poet. writer. imposter.
Fríðr lived in a village by the sea with her husband and two children. She had many friends and was highly respected until her husband, a fisherman, was lost in a violent storm. The wise woman of the village had seen this an omen and avoided her. Less than a month later, her children succumbed to a terrible winter fever.
The grief was too much for her, and Fríðr could be heard wailing in despair. Night after night, she screamed in torment, and the Wise Woman, having listened to the piteous wails, declared that she was cursed. The villagers, who feared the Wise Woman’s words, took pitch and torches, and despite being her friends, burned Fríðr’s house down.
Fríðr was not in the house when it burned. She was standing on the seashore, still hoping against hope that her husband might return on the next high tide. When she saw that her house, like her husband and children, had gone, she gave one last wretched wail to the moon and returned to the shore. She felt her feet being caressed as the waves clambered upon the shore. As they retreated, she felt herself being pulled to the deep by foamy fingers. As each wave broke, the pull became stronger and stronger until she could no longer resist its attentions.
As she walked into the sea, she saw a dark shape in the water and felt something swim against her legs. It didn’t worry her at all. She carried on, and with each step, more shapes swam around her, playful and joyous. By the time the water reached her breasts, she was reaching out to touch the creatures, and with one more step, they broke the surface of the water, their heads grey and black. Their eyes shone in the moonlight, their smiles infectious, and for the first time since her husband was lost, she felt happy.
‘Am I to be Selkie?’ she thought.
She allowed the seals to swim around her, faster and faster until the sea eddied and gyred. She lifted her arms aloft, containing to walk forward. The seals span around her coming closer and closer. She could no longer feel what belonged to her and belonged to the seals. Their skin was rough and leathery, and she thought she may lose her own skin rubbing against it, but she didn’t care, they were part of her. She continued to walk, eyes closed until her head and arms were below the water. When the last of her fingertips sank beneath the waves, the seals pushed hard against her, still circling. At an unseen command, they peeled away from Fríðr and waited.
Fríðr opened her eyes and saw that her body was no longer thin, she had no legs, her arms and feet were as fins.
She was selkie.
She briefly looked to the shore, remembering her life there and with no regrets turned to follow the seals into the ocean.
She was happy.
Many years later, it had become a tradition of the villagers to celebrate ‘Twelfth Night.’ There would be fires and food, mead and merriment, dancing and dalliance. The selkies had heard the noise and excitement from the sea and become so curious that they decided to investigate. It soon became a tradition for the selkie folk to come ashore for this annual celebration, remove their skins and reveal their human selves. For the night of the festival, they would mingle with the people, enjoy their good-natured carousing for a night and return to their skins by sunrise.
Enough years had passed that no one remembered Fríðr and so she felt able to take part in the celebrations. The villagers she had lived with surely thought her dead, and she had no wish to cause screams and horrors to her former friends, despite their treatment of her. Although saddened by the thought of returning without the joys of seeing family, she felt blessed at having found another. He was a solid and imposing bull seal called Ragnvaldur, who had fathered three beautiful pups.
She and many of her selkie friends came to shore, flopping onto the wet sand, laughing at how inelegant they had become on land. They may have been masters of the sea, but hauling their bodyweight around without the water to support them was not so easy. Still, spirits were high, and they were excited about the party.
It was the first time Fríðr had taken her seal skin off since becoming selkie, and she took longer to do it than her friends. She told them to go ahead of her. She would catch them up when she was ready.
She removed the last of her seal skin and looked at her human body. She stroked her arms that were smoother than her seal skin. She caressed her legs, longer and more elegant than the tail she had grown. She looked at her breasts and remembered her children; she ran her fingers through her hair that was long and silken, not coarse and wiery.
She breathed in the sea air and listened to the waves on the rocks. She delighted at the wind in the grass; the rhythms of the earth. These were she danced, naked in the moonlight.
