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2018 SpringT3STORIES

Daughter, Seal

By November 7, 2018March 29th, 2024No Comments
© Josie Shapiro

© Josie Shapiro

The year my parents died I married Nils Fisker, a big man with shoulders wide, arms strong from a life at sea, hair a sandy blonde. I lost Mama to a wintertime infection and Father didn’t return from the winter journey to the ocean beyond the ice. He was sailing on the Icebreaker with the other men tasked with catching the fish to feed those of us on the island. He was tipped overboard, Nils said, when a whale nudged the ship. Nils told me the whale was as big as the mountain. I believe many a thing that others don’t, but a whale as big as the mountain, that I cannot believe. Big whale or small, my father was gone, and Nils was all the family I had left.

Once we were married, it made sense for Nils to come to live with me in my parents’ cottage, even though it was a house alone on the high ground, and a day-long walk from the village and the port. But it was a house, and empty at that, where we could live and get to know each other better. Besides, I don’t like the way they live in the village, houses close like nesting puffins, in the valley by the harbour. They do not understand why I like to live out here, away from the safe waters, so close to the seals. Out here I can see the ocean from my windows, and whatever sunlight that does peer over the horizon in the winter shines into my home. Out here I can believe whatever I want to believe, and not worry about the opinions of others.

It took several years for me to fall pregnant. My daughter was born on the longest night of winter, while Nils Fisker was away on the fishing boat. Someone had to go, or we would starve. The birds fly away when the snows come, and the rabbits burrow deep. Only foxes remain, and everyone knows foxes are too sly and cunning to be caught. But they are hungry too, so we must be watchful.

The midwife was with me that night. Her arms were scarred, tattooed with blue snakes and horses that seemed to move in the firelight. She sang while I laboured. The mountain, quiet for as long as my grandparents had lived, began to shake.

I lost a lot of blood. My daughter was born red as a rose. I wrapped her in a blanket and named her Petra, so I would always remember this night, when the sky was clear and dark, and the floorboards were slick with blood, and the mountain shook all night with an earthbound thunder.

When I woke the next morning, the midwife was dressed, fur coat and woollen hat, snow boots. The sun was still sleeping below the horizon, as it would for most of the day, so I lit a candle for her. The glow of it flickered shadows over our faces. She kept her head turned away from me.

‘I will get you some food and more blankets,’ she said. ‘Stay inside, keep the baby warm. Don’t let the fire go out. The snows will be here soon.’

I sat at the window and watched her disappear over the hill. The floor was sticky and the soles of my feet had to be peeled free to walk. With a bucket of water warmed on the fire and a rag wrapped around my fist, I scrubbed the boards. Petra slept beside the fire, and I tricked myself that she did not exist. Until she woke, hungry. Her screams were so loud they were tangible – knives deep into my head, cutting away at who I thought I was. The crying made my stomach clench in waves of cramping pain. I could not get the stains on the floor to fade.

The snow began to fall soon after Petra’s birth and did not stop for six weeks. The midwife came less often, and, once the snow set in thick, it became too dangerous for her to risk the walk to my home. ‘Come live in the village for the winter,’ she said, without a smile. ‘I won’t be out here again before spring. Someone will have room for you and your child.’

I could not think of one person who would welcome us. Nils told me the women in the village think I keep dark secrets, and they do not like that I believe in the old stories. They would not understand why I am here, in a house where the loudest noise is the crashing of the waves when the swell is up. ‘I will stay here,’ I said to the midwife. ‘I will wait for Nils Fisker to come home.’


Nils did not return for three months, not until the sea ice retreated, melting under the attention of the spring sun. Life alone with Petra was difficult. I was alone, with no help to keep the fire stoked, no one to give me love in a time when I was so tired. She grew fast. Her hunger sapped me dry. My long white hair began to fall from my scalp in clumps, leaving me with less hair than my daughter. Hair was everywhere, in my food, long strands through my meals; twisted around Petra’s tiny fingers, threatening to strangle the blood from the tips; in the fire, where it burned with a blistering stench. I thought about gathering the hair and leaving it outside for the birds, so they could use it in their nests when springtime arrived, but I worried a raven would find it first. I burned it all, in spite of the smell.

