The setting for this story, taken from a longer work, is the steerage deck of an immigrant ship on it’s way from Liverpool to Boston in the year 1843. The passengers are mostly Irish and Highland Scots. During the day a dolphin had been seen off the bow, and was mistaken by someone for a seal. Later, this led to a discussion of seals and their ability to appear in different forms. This is a tradition in both Scotland and Ireland, and there are lots stories in the genre. There are songs, perhaps the most familiar is The Great [Grey] Selchie of Sule Skerrie, a Child Ballad recorded by Joan Baez, Ewan MacColl, Solas, and others. There is also a film, The Secret of Roan Inish, by John Sayles. Many of these follow similar patterns and include the basic elements that I have used here. My object was not to redefine or reinvent the selchie story, just to tell one. The term, Selchie, by the way, is Scottish dialect and so is never actually used in this story related by an Irish schoolmaster. I use Selchie for the title because it is more familiar than the Irish Rón or Roan.
‘A thing very much like this happened near Dungeagan in Kerry, where I come from. It was in my time, and some of you may remember, or you might have heard about it. Some twenty or so years back, maybe twenty-two or three, there was a young man named Peadar McCafferty, who I knew myself as he lived nearby and was a fisherman. And it was Peadar’s wife, Aileen, who was Diarmid Kelsaw’s daughter and who was such a charmer, as anyone would tell you. A pretty girl, which it pleased her to be a blessing for her looks, and always with a smile to make anyone feel better for the sight of it. And didn’t she die, with them hardly wed a year or more? So for all of the joy she brought, it was a sharp sorrow that was left behind.
‘For Peadar McCafferty the loss was the end of all things to come, so nothing that lay ahead seemed even worth the trouble of getting to. Nights he kept alone at his house and was poor company for any who might come to visit, all sighs and laments about the turf too wet to burn, the nights too damp for sleep, and more complaints for every part of him than old Job in the dessert. Mornings he would go and wander down onto the strand and take his curragh off into the bay. There he would row out till he was past from sight, then return in the evening with nothing more to show for the time spent than if he’d been laying about like a duck on the waves.
‘Now I would say, if there’s any who don’t know, that past the reach of our bay there are several small islands. Skelligs they are called, great stony crags that rise up from the water to fearful heights. There once were monks there with stone huts and chapels, but that was long ago, and longer still, before the monks, the skelligs were called Tech Duinn—that is to say, the House of Death, because in the pagan days it was the Lord of Death who was called Duinn. And then it was said that upon these islands were all of the spirits of all of the dead of Ireland—although there is no one would believe such a thing today, and the fishermen will tell you that the ghostly sounds drifting across the water like the howling of departed souls, are nothing more but the cries of seals that live there among the rocks.
‘Now, there were some people who thought that Peadar had grown so deep in sorrow and bitterness that it had ruined his faith in God’s creed, and that he had turned to taking comfort in ancient things which can have no truth beyond the stories that tell of them. And it was the opinion of those who believed this that Peadar McCafferty was going to Tech Duinn to find his wife there among the dead. Myself, I believe this may have been true. At least at the first. That like the king Eochaid of old, who himself was nine years digging into the fairy hill of Bri Leith to claim back his beautiful wife, Peadar would find no peace without he restored his Aileen from the shadow land of spirits. But then, when a mind is bewildered from grief, might it find one thing to be no more hopeless than another, and so set its course to undo the cause of its sorrow?
‘Some of the fishermen when they were working near the skelligs would see him there, and they said that he would be drifting close in on the rocks. And it was Liam McCullers who told me that once he’d seen him throwing fish over the side. Holding them out, he said, and dropping them one by one, so intent upon what he was doing that he took no notice of being watched. Now, it is no way for a man who makes his living from the sea to be putting back whatever he’s taken out. There would be no more sense in that than there would be profit. And this same Liam McCullers, who kept his own curragh drawn up in the same cove as Peadar, it was his daughter, Annie, says to him one day: “Here’s a fine young man, and for having no one to look after him is wandering straight to ruin.” And haven’t we all seen that happen? Or known of such a thing? So who could say that Annie McCullers wasn’t right about that!
