Selkie

Selkie

A Story by Johari
"

Happily-ever-afters are not always a fairy-tale

"


 

 

                                    Drift, drift, drift away wee bairn

                                    Oft to where the seaweed flows

                                    Listen to the Selich’s song

                                    To learn the wisdom she knows

 

                                    Listen to the Selich’s song

                                    Siren of the deep

                                    Let her loving voice soothe

                                    and comfort as you sleep

 

 


 

 

 

My life began on this very beach just two short years ago. Twice the seasons have turned in that time and always it comes back to the sea and me in the end. But Doon Bay is more than just the starting point in my own history, its sheltered waters and sloping cliffs has become my safe haven - and the place where I try to remember.

I spend so much of my time on these sands, the sights and sounds of the distant village hidden by the wall of sea-crafted basalt behind me, and I can pretend I live a different life. Ballynoe is not my home but I have found a place in it since the storm. Thanks to Duncan.

 

A driftwood fire crackles cheerily, just out of reach of the foamy fingers of the sea which curl up the beach as if trying to work out how to snuff it out. My back aches but I ignore it as I labour on. Dulse dries on the rocks behind me while I also collect shellfish for my market stall. They will make good eating, still warm with a dash of vinegar and a scratch of pepper, as well as bringing in extra coin for the house. I smile with satisfaction at my resourcefulness as I throw the next batch into a boiling pot.

The fire is my protection, like a canary in a cage, a talisman against the fickleness of the sea. A sea that mesmerizes and terrifies me in equal measures. There is no room for such phobias here though, especially not for a fisherman’s wife, where livelihoods follow the dance of the waves, and I try not to think of the night she nearly claimed me.

I am the stuff of folklore in these parts, an exhibit to be gawked at, and the sea is my only relief from human cruelty. It may have tried to kill me in the past, but it has always accepted me as I am and we have come to an understanding now. Like old friends, we are comfortable in each other's silence.

I have learnt all the contours of the rock pools that frame her body, her depths and shallows and the whirls of each current. I know her as intimately as she does me ever since the night she poured herself into me till I almost burst.

I stretch the kinks out of my back and check her mood. She is serene here in the sheltered waters of Doon Bay but I can see her calm facade breaking over the rocks that took down the Dalraida. There is not a single trace left of it now - except me.

The wreckage and the last treasures that could not be salvaged in time have long since sunk to the sea floor, all trace of the destruction washed away.

I have no memory of where I have come from but I do remember with every fibre of my being the way the sea swelled with menace the day I met Duncan. It was not a conventional meeting and one the village still finds infinitely fascinating, though I am now used to being the subject of their whispers.

 

Within the crescent of Church Bay, a natural port that lies in the heart of Ballynoe, the waters are gentle, lapping at the bleach white rubble of its beaches. There it regularly coughs up the black kelp that provides an income for the Islanders, kelp that seems to make the cliffs look greener and the sea bluer. It also defines the kingdoms of land and sea so keenly that everyone knows where they belong " a warning as well as a gift.

Beyond Church Bay, the sea has a different face. There is no illusion of a nurturing, willingly bountiful mother where the currents collide and do battle. Here her treasures are hard won. And there were many treasures to be had that day.

There were those that believed the contraband was worth risking life and limb for, in spite of the fact that my ship had been snapped in two by the most dangerous current in these waters, the Slough-na-More.

The Dalradia went down on the rocks near Rue Point exhaling her cargo onto the waves while breathing me deeper into herself. Barrels bobbed like a trail of breadcrumbs as the salvage boats arrived but I was hidden underwater, trapped in the rigging. I was so cold I didn’t know where I ended and the sea began.

It was a fluke of luck Duncan saw me at all in the churning waters but I guess that’s how fairy-tales work. He tried pulling me to the surface but the rigging just knotted tighter in my hair holding me fast till eventually he had to dive in and cut me free before bringing me ashore half drowned.

Precious few of these recollections are mine but I have heard my story so many times now in the mouths of others they have become real to me. The first memory of my own making is waking up in Doon Bay, Duncan carrying me up the cliff path with a mixture of emotions from fear and concern to relief and curiosity swirling around in his eyes. I smile at the clarity of the memory. He is a man of few words but everything you need to know is always there in his eyes.

On this beach, now, I run my fingers through my hair as I did that day and the shortness of it still feels strange. It has never grown back.

Since being pulled from the waters I have tried to cling, like a barnacle, to the edges of this strange community. It is both my saviour and my jailer; my life and death.

 

The sea today is perhaps at her most beautiful. Sapphire waters blend into the sort of indigo normally reserved for the night sky. There is even the illusion of stars where the sun catches the undulating waves - but no constellations.

