Seals are semi aquatic mammals that are in a group called pinnipeds, meaning “fin-footed.” Pinnipeds are found all over the world, and there are thirty-three known species of them, only nineteen are recognised as Phocidae (earless seal) the true seals species.
Image by Tori Grey
I remember the first time I saw you. I must have been six, maybe seven. It was hot and the sun was fierce as it kissed my scalp and my nose and my neck. It kissed me so hard that days later a whole layer of my skin would peel right off, like orange pith or an onion. Fine, white layers of skin lifting up and away from the rest. Flaky and dry. I had a new gap between my front teeth that I could push my tongue into. Twisting it around and prodding at the metallic sore space. Testing the stability of the neighbouring teeth, which gave way more than a little. A shining coin held proudly in my hot, sticky palm would soon know the clink of another.
I remember that day because my ice-cream was stolen by a vicious gull with a red spot on its bright beak. It swooped right down from behind me, webbed talons bared, and with a screech of victory it lifted the cone right out of my hands. I screamed. My own screech a sound just as fearsome – a battle cry! For it had scratched a welt into the back of my hand, that gull. And I think it had not expected me to give chase so it dropped its prize upon the ground and swooped away, clacking its beak as a reprimand. I was on its territory so to the gull my ice-cream was fair game. All that was left was a splatter of pink ooze leaking from a crushed and cracked wafer upon a baking pavement. And I cried. From the shock of it and because I was angry. Furious! I hated that gull. Hate that seethed and oozed into molten salt that ran bitterly down my face. Hot tears. My tears have always been that – hot and intense. Even back then.
I cried and refused another ice-cream, for fear that the same gull would hunt me down. Take what was mine as it screamed its victory into the skies: “Minemine-mine!”. I could not bear the creature snatching what was mine from me and spiriting it away. No amount of coaxing nor cajoling could snap me out of my all-consuming grief.
And so my father had gone into a shop where the low slung cottages nestled up close to one another like a mussel-tussled rock and marched out with a clear bucket that had friendly orange crabs upon its rim and a blue curved handle. And he held up a line of fine wire weighted at one end that wrapped around something which looked to me like a kite-handle. A wire that could be unwound and wound back up with ease. And he shook at me a small bag of scaled silvery heads with staring eyes. Eyes that gazed mournfully into eternity, their rounded mouths held open in a forlorn ‘oh’ of lament. I recoiled at the stinking heads, gagging, but he took my hand, shooing away any curious gulls with his outstretched, hair-thatched arms. For they watched us with their scavengers eyes, those gulls. Dark and beady. We crouched down upon Polperro’s harbour wall, he and I, tying the doleful silver heads onto the wire and letting the line down…down…down until it plopped into the harbour water. And side-by-side we sat quietly. Patiently. Until my tears dried and the soft sobs stopped hiccupping from my mouth. There we waited for the crabs.
Where was my mother? I cannot remember. With Bessie my sister? Somewhere else. Perhaps paddling in the shallow edges of the sea, below the harbour wall, gentle white foam tickling their delicate toes, sun pressing upon their pretty, fair heads? Perhaps licking at their own ice-creams with delicate pink tongues and smiling mouths as the gulls ignored them. They were not with us, I remember that much for it was just we two there on the high wall of the harbour. My father and I.
One crab. Two. Carefully placed in the bucket filled with harbour water. Their determined brown claws clamped down upon the sorrowful fish-heads. It was as I pulled up the third crab that I saw you, or at least I saw the way the smooth water rippled strangely. It bent out from a shadow beneath. Moved as it glided over your thick skin. I was mesmerised by the water, at first. Staring at the way it curved up. Small, smooth swells like unbroken waves. And then something broke the surface. A brown, glossy head. Black, bright eyes, wide and playful. A shining and whiskered snout. Nostrils wide. At first I thought you were a dog, for I had never seen the like of you before. At least, only as pictures in a book or perhaps in documentaries about the British coast. You moved gracefully. Too gracefully for a dog, for a dog paddles. Its movements bob up and down, up and down. For a dog’s land-legs are sufficient in the water but always a little ungainly. Clumsy. But not you! No, you glided, effortlessly. Your nostrils flared and shut again, your head turned and I swear you looked right at me. Twitched your whiskers. Winked one bright eye. Do you remember that? Do you have any memory of gazing up at a small girl with ruddy hair held lopsidedly in place on either side of her head with coloured plastic bobbles on elastic? Do you remember her keen green eyes upon you and her freckled nose wrinkling up in delight? Do you remember her gappy smile when you winked?
