Tag Archives: elders

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.

3: The Naming Ceremony _ Song of Sun and Sea

Bean sang quietly to herself, combing her sleek fur, and dawning her overcoat of brightly colored shells and sand dollars. From time to time she glanced above her head. The day had dawned early, and already soft threads of golden hue shown bright and clear, tangling into strange and familiar shapes before her eyes. A cormorant cried overhead, and the wind gusted across the open sea, leaving waves and ripples in it’s wake. Wind rattled the sea reeds that sheltered Bean and her family, and the young selkie’s song began to take on the rhythm of plant and wind and wave.

As the sun began it’s diurnal climb of the sky, joy filled Bean’s heart, for today she would be attending her first naming ceremony. Aisling, who so recently welcomed her first child into the world, had glowed with pride as she made the announcement of the Naming Day to her clan. And now that day had come.

“Are you ready to go, Bean?” her mother, Iona, called as she finished her delicious breakfast of shellfish. “You are in need of food, and I have yet to see your face in the kitchen! Hurry, or you will hunger.”

With a jolt, Bean came out of her reflections and finished the task of rendering herself presentable with swift efficiency. Her mother would have saved some shellfish for her, and she would see to it that today would not be the first to miss such a delicacy. “Beidh mé ansin anois díreach! I’ll be there right away!” She hollered back, gliding a moment later into the reedy cove where she and her family often made a meal. The long stringy kelp shielded the family from the eyes of sharks, as well as bears and people, who might seek harm on them.

Iona wondered to herself whether now would be the time to tell her daughter of the elders’ decision as they had a moment alone. Arán, Bean’s father, had decided to travel ahead for there was opportunity then to speak with one of his closest friends—an opportunity that did not arise as often as wished. Alone with her daughter now, however, Iona could not coax the shy and difficult words she wished to say into streams of coherent thoughts, let alone into the more structured permanence of speech. Besides, she mused, Bean looked so beautiful and radiant, the light dancing in her eyes betraying her excitement, as she moved gracefully with the transient playfulness of a child. Eithne’s pronouncement would have to wait, and this seemed well enough, as the telling of it would be apt to weigh down the heart of the girl just as it had her own.

Instead, mother and daughter laughed and spoke aimiably as they made their way to the Naming, finding friends to travel with along the way. A new child was a gift and an honor, no matter whose child, no matter if it was a selkie’s first or fifth. On this spring day, with the sea gulls soaring above them and endless depths of water beneath them, there could be no thoughts of grave and weary things. All such had flown with the dawn, and the song of sea and sky effortlessly pervaded all spaces so that sorrow’s shadow could not linger, and any anticipation was purely the possession of that poignant possibility of life anew which a newborn brings with her into the world.

And so it was, that the friendly group chattered and laughed among themselves, speaking of their own children’s namings and that bone deep validation that came from hearing the name of their child spoken aloud in a chorus of welcome. And it was in coming up to the gathering at last, that all laughter halted at once.

A cold clamby grief was settling on the gathered selkies, as if rain clouds were plucked from the sky and dropped without care on top of them each, so that their tails drooped and their fur flattened dully and covered itself in meaningless grey, the kind that is empty and hollow and too depleted to keep up any appearance of lustre. And it was clear to Bean and her companions that something was dreadfully wrong, for where the child should have nestled itself within the special bed of water reeds the women had all prepared for it, there the emptiness lay the heaviest. The child was not there.

Distressed, Bean tugged on her mother’s flipper. “What is wrong, ma?” she whispered in earnest.

“I do not ken,” her mother answered, unable to hide the fear encroaching on her voice, “But hush now, we shall hear from the elders soon enough.” Yet even as she spoke to soothe her daughter, Iona could not quell the unease steeling over her. Whether the elders would decide to proclaim the truth about the whereabouts of the child, Iona knew not. She knew enough to trust that whatever the elders said would be best for the clan, but also knew well enough that veracity did not always coincide with what is best.

Anois, fan go fóil agus ná bac leis, mo leanbh, now wait yet a moment and do not worry my child, for Bean kept the truth higher than all things, including the pronouncements of elders, and children have a way of picking out a falsehood which many older folk have lost throughout in their growing and becoming. So it was that when stillness crept over the crowd like a fierce and fecund fog, and the elders announced that the selkie child was dead, a sharp chill ran through young Bean’s body and she realized she had not believed a word of it. Why she did not, she could not say, but that the elders lied she had no doubt, and she began to wonder what to do with this disturbing realization.

As it happened, ó am go ham, from time to time, Bean was not always out playing with the other children, without care and concern, wiling away her childhood in laughter and games. Sometimes she was found off by herself, brooding and staring off into the distance, and would not break her reverie until someone, usually her mother, shouted her name at least five times. No one guessed her thoughts, but they were in fact of the distance quite literally. For Bean remembered infant children who everyone else seemed to have forgotten, who had inexplicably vanished, whose names were never spoken again. Sometimes the same mysterious fate would befall an older child, and it would be said that the sharks had their way with the unfortunate little one. Bean had tucked these observations away and kept them a secret, for surely to speak of them would greatly displease her family, not to mention the elders who would see to her punishment for her questioning of their judgments.

