Creative Voices: Caul of the sea

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By Ellianna Manville |

| Emily Clarke

According to legend I cannot drown. Someone perhaps more sensible would take that, not as fact, but as a vaguely amusing titbit for polite conversation. But that seemed too easy. If I attempted to count the number of times I should have drowned, my ten fingers would seem utterly futile. Mix together a love for the sea, a passion for somewhat extreme sports (powerboats, storm sailing, dinghy races, take your pick), and a flagrant disregard for consequences, and you’re left with quite the high chance of fatality. But I’m still here. Slightly worse for wear, with a battered spine and toes physically unable to sit straight, but I’m still here. Call it skill, call it luck, call it what you will. But the romantic in me has a theory. One based in myth and in magic. I was born with a veil, the thin membrane of my caul covering my face. It’s a birth that is less 1 in 80,000, and links me to centuries of folklore and superstition.

In medieval Romania I would be treated with suspicion, destined to become a strigoi after death, a troubled spirit tormenting my family until they take their pace in the ground. Had I been born in 16th Century Friuli, in northern Italy, I would have been welcomed by the benandanti, and raised to fulfil my destiny as a healer and protector, traveling from my body in nocturnal visionary journeys to battle against malevolent witches, the malandanti, that threatened my community. But it is another legend, one far closer to home, that plays on my mind each time I step into Neptune’s kingdom.

“A child born with their caul intact is destined for greatness and protected from drowning.”

My caul puts me amongst the likes of Lord Byron, Freud and Liberace, so perhaps greatness is not too farfetched. But the inability to drown – now that is more tempting than a siren’s call. A thousand years ago my caul would have been dried and sold to a sailor, to be worn in a leather pouch around his neck, acting as a good luck charm, as protection against the unpredictability of the sea. Sailors seemed hard to come by in South London, so instead my caul stayed with me, the legend living on in a plastic wallet, sandwiched between two sheets of kitchen roll. Sat on top of numerous wardrobes, waiting patiently for a decade. Waiting for the day its partner would hear the call to the sea. And I did. My life has been infinitely improved simply by learning to navigate, and appreciate, Davy Jones’ locker. A sailor, a swimmer, simply a paddler. Once you live by the coast, tearing yourself away will feel as suffocating as being buried alive.

I feel a kinship with medieval sailors of old. The ones who wrote about the sea as a temperamental yet beguiling friend. It has battered me beyond belief, but I’d spend my life in it, on it and by it. Watching the sun’s reflection on the surface, white horses born from waves crashing against rocks, seagulls finding their way home, sea and sand and flotsam and jetsam. Water meets waters and welcomes its kin back home. Salt stings my eyes, wind freezes my bones, stones dig into my flesh, threatening to rip and tear, waves choke and roll me. But they give me no incentive to leave. I simply stop and match my breath to the rise and break of the waves. The extra deep seventh breath will do you no harm.

I’m too often dragged back to dry land and reality, where folklore and legends have little hold. But the sea is still there. Patiently waiting, as it did long before us, and will do long after we are gone.