The woman hovered near the edge of a cliff overlooking the sea. It had taken the selkie considerable work to get her there.
“What do you see?” the selkie asked her softly, and her sea-green eyes met his. They were not yet filled with the wonder of the waves below.
“The crash of the sea against the rocks,” she said. “It’s promising me things.”
“Ah, but do you know what they are?” he asked. She shook her head, her pale hair streaming out behind her, and he said, “Beneath the surface, the paths of the sea are laid out in swirling shells and coral, and even land-dwellers can breathe there.”
“Where do they lead?”
He stifled a flash of pity. “In all directions, connecting the entire sea. At every intersection is a pillar of carved rock, draped in ropes of pearls, and if a traveler knows to look for them, moon snails to point the path to the queen. She can grant many favors to mortals in her realm, and she is often kind.” At other times, of course, she could strike out in seeming random rages. The sea was never without risk.
The selkie took a step forward and clasped the woman’s hand. “Beneath the waves it is more beautiful than any land-dweller can imagine. It can be dangerous, too—you’ll learn to defend yourself with harpoon and spear. It keeps your blood racing, enough that you always feel alive, and that keeps you reaching for more.”
“More of what?”
“The bright green and amber of eelgrass and kelp, vast fields of tended by selkies and dolphins. Whalesong echoing in the deep. There is treasure beyond counting if you wish to adorn yourself or drink from a golden cup at every meal. But the most precious of all is to know the delicate grace of a land where everything moves to the ebb and flow of the currents and tides, to feel it within yourself, a part of you. The thrum of a realm where you rejoice to be alive and a part of it.” It was a more potent intoxicant than any humans had ever devised.
“And I’ll live there forever? Never come back.”
That was the best case. Too few candidates had enough power to even reach the queen, let alone aid her. “Who would want to return?” he said aloud. “The parrotfish sculpt the coral into perfect forms of grace and beauty. Sea-turtles carry passengers along the enchanted pathways, the white sand sparkling below in the dappled blue light. Flocks of brightly-colored fish follow the currents, tended by sea lions. The pinch of hunger is always kept at bay. And the sea-queen’s court is more far beautiful than anything you’ll find ashore, with graceful dances that could only happen underwater, performed to the sound of musicians striking bells of gold and silver.”
The woman had little to live for on land. The sea had taken her husband and his fishing boat, and jobs were few. The selkie clamped down on his scruples. He hadn’t chosen this any more than she had, and they needed her. Too many lived ashore, and not enough in the sea.
“Rays soar through the water, spying out the seas for the queen. A ray can always take her a message, if you can persuade it to do so.” They could be insufferably superior, too, but this was not the time for such knowledge.
“I’ve always liked rays,” she murmured.
“They can lead you to the queen, who has fair hair and eyes like yours. She will treat you as a kinswoman, and in her court, everything is filled with life, and the fish perform for her delight every day with dazzling displays of color and movement. Her joy spreads to all present, until it seems you can taste and feel joy, even drink it in, and you wonder if there is a way to die from happiness.”
“I haven’t been happy in so long.” The woman’s eyes turned to the waves, now filled with the wonder in his tales. She was picturing life down there, and herself a part of it.
“Then go,” he said. “A path lies right beneath us.”
Her lips firmed up. “Yes, I should go.” Without taking her eyes from the waves, she took a deep breath and dove from the cliff, her body falling in a graceful arc to the sea.
The selkie watched as she splashed down past the rocks. “May you find the path you seek,” he said.
A few always made it to the queen’s court. But either way, the land would never get her back.