‘Some evenings after, Annie goes to Peadar McCafferty’s house and tells him she’s there to clean things up a bit and see to it that he has a decent meal in him. Which she does. And having done, she goes back another evening for the same. And then several more. So there’s talk, of course. And wouldn’t there be, after all? But there was kindness in it, and people said that even if Peadar didn’t look much happier drifting out on the waves each day with no more intention than an empty bottle on the tide, at least he was being attended by a suitable woman. So, they said, there was a chance his life would go on and likely end up no worse than most.
‘Now Annie’s visits went on for some while, and it all seemed to be going about as anyone would have expected. Until one time, when she’s at the door and set to be about her cooking and cleaning, it’s Peadar comes out and says to her that he won’t be needing her that day. Or the next, for that matter, as he’s brought his new bride there and that she’ll be looking after things from now on. Well, you could have blown Annie down with a breath. “Peadar,” she says. “You never told me nothing about a bride, and I would have been grateful if you had. For haven’t I been lookin’ after you with that in mind for myself?” And Peadar, he says, “I’m sorry for that, Annie, and that much is the truth. But it come up sudden, you see, and there was nothing I could do and still call myself an honest man.”
‘“Then who would it be?” asks Annie. And Peadar has nothing to say, so she looks past him through the door. And there tending to the pot that hangs over the turf burning in the hearth, what does she see but a pretty young girl who doesn’t look up at all. And not a word from her, now, but she smiles and looks to what she’s stirring at in the pot.
‘“Well, I guess that’ll do then,” says Annie. And off she goes back to her father’s house. But she thinks there’s something awfully peculiar that’s going on. It was no girl from the village she saw, that was certain. And pretty as she was, there was something odd about her look. She was small, and she was very dark about her face and hair, the way a Gypsy might be, or a Spaniard from things she’d heard. But what troubled her the most was that Peadar McCafferty had never seemed to her as the kind to hold secrets or to go off courting Spanish Ladies. So she thought that her judgment must have been very poor to let herself be so deceived.
‘Now time goes by for six or seven months, and what was going on was all the mystery to most of us. There was a feeling, you see, that Peadar had done very poorly by Annie McCullers. And as we all knew Annie from the day she was borne, and Peadar as well, there was intimation that the blame lay all on the dark stranger. That she must have used her foreign ways to take an unfair advantage. So with people thinking how everyone would be better off if she had never shown her face, there was no one felt disposed to go and make her feel welcome. The girl herself never strayed far from the house, so it was for Peadar to do the marketing and other business, and he was close-lipped when he was about it. But those who passed by the house knew from the sight of the wash-line when a child had arrived. And that was expected, of course, from what Annie had said—and from what everyone would have assumed even if she hadn’t. But it was the fact of it that put fresh life back into the matter.
‘It was Liam McCullers himself who at last paid them a visit. Out of charity he said, and later had an awful row with his daughter when she found out where he’d been. “It’s treachery I’d call it,” she told him. “After him making a fool of your own blood while performing sins for which God will hurl him into hell!” And Liam didn’t have an answer to satisfy her on that, but only said that he had known Peadar McCafferty too many years to think he had been deliberate in doing any harm. And if there was fault with the girl, then what had it brought her but to live an outcast among strangers? Then he told his daughter how the dark girl had taken the child and gone straight up to the loft without a word from her. And that he and Peadar had sat on the bench by the fire in the silence of things wanting to be said. And they listened to the peat burning and the wind blowing, but from up above in the loft he heard the girl weeping from behind the bed curtain. Now Liam didn’t want to seem to meddle, but neither did he want to pretend as if he didn’t hear, or seem to be coldhearted if he did. So he brought himself to ask if the child was unwell. With that it seemed that Peadar would commence to weeping himself. “The boy is in health.” he had said. “But my wife has so great a sorrow over missing her home that it has taken all the comfort from our lives.”