The snow kept us locked inside the cottage, the drifts sweeping up to the house and in through the broken door. I yearned to see the ocean. Instead, I had a daughter to look at, a strange daughter. Though I did feel love, I could see she was strange. She had a head full of hair, but not Islander hair. It was black hair. When she opened her eyes, they were black too, and to look at those eyes made for a heart with an irregular beat. I had only seen red or yellow hair, and I’d never seen someone with eyes that were not blue. The old stories began to knot in my mind, and I worried at them like a fisherman with his ropes.

The old stories always start with the mountain. The mountain on our island is tall, and made from black rock. It is a peak that can be seen for miles, and fishermen used to say they felt it was watching them as they came and went from the sea.

The old stories say the mountain loved the ocean. But he could not touch the ocean. He watched her back and forth tides, her silky skin. He longed to know her depths. But the mountain could not touch the ocean. He grew taller and his peak more distant from the sea. The ocean swept in and out, rolling waves on the golden sand. For the ocean was in love with the shore, the soft grainy sand that she could move and massage. The mountain could not control his jealousy. He could no longer bear to watch the golden sand feel the caress of the waves. Boiling and shaking, bursting and quaking, the mountain erupted. He spewed black ash into the sky, choking the clouds and forcing them down onto the land. The ash stained the sand black. Hot rocks fell into the sea, sizzling as they sank. The heart of the ocean was cold; she did not love the mountain. She sent up her iciest currents to cool the rocks. They fizzed and foamed, and then they wriggled alive.

This was how the island came to have seals. The black rock turned animal.

When spring arrived, and the ice melted, the Icebreaker returned to the harbour. The seals returned too. The villagers think they are a nuisance, noisy and smelly. They flop back onto land when the water warms, rolling their bodies in the gritty sand. When they stop rolling and cease their roaring, you cannot see where they lie. Everyone kept away from the beaches where the seals lived, but not for the same reason that I did. They did not believe in the old stories, that the seals are the spurned love of the mountain. They do not think they are the evil of the mountain come to live among us.


Nils Fisker burst through our door with a smile, but when he looked at me it was with sad eyes. I understood, I was much changed. My hairless head gleamed in the bright sunlight. I was bald in temperament too: I couldn’t hide my bad mood. I was tired, hungry, lonely. What more could he expect?

‘I look forward to having my Gabi back,’ he said to me. Then he saw his daughter, and he picked her up with his strong arms and held her close to his chest. He closed his eyes. I thought maybe this was what happiness might look like if happiness was a man. I did not tell him about the earthquakes, about the knots of stories tying themselves up with her dark hair in my mind.

He would not call her Petra. That was her name, but from that first meeting, he called her Marin. It was ‘Marin this’, or ‘Marin that’, in a gentle voice that scratched my ears. His voice was heavier than it sounded, and wormed inside and bruised me. She was not a Marin. She was nothing like a Marin. She was Petra. He left us every winter to fish, left us here while he sailed the world. How could he know her better than I knew her.

Petra loved Nils, but I was her favourite. After she began to walk and to talk, Nils spent his summers teaching her the names of herbs that grew in our garden, showing her the difference between a blue and a white fox. He helped her learn the best way to milk our cow, her udder so low it almost touched the ground, and then he taught her how to make the skyr from the cow’s milk. But, other than this, I was her teacher, her partner, her friend. She learned the ways of the island from me, with the mountain behind her, and the ocean before her.

I taught her how to garden, explaining the vegetables that would grow and flourish, and what plants would demand many hours of work, and would leave us with nothing to eat for our effort. Our hands sifted the dark earth, laid out the seeds, pressed the earth back down with a light touch. I taught her how to catch rabbits, how to hold their soft warm bodies – and I taught her how to flick her wrist, just so, to break their necks. Together we skinned the rabbits we killed, keeping their furs and preparing their meat for the long winter without Nils. Her first fox-kill was with my guidance, and we made her a hat with his fur. I enjoyed picking wildflowers with her in the spring, and showing her where to find berries to eat in summer. But I resented her being with me every moment, every day. She was a leech, small and black, and determined to suck the life from me.

