Tag Archives: fiction

A Grave Night

The shadows never disappear. That’s been the biggest change. Even a sunrise appears hollow and faded, as if someone insisted on placing a curtain between my view and the sky. In fact, it is as though space took on a surprising heaviness around me, its grey tendrils clinging to me as if it were the fog wrapping around the crests of ocean waves. Often my unresolved emotions surface to hang in midair the way my breath used to condense in the growing cold.

But I am not cold, nor do I find any comfort in the cloying density that mutes the music of the world to wilted whispers. It’s not that I have an affinity for darkness. At first I only ventured out at night because I found that daylight hurt my eyes. Then, slowly, I learned that the dark could hold me, enfold me into its soothing shelter like an unborn child, where I found shelter for a while from hiraeth, that unnameable longing of my heart.

Tonight begins no differently. Drops of twilight fade like ink into the vast canvas of the sky. Safe in the hushed umbral hallway, I slip silently into the rooms of the children to satisfy myself that they are sleeping soundly, and then pause by the dog to ruffle his fur. There is that glorious but grief-stricken moment when he lifts his head wags his tail. He sees me. And just as with every other night, I lose myself for a while in that indescribable feeling when life recognizes and regards itself in another.

Reluctantly I pull away, realizing that even the dog needs rest and his eyes are drooping and about to close. I drift aimlessly to the window to hover there, again like I always do, and let my thoughts still. But the full moon gently washes the weary world, a world which I wander but to which I no longer belong; and a single star winks mockingly from a great distance, as if gloating over its heavenly glow while I remain trapped on earth. And suddenly it is all too much for me: the glowing star, the tender touch of moon on the trees, my sleepless dreams.

My acute discomfort drives me down the stairs to the front door, and it is then I remember tonight’s invitation from the man I spoke to on the way back from my meanderings early this morning. He was rather peculiar, wearing a hodgepodge of clothing from several different eras: trousers that could have been placed at the start of the twentieth century, a tie-dyed shirt stamped with the names of the Beetles, and a 1970’s haircut. I have to admit that I stared before speaking.

At some point I did remember to introduce myself with my standard greeting “I am still called Maya,” and gave the universal sign for acknowledging another’s company. In return, he looked away while informing me that he couldn’t remember his name. “But George is as good as any,” he had muttered, keeping his hands at his sides.

His rudeness only grew worse as the conversation went on. He told me about an important neighborhood meeting regarding the upcoming Halloween holiday and the particular matter of a haunted house. The gathering would be taking place at midnight in the graveyard. Did I want to join them? Was he serious?

I recall now how I continued to stare at him, my curiosity turning to irritation and finally to an angry disgust. It was bad enough for him to use the “h” word when describing an inhabited household, but his choice of venue was downright insulting. I gave him a piece of my mind regarding what I think about people who continue to promote physicalist stereotypes after switching sides and left immediately. The graveyard? Does he think butterflies like to hang out in their old cocoons for kicks, too? Good grief!

He’s new, or crazy, or both, I am thinking now as I pause in front of the main door. I tell myself that I can’t believe I am doing this. But that’s a lie. I’m going because to stay is to truly be haunted: hounded by the ghosts of my past, mercilessly pursued by my murky mess of memories, ensnared in my own fears, lost in my regrets and all I left behind. If a prejudiced soul and curiosity about his grave meeting is what will get me out of my self-pity tonight, then so be it.

Just before I walk through the door, I groan softly to myself for good measure, out of principle, for spite, for the relief of hearing myself make a noise, for all of these things. Apparently, I am not quiet enough. Upstairs, the toddler starts screaming for his mother to save him from “that thing in the house” at a pitch and volume that would wake the dead, if only the dead could sleep. I’m human, not some object, I think bitterly as I take the hint and gloomily make my way to the one place in the entire neighborhood I have never wanted to go.

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Flash Fiction: Bear Necessities

Colby groggily stretched his stiff arms and legs while simultaneously yawning hugely. Yikes, he was sore. He felt some bones creek and pop as they grew accustomed to the rather novel concept of motion.