‘Now, Annie remained at crosses with her father for what he had done. But she took a mean satisfaction from knowing that Peadar’s life was not a happy one. It was no better than he deserved, she thought, and she said as much to anyone who would listen. And then, just to be certain that he was truly as miserable as he ought to be, she took to prying around a bit. So, one day Annie is down at the strand looking after her father’s nets when she sees Peadar heading out to do his marketing. And what should be there drawn up on the sand but Peadar’s curragh, still upright and set to go out again. Well, Annie starts nosing about just to see if Peadar’s gear was neglected and his own nets rotting from the damp. Which they were not. And so she’s thinking she might be within her rights to cut a hole or two in the tarred skin that covers the boat’s frame, when she spies a package there wrapped up in an oilcloth and tied with a string. “Now what would this be?” she wonders. Then she lifts it out and takes off the string to have a peep inside. And what does she find there? A seal skin. She opens it out, and it’s the softest most beautiful she’s ever laid her eyes on. The color of a bay horse, and the fur has such a sheen that it seems to glow in the sun with light like an amber jewel. And she sets her cheek against it and it feels as warm as if it were alive. “This is a skin would fetch a price,” she thinks, “So why is it hid away in the bottom of his boat?” And she considers the matter till the notion comes on her that Peadar McCafferty is saving it to make a gift to some woman. Could be his wife, she thought, and he’s saving it for some occasion. Or could it be for some other Gypsy he’s courting on the side? This, she thought, was likely, since he had shown his unfaithful nature as clear as any traitor could.
‘There seemed to be only one thing for her to do. She would take the skin to Peadar’s wife. If it had been meant for her there would be little harm done. And if it were meant for another, it would be the most suitable way to spoil his plan.
‘So on the next day, when Peadar was off at marketing, she went to his house where she knocked and rattled at the door until at last the dark girl came out to stop the commotion that had woke the child and set it crying. She stood there with the child on her hip and had a frightened look on her face, since no one had ever come before when she was alone. So Annie steps in with the package. “I’ve been a poor neighbor,” she says, “and for that I’m sorry and have come to make amends.” The girl strokes the child, who won’t cease with the crying, and she tries very hard to smile, but she says nothing—and in truth there’s neither she nor Liam ever once heard the girl say as much as a word.
‘Now, Annie sees that the girl has no intent of setting the child down, so she lays the package on the table and begins unfolding it for her. “It’s a fine skin,” she says. “And I hope you will take some pleasure from it.” Well, the girl sees the skin and she lets out a cry like she had been struck. Then she puts the child on the table and snatches up the skin as if it were the treasure of all the world. She holds it against herself, then she rubs her face through the fur, and presses it firm across her lips to hold back the sounds that are choking inside of her. When the girl looks up again, and when Annie sees the tears running from her wide dark eyes, she gets uneasy. “Well,” she says, “I guess that will do then. And I hope that I will be seeing you again before too long. Perhaps you’ll pay us a call.” And she leaves the house thinking that something very queer had just occurred. And indeed it had, as you are about to see.
‘ On that very same night Peadar McCafferty comes by to Liam’s house. He has brought with him the child. “This is my son,” he says to them. “His name is Otkell,” he says. Which is not one bit an Irish name, or even a Christian one for all that I know. But he looked to be a fine healthy boy. Then he asks Liam and Annie, have they seen anything of his wife, or know anything of where she might be. Now Annie can tell without asking that something wrong has happened, and that it is likely to have something to do with what had occurred earlier on. And she says nothing, but from the look and the manner of her it’s clear to Peadar that she’s keeping something back. So he asks her straight out if she knows anything about a seal skin that was in his curragh. And Annie says she knows nothing at all about any such thing, and why should he be asking her, and what would that have to do with the whereabouts of his wife anyway? So Peadar takes the child and goes, and Annie works it out to herself that the girl has taken the skin to sell so that she might buy her passage back to wherever it is she came from in the first place, which again is not one bit less than what Peadar deserves.
‘For the next days Peadar was no more himself than he had been after his first wife had died. But now there was the child. So each morning he would take the child with him when he went out in his curragh. And the two of them would drift there far off in the bay until it grew dark, and sometimes longer if there were a moon to show some light. And the fishermen who would come within sight of them would report the strangest things. That Peadar, they said, would be drifting there talking to the waves. Or holding up the child and calling out like he were summoning the spirits or beseeching the Lord to draw near. But strangest of all, Rory Sean Eoghain, while rowing up on the far side of the skelligs, saw them there and the child entirely in the water, with Peadar lifting him out like he were a fish that had been caught in his net. And who could imagine why a man would do such a cruel dangerous thing, and the boy being no more than a babe?
