for a moment, feels beautiful, silky on my skin and bellowing underneath me. But then it crashes over my human head forcing me down into a current that rages on my limbs, trying to dash me into the rock. I cast around, desperate to find my skin, but I can’t see it floating on the surface, can’t see it riding a wave.
Before my head is thrown under again, I look upward. Not as high as the man. I don’t even know if he is there anymore. But I see a pile of dark, wet shapes half-way down the sheer cliff. A ledge, I realise. And on it is all of the selkie’s pelts, the very top one my own, too high to reach, too low to climb down to.
It’s the last thing I see before I drown in the waves in my useless, plastic-bound, human form.
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