I have often felt that the story of the Selkie Bride is a place to begin thinking about my own writing, and the reasons that I write. It is natural for me to place words onto a page, to craft a tale of my own design in order to convey significance. Even the most mundane experience has a transformative tone when I have written it. The stories are told, and the tales written, because to not tell them is to keep a piece of life hidden, unexposed, and safe. Each night, the Selkie take a risk in shedding their skin upon the shore. So, too, in writing do we take risks, allowing “the truth” of an experience to come forward as a vehicle to pass on greater understanding of the human condition. I have written my own version of the Selkie Bride, drawing on the traditions and legends of the Orkney people. In this tale, I weave together the elements of a strong female and the importance of losing the Selkie skin, the thing that allows her to travel in both worlds.
In a forgotten village on the shores on an island in the northern sea, there was a fisherman. He made his living by the gifts of the sea, his home left to him by his parents. His boat was built from the trees on the land, and his fashioned nets from reeds that grow along the shore.
This fisherman had a bout of wonderful luck, bringing in nets full of fish every day. He spent his evenings at the pub, drinking the finest ales and eating bowl after bowl of soup, devouring hog’s feet and fresh bread. Each night, he went home and slept soundly in his bed, covered in rich blankets of the heaviest wool. The fisherman bragged to the other men about his catch. The other men spoke of the man who went to an empty home each night, and they thought him too dedicated to the sea. “He should find a woman. She might settle him down.”
It came to pass that after three weeks of wonderful luck, the man began catching fewer fish. Soon, his nets drew in only one or two on each cast. He ate less, drank old beer, and went home cold and hungry to his bed. Even his blankets felt thinner. The other men thought it was his bragging that had chased the fish away, for they caught as much as they always had.
One night, after a terrible day at sea and nothing to eat for dinner, the fisherman was walking home when he heard laughter coming from the shore. He followed the sound, a twinkling of tiny bells in the night sky, until he came to a boulder at the edge of the beach. Crouching behind it, the fisherman spied four beautiful women swimming naked in the sea, their pale skin luminescent. They were laughing and splashing each other, playing a game of tag in the water. Their long black hair was tangled with seaweeds and pearls, glittering like the stars. The fisherman sat in awe as he watched the women playing. Hen decided that the sea-women had been emptying his nets, preventing him from taking too much of the sea. He was at once furious and entranced with them.
Soon, he noticed a pile of skins lying next to the boulder. They were seal hides, blueish white and spotted with black, far softer than the skin of a lady. The man could not resist touching them. Remembering stories his grandfather told him of sea-women, the fisherman decided to steal one of the skins and take it home. He knew he would find a bride in it's owner.
Grabbing one, then scurrying beyond the boulders, the fisherman knew he had captured the body of a sea-woman who would bring him happiness and a family. As soon as he took the skin from the pile, one of the four swimmers shrieked as if she had been bitten. The women raced to the pile of skins, and began wailing, for they all knew that one of their sisters was lost to them until she recovered her hide. The other three women quickly stepped into their seal-coats and dove into the sea, leaving the youngest sister silent on the shore. When three heads disappeared in the horizon, the fisherman stepped from behind a boulder into the glowing moonlight. He said to the woman, “I have your hide, and I shall not return it. You will come and be my bride, keeping my home and bearing me children. I expect to see you in the sun’s gaze.” With that, the fisherman traveled home, and hid the skin in his most secret place.
That morning, the fisherman married his woman, and they created a home together. Over seven years she bore him two daughters, both with stark white skin and raven black hair. He could not, however, escape the truth of his wife’s past, for both his children were born with webbing between their fingers and their toes. He tried cutting it, tried to peel it away, but it only grew back. The girls came to despise their father. Their mother taught them to be brave, never once screaming when he cut their webbing, only shedding silent tears. After each violent attempt to eradicate a piece of their identity, their mother would come into the room and wrap their wounds in seaweed and sing to them of the great blue ocean. The fisherman caught well and ate well, providing for his family, as the sea would not withhold her gifts from her own daughter -- the beautiful bride -- and her children.
One afternoon, while the fisherman was at sea, the woman asked her younger daughter to fetch a blanket from her father’s room. Finding no blankets on the bed, the daughter looked underneath. In the floor, she spied a small hole in the wood, where a knob once fit. Curious, she put her fingers in the hole. When she tried to pull them out, she found they were stuck. When she pulled harder, a section of the floor came up with her hand. Inside the cubby was an old wooden trunk. She opened it and pulled out the most luxurious pelt she had ever seen. It sparkled blue and white and black, all the colors of the ocean. It melted in her hands, soft like fresh-churned butter. The girl ran to her mother, presenting the blanket with pride, not knowing what it truly it was. Upon seeing the pelt, hidden for so long, she thanked her daughter and held close to her human flesh her true existence. She wrapped the hide in a tablecloth and hid it beneath her bed. When her husband returned, the woman acted as if nothing had changed. They went to bed that night separate, as always. She kissed him on the forehead, and said “Sweet dreams.”
Once her husband was fast asleep, the woman quietly removed the tablecloth and her skin from beneath the bed. She went into her daughters’ bedroom, kissing them each and giving them a strand of bluest seaweed with a pearl at the center. She tied the seaweed around their necks, telling each one to behave. She promised that every night she would come for them on the shores of the sea. Then she set out from the house, taking care not to run, and finally reached the beach. There, she found her sisters waiting, for they knew she had found her skin. Stepping gingerly into the cool fur, she dove head-long into the sea.
The next morning, the fisherman found his wife gone, and saw the pearl at each of his daughters’ throats. He knew his game had been lost, and his wife had returned to the sea. His daughters long for water, asking to play outside when it rains. He cannot deny them this, their right as children of the sea; he sees the longing in their eyes as they eat dinner with only three.
And each night, when the moon shines brightly over the water, her daughters travel silently to the shore, and swim with their mother and her sisters, knowing their true existence.
I remember the sea.