I grew up reading the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen. I’d be horribly drawn in by the dark but rich narrative of children lost in the woods, red shoes that make the protagonists feet bleed, cursed and unable to stop dancing.
I am currently writing a selection of short stories inspired by female protagonists who get what they need by tapping into the supernatural forces of nature. I have several selections which include a werewolf, a female B list celebrity with a Jekyll and Hyde problem and a business woman who clones herself. The following is based on the myth of Selkies. This is a tribute to my Celtic roots.
By E. L Kelly
Imagine a cloud covering the sun. That’s what it’s like when you enter Skull, a village clinging to the southern tip of Ireland. Where there was sunshine a cold steel grey steps in. Where there was warmth there is a persistent chill. The unforgiving climate compounds the bitterness of the folk who live there. When the Gaelic mist descends, you can’t see any signs, you can’t see a way out, and you are lucky if you can see your own hand.
Gerda was determined to escape; she was confident that swimming would be her salvation. Her cottage was set apart from the rows of houses that huddled by the dock. It was a humble and solitary structure perched on the cliff overlooking the dock, built by Seamus Donohue her great grandfather. The Donoghues were fishermen, and the Donoghue women were strong, hardened by decades of men lost at sea. They found solace in the knowledge that all of them became Selkies.
Watching where rabid waves dash the rocks on the cove, you can see the seals that are supposed to be the Selkie folk, sliding up to the surface to look at you; ever present to witness the folly of their descendants.
Gerda learned to swim almost before she could walk. She understood why so many presumed her folk to be Selkies; she was at home in the water.
‘’When you live near it the best a mother can do it teach you how to master it.’’
Gerda remembers her mother telling her sisters when they were swimming at Black Rock. Gerda could taste the brine and smell the mineral rich air when she thought about her mother’s long black hair and chalk white face. Her eyes two dark caverns of piracy as she dived and resurfaced, splashing Gerda, calling her to join her.
“These are the best of days,” she would say as she wrapped towels around their blue trembling shoulders.
“Just us and the sea.” Almost whispering in admiration.
We watched the sun extinguish over the horizon as she gave us tomato soup from a flask. She was right. When Gerda’s mother died, they were lost, frozen in time, completely unable to live without her.
Left with their father, a hopeless drunk, who fished in the most inebriated of states. Secretly she hoped that he would become a Selkie. Then Gerda and her sisters wouldn’t have to put up with him. They wouldn’t have to clear up the broken plates. They wouldn’t have to become immune to the words that fell from his spittle-covered lips like knives. He was as flighty as the sails that hung from the mast of his fishing rig, and as brutal as the sea he ventured out in.
Her mother died of cancer. It ate away at her until she was paper thin, then eventually translucent. She was so fragile that she degraded and blew into the ether of their minds. Unable to cope, her father enlisted the help of his mother.
Mary Donoghue was a stocky and fierce woman with the imagination and wit of Oscar Wilde. The elderly lady drank gin as if she had the thirst of a desert explorer. She laughed loudly, and to be sure wasn’t for everyone, but did she care? No. The girls feared and respected their Grandmother. Most of all they loved the late-night tales she could animate with her dulcet tones. Tales of dark and swarthy Selkie folk who avenged the slighted and brought a stealthy justice to Skull.
Gerda was such an impressive swimmer that she was tipped to be the next Irish sensation at the Olympics. Her coach created a relentless training schedule, early mornings and late-night sessions, awkward moments in the changing room after her shower. This left no room for friends, fun or boys. She didn’t care, though. This would be her ticket out of Skull, the sleepy dead-end town where her mother died, and her father drifted like a ghost ship.
Then there was Connor. He lived with his ma in a crudely converted lookout tower next to the Donoghue family. Gerda and her sisters had grown up with Connor. He had feline eyes. He was always pestering Gerda to come to the beach parties with him and her other sister, Magda. She always politely declined with:
“Piss off Connor”.
