Before the Hammish sisters disappeared, none of us said the word Selkie. It was a word that seemed old even in the twentieth century, our grandfathers’ grandfathers’ word. Age was heavy in it, like the rusted schooner anchor from the 1700’s that’s in front of town hall. By this time, we weren’t young anymore ourselves; old words didn’t scare us so much as bring about wistful sadness. Selkie. Old but fleeting, as ephemeral as fog in a dream.
In first grade, our class had to draw our family portraits. All swirls of crayon mess, arms and hands too big, dogs and houses too small. Mera and Shawna Hammish drew theirs together, twin mops of black hair swirling together above the sheaf of construction paper. Their five-year-old scribbles showed their mother waving neck deep in the ocean while they stood with their father on the beach. we all laughed. Their mother was drawn as a seal.
The Hammish sisters lived with their dad Tom off the north end of Setters Cove in a double-wide that took the wind all day off the water. Tom had a small dock of his own where he put in his fishing boat. No one believed the stories of him finding the sisters’ mother in his fishing nets. But older people did say the wind blew stronger around the Hammish house. The rope securing Tom’s boat had to be thicker than any other fisherman in town as the current and errant breezes tugged at his hull like she had tugged his arm towards the breakers that last night.
He nearly drowned swimming after her, searching for her among the waves. Jason Cup’s dad was one of the EMTs who sat with Tom in the back of an ambulance, a couple space blankets draped around his sagging shoulders. They drove Tom home, up the winding track to the end of land and his house with two small shapes cut out of yellow light in the front door waiting for him.
He couldn’t say she was dead, he muttered, rocking like a buoy between the two EMTs. But she was gone and wasn’t coming back. He wouldn’t have let her go. He’d of locked her in the house if he thought he could keep her. Tom claimed to have taught her to speak. He said, he taught her the words for wind, bread and fire, for warm, for eyes and lips.
Everyone chalked Tom’s ravings up to grief. Our parents said things like it was a shame, those girls growing up without a mother. Jessica Dole’s mom encountered Tom at Jan’s groceries told him, right there in the dairy aisle, that his wife was in a better place. Tom shot her a look laced with profound bitterness and asked Mrs. Dole why, if it was so much better, wasn’t she wasn’t in more of a hurry to get there.
Years pasted with the advancing and receding of a thousand tides. At Sixteen, Mera and Shawna Hammish had sat with us through most of school, all of us moving up through the same cramped classrooms as our parents and siblings had before us. They were the stars of the school swim team, and trained every morning in the low tide, zippering parallel the shore, waves crashing over them moving up and down the beach, staying close in the shallow water. Though it was hard to call what they did training. They swam like they were born to it, with a beguiling ease. In the pool, with no waves to drag against them, their lithe bodies seemed to fly, their arms and legs scarcely seeming to move.
Their father, Tom, came to every swim meet and clapped quietly with us all at his daughters’ every victory. Even as he’d become otherwise withdrawn and hermetic, he would brave the world to support his daughters. With each year that passed, he watched them with more melancholy as they grew and seemingly thrived almost more in the water than on land.
To say the Hammish girls were beautiful was to prove the failure of words. Their long pillared legs and thick ironwood hair set off an ache in the wood of every boy, and many a girl’s teeth and bones. It was a feeling that left us all empty and small, like they could see our pining thoughts. Looking around at ourselves, we couldn’t think of anyone who could date either of them.
Lying on our backs on a trampoline in Jenny McVee or Ty Reeve’s yard, we’d pair ourselves and everyone we knew in funny and cruel combinations. We laughed in the dark as the trampoline sagged, dumping us all together in the middle. Some of us secretly paired ourselves with the foot that hooked over our own, or the shoulder that rose two bodies away. We’d laugh and crossed our fingers that something, anything might happen for us. The game would end abruptly at the mention of the Hammish Sisters, and dreams would be fevered with their dark dark eyes and long black hair, the fragile pellucid quality of their skin.
We saw more than one father’s gaze linger and follow the sisters along the length of the swimming pool. Fishermen and Coastguards who might have secretly believed Tom Hammish’s tales of pulling forth a beautiful woman from the sea. We grew up watching our fathers’ boats blink off the dark horizon, returning late each night with salt in their beards and kelp in their nets. The years cut through them like cream, and fostered a quiet desperation for something that would take their breath away.
By the time we were juniors at Setter’s High, only Margaret Denbell had been to the Hammish house in years. Tom was her mother’s cousin, and she and Margaret checked on Tom and the girls regularly. One night a howler wrapped the house in black rain and a banshee wind that picked up bits of sand and gravel. Margaret and her mother bedded down in the living room rather than drive back to town. She told us she woke in the night to use the bathroom, tiptoeing down the hall. Passing the sister’s door, she swore she heard them singing. Twin voices rose and fell with the rushing wind, like the echo of each other, like the sound that lives in a seashell.
As Margaret told it, she went back to burrow under the covers on the couch, too spooked to sleep. Sometime in the unseen hours, she heard them. Shawna and Mera’s shadows passed through the living room, quietly slipping out the door. Margaret could never say why she wrapped herself in her mom’s coat and followed the sisters out of the house. The wind-whipped sand stung her cheeks, and she could scarcely see the path down to the beach. She followed the singing that broke and fluttered in the storm, leading her down to the edge of the water. There she caught glimpses of two pale bodies rising from the waves surrounded by dark shapes like round polished stones, like the bobbing heads of seals.
As Shawna and Mera approached eighteen, Tom Hammish became more reclusive, only coming into town for essential groceries, to watch his daughters’ swim meets, and to play Keno. He stood watching the flurry of tiny plastic numbered balls flying in the glass globe on the counter of the tavern when Harry Schmidt asked if the girls were nervous about the regional swim meet. Without glancing away from the Keno balls, Tom muttered that soon they would leave him too. Eventually everything returned to the water.
It’s been years now since anyone saw the Hammish sisters. Tom Hammish passed away and his little house has stood empty and quiet out at the end of the land, slowing breaking against the wind.
Most of us moved away from Setter’s cove, found lives in swaths of the world that didn’t break against the tide and rippling sea foam. Those who stayed took on fishing with our fathers. We watch our town slowly fade, every year fewer boats mooring in the harbor. Our joints have began to ache against the hauling of nets. Salt has worked its way into the creases in our skin, and the sea whispers to us late at night in awful dreams.
The old fishermen who remember Shawna and Mera Hammish called the sisters dark ones: quiet in everything they did, kind but distant with everyone. Those of us who remember, imagine one day a fisherman or woman will bring home a quiet stranger who’s beauty makes us want to cry, and we’ll remember the Hammish Sisters. In their eyes swam a darkness that you could only hear out your window at night as the waves moved and shuffled the edge of the land beneath them under the moon, grinding away at stone and earth, whispering over your dreams that it would get you too one day your life would be returned to the calm hiss of the tide moving in and out forever.