The mermaid in some Irish folklore (known sometimes as merrow) have sometimes been regarded as seal-women. In a certain collection of lore in County Kerry, Ireland there is a tale, which claimed that the Lee family was descended from a man who took a murdúch (mermaid) for a wife. She later escaped and joined her seal-husband, suggesting she was of the seal-folk kind.
When I was small I loved books. Oh, how I loved to curl around them upon my bed! To read them. Stroke and touch them as if they were creatures. I’d run my fingers over their softly textured pages and trace with my fingertips along the black typeface of the seemingly innocuous words. But they were not innocuous, were they! They were never banal and innocent but pure magic. Stories once unleashed would burst forth upon great tides from books with rigid spines that sat stiff and upright upon the bookshelf like high harbour walls. Tales gushed from between their covers. Words would pour out from between the lines trickling and flowing over the pages, filling upmy mind with images, filling up my room until the walls retreated away and I could exist in a different world. Live and breathe it. Yes, words conjure and bewitch. Books are magic that way, I always understood that. And stories carry you away upon their tides.
Back then my favourite book was The Water Babies. My copy was old with a hard, grey cover that may once have been blue. Frayed. The spine peeling away like a snake-skin. Between the stiff covers there were smooth, glossy pages of coloured illustrations and at the beginning of each chapter was a black and white drawing that seemed part of the print itself. Little fishes darting between weeds or little faces peeking out from behind rocks. Young Tom, Mrs. Doasyouwouldbedoneby, Mrs. Bedonebyasyoudid, and Mother Carey all peeking out at me from between the pages too. Pages that were dog-eared with use. Brownish and soft. In places the binding was coming away, so that I could pick at it with my bitten fingernails, for the book was very old and I had read the story a hundred times. Perhaps I exaggerate? But the story was so familiar to me that I could almost recite it word-for-word. The pictures so familiar I could trace their images in the air. Another favourite book was the story of a man and his daughter who had found a upon a beach a mermaid’s comb, a shell and a little girl who had lost her mother. The little girl faded away, pining for her home until one day a storm blew up and took her back again to her mother. To the ocean. Leaving nothing but her shell and her comb to be remembered by. And a story that left me with tears upon my cheeks was buried within a book of fairytales by Hans Christian Andersen. Another story of the sea. One of mermaids and dark bargains made with a sorceress. Of legs and feet and land-princes. That particular one did not have a happy ending. All seafoam and daughters of the air.
Although I consumed all books greedily, eating up their words as a starving dog may ravish a bone – these watery stories beguiled me the most. Perhaps it is my own watery nature? Swirling emotions and unfathomable depths. Or perhaps there is a darkness in me as black as the ocean itself? Shadows behind which wolves lurk. Shadows where sirens sing their songs and sailors can do naught but heed their call. But you my selkie-boy were watery too, so you always understood that part of me. And you lit up my shadows, showing me that they were not as big or bad as I feared. You called my words a siren’s song, and told me that it was a Selkie-husband who I had lured with my song in the end. Not a sailor or a fisherman. A Selkie lured to his Selkie wife. No wonder I loved you so!
Yes, I loved books and stories of all types. The more whimsical the better! And I admit that when I was young, I found it hard to distinguish one life from another. My story-book life and the life that I didn’t quite fit into. What was real and what was pretend? For the grown ups around me would speak their stories and swear they were the gospel truth. I was told stories of a god who flooded the whole earth, apart from two of every animal, all of whom got bundled into a huge boat that sailed for forty days and nights, the rainbow a promise such things would never happen again. I was told stories of a baby born in a stable amongst the donkeys and sheep and cattle, who grew up into a man who died on a cross and rose from his grave three days later, alive as he could be! I was told stories of a man with a long white beard and a sleigh pulled by flying reindeer who came creeping into my bedroom at night to deposit presents at the end of my bed on Christmas Eve. Tales of a rabbit that left eggs dotted around my garden. Fables of a fairy that left a shining coin beneath my pillow but took away my milk-white tooth. So how can you tell one strange story from another? If one fantastical tale is true, what stops another from being so?
So is it any surprise that I could not tell which was which? For my book-life pleased me in a way my true life never did. In my story-life I could take on any shape I chose and could dive into a story without coming up for air. For hours and hours I could immerse myself and during this time I knew how to move – neatly and with grace through the pages. There was nothing ungainly or clumsy about me then! Words made sense and if they didn’t? Sense could be made from their context. I could skim over them like a flat pebble skims over an un-rippled pond. And I did not have to block out the noise of people. Or their constant dissonance. This story-book world made sense to me. So it is no wonder that I liked this world better. It felt closer and more real to me.
If I am honest, it still does. For it feels when I am immersed in a story that I can wear my true skin. Crawl out of my human pelt. I can pull my flippers and my tail free and allow my whiskers to taste every vibration. I can skitter and glide playfully in my own depths, I can slice right through the truth as if it is water. And I am free.
I know it was the same for you, my selkie-boy. This world was not the right shape for you either, was it? We both struggled for so long trying to pour our bones and our muscles into a form that did not belong to us. It has taken its toll on us both, over the years, hasn’t it! It has made us world-weary. Exhausted. Drained by the relentless expectations of the human world. So we both hid ourselves within stories. Wrote them. Read them. Acted them out. Stories where we were normal humans, doing normal human things. But I always thought you were better at it than I was. Your flippers were never so distinguishable in your human form. Your whiskers never really visible. But your song, your call? It belched out just the same as mine, so you too learned when to keep quiet. When to keep hushed. When not to speak of the sea and the depths and the tides that ran in your veins.
We both learned that secret song of the sea and the stars and we whispered that song together, didn’t we.
But my own story – our own story – is not in a book. It’s a spoken thing, told for the first time in this very moment to the brazen wind who steals the words from my lips and a crab-chewed corpse; to a love once so full but that now lies as still as death upon a beach. Told to the black, harsh winter ocean as I shiver upon a weed-tufted rock. Told through clacking teeth, as I press down upon the rough barnacles with my fingertips, stroking their craggy edges. But I understand now that our story is every bit as magical as any storybook or a fairytale I ever read. Because … you? Oh! You were always magic my love. And in life your power mingled with my own. It awoke me. Unlocked me. Unleashed my potential. And this – our story – is etched into what we are made of, you and I. A legend that is bone-deep. It’s flayed into our muscles and scribed into our souls. And I shall speak of it now, my love. Tell it until its bitter conclusion for here, right here is where I start and right now is ‘The end’.