The Lightkeeper’s Wife – Amelia Dee Mueller

The Lightkeeper’s Wife – Amelia Dee Mueller

The first time Elsie Frasier tried to murder her husband, the other women of Auskerry called it a pretty meager attempt. Some insisted it might even have been an accident. He had fallen down the last flight of stairs in the couple’s lighthouse and only fractured the smaller bone in his arm.

The next time, when he fell from his ladder while painting the kitchen cupboards, was nearly two years later, much too long when compared to Claire McKinney, who held the record at sixteen attempts in six months alone. She only had to spend one year and three months on the island before she successfully murdered Mr. McKinney, found her stolen seal skin, and returned to the sea.

That Monday, when Elsie went to town to pick up her groceries, the other selkies surrounded her in the street. They were led by Elspeth Donoghue. Elspeth was an old woman, gray and wrinkled, with a middle that swayed as she walked, and she leaned on a cane to accommodate her hunch. She had yet to rid herself of the even older and even more hunched Mr. Donaghue, but it wasn’t for lack of trying.

“Good morning, Mrs. Frasier,” Elspeth said, cutting Elsie off as she stepped into Auskerry’s single road.

Elsie smiled, but her fingers twitched as she offered her hand to shake. She was desperate the avoid the selkies most days, though she didn’t judge their violent traditions. She also hated the men who snatched them from the sea, but she liked to stay out of the way. She saw fewer selkies on the island these days anyway. Men with selkie brides always found good fortune, but the world was changing. The young men of Auskerry were more likely to leave the island to find their fortune than risk capturing a selkie bride and getting murdered afterward.

Elsie hoped the evolving world of 1920 proved that this tradition was dying, which would mean the other selkies might stop questioning her marriage. But when Elspeth wouldn’t take her outstretched hand, Elsie knew that this wasn’t to be.

“We just came to say, my dear, that we’re worried about you,” Elspeth said. “Nearly four years you’ve been married, and only two attempts to rid yourself of this form! Is your husband making it particularly difficult for you? Is he clever? It’s rare for a human man, but I’ve seen it all, dearie.”

Elsie squared her shoulders. “I have it under control.”

As she turned away, Elspeth’s cane struck out against a store’s brick front, trapping Elsie. Other women stopped to watch, but they were mostly the daughters or granddaughters of selkies. Though every year less and less of the Auskerry men risked marrying selkies, it was still true that the richest men on the island all had pure selkie wives, and that they all retired fat, lived lavishly, and died young.

It was difficult to marry a selkie. First, a man had to trap one, and then drag her back to the mainland without being drowned, and then succeed at ripping away her seal skin to reveal the human form beneath. The wedding was done before the selkie had her wits back, and by then the man would have hidden her skin away in an expert hiding spot. By the time the selkie was aware of her situation, her skin was gone, and she would spend the rest of her human life trying to kill the man who took it from her.

“We don’t think you do, lass,” Elspeth said, wagging one of her fat, sausage fingers. “Is it true he hasn’t even hidden your skin from you?”

The selkies gasped. There was only a handful of them, a sharp contrast to the hundreds that must have walked the island in Elspeth’s youth. Few were young, and they stood with their hands folded and lips pursed. The young ones still wore their hair loose in long curls that blew in the wind. They remembered the sea with a fresher pain, having been plucked out only recently, and the fierceness with which they shoved their husbands off ladders or down wells was like a storm breaking on a cliff.

The rest were middle aged and wore their hair in strict plaits down their backs, leaving their pinched faces and creased foreheads exposed. They were so square and stiff that it was obvious that they barely remembered what it was like to be weightless in the water, and every time they swung a pot against the back of their husbands’ heads, their swings grew wearier and wearier. Just a spring gale trying to topple a sail boat.

Elspeth was the oldest. Elsie had heard stories of kidnapped selkies stranded on land and forced to die human deaths, but as a young pup she had never thought that she would actually meet one. Even if Elspeth managed to retrieve her skin, there was no guarantee it would still fit her. Her dress stuck to the rolls around her middle like a sausage casing about to rip.

“It’s unnatural, it is,” Elspeth said. “Wanting what you got. My generation fought to protect yours, killing as many of these men as we did. You’re putting all our hard work to shame. Making it into nothing. How can you disrespect your own kind like that?”

