The Dance of the Selkies

by Fauna

             There is a place on Sable Island where the dunes dip down to the ocean, the churning ocean into the fog, and the fog into the horizon until the landscape is a mass of gray and you cannot tell land from sea or sky. It is there that the great Grey Seals lie on the damp sand and sing their sad songs to one another. What name it truly holds I do not know, but my Grandfather called it Selkie’s Point – I have heard it by no other. I had come to The Island (I always thought of it like that, with capitals because it was so important) that summer to help Grandfather keep the one of the two lighthouses there. Although I had free rein over The Island, the sand and sun and stars that wove themselves into my very being, I was not permitted to go to near Selkie’s Point. “Anywhere, from the sand to the sea, anywhere at all. But not,” My grandfather would pause to glare down at me. “Not to Selkie’s Point.”

“But why?” I whined one afternoon, my hair full of sand and my head with questions. Until he had mentioned it, the thought of heading down to what I considered to be the spookiest part of The Island had never occurred to me.

Grandfather had glanced away, out to the endless ocean he was always watching. “Do you know why we keep the lighthouse here?”

“Because of the storms ’n the fog ’n the dark.” I replied promptly. “So all the ships can go around.” The Graveyard of the Atlantic, as my parents had put it, surrounded The Island. Between the dangerous currents, the shifting sand bars, and thick fogs that came out of nowhere at the drop of a pin, hundreds of ships had foundered in the shallows. That was why the lighthouse was so important, why Grandfather’s work was so important.

“Yes. Well, there’s an old story – comes from way back, back when my Grandmother had just come over from Scotland.” Grandfather looked shrewdly down at me. “You’ve seen those great Grey Seals that come to pup here every year, haven’t you? Same type live over in Scotland.”

I had indeed seen the Grey Seals that lay about on the beaches and looked like hunks of wet rock. I had heard them ‘sing’ to one another in the dawn twilight or resting in the mid-afternoon heat. They looked almost human when swimming, gracefully cutting through the water; their big eyes were always so full of soul. It was almost like having a person look out at you, through those eyes. But I had never dared to get too close to them, not when they had babies to protect. They might not be fast on land but they were big, big enough to knock me over if I wasn’t careful, so I left them well alone.

“They’re called Selkies there,” Grandfather continued. “Some say they’re sailors who were shipwrecked, turned to seals so they wouldn’t drown – not human, not seal, something… in between. Magic.”

Magic. I could believe it – hadn’t I seen them cry almost like humans did, on the beaches? Hadn’t I seen the soul in their eyes?  Wouldn’t The Island, Sable Island, be the one place left to still have magic?

“And some say they’re true-blood humans who wear seal-skins o’er their own, and they take ’em off to dance by the light o’ the moon.”

I giggled at the idea of seals calmly unzipping their skins and leaving them lie on the beach like dirty clothes.

“I don’t know the truth o’ the matter, but I know what my grandmother told me. That the seals came up to the beach and danced at night on Selkie’s Point. She didn’t say why, or how she knew, and o’ course I didn’t believe her. See, I was just a little boy back then. I didn’t believe in magic. Hogwash, I said. To prove it, I snuck down to the beach late one night. The sky was full of stars and the grass kept whispering in the wind – you could feel it, the magic in the air. But I went down anyway, sat myself down on top of a little mound o’ sand and watched the ocean.”

“What did you see, what did you see?” I squealed, tugging on Grandfather’s arm. He paused dramatically, eyes distant. “They came up out o’ the water, two by two. Great, big Grey Seals with dark, warm eyes. Seals bigger than any I had seen before slipped right out o’ the water and clambered up the beach. There must’ve been two dozen of them, maybe more, coming up from the fog. An’ when the moon came out from behind a cloud they stood, shrugged off their seal-skins and danced by the light o’ the moon, like the spinning stars were as grand as any a ballroom chandelier. Well, I near fell off my hill in surprise. Seals dancing!” He smiled at the memory.

“So why can’t I go down an’ see them dance?” I demanded, already envisioning the silver-white sands filled with twirling gowns.

“I haven’t finished my story yet, lass! I watched the seal-folk dance until the sky turned purple with sunlight and the fog began to thin. Oh! They could dance, lass. Dance to the sound o’ the surf and the wind in the grass, stomping their bare feet on the wet sand for a beat. And when the first rays of the sun peeked o’er the horizon, they turned, scooped up their silvery skins, and plunged into the water.” Around us the light was fading, the sky had become a pinkish-gray and the wild horses that skirted around our small part of The Island were making their way to whatever secret bower they slept in. Grandfather grasped my hand in his large, rough one, and began to lead me the lighthouse keeper’s house. I looked out towards Selkie’s Point, too far away for my eyes to make out but close enough I fancied I could feel the magic. “But why can’t I go down an’ see them dance?” I asked again. “You did.”

“I asked my Grandmother why it was so dangerous. She was a sharp old woman, knew what little boys were like so she guessed where I’d been and decided to wait up for me that night. When I came home and asked, she looked out to the ocean, squinted with her wise black eyes and sighed. ‘Because, lad. If you go down there again, they’re sure as certain to take you away with them.’ It was then that she told me a great secret – her mother had been Selkie, a seal-bride stolen away by my great-grandfather. Now.” He stopped when he saw the protests form on my lips, the wrongness of stealing a seal-bride away. “It’s not our place to say the right or wrong o’ the matter. Long years have passed since then and it does no use to condemn the dead. Suffice to say, if you went down to the beach and watched the Selkies dance, they might take a fancy to their great-grandchild and take you away with ’em. That would break my heart, lass, and your parents too. So, keep well away from there, from Selkie’s Point.”

I was thrilled to think that I was part Selkie, never mind how many generations back it was. After that day, I always looked with a bit of awe upon the seals I saw lounging in the sun, searched for the secrets their dark eyes hid, and combed the sand dunes for any skins that may have been left behind. And on lonely, wild nights when the fog gathered on the shore and the wind sang in the sand dunes, when the moon hung in the sky by a silver-cloud thread and the world shimmered in gray, I would look to Selkie’s Point and fancy I saw figures dancing.

Summer passed; I went home to my parents and memories of a ghost-gray beach and hollow seal-songs faded with time and the tides. One could say I ‘grew up’ the day I realised that the Selkie story had been nothing more than a ruse to keep me away from the most dangerous beach on The Island, where tides were wicked and seals were fierce. But… some part of me still believed. That was why, when I came to The Island again as an adult, I walked along the shore at dusk. I had long ago ceased to believe in Selkies, but the pull of sand and star and sea held as much magic as I remembered. And when I turned to head back towards my grandfather’s old house (now used by seal researchers, I reminded myself with a smile) I caught a glimpse of a Grey Seal cutting through the water. For a moment, a human silhouette was suspended on the horizon, black against the blazing sun.

Fauna © 2021
Age 17, Bridgewater

Sable In Words 2021
Youth Writing Contest, 14-17 age group
Sable Island Institute