Tag Archives: ancient days

4: The Specter At The Edge _ Song of Sun and Sea

Far beyond the reedy kelp beds, far beyond the tide of the large salmon and the playing pool, and the open water that drifted with the wind in the patterns of whispered dreams, Bean numbly made her way. As it turned out, the edge was named such for a very practical reason. It was, Bean realized, just as the elders had said it was: imposing and dangerous, a great divide indeed. In fact, with surprise and fear, she swam backward a ways as to not get swept up in the large current torrenting past her with an unforgiving speed. The wind had picked up, and a mournful howl cast itself across the churning water as if the air were mourning an abandoned child.

Is é, the child. Bean was so captivated by the great stream in front of her, and so frightened of slipping into it to be lost forever beyond her home and kin, that she forgot for a moment why she had come. But the immensity of the edge, white bubbles frothing at its surface, rushing onward with a gurgling tumble toward the unknown, could not leave Bean riveted for long. She must find the child, Aisling’s child. And across the cold dark water, the moan in the wind, too familiar to be the song of the air, too haunted and unfathomable to belong to any of her own, surely, cut the forbidding boundary once again with its keening.

Bean turned and swam toward that eerie call, wondering why she had disobeyed her mother and the elders, wondering why she was here: here at this gods- forsaken place with the phantom of the sea almost swept away by that fierce tidal stream beside her, she feared that courage would fail her, she longed for that morning, for laughter, even for her mother’s scolding. The elders did not lie about the edge. Doubt crept into Bean’s mind then. Doubt and shame for acting so rashly, and for so readily dismissing her mother’s warnings and the elders’ words. Might the elders have been as honest about the child as they had been about the edge? The elders surely would punish her now, and Bean would welcome it, for to endure the consequences of your actions, mo leanbh, is far better than to be denied the privilege of justice. In punishment the person is validated, is acknowledged, and without this the person would be rendered invisible. Like us, Bean’s clan did not practice cruelty. They left banishment to what is unforgivable but gave the rest the gift of belonging at the heart of the trials to repay their wrongs.

Anois, now, mar tharlaigh sé, as it happened, though Bean disobeyed the elders, she rightly obeyed the truth inside her. For suddenly, still at some distance, she saw a scene that gripped her in disgust and horror. Two seal women huddled around a small bundle floating on the water. The bundle bobbed up and down almost rhythmically, and it made no sound. Both women had a flipper on the strange bundle, and it was the one to the right of the other who keened so, wailing like a lost and languishing spirit who wandered out of some other world. Bean shivered despite the warmth of her body which was so well adapted to the cold Irish Sea.

Very quietly, as to not be seen or heard, she swam toward this surreal scene, mesmerized in some unspeakable way by the strange bundled specter and the grieving woman. Then she froze. Shock gripped her, so suddenly that she was temporarily paralyzed, and it was hard to keep herself upright.

She saw now no strange phantom object, no mysterious wailing woman, but an elder whose name escaped her knowledge and Aisling, who with wide eyes and fierce sorrow began again to keen her song of love and loss far beyond the end of the known world. That bundled specter bobbing quietly between was Aisling’s child, but to Bean’s bewilderment, the child was not in the water. She wondered in some distant, remote part of herself, at the how of it, checking to see if her eyes deceived her yet again. But no, the child appeared to be wrapped in the reeds of the sea, folded into them, lying upon them like… like… Bean wracked her brain for the object of this likeness which she had seen only once before. Like the vessels that carry humans over the sea, like a boat.

As Bean watched, now deeply perplexed and concerned, the elder woman began to try to gently take Aisling’s flipper off the little boat that carried the child. Aisling refused to let go, which caused the boat to thrash about in the water violently. At that moment, the child began to scream. Bean’s heart broke, but her sadness quickly turned to anger.

Here she had thought the child dead, but its cries told a different story, a story Bean knew would be worse than death. How could they? How could the elders tie a child up out of the water, and send her away, to starve and be forgotten, nameless, perhaps some meal for another creature? Hatred welled inside her then, as strong as the relentless flowing water beside her. For this was no dead child, but a living baby selkie, one of their own, still breathing, still tossing its human-like voice into the turbulent wind which was beginning to gather itself like some wild animal, perhaps thinking in vain to defend an pháiste beag, the little one who would, Bean assumed, be forced to live a half life far beyond the main stream.

