By Hannah Nicholson
That night I was woken by the moonlight streaming in through our bedroom window, illuminating me as I lay mulling over what I was about to do. I turned gently over and gazed at my husband’s face as he slumbered peacefully, undisturbed by the silvery lunar glare cast over us both. I studied his face in the light, all the lines and blemishes on his skin, this hardworking man that I wed all those years ago and bore three children to. He had been so kind to me, and tonight I would break his heart.
I slipped out of bed and got dressed as quietly as I could manage. He slept on unperturbed. I went to him, leaned down and kissed his forehead. He still didn’t stir. I crept out of the room and down to the next one, where our children – two sons and a daughter – were sleeping. When I saw them, I felt a lump form in my throat, and I tightly closed my eyes to restrain the tears threatening to come. I could only begin to imagine how the enormity of my actions were going to affect them. I went to them one by one, kissing their foreheads and whispering silent apologies, and hoping they would hear them somehow.
With that, I crept out of the house and made for where the key to my freedom was kept. For years I had been wondering how to get it back, but he would never tell me, and if it had not been for our daughter inadvertently letting it slip I would never have learned. I hoped that someday she and her brothers would understand.
I opened the door to the shed, and the old key was lying on the worktop, glinting at me as if it knew I was coming to fetch it. I suppose he didn’t think I would ever find it here, and he was right – I hadn’t any reason to come in here, it was his domain. I took it in my hand, closed the door tightly behind me and made my way to the byre.
It was quiet when I entered. A lot of the animals we’d been keeping had been sold at market recently, and the few left in there were sound asleep. There was the old chest in front of me, again being caught by the moonlight as if it was guiding me, acting as the lighthouse to my ship. Whenever I had been in milking the cows or brushing the horses I could usually see it from where I was sat or standing, and it seemed to taunt me with its mere presence, as if it knew I could never open it. Well, I had won that war, and now, trembling, I slid the key into the lock and turned it.
It was a bit stiff initially, but then came the dull click sound that heralded that I had succeeded. I lifted the lid with its rusty hinges and there it was before me, its mottled deep grey patina perfect and preserved all these years in its little wooden prison. My long lost pelt, my true skin.
I lifted it out and felt its soft, silky fur between my fingers. I held it to my face and inhaled its familiar scent, an intoxicating perfume consisting of the salt and tang of the sea with a slight hint of the musty wood.
This time the tears came thick and fast, and I made no effort to stop them. They spilled over and dripped onto the pelt, glinting like stars as they travelled down to the floor. I could hardly believe it. I was so convinced he’d simply burnt it after he’d seized me that day at the beach – that was what our elders had warned us about, that if the humans captured us they would take our skins and burn them to render us mortal and keep us in their power. I suppose I was fortunate that mine trusted me, but then again, he kept that chest where I could still clearly see it and I would be tortured by knowing that it was in there and I could do nothing about it.
The smell coming from my pelt brought back all the memories I had long tried to repress to keep my husband and children happy. I found I could clearly remember my life before him, the one where I had my freedom and took for granted that I was always surrounded by my pod. Of course, the sea is famous for its predators – we had to take care to avoid the orcas that came by the area, and of course the humans and their harpoons and clubs. When we went ashore to enjoy the sun, we took our skins off to cool down, but we had to remain vigilant in case a land dweller tried to seize their chance.
That day, I remember the others collecting their skins and returning to the sea, but I was unable to find mine. I was aware that the sun was going down and that I was completely naked, but I dashed around searching for it and that was when he snatched me up in his arms. In shock I had cried out and tried to wrestle my way free, but his grasp was tenacious and determined, and I finally gave in to him. I looked into his eyes and saw kindness, and his voice was soothing and gentle, even if I couldn’t understand his tongue.
He had carried me back up the beach to the home he shared with his parents, and there he found me some suitable clothing and gave me food. Gradually I learned to speak his language and shed my own tongue as easily as I had my pelt, and eventually we were married. I flinched as I remembered the pain when we first made love on our wedding night, and subsequently the greater agony of giving birth to our oldest son. Despite having never gone through such a trial, I brought two more into the world. Over the years, I lost who I really was, and my husband successfully moulded me into the perfect wife and mother for his children that he had always wanted.
To those outside, it would seem our lives were complete. But my pelt would call to me from its wooden prison whenever I went into the byre, and it would make me long for the creature I had been and not the woman I was now, slowly driving me mad all the while, but I could never find the key. Now, though, we were reunited, and nothing could change that.
When I reclaimed my skin, the pull of the sea became stronger than ever. Correspondingly, I realised how hot and constricting my human clothes had become, and despite it still being nighttime and cold outside I removed them and set them inside the old chest, replacing my true skin with my false one. At least that way when my husband awoke he would see what had happened and that he was too late to come and look for me, although I didn’t suppose that would stop him. With that I gathered my pelt under my arm, left the byre and went off to the beach.
Again, as I walked, the moonlight guided my way. I felt the prickle of the grass beneath my bare feet and the cold bite of the wind on my flesh. That wasn’t why I was shivering, though. At long last I reached the shore, and the grass beneath my feet became the softer sand. I could now smell and taste the salt and tang more strongly than I had in years, and I knew I had to be where it was.
I unravelled my pelt and pulled it around me, and then I stepped into the water. Even having not worn it for so long, it still welded itself to my skin as easily as it had ever done. As soon as I was able to, I dove in.
As I swam, I caught sight of my body in the moonlight. I was no longer pale and wan, but sleek and silvery, transformed fully back into my real form. The ocean was still as familiar as it had been before, and man’s world felt so far away, as if it had all been a bad dream.
I knew it hadn’t been, though, and I found my mind wandering back to my husband and children. It wouldn’t be long before the sun came up, and they would wake to find that I was not in my bed, and that the chest had been opened and my pelt replaced with my former clothes. I hoped someday that I might be able to see them again for the briefest time and beg their forgiveness, but for now, I was my true self in my true home, and here I would always stay.