by Serena W. Sorrell
Halimeda awoke to sunlight through thatch and humming nearby. The smell of fish and smoke filled her lungs, along with the burning of breathing. Laughter outside burst in through the door. Not so faraway, voices lilted and lifted to her round human ears. It was a strange way to experience the world. To her eyes the shadows were dim and her spine had become stiff, but worse of all was the pain. Every bit of her skin raked by harsh fabric or woolen blankets. And her fin most of all, sliced down the middle and formed into human legs. The pain was what roused her to call out at last, perhaps these humans would kill her, end this hellish nightmare. Instead, not a sound, not a whisper, came out.
In came a plump woman, as though called by her silence, she carried a bowl and two children clung close behind her. Halimeda squirmed away, for no doubt this human meant her harm, but the pain of being made her swoon and sway. A strong, fatty arm caught her back, and pulled her to sit. The bowl, hotter than summer’s sweet sun, was put in her hands, though the webbing was gone. Halimeda looked up, unsure what to do. Two dark gray eyes blinked back at her, and from behind those stared four more.
“Fish soup, dear,” the rotund lady spoke in a high bark. “I thought it best we start you on food you be used to, though cooked.”
Halimeda stared at the round eyes, almost familiar. The woman ushered the children outside so their guest might eat her first meal in peace. Successful at last she returned to the bedside where Halimeda sat holding the bowl and hadn’t taken a bite. The fat woman looked her up and down while shaking her gray hair, which was up in a bun that wobbled on top of her head. Everything about this human seemed to wobble with blubber.
“I won’t ask for your name and I’ll not tell you mine. They call me Sorcha, and the little ones call me Mum. I don’t know why you’re up here, but it’s lucky my husband found you. He knows well enough when he’s seeing a sea woman.”
Sorcha sat beside Halimeda. The mattress sank down. Sorcha grabbed for the stick coming out of the fishy smelling brown water, lifted it up and brought it to Halimeda’s fair human lips. She protested and pushed, though every motion ached her, she’d not have their poison before she had completed her mission.
“You daft siren!” Sorcha shouted at last. The spoon went in Halimeda’s mouth when she gaped at the human, “It’s soup, a human food, and as close to what you’ll be used to. And this,” she forced the wooden stick into Halimeda’s hand, “is a spoon.”
Halimeda only stared while the soup fell colder still. With a great sigh Sorcha finally told her.
“You know of my kind, but we rarely mingle. I’m the wife of a man now, but some years ago I was a selkie, so now I’m a human, and those out there my pups. Now, don’t you make that face for I’m not trapped. My real skin’s in his fish shed, which he keeps locked. Always fearing I’ll find it and run back to the sea. Well, piss to that! I love the dumb man and these children of mine. I’m a selkie in name, but a human at heart.
But you be a siren, oh anyone could guess. Your voice is gone and you tremble with every breath. So, pretty lady, oh yes you are— what has brought you to shore?”
Voiceless Halimeda couldn’t explain well, though she fumbled along and Sorcha followed well. Halimeda choked down the soup, it really was vile, but Sorcha explained humans cooked their fish. And, although, every movement seared her human skin, Halimeda endured to explain all she could.
“So,” Sorcha replied as the siren human finished at last, “let me make sure I got all that right— it’s been so terribly long since I’ve spoken to someone from beneath— you ferried a human girl from a hunt and got yourself cursed in exchange for her to stay living, so long as you took to a life on the land until hate filled your heart, then you’ll go back to the sea?”
Halimeda nodded. Smiled her first human smile. The joys of being understood without words she knew would not come often.
“What a load of phooey, that is! Why that queen of the sirens, or whoever she is, what right she’s got deciding who lives? And you— just going to fill yourself up with hate? Well, aye, I give you there’s plenty of folk who’ll do you harm here, but just as many to help you if you trust them a bit. So, in your heart now, this very second, what is it that you want to do?”
