- Vol. 09
- Chapter 03
I had never heard of selkies until She came along. She, who came bearing offerings of what looked like Friendship, explained them, those mythical shapeshifting creatures, to me. A sucker for an easy smile and a familiar air, I should have known better than to think our fast-formed amity was safe. Too quick, too soon.
She wanted to fight with me over the Ocean, her changing demeanor ebbing and flowing, pushing and pulling like the tides. No one had hidden her skin. But she wanted me to hide mine. She, who once was so quick with a kind word or gesture, released her squall of bitterness and belittlement to a level deeper than the fathoms of our short (and shallow) friendship. Her briny words flowed, too quick, too soon, from a place I was unaware of, had never been to but had bypassed on many occasions. I searched myself for fault, for greed, for faux-pas, and insensitivities—I did not want to fight about the water.
No one owns the Ocean.
No one owns our souls.
I was worried about the laughing, barking seal changing back into a scorned woman, about the transformation from friend to Fear—of myself and others.
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There is a sense of escapism when we’re having a bath—it’s a sanctuary of sorts where nothing and no one are allowed to penetrate, and what matters is only what we choose to bring in with us—a book, lit candles, music, or sometimes, nothing... Letting our minds wander as we soak in the heat feels like such a luxury. Sweat mixing with bubbled bath providing a release, a detox from the world.
And yet, I do my best thinking during a bath. Don’t you?
It doesn’t matter if my mind brings me to faraway, fantastic places—I revel in them! What’s wonderful is that I’m always able to sort out issues that have been bugging me, niggling away in my mind, just from a good soak.
I learnt to love the ritual of a bath even more during my time in Japan, where onsen visits marked every occasion there, from wonderful holidays to fun-filled theme park visits, to a relaxing moment after an exciting and tiring day taking part in a mikoshi matsuri. The moment I was at an onsen, the ritual would take over as if on autopilot, followed by an hour or so of reflection and bliss.
In the speedy world that we live in today, our bathroom seems to have become the only space where we would permit ourselves time—to clean, groom, refresh, think—to escape mindfully! So, why not make the most of it? Let mermaids and seals join us in our views of white cliffs while slippery kelp tickles our legs, inviting the list of chores and emails to slowly disappear…
These are the hours where erosion takes the background
A withdrawal at 4am
and soap is a delicate question between your toes
Hours at the body
where steam drops its attic ladder
reveals the smuggled amphibian feeding on minutes
When you told me you’d do violence for me
I knew concern was a toy duck
barely holding its yellow
Between these teeth is the butter knife clenched with as much strength
as the allegorical skin shows
when it turns its back on the acrylic of your knee
These are the hours where the protagonist peaks only half his face above the water
This post-60s action trope lets the viewer know the soldier has the right experience
to successfully raid the enemy encampment
This is the wash you consider stealth beneath the swamp
bankcard three lines into perfect symmetry and steep commando
in a conspiracy of frog spawn
Trust me when I say this is not the time to rinse the camouflage from your marrow
This soft architecture
was never designed to have underwater capabilities
or reflect any fucked notion of green
We watch you toss and turn,
a hidden magic,
already anxious to join us and have a voice.
There is music to your dance in my belly.
Your future guitar strumming begins
with this primal rhythm in the womb.
The ocean wave movements
of tiny fists and feet inside me
mimic the depths of tub water,
undulating back and forth,
my daily, lukewarm to be safe, soaks.
A yellow duck I bought months ago
when the test came back with two,
beautiful blue lines, sits waiting, patiently,
just like us.
Your father reads a book to me about
the size of your growing fingernails,
as steam gently floats around us.
The mirage of our past hiking trip
appears at my pruned feet.
I daydream about tuna baguettes
with poppyseeds, our reward
for reaching the tarn and England’s brave sheep
at the top of a smaller mountain.
It is not commonly known that Gulliver had a wife
but she accompanied him on all his journeys
and Lilliput was her favourite place.
Swift never wrote about her.
Perhaps he found her just too daring,
even though she was careful
to be on her best behaviour
and hide her painted nails
in public places.
When alone she didn’t care.
She wiggled them with joy
each time she took a bath.
Only the Lilliputian sea creatures
were invited to join her.
She loved to watch them
as they played in the water.
Which came first, she wondered,
the mermaid or the seal.
She tried to work it out.
They told her it didn’t matter,
was no importance.
Having fun was what mattered,
wiggling and jiggling in the water,
size didn’t matter either.
She could only agree.
What steam, drenched dreaming in the fun
flop frolic tales aquamarine
a duck billed platy, yellow sun.
