• Vol. 09
  • Chapter 03
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The Truth about Selkies

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.


The Truth about Selkies

But selkies don’t fit that pattern. They were their own people. They still are their own people. When they come ashore, it is by choice. If a man thinks he holds a woman in his thrall by the burying of her pelt, let him think that. It might give him strength, or the confidence to believe she wouldn’t leave him. Does it not occur to him that a creature of the ocean, one which hunts its prey by instinct, might be able to search out the scent of its own body?

And if she decides to return to the ocean, why not present her as a heartless woman, abandoning her children, if that makes him feel better? Her blood flows in their veins, her milk has filled their bellies. They know the truth. Like her, they can make a life for themselves at sea, if they choose.

Remember only this: if selkies are bodychangers, shapeshifters, then they are also creatures capable of deceit. Know that when I lay back in the bath and dream of a world of kelp forests, of drowned clippers and sunken treasure, I imagine all my other selves. And I choose whether to stay or go.