In the ocean, seals swim with exceeding grace and swiftness, using all four flippers for both propulsion and steering. Some species can dive 1000 feet deep and remain submerged for over an hour. Seals have larger volumes of blood and a greater concentration of oxygen in the blood than any land animals, and they expel all oxygen from their lungs before they dive. In dives as deep as 1000 feet and as long as 100 minutes, a seal will survive on only the oxygen in its blood without need to resurface.
Image: Ophelia Drowning by Paul Steck, 1895
I cannot say that I actually dreamed of you after our second meeting. You were no longer a feature of my nocturnal world. My sleep-slack lips did not shape your name in soft breaths or snoring mumbles. You did not come back to me this way until you were a bigger part of my life but you were there upon the edges of my dreams, I think. For I remember the shape of you there; waiting in the shadows where I couldn’t quite reach you. On the periphery, just out of sight. Maybe behind a wall of kelp, nosing at the curious crabs? Perhaps basking behind black rocks on a sand-tumbled beach? Or skipping like a shadow below the distant surf. And yet you were firmly a part of my story-book world and I folded you up like a secret note and tucked you close to my heart, for you were precious to me. A treasure. And you were all too often within my imaginings. A secret, watery creature I took everywhere with me.
It may sounds strange but I would lay myself in the bath, letting the water fill it as far as I dared. Water pouring from shining taps that I turned with a twist of my wrist, one marked blue, the other red. A green bath, the colour of light moss. Avocado. I loved that bath! No plain white bath for me, oh no! And because it was coloured, it stained the water within it green too. Like the ocean. And the rippling water would catch the light from the window or from the ceiling and glimmer and glint like the surface of the sea. Light dancing like reflected stars. I would lay in our green bath and stare wistfully at a large, gilt-framed print my mother had hung in the bathroom, above the toilet. A painting with dust in its corners. It had spots of mildew fleckling the edges like the mottled freckles upon your nose. Its glass was smeared with the marks of my fingertips, for after my bath was done and the soapy water was sucked noisily from existence by a hungry, belching plug I would skuttle across the bathroom, my damp, naked flesh kissed pink with heat. I would clamber upon on the white-lidded throne and trace the image on the heat-misted glass. In awe. Just to gaze closer at her and whisper to her of my paramore.
That print intrigued me. Every evening before bed I would lay in the small ocean-green bath searching through a fog. Peering for a painted, pale woman between the long fingers of soap-scented mist that curled from the steamy warm water, her form half hidden beneath the dewey mantle of water droplets. I knew that is how she would look if I there with her. If I were underwater too. Blurred and softened. Vague. In the painting a woman stood upright below the water, her hidden feet pressed down into the pond-weed and her long, red hair billowing up, up, up so it almost skimmed the surface. Red hair a little like my own. Bubbles rose from the white gown that sheathed her pale skin, also decorating her hair, mingling with flowers that were twisted there. I could almost hear the sound that they made as they popped and I could imagine the ripples those bubbles would cause upon the pond. In her hand she held pale, powdery flowers. Roses perhaps? I’m not sure, but what I do remember vividly was the expression upon her face. I didn’t have words for it back then, that expression. I have learned a few since. Serene. Pacific. Tranquil – here are three for you! But I didn’t know those words at the time, any more than I knew the word Selkie. All I knew is that I envied her, that lady with the softly closed eyes and the expression I wanted.
Sometimes I would fill the bath until it came up to my chin and I would blow ripples on its surface as one cools hot tea, causing a fluttering-sound. I would stretch my legs right out, reach with my tip-toes to the other end of the bath-tub. Then I would slip softly beneath the surface, my eyelashes laid softly upon my cheeks – as hers were. My ruddy hair floating about my face. Or I would submerge like a whale, my eyes open. I would look up at the halogen light in the bathroom ceiling through the flutters and eddies I had created as I sank down, and watch how it bounced the light in new ways. I could imagine I was looking up at the sunlight that rose above Polperro harbour or Rock sands as I sat waiting in the waters below. I would pretend I was the woman with the bubbles in her hair.
I would hold my breath until my lungs burned. Until my heart slammed into my chest-wall. Painfully. Then I would count to five, holding on until I thought I might burst. One – just a little longer Maeve… Two – if you can just make it that far… Three – perhaps the magic may… Four – happen and you will turn… Five – intoaWaterBaby… BREATHE!!!
But always, always I would have to resurface into the dry world. My hair would stick darkly to my head, weighed down like a wet rope and I would lay panting. Deep, gulping breaths. Chest rising and falling, making waves in the tub, until my heart settled. Then I would float in my warm, safe space. Soap scented and quiet. Here I could stare at her and rock to-and-fro, to-and-fro, to-and-fro. Held by the water. I’d stay there until my fingertips became ten old women, wrinkled and white. Until the flesh upon the bottom of each toe seemed to shrink and fold in upon itself. I knew why she looked that way, the woman in the painting. I knew the reason for her secret smile, for she was waiting down there for the Seal-boy to come. Waiting like a bride with a sprig of flowers in her hands and more twined into her bridal hair. Breath held. Ready. Expectant. And I knew that the world down there was quiet – the sounds gentle and swaying or deep and slow. There were not too many people. Down there she could be graceful. A thing of eternal beauty. And I knew that when her Seal-boy came, he would press his snout against her cheek and she would smile. Swim with him. She would transform into something else; see how the bottom of her bridal gown seemed like a tail? She would transform and they would be happy in the depths.
There would be no thin, lacy flesh draped over gnawed-at bones lying washed up on the shore. No bulbous, swelling belly rising beneath gaping flaps of red meat. No milky half-pecked eyes glazed by the emptiness of death. No, death was not horrific or abhorrent to me back then. A watery grave was beautiful and picture-perfect. Romantic. It was my happy ever after.
I learned her name, that woman with the calm look upon her face and the expression that I longed for. My mother told me her name was Ophelia. I liked the way that name sounded. Soft and round to start with. Oh! Then swishy like the weeds but ending upon a smile and a sung note. Ahhh! O-phe-li-a. Her very name a song of the sea. I learned later still that she was tragic. A woman gone mad and drowned, having fallen into the water from a broken Willow branch. She should not have held roses at all, but twisted into her fingers she should have had the herb Rue with its yellow star-spiked flowers. Regret. I have sometimes wondered if the true regret of Ophelia’s heart was that she had been lured for too long onto the land. Beguiled for too long by the cruel men who lived upon it. For if the waters claimed her, then surely she was truly Water’s child? And all she did was climb back into the arms of her mother, which was not sad at all. For the Ophelia I knew, back in those days of my childhood, had no regrets at being beneath the water. No sadness. Her expression was serene and she waited as a bride waits for her husband. For love to return to her.
I wanted to be Ophelia. Not Shakespeare’s tragic Ophelia but my own heroine. The Seal-bride. So I folded her up too, pressed her close to my heart. Another character in my secret story-book world.
The Seal-bride whose name was a song.