And then the mother was no longer weeping, but speaking. “Let her be!” she shouted above the blasts of wind, “I carried her into this world, let her be!”

The elder tried to be kind. Bean saw grief snake-coil in the elder’s eyes, but she also saw a grim finality within them, as if fate’s hand had already rested the decision from the living long ago. “Your child has died,” the elder said softly. “This is the body of your child, yes, but your child lives in it no more. It is an evil changeling took up place in where your child once lived, who looks out from your child’s eyes, who calls like a phantom through sea and sky.”

“No!” Aisling protested, her voice growing horse now from the effort of so much grieving aloud. “I know what is said of the changelings, but this little one will not put a curse on our clan for she is no changeling. She is my infant and she lives still. Please, let us be.”

But at that moment, with a look of terrible resolve, the elder pushed the little craft holding the selkie child toward the edge, and picked up by the wind it glided effortlessly and perilously toward the indifferent mass of water waiting to swallow and consume anything or anyone lying in its path, taking it far beyond where any selkie dared attempt to survive.

Bean’s paralysis broke. Before she had time to think, she was swimming faster than she had ever swum before, not caring about the edge, or even about survival. The current took her by surprise, tearing at her body and threatening to overpower her as she fought to continue moving sideways through it, in hopes of catching that little boat and perhaps rescuing the endangered child. But she was, she realized in frenzied frustration, practically going nowhere, while the little boat moved farther and farther away. If she let the current carry her, she knew, she would never make it home, and would probably die, alongside the child, out in the open sea with no refuge from the harsh winters and no family to speak of. With an overwhelming sense of defeat and despair, Bean looked one last time at the boat now almost out of sight. It had turned slightly, and in that moment she saw an emptiness where the infant’s flipper should be. The child, Bean realized, was born with only one flipper. Was that enough, she thought despondently, to send her to her death before she knew anything of life?

But she could not ponder that question now. She would later, much later when she could take time to process all that she had seen. But now, in her immediate present, exhaustion was upon her and so was the tidal current, tugging her tired body ever further from everything she had ever known. With a last desperate mustering of energy, she turned herself around and paddled for her life toward the calmer stretch of water beyond the edge. When she finally made it to safety, she thought to look around, to make sure Aisling and the elder hadn’t seen. Whatever happened after the child disappeared, they were no where to be found now. Anois ar a féin, on her own, she turned her eyes to the sky and screamed, like a Ban sidhe in the night, one long bloodcurdling scream, for the undead child with no name whose life could have gone better had she actually died. Ansin, then, she put her head on one flipper and just lay there for a moment, heart racing, unsure of what to think or where to go or what to do. She no longer felt so proud to be counted among her people.

After a while, a voice came to her from a long way off on the wind. “Bean! Bean Alainn? Cá bhfuil tú! Where are you! Bean?” Her mother’s voice drifted through the haze that was Bean Alainn’s mind, until she recognized it for what it was. Without much emotion, Bean began slowly swimming wearily toward that familiar voice that she longed, and yet never wished again to hear. It is time to face what I have done, she thought solemnly. She would welcome the consequences of her honesty. She knew she had more than one truth to tell.

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To Ayla of The Earth Children, 2003

In that dream I had, you ran to me, your five-year-old body parting crowds. I knew your name and forgotten language before you ever said a word. Then you leapt into my arms and spoke mine. That night, we wove ourselves through eons and what we can make believe, face to face with her other’s beginnings.

In different ways, for different reasons, we once took another chance to live. Mine began with a coma, a terrible dot that tore life into two unfinished clauses– before and after the closing of eyes. And for us both, it ended with a scream– the kind uttered at first recognition of difference, still afraid to lose what we had no time to love.

At twelve, when I first heard your story, my blood still stung in the places where so many tried to cut me off from myself. It was you who challenged me to start bleeding watercolors, spill tears without silence, as if, just by painting the desert in swirls of blue, I could stumble into the mist of belonging.

Then, there were the twelve years since. The acorn follows the oak tree, (the meaning of your name,) the child mother to her, woman, the earthy light of old caves. Was it you, or me, who brushed my voice across these shattered sands, slowly removing the brambles–so many obstacles to overturn, so many who deserted me? Was it me, or you, who learned to love the pathfinders (the wolf as their symbol?) I have adopted their language; they have become my second family.