The selkies behind her muttered their agreement. They looked at Elsie with loathing. They couldn’t comprehend how a selkie with access to her skin would choose to stay on land, and they hated her for it. Their envy was ripe on their pinched faces, and Elsie could taste it on the wind.

“I had a choice,” Elsie said, still calm, still trying to make them understand. “What I have is nothing like what you were forced into.”

Elspeth spit at her feet, rubbing it into the street with the end of her cane. “You only think you did! They’re all the same, lass. Even the ones trying to hide it. And we gotta protect our own, especially when she can’t see two feet in in front of her own face.”

Elsie hiked her shopping basket onto her shoulder and turned away from the group. She heard them whispering behind her, but she didn’t look back.

“We’ll be checking in soon!” Elspeth called. “To lend you a hand!”

Outside the village, the road tapered off into the overgrown path that led to the Auskerry Lighthouse. The tower of the lighthouse, at only eighty-six feet, was fatter and shorter than the others along the Scottish coast, and was mostly white but for the candy stripe of red across its middle.

The Frasiers lived in the small house at its base. Its paint was always peeling from the salty winds and the front door never hung straight. The windows creaked during storms, and its two small rooms were packed with heirloom quilts and furniture, and stuffed with colorful knickknacks, and layered with wall hangings and pictures that hung lopsided.

Elsie heard a curse from the shed that held the lamp oil, and she was knocked back a few steps by the scent of kerosene as she approached.

Tom was covered in it. He dripped it onto the grass as he came out, and flicked it onto her skirts as he shook out his legs.

“We’ve got too much of this stuff now that we switched to Hood’s damned invention!” he said, wiping his face with his oil-soaked shirt. “I can’t walk in there without knocking it over!”

“Why do you keep ordering the same amount?” Elsie asked, her face turned away from the wind so the smell wouldn’t reach her. They had installed the new lamp a year ago at the insistence of the Northern Lighthouse Board, as it required less oil but burned brighter, but Tom had not stopped complaining.

“You never know with these new contraptions,” he said. “What would happen if we ran out? Ships lining up to crash, debris raining down from the sea, bodies along the beach. I don’t like to take chances.”

Tom’s family had run he lighthouse at Stronsay Firth since it’d been built in 1889, and the farthest he’d ever been from it was the night his father died. The trembling teenager had barely laid his father’s cold, limp hand back onto the blankets of his deathbed before his mother got to tearing the lighthouse apart. She went through every cupboard and trunk, ripped down all the curtains, dug up the garden, tore up the floorboards, and found her stolen skin rolled into a ball and stuffed in the toilet tank. Tom watched from the window as she went to the cliff, wrapped the skin around herself, and leapt headfirst into the rolling white sea below.

Tom chased after her, knowing it was a hopeless risk. A selkie had never been found again after escaping, but he went anyway, terrified to think of living alone in the bleak, empty lighthouse. He climbed down the crags of the cliffs, clutching to the rocks as the hard island winds tried to tear him from the edge, and set out for the open sea in his father’s boat. Tom didn’t find his mother, and he realized too late that the lamp in the lighthouse had not been lit, and he was drifting out to open sea with nothing to guide him back.

Elsie first saw him bobbing in the waves like a message in a bottle. She, like the other women of her kind, was wary of the human men who hunted her. Any man who made his living by the sea benefited from the good fortune a selkie wife would bring. Selkie women spent their entire lives not getting too close, but Elsie drifted toward the tiny boat. This human looked sad, with his head in his hands on the dark sea, and she took pity on him. She grabbed a piece of rope and towed him back to the island.

When they reached land, she stayed in the shallows, watching him drag the boat back to shore, nudging it firmly in the wet sand. He looked back at her and gave a sheepish wave as thanks, and she found herself swimming closer. As she approached the beach, the soft folds of her skin shed, falling around her legs like a robe. She knew stories of selkies plucked from the sea, their skins shorn from their naked forms with gutting knives, left at the bottom of the hunters’ boats until they were forced to walk on awkward, unwanted legs. But this felt different. Walking was natural, like breathing.

