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Thursday, 24 June 2021

Readings: Stories of loss, desire and transformation

"In Cleveland it was well known that any wild goose which flew over Whitby would immediately drop dead, and that to catch a seal it was as first necessary to dress as a woman."

This little epitaph, taken from Keith Thomas in Man and the Natural World prefaces Sara Maitland's 1988 short story 'Self-Seal', first published in A Book of Spells and reprinted in Ellen Datlow and Terri Windlings's The Year's Best Fantasy. Second Annual Collection, which is where I first read it, along with Lucius Shepard's 'Life of Buddha' (which I'll return to later.)  It is a one of a handful of trans-themed stories that made an immediate and personal connection that has remained with me since, some thirty years since I first read it.

The main character (there are only three people in the story, and two of them are not human) is a youth (never named) on the verge of manhood and yet to prove himself a man by going down to the sea's edge to catch a new born seal and bring back its skin as a prize. He has continually put this off but this will be the last year he can do it before his beard grows and it is too late. It is not the killing he is afraid of - he has slaughtered pigs, wrung the necks of chickens, drowned unwanted kittens in a sack as part of growing up on a farm. 

No, not the killing, but the feeling when his mother lays out her skirt for him the night before the mother seals arrive on the beach to give birth.

"It is the other. His mother had smiled last year when he tried to tell her. His stomach feels sick to think about it. His dreams fill with it."

When the day comes, he wakes, strips and puts on the dress his mother has laid out. It falls lumpenly, ugly. The sight of his feet poking out from the bottom are ungainly, ludicrous. In that moment, "He knows what his fear is. It is pleasure. Pleasure and desire." 

Instead he raids his mothers kist for her best clothes: stockings, corset and petticoats and bonnet, and fumbles with the ribbons with now slippery hands, until at last he is dressed and it fells right this time. One more thing. He takes a ribbon and pulls his member tightly back until he is smooth down there. There should be something else down there, something he will never know, but this is the best he can do.

As he leaves, he sees himself in the parlour mirror. How pretty she is, he thinks. And then, in the next sentence, comes the switch of pronouns. 

"How pretty I am, she thinks, and she raises the latch and skips out." 

Shivering in the cold air, she goes down to the water's edge, where the seals are coming in, to watch them give birth and suckle.

"Good morning, my dear," says Seal  Woman to her. "and welcome".   "Hello says the new Seal Child. "Will you come and play with me?". "Yes" she says, "yes, please".

So the three of them enter the sea, where they swim and play (she has no fear of drowning) and one by one she loses her bonnet, skirt and petticoats as the Seal Child nips and tugs at the laces and ribbons until there is just one small ribbon left. And when, back on the beach, this comes loose with another playful tug, there is a moment of consternation, alarm, and shame.

"I'm sorry", he says to Seal Woman.

"I was never fooled before" say Seal Woman. "Why is that?" 

"I was naked", he says. "You could have seen. You must have known"

"That's not what counts", says Seal Woman. "You must go now."

But we know. I can't speak for Sara Maitland, but in this poised moment of shame, sorrow and loss, I feel that she she does know, and that she's talking to me. That this is a story aimed squarely at how I felt at that age, and when I first read this story, and still now.

And then the exchange that has puzzled me ever since.

"I could cut it off", he offers, and for a sweet moment of fear, excitement, desire, he means it.

"No, that's not what counts," says Seal Woman.

"No" he agrees.  "Please. Please let me stay."

But the moment passes and before he can remember the reason he came in the first place, and the rock drops from his hand, they vanish  into the sea.

'Later will say, "I caught a seal, but then I let her go." He does not know if they believe him. He does not know if he is a man.'

Some of us are still wondering, or even if we really know what it fully means to be a man.

But what was meant by that last "That's not what counts", which, unless I'm misreading this, almost seems to counter the first? My reading of the first is that Seal Woman saw a girl because at their first meeting on the beach and in the water there was only a girl there to see, as evidenced by Maitland's use of pronouns, which then shift back abruptly to 'he' when the final ribbon loosens and the girl is revealed as male. Is this an argument that what counts is anatomy, or only when anatomy is revealed or, in this case, becomes erect? I still hope not. So much of what has gone before to this point, seems so unerringly accurate of that mixture of fear and desire to cross and be taken for and seen as female, that to snatch that away at the last moment, to say "that's not what counts", seems cruel.

It's an argument I have with another story, Neil Gaiman's otherwise  sympathetic graphic novel A Game of You in the Sandman series, in which Wanda, a young transwoman frightened of taking the final step of GRS, is left behind by her flatmates when they cross into another world because, according to the witch child, Thessaly, in the eyes of the Moon Goddess, she wasn't born a woman. Wanda's abandonment ultimately leads to her death when the house she has been left in comes, literally, crashing down around her,  and to the ignominy of been buried in a suit under her deadname by the parents she has run away to escape.

Gaiman has, not surprising received quite a lot of flack from readers among the trans community, either from the implication that (at least in the eyes of the goddess) what matters is how we are born rather than who we choose to become, or an inability to envisage an ending that didn't follow the tired cliché of a tragic ending for a trans character, or both.

Contrast this with Lucius Shepard's short story 'Life of Buddha' in which it is magic that effects Taboo final transformation, a magic which initially seems to inhabit him precisely because of his gender fluidity, presenting at different times as a man (albeit with small breasts hidden under loose clothes) or in a dress and wig as a rather beautiful young woman. Taboo, like Wanda, is afraid of the surgeon's knife, and resists his friend Buddha's arguments that he should take the final step and become the woman that Buddha believes he is destined to be. Things come to a crisis when Taboo's flat is raided and both the attackers end up dead in the ensuing fight. Taboo, panicked and afraid, has to disappear, and Buddha sees the obvious way out. If Taboo can cure other people's complaints and remove warts and growths with his herbs and magic, why not use it for this last step. 

* * *

There are several other stories that have remained with me long after I read them (William Carlson's very strange 'Dinner at Helen's and Sonya Dorman's 'When I was Miss Dow'), but maybe for another post depending on whether this sparks any interest.





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