The Island of Gulls

On the weekend of 11/12 July I gave a performance of my story “The Island of Gulls” at the Tollard Royal Dare2 Festival and shall be repeating this at 11 a.m. Sunday 20 July at the Ancient Technology Centre, Cranborne, Dorset (atc@dorsetcc.gov.uk). This story is part of the collection “The Foundling and Other Stories”, available online from the site http://www.Brimstonepress.co.uk .

The Island of Gulls

there was once a woman married to a king but he died before she had born him any children. The cousin of the dead king seized the throne and commanded her to spend the rest of her days in a house by a lonely seashore. Each night, when she saw the gulls flying back to their island out to sea, she said to her companions how much better was the life of a gull than her own.

One day, as she was sitting alone on the beach, a large gull alighted in front of her. ‘If you leave your window open this night,’ he said to her, ‘I will come and take you away from here.’ But the woman was afraid and bolted her window.

The next day the same gull came again and settled down in front of her. ‘I will come again for you this night, but if you close your window you will not see me again for a whole year.’ But the woman was afraid and bolted her window.

The next day no gull came to settle in front of her, and Lorella, for that was her name, regretted bitterly what she had done. That night she dressed herself in her finest clothes, decked her bedroom with lilies, and lay down to sleep with the window wide open. But no one came, not that night, nor the next, nor any night for a whole year.

In the end she lost count of the days, but still she dressed herself each night in her finest clothes, combed her hair and surrounded her bed with lilies, and lay down to sleep with the window wide open. One night she was awakened by a tall, fair-haired man dressed in a cloak of white feathers. ‘I am the King of the Gulls,’ he said and she looked up at him with wonder.

‘By night I have the shape of a man like all my people, but by day I am a gull. As you have waited faithfully for a whole year, this night I will take you away from here if that is what you wish. But you must know that once gone from here, you will never see dry land again, except the bare rock where I and my people live.’ ‘It is no matter,’ said Lorella, ‘for I long to be away from this world where everyone I care for is now dead.’

So the Gull King told her to lie on his cape of feathers, and when she awoke she heard the billows roaring and the cries of thousands of birds roosting, and all around her was the ocean, without sight of land. Then the Gull King alighted on the island and led her into a great cavern where there were many people, both men and women, all dressed in white and surpassingly beautiful. And the Gull King showed her to his people, and told them that she was to be their Queen.

At first Lorella was pleased with her new life, for there was feasting and dancing every night and singers and jugglers and story-tellers and all manner of entertainments. But each day the gull-people assumed their bird forms and flew away towards land. ‘I have gained nothing by coming here,’ Lorella complained to her husband, ‘but have only exchanged one prison for another.’ ‘But you yourself chose to come here,’ said the Gull-King, ‘and for all my power I cannot give you the ability to change your form within your present life. And we ourselves must not stay here during the day on pain of death.’

A year later Lorella gave birth to a girl-child, but took no pleasure in it because it was born half a gull and half a human being. ‘This is a child of sorrow’, she said to her husband, ‘and ill luck will follow it all its life. I shall call it Amouetta which in your language means halfling, since it neither belongs wholly to your world nor to mine. And everyone will look upon it as a monster.’ ‘Not so,’ replied the Gull King gently, ‘for although I cannot give this child the power to change her form, I have an ointment here which will turn her into a gull completely or into a human being. It shall be as you wish.’ ‘Oh, change her into a human being,’ cried Lorella, ‘for then at least she will be able to keep me company during the day.’ ‘It shall be as you wish,’ said the Gull King.

And he sent Amouetta to sleep and rubbed her body with the ointment so that she turned into a human baby. But when he reached the feet there was no ointment left so that, although lovely to look at in face and body, Amouetta had the webbed feet of a gull, and instead of toes she had claws. ‘What have you done?’ cried Lorella in despair. ‘The child is more of a monster than ever, and no one will look at her feet without horror.’ ‘What has been done is done,’ said the Gull King sadly, ‘and now there can be no further changing.’

Lorella was nevertheless pleased to have the company of her daughter, and taught her to read and sew and sing, and all things that a human being needs to learn. And she found that Amouetta was a quick pupil and a pleasant companion, but each time she caught sight of her feet Lorella became exceedingly vexed. She made Amouetta wrap up her gull’s feet in bandages during the day, though Amouetta could never understand the reason.

The time came when Amouetta had grown to be a young woman, and Lorella said to her husband that it was no life for Amouetta on the Island of Gulls, and that she must go to dry land and mix with her own kind and marry like everyone else. But the Gull King said that no good would come of this and that one of his own people would marry her. ‘But I do not want my daughter to live as I do, a prisoner on the Island of Gulls, never seeing my husband except by night,’ said Lorella.

