Selkies (meaning “Seal Folk”) are mythological beings capable of changing from seal to human form by shape-shifting. Shedding their skin. These selkie folk are often recounted in Scottish folklore, their stories sourced mainly from Orkney and Shetland. There are also similar stories in Irish, Faroese and Icelandic folklore that tell of seal-women and seal-skin.
It took many more years for me to understand that not all fairy-stories are written in books and the most magical ones can be spoken out loud to a crab-bitten seal corpse upon the West coast of Ireland. It took me far too long to understand that our story was such stuff that myth was made of. Circumstances woven together by magic, awe and fate.
A Selkie Story.
Like Ophelia that word has a nice sound to it. Selkie. It feels pleasant when you shape your lips and tongue around it, your mouth tasting its shape. S-el-kie. It is a soft word. Elongated. A word with a head and a tail at each end, like a seal. What’s strange is that – despite my love of stories and despite my watery ways – I had not heard this word until my own children were old enough to hear stories read aloud. I knew of mermaids, of pirates and krakens. I’d heard tell of great whales that swallowed men whole and carried them to lands far away before belching them upon the sand. I was acquainted with the creatures that had once ruled the oceans millions of years before I was born, creatures that could be found now as shadows curled up as if sleeping within the rocks. I kept one upon a shelf in my bathroom. But Selkie was a new word. Full of promise. A word discovered between the cover of a book as my children huddled in close to me, warm and soft. Small thumbs plugging up plump little lips as they gazed in wide-eyed wonder at the turning pages. My little pups. My darlings.
A book that would touched my soul. A story illustrated with bright drawings, that swirled over each page.
Once upon a time…
Did this selkie story start that way? I don’t remember but it had that sort of ring to it. A magical beginning. A beginning that foretold the enchantment that would unfold. A foretaste.
In the story there was a man with brine that ran through his veins. Blood and brine, mixed like wine. A fisherman. He lived in a simple stone cottage by the coast. He spent his days with his eyes turned seaward; always seaward. He would toil day in day out. Week in, week out as months ran into seasons and seasons rolled into years. He toiled until the years etched themselves onto his skin so it became as gnarled as old driftwood. It was a hard life and a lonely one for the fisherman. He would wake each day before the sun raised her burnished head and would meet the waves in his small boat. He would cast out his nets to catch the silvery fish to sell at the market. Come rain or shine, calm or storm he would be out in his boat each and every day. And when his day was done he would spend his quiet evenings by a small fire, his rough hands mending the delicate nets that were the tools of his livelihood. Such was the life of this humble fisherman. A harsh life and a solitary one.
One night when the moon was full the fisherman saw a strange woman upon the shores, her flesh as pale as the moonlight and her hair as dark as the starry skies. She wore nothing but a few strands of kelp as a makeshift gown and a flower-of-the-sea braided within her hair. And she danced. She danced and she sang and she laughed. All at once the fisherman fell in love with the woman, entranced by her moonlight skin and her midnight hair. Bewitched by her nakedness. Enchanted by the gleaming salt that glimmered and glistened upon her form. He could not but help but go to her, for his heart lead him there.
As he moved toward her across the shoreline, she saw him; her dark eyes meeting his. The laughter and the song died from her lips and the dance slipped away from her toes. There they stood, eyes locked under the enchantment of a full moon and she too fell deeply in love. Her fisherman with his dark, gnarled skin and his wistful eyes. She gifted him with a kiss and his heart swelled. And so they spent a whole night together, upon the sands. A lovers tryst. But before the sun rose in the morning she slipped from his arms and into the water, diving beneath the surface. Swallowed up into the surf. Gone. And when he looked again there was no woman to be seen upon the wave’s crest but a seal. A seal that wove in and out of the sea-spray, dancing under the grey light of the sunken moon.
Each full moon she would come to her fisherman. Her love. And they would spend a single night together and then before the sweet kiss of the dawn, she would slip away from him. Away, she would go. Far, far away from her love the fisherman and into the waiting arms of the black ocean. The fisherman grew sad, for he wished her to be his wife. And he grew angry at the ocean for stealing her from him. And he ached.
For six moons she came to him in that way. Dancing beneath the pearly rays of the pregnant moon, her song of the sea calling to him. Her fisherman love. Her man. And at the end of the sixth moon he asked her to stay and be his wife but her answer was not joyous nor sanguine. She wept. Oh, how she wept into her hands, such salty tears. Bitter tears. She told him that their next meeting would be their last for a very long time. After that she could not come back to him for seven years, for she was a daughter of the sea. He must wait. And he lamented her loss and shook his fist at the ocean. Enraged and furious. How dare it steal her from him!
On the evening of the seventh full moon the fisherman lay in waiting, hidden behind a rock. He watched the ocean swallow the rosy light of the sun and still he waited. And he waited. He waited until he saw a playful seal dancing on the crest of the waves, making its way to the shore. The creature rolled up onto the land and peeled off its seal-skin coat. It rose from it upon two pale legs. For beneath the seal pelt was the form of the beautiful woman. His love. The very woman that the fisherman adored with his whole heart. She wriggled out of her seal coat and buried it. She marked it with a rock and then danced up the beach, singing her ocean song to him. She knocked upon his door and whispered his name through the window of the cottage, not realising he wasn’t there. Calling out to her love like the ocean breeze. And as she searched the shores for him, the fisherman dug up her coat and took it back to his cottage, burying it beneath his front step.
