Once upon a time…
There was a small village at the farthest edge of the smallest island on the outskirts of a small archipelago in the northern most point of the North Sea.
The earth of this island was rocky and barren, and there was little that grew there. There were even fewer animals that made it their home. But there was one that thrived.
Now to us the selkie looks just like another seal, sleek and grey with it’s fine whiskers and sad eyes. But selkies are different, because once a month they shed their skin and take a human shape. The selkie is powerful and strong in the water, and just as beautiful and fierce when they are human. It is said that at one time selkies were just seals who were so powerful curious about life on land they learned how to shed their skin so they could walk amongst us. But others say that they used to be human, and some powerful magic was cast on them by the Finfolk to turn them into seals.
Selkies and seals have always lived in harmony upon the rocky shores, and within the seas. It used to be that selkies visited humans as well. We had festivals every full moon, the day the selkies shed their skin. And all that day and into the night the selkies would make their way upon the land and into the village. There was singing and dancing and feasting all night long, and come morning the selkies would slip out of the village, back into their skin and off into the sea.
But one year a terrible trick was played on a member of the selkie clan, and it all went sour.
One of the boys who used to live in this village went by the name of Malcolm. Malcolm MacCodrum was, in looks, one for the ballads. His skin was fair and his eyes were pale, and he had bright ginger hair. But in his heart he had a darkness that twisted his thoughts and made him cruel. Because he was beautiful, and because he was confident, Malcolm had many friends. Perhaps friends is the wrong word. He had followers. There were other boys—not so handsome, and not so confident—who held onto his coattails and and followed in his wake.
One month, as the moon festival was being prepared, Malcolm took it upon himself to wait at the waters edge and spy on the selkies as they emerged from the sea. This was something that had never been done, for selkies are magical first and foremost, and it was said a curse was laid on he who espied the change without permission. But Malcolm was cruel and he did not listen to those who warned him. So he waited, and he watched, and for the first time in human memory a sacred transformation was witnessed by one on the outside.
What Malcolm learned was this: the transformation of selkie to human is not like that of the wolf-man from Brittany. It is more like a snake shedding it’s skin. For that is what the selkie do, they shed their skin and in doing so take on a human form. It is not right to say that they become human, because no matter what you look like your essence remains the same.
Malcolm watched as a particularly large and elegant seal began to shed it’s skin. The form it took on was that of a tall dark woman. Her hair was long and thick and a shocking silvery grey in color, the same as was the skin at her feet. Despite the color of her hair, she was not aged but appeared as a woman in her prime. She lifted the skin she had shed, folded it carefully, and tucked it into a space between two rocks. From the same spot she retrieved a long gown in a simply green wool, which she pulled over her head before climbing up the shore towards the village. She wore no shoes.
Malcolm watched her go, making sure she was out of sight before he clambered back the way she had come. He reached into the space and retrieved the seal skin from where it lay comfortably cradled amongst the stones. The grey of the skin matched almost perfectly the grey of the rocks. Malcolm, thinking only of himself, took the pelt and tucked it into the front of his shirt. It was cold and slick against his skin. Not knowing how many other selkies might emerge that morning, he took his prize and ran back to the village.
Malcolm told no one he had taken the skin, except those other boys he knew were too afraid of him to speak a word. The boys passed the skin amongst themselves, feeling it’s fine texture and desecrating it’s softness with the oil from their fingers. Finally one of the other boys asked Malcolm what he planned to do with it.
“I will hide it,” he said. “And when the moon has risen and the festival is over she will not be able to return to the sea.”
And indeed the festival took place. There was feasting and dancing and merriment between human and selkie alike. And when it came time for them to return to their watery home, the selkies left the village in twos and threes, tired and content.
Rona, for that was the selkie’s name, searched for her skin all night long, but when the next pale grey dawn crept with withered fingers over the horizon she was still looking. She knew no selkie would touch another’s skin, but neither did she want to believe that a human would be so cruel. She keened for the loss of skin and innocence alike.
When the sound of her keening reached the waking villagers they shivered in their cottages. The sun rose with a quiet desperation upon a world that was a little bit darker than it had been before.
Now, Malcolm had a twin sister who was as fair and beautiful as he was, but who’s heart was filled with all the love and kindness that his lacked. Mairi, since the moment she was born, had been full of laughter and joy. And she took particular joy in the moon festival and the visit from the selkies. As the Moon Maiden—for so she had been crowned each month since the beginning of her own moon cycle—she danced and she sang and she feasted with each of the guests during the festival. But she had one in particular for whom she waited, patiently or not, each month to see again.
Rona also waited less than patiently for each moon to grow into fruition and for the day of the festival to arrive. She could not visit the humans outside of the festival, but she often watched the coast from a distance, hoping for a glimpse of Mairi and her long ginger hair. This particular moon festival was Rona’s tenth since she had been grown enough to attend with her sisters and her aunts. Before entering the village she made sure to smooth out her long grey hair, and pluck a bunch of wild heather from the verge. Upon encountering the Moon Maiden she gave the heather as an offering of admiration and good will.
