They taught us to fear the ocean. “The place where the mothers grew,” they warned us, “is not for daughters to know.” The beaches were out of bounds to all but the wisest—those who understood the tides—and the old ones whose time had come to go down to the shore and never return. The rest of us—the young, the foolish, the girls too adventurous to understand that the rules were for everyone’s good—stayed safely atop the towering cliffs. It was all we knew.
My sisters and I fished all day. We cast our lures from craggy aeries made nestlike with bales of dry seaweed, safe above the consuming reach of the battering waves. The silky fur of our outer skins warded off the chill of the wind’s inquisitive fingers. We used our own clever fingers to plait long lines from kelp and braid ribbons of salt-glittered laver and bladderwrack into one another’s hair. The days were long, and the work challenging, but we felt so lovely as we sang and laughed together that hardship was no matter. We chipped the bones of the fish we caught into hooks to catch their friends, and we were content.
A ship came to our barren rock once a year. The sailors brought us crates of food, bundles of fine clothes we did not wear, and a new school every time of expectant mothers. These mothers were nearly like us, their faces fresh and unlined like those of the rock’s raucous daughters, except that their strange smooth bodies were as round as gibbous moons. We pitied them for their lack of the fur that covered the bodies of proper silkies, which everyone knew that only daughters could be. We laughed at their need to cover their tender skin with the sailors’ constricting woollen draperies. Ignoring our laughter, they flocked to our own mothers for comfort. Perhaps there was some kinship innate to all those who had but one pitiably thin skin.
All of the mothers raised all of the daughters together. Each among us was nearly interchangeable with her sisters, at least as far as the mothers were able to tell. They named us for sea things: Anemone, Dulse, Coral, Porphyra, Pearl. And me, Choriaster, known all my life as the foremost troublemaker on the isle for my inability to obey the prohibition against descending to the beaches. I could not explain why I wanted so badly to see what was forbidden to me. All I knew was that something about the shore compelled me to dream about touching its crumbling edges. The sound of the waves far below my fishing nest sounded like a song I wanted to learn.
“I wonder what the ocean is trying to tell us,” I said, again and again. My sisters sometimes laughed at me and sometimes agreed that the surf did sound like a message. “Do you think it likes us? Do you think it would tell us the truth, or is it a trap?”
We had no one to ask but each other, and we had no answers.
The treacherous breakers at the base of the cliffs drummed us to sleep each night. Their comforting thunder was the foundation of every sound heard on the isle. It echoed up through the tunnels that burrowed down from the caves to the water, the lower passages even we knew we must never dare one another to explore. Their caliginous depths veined the rock with unfathomable darkness. In the high caves, the stone-muted sound of the ocean beating the rock from the inside out sounded much like a vast pumping heart. One day, perhaps, the waves would thin the walls of the lower caves. One day, perhaps, the whole isle would collapse into the waiting ocean—but, to us, our home seemed wholly unbreakable.
We slept on seaweed-stuffed pallets in the salty cave mouths yawning under the clifftops. Coral, Porphyra, and I liked to curl up together near Anemone, Dulse, and Pearl, our sleek, grey-furred limbs entwined to hoard precious warmth. We shared a cave with most of the daughters, though we had little care for those much younger or older. We were always together, the six of us. We had always been together, and we could not imagine any other way of life.
Coral and I were in charge of chipping fishhooks for Pearl, Porphyra, Anemone, and Dulse. She frequently followed me into mischief—I never could cease my attempts to slip past the watchful mothers and find my way down to the shore, to see for myself what the fuss was about, to try and answer the ocean’s unceasing call—and so we were frequently, punitively, paired for the most arduous of necessary tasks. The splintery bones made our fingertips bleed, but we were too stubborn to mind. I licked the warm blood from her fingers, and she from mine, and that was all the comfort we needed. We liked to sit a little too near the edge of the cliff, smashing sharp stones against fishbones and watching for the ship. Our better-behaved sisters sang foam-capped carols while they trolled for mackerel and capelins. Their lovely voices launched any trepidatious expectations into the swift-drifting clouds. I laughed with joy to hear their music blending with the song of the waves, but sometimes I found myself shivering even in the heat of the noonday sun. In my bones I knew that our life was too beautiful to last.
