March 1942. I cling to a trunk amidst the flaming wreckage of torpedoed ships. The stink of burning petrol is overwhelming. A human cannot survive in these frozen waters more than a few minutes. We had set forth from Arkhangelsk, where I had acquired the trunk from a Danish smuggler. That one was ulfhednar, Fae like me. I was to transport the trunk back to my masters in Aberdeen. I have come so close. I must not fail now.
It is strangely quiet: no titanic beat of tanker engines, no roar of explosions, no more anguished screams of dying men. Beyond the billowing smoke, the stars glimmer in the east. I lie spread-eagled atop the trunk, rising and falling with the subtle swell. In my satchel I have kept my sealskin. I take it out now and put it on.
The trunk is heavy but watertight. My mark is on it and I leave its side for a moment. I swim down and smell out the bodies of my friends. They are Canadian merchant mariners, some hardly more than boys, their pale faces beautiful descending in the twilight. It is rich and strange, but my love for them is bittersweet. Their eyes are unseeing. They are the dead.
I return to the surface and grasp the trunk’s leather strap in my mouth. The U-boats have departed. I begin to tow it south by west, leaving the flames and smoke behind. Ice veils the black water, delicate as the bell of a sea jelly. It begins to snow.
When we met, the enormous Dane had two silver bullets in his back. He had been late arriving at our rendezvous point, and I was almost ready to turn back when I spied him shambling down the alleyway, the trunk in his arms. “What is your name?” he gasped, his gaze steadfast beneath his tangled hair.
I told him my name, which had been agreed upon by both our masters. I did not care for the high brick walls or the oily paving stones beneath my boots. The port of Arkhangelsk was a stinking labyrinth.
He leaned on me, wet with blood, and spoke into my ear. “In this trunk is a machine. The Allies can use it to win the War. This is foretold by the Pythia. Bring it home, waste no time. You must not fail.”
I must not fail. I am utterly alone in the North Sea. The trunk is obdurate, difficult to tow. Prophecy is like the ocean, ever-changing. Nothing is fixed, not even the stars.
To my horror, I discover I am passing through a minefield. Monstrous spheres loom from the dark, barnacle-encrusted and shrouded in algae. They recall prehistoric beasts, enchained sleeping just beneath the surface of the sea. I wonder if the machine inside the trunk will magnetically detonate the mines. But it does not. I clear the minefield and swim on.
I make for a secret base on the Shetland coast, a sheep farm owned by a woman with sky-blue eyes, a widow by all appearances to the world. She cooks for the Allied soldiers who are stationed there, washes their undergarments, and looks after them as if they were each her sons. Among these young men, she is as beloved as their own mothers. But she is far older.
A distant throbbing. I feel it in my bones before I hear it. A ship approaches, its searchlight pencilling the dark. The ship is Norwegian, Eidsvold-class. Voices call out in German and light abruptly blazes around me. The trunk is discovered. I dive and swim far before daring to surface again in the dark.
The ship pulls alongside the trunk, a gaff catches the leather strap and it is hauled aboard. Desperately, I swim beneath the ship, emerge on the other side, cast off my sealskin and climb aboard. A soldier hunches against the cold, fussing with a matchbox. When he glances up, what does he see? A naked man crouched dripping upon the icy deck. The cigarette falling from his lips. I am not physically stronger than a human, but on this occasion I have the advantage of surprise. I charge and crash into him, clamping one hand over his mouth before he can cry out. I drag him over the railing and we fall back into the sea. I swim deep before I let him go.
I climb back aboard and stow my skin in a lifeboat. But they have a shaman who has smelled my presence. He casts a spell. It flies at me like an iron harpoon, pierces and ensnares me, and binds me so tightly I cry out from the pain of it. Now he appears in his greatcoat lined with seal-fur, escorted by Nazis. At the sight of me, some of the younger men point and laugh, but others back away and cross themselves. They knock me to the metal deck, and pummel me with the heels of their boots and rifles until I am almost unconscious. I hear the shaman protest, but they pay him no heed.
I fall into a fever dream.
Once, long ago, I fell in love with a witch. She was Caledonii and dwelled alone amidst the ancient ruins of Skara Brae. She lived off the eggs of sea birds, the flesh of fish and molluscs, wild berries and seeds. Once her people raised cattle and sheep, until all her tribe were slaughtered by Vikings from across the sea. When the marauders came, she hid herself in the freshwater lagoon three days and two nights. Afterwards, she emerged from the mud and stood upon the shore of the Bay of Skaill. Watching their longships vanish into the mist, she bled between her legs for the first time. Later, I learned she believed she had died and become a wraith.
That winter, beneath a bearded star, she built a cairn and three bonfires upon the shore. When she shed seven tears into the waves, I heard her summons and came to her. I did not know why, but she had placed a geas upon me. When I strode from the sea, she lay down beneath me and bore us six children, each with their mother’s sky-blue eyes and my dark glossy hair. These boys wrestled and played laughing in the pounding surf and never once felt the cold. Some could take on the seal-form, like their father. One spoke the language of birds. Still another could summon wind with thought, and another see far distant places in his mind’s eye. But when our seventh child was still in his mother’s womb, the Vikings returned.