Unbeknown to her, she was being watched. Tóki, the apprentice to the village smith, had been feeling miserable. His apprenticeship was not going well, he simply couldn’t feel the iron in the way the smith could. He was supposed to be able to sense the metal as a living thing and work with it. But he didn’t have the skill to form the kind of splendid items his master fashioned. He had problems beating out a dull blade. He didn’t think he was cut out for life as a blacksmith at all. He didn’t know why he hadn’t just taken his father’s boat and joined him in the fishing fleet. At least he knew how to do that, but the opportunity had presented itself, and he decided that taking it would be good for his prospects.
Unfortunately, he was so bad at smithing, that he became something of a joke. His prospects vanished, and despite being a handsome man, no woman would come near him knowing that he would be unable to provide for a family. His younger brother, Palli, had taken to his father’s boat and become the skilled fisherman Tóki knew himself to be.
Tóki liked to sit between the rocks on the shore, listening to the waves and staring at the stars just wishing something extraordinary would happen. He saw the selkie arrive, which was remarkable enough but seeing them take their skins off and walk to the celebration incredible. Even that paled to the sight of the most beautiful silken haired woman dancing in the light of the full moon.
When Fríðr stopped dancing, she drew a large breath and walked to the village, leaving Tóki stunned and, so he thought, in love. He stood up, climbed carefully and quietly over the rocks and walked through the discarded seal skins. He took Fríðr’s seal skin in his arms, cradling it as though the most precious of things. Then kissed it, placed it back on the beach and walked to the mead house. Knowing he would be unable to keep her, Tóki spent the celebration in the corner of the mead house, glum, alone and drunk.
The following afternoon, Tóki walked back to the beach to clear his head. There was no evidence that the selkies had ever been there. The skins had all gone, the footprints covered by the sea and sand. All that remained was the memory of the most beautiful woman he had ever seen. He had heard to stories of selkies before but had always thought them to be no more than children’s stories. Tóki sighed, knowing that he would not see her again until the next Twelfth Night.
He started to improve at his smithing, but his master had decided he would never be especially gifted. Workmanlike at best, he had said. He kept Tóki on to work the mundane pieces and easy repairs but took a second apprentice. Bragi was a much more gifted man, who soon passed Tóki’s ability making him even more of a laughing stock.
He dreamed of the selkie woman every night and longed to marry her. Knowing he would never earn enough from smithing, he decided to rebuild a boat that was derelict and abandoned; part of the old fishing fleet. He soon learned that the problems he had had with metal did not extend to wood, and within six months, his boat was seaworthy, and he could fish from it. He lay lobster pots in which he caught crabs, prawns and lobsters. Sometimes he laid nets in which he caught herring and mackerel, later preserving them by smoking or pickling or drying. He earned more from selling these than he did as a smiths apprentice.
He began to feel less of a fool. By the time Yule came round, he had decided to tell his apprentice master that he was leaving his apprenticeship. His master was saddened that he had failed to teach him but pleased that he could now take on someone more suitable.
Preparations for the Twelfth Night Festival were underway, and Tóki was getting excited by the prospect of seeing the beautiful selkie woman again. He was confident, now that he had a good income and would be able to keep a wife and family, that he would be able to charm this woman into staying with him. The sea was cold, and he would offer warmth.
On the night of the celebration, he waited in the rocks once again. He saw the selkies arrive and tear off their skins. He couldn’t tell the seals apart, but he had no problem finding the woman with silken hair who danced in the moonlight and entranced him so once they were removed. He followed them up the beach, unseen and as they joined the celebration, he smiled. Tonight he would introduce himself to the selkie woman. Confident that she would fall for his charms and prospects; certain that by the end of the festival, he would have found someone who would become his wife.
Fríðr danced; swirling and leaping with so much energy that she delighted the crowds. Tóki, now hopelessly enamoured, swore he could see colours streaming from her as she pranced and pirouetted to the pipes, drums and lyres of the village musicians. When she had finished dancing, he spoke to her and professed his love. She smiled and thanked him for his compliment but gently and firmly said that she was already married to a fine man and had two children, all of whom she loved deeply.
