This is a story started in strands of whipweed, sea-tangle and dabberlocks by the cold North Sea . . .
‘We shall have a long tale,’ The Pilgrim said. ‘I will tell it little by little.’ And this is how it started:
The seal-bride walked out of the sea at Slatter Wyke and bent her head against a northerly wind. She made her way inland. Her bare feet did not falter on the slippery stones of the scaur, or on the clusters of barnacles, each sharp as a rasp.
She looked up to find her way in the cloudy night. Beyond her, the headland of Scoresby Nab stuck out into the North Sea like a black dragon. At her feet, a strand-line of twisted kelp, driftwood and torn fishing nets marked the boundary between sea and land.
One light shone.
It came from a low stone cottage beyond the strand-line.
Her grey eyes gleamed; huge in her thin face. She pulled a salt-stained coat closer to her bare skin and walked on towards the light, stepping over the strand-line. A shudder rippled through her muscles.
At the corner of the cottage, her long, wet hair whipped across her cheeks. She pulled it back and looked through the window.
Inside, a low fire burned. A dog lay curled up on a stobbed rug in front of the hearth. She peered closer. A pair of working boots jutted out from beneath well-mended skirts. Beside them, a willow basket stood in the warmth of the fire. A tiny hand waved in sleep, then disappeared. She moved closer. They were all asleep.
She opened the door a little and poured herself inside. Then she shut the wind out. The dog’s tail thumped on the rug and she stood still. The dog looked up, stretched his toes, then curled up again. She moved towards the basket. She paused beside the figure in a fireside chair.
The sleeping woman was middle-aged, square, and tough-featured, even at rest. Her mending basket lay open by her side. Aye, he’ll be right enough with her, the seal-bride thought. She gave a sad half-smile and moved on.
She knelt down by the baby, careful to make no noise. She watched his plump face in the firelight, watched him snuffle and turn towards her. His large pebble-grey eyes opened.
They stared at her, still and glistening in the firelight. His fat little legs danced under the covers. His face broadened into a smile.
The seal-bride bent down and kissed his forehead. His pink starfish hands hooked into her hair. Gently, she untangled his fingers. Her shoulders shook with silent laughter, and then tears. She sat back on her heels and checked on the woman in the chair. She was still fast asleep.
The seal-bride took a tightly wrapped bundle out of a coat pocket. She winced and held her side for a moment, then turned back to the baby. He stared up at her, his deep grey eyes fixed on hers. She unrolled the bundle, keeping her gaze on the baby and smiling. His hands reached out. She let him take hold of a strip of grey fur. He pulled it down to his nose and sniffed it. His fingers sank deep into soft patches of silver and slate. His eyelids drooped. She stroked his tiny nose and his eyes shut.
‘Sleep now,’ she whispered, ‘and remember I love you.’
She stood up.
The woman in the chair woke with a start. ‘You! Whatever have you come back for?’
She leapt up and strode to the baby’s side. She bent down and took hold of the piece of sealskin. The baby howled. The seal-bride grabbed her wrist.
‘Leave it,’ she said. Her sharp white teeth glinted in the firelight. The dog whimpered and hid behind a chair.
‘It will calm him when I’m gone.’
She released her grip.
The fur slipped from the woman’s fingers, and the baby’s cries quietened into sobs. ‘What gives you the right-’ the woman began.
The seal-bride shook her head and put a finger to her lips. Both women looked down at the baby. He nuzzled the fur and slept. The seal-bride spoke quietly.
‘I’ll not come again. It is better this way.’
The woman nodded. She went to the door and held it open.
All the way across the room, the seal-bride looked back at the basket. The door snecked shut behind her. Bolts squealed into place. She stood still despite the howling gale. Her hair flicked and jerked, yanked by the wind. Tears splashed on pebbles around her feet.
Across the bay, three black spots bobbed in the water. Two young pups and an older seal howled above the surf. The seal-bride ran over the strand-line and across the scaur. She reached an outcrop near the waves, tore off the coat and crawled behind the rocks. Three heartbeats more and a sleek, silvery shape dived into the sea.
‘Come next week for more of the tale,’ the Pilgrim said.