It was the end of the summer and Gerda had been training hard. After a particularly gruelling session with her coach in which he raged about her form, how it was off and that she wasn’t working hard enough, Gerda thought she deserved to see what she was missing out on. She needed to shake the feeling of his moist hand on her shoulder, wrapped in only a towel she was exposed, vulnerable, unstitched.
Scrambling over the rocks of the clandestine cove, Gerda was drawn to the flickering forbidden flames of the revellers’ fire. Teenagers drinking, singing and snogging. Unknown territory. Alien entities. The sea rolled and crashed, and Gerda felt reassured. She picked up a stone and skimmed it into the void. A seal slid from the rocks into the sea. As she approached she could hear her sister showing off.
“Gerda doesn’t know how to have fun, frigid!”
Pissed off, Gerda swiped the bottle out of Magda’s hand and the laughing stopped. The crowd watched her down the cider in one. Gerda’s eyes burnt as she gagged on the sickly booze, then, reassured by the wild whooping and laughing, she smashed the bottle and turned to Connor. He flashed a devilish smile as he grabbed her arse and swung her into his lap. Snogging, drinking, shagging. The first time, sweaty hands all over her like briny tentacles.
With the noise of the waves and crying seagulls, Gerda awoke to the grey light of the dawn. Her dry mouth made her tongue an unwelcome guest. She looked down at the hand cupping her breast; a tatty blanket loosely covered her naked body. Connor was asleep beside her. Her sister sat staring into the embers of the fire. Many of the others were in a similar state. She tried to remember last night but all she could reclaim were the driftwood of broken images, dancing, snogging, singing, fighting and…
“Gerda get some clothes on, gran is going to be worried”. Her Sister mumbled.
The two sisters walked silently home like the nuns at school. Magda stopped to be sick in a bush.
“I’m sorry, about what I said”.
Gerda looked at her sister, she did look sorry, pathetic even.
“But you didn’t have to do that, you took it too far, everyone is going to be slagging you off now, from frigid to…”.
Gerda got home, she was bleeding, she washed quickly and tried to forget it all. Then off to practice, thinking this time she will work harder, she will escape, she will never lose herself again.
A month later, nausea and two red lines on a stick drew the exit route to a close. No more competition. Gerda avoided the village, the stares, the whispers.
“Too young, a scandal, she doesn’t know who’s it is, the Donoghues were always trouble”.
They sat on a bench near the cliff. Mist hung in the air and made Gerda’s hair lank and damp.
“You won’t tell, will you?”
Connor couldn’t look at her.
“No need to ruin everything for everyone.”
He picked the skin at the corner of his thumb, it started to bleed. Gerda wished he would help her, hold her, take some responsibility.
“Just fucking say something.”
Gerda looked at him and felt sick, she didn’t know what to say.
“Ok Gerda, fine, it may not even be mine, we can’t remember the whole night, no one can.” The sound of the waves and the churning grey of the Irish Sea hung between them.
“Is that what you are telling everyone Connor, that I’m a slut?”
When her father found out she was off the team and why he set loose like a banshee. Tearing the house up. Her sisters cowering in their rooms, her grandmother shielding her from his drunken wrath.
Afterwards in the wreckage, Mary gave her granddaughter a necklace. Humble with its loop of black cord but remarkable with a polished shell set in silver. It was her mother’s. Then she shoved a roll of notes in Gerda’s bleeding hand.
“Be off with you…go on…there’s nothing here for you now.”
Gerda struggled to contain her rage, small minds in a small town, crushing her future. She sat on the freezing beach, the wind singing a harmony to her feelings of rage. A seal at the edge of the cove watched her. She stood up and let the notes fly into the air. One by one, lifting, swirling, then disappearing into the ink sky. Gerda started taking her clothes off and folding them in a pile at her feet. Her skin, translucent in the night, moonlight slicing off the shell around her neck. She turned to where the seal was and saw her mother luminescent on the shoreline, a lighthouse to show her the way. Then she was gone.