We had prepared for this day and knew what needed to be done. The witch stood alone upon a windy knoll, her thin body painted and marked with runes, the feathers of kestrel and crow knotted in her hair. As the Vikings approached across the dunes, one called Yellow-Eyes recognized the staff she bore, for it was made from the jawbone of a killer whale that had belonged to her father once, the chieftain of her tribe. Then Yellow-Eyes was afraid, recognizing her as a seiðkona, a sorceress. But his companions only laughed at the sight of a lone hermit woman confronting them.
Even though she was flushed with fear and her heart beat like a bird within her breast, the witch stood her ground. Because she held a magic pebble in her mouth, they did not think to rape or kill or enslave her. But these men from the north encircled her, gripped her wrist and smelled her palms and her hair, examined her teeth, and felt the ridges of her skull. Finally they placed their rough hands upon her belly and demanded to know who the father was.
I lie ensnared upon the deck of the Norwegian ship. Icy snowflakes settle upon my bruised torso and limbs, soaking up the warm red blood. The Nazis find my skin hidden in the lifeboat and bring it to the shaman who has captured me. Gingerly, he removes his gloves and examines it. One of my eyes is swollen shut, but I watch him through the other. Three of his fingers have been broken. He is a noaidi, a sorcerer of the Sami people. My heart pounds in my breast. If he casts me back into the sea now, I will drown. “Selkie,” he mutters.
An officer appears, shorter than the others but powerfully built. His eyes upon both the shaman and me are cold and hard as iron nails. But because I hold a magic pebble in my mouth, he does not think to rape or kill or enslave me. Instead, he barks out a command and the shaman releases me from his spell. I groan out loud as they drag me to my feet and haul me below.
I lose consciousness.
Excruciating light. When I squint and turn my head, bulkheads spin. I have swallowed much of my own blood, which I now vomit back up. Too late, I feel with my tongue for my pebble but it is gone. I am bound to a wooden chair, the thin ropes biting into my flesh. A single light bulb in a metal cage illuminates a table before me. Bile burns the back of my throat and drips from my chin onto my belly and chest. I am strangely light-headed, and I realize they have drugged me, with scopolamine or sodium thiopental. It is hard to tell.
The shaman enters followed by a gull-faced guard. He sits opposite me with his broken hands upon the tabletop. In the harsh electric light, his visage is whale-boned and crevassed. The guard stands at the door behind him, watching and ready to shoot us both.
“Why are you helping them?” I whisper, speaking in the Lule Sami dialect, which I know is his mother tongue.
When he replies, his voice is coarse and flat. “I am here to interrogate you.” The diesel engine throbs beneath us. “The trunk. What is it?”
“You cannot open the trunk.”
“Tell me, what is in it?”
I regard this man. “You will never open it.” I can tell from his expression that he has tried. “Baba Yaga’s Seal is upon it.”
“Why? What does it contain that is so precious?”
“It is a mystery.”
“If you tell me,” he says, “I will let you go free.”
I have been trained to withstand interrogation, but it is clear the shaman does not have his heart in this task. I ask again, “Why are you helping them?”
He cradles his once-powerful hands. The three fingers have been crushed and poorly splinted. Their blackened nails have already begun to peel away. “Where did you come from?” he asks.
“I came through a minefield,” I reply, and give him the coordinates in latitude and longitude.
“And before then?”
“An archangel guided me.” My thoughts swim. “And cherubs in the sea.”
“Who gave you the trunk?”
“What is in the trunk?”
“I told you, it is a mystery.”
He raises his arm and strikes me as hard as he can. My head snaps back. “Tell me!” he roars.
When I say nothing, he sets my pebble upon the tabletop. A sigil is etched by a wise woman’s hand upon the little stone. My wife also knits toques for our Allied soldiers from the carded wool of her sheep. “You are no longer protected,” he says. “I could have your skin burned. I could have you killed.”
“You would not do such a thing.”
“There you are wrong, Selkie. I have done such things. I am not a good man. I was the one who captured you. I work for the Sicherheitsdienst.”
“You despise the Nazis,” I say. This close, I can smell his fear and hatred of them just as he could smell my presence upon the ship. “You work to save the lives of those you love.”
The shaman stares at me with watery, red-rimmed eyes. He scoops up the pebble and leaves the room, followed by the gull-faced guard.
All my life, I have been drawn to the ports and harbours of men. Long ago, I learned Greek and Latin, and a dozen other languages. With coins plucked from sunken treasures, I would sit in fire-lit taverns and consort with missionaries, soldiers and traders from the farthest shores. In this manner, I learned of Hadrian’s Wall, Carthage and Athens, fabulous realms and mythic beasts, Byzantine Emperors and the Popes in Rome.
