Here is a short story dedicated to my Women at Sea friends, as I explore new avenues of opening up my research beyond the strictly “academic”.

Warnings for (non-explicit) mention of rape and pregnancy loss.


The Selkie by Mike Stuart

A long time ago, men took seals to wife, holding hostage first their skins and then their children, keeping them shorebound until they forgot even how to swim.

Far north on a frozen shore, a seal pup came out of the water and became a girl. She flexed her feet against the sand, stretched out her fingers to the sky and let out an oh of surprise at how tall she was, and how rough the shingle felt beneath her feet. From the water her mother watched her, sleek body tensed to strike. All selkies must learn as children to put on their human bodies if they are ever to become mothers themselves; but the shore is no more safe than the sea, and the mother watched her seal-girl walk on faltering foal legs, feeling a tenderness that was close to pain.

The boy came down to the shore, drawn by the same instinct that had told the selkie-mother today was the day to nudge her daughter up out of the water and onto land. He crouched in the seagrass and watched as a seal pup struggled and scratched at the sand until suddenly its skin unpeeled, and in the middle of that gleaming wetness was a dark pearl of a girl. He ran home to tell his mother, who sighed and wept that her grandchildren would be seals raised at sea: for it was well known that the man who witnessed a selkie’s first transformation would father her children when she next came to shore, no matter his age or whether he had a wife. His father cheered, and called him his little man, raising the boy up onto his shoulders.

Seven years to the day was always the space between transformations; a long time for a boy to dwell on what he was owed. A seal to wife for a day and a night, that was every man’s dream, and the boy’s face (and later, loins) burned at the lewd secrets men whispered about the tight sleekness of a selkie’s embrace.

She came out of the water a full-grown seal, grey as the tide, and twisted her way into womanhood. Her mother had prepared her for what would come; depending on the man, and on her own tastes, it might be something to endure, or to enjoy; to forget or to relish remembering, back in the cold dark sea. In any case she would come back to the water with a child in her belly, and seven years later guide her daughter gently up onto the shore. So as she unstretched her familiar-unfamiliar body and looked up to find a young man staring at her, mouth slack, she found it in her to smile and hold out her hand, and prepare to do her best for the next day and night.

The boy who was now a man, however, had other ideas; instead of taking her hand he snatched up her sealskin and raced across the shore. The selkie had to follow, for who was she without her sealskin? Only half herself – a half that was naked in the cold, and could speak only the song of the sea. The man took her into his house, where he bolted the skin into a chest too heavy to lift, with a lock too strong to break: that was the first rape.

The second got her with child, which she carried for twelve long weeks where her fingers bled from trying to pick the lock of the chest every night and her throat ached from trying every day to speak the blunt bald language of men. Every day she wept by the shore, and the seals cried out to her; but they knew no way to save her.

On the morning of the seventh day of the twelfth week, she woke bleeding: a fine trickle of blood that turned to painful clotting, passed with cramps that made her fingers and toes curl. Her husband – that was what they called him – beat her, and said she was still too much seal to give him a child that could live on land. So he burned her sealskin, that she might have no hope of returning to the water, and said that this would make her all woman at last.

In the night as he lay sleeping, for the first time since the shock of that first day she felt something more than numb horror. Taking up his knife she slit his throat, and as his body slackened and cooled she thought of doing the same herself. What life did she have as half herself? Here in this village, even women who were not seals were bought and sold by men. But as she looked at the blade and the body beside her, she thought of something else instead.

The next morning the man came out of his house, yawning and stretching, flexing long strong arms and legs. His neighbour asked him where his wife was, and he shook his head and smiled. Gone, he said. She had taken her skin and run. Hadn’t everyone told him it would be so, asked his neighbour. No one can keep a seal to wife forever.

Whistling, the man who was not a man walked down to the shore in his borrowed skin, where he climbed into his fishing boat and cast off, never to return. His village assumed he was lost at sea.

A long time ago, men took seals to wife, holding hostage first their skins and then their children, keeping them shorebound until they forgot even how to swim.

Longer ago still, a seal girl skinned a man for enslaving her, and found – not freedom, but something like. She no longer swam, but she could sail.