It were Ramsey Reardon who found her. Weren’t but his first season on the ice, right? He was a bit nervous ‘bout the whole thing, too. Didn’t like the way the seals screamed, or the dark shocks of blood on the ice. Said it turned his stomach. Still, his missus put her foot down, said if he thought he were lying ‘round the house on unemployment all winter, he’d another thing coming. Think Cap took him on out of pity. Nar one of us who hadn’t felt the sharp side of Fancy Reardon’s tongue one time or the other. So we helped him along, let him take the slow ones. Showed him how to do it painless, shot to the head, then skin them quick and easy, roll up the skin right neat and tip the meat over the edge of the floe into the water.
Later, when he told us the story, most didn’t believe him. We’d lost the tales of selkies ‘round these ports. Few old boys tried to pull one over, tell ‘bout how they’d been visited by the gals themselves, sometimes while on the boats, how their skin was as white as snow and so soft beneath the fingertips it were like stroking velvet. We scoffed, bought ‘em another drink. Were a pretty thought: sealskins left on the rocks, pretty lasses tripping up the path and into our beds. Just a thought.
Until Ramsey told us, that is. He found a seal at the edge of the pack, wide brown eyes. The eyes – that’s what they gibber about on those debates they have on the television. Anyway, was her eyes made him pause, Ramsey said. Raised his gun, but in his heart of hearts, he just thought “this is one too many,” and then, all of a sudden, Fancy’s voice in his head telling him he better damn well pull that trigger if he expected dinner on the table when he came home. So he closed his eyes and done it. Kneeled, started skinning. Weren’t real clear, in his telling, when he figured out something were different ‘bout this one, but regardless, when he got the skin all peeled away, there was a girl. A woman, I guess, more than a girl. Beautiful, she was, he said. Described her for us. We was leaning in and proper drooling. Lonely days out on them sealers, I tell ya right?
Beautiful, milky white skin. Hair dark as night. Curled up like a rosebud on the ice she were, he said. And suddenly he felt like the heavens were judging him, telling him “Ramsey, you are a no-good for nothing…” but at that part of the tale, he stopped. Put his hand over his eyes and all of us, open-mouthed, just stared at him as he pulled himself together.
We were all able to understand. Most of us found it a bit difficult, pushing those skinned seals into the water, watching them float down through the slushed water, but to watch a beauty like that fall away from you? Hard to imagine, wha’?
“You got the skin?” Terrance shouted from across the galley.
Ramsey slowly nodded. “Aye,” he said. “I kept it apart from the rest.”
“Well be sure,” Terrance laughed, “to tell the buyers it’s a genuine selkie sealskin, fresh from the waters off the coast of Newfoundland. Fetch you a pretty price thataway!”
And we all laughed.
Sealskin prices were high that year. Fetched us a real good price on the pelts. I figured that Ramsey Reardon must have finally gotten that screeching wife of his to stop her nagging with a payday like that. It weren’t until I popped into the convenience store to pick up a fifth of whiskey to while away the winter nights and saw Geoff McIntosh that I heard, “Ramsey Reardon, that sonofabitch, didn’t he go and tell his wife he saw a selkie?”
“What?” exclaimed Kent Fillier, who was leaning casually over the counter, pouring his coffee trying to get an eyeful of the clerk’s legs under the belt of a skirt she wore. “He ain’t still telling that story, is he?”
Geoff nodded. “Aye, and better yet, his wife believes him!”
We all knew Fancy Reardon, or Fergus as she once was known; used to tease her about her name in school, saying how she caught all our fancies, and nothing could be more true. She was a magical thing, were Fancy Fergus; all long tangled hair and petal lips. Tough as nails, try to get something over on her on a date and she’d have your fingers razed to the bone faster than you could say hallelujah. Carried a knife, she did, a wee little pocket blade and no compunction at all about using it. Still, she were a thing of myth. A real beauty, and bound for things far beyond the harbour, so we supposed.
When she took up with Ramsey, not a soul thought t’would last. He, with nothing to his name, a Reardon with a mind for poetics, not work, and no intention of having it nar other way. Nah. “Not a chance,” we said. When the baby came along six months after the wedding, it seemed like Fancy had allowed herself to be caught just like other girls. “Real shame,” we said behind her back and “beautiful lass,” as she beamed, thrusting the girl-child into our arms. Not a one of us forgettin’ that she had a knife in her pocket she weren’t afraid to use should we wish to comment publicly on the whole affair.