How long had he been sleeping? It felt to him as though an entire age had gone by. His body ached as if he had been sprawled out over sharp rocks and hardpacked dirt for some time. His mouth was disturbingly parched and his eyes felt funny: scratchy and unnaturally heavy. Still lethargic, he decided to keep them closed for now. At least he wasn’t cold, he mused. That fur coat mysteriously wrapped around him was remarkably helpful in that regard…

Colby drifted off again for a brief moment which was rudely cut short by a fierce itch on his nose. He was just about to scratch it when a low rumbling noise startled him completely awake. For a few tense minutes he lay perfectly still, listening. He could hear nothing but a faint drip, drip, drip of water somewhere in the distance. Finally the rumbling noise came again and Colby recognized it for what it was: his growling stomach. He was ravenous. How long had it been since he had eaten? He tried to recall…

Slowly a scene came to mind of a dark snowy day in the Sierras. He had gone camping with some of his friends. They had been looking up at the constellations and one of his friends had pointed and said, “That one is Ursus Major, the bear. Many ancient cultures used to revere bears as the incarnation of the divine feminine and would celebrate the bears return from hibernation as a sign that they would be nourished with the abundance of life needed to survive. The bears taught such people the importance of balance, between activity and receptivity, hibernation and harvest, the more masculine way of doing and the more feminine way of being.”

“That’s fascinating,” Colby had replied with a sincerity that surprised him. After that, he had felt unbearably ill, and after that…After that, memory became unsettlingly fuzzy…

A chill ran down Colby’s spine. His brain was trying to make a connection that he was finding increasingly alarming. The hard ground, the steady drip of water, the furry coat… that was it. Fuzzy. Furry and fuzzy and fuzzy? Fuzzy? He was fuzzy! Colby opened his eyes and stared at the appendage that had absently moved into the vicinity of his itchy nose. With increasing terror, he counted five gleaming claws attached to padded toes which extended out of a very furry paw. As the paw slowly settled itself back onto the unforgiving ground, fear turned to horror. The paw was attached to him. What in the final recollections of his immediate past had been a human arm and hand were now a hefty bear’s limb. What on earth…

With a shutter, Colby forced himself to lumber to his feet. It was bizarre to suddenly be a quadruped – for one thing he was already missing his opposable thumbs. For another, his eyes did not register his world the way his human eyes had,. In his defense it was dark, very very dark. Where was he? Certainly not in his apartment bedroom in San Francisco, California, that was for sure. There was no sign of civilization, let alone a bed, his clothes, or any human belongings. No signs of his friends or the camp, either.

Colby tried to frown, but merely grunted with the effort of forcing his face into an expression that was apparently not typical of bears. A cave? Could he really be in a cave? As if in mocking answer, a cool musty draft wafted past him from a chink in a nearby rock. Winter, bears, cave … no! Colby froze. He couldn’t believe it. It couldn’t be, could it? The claws on his left paw tapped the ground anxiously.

Humans don’t do this, he thought furiously. Human beings don’t suddenly turn into bears who find themselves coming out of hibernation. What kind of nightmare was this?

Soon, he told himself, soon I’ll be back in my sleeping bag greeting the day with my friends, laughing and joking with them in relief about what a crazy dream I had the night before. To speed this up, he bit his lower lip, hard. That would do it, he thought, satisfied. But his efforts only resulted in a very painful tear in his lip and quite a bit of blood. No joke, he had teeth!

Seconds later, he was running, awkwardly, as fast as possible toward a small glint of light which he hoped was the entrance to the cave and to freedom. He had suddenly heard the roar of a very angry and hurt bear and it was far too close for comfort. It felt like it was right beside him. He was bolting out into a bright spring morning when it dawned on him that he had been that angry hurt bear roaring his pain at his own self-inflicted bite wound. Tentatively, he stopped and took one last look behind him. As far as his eyes could see and his nose could smell, the cave was empty.

Spring, it was spring. Confused, lost and afraid, Colby marked himself on a nearby tree and went in search of food and water. He had no idea what to do or how he’d gotten into this horrible predicament, but for now he would follow his instincts to secure necessities before engaging in any other rational deliberation. For now he only knew one terrible, gut wrenching fact: this was no dream.

The Winter Born

Sue’s Snow Stairs Photo

Every night the sisters crept from darkness, their sharp words raking the air like claws. They sang up sneering shadows, their taunting voices, cold as death. Sleepless, we cowered in corners. And then one night, they vanished, a cackling flurry down winding stairs. Their absence was all that remained.

We woke to ice on windows, glass cracking and contracting in wooden frames. Condensation dripped down frosty walls. Frigid air hung heavy … waiting. Furniture loomed slick and sheer, a solid glacial blue. A grating crunch, and we pried the door, running for the stairs … lost under thick drifts of snow.

***

For Sue’s photo prompt, The Stairs.

