Written by Laura Beasley
In the bitter cold of a northern winter, a blue-eyed man in a kayak paddled and rested, paddled and rested, drifting with the tides. Even though storm clouds shielded the moon and he’d never been in this part of the bay before, he didn’t worry enough to consider himself lost. At twilight as the fog skimmed the surface of the ocean and the waves slapped the sides of the hollow kayak, he had not decided which direction to turn next. He heard a strange sound. The sound was unlike any he had ever heard, high-pitched, almost lyrical. He hurried his kayak toward the mysterious noise. When he got closer, the fog and mist cleared, revealing an island of rocks exposed by the low tide. He abandoned his kayak, scrambling over the rocks and stumbling in the darkness toward the sound. Was it singing? Certainly not in any language that he could recognize.
The sound was coming from the moonlit shore and beyond the dark rocks. He realized he could watch without being seen. As his eyes adjusted to the illumination, he saw a swirling circle of naked bodies with twirling hair that seemed to float on the air. The women were dancing on the sand. He could see their long hair flowing in the moonlight, brown and blonde, black and white, red and gray, silver and golden.
He sat down, mesmerized by their song and transfixed by their dance. As he leaned back, he felt instead of cold, hard rock, something warm and soft. Had he been sitting on a pile of pillows? He discovered some wound-up bundles of fur in all different colors, brown and blonde, black and white, red and gray, silver and golden. He picked up the golden bundle of fur which smelled of the salty sea air, as familiar as the golden sand on a sunny day. Even though he knew he shouldn’t, he shoved that bundle of golden fur inside his parka. In the next moment, he heard nothing but silence; the women had stopped singing and were moving in his direction. He found himself a new hiding place. From behind that rock, he watched as the women walked up to the pile of furs, joking, laughing, nudging and elbowing each other.
The tallest woman with long black hair reached into the pile. She took out a bundle the same color as her hair. She stretched a string at the top of the bundle until a long tube of the darkest fur rolled out. She pulled this over her feet. She pulled and tugged, pulled and tugged until her legs disappeared. She pulled and tugged, pulled and tugged until her arms disappeared. She pulled and tucked until her face disappeared except for her soft brown eyes. She had become a seal. The selkie barked a farewell before diving into the dark sea.
Woman after woman reached in, grabbing another sealskin, gray or white, blonde or brown. He watched as the selkies were transformed into seals which barked while leaping and splashing in the water. The process of transformation continued until there was one woman standing on the rocky island.
Her sisters, swimming nearby, barked as if to shout encouragement. In spite of persistent searching, she could not find her missing sealskin. After some time, her sister seals dove beneath the ocean and left her alone. As the man stepped out of the shadows, she ran to him, begging, “I have to have it; give me my sealskin.”
Stroking her golden hair, he explained, “I’ll give it to you in seven years, but first you will have to be my wife.”
Having no choice, she went home with him to a cold stone cottage at the end of a cobble-stoned path. Although not a handsome or a young man, he spoke kindly, and he held her gently. His aroma of salt water and fish was familiar and comforting. In the beginning, she did not love him, and yet she made a loving home. The blue-eyed man awoke daily to the sound and smell of fresh fish sizzling on the stove. Every day when he came home from fishing, he heard the humming of her strange tunes and smelled the earthy odor of fresh-baked bread. They would eat a delicious dinner together. Before falling into crisp clean sheets, they would share an evening filled with spirited conversation, songs, and stories. She told him stories of the selkies: stories of the seals, stories of the sea itself, tales of sadness, tales of sweetness. They shared a loving life together. She warmed his life in other ways, and within a year, a child was born.
Nanook had magic hazel eyes that could mimic the blue eyes of his father, and yet, in the dimness of firelight, mirrored the soft brown eyes of his mother. She loved her baby, nursing him, and singing him lullabies. Her lullabies did not sound like those of the other women in the village. She sang Nanook the lullabies of the humpback and the beluga. As he grew, she taught her son how to swim and to fish, how to cook, and how to keep house. She told him stories. These were not the same stories that the other mothers told their children. Instead of “Little Red Riding Hood,” Nanook heard “Little Red Snapper.” The boy did not learn the story of “Goldilocks and the Three Bears,” instead he heard “Goldi-fish and the Three Sharks.” Instead of the “Three Billy Goats Gruff,” he listened to the story of “ The Three Catfish Gruff”– brothers who manage to outwit an octopus.