And from that day on Lorella secretly began collecting up feathers left on the island by the gulls and with them she fashioned two boats, one for herself and one for her daughter. When the boats were ready she gave Amouetta a sleeping-potion that would make her forget all her life up to that moment, laid her down in one of the boats, and stitched her clothes onto the feathers while she was sound asleep. Then she herself lay down in the second boat, attached herself as well as she could, and cut the moorings of the two boats. The waves took the boat with Amouetta asleep in it far from the island, and a current carried it safely towards land. But the other boat was dashed against the rocks, and Lorella was drowned.

The boat of feathers bore the sleeping Amouetta to a little bay, where a poor fisherman lived with his wife. When he saw the boat of feathers he called to his wife to come and see the strange thing that the sea had cast up on the beach. And when the fisherman’s wife saw a beautiful young girl lying there fast asleep in the boat of feathers she said at once to her husband that since they had prayed for many years to have a child, this girl must have been sent to them by God in answer to their prayers. So the fisherman and his wife carefully undid the stitches and carried the sleeping girl into the house.

For seven days Amouetta lay without moving and each day the fisherman’s wife washed her and changed her bedclothes, and spoke to her as if she were talking to her own child. In her sleep Amouetta murmured strange words half in their language and half in one the fisherman’s wife did not understand. But she grasped that the girl’s name was Amouetta. One night she showed Amouetta’s feet to her husband but he said it was no matter. And during all this time, when he was out at sea, the fisherman noticed a great gull flying over his boat, and every time he followed it he was led to waters that were exceedingly abundant in fish.

On the eighth day Amouetta awoke and looked around her with astonishment. And the fisherman and his wife saw that she had no memory of her previous life and so they pretended that she was their real daughter who had been lost at sea and nearly drowned. And Amouetta was happy in the little cove, and used to run up and down the sea-shore and swim in the sea and wave from the beach when her adoptive father returned to land in his boat. ‘But why do you not have feet like mine?’ she asked her new mother one day, catching sight of her washing herself. The fisherman’s wife did not know what to answer. Then Amouetta understood that she was different from other people, and whenever people came to the little cove to buy fish she made haste to conceal her feet with bandages. But when no one was there she ran about as before, as she saw that her parents did not take any heed of her gull’s feet. She learned from her father how to mend nets, and became very skilful at this work. She liked to stretch out torn nets between two pines that overhung the beach, and while she mended them she often sang strange songs to herself in a language the fisherman did not know and whose meaning she said she did not know herself, having heard them in dreams. But the fisherman and his wife marvelled at the beautiful voice she had. In this way seven years passed in happiness.

The King who had seized the throne and exiled Lorella had a son, Peter, who was still unmarried. Although a brave warrior and a fine horseman, his great interest in life was music and he always said that if he married his wife would have to be a skilled musician and singer. One day Peter announced that he was going to give a great feast to which he invited all the girls in the kingdom who considered themselves good singers, and he promised to marry the girl who was esteemed the best, no matter what her origins.

It so happened that when the feast was in progress the fisherman was in the capital with Amouetta, having taken her there for the first time to show her the marvels of the city. And since Amouetta was herself fond of music they both attended the singing contest.

For three days the King’s minstrel played many well-known melodies on his

harp, and young women sang to them. But although several had good voices, the judges were not satisfied, saying that no girl had distinguished herself above the others. Then Peter commanded the minstrel to play an air of his own devising to which the singers must put their own words. But the minstrel played an air that was so strange that no girl dared to sing to it. Then Peter dismissed the contestants and told them to prepare a song during the night and return the following day.

During the course of the day Amouetta and her father came across the King’s minstrel in the gardens alongside the palace and out of curiosity Amouetta asked him where he had learned that air, since it sounded strangely familiar to her. But the minstrel said he doubted very much that she had ever heard it, for the melody had come to him in a dream, and he had never played it in public before. He had no idea what country it came from nor what the words were, but he added that he always called it, he knew not why, ‘The Lament of the Gull King for his Lost Daughter’.

While Amouetta was in conversation with the minstrel, Peter, the King’s son, came upon them unawares and overheard something of what they were saying. He was at once struck by the beauty of the young girl, and asked her if she came from a foreign land and that was why she recognized the song. Amouetta blushed and tried to move away, but Peter, smiling, blocked her path and repeated his question.

