This Celtic Story was read to me by someone special and I tried my best to transcribe it below.
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 western male shores, you might sometimes catch a glimpse of --- ("Ternaban") --, the Isle of women, way out to 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 days of winter. And summer is precious and fleeting. Somewhere along the stormy a section of that western most coast is a high inaccessible cave, where they say the old woman of the world lives still with her companion -- (“Triksacrow”) --.
But no one I've ever 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 working on the most beautiful weaving in the world, with its fringe of sea urchin quills.
The islands beaches are haunted by seals, neither common seals nor grey seals. I've never seen their like elsewhere. But then they're not just ordinary seals, they are 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 sad that on those nights they slip off their seal skins and dance on the beach under the moonlight.
On this island, once the left a fisherman he was a handsome man with cold 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 that he wanted, he was something of a dreamer, you see. They said it was a miracle that he managed to catch any fish at all. For all the time he would spend staring out to see when he talked to his boat. He believed that love would come upon him like a clap of thunder, or the crashing of waves on the rock. And he had never had that feeling with any of the girls had grown up with. They were all too familiar somehow. He wanted mystery. He yearned for something that he could not name.
One night he was feeling restless. And so he took a barefooted walk along the beach as often as 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. The hair on like the moon, their eyes glistened like stars, and their skin shimmered like milk in the water. Their bodies were long and graceful. their voice is 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 he drifted farther away from the rock, playing in the shallow water. After a while, he noticed a pile of what looked like animal skins, laying on 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 you remembered by slipping off their seal skin. Without those skins they would remain human and trapped on the land. Unable to return to the home beneath the waves.
The man was overtaken by a strange yearning as he watched the woman 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 seal skins; folding it tight and tiny, and pushed it into the pockets 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 a seal skin, transforming their selves 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 can 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. Why don't you stay with me and be my wife". The seal woman shook her head and shrunk 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 a change, saw her eyes widen and 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 fate upon her. With one last yearning, she looked over her shoulder and waved goodbye to our sisters. Their seal heads popping up from the sea, their eyes glinting like dark jewels and they're feeding moonlight. The young man was happier than he had ever imagined he might be. As he lay beside his wife in bed at night, he fancied he could smell the sea. And as he listened to her breathing beside him, he fancied that he could hear the whisper of the waves. He was content. As for the seal woman, she bore him a daughter, nine months after they were wed.
At first she seemed happy enough with her life and her child. Mara, she called her after the sea. She would take her daughter down to the shore, and teach you the ways in the law of the waters, telling her stories of the people and of other mysteries beneath the waves. The child loved the sea with all her heart, but she was half human. And so she love the land too and could not imagine ever forsaken it. She was at home in our skin and knew our place in the world. But then so had her mother been when she was her daughter's age.
The selkie did her best to look after the child and care for a husband. But as the years went by, things began to change. He went away from the house more often, either fishing or drinking with his friends in the local inn, and she was left alone. She began to creep out by herself at night, stealing down to the shore, looking always for her sisters. But they had abandoned that beach and the night she was taken, fearing that the same fate would befall them. So she watched and she wept and as all hope began to fade she became more and more sorrowful. Her skin began to dry up and her eyes and her hair grew ever more dull. When the seven years were up, hating herself and needing to leave her daughter, but knowing that she must find a way back to herself, which could come only with finding her way home. She asked her husband if he would return her skin. But he simply laughed and refused. She was still the most beautiful woman on the island, and she was his..why ever would he let her go free. The seal woman grew slower and sadder, frightened that she might lose her. Mara asked if she was ill. And finally, her mother told her that she was fading from yearning for a lost home beneath the sea. Fading because although she loved her husband still and loved her daughter even more, she was stranded in this place where she could not find a way to belong.
Mara feared the blank emptiness that had begun to reside in her mother's eyes. And so she started to search for the selkies lost skin. She searched every part of the house and every part of the land, but she couldn't find it. She searched and searched until she exhausted herself. Then eventually, one night after she had spent hours searching again, while a father was out, and a mother asleep, she found herself yawning and the boat shed and crept into her father's boat to take a nap. And there, under a heap of fraying ropes and soiled sailcloth she finally found the sealskin. Hidden still inside the pocket of the old jacket that the fishermen had been wearing on the night he stole her mother away.
As Mara pulled at it and the skin rolled out, she caught a faint whiff of the sea, the smell of a mother. But as she picked it up from the floor, where it had fallen, the skin began to disintegrate in her hands. It was old and desiccated. It had not been used for a long time, and now it could never be used again.
Mara hurried home and awakened her sleeping mother, and with tears in her eyes brought her down to the shore where she presented her with an old shredded skin. She watched as her mother sank to her knees and wept. She saw the hope, and then the life begin to drain out of her eyes. And then she acted. She half-carried half-dragged her mother down to the sea, where she rolled her into the shallows and let the sea water cover her body. Slowly, slowly, the silky woman began to revive. But as she walked back to the house with Mara, there was nothing but emptiness in her eyes.
