It’s National Writing Day today and I thought I would share with you a short story I wrote a couple of years ago. I love writing observational stuff on life, but I also enjoy writing more serious work too. This piece won 2nd prize in a folklore short story competition and 50 quid too! Not bad.
The story is set in old Orkney. There is reference to selkies which is the Orcadian word for seals. Traditional folklore stories talk about selkies and selkie people, this is an adaptation of that. As it’s set in Orkney there is also reference to Northern Lights. The word ‘cloot’ is Orcadian for cloth and a conch is a large shell. Enjoy!
Magnus And The Selkie Song
Magnus dragged the old boat wearily up to the noust and rested a while. He turned back to the sea and scanned the horizon for just one last look. Did he see something? He shook his head and blinked but when he looked again, what he saw, or what he thought he had seen, was gone. He wished desperately he could’ve continued searching but the weather was turning and he was right to return when he did. There was no point risking things and leaving his wife Elsie a widow and penniless and his children without a father. He would try again next morning. Magnus sometimes took shelter at the fisherman’s hut before returning home, but decided today he would make it home along the Northside before the storm really took hold. It had been unseasonably good weather for Autumn but now the wind was beginning to pick up and the cold was starting to nip. Besides, he wanted to be home as soon as possible. Time was precious.
Stepping into the house he was instantly warmed by the heat coming from the range. The smell of peat was something he never tired of and reminded him of warmer days when he had faithfully cut and stored enough to last enough for another winter, provided the elements weren’t too harsh for too long. His wife poured him a mug of watery broth and handed it to him while asking the question only with her eyes. Did you? Her thoughts were not as to the success of his catch that day, but to the unspoken dream they both held, that Magnus would one day hear the singing of Selkies at a time they most needed it. Fishermen had long believed in the healing power of a Selkies voice. These creatures often bobbed their glossy heads above the water when the men worked with creels. In fact they knew how to open creels and take the bait. This could destroy a day’s fishing and fishermen had caution around them. However, they also respected the Selkies chance to give something back through their voice, but hearing it was scarce. People would watch for when the mysterious lights in the sky appeared, they danced green and pink, pointed, juddered and moved magically yet no one knew where they came from or what they were. Legend claimed it was a sign the Selkies had been singing. If you were able to capture the sound, the voice could be transported back and released over the person who needed it. In this instance, it was their precious son Sinclair. Elsie had given birth to six children but only two remained. All four had died in infancy to common illnesses. A green winter fills up the kirkyard Elsie’s mother would say. Most families knew the heartbreak of losing a child but that didn’t make it any easier. Many times Elsie would weep for her loss as Magnus held her wishing he could take the pain away. Now it looked like they were going to lose another. Meg, their seven year old was robust and energetic and embraced life. She was always ready for the next adventure, regularly coming home with the hem of her dress caked in mud, often her face and hands too. But her nine-year-old brother Sinclair had never been very strong. Try as he might he could never quite keep up with the other children in games and regularly had coughs and asthma . Now he’d fallen to a fever and had been bedridden for three weeks. As each day passed it seemed he was slipping further and further away from them. In desperation Magnus scanned the sky nightly, straining his eyes for any sign of the colourful lights. They used to scare him as a child, never knowing what caused them or what they might do. Now he longed for them, to bring with them the sound of the Selkie so he could capture it and take it home.
Once again having seen nothing Magnus retired to his bed. The storm was now in full force and there was little else they could do. His energy was needed for next morning when he would go and face the waves again; catch what he could to put food on the table, but more importantly to catch the precious Selkie voice. When?! He thought, and beat his pillow with frustration.
He was woken in the early hours, strangely by silence and not the sound of wind and rain. The storm had passed and now there was a stillness and calmness that was curious and unfamiliar. Magnus rose from his bed and first went to check on Sinclair. Meg was sleeping on the other end of Sinclair’s bed and Elsie was sitting in a chair next to him. Both were taking it in turns to tend to Sinclair through the night. Wiping a cool cloot against his brow, giving him sips of broth if he could take it and holding his hand as the boy seemed to grow smaller and smaller in the box bed. Elsie turned to Magnus and looked desperate. He was getting weaker and tears began to roll down her gaunt cheeks. Magnus went over to the bed and kissed first his son then his wife. I’ll go and search right now.
As Magnus stepped out into the cold, still darkness he looked north where the lights were always at their best. What he saw took his breath away as the most glorious display of colour lit up the sky. Colours he could not even describe seemed to glimmer and roll like waves. Knowing that now was his only chance, Magnus shouted into the darkness hoping his voice would be heard by the sea creatures. Help me, please! I need you to help me and with his cry he dropped to his knees and wept bitterly. For a while he could hear nothing above his own sobbing but then he stopped suddenly and listened. What was that he could hear? It seemed to travel over the sound of the waves crashing against the rocks and carry itself right to Magnus. It was the singing! They had come! The Selkies were singing and the sound was like no other he had heard. It was echoic and sweet, like the sound of a whole chorus singing in perfect harmony. But Magnus could see nothing out there in the darkness. He knew he must act quickly to capture the sound. He ran to the house and picked up the conch which was always kept on the seat by the door in hope and readiness for when this day would come. Quickly Magnus ran back to the spot where he had first heard the voices, held the conch high above his head, and turned the shell so the sound could be captured. The lilting voices seemed to know where to travel and made their way to the conch. They swirled around Magnus’s head and spiraled into the shell until all that could be heard was the muffled echo. Magnus stood there stunned for a moment. He had just experienced something so magical and mystical that he could barely think. Totally speechless he lowered the conch down to his chest reverently and carried it carefully back to the bothy.
The door creaked as he entered the room and all that could be heard was the faint rasping of Sinclair as he approached his final hours. Magnus walked silently to where he lay and knelt at the bed. He lowered the conch to the pillow and pressed it against Sinclair. Elsie looked up, stunned, her eyes wide with disbelief. They came! she whispered but could say little more as the sound of the Selkies began to fill the room echoing over Sinclair’s frail body. Meg woke and blinked, eyes quickly taking in what was going on. Everyone was silent but for the beautiful sound that now permeated every corner. It melted into the stone, it swirled around the empty cups hanging at the dresser, seeped into the gaps of drawers, absorbed itself into the peat stack and allowed itself to be breathed in to Sinclair as he inhaled. Finally when the sound had filled every available nook and cranny it could seek out it stopped. Silence.
Magnus and Elsie stared open-mouthed, first at each other and then at Sinclair. Somehow his breathing had become regulated and his colour was returning. He opened his eyes and looked over to his mother’s stunned face and weakly requested a drink. Magnus rose quickly and went to fetch water. Elsie helped Sinclair to sit up and Magnus put the cup to his lips. After taking some sips the boy spoke no more but went into a deep, peaceful sleep. Magnus, Elsie and Meg lay down too and all slept until morning. Daylight came and Magnus was woken from his deep sleep by Sinclair shaking him. He had the conch in his hand and was dressed ready to go outside, looking fit and well as if he’d never been ill. There’s something we must do Father! and Magnus knew what it was. With reverent silence, they made their way outside and turned down the road walking quickly. There was no need for speech; there would be time enough for that now.
They arrived at the bay and weaved down past the fishing boats until they reached the one belonging to Magnus and dragged it down to the water’s edge. Taking an oar each they began to row until the shore was out of sight. Such mysteries and rituals were private. When they knew it was time, Magnus picked up the conch and put it to his mouth where he spoke just one word into the opening. Thank you. Then he gently lowered the conch into the water, letting the voice of his gratitude be carried to the Selkies by the waves.
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