Boat brimful bails out siren calls
paint pointy toes rest overflow
two flat soles firm, enamelware.
Noisette whirl sprinkles, sugared frost
all swirling by akimbo legs
brill heat without the inlet mists.
It swings by swimmy drowse on sand
for dozing, safe, white berry wine
far infant laughter, drift delight.
You sense the saturate of scent
delicious to anticipate
exotic oils to spread abroad.
The lexicon with bubble-bath
a frothy stealing, fresh razed legs
wet poring over tingled skin.
Gold rainbows stirring rippled crocks
down rolling channels, 'stemper walls
it’s here perspire allowed to sweat.
Rhythm, some folk exhilarates
or flashing lights to titillate
as lightweight limb float, splash about
space, water, rest predominate.
Dolphins caress my inner thighs
with velvet-slick skin while sea otters
and seals slide in riots down my shins
to dive blind into lilac-scented water.
Schools of shy fish idle in the concave
depths of my armpits while. eels spiral
my wrists in silver bands of light.
Faint with steam and weightless in the tub,
I slide my foot along the smooth enamel basin.
My leg bends and emerges into the cool air.
A bony island redoubt, my knee juts
above the surface, waves breaking all around me.
I gather the world, flesh bounded by water and air—
an archipelago risen
from the depths
a clustering of protuberances
in an aquatic sphere.
Upon the promontory of my thigh
a sister mermaid reclines,
tail fins stirring the bluish, soapy bath.
A song slips wet from her lips to coil
damp and heavy along my limbs.
In this new year, I could shed
my selkie skin to dance under
moonlight on lonely shore,
but at what cost?
Water is life,
salt buoys my body.
The toll of transformation --
painted toes in ruby tones,
limbs outstretched, entwined,
dark curls unfurled.
My sisters watch with baleful eyes,
heads bob just over sea’s surface.
The bonds once broken a siren call --
elusive, insistent. They are the ones
who hold my head above water.
To begin with, what’s in a bath? Everything.
Even the setting could/should/would be elsewhere
toes tickling the air in a fantasy of heated clouds
laughing from just being there – a moment please.
Apparently wee free folk share the space, linger
in dalliance because your head is nodding off
the white cliffs. Anything you’d want to say drowns
in the heat… the simmering malingering of it all.
Slink like a selkie, live in the skin, hold your head
high enough to disenfranchise worrying aspects.
Let headlines rise up the screen, drift into mist;
they’ll be next year’s logistical nightmares caught
in the dark net. It isn’t wise to associate with them;
they are sharks in the black council’s film noir.
"Bath - a weekend break"
You had said
"Travel light, just do be there"
So I did
Acquire a used Lonely Planet
Read it back to front
Corner bending those pages
With sites to be sighted:
Grand Pump Room
A plethora of musea
And faux-posh restaurants
Inns of repute
Cobalt currents draw
the prow of our sun blazing
joyful through a mackerel sky
I will study and learn
will catch opportunity trust
I will whisper-gentle myself
sand-smooth doubts and ripples
forget loam scent iron doors ashes
cast off that storm-caul anchor
I scan the gloss of deep azure
feel mother ocean cradle this isle
these crofts these babes
I will make my way
Beneath my finger nails,
covered in a tone of natural flesh
to hide the inky blotches
so I can serve the evening drinks
without offending customers
who’ll jostle on the other side,
my skin felt suffocated, tight.
My beard trimmed for the night
legs ready for the shift ahead
the float secured in its cloth bag
banded notes and coins for the till
the floor still sticky under foot —
by the new year I shall be
swimming in beer.
I remember it all so well —
the folky fingers in the ears
when Sule Skerry was
trotted out again and
everyone sang the great silkie
while the fire blazed up
and I began to breathe.
Was the day she laid
in the bath and
waved a change
of the passing times
with a finger,
pointing out all the
fictions that looked
down upon her
drew curves in
the stoic bath water.
‘This is madness’,
she remarked and later
underlined the first
date on the new
calendar, in bold
she wrote 'need to
shave legs', in a red
marker, an ink
through the other pages.
she was dried,
hair patted, and
Selkies. I’ve read a lot about them recently, as though they’re something new. But I was brought up with their tales, as was my mother and her mother before her. Each island has its own stories, and it’s hardly surprising that people – men, usually – travelled around collecting the different versions, tracing their origins and analysing their meanings. Didn’t the Brothers Grimm do much the same, searching out the women who could be persuaded to part with their histories?
