Is there a canonical selkie story? I don’t just mean a list of common characteristics of selkies and selkie stories — human/seal shapeshifting, shedding of skin, seduction, general air of romantic tragedy, yadda yadda — I mean a single, archetypal, root story. A couple of moments in Catherynne M. Valente’s tale make me think that there is — “This is the only story selkies have”, her selkie tells her narrator, “it is all they know: how to be kept, how to be found, how to escape” — but if that’s the case, I’m not familiar with it. I was left feeling much the same way I feel about some of Sonya Taaffe’s stories (such as 2004’s “A Maid on the Shore”, another selkie story featuring a redhead), that I was missing a level, that I didn’t quite get it.
But I can tell you what I thought of the story’s naked self. It is, I think, the shortest piece of prose I’ve read by Valente — although since (a) the longer pieces of prose I’ve read have tended to be broken up into multiple short segments, often telling their own stories, and (b) this story, too, contains another story within itself, it is perhaps not a departure for her. It also happens to be the shortest story in Salon Fantastique (the next shortest, if I’ve counted pages correctly, is “My Travels with Al-Qaeda”), and that does make a noticeable difference. Of the stories I’ve read from this book, Valente’s is the least elaborate, the most focused on one central situation. The story’s narrator, Dyveke, encounters a selkie in the form of a woman, carrying her skin on the street; she takes the skin, which “stuck to [her] hands in a moment, mottled and rubbery, sliding over [her] wrists as though looking for a way in”; she takes the selkie home with her (Dyveke’s unnamed husband sighs, and asks his wife, “Didn’t you ever read a book?”); the selkie sleeps between them, and eventually tells Dyveke her name, Silja, and her story; and that done, she leaves.
“A Gray and Soundless Tide” is not as stuffed with imagery as some of Valente’s other work, but it’s still told in language that you notice. Silja’s stride is “like a prayer”; the selkie “was beautiful, like a scrubbed length of sun-bleached wood”; the moon is “like a wound in the sky”; and so on. Every detail is a bit brighter, a bit more intense than in the real world. It works for the story in some ways, and against it in others. On the plus side, it is easy to believe that a mythical creature would speak in such a register — when Silja tells her story to Dyveke, she does so with a sort of exhausted lyricism, as though the words are just tumbling out of her. Similarly, the story’s world feels like a world in which magical things are possible.
On the minus side, Silja’s voice is perhaps not adequately differentiated from Dyveke’s framing narrative. The first two of the three examples I gave above are spoken by Dyveke, for instance, and such language doesn’t feel as natural in her mouth as it does in Silja’s. Moreover, the two speakers share the same verbal tics, most notably a penchant for dramatic repetition: “in the night, in the sweat-ridden night,” says Silja, “I felt sick, so sick, somewhere deep in the center of me”; “She leaned her head against the walls,” Dyveke tells us, “as if listening, always listening.” It is a sufficiently distinctive pattern, and crops up frequently enough in the story’s ten pages, that it starts to grate; and every so often, you notice that a story which aspires to be folkloric, an iteration of an old, old truth, is instead modern, carefully beautiful artifice.