In Celtic folklore, a seal will once a year swim to the shore at nighttime and wriggle out of her thick dark sealskin. The revealed body is that of a human woman, naked, beautiful. If a man manages to take her sealskin, she will follow him, and if he can hide it from her, he will possess her and she will remain with him, wife and mother to their human children. Maybe her eyes always reveal the captive animal that is still a part of her, so that even when she looks at her human family she is always divided, never quite present to them. It is common knowledge that if she finds that skin, the selkie will put it on and go directly back into the sea, where she will become a seal again and not risk coming on land. Without her skin, he will no longer have any illusion of her love or desire, and will wonder if he had ever really had her, if an integral part of her had always been pulsating in the oily thick skin that he had so carefully stowed away.
What does the selkie feel when she is touched as a woman by a man? Is inhabiting this new skin familiar on some level, so that the sensory perception is recognizable, or is the haptic profoundly alienating? Does having sex as a woman differ from having sex as a seal, and does feeding a baby at a breast feel completely different from suckling a seal pup? I imagine she must feel strangely exposed, naked of the thick layers of blubber and waterproof furry skin that had encased her before. But even in imagining that, I am falling into the confusion of wanting to demarcate what is inside and outside. Is her sealness inside her or outside her? Maybe to be enveloped in a woman’s skin is to have a protective covering over her “true” identity, the seal that remains within/underneath. Does the human man’s desire resonate for her, does she see herself through his eyes, or does she feel ill at ease with the gaze that does not see her as she knows herself to be?
In some versions, it is the daughter of this inter-species couple that finds the heavy living animal skin in her father’s closet, way at the back against the wall. I imagine her instantly attracted to it, smelling and touching it and draping it around her shoulders. It would feel like it wanted to mould itself to her, its contours shaping hers, its weight an embrace that pressed upon her. As the daughter who felt the unspoken strain of her mother’s splitness, her father’s anxiety about keeping her captive, it would surprise her to feel the skin wrapping itself around her, holding her together in one skin. For a moment, she would feel contained, no pieces of her given away to assuage her mother’s emptiness, to keep her there.
The family dynamic would be one in which the daughter couldn’t be daddy’s little girl, because her damaged broken mother, only half a woman, would already have that role. Instead, the daughter would be her mother’s eager interlocutor, trying always to mirror back to her a version of wholeness and humanness. Instead of being held and cared for her by her mother, she would constantly be offering herself as pieces to stuff the holes in the family net, always unconsciously enacting her own vexed role in keeping her melancholic mother trapped in quotidian domestic landedness. She wouldn’t have known what the tethers were that bound her mother to the family, but would perceive something of the mother’s persistent desire to be elsewhere, to be something else. Marriage and maternity would seem, to the daughter sensing her mother’s captivity, something to be avoided because of its entrapping constraints.
So when she found the skin, she would wonder why her father didn’t give it to her mother. He had, after all, bought her so many other fur coats to drape her shapely body. Was it too oily? Too heavy? But it was so alive, her mother would be enlivened by it, it would animate the drooping corners of her mouth. She would run to get her tired sad mother to show her the skin, and the moment the mother saw it, animate in its folds and curves, she would burrow into it, rising up transformed, gleaming, coursing with life. Without even a sidelong glance, a nod of gratitude, a farewell, she would turn her back on her daughter and return to the sea.
They say that the mother would sometimes look at the daughter on the shore with soulful eyes that were filled with longing, but that’s anthropomorphizing. All seals have that look as they bob their heads above the waves. Who can tell if the seal had any human affect, or if she ever had in all those years of captivity? And they say that on their birthdays she would leave presents for the children. But what would a daughter do with an object that comes from a world that she didn’t know and wasn’t part of? How would that give her a piece of what she wanted? The mother wasn’t ever going to give another bit of herself, so she would leave a beautiful thing—“take it, it’s yours.”
Would the daughter, as she went down to the beach to see if she could catch a glimpse of her mother’s silky head as it popped to the surface and submerged again, feel regret or joy? Without her discovering the skin, her mother would have never been able to leave. But in freeing her to her other incarnation, she lost her mother, and was left to question whether she had ever had her. The daughter would always be wondering what she herself was, harbouring a fantasy of a hidden skin that would explain her persistent feeling of constitutive lack. They say that little girls whose mothers dress in jeans and t-shirts overcompensate for their uncertainty about what constitutes femininity by wanting frilly pink dresses. Left behind with her bereft father, the skinless daughter would play at being the little wife and mother. Hearkening to a role that her mother had played, she would try to do it better, enact more presence and wholeness to cover for her lost mother’s desperate splitness.