Heart beating hard, breath ragged and sharp as thorns, I run toward the beach, where all the world is water, calm and safe and whole. Blood pumps through my legs as I jog down the path, and the wind, not to be outdone, races with me. The damp of sea spray stings my face, but I welcome it. The sound of water playing on the shore feels like home.
My feet splash in the shallow ripples that wash up blue-green seaweed, cold but woolen soft, dark and deep with secrets. I stand knee-deep in the sea, content. Breathing slowly, until my heart quiets and my eyes clear, I search the horizon.
The selkies are nowhere in sight.
I shove back the annoying curls that cover my eyes and scan the shoreline to the rocky cliffs. The day is unexpectedly clear. I can see for miles. Even through the mist, the tip of the skerry winks at me. Visible only at high tide, it points a stony finger out to sea, the final extension of the island.
I begin to run again, and the pounding of my feet drums a rhythm in the sand that keeps time with the waves.
I know they will come. I know they will come.
Could I have missed them? What if they were looking for me and I wasn't here? Devil take those annoying chores.
I know they will come. I know they will come.
What if they think I forgot them? As if such a thing is possible. I've thought of little else all year.
The sand gives way to slippery boulders, jagged in disarray, as though they have been thrown in anger by some huge hand. Perhaps they were the expression of some giant's temper, once upon a time. Oh, to have the power to hurl such boulders, to hear the crack and crunch of stone meeting stone at the water's edge. That would make them listen, and I would change everything.
I squint across the ocean's surface, hoping for some sight of them. My hand has found its way to my mouth, and I feel a single sliver of fingernail that I've somehow overlooked. One quick bite and it is gone. Mither tells me it is a horrible habit, but I can't help it. Besides, I never bite my fingernails when anyone else is around. It draws too much attention to my hands.
I carefully arrange the extra-long lace sleeves Mither has sewn onto my dress to cover my hands. Gathering the extra fabric in my fists, I settle myself on a huge boulder worn smooth by the pounding waves. It thrusts out over the sea, a flat extension rounded into a hollow with a curved backrest, just right for perching above the waves. I have named it Odin's Throne, in homage to the great Viking god of war.
Here I can dream undisturbed, high above the concerns of the others. I wonder who else has sat here as I do, dreaming of other worlds; a young woman who traveled with the Pictish armies that invaded from the south or perhaps a Viking warrior once rested here. I close my eyes and imagine his approach in a huge carved ship, sails filled with the frigid north wind. I stand with the warriors, leaning into the hard gale.
But I am not a killer. I am not like the others. I am glad not to be a destroyer of innocent creatures.
I think of the latest argument with Grandpa, and my forehead wrinkles into a frown. Why is he so stubborn? Why won't he listen to me?
"We must stop the cull," I told him. "Why don't they call it what it is--the kill? The selkies have a right to survive, as we all do."
I pictured the yearly birthing of the selkie pups, the beach littered with their bodies, white and new, the darker forms of their mithers nestled nearby. The pups must be born on land and suckled for six weeks until they are old enough to swim. But many never have the chance to reach the safe harbor of the sea. Before the pups are old enough to be led into the water, the island men gather for the cull in the cover of fog where the helpless babies lie on the beach with their mithers. The men raise their clubs over and over, bringing them sharply down on the heads of the pups, killing them one by one. A well-placed blow to the head is all it takes, and the pure white of their coats is stained red with blood. A hundred pups die before the killing is over, the beach transformed into a crimson graveyard. By the time Midsummer arrives, the rain and the ocean damp have washed away all traces of the slaughter and the beach is pristine again, as though the cull never happened. The others can have their Johnsmas Foy without giving a thought to the killing that took place only weeks before.
"Some pups survive," Grandpa argued. "No one wants the selkies to die out completely."
"No?" I answered him. "They have a strange way of showing it."
Each year as the cull approaches, I make my argument, and each year Grandpa calmly explains to me why the seal babies have to die. "Selkies are greedy creatures, you see, and hardy, too, with few natural enemies. If we didn't kill some of the wee ones, there'd be so many they'd eat all the fish. We'd have no herring to fill our nets. And with no herring, we'd starve. It's a question of survival, Elin Jean."
"We could eat bread and vegetables," I always counter. "That'd be food enough. We are the greedy ones, killing the selkies to have all the herring for ourselves."
"The selkie pups must die, and that's the way of it. Always has been the way of it."
I care nothing for the way of it. I only want the selkies to be safe. "It's wrong to kill defenseless babies. I don't care what you say."