'I don’t know if Selkie Dreams is the first novel to combine the story of a lonely nineteenth century Belfast childhood, a Presbyterian mission in Alaska, and the life and culture of the Alaskan native people, the Tlingit, that the mission serves, but I do know that this is a beautifully calibrated and vivid and interesting historical novel about love and death in the North American wilderness, that the characters are fascinating, that the evocation of the natural world and the social customs and practices of Tlingit is assured and convincing, and that the story, albeit melancholy, is unfailingly engaging. I wish it well.'
---- Carlo Gebler, author of "The Siege of Derry"
Belfast, 1895. Haunted by her mother’s death, Máire McNair is lured by the selkie myth to the promise of the Alaskan wilds to fulfil her dream of finding acceptance.
The censorious Mrs. Paxson, the wife of the trading post manager, constantly finds fault with Máire’s efforts to instruct the native children. She has her own plans and Máire is in the way. Will Máire be able to forge her own way and make a success of her teaching? And what should she do about the handsome yet moody Lieutenant Green who is aggressively courting her?
Natsilane is the Tlingit erstwhile mission protégé. Troubled and disaffected, he finds himself battling Máire’s naive views and prejudices as he seeks to regain his own cultural identity by resuming a traditional lifestyle that draws from the Tlingit myth. But he cannot escape his past with the mission, nor can he or Máire escape the mutual attraction they feel. In a world that permits no rule breakers, will the power of myths trump all?
Mam was a selkie.
The words roll over and over in my mind, relentless like the waves that crash against the rugged shoreline telling their own story outside my window. Their story is part of my story. A story that begins and ends with Mam.
Mam was a selkie. She would wrap me in her arms, the smell of the wind fresh in her hair and the sea on her breath and skin. Cook would tell me the story, her ample chest constrained in her wide apron, down in the heat-soaked kitchen that was more hearth and home than any other part of our large house. As Cook spoke these magical phrases I would close my eyes, press the medallion Mam gave me to my cheek and conjure her. Her dark hair, full mouth and slight frame took form from her remembered scent and touch, while the medallion seared my fingers from the heat of the conjuring.
The medallion was so ancient no-one knew its origins. Mam placed it softly in my bedclothes, while I lay sleeping, all pink-cheeked and milky in my cot. I see her now, fingering the worn contours of the metal, tucking it beside my curled little fist, then kissing me lightly on my forehead. It was not a kiss goodbye; it was a promise to return. She rose from my side and headed out to the shore past the jutting rocks that broke the water. Her feet were bare and her nightdress was light and filmy. She returned to the sea, the water enveloping her like her very own seal skin, taking her home.
Cook evoked these selkie images whenever I sat with her in the kitchen; the smells of her crusty sweet breads and thick rich puddings cuddling me like the arms of my own mother.
‘Tell me the story again, Cook,’ I would ask. ‘Please, oh please.’
Cook would smile and hand me a bit of bread or cake, her sturdy fingers dusted in flour, and tilt her head, just so for the telling. Behind her, Polly the kitchen maid, her round face red from chopping or slicing vegetables, halted with her knife poised in mid-air, keen to hear the tale. Dark-haired Annie, the parlour maid, slipped out an ‘oh lah’ and downed her tea tray. She would never miss a telling, no.
Audience assembled, Cook would begin. Her voice was at first a hum, feeling for the rhythms of the sea, while I sat, a boat on the waves of her tale.
‘Ah, the selkie, they are rare creatures, so they are, Máire. Rare and wonderful, as anyone will tell you who has seen them on the moonlit midsummer’s night when they come ashore.’
‘Why do they come ashore?’ I wanted no part omitted.
‘It’s the midsummer moon. It takes them, strong and powerful-like and fills them with such joy, such wonder at life. It’s a joy they must dance, while the moon pushes them on so.
‘But such joy brings danger too. The only way the selkie can dance their joy is to shed their skins. And shed them they do, for who can pass up such a chance to dance on two feet to the rhythm of all the world? It catches them up so, blood afire, spinning their limbs while they dance on. The night wanes and still they dance, their breath ragged, their voices hoarse from their shouts and cries.’
