The Sweet Unknown
Dom pulled his cap over his ears to shield him from the bite of two things: the cruel wind and his mother’s voice.
“You better not be heading to town,” she called as he walked toward the door. “Not with those traps still out there.” She put her hands on her round hips, her anger a force in its own. On the cold wooden floor beneath the table, his two tiny brothers played underneath the table with tin soldiers. They didn’t know anything of work. Not yet.
His older sister stirred a pot of boiling water for their wash. Her eyes mirrored Dom’s, sunk in and dark underneath.
Dom shook his head, pausing at the door. “Not going to town. I’m going to get the traps, Ma.” He left before she could say anything else and made his way to the small dock down the hill. The moment his feet touched the boat floor, his body relaxed. Peace.
Every slice the oars made through the choppy water felt like a prayer of thanks to Dom. They took him farther out to sea and away from the two-bedroom house on the hill. He rowed from the nagging of his mother, and into the dark sea. Only one more year and he’d be out of the house. Away from the small fishing town, away from the careful watch of his mother, away from people who saw him as nothing more than a quiet boy.
Sure, he was shy and kept to himself, but he wanted something bigger. A life that didn’t involve smelling like fish. He’d much rather smell like bread. Or books. If he could go away and save for school, that’d be a plan and much better than ending up here.
Dom pulled up alongside the lobster traps as the wind shot through his bones. With steady hands, he moved the buoy aside and pulled up the trap, one arm-length at a time. It was heavier than normal, harder to pull, and his muscles burned against the dead weight.
Just as his breathing set into a steady rhythm, the trap jerked him forward. Dom wound the rope around his hand an extra loop and tightened his grip as the trap thrashed near the surface. It pulled the rope against his palms, his skin aflame. He wrapped it around his elbow, transferring all the tension to one arm while his free hand grabbed an oar.
While the cage whipped back and forth under the water, he cranked a muscled arm over his head, ready to strike. His shoulder heaved the trap and creature to the surface. The sight of the damage made him stop. The metal stripping was ripped apart by the small seal with her head caught tight in the cage. Metal pressed hard against the black skin, cutting into it, exposing the pink flesh. With her head protected, he couldn’t club her out of her misery.
Dom dropped the oar. His hand went to the knife sheathed at his belt. The animal’s cries pierced his heart and she thrashed at the side of the boat. As he drew the blade, the seal’s scrambling doubled, rocking the boat. He lunged over the edge of the dingy, grabbed hold of the cage and fell back into the boat. Both the contraption and creature came with him.
They scrambled in a mess in the small boat, tipping it left and right. Dom dropped the knife to steady himself and push the seal off him. He heard the knife slide against the wood to the bow of the boat.
Carefully, he crawled to the knife while she still struggled on the other end of the boat. When he found it, Dom pictured plunging the blade deep into the seal’s heart. He steeled his resolve and turned to face her.
What he saw stopped him. The cage lay in shambles on the floor of the dingy. Small pieces of the seal’s skin still rested inside the distorted metal trap while the body of the animal, finally freed, lay writhing at the other end of the boat. The face that stared back at him was not the face of a seal, but a young woman. Dark hair spilled down her fair skin.
“Holy…” Blood drained from Dom’s face. He shook his head, trying to think the sight away. There she was, a woman, sitting at the other end of the boat. He closed his eyes. Not real. Not real. His eyes opened.
She was still there, squirming in place. His hands gripped the splintered edge of the boat. The impression of her arms and legs moved under the black skin. Her dark eyes darted back and forth between Dom and the sea.
Mesmerized, Dom gazed at her and the pleading in her eyes brought him forward. With quiet movements, he crept up the length of the boat. Dom was too afraid to blink. Too afraid she’d disappear. He took in the rounds of her eyes, the fullness of her lips, and the lines of worry on her brow.
“Do you need help?” He spoke quietly. Clearly. He didn’t want to frighten her. The light creases on her face softened with the sound of his voice. She nodded.
The closer he came, the calmer she seemed. Dom reached for the girl, his hand shaking. He put his hand where the black pelt met human flesh. He moved the dark hair off her shoulders and watched her face, gauging to see if this was what she wanted. Her skin flushed as he moved closer. The outline of her breasts heaved up and down under the seal skin.
He exhaled slowly and ignored the erratic beat of his heart. “I’m going to take the skin off now.” It sounded more like a question.
She stared at him and allowed a slight smile. Without a sound, he slipped his calloused fingertips under the seal skin that stopped at her neck. They brushed against her collarbone. Her eyes held his and he pulled on the edges. It stretched and peeled, pulling over the tops of her shoulders. Dom looked back at the girl’s face and saw her studying his own.
She nodded, encouraging him to continue.
The skin peeled off her pale flesh like a woman’s stocking. It parted perfectly. As Dom neared her breasts, he stopped.
With his hands on either side of her arms, he moved the skin down, exposing her breasts. His fingertips brushed the back of her arms as he pulled, revealing the soft area above her stomach. He watched her breasts rise and fall with her breath. The skin pulled past the dip of her stomach, the curve of her hips, and the top of her thighs. He stopped peeling at the area above her knees, and let his eyes pore over her body. She kicked the remaining black pelt away like a pair of dirty trousers. Dom shifted backward and started to breathe again.
She lay out before him, vulnerable and exposed. Some etiquette in the back of Dom’s mind made him look only at her face again while a salty breeze blew over the boat. Her skin prickled in the wind. She shivered and brought her knees up to her chest, hugging them. Dom shrugged out of his pea coat and wrapped it around her thin shoulders.
With their bodies close, Dom noticed a crimson line of blood by her dark hair. He ripped off the cuff of his sleeve and brought it to her head. When he pressed the bit of cloth against the wound, she closed her eyes. After a moment, she took his hand, put her face into his palm, and breathed him in. Her fingertip traced the aggravated pink flesh where the rope burned him. She put her slightly-parted lips on the tender palm. Her hot breath warmed his skin.
Dom cringed in self-consciousness. “They smell like fish. Sorry.”
Her lips and nose curled up into a smile. The girl wet her mouth and kissed his palm again. She pulled Dom’s hand away in front of their faces. When Dom looked, he saw the fresh burn gone.
She sat there looking small in his coat and smiled.
The skin of her legs prickled and purple splotches appeared. He imagined them pressed together under covers. For a moment he saw their lives together - living and making love in a small apartment in the city. He saw her smile every day when he came home.
Her pelt. If he kept the pelt, she’d be his forever. That’s what the stories said, at least. In a year he could take her away from here. Away from the village and to the city. Away from the sea.
But she broke their gaze to look out at the sea. Dom remembered this about the selkies and their legends. She’d always want the water. It didn’t matter how she looked at him right now sitting there in his coat, she would ache for her home later. Dom knew it. Her smile faded with Dom’s expression and he knew she knew. Maybe staying here wouldn’t be the worst thing if he could have her.
Dom heard a familiar, nagging voice echo over the cove, calling his name. He turned to make sure his mother couldn’t see the girl and felt the warmth of her hands release his.
The boat jostled atop the water. When he turned back around, he saw points of her toes disappear into the murky deep.
Dom looked back and forth between the shore and dinghy, waiting for the top of her head to come out. He peered over the edge, hoping to catch a glimpse of her, but only found an ache. Nothing. His pea coat lay on the weathered floor. Her pelt was gone. The waves beat against the edge of the dingy. He touched where her warm lips just kissed his palm and stared out into the sweet unknown.