What Lies Beneath

She straightens slowly, having finished digging the hole in the earth. With a small gesture she wipes the dirt from her hands, glancing a final time at what remains at the bottom. It will not be like this again.

As if to greet an unseen companion, she raises a hand palm outward, only to brush the sweat from her eyes. Nothing to do now but pack the dirt in gently, a solid softness sifting from fingers to fill the gap of earth at her feet.

The last of the silty soil settles into place, and she thinks about how no one passing by will ever be aware of the life buried here. She supposes that most will be too busy grasping after the glittery things glimpsed above the ground, grabbing their attention, to ever ponder over whether anything significant might lie below their flurried doing, their hurried footsteps.

For now, this does not matter. For now she begins the waiting, the patient tending. She will return here, day after day, watering the earth, as people do with their tears. She walks home, leaving the little life to rest in peace, cradled in a cocoon of clay.

For a second, she forgets whether she has taken part in an ending, or a beginning. Does such a distinction matter, she wonders? How much of a difference is there between still living, and living, still.

One day, a little life will rise, tiny and trembling, springing into the season that bears the name of its becoming, up and up from the seed of its growing. Tomorrow, she will plant another tree.

Tara: What Might Have Been

There are memories, but they are few and far between. Scattered, broken, some fleeting pictures, some emotions which long ago imbedded themselves within an ancient segment of soul. It is June 14, 2015. Tomorrow we will go to Newgrange, then onto Tara. I’m exstatic about seeing the neolithic stones, but they have left no memorable imprint on me. Tara, on the other hand, with its alluring misted images dancing almost out of reach of conscious recognition, calls me, beckons me from far away with reasons only landscapes know. The following is a story I have woven from threadbare memories, the images and emotions are genuine, but I’ve made up the dialogue and filled in the gaps with guesswork. It is a mere reconstructed approximation of what might have been, 1800 years ago.

***

“Stay where you are!” The booming bellow from the top of the wall startles me for a moment, and I shift into a watchful wariness almost instantly, despite the fact that I’ve known that entrance into Tara would be difficult at best. I freeze.

The unforgiving winds of Samhain howl over the hill, as if it were an insignificant obstacle in the surrounding landscape. The gusts of chill drive a drizzling mist before them, a watery haze too dense to be fog, more of a suspended mass of swirling spray than a genuine rain. Far away, a low moan moves slowly through trees rooted tightly together at the edge of the forest, with its brooding mysteries obscured in darkness.

Before me, the stone wall looms, cast hard and unforgiving in the cold, inertly rising from the loam three persons high, at least five paces thick. Behind it, a ditch runs the perimeter of the hill fort, and though it is hard to make them out, several men besides the one now speaking stand sentry near and at the large imposing gates.

It bothers me that I am more easily scared than my sister. I should have considered I might need to defend myself with more than words. If it comes to that, my roan staff seems hardly appropriate, and besides, my ability to fight is less than rudimentary.

“State your intent. Why come you to Tara?” The voice comes again, hollering to be heard above the din of this dreary day.

“I serve as Bandraoi to Fionn and the people of Dun Alúine. Ailbhe rigbanfhénnid of the fourth nine, is my sister. I come at her suggestion, and the request of the high king who has summoned here the protectors of his people.”

As I speak, I stare bewildered at my challenger, whose features have suddenly coalesced out of the fog. On the ground, he would stand two hands taller than myself. I cannot see his long, golden braided hair beneath the furs pulled up to shield him from the winds. The presence of the fur cloak is the only sign he does not find me cause for concern, and he shouldn’t, of course. I recognize him instantly as one of my sister’s nine, in fact we’d just been in conversation four hours earlier. But they had all gone in before me, and I, with less standing of my own, found myself outside with the other druids and freemen, waiting my turn to pass through. I know I cannot be welcomed as a friend, even though it is oddly painful to be addressed like a stranger by a member of my adopted household. But, the high king demands formality, and to him I am as much a stranger as any other. I shiver, telling myself that this is definitely because of the cold, rather than the thought of the high king. Once again, I fail at self-deception miserably.

Despite himself, the young fénnid lets a glimmer of recognition spark in his otherwise harsh unyielding eyes. I smile up at him, then, but he has turned to shout something inaudible to an unseen space behind him. Shortly after that, I am allowed inside.

