Once upon a time…
Such a derivative phrase. And overused, in my opinion. But, it serves as well as any for my purposes, so here it goes.
Once upon a time, there was a small village clinging to the rocky edge of the smallest island at the northernmost tip of an archipelago struggling not to sink into the North Sea. The earth on this island was barren, boggy, rocky, and full of silt. There was only one village, with few people, and even fewer animals. This was the kind of place where gulls could call for miles and miles and never hear themselves echoed back, because there was nothing to echo from.
However, there was one other creature—apart from the hubristic animal that is human—that made it’s home here. And thrived.
Now, to us whose eyes are simple and untrained, the selkie might look like any other seal. Large, grey, with its sad eyes and sleek whiskers. But selkies are as different from seals as humans are from horses. Selkies have language, and custom, and tradition, and may be as set in their ways as any fifth generation goat farmer with his head stuck in the mud of a poisoned bog.
Selkies are also unlike seals, or humans, in that once a month they shed their skin and assume a human shape. The selkie is strong and powerful in the water, and just the same when they’re on land. The grandmothers may tell you that selkies used to be seals; seals that had such a powerful curiosity about humans they learned how to shed their skins and walk on land. Others might say that they used to be humans who angered the Finnfolk and provoked upon themselves such powerful magic that they transformed into seals.
Either way, selkies and seals have always lived in harmony within the seas, and it used to be that selkies and humans lived in a sort of harmony themselves. Each month, as the full moon rises, the selkies come ashore and shed their skins. There used to be a festival, every month, to celebrate this visitation; a time of singing, dancing, feasting. All that day and into the night the selkies would be welcome to our village and honored throughout the festival, and come morning they would slip out of our houses, back into their skin, and return to the sea.
But one year a terrible, wicked, stupid boy played a cruel trick and brought ruin upon all our heads.
This boy went by the name of Malcolm. Malcolm MacCodrum was, so they say, one for the ballads. His skin was fair and his eyes were pale, and he had a shock of ginger curls upon his head. But in his heart lurked a darkness that twisted his thoughts and filled him with cruelty. Because he was beautiful, and because he was confident, Malcolm never lifted a finger to work his entire life. He had friends to do it for him. Perhaps friends is too strong a word. He had followers. There were other boys—not so handsome, and not so confident—who clutched at his coattails and followed in his wake. They hoped to win his favor, or that a little of his glow might rub off on them, and so they stopped their ears against their mother’s protests and refused to see the false sheen that tainted everything he touched.
One month, as the moon festival was prepared, Malcolm took it upon himself to wait at the water’s edge and spy upon the emerging selkies. No other human had ever been so selfish and cruel before, for all had respect and love for their selkie visitors. And of course they were also afraid. Selkies are magical, first and foremost, and it was believed that a curse would be laid on any who espied the change without consent. But Malcolm believed himself above such things and did not listen to those who warned him. So he waited, and he watched, and for the first time in our human memory a sacred transformation was desecrated by outside eyes.
What Malcolm learned was this: the transformation of selkie to human is nothing like the wolf-man from Brittany. Whereas the Beast of Brittany transforms from the inside out, the selkie sheds their skin like a snake.
Malcolm watched as a large and elegant selkie shed her skin and stepped on land. The form she took was of a tall dark woman, with hair that was long and thick and a shocking silvery grey, the same color 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 between the rocks of the shore. From the same nook she retrieved a long gown in a simple green wool, which she pulled over her head before climbing towards the village. She wore no shoes.
Malcolm watched her go, making sure she was out of sight before clambering back the way she had come. He reached a hand into the hole and retrieved the selkie skin from where it lay comfortably cradled amongst the stones. The grey of the skin stood out against the darker grey of the stones. 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 when the next selkie might emerge, he took his trophy and ran back to the village.
Malcolm, though he was proud of his theft, told only those other boys who were too afraid of him to speak a word. They passed the skin amongst themselves, feeling it’s fine texture and defiling 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.” The other boys looked at each other, too cowardly to speak up against what they knew to be wrong.
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 darker than it had been before.
Now, Malcolm had a twin sister who was as fair and beautiful as he was, but whose 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 sang and feasted with each of the guests during the festival. But there was 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 festival day to arrive. She had been forbidden from visiting the humans outside of the festival, but she often watched the coast from a distance, hoping for a glimpse of long ginger hair. This particular moon festival was Rona’s twenty-first since she had been invited 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.
Mairi and Rona 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 in both their hearts. Mairi could not easily hide her preferment of Rona over 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 day marked Mairi’s seventh anniversary. After the seventh year of a maiden’s moon cycle she may, if she so chooses, take a partner. This is a time when other young people may express their interest, knowing the Moon Maiden might invite any one of them to her bed on the evening of the Moon Festival.
For days Mairi had been kindly acknowledging these expressions of interest, already knowing who she would invite to share her hearth. When darkness fell, and other couples began to meander their way 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. Neither of them felt the eyes upon them, or heard the whispers, or saw the blackness building in Malcolm’s heart.
