Caillic waded through the shoals in search of cockles and sea snails. She inhaled deeply, relishing the salt air in her lungs and its slick kiss on her skin. Struan would expect her home and tea prepared by the time he returned from market. Caillic knew better than to disappoint her husband, but, while she was on the shore on his bidding, she enjoyed the gentle monotony of the task. These moments of silence, at least, were her own.
A gaggle of women strayed off the high road above the beach, their prattle a distant din on the wind. They wound along the carriageway from the hubbub of the marketplace to the crofts scattered across the island’s heath, then reached the sands. Caillic could imagine their malicious, mirthful gossip, though only snatches of it ever reached her over the wash of the sea. Come see the reclusive wife of the handsome merchant, Struan! See how she paces, hem-deep in the froth of the North Sea, eyes darting in the shallows! Standing from their usual perch atop a sand dune, the women were at a distance safe enough to observe Caillic without having to confront the girl whom they had always considered freakish. Caillic tried to ignore them. Wasn’t it fine with Struan? Then it was fine with Caillic, too. So long as they kept to themselves and let her do the same.
But, despite their distance, their voices still pricked in her ears. She had no desire to linger under their gaze. Besides, she’d collected enough. Struan would be happy, would he not? Caillic made back to the cottage, hunched under the weight of a net brimming with shellfish. She kept her gaze to the ground as she trudged through the dry sand.
“He doesnae love ye,” a voice cried, a stone’s throw away. Caillic turned and looked up, neck still bent with her burden. The Blair girl, youngest by far, had broken ranks, those honey eyes wide with disgust. The wind carried faint cries of “witch” and “devil’s consort” from the older women in their distance. She ignored them. She stared at the Blair girl who, emboldened, took a step closer. “He doesnae love ye,” she repeated.
“He loves me,” a ghostly voice whispered from within. “He loves me.” Caillic feared it. She feared that voice.
Caillic let the net fall from her shoulder, her own eyes wide in a mirror image of her challenger, not in fury but in shock. Caillic took several steps towards her. The other women fell silent. Some of their faces twisted in fear, others in perverse excitement, unable to resist the spectacle of confrontation.
“Aye but he married me, Malvina, didn’t he?” Caillic replied, her voice cracking. “Not you. Not any of ye.” Caillic had never felt the need to defend her marriage. But had she ever had it questioned so directly? No, never. Had Struan not dragged her from poverty? Had he not given her everything she now had, a home she need never leave, her loom, even the occasional gift of fine jewellery from his travels?
“A marriage, is that what ye call it?” Malvina laughed sharply, humourlessly. “A know about the separate beds, Caillic. When was the last time you were in his?”
The gloating in her voice was too much to bear. Tears burned, threatening to spill, checked only by her rage. She was too close now. A stone’s throw. She fumbled inside her net and closed her hand on the first thing it landed on, a clam. She stood, her arm cocked back to throw. Malvina only stared. Everyone stared, quiet now. Caillic gave a shuddering, trembling sigh, then threw the clam into the sand at her feet. She awkwardly shouldered her burden again and hurried away as fast as she could in the sand. She caught one final scrap of Malvina’s taunting. “If she had shared his bed, she would know the leg’s broke. That’s why he prefers mine, he says. But I can think of other reasons.”
Caillic opened the wind-battered door to find Struan, her Struan, merchant of Orkney, away. The stove, cupboard and table crowded one side of the cottage. Struan’s bed dominated the other. Caillic’s own makeshift pile of cushions and quilts were bundled against the back wall. All was as she had left it.
She set down her wares and stripped out of her wet cloak and gown, hung the kettle on the stove and sunk, shivering, into a chair, taking comfort in the steaming heat. When the image of the old fishwives’ hateful glares came to her, she went to the loom to work on a shawl. When the laugh of the dancing girl from the tavern cut through her, she examined her collection of sea glass to determine which pieces would be fit to be jewelled for Struan to sell at market. Malvina Blair’s laughing, honey-brown eyes flashed in her mind. And again. And again. He doesnae love ye. He doesnae love ye. Caillic sprang from her armchair by the fire, the roaring heat of which could not stop her shivering with cold disgust. The walls seemed to close in around her. She felt a pang of anxiety tighten her chest as her darting eyes fell on her husband’s bed. Surely she would have noticed if a leg had broken. Surely her husband would not have dared discuss the details of their marriage with that girl. Could she bring herself to look? Yes, she willed herself. Yes. Now. She crossed the room quickly and knelt at the foot of the bed, as if in prayer.
She dragged away the large chest that sat before it, holding her breath. She saw it immediately. The bed slanted to one side, a large crack running down the front left leg. Caillic felt hollow. Malvina filled the space around her. Her laugh. Her eyes. Her scent. What did she smell like? Not the sea, not like Caillic. Perhaps honey, like her eyes.
Caillic almost wretched in the now oppressive heat of the fire. She stumbled to the door and yanked it open. The wind, colder now, bit at her exposed skin. She sank to her knees on the cold grass of their croft. The cold cleared her mind. The hollow feeling was gradually replaced by shame, and then by rage. What was more, she was filled with a desire to provoke the same rage in her husband.
