A Selkie Story

by Vicky on August 1, 2010

I had a concert this week, so I was too busy preparing for that to post about last week’s Page Presents class.

Our story was Greyling, by Jane Yolen (one of my favorite authors and storytellers) and illustrated by David Ray.

I threw Mr. Matt a curveball, since he came prepared for calypso music, limbo, and Shark and Lobster’s Amazing Undersea Adventure (which I had decided at the last minute to save for the following week!).  With his signature grace and good humor, he easily adjusted to the slow 6/8 bagpipe coronach by the Whistlebinkies and had the kids stepping on beats 1 and 4 and clapping on beats 2,3 and 5,6.  Then he and I placed the limbo pole on the floor between us and the kids took turns leaping over it a la Highland sword dancing.

Told with lyric simplicity, Greyling is the story of a fisherman and his wife who live by the sea, which brings them everything they could ever want or need…except a child.   Eventually it does bring them a selkie, a seal pup that they rescue only to discover that it has become a human child on land.

I got a wonderful new seal puppet (actually a sea lion), which seems so lifelike that it startles us whenever we walk into a room and see it gazing back at us.  I realized that it would be a challenge to pull off a little bit of stage magic when the seal transforms into a human baby.   I decided to tell the story from the wife’s point of view, and, in my version of the story, it’s the wife who discovers the seal pup abandoned on the beach while she is out gathering seaweed.

She wraps the seal in her shawl and then notices her husband’s boat not far offshore and beckons frantically to him.  He hurries back to shore, and she shows him her bundle, saying, “It’s nothing but a seal pup, but it has no mother or father, and we have no child, so we will raise it as our own.”

As she opens her shawl to show him, he cries, “You call this nothing?”—for a human baby is looking up at them with grey eyes.  “It’s a selkie,” he tells her.  “I’ve heard of such creatures.  On the sea they are seals, but on the land they are human beings.”

“Then he shall never go back to the sea,” his wife declares.  And the child, whom they name Greyling for his grey eyes and hair, grows up helping his father to repair his boat and mend his nets, but he is never allowed to go near the sea.

I accomplished the transformation by having the baby doll wrapped in a brown knit wrap that doubled as a sandbar where the seal pup is stranded.  When I stooped to wrap the pup in my shawl, I picked up the entire bundle, which I was able to shift as I cradled it in my arms so that, when I opened the shawl to show the audience the seal, the baby’s face peeked out instead.

There was an audible gasp, so it was quite a nice bit of magic!

Of course, the selkie ends up going back to the sea—although not before saving the life of his adoptive father—and I had gotten so caught up in the telling that I completely choked up.  My audience thought that I was an amazing actress, but they didn’t know yet that I was going to be moving to a different branch.  Only I knew that this was one of the last stories I would be telling at the Juan Tabo Library.  I was also realizing that some of my favorite kids would be starting to school in the fall, and suddenly all that separation and loss (and my own childlessness) just overwhelmed me.  Somehow I managed to pull myself back together to sing the song at the end, “The Grey Silkie of Sule Skerry:”

I am a man upon the land
And I am a silkie in the sea
And when I’m far and far from land
My home it is in Sule Skerry.

After the story, we made selkie masks.  Beckham’s fabulous tribal-looking one made me think of the Great Selkie, who often takes a human bride.

Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post: