Seductive sealskin is my coat. Adorned with a zipper, adding a modern-day edge for ease of putting on and removal. I slip in and out of worlds, both human and mythical, praying that one day my sealskin knots to my backbone, binding as book spines to published pages. I yearn to complete a bleary identity badge of a true, life-worn selkie: for I am no myth or fairytale fancy. I am true. I exist. Am.
Mrs Selkie is my name – I have married myself to my own kind as a nun to God, never seeing man as having any rightful claim to seize me, possess me as cattle in the grazing fields. I made a vow only to myself.
Man destroys us, claiming all; what is otherworldly must be owned, chained down, fastened hard as anchored ships. Little else matters to him except power. The plentiful shedded tears and our flailing charcoal hearts are ignored, blinkered out as unpleasant weather on a cold, stormy night.
I must tell you something of my imprisonment and how my freedom was so cruelly grabbed from me. For it is true that I have not always been at liberty as I am now. Mrs Selkie was once a very small, almost unimaginable dream.
I was captured on Kalsoy, a fishing isle near the Orkney Islands, by a lascivious fisherman who quickly stripped me bare. I became exposed. Decidedly humanised in a nude form. He took great joy in the pleasurable pursuit of peeling back my silken sealskin. Then he swiftly took to burying it under lock and key within an old pirate’s treasure chest within his seaside home. The key rested in his breast jacket pocket like an inverted cross branding his heart with a devilish smear.
I glared at him with distaste. He translated it as indifference as opposed to true hate or any threatening force I could have enacted upon him, seeing me as ineffectually female. In fact, he appeared to fool himself for many years, believing that I bore some latent desire or sense of care for him. Perhaps he deluded himself into thinking I held a buried ardency for him: one lying deep in darkened soil as rotting corpses.
What a fool!
I bore him two babes. Skinless, like him. He gave me no choice.
I became domestically doomed, shackled to a kitchen sink, scrubbing clean a plethora of soiled cotton nappies and fish-skinned plates. He remained absent for the drudgery, telling me in whisky-drenched kisses: ‘It’s women’s work.’
I heard, over many years, a litany of sharp offensiveness, spoken in slurred, long-drawn drawls, always leaving spittle on his chin. A mark of disgust and distaste. That is all I ever saw in him: a disgusting cretin. A creature of repugnance. A beast with an excuse for breath.
Time ticked on.
I felt the panting pain of my fur breathless in a torture tomb, my selkie roots screaming, high-pitched for release, growing bolder, louder by years of ennui. Without my sealskin, I remained grounded, landed as a swine within a pen. Tied.
All too human forces acted over me. He knew this. Planned it so. He seemed to get off on the fact that I held no autonomy, not a single tassel. My whole existence was bent to his iron will as a glass blower shaping new wares. He morphed me into a shape that I did not, nor ever could, fit. Holding me there. Pinching tighter with malevolent tongs as I loosely held onto my sanity, smelting frustration and anger to the surface of my too human skin. Hot flares pierced through my inflamed, thin skin, hollering as wolves for release.
One wintery night, I listened harder, pressing attentive ears to white-walled whispers; I heard them echo my name from ghostly tombs:
‘Mrs Selkie’. ‘Mrs Selkie’. ‘Mrs Selkie’.
With my husband fishing and babes abed, I answered its siren, longing to be rekindled with the sea – my brethren water world where liquid walls made sense. A heaven where legs were unneeded. I grieved heavily for the loss of my sealskin, feeling its weighty absence as a ribbon on May Day flirting with the breeze. I too, wallowed upon unknown shores, displaced and uprooted. I dreamt of channelling my feral fingers through the tufty locks of my true self, relishing in the folds of furry fabric, missing the reassurance of soothing each furry rivulet with my loving hand. I imagined coursing an escape path in midair, twisting a tunnel with both hands outstretched, desiring to plunge into yawning inky waters, disappearing to the cavernous bottom where I could sing once more. I promised to recall my selkie song, summoning fellow selkies to my lair, forming a sisterhood. A hopeful, reclaimed future.
I found the chest hidden well in attic dust amongst the clutter of man. His useless detritus coated fast like layers of disappointment formed in a lifetime of discontentment. Each dusty membrane choked my throat, restricting my nasal cavities from inhaling. Another room of entombment.
While struggling to breathe and see light amidst the lifetime of a careless fisherman, my senses summoned me elsewhere – beyond the eaves of the attic. The sea. My homeland. It was perched just above the horizon from the confines of a smeary window. My gills resurfaced in anticipation of release as my furred skin panted heavily beneath me in a locked box – found, yet still shackled. The consistent thud of its heartbeat gave me hope as I gazed longingly upon a widening prospect framed within the windowpane. My awakened gills fluttered as a caught butterfly with a fastening pin struck hard through its heart. I, too, flailed on the edge of transition, praying that no pin pressed me down. No glassy display cabinet would house the needed space for my selkie skin. I refused to give mankind the satisfaction of marvelling at our otherness in musty museums as our souls died from enforced slavery. A pointless death that fulfilled only the needs and lascivious whims of merely mortal men.
Welcomingly, I sensed tendrils of sealskin flutter to life at my nearness, rippling as silver waves. Waves that awakened and were all too eager to dress me in my rightful selkie fur: my coat of honour. It was a fruitful chance to reclaim my identity with the seas. My birthplace.
As I unclasped the lock with the greatly sought-after key, the padlock fell away.
It fitted as a glove. Tailored to perfection over years of oceanic evolution. I was streamlined once more. Reanimated to life with a renewed sense of determination to survive, claiming back the inky escape of the limitless blue, where I once rode the waves in gleeful oblivion, knowing little to nothing of pain or suffering.