She slept with me every night, curled into my dreams, and I found I could not reach for Nils in the night as I had once done, and he did not reach for me. If I left to spend a few moments watching the sunlight on the water, she would be there. If I gathered my strength to touch Nils during the day, if I attempted to wrap my arms around him, she would be there, twisted up in my skirts, forcing us apart. She was my shadow, and she loved me, I could see it in her unblinking eyes, I could feel it in the clammy hands that clasped any part of me they could reach. Through the long days of winter, when we would be stuck in our tiny house for months, we would rub against each other like the ropes of a ship. But even the strongest of cables would fray with that much tension.


The old stories tell us that the mountain loves wintertime. Resplendent in his cloak of snow; his rough edges smooth and soft. In winter, the sea is frozen stiff. Her tender ebbing tides are unable to taunt him. The ocean loves the summertime, when the sunlight warms her currents, and sea life can flourish, and she hates the cold. She does not like turning into a brittle frozen pond. The ocean will deny that she was ever attracted to the mountain, although I wonder if she felt a flicker of attraction when his warm lava started to flow. But she is no fool. She would have known the red sea she became in that moment was not the same as the red from a sunset’s glow. She would have known the mountain was cruel, and that deep down, things cannot change what they really are.


Before Petra was born, Nils and I would spend the summer together, swimming at the cove where the water is safe from seals and sheltered from storms. We would look forward to the long days, when we could lay together in the long twilight, to share the load of preparing for winter. Those days were over. There had been no moment for us to be husband and wife, the two of us alone, since she had been born. She could not have had a sibling even if she had desired one.

The spring after Petra turned four, Nils came home from the Icebreaker. But even after a month, he was not at home very often: he was out every day in the village salting fish, smoking fish and selling fish at the market. These jobs were for the Captain, but this year Eric had returned from the voyage with two broken legs. ‘We had some trouble with the whales,’ Nils said, but he did not elaborate on how the whales caused Eric’s injuries.

It had been a long winter, and I wanted him home. But he took up the chores that needed doing for the villagers instead of helping with mine. More hands were needed to tend to our vegetable gardens, and while I knelt in the grass pulling weeds from between the beets and the carrots, rabbits ran free. I needed Nils here, hanging them in our curing shed. The door on the house needed replacing, the sheep needed shearing. A pair of raven were nesting in the Birchwood that grew by the house. I could not climb high enough to scare them away. They sat, humped in their nests, black as the shadow of the mountain.

I was resolute in my intention to spend time with Nils alone in the summer before he left on the boat again. I spoke to Nils of my idea that Petra could have a holiday and stay in the village with someone. Anyone. This infuriated Nils, who insisted it must mean that I didn’t love her and that I was as crazy as everyone said I was. ‘Why would you want to miss a moment of her?’ he said. ‘She is our precious daughter.’ He left each day to work on the fish without kissing me goodbye. Petra did not mind that he went every day – as long as I was with her, she was happy. Her little dark head bobbed at my side like a seal swimming in the shallows.

We were in the garden on one of those spring days with Nils busy in the village. The sun sat high above the mountain. My head ached, the pain swelling in my neck and blooming behind my eyes. Petra was singing while I worked. Rabbits ran around us, the ravens in the tree calling with their craggy rasping cry.

‘Please, Petra. Mama needs some peace and quiet,’ I said.

Stubborn, that’s what she was, my Petra. She continued, in a tone-deaf discordant voice. Over her song I heard the sheep bleat and looked to see them escaped from their pen, kicking through the cabbage patch. ‘Oh, quiet, Petra!’ I said, standing. I had to catch them before they ruined everything. Petra was right beside me, and I knocked her down in my rush to recapture the sheep. She started to cry. ‘Mama, you hurt me!’

