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The Selkie’s New Skin (Folktale)

Updated: May 18, 2022

There is an island to the far west of these lands, close to the end of the world; somewhere in your dreams you’ve seen it. Long white beaches, rocky coves, stormy seas. From the cliff-tops on its westernmost shores, you might sometimes catch a glimpse of Tír na mBan, the Isle of Women, way out on the horizon. When the sky is blue and the air is still – which happens rarely enough in those parts. Here, the wind blows hard and long through the dark of winter, and summer is precious and fleeting.

Somewhere along the stormiest section of that westernmost coast is a high, inaccessible cave where they say the Old Woman of the World lives still, with her companion Trickster Crow – but no one I’ve met has ever found that cave, though many have searched, and many have drowned in the process. Maybe she’s still there, stirring the soup which contains all of the seeds and all of the herbs and the essence of all the growing and living things in the world. Maybe she’s still here, working on the most beautiful weaving in the world, with its fringe of sea-urchin quills. The island’s beaches are haunted by seals. Neither common seals nor grey seals; I’ve never seen them like elsewhere. But then they’re not just ordinary seals: they’re Selkies. And for one night every month, on the night of the full moon, they can take on human form if they choose, and it is said that on those nights they slip off their sealskins and dance on the beach under the moonlight.

On this island, once there lived a fisherman. He was a handsome man with coal-black hair and bright blue eyes, and he stood tall and strong. Although many of the local girls mooned over him and dreamed of being his wife, he never seemed to find anyone that represented the qualities he wanted. He was something of a dreamer, you see.

They said that it was a miracle that he managed to catch any fish at all, for all the time he would spend staring out to sea when he took his boat. He believed that love would come upon him like a clap of thunder or the crashing of the waves on the rock. And he never had that feeling with any of the girls he had grown up with: they were all too familiar, somehow. He wanted mystery. He yearned for something that he couldn’t name. One night he was feeling restless, and so he took a barefooted walk along the beach as often he did. The sky was midnight-blue velvet, the stars shining brightly, and the full moon smiling down on him as he stared out into the waves. His eyes rested on a large smooth rock that lay in the far shallow waters of the bay, and it came to him that he could see movement on and around that rock.

As he paddled slowly and quietly towards it, he saw a small group of women dancing in the sea. Their hair shone like the moon, their eyes glistened like the stars and their skin shimmered like milk in the water. Their bodies were long and graceful, their voices soft and lyrical as they called and laughed with each other. They were so beautiful that he stood quite still, drinking in the sight of them as they drifted farther away from the rock, playing in the shallow water.

After a while he noticed a pile of what looked like animal skins lying on the top of the rock. Chilled to the bone and yet strangely excited, he recalled all the old tales about Selkies. They could change into women, he remembered, by slipping off their sealskins. Without those skins they would remain human and trapped on the land, unable to return to their home beneath the waves. The man was overtaken by a strange yearning as he watched the women in the sea, and a feeling crept over him that this was the mystery he had been looking for, all his young life.

Somehow, these women personified his love of the sea and her beauty and mystery, and he wanted one of them for his wife. So he crept quietly to the rock and stole one of the sealskins, folding it tight and tiny, and pushed it into the pocket of his jacket.

After a while the women called to one another and began to swim back to the rock, each one finding and putting on her sealskin, transforming herself back into a seal in the wink of an eye, and then slipping away into the water, disappearing beneath the waves. All but one of them. She searched high and low, clambering over the rock and diving into the sea around it, but she failed to find her skin. Seeing her distress, the man stepped out from where he had been hiding behind the rock.

“I have your skin”, he said to her. “But I don’t want to give it back to you. Won’t you stay with me, and be my wife?” The seal-woman shook her head and shrank back from him, but slowly and carefully, as if he were gentling a wild animal, the young fisherman stepped closer to her, and as he looked into her eyes he saw hers change, widen, soften. “Seven years”, he whispered to her. “Just seven years. Give me seven years, and then I’ll give you back your skin. After that, I’ll let you decide. If you still want to leave after seven years, then I’ll let you go.” And at that moment the first light of dawn crept into the sky, and the glow of the moon began to fade.

Reluctantly, then, the woman went with him, understanding that without her skin she could do nothing. She had no choice. But he seemed to her to be a handsome young man, and strong. And his eyes were kind, for all that he had visited this fat