Tuesday 31 October 2023

THE SEAL-MAN by John Masefield


This tale comes from John Masefield’s collection of sea stories A Mainsail Haul’, first published in 1905 when the author was only 26. It's beautiful, although like most tales about selkies it is quite dark and sad. ['Loanings' means 'lanes'.]


‘The seals is pretty when they do be playing,’ said the old woman. ‘Ah, I seen them frisking their tails till you’d think it was rocks with the sea beating on them, the time the storm’s on. I seen the merrows of the sea sitting yonder on the dark stone, and they had crowns on them, and they were laughing. The merrows are not good; it’s not good to see too many of them. They are beautiful like young men in their shirts playing hurley. They’re as beautiful as anything you would be seeing in Amerikey or Australeyey, or any place. The seals is beautiful too, going through the water in the young of the day; but they’re not so beautiful as them. The seals are no good either. It’s a great curse keeps them the way they are, not able to live either in the sea or on the land.

          ‘One time there was a man of the O’Donnells came here, and he was a bad man. A saint in Heaven would have been bothered to find good in him. He died of the fever that came before the Famine. I was a girl then; and if you’d seen the people in them times; there wasn’t enough to bury them. The pigs used to eat them in the loanings. And their mouths would be all green where they’d eaten grass from want of food. If you’d seen the houses there was then, indeed, you’d think the place bewitched. But the cabins is all fell in, like wonder, and there’s no dancing or fiddling, or anything at all, and all of my friends is gone to Amerikey or Australeyey; I’ve no one at all to bury me...

          ‘This O’Donnell I was telling you. My father was at his wake. And they’d the candles lit, and they were drinking putcheen. My father was nearest the door, and a fear took him, and he got up with his glass in his hand, and he cried out, ‘There’s something here is not good.’ And another of them said, ‘There’s something wants to get out.’ And another said, ‘It’s himself wants to go out into the dark night.’ So my father flung the door open; and, outside, the moon shone down to the sea. And the corpse of the O’Donnell was all blue, and it got up with the sheet knotted on it, and walked out without leaving a track. So they followed it, saying their prayers to Almighty God, and it walked down to the sea. And when it came to the edge of the sea, the sea was like a flame before it. And it bowed there, three times; and each time it rose up it screamed. And all the seals, and all the merrows, and all them that’s under the tides, they came up to welcome it. They called out to the corpse and laughed, and the corpse laughed back, and fell on to the sand. My father and the other men saw the wraith pass from it, into the water, as it fell. It was like a little boy, laughing, with great long arms on him. It was all black, and its hands moved like he was tickling something.

          ‘And after that the priest had him buried, like they buried the Old Ones; but the wraith passed into a bull seal. You would be feared to see the like of the bull seal. There was a man of the O’Kanes fired a blessed shilling at him, and the seal roared up at him and tore his arms across. There was marks like black stars on him after till he died. And the bull seal walked like a man at the change of the moon, like a big, tall, handsome man stepping the roads. You’d be feared, sir, if you saw the like. He set his eyes on young Norah O’Hara. Lovely she was. Wasn’t it a great curse he should take her when there was old hags the like of Mary that has no more beauty than a done-out old gather-up of a duck that a hungry dog would blush to be biting? Still, he took Norah.

          ‘She had a little son, and the little son was a sea-man; the priest wouldn’t sign him with the cross. When Norah died he used always to be going to the sea, he would always be swimming. He’d little soft brown hair, like a seal’s, the prettiest you would be seeing. He used to talk to the seals. My father was coming home one night from Carnmore, and he saw the little seal-man in the sea; and seals were playing with him, singing songs. But my father was feared to hear; he ran away. They stoned the seal-man, whiles, after that; but whiles they didn’t stone it. They had a kindness for it, although it had no holy water on it. It was a very young thing to be walking the world, and it was a beautiful wee thing, with its eyes so pretty; so it grew up to be a man.

          ‘Them that live in the water, they have ways of calling people. Them who pass this seal-man, they felt the call in their hearts. Indeed, if you passed the seal-man, stepping the roads, you would get a queer twist from the way he looked at you. And he set his love on a young girl of the O’Keefe’s, a little young girl with no more in her than the flower on its stalk. You would see them in the loanings, coming home, or in the bright of the day going. There was a strong love was on them two young things; it was like the love of the Old Ones that took nine deaths to kill. They would be telling Kate it was not right she should set her love on one who wasn’t like ourselves; but there’s few indeed the young will listen. They are all for pleasure, all for pleasure, before they are withered old hags, the like of my sister, Mary. And at last they shut her up at home, to keep her from seeing him.

          ‘And he came by her cabin to the west of the road, calling. There was a strong love came up in her at that, and she put down her sewing on the table, and “Mother,” she says, “there’s no lock, and no key, and no bolt, and no door. There’s no iron, nor no stone, nor anything at all will keep me this night from the man I love.” And she went out into the moonlight to him, there by the bush where the flowers is pretty, beyond the river. And he says to her, “You are all of the beauty of the world, will you come where I go, over the waves of the sea?” And she says to him: “My treasure and my strength,” she says, “I would follow you on the frozen hills, my feet bleeding.”

          ‘Then they went down into the sea together, and the moon made a track upon the sea, and they walked down it; it was like a flame before them. There was no fear at all on her; only a great love like the love of the Old Ones, that was stronger than the touch of the fool. She had a little white throat, and little cheeks like flowers, and she went down into the sea with her man, who wasn’t a man at all. She was drowned, of course. It’s like he never thought that she wouldn’t bear the sea like himself. She was drowned, drowned.

          ‘When it come light they saw the seal-man sitting yonder on the rock, and she lying by him, dead, with her face as white as a flower. He was crying and beating her hands to bring life to her. It would have drawn pity from a priest to hear him, though he wasn’t Christian. And at last, when he saw that she was drowned, he took her in his arms and slipped into the sea like a seal. And he swam, carrying her, with his head up, laughing and laughing, and no one ever saw him again at all.’

Picture credit:

The Great Silkie of Sule Skerry; artist unknown: source: https://terreceltiche.altervista.org/the-grey-silkie-of-sule-skerry/ 

(If anyone can tell me the name of the artist, I will be delighted to credit them.)

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