Caillic went back inside. She knew she must start cooking, start cleaning, but she fell still in the doorway. Her eyes fell on the locked chest she had drawn from the foot of Struan’s bed. He had forbidden her from ever mentioning it, let alone opening it. Caillic had always felt a strange pull to it. Or perhaps to its contents. They were calling to her like a distant song, the most familiar melody in the world, the name of which just managed to elude her. In the more turbulent, stricken periods of her marriage, she often found her mind wandering to the chest. She had vowed to obey Struan. He had vowed to be faithful to her. Caillic felt a jolt of excitement.
The little light that glimmered through the tiny windows of the low-ceilinged cottage was beginning to fade. Struan would soon return. Caillic knew he would stay only a handful of hours before he would stray out again, locking the door behind him for the night.
The broth was well on its way. Caillic hunched over the stove, and her jaw clenched when she heard the door open and then slam shut with the force of the wind. She heard a series of grunts as he struggled out of his wet things. “Tea no ready yet?” he barked. It seemed some things would never change.
She started violently when he pulled her suddenly away from the pot by her arm to investigate its steaming contents. Another grunt. Caillic stole a quick glance at her husband and saw that he returned a furtive look.
“You’re in your under clothes,” he said. Caillic nodded in reply. Struan narrowed his eyes. “Why?” The hairs on her arms raised in gooseflesh.
“It wis dreich on the beach the day,” she replied, her eyes cast down in submission. Her husband’s gaze did not waver.
“And ye didnae redress?” What exactly was he accusing her of? Had he no shame of his own infidelity?
“I wis busy cookin’ your tea,” she said. Too sharply for Struan’s liking. His face reddened and, not for the first time, Caillic feared his temper. He said nothing, however, and stepped back to the table, slumping into a chair.
Caillic ladled broth into two bowls, serving her husband the fuller of the two. “Are ye in a hurry to be off again, husband?” she asked, praying that he could not detect the hopeful note in her voice. He shook his head.
“Am no goin’ anywhere the night,” he replied. Caillic bit her tongue. The first time in so long she wanted her husband to leave her alone at night, and the first time he decided instead to stay. She nodded, then glanced at Struan, sure that her disappointment would betray her.
Struan, though, was too lost in his food to dwell on the subtleties of his wife’s mannerisms. He did not speak another word until the bowl was empty.
“A fair would lie doon, wife, the day wis long,” he muttered eventually. Caillic nodded again. He stood from the table, dressed in his nightclothes, and rolled into his broken bed. He was snoring within minutes.
Caillic cursed him. Had he caught a whiff of rebellion on the stuffy, broth-scented air? Perhaps news of the encounter on the beach had reached even the men of the town. He kept snoring. He slept so soundly. She could hardly believe it, that for so long she had relied on the lull of the waves on lonely, restless nights, and for so long Struan had spent those nights with Malvina Blair. And how many others? She could hear Malvina’s laugh, and see the broken bed. Surely there were others.
Before she could stop herself, she found herself carried by light steps to the foot of Struan’s bed. She watched him for a few moments. His deep, steady breaths assured her that he would not wake. She dropped to her knees and peered at the chest. The huge lock was ornate, incongruous upon the poorly assembled, unvarnished oak.
But there was no key. At least, Struan had told her so on their first night together when he had still cherished his young wife desperately, when she had still trusted him with her life. In those days, he would not have left his wife alone in an empty bed for all the world. Now, even in his absence, Caillic could not bring herself to sleep in that bed. Could she remember the night, the moment things had changed between them? No. Had there been one action, one indiscretion of hers that had caused it? She could not think of any. It had been gradual, she was sure. For the first time, she knew that the fault had been his. He had changed. He had hardened against her.
Perhaps, as time had worn on and the magic of their first night had faded, the lock of the chest might have rusted or cracked. She watched her own hand move, seemingly of its own accord, and reach out to try it. Her heart raced as her fingers wrapped themselves around the latch. She felt the weight of the lid as her wrist jerked it upwards and watched as the ancient lock crumbled and came free. The lid tipped back. The contents were exposed. Her mind registered pale brown. A pelt of some kind. It conjured the image of the waves lapping the shore, the scent of salt, the feeling of family, of belonging. Her heart began to pound and her hands to shake. She stretched out both hands. As she felt the silky, speckled skin between her fingers, a wave of recognition began to lap over her body. It started at her feet, spreading throughout her very being, stopping only when it reached her heart which now echoed the song of the skin. She was staring, she realised, at herself, her true self, that had been lost an age ago. She was not Caillic, goodwife of Struan the great merchant of Orkney, and a Christian. She was Caillic of the sea. She was of an order older than man.
She took herself in her arms and made the short walk from the cottage to the shore. Not a thought entered her mind of Struan. She cared not whether he woke or slept on. She loosed salt-stiffened corsets, letting her shifts fall to her ankles, and breathed for the first time in ten years. Her sisters were waiting for her. She shrouded herself in her pelt, inhaling her scent, and stepped into the shallows. A strong set of whiskers replaced the pale freckles on her nose. The wealth of golden hair gave way to still-damp brown fur. Her pallid, almost translucent skin was gone – all traces of the weakness of humanity disappeared. Her skin was strong now. It would protect her. The salt water danced around her body. A welcome home.
She turned back only once. She saw Struan racing down the beach, face contorted in rage, shrill cries muted by the sound of the waves. He had trapped her. He had betrayed her. A grave mistake. Men ought never to disrespect the sea, or its daughters. Without another second’s hesitation, she turned into the wind, feeling it ripple through her fur, and dove.
Caillic, the selkie, swam through the shoals in search of cockles and sea snails.
by Thea Mair