Black sea, black night, black hair rolling on to a pale body as she steps into the brine. Foot after foot, one by one, then gone.
Connor awoke to his mother wailing. Shoving on his clothes he stumbled into the kitchen.
Connor looked at her puffy eyes and snivelling nose, tears finding home in her creases and crags of her weathered face.
“Who’s gone ma?”
He grabbed a mug and poured some tea.
“You know who you little streak of…”
He found the coco pops and filled a bowl. He watched the icy white milk against the brown then was reassured when it all melted into one.
“The Donohue girl.”
His mother was breathless. He looked at where her inhaler was and put the cereal box in front of it. Then looked at his mother.
She threw the cereal bowl over his head and screamed, “She drowned, she drowned because of the baby, because of you.”
People forget. You can be part of something for years and then when you go it’s like you’ve never been there at all. Connor’s dad for instance: there one day, a ghost the next, and now a distant memory, a sepia photo in his mind. Humans adapt.
Connor was relieved when the village chatter died down and summer came around again. American accents filled the streets as tourism boomed. The beach parties were huge. Connor was making a killing selling weed. Times were good. Only a small part of him missed Gerda, only a molecule of him felt guilt, but it was there, and he couldn’t shake it. Sometimes he thought he saw her in the crowded street, or he imagined that their eyes met over the flames of a beach fire. Then, darkness where he thought he saw her oval face, as smooth as a skimming stone, jumping into the emptiness.
Feet stumble on the pebbles. The beach is alive. Bodies writhe and copulate to the throbbing of tribal music. Flames dance like hands reaching to the sky. Booze flows. Connor is wrapped around a beautiful American girl, he slips off her trousers, then her knickers, only pausing so she can drink more from a bottle of whisky.
A fishing boat sets down anchor. Seal’s slice their heads up and observe the human revelry. Dawn breaks, a red plasma glow washes over the scene. The fishermen release their bloodied catch on deck, the fish thrashing and suffocating. Only Connor and his catch are awake in the cove, fucking, rhythmic in their pleasure, hidden by a red blanket.
The couple are oblivious to the sleeping bodies which flank the fogged smoke of the fire. A fat punk, his stomach exposed, seal-like and sprawled over a rock, beer bottle in hand, stirs as the fishing boat starts its engine.
A film of grey envelopes the shore; blue black rocks frame the cove. The Gaelic mist descends. A lonely seal rises and dives down back into the still water. Ripples undulate on the oiled surface. A sleek head appears slowly through the centre of the waves, ashen forehead, opal eyes, pursed graphite lips, pointed chin on an oval face, alabaster shoulders framing pert marble breasts detailed with aqua veins. Her belly is full, she is with child. A shell necklace is the only item adorning her body as she glides steadily towards the shore, sea weed falling from her bare legs, her pubic hair as dark as the cove.
The siren steps one pallid foot on the pebbled shore, observes the scene with black eyes, then steps ceremoniously foot after foot, towards the fire and the sleeping party goers. She steps on a bottle of whisky and crushes it, black tar oozing from the cuts in her feet as she continues, her naked body ripples with water falling from her dark tresses, it trickles over her breasts and down her legs. She steps over several bodies and arrives at the fire immediately extinguishing it with putrid water oozing from her mouth, eyes and the pores in her skin.
Smoke plumes from the fire, a signal of the end, the end of the party, the end of Connor’s encounter, he opens his green eyes, his pupils widen as he jumps up and faces her, his flushed, tanned face held in a gaze of fear and wonder. They stand on opposite sides of the dead fire, smoke curling around their bare feet, the selkie’s inhuman and fruitful body a stark contrast to his pink and fleshy vulnerability.
He is panting and sweating, she is still and cold. The punk snores and rolls over. But they are not compelled to break eye contact, so they stand, her a wild thing, him the prey.