She gathered up her skin as she stepped onto the beach, the tiny grains of sand squishing between her toes for the first time, the breeze tickling her skin and whipping her long, wet curls. She looked at Tom, and his face was as red as a sunset the night before a storm. He shrugged off his coat and offered it her. Elsie followed him into the lighthouse, and she never returned to the sea.

“I’m going to wash up,” Tom said now, starting for the house. Elsie maneuvered in front of him.

“Go to the beach or sleep in the tower,” she said. “I won’t have kerosene stinking up my house.”

“My own wife banishing me to the sea!” Tom said, but he was grinning. “At least let me take a kiss with me when I turn to ice and sink to the bottom.”

She side-stepped his outstretched arms, but he caught her around the waist and his greasy, oil-soaked lips kissed her cheek. Any other day she would’ve laughed, but the oil was cold and it sent shivers down her spine, and she couldn’t get the image of Elspeth’s fat fingers pointing at her out of her head. Tom stepped back as she wiped the slime from her face.

“What’s wrong?” he said.

“Get cleaned up. I’ll tell you when you get back.”

He frowned, but he wandered off down the cliff-side path that led to the beach.

Elsie went to the house and twisted the kitchen light switch on. She was still getting used to the foreign, artificial glow that electricity made. She much preferred the heartbeat of a gas light. It was the lighthouse’s pulsing, steady light that had drawn her near the shores of Auskerry in the first place. All selkies were drawn by a lighthouse’s lamp, entranced by its glow and swinging beam, though they knew it could be the end of their freedom. Elsie remembered as a young pup promising to never get too close to the low, yellow star on the horizon, no matter how beautiful it might seem. It was a promise few selkies could keep.

Elsie put the groceries away in the cupboards, leaving out a few of the smaller potatoes for dinner, and hung her basket on the back of the bedroom door. She stood in the doorway, hesitating before turning that light on.

Under the bed was a package wrapped in a thick, woolen blanket and tied with rope. Elsie slid it into her lap. It was in a tight, expert knot, and her fingers were raw by the time she had it undone. Inside were sheets of neat white paper, and Elsie peeled them back one by one, careful not to crease any, until she’d reached the brown skin beneath. It crinkled as she lifted it. The once soft hide was stiff and rough with dried salt. She laid it out flat on the bedroom floor, tracing the edge with her fingertip, realizing that it was smaller than she remembered.

She heard Tom at the door. He leaned against the frame, drying his face with a dishcloth.

“You’re not going to leave me, are you?” he said, grinning. He wrung the water out of the cloth with a tight squeeze and threw it over his shoulder.

“Never,” she said and folded it back inside the blanket.

“What’s bothering you?” He sat on the edge of the bed, leaning over his knees. “What happened?”

She told him about her conversation with Elspeth in the village, and he laughed.

“That old hag,” he said, slapping the cloth across his knee. “How long has she been trying to knock off poor Donoghue? Fifty years? Isn’t she satisfied with one man to murder?”

Elsie sat on the bed beside him. “She says I’m betraying my own kind. All the others were with her.”

Tom was silent. He clasped his hands in front of him. “Do you agree?”

Elsie clenched her fists. “I chose you. It’s not the same. But they don’t understand. They think all the humans are awful, and can’t comprehend how a selkie could be happy with one.” She clenched her fists. “They’re not even trying to understand.”

She wanted to rip something apart. For years she’d taken the passive glares from the other selkies, and had carefully avoided running into them in the village. As long as she and Tom didn’t interfere with the way of things, Elsie had thought they could get along. The selkies were letting their jealousy, and their superiority, make life-threatening assumptions. No selkie could possibly want to be chained to a man’s side, they said. And they were right. No selkie could want that, but one might choose to stand at his side on her own two legs. But Elsie wasn’t sure she could ever make them understand this.

“How about you knock a vase over my head?” Tom suggested. “We’ll show them the glass, and I’ll walk around the village with a bandaged forehead for a few days.”

“This isn’t like before,” Elsie said. “You can’t fake it again. We need to leave.”

He leaned back, his arm hanging off the end of the bedframe. “And go where?”

“Anywhere¾the mainland, another island. We can’t stay here, Tom. They want to kill you.”

