She had learned to read for this outing, but that didn’t stop her from ignoring the sign stuck to the window. The glass was solid, stoic beneath her clammy hands. The delicate clouds of condensation left by her fingertips were almost enough to fascinate her.
“You’re not supposed to do that,” hissed Ailean, nudging her with his persistent elbow and pointing to the paper with the printed-out words.
“Just look at them, though,” she breathed.
“Alvea, take your hands away before someone comes!”
Up here, he couldn’t make her do anything. So Alvea didn’t move her hands nor look away from them. Her gloriously glaikit – yet intelligent – kin of the tide.
Ailean started to fold his arms, then put them down by his sides. Alvea could sense the fluttering of his hands. It was rare that hers weren’t doing the same, the glass a reassuring and steadying presence keeping the trembles at bay.
“Sea lions aren’t even really related to us. I mean they are pinnipeds, but still. I don’t see it,” Ailean huffed.
Alvea leaned closer. Coolness spread across her face from where her nose met the glass. “Don’t care.”
Oh, how she wished the glass would melt away at the touch of her palms, like chips of ice at the mercy of warm-blooded skin. How unfair it was that they danced – danced – in there, food flowing, free to leap, receiving rapturous applause from an audience utterly caught by the display like lips in fishing hooks.
“We’re lucky there’s not many folk here.”
“Ailean, shut up.”
The rumours about aquariums were true, and she wanted to drink them up forever. Feast on the joy radiating from the sea lions in front of her. Thick glass separated her from the turquoise water and then a small bank on which they now performed in front of a laughing Keeper. Oh, how Alvea wished she had a Keeper. A Keeper of life, of well-being. Of fun, laughter, and food. Of a glass barrier that would encompass her, snug and safe. When Ailean first told her of Keepers, his voice full of contempt, she had resisted snapping at her brother for his lack of respect.
In front of her, one of the sea lions slapped its flippers together, the sound muffled through the glass.
Rows of chairs ascended a carpeted slope behind her, a smaller amphitheatre than these creatures deserved. Why the seats were not filled to the brim she could not say, but the fact they were mostly vacant meant, she hoped, no one would pry her from the glass for obstructing their view.
“I heard that if they were still at home, in the sea, they’d look a bit different. There’s something peaky about them, don’t you think?”
“Ailean, the worst thing about Landing is having to listen to you.”
Alvea swatted away his pinch without looking away from the performance. “That’s unfair, considering it’s very generous of me to give up my twentieth Landing to accompany you on your first. Fia got a chippy on her twentieth.”
Alvea wrinkled her nose. “Isn’t that where they sell warm, cooked fish?”
“Well, she said it was fine.”
A small human infant staggered to the glass to Alvea’s right, standing as tall as her knees, and began pounding its clammy hands on the surface. The smacks left smudges in their wake, defacing the home of the creatures who had made smarter decisions about their living arrangements than Alvea and her own family.
Taking a small step away, Alvea wrinkled her nose again. She wanted no distractions.
On the bank, one of the two sea lions jumped through a hoop. Alvea could not contain her gasp. Could she do that, she pondered, in her seal form? She imagined her mother catching her practising on their shore, walking out of the ocean on human legs just to scold her in her favoured tongue. “Such tricks are beneath selkies,” she would most likely scoff. Her mother’s idea of a “trick” was luring human men to the depths and their deaths.
But her mother had most likely never seen an abundance of fish equal to the one being thrown at these creatures – it looked marvellously fun, and was surely more rewarding than the hunt! – and in there, protected by the glass and the Keeper, the sea lions never had to worry about the all-consuming Dubh.
Alvea wondered if these sea lions cried as much as she did. As all the pups of the Dubh did, when the nights drew in and the moon played wicked tricks, reminding them of the endless darkness that had once floated atop the waves.
A nudge to the ribs.
“Look, that one’s swimming over!”
Even Ailean sounded excited now.
Sure enough, the powerful creature graced them with his presence. Alvea squatted – grateful Ailean had procured her a stash of “leggings” that fit her better than her own skin – to the part of the glass that met the water. Alvea imagined it must go down beneath her feet on the other side, so the sea lion could dive and twirl to his heart’s content.
His powerful, lean body came suddenly head-on. Alvea jostled back, startled that he might crash into the glass to meet her. Could he sense her? Sense that their souls of the sea were connected?
He slowed, pausing just in front of her face. She flinched at the blackness of those eyes – so like pools of Dubh – but relaxed as long-lashed lids closed slowly, tantalisingly. His nose met the glass with a gentle thud, and Alvea saw that some grey skin was flaking on his head. Dark, mottled freckles flashed between the flaps. Perhaps he was old.
“Hello there,” Alvea whispered, her palm meeting the glass just to the right of his head.
