When the moon rose over the silver sea, the waves cradled the island like a sleeping baby in their arms, and the shadows smiled in its peaks and hollows like the baby’s face.
It was on these moonlit nights, when the foam broke on the rocky beach not far from the fishing village, that the seal-women came out of the sea. They crawled out of the surf, one by one, and shed their skins, and became human-seeming women of such loveliness that the moon herself would almost pause in her way to gaze upon them. And they would play on the beach, dancing in the moonlight, and they would sing in their wonderful voices like silver bells, while the constellations wheeled by overhead. Only when the sky in the east would begin to blanch with the dawn would they slip on their skins again, and turn into seals which swam away into the dark waves of the surging sea.
When the seal-women came out on the shore, the people of the fishing village, man, woman and child, all lay in bed, not speaking, listening to the singing. They all knew what it was, but not one of them would even speak of it. They lay in bed stiff as boards, next to each other, and listened to the singing, and in the morning wouldn’t mention it again.
The only one who ever came down to the beach to watch the seal-women dance and sing was the old man who lived in the house on the edge of the cliff. Nobody knew who he was really, or where he came from, except that it was from a distant country, away on the mainland which rose in a line of faded blue on the horizon on clear days. For many years, he’d lived in the house on the cliff, and he hardly ever spoke to anyone, so nobody ever spoke to him either.
It was not their way, to talk to strangers, and he would be a stranger forever and a day.
On the nights when the moon was out, and the seal-women came out of the sea, the old man climbed down the stony path from his house on the cliff top and came to watch them dance and listen to them sing. They knew he was there, and at first they had been wary of him, and careful to keep their seal skins within reach. For you know that when a seal-woman’s skin is taken by a human, she has no way to turn back to a seal again, but must be his wife forevermore. But the old man never touched their skins, and little by little they grew more relaxed with him, and danced as they had always danced before.
Among the seal-women was one whom we shall call Silda. That was not her real name, her seal-name, for that was known to her and her sisters alone. But when she slipped off her skin and danced naked and gloriously beautiful in the moonlight, that was what she was called. And, unlike the others, she always danced and sang for the old man, for she knew it gave him happiness and pleasure, and that made her feel something inside her that she had never felt in all her centuries of life before.
One day, it so happened that by one of the cycles that happen in a seal-woman’s life once in a while, Silda felt the urge to migrate away from land, and swim away into the deep blue sea, where there was no beach on which to crawl up and dance and sing. So she gestured farewell to her sisters, threw up her back flippers, and plunged below the surface where the light faded from dappled green to eternal black. One by one, her sisters, feeling the same urge, followed.
And the moon came up and shone on the sea, and there were no seal women to come up out of the water, and dance and sing on the shingles. And the fisher-folk slept well at night.
Then one day, far away in the middle of the open ocean, Silda felt the call she knew must come, the call that drew her back to land. So she swam back out of the watery wastes and towards the island and the shingled beach she had left so many months ago, but to one of her people it was as though only moments had passed by.
So Silda came back to the shingled beach on a moonlit night, and slipped off her skin, and walked naked and lovely up the strand. In the distance the village lay basking in the moonlight, and on the cliff top the old man’s house brooded. But there was nobody on the beach to watch her dance and listen to her sing, and the old man’s windows were dark as blind eyes.
Then Silda rolled her skin up under her arm and walked up the rocky path up to the old man’s house, for all that the sharp stones hurt her feet. And when she reached the darkened hulk of the building, she rapped on the door, though her heart was bounding in her chest and the fear was stronger within her than it ever had been before.
For a long moment she thought the house was empty, and then she heard the faintest whisper from a corner, wafted to her through the door.
“Come in,” the whisper said. “Come in, whoever you are.”
So she pushed the door open, and, for the first time in all her centuries of life, entered a human dwelling. With her skin under her arm, she walked naked through the rooms until she found the room, lit only by a single guttering candle, where the old man lay in his bed, covered by a thin blanket, his head propped up on a pillow. And even as she saw him, she knew that the thread of his life was frayed, and was on the point of breaking.
Death was close in the room, the seal-woman saw, squatting like a black shadow on the side of the bed, watching her with glowering red eyes. Death had reached out to take the old man, but when she entered the room, It drew Its hand back and watched.
“It’s you,” the old man whispered. “I had hoped I would be able to see you once again, just once more. I watched and waited, but you never came, and never came, and now I can wait no longer.”
Silda walked to the edge of the bed and took his hand in her own. It was the first time she had ever touched a human.
“Will you sing for me?” the old man asked. “Will you dance, one last time?”
So SIlda put her skin down at the foot of the bed, and danced, there in the room. And though all the light there was in the room was that single guttering candle, she danced as she had never had before, so that it was as though the moon and stars had come into the house with her and gathered around her, their light shining on her flashing limbs. And her singing filled the house so that it was as though the very walls were soaked in song.
She sang, she danced, and the stars and moon whirled around her, and through her, and she was the sea and the beach and she was woman and seal, and seal-woman, and all things else that the universe had ever seen. She was life, and she was music, and she was the high-vaulted sky and the deep blue sea. And down in the village the fisher-folk heard her song and shivered, for they knew that it was such a song as never had been before, and might never be again.
And as she sang, the guttering candle on the table filled out and blazed anew, the shadows around the room shrank to puddles, and Death drew away from the old man’s bed and listened. When at last the song was over, It bowed low and drifted through the wall and away. And the old man sat up in bed, and his eyes were filled with life once more.
Then Silda picked up her rolled up skin and gave it to him. “You can take this,” she said, speaking in the human tongue for the first time in all her long life. “Take it and burn it, and I will be yours forever, as long as we both should live. And I will dance for you every night, and keep Death from your door.”
The old man took the skin, held it for a moment, and handed it back to her. “I can only imagine,” he said, “how much it cost you to say that. But I don’t want you to destroy yourself, who you are, for me. You are seal and woman, betwixt and between, and you can never be one or the other and remain who you are.”
“Then,” Silda said, “I will come to you every night, and sing and dance for you, here in your house. And when you can come down to the beach, I’ll sing and dance for you there, too.”
Then they held each other’s hands, and looked into each other’s eyes.
“I once used to be a painter,” the old man said. “I thought I knew beauty. But I never really did, not before I came here, to this island. Tell me of the beach, what it’s like down there tonight.”
“The sky is dark velvet,” Silda replied, “and the moonlight on the waves is like silver, and the island is like a sleeping child, rocked on the bosom of the deep blue sea.”
“And what of you?” the old man asked.
“Me?” Silda replied, surprised. “What of me? I am not beautiful.”
But the old man smiled, because he saw what she didn’t, and she smiled, because he was happy, and there was someone who needed her.
And, down below the cliff, the sea beat on the land, and the seal-women crawled out of the surf to dance, one by one, in the light of the watching moon.
Copyright B Purkayastha 2015