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It is many years now, since that third time I saw you. Our first kiss. Our first spoken words.
Time has passed upon the ebb and flow of each tide. Moons have turned gracefully in the heavens and the sun has spun about the globe more times than I care to count. And when I gaze into a mirror, I barely recognise the woman I see. Completely gone is the ruddy hair. Gone the peach complexion, smooth and freckled and fresh as the dew. In their place a crone. Her life’s story written upon her flesh. Sea-foam for hair, spittled white. You have changed too; you, with your ready laughter and your gentle encouragement. You with your far-reaching dreams and your delightful romanticism. You with your moody depths and your endearing charm. Your loving words and your deep kisses. Nowadays your ears have grown long and your voice crackles like fire. Your knuckles are knotted like the bark of trees. Your back is stooped and it creak-crack-snaps as you walk along, which accompanies the tick-tack-tick-tack of your stick. You tell me you are a one-man walking percussion whose job it is to keeps time to my melody. Nowadays our vision is no longer sharp, you joke that we have one good eye between us; like the Grey Sisters. And less teeth. My spectacles slide constantly down my nose and you squint at the text as if it’s a creature skittering and scattering across a page when you read to me so you must trace the words with your finger like a child does when he is learning. Yet we are still spritely in our own way. And what we cannot do for ourselves, we do for each other. For in you I still see youth. Vitality. Strength and tenderness. In me you still see love of the purest kind.
Yes, the seasons have rolled ever on, and Winter has set into our old, brittle bones.
Perhaps we were never rich, you and I. Nor have we realised every one of our dreams. Many of our ambitions slipped from us and in their stead happiness settled in. Perfect contentment. Good health. But I have had no regrets. Not one. How could I? For life for us has been full and ripe. Teeming with abundance. Thriving. Love has woven about us and clung to us, breathing its magic into all that we touched. Tides have risen and fallen and risen again. My children have grown – yours too, and their own small pups have filled our home with their laughter and their mess and their chaos. We are elders. And with that a new weight of responsibility settles upon our shoulders. For we are supposed to be older and wiser. And yet still, when the wind is in the right direction and the moon is full, we secretly tiptoe down to the waters and we don our seal-pelt coats, you and I. And we dive into the fathomless surf.
And this? This is our story. A boy and a girl and a seal-pelt coat that can be taken off to walk upon the land. A man and a woman who travel the oceans of time and distance to find one another. A selkie wife and her selkie husband living happily ever after. A fantastical tale perhaps but it belongs to us. So we speak it aloud, for in its re-telling it becomes more real. It takes shape and colour. It waltzes from our tongues and upon the winds. It is carried up-up-up to the stars, so those who look upon them will see it written there. Our story swims from our lips upon the sea breezes and is carried over every ocean. Our story scatters like dust over every land, settling upon the soil for seeds to grow in. We speak it softly to one another when we are wrapped up in blankets and shivering on dark midwinter nights when the flames of a stove leap high and the wind rattles the window panes. Stormy nights when the moon hides her face behind a bank of black clouds, and the stars close their eyes. And we speak it with gusto upon midsummer nights when the air is balmy and salt-kissed; a bonfire dancing, crackling with drift-wood that burns green and blue and dark wine blazing in our bellies. We tell it to our children and to our children’s children. We tell it to our guests – be they family, friends or strangers. We tell it to the sea.
And when I tell our story, I sit forward, my eyes bright and I begin. I begin at the Cornish harbour on a mid-summer’s day. I begin as a small girl with a gap in her teeth and freckles smattered upon her pink, sun-kissed nose. I tell our tale and you? Oh, you laugh and interject, adding things I have forgotten. You slide your arm around me and press a kiss upon my temple. You catch my eye and wink your encouragement. Wink your dark eye like you did on that very first day, on the harbour in Polperro when the gulls reeled in circles above your grey head and the crabs brandished their claws at me in protest.
But I will admit to you that I am an old fool! And at times I am afraid that the Winter has set in too far, because sometimes it creeps into my mind. Winter touches my mind with its long frozen fingers, until it is numb – like the early frost had once numbed my heart. Blank. And every so often it is my mind, not my heart that becomes the desert of ice like a glacier, blown clean by arctic winds. And when that happens, our story – the very one I speak aloud right now – the story that I should know inside out and upside-down – fades. Winter is a thief! It steals memories away. So of late I have found with each telling, I have forgotten a little more. Details are lost to me. The colours grow a little dimmer. The scenes seem less vivid. Snow-swallowed. So in their stead is a fresh, white blanket unmarked and unsullied by time. So much gone! And have I noticed that you have taken to telling the tale for me. Telling it to me, so you can bring it all back to glorious life, so I remember it all just as it was. Just as I used to tell it.
Oh yes! I am an old fool and Winter’s vacant snows come at other times too. For sometimes you leave our home and I become frightened without you. Panic like ice reaches into my gut, making me shiver and tremble. It wrenches at my belly and takes my heart in its grip so it slams in my chest to escape the pain of it. Panic squeezes at my lungs until I can barely breathe and if I am not sitting, I fall. My love, sometimes (only sometimes) I forget where you have gone. And when you are not within my sight I am convinced that you have left me for the ocean. That you have gone without me. That you may not come back!