“We’re not leaving Auskerry.” He threw the cloth at his feet. His jaw was tight and fists clenched as he went to stand at the end of the bed. “Who would tend the light? Do you know what would happen if that went out?” He pointed above his head. “Everyone would die. Sailors, fishermen, the entire damn village. We live by that light.”

“You can’t tend to the lamp if you’re dead!” Elsie cried, leaping up as he began to pace.

“We can’t abandon it,” he said. He wouldn’t look at her. “We’re not leaving.”

He left and she heard him rummaging through a cupboard. He was going to light the lamp, like he did every night, and Elsie waited until she heard the front door slam shut before going back to the kitchen. He would be up there until dinner time, and return for the first few hours of the night, just to keep an eye on things. This was Tom’s pattern, copied from his father’s days as lightkeeper.

Elsie mashed the potatoes, pairing them with the vegetables she’d just bought, and putting it on their chipped plates. She waited thirty minutes, then an hour, then two, before she threw both untouched meals in the sink, spattering potatoes on the counter. She went outside and looked up at the tower and saw her husband’s silhouette at its top. She went inside and turned the lights off without washing up.

Elsie twisted in bed until Tom came down, but she feigned sleep until she heard his breathing settle. She slid out from beneath their warm woolen blanket and went to the kitchen, putting on a kettle to boil. She shivered in the harsh, evening air. She could hear Tom start to snore softly in the bedroom, and she shook her head as she poured boiled water into her cup. She wanted to hate him for his stubborn resilience, but she was glad of it. She was like the sea¾whirling and wondering and guessing which way the currents would pull them next, and he was the land. Firm and set, with roots too deep to pull. Their love met somewhere on the shore, a balancing act of pushing and pulling the sand and the water into different directions. He would never leave his lighthouse, and she would never leave him. She would think of a different way.

She turned from the stove and lifted the cup to her lips, thinking she might go up to the tower to drink it. She opened the front door, and the cup slid from her hands and shattered on the kitchen floor.

A haggard, wrinkled face stood in her doorway, cast in harsh shadows as the beam of the lighthouse swung around behind it. Elspeth leaned on her cane with one hand and held a fisherman’s gutting knife in the other. The wind whipped her greasy grey hair across her face, and behind her the beam of the lighthouse swung across the island’s path. In its light Elsie saw a crowd of selkies. They held kitchen knives and pitchforks and frying pans, but the second the light was gone, they disappeared into shadow.

Elsie slammed the door in Elspeth’s face. She stood frozen in her kitchen, cold beads of sweat soaking her nightgown. She waited for them to rip her door down. She pictured them tearing into her bedroom and lifting Tom from his bed. She imagined his scream as they stuck their knives in him, and she thought of Elspeth’s grin as her knife ripped through the flesh at his throat.

“Elsie?” Tom said from their bedroom doorway, calling her back from her imaginings. He rubbed sleep from his eyes. “What are you doing?”

Elsie crept toward their window to peer out into the dark. But the selkies had gone.

“Nothing,” she said. Her jaw tightened. “I was doing nothing.”

Elsie did not sleep that night, but she was up with Tom just after sunrise to make breakfast and to help carry kerosene up the lighthouse steps. She stayed by his side during the day, wiping away soot from the huge prisms of the Fresnel lens that circled the flame. She helped him to rewind the clockwork that turned the lamp, and to lock the weights into place. She watched him trim the wicks and close the curtains of the lantern room to protect the lens from discoloration.

A thick fog came during the afternoon, and they rushed to light the lamp. She waited with him on the gallery to watch for passing ships. Beyond was only sea on one side, and a dirty, barely green island on the other, where the village stood far below like a toy that Elsie could lift her boot above and smash. She thought she could pick out Elspeth’s house, larger than all the rest, with neat tiles set out in perfect rows and a well-manicured garden. She spat at that house, but the wind carried the spittle away.

There hadn’t been a crash on Auskerry since Elsie had arrived, but Tom had told her of one from his childhood. It had been a great steel steamer, too large to turn in time, chugging through icy waters at night during a storm. Everyone had been asleep but for Tom’s father, who watched helplessly as the ship met its end and heard the long groan of the steel cutting against the rocks that lined the firth.

