A seal’s senses are highly developed and finely tuned:
Smell – a seal’s nostrils are closed until it uses its muscles to open them to breathe in bursts. Seals perform sniff greetings with each other, mothers identify their pups this way. Seals will sniff a beach when they arrive, suggesting they may recognise familiar places this way.
Hearing – a seal’s audible range is similar to that of humans. Seal mothers recognise their own pups calls.
Sight – seals have amphibious vision. Large eyes gather the maximum amount of light underwater, whilst pupil and cornea adaptations enable them to see almost as well in air as in the sea.
Touch – a seal’s whiskers are more sensitive than human fingertips and enable blind seals to survive in the wild. Seals will also explore objects using their mouths and flippers.
I was always an odd child – highly sensitive, moon-touched. That is what I am told. Though it didn’t feel odd to me, for I knew no other way to be. It is difficult to explain how it felt, never quite fitting into my own skin. You, of course, knew just how that felt!
Of course you did.
Other children wore their skin neatly. It seemed to effortlessly hold their bones together, slipping perfectly over the top. Sheathing what was beneath. Sewed up with perfect stitches that could not be seen. Neat and tidy. Those children knew how to run fast without grazing the heels of their hands and the cap of their knees. They knew how to kick a ball. How to climb without falling off or out or tumbling over. They knew without ever really trying how to move from point A to point B without dire consequences. But my body was clumsy. Ungainly. It never quite seemed to truly belong to me, so that I often tripped right over my own feet as if my ankles bent in one direction and my knees bent in completely the other. As for my feet, I felt that they did not belong at the bottom of my legs at all! I would knock into things too. All parts of me seemed to be separately stuck on, so they didn’t quite speak to one another in the right way. Ungainly legs that tangled together when running. Elbows that seemed to reproduce midair, poking out in the wrong directions; knocking cups and plates off tables. Smash! Awkward fingers that would not do as they were bid; either gripping things too hard and crushing them or gripping them too softly and dropping them. Fingers that never did master the notion of cursive; for me there was no beautifully curving letters that danced one to the other in neatly flourishing handwriting. My schoolwork written by a drunken spider that had fallen into an inkwell and scattered across the page. That was what one teacher told me.
Blundering and unwieldy, that was me. They called me Calamity Jane with a sardonic smile upon their lips and a sigh of barely masked exasperation. My mother and father never could quite mask the constant frustration I caused them. Perhaps they thought I didn’t notice? But I did. I always noticed and I always tried harder. Concentrated until my head ached with it! For it was not on purpose, my ungainliness. I tried! To be graceful and fluid, to be neat and compact, like my sister Bessie. To fit into my skin. To be good.
My mother had been a dancer and had that poise about her. Straight spine, dropped shoulders, turned toes. Unconsciously graceful. But she had given it up when her body swelled with me and her ankles grew fatter and stiffened. Water in them, she said. Perhaps that was a forerunner of how I was to be? Watery. Something I had gifted my mother with as she carried me. But she never really understood how it was to have body that didn’t do as it was told. Rebellious and unruly as mine was.
And I didn’t fit in other ways, either. It was not just my body. I didn’t fit into places. I didn’t fit with other people. It’s hard to explain how that is but I know you understand, or at least, you did. Once.
I would find things mesmerising. Things that other people didn’t. I would find beauty in the insignificant things. I could sit for hours and watch how the light played upon the dew of a spider’s web. If you looked at it close and from just this angle? The droplets would gleam blue. If you shifted your head and your eyes just a little, they would gleam green. Or yellow. Or red. Shifting from one colour to another, a whole rainbow contained to perfection in a single drop. Or I would lie on my back and look at how the sun filtered through the treetops. Each trembling leaf offering up a new layer. A new colour. A different light. It felt like looking up from a riverbed, the images above me shimmering as if something flowed between the leaves and me. I wondered if it was the air that shimmered. Or the wind, perhaps? But the movement of it fascinated me and I could stare at such a light for a very long time, my fingers held above my eyes, twisting into it. Sometimes I would lay and look at the blue of the wide, endless sky and feel as if I was on the very edge of a precipice. Looking down, not up. Stuck on the edge of the world with an invisible glue. And I felt that it was impossible to stand for fear I would fall off, for having only your feet stuck down would not be enough. That scared me. As did the stars. They were too far away. Too small and yet too big to comprehend. They made me feel so small and so insignificant that I could not bear to see them. So I would squeeze my eyes shut and look away from them. Even those that shifted colours like the dew drenched cobwebs.
I was a sensitive thing. I still am, I suppose, though I discovered over time how that could be a gift not a curse. I would find things too much. Scents were so strong to me. So evocative. Even now, as a woman, a scent can send me to another place, another time so people give me a strange look and say “Maeve, are the lights on?” or “Earth to Maeve!” I disappear for a time. Away from the present. Some scents make my head throb. They get stuck into the corners of my nostrils and creep up my nasal passages. They sting like a wasp. They knock on my forehead and grip at my temples. Gnawing a hole in my head, until all I can do is sit in a darkened room with my knuckles pressed hard against my eye sockets.