The witch did not believe in God. Yet, during our early years, I amused her with tales from the Bible, stories of the Flood, and Jonah swallowed by the whale. But the Christian God was a jealous god. The older gods, the ancient gods of the sea and the forests, the mountains and the sky, they had no place at His table. One by one, He slew them, and consumed them all. She came to call Him the Ravenous God.
When the Vikings came for her, only one among them recognized what she truly was. Yellow-Eyes, gifted with the second-sight, was a follower of the Old Way. Years ago, when he partook of the slaughter of the witch’s tribe, he had cut out and eaten raw the livers and testes of the dead, and some who were not yet even dead. He did this secretly so that he might possess their strength. Had his companions discovered him, they would have killed him for this. These Vikings were not Christians, but their codes were strong and inviolate.
“Kill her,” Yellow-Eyes cried, the spittle flying from his mouth, “she is seiðkona. You must kill her now!”
But the others retreated in awe at the child growing inside of her, for she had told them no mortal had set foot upon this island in many years. The next words she spoke were as barbed hooks of bone. “When I bring this boy-child into the world, you will protect him with your lives and raise him as your own.”
After that, the Vikings remained with her three moons as her belly swelled. Yellow-Eyes declared they had all been bewitched, which was the truth, but his companions only laughed and called him mad. Finally, the day came when the child was born. His hair was glossy brown and his eyes sky-blue. He did not cry as a human child might. Calmly, the witch wrapped him in a sheepskin, kissed him upon the brow, and gave him to the Vikings to take back home. As they reboarded their longships, Yellow-Eyes drew his knife and rushed upon the child. His companions hurled him to the ground and struck him many times with their spears and swords. As Yellow-Eyes lay dying, the witch instructed the others to cut out his liver and testes and to consume them raw, which they did. For two thousand years, their ancestors had done as much, and it did not seem strange for these men to do so now once more.
After the Vikings departed, I emerged from the sea with our six children. Only then did their mother remove the stone from her mouth. The inside of her cheek was bruised and bleeding, but it would heal in time. Standing by her side, I held her hand, and together we watched the longships vanish into the ocean mist.
Aboard a Norwegian vessel commandeered by the Nazis, in a tiny chamber rank with vomit, I am bound in human form. I focus on the sensation of each of my toes against the metal floor. In time, the shaman returns. He orders me untied and offers me water, but my hands are so numb I cannot hold the cup. Then he holds it for me so that I might drink. The gull-faced guard watches us with contempt and fear.
I ask for my skin, but the shaman shakes his head. “It no longer matters,” he says.
“Why are you helping them?”
He gazes beyond the bulkhead. His eyes are sky-blue. His hair is matted and streaked with grey, but once was dark and thick, glossy brown. “They have my wife and my daughters,” he says.
I lean across the table. The drugs they have given me have worn off. I choose my next words with care. “Do you want to know what is in the trunk? I will tell you. It is an Enigma machine. The Nazis use it to encrypt their radio messages. With it, the Allies can decode their ciphers. With this machine, we will win the War. The Pythia has seen this. It has been foretold.”
“Hitler is the Devil,” the Sami whispers.
“You must give me back the trunk and let me go.”
“It is too late.” Something heavy strikes the hull. The echo reverberates through the ship, dull and metallic. It is a death knell.
My shock and recognition must have shown on my face, for the grizzled shaman smiles and nods. “You have led them into the minefield,” I say.
He removes from his mouth my pebble and sets this upon the tabletop. “Yes, I have,” he replies. In his eyes I see the taiga, endless horizons, snowy owls and arctic wind. “I am going home.”
The Nazis are shouting above. A detonation roars through the ship. Shrapnel cuts the gull-faced guard in half. Everything falls in slow-motion through shadow and light into the halcyon abyss.
I cling to flaming wreckage in the North Sea. I seem to find myself surrounded by the dead these days. I remember my friends the Canadian mariners, the Danish smuggler dying from his wounds. I remember the old Sami from the north.
Amidst the flotsam and jetsam I retrieve my skin. I also find the trunk unharmed. It is almost dawn and I imagine awakening and holding my wife in my arms. I wonder at the shaman. Our children are scattered across the world, our bloodline cast far and wide. It is hard to recognize them these days.
In these times, the wyrd of the world is ever-changing like the stars. In truth, I place little faith in prophecy. So much more rests upon the hearts and deeds of men.
My wife and my masters wait for me. I grasp the leather belt of the trunk and set out once again across the sea.
Story copyright © 2015 by David K. Yeh
Artwork copyright © 2015 by Carrion House
David K. Yeh is a graduate of the George Brown Theatre School, and has written four plays produced in Toronto. His short fiction has appeared in On Spec and Electric Spec, and is forthcoming in Apex Magazine and Bundoran Press’s Second Contacts anthology. Since 2004, David has worked as an expressive arts therapist in downtown Toronto.
Carrion House a.k.a. Luke Spooner currently lives and works in the south of England. Having recently graduated from the University of Portsmouth with a first-class degree, he is now a full-time illustrator for just about any project that piques his interest. Despite regular forays into children’s books and fairy tales, his true love lies in anything macabre, melancholy, or dark in nature and essence.