They spent many hours of that day in each other’s company. They spoke of life on land and life beneath the waves. They told each other secret dreams, and came close to confessing the longing that was in both their hearts. Mairi could not easily hide her preferment of Rona to the other guests, but she did her duty by them, honored them, always with one eye on the tall dark woman with the grey hair. This festival was not like other festivals, for this festival was the first festival after Mairi’s tenth moon anniversary. After the tenth year of a maiden’s moon cycle she may, if she so chooses, take a partner. This is a time when other young people express their interest, knowing the Moon Maiden might invite any one of them to her bed on the evening of the Moon Festival.
But for days Mairi had been kindly acknowledging expressions of interest, already knowing who she would invite to share her hearth. When darkness fell, and other couples began to make their way towards home, Mairi approached Rona where she sat beside her sisters. Extending a hand and a wordless invitation, she waited with heart pounding for Rona’s response. Rona was surprised, for she knew what this invitation meant to the humans, and she was honored at the chance to accept it. She put her hand in Mairi’s and together they walked toward her home.
When Rona left the next morning and made her way towards the shore, she was incandescent with joy. And even when her joy turned to grief at the loss of her skin, she could not help the tiny blossom of hope at the thought of being able to see Mairi again.
Because her pelt was lost Rona had no choice but to wander. She walked down the coastline searching, calling to her sisters for help. But as the sun rose high in the sky she knew it was too late. Her sisters bobbed in the water at a distance, barking to her in their familiar voices, but they could not return to the land until the next moon, and she could not return to the sea without her skin. Not knowing what else to do, she returned to the village.
When Rona walked on her bare feet into the common spaces of the village there was a rustle of shock and dismay. No one had ever seen a selkie outside of the moon festival, and their shock rendered them nearly useless. Only Mairi quickly approached Rona and, wrapping her in a wool cloak, drew her into her home and sat her before the fire. When she had heard what happened she wept as well, her tender heart having no choice but to experience Rona’s grief as her own.
As the day ended Mairi tucked Rona into her own bed and let her sleep. She knew there was nothing to be done until the pelt could be found, but had no idea where to even start looking. She dozed off in front of the hearth fire, and her dreams were full of darkness and keening voices.
As the days went by, Rona remained a guest in Mairi’s home, and each of the villagers came to pay their respects. The smaller children were sent to search the fields and the farmyard for the pelt, and the older ones to look along the rocky shores. But as days turned into weeks with no sign of the skin, the search became less frantic and eventually faded into a token effort and then to nothing. No one thought to ask Malcolm, or his other boys, why they would not help in the search. Malcolm was reticent when it came to any manual labor, and no one liked to press him for fear of retaliation.
The next moon festival came, and a new Moon Maiden was chosen. As the selkies entered the village from the sea they each greeted Rona with arms wide and tears in their eyes. There had been as much searching below the water as there had been above, but with no sign of her selkie skin. The festival continued, but in every heart there was a tinge of fear, and the joyous celebration was shadowed by a lurking dread.
Another month passed, and then another, and soon Rona had been living in the village for a full season. She had moments of joy, but she never forgot the search for her skin or the sea she had been forced to abandon. Each month she was visited by her sisters, who mourned her exile from their watery home. She and Mairi spent happy days together, but Mairi knew that Rona could not be truly happy when half of her world was lost to her.
Soon one season turned into two, into five, until eight full seasons had gone by with Rona living in vague contentment amongst the villagers. She and Mairi each gave birth to a daughter, one with fiery ginger hair, the other with hair the color of silver. Their family was happy, but always there was a touch of gloom upon them.
Now, all these years Malcolm had thought himself immensely clever for the trick he had played. He had hidden the seal skin in the eves of his house, and there it lived in silent melancholy until one day it came time to re-thatch the roof. Malcolm, still adverse to manual labour, hired another man from the village to do the work for him. This was a man who thatched a beautiful roof, who’s wife made a beautiful loaf of bread, and who’s heart was full of regret for the trick that he knew Malcolm had played. The trick he himself had been too afraid to confess for all these years.
As he thatched the roof he saw Malcolm sleeping with his feet upon the hearth. He knew that Malcolm slept with a might snore, and would not hear if another man were knocking at his door. So this man thatched the roof in peace for several hours, until he came to the spot above the open door. There, as he removed the old thatch, he noticed something tucked into the crossbeams of the roof. As he reached out to pull it loose he recognized the sleek grey color of Rona’s hair. As his fingers brushed against the pelt he felt its terror and grief deep in his soul. Tears streamed down his face without warning, and he clutched the skin to his chest.
The thatcher of roofs did not fall from his ladder, but it was a close call as he slid down and sprinted towards Rona and Mairi’s home. When he arrived the women opened the door to a trembling, weeping human with something silver grey cradled against his chest. He fell across the threshold, and in a mess of words and weeping confessed to the crime of cowardice. On his knees he offered the skin to Rona, who accepted it in bewildered anticipation. As her fingers closed around the skin her knees went weak.