I climb the rugged dips and crannies of the hill, a flurry of activity all about me. There are people standing in groups talking excitedly, mothers comforting crying children, the hurried steps of those rushing by to seek shelter in one of the four halls surrounding the main hall of the high king. Horses stamp hooves and whinny, men and women prepare provisions for tomorrow’s feast. Commotion reigns. The expectant energy of the place palpably buzzes just below what is evident with my five senses. Overwhelmed and in awe, I stop for a while to just take it all in, the sights and the sounds, the smells—and try to imagine approaching this scene tired, hungry, and cold, a girl of merely nine years. How had my sister ever made it passed the wall? But whatever the fire in her that allowed her to journey all that way, I know it is undoubtedly that same internal flame that drives her to excellence so that she now leads a fian of her own.

My sister and I have always adored each other, and the day she slipped away in the dark to leave behind an unwanted destiny and boldly go forth to seek another was one of the most devastating days of my life. I was too young to understand, and to my mind she had simply decided she could live without me. Later I would come to understand that I had very little to do with her decision. When I decided that I, too, did not wish to return to my clan of birth, it was simply a matter of logistics to locate my sister, and apply to be the bandraoi for her community instead. For that brief time we spent together as children, she’d become more family to me than anyone else ever had.

And yet, standing on the hill of Tara, it steels on me again: that gnawing fear that I will only ever exist in the shadow of my sister, that I might never be known by my own deeds, but be tolerated in places such as this out of a duty to hospitality by proxy.

I push these uncharitable thoughts away. I know that when I am lying out in the forest near a stream, breathing in the sky, such petty thoughts don’t matter. They vanish like the smoke they are and leave only truth. I cannot let myself take such things seriously now.

Much later, when I sit in the king’s great hall with the other druids, I still can’t believe I am here. What is more, to my astonishment I find myself temporarily sitting next to Íonnach Mór, the Great Ionian himself, and the high king’s Ollamh.

“Is this your first time in the hall of Tara?” he asks, after we exchange the usual introductions. A look of warmth flickers across his face. His question unnerves me. Do I look that apparently new to kingly feasting halls? Do I seem lost? Have I acted unfavorably? I gather myself to appear far more certain and sure than I feel.

“Yes, my first,” I struggle to find a voice now suddenly shy in front of this man whom I had held in such high esteem from a distance, looking me in the eye. “I’ve been out of training for only a year,” I add, for justification, in case I’m in need of one.

“There is always a first time,” he replies without judgment, to my relief. “Who from among those you have taken up with has sponsored your being here, or have you come representing yourself?”

Still worried about betraying my ignorance by saying something wrong, I gesture toward Fionn, who, with about two thirds of the fianna, has taken up a position along one of the walls, armed and ready to defend the gathering if needed. The rest are out around the grounds.

The Ollamh’s eyes widen in surprise, then he recovers: “Very good!” He exclaims approvingly, “That is no small accomplishment, and in only a year’s time. You have certainly earned your place.”

“Thank you.” I manage, unable to find more words. There are too many emotions crowding out thoughts, and I am too unprepared for this to quiet them into stillness.

“I am glad to have met you, Mairin of Almu,” the Ollamh replies, “I hope my filid will make you most welcome. Then he stands. I am shocked at how tall he is. He rivals some of the tallest men of the fianna in height, towering above me by a head and shoulders, and then some. In fact, at least to me, he is quite imposing, all around. His long flowing black curls simply add to his striking appearance. For a moment, his piercing hazel eyes hold mine in a solemn, yet vibrant gaze.

“It is a great honor, Ollamh,” I answer sincerely, also standing.

As I take my seat again, Íonnach Mór confidently makes his way toward the center of the room. The hall is quieting down, soon we will be brought to order.

Inside, I am beaming,. Feeling more accepted and right in this place, I finally begin to relax and wonder what will happen next.

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.

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.”

The Sound of What Happens _ When Two Worlds Meet: Part III

                A few days later, Aoife went online again, but this time on a different mission.  In the search box she typed in “druid groups.”  She had been looking for a group for several years, and always came up empty handed.  In the desert there simply weren’t any groups for hours.  It would turn out, however, that now she would find what she was looking for.  She happened on a small group, called a seed group, and they were meeting in her area.  Friends, she thought excitedly.  Not only could she have a spiritual community at last, she could also make friends.  It was great to have friends in the otherworld, but she needed friends in this world as well.  And, as much as she loved her siblings, well, they were siblings.