When the sailors came, they lined the eldest daughters along the clifftops. When the year came for us we were not prepared, even though we had known it was coming. They walked all around the six of us, prodding, inspecting, surveying our bodies and never once meeting our wild eyes, and made their selection. Trussed up in the finest silks from their bundles—flimsy, fluttering garments, much less substantial than the woolly fabrics the furless mothers wore—we did not think to resist. The choosing had always been part of the annual deliverance. A handful of daughters, traded for food, for windproof cloaks, for the survival of everyone left on the rock. To fight against being taken would go against everything we understood to be correct.
Long ago, our legends told us, three daughters had tried to defy their fate. They crept down the forbidden passages rotting the heart of our rock, thinking to hide there until the sailors left. They went in too far and the deep-down darkness ate them. We had wondered what we would do if the sailors came for us, but even Coral and I, disobedient as we were, did not wish to let ourselves be eaten in the name of defiance. We stood as still as if we were carved from the rock and let the sailors choose as they pleased.
They marched the chosen daughters onto the ship. Coral and I were taken, as were Anemone, Dulse, and Pearl. We did not know whether to feel glad or sorry for Porphyra, left behind for the sailors’ unknowable reasons. The mothers asked the sailors something we could not overhear. Neither could we hear their reply, but our departure was trailed by the sound of mothers weeping while rough men laughed. On board, they stripped off first our diaphanous clothes, and then the sheltering warmth of our soft grey outer skins.
We were not permitted to sing, or even to speak. “We know your tricks,” they admonished. “You’ll not sing this crew into a stupor. You won’t escape that way.” It astonished us to understand that, in some way, the sailors feared us. No one had ever told us our voices had power. We huddled in silence, missing the mothers and littler sisters we had always taken for granted—and missing as well, perhaps most of all, the skins the sailors had stolen.
“Porphyra is lucky,” Anemone wept. “If she is alone, at least she has her skin.”
I could not tell if I agreed. I missed my skin, but I also missed my sister.
At first it took every seaman present to restrain us from escaping the hold and diving over the railings. The sisters who managed to slip abovedeck reported, when the sailors forced them back below, that the ship was followed by a school of sharks. We wondered if it was better to find our fate among the finned than with the sailors. Even when the sharks fell back, the wake churned rabidly behind the ship, alluring. We knew that it wanted to pull us in, down, under. Drowning seemed no worse a fate than remaining on board. I thought it must surely be time to meet the waves and learn their song. The deck was so much closer to the water than the clifftops back home had been, and as I listened I almost understood.
Most of the sailors tried to be gentle with us, despite their general roughness and their fear of the wiles we did not understand possessing. They raised neither hand nor voice even as they restrained us, and slowly, so slowly, our own fear abated. One by one, we stopped attempting to dive and drown and die or become one with the waves. In time, the keenest edges of our memories slipped overboard without us, and we learned to feel contentment once again.
As our fear subsided, the sailors came to us by night. They taught us about many things we had been too unfledged to consider wanting. Too curious to be cautious, too grateful for warmth to shy away, we internalized their lessons. One by one, we waxed pale like the gleaming moon. Our bodies forgot how they used to bleed in time with the lunar tides. Our bellies grew round like those of the gibbous mothers who came each year to the rock with new sisters waxing inside them. We told each other that we did not understand these changes, but in truth we did.
As we grew and changed, the up and down of the ship on the waves made our insides feel frightened and wrong. The clamour in me, the burden of darkness, grew so strong, so great, it drowned out the song of the waves. I tried to whisper to frightened Coral, to give her quiet comfort in the tarry hammocks where our heavy bodies swung, until one night I found I had nothing I could say. My voice would not be convinced to come out of my throat. I thought then that the unknowable darkness growing within my body must have swallowed it whole. I squeezed my sister’s hand in silence and wondered how I would live if I could not sing.