‘It was an accident!’ I screamed. The ravens startled from their nest, and they flew off over the hill. ‘Good riddance,’ I said, and I ran inside. I dropped my weeds on the front step of the house. My hands were still dirty, the garden grime deep under my nails. Petra could run fast, but I’d caught her off guard. There was time to hide.

I flung open the door of the small cupboard where I hung our onions and garlic. It was full of our winter clothes, the furs and the woollen jumpers and blankets we use when the sun does not rise, and the tide is trapped in the ice. I covered myself with the furs and pulled the door closed.

Petra ran into the house. ‘Mama!’ she shouted. ‘Where are you, Mama?’

Her footsteps were heavy for someone so small. Shaking the house, stomp, stomp. I could feel her anger ripple through me. She searched room, by room, by room. Her anger increased room, by room, by room. I sat still. I could hear the waves crashing between her screams. I heard her sit down on the floor, crying. Her crying grew loud, then louder, and she screamed and raged. I heard her throwing things, a window breaking. She had a temper, fiery and hot. It took a long time for her to calm down. Later, all I heard was the occasional sob.

I shut my eyes. I did not want to come out of the cupboard. I didn’t hear Nils arrive home. I had only meant to hide for a short time until my headache eased.

‘Marin, darling, why are you on the floor? Darling, are you not well?’

Petra started crying again. ‘Mama has gone,’ she said. ‘I think Mama has been taken.’

‘Darling Marin,’ Nils said. ‘Where has she gone? You’ve wet yourself, Marin. Let’s get you changed.’

With a creak so loud it could have woken those long dead, I opened the cupboard. I smiled to disguise my guilt. ‘We were playing a game,’ I said. ‘I was hiding. Petra was supposed to find me, silly girl.’

Nils had a face of rock. He looked like our daughter. I had never noticed the similarity before. ‘Well, she didn’t find you,’ he said. He cradled our child. I could not remember the feeling of his arms around me in such an embrace. ‘Not much of a game. How long has she been like this?’

‘Not long,’ I lied. Petra looked at me. Her eyes sunk deep into me, hot with hate. I looked away. Nils bathed her and put her to bed. We didn’t speak for the rest of the night. We ate together, and after our meal, I went down to the cove, alone, and undressed. The water was cold, but I liked the temperature. I lay on the sand and daydreamed I had never become a mother.

After that day, Nils and I fought with unfluctuating anger. He said it was an example of my incompetence, of my cold heart. What could I say? My heart was cold that day. He never saw everything I did for her, and that I did everything for her because I loved him. He was away for months, every winter, leaving us alone. He did not see me bring her forth in a sea of blood.


Petra grew bigger, five, six. Her dark hair and eyes drew looks from the villagers whenever we went to town. They were friendly to Nils, stopping him to ask how we were, how life was treating us, living so far from the harbour. They’d been kind to me, too, before I had Petra. But now they stayed away from me, now Petra was a dark shadow twisted in my skirts. Maybe they believed in the old stories more than they liked to admit.

Like all Islanders, I knew how to swim. When the ocean surrounds you, it is impossible to ignore the siren’s call. Petra did not look like she would be strong enough to swim, she was tall and sleek, not husky and thick like Nils and me. I was wrong. She could swim. She learned to swim in a matter of days, surprising me with her skill. When she bathed, she looked joyful, graceful, unburdened. I took her swimming every day that summer at the cove. I knew Petra would be safe there. The seals never came to this inlet.

‘I love it, Mama,’ she said, rolling in the sand at my feet. ‘I don’t feel angry at all when I am in the sea. It feels good to be in the water.’

I didn’t know what to say in response. I had never felt much anger before Petra was born, but since her birth, I felt angry all the time, heat flashing through my body even when it was the middle of winter and my skin felt cold to the touch.

Nils came with us sometimes. He loved to swim, but now he sat on the sand, watching our daughter swim. Her body would be refracted in the light as it hit the water. I would splash in the shallow water while she dove to the sea floor. She would surface with arms full of sea urchins, her arms and hands untouched from their spines. Her face would be flush with happiness I’d not imagined she was capable of feeling. I felt a twisting inside: swimming in the ocean was the first thing Petra had done without me by her side. She swam in the sea as I imagined she’d floated inside me. She swam as though it was somewhere she belonged.