‘Of course the child took sick from all of the cold and wet, and with no proper milk to feed him with or a mother to look after him, it’s a wonder he didn’t die right off. But Peadar tended to the child as best he could. And it’s to his credit that he spent many days without leaving it alone, but stayed in the house to keep the fire hot and to look after the wee thing. It was then, for those days that Peadar remained indoors, that Liam noticed there was a seal had come into the cove and was plying about in a troubled way. It was back and forth along the shore, and sometimes even up on the land, but would hurry itself back to the water if anyone approached. Then it would lay off aways, upright in the water, giving a harsh look to whoever had disturbed it. Then, all through the night, the seal would commence to crying and wailing so that there was no comfort or rest for anyone within the sound of it. Nor would there be, for as you may know, the cry of the seal is so like the keening of a young girl sobbing from grief that it will put your heart across you to hear the sound of it.
‘Now to have a seal lingering about is an unfortunate thing for more than just the bawling at night. It takes whatever fish it can catch, and not only for its meals, but kills as many for no more than the sport of it. This is a serious matter that would call for measures. But among the fishermen there’s quite a few have a feeling about the harming of seals. That it is an unlucky thing to do. And some will tell you that the seals are themselves an enchanted folk, like the fairies, and will have revenge for any wrongs that are done to them. But Liam McCullers had killed more than a few seals in his life, and up until then he suffered none the worse. So on one morning, after being troubled all night long with the mournful sounds, he steps out and sees this seal well up on the strand with a mackerel so big that it would have brought half the price of a days catch. “This is enough of this,” he says. He grabs his fowling gun from the house, and before the seal can lumber its way back to the water, he shoots it through the heart. The seal gives out a shriek, turns to him with a startled look, then drops just where the waves are at the line of the tide. Liam goes over to make sure that it’s dead, and looking at the creature it strikes him how the skin is finer than any he’s ever seen, without the blots and speckles that you see on most, and of a rich dark color. It would fetch a price to more than make up for the stolen fish. So then and there he sets about to take the skin. With his knife he makes a slit from the throat right down to the vent, then he slides his hand inside to open it up and draw off the blood before it can stain the fur. But what he feels in there is not at all the veins and flesh of a seal, so he pulls the skin back, and there within is it not the breast of a young woman, pierced through by the gunshot and still pouring out blood. At the sight of this a horror takes hold on him. He covers his eyes from the sight, then he drops his knife and he runs for the village so fast that the wind at his back could not keep up.
‘There in the village he makes such commotion about blood and murder that he needed to be sat down and his furor quenched with pints of porter before any sense could be got from him at all. Now, there was on that day a priest who had been called out to perform the extreme unction for Diarmid Cleerey — who recovered and lived on seven years more. And the priest heard what Liam said, and he decided the matter should be looked into, although himself, he thought it most likely to be the production of a frightful delirium brought on by intemperance, which Liam denied, as he was never one to take more than his senses could command. So the priest, along with several others, including myself, went with Liam back to the beach to sort out what had happened. There we found the seal, just as Liam had said, lying at the edge of the tide and partway in the water now, with a plume of crimson drifting out from where it had bled. We pulled the creature up onto the dry sand, and after we had looked it over carefully we began to cut away the skin, pulling it back to either side as we went. And as the skin came away we saw, as clear as anything, first the face and then the body of a young woman. And Liam gazed at us amazed and asked: “Is it true that we all see what we’re looking at?” And we said that it was true, but who could she be? And Liam said that it was Peadar McCafferty’s young wife! And here she was with her eyes looking dead on the lot of us. Liam cries out to God that he’s done a murder, and he begs for the priest to make intercession for his soul. But the priest says that there’s been no murder here. And Liam cries out to the priest, “Father, I have shot this girl and killed her myself! And with my own hand I have cut into her flesh!” And the priest says to him again that he has not done murder. “This is no woman,” says the priest, “Nor is it any other of God’s creatures that were fashioned by His hand.” And so someone asked the priest if we had not better pray for it then? And the priest says, “Pray for yourselves, but not for that abomination.” Then he tells us in no uncertain terms that there is not one single word in all the bible anywhere about seals turning themselves into ladies, or any such thing, and that we should all thank God for having no more to do with it. Then he tells us to cover it over, as it wasn’t decent to look on even in death. So we folded the skin back over and wrapped it all in a tarpaulin. Then the priest had us weight it down with stones and to take it far out into the deep water.