                Eagerly, Aoife sent in her contact information and agreed to be at the next meeting in two weeks.  Elated, she decided to celebrate her find by taking a long stroll through the woods.  She grabbed her cell phone, just in case she got lost or hurt, and her keys, and stepped out into the world beyond her four walls.  It was sixty degrees out, but it was sunny and the breeze that played with wisps of her hair as she walked downstairs to the main road was soothing and kind.  It was a good mile to the heart of the woods where her spirit took refuge and loved to explore.  Aoife started out briskly, as she was suddenly filled with the sheer delight of being able to move and be a part of such a beautiful landscape.

                As she almost meditatively walked the streets of her town, oblivious to everyone around her, enjoying the wonderful day, her mind flashed back to one of the fianna’s stories she had read a few days before.  In that story, they were debating over what was the finest music in the world.  Fionn had told his friends that the greatest music was the music of what happens.  Aoife loved this immensely.  Obviously, she reflected, the whole point of being here in this world was to be a part of all that happens in it.  The joy, the crying, the laughter, the footsteps of a lost one, dreams and wanting and needing and standing your ground and arguing and learning and wondering and it just went on and on and on.  If the earth had its own music, if everyone on earth had their own song, the music of what happens would be akin to a symphony ringing out the existence of such beings as ourselves throughout the whole universe.  Sound, of course, never dissipates and moves forever.  This is one reason, Aoife knew, to always be attentive to what you say to yourself and others, because it was preserved throughout time as part of the history of this planet’s vast plethora of audible and inaudible vibration.  This was basic physics at its best.

                So as Aoife walked, she did something she rarely did: she closed her eyes and listened.  She had walked the road so many times, and the sidewalks were so predictable and safe, that for a while she simply moved through sound, let it wash over her, until she resonated with the world she passed through, until she became a part of the sound of what happens.  A crow flew overhead, cahing a warning that pierced the sky.  Chickadees chattered away in the trees.  The trees’ leaves swished in the wind.  There was the almost imperceptible sigh of roots pulling water into the trunks of their trees.  The trunks barely moved at all, but surely they made a noise when they grew.  Didn’t children have a sound of growing, as well as newly born animals, minds, love, and all things that grow?  Doves called out to one another.  The air whispered.  Aoife’s shoes crunched the leaves underfoot, lightly touched the tree roots poking up in sidewalk cracks, uniting sun and earth, just one more threshold to ponder.

                As she neared the woods, eyes still closed, she could almost hear the whispered murmurings of the creek she knew would soon be on her left, meandering along the path she always took.  The water gurgled and laughed and played, and told a secret within earshot of all who passed by, who would surely have grasped it’s meaning if they only knew its language.  The reeds that lined the creek had their own songs too, songs that the birds knew, and the birds sang them full throated and in wonder, but the people of the world could not understand or even mimic them.  The stones in the creek, undoubtedly, would have messages of their own, messages of water along smooth pebble, of pebbles among each other, of silt and sand and things swimming over them and things living in between them.  Aoife walked in awe of all this pulsing, changing, rhythm of music around her that she suddenly could experience, if not ironically, put into words.  She had stopped at the point where the woods met the road, and even the boundary had its own hum which though Aoife could not hear, she could feel.  Her body radiated with energy.  It was as if a small current was running through her blood, connecting her to the earth below her and the sky above her.  She lost her own rhythm within the motion of the landscape that filled her with a power that was strange and captivating and familiar, like a childhood home, as if she had never known and had always known the pattern it wove into her flesh-and-bone self.

                For a long time Aoife stood perfectly still, and then sensing that she needed to move on, she opened her eyes.  She allowed time for the suddenness of vision and light to once again become normality, and then proceeded on her way.  She walked for about an hour before her cell phone rang.  .  Aoife stopped, perturbed that someone was interrupting her quiet, and was even more disappointed when the call turned out to not come from someone she wanted to talk to.

                “Hello?” she asked tentatively.

                It was a pharmacist calling to inform her that her prescription that she’d requested in the mail was no longer available in the dose she needed.  Irritated, Aoife spent quite a while arguing with the pharmacist over whether she could still get the prescription in the mail.  From her remote little place in the world, the nearest pharmacy was over an hour away by car and she had better things to do.  Also, she didn’t have a car.  It was one of her ways to refrain from contributing to global warming.

                Aoife hated bureaucracies.  They were such a waste of time, and made her feel small and inadequate.  In her lifetime, Aoife had spent a lot of time advocating for others, but when it came to herself there was always a nagging fear that she didn’t deserve for things to go well.  While she was getting her PH.D., she had had experiences time and time again of her ideas being dismissed.  She barely finished what she had started because of so many voices telling her she couldn’t, and she shouldn’t, and she wasn’t good enough.  Aoife had internalized those voices.  Even though a part of her resisted their devaluation of her, another more sinister side of herself whispered into her inner ear that those people had been right and she should never have tried.

