I’m from East Tennessee, where the Appalachian Mountains reach around the valley, like a mother’s embrace. My family has been there for generations and generations, but there was a time when we lived by the sea.
A very long time ago, before my family came to America, my great-great-great-great grandfather Jacob was living in the Old Country. He lived alone, but the villagers knew him to be kind young fisherman, always willing to share his catch with passers-by and give a good market price when he sold the fish to his neighbors.
Out on his fishing boat one day, he saw something he had never seen- a strange island in the middle of the water. He knew these waves like the back of his hand, so it was mighty strange for there to be a whole piece of land mysteriously appearing out of nowhere. Well, he found a flat place and pulled the boat onto shore. Then he went exploring, walking up the rocks and craigs, looking for any hint of where the island had came from. Then, as he walked over a hill, he saw them- the Selkies.
From his high vantage point, he could see the women swimming in the sea below, their seal skins left behind on the beach. Faeries of the sea, akin to mermaids, they were. Sometimes they looked like normal human women, with the large striking eyes. Sometimes they wore the shape of a seal, long-whiskered and fuzzy. Jacob knew the stories the old wives of the village told, so he crept down to the beach, picked up one of those seal skins, and hid behind a rock.
After a while, the sun began to set and the Selkies came back from their swim, stepped into their seal shapes, changing completely. But one of the young women looked for her skin and couldn’t find it. She searched and searched, begging her sisters to help her. They laughed at her, thinking it was all a game. Then Jacob stepped from behind the rock, holding the lost girl’s shape. According to the stories, the laws of the fae, if a mortal stole the skin of a Selkie, he would have possession over her until she could win it back. The rest of the Selkies dove into the sea, leaving their sister behind. She shivered in fear, so Jacob took off his long fisherman’s coat and wrapped it around her shoulders, leading her back to the boat.
Please don’t misunderstand. My great-great-great-great-grandfather Jacob was not an unkind man. In his 30 years, he had never hurt a soul. Occasionally, he talked big and some of the men would threaten to fight him for his bragging. More often than not, he was the peacemaker among those same men when they had too much to drink. When he had seen that he could take a little piece of faery wonder back to his home, he didn’t pass on the opportunity, even though that “piece” was a living creature with a mind of her own.
Still, when they got to his cabin, Jacob treated Aisling gently. He had given her that name, which is the Gaelic word for “Storm”, because of the colour of her eyes, which would shift from cold blue to bright green to dark grey in an instance, just like the sea sky. He courted her with gifts and soothing words and they were soon married in the village church, amongst the whole community, including all of the old wives, who could see plainly that this was no normal woman of human born, but a sea wonder. The men ignored the superstition of their wives and admired Aisling’s beauty, even when her ways were awkward. It was like she had to learn all of the social graces all of the townspeople had been born with- how to laugh at a joke, understand others’ emotions, or even pay attention during a conversation, responding in kind.
Jacob and Aisling lived together in his cabin by the sea. Eventually, they began to have children, beautiful babies of a kind of glowing beauty, like land and sea combined. They established a regular life with Jacob heading out to fish early in the morning and Aisling caring for the house and children. When the tide was low, she was often seen leading their small pack down to the shore to scavenge the beach for treasures. Soon the cabin was decorated with old shipwrecks, shells, bottles of sand, and other gifts from the water. You could tell Aisling was homesick for her sisters.
One afternoon, they were out collecting their salty finds, when the eldest child, who was almost 10 years old, came to her mother and asked, “Why does Pa keep an old seal skin in the chest in the closet of your room? “
Aisling almost dropped the babe she held in her arms. “What?” she demanded.
The child repeated her question, “Why does Pa keep an old seal skin in the chest in the closet of your room?”
Aisling did not answer, but tears came to her eyes. She handed the babe to that woman-child, kissed them both, as well as the other four whose ages fell between, and silently walked up the path from the beach to the house. The children played on the beach, waiting for their mother to return. She never did.
The children were still on the beach, when Jacob pulled his small boat into the sand. When he saw their bewildered faces, he realized at once something was wrong and ran up the hill. He searched high and low, but could not find a single hint of Aisling’s whereabouts, except... the closet of his room was wide open. The old sea chest, smelling of cedar and salt, sat in the middle of the room with its lid yawning like a hungry mouth. The seal skin was gone.
Jacob knew Aisling had returned to her people in the water. Heartbroken, he gather the children around him, fed them their supper and told them the story of how he had courted their mother. They all cried for their loss. After that day, he walked around like a man lost and spent more and more time fishing. When a storm would be coming over the rough waves, a particular seal with the large eyes of shifting colours- cold blue to bright green to dark grey- would appear beside the boat, warning Jacob and the other men to rush to shore before the winds became too bad. Jacob knew it was his selkie love. Although she would never return to shore, he would always remain in her heart.
You tell me that this story cannot be a true one, but answer me this. Why is it that my family fled from the sea and its rough heartbreak for the comforting arms of the mountains? Why is that once a generation there is a child born with eyes that can shift like a storm, from cold blue to bright green to dark grey in an instance. My father has those eyes as does my sister as does her daughter, who loves the sea as much as the Selkie herself.