Hilda stood motionless on the rocky cliff as twilight crept toward her. The reflection of glimmering stars rode the roiling waves, scattering watery diamonds as they crashed around her feet. Her eyes, her heart, were focused on the east where blue sky was slowly turning black. Lifting her arms, she turned her palms up, a supplicant to the dawning moon in a ritual she performed nightly for too many years.
“To you I beg for time.” Within her rough whisper she thought she still heard the melodies of her youthful voice.
The wind circled the cliffs of Monhegan where she stood, tying knots in her coarse gray hair as it whipped around her head. Moonlight danced between the clouds and she caught the shadows, trapping them in her webbed fingers, the stellar light bouncing off her hands and illuminating the lines of age and worry so deeply creased upon her face.
She held her palms to the sky. “To you I beg forgiveness.”
“’Tis I from whom you should seek forgiveness!” The bellowing echoed between the rocks, caught in the roar of the incoming tide and was carried to her on sea spray. She lowered her hands to her side at the sound of his voice, another voice that had risen above the mists of time.
A phantom shadow rode on the advancing tide, small white caps smudged by the large dark form bounding through them. In the moonlight, she watched as the large seal slid onto the rocks and shook from head to tail, flinging a rotating spray of sea water around him.
Hilda picked up her long skirt and with bare feet felt her way easily down the slippery rocks toward him. He was still, his large dark eyes fixed on her movements. She stopped only inches from him.
She spoke swiftly, fearing he would disappear before she could speak, fearing the giant seal was nothing more than a spectral glare upon her vision. She wanted desperately to believe that by speaking immediately of their last meeting she could replay the hours from that night, the night she had left him and found herself drawn to the young fisherman who stood by the sea. “I didn’t mean to go,” she said softly.
She spoke the words she had memorized, had repeated daily since that lost night. “I was young. I sought adventure.” Her words were impotent, carrying with them little more than a barren apology.
“And adventure you found?” Small shells dropped from the corners of his mouth as he spoke.
“Yes, Ril. I found adventure.” She stepped nearer to him. “But I lost you.”
Ril stuck his nose between the rocks and flung a crab into the waves. “I was nay enough.”
“Oh, but you were. You were enough, Ril.” She extended her hand to him, but he shook his head. She curled her fingers, bringing her hand to her chest. “It was only meant for a moment,” she said, the ache in her heart for all the years they’d lost woven into her words. “I wanted to know what it was like, to walk the land ….”
“You knew the dangers of mixing with humans. We all knew the dangers.”
“I did, Ril. I did,” she said quickly. “I’d heard the stories. But they were just stories. I was young. It wasn’t supposed to happen to me. I knew we Selkies could only be with humans for a short time, and that then we must return to the sea.” A wave crashed at her feet. “It was only meant for a moment,” she whispered.
“And then?” Ril sidled up close to her, his hot fishy breath intoxicating, the warmth of his sealskin raising bumps on her flesh.
“He stole my skin,” she pleaded. “He burned it. I could never go back.”
“He took you here, across the sea? Far away from Sule Skerry.”
Hilda bowed her head, submitting to the anger in his voice. “Away from Sule Skerry. Away from the sea. Away from you.”
“You were wed?”
“And now? They lie sleeping?” He nodded towards the rise of the hill.
“They lie sleeping,” she said, “in the sea. They were fishermen, all.”
Ril shook violently. Beneath his eyes the skin began to split, tearing apart to reveal the weathered face of a man once handsome, now beautiful. Twisting his head back and forth, he emerged slowly from the confines of his seal form, shoulders and chest revealed. With his freed hands he pushed the hide down the length of his torso, over his thighs, and pulled his feet from the limp bag of skin.
He stood, straight, tall. Stepping out of his skin, he took her hand in his, his clammy palm finding solace in her warmth. “I’ve searched the coasts of all the shores, from Orkney to Vestmannaeyjar, Miquelon to Block.”
“Please,” she said. “I beg your forgiveness.”
“I heard you beg for time as well.”
The rock on which she stood was losing height to the tide. She put her hand on his face. “Forgiveness first.”
Ril put his hand over hers where it rested on his cheek. With his other hand he brushed salty tears from her face. “I have found thee here. There is no more need for forgiveness.”
“Then, if only for this moment,” she said, “time has been granted us.”
“Ye hold me close” he said, pulling her into his arms. “Ye hold me tight.”
“Just one more time before the break o’ day.”
“And then once more, I must away.”
“Aye,” she said. “And I’ll remain.”
“Though in the sea near you I’ll stay, I cannot shed my skin but once a year.”
“Aye, and I … I am human now, so soon I’ll die. We cannot change our nature, Ril.”
He held her so close their hearts beat together in time. “Then, if only for this moment,” he whispered.
“’Twas all for this moment, Ril,” she said. “Only for this moment ….”
Lucy Gregg Muir is a writer and middle school English teacher. When she’s not haranguing her students for misusing homophones, or chasing one daughter out of tattoo emporiums and the other away from absurd My Little Pony videos, she writes. Her published poems, short stories, and creative nonfiction pieces are scattered around the web. She maintains her website, but not very well. Ms. Muir is googleable.