In the end Amouetta admitted that the song seemed familiar. ‘And yet,’ she added, ‘I too must have heard it in a dream for until yesterday I never left the little cove where I live with my father and mother.’ ‘But since you recognize the melody’ said Peter, ‘if you hear it again, you will perhaps be able to recall the words also,’ and he ordered the minstrel to go and fetch his harp at once.

At first when the minstrel began to play Amouetta kept her mouth firmly shut, but suddenly without thinking she began to sing in a quiet voice, using words belonging to an unknown tongue but which fitted the melody exactly. When she had come to the end Peter complimented her on her voice and said he hoped to see her the next day at the contest.

When, the following day, Peter commanded the minstrel to play the strange air, still no one dared to sing to it for they all said that the music was unlike anything they had ever heard before and must come from a distant land. This displeased Peter greatly, and he told them that they were not true singers if they could not sing to a new melody. And he added, looking straight at the fisherman and Amouetta, that there was in this very hall an untrained singer who could do better than any of them. And he commanded Amouetta to come forward. Everyone noted the extreme beauty of the young girl, also her poor clothes and awkward manners.

At first, when the minstrel once again played the air, Amouetta stood there foolishly with her mouth firmly closed, and many people in the audience frowned, thinking that the unknown girl no more knew how to sing to this air than the others. At this moment there was a sharp repeated sound from high above and everyone looked up in surprise. On the ledge outside the great window of the hall was a large gull that was tapping at the glass with its beak. Several people in the audience laughed, saying that this must be a new singer come to take part in the contest. But Peter, becoming suddenly angry, called for silence and once the gull had flown away, he asked the minstrel to play for the last time.

And then everyone was astonished because the unknown girl in the poor dress began to sing in words that were unknown to anyone present, and yet their meaning was clear to all, as if they were in a universal language that everyone could understand. And when Amouetta had finished singing, no one moved for a long time in the immense hall, and many in the company were weeping, so strange and sad was the song. And the judges announced at once that the unknown girl in the poor dress alone deserved the prize and Peter said in front of everyone that he would make her his wife as he had promised.

But even as he spoke, Amouetta and her father stole out of the hall and were lost in the crowd, and that very night they returned to their home in the little cove by the seashore for Amouetta was sure within herself that no good would come of this marriage and her father was of the same opinion.

When Peter discovered that Amouetta had disappeared he had the city searched, but his agents found no trace of her anywhere. And from that time onwards he lost interest in music and gave himself up to more manly pursuits which pleased his mother. But all the high-born women his mother found for him he refused, saying that since he could not have the woman of his choice, he would have no other.


One day when Amouetta was gathering kindling in a pinewood overlooking the cove, she saw a large log-hut in a clearing where there had never been anything before. A peasant happened to be passed by with a donkey but, in answer to her question, he said he did not know who was living there. ‘But,’ he added, ‘for sure it must be some great lord to judge by the respect shown to him, and the rumour is that he is mortally ill of a battle wound and has chosen to spend his last days in this pinewood overlooking the sea.’

Amouetta felt pity for the wounded man, stole up to the door of the hut which was slightly ajar and since there was no one in sight, pushed it open. A man lay stretched out on the bed beneath the window and, to judge by his appearance, he did indeed seem to be on the point of death. Amouetta sat down on a chair beside the bed, and began to sing in a soft voice a song in the strange language like the one she had sung in the capital.

As she sang, the man awoke and turned to face her. At once she stopped her singing and for a long time neither of them said a word. Then Peter reached out and seized Amouetta by the wrist, and said that providence had brought them together again and that he would never be cured of his wound unless she agreed to marry him.

‘If I agree,’ said Amouetta at length, ‘it will be on one condition that will appear strange to you. You must never ask me to reveal my feet to you and even when we are man and wife I shall keep them wrapped up in bandages.’ Peter smiled at this, saying that this was a very easy request to grant, thinking to himself that Amouetta had some trifling defect which she, like other girls, greatly exaggerated. ‘Very well,’ replied Amouetta, ‘but I warn you that if ever you break your promise, everything will be finished between us.’

After this Peter quickly recovered from his wound and married Amouetta despite the disapproval of his mother. And soon afterwards the old king died leaving Peter to be ruler of the country. And Peter regained his old love of music and made the court a place of music and dancing though his wife never sang or danced in public.

Peter had a small castle built on the site of the log-hut and he and his wife went there every year so that she could visit the fisherman and his wife who still lived in the cove. While staying at the castle during the summer Amouetta liked to rise very early in the morning and go to the little cove to bathe, just as in the days when she lived with the fisherman and his wife. One day, when Peter accompanied his wife to the beach later in the morning, he remarked to her that, to judge by the traces in the sand, there must, apart from her, have been a large bird that came down from the castle to swim in the cove like her. At this Amouetta went very pale and for several days after that she stopped swimming.

