Seal Wives and Fae Women: A Parable of Lost Girls

John Bauer, The Princess and the Trolls, public domain image

I wrote this poem back in January, which feels like a thousand years ago now. I held off posting it because I know how hard a year it’s been for doctors and how many of them have also succumb to an illness not yet understood, abandoned and devalued like so many of us chronically ill folks were long before Covid-19. But, given the attitudes towards disabled and chronically ill people in the US and the UK especially (“Just stay home!” or “Hurry up and die and decrease the surplus population!”), the people in retirement homes and other institutions left to die, the all too familiar plight of those with “Long Haul Covid”, and the continual dismissal of disabled and chronically ill voices in a time when we have real wisdom to offer–be it about finding yourself to still be ill when doctors can’t explain it or won’t believe it, coping with a reality that isn’t any less real just because we don’t want it to be or find it too hard to bear, or making due in isolation without adequate support systems–make this poem’s message all the more necessary. It’s my story and millions of others’; now, last year, and a thousand years before me. But I sincerely hope not a thousand years hence.

It doesn’t have to be like this. We can’t change the past and undo all the damage already done, but we can decide to write a new chapter going forward. And who knows whose life (or quality of life) that might save? It could be your neighbor’s. It could be your coworker’s. It could be your parent’s or your spouse’s or your children’s. It could be yours. After all, we’re the only minority anyone can join at any time.

Seal Wives and Fae Women: A Parable of Lost Girls
by Shannon Barnsley

Millions are missing
And the cooper’s wife is too
So we hold our silent vigil
For a girl in a gown too blue
Lost in halls and hospitals
A silver talisman bears true
The diagnosis they doubted
With “Maybe it’s just you?”

“Maybe it’s your fault
Did you ever think it might?
It sure looks like anxiety
Caught in fight or flight
This isn’t an emergency
I’ve no time to spare tonight
For another hypochondriac
Who thinks her Google search is right”

The words echo again
We’ve heard them all before
Generations of us girls
Lost to fable and to lore
Seal wives and fae women
Changelings left by the door
You wouldn’t hear our screaming
So now you’ll hear our roar

The nails in our coffin
Wrought of iron, silver, laws
Pilliwinckes and forceps 
Their ever-sharpened claws
They threw us in asylums
When our ailments gave them cause
And said “domestic illness”
When our symptoms gave them pause

From hangmen down to hospitals
Aid, insurance, and the rest
They poke for holes and Devil’s Marks
Scan our feeds for #Blessed
They’ll find their proof in lies
Try to force us to confess
And hang their guilt and albatross
Like a noose about our breast

Heinrich brought the hammer
James of Scotland his book good
The Exorcist echoed louder
Than Brain on Fire ever could
The changelings left to freeze
Fae wives used as firewood
Fallen women fall through cracks
Our entreaties thought falsehood

So when they say we’re faking
Say it’s just our nerves or girth
Or tests we need will cost too much
It’s a burden we aren’t worth
Remember all they’ve cost us
Down the ages on this earth
The lettings and the leeches
And gaslit twilight births

The sanatoriums and camps
The institutions where we died
The scripture and the paperwork
Where in blood red ink they lied
We paid with copay and with coin
When our symptoms we’d confide
Then they’d brand us with hysteria
And all that that implied

Even in our homes 
With our husbands and our kin
They kill us to be free sometimes
Or bind us with our skin
Seal wives and fae women
And the changelings never win
Bridget Cleary’s fate still looms
As their narratives they spin

Our weapon is our memory
And the silence they can’t buy
Though they take our lives and livelihoods
We won’t stop asking why
For our foremothers and daughters
Women lost to us and time
We will name that Rumpelstiltskin
And refuse to spin his line

In mass graves and in platitudes
Beneath a blood red moon
We will no more be buried
’Neath binding, nail, or rune
So smash your witches’ bottle
Stolen memories aren’t a boon
And speak the names with power
Autonomic, autoimmune

You’ll not scratch out our stories
Not in hospitals or mass
Red cloaks or crooked crosses
Push us through the looking glass
Try to turn us on each other
As the “good ones” try to pass
Don’t be their Gillis Duncan
And sacrifice another lass

Maybe it’s your fault
My good doctor with his note
In penning your excuses
It was murder that you wrote
You left the seal wives hanging
They’d no proof without their coat
You thought that we were faking
Like they thought that witches float

Millions are missing
And the cooper’s wife is too
So no more silent vigils
Don’t be polite, be true
Seal wives and fae women
Owe no cooper’s guilt their due
I will shout for all my sisters
Not keep silent for you

THE END

Accused witches interrogated before the king, from Dæmonologie (1597) by King James IV of Scotland, US public domain image

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