LA DOLCEVITA AND THE SELKIE OF SANDAY
An Italian masterpiece, La Dolcevita, introduces the following tale to celebrate the Love in 2020, when Chimamanda Lavinia was in my womb, and in 2021. Enjoy this amazing story that left all of us breathless.
The Orkney Islands lie north of the mainland of Scotland. All around their shores are reefs and large rocks known as skerries where the waters of the North Sea and the Atlantic Ocean meet and mingle. Here, seals, or “selkies” as they are often called, can be seen swimming or basking on the rocks. It’s thought that at certain times a selkie can take off its skin and become human. There are many stories about selkies in Scottish folklore. This one is my own.
Magnus was a fisherman who lived alone in a cottage by the edge of a bay on the Orkney Island of Sanday. He often wished that he could meet a nice girl with whom he might share his life. “How pleasant it would be,” he thought, “to have someone to walk with me along the seashore on a summer’s evening. We’d hold hands and watch the light sparkle on the waves, for at Midsummer here the sun never really goes down. And, during the cold dark winter, we’d sit snug and warm in front of our fire.”
But Magnus was shy, and anytime he met a girl he’d no idea what to say to her. Besides which, he was only a poor fisherman and had little to offer any girl to persuade her to become his wife. So he resigned himself to being on his own, and each day he sailed his boat out into the bay to catch fish that he might have something to cook for his supper.
One summer evening – when daylight does not fade into dark night in the north, but stretches through, and the sun stays in the sky even after midnight – the fishing became very bad. From the beginning of June Magnus went out to fish and caught nothing. As the days went on Magnus noticed that there were many more seals in the water. He’d heard tales about the seal people and how they gathered together at Midsummer. The older folks of Sanday claimed to have seen selkies swim onto the beach at this time of year and slide off their sealskins to take the form of humans: men, women and children. Then the selkies would dance and sing through the long, long Midsummer’s Eve.
“That’s why there are no fish in the bay,” Magnus said to himself. “The selkies have chosen this spot to gather for Midsummer. They are eating the fish and there is none left for me.”
The next day, which was Midsummer’s Eve, Magnus resolved to take his boat further out to the skerries that lay beyond the bay.
He moored near to one of these small rocky islands to fish. Magnus had no more luck that day than any other, and so, in the late evening, sad and hungry, he set sail for home. As he came back into the bay he saw the most wondrous sight. All along the shoreline the selkies in human form were splashing and skipping in the water. Across the sea floated the sound of their singing, mournful yet beautiful, low and rhythmic, like the murmur of waves lapping on the beach. “Ah!” Magnus spoke softly, his hunger forgotten as he watched the magical creatures.
Suddenly the sky darkened. Great storm clouds puffed up and glowered down from above. The wind changed and a huge breaker came roiling and boiling in from the open water. At once the selkies left off their games and dashed to gther their sealskins and slip them on. Within minutes they were gone from the beach. Just in time! The enormous wave crashed against the shore, sending spray flying. Water thundered over the rocks. Magnus struggled to keep his boat afloat. When he’d weathered the storm and made it to shore, the beach was deserted. Tired and weary he went to bed and fell asleep.
In the early part of the night Magnus awoke. He thought he’d heard a cry, a thin reedy sound. “It’s a seabird,” he decided, “a mother looking for a lost chick.”
And so he went back to sleep.
He was wakened in the middle of the night by a moaning noise. “That’s th run of the tide going through the skerries,” Magnus thought, and once more he fell asleep.
But when Magnus arose early the next morning, still he could hear a plaintive wailing, rising and falling in the air. It was not the cry of a gull nor the sea funnelling through the rock channels. It was a human voice, echoing a lament across the water. Magnus got into his boat and set out in the direction of the noise. On the furthest skerry of the bay crouched a young woman with long hair, which curled and coiled about her body. She was shivering with cold. Magnus picked up the old blanket that he kept in the bottom of his boat and he threw it to her to wrap herself in. He brought the boat close the rock, reached out his hands and pulled her aboard.
Now that he was nearer to the girl, Magnus could see that, although her eyes were a troubled cloudy grey like the colour of stormy sea, she was beautiful in a strange and different way from ordinary girls. He rowed ashore and led her to his cottage where she lay down to rest.
As she slept Magnus took the boat out again, for he’d heard stories of the selkies, and how it sometimes happened that they could lose their selkie skin. He sailed in and out of the skerries and, sure enough, there was a seal skin caught up in the rocks at the end of the bay. When Magnus came home he opened his cottage door carefully and quietly and looked at the sleeping girl. Now, he should really have woken her and given the girl her seal skin so that she could put it on and return to her family in the sea. But as he heard her breath rise and fall and saw her bonny face, Magnus fell deeply in love with her.
So Magnus pulled an old chest out from under the bed and he hid the seal skin at the bottom. The he locked it up and pushed it far under the bed. He warmed some oatmeal and as he did the girl awoke. When he offered her a bowl of oatmeal she shook her head. He knew that she must be hungry but as he approached her with the food she shrank away from him.
Suddenly Magnus recalled another thing that the old folk of Sanday said about selkies – they loved music. He took down his fiddle from above the mantelshelf and he began to play. As the music filled the room the girl looked less afraid, and a bit later she smiled. Eventually, when Magnus offered her some warm milk with bread dipped in it, she ate and seemed to relax. He spoke to her gently, explaining that the sudden storm and the wash of the waves had taken her out to sea. He told her that she was welcome to stay in his cottage for as long as she wished and he wouldn’t bother her in any way.
