The story so far…
In the spring of 1888 Harriet Butterow and her friend, Petunia Middlestreet, perished in the sea while trying to salvage goods from a shipwreck. Their respective daughters, Amelia, aged six and Lilac, aged three, became the wards of Harriet’s father-in-law, Bartholomew Middlestreet, the landlord of the Squid and Teapot. In order to give the girls the best possible education and home life Bartholomew relinquished management of the inn to his long-term tenant, the odious Tobias Thrupp. Ten years slipped by and Bartholomew died. Nothing more was heard of the girls for the next two years, until they were rescued from Thrupp’s clutches by Abraham, a Passamaquoddy trader who took them to his reservation on the mainland. The girls lived happily with Abraham and his family until Lilac fell in love with Abner Badbrook, a silver-tongued rogue. The two eloped in the dead of night, only for Abner to desert Lilac when he learned that he was to become a father. Fearing that she would not be able to support her small son, Lilac left him on the steps of a convent. While being taken for adoption to New Brunswick, the child, Randall and his guardian, Sister Mary Selsley, of the Little Sisters of St. Chloe, were shipwrecked on Hopeless, Maine, along with the ship’s captain, Sebastian Lypiatt.
Amelia was saddened but not surprised by Lilac’s departure from the reservation. Her friend had been acting strangely for a week or so prior to her disappearance. It had become obvious to Amelia that Lilac was smuggling food and soft deerskin blankets to someone in the forest but she said nothing to Abraham or his wife, Cenopi.
Over the following weeks Amelia retreated increasingly into her own thoughts. She took to wandering along the river bank, as though seeking something. In blocking out the rest of the world she seemed to have switched on part of herself that had formerly been sleeping.
Amelia had often heard the seals before, of course, going about their business in Passamaquoddy bay. The plaintive barking that was so familiar, however, one day became an invocation, a siren-call to those who could hear its message. Like one in a dream Amelia made her way to the water’s edge, then hesitated. The abiding memory she had of her mother was of being warned never to go into the ocean. After Harriet herself became a victim of the grey Atlantic, Amelia could see the sense in this, not knowing the real reason for her mother’s fears.
‘Strictly speaking’, she told herself, ’This is not the ocean. I can be careful.’
In truth, whatever her mind had said, a greater force was at work within Amelia and all of the warnings in the world would not have prevented her from being drawn towards the seal-song.
There is a point where practicality, driven by instinct will always prevail over the modesty imposed by social mores. That morning Amelia gazed over the expanse of shining water and without a second thought, took off her clothes. She laid each garment carefully on a dry rock, then – for reasons beyond her comprehension – threw herself into the chilly waters of the bay.
After the initial shock of hitting the water she began to panic. For a brief moment the old Amelia took control, thrashing and screaming in the swirling current. Then a great calmness swept over her. Dimly she imagined that this must be the end. If this was death it was not so bad. It did not come as some hostile enemy but almost as a gentle guardian, come to gather her into its warm embrace. But she was confused; none of the things she had been led to expect was happening. There was no bright light, no welcoming family waiting with outstretched arms to usher her into the afterlife. What she did feel, however, was warmth and strength and a undeniable desire to eat some fish. Amelia looked down at her body. It was sleek, fat and furry. Instead of arms and legs she had flippers. Then something in her remembered; this was a memory not spun from intellect but from instinct. A memory that flowed in her blood and lived in her bones. She was Selkie.
In the event, there was a family to welcome her, after all. The Harbor Seals had sensed that she was near and had been waiting. Amelia had come home.
It was a full two years before Amelia once more took on human form and again it was instinct that drove her to do so. She had watched with curiosity as a man, woman and tiny child bobbed across the water on an upturned dining table. Amelia, who still retained some shadow of her former attributes, could not help but swim up alongside the strange craft. It had been a long time since she had heard human speech. The conversation centred around the child, who the woman had referred to as “Young Randall Middlestreet.”
She dimly remembered that she had once had a friend with the same name. An ache grew inside the selkie, suddenly wanting to know more and if her friend was close by. She watched as the little party washed up on to a foggy shore – a somehow familiar foggy shore, she thought – and made their way inland, abandoning the table and rough tarpaulin that had served as a makeshift sail. Amelia dragged herself onto the rocks. As she dried, her skin sloughed off to reveal her human form. She folded the sealskin and hid it in the rocks, then, in the best tradition of Adam and Eve, became suddenly aware and ashamed of her nakedness. The only item to cover her modesty adequately was the old tarpaulin, which she draped about her as best she could and, in bare feet, made her way inland.
Amos Gannicox was sitting outside his cabin when he saw her. His face suddenly became a deathly white, as though he had seen a ghost. It must be admitted that seeing ghosts was not that unusual on this island. Amos had seen several in his years there. This particular ghost, however, had a special place in Amos’ heart.
“Ha… Harriet. Is that you?” he asked, nervously.
“ Pardon?” Despite her selkie years, Amelia had not forgotten her manners.
“I’m sorry,” said Amos, seeing now his mistake. “It’s just that you reminded me of a dear friend who died over fifteen years ago. You could be her twin. Her name was Harriet.”