In the distance I see the ripple of the kelp forests and the back of a dolphin as it breaks the mirrored surface. Then there is something else too. At first I take it for a piece of driftwood but it moves quicker than the will of the sea and it has whiskers and large brown eyes. Eyes that match my own. Eyes so natural for him but mark me out as different and something to be feared in this close-knit community. I gasp at the sight of him. Only a seal, nothing more, but I thrill at his presence reminding me I am not alone and I smile. The curiosity and gentleness in his eyes warm me.

'Towrie, what are you doing?’

Duncan, my husband, is standing on the edge of the cliff path where it joins the beach, a peculiar mix of fear and anger sits in the corners of his eyes. He is stock still and oblivious to the energy of the place, even where it shakes the grasses at his feet. It is only now that I notice the waves lapping gently over my boots, heels sunk deep into the waterlogged sand. I mumble an apology into the wind but it is carried out to sea - along with the fire.

'I guess I was distracted.' I hand him the basket of prepared shellfish as he steps onto the sand.

He relaxes a little, he is always nervous when he sees me here. He knows how the wildness of the place takes me and he does not approve. He thinks it makes me vulnerable in this gateway between the worlds of land and sea.

‘You must have your wits about you my love,’ He smiles softly, ‘the Sea Trows will not think twice about whisking you away if you give them half a chance.’

Duncan is a creature of the sea in this moment, so sure of himself when he is near water and this is how I love him the best. He holds my waist as I reach out to hook more dulse shaking his head at my clumsiness.

‘You hooking cnaosach or sea foam?

He mocks me but it’s good natured. Lifting me with ease onto the beach and gently taking the dulse hook from my hands. He shows me how to hook the ‘tangles’ without getting drenched, pulling it towards him knife at the ready.

‘You hold it here.’ He cuts the seaweed away above the holdfast. ‘You need to give it love and care, that way it will grow back stronger than before.’

‘The kelp is shining on you.’ I laugh and he grins at my use of the local blessing. It reassures him that I am finally beginning to belong to him.

He is generous with his knowledge but it is more than that. This is his way of telling me he loves me, by sharing a side of himself that others rarely see, it’s another reason I spend so much of my time here. The rest of the world melts away and it is just the two of us.

'That will do now.' He says kindly as he inspects our wares. 'The stalls are being laid out so. We’d better hurry.'

He will not let me out of his sight now. Only when I am safely at the top of the cliffs and in the back of our cart does he let his guard down, giving me the chance of a final glance back. My new friend is nowhere to be seen.

 

The village comes into view as the cart makes its way down the main track that bisects the lowlands of the Island but it’s the noise that hits me first. Stallholders calling their wares, fiddlers striking up a dancing tune and the laughter of exuberant children. This is not the usual midweek market, it is supposed to be a celebration yet I feel like I’m going into battle and I straighten my mittens anxiously.

‘Here comes Driftwood.’ Aiofe calls as she sees us arrive, her voice light and friendly.

Aiofe Black: a bird like creature with bony fingers, sharp cheekbones and an angular, boyish figure. Her beauty lies in her emerald eyes and flame hair but it is winter beauty, a dormant potential that needs the glow of summer to bring it to life. I don’t think she has that in her.

Her comments stir a ripple of awkward laughter amongst the crowd and I notice Duncan’s face wrinkles into a frown but not one of them challenges her. Her malice casts a spell over them all.

The word still stings me even after all this time. It is an innocent word in and of itself but there is an undercurrent of meaning that is as treacherous as the Slough-na-More. I could have done without the fanfare as I load my stall with freshly dried dulse and cooked shellfish, shelling them into paper cones as I go.

There is little about my appearance that does not make me stand out here, I am taller and fuller figured than any of the women here and my hair is jet black " what’s left of it. I try to believe that I have a purpose here and wear it on my frame, straightening my shoulders and filling space. Aiofe however will not be ignored.

 ‘Two years today isn’t it?’ She continues, faking the innocence in her voice well practised by now.

I know where this is going and there is nothing to be done but to ride the wave of her hatred. I don’t understand where it comes from but I pray for the intervention of others before this gets too ugly.

‘I think children are the most wonderful gift a wife can give her husband, don’t you agree?’

She is not subtle but she deftly draws the other village women into her game and I can feel their discomfort, yet they go along with my tormentor all the same.

‘When can we expect a new addition to the community from you, Towrie. I assume you are trying? You haven’t known joy till you’ve held your new born child in your arms.’

She pats her swelling belly while resting her first born on her hip. I curl my fists and breathe slow, in and out. I feel as murderous as the sea but there’s too much fire in it. Glancing at Duncan I see he feels the same. I can’t meet his eyes or I’ll cry. He wants children, I want to be accepted and a child would give us that, but it would seem it is not to be.