When Rona left the next morning and made her way towards the shore, she was incandescent with joy. And even when her joy curdled into grief at the loss of her skin, she could not help the tiny blossom of hope at the thought of seeing Mairi again.
Because her pelt was lost to her, Rona had no choice but to wander. She walked down the coastline, calling to her sisters for help. She searched among the rocks and in the tide pools. She called to the gulls, but all they had seen was their own reflections in the ocean waves. As the sun rose higher in the sky she knew it was too late. Her sisters bobbed far out in the water, barking to her in their familiar voices, but they could not return to land until the next full moon and she could not return to sea without her skin. Not knowing what else to do, she returned to the village. When Rona walked on her bare feet into the center of the village there was a rustle of dismay. No selkie had ever remained among them after the festival, and their shock rendered them nearly useless. Only Mairi approached Rona and, wrapping her in a wool cloak, drew her into her home and sat her before the fire. Once again they were deaf to the words that followed them, blind to the eyes that stared, though the reason was far different than it had been the night before.
When Mairi had brewed tea, and set a cup into Rona’s chilled hands, she asked what had happened.
“Someone has stolen my skin,” Rona said, her deep brown eyes meeting Mairi’s green ones. “Without it I cannot return to my home.” When Mairi heard what had happened she could not help but weep, her tender heart having no choice but to feel Rona’s grief as her own.
“What can I do?” she asked, kneeling on the hearth before Rona’s chair. Rona took her face between her hands and kissed her tenderly.
“You have already done so much,” Rona said. She stood, lifting Mairi with her. They stood in front of the hearth for a moment, before Rona hesitantly took Mairi’s hand and led her into the bedroom.
As they lay wrapped in each other’s arms, Mairi ran hands through Rona’s silver hair. She knew there was nothing to be done until the stolen skin could be found, but had no idea where to even start. She dozed off with Rona’s head upon her chest, and their dreams were full of darkness and keening voices.
The next morning, after consulting with Rona, Mairi gathered the rest of the village together in the common space. She told them what had happened, and watched their expressions carefully. She saw fear on many faces, and guilt on several, but nothing to tell her who might have taken it. Malcolm was not among the gathered crowd.
The villagers immediately organized into search parties. The younger children were sent to search the fields and the farmyards, the older ones to look along the rocky shores. The thatchers brought their ladders and searched the tops of trees, while the fishermen dredged the small harbor on the other side of the island. Farmers turned over their hay, while their wives went through chicken coops and pigsties. As the day came to a close and no one had seen any sign of the skin, their hope began to fade. Malcolm had stayed safely tucked inside his own house, refusing to lift a finger to help. His wickedness was well known throughout the village, and while the searchers grumbled about his selfish nature they thought nothing of his laziness.
As the days went by and the search continued, Rona remained a guest in Mairi’s home. As days turned into weeks with no sign of the skin, the search became less frantic and eventually faded to a token effort and by the time the next moon festival arrived the search had ended. A new Moon Maiden was chosen, and as the selkies entered the village they greeted Rona with open arms and tears in their eyes. There had been as much searching below the water as there had been above, with no sign of Rona’s skin. The festival continued, but in every heart there was a trace 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 found a certain kind of joy with Mairi, but she never forgot the search for her skin or the sea to which she could never return. Each month she was visited by her sisters, who mourned her exile from their watery home. She and Mairi spent happy days building a life together, but Mairi know that Rona could not be truly happy when half her life was lost to her. Soon one season turned into two, into five, until twelve full seasons had gone by. Rona lived in vague contentment amongst the villagers, learning how to cook and to till a field and thatch a roof. She was strong and knew many things about the sea that the villagers had yet to learn. She helped them as they helped her, and the village thrived. The moon festival still brought human and selkie together once a month, and a few of Rona’s siblings even chose to stay longer, before eventually returning to the sea. Whether it was one moon cycle or two, the selkies—who had all taken to carrying their skins with them in pockets or sacks—never left their skins unattended, and never stayed for long.
Eventually Rona and Mairi each gave birth to a daughter, one with fiery ginger hair, the other with hair the color of silver. The girls grew strong, loved by all, and cherished by their parents. But despite this happiness, there was a touch of gloom that followed them everywhere. There were still whispers from the other villagers, still strange looks from the older women, those who remembered what had happened.
Now, all these years Malcolm had thought himself immensely clever for the trick he had played. During those initial days of searching he had kept himself confined inside his home, both to escape the work and to avoid being discovered. Later he had hidden the seal skin in the eves of his house, and there it lived in silent melancholy until the day came to re-thatch the roof. Malcolm, always averse 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 guilt and regret for the trick Malcolm had played. The trick he himself had concealed for all these years.