But one morning it was so hot that Amouetta could not resist going down to the beach and Peter, seeing his wife pass, was overcome with curiosity and followed her, keeping well out of sight. Amouetta had already taken off her garments and the bandages from one foot when she heard the warning cry of a gull and, looking up, saw her husband hiding behind a pine tree, staring straight at her.

‘So you have broken your vow!’ she cried angrily. And she tore the bandages off the other foot as well and stood there with both feet uncovered for him to see. Peter begged his wife’s pardon and protested that his love for her was as great as ever, but in his heart of hearts he was horrified to think that the Queen of the whole country was such a monster.

From that moment on the character of the King changed and he became given to sudden fits of anger and violence, and took an especial dislike to seabirds, shooting at them with a crossbow from the window of the little castle and laughing loudly every time a bolt brought one of them down covered in blood. One day during the following summer when he and Amouetta were once more at the little castle overlooking the bay, Peter drank even more heavily than usual. In the middle of the afternoon he tore a great battle-axe down from one of the walls and the servants scattered in terror. He went straight to his wife’s bedchamber where she was resting, shouting out that he was going to cut off those ugly feet of hers.

Amouetta leapt out of the window and ran down to the little beach. But Peter followed her, whirling his battle-axe above his head, and in her flight Amouetta tripped over one of the nets stretched out between two trees and lay there helplessly entangled in it. Peter shouted out once again that he would cut off her ugly feet and, gripping his battle-axe with both hands, he held it high above his head but in doing so he uncovered his breast, and a great gull came swooping down out of the sky to pierce him in the heart with its yellow beak, so that he fell to the ground covered in blood.

Amouetta was taken from the beach in a faint but the secret of her gull’s feet was now known. And when Peter died of his wound, his mother had Amouetta charged with being a witch, and she was condemned to spend the rest of her days in a little room at the top of a high tower in the little castle overlooking the beach. But she never caught sight of the fisherman and his wife as they had both died broken-hearted by what had happened.

Amouetta spent her days standing at the window and staring mournfully out to sea and on very clear days she could see as far as a great rock to which thousands of gulls returned each night. And each time she saw the gulls flying back to their island home at nightfall, she said to herself how much better was the life of a gull than her own. One day, as she was standing there gazing out to sea, a gull alighted on the window ledge in front of her. ‘I am the King of the Gulls,’ it said, ‘and if you leave your window open tonight,’ it said, ‘I will come and take you away from here.’ That night she left her window wide open and was awakened by a tall, fair-haired man dressed in a cloak of white feathers. ‘I am the King of the Gulls,’ he said and she looked up at him with wonder.

‘By night I have the shape of a man like all of my people, but by day I am a gull. I will take you away from here if that is what you wish. But you must know that once gone from here, you will never see dry land again, except the bare rock where I and my people live.’ ‘It is no matter,’ said Amouetta, ‘for I long to be away from this land where everyone I care for is now dead.’

Then the Gull King told her to lie on his cape of feathers, and when she awoke she heard the billows roaring and the cries of thousands of birds roosting, and all around her was the ocean, without sight of land. Then the Gull King alighted on the island and led her into a great cavern where there were many people, both men and women, all dressed in white and surpassingly beautiful.

As soon as the company saw her a minstrel struck up a melody on his harp that sounded much like the strange air to which Amouetta had sung so many years ago except that now the air no longer sounded sad but exceedingly gay and light-hearted. When Amouetta asked the name of the song, she was told that in her language it would be known as ‘The Homecoming of the Gull King’s daughter’. And at once she began to sing putting words to the melody, but this time she understood the meaning as well, and as she sang all her previous life on the Island of Gulls came back to her, and she realized that the Gull King was her very own father. And from that point on she became like the others a human being completely at night and a gull completely by day.

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1 Comment

  1. Sebastian Hayes said,

    July 28, 2008 at 8:56 pm

    Island of Gulls – I found the story-teller to be most professional and effective. His voice was commanding and audible, also he engaged with listeners in every part of the roundhouse. He had an interesting device of playing with a small silver globe, pasing it from hand to hand during the performance, which added to the mystery. His clothing was suitable for the occasion.

    The story itself was intriguing, well structured and had a stunning twist at the end.

    His venue, the Earthouse, was the perfect location. We would very much like to see this story-teller doing a series of his stories here.

    Ron Hansford.


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