The following day Magnus went out in his boat and caught many fish. He cooked some of the fish for supper, but the girl ate her share raw. The extra fish that Magnus caught he sold nd used the money to buy the girl a pretty dress. She put it on and ran outside the cottage. Magnus lifted his fiddle and, going after her, he began to play. The selkie-girl was skipping on the beach and singing, gentle and sweet, like soft wind over calm water. Magnus heard the pull and drag of the sea on the shingle and saw the creamy crest of the waves as they flowed in towards the sand. The selkie-girl stood with feet tapping nd body swaying. As she danced she lifted her skirt to show two dainty feet and she exclaimed at her toes and wriggled them in the sand. He looked into the eyes of the selkie-girl and they were as blue as the sea in summer.
By the time next summer arrived a child was born.
Magnus was delighted at their fine strong son, and the selkie-girl was happy too and she sang lullabies to her baby. But on Midsummer’s Eve, as they bathed the child, they noticed that between the baby’s big toe and the second toe there was a flap of skin. The selkie-girl examined her own feet. There was a flap of skin between every one of her toes. She glanced at Magnus’s feet. All of his toes were separate. The selkie-girl gazed past Magnus through the open door of the cottage where, far out to sea, the heads of seals were bobbing in the water.
Magnus saw her become pale and she whispered, “I miss my own people.”
Magnus pointed to the baby and at himself. “We are your people now.”
The sun, low in the sky, shone upon the water and made it look as if a path of liquid gold was marked out to be followed.
“I must go to them,” said the selkie-girl.
A terrible foreboding was in Magnus’s heart. He said, “No. I forbid you to go.”
“I need my selkie skin,” she begged him. “I want to visit my family.”
But Magnus only shook his head, for he was worried that she would go away forever.
At that the selkie-girl began to weep. But Magnus remained unmoved, for now he was very afraid. If she went to see her people then she might never return to him. The wind began to blow outside and it carried with it the sound of singing, a selkie song, coming closer as the seals swam in towards the shore. Magnus jumped to his feet and bolted the cottage door. The singing grew louder and the selkie-girl cried out in despair, “They are calling to me.”
She stretched her arms out towards the sea and sobs shook her body. And Magnus looked into her eyes and they were as grey as the sea in the winter. Magnus knew she was deeply unhappy and because he loved her so much he saw that if he did not let her go her heart would break. So he went to the chest under the bed and he gave his wife her selkie skin.
“Please!” he shouted a the selkie-girl rushed out of the cottage. “Please don’t forget me and our child! Please say that you’ll come back one day!”
The next night Magnus played his fiddle by the seashore. But no answering song sounded through the air. Eventually, worn out and sorrowful, he went to bed. In the morning when he awoke he found a tiny seashell on the empty pillow beside him. When he went to pick up his child to feed him breakfast, another shell, exactly the same, lay beside the boy’s head.
Lifting his son, Magnus went outside. Footprints marked the sand from seashore to cottage and back again where the slim bare feet of a woman had walked. That night and each night thereafter Magnus tried to stay awake to catch a glimpse of his selkie-wife, but always, before dawn, his eyes dropped shut and he fell asleep. Every morning there was a seashell left for him and the child. Sometimes Magnus dreamed as he slept, drifting dreams of half-awakening when he would see his selkie-wife bentover the cradle, quietly crooning to their son. And never once in all that time did the child waken in his sleep or cry out and disturb Magnus in his. As the weeks and months passed, the little boy grew bigger. If the child fretted and wouldn’t settle to go to bed at night Magnus carried him to the sea, and the sound of the surf on the rocks of the skerries and the tangy smell of the ocean made the boy smile. His eyes would close and he rested peacefully.
A year passed and Midsummer arrived once more on Sanday. Magnus forced himself to remain awake throughout that night, hoping that he might see his selkie-wife. But although he sat at the door of his cottage and played his fiddle the whole night long, neither seal nor selkie came to the beach.
In the morning Magnus put his son into his harness, strapped him securely in his back, and took his boat out. The sea was choppy but he was determined to got to the skerry where he’d first seen his selkie-wife. When he got there the rock was empty and the waves slapped against the side of his boat. Tears ran down Magnus’s cheeks and they dropped, one by one, into the sea. When this happened the water immediately became still. Then the waves parted and the head of a seal broke through. The dark eyes of the creature fixed themselves upon Magnus. He sighed. It was jsut another seal – bobbing about his boat looking for something to eat.
Sadly Magnus began to turn the boat to head for shore. Then he noticed the eyes of the seal alter slightly. Magnus blinked. His heart began to beat very fast. He bent his head to look more closely at the seal. As he stared and stared the seal’s eyes changed colour from black to stormy grey and then to palest blue.
“Mama!” the child in the boat gurgled and stretched out his arms. Magnus stretched out his own arms and grasped those of his selkie-wife. And the eyes that looked back at Magnus and the boy were as blue as the sea on a summer’s day.
(from "An illustrated Treasury of Scottish Folk and Fairytales" written by Theresa Breslin and Kate Leiper. )