He saw no reason to pursue her further. However much his heart hurt, he could not simply steal someone away from their family. He left the festival, went home and drank himself to sleep.
Tóki was disappointed and upset, but he didn’t let that get in the way of his work, and his fishing business became more and more successful over the next year. He was able to take on an apprentice, and some of the more seasoned fishermen from the main fleet joined him as he was able to pay them slightly better wages. He was able to expand his house and garden into a fine home for a family. Despite several of the village women making overtures to him, he remained transfixed by the selkie woman. How could he be so enthralled? He didn’t even know her name, but she was always in his thoughts, and they began to fester and become cruel.
‘How could anyone love a bull seal?’ he thought, ‘So fat. So ugly. Anyone could see that I am far more handsome. Anyone could see that I am a more prosperous and fitting husband.’
His thoughts became less of love and more of the need to own her.
‘If I must steal her away,’ he thought, ‘then I will.’
For the third Twelfth Night in a row, he waited by the rocks for the selkies to appear. Once they had removed their skins and reached the village, Tóki walked to the water’s edge and took Fríðr’s sealskin. He ran home and hid it in a robust metal box which he then hid in his cellar. There was a hollow in the wall behind shelves of pickled mushrooms, preserved berries and salted whale meat. He would put it there.
Certain that it wouldn’t be found, he finished the evening at the festival watching the selkie woman dancing, knowing that by morning, she would be his.
Before the party ended, Tóki took himself to the rocks and waited. This time he would see the humans put on their seal skins and return to the water as selkies. Fascinating as this was, he was only interested in one of them. He watched as she searched for her skin. He watched as her selkie friends searched the waters for it. He watched as she began to panic and cry. He watched as a large bull seal refused to leave her side and felt a pang of guilt as she ushered him into the water and insisted that he return to the sea to look after their children. Tóki almost lost his nerve. He almost called to them, but his courage failed and the coward in him took hold.
Fríðr sat down and wept, the sea lapping gently over her toes like tiny goodbye kisses. Tóki waited for the half dawn of winter to arrive before walking towards Fríðr and asking if there was anything he could do to help.
She couldn’t speak through her tears, so Tóki suggested they go to his house where she could rest and eat and find clean clothes. Grateful for what she saw as an act of kindness, she stood, and they walked to Tóki’s house.
For the first month, Fríðr didn’t speak. She went to the seashore every day and searched for her skin. She hadn’t told him why she went or what she was looking for and he couldn’t say that knew and so his frustration grew. After the first month, Fríðr spoke and told him that everything would change. She couldn’t find what she was looking for and would now never find it. She was convinced that the tide had taken it and it lay at the bottom of the sea with crabs living in it. Or perhaps a shark had eaten it. Either way, she was never going to see it again, and she knew she must adjust to life on land once again.
Tóki offered his home to her. In exchange for doing the daily chores, she lived, comfortable but unhappy, in a house that overlooked the place where she, her first husband and her children had once lived.
Tóki still loved her, but she remained faithful to her husband. Much to his annoyance, she would always go to the beach in the evening. He never followed her as he knew what she would be doing. Although he never saw it himself, people would comment that she had been seen playing with the large bull seal and two smaller seals that had taken up residence in a sea cave near the beach. He knew who they were but could say nothing and his resentment built.
The next Twelfth Night Festival was only days away, and Tiki was panicking. What if the Bull seal and the two pups came to the festival? What if they decided to keep their human shape and stay with her? He spoke to the village Wise Woman and asked what should be done. He was meticulous in not mentioning that the woman and the man were selkies.
‘You can do nothing,’ she said ‘that would not be seen as an affront to the Gods.’
‘She still holds on to the Old Gods,’ he thought ‘not the new one. Maybe that’s why she gives such an answer.’
He reasoned that if he went to see a priest, maybe he would have a better solution. Then he remembered the big book with the commandments about not killing and adultery and thought that the priest might not understand the extent and depth of his love for her.
