“The Sea Does Not Need Me”
By Brittany Warman
Originally Published in Something Rich and Strange: Tales from the Sea
“I am a man upon the land,
I am a silkie in the sea,
And when I’m far frae every strand,
My home it is in Sule Skerry.”
~ Child Ballad #113, “The Selkie of Sule Skerry”
The sea is aware of nothing but Herself. I stand alone on the white shore and as the gentle waves of the early morning caress my feet, I feel the water of me respond to Her unintended touch. I have needed the sea all my life without knowing it.
The sea does not need me.
When I was old enough, my mother and I would wake in the blackest hour of the early morning to prepare the ships together. She would hold me close as we climbed down the grey cliffs to the angry, shadowed water below our home. Our candles would flicker and go out in the wind and the darkness before dawn quickly became as familiar as the feel of my mother’s hand in mine. My life was measured by yards of rope and the incalculable number of the grains of sand in my hair. The sea was our keep and we avoided the village unless absolutely necessary. We had no friends and no enemies. Even the seals left us alone.
The seals, too comfortable in their strange, always watchful bodies, were the villagers’ only monsters, their only competition. They would say: “The seals eat our fish, have ruined our boats. There are attacks we cannot explain. They take everything – they are evil and magical and old. Never go near the seals without a spear in your hands.” They forced a war with creatures far older than they could ever hope to be. They needed something to hate, something to blame for the perpetual shadows in which they lived, I understand that. The entrance to the town was guarded by the severed heads of seals, furious words carved into the pikes that bore them. The trophies stared with dead eyes at the water to which they would never return.
I don’t remember when I first began to hear the whispers of my mother’s life before me. I know that I had never thought to wonder about my father, never considered why we lived on the outside of the village, and never cared that few spoke to us directly. For me, there was only and always her. My mother, grey and silent as the stones we built our lives on, the quiet hardness in her eyes. We cared for each other and the ships, and that was enough. It was enough for a long time. Eventually, of course, the murmurs of the villagers crept into my heart without my consent and I began to wonder. Words were hushed when I walked by, puzzle pieces hidden. For the first time, I felt a need I could not name.
“It was na weel”, the maiden cried,
“It was na weel, indeed” quo she,
“For the Great Silkie of Sule Skerrie,
To hae come and aught a bairn to me!”
It is a strange thing not to know your own history. My ignorance ate at me at night, a curiosity curled in my heart, a need to know. It ripped through my dreams, breaking them apart until I gasped aloud and sat up in our bed, a storm singing outside our window. I would feel for my mother’s hand beneath the sheets and touch her to make sure she was real.
Then, one evening, as we wove black sea-nets and whispered the old prayers, her dark eyes met mine in the light of our single burning candle. I stilled as she searched my face.
“You would not know it to look at you,” she finally said in a soft voice, closing her eyes. I said nothing. When she opened her eyes again, there was a harsh determination in them. “You are right. You are right to wonder and it is time you knew.”
She pulled her chair closer to my own and her face fell into shadow. I could no longer see her expression and her secret hovered in the air between us, a new prayer, a new understanding. I realized with a kind of horror that she needed me more than I needed her. She laced her fingers through mine and for a moment I could hear the sea.
“It shall come to pass on a summer’s day,
When the sun shines hot on every stone,
That I shall take my little young son,
And teach him for to swim the foam.“
The sea does not need me.
I step completely into Her and the ancient spell of change is suddenly all around me. I allow myself to feel it, let it course through my veins just for a moment. My skin hums and shivers, the water inside me calling to its family, longing for experiences I can’t even imagine. I know that one day I will not be able to resist the ocean’s siren song, the song of my father, but until that day I will fight to run to the rough hands of my earthly mother.
She has earned at least that much – I am all she needs.
[Image: Collage of Public Domain Elements]