(pic with the Kópakonan statue on Kalsoy by Matthew Workman)
And here’s my retelling of the selkie story of Kalsoy as part of a book I am writing, with illustrations by the awesome creative force that is Jessica Purser:
Kópakonan, the Selkie Maiden
Image: (c) Jessica Purser 2020
So long ago, on the island of Kalsoy – Man Island, there was an old tale between fishermen. The story went that every year on the night of the Thirteen Kings, the seals would come to a pool at Mikladalur – the great valley, take off their blubbery seal skins and play at being people, swimming with their arms and dancing naked in the moonlight. These seal-maidens were the most beautiful in all the lands; even in the land of the fairies where beauty was of a high standard even to the lowliest urchin.
The fishermen would joke about the girls, what industrious housemaids they would make with their great swimming power; having spent every other day of the year as seals, having to dash away in escape of sharks and whales and such.
One fisherman who had not yet found a wife even into his thirties owing to a grumpy disposition, decided to go to Mikladalur and lay in wait by the selkie pool on the eve of the thirteenth night. As dusk was breaking and the fisherman was becoming sleepy, the seals soon came; taking off their skins and laying them carefully on the rocks by the pool, they dived in and swam. After a time, they came out of the water and stretched out their arms in mockery of the labour of the landlubbers, and flapped their lips up and down, rocking their heads to and fro to mimic people talking. The fisherman was just beginning to get a little cross at this exaggerated lampoonery when the selkie maidens began to dance.
The dance was so delicate, rousing, and coordinated, the selkie’s muscles flexing as they pirouetted and pranced, that the fisherman’s heart melted a little. His mouth dropped open and he forgot all his worries for a moment, and the part of him that was mean and unkind softened a little, became the start of a warm and caring man. He had never seen beauty of the like; and in that moment he knew there was greater wonders in the world.
As he came to his senses, an idea crossed his mind. He crept out of the bushes quietly and took the skin of Kópakonan, the most beautiful selkie of all, and took it back to his hiding place, stowing it away in his burlap bag. He soon became sleepy from watching the majestic display – he had never been to the ballet, and was quite overwhelmed. He lay down in the bush and using the bag as a pillow, he was soon fast asleep.
He missed the remainder of the dance, missed the selkies dancing and hugging in merriment at their newfound dexterity; missed them coming back to the side of the pool in exhaustion to take up their skins and return before the spell broke with dawn. Missed Kópakonan frantically searching the water for her sealskin; missing too the other selkies having to leave her, weeping, as they apologised dismally and returned to the safety of the open sea and their beds out in the skerries.
The fisherman woke to the sound of her weeping and rushed out to console her.
‘What’s wrong?’, he asked, as he held the sobbing selkie maiden close to comfort her sadness.
‘I’m not just a girl,’ wept Kópakanan, ‘I’m a selkie. If I don’t find my seal skin and return to the water, I shall be in trouble and my husband will be so worried. I can’t find it anywhere!’
‘You can have my coat to keep you warm.’ The fisherman took off his long coat and shivered in the night air – not so accustomed was he to the cold, but she would need this to preserve her modesty.
Kópakonan wept into his coat, her long red hair beginning to dry; but distracted by the kindness of the fisherman, she began to acquiesce to her fate. With a little reluctance, she took a last look out to the sea, to her sisters out in the skerries; and with a deep sigh, she came with the fisherman up the steep steps and out to his house.
She was soon asleep in the fisherman’s bed. Before he went to sleep, he took the burlap bag and carefully secured it in a safe, which he locked and placed the key on a thong around his neck. The safe was already in the house when he moved in, and he had never before had anything precious enough for it to keep guard over; but he knew he must keep it safe or lose his new selkie companion.
He went to sleep in an armchair and was soon dreaming of the selkie dance, his heart was warmed by the spectacle; and when he woke, for the first time since he could remember, he was happy.
It was the smell of kippers that woke him, and he came through to the kitchen to find Kópakonan cooking his breakfast. She was so thankful to him for saving her, and when he went out to his day of fishing, she stayed.
On his return, there was a lamb soup cooking over the fire and she had sewed herself a dress of nets and fish leather.
Time passed and they grew a great fondness for one another and soon went down to church and were married. She bore him two daughters and Kópakonan taught them the dance of the selkie maidens, and all the stories of her life at sea.
From time to time, she would think wistfully of her other life; but as she could not find her skin no matter how many times she came back to the pool to search for it, she had to put these feelings aside and make the best of what she had.
The dances and the stories entertained the whole family, and they were so close and caring for one another.
Life in the mossy-roofed house on Kalsoy may have been bittersweet for Kópakonan, but the sweetness of life was great.
One day, the fisherman had left the key to the safe next to the washbowl as he cleaned before the working day.
He was out at sea with his fishermen friends when he felt the absence of the thong around his neck and clutched for it frantically. He knew he had lost his happiness in that moment and called out, ‘My wife is gone!’, before diving from the ship into the icy water and swam with all his might for the shore.
Kópakonan had sent the children to school and was sweeping the house with a bushy broom when she saw the key by the washbowl. The happy couple had no secrets from one another, so it was only with a mild curiosity that she went to the safe and opened it. She saw the burlap bag and could not think what could be so precious as to require lock and key in the soft bulk of the bag.
When Kópakonan took the bag and looked inside, she knew at once she had been deceived. For so many years, the fisherman had tricked her, even so far as to come searching the selkie pool with her.
There was nothing for it, nothing to say or do; but to go down to the selkie pool.
Kópakonan cast aside her fish leather dress and climbed into her selkie skin, and dived into the water to return to her husband in the skerries; never to see her children or the fisherman again.
The fisherman was no longer the ill-tempered curmudgeon he had been the night they had met, but the deception was too great to keep her from returning.