Saltheart

The girl I fell for

was from underwater.

But as she sat there,

lone upon a rock,

crooning her strange lament

across the waters,

my heart stood still.

 

I was transfixed,

my senses ravished.

I knew the lore, the legends,

saw the odd, oily caul,

her folded skin, beside her.

 

So creeping up,

myself and not myself,

I seized that skin

then froze as she turned

to look up at me

with those moist, brown, wounded

eyes of hers, startled

then brimming with tears.

 

My voice stuck in my throat

like a fishbone,

but I coaxed out the dry words,

the necessary spell.

“I take you for my bride,” I said,

feeling for all the world

like a ploughboy before a princess,

I of the earth, she of the sea.

 

The word-charm worked

and soon we were walking inland,

the woman’s sealskin tucked

beneath my arm,

her hand in mine.

 

She shivered as she walked,

whether from cold or fear

I could not tell,

so I covered her with my coat.

 

For years I went on covering her,

as she underwent our land-life.

For years I blinded myself

to her sea-longing,

blunted my ears to the yearn

of her croon for the waves.

 

In the end

she went back to the sea,

 

leaving me

with the sense of my own folly,

 

leaving even her children shore-bound,

 

leaving the loamy land-ways

for the freedom of sway and swirl,

 

my saltheart, my selkie, my seal girl.

 

Note   This is, of course, a further processing of the Scots folk tale "The Selkie Bride" which I've rendered previously in narrative verse in my children's poetry book 'Plum' (1998). I discovered the selkie tales through the transcribed tellings of Duncan Williamson, the Scots Traveller storyteller, particularly in the Canongate publications of those and other Scots Traveller tales. For me, the Selkie Tales were for a while something of an obsession. I was riveted by them, haunted by them to the extent that they even entered my dreams. I dreamed my own variants. I continue to find the whole notion of the selkie folk and their relations with the fishing and crofting folk of Scotland's northwest coast strangely fascinating. It seems to occupy a place, a space, halfway between reality and legend. This may be because I gather that in every generation a community would lose several members to sea drowning. Perhaps the idea of a 'people of the sea' afforded consolation and comfort. Perhaps the souls of the lost could be imagined to inhabit an underwater kingdom. 'The Seal Hunter' (which I render as ballad in my book 'The Storyteller's Secrets') gives us a glimpse of such a kingdom. This story too is one passed down by Duncan Williamson.

 

Another power the selkie tales afford for me is the way in which they provide a metaphor for human relations, for issues of love and loss.

 

The word 'saltheart' is a play on the word 'sweetheart'.