I could feel my seal blood then, it was like music moving and pulsing through my arms, down into feet that swayed and twirled me round and round.
‘But at the first sign of morning light they must go. They must take up their skins once again and return to the sea, or be doomed for seven years upon the shore.’
‘Was that what happened to my mam?’
‘Aye, it was so. She loved to dance, did your mam. She came alive when she danced. Her feet were quick and lighter than air, like a fairy so. It was no wonder then she couldn’t break away from the dance one midsummer’s night. And her seal skin no good to her then, once the dawn came. Seven long years she must wait before she leaves.’
‘Seven, why seven?’ I would ask.
‘Why, seven is the number that always is, Máire. It’s the magic number, the right number.’
‘What happened on the shore when the morning came?’
‘It was a gentleman found her, after she’d tucked her skin away in a rock crevice. He saw her there, a naked child, wailing in sorrow, the loss so heavy upon her. He took her and made her his ward, a child of his own, him a widower with only grown babbies living far from his home.’
‘Did she look like me, my mam, did she?’
‘Your mam was a rare beauty, she was. And don’t you look just like her. You all dark, slender and fey-like, loving the sea as she did. And your father, well he was taken away with her, like everyone else.’ It was then I would visualize my mam; picture her round face with her large eyes, so deep and mysterious.
‘Was she like the other ladies?’
‘Ah no, Finuola was different, quiet, full of thoughts you could see in her eyes. He was fooled by that quietness, took it for shy and meek so. And he was in her spell.’ Cook would shake her head. Polly, with cap askew over coarse red hair, would sigh and call me ‘poor wee thing’ and pat my head or stroke my arm with her dimpled hand. Annie, now seated, honoured the tale with her silence and only nodded. And then Cook would continue, explain the sealskin that drew her back, back to the sea and to her home.
‘Your mam left because she had no choice. She went back to her seal folk. The seven years was gone, and the pull from the sea came over her, strong and forceful like. It’s her true folk, the selkies, they called her home. But where was her skin? The skin that kept her warm, that took her dashing through the water, smooth like lightning. She searched the rock up and down the shore, but the moon would not wait, nor would her folk. So off she went, walking into the sea, deeper and deeper, ‘til her folk came and took her away.’
I am a lass upon the land, but I’m a selkie on the sea.
Cook sang the words, her voice so heavy with tears.
Though I knew the tale well and would mouth it sometimes along with Cook, it was Cook who had to tell it, because she told it best. She’d been there.
I knew little more of my mam than those fragments and stories wrapped in Cook’s layered words, spoken and sung in a lilting cadence so different from the clipped tones my father and his class used. I threaded my own wishes and thoughts around and through Cook’s tales and songs and they brought comfort during my childhood, serving as my mother’s arms, her sweet voice, and the affection of the sisters and brothers I never had. I pulled these thoughts close to me as I tried to listen for the seal blood that flowed in my body, to feel it course through my veins, as surely as I was marked out among the people who moved in my world of home and church; the seal blood that set me apart from the other children and pushed me to tell them about my mam. I knew they half believed me. Perhaps it was my tilted eyes, coloured velvet brown and long-lashed. Or my straight black hair, all thick and silken, refusing any ribbons, pins or combs.
I lived in the kitchen then, basking in Cook’s presence while she stirred some pot for my father’s business dinners or giggled with Polly and Annie while keeping out of sight of my stern father. Always Father, never Papa or Daddy, for he was a genteel Presbyterian. A true Ulsterman. A good businessman. He never spoke of my mother; it was a subject he avoided with studious care, my existence the only reminder of a brief moment of folly. Periodically he would peer closely at me, correct my grammar and pull my vowels away from common Irish to the modulated tones that befit a daughter of the empire.
In the summer I would comb the rocks, searching all the crevices for her sealskin, hands red raw and bleeding from the fierce desperation of my desires. I never found it.
By the time I reached womanhood and donned the corsets, shoes and bustle-laden petticoats befitting a good Protestant girl of prosperous Belfast, the tale had settled in me, become part of my story to myself, showed me who I was and who I was not.