The Selkie

Hakon was a widower, having lost his wife the summer of the Althing from the wasting sickness. His twin sister Lifa was his friend and confidant. Lifa was married and awaiting the arrival of her first child, as was Hakon who had no children of his own. Hakon was out fishing one day when he saw the most beautiful woman bathing naked in a tide pool in the rocks. Her long hair was darker than a starless night, with eyes to match and a grace that was mesmerising. When he saw her, he felt a sense of need such that he had never experienced before, so fierce and sudden was his desire for this woman. As Hakon approached he stumbled on a loose rock and startled the woman. She turned towards Hakon, who saw the alarm in her eyes, yet she made no effort to cover her nakedness. Instead, she smoothly moved to the water’s edge and dove beneath the waves where Hakon could not follow. He watched the sea and saw nothing but a few bubbles where the woman had disappeared.

Returning home, he found his twin preparing the midday meal. Lifa was staying with Hakon at their parents’ farm while her husband was on the mainland, gathering supplies. “Brother, sit and eat, and tell me about your morning.”

“Sister, I have the most amazing tale to tell. I discovered a woman, the most beautiful I have ever seen and one I must have love me. She was washing by the water’s edge but dove in when she saw me.” He described the woman to his sister, who listened intently. 

“That is indeed strange, brother. Did you speak with her before she disappeared?”

“Alas no.”

“Take care, Hakon, for I fear you have fallen in love with a Selkie, one of the water people. You cannot possess her, no man can, it is unnatural. Even if you were to learn her true name and thus claim her as your wife, no good would come of such a union. Please do not pursue this creature.” She begged her brother but, despite his great love for her, Hakon ignored his sister’s warning.

Hakon went to the same spot everyday, searching for his new love. Each time he encountered her she would pause and look at him, then swiftly dive beneath the sea. After a month of frustration, he came across her once more. This time she was sitting on a rock, looking out over the ocean. Her under-tunic was made of the softest silk, blue as the ocean waves, with the outer cloak a deep green. A fine silver pin in the shape of a turtle fastened her cloak. Hakon approached cautiously, nervous that she would disappear beneath the waves as she had so many times before. But this time she looked directly at him and smiled, moving on the rock to give Hakon space to sit with her. They talked for hours about the sea and life, and Hakon shared his lunch of dried fish and bread with her, although she only ate the fish. When the sun was finally setting, the woman stood and said she must go.  

“Tell me your name!”

The woman smiled shyly.  “I cannot.”

“But I must know!”

“It is forbidden!” She said this with such ferocity that Hakon was silenced, tears of frustration appearing in his eyes. Taking pity on him, the sea woman took Hakon’s hand and said, “You may call me Süt, which means ‘sorrow’, for sorrow is what I will cause.” With a sad smile she gazed at Hakon for a moment then dove back into the ocean. Hakon was silenced and turned to go. When he looked back the woman was gone.  

Still ignoring his sister’s warnings, for he was a stubborn man, Hakon and the sea woman saw each other everyday Each day Hakon would beg the woman for her true name. And each day she refused.  

Hakon decided that he would ask the Lord of the Selkies to help him. Standing on the shore, he called out to the ruler using the ancient tongue. Soon the sea was churning raw and thick sea mist surrounded Hakon as he stood waiting. A great wave rose and started towards the land; sitting atop the wave was the Selkie King, dressed in black with a white sea-foam cloak and taking the form of a man. He carried with him a flute made of deep red coral and the smell of the ocean followed him.  

“Human, you dare to summon me!”

Hakon was fearful of the giant sea creature but his love for Süt caused him to stand his ground. “I would ask a boon of you, in return for this.” Hakon reached into his pocket and pulled out an exquisitely worked silver cuff. It depicted the history of Hakon’s family and was the oldest and most valuable item Hakon had to offer. He knew that if it was agreeable to the king, he would be granted that which he most desired.  

The king was pleased with the gift. “If it is in my power, I shall grant you your favour.”

Gathering his courage, he took a deep breath and spoke. “I would know the real name of the maiden who calls herself Süt.”

Suddenly the waves grew and crashed furiously on the shore, nearly dragging Hakon into the ocean. He felt as if the water was giant hands, reaching out to drag him from the land. The sky grew dark, and lightening flashed angrily, arguing with the roaring thunder. “Ask another favour, human, for this request I shall not grant.”  

