Seal, n. A member of the family Phocidae, sub-order Pinnipedia. An aquatic carnivorous mammal with limbs developed into flippers and adapted for swimming, and having an elongated body covered with thick fur or bristles and terminated by a short tail. The seal figures in the mythology of many ancient peoples.
The town of Yuille sat high in the Great Dividing Range with no river or stream connecting it to the coast. Winters were grey and miserable with biting winds and rain; summers brought endless days of clear blue skies and searing heat.
The sun beat bright on the tin roofs, glaring off every surface, the air heavy with the afternoon heat. The wire door slapped shut as Deirdre ran into the house.
‘Mum. Mum.’ She peered into each room as she walked along the passage.
Moira lay on the bed, the blinds drawn. A fan covered with a damp tea towel chugged its breeze slowly back and forth across the room.
‘Mum.’ Deirdre stood at the end of the bed. Moira opened her eyes and inclined her head towards Deirdre. ‘Mum, can I go to the pool with Patricia? Her big sister is taking her – she said I could come too.’
‘But Mum. Please.’
‘But why?’ she whined.
‘You know what I think of that pool. It’s unclean – stale stagnant water, slime in the toddlers’ pool. You’ll come away with infections – your eyes, your ears, even the slightest scratch will run with pus.’
‘But Mum, Patricia says they fixed it up. It’s really clean now. They painted it and the water is clear. It looks so beautiful.’ She saw the blue green water glittering in the sun, the light bouncing off the white paths. She could hear the squeals, the splash and thwack of children leaping in the water.
‘And do you know how they keep that water clean Deirdre?’ Moira pulled herself up on the pillows, resting on her elbows.
Deirdre shook her head. ‘They pour sacks of chemicals into it. Strong chemicals which will strip the oils from your skin, burn your eyes. The fumes from it will destroy your lungs. Do you want that?’
‘But Mum. All the other kids go swimming there. That doesn’t happen to them.’
‘No Deirdre.’ She shut her eyes and lowered herself back onto the pillows.
Deirdre hung her head and swung her foot, scuffing the floor.
Moira opened her eyes. ‘Deirdre you can put your togs on and go out and play under the sprinkler.’
‘Thanks Mum.’ Deirdre’s voice lightened but she walked slowly down the passage towards her own room.
Moira sat on a chair beside Deirdre’s bed, reading her a nighttime tale. Deirdre knew the story by heart –The Little Mermaid. She listened to the comforting lilt of her mother’s voice. The story finished, Moira stood up and gently kissed Deirdre on the forehead.
Deirdre looked into her mother’s eyes, so different from those of the other mothers, so dark you couldn’t tell where the iris finished and the pupil started.
‘Mum why did she do that? Let the witch cut out her tongue, and wear legs that hurt when she walked?’
‘The story tells you – for love.’
‘But that’s only a story. No one would do that for real.’
‘People will suffer many things for those they love.’
Deirdre stared up at her, puzzled.
Moira brushed Deirdre’s fringe back from her forehead. ‘You are too young to worry about such things.’ She kissed her forehead again. ‘Sweet dreams, Deirdre.’
She walked towards the lamp to switch it off but stopped, gazing at the collection of magazine pictures taped to the wall.
‘You like seals Deirdre?’
‘They are so beautiful Mum.’
Moira turned to Deirdre and smiled, her usually wistful face radiant.
‘They showed us a film at school. Can we go to the zoo one day and see them?’
‘You will have to ask your father.’
The summer wore on. Day after endless day of heat.
‘Dad can we go to the beach?’
‘No.’ Peter’s voice was gruff.
‘But at the weekend?’
‘I’ve already said no.’
Deirdre saw the spark of interest in her mother’s face. She sat staring at her husband.
Peter glanced at Moira then quickly turned back to his newspaper.
Deirdre pressed on. ‘The Jenkinses go to the beach for the day. They leave early and come back late. They spend the whole day there swimming and lying on the sand.’ She looked again at her mother but stopped, awed by the naked longing in her mother’s face.
Peter looked, up his face mottled with anger. ‘I. Said. No.’
‘Why not?’ Deidre scowled at him, her mouth a tight angry line. ‘You never let me do anything. We never do what everyone else does. Why do we have to be different?’