For many weeks, the selkie woman stayed in a bed, her heart as a black hole, there was no help to be found. And her life stretched ahead of her endless, dark and hopeless. She would never find her way home. Never find a place, never again find a way to belong. But Mara would not let her mother die. And so she went to visit the Wise Old Woman who lived in a small stone cottage up in the hills at the far end of the village. She asked the old colleague, what she should do to help her mother, whether indeed anything could be done. Your mother must help herself. The old woman told Mara, you cannot do it for her. And though I know the ways of herbs and moss, and the paths that animals take through the old woods, I do not know the ways of the sea. But there is one who does. And if you're a mother can find her way to her. It may be that she will tell how she might be saved.
And so Mara went home and told her mother that she must find the old woman of the world who was sometimes to be found in those days still, if you had endurance enough to make the journey, and the courage enough to face her in the darkness of a cave.
At first the seal woman said that she could not possibly follow this quest. She was too tired, and too ill. The way it would be too difficult. And there was no guarantee of success but Mara will not let the subject go. She pleaded with the mother and pleaded some more. And then she wept. Until finally, one morning the selkie could bear her daughter's despair no longer and she roused herself from a bed and put on her strong boots and wrapped herself in a warm cloak. She took nothing else with her. For the old calic told Mara, that the journey must be made while unencumbered with unnecessary things of the world.
The selkie did not know where to go. Not really. All she knew was that she would find the old woman of the world somewhere on the high western most cliffs of the island. And so pulling our cloak tightly around her, she began to walk north. She walked in the rain, along beaches with the wind so strong in her face that every step took twice as long as it ought. She clambered over a rock so slippery, that she fell constantly into the water, and had hardly the strength to hold herself back out. Her boots were cold and wet and heavy and her heart was heavier still. At night, she shivered in geos and cowered in coves. She drunk from icy berns and ate seaweed for her only nourishment.
It was hard, and she was weak. And when one wild day the storm raged more fiercely than ever, and the wind finally whipped away her cloak and carried it to the cliff top where she was walking, and down to the sea. She sank to her knees, and lay her forehead on the ground, and began to despair. But as she knelt there, a strange rumble in the ground below her set her body vibrating. As she threw back her head and listened, and it seemed to her that carried on the wind, in snatches, she heard a woman singing a song, somewhere down below, somewhere deep inside the cliff.
And it seemed to her also, that the strange shuddering rumble she had heard sounded something like the noise a spinning wheel might make if peddled furiously by someone who was skilled in the art. She stood and looked around her. And walked and peered and poked until finally she came upon the first step of the long stairway, which was cut into the face of the cliff, seemingly ending in the sea. Narrow and slippy, precipitous as could be.
She closed her eyes and took a deep breath, and slowly, carefully down the stairs she went. And at the bottom, she found the cave, the Cave of the Old Woman of the World. The old woman herself sat there, spinning a fine thread, shining with all the colors that ever existed, on a rich golden wooden wheel in front of an enormous frame, on which was displayed the most beautiful weaving that had ever been created. Fringed with sea urchin quills.
The old woman turned and looked at the selkie.
"So you've come to find your skin", she said. And it was all the seal woman could do to hold herself erect, to lift her chin, and stop her teeth from chattering and to not nod a faint, yes. The old one beckoned her over to a glowing fierce fire at the back of the cave, over which an enormous cauldron bubbled, and it seemed to her that the steam rising up from the soup in the cauldron contained the scent of all the seeds, and all the herbs and the essence of all the growing and living things in the world.
She sat and the warmth began to creep back into her bones. And she listened while the old woman spoke. "So your old skin was no use anymore", she said, looking long and deep into the fire and nodding as though she could see pictures in the flames.
"That's the way it goes often enough. I've heard all the stories the tell of selkies who find that old skins and slip them back on and away they go out into the ocean and live happily ever after. Just as if nothing else. happened to them, and nothing had ever been learned. That's all well and good. But it doesn't always work out that way. And sometimes it shouldn't".
She passed the selkie a cup of something hot and herbal and sweet. And she took it gratefully and sipped. And it seemed to her, as she said, that all the strength and vitality she had lost began flooding back into her bones.