It does not matter which of us came first. That night when you perched on my horizon like a firefly, I whispered to you all I knew to make the world more beautiful. Perhaps it was you, or me, who dreamily pressed a face to the window as we drove home,
Glass reflecting back our smallness, a cool mirror and warm skin.

I still remember waking: how the sun poked its face through the blinds and how the dream felt, ebbing back into the marrow of my bones. I wanted to speak soundlessly, moving my hands, my whole body, through those ancient signs you danced as a child. I would say this to thank you. I would say:

“This woman wakes. This woman has found her others. She has sifted through the grains of sand, and has counted you in every one.”

The Unexpected Origins of Caoilte Mac Ronan _ Song of Sun and Sea

The little boy, only eight summers old, burst through the doorway of the house at his mother’s call, but only after she had hollered his name at least five times. His thick dark red hair was wind-blown and tousled, and he was very much out of breath. Once again his mother was hollering, now from much nearer by, to get back outside with those shoes before she got to him first.

“What have you made of the morning, mo leanbh?” she asked, attempting to continue to scold. Attempting, that is, because just at the corners of her eyes danced a hint of a smile even while her lips turned into a frown. The boy had never been able to learn the art of a seer, but he knew the secrets hidden in a person’s face better than anyone. It always surprised his mother, but he did not know why. All you had to do was open your eyes and look. No one bothered to look. But he had, and it was there he met a person’s soul.

He had seen the smile and knew his mother’s anger would only be for show. “I was out running, ma. I went to the edge of the woods,” and here he pressed on hastily, lest his mother interject with the familiar warnings about the woods, “I did not see the shadows of the tallest trees, the sun being so bright just after dawning, so I just kept running. I made it to the fork in the river. When I got back it was still morning, so I ran it all again.” he finished proudly.

His mother only shook her head. “Ten miles, go sábhála Dithe sinn! Isteach leat, in with you and wash your hands and feet. I have hot tea for you when you’re done,” she thought for a while as the boy left his shoes outside and came in to scrub the dirt and sweat off himself. “I fear we won’t have you to ourselves much longer,” his mother continued.

“Will I get to join the older boys and learn how to fight, then?” the boy asked eagerly. “I already run faster than any of them.”

His mother sighed. “One should never run too quickly out of childhood. You would put an end to your growing before it has begun. No, you will wait until the next year like all the rest. Three times three is the year of power, when potential comes into it’s own.”

The boy listened intently. He had never heard his mother say so much at once, with such earnestness, conveying so much meaning. “What truth in the direction of your words do you wish to share, ma?” he asked quietly, sensing his mother meant to say more than repeat the druids’ law of three. He took a long sip of tea and patiently sat waiting for his mother to sift through her thoughts for whatever story wished to be told. For when she got that pensive look on her, a story was in formation. The boy loved the outdoors, loved to run, loved to play games with the other boys, especially the older ones. But if truth be told, he cherished his mother’s stories most .

“I am glad you are sitting down, son,” she said finally. “It is time you learned your origins.” A chill ran through the boy’s body, and he made sure he was sitting tall and making eye contact. This would not be like his mother’s other stories. This would be different, lasting, changing.

“Do you know the meaning of your father’s name,” she asked for effect, for the boy would know. “He is called Ronan, little seal, and here is the why of it. You see, he is a child of land and water. His mother was a selkie.”

The child gasped audibly. He had not been expecting this, but felt he should have. He had never known or met his grandmother. But he had heard his share of stories of the wild and strange seal folk who danced out on the rocks at midnight, their eerie song floating out over the waves like a soundscape’s shadow. Were their song something seen and not heard, it would have glowed iridescent and luminous in the darkness. “Tell me of her people and how she came here.” the boy encouraged, softly.

Across from him, his mother sat still and silent, as if the story wrapped itself so thickly around her that speech would be difficult. Finally she brushed her long wavy hair out of her clear blue eyes, eyes the boy thought now were so unlike his hazel eyes which mirrored tones of the water or land depending on which he was near. Taking a breath slowly, his mother began:

“Once, fada ó sin, long long ago, lived a small and young selkie girl by the name of Bean Álainn, Beautiful Woman.”