The infant next to Alvea squealed with delight and began babbling some incoherent nonsense before slamming its fists against the glass. Alvea’s head snapped towards the infant, the heat of her anger bringing sweat to her head and neck. It would scare the poor creature!
But the sea lion was undeterred. Lured by the noise, he approached the infant – where was its guardian? – and edged close to the glass. Then, with purpose, he opened his mouth wide, the yellow teeth marred with brown and red scraping against the barrier between them. Tilting his head at an awkward angle, he almost appeared to be trying to gain purchase, to guzzle, to suck.
“What’s he doing?” Ailean murmured, his knees cracking as he stood up again.
Before Alvea could hazard a guess, a shot of grey and pink projected from the sea lion’s mouth. Regurgitated herring floated for a moment in front of the infant’s bewildered face, one of the fish’s eyes burst and pierced by a canine. Perhaps this sea lion almost did not catch it earlier, and Alvea imagined the head ensnared by jaws, the body and tail hanging limp and disconnected. The creature turned and swam away, forcing the spoils to shoot up towards the surface. Whorls of pink in the green-tinged water sent a tingle up Alvea’s spine. She was not in the water, she was not in her seal skin nor on the hunt, but the instinct at that sight caused her to salivate. She wiped her mouth discreetly.
“Charming,” said Ailean as the infant’s mother finally appeared, ushering her child away from the “horrible fishes.”
The woman picked up the infant, who squirmed as if trying to escape. “It’s a wee shame, those poor things stuck in there. They should be out in the open water,” she mused.
Alvea peered up at her. “Nothing special about the open water. They’ve got it good in there.”
“Ha, she’s just joking.” Ailean laughed at the woman, trying – and failing – to offer a reassuring grin. With a nervous chuckle, the woman turned and walked away.
“Did you see that? The herring?” Alvea stood, finally dragging her gaze away from the enclosure to look at her brother.
“Aye, it was rank,” said Ailean. “I know some would, but I’d never touch another bull’s sloppy seconds …”
She shook her head, unable to comprehend that he did not see what she did. “He was so full, so stuffed with food, he had to get rid of some. Can you imagine that?”
Ailean rolled his eyes – a favourite gesture of his in this human form if her aunt was to be believed. “I doubt it. He seemed a bit … angsty.”
“No way,” Alvea dismissed her brother, eyes drawn back towards the enclosure’s bank. The Keeper was male. His long black hair was tied in a ponytail, spilling down his back like the Dubh from the cracks of a ship’s hull. He was shirtless, wearing a red cap with the aquarium’s logo and wetsuit trousers. Humans were always leaving those things lying around the beaches. Alvea liked to gnaw on them sometimes.
“Well, we’ve come now, we’ve seen them. We should head off. If anyone finds out I indulged this weird obsession of yours …” Ailean trailed off, shoving his hands in his pockets, the clinking of stolen coins a new favourite sound to Alvea’s ears.
“Not yet, please. Just a bit longer.” She turned and looked up, anxious, eyes wide. When her brother huffed but nodded, she knew her ploy had worked.
Returning her attention to the enclosure, she noticed the Keeper was gone. The sea lions returned to the water and floated lazily, basking in the sun, and presumably enjoying the water that was beautifully free of debris.
A door opened to their left, and in walked the Keeper, pulling on a shirt. Her heart soared – she almost barked before she remembered herself – and she shot to her feet.
“I’m going to ask if he’s accepting applications,” she breathed to Ailean.
“Wait, what? Alvea, no—!”
But it was too late, she was striding over with purpose – the wonderful feeling that had driven her here thus far. She tapped the man on the shoulder. The scent of herring radiating from him was excruciatingly delicious, so much so Alvea briefly considered switching to her mother’s idea of fun.
“Excuse me, sir?” Alvea asked as the man turned, looking a little dishevelled and stepping back from her eager gaze.
“I’m sorry, if you have questions about the sea lions we don’t have a Q&A session until—”
“No, it’s not that,” she said, looking up at him with such intensity she was sure he could sense her soul bursting from her chest. “See, I was just wondering if you were taking applications?”
Behind her, Ailean let out a soft “for fuck’s sake.” The Keeper did not pay him any attention but frowned at Alvea’s question. He rubbed the back of his neck and looked up as if the ceiling with its violent lights and metal contraptions held answers.
“Well, I did float the idea of creating apprenticeships, but it’s early days …” He looked down at her again. “What experience do you have handling animals?”
Alvea blinked. “Oh, no. I meant – are you taking applications for new creatures? Perhaps seals?”
The Keeper hesitated for a moment, trying to determine if he was the butt of a joke. Finally, he laughed. “Why? Did the sea lions bore you in there?”
“Oh no, not at all! I was just—”
“Alvea, stop bothering the nice man.” Ailean put a firm hand on her shoulder, but she shrugged it off.
“I really think you should consider accepting seals,” Alvea said, ignoring the groan of protest from her brother.