This was to be their last night together and the lovers fell into one anothers arms, soaking up the love they each felt for one another. Such love as would turn the tides.
At the end of this seventh night before the sun lifted her face, the woman wept bitter tears. She kissed her fisherman with tenderness. She kissed her fisherman with passion. Her love! She asked him to wait for her, here upon the shore. She begged him to be true. And the fisherman smiled with a gleam in his eye and offered up his promises of love. But when she left him and plunged into the arms of the ocean, she did not become a seal. No! She remained in her womanly form. “My coat!” she cried a searched for her seal pelt. She looked for it here and there, under rock and within still pool. She hunted for it high and low, within deep cave and beneath silvery wave. But the seal-skin coat was gone. So the woman could not go back to the sea, nor take on her watery form.
And so she stayed with him, her fisherman, her love. For she loved him almost as much as she loved the sea and she became his Selkie-Bride. They wed and lived happily upon the shore, though she never again put even so much as a foot in the ocean. Yet her eyes often looked with a longing upon its horizon. She never swam within the ocean’s stirring, cool depths nor dipped beneath its rolling waves. But every morning when the sun rose, she could be found walking the shoreline, eyes closed as she felt the spray upon her face. There to drink in ocean’s breath. There to feel its soft kiss that reminded her of her old love.
Seven years later came a fateful day, for the ocean is a wild thing. Treacherous and tempestuous. Vengeful. The fisherman went out in the morning in his small boat, as his Selkie-Wife collected driftwood from the shores. The skies darkened. The heavens rumbled. Lightning flashed! And the ocean became angry, for it was seven years to the day since this fisherman had stolen one of its daughters. It became relentless and unforgiving. Its waves swelled as high as small mountains and tossed the fishing boat around like a twig. The fisherman grew frightened as the waters slapped upon the decks and he readied himself for a dark and watery grave. Eyes squeezed tight and a plea on his lips. A prayer. And his Selkie-wife paced the shores, wringing her hands and weeping. Calling her husband’s name. But what could she do? For he had stolen her coat and hidden it so he could keep her. His Selkie-wife.
Wave after wave battered the fishing boat and the fisherman was thrown into the water. Snatched by the ocean’s arms. And the Selkie-wife dug up every inch of the cove, looking for her seal-pelt coat. Desperate to save her love. Her mortal fisherman-husband. And at long last she found it! Buried beneath the front step of their cottage. A pelt of fur and fins and tail. And so she slipped it on and rolled down to the waves, plunging into their depths. Changing. Transforming into a slick-headed seal who could slice through the water like a knife.
And so she saved her husband, the fisherman. By pulling him from beneath the waves. Their depths were too much for him and his lungs could not breathe in their salt but she could dart beneath the surface and glide through the angry waters with ease. She pulled him to safety, drenched but unharmed. But alas! She could not take off her coat, for the ocean wouldn’t allow it. So the Selkie-bride could never, ever go back to the land, nor back to the husband she loved. Cursed to be a seal for the rest of her life. Calling out her Selkie-Song to him as she darted through the cresting waves.
And what of the fisherman? He lived out each and every day, his heart broken. He spent his days with his eyes turned seaward; always seaward. He would search the depths day in day out. Week in, week out as months ran into seasons and seasons rolled into years. He searched the waves for his Selkie-wife until his back grew bent, his hair white and his eyes misted up with the sea-spray. His old eyes ever haunted by the pull of the tides lest they bring her back to him. But they never again brought his love back to him. She was gone. No, the ocean gifted him nothing but a glimpse of a dark, slick head bobbing in the water. Dancing through the waves. No, never again did he see his Selkie-wife nor hear her song-of-the-sea.
It was this story which awoke my memory of you. Until then, I had forgotten that Polperro day long before, with the crabs and the gulls and the tears and I had forgotten the day in Rock when I let the sands suck me down just so I could be closer to you. I had packed you away long ago like my childhood stories. I don’t know why we forget such important things for the mind is strange but a mind doesn’t lose memories. No, it keeps them secret and safe. Locked away. Sitting in the darkness ready to be unlocked and remembered. I had folded you up, slipped you close to my heart and locked you away for safe-keeping. And now I remembered you, my seal-boy. And I had a name for you, a name with a head and a tail at each end like your own. Selkie. It was a name that fit you well.
And I recognised myself too. Did I not wear such a coat as the Selkie-Bride in this story? A human skin that I placed around myself to appear like others. One that did not truly fit my form. My soul. It dawned upon me as I read this story who and what I really was. What I truly am. Still. I remember laughing. I read my children that story with tears prickling at the corners of my eyes. Trickling down my cheek. A sob too. I inhaled deeply. One breath. Two. I closed the book and I laughed. Their little brows puckered, confused. Was mama crying, was she sad? Was she laughing, was she happy? But as the laughter poured from me, so they joined in. And we wrapped our arms around each other filling the room with our mirth. My water babies and I. For I had found myself, I had remembered you and finally realised just what you were! We were. Both.
And you were coming back to me. I think right then I knew it. You were calling to me through the years and through those years I heard the soft echo of your Selkie song.