The Selkie Before Summer

The Selkie Before Summer
Penny Stirling

Been a-land too long. Legs stride
and my skin sits snug in bag
I assume. I stopped checking
compulsively when I left the sea
breeze sharp like mother’s warnings.

What house could contain a selkie errant
when her own fear could not?
Love’s quest is its own skin.

“Be mine,” you’d asked. “Pups or not,
faithful or not, be my wife?”
I loved you. But the word rankled,
different to lover, somehow.
I’d avoided human beaches,
anxious my skin could make me
a wife, someone’s sea-woman.
“No,” I’d said. “I don’t know, I don’t—no?”

You took time to think and a man
took your skin, took you to wed.
Gave you a normal selkie’s life
away from the sea, from me.

I will make right what only I think is wrong.

Beware the humans, their homes
and be back before summer,
mother said
as her land-wife sized me for clothing.
Before the heat dries up your will.
Before the taunting sky’s blue—
endless, cruel, untouchable like the sea—
drives you wild even as you domesticate.

Springtime mother sees her land-family.
Skin she hides then seal-life she resumes.
Others don’t come back come summer.
Father never hid his skin.

Trousers and braids are conveniences. Nuances
I don’t grasp grappling with boots and bearings.
My hands are slim but so’s my chest,
no Antarctic sea to protect against.
If titled beyond my fur-brown tone:
pauses, guesses, Mister or Miss. First I lied,
next affirmed either, then tried neither,
masculinity no lasting unguent for my unease.
I watch people’s conduct and imitate,
gauging assuaging reactions, seeking
more than cow or woman,
more than woman or man.

When I find—rescue—you I’ll explain I
can’t be a wife, I’ll be a—be your—I’ll be—I’ll—
I lack the words to explain how a skin
of adjustable cloth and manner fits so well,
and just what it is that is fits.

In the third seaside town, finally:
an artist’s new foreign bride
escaped a house fire his parents did not.
Grief swept him and the bride inland.
Were both your flesh and skin unscathed?
My hope a rip tide, I followed.

Limbs entangled, skins round ankles
on rocky islands: I miss those nights.

It is only spring. Yet I sweat in these
hills that do not smell of sea salt.
Oh, these hills: meats spiced and grilled,
wildflowers brighter than auroras,
nesting birds more poetic than seagulls,
such distractions from my quest. Hills’
spring we’ll savour on our return journey.
I cannot imagine a more dangerous season.

Mother only told of abodes and wedded bonds.
Is it land-wife that keeps father, or land-love?

Wineries and gum forests surround
the town where the artist washed up,
so far from shore no one would wink
when describing his bride if
they could say anything
other than that she
en route.

I should have said yes,
grown an iceberg skin insouciant
about being cow and wife,
turning my love for you
into a cage for my confusion.

Teeth scale-sharpened, muscles hunt-hardened.
Wrath-swathed—buoyant blubber against
grief’s chill—and adrift on a new course.
This artist-jailor who engrossed
my error and revoked my redress,
I will strip him of skin and choice.

Rustling branches remind me of surf, almost.

Cyclone’s scream, great white’s crudeness,
running, keening, I lunge but
artist grabs me, knife inches
from his chest, and cries a name
only you know.
I stagger back shaking as if winter’s
southerly had arrived. He rips
his clothing, continues clawing
even into his skin, continues calling
my name even as his fingers slide and
he sloughs his skin—you slough his skin.
You, my love, naked, alive, clutching me.

“I knew you’d come for me,” you say,
speaking of misfortunes—yours then his—
blithely as if it’s serendipity.

Thinking of father, I wonder: did you hide your skin?
Thinking of mother, I wonder: will I return?

You’re shore-stranded, spring-eager.
Here your skin-trade’s spoils:
garden of fruits and chickens,
room of paints and attempts,
money enough and new skin pale enough
to enter any town unremarked.
You offer it to me one night noticing
me sudden-shy of my body, unsure
how shallow my gender-skin shows.
You insist it is the soul—the me—beneath
my flesh and skins you love.

A jailor’s skin so unfeminine fits me
even less than what birth supplied.
Is it fortuitous you suit it so well instead?

“Be mine,” you ask. “Wife or not,
woman or man or not, stay with me?”
I love you. But summer looms.
Staring seaward all I see is sky.
Returning I’d lose my landlocked love
and the clothed confidence in
who I am between soul and flesh.
The sky holds other horizons too:
deserts north, snowfields east.
What confidences could they bring?
I don’t know, I don’t
think to hide my sealskin.

Which direction did you see me gazing?

“Stay,” you plead, holding my skin.
“Stay with me,” you insist, in this house
where I imagine our life domestic.
“This time let’s both stay,” you propose,
holding my sealskin. Your desire
itches my heart, a selkie’s urge
natural as breathing, instinctive
as a breath taken when drowning.
Holding only one of my skins.
I feel the weight of my love, my confidence,
sense of self and wonder that has grown over me
since shedding the sealskin—the sense that I
will hold my breath if I want.

My resolve is untouchable like the skies,
your remorse endless like the seas.
You blame no skin, admits you’ve failed
navigating twixt seal and man, failed me
again. We talk until dawn, like aforetimes;
we don’t touch, and might never again.

Accidentally spring-germinated, neither of us
are the proper selkie wives anticipated.
We need time to grow, room to breathe,
before trying to entwine our lives anew.

Sea, gender and love could not contain me.
I wonder if anything on this continent can.

Been a-land so long. Legs stride
and my skins are my flesh.
I hide none. I asked you to keep one,
a reminder not all our past is jetsam,
promising when I left the home
so inviting, just like mother’s warnings,
to be back before spring.


Penny Stirling lives between ocean and hills in Western Australia. Their poetry and short fiction have appeared in Interfictions, Strange Horizons, Lackington’s, Goblin Fruit, Heiresses of Russ 2014, and others.