“My mother was Harriet…” said Amelia as memories of her childhood flowed back.
It did not take long for Amos and Amelia to piece together the events that had led up to her disappearance from the island. She told him about her time on the reservation and her living with the seals. Amos reddened. Harriet had always claimed that Amelia’s father was a selkie and he had dismissed it out of hand as delusion. The girl’s story now gave the tale some credence.
After Harriet’s disappearance Amos had salvaged some of her things as keepsakes. He had been secretly in love with her and could not bear to see her few possessions scavenged by the other islanders. From these he found some suitable shoes and a dress, which was a much tighter fit than Amelia had expected it to be. She could not remember having been quite so rounded when on the reservation.
When he was told of the child, Randall Middlestreet, Amos made a few enquiries and soon learned that the boy was in the care of the orphanage. Upon hearing this Amelia immediately resolved to go there herself. It was her plan to volunteer to help, thereby allowing her to keep an eye on Randall’s welfare.
Amelia had been there but a few hours before she found an unexpected ally in Sister Mary Selsley. The nun’s calling asked her to accept, without question, many things that, in a secular setting, she would find to be totally implausible. So, to recognise the existence of a shape-shifting selkie did not demand of her a huge leap of faith. Sister Mary had been born and raised on the wild west coast of Ireland where these creatures were known to exist and held in some regard. To those, like herself, who had lived among the selkies, there was something in their eyes and general bearing that betrayed them immediately when in their human form. These things she saw, and loved, in Amelia.
Sister Mary had nothing like the same regard for Reverend Malachi Crackstone, the principal of the orphanage. Besides his being a protestant, which was cause enough to meet the nun’s disapproval, she found him to be a mean-minded, unpleasant man, given to cruelty. She warned Amelia not to reveal any of herself to him, although the parson had already discovered that her great grandmother had been Colleen O’Stoat, a woman widely suspected of being a witch. Crackstone made no secret of his instant dislike for the girl, a dislike that forthcoming events would turn into something akin to hatred.
The mind and instincts of a seal and those of a human have little in common, outside of a desire for survival. That is why – perhaps mercifully – a selkie woman recalls her seal life as little more than a dream, and vice-versa. So, when the nun pointed out to Amelia that she was decidedly pregnant it came as something of a surprise. It certainly explained a few things but she had no recollection of ever mating. Sister Mary assured her she must have done so; to the nun’s knowledge there had only been one instance of a virgin birth and to suggest this might be another was nothing short of blasphemous.
“ As far as Reverend Crackstone is concerned,” advised the nun, “you’ve lived on the island all of your life and the father is unknown. He wont like it but it will stop him from asking awkward questions.”
There was another problem. A human gestation period is nine months, while a seal’s is eleven. A massive conflict was raging in Amelia’s body and she was not having a good time. In the event, the strange nature of the pregnancy brought on the onset of labour several weeks early.
It was a hard and traumatic birth. For two whole days and nights Amelia was wracked with pain that took a great toll on her strength. In her heart Sister Mary suspected that there would be little chance of Amelia or her child surviving the ordeal.
As the clock struck midnight, heralding the vernal equinox of 1905, Betty Butterow was born. As Sister Mary had feared, the fight to bring Betty into the world had been too much for Amelia, who, by now, was pale and very close to death. Crackstone, with a heart as cold as ice, took the child casually from the weeping nun’s arms and swept off to find a wet-nurse.
Tearfully, Sister Mary stripped the blood soaked shift from Amelia’s lifeless body and washed her.
“This girl should be returned to the sea, where she belongs” she told herself. “Not in the cold earth, where Crackstone would put her”
As I have mentioned before, Sister Mary was no delicate, frail thing. Effortlessly, she lifted Amelia into her arms and carried her out into the night air.
Unless you are a Night-Soil Man it can be perilous to walk about the island after dark. Fortune, or something else, was on the nun’s side, however, as she made her way to the precise spot where Amelia had said she had hidden her pelt.
A mist-shrouded full moon watched with a baleful eye as the sealskin was wrapped securely around Amelia’s lifeless form. For her own peace of mind Sister Mary said a few suitable words to her God, then, gathering up Amelia’s body, waded into the ocean, almost to chest height, and placed her precious bundle upon its surface. She watched sorrowfully as the dark water folded over the girl and drew her into its inky depths. Making her way back to shore, soaked and shivering with bitter cold, the nun was comforted by the knowledge that she had returned Amelia to her true home.
A sudden noise made her turn. Just a few feet behind her a seal’s head burst through the water. For an instant that felt like a lifetime the two regarded each other in the moonlight. A spark of recognition flared in the seal’s dark eyes.
Sister Mary’s heart leapt.
“She’s alive,” she cried aloud, “Amelia, you’re alive!”
The seal lingered a moment longer and the connection that had momentarily flickered between them gradually faded, like a candle being slowly extinguished.
Without giving the nun another glance, the seal turned and headed for the open ocean, completely unaware of the identity of the human standing in the water behind her.
The selkie that had been Amelia Butterow was now a seal forever, forgetful of the life she had once known and the daughter she left behind on the mysterious island of Hopeless, Maine.
Art- Tom Brown