"You've done well to make it this far daughter", the old woman said. "But there's more for you to do before you're done". And then she told the selkie what she must do. The selkie set off again, when a tea her tea had been drunk, fresh and fit as the day her husband had first discovered there on the beach. The sea was calm now. And the air still. And she found the khorog at the base of the cliff, just where the old woman had said she would find it. And she climbed in and slowly she rode across the tiny island a mile to the north and a mile to the west. She brought the khorog to rest on a long white strand and a calm sandy cove on the north side of the island. And there too, she found the cave that the old woman told her she would find. And as she entered into the cave, she saw what she had been told she would see. And her hands flew to a mouth. And it was all that she could do not to turn and flee and throw herself into the sea and wait to die of grief. For there in their center of the cave, with the skeletons and skins of 11 dead sales. These were no ordinary seals, neither common seals nor grey seals. They were selkies.
They had been killed and then skinned and left so that their flesh had disintegrated, and all that remained of each of them was a pile of bones and a skin beside each pile, shining silver in the dim light to the cave. 11 skeletons and 11 skins. The selkie crept close, dread in a heart, but that was no help for it. For she knew her 11 sisters. She knew them in our heart and recognized the markings on their beautiful silver skins.
"A seal hunt", the woman had said and the corpses abandoned by the men in the storm, ready to be picked up some finer day. But the hunters had never returned. And the bones and the skins of the selkie sisters had rested in the cave ever since. But there was more to be done before she was done. And so she did as the old woman had told her she lit a fire in a darkened encave and she sat vigil over the skins and the bones and as night fell, she began to sing the old lament over the bodies of a kinsfolk no one knows the language now. And nor is it a language that is usually written but here other words she sang "I am da I endo i n da od Arda. Hi ODon Tao. Hi Oh Don Tao. Hi Oh Don Tao. On Art Dae". And as she sang, she heard a rustle out in the cove beyond the cave. And through the growing gloom, she peered out and saw an old grey seal crawl up onto the sand and make its way into the cave. And the grey seal, who she saw was an old old selkie , she began to sing the song too. And as the old selkie sang, throwing back her seal head, for the moon was new, and she could not take on her human form. Unless the moon was full. A wondrous thing began to happen in the cave. Slowly, slowly, the flesh began to reform and the bones of the dead seals, all but one, the smallest and the youngest. And little by little, the skeletons began to reshape and to see more like seals and they grew fatter and then they shuddered and breathed. And finally, when they were strong, rolled over and slipped into their skins, all but one, the smallest and the youngest. And 10 of the 11 seals formed a circle around the sister child who could not live again. And they lifted their heads up and sang a song of mourning. When they were done, they crawled out of the cave and their bellies and came again into the ocean, beckoning for their sister to follow.
The old woman had told the selkie that she would know what to do when the time came. And it seemed to her now that this was a thing that must be done. She reached for the skin that remained and held it to a breast, inhaling the faint scent of a lost sister. The old seal nodded, and then turned away and follow the younger ones back into the sea.
It would have been easy for the selkie woman to go there. Her sisters were waiting for her. And if she followed them, they would lead her home. But there was one thing more she had to do. One thing that could not be abandoned so lightly. So she folded the skin, tiny and tight, and tucked it safely into the belt of her gown. And she found the khorog on the beach, and taking up her oars, she began her long return home. She came Mara when her husband was away fishing. And she took her down to the sea and told her all that she needed to know.
Mara was young still, but there was something in her that understood that she must let her mother go. She could see that the seal woman wanted to stay with her. But something called to her something, so deeply a part of her nature that she could not and must not resist it. The need to find her place, to find her element, to find her way home. So the time came for them to part. Take in her daughter's face in her hands. The selkie look deeply into Mara's eyes and breathed her breath into her lungs three times.
Turning the sea, she began to sing a strange song and a high voice. She pulled out her sister skin newer than our own, younger, less marked by the cares and woes of the world. But it was a seal woman's bones that this skin covered now. And which shaped it, the two mesh together, old and new. And in this merging a new form was created. With one last long look at her daughter. The selki slipped into the sea and vanished beneath the waves. The daughter and her father mourned long and hard. Mara would often go down to the shore at night, hoping to catch a glimpse of a mother. But she never came. And then exactly one year later, on the anniversary of her disappearance, Mara's patience was rewarded.
A seal was sitting on the rock, and as it saw her approaching, it slipped off its skin. And there she was, her mother. And yet somehow she was different. Her eyes and hair and skin was shiny, and something and the way she held the body told Mara that she was at peace and at home with herself once more.
And so it happened, ever afterwards, that once a year on the same anniversary of her departure into the sea. On the night of the closest full moon, the selkie woman would come to the beach and talk with her daughter and tell her stories. She taught her to sing the song that she had sung in the cave, the song that would call her to her to her selkie kinfolk. She taught her the song so that one day, if ever she should so choose, she could also take to the sea. She taught her the song that would sing her soul back home. The seal woman sea joy, the selkie called her song. Though it had once been known as a song of mourning for all morning may be transformed into joy, if you have endurance enough to make the journey and courage enough to face the old woman in the darkness of her cave.