There was a man on board, old and grey, who said that he could tell if one of us would bear a son. Anemone, he said, and Pearl, had boys inside them. They were taken from the hold and kept somewhere else on board. Their hands reached for ours as the sailors carried them off, but we could not keep hold. I could not even call out to them. My voice had not returned.
At last we made landfall. We felt the impact when the anchor dropped and caught its flukes on the strange bay’s weedy bottom. The sailors watched us file ashore in silence. They left us there, gravid and furless, surrounded by crates of food and bundles of fine clothes. Pearl and Anemone stayed on the ship. Perhaps they waved a farewell from some porthole we could not see. We did not know why they could not come with us, why the sailors had such need of sons. Perhaps this was the secret of where sailors came from. Perhaps it was something else. The ship sailed away with this new rock’s eldest daughters, and we knew our sisters were lost to us.
Strangers waited at the top of the path that wound up the cliffs from the shore. They welcomed us, and the food and clothes, with kind words and familiar smiles. They chorused their names—sea things, like ours—and we were comforted to find them much the same as those left behind on our isle. The remaining daughters, singing and laughing as we had at their age, ignored us as they ran and played. The mothers showed us how to dress in the scratchy boiled wool that would keep the wind from burning our furless skins. The air currents flooding over this rock, they said, were never gentle, nor were they ever still. We learned to keep ourselves covered, our unwieldy bodies protected and concealed.
I soon understood why our mothers had always looked sad. When our daughters were born, Coral and Dulse and I looked at their malleable, unfinished faces and knew that we would one day let them be taken. We had always assumed the mothers on our old rock did not differentiate between daughters, but now we knew it was only pretense, a pallid attempt to stave off the crush of the grief. It was not so difficult, after all, to understand the three daughters of our old rock who had fed themselves to the darkness. We had let the sailors steal our skins and fill our bodies with unasked-for life, burdening us with foreknowledge of helpless grief. Being eaten might not have been so terrible.
Our new sisters and fellow mothers taught Coral and Dulse the songs of this rock. I could not sing with them. Try as I might, all that came out were the tiniest of sounds, inaudible between the wind and the hammering surf. I hummed small attempts at harmony to myself and tried for some semblance of complacency. True contentment seemed beyond my reach, but our new sisters did not need to notice the acrid taste their songs left on my tongue. It was not their fault. I sat by the cliffs and listened, but the waves that pounded our new isle’s beaches did not sound the same as the waves we had known before. The ocean was different here, and with it the music of our folk. Coral, forever finding me alone on the cliffs, tried to sing our old songs. The new rock did not like them. Her voice sounded thin and her notes too sharp without the chorus of our lost sisters to soften her tone. I patted the clifftop to soothe it, or at least myself. “Don’t worry,” Coral said, taking my hand between hers. “In time, we’ll forget. Maybe then your voice will come back, and you will teach us to look for the dreams we lost coming here.”
When the ship came for our daughters, my sisters begged for our skins back in trade. The sailors laughed. They called us poor excuses for mothers. We knew now what our own mothers had asked—and we knew, too, why the sailors back then had laughed as they took us away. Knowing brought no satisfaction. Unable to speak, I put my arms around Dulse as she wept. Coral shook her fist at the sea and shrieked until her voice became as piercing as the sharpest bone hooks we chipped in our carefree youth. I longed to offer her comfort, but the days when licking the blood from her hands would suffice were long gone.
The years passed, and we grew older. Our turn came to walk the beaches, gathering new seaweed linings for the caves and aeries. The eldest before us had given themselves to the waves, to make space for the most recent shipment of mothers. Now it was our time to take their role, to take the risk of meeting the waiting water. The ocean sang to us when we at last came near enough to hear the subtleties in its music. We listened for hours each day, entranced, barely able to remember our foraging duties. The foaming surf taught us about many things we had been too unfledged to consider wanting. We took its lessons within us, learning once more to miss our warm furry skins, to dream of the wonders that dwelt in the ocean’s deeps. Memory and discovery lacerated our hard-won peace. We could not tell if it was good to know what we were supposed to have been, but we could not unknow it.