Elsie had forgotten about that ship until he’d told the story. She’d been there, safe beneath the waves while the storm raged far above. She and the other selkies watched as it cut into rock. They’d felt the vibrations of crunching metal shudder through the water, and seen the bodies falling into the waves. The selkies curled their lips, showing their yellowed, pointed teeth, as they swam toward the flailing limbs of the sailors. One by one, the selkies snatched them and dragged them beneath the surface until they stopped kicking. Elsie and the other pups had been meant to watch and learn. The selkies were shrinking the human numbers, slowly but surely, the elders said, and soon there would be no more selkies torn from their families. Elsie had been the first to look away.

Wreckage and bodies washed up on the shore for weeks, and the huge engine could still be seen at low tide at just the right angle from the cliff. It reminded Elsie of a great sea creature, stretching its gaping mouth out of the water, desperate for air.

Tom went to sit on the tower steps, wiping the oil and grit from his hands. Elsie took the step just below his, hugging herself. He looked down at her.

“Thank you,” he said, placing a hand on her shoulder.

“For what?”

He drew her against him. “For not asking me to leave again.”

Elsie laid her head in her hands, but she saw Elspeth’s sunken eyes looking back. She pulled away from her husband and stood up, looking out at the rolling fog and listening to the waves far below it. If she could spare Tom the pain of leaving his lighthouse, she would. No matter the cost to herself, or to her kind. What had they ever done for her?

“Can I ask you for something else?” she said.

“I don’t like the sound of that,” Tom said.

Elsie didn’t like the thought of it. She wasn’t sure she would have the time to pull it off, or if it would work. She wondered if the Auskerry selkies would kill her, and Tom with her, if she succeeded, but she knew that they would take him from her if she failed. She could imagine them wrapping her in her dried skin, feeling its papery touch, and then the slip of her transformation as they dropped her in the ocean. There was part of her that wanted to feel the stream of the water, to push through its currents and waves and swim down farther and farther into the darkness to the cold depths. But that part was dull and lifeless compared to the race and warmth of her heart as she looked at Tom.

If she managed it all, they could be left to enjoy their human lives together, without humans or selkies. There might be unavoidable casualties, she knew, but both species had brought it upon themselves.

“Tomorrow night, can we not light the lamp?”

He put a hand to his heart as if she had stabbed him. “Why?”

“I can’t tell you. Not yet. It’s just one night, Tom.”

“One night can mean life and death to one ship.”

“Please,” she said. “There’s only way I can think of to keep us here.”

Tom leaned away from her, one hand rubbing the back of his neck. “Let me think on it.”

That night there was a storm. Tom pulled a raincoat on over his keeper’s uniform after dinner and sat at the dining room table lacing up his boots.

“I’ll be up all night,” he said. “It’s supposed to be bad, and the lamp will need constant tending. You’ll be all right on your own?”

“Just be careful,” Elsie said, drying the last dish and putting it away.

“You come up if you get lonely,” he said, and kissed her on the cheek.

She heard him open the door to the tower, and the faint thud of his footsteps on the iron staircase. He’d stop to check the weights before he went to the service room. He’d sit on the same stool in front of the same window, the one with the clearest view, and he’d watch the beam swing back and forth across the sea. He’d only hear the crash of the waves, or the ring of the thunder. Elsie sat on the edge of her bed to lace up her boots.

The rain beat against her window, slipping down the glass in thick streaks. There was no going back after this. She tried to feel hesitant. Maybe she could do something less drastic. They were, after all, her kind. And their actions were defensible. To have their freedom ripped away and hidden was a jarring, unforgivable crime. They were forced to live a foreign life. Elsie watched the water slip down the window and thought of her husband and of Elspeth’s words, and she felt the same helplessness she knew the selkies must feel. It enraged her that they were the cause of it. They were her kind; how could they push their fears on her with their threats? They were the cause of her helplessness, just as the humans were the cause of theirs.

Elsie looked one last time for guilt and hesitation, but it didn’t come. She stood up and pulled on her raincoat.

It was the kind of storm with rain that fell anywhere but down. It hit her face horizontally like icy pellets, or splashed up from puddles on the ground into her boots and soaked her stockings. Her coat didn’t do much good, and she let the hood fall while she went to the storage shed. The kerosene was against the wall in steel cans painted green with a spout on one side and a curved, rusted handle on the other. In the corner, Elsie found a wooden cart to carry them in.

