Once upon a time, on a still night where the stars shone like diamonds in the endless velvet black and the moon was a dollop of cream in the middle of the sky, there danced upon a stony Scottish beach a family of Selkies, strange and lithe, with pale skin and large, shining eyes. They loved this quiet, wild place, with its treeless expanse of low grassland and the way the ocean wind swept over everything from one end of the island to the other. The ocean was their home, but Orkney was a holiday, a midnight adventure. They luxuriated in each other’s company, singing their watery songs and tumbling through the surf like children, though Selkies lived for hundreds of years and in truth all were near as old as the ocean herself.
A man was nearby. He had thick brown hair and a scrubby beard and rough hands with nails bitten down to the quick, and eyes so dark they were almost black. He lived in a stone house on a gentle hill overlooking the coast. He was a seventh son and unlucky; while his brothers grew old with wives and children he merely grew old, wearier every day as the wind swept over the flatlands and dried him out. He lived off the land, when there was a living to be made, and spent his days with his dog or in solitude, watching the rolling waves, listening to them sigh at night. He had been fishing that evening, hoping for better luck under the moon than he’d had in the day, but he was returning home unsuccessful and hungry when he heard the unearthly song of the Selkie. Now, as a native Orcadian, he knew the legends of the Selkies well, though he’d never seen one before. His brother swore he’d seen one once; a beautiful woman with moonbeams in her hair and coral for eyes. They were meant to be lucky, he thought to himself, even just a glance upon them might change his stars.
As he neared the beach where he could hear them singing and splashing, he found a rocky outcrop, and climbed upon it, so that he might have a good view of them. To his surprise, upon the apex of the rock he found a great many seal skins, and thought of making himself a pair of boots with one of them, and so he tucked it into his fishing bag, and after gazing awhile upon the sparkling, star-kissed Selkies - who laughed, and splashed, and showed great affection to each other - he returned to his small stone home on its gentle hill. He slept fitfully and awoke the next morning, feeling unrested, to plaintive cries; a kind of helpless weeping which raised goosebumps on his wind battered skin and made him feel seasick and sad. He followed the howls down to the beach, dreading what he might find, and there, leaning against his rocky outcrop, was one of the Selkies, who looked sick and unhappy, her shining eyes clouded over with anguish and her silvery skin dull in the weak light of the overcast day.
“My skin,” she said helplessly, as he approached. “I cannot go home.” She looked to the ocean, which was churning and grey today, and, as he gazed upon it, he spotted a family of seals in the distance, who barked in sympathy for their lost sister.
“You belong out there,” he said, kneeling down in front of her. “Why can’t you go home?”
She was sinuous and deathly pale, her cloudy eyes the colour of a glass of water on a thirsty day, with long hair which was slippery and strong, like ropes left underwater. The soles of her feet were covered in barnacles and her hands were soft and small, and each of her fingers and toes were webbed, with skin so thin that light shone through it, and each web depicted a universe of whorls and spidery veins. “My skin is gone,” she said.
His heart sank, and he knew. He could see in his mind’s eye where he’d stuffed it last night, knew he should give it back to her immediately, this sad, small creature, with her tearstained face and huge, watery eyes - he shouldn’t keep it from her, this essential thing, it wouldn’t be right, it’s part of her body, he can’t - he shouldn’t -
“I will keep you safe,” he said instead. “Come home with me, and I’ll look after you.”
He scooped her up in his arms, for her feet, though she’d danced on them all night under the light of the moon, were encrusted with barnacles and she could not - would not - walk.
At his little stone house on the gentle hill, the man and the selkie began to get to know each other. She learned about his rough hands and his six brothers and his dog, a ragged old wolf who would sit with her as she stared out of the window at the sea. He learned about her taste for raw fish, and learned to love it too, for the exquisite meals she put together for him were delicious beyond anything he’d ever eaten before. He learned that she was the daughter of the king of the sea, and that she had numerous siblings around the world, and how she’d witnessed eons pass on land whilst enjoying endless summer beneath the waves. She told him how she’d come to the surface on occasion, under a round moon, to dance in the surf with her family, but when he asked her about them she grew quiet and sad, and wouldn’t speak any more.