Hakon was heart-fallen. “But I must have her name! It is the only thing I desire in this world!”

The king’s anger grew and Hakon could see subtle changes in him. He now had a tail like a seal, and it swished angrily back and forth in the water, and his eyes grew darker and wider. “Abandon this quest, Hakon Thorirsson, you shall not learn this name. The woman you speak of is my daughter and I will use all of my power to protect her from the world of men.”

As furious as the seas were at the approach of the king, they were as calm now as he slowly sank into the depths, his foam cloak floating all around him as he descended into the darkness.

Hakon was almost mad with frustration and longing. How was he ever going to claim this woman as his own?  He sat alone on the shore, trying to think of a way to learn her real name. Eventually a crab scuttled up to him and stood nearby, waiting. Hakon waved it away but it kept coming back before him. Finally, he shouted at it to go away.  “As you wish,” it said simply.

“You can talk!”

“Yes.” Hakon should have shunned the crab and run away but he was entranced and wanted to hear more. Which is exactly what the creature wanted, for this was no ordinary crab but rather Loki, the Trickster, in disguise. The crab continued slyly. “I can help you. I know of your need.”

“What does a crab know of a man’s need?”

“Ahh, I see many things and I know what your greatest wish is. You wish to know something of the sea maiden, whom you call Süt. Is this not correct?”

Hakon could barely speak, he was holding his breath so completely. “Yes,” he whispered.

“Lean into me, closer, and I will tell you the maiden’s true name.” Hakon did as the crab said and in this way, he learned the secret of the woman he loved.

When he next saw his love, she was in the same place, waiting for him. He approached her as he usually did and sat beside her. They talked and laughed and when it was time to retire for the day he stood beside her as he always did and embraced her and declared his love for her. But instead of releasing her to swim back to the sea depths, he leaned close to her and spoke her name quietly. Suddenly she stood straight and still, her eyes showing her great alarm and fear. Then with a wail like a storm wind she slipped to the ground, her senses abandoned.

When she awoke, she was at Hakon’s farmstead, wrapped in woollen blankets and lying on a large straw mattress. She moaned and Hakon rushed over to her. “My dearest, we can be together now, for always.” The sea maiden looked up at Hakon with sadness but was determined to live the new life fate had given her.

A few weeks passed and while Süt settled in to live with Hakon and his twin sister Lifa (who continued to warn her brother of the dangers of living with this creature), she yearned for the sea. She would spend as much time as she could on the shore, gazing out over the water and remembering her time there. The more days that passed the more she gazed with regret, for she missed her home.

At first Hakon adored her and would not leave her side. He bought her gifts and would not allow her to lift a hand to help around the farm. But as time passed the novelty he felt began to wear off and he found himself tiring of his new wife and her sorrow. His love turned sour, and he grew angry, for how could this woman still not return his feelings? He struggled with his own emotions, for partnered with his growing anger there was still obsession, and hope that one day his wife would love him. But his hope faded with time, and he began to speak to her harshly, mocking and criticizing her feelings and ignoring her pleas to be released.

The Selkie King saw that his daughter was unhappy and vowed to help her. Late one night he came to shore near Hakon’s farm and started to play his coral flute. The music was gentle and calm and was eventually heard by Lifa’s unborn child, who kicked and rolled with each note. Lifa, woken by the movement of the babe in her belly, also became entranced by the melody and rose from her bed to see where the music came from. She walked from room to room, looking for the source of the song. Eventually, she decided to leave the house to explore outside. A heavy mist covered the area and Lifa, usually familiar with the land surrounding the farm, stumbled as she searched. Finally, she heard the music more clearly and stepped towards it into the fog.

The next morning Hakon found his beloved sister’s twisted body on the sharp rocks by the edge of the water. Both she and her unborn child were dead, their souls taken by the Selkie King. Hakon knew it was no use, that the king would continue to lure members of his family to the water’s edge and beyond, and he knew he had to give Süt back to the sea. He took her hand and led her to the water, whispering her real name once more and granting her freedom. She leapt into the sea and started swimming away from him. As she swam, she turned back once more to gaze at Hakon, and Hakon’s heart broke for he knew that he would never see her again and would carry the guilt of his sister’s death with him for the rest of his life. 

Copyright Kelly Evans

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