Petra was seven years old when I saved her from drowning. Although it was late in the autumn, the day was warm with a late-harvest glow. Petra ran ahead of me to the cove, not much taller than the arctic willows growing along the rocky shoreline. She sat on the beach, and from where I was, she looked like nothing more than a sliver of weathered bone, her hair lost in the same black of the sand.

When I reached the shore, she stripped naked and dashed into the water, a flash of white into the blue. I lay a blanket on the ground for us to sit on after our swim, and scuffed my feet through the sand, walking to the water’s edge. The chill from the sea rose from my feet, through my spine, and sat, freckling my head with the peace that only the ocean can bring. Petra did not mind the cold water; she was a child who ran hot. She splashed in the shallows, singing and laughing and calling to me.

Then her voice took on a different tone. I looked to see a seal pup weaving in the water near Petra. The presence of the pup caused me to feel uneasy. The old stories have made me wary of their unpredictable natures. But this seal pup was so young and small. I was fascinated, almost unafraid in its presence. Petra swam around in the water, matching the movement of the seal.

The water that day was still, clear. I saw that seal come to my cove, brazen and bold. Its presence was unsettling, like the quakes on the night of my daughter’s birth. I could see every detail of Petra and the seal’s dance. Their movements were synchronised, every flick of a finger or a fin mirrored, each stretch of a graceful neck replicated by the other. They spiralled round and round. Petra’s hair was indistinguishable from the dark fur of the seal pup. Goosepimples studded my body, and, as the seal passed by me, I reached out my hand and pushed the pup to the seabed. It wriggled, vigorous and slippery, and took hold of Petra, dragging her down too. Then she scrambled to the surface, clumsy strokes to keep herself afloat. ‘Mama,’ she said. ‘Mama, stop it.’ I had never seen her look so out of place in the water, a foreign body.

If I hadn’t loved my daughter, I would not have saved her. I would have left her to struggle, allowed the seal pup to keep hold of her and pull her under. If I did not love her, I would have allowed my girl to fill with salty water, let it dampen the fire inside her soul. If I were indifferent to her, the way Nils said I was, I would have left her to bloat, left her body floating, her glorious and strange hair swaying in the swell like kelp.

I didn’t let her die that way. I slipped under the water and lifted her to the surface. The seal pup swam close, curious as a raven out to cause mischief. Petra lay limp in my arms. I carried her to shore, wrapped her in the blanket. The journey to our home was not far, as the bird flies, but my wet feet slipped on the tussock grasses, over and over I slipped, the ground seemed to move beneath my feet and slow my steps. I screamed for Nils, and when we neared the house, he found us. He took Petra from my arms, and I fell to my knees and watched him run inside our home. It was still early in the afternoon, but it was nearly winter, and the sun was ready to sleep. It sank behind the mountain, leaving me in grey dusk. The birch leaves, moments ago a golden and red ball of light, were now a crooked and ashen shadow. I looked at the peak above me, it was watching, I was sure of it. The ravens called a raucous cry, so I picked up a stone and threw it at their nest.


Nils Fisker did not believe me. We sat on the hearth, warmed by the fire, Petra between us, wrapped in furs. ‘You say a seal pup did this? How? She has no bite marks on her body, not a single graze. A seal pup would not leave the colony, they never have.’

‘I tell you it did happen,’ I said. ‘The pup pulled her down, and she could not swim free.’ I did not tell him of the storm inside me, the feeling of being swept away by a wave of anger at the seal pup. I did not tell him how the seal pup and Petra had danced together, that they were not two beings but one. I could see he was starting to doubt me, beginning to question the old stories and the truth they hold.

‘You spend too long alone, Gabi,’ he said. He put another log of wood on the fire. I was still in my wet clothes. I did not dare to change. Nils would only interpret this as me putting my own needs before our daughter’s. ‘I’m worried about you. I think we should move to the village. Perhaps the company of others will help you.’

