Spinning gold was the Beneventi family trade until my Nonna took the secret of it to her grave. I used to watch her knobbly, arthritic fingers weave strands of sunlight finer than hair into squares of the lightest most supple cloth.
‘Nonna,’ I begged her, as everyone did back then, ‘please teach me la magia. Teach me to spin gold like you.’ She refused me just as she refused the money, and the advantageous marriage proposals, and Mrs Pisano’s mother’s secret pici di cinghiale recipe. But unlike them, she gave my cheeks a firm squeeze and told me why.
She said, as she swirled golden fibres around in a viscous liquid, that during the summer of 1912 a man called Lorenzo Corsetti caught a Selkie in his fishing net just off the coast of Cagliari. A woman wearing the skin of a seal.
She said that Lorenzo, now more salt than man, took one look at the wide-eyed seal squirming on his deck and thought, the sea will never keep me warm at night.
She said that he dove, knocking over brimming crates of gasping fish as he forced his full weight on top of the creature.
And she said that, as the boat rocked, he wedged his large gutting knife under the Selkie’s top lip and ripped the skin back from her head, pulling it away from her neck, her breasts, her legs.
My Nonna was the type of woman who showed us love through her food, not her words. She’d pinch our cheeks, tell us we were too skinny and shoo us outside. I used to spy on her sometimes to see if I could figure out the magic for myself. She would come back from her early morning walks dripping wet, carrying a basket full of what looked like spun sugar. I’d hide behind the loom in the back and watch her sing to it.
She said, as she brushed out a ball of gold, that Lorenzo tucked the Selkie’s warm seal skin into the back of his trousers before taking in her appearance.
She said that the woman sprawled across the boat’s deck was not the type of beautiful that Lorenzo was expecting. Her black-orb like eyes peered up at him from a large bald head, her grey skin looked as slimy as a cracked-open mollusc, and her lipless mouth was as wide as a marionetta’s.
She said that Lorenzo recoiled at the sight of the naked Selkie. And that the Selkie recoiled at the sight of the leering man.
Nonna told me once, while squeezing lemons for her secret solution, that people used to think sea silk was spun from the golden wool of the ‘water sheep’. People believed that these fantastical creatures would rub up against rocks by the shore, leaving glittering strands of wool behind. I pictured them paddling about and bleating at boats as they swam by.
She said, as she spun the glinting thread against her hip, that Lorenzo was the type of man that ‘took’ and that if he no longer wanted a selkie for a ‘wife’, then he would take from her something else. So, he asked the Selkie, ‘Can you grant wishes?’
‘Can you bestow gifts?’
‘Can you spin gold?’
Nonna said that the Selkie paused, eyeing her skin hanging at Lorenzo’s waist before opening her wide mouth to speak.
‘Yes. I can spin the silk of the sea, a gold that sleeps at night and awakens with the sun.’
A tourist once offered Nonna enough lira to keep us fed for generations for just a handkerchief sized square of gold. This was later on, when she was much slower, when she was walking home wet less and less. I remember her pursing her lips at the American and declaring that sea silk was no longer for sale. Not for any sum of money. She wouldn’t teach anyone how to spin it and she wouldn’t let anyone exchange one kind of gold for the other.
She said, as she wove the thread into cloth, that Lorenzo told the Selkie that she’d get her seal skin back after she’d spun him two chests full of gold.
She said that those two chests became four. And that four became ten.
She said that the Selkie never got her skin back because Lorenzo burned it one night out on the cliffs after too much drink.
I followed Nonna down to the beach, once, when she went on one of her walks. Her hearing wasn’t very good, but I still stayed a fair distance away from her so she wouldn’t notice me. She hobbled down the cliff and across the rocks, before wading out into the tidepools. I watched as her head dipped down under the water, and held my breath until she popped back up again.
She said, as she re-tied loose threads, that the Selkie collected the silk from the sea and spun it into gold with her bare hands.
She said that the Selkie hid some of the gold inside an old vaso, and that she secretly wove a shining new skin on nights when Lorenzo had passed out drunk.
And she said that this is why you should not take what does not belong to you. That this is why you should leave the sea alone.
Nonna gave me a golden ribbon for my sixteenth birthday. It weighed nothing as I tied it around my neck. I had to keep touching it all through dinner to make sure it was still there. I imagined, as we ate, what it would feel like to wear a dress of it. Would I even feel covered at all?
She said, as she hemmed a square of silk, that one night when Lorenzo slept off his drink, the Selkie crept into his room.
She said that the Selkie, now more woman than seal, took one look at him splayed across his mattress and thought, nothing will ever keep you warm at night again.
She said that she dove, pressing her full weight onto his. She dug her nails under his shirt collar and ripped off his Mirto drenched clothes, peeling them down his chest, his waist, his legs.
She said that the Selkie took out her new skin of golden sea silk, and stitched Lorenzo into it without a hole to escape from.
She said that the Selkie dragged Lorenzo down to the shore, and tossed him into the sea.
And she said that she watched, with a marionetta smile, as he sank to the bottom.
Nonna was under for so long. That’s why I ran down to the shore. I was holding my breath from the cliff as I waited for her head to breach the surface. I’d been counting as my own lungs begged for air, but this time, I didn’t see her come back up. I kept counting and counting, until I couldn’t hold my breath any longer, and then I ran. I ran onto the sand and into the sea.
When she finally came up for air, we both froze, treading water. Her wide black eyes met mine, as she saw me take in the enormous clam she held in her hand. I saw it, though. Before she dropped it, I saw its gold beard sparkling in the sun.
It felt wrong somehow, putting Nonna in the ground when she’d spent so much of her time in the water. The night of her funeral, I dreamed that I walked down to the beach and waded into the waves. I dove down, and I could still see the world below. I could see the golden clam, the same one that Nonna dropped, wedged between two rocks. Its beard sparkling as it waved in the water. I swam towards it, imagining the dress I could make from its silk. I imagined Matteo’s eyes widening when he saw me in it, and the kiss he’d press to my shoulder as he slid his fingers up under the hem. I tugged on it when I reached it, but it wouldn’t pull free. I dug my nails into the crevice and heaved again and again but it held strong. I swam forwards, searching for something to help me dislodge it, when something smashed into the side of my face. I reached across and shoved it away, my fingers brushing against something soft. As it spun, I could see the outline of his nose, his open mouth frozen in a silent scream as he rolled towards me.
Lorenzo. Floating in his golden shroud.
Maggie Gale is a third year creative writing student with a love for fiction and screenplays. She is currently working on a sports comedy.