He lifted the newspaper, making a barrier between himself and the rest of the world.
‘Everyone else likes it.’ Deirdre muttered to herself, tears brimming in her eyes.
Peter finished reading the newspaper, folded it neatly and put it to the side of the table. ‘Deidre, would you like to visit your Grandmother at the weekend?’ He watched his wife as he spoke.
‘That’s on the coast.’ Deirdre’s face lit up. ‘Mum isn’t that wonderful. It’s the beach.’
‘It is. You will love it there.’
‘But you’ll be coming too.’
‘No darling, I have to stay here.’
‘It just can’t be.’ She smiled at Peter, her eyes glistening with unshed tears.
‘Well maybe we can all go to the zoo together.’ She looked pleadingly at her father.
‘Later in the holidays perhaps. When we get back from Gran’s.’
‘Mum, why doesn’t Gran like you?’
‘Who says she doesn’t like me?’
‘It’s just… She doesn’t say she doesn’t like you but she kept asking me things about you.’
Moira raised an eyebrow. ‘What sort of things?’
‘Like have I ever met my other grandparents, do they send me birthday cards. She was asking Dad about you too. She wanted to know why we had to live so far away. Didn’t he love the sea? Why you had made him leave the coast?’
‘I didn’t make him. It was his decision.’
‘But she said he was a good fisherman. She said why did he give it all up at a whim to live miles and miles from any real water?’ Moira was silent. ‘Gran wanted to know why you hadn’t come too. Why didn’t you come with us Mum?’
‘It is too hard to explain.’
Deirdre sat, swinging her legs under her chair. ‘You know my duck’s feet?’ Moira frowned. ‘Well Patricia calls them that. She wasn’t being nasty, she just said my feet are webbed like a duck. She said I should be good at swimming. Can I learn to swim Mum?’
‘You don’t need to learn.’
‘But everyone else does. If I don’t I might drown one day.’
‘You won’t drown, I promise you. You didn’t drown at the beach, did you?’
Deirdre pursed her lips. ‘Gran says I got my webbed feet from you.’
‘Does she? I don’t have webbed feet.’
‘But she says there’s never been anyone born in her family or Grandpa’s with webbed feet before.’
‘That shows just how special you are.’
The week before the holidays ended Deirdre and her parents came down to the city to visit the zoo. Deirdre brought Patricia with her. The girls ran from enclosure to enclosure, pointing, squealing, laughing, Peter running to keep up with them. Moira walked on behind staring at the caged animals. The girls ran to the fun fair, ate fairy floss.
They stood staring at the monkey cage.
‘She’s around somewhere.’
‘Shouldn’t we look for her?’
‘No ,she’s a big girl.’
‘But we mightn’t ever find her.’
‘Don’t worry I have an idea where she’ll be.’
The shadows lengthened. ‘Dad, we haven’t seen the seals yet.’
‘Well we’d better go and see them then.’
They stood at the railing and watched the seals perform for their supper. Deirdre watched the graceful glide of the sleek grey creatures through the water. Beautiful dark eyes, long lustrous lashes, ageless faces.
‘I wish I could swim like a seal,’ Deirdre sighed. Peter looked at her, his face troubled.
‘Come down and watch them swim from under the water.’ They climbed down the damp steps to a dim cavern. One wall was a window to the seal pool. The seals swam, their faces just the thickness of the glass away. The girls stared, enraptured.
‘They are so beautiful.’ Deirdre looked past her father to the corner of the cavern. There was her mother hunched in the corner. She ran towards her but stopped. Misery marked Moira’s tear stained face, her gaze was fixed on the seals. Peter walked over to her and wrapped her in his arms, his shoulder obliterating her view.
Deirdre walked into the kitchen and threw her bag on the floor. She sat at the end of the table, her long legs sprawled underneath. Moira looked up from her ironing and smiled at Deirdre.
‘Mum. They say we can have swimming lessons at school.’
‘I don’t know Deirdre.’
‘They don’t cost much. The school pays something towards them. All the other girls are going. I will be the only one who can’t swim properly.’
‘But you can swim. You know you took to the water when you went to visit Gran and Grandpa three years ago.’
‘But I want to know how to do the fancy strokes the others do. Freestyle, backstroke, butterfly.’
Moira laughed. ‘Butterfly! Butterflies don’t swim.’