As he thatched the roof he saw Malcolm sleeping with his feet upon the hearth. He knew Malcolm slept with a mighty snore, and would not hear if another man were knocking down his door. So he thatched the roof in peace for several hours, until he came to the spot above the open front 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 skin, he felt the years of terror and grief that clung to it sink into his own soul. Tears burst from his eyes and streamed down his face without warning. Barely able to see he clutched the skin to his chest and wept.
The thatcher of roofs did not fall from his ladder, but he tumbled down with little grace and sprinted towards Mairi and Rona’s home. When he arrived the women opened the door to a trembling, terrified, mess of a human with something grey cradled in his hands. He fell across the threshold, and in a flood of words and weeping confessed the crime of cowardice. He explained what had happened, what Malcolm had done, and on his knees he offered the skin to Rona. She accepted with bewildered anticipation, and as her fingers closed around the skin her legs went weak.
For the first time in twelve years she felt whole again.
Mairi caught Rona as she stumbled, and the daughters hastened to bring a stool for her to sit. Rona sank onto the seat and wept her joy into the skin, her salty tears bringing it back to shimmering life. She could taste the salt upon her tongue, and feel the weight of water all around her as she breathed in its scent, her scent. Without knowing what she did Rona stood 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 sprinted through the village on long legs and bare feet, Mairi and the girls trailing behind her.
She ran on instinct, knowing only that there was a deep aching in her chest that would never be lifted while she stood 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 as the transformation was complete she glanced up to see her human family watching from the edge of the rocky beach. In the blink of an eye 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 stand before her. Her hair flew out behind her 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 himself and her rage. He did not know how, but he knew at the sight of Mairi’s blazing eyes and the wind whipping around her that she knew what he had done.
In her fury Mairi had no words. She felt her skin turn hot and her hair fill with static. She stared at the man before her and for the first time saw him for the slimy, petty, cold-hearted creature that he was. She opened her mouth and released a wailing howl. Mairi filled that howl with all the pain and anger and grief she felt at losing her love. She filled it with Rona’s sadness and terror, and her grief over losing the sea and the family she had been born into. The wail echoed across the island, into the corners of every home and the hearts of every villager, and out across the water to the swiftly swimming selkie. It was picked up by the wind and the echoes doubled and re-doubled until it became part of the whistling of the air across the desolate rocks and over the deserted land. The howl continued to echo and transform even after Mairi herself made no more noise, sharing its power between the four directions until it was carried to every corner of the globe.
When the echoes finally faded from the island, Malcolm was nowhere to be seen. Mairi collapsed in tears, and as the daughter with ginger hair comforted their mother, the other stepped into Malcolm’s cottage and around the empty chair. There, lying on the hearth rug, was a large silver-green cod fish. It flapped its tail and its mouth gapped, gasping for air. As her mother sat weeping, the girl with silver-grey hair picked up the fish and carried it down to the sea. There, standing upon the rocks, she drew back her arm and threw the fish as far as she could. As it flew through the air she saw several dark grey heads bobbing above the waves. The fish vanished beneath the water with a small splash, and the grey heads soon followed.
As the next moon festival approached, Mairi woke early and stepped out into the village. She walked barefoot to the beach, standing on a rocky headland to look out at the sea. For a moment she thought she spotted several dark heads amongst the choppy waves, but as she waited none of them approached the shore. She waited all day long, but other than the faint echo of distant barking there was no sign of a single selkie.
The villagers had prepared the festival as they usually would, but as the day grew older and no one arrived they became nervous. All that day the village was quiet and subdued, and when the bonfire was lit that evening there was no dancing and no music. Something had been broken, something that could not easily be set right, and the villagers did not know what to do. Some of the men spoke of going after Malcolm, so he could pay for what he had done. They believed he had simply run off after being discovered, but no boats were missing and no one knew where else he could be hiding. Perhaps he had tried to swim to the next island and drowned, they whispered. Or perhaps he had found a place in the caves on the north side of the island. The whispers continued, and Mairi let them believe what they would, knowing the truth would solve nothing.
The following month the villagers halfheartedly prepared the festival again, and again Mairi went to the beach to watch for the selkies, and again no one appeared. After the third and fourth festival in which no one came, the preparations became less elaborate, and the celebration less formal. Soon the village stopped preparing the decorations at all, and the feast became a simple affair. By the time a full season of no visitors had come and gone, all that was left of the festival was a shared meal and a bonfire.
During those long months, and the many years that followed, Mairi never stopped making the walk down to the beach to wait for the selkies to return. She sat all day watching the sea, hoping for one last glimpse. She often caught sight of a familiar grey head bobbing in the water, always watching from a distance. When her daughters, and eventually her granddaughters, came to fetch her at the end of the day she wept silently all the way home.
The selkies never returned to the village, and even the seals retreated from the island. But every month as the moon rises and the sun falls, you can still see the bobbing heads waiting off the edge of the coast, and hear the echo of a howl across the distant water.
Once upon a time…