A Selkie's Return to the Deep
A Modern Feminist Twist on an Old Celtic Fable: selkies are believed to abandon their mortal children when they find their magic sealskin which their 'husband' has hidden from them to stop the stolen 'bride' from returning to the ocean. But no loving mother—mortal or otherwise—would willingly abandon her child. What follows is a tale from the other perspective, that of a woman who has escaped her abusive 'spouse' to make a new life, and only leaves her child upon risk of recapture.
Growing up in rural Ireland, I never knew my father. Or rather, I knew of him, but we had never met. When pressed, all my mother would say was that he was an officer in the navy, and that it was better for everyone if he stayed an ocean away. But I never felt the absence of a parent; Mamma was the kind of person who took up all the space in the room. Everyone who met her commented on her breathtaking beauty and captivating charm. I loved listening to her sing the old lullabies and ballads while she danced around our home, graceful even when doing something as simple as washing the dishes.
The Lúgnasad of my seventh summer, we had hastily rushed around town doing last-minute shopping all morning. Then in the afternoon, we began preparing our evening meal; no company was expected, and we preferred it that way. We started by putting a soda bread in the oven before peeling potatoes for colcannon.
A knock on our door interrupted our work. Immediately, I sensed something was wrong. I glanced at Mama for reassurance, but her expression was solemn. She put down the peeler and picked up the cabbage cleaver. Then, ever so slowly, she walked to the door, the hand with the knife hidden behind her back.
The knock came again. Insistent. Commanding.
"Go! Hide!" she hissed and pointed to our floor-length curtains. I obeyed.
The sliver of sight between fabric and wall should have been enough to see who was at our door. Unfortunately, it was late in the day, and an awning overshadowed the step; only the outline of the unexpected guest was visible. It was a woman, to be sure, but I couldn't see their face. After a few moments of indecipherable, muted conversation, my mother dropped the knife and raised her hands to her face to cover her mouth. The knife landed on the stone floor of our cottage with a dull thud, and Mamma followed it, sinking onto her knees. The guest departed, and the door slammed shut. I ran from my hiding place to lock it, but she shouted at me,
"Leave it! There's no time!"
With shaking hands, she got up and rustled frantically through the tool cupboard. Her fists closed over a chisel and hammer with which she rushed to the back wall of our cottage and maniacally chipped into the whitewash. She removed a large stone from the broken plaster, revealing a gaping, black emptiness. Her arms dug into the darkness and retrieved a suspicious package covered in crumbling, brown paper. No knife was required; she untied the string as gently as one might touch a newborn. Inside it was a sealskin cape and a silver moonstone pendant on a delicate silver chain. To me, it looked like the moon herself suspended upon a wisp of spider web.
Tucking the cape under one arm and stuffing the necklace into her pocket, Mamma called me to her. Her voice sounded steadier than before, but it held a tone of cold decisiveness I had never known.
I did as I was bid, and she picked me up and wrapped me in fleece. Then, clutching me tightly to her breast, we left our home without closing the door, and she hastened down the path, through the pasture, beyond the old barn, past the pear trees and down the cliffside to the beach. I waved to our cows and bull while the landscape rushed by me, a blur of green vegetation, dotted with wildflowers, capped by grey sky. The starfish in the tide pools beckoned, and I desperately wished we could stop and pet them like we usually did when we gathered mussels.
At last, she stopped in front of a large outcrop of black, wave-weathered rocks. The sun was overcast, and the air felt particularly cool on my cheeks in contrast to the warmth of our hearth but a moment ago. I rolled myself up tighter into the blanket. Not far from us, the rolling surf splashed and sprayed as the tide rose, and she sat me down far up the beach with my back to the cliff. I started to cry, but she clasped my shoulders gently in her hands and begged,
"Don't cry. Listen to me. You have to be strong. I will see you again. I will!"
The second "I will," sounded as though it was a demand rather than a vow, but to whom it was directed, I did not know. Then Mamma draped the pendant around my neck.