This was the truth the ocean taught us as we stood waist-deep in the surf: the sailors feared our voices, and we could have sung. We could have used their fear to keep them from taking us, from taking our skins, our selves. Our own mothers could have sung to keep us safe. The ocean’s song swallowed our screams as we understood, far too late to matter, that we could have used the sailors’ fear of our songs to keep them from taking our daughters. The obedient haze of the contented life we had built and built again had betrayed us more fundamentally than we had ever understood. If we gave ourselves to the ocean now, we would give ourselves knowing that we had only been used. Our eyes met as we stood in the chilly surf.
“I’m not ready to die,” Coral said. “I want to change things.”
“It’s not too late,” Dulse said. “The other daughters. They do not have to be stolen.”
It was what I would have said if I could speak. I knew at last that it did not matter if my own voice never returned. My sisters understood the things I needed to say. We held hands and waded in further, and the ocean welcomed our newly determined steps. We felt its power and knew that it could consume us, but we did not feel any risk as the water claimed us as its own. The surf taught us more songs still, and we knew them for spells.
We turned from the water and started home to the caves. But in our eagerness, we forgot that our younger sisters did not yet know what we had learned. It was our time to give way, to make space for the next shipment of mothers. The others cried, but they would not let us climb back up.
We sat on the beach and watched the tide roll out. I wondered how many before us had learned what the ocean knew and were prevented from sharing that knowledge with anyone still able to use it. Dulse fell as silent as me, but Coral would not let us succumb. “Sisters, our song is not over,” she said, and pointed toward the gaping darkness revealed by receding waves. She waded bravely into the surf swirling at the base of the cliff, and we followed.
The water was cold, but we did not feel it for long. The ocean taught us spell-songs to change our soft, weak skin to armour. Our feet transmuted to powerful fins that could steer through the undertow, and the compelling tide did not sweep us away. We knew that we could never have our old skins back. We no longer minded. We traded our dreams of fur for fins, for flashing, lashing tails, and soon found these transformations suited us well.
Blue algae glowed inside the deep-down darkness. We swam further into the rock. The faint light guided us through the sombre tunnels. When we grew faint and hungry, we sang our teeth sharp and pointed. Delighted, we sank them into the unwitting fish that swam into nets we made by lacing our fingers loosely together underwater.
“Imagine,” said Dulse, “What the sailors would say if they could see us now.”
If they feared the mere idea of our voices, how would they feel when they saw that we had grown fangs? I pictured their faces, feeling my lips stretch across a sharp, satisfied smile that tensed the obsolescent folds in my throat.
“Imagine,” said Coral, “if Pearl and Anemone and Porphyra could see us now.”
We smiled as we thought of our long-lost sisters, knowing they would be proud.
In the shadows running underneath the caves we had slowly learned to call home, we sang the bones of what might grow into revolution. We ate and slept in the water, our throats blooming petal-like gills to keep us from drowning when our heads slipped below the surface. We flowed through the veins of the rock, and we taught its black blood to carry dreams of change up to our slumbering kin. The darkness would not devour our new understanding. Not this time.
“Imagine if the ocean itself reached up to crush their ships,” Coral said. “Imagine if the waves drove them onto the shoals before they reached our shores.” I stroked her sharkskin-rough hand. Her fingers were withered thin like kelp left to dry in the sun. Dulse draped her ropy arms around our shoulders—so light her bones might be hollow like the bones of birds—and pulled us together. We had grown old. I did not think we would live to see the day when our vengeful imaginings reshaped our world. It did not matter. “Imagine,” I said, my voice so weak from years of disuse it could only be heard by the two who remained so close they might as well be parts of myself. “Imagine.” I felt no need for more words. My sisters knew.
This was the future we sang to the rock as we settled into its heart: the dreams of our kin sleeping far above would slowly shift as our songs found their way up through the passages. The spells we sang would teach our dreaming sisters that our kind was not made to fear the ocean. The songs we learned from the waves would change them as they slept, and they would grow to believe that the only thing worth fearing was division. One day the haze of contentment would lift. Our sisters would open their mouths to sing the spells so long denied. And the plundering sailors would know on that day what it was when docile silkies learned to be sharks.