He did not say anything else, not the words I needed to hear, I love you, Gabi, I believe you, Gabi. He was becoming more like them. I could see it from the way he looked at me with his head turned, afraid of turning to see the crazy woman face to face.

‘I will never live in the village,’ I said. ‘They spread gossip and lies there. They get no sunshine sitting in the shadow of the mountain. They cannot hear the ocean from their houses.’

‘Tell me what happened, Marin,’ said Nils. We looked down at our daughter, but she did not reply. She was asleep, her wet hair spread around like ribbons of black lahar.


The old stories say that the ocean hates the seals. They say the ocean wants them gone, and that she sent the walrus to scare them away. But man killed the walrus, and ate its meat. The sea does not have many ways to rid herself of the seals, her only strength is her swell, her fierce currents, her surging waves. The old stories say that the ocean will rise up one day, and force the seals back where they belong. I like to think I will see this, that I will be alive on the day the ocean gathers her strength and forces the evil of the mountain to leave her domain. She will wash the black from the sand, and she will be reunited with her love, the golden shores of our island.


Three weeks after I saved Petra, Nils was due to leave on the Icebreaker. Smoked rabbit filled our shed, our cupboard was full of preserved fruit and pickled vegetables. The westerly wind began to blow, icy and nasty, and it found the gaps in the walls and the holes in the door and whistled around us. A storm was on its way. ‘I’ll fix the door when I’m home,’ Nils said. ‘But I have to hurry this morning. We will need to get out of the harbour before the storm settles in.’ But he dawdled through the morning, holding his mug even after he had drunk all his coffee, spending time with Petra, telling her tales of the ocean, of the giant whales and the lands far away. He gathered his furs, and turned to me, and looked at me. His bright blue eyes might have melted my cold heart, but Petra rushed to us, begging me to pick her up. Nils looked away, and I was furious. ‘Stop it, Petra!’ I said.

‘Be kind to each other,’ Nils said, opening the door to leave. ‘I love you, Marin. I will see you both in the spring.’

He closed the door, and the crackle of the fire burned my ears. The storm was closing in. Rain began to fall outside, and Petra sat to watch the dark clouds roll in from the horizon.

That night was black as death as if the executioner’s hood had been slipped over our heads, and we were left with nothing to do but await his noose around our necks.

We were settling down for sleep, and I heard a noise. I went to the window with a candle. The noise was odd, a rasping and dry sound, growing louder. It sounded like the hangman clearing his throat to read our last rites.

The storm had not passed. This rumble was louder than the wind gusting against the house. Then I saw them, a rolling swell of seals, scraping their bodies along the stony and dusty ground around our home. Their fur glistened in the light from my candle. The undulating mass of the seals seemed to have no end, like a tidal wave washing up and around the house. It was an unexpected beauty, like the sea on a moonless night.

‘Mama,’ Petra said, standing on her toes to see out the window. ‘What is it?’ There were no words to describe what I saw that would not frighten her. What business had these beasts here? I did not know what to say. The seals were roaring, their guttural song erupting from their throats. They began to slap their bodies against my walls, against the door. One seal lunged up at the window, and I stepped back, knocking Petra down behind me. She started to cry, and the window smashed. Glass fell around us, a thousand little mirrors, reflecting the flames from the fire. We were alone. It was too far to run to the village, and they would not hear my screams through the winds of the storm. There was no help for us that night.

I wondered if the seals were confused. I knew the ocean was rough, I had watched the Icebreaker leave that day, sailing out through the rising swell, massive waves crashing into the cove. Perhaps they were looking for safety from the treacherous ocean storm.

I did not know they were coming for Petra. The thin and brittle door did not take long to splinter and crack. Nils had spent years promising to fix the door, promising a new one that didn’t let the snow inside. But like many things that we want from life, like rain in a drought, food in a famine, and a husband home for the winter, this new door would be too late to keep the seals out of our house. Two seals broke through the door and jostled inside. Petra screamed and ran to hide. The stench of the seals, fish, and seaweed, filled the room. With my bare hands, I took hold of a log from the fire and swung at the seals. ‘Leave here,’ I shouted. ‘Leave this place!’