On the night of the festival, he feigned sickness, hoping that she would stay with him to nurse him through it. She checked his brow and said that sleep would be good for him and he didn’t need her there for that, so she went to the festival and found her husband there in handsome, human form. Tóki followed unseen and watched as they kissed and danced and sang. He felt nothing but jealousy and rage as Fríðr cavorted with this unnaturally handsome man. He sought out two of his fishing crew, ruffians with few morals, and paid them handsomely to put an end to his source of misery.
Tóki arrived at the festival. He found Fríðr, who was pleased that he seemed to have made a swift and full recovery. She introduced him to Ragnvaldur, although failed to mention he was her selkie husband. He suggested that Ragnvaldur fetched more drinks and being a polite selkie, he went to the mead hall to refresh their glasses. As Tóki kept her talking, the two ruffians crept up behind Ragnvaldur, bundled him into a dark corner and stabbed him to death. The wrapped him in canvas, weighted the body and sailed out to where they knew the water was deep. Ragnvaldur was gone, and there was nothing to stand between Tóki and Fríðr.
Fríðr was distraught that Ragnvaldur had disappeared so suddenly. She searched each of the food stalls and mead sellers, hoping to find him. Having no luck, she banged on the doors of neighbours and merchants but to no avail. In desperation, she ran to the beach, hoping to catch him before he returned to his skin and went back to the sea. She waited as the rest of the selkies took their skins and said their goodbyes. She waited until the half dawn and saw that just one skin remained on the shore. She picked it, held it and wept, knowing that her husband was gone and that she would probably never see her children again. She took the skin home, hiding it from Tóki, but she never went to the Twelfth Night celebrations again.
Fríðr didn’t love Tóki but stayed with him anyway. She had nowhere else to go. She knew she would be cared for, after a fashion, at least until she had the strength to make her own way in the world. But her strength and self-esteem were low, and Tóki was becoming more unpleasant and bitter. Despite Gyða tempting to counter his advances, she eventually bore him a child who she named Gyða. She was a quiet, intense child and possessed an otherworldly talent with the lyre.
After her birth, Tóki became distant and had little to do with Gyða. She was a constant reminder that he had forced himself on Fríðr. He knew that the love he once felt had turned into something twisted and evil and spent most of his time onshore drunk and spiteful.
Fríðr and Gyða felt powerless and tried hard to please him so that they were not thrown out of the house, but they began to hate his moods, his violence.
One spring morning as Tóki lay, sleeping off a hangover, Fríðr decided to clean the cellar. The pickles and preserves were running low after a terrible winter, and she wanted to inventory what they had left in readiness for the summer’s bounty.
While cleaning the shelves and rearranging the jars, she saw that the wall had a hollow in it, covered in cobwebs and dust. She washed the cobwebs away and was surprised to find a robust metal box. She pulled it from the wall and found it locked. She would ask Tóki about it when he was in better humour. As she placed it back in the wall, Fríðr could swear that she heard singing – a mellow, plaintive song that she couldn’t get out of her head. She hummed it as she worked around the house; whistled it as she bought fresh vegetable from the market and taught it to Gyða, who played it on her lyre.
When the day came that Tóki was neither drunk nor miserable and in a good mood after a lucrative fishing trip, Fríðr asked about the box. Tóki’s good humour vanished, instantly. His features darkened and his fist clenched. He shouted and threatened her with death if she went near the box again, but seeing Gyða cowering, tears flooding her eyes, he stopped short of beating Fríðr.
Fríðr, though frightened, couldn’t stop thinking about the box and despite the inevitable beating she would receive, she vowed to find out what was in the box that sang. She knew that he had a bunch of keys that he kept with him at all times. Even when he slept, it was with him. She reasoned that the iron ring that they were kept on held something precious. She was sure that the key to the box was on that ring and she waited – she didn’t have to wait for long – until he was in another drunken stupor. She looked at the keys, held tightly in his hands, and saw that one showed no signs of wear. The others gleamed where the key struck the iron lock, but this one was dull and unused. She reached for it, but Tóki grunted, still asleep, and turned over. He held the keys close to him, in the crook of his arm and began to snore.
