Oh hello, I didn’t see you there.
I’m creeping back in today to share a short story I wrote for a writing exchange last month. The exchange took place amongst a bunch of writing nerds who submitted prompts that were distributed at random with the recipients kept anonymous until the stories were finished. I was lucky enough to be given the prompt of “Irish or Scottish mythology/folklore/old history” which, of course, I LOVE, so I was super excited to give it a go. It’s called Freedom, because I am unoriginal. Here it is, in all its imperfect glory:
Three seals watched languidly from their mist-shrouded rock as I curled my toes in the sand. Everything felt sharp today—the granules on my skin, the cold December wind that cut across my cheeks, the dark underbellies of the clouds that sagged over the sea. The air hung heavy with anticipation that beaded like dew on my skin. I stood for a long moment at the seam where tide met sand, waiting for something to happen, waiting until the sky and water began to blend together with my staring and the flesh on my arms crawled. When I couldn’t take it any longer I turned away, sweater wrapped tight enough to stretch the weave. The seals slipped into the waves, one by one, and I whispered the names Da had invented for them—Aonghus, Aisling, Liadan—as farewell. The grasping sea hooked its fingers in the footprints I left behind.
The door’s hinges squeaked when I entered the house, as they always did, but Mam didn’t look over. Her hair hung loose around her shoulders like a dark waterfall, silky and long. She stood with arms folded, tense fingers pushing dents into her skin, focus fixed on the window over the kitchen sink. An apron circled her waist and dishes sat half-washed on the counter. Her feet were bare, as they always were. And she was beautiful, as she always was, in her ethereal way. She’d often been admired when we went to town, though perhaps not everyone stared for her beauty. I’d heard the whispers ever since I was a child, accompanied by narrowed eyes that darted between Mam and the sea.
Different, they said. Inhuman. Not like us.
I walked up behind her and peered over her shoulder. The window perfectly framed a square of shore, dotted with dark smudges where my feet had rutted the sand. But if Mam had been watching me, she wasn’t anymore. Her eyes reflected the soft grey of the ocean but she wasn’t really seeing. She was in that place again, that intangible mental place. Her refuge, maybe. Or her purgatory. This happened from time to time when she looked too long at the restless water, and the whispers in town didn’t seem quite so foolish then.
I placed a gentle hand on the cool skin of her arm.
Mam blinked and her eyes refocused as they sought out my face. “I’m sorry, my heart. I didn’t hear you come in. How was your walk?” She looked back toward the window.
“Fine. Chilly.” The kitchen was cold and empty, the wooden table clear but for the plate and teacup from Da’s breakfast. “Where’s Da gone?”
Mam’s fingers twisted around a strand of her hair then untwisted. Twisted. Untwisted. With my Mam, answers were often a long time in coming.
I took the dishes from the table and leaned around her to put them in the sink, giving her a peck on the cheek as I retreated. “Don’t forget we’ve got to go to market today.”
The door squeaked open and Da walked in, red-cheeked from the cold but handsome as ever. Mam’s countenance changed completely. She turned from the window with a smile that lit the room so that we forgot the sun was hidden behind a wall of clouds. Her hair flowed behind her as she ran to him.
He laughed and spun her in his arms. “Ahh, a chuisle mo chroi. I was hardly gone an hour.” He winked at me over Mam’s head. “I’ve got a surprise for you,” he said to me. “It’s down at the shore. All right if I take her a minute, Ita?”
Mam nodded, wilting a bit round the edges. “Not too long. Saoirse’s just reminded me it’s market day.”
Da kissed her. “Back before you know it.” He stayed there a moment, hands on her arms, deep brown eyes steady on hers. His face was soft and fair beneath his windswept hair, prematurely grey in a way that distinguished rather than aged him. He looked like a painting.
The crease between Mam’s eyebrows softened and her shoulders released their tension. “I love you,” she smiled.
He kissed her again, and beckoned me to follow him out the door.