Of course, asking a woman to share a story about family secrets in exchange for money is a bit like trying to hold sand in the palm of your hand as the tide washes in. You can stare all you like at the individual grains, but you’ll only be left with a few memories and the sensation of absence. Especially if that woman happens to be a selkie.
Grandma spoke about the big spat between followers of Bruford and Dennison and Hibbert, each with their own ideas of merfolk, and selkies, and shapeshifters. Odd how these academics become so convinced of their rightness, how committing their theories to paper makes them experts. I suppose they had a vested interest in the idea of women being trapped in human form, by the simple notion of hiding their sealskins where they couldn’t be found. It’s the old story, isn’t it? Life and literature are heaving with instances of men determined to exert control over intelligent but powerless women.
I feel that way too sometimes,
going to work and coming back,
going to bed and
getting up, as if my life
were like the seiche
that brings the water of our lake
first to one side, then the next.
The weight ascending breaks the air
and from this lake, this spring, bodies ascend
like bubbles in water; there
resurrected with flatulent calm
and weighing no more than a scruple
they reach a vigilant level and
lose all pretense; their
gravity takes over.
Indifferent to all entreaties they hang
globular in the warming tub.
Yet the water yields, it suffers itself
that all these latest bodies
may rise through tranquil sea,
through standing lake.
Bartleby is shocked as he spies not just nipples but
seal pups as hats, seal pups being hugged by
wizened white haired topless handless flipperful nymphs,
but at least he can't be shocked by you:
You've shorn down those fields of brown barley undulating
and you've painted your nails red
and he'll ignore that you're still a bit unkempt -
he'll ignore the lines that underwear leave on you now
he'll ignore the skull
he'll ignore the coral dappled surface of your flank
he’ll ignore it all right...
but should you feel compelled to make a change
check out our brochure of treatments and services
you'll find them quite competitively priced.
We bumped into each other
I apologized for my clumsiness
took her inside for an impromptu cappuccino.
Milk froth, white as sea spray, beaded her upper lip.
I’m a mermaid, she said, and I believed her.
Waist-length hair moving with an inner life
like a sea grass forest.
Eyes, luminous as the moon’s trail
across an ocean.
Her voice, sibilant as tides at midnight.
A soft, fishy, iridescence to her skin.
I was totally, painfully in love.
The mermaid left as suddenly as she had appeared.
I watched the sway of her hips as she moved lithely
between tables, thought of a retreating tide
oozing around rocky outcrops on a beach I knew.
Sea-blue, shot-silk skirt clung possessively
to taut, muscular thighs, halted above shapely calves ...
that led my eye down to ...
All her dreams reflected—
bright as her toenails painted red,
where long ago, fused and webbed, they stroked
the water, pinniped to surface light.
There is joy and beauty
in both visions. She longs for water and moonglade,
she wants a bed and a ship; the subaqueous and the superlunary
both beyond reach.
Surrounded by her many selves, the worlds of what if
and what might be, she sees
each is as each could be. Her hair, fresh-washed, still
carries a scent of salt, a tint of sea-green.
Their little heads turn to me
soap suds like bath caps contour
dark eyes lost in this watery world
as selkies dive under and over limbs
tickle toes; my babies giggle
as words plop into the foamy ocean
all a-splash causing waves to crash
against white porcelain and sponge
island bobs towards the plug
They take these stories to dreamland
wake with tales of their own
while selkies wait by the bath taps.
This day at dawn bathed under a blue heaven,
I hold in awe the fathomless creatures
and sink into the pleasure of knowing them,
my gaze continues beyond the shore
I hear the shells call out beneath my feet
it is time to be a fearless swimmer
to dive in deep and rise again renewed.
I love piers,
especially deserted ones,
and mostly at twilight
where rotted wooden planks
bounce over light, over waves.
And I've an affection
for ancient sea-dogs,
who barely mutter a word.
And I just adore the unknown decorator
who adorned the restaurant, the bar,
in glass bowls, in netting,
in anchors, in plastic mermaids,
scattered scrimshaw, in gaudy painted ladies
from the bows of dead ships.
Fresh catch, the menu
proudly tells me.
On a chalk-board,
the waiter fills in names of fish,
the price of lobster.
The owner tells me tales of storms,
of the statue in the town square
inscribed with those the sea took.
When I was young,
my folks forbade me
to look at them
as they chipped away
and rubbed their mysteries
against the surface of a lime earth
before falling like sawdust
into the open blue.
I saw them fall like stardust,
the powder shimmer-like
and blowing in my direction.
I was delusional
because such an exquisite view
was always a smokescreen.
It's what they had me believe.
They were cynics
and I put up a brave front
with my Romanticism.