What did Halimeda want? She wanted to save Vandkys so she’d agreed to the curse. But, and here she thought long, did she want these new feelings to vanish? Did she want hate to replace her new heart? She’d not considered it before Sorcha asked. True, life on the land was painful to bear, but life under the waves made her murder and hate. Without thinking any thought her fingers traced the locket at her throat. Could she stay on the land? Could she find Vandkys in time, and tell her she, too, held love in her heart? She could try. If she failed to reach Vandkys then she go into the sea, heart full of hatred for herself and her loss.
Halimeda looked at the selkie who’d chosen her life. To live on the land would be hard, it’d be pain. It was not simply a matter of hiding a seal’s skin for Halimeda whose lungs ached, flesh burned, and legs screamed, but for Vandkys could she endure this? She could as she remembered that final kiss. She had only until spring, for then Vandkys had said she would wed. How much time remained then, until the first day of spring? This she struggled to find out from Sorcha the selkie.
“Spring, why that’s still half and four months away. What’s all the fuss about? Have you somewhere to go instead of back to the sea?”
Halimeda showed her the locket, swollen picture and a lock of hair tucked neatly inside. A great smile spread on Sorcha’s kind face. She clapped both her hands and stood on stumpy legs.
“Love, it is then instead of hate. And good too, else I’d clap you upside the head. I’ll help you however I can, though you know not where she is? Well, that’s all right. We have six days until the twelfth night of the moon, and although so far north they don’t come, we will try to beckon them here. I fear it is only Arawn and his dandy hounds who can help us locate the lass. Ah, of course, you don’t know what I’m talking about. They don’t go out to sea. I mean to speak of the Wild Hunt and Arawn, whose hounds can sniff any quarry. Until then I will teach you, as best as I can, to pass as a human and ask for help when you can. I will teach you the good from the bad, hopefully you’ll be off by the thirteenth’s first light.”
For six long days Halimeda toiled. She challenged every way Sorcha tried to teach her to be human. It had been so long since the siren had that form, everything was foreign now, lost to ages gone by. Yet, for the sake of her search, for the hope of Vandkys, Halimeda endured each trying day.
Sorcha determined six days not enough to teach Halimeda to write much more than a few phrases. She’d likely need shelter, food, and if a cart went her way, a lift. Sorcha’s husband helped, too, though his wife offered no explanation. He carved a fine stick for support to help the sea girl he’d found walk. Her steps became steadier, though never less painful. The children helped also, in their own little way. They told Halimeda jokes and taught her to smile. They showed her the ways she could change her expression so words weren’t needed. Sorcha also taught her to wash dishes and sweep so she could earn a few coins wherever she traveled.
In what felt like a day, the night had arrived. Sorcha would walk with the girl and together they’d try to call the Hunt to their way. Sorcha’s husband wanted details of what they were thinking, going out in the night when the twelfth moon’s danger lingered. Even as far north as they were there were times of the year the howling came close. Sorcha patted her man’s arm and kissed his weathered cheek, and after assuring him she was just teaching the girl to navigate stars they went out on the promise they wouldn’t stray far. But, they strayed and they strayed, and every step ached for poor Halimeda and her split fins, though the walking stick helped.
Halimeda’s icy breath dusted the cold night air, and far in the distant she heard the howling of storms. Oh, how she longed to sing storms with her sisters again, but only wrath would restore her former state. She’d decided instead to live with love in her heart. It felt lighter than hate, though the effects of the curse made everything else worse. Still the winds grew louder and Sorcha pulled closer. Moonlight hit the silver blade of a fishing knife in her hand. What a fool to trust a land dweller Halimeda had been! She’d regret it soon enough when she lie there dead.
Sorcha pricked her forearm and blood dropped to the ground. She passed the knife to Halimeda, so that she’d do the same. The night hid Halimeda’s shame. Sorcha had been her companion and friend, taught her things no siren before’d ever known, and Halimeda had thought her a killer. She wished she had words to sing of her sorrow. Instead she slashed at her arm, no longer covered in hard scales the blade cut through her soft skin and dropped blood upon stone.
Clouds from the south congealed and grew thicker. The howling storm neared and came quicker. No longer the howling of wind, but the baying of hounds, and when lightning crashed Halimeda saw the dancing of spears. They had managed to draw Arawn’s attention, for soon after through the sky galloped an army. Hundreds writhed beneath hooves, and those upon horseback wriggled in saddle. Spears, swords, axes, and bows, every weapon Halimeda knew now wait above head.