The three seals were nowhere to be seen as we walked along the guttering shoreline in the opposite direction of the path I’d used that morning. We passed a little bend that blocked the house from sight—and there it was. A neat little white boat, tucked away in the weeds. Black, meticulously painted letters spelled out Freedom on the side.
I gasped, even as I ran my hand across the bow in admiration. “Da! Mam will never let me use it. She can’t possibly know about this?”
He shook his head, smiling ear to ear. “‘Course not. And it best stay that way, a leanbh, if we’re to have our fun. I thought it might be our secret, what d’you say to that?”
I traced the neat lettering with my finger. “Won’t she be angry if she finds out? You know she hates when we go out to sea with the Kavanaghs.”
Da knelt beside me and rested a hand on my shoulder, more solemn now. “I respect your Mam dearly and I don’t mean to be secretive to spite her. I know you love the sea as I do, and I saw no harm in a bit of learning. But we’ll never speak a word about it again if you feel that strongly about it.”
He looked so dejected and dear that a smile crept up through my hesitation. “You know I couldn’t say no,” I said, with a look back at the boat. Our boat.
Da’s face lit up like a sunrise and he jumped up. “That’s my girl. Come on, let’s take her out—ah.” He glanced back at the house with his hands wrapped around the boat’s bow. “I did say I wouldn’t take long, didn’t I? I only meant to show her to you. Foolish me, thinking that’d be satisfactory.” He laughed. “Ah well, and you’ve got the market today too. Best get back.”
I looked wistfully at the boat.
Da chuckled. “I’ll make your excuses. Go on, then. Remember, not a word.” He put a large hand on my head and rustled my hair before starting back to the house with long, purposeful strides.
As soon as he was out of sight I tugged the boat from the grass, toward the water. The sea was calm enough today and I knew the general idea. I stepped in the boat, clutching at the sides as it rocked, and then used the paddle to push myself to sea. A few minutes, that’s all I wanted. Time enough to feel the breeze and listen to the slap of sea on wood. I closed my eyes and felt my hair blow back and the mist hit my face. In my mind’s eye the seals swam gracefully alongside, one with Freedom.
A splash to my right broke my reverie. One of my seals snaked beside the boat, as though she’d weaved her way from my daydream into the real world. Aisling it was, the small brown one. Only her head showed above the silvery water, large eyes fixed on me.
“Dia dhuit, Aisling. Come to admire my boat, have you?” I smiled a little that I was speaking to a seal. At any moment I expected her to slip quietly away, disappear as she so often did even at a distance. But she swam a little ahead of my boat and looked back at me. Her nose twitched with her breaths.
I blinked. “You want me to follow?”
Aisling did not respond, of course. I paddled the boat to follow and when I’d nearly reached her she moved, slipping ahead only to wait for me again, it seemed. We repeated this peculiar game until we’d gone past the house, past where I’d walked earlier that morning—that bit of shore that the kitchen window framed so well. I’d never gone much further—a rocky little cliff cut across the beach into the water. Aisling skirted around it and disappeared.
I looked back at the house, at the speck of window. Did Mam stand there still? I doubted it. When Da was home she found it hard to look at anything but him. I paddled around the rocks and the house vanished from sight.
Aisling was waiting. The moment I came into view she slid onto shore and began to bob across the sand in her funny little way. With an awkwardness that came with inexperience I guided the boat back onto land and stumbled my way out, following her toward a ledge of rock that jutted out over the ground. Beneath lay a lovely smooth bit of sand, undisturbed. Aisling looked at me impatiently.
A distant bark came from the sea. The other two seals, Aonghus and Liadan, waited for Aisling, closer to shore than I’d ever seen them. With the house out of sight and the seals so near it all felt like a dream. Maybe I’d fallen asleep next to the boat when Da left. Maybe none of this was real.
With one last look my way, Aisling bobbed back across the sand and into the ocean. The three seals slipped away, strips of dark silk in silver waves.
I looked at the smooth sand beneath the ledge. Nudged it with my foot. Scooped at it with my hands. And then dug, dug feverishly, dug without understanding why, with Aisling’s gentle face burning in my mind, until my fingers brushed against something cool and soft. Sand fell off in sheets as I pulled it from the earth and smoothed it out in front of me.