Only four cans would fit in the cart. She started off down the road to the village by pulling it, but she realized that she’d have to push it over the larger bumps and dips. The cans were heavy, and they knocked and banged together, their liquid slurring inside.

There were only a few flickering candles in the windows of the village houses. The rain dripped rhythmically onto the rooftops, and the water pooled in the street. There was a mixed scent of fresh and salt water, but it was soon overpowered by the kerosene.

Elsie started at Elspeth’s house. She lined her walls with two cans worth before moving on to her neighbors. She liked the sound of the kerosene sloshing out of the can and splattering the houses. She threw the last can back in the cart and dug her matches out of her pocket, careful to keep them under her coat and out of the rain. But they were already wet.

“Damn,” she muttered, throwing them away. She didn’t have time to go back to the house.

The Donoghue’s door wasn’t locked. Elsie let herself in, not bothering to shut it behind her. The front door led into the kitchen, and she found the matches in the drawer next to the candles. She took them into the bedroom.

The Donoghue’s were misshapen lumps on the bed. Their blanket didn’t quit cover their legs, and they stuck out like veiny, swollen tongues. Elsie lit a match and held it against the corner of their blanket until it took. She waited until the smoke hung thick and black in the air before slipping back out.

She threw a few more matches against the houses as she went, and left the rest on the road. The heat didn’t really start to rise until she was out of sight of the village, and it wasn’t until she heard people shouting that she turned around to look.

The bright orange and yellow against the dark sky was jarring. She’d never seen anything so bright in all her life. It overwhelmed the sky, swallowing the stars and spitting up smoke. The rain had begun to lighten, but lightning still split across the darkness, right above the flames. It blinded her. She tried to imagine what the light would look like beneath the ocean, but she couldn’t picture it.

At the house, Elsie dragged the cart behind her down the rocky path that led to the cliff. She tossed her cans in one at a time, and in between the flashes of lightning she could see bright yellow eyes looking back at her. There were hundreds of pairs, luminescent against the black water, bobbing with the roll and sway of the storm. They didn’t see her, but the flickering arches of flames were reflected in their yellow eyes. The selkies were entranced by the burning of the village of Auskerry, and Elsie hoped the light would keep them fixated until morning, so they would stay close to the shores during the day, and let her handle them that next night.

The morning, Tom insisted they go help at the village, and Elsie followed silently behind him. Most of the structures in Auskerry were made of wood, and all that was left that morning were their blackened carcasses. A few of the stone shops had survived, though their glass windows had cracked.

“Was anyone hurt?” Tom asked Mr. McDougal, a shopkeeper, as he helped him haul away what was left of his house.

“Just old Donoghue and his wife. Rest of us got a fair warning, but they never rose from their beds. Think it was the smoke,” McDougal said.

“What happened?”

“Lightning strike, we’re saying. Who knows? Lots of folks talking about leaving for good¾cheaper to start over on the mainland. Try for some factory work.”

Most of the selkies were on their hands and knees sorting through wreckage, searching desperately for their charred skins. Elsie leaned against the stone wall of a shop and watched them. They looked up at her a few times, some with jealousy and the older ones with suspicion. She nodded at them, and then went inside to buy a carton of cigarettes.

The cleanup took all day and into the evening. Tom looked toward the horizon as the sun began to sink, and his fingers tightened around the wheelbarrow of debris he pushed. Elsie put a hand on his shoulder.

“Just one night,” she said.

“I wish you’d tell me what you’re up to.”

She let her hand fall. “I don’t think you’d like me very much if I did.”

He looked down at her, and then back at the charred pieces of village in his wheelbarrow, and his eyes widened. “What have you done?” he said.

“Just something I had to do,” she said.

“Did you kill Elspeth and her husband?” he said. “Are you insane?”

“She threatened to kill you,” Elsie said. She pursed her lips. “And he kidnapped a selkie. They deserved worse.”

Tom dropped the wheelbarrow, toppling it on its side and scattering its contents. He put a hand on Elsie’s shoulder and pulled her close. His voice shook as he whispered. “You’re a murderer, Elsie. You can’t go taking justice into our own hands. It isn’t right.”

