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January 11, 2022

I thought Orkney, by Amy Sackville, would have some magic in it—selkies or some such. And maybe it did, but they appear only offstage, off the page. The novel might be too subtle for me, with its appreciation of shades of gray.

I do not appreciate winter’s unchanging shades of gray, especially in Ohio in January and February, when the sky hangs heavy and it’s too cold to go outside. I ventured out for a few minutes today at noon and took some photos of the gray at some of the spots I like to walk around in when it’s warmer than 24 degrees fahrenheit, which was the high for today.

I would like to be able to look out at the sea, even in the cold and gray, as what lies beyond my windows will not change for the next two months but the sea is always changing. In Orkney, an old man and a young woman who have just married come to spend their honeymoon on a cold northern island and she spends most of her days gazing out at the sea.

Readers might expect for early revelations–like that the woman has fingers so webbed that it’s impossible for her to wear a wedding ring–to build to a climax, but they don’t, not really. The woman stands on an island and stares at the sea, while her husband, an academic, increasingly puts off writing his study of fairy and folk tales to watch her stare at the sea.

The husband is our first-person narrator, so we don’t learn his name for a while—it is Richard– and we never learn hers, although he calls her things like “my poor Andromeda” and she says “I am your Ariel, your Vivien, your Melusine.” He compares his love for her to his “undergraduate ardour—Lamia, La Belle Dame, the Lady of Shalott….Her precedents.”

When Richard asks “why did we come to this grey place?” she argues that “it’s not just grey. And pointing out to where the sea met the sky, which seemed for now to have slaked itself, her eyes following her own finger as it traced the fine gradations up to the apex, or the limits of the window frame: ‘See? Silver. Pewter. Old bronze. Oyster shell. Graphite, dove’s wing, goosedown, I said. ‘Lead.’ Cigar smoke. ‘Ash.’ Sere. Slate. Cinereal….on we went naming the grey until it seemed that a rainbow spectrum was a common, gaudy and frivolous thing next to this muted subtlety of shades.”

Richard gets so caught up in watching her that he decides to retire, thinking that he’ll “let some other poor fool’s mail get stuffed into the pigeonhole that for thirty years has borne my name. No more tedious tutorials, no more endless execrable essays. Enough. Let it all go.” As someone who has also been pigeonholed in an academic setting for the past thirty years and about to retire, I feel like I should sympathize with this more than I do.

Odd, then, that I completely sympathize with Richard’s picture of an imagined future in which he has children and tells them the same stories over and over, as I and probably every parent who reaches my age, do. I would say, he muses, “that I used to teach at a university once, and hear them say yes, Dad, we know, and of course they would know, and I’d say I met your mother there, and they’d say, more uncomfortably this time, yes, we know, which of course they would, but I would only want to tell the story again to prove that I’d existed once, that she’d loved me, which must seem to them to be impossible.” Isn’t that always the way? Our lives before them are like shades of gray to our children.

Sometimes Richard and his young wife tell each other stories, and one night she tells him that “while the selkies are gentle, the finfolk too are notorious seducers, but less kind; the tall, gaunt sea-farers with narrow faces and hard dark eyes, whole rule the seas in these parts and will guide you safe, for a fee of silver. She says they come ashore sometimes, to seek new wives upon the land. And when they’ve had their fill, away they sail, back into the mists. But, she says, they always come back, to reclaim the little webbed daughters they’ve fathered on the land, to take them back to the sea-king’s realm; in the end, they’ll come back for their own.” Presumably this is what happens to her, but all we know is what Richard sees when he wakes one morning to find her gone: nothing. Grayness. The grayness of the end of his days.

13 Comments leave one →
  1. January 11, 2022 8:04 am

    What a lovely passage about the different words for shades of gray. Your pictures portray subtle differences in shade too. There is beauty in January and February (mostly gray here in Tennessee too these months) but you have to really work to see it. And I can’t always summon the energy. 🙂

    • January 13, 2022 11:19 am

      Right? Even Ron, who is usually less depressed by the grayness, said last night in a discussion about what to cook for supper that we should just eat cookies in front of the heat vent

  2. January 11, 2022 8:30 am

    Beautifully written but unutterably bleak. I can see why this will have affected you the way it did, for Wales at the moment is not much different from Ohio.

    • January 13, 2022 11:20 am

      Wouldn’t it be nice if we could switch for a day? I’d like to see a different gray!

  3. lemming permalink
    January 11, 2022 10:31 am

    I like calm grove’s comment. I’m also grateful that there’s a creek that meanders through my neighborhood, so that I do have something that changes in this landscape.

    • January 13, 2022 11:21 am

      A creek sounds nice. Some of my photos are down by the river, which reflects gray and contains grayness and ends up seeming unutterably gray.

  4. January 11, 2022 11:43 am

    My printer asks if I want 256 shades of gray – or millions. Before color photography there was black & white, with as many gradations as you can distinguish.

    But I never realized until your comment how many names we have for them.

    For green, yes. I remember an account of a nun sitting watching a fawn sleep. As she didn’t want to disturb it by moving, she entertained herself by counting the different shade of green she could see.

    Made me think, you did.

    And there ARE people with webbed fingers and toes. The web (hehe) gives the source of it in humans as ‘random’ or caused by certain genetic defects. No imagination.

    • January 13, 2022 11:25 am

      Sometimes it is fun to think about the different names for variations of the same thing. I also do this with snow/ice/sleet, as do many Ohioans.
      Webbed fingers and toes are “random,” huh?!!!

  5. January 11, 2022 4:22 pm

    All those shades of gray, the passage makes it sound better than a rainbow. The sun is shining in a window at me right now and it is lovely. I hope some brightness makes its way to you!

    • January 13, 2022 11:28 am

      Thanks; I saw the sun peep through for a while yesterday afternoon (before it started sleeting last night).
      This is the time of year I long for the blue skies of Arizona. I thought about planning a trip there but with omicron spreading it doesn’t seem like a good idea. Sigh. I’m planning other trips, for March and June.

  6. January 12, 2022 6:47 pm

    I can see the different grey shades in your photos! I love how you wove them in at different points in the story!

    • January 13, 2022 11:29 am

      Glad you liked the photos! I went out and took them to keep myself from cabin fever, and it did help, a little.

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