June 9, 2019

SEALSKIN by Jane Dougherty

She knew she would always love Ronan.
Ondine wondered why she could never
see him in his human form...
Every morning, Princess Ondine tied back the black waves of her hair, climbed out of her window, skipped across the silver sands, and dived into the sea. Beneath the waves, Ronan, a young man who looked like a grey seal with black spots, was waiting for her. Ondine wasn’t quite sure how she knew Ronan was a man as well as a seal, but she did. Something about his eyes, she thought.

Together they danced through sunbeams slanting through water, and Ondine knew she would never love anyone else. She wasn’t sure how she knew she would always love Ronan, but she did. Something about his eyes, she supposed. Every day, Ondine asked the Selkie why she could never see him in his human form.

“One day,” Ronan said, “you will.”

“I wish I could stay here with you,” Ondine sighed.

“One day,” Ronan said, “you will.”

But Ondine was only a princess, and the king had decided that his daughter was to marry Robert, the cruel but powerful emperor of all the lands at the other side of the ocean. On Ondine’s sixteenth birthday, Robert, demanded his bride, and the king rubbed his hands with satisfaction at the prospect of becoming the Emperor Robert’s closest ally.

The king watched over the preparation of his daughter’s dowry with an eagle eye, counting each gold piece and silver plate. He picked over the elaborate jewelry that was too heavy to wear and fingered the gowns of cloth-of-gold that were too stiff to move in. It almost broke his heart to part with such wealth. In fact, he clung to his gold coins and clunky jewelry so much he packed the great cedar wood dowry chest himself.
When all was ready, the king hung the keys to the chest around Ondine’s neck. “Remember, daughter, your bride wealth is the property of your husband,” he said. “No one but he must open the chest, on pain of death.”

With these grim words, he left her, probably unable to bear the separation from so much wealth, and servants escorted Ondine and her dowry chest onto Emperor Robert’s waiting ship. The captain and his crew said not a word to their royal passenger, but their faces were dark with distrust, and Ondine heard their discontented mutterings as they looked suspiciously at the sky.

Alone in her cabin, she cried and cried over Ronan and her plans to stay with him forever. She wept for her mother who had died when she was a baby and could not be there to comfort her. When she had shed a few tears for herself and her lost happiness, the princess began to wonder what else was in her chest besides a lot of silk and gold coins. But fear of her father’s pitiless expression stayed her hand when it drifted to the keys around her neck.

Instead, she peered out of the tiny window of the cabin that stank of fish oil where she was condemned to spend the entire voyage. Her gaze roved the waves, longing for a sight of the Selkie who had danced with her in the cove, with his laughing face and gentle eyes that looked straight into her heart. Not that she had a heart any more. She had given it to Ronan, and she imagined it in his hands, breaking into sorry fragments as surely as her dreams. At the thought of a future without Ronan, as the bride of a man she had never met, the tears burst out anew.
When Ondine dried her eyes, a face was smiling at her through the round window, a face with eyes full of all the tenderness and love in the world. “Ronan!” she cried and tugged open the window catch. “Take me with you. Even if I drown, as long as I am with you I will be happy.”

The Selkie laughed. “Open the chest,” he said, “and put on the garment you will find right at the bottom.”

“But what about the curse? My father forbade me to look inside on pain of death.”

“Your king father has captured the Four Winds and imprisoned them in this chest,” Ronan said. “They have the power to bring cold and famine, floods and storms—a terrible weapon in the hands of an evil man, and that is exactly where they are going. The King has promised the Four Winds to Emperor Robert. Let them free, the Winds will blow away his curse, and half the world will thank you.”

So Ondine took the keys from around her neck and opened the locks. When the third key turned, the lid sprang open, and the silks and brocades twisted and swirled as the Four Winds leapt from their prison.

“Ask,” they muttered, “and we will obey.”

“I don’t want to be obeyed,” Ondine said. “I just don’t want to marry Emperor Robert.”

“Ask,” the Winds hissed, “and this ship will never reach port.”

“So it won’t take me to Robert?”

For answer, the Winds danced and swirled about the tiny cabin twisting the bed sheets into a pink silk tornado. The door rattled open and a wisp of a wind stretched and reached its fingers up the gangway. The ship lurched as the wisp of wind stretched its hand higher and punched the sails. Angry voices from the deck grew louder, and boots clattered down the gangway.

“Why are you messing with the winds, witch?” the first mate shouted, bursting into the princess’s cabin. “Do you want to sink the ship?”

“We said it was bad luck to have a woman aboard,” cried the helmsman.

“Throw her overboard,” roared the captain.

“All right,” Ondine shouted over the din. “Winds, do what you promised. Then you will be free.”

With a howl of delight, the Four Winds twisted into a single rope that flowed like a spring flood out of the chest, out of the cabin, up the gangway and over the deck. The flood of wind spilled over the gunwales into the sea and whipped up the waves into glassy green mountains. It flew up the masts and bellied the sails. It swung the rudder back and forth until it snapped, and the ship sped out of control.
The crew raced about beneath the waves that crashed on the deck, tying stays, trying to furl the sails, but the tempest was too fierce. The voice of the gale was a scream of fury, so loud the princess almost didn’t hear the seal at the window.

“Look in the bottom of the chest,” he shouted.

In the bottom of the chest, beneath the silks and the taffetas and the silver plate and the gold coins, was a sleek grey sealskin with spots the colour of moonlight. With a cry of delight, the princess slipped it on. The Selkie princess slid through the porthole into Ronan’s arms, for now she saw the man, black-haired, white-skinned, within the sealskin. How she saw him, she wasn’t sure. It must be because she had a seal’s eyes too, she reckoned.

Now you can come with me,” he said, “and this time, I will show you the marvels of the deep.”

“And I won’t ever have to go back?” Ondine asked.

“Never in a thousand years,” Ronan said.
Together they dived into the emerald depths, and neither Ondine nor Emperor Robert’s ship were ever seen again.
Jane Dougherty lives and works in southwest France, writing novels, short stories, very short stories and poetry. She has been published in various places, including ‘Enchanted Conversation’.
Her Facebook page is https://www.facebook.com/JaneDoughertyWriter she blogs at https://janedougherty.wordpress.com/ and tweets @MJDougherty33

Background Cover Painting: Undine by Arthur Rackham, 1909
Cover Layout: Amanda Bergloff @AmandaBergloff

1 comment:

adan said...

Very satisfying for such a short story! The longer paragraphs with the winds’ movement descriptions was gripping! Love how those alternated with the shorter sentence bursts, and esp liked the ending :)