“Er, sure … Well, we don’t have the facilities for them at the moment. But perhaps you could check out our other aquariums—”
“Are you kidding? It looks incredible in there!” It had to be this one, the closest to Alvea’s home, didn’t he see? “Any seal would be lucky to—”
“Alvea, I’m being serious,” Ailean barked, and the Keeper jumped at her brother’s assertive tone.
“Look, why don’t you keep an eye on our social media? If we ever accept any apprentices we’ll most likely put it on there. Now, if you’ll excuse me …” The Keeper slithered away into the darkness of the amphitheatre, climbing up past the chairs until finally, he disappeared into a disguised door in the wall.
“Why did you interfere?” Alvea turned and snapped at her brother, refusing to let the tears building up inside her surface as her hope, her purpose swayed in the wake of her brother’s destruction. “This is what I want, don’t you—”
Ailean grabbed her by the wrist and pulled her close. She winced and clawed at his hand, but it would not budge. “You need to get over the Dubh.” His voice was soft, but there was an edge to it. “I know you’re hurting – we all are. But it’s been years since it spilled, Alvea. The family won’t tolerate this much longer.”
He let go and she stumbled back, her tears well and truly swallowed. “Come on. We’re leaving.”
She let her brother guide her through the aquarium, flowing through the crowds of people as if pushing against a gentle current. Alvea did not speak, did not protest. They passed impossibly bright fish in their tanks full of crystal-clear water. Crabs scuttling in spotless containers, starfish basking on shiny rocks, stingrays floating effortlessly through water like it was air. None of it was tainted; none of it could ever be tainted. They would never experience the horror of the thick blackness sinking down, down, the flames floating on water defying every rule Alvea had ever known about life. The Dubh coming for her, in the middle of her first hunt – she had needed to surface for breath, but instead her mouth, eyes, her very pores were forced closed by the viscous demon.
Alvea watched a human child reach down to stroke a starfish with tender movements, full of curiosity. So different from the rough human hands that had grabbed her, scrubbed her, saved her. The humans meant well – she owed them her life – and she almost shed her skin and transformed into one of them right there on the spot once they saved her, just to join them, so she would never have to go back. Because she could never truly be clean again. Her fur, patched and clogged, was not hers anymore. Hypothermia almost took her that year, and the cold had since hunted her relentlessly each winter, the Dubh leaving a permanent target on her back.
“Alvea, we’re at the door. Are you all right?”
She rubbed the redness of her wrist, still sore from his earlier grip.
He glanced at her hands, guilt lacing his words. “I heard they have a ‘catch and release’ aquarium on Mull. Maybe we could go there and you could get yourself caught for a bit if you’re that desperate for a go in one of these?”
It was the numbness that had her again. All hope and purpose gone, running like the stream with her soul stranded up from the current.
He placed his hand under her chin. “Cheer up. We’ve still got time for your first Landing. Wait till you get on a bus—”
She swiped his hand away. “I don’t care what we do, just as long as we can stay up here as long as possible.”
Ailean steered them outside, pausing to sit on a small bench at a table just outside the entrance as he counted his coins. Green stuff flaked from the edges of the table and Alvea began to pick at it.
Clink. Clink. Clink.
She raised her head, but it was not her brother’s money making that noise. At the door, a life-sized replica of a seal attracted a crowd of children. It must have been hollow, for the children began dropping their coins into its head. Clink, clink, clink. One by one, they dropped a piece of their skin-warmed metal into the seal’s body. For what purpose, Alvea could not say. As Ailean murmured something about returns and tickets to himself, Alvea thought that she’d do a much better job than the plastic seal. She, at least, could be entertaining. What would they do, those custodians of the aquarium, if one day she just … appeared here, as a seal, at their doorstep? Surely people like the Keeper wouldn’t turn her away?
“Right. You ready for the trip of your life?” Ailean pocketed his coins once again and gave Alvea an exaggerated grin.
She longed for the glass, its impenetrable defence. The sea lions were safe because of it. From children’s fists to sinking tankers – none of it could reach them in there. None of it.
Alvea returned the smile. “Sure. Can I have a coin first?”
Ailean handed her a small silver piece. Walking towards the entrance, she vowed that one way or another, she’d come back to the aquarium. Feeling the bumps of the seal’s head, she found the hollow slot. Her coin joined the others at the bottom of the seal’s belly, and she let her fingers linger over the space long after it had fallen. Before her brother could get impatient with her, she turned and hurried back to his side.
Chiara Bullen is a writer and PhD researcher based in Glasgow. She recently won a fully funded place on the Faber Academy creative writing programme, and her YA fantasy writing was longlisted for Penguin Random House’s WriteNow scheme and shortlisted in Bloomsbury’s Writing for Children and YA competition.
Ko-Fi: ko-fi.com/chiara_b X: @Bullieob BlueSky: @chiarab.bsky.social