‘It was the priest himself who went to Peadar on that day and told him what had happened. And the Father preached to him about matrimony with beasts and demons being a sin that the Lord despised, and that any man who had done such a thing might have a great deal to answer for on Judgment Day. And he said that he would pray for Peadar’s soul, but that the soul of the child, if it had one at all, was in jeopardy for want baptism, which he himself would not perform under the circumstance. He offered then to refer the matter to the Monsignor, but Peadar sent him away.
‘A short time later Peadar went to the McCullers’. He was harsh with his words, and he told Annie how giving that skin to his wife was the cruelest thing that could ever have been done. “For all the love she bore in her heart for me and for our child,” he said, “in her soul there was only pain. Those who are borne of the sea must return to the sea, as whatever god it was that fashioned her kind had bound her fate. And there could be no power in all the world could keep her here except that her skin had been hidden away. Not one time did she ever ask me where it was, or go to seek it out. But to see it there before her eyes, there could be no choice for her. She could no more choose than change the blood in her veins.” Then he said to Liam that even if he wouldn’t blame him entirely for his wife’s death, as he’d meant no harm, it was a harm that came of it that was too grievous to forgive. And poor Liam would have taken more comfort of one forgiving word from Peadar than all the absolution from all the priests in the world. So he swears that never again would he harm a seal, even at peril of his own life. Peadar says that he should do no less, and he leaves with no words more comforting than that.
‘On the day after, Peadar took the boy to the McCullers and asked Annie to look after him while he went off. Which she couldn’t say no. Then he went out in his curragh, far out past the skelligs to where the clouds rolling off the sea grazed on the water, and there he vanished, and neither him nor the boat was ever seen again.’
Sounds of astonishment rose from among the listeners, then a woman spoke out. ‘And what was it become of the child?’ she asked.
‘Why, as anyone will tell you, Annie McCullers raised him up, and did as good a job of it as any mother might. And when he was grown he took to the fishing like his father had done. And like his father, he put to sea one day and never came back.’
‘And do you believe, then, that he had taken after his true mother and was one of the seal folk himself?’ someone asked.
‘Who can say that. Isn’t there many a fisherman never returns from the sea? And isn’t there many a good reason for it?’
An old woman said something in Irish, then crossed herself, pulled her shawl closely around her shoulders and clutched the two ends below her chin.
‘So you do recall it, Grandmother?’
The old woman looked up at the schoolmaster like she was making a confession. ‘It was my own Michael, God rest his soul, was there with you and saw it when she were cut open.’
‘Yes, I remember him there. And did Michael tell you about the eyes, then?’
‘Ay, he did, he did. And I would that he hadn’t, for it troubled me awful to hear it.’
‘And so it might, as it troubled us who saw ourselves. You see, the body we cut from the skin of the seal was hardly different from any ordinary mortal—except for the hands and feet, that is, which appeared to have grown of a part with the fins. But her face was as much the face of a young woman as you would ever look upon. Or so you would say, until you saw the eyes. Now, some of you, if you live by the sea, will know how it is that all of the affections that can proceed from a look are to be seen in the eyes of a seal. If it is anger or fear, sorrow or joy, you see it as plain as you would with any person. And this is because, of all creatures, their eyes are the most alike to our own. And yet they are not, for they are the eyes of a beast. And though they can glint with laughter, and in grief or pain shed tears no different from our own, they have a darkness in them that is too deep for us to know. They have a softness too gentle for the lives we live, and a longing too fierce for our modesty. But most disturbing of all, we see there a sadness so great that we could never touch it without it breaking our hearts. Those were the eyes that were looking on us from the face of the girl. And even though death had clouded and froze them staring into the empty sky, who was there that saw it and could blame Peadar McCafferty if she had been leading him into the jaws of hell. If the spark of life had lit those eyes again, for even a moment, what man was there that she could not have led?