The burning bough struck one of them in the eye. He yowled, baring his teeth at me. More seals poured in the doorway, like a tidal wave of glossy ink. The seal sank his long, pointed teeth into my thigh. The pain was searing, and I hit at the seal, trying to loosen his hold. Petra ran across the room to me, and the seal let go of me. He swung around to face my daughter. Blood flowed from my wound, down my foot, and puddled on the floor. More of my blood to stain the floorboards. I looked at Petra, reminded of her birth. Fear had smelt like blood that night, too. ‘Mama, what are we going to do?’

I wanted to pick her up and run with her to the ocean, to the village, somewhere I could keep her safe, but before I could reach her, seals circled around, and began to push and pull her out of the house. I tried to stop them. I crawled after them, clawing at their backs, my fingers searching for a grip on their thick greasy coats. They were too big. Too strong.

A seal bit my hand, cutting into the soft blistered skin on my palm from the burning log. I fell over from the pain. The seals pulled Petra into their depths like a riptide, and they rolled away. I pulled myself up to the doorway, and I watched them until they were gone. Petra was lost in their darkness, her black hair and black eyes swallowed up into the black of their bodies, engulfed by the night. I could hear the wind and the crashing of the waves on the shore. I heard the seals grunting and barking, in harmony with the storm’s growl. If Petra was calling for me, I could not hear her.

I tried to follow them, but they were too quick, and I could not catch up. I thought the seals would be slower on land, but their bodies crashed across the lichen and the heather with speed. My leg was bleeding and beginning to ache. I lagged behind, tripping over the empty vegetable beds. She was gone.


Nils did not believe me, of course. In the months before he arrived home, I didn’t go into the village, and nobody ventured across the snowy valley to visit me, so they didn’t know of her disappearance. My leg had healed, although I still walked with a limp, and my palm was no longer smooth but raised and lumpy with scar tissue. Nils didn’t see these as evidence of the seal’s attacking the house, kidnapping our daughter. Pointing to the bloodied floorboards, I told Nils how I bled, how I fought to defend our daughter. Nils slammed his hand on the wall, and said, ‘The blood stains are not new, Gabi. Tell me where she is. Tell me where she is.’

On my knees, I begged him to believe me. ‘She was one of them, Nils,’ I said. I reached out for his legs, grabbing at him like Petra once did for me. ‘The ocean was fighting back, ridding herself of the seals. They took her back to the mountain, Nils, they took her home. She never belonged with us, tell me you know that was true. She was never one of us.’

It was not a surprise to me that he would not believe me. He was not the man I once knew.

The villagers had told Nils of the storm, how the ocean had slammed the coast for a week, so brutal that the boats sitting in the harbour unhitched from their moorings and broke into pieces on the breakwater. The villagers said a strange smell had drifted down to the town from the west, where our house was, but no one had dared brave the winter to come and see what caused it.

I had seen the cause. The days after the storm were calm; the world was white from the heavy snows, and the ocean hardened with fresh ice in the shallows. I could smell the death on the air, too, so I wrapped myself in the warmest furs and went to look. The storm’s wild sea had dashed the seals still in the ocean against the rocks, and they’d been cut to shreds by the blue mussels shells growing on the shoreline. The seals that weren’t yet dead were howling. One humped along the beach toward me. The high tides from the storm had washed the sand from the beach, and it was rocky and inhospitable. I sat on the dune and slid down to the gravelly beach. When the seal drew near, I kicked it in the head. The shiny black eye split open from the impact. I did not mind the blood on my foot. I was a woman of the island, a woman of the ocean. I was prepared to do whatever it took to keep evil away, to stop it from spoiling what was good.

Josie Shapiro

Josie Shapiro's bestselling debut novel 'Everything is Beautiful and Everything Hurts' won the inaugural Allen & Unwin Fiction Prize. She was awarded the Sargeson Fellowship for 2024, and her short fiction has been published widely, including takahē, Newsroom, and the New Zealand Listener.