For the first time in eight years, she felt whole again.
Mairi caught Rona as she stumbled, and their daughters hastened to bring a stool for her to sit on. Rona sank onto the seat and wept into the skin, her salty tears bringing the pelt back to shimmering life. She could smell the salt of the sea, and feel the weight of the water around her as she breathed in its scent, her scent. Almost without knowing what she did, Rona stood from the stool and tripped out of the house. Mairi and her daughters rushed to follow, but by the time they reached the door Rona had begun to run. She loped through the village on longs legs, Mairi and the girls trailing behind her.
She ran on instinct, knowing only that there was a deep aching in the center of her chest that would never be lifted on land. She staggered down the rocks towards the sea, tore off her dress and began to pull the skin over her body. As she did she heard footsteps above her, and just as the transformation was complete she glanced up to see her human family watching her from the edge of the rocky beach. In a blink she was once more a powerful grey seal, who slipped into the cold waters of the sea and was gone.
Mairi stood on the rocks, a daughter on each side, and watched as the woman she loved disappeared beneath the waves. In a powerful fury fueled by pain and grief she marched back toward the village and her brother’s house.
The thatch was still unfinished, and Malcolm was still asleep in front of the fire when she arrived. In a blaze of rage she shouted for him to wake and face her. Her hair flew out from her head as in a powerful wind, and Malcolm jumped up, startled out of his sleep. He nearly fell to his knees at the sight of her, but instead clutched the back of his chair, maneuvering it between him and her rage. He knew that he had been found out. He did not know how, but he knew at the sight of Mairi’s blazing eyes and the wind whipping up around her that she knew what he had done. In her rage Mairi had no words. She felt her skin turn hot and her hair fill with static. She stared at her brother and for the first time saw him for the petty, slimy creature that he was. She opened her mouth and released a wailing howl. She filled it with her pain and anger and grief at losing her love. She also filled it with Rona’s melancholy and terror, and her grief at losing the sea and the family she had grown up with. The wail echoed across the island, into the corners of every home, into the hearts of every villager, and out across the water to the swiftly disappearing selkie. When the echoes of the howl finally faded away, Malcolm was nowhere to be seen. Mairi collapsed in tears, and as one daughter with ginger hair comforted their mother, the other stepped into Malcolm’s cottage and around the empty chair. There, lying on the rug, was a large silvery- green cod fish. It flapped its tail and its mouth gapped for air. As her mother sat weeping, the young girl with silver-grey hair picked up the fish that used to be her wicked uncle Malcolm and carried it down to the sea. There, standing upon the rocks, she drew her arm back and threw the fish as far as she could. As it flew into the air, she saw several dark grey heads bobbing above the waves. The fish splashed into the water and vanished, and the grey heads soon followed.
As the next moon festival approached, the first since Rona had left, Mairi woke early and stepped out into the village. She walked to the beach, standing on the rocky headland looking out into the sea. She thought she spotted several dark heads amongst the choppy waves, but as she waited she saw none of them approach the shore. She waited all day long, but other than the faint echo of barking across the waves, there was no sign of a single selkie.
The villagers, somewhat hesitantly for it seemed cruel to celebrate in the face of such tragedy, had prepared the festival as they usually would, but when no one arrived they became nervous. All that day the village was quiet and subdued, and when the fire was lit that evening there was no dancing and no music. A sacred trust had been broken, and the village knew they would suffer the outcome for years to come.
Some of the men of the village talked of going after Malcolm, finding him and making an example. No one outside of Mairi and her daughters knew what had happened to him. The villagers believed he had run off after the man who thatched roofs had confessed. Mairi let them believe this, knowing the truth would only bring more confusion and fear.
The next month the villagers halfheartedly prepared the festival again, and again Mairi went to the rocky edge to watch for the selkies, and again no one appeared. After the third and fourth festival in which the villagers received no guests, the preparations became less elaborate, and the celebration less formal. After the sixth and seventh months of no festival, the village stopped preparing the decorations, and the feast became a simple affair. By the ninth month of this abbreviated festival all that was left was a shared meal, a bonfire, and the song and dance that was their way of life.
During all these long months, and the many years that followed, Mairi never stopped walking out to the headland and waiting for the selkies to return. She sat all day watching the sea, hoping for one more day, one more dance. She often caught sight of a familiar grey head bobbing in the water, always watching from a distance. When her daughters came to fetch her at the end of the day she wept the entire way home.
The selkies never did return to the village, and even the seals retreated from the island. But still, ever month as the moon rises and the sun falls, you can see the bobbing heads of large seals waiting off the edge of the coast and hear the faint echoes of their voices across the water.
Azalea Micketti is a writer, director, and bookseller who is passionate about storytelling and sharing books. She grew up in Ashland, OR and has lived in her (second) favorite city for almost nine months. She works at Powell’s City of Books as a bookseller.