Immediately, I glided to shore, forgetting legs, skirts, and dirty dishes, for a watery world was to be mine once again. I barely cast a farewell glance to his babes: the children I had no choice in bearing and bringing forth to their doomed, landlocked existence. I wish they had been sealskinned, like me, born with a passport to open seas, where possibilities would unravel for them as endless, exciting causeways. Nevertheless, I swam – finally freed.
In reclaimed waters, I thrived, frolicking as a spring lamb in fields of endless green. A place of possibility and rebirth where my heart-song beat: a homely, well-known melody. This was a place of comfort. Joy. Hope. For many months, I bloomed as spring flowers.
As time passed, a darker purpose rippled through my selkie skin.
I realised that it was here, in balmy waters, that fishermen are greatly cursed. Fishermen, such as the father of my babes. Selkies know only too well of the lingering darkness of man over my kind. He thrives from the power that a capture of a selkie gives him. Marvelling, but also equally in fear of the writhing catches that are carelessly slung onboard his fishing boats.
I could still recall, all too vividly, the netted trap: a murky funereal shroud. Him. My captor. The father of my human babes.
I need to put this restlessness to bed. Revenge pulls hard upon me.
I relive my capture, over and over, as the spilling waves tumble perpetually above me. My eyes widen, dilating at my helplessness. I remember the exact moment. He drank it in like an opiate, leaving him satisfyingly breathless as I flailed in sheer panic across the painted wooden boards of the boat. His coarse, hairy, corded hands reached for me, pushing back the net as a wedding veil in his thwarted vision of love. I shuddered at his human stench. His human weakness. His human craving. I trembled in disgust at all that combined to enable him to walk, talk and breathe. Even then, while onboard, I spoke soundless curses, wishing him to meet his own suffering – a served justice where punishment was a dish served cold. For he never had any right to take me by force from my watery liberty. I knew that right from the start.
Swimming now, sealskin-sleek, revenge persistently tickles my salient fur. I savour the prospect, bubbling as a stirred cauldron to a gaping, forgotten abyss where fishermen drowned, shackled to lost, watery prisons. I skim an outstretched finger across the skeletal bones of lost sailors as I glide effortlessly through the baptising, cooling sea. These are men taken and eaten by the sea’s godlike will. Poseidon rubs his hands in glee, reigning above their decomposing, fallible flesh. Man would be horrified to know how little strength he truly possesses. It would make all cower in their boots, for the dominion and steely obstinacy of the sea, and its many gods, hold unfathomable strength – a strength of nature, unknown and kept safe from man’s greedy clutches.
I bathe to new darknesses, intuiting there a oneness with my mind and soul. A witch call summons me there. One I neither fear nor begrudge for witches are centuries cursed in these lands, above the tide. Many a desperate witch burrows their released soul in the forgotten sands of the North Sea. I have sensed many spirits beforehand as a selkie child. They are well known by our kind. I sense her spirit rise from a clasped seashell, thick with slime and mollusks. Her voice is husky, barely audible at first, before strengthening and proclaiming itself as if still alive.
A condemned, mediaeval witch. Left to drown and wallow with decades of patriarchal pressure from above bearing down upon her fraying soul. Her crime: bearing forth squealing babes and cutting them worldly loose from their writhing, half-dead mothers. Breech babes wore curses from Beelzebub around their necks, invisible from human view. Witches knew, blessed with intuitive foresight. It had always been known that supposed witches saved unrecognised numbers of mothers and babes from the pit of the afterlife; yet they were burnt, hung, and drowned for such helpful, life-giving service.
Not to mention the role of apothecaries: dispensing herbal tinctures and plant-based medicinals and tonics into the thankful hands of many sufferers from skin ailments to infections. They were, in my vein of appreciative yet realist thinking, unsung queens of the pharmaceutical modern world. Medical pioneers. Lifesavers. Doctors and nurse practitioners with no letters after their names – just the tattered trail of the hangman’s noose left around their purple-blossomed necks and faces.
Such misunderstood women. Such heroines without voices to tell their own tales.
I settle next to her, encircling her fragile aura within my sturdy, orb-shaped body. I allow myself to nestle here in forgotten, stilted waters. We conspire. Plan fates. Mark ominous dates with the swirling point of my fin-tail. We share a common hate: that of mankind and its grinding destruction of perceived strangeness and womanhood. A sisterhood is pledged this same night. We bond. A unity is forged, stronger than man’s, for ours is pliable, stretchy, and changeable as the tides if needs be. She chants a heart-song into my own. A thank you. Its rhythmic melody calms my thoughts as our heartbeats synchronise as swirls of tumbling water change and displace above us.
I sleep in a perfect concentric circle, protecting the witch’s spirit and intuition, coaxing her to rest.
We both fall into elysian waters of replenishment where mankind is unable to touch us. We dream a collective dream. A shared fate. Rightful revenge.
For tomorrow, torturous men that claimed, punished, and used us will fall to their demise. Their breath will stop as a tightened noose tightens around their selfish throats. Orkney Island men will rule no longer. For at dawn, a new power will break the surface. One bearing feminine fortitude, donning it proudly around my neck. I will enact all the witchcraft needed, with my spiritual sister of the seas safely clasped within a shell necklace, powerful now, as she will be from being brought above the sea’s surface. For the tumbling of corrupt men will be her feat to observe as we take back these heathen, isolated isles as our own.
For we are women of otherness.
The strange ones. The misunderstood.
We bear an unstoppable, feminine spirit.
Uncorked as a fine vintage.
Emma Wells is a mother and English teacher. She has poetry published with various literary journals and magazines. She enjoys writing flash fiction and short stories also. Her debut novel, Shelley’s Sisterhood, is due to be published in 2023.