She waited for her chance, and several months passed before it arrived. He came home from the mead hall drunk and argumentative. He forced himself on her, and after he fell asleep, she saw that the keys were lying on top of his clothes. Carefully, she left the bed and tiptoed around it to the chair that held the keys. She took them, and they made a tinkling sound. Tóki grunted but did not wake. She walked to the cellar door, opened it slowly and walked down the stone steps. She heard a sweet voice singing.
She strode to the shelves that hid the box, moved the jars and pulled the box from the wall. The singing became louder until she was convinced that it would wake Tóki, but she carried on and found the dull key on the iron ring. In the gloom of the cellar, it was difficult to find, but she found it and opened the box.
She wanted to scream, she wanted to wail, she wanted the world to swallow her whole, never to be seen again. Fríðr held her skin and wept into it, her tears softening the dried flesh, rejuvenating it. She placed her skin in a basket, found her husbands skin and placed that with hers, woke Gyða, and they left Tóki’s house for the last time. Once far enough away to be unheard, she screamed and wailed, the full force of her betrayal leaving her body in one cathartic release. Being late in the year, her scream became mist that formed into a cloud that lingered in the cold air. Gyða took her lyre and played the song that Fríðr had taught her. On hearing the tune, Fríðr snapped out of her grief and vowed revenge.
Gyða carried on playing, and the notes seemed to hang, not fading but becoming tangible. Fríðr’s breath met the crochets and quavers, and they swam around each other, solidify and composing themselves into a single form.
Gyða played, and Fríðr began to laugh as the form she and her daughter had conjured became a troll that looked as brutish as Tóki had become. It stood in front of her as if awaiting instructions. Gyða played a different tune, and the troll creature turned towards Tóki’s house.
Fríðr looked at Gyða who appeared to be in an ecstatic trance, directing the troll with her lyre.
“Revenge,” she said, and the troll ran towards the village, shaking the earth as he ran. He reached Tóki’s house and pounded his fists into the roof, shattering, tearing it to pieces. The troll then stamped on the building, crushing the walls and grinding them to dust. Tóki had escaped after the first blow, but the troll saw him. It turned as Tóki tried to run between his feet, but the troll bent down, scooped him up in his hand and brought Tóki, struggling, up to his eye level. The troll’s face began to rearrange, and Tóki screamed as the familiar face of Ragnvaldur coalesced and leered at him.
Tóki screamed apology after apology, but they would never be enough to heal the rape, murder and violence he had wrought on Fríðr’s family. The Ragnvaldur-Troll took Tóki in both hands and tore him in two. He threw the pieces to the floor and ground them into the steps leading to what was once Tóki’s house.
The villagers watched, knowing there was nothing they could do. It was foolish to come between a troll and his purpose. The Ragnvaldur-Troll walked back to the seashore where Gyða still played, and Fríðr kneeled in the sea, washing and softening the seal skins. She looked to her husband and smiled. The Ragnvaldur-Troll smiled too, and as Gyða stopped playing, he became translucent and dissipated in the cool sea breeze.
Fríðr had been able to see her husband one more time, which is all she ever wanted. She knew from Gyða’s trance song that Tóki was responsible for her husband’s disappearance and with Tóki now gone, there was only one thing left to do.
She picked up the two seal skins, wrapped Ragnvaldurs sealskin around Gyða, put her own on and swam into the sea. As they swam further out, dark shapes surrounded them and the deep welcomed them.
Based on and freely adapted from a Faroese folk tale. There are many different versions of this tale that appear around the coast of Scotland, Scandinavia and north western Ireland. Different tellings occur within the same regions, so ‘authenticity’ is a difficult, if not impossible thing to achieve. In searching for a picture to illustrate my version, I came across another version of the Faroese story that include the name Kópakonan for the seal woman. I have no doubt that my version hits most of the buttons of the story, but obviously, as with all folk tales, it’s in the telling with the nuances of the story down to the teller. I hope I told it well.
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The Photo is by Kallerna via Wiki Commons.
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