Before I’m born, my fisherman father
feeds my mother fresh scallops
from the boat’s daily haul. My blood and bones
formed of strong sea muscle and salt.
I grow up plucking pickled herring from jars
like candy, and ripping apart the jagged claws
of lobsters the same way gluttonous gulls smash
into the spiny bodies of sea urchins.
But I’ve had to adapt, evolve to living inland.
Still, it feels all wrong. The air empty of iodine,
no scent of dried seaweed or tidal decay,
waves lapping on repeat through a sound machine.
This middle life, a purgatory. Even along the coast,
I was still tethered to the ledge of land.
I remember the harbor seal's eyes,
little black saucers as dark as the ocean floor
looking up into mine, wide mirrors of blue sky,
how he never seemed that bothered,
gingerly lifting his head, knowing even if I wanted to,
I couldn’t follow him back into the deep.
Saturday night bath time. I am deep in rising puffs
of steam, between warm breaths of fog, lavender salts,
and 11 o’clock. My legs, bitten by hot water, are
buoyant and drowning at the same time, and my toes
are painted scarlet Sirens. Such wee beauties, such
alluring tragedies. Sing, you chorus of razor-sharp
tongues from sibilant Isles of Sirenum Scopuli.
A Siren is calling to my forsythia-yellow rubber duck.
Ho! Tie yourself to a mast! Stuff your ears with soap,
The howl of wind, a funnel of echoes, a slash upon
smooth white porcelain cliffs. Ooh, those wooing
maids painted scarlet are swimming a stone’s throw
from the pebbly shore. Beware my ducky, my brave
odd bobbing Odysseus. Beware of harpies and
kelpies and tentacled amusements, creatures of
servitude and abduction lusting after your
forsythia-yellow, for your wheezy-siren quack.
Never in the farthest headlands
of my foggy dreams
did I suppose when I swapped
this steamy bathtub
for wild swimming
over one crazed week—
that I’d return as a mother to a school
of slithery silkies.
They pop up when I bathe
and shock the rubber ducky
as my lighthouse toenails
beam out messages
to passing sailors
on their decks:
I’m lying in the bath
and all is tranquil here.
Encased in water, I’m safe.
There’s nothing to fear.
This is my pit stop before
I head back out on my walk -
My thrilling adventure along the coast.
I don’t want to boast (it isn’t my style),
but I’m pretty good at it now.
Simply, I take one step,
and just see what happens next.
I let myself cry at beautiful things
like the soothing sound of the sea
which wraps itself around my whole body.
Memories ignite when I pick up shells -
suddenly I’m ten again,
back at Aberystwyth beach,
having fun collecting shells with Mum.
Sea creatures look out for me,
Ensure I don’t lose my way.
Often we dance together,
whatever the weather.
Do you realise how wonderful our world is?
Bathtime is for make-believe.
My knees become the Cliffs of Moher
jutting above a kyanite sea.
I shave seaweed from my skin,
its tangled tendrils hold
secrets not meant for men.
Around the rim, the hag’s head nods,
she does agree,
man’s a creature of pure trickery.
A mermaid without a cloak
lounges on my landslip thighs,
dips her tail in the aquatic yoke.
We’ve learned to bide our time,
wedding and bedding, but ne’er forgetting
One day we’ll find
our stolen magic stoles.
Slip into them, and then the wider sea
to swim free amongst the selkies.
a jeopardy of jabbering thoughts
cling to gaunt air
particulates massing for a strike
ponderously waft against
the wheeze of breath
combing their silky hair
flaunting sulky moods
three sisterly merrows
prepare to intertwine
half here half there
focus on the far distance
red boom line drawn taut drags
polystyrene cliffs toward a syrupy sea
a new reality curls it's toes
stepping from the scream
My mother was mermaid silver
all secret scales & fishtail flicks
she changed the air to wave-spray
& like that she disappeared
a fish-oily slide from the holdfast
from small hands greedy pleading
quicksand for our sand-sucked feet
she shoogle-shifted these slakit shores
weaned on tears we were set adrift,
salt-wound cut from her dulsey cord
this briny mother we’d locked to land
ochre smoked & tobacco wreathed
her mermaid’s purse bled scarlet polish
lipstick veered vermillion to her sharky teeth
painted in the shapes of woman & wife
she was costumed in dances & ‘divil may care’
but her landward legs (not real at all)
failed & flipped under the toil of gravity
& when she could not take herself
we took the ceaseless sea to her
buckets of Atlantic from Skelligs
from Derrynane we bathed her feet
drenched her earth-drained ankles
& hailed her selkie heart to leap
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