No. No I suppose you cannot remember anything at all. Not anymore. Unless in death you can dream memories?
My father held out his hand and grabbed at my shoulder. I remember him yanking me back from the harbour’s edge. His face red and cross. His mouth turned downward like one of those sorrowful herrings, opening and closing grotesquely as if he was gulping for air. His free arm flapping around like a mackerel out of water. His thick eyebrows knitted darkly together and he shouted, I seem to remember. I don’t recall the words he used, for they didn’t matter. The sounds dribbling from his mouth were nothing but a pouring out of anger and frustration. I felt his anger. Hot as the sun – I always feel what others do! I remember him stating my name, spoken harshly like a quick slap. “Maeve!” I remember him shaking me firmly and my body feeling as melted as the pink ice-cream that had puddled on the tarmac. My head nodding back and forth, back and forth, loose upon my softened neck. I remember how the sunlight gleamed from the top of his bald head like it did from a smooth, wet pebble. My eyes on the pink, glistening dome of his crown, watching as the beads of sweat caught the light. And I tried to turn away from him to look back at you but he slapped my name into the air once more “Maeve! Look at me!” and he clamped my chin in his strong fingers so I could not look away. Not that I could look at his eyes, it would hurt to meet their gaze. They were too angry. Too much! And I just wanted to see you again, to watch the way you slipped calmly beneath the water’s surface. Your lively, glassy eyes blinking and winking. For when I had seen you I had wanted to be with you. Even then.
Yes, I fell in love with you at six or seven years old. And I had tried to step off the harbour wall, my bare, sandy foot hovering within the air when my father had pulled me back. Merely a step away from you – though the step was a high one and ended with a splash and probably a gurgle. Bubbles popping way above my head, upon the cool, wet surface of my new home.
I was ready to spend my life in the water just to be with you. Lungs full of it. Belly swollen with brine. Pickled. It’s what I wanted more than anything right then, as a small girl in Polperro harbour. To swim with you and live with you and love you forever. To wrap my arms about your neck and press my cheek against yours. To dive beneath the surface and find my bed upon the soft sand and the craggy rocks and the swaying weeds. To live with the sideways scurrying crabs and the fish that actually had bodies attached to their heads. Fish that darted and swam and didn’t look mournful. But my father did not approve of my choice. So he tipped the bucket of scuttling crabs back into the harbour and I watched them drop like stones. A snip as they brandished their claws, weapon-like before they too slipped away from me. And he wound the line back up. He gripped at my wrist, so hard that his fingers bit into my skin. Burned it as the sun burned my nose, so that he left a red mark there too like a bracelet. And he dragged me away, kicking and screaming. Calling out to you. More tears.
Did you hear me call to you that day? Did you feel the love even then? I suppose I will never know.
But I know it must have been you that I saw for years and years later you told me of a birthday you had spent in Looe. As a boy. You were a summer baby and had celebrated with your family nearby at Polperro harbour with fish and chips wrapped in thick, white-ish paper made glassy in places with liquid fat, the gulls reeling around your head, clacking with their fearsome beaks. Singing for their supper. It delighted us both that we may have been there at the very same time, you and I. But secretly I knew! For when I was with you my heart felt the same way as it had on that day. I recognised it. I recognised you! Yes, I knew that it was you I had seen swimming in Polperro harbour when I was six or seven years old, playing amongst the heavy anchors of the moored fishing boats, with their squat, grubby cabins and their peeling painted names brandished above their stern.
I knew your secret and I never told. Never a soul. Not once! For it became my secret too.