And the poor wee thing’s funeral? We was there, to a man. Shuffled in, sat in the last row and avoided the priest’s eyes – good ol’ Father Hannigan had been trying to hook most of us for years, he had – and paid our respects, like. Ramsey, sitting ramrod straight in the first pew with Fancy, all deflated, beside him. She became something sharp, after that. Always harping at him, she was. “Ramsey, pay the account,” and “Ramsey, ye stink of whiskey,” and “Ramsey, yer good for naught.” Her mouth shriveled into frost.
So, when Geoff told us she’d insisted on having the selkie’s pelt made into a coat for herself, we warn’t surprised. ‘Of course she did,’ we thought, nodding away. Keep her warm at night, melt all that cold in her veins. Probably weren’t just one of us who imagined lithe, lovely Fancy Fergus all wrapped up in that sealskin coat and nothing else, her little red mouth forming our names. Geoff rummaged in the back – he were a fine man, himself, for the stitching – and brought it out, showed us the thread he’d used, nice and neat, and the patterns on the fur, blossoms of dark against white. If anyone else thought they looked like blood on the ice, t’weren’t one of us willing to say so.
It were a good winter, that one, fer sealing. Made a pocketful. After season were over, there was another freeze, kept the fishing boats from breaching the harbour mouth. Everyone went a little stir crazy, I tell ya; Kent Fillier ended up running stark naked down the streets at 3 in the morning and Terrance Ropson had to coax his mother down off the roof by promising her he’d take her to the city soon’s the roads was passable. The winter, it gets under the skin sometimes, ya know? Does things to the blood.
So, when I saw Ramsey down on the wharf that May, sitting on an overturned bucket smoking a ciggie between his smile, I were a bit surprised, y’see. Ramsey was not a smiling kinda man, nervous as he were. ‘Specially since poor old Fancy’d sliced the poetry outta him. “How’s it going, Ramsey?” I called. “Lookin’ like yer having a good one, eh?”
“Aye, Garl,” he said, right soft and happy like, “not so bad, not so bad. Quite pretty, isn’t it, the way the sun’s shining off them chunks o’ ice out there in the water, eh? Big ol’ diamonds, they look like. Reckon it’ll be all gone before long and a good thing, that. Enough to dazzle a man, I figures.”
Now, ya can see why I were a bit taken aback to hear words like that outta Ramsey’s mouth. Weren’t until I asked Geoff that it all made sense, like. Turns out, Fancy took to wearing that sealskin pelt everywhere. Wore it over her housedress, and when she went to church of a Sunday. Ignored the Father’s sermon on pride and greed, she did, sitting up straight and lovely in her pew with her mouth quirked all up like a bud. Started forgetting to make the suppers, whiling away her days up on the paths by the graveyard that overlook the harbour. She took to eating over the sink, scooping pickled herring into her mouth. Ramsey said even sleeping next to her became difficult, her dark watery dreams overlapping his own.
Then one morning Ramsey came out of the house to shovel the path and found her standing on the front steps staring out across the sea. “It’s almost gone,” she said, or at least that’s what Ramsey told Geoff who told me, you see. “Ice’s almost gone and then there’s no way out past the harbour.”
Ramsey figured she were talking about the turbot boats going out, so he tells her the ice breaker is scheduled for the week coming, but she just looks at him, eyes all wide and dark, and says, “Too late. That will be too late.” And just like that, bare feet and everything, off she goes. Walks down the path, across the road, taking long strides like she’s in a hurry for something, and steps out onto the ice. Not long before it give way beneath her weight, as slight as she were. She just let the sea take her. Ice closed over her head. By the time poor old Ramsey got over his shock and went after her, all he found was a blossom of blood on the ice where she must have cracked her head going through.
Mighty queer thing, that, I tell you. Mighty queer. Rumors traveled around the ports for a few days, how maybe Ramsey’d finally decided he’d had enough of Fancy’s griping and set upon her. But I reckon not. I knew Fancy Fergus, see. Knew her since I were a boy. I reckon wrapped up in that selkie’s pelt, she felt things inside of her melting, coming to Spring; roses finally unfurling their petals, and knew if she stayed where she was to, the ice would harvest it all.
Sera Flynn is a star-catcher who lives at the edge of the world with two savage beasties and an untamed husband. She likes to write at midnight and she collects folklore.