Monday, September 15, 2008
A Selkie Bodice Ripper!
"The supposed sightings of Selkies on the southern coast have been dismissed by those more sensible souls as nothing more than the desirous fantasy of sealers long deprived of female company." Colonial Times, 1 June 1831
"They have been known to abduct the native women. These dusky women of the mainland come down to the water to collect limpets or catch fish in the labyrinthine stone traps that they build on the mudflats. The sealers will lie in wait until the men are gone and then spring out to overpower the women and bundle them into a boat. All around the coast of this country, sequestered in miserable camps and windswept rocks of islands, native women are kept by these worst examples of men." Chief Protector, Report on the Moral Preservation and Status of Vandemonian Native Women 31 July 1831.
We were on the shore when he stole me. I was in the process of examining my new plume of red hair. The others fled into the water and I forgot my skin. I sat out in the water naked, terrified, and watched as he scooped up my skin from the sand, gritty seashell-pieces sprinkling to the ground. He was laughing, this wild white man.
My sisters had already begun their keening, for they knew what happened next. We’d all heard stories about them stealing women away, women who were never seen again. This man came alone in a boat, a long wooden boat with a bow at each end, and the rowlocks set in neat rows, three to a side. He bound me, tied my wrists and ankles together and dumped me in the belly of the boat, the rough boards cushioned by a pile of skins from the wild fur seal.
The one who claimed me smelt like a fox. He wore shoes made from the skins of wallabies: grey fur showed around his ankles and they were laced with some kind of gut or sinew. I noticed his shoes because I was looking at them while he wrenched at the oars, my eyes at the level of his feet.
He suffered - it was too large a boat for him, and the wind blew up halfway across the pass. The skins smelt rancid, fatty, days old. Flies buzzed around my nose and eyes and butted at my mouth. They were ferocious and one repeatedly bit me on the cheek, my cheek now clad with silly, soft skin that did not protect me against even a fly.
I felt the man move and looked up to see his shoe coming straight for my face. I thought he was going to kick me but he only waved his foot around my head and shooed the flies away. I knew he’d folded my skin neatly and was sitting on it. It was a strange sensation, the desire I felt when I saw the tip of my flipper, the piece that concealed a tiny black claw, flapping under his thigh.
My skin is like a seed: it is permeated with the memory of my ancestors and the instructions for my future. Without it I have no purpose, stranded in this strange body that can be cumbersome in its unfamiliarity.
The wild men know that. They know things intuitively and they learn them from long journeys, time spent only in the company of their own minds and desires, or those of a few other souls. Time enough to understand certain strange ways of the sea.
This man rowed all day; his breath whistled under his moustache. Sometimes, when the sun wasn’t in my eyes, I could twist my neck and watch him. He was often hidden beneath the black hair that flailed around his face but I could see that his eyes were blue and that he’d been living rough for a long time. It wasn’t the smell or the ingrained dirt or the bleeding cracks in his lips - there was a feral insolence to his being. He’d been dropped off the edge of the world and liked it there.
The sun dropped lower and a chill crept over my burned skin. I had a feeling in my stomach, like I would be sick. Lying in the bottom of the boat made me feel ill. I was not accustomed to the sea doing this to my insides. When I finally heaved, I vomited into my hair. He laughed again and stopped his rowing to bale a bucket of salt water over me. I lay there with my own muck swilling around my head.
There were no clouds but the sky was turning pink and then, suddenly, we were in the lee of some land. Surf crashed around me. It felt as though we would slam into the rocks and smash up the boat. He coasted in and I felt the keel connect with sand and run up onto the shore. We stopped with a lurch. A scrubby cliff towered over me: the rocks were different, reddish-brown and sandy looking. Seagulls flew overhead, on a mission to their roosting grounds for the oncoming night.
Since I’d encountered him, this man had not spoken, only whistled or laughed at my misfortune, or grunted over the effort of the oars. Now he stowed those oars and muttered something at me, jerking his head towards the shore. He lifted up my body until I was standing, wobbling on the cross section of the boat, with heavy metal studs under my toes. He pushed me to sit upon the seat and untied the ropes that bound my ankles.
We climbed along a little track that wriggled up the cliff . He led me by the rope that tied my hands together. The dark red sand poured down the track, carrying the heat of the day and burning the soles of my feet. Twigs scored my limbs as the blood rushed back into my veins from the long cramped day, pins and needles prickling my new-found legs.
A thicket of peppermint trees hid his home from the top of the track and as we stood there, breathing heavily and limbs shaking from the climb, I almost didn’t see it. He smiled then and I saw his white teeth under stretched and broken lips. He gestured towards the house and then to me.
White cockleshells dotted the mortar between the orange stone. The timber rafters looked freshly cut. Red cloth curtains hung behind the open shutters and fluttered lightly in the dusk.
I realised that even though he had taken me with such force and cruelty from my family, and kept my skin so that he might bind me to his every will, despite all this, his offer of a home was made with naïve hope.
I looked at his skins, his cloak that made him look like a native and the shoes bound with sinew, at his eager expectation of my acceptance of his craftsmanship, his very being.