‘It’s a way of swimming, Mum.’
‘But there are all those chemicals.’
‘Oh Mum. Please. I’ll wear a bathing cap and goggles and I’ll use earplugs and nose plugs and I’ll shower as soon as I step out of the water. I want to do this more than anything in the world.’
Moira recognized the yearning in Deirdre’s face. ‘Well. I doubt any harm will come of it.’
Deirdre lay on her towel on the grass. Her eyes shut against the glare of the sun, basking in the heat. She smiled as she sat up and looked around her – the splash and squeal of the children playing, the glitter of the sun on the blue green water. She climbed the diving board, adjusted her goggles, her only concession to an alien element, and took her turn. A graceful dive – she sliced though the water. Down, down into the pool she swam with the ease of a seal. Down. She touched the plate five metres down. Deirdre glided upwards, the water streaming past her, iridescent bubbles gently caressing her skin. She broke the surface, exultant.
The teachers, the other girls said she was a natural. It must be in the blood. She supposed it was because her father had been a sailor, her mother didn’t swim.
The day following Deirdre’s eighteenth birthday she watched as her father prepared to visit his mother. She turned away, embarrassed at the intensity of her parent’s farewell embrace.
She stood with her mother watching as the car turned from the street.
‘I hope Gran will be alright.’
‘She’s a tough woman. I’m sure she will pull through.’
‘But it must be bad if they want Dad there.’
‘He felt he had to go. I know he wanted to take you down to settle into College but you and I will manage. We can get a taxi from the train.’
‘You haven’t travelled anywhere alone, have you Mum?’
‘Not since I met your father, no.’
‘You don’t mind coming with me. You’ll have to go back alone.’
‘It isn’t a problem. I am quite capable.’
Deirdre laughed and hugged her mother. ‘I know you are.’
Deirdre looked down the yard, surprised to see her mother come out of her father’s shed.
‘You’ve been snooping in Dad’s shed.,’ she laughed. ‘What’s he got hidden down there?’
‘I’m surprised he left the key behind.’
‘It must have been the rush and worry.’
‘And you took advantage of that.’
‘What’s that?’ She pointed to the grey bundle Moira held in her arms.
‘It’s an old skin coat I wore years ago.’
Deirdre reached out to touch the coat. ‘I can’t imagine you in a coat made of animal skin. What sort of animal?’
Deirdre pulled her hand away. ‘How hideous. How could you? How many seals were killed to make this?’
‘No seals were killed. It is the skin of a single seal.’
‘I still think it’s disgusting.’
Deirdre’s bags were settled into her college room.
Moira said, ‘I’d like to go down to the beach for a walk along the esplanade. I think we can get a tram from here.’
‘That’d be nice. Do you want to leave your bag here? It’s so bulky.’
‘No, I’ll go home straight from the beach.’
They walked along the wooden walkway, the sea breeze tangling in their hair.
‘I always thought you hated the beach.’
‘No. I loved it too much. It was better for you that we were away from it.’
‘Look there’s a kiosk. You go and sit down Mum and I’ll get us a cup of coffee.’
Moira placed her hand on Deirdre’s arm. ‘Deirdre I want you to remember this. Every moment I have spent with you and your father has been worth it.’
‘You sound as if it is all over.’
‘In a way it is.’
‘Look, I’ll come home often to see you. And there’ll be the holidays.’ Deirdre saw tears welling in her mother’s eyes. ‘Don’t cry or I will too,’ she sniffed. ‘I’ll get that cup of coffee.’
Deirdre stood in the queue at the kiosk. She turned at a shout from a voice behind her. ‘Look at that will you. There’s a seal in the water.’
Deirdre stared at the animal swimming gracefully through the water. It stopped, seemed to look back at the beach for a single moment. As it disappeared towards the horizon Deirdre felt an inexplicable sense of desolation.
Legends state that seals were able to cast aside their skins and assume human form. In the Orkneys, Shetlands, the Western Isles and Ireland, and later across the Celtic Diaspora seals were said to come ashore at night, though they had to resume their animal form by sunrise. However, if a man could steal a seal-maiden’s discarded skin she would stay with him until it was regained. The offspring of such unions were said to be excellent swimmers and to possess webbed hands and feet.
©Catherine Merrick 2016