Like all mothers, she wasn’t perfect. Although she never spanked Nanook, when she was angry, she would shake her arms and bark at him. Nanook grew taller, loving his mother, loving his father. Being a child, he assumed things would stay the same, and he did not notice when his mother became ill. Sometime after his sixth birthday, she started to change. She was tired and pale, she complained of headaches, and she needed to nap much of the time.
The raging of loud voices woke Nanook one night. He heard his mother’s voice shouting, “Give it back to me! It’s been seven years. I have to have it.”
His father, insisted, “No I can’t give it to you! If I do, I won’t have a wife. Our son won’t have a mother.”
“I don’t know what I will do. I just know that you have to give it back to me.”
Even though his parents continued to argue, Nanook fell back to sleep as tired children do. Later that same night, he was awakened again. Someone was calling his name in a deep, distant voice, “Nanooook.”
He heard the voice from far away call again, “Nanooook.”
Even though he knew he shouldn’t, when he heard his name called for the third time, the boy climbed out of the window. He scrambled down the path searching for where the voice had originated. He went up high above the swirling sea to the dangerous cliff where he’d been forbidden to play because the rocks were too slippery. Nanook needed a high vantage point because the sound was coming from the ocean. As his eyes adjusted to the illumination of the moon, Nanook scanned the swirling darkness, finding, on the edge of the horizon, a large rock. A huge silver seal which had hauled itself onto the rock commanded, “Dig, Nanook. Dig.”
On the top of the cliff, Nanook began to dig. His bare hands bled as he clawed at the sharp rocks until he found something. Lifting a soft bundle to his face, he absorbed the smell of the salty air as familiar as the golden sand on a sunny day. Nanook held the bundle in his arms, feeling safe and complete.
Meanwhile, back in the cold stone cottage, the woman opened her eyes. Sensing that something was wrong, she ran to her son’s bed and found it empty. She ran out of the house, up and down the streets of the village calling for him, “Nanook, Nanook, Nanook!”
She searched by the shore where they would collect shells, swim and fish. She glanced up at the cliff and saw Nanook silhouetted in the moonlight. After climbing up the mountainside, she gathered her child in her arms. As tears of relief that her son was safe wet her cheeks, she closed her eyes. When her eyes opened, she saw the softness clutched in his young arms. Even though she knew she shouldn’t, she took the bundle from him. She loosened the thread until the golden fur spilled out in a long tube. Slipping the tube over her feet, she pulled and tugged, pulled and tugged until her legs disappeared. She pulled and tugged, pulled and tugged until her arms disappeared. She pulled and tucked until her face disappeared except for her soft brown eyes. She had become a golden seal.
She grabbed her son under her flipper making an enormous leap into the ocean below. She swam out with him all the way to the rock on the horizon. She said to the big silver seal waiting for them, “Father, the breath of life!”
The two seals huffed into the face of Nanook, seven times in all. She dove under the surface of the ocean carrying her son with her. As he was pulled deeper under the dark water, the boy struggled to hold his breath. When he finally opened his mouth, Nanook did not drown. In fact he discovered that he could breathe under water. Living under the ocean, he saw things never seen by any human, man or boy. He learned the wit and wisdom of the whales and to dance and dive with the dolphins. He met his seven selkie brothers and sisters, siblings he never knew he had. He learned the songs and stories of the seals and the selkies while he was living there in his mother’s world. After seven days, a single magic week below the sea, Nanook was told he had to leave. He returned to the land of men.
The old man cared for Nanook until the boy could take care of himself. One day, his father was lost at sea; the body was never recovered. As Nanook grew to manhood, he was not like the other men. He didn’t hunt and kill the whales, the otters, the seals. Nanook was never hungry for he caught plenty of fish. He was well-loved because he was the teller of stories and tales. He told stories of the selkies, stories of the seals, stories of the sea itself, tales of sadness, and tales of sweetness. Later some villagers even told stories about Nanook, the strange man who denied he’d been orphaned. Nanook would climb into his kayak and paddle out to that rock jutting out of the sea, that rock skimming the horizon. He would spend hours out there, talking and listening with two seals which had hauled themselves out. One seal had clear blue human eyes. The other seal had soft brown selkie eyes. She was the GOLDEN SEAL.