Every so often, she’d disappear like the tide from his house, and he’d look out the little window where she sat with his dog, and he’d see her sitting on the outcrop, with one or more seals in the distance. In time the barnacles fell away from her feet and she cried to find them, scattered on the floor of the little stone house. She plucked each one from the flagstones and dropped them, one by one, into the ocean, her tears flowing freely. The man waited at home, and worried. His heart ached for his lonely, beautiful selkie, but he couldn’t let her go now. While she warmed to him slowly, he’d fallen quickly, irrevocably in love with the silken creature he’d rescued from the beach.
When it became clear to her that no-one was about to return her seal skin, she agreed to marry him, and soon the little stone house was filled with the cries and cheerful hollering of children, two boys and a girl, whom she taught to swim in the icy surf, taught them to catch fish better than their father ever could, taught them to see patterns in the stars and measure time by the moon. Their father watched in awe as they blossomed from tiny, scaly infants into beautiful, strong children, with their father’s thick brown hair and their mother’s silvery skin and stormy eyes. Each of them had inherited the thin, luminous webbing between fingers and toes, and none of them had inherited their father’s bad luck. Their days were filled with learning and adventure and fun, yet still, sometimes, their mother would recede from them, quietly, reliably, and could be found on the outcrop, her kin barking mournfully in the distance.
One sunny day, many years into her new life on land, the wind raked across the flatlands, whistling through the grass, relishing the lack of trees on the island to impede it. The boys and their father were fishing and the selkie sat on the outcrop, the wind whipping through her hair - once so strange and slippery and ropelike, now tame and dried out like stalks of hay. Her daughter was alone in the house, and hummed tunelessly as she fed the dog. She thought she might join her brothers at fishing - it had seemed too windy before, but now, at the end of a dull afternoon, she felt it would be a better activity than none at all, and went to the store cupboard to grab her fishing things. As if it had been waiting for her, the seal skin dropped from the highest shelf, and lay prone at her feet.
She took it to her mother. She didn’t think anything of it. She said “look, ma,” and at her call the Selkie whipped her head around and leapt upon the girl, wrestling the skin from her, though she had not a clue why her mother would act so.
“Where did you get this?” the Selkie asked, her cloudy eyes crackling with thunder.
“I found it,” the girl said unhappily. “Why did you snatch it from me?”
“It’s mine.” The Selkie sat back down and put her head in her hands. She missed the ocean like a heartbeat, and with her skin in her hands it was so close - so close, she could slip it on and be beneath the waves in an instant…
Her daughter looked at her with worry splashed across her pale face. She gathered the skin up in her arms and kissed her daughter. “You mean the world to me,” she said. “But - I think - I think your father -” she broke off. “Find him,” she said. “Bring him to me.”
The girl darted away with tears in her eyes and a deep sense of dread, and the Selkie sat on the rock, running her hands over the dried out hide she’d missed for so many years. It whispered her name.
After a time she heard her husband call out to her, and she allowed him to climb up onto the outcrop. “Stop,” she said, as he reached for her. His eyes fell to the sealskin in her lap, and he stumbled and backed away. “You stole from me,” she said. “You tricked me, and you kept me, and then you treated me well and gave me children, who have been the joy of my life here.” He opened his mouth to speak, but she silenced him with a hand. “You have made it hard to go home.”
“Please stay with me,” he whispered. “Stay with the children.”
Her children would be alright, she thought (she hoped). They’d have their father. They’d have the ocean. She could visit. She never would. She’d sink beneath the waves and never see them again. She’d dive to the deepest darkest depths so she could feel the pressure of the universe pressing into her strange, shifting body and a lifetime could pass up here before she’d return. They’d grow old and wither away before she remembered to remember them. She’d return to her many limbed family, to her first husband, to her children beneath the waves, to her father’s coral palace and she’d never, ever come back here.
“I will miss them,” she said simply.
She turned from him and threw herself off the rock, and by the time she touched the water below, she was enveloped in the skin that had been hidden from her for so long.
The man sat on the rock and cried out as he witnessed his Selkie bride greeted by a family of seals, and he wept and wailed, but she never returned. He raised the children alone, strange, unhappy creatures they were without their mother, and he was strange and unhappy too. Each grew up and slowly the memories of their lustrous, sea-bound mother faded, and they buried their father when the wind dried him out, and they had children of their own, and now, even to this day, descendants of the Selkie live on Orkney, the slight webbing on their fingers and toes the only clue that they are not of this earth, but rather of the wild, tempestuous ocean that clings to the rocky island and bids mankind to dream of its depths.