Windswept, Mam walked the shore
with her offerings: a chest full of gulls,
a numbness deeper than all sleep.
Wading into the roar
until she was up to her neck in it,
she’d slip off her feet,
shed her heavy sense of emptiness.
She’d wait forever for a glimpse of seal
despite the north wind slapping her backwards
and the fella who stole her skin
waiting up on the dunes.
Even moonlight died on him.
A man full to the brim with drink.
Most nights he’d beat the tides out of us
and threaten to carve his name on her,
button my lip with a fishhook.
After the storms,
we’d wander the beach or she’d reel me up
from sleep in the small hours to float me
in the gentle rise and fall of her grief.
Many a night I found her calling out
to the water in the same strange tongue
I’d heard so many times before: the language
of shipwrecks and sinking vessels,
the screech and moan
of a boat coming apart,
a figurehead being split wide open,
and in a heartbeat,
the seal would appear, his body polished
to a headstone.
Only then would she tell him our sorrows
and he’d lie back and listen with a patience
our menfolk could only dream of.
The great secret keeper of the deep.
Wise as he was, it was clear
he couldn’t make head nor tail of us:
the watchers on the rocks,
the dark moons of our bruises rising,
the black-eyed mother and child
who followed his every move as he poured himself away
into the water, thinning to a dark ribbon
tied across the horizon. I wondered then
if he missed her, as a loving husband
might mourn a dead wife,
or if he ever wondered what would become of us.
If, on nights when he was drunk on depth
and pressure, sleeping soundly in the ancient
cradle of sea, if he ever dreamt of me:
a strange creature, drifting through the abyss
like a whale fall. The tattered white flags
of flesh. The years of being eaten away,
right down to the bone.