“Whose hands should we take it to, then?” Elsie snapped back. “It was us or them. It was a choice that had to be made.”

“Why did it have to be made by you?” he asked.

“It has to end, Tom,” Elsie said, glancing around at the selkies and the humans picking through what was left of the village. “And they’re not going to do stop it, none of them. Humans will keep kidnapping, and selkies will keep killing. Over and over again until the sea dries out. I’ve taken care of the humans. Auskerry won’t survive if they all leave. Now I have to handle the selkies.”

“Maybe you’re interfering with what you shouldn’t,” Tom said, leaning close to her. “Maybe we’re not supposed to stop it.”

Elsie shook her head. “It’s too late for that kind of talk. Whether I’m supposed to or not, I’ve made up my mind. Give me one night.”

“I’m not worth whatever you’re planning,” he said. “Don’t take any more lives because of me.”

She could feel the glares of the selkies on her back and remembered the flash of their kitchen knives. She leaned in to kiss her husband.

“I’d do anything for you,” she said. “But I won’t be killing anyone else. Soon it’ll just be the two of us, Tom, safe on our little island. I just need one night.”

The lightkeeper put his hands on his hips and slowly nodded.

Elsie burned through three cigarettes on her walk back to the lighthouse, dropping their husks on the path, and lit another as she entered her bedroom. She dragged the package out from beneath the bed and stopped at the shed for another can of kerosene before heading toward the cliff.

It looked out over a rolling green sea painted purple from the dusk. Clouds formed on the horizon, the waves rising and swelling beneath the sky. If she squinted, Elsie could still see bobbing seal shapes along the Auskerry shoreline, resting after a long swim to see the village go up in flame. Elsie dropped the package at her feet and poured the oil over it. It soaked straight through the thin paper, drenching her seal skin beneath.

“You killed Elspeth.”

Elsie looked back over her shoulder at Sarah McCreedy, a young selkie who clutched a burnt piece of seal skin to her chest. She stood with four others, all young with wind-swept hair and salty tear streaks and charred skins in their arms. They were the youngest selkies on the island and, if Elsie was successful, the last Auskerry would ever see.

“And now we can never go back,” said another that Elsie didn’t recognize. “How could you do this to us?”

The guilt Elsie had been looking for last night appeared swiftly, but just as the lightest touch. It made her lip twitch as she turned away from the girls. She liked to believe that they had been brainwashed by Elspeth and the older selkies, but she knew their rage was as strong as hers. They would never forgive what she had done, but she hoped one day when they had lived longer lives and seen harsher things, that they might understand her decision. Even if she had made this choice for all of them, she had not enjoyed it. She would carry it with her, a dull ache that burned as steadily and surely as the lighthouse lamp.

“It had to be done,” said Elsie. “By someone.”

“We were just trying to help you!” Sarah shouted. “You had no right to take anything from us!”

Elsie spun on her heel, the cigarette flying from her fingertips. “You had no right! You tried to take me from my home, the same way you were taken from yours. How dare you tell me what I should want?”

The selkies cried into the wind, shoulders shaking with their faces in their hands. Elsie turned away and lit a match. She watched the waves bump and roll against the cliff side as she dropped it onto her oil-soaked seal skin. It lit up easily, and she closed her eyes, feeling the sting of the burn deep within her before it settled into a dull warmth. She kicked the package over the cliff.

Sarah wiped her nose with her sleeve. “What are you doing?”

“Giving the humans a chance,” Elsie said. “I’ll send the selkies away, but they’ll be back. By then Auskerry will just be another abandoned rock along the coast with only a lighthouse, just like hundreds of others.” She smiled at the thought of their little tower standing tall over the empty island. “And if not, I’ll keep burning villages until it is.”

“You can’t control everything like that,” whispered one of the other selkies.

Elsie wasn’t listening. She focused on the burning skin. It floated on the water, a beacon of fire against the dark waves, and was pulled out by the current. As it went, the heads of the selkies bobbed up to the surface, following the path of the flames with their bright yellow eyes. They looked back at Elsie, who lit a match and dropped it over the cliff. The selkies watched it fall and vanish into the dark, and then they turned to follow the burning package out into the open ocean and away from the shores of Auskerry.

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