It was a skin. A silky, grey seal’s skin flecked with white like spots of foam. A selkie skin.
My heart left off its beating. With desperation I scanned the sea. They were gone. Aonghus, Liadan, Aisling, all gone as if they never existed. But the skin still lay in my lap, and it was real.
I burst into the house. “Da! Da! Come quick!” My hands wrung together nervously, remembering the feeling of slippery fur beneath my fingers.
The house creaked with silence for a moment, and then Da came running down the stairs. Mam followed close behind, bare feet whispering on the landing. Fright stretched their faces, and I realized how my entrance must have appeared to them.
I quieted myself and offered a smile. “Sorry! Nothing’s wrong, I didn’t mean to cause alarm. I just wanted to show Da something…if that’s all right with you, Mam? And then we’ll go to the market straight away, I promise.”
Da gave me a knowing glance as we left. I wondered why—I doubted he had guessed what I’d found.
“Is it the boat?” he said when the door closed behind us. “You’re not hurt are you?”
“Hurry, she’ll be watching soon.”
Da followed with a glance back at the house. “You didn’t take her out, did you? By yourself?”
“That doesn’t matter now. Wait and see.” We sailed around the stone outcropping and scraped onto shore.
Da smiled. “You’re a natural.”
But I was already running up the beach, toward the stone ledge. The seal skin was still there, shimmering in the weak sunlight that filtered through the clouds.
Da came up behind me and stopped short. A wild look came over him as he stared at the skin.
“I think it’s Mam’s,” I said quietly, sadly. “Aisling showed me.”
Something invisible tore between Da and the skin as he ripped his eyes away to look at me. He shook his head. “You found it. I didn’t think anyone ever would.”
“You put it here?” I said it more than asked, realizing. The silvery fur glistened.“So it is Mam’s. You took it from her and made her stay, all these years.” I thought of Mam’s desperate eyes searching the water through the kitchen window. “That’s terrible, Da.”
He was silent. The waves lapped eagerly at the shore, for a moment the only sound to be heard. It filled my ears, my mind, enveloped me and swallowed me whole. Mam was a selkie, the sea her true home.
Her distant, distorted voice calling from the house shook us both from our thoughts.
Da looked at me with deep, desperate eyes. “Don’t tell her about the skin, a leanbh. Please. Go to market and l will take care of it. I promise you’ll have the truth of it when you get back.”
I hesitated, but remembered Mam’s radiant face every time she looked at my Da. It couldn’t be all bad for her here, could it? She loved us. Da must have his reasons. He’d explain everything.
I nodded and ducked out from under the ledge. “You’ll need to take the boat. She’ll see otherwise. I’ll find a way around.”
Da nodded. With a few minutes and some steady effort I found a route across the rocks and dropped down on the other side, the image of Da holding the skin imprinted in my mind.
“Funny of your Da to go walking when he’d just gotten home,” Mam said as we approached the house, our arms were laden with the week’s foods. Mam was in good spirits—she liked to go inland. “He does so love the sea, it’s no surprise.”
“You both do,” I said.
Mam looked at me with a smile. “It’s lovely, but I find it a bit cold and harsh. No one loves the sea like your Da.”
A spike of worry cut at my ribs. I ran into the house and dumped my things on the table. The house was empty, I could feel it in the walls. I ran past Mam on my way outside. “He’s not here yet. I’ll go see if I can’t find him.” My heart banged in my chest in a way that had nothing to do with my running.
The rocks cut at my palms as I pulled myself up and over the little cliff, breath ragged. I slipped coming down the other side and a long red line bloomed through the sleeve of my shirt. Freedom was still on shore, the stern bobbing to and fro in the shallows. Da was gone, and so was the skin.
“Da!” I called out. My voice echoed off the rocks and faded across the waves toward the seal rock. The seals were there, watching through the misty air. Aisling and Aonghus and Liadan. And another. A grey seal with white spots like foam, the largest and handsomest of them all.