"Never take it off, and never show it to anyone— not even your father!"
"Father?" I echoed.
"Especially not your father!"
"He is coming. He will find you. I'll be gone, but you have to wait here."
"No! Take me with you!!" I cried.
Her warrior's façade shattered, and she tilted her head to the sky, eyes closed as though pleading for God to intervene. But whatever she sought from the heavens was not to be found, and with a defeated slump of her shoulders, she exhaled harshly, like it was her last breath, then lowered her head and met my gaze. Her aqua blue eyes scanned my face, and she spoke to me softly.
"No, I'm sorry. I cannot. Stay here. Be a good girl. And keep the necklace a secret."
There was no room for argument.
"Yes, Mama," I murmured petulantly.
"Eryn, you must promise!" she insisted and shook my shoulders.
"I promise!" I repeated in earnest.
Relief washed over her face at my words, and I threw my arms around her neck. She hugged me back tightly. While we embraced, the delicate chain melded into an even finer wisp around my neck until it was all but invisible on my skin, and the stone slid down under my dress and onto my chest where it lay so flat, it became impossible to separate it from me. Then my mother stripped down to her shift, gathered some dry seaweed and driftwood and lit a fire near me, throwing her dress on for fuel. When the flames took flight, she grabbed me to her breast one final time and kissed my forehead; her hair smelled of lavender. I longed to cry, but I held back my tears as ordered.
"I love you, Mama. When will you be back?"
"Soon, my darling; someday soon. I will find you again."
It was all she had left to say. Mamma pried herself from my grasp, picked up the sealskin cape and stepped into the mist of the shoreline. From the depths of the brume, her shift sailed through the air. It joined the dress on the fire, and though I could not see her, I heard the waves breaking around her body as she entered the surf.
And then I was alone, huddled quietly next to the dying fire as the shadows descended the cliffs like wolves. When the sun left me too, the gloomy green light from the lighthouse blended with the silvery glow of the moon to form an eerie, obscuring twilight. But nothing could dim the memory of my once vibrant, joyful mother turned ashen-faced and trembling. It burned in my mind as vividly as a sunrise that gleams across the sea at dawn.
Many hours passed before my father found me. When we returned to the cottage, we discovered the bread had burnt, and the nauseating smell turned my hollow stomach. Worse than that, the emptiness of the cottage without my mother inside of it was oppressive. Where once there had been happiness, now the rooms were as bleak as my uncertain future. Whatever meaning the place had left to me, 'home' was no longer a part of its definition.
My father was callous in his demeanour; it was clear that a child was not what he had hoped to find waiting for him on the beach that day. He laughed bitterly when I explained that Mamma had swum away. I told him what she had said, that she was coming back, but he shook his head angrily and frowned.
"Women who are foolish enough to swim in the sea die in the sea!"
With Mamma gone, this man was all the family I had left to me, but when he spoke his withering reply, I suddenly understood why she had left. Raising my chin, I dared to meet his gaze, only to find his eyes were cold and frozen over with hate, like an icy pond in winter. I was grateful they looked nothing like mine. I turned from him without a word, and as I did, the childish dream of at last knowing a loving father vanished from my heart as if it had never been, like a heavy fog exposed to noonday sun.
The seafarer departed not long after he arrived, and I was given to the custody of my kind, elderly neighbour, Marie. Though I tried to put them from my mind, his words refrained in my thoughts like a chorus. But I refused to believe that a woman like Mamma, who swam like a fish, could drown! Unless, perhaps, something had hurt her while she was swimming. I needed answers. So, at the first moment of opportunity, I crawled onto Marie's lap and lamented,
"Is the man right? Is she really gone forever? She swam at dusk . . . the sharks feed at dusk . . ." My voice trailed off before I could finish, the words, "Maybe she was attacked," caught in my throat. I put my hand over my moonstone.
The old woman breathed a heavy sigh and gently stroked my hair while she held me close, "She'll be back, my love. Never fear. Sharks do not bother selkies; only humans do."