I looked back to the fine red curtains. How long had he known me? How many full moons had he been lying in wait, to see me shed my skin and dance with my sisters?
His smile faded as he heard the keening from the rocks below, the same keening we’d heard when I was taken. My sisters howled, breaking the strange, quiet calm that precedes the night.
I could see it in his eyes, remembering that he’d left my skin in the boat. He spat and cursed as he tied me to the verandah post. He snatched up a spear before disappearing over the crest, jogging, with the weapon held at his hip.
As soon as he’d left I answered my sisters, yelping and howling in return, until my throat was sore and I began coughing. I tried to wrestle my way out of the ropes but they held fast. Kelp tightens its silky grip with a frantic struggle and these ropes behaved in the same way.
It was quieter and the only sound I could hear was the slap of a bronze wing pigeon as it flew overhead. Heavy breathing broke the quiet and the white man lurched up the slope and into my sights. He didn’t have my skin.
He threw the spear into the ground with another curse and sat on a rock, dropping his head into his hands.
We don’t experience what humans call love. Our existence is determined by seasonal storms, the swelling of the moon and the grey sharks that eye off our babies. From what I can fathom, our closest sensation to that of love is a sense of yearning, for our homes and our blood kin. Our mating is perfunctory and more seal than human in its manner.
However, when I assumed my human form and lay on rocks in the evening that held the sun’s warmth, I could feel the swellings of new feelings in my heart. Something new began to emerge from the liminal regions of my core. But I had never before been human long enough to understand or acknowledge these feelings. Now, I had been without my skin for longer than ever before - I’d been human for hours and the feelings of humans were seeping into me, like salt through my delicate new pelt.
I looked at this wild, white man with his head in his hands and I looked back to the red curtains in the window of the little hut. I didn’t understand the feeling I had. I called to him gently and, when he finally took his head from his hands, I nodded towards the rope. He nodded too and untied me.
I froze when he stroked my red hair and muttered something in his own language. He took hold of a long hank of hair and wrapped it around his fist. His knuckles nestled into my left ear. I breathed so quietly that my lungs went without sustenance.
With his face close to mine, he laid out the words in my mind, the way that the ocean ripples out its secret language on a sandy bed. Do you want to go back? I shook my head. No, not in answer but to rid my being of his voice that swirled and moved through my mind. I felt so unnerved and confused; I stepped back and stared at him.
He let go of my hair and asked me again. Again I shook my head. So he led me into the little house and gave me a fur cloak to cover my nakedness and keep me warm. He set about the makings of a fire and chopped great chunks of red flesh and vegetables into smaller pieces, putting them into a large pot.
I watched him all the while and wondered at humans, their way of living inside these square confines, how far they are from the real wild men and women.
We swim in the ocean, we even sleep under water, rising up every now and then, bottling for air. We are confined by the limits of our bodies, not by stone and wood and mortar.
But the glow of the lamp and the warming room lulled me into a languid demeanour and I lay back on the pile of skins near the fire and watched him. He stirred the pot, his hair falling over his face and his lips working their own songs and prayers.
At one point he came over and combed out my hair, beginning at the ends and ridding it of the mess I’d made in the boat. When he’d finished, he stroked my fine hair, saw that it was smooth and clean.
We ate human food that was good and nourishing, warm food that filled my belly and made me sleepy. I never rose from the pile of skins but fell into an exhausted sleep near the fire.
When I awoke it was dark and embers glowed from the fireplace. I could hear my sisters through the still night, crying for me. They knew I was somewhere near. They had my skin, they wanted me to come back and own it, to swim away with them.
I thought that he was sleeping on a swag of skins near the fireplace. The door was open and I shed the cloak and crept out, as naked as when I’d arrived. At the doorway, I looked back to see the glint of light from one of his opened eyes.
Come back to me - next moon, he lay out the words in my mind again.
I ran down the dusty goat track to the rocks where my sisters were waiting, their hopeful faces turned towards the shore. They broke into whoops and yelps as they saw me. Sometimes I’d see him, rowing his boat against the wind. Can a hermit be a good man? He’d been alone so long that it seemed he was without the perversions of other men. I thought of him alone behind those red curtains, reconciling himself after a day of slaughtering seals, to his need for me. I thought of the way he filled me with his language and yet rarely said a word.
On the next full moon, I swam all the way to the island and waited in the water until dusk. I saw him come out to the cliff face and stare out to sea. Always, throughout the months, I had a strange feeling in the pit of my belly.
Finally, on the third full moon since he’d tried to steal me, I did something that is unknown for females of my kind to do. I swam to his island and removed my skin at the water’s edge. My precious skin I stashed in a secret place and then I scrambled up the steep track to his little house.
The red curtains glowed and the open door showed the white man sitting at his rough table by the fire. He held a sharp little knife and a piece of wood. As I crept closer to see, he looked up but did not rise from the table. A waft of gladness glowed from him. He offered me the carving. I turned the smooth wood over in my hands. It was a carving of a woman, a beautiful woman with long, flowing hair and the tail of a seal.
As published in Shadowplays, an anthology of speculative fiction. 2007