We were the fairy-tale couple for a while. A damsel in distress saved by her prince charming but I am not the stuff princesses are made of and Aiofe is hell bent on making a monster out of me.

As we stand isolated in our individual sorrows the crowd moves around Duncan and I while another reel plays in the distance.

The dancers weave through the music like fish through tangle. It is a beautiful sight but I can feel the sickening cold lump of dread sitting heavy in my belly. Aiofe is graceful; I am not and she rounds on me with a wicked smile.

‘You simply must dance, Towrie.’

She has the playfulness of a child in her voice but it never reaches her eyes. She grabs my hands, dragging me towards the dance. I try to politely refuse, all too conscious of my feet and hands that are too big for my body but she insists.

‘Leave her alone, Aiofe.’

The old woman known as Raggetty Beth is an imposing figure, striding forcefully across the field. There are not many foolish enough to argue with her.

‘Oh come on, I’m just trying to get Towrie to join in…become one of us…’

The look in Beth’s eyes could cut butter. Aiofe knows her little game is over and the pretence falls from her like a cloak.

‘She’s not normal you know, everyone can see it. We should pitch her off Slievenaille while we can, before she ruins us all.’

‘There is nothing abnormal about showing a little restraint and wanting to get to know one’s husband. Towrie has had a whole new way of doing to be learning as well as getting used to married life.’ Raggetty Beth replies in low, measured tones.

She has no need to shout and lose control, everyone is hanging on her words.

‘Besides, not everyone is as eager to open themselves up like a clam…or should I say; a scallop?’

Raggetty Beth extends the veiled meaning through her stare and Aiofe’s face flushes. There is a fire in the old woman’s eyes that I swear could turn Aiofe to cinder if she had a mind for it. There is no need though, Aiofe is disarmed as her nickname, her hidden name, lingers like a mist in the silence. Everyone knows what it is and how she earned it. “The Scallop Trollope”.

‘Towrie will blossom in her own time I have no worry on that.’ Raggetty Beth continues. ‘Just because her seasons don’t run with yours don’t make her broke.’

Raggetty Beth winks at me as she turns away from a fuming Aiofe and rummages through the wares on my stall like nothing has happened. The crowd knows the drama is done and disperses and even Aiofe knows to cut her losses. Raggetty Beth has been Bean Riaghailte to near every woman in the village; and they know better than to argue with the midwife.

 

‘You shouldn’t let her upset you,’ Duncan says when we are by ourselves in the croft. ‘It’s not really about you. Aiofe had…other plans for her life.’

He runs his hand through his beard and sighs. I can see his mind ticking behind a face that is between expressions.

‘The woman has a sharp tongue but you won’t be her target for long.’

He is apologetic but there is no real conviction in his words, they are designed to be platitudes. It is a stock phrase and it hasn’t come true yet in two years. I find it hard not to be disappointed with him but he is torn between the woman he found by accident in the sea foam and the people who have shared his life since birth. However much he might love me he can’t change that fact that I am not really part of his world.

If I knew where I’d come from I’d go back, I think to myself and Duncan raises his head as if he hears me. He moves closer and I can smell the salt of his skin and the fish from his nets. It is a smell that he can never get rid of however much he scrubs. It is a part of him.

I smile kindly offering in that action a truce. We are both sea-claimed, shaped by her whim. Like two halves of a shell " that’s how the stories would have it. The truth however, is revealed inside the thick stone walls of the croft, a place the salt magic cannot reach us. We are as foreign to each other as a piece of grit inside an oyster and we need to learn how to make a pearl.

‘I’d better get to mending the nets.’ He says.

I am still a mystery to him that he doesn’t yet understand - but he tries. He squeezes my arm, his most affectionate gesture, before picking up an oil lamp and heading out to his workshop.

 

When he is gone I remove my mittens and weep into my deformed hands.

 


© 2014 Johari



Author's Note

Johari
This is the first (albeit polished) draft of the first chapter of a novel I am working on. It was submitted to the 'This Morning - Be a Best Seller' Competition but sadly it didn't get through to the final.


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You know, this is pretty good. I'm sorry it didn't do better in the competition, but then I enjoy reading about the sea and its creatures.

Posted 2 Years Ago



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Added on December 21, 2014
Last Updated on December 21, 2014
Tags: magical realism, folklore, fairy tales, selkie, mermaids, irish, celtic

Author

Johari
Johari

Norfolk, United Kingdom



About
East Anglian author Tasha O’Neill has been tinkering around with words since childhood and writes short stories, novels, non-fiction and poetry. She has an enduring love of folklore and fairy.. more..

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