Anois, now, Bean stared blankly at the empty bed of water reeds and the even emptier stretch of water beside it where the child’s mother would have swum. Strange, Bean thought suddenly, that the mother of the child is not here to announce the child’s death herself. It was an honor, albeit a bitter one, to allow a mother the last words for her babe who never made it to a naming. Had the elders forgotten this custom in their own sadness and pain? Bean thought not. Then why was the mother not there with the clan… unless…

“Ma?” Bean asked, her voice shaking with the horror of the question she was about to ask, “Why can we never speak of the edge? Where is Aisling? What if…”

Bean’s mother splashed the surface of the water so hard that it made the child flinch and hastily swim a bit out of distance. “Dún a bhéal agus bí ciúin! An gcloiseann tusa?” she roared in a whisper. “Shut your mouth, and be quiet, you hear? If I ever hear you say such a thing again!”

Bean lingered stunned in the water near the outer circle of the gathered selkies for a moment, terrified to disobey her mother and pay the penalty, and terrified to stay where she was and wonder, always wonder, at the pieces of what happened that did not fit together, at what really happened and whether there was still time. The clan was taught that nothing left the mainstream alive, that monsters lurked across the current, that no one should ever go to or speak of the edge accept for in prophecies. But what of the missing children? What of Aisling’s unnamed child? For an undead child who could not receive a naming, if such was possible, would be given a fate worse than death. Bean could not bear the thought of doing nothing at all, not with stakes being as high as they were, if there were any hope yet having, that the child might be recovered to her family.

What Bean did next would change her life, and the lives of her clan, forever. She surfaced to take a deep breath, closed up her ears and nose to keep out the sea, and dove out of site. She would not surface again until she came to the edge.

When she was born, Bean Alainn was indeed a beautiful girl. Her seal fur was softer than that of her siblings. It glowed slightly, almost as if it were being lit from inside out, especially when rays of light from above burst apart like shooting stars in streams of greens and golds. Her beauty far surpassed outward loveliness, however. For Bean’s eyes were like harbors, pooling calmly and quietly into deep fathomless blue: eyes that at once contained compassion and elicited awe. For to look into them was to not only be well met, but to be suddenly immersed in something indisputably beyond your ken, and yet discover that far from losing yourself in that vastness, you would instead recognize yourself reflected there. I met Bean Alainn myself only on several unforgettable occasions before life flew from her, and I have never forgotten those eyes and how it was her very soul that looked out from them and somehow always sought and found my own.

Anois, now, there is yet one further thing to be said about Bean’s birth. For though Bean was páiste beag, just a wee child, her soul had in fact lived a very long time. Bean’s soul had traveled at least three life circles between this world and the next before arriving here, or at least, that is what the druids told Bean’s parents upon her birth. For even the seal folk have their keepers of the wise who know the patterns of the stars and can sing of the loom on which new life is spun and how, among it’s threads of many colors, the strand of fate is woven throughout. And this is what the keepers of the wise said, that Bean Alainn’s soul was very old indeed, and that upon her lay the fate of three worlds, and no matter how carefully she chose her actions, she would bring much joy to some, and much sorrow to others.

And so Bean’s parents kept this knowledge to themselves, and neither to any kin nor even to Bean herself would they speak of it. The druids’ pronouncements were not ordinary, and they feared their daughter might be found to be displeasing and destructive to their underwater world and be sent to the edge. So they brought Bean up as ordinarily and uneventfully as possible.

Young Bean grew strong and well alongside her many brothers and sisters, aunts and uncles, parents and friends. She ate with them, sang with them, and laughed with them. She learned to count by sifting grains of sand, and learned the names of the stars by how their figures appeared on the surface of the water. She learned how to stay out of reach of sharks and fishing boats, how to hunt for fish, how to swim gracefully, and how to put a mist on the sea that would muffle the selkies’ voices so human beings would not realize that they often spoke to one another.

She and her siblings would often watch from some distance as their mother would dance out on the rocks and sand bars at midnight with the other women of the clan. The ability to shed a seal skin and take human form did not appear until selkie children came of age. Boys and girls alike grew into their power as shape shifters, but it was quite rare for the men among the selkies to come to land. Roomer had it that a selkie father and his son were killed in a hunt off the place the humans called Sule Skerry, and that had the father not come to land to fetch his son himself, such ill fortune would have not befallen them. So it was that the only men who ventured onto land were childless and had few immediate kin, and they were pitied by the rest.

By the time Bean was six summers old, she had won a reputation for herself despite her parents’ intention that, other than her stunning beauty, she be plain and unremarkable. Anois, now, selkie children learn their people’s sacred songs from the day they can speak, and to a human person even the most unskilled singer among the selkies would take your breath away. All selkies have haunting voices that make the human heart ache for a home it cannot name until a person is filled with such longing that her dreams are of nothing but sliding silently beneath salty spray and frothy foam, yearning after some lost and forgotten island mirrored beneath wave and sea. But it became apparent quite early on that Bean would be one of the greatest bards within many generations. When Bean sang, the very rocks of the land heard her song, and the mountains echoed her high clear tones so that stopping in a field, a person might turn her head and wonder at the voice reverberating upon the wind. When Bean sang the waves grew quiet and still, and trees bent to catch her words, letting them linger for a moment in their leafy hands. When Bean sang, birds cried overhead circling and calling to her, until she could imagine the current of a river and the silent authority of a forest.

Anois feiceann tú mo leanbh, now you see, my child, the elders had never forgotten the words of the druids, and so they took notice as elders should. And it was decided, as often these things are without the person present, that Bean Álainn ought to learn the ways of the clan early, for the knowledge holders had come to the elders saying, “This girl will be among those from whom we will one day choose a new leader, and it is fitting for such children to begin training early so that when the time comes, their responsibility will not weigh so heavily upon them.”

So it was that when the girl reached her seventh summer, Eithne, a well respected elder, sought the child’s parents and instructed them to take Bean and come with her to the next council which was held after every third rising of the moon.