The Wounded Selkie

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If you go to the clear, cold waters of the sea around the Orkney Islands, you'll see many beautiful creatures. Perhaps the most beautiful will be the seals: the seals which will swim close to you as you walk along the clean sands of the beach.
Up there, in the Orkneys, they call the seals the selkie.
The selkie will look at you with their round, brown eyes. And you will certainly think how wonderful they are.

But not everyone loves the seals, and this is a story of one man who did not. No, he hated the selkie.
He hated the selkie because he was a fisherman.
Each day he'd take his boat and row out across the clear, cold waters and put down one of his fishing nets. The net would hang there in the water from a round float, then he'd row on and put down another net, then another, and another. When he'd put down all his nets, he'd row back to the first and haul it up to see what he'd caught. If there were fish, he knew that he could eat that night. If there were lots of fish, he knew he could go to the pub that night!
But sometimes when he hauled up a net, he'd see that the fish were bitten and torn. Sometimes he's see that the nets were ripped - so ripped that he sometimes couldn't even repair them and he just had to throw them overboard.
"Ach, the bloody selkie!" he'd curse.
No, that fisherman did not love the selkie.

Now there was one particular place in the sea, just off the cliff at the north tip of the island of Westray: it was a place where he'd always caught good fish. But one summer, day after day, when he hauled up his net he'd find the fish bitten and torn. He'd find his net ripped. That summer he'd thrown away so many nets in that place that at last he was determined he'd have his revenge.

So the next warm day - and it can be warm sometimes, even in the Orkneys - when he rowed out to that place off the north tip of Westray, he first put down an anchor. Then he put down a net. But this day, he did not row on. Instead, he took off his clothes and sat waiting. Waiting, with his knife by his side. Well, the day was warm, and the wind was calm - and it can be calm sometimes, even in the Orkneys. As he sat there, his boat rocking gently on the clear, cold water, perhaps his eyes closed, I don't know.
But suddenly he heard it: something was pulling the float of the net down. He looked over the side of the boat. There, down in the water, he could see something large, something grey, something turning against his net.
"The bloody selkie!"
With his knife between his teeth, he dived into the sea. Down he swam, down through the clear, cold water until he came behind the selkie. Then, with his knife, he stabbed. Stabbed and ripped down. He saw the wound open, he saw the red blood flow out into the clear water.
The selkie, with the fisherman's knife still in his side, twisted and turned so much that the fisherman lost grip on his knife. The fisherman saw his knife falling through the clear water, falling down to the bed of the sea.
The fisherman could not go down after it: he had no air left - he had to go up to breathe.
"Well, I may have lost a knife. But that's one selkie that won't be troubling my nets again!"

But the next day, when the fisherman had put down all his nets and returned to haul them up, that day he found them all empty.
Well, that happens: especially when you're fishing.
But the next day, it was the same. And the day after that. And the day after that.
Soon the fisherman realised that he was under a curse: the curse of the selkie.

Soon he stopped taking his boat out - what was the point? Instead, he'd stand down at the harbour wall, staring out over the cold grey sea, cursing his luck - and cursing the selkie.

He was standing there one day when he heard a voice behind him.
"Hey, you. I'm told you may be able to help me."
The fisherman turned and saw a stranger - a man wearing a broad hat pulled low over his face.
"I'm looking for someone to help me get some selkie skins."
"Selkie skins? Oh, I'm the man for you if it's killing selkies! But you'll have to pay me."
"Pay? Oh, I don't know about the pay. I'll have to ask about that. Come with me."
And the stranger took the fisherman and they walked along the footpath out of the village - the footpath that went up over the cliff of the north tip of Westray.

When they came to the point where the footpath came right to the edge of the cliff, the stranger stopped. He turned to the grey waters, put his hands to his mouth and called: "Hey dun dar! Ho dun dar!"
The fisherman looked out at the sea. And he saw that the waters were empty no longer. For coming across the grey water of the sea, coming to the stranger's call, were the selkie. Selkie after selkie. Swimming to the call. And still the stranger called and called: "Hey dun dar! Ho dun dar!"

Then suddenly, the fisherman felt the stranger's hand on his shoulder: the hand that was pulling him over the edge of the cliff.
Together they fell, fell towards the cold water.
And as they hit the water, the fisherman saw that the stranger was no longer a man: he was a selkie. And it was the selkie's teeth fixed on his shoulder pulling him down, down through the clear, cold water.

Down, down they went. Down until the fisherman knew that his air was at an end, that he would have to open his mouth and let the cold water in. At last he did so - and the blackness covered his eyes.

But when the fisherman opened his eyes, he found he was standing on the bed of the sea. By his side was the stranger, a man once more.
The stranger pointed to a rock on the bed of the sea. In front of the rock lay the body of a young man - a body grey with approaching death. Grey except for the long red wound from his shoulder to his groin.

"That's my son lying there, dying. And this is your knife."

The fisherman slowly nodded.
"Yes. Yes, it is. And you have brought me here for your revenge?"
"Revenge? Hah, revenge I could have. But that would not help my son. Revenge would not help my son because only the hand that made the wound can heal the wound."
"Heal the wound? How can I heal the wound?"
"Just put out your hand and touch it. That is all."

And the fisherman put out his hand and touched the wound. He felt the cold of the young man's body. But as he slowly drew his hand down the wound he saw that the wound closed behind his hand. He saw that the wound was healed where he had touched.
But the cold of the young man's body came further into the fisherman's hand, into the fisherman's arm. The cold was so great that the fisherman's arm hurt more and more.
As he drew his hand along the wound, the cold and the pain spread into his shoulder, into his chest, around his heart.
The cold, the pain, was so intense that the fisherman could hardly continue. He knew that soon the blackness would cover his eyes. That soon he would fall to the bed of the sea.

Yet when the fisherman at last opened his eyes, he found that he was no longer on the bed of the sea. He found he was no longer under the water. He was lying on the beach beneath that very cliff at the north tip of Westray.
He could still feel the pain in his body, but he was alive!
He looked around him. He felt the warmth of the sun, he heard the sound of the waves. He saw by his side a pile of his old fishing nets, all beautifully repaired.
And on the nets was his own knife.

Well, you can imagine that after that, when the fisherman went fishing, and he'd haul up his net, he usually found enough fish.
Sometimes, of course, he find that the fish were bitten and torn. Sometimes he'd even find that the net was ripped.
But he'd only say, "Ach, that's just the selkie. And they have to live as well as I do."


I was asked to write out this story, which I tell on the CD Jack goes Hunting, for inclusion in a forthcoming book of healing stories. (Details will be posted as soon as the book is published.)
The following is not a transcription of the story as I tell it on the CD: after all, that was just one telling and stories come out differently each time they are told.
Instead, I have tried to capture in writing something of the sound of the story as I might tell it to you if you were here with me.

The tale can be downloaded here.

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