“What’s this has my hounds in a fit?” A man with a helm of white antlers boomed from the lead, “The blood of a siren and a selkie have called the Wild Hunt north for some purpose? If so, speak fast, we don’t like to tarry.”
He could only be Arawn, the master of the Hunt. The hounds bayed by his heels and his steed stamped the sky. Impatient they were, he’d not meant the words as a threat, but a notice of warning they meant to set loose back to the southern skies.
“I am the selkie and I speak for the siren. She would ask for aid of the Wild Hunt herself, if she could, but a geas has taken her voice and stranded her here. She begs the Hunt’s help to find a certain human.”
“Intriguing,” bellowed Arawn like a typhoon, “we shall help if we’re able. Might there be something of scent which my dandy dogs could sniff out?”
At this Halimeda unclasped the gold locket and offered three precious strands of Vandkys’ brass curls. Some ghostly soldier, more bone than of flesh took the lock to his master who bent down to a hound. It howled once, and then twice, and at the third cry Arawn gave a long sigh.
“My bitch has found the human, but it nothing to rejoice. She lives across the sea, or by land some four hundred leagues. We cannot carry the siren. You are too close to life. If you intend to seek this human I shall lend you my hound. So make your decision.”
More than four hundred leagues in some thirty and one hundred days, Halimeda’s legs already ached from just standing. Yet, she’d go if even the smallest chance. She nodded to the master and he whistled shrill. The bitch who’d sniffed Vandkys’s hair loped to Halimeda’s side. Her lithe body was white, though tail and ears looked to be soaked in blood. When she lighted on ground she was no longer a phantom, but a breathing dog, ready and waiting.
“She is my best. She’ll find your girl and keep you from harm on the way. When your work is done bade her go home, for she knows the way.” The Wild Hunt slithered and bucked in the sky as it turned to the south. “Good luck on your hunt, siren, may you find your reward.”
And then they were off, screeching and screaming. The Wild Hunt took their storm, their thunder and lightning, off to hunt some unfortunate soul. The hound at her side whined to watch them leave, but remembered her mission and looked keen to begin. Whereupon, Sorcha heaved a great sigh, full of relief. She tucked the knife beneath Halimeda’s belts and ties to her hip a sackful of silver.
Halimeda counted. More than four hundred leagues meant walking six hours daily. For Vandkys though she’d push herself harder. What was eight hours, or ten, if Vandkys was waiting? She cover at least four leagues a day, and more if she could. Oh, but it’d be so much easier still if he legs were fins and her lungs yet gills. She could be at Vandkys’ home by two dawns. But for the human who’d shown her love and taken the hate from her heart what was four hundred leagues and each step like knives? Halimeda would take every step with pride, for every one took her that much closer to Vandkys’ side.
“It isn’t much, I’m afraid. But it’ll get you downland. The folk there ought to lend you a hand. I doubt you’ll need work now that you have that dog by your side. Son long as your trek keeps to this isle all fear the white hounds and know whence they came. Now off with you. You’ve a long way to go and time is not waiting. If you find this girl I hope someday you’ll return, for I’d greatly like to meet someone who can take the wrath out of a siren.”
Sorcha pushed Halimeda along, and the hound led the true way. Soon the siren was gone and Sorcha shivered back home. Her husband inside had heard the storm and feared the worst, but he knew what his wife was, and made a fair guess of the other. When Sorcha returned all alone he expected some story. Instead, Sorcha kissed his whiskered, sea beaten face to silence any inquisition.
“Go fetch my true skin, the one you’ve hid in your shack. Run after the girl, I’m worried she’ll freeze. At least with a seal’s mantle the wind will stay off. When she no longer needs it tell her to burn it. I’ll not be going nowhere, you and this place are my home. No go, you silly man, and stop gawping.”
When he’d left her alone Sorcha looked in on her children, asleep in their beds and of mischief were dreaming. She hoped she’d pushed the siren right, to find a loving heart. She had happiness of her own here and wished it for the girl. With luck and good fortune someday they’d meet again. Though Sorcha thought it a pity she’d never heard her sing.