The salt breeze brushed at the hair over Malcolm’s eyes, and the damp sand beneath his feet gave way ever so slightly to his weight as he stepped carefully, heel to toe.
He’d been here twenty-seven times since he first saw her. He’d spent his days off walking the shore from early morning until late at night, and he came early in the morning most other days, when he could. His friends were starting to drift away from him, throwing around words like “antisocial,” and “miser,” but they didn’t understand.
The cove was small, and hard to get to if the tide was high. Most people didn’t bother. This was where he saw her, though, and it was the only place he could guess that he might see her again.
Meanwhile, he’d read up a bit. There were stories out there… myths. Not from here—not from Santa Barbara, California, where big black trees loomed right on the edges of cliffs overlooking the sea—but from older worlds, Ireland and Scotland and the like. Places where magic really meant to have existed.
Maybe she was lost.
There were ways you could catch them, too. Keep them with you, make them do what you wanted. Make them stay with you, even marry you. But then… those stories always ended sadly.
He’d never forget that day. The cove had been a favorite spot of his since he’d started college, and one day he’d stowed away there, taking his camera and waiting. He liked shooting there. One of the ragged black trees was sat right at the very tip of the cliff that cut the cove off from the main beach, and he liked photographing it, documenting the way it clung to the earth, and maybe its eventual demise.
There were other subjects, too. Sometimes you could make out dolphins in the waves far off, or a great heap of kelp had been washed ashore and lay in the sun, drying atop the drift-fine sand. Other times bits of tar were spattered across the beach, like an unholy presence the sea had thrust from its presence.
That particular morning he’d been sitting waiting for the sun to come up. He’d never been much of a sleeper, and dawn was something he liked to witness—especially since so few people did. As he sat silently, he saw something moving out of the waves and onto the sand… a large, kind-eyed seal was making its way onto land. He looked down for just a moment, uncapping the lens on his camera, and when he looked up again—it wasn’ a seal at all.
It was a woman. She was young, with olive skin and dark eyes, and something soft and grey wrapped around her slender body, the exact same color the seal had been.
She was the most remarkably beautiful thing he’d ever seen.
The moment she saw him, she froze, and turned back toward the ocean.
“No, no, wait!” he called, suddenly not fully sure of what he’d seen, not sure that there had ever been a seal at all. Maybe it was just this girl he’d seen, from the beginning.
She paused, and glanced back at him over her shoulder. There was something in her eyes, a daring or taunting—and then she was gone.
Today, he was taking pictures of the cliff walls themselves. The wind and tides had eaten them away in patterns more intricate than man could ever hope to create. He didn’t realize how long he’d spent with his back to the water until he heard a voice behind him.
“Who are you?”
He turned around, his boots digging into the sand as he spun. She was there, dressed in grey as before, though it was a satiny dress this time. Something that looked too elegant to be worn anywhere but at a wedding, or some sort of Hollywood awards show.
Her dark eyes still held that challenging look, but she was several feet away from him when she’d spoken.
“I’m Malcolm. Malcolm Kane. Who are you?”
“Why do you come here, Malcolm Kane? Why sit and wait, so many days?”
He could only be honest. “I’m waiting for you.”
Her eyes widened, lost their hard look for a moment. “For me?”
He took a small step towards her, which she followed immediately with a step back, evening their distance. “I don’t want to hurt you,” he said, his voice as gentle as he could make it.
“How am I to believe you?”
“I know what you are.” Selkie. The word sounded foreign even in his mind, almost made-up. But then, here she was.
“That makes you all the more dangerous to me,” she said, the glint back in the black of her stare.
He held his hands up, and stepped towards her again. This time she held her ground. “I only wanted to know you, to learn who you were. To find out your name.”
Her breath quickened as he got within a few feet of her, but she stood still, as if her feet were planted in much harder earth than sand.
He laid a hand on her shoulder, lightly fingering the satiny fabric of her dress. “This is lovely,” he murmured, but he wasn’t looking at the dress. He couldn’t move his eyes from her face.
She turned her head away, long lashes moving slowly as she spoke. “Would you take it from me?”
And for a moment he wanted to—to take her skin and hide it, like the men did in the old stories, make her his in every way he could. But those women, they always ended up sad, earth-weary and sick for their homes under the sea.
He dropped his hand to his side. “I could never take it,” he admitted, and though he’d never been closer to her, he suddenly felt as if she were further away from him than she ever had been in all the time he’d been waiting to see her again. “I’d still come here, though. And wait for you.”
She gave him a prize then, in the shape of a half-smile, and another, even greater. “My name is Nira.”
He tried to keep the pleasure from showing outwardly on his face, but he could feel the warmth in his cheeks, and he knew he’d failed.
“Can I ask something of you, my land boy? A promise?”
“Anything,” he said, feeling as if the word had sprung from his lips of its own accord.
She reached a small hand towards him then, and touched his face gently. “Do not wait for me, Malcolm Kane. You have waited too long as is.”
He frowned. “But this is where I want to be. Here. With you.”
She shook her head, her expression calm, with just a hint of sadness. “There is no being with me. I am not. Not in your world, anyhow.”
She gave him a kiss then, sweet and swift, then turned and ran into the waves, before he could catch her.
He called after her, and she turned, already waste-deep in the water.
“I’ll still come back.” He meant it, too, with more conviction than he’d ever felt in his life.
Again she shook her head with that sad look. “No, Malcolm Kane. You will not.”
With that she dove into the water and was gone.
Malcolm didn’t know how long he waited there, watching the ocean. Maybe hours. As the sun started down and hunger gnawed at his stomach, his thoughts drifted towards warmth indoors, and the frozen cuisine he had waiting for him in his apartment.
Still, he was hesitant to move. Her words haunted him. How could she stop him from coming back, if it was what he wished?
His boots were heavier than ever on the sand as he trudged back across the narrow bit of land under the jutting cliff, back onto the main beach and towards the road home.
A few days later, he was back down to the beach, with his camera in tow as an excuse. The scene seemed different somehow, but the feeling was in his peripheral. He was too busy remembering Nira’s eyes, the way the wind flung strands of hair across her face, to see until he was right upon it.
His rugged old black tree had fallen into the sea at last, and with it it had taken a considerable part of the cliffside.
His small edge of land to the cove was gone, the path buried under newly-sifted earth, the already wave-torn skeleton of the tree reaching out of the water like a broken man.
Malcolm did the only thing he could do.
He uncapped the lens of his camera, and took a picture.