Other things too, were overwhelming at times. It’s as if the spaces that I inhabited were the wrong shape and wrong size for me.
I remember feeling as if everyone were playing an instrument. A unique song of their own. My own song, my own vibration made sense to me. And if I liked the song that someone else played, I could play something that harmonised. Something beautiful. But when there were too many people, all with their own instruments, all playing their own tunes and their own, personal rhythms? I became overwhelmed and lost myself entirely. My fingers became clumsy and thick, I forgot my own song and it set my nerves twanging like a plucked cello string. Dissonant. I quivered and reverberated with it. Trembled. Wanted to escape.
It would help me to press myself into a corner, my back hard against a wall. It meant I didn’t quiver quite as much. It helped if I rocked to-and-fro, to-and-fro. I could find my own rhythm then, so I did not feel quite so unsettled by everyone else. But I learned that corners and rocking were considered strange, so instead I would swing my foot or my hands. To-and-fro, to-and-fro. And still teachers told me off for fidgeting, giving me their cross faces and snipped, scissor words. Cut-cut! Snip-snip! painful, they were, poking at me like brittle twigs with sharp ends. More dissonance! So I learned a new way – of moving one finger at a time, touching the pad of each one upon the tip of my thumb. If I curled up my hands into almost fists, the movement was nearly imperceptible. I didn’t get told off for that! And I could do something similar with my toes. Press each one softly against the sole of my shoe. No-one knew! And I could clamp my own jaw down until my teeth pushed together and my tongue pressed hard to the roof of my mouth. Clamped. I could do that instead of mushing myself into a corner. I coped that way, until I got home. At home my father and mother and sister had to deal with the ensuing explosion – for I had held myself and my frayed ball of nerves together all day and I needed a release. My unravelling of hot tears and tantrums.
How confusing I found it all. Confounding! And I longed for a home that made sense to me. A place where I was not expected to understand the rules others silently and secretly played by. Rules that I never really understood. I understood some rules and always worked hard to grasp them but they changed and wriggled out of my grip. So I watched. I observed. I saw the patterns in what people did. How to fit in. How to sit still, with your legs folded over one another, hands in the lap. How to play nicely, taking turns. How to start a conversation and when to end it. How to put your hand up instead of shouting out. How to push down your instincts and emotions because they were just too much. Not quite the done thing. How to give up what you wanted to please others, for when they were pleased they smiled and gave gold stars. When they were pleased they let you play with them at break time. They spoke with kind voices and encouraging words. It took a long time but I learned those rules and learned how to hide when I didn’t really understand. For I often had to push down how I felt. I had to bite back the words that wanted to flow out – the ones I shouldn’t say. The ones that meant sidelong glances and twisted sneers or concerned wide eyes and mouths in an ‘oh’. Headless silver fishes of expressions.
Is it any wonder that I fell in love with you, then? My Seal boy. Your calm and graceful movements. Smooth and easy. Gliding in the cool and quiet waters, lifting your head for a short while into the mad, loud and chaotic world of people, only to dip back down into your cold and silent underwater world? The lulling song of the sea. The sunlight shimmering above your head, perhaps the glancing rays shifting from blue to green to red like misted cobweb jewels. And is it any wonder that I dreamed of your world? Longed for it. Yearned for it to be my home.
A word I know now but could not have known back then. As a girl I could not have understood the nuance of the word or the depth of it. How it felt upon the tongue. How it raised up from the lungs like a bitter-sweet sigh and escaped softly from the lips. And yet still I felt its pull and its ache. Hiraeth – ocean’s breath, ocean’s song. A breathy, breezy word and I found myself carried upon its winds. Aching.
But I practiced and I practiced and at last I mastered it! Over time I worked out how to squeeze myself into my human skin. My human form. I learned how to hide my whiskers, my snout and my claws. I trained myself to tuck my flippers and the tail out of sight, so nobody could tell they were there. But it made me wary, oh so weary; to live in such a false way and sometimes my other form – my true form – would strain at the seams, bursting to get out. My whiskers would tickle at my nose and I would have to close my eyes shut, screwing them down tightly. I would have to curl up into a ball, shell-tight and rock to-and-fro, to-and-fro upon the swell of my own waves, alone in my room until I was soothed. Or press myself hard into the corner of the sofa, holding a cushion over my belly. A fortress to keep the world away.
Yes, I learned how to play my human self. You too had to do that, didn’t you? Though you were not the same as I was, you still had to hide from the world. Your shape. Your form. Hidden away, a secret. And I know how you always longed to be home again. Back, as you should be.