I fear that you are weary of me and have put on your seal-pelt coat and dived into the ocean without me. Alone. Looking for new adventures. Looking for a new Selkie-wife. One with steadier legs and a memory that does not drift out like an unmoored boat. Anchorless.
And so it was this evening, before I came to this rain-washed shore on the coast, not far from our home. You were not there. Where had you gone? Did you tell me? I cannot remember, I cannot remember! Did you leave me for the ocean? Are you gone from me forever? So I opened the door of our home, pulling my robe close around me. Peering into the dusk. Calling your name over and over. Silence. Nothing but silence…. And I stepped over the threshold and down the path, fear gripping my throat. Strangling the voice from my lungs. You did not answer. I opened the gate and wandered down the road to the sea path. I scrabbled over the stile, slipped through the fields where the branches of low-hanging trees catch in my hair. Decorating me with thorns and delicate white buds. Brambles clutching at my flesh and scratching me with wicked fingers. Then down-down-down the steep and rocky track to the cove. I don’t know where you are, my love! I don’t remember where you went. And now the dark has come and the rain is thick. The sea roars like a wild beast, pummelling its angry fists against the rocks and for the first time in my life it frightens me! And oh my love, I cannot find you! Where are you? Please come home to me. I wandered the shores searching for you, my eyes sweeping the angry waves. Lost without you. Bereft.
Please come home…
And then I see it. I see you. Your bulk laying on the sand. Bloated and crab-eaten. Flesh as thin as cobwebs and milky eyed. Burst open at the seams. Flesh no longer contained within the seal-pelt. No breath. No life.
Oh my love!
And now I have wept for you until my tears became the ocean. Mourning my loss. And now I have rocked to-and-fro, to-and-fro, in the bosom of its waves. And now I have looked into the eyes of death itself as I sat upon a barnacle-clustered rock, black and mussel-bearded. And I have remembered. All of it! All. Memories that had been lost to me for so long have flooded my mind and the words have poured forth. The words of our story. They have darted from my mouth in a tempestuous torrent as the rain poured from the skies, as the ocean marked its time by creeping closer up the sands. I have remembered it all – or most of it at least – and told it to you though my teeth have clattered and my bones shaken. And now I am emptied of it. Purged. It is done.
…It is done…
I am done.
And I am undone.
And the water laps at my toes, for it has raced toward me in its wisdom. To comfort me, perhaps. And to carry you away. It cradles your body now, rocking you to-and-fro, to-and-fro.
Oh, my love…my darlin’ girl!
My heart leaps in joy and I rise. For I hear words that are not my own, whispering sea breezes that stir my wet hair. A kiss planted softly, like the dropping of an acorn upon my temple. Gentle, warm fingers pressed up against my cheek. Caressing. Loving arms clasped about my waist. Your scent upon them. I turn. For the first time since I have come to these dark shores, I dare to turn my back to the ocean and I fold myself into those arms. Your arms. My Selkie-husband with his white-sea-spray hair and his old, stooped back.
My love, my darlin’ girl – forgive me. You’ve been lost. Frightened. Tired! You’re shivering, let me warm you. My love, I’m here now. I’m with you.
Your voice. Spoken to me gently and with such warmth as you rock with me to-and-fro, to-and-fro. Our own rhythm. Together. You, with your tenderness and your love that engulfed me from the start. You with your craggy face and your twinkling hazel eyes, grown milky with time. You with your strong hands, though they tremble now. Oh! What an old fool I am. For you have not taken another form, only to be stolen from me by the ocean. I have been weeping over the corpse of a seal. Poor, bloated creature. Nothing more. A grey seal corpse. I have been telling our tale to the ghost of an animal pulled from the sea.
My darlin’ girl, you always feel so deeply and grieve for the small things.
And you kiss the top of my head.
You care so much! For lives lost and swept away.
And you push your gnarled fingers into my thin hair.
But I didn’t put on my seal-pelt coat when I left you this evening, my old daft fool! So this lost life isn’t mine. Now come, my darlin’ love, my Selkie-wife, my Seal-bride…let’s go home.
Oh, I may be an old fool but I am loved. I may be an old fool but I can laugh at myself! And so, I do! I laugh. I throw my head back and laughter pours from me. And you laugh with me for this story of ours is not yet done! I have remembered it, almost every single bit! But there is still yet more to write and still more to tell. For your song of the sea has called me back home to you.
And so we left our brother there and let the ocean’s loving arms rock him into sea-foam. Let the sea claim him. And we clambered back to our little stone house. And we lit a candle for his memory, putting it in the window. And we sat by the fireside to warm our old bones and we dived beneath the surface of our warm blankets and tumbled as we used to. Limbs and lips and love. And then we slept curled up together like the shells do and we drifted in the currents of our dreams, you and I. And that’s how we will always be, together. Because I’m you’re my Selkie husband, and me? I’m your Selkie wife.
Ocean’s breath, ocean’s song.