                Aoife lost to the pharmacist.  She wondered, a bit amused, why she viewed everything as a competition.  But she had wanted the prescription in the mail, and 30 minutes of transfers to this and that department including one particularly “lovely” individual who had hung up on her was definitely not an achievement.  Frustrated, Aoife decided not to finish the trail she was on and turned around to go home.  Quite unlike the journey into the forest, Aoife did not hear the sound of what happens as she retraced her steps.  Instead, she heard the sound of her anger and the despairing cry of her broken heart which was at this moment wondering if she would in fact ever have a purpose in this world.

                Aoife had decided not to pursue an academic career, and was living on savings while she looked for a job that would be of some service to others.  She had no idea what that would be though, as her college and graduate studies made her intelligent without imparting any skills that could deliver on immediate results.  Although it was irrational, Aoife felt that the confrontation with the pharmacist was just one more deciding factor in favor of her throwing a short pity party.  Perhaps she simply was not good enough, and everyone knew it, she thought.  Now she felt even worse and wanted to cry.  But she was outdoors, and wasn’t sure who in this world or the next might be by, so she didn’t act on this impulse.  She just kept walking, ignoring the beauty of the day—how could she see beauty when it was nowhere to be found in herself?—and continued on her way dejected and tired.

                “No, not like that,” a voice said softly, full of concern and conviction.

                “What?” Aoife stopped walking and looked around frantically.  Whoever spoke had taken her quite by surprise.  She was baffled even more when she saw no one.  She blinked, and then shook her head and kept walking.

                “If people who did not know how to care for themselves could wilt like a plant that had long ago ceased to obtain sustenance from life, you would make the finest example.”  The voice came again.

                Aoife stopped and sighed.  She would have to calm down so she could see whoever was talking to her.  Whoever it was, he  was willing to say whatever might get her to pay attention.  Whoever it was was decidedly not of the manifest world.  She concentrated on breathing and imagined roots sprouting out of her feet and burrowing into the earth.  She reached out underground to the trees around her, searching for connection, instinctually breaking the illusion of separation that had held her so effortlessly in its spell.  Slowly she began to center and ground herself and, albeit with a small bit of reluctance, let go of her anger and frustration and, for lack of a better word, pride.

                Finally the world she was used to came back to her.  She turned and saw a man standing a few paces behind her on the trail.  All of a sudden she recognized him, though she had only seen him once.  He was Caoilte.  She’d never spoken with him alone.

                “Hello,” she said, a bit shyly, and added, “Sorry, I almost didn’t see you.”

                “There’s no need to apologize.  You do that way too often,” Caoilte admonished, and Aoife would have protested if it hadn’t been true. 

                “You wouldn’t have come here without a reason,” Aoife replied, “What is it?”

                “Ah,” Caoilte’s eyes brightened, “I’m here to teach you how to stand tall.”  When Aoife looked puzzled, he continued, “Character is very important, and so is what you say and how you say it, but how you hold yourself, literally, in this world speaks for you before you have time to open your mouth and tell the world who you are.”

                Aoife nodded.  She was beginning to understand what he meant.  “Is that why you made the comment that I was wilting like a sorrowful dejected plant?” she asked, and couldn’t help smiling at the image.

                “Well, first off, I meant to get your attention and I succeeded in that,” Caoilte said, “But more seriously, yes—your shoulders were hunched, your head was down, you looked more often at the ground than what surrounded you.  You were screaming that you were worth nothing, deserved nothing, in how you moved, how you carried yourself in space.”

                Self-consciously, Aoife straightened her back and lifted her head, which she realized was still down even while making eye contact. 

                “Watch how I’m standing,” Caoilte directed.  At around six feet tall, Caoilte standing tall would definitely cause anyone to take notice.  He looked assertive and self-assured, without coming across as intimidating, though Aoife knew she had a tendency to not even consider the possibility of being intimidated by someone in situations where other people would feel quite differently.  Aoife tried to mimic him.  She stood straight while appearing relaxed and self-assured.  She did not actually feel self-assured, just attempted to look like it.  But as she did this something strange happened, at least it was strange to her.  She began to actually feel more confident.  The idea that she didn’t deserve good or that she wasn’t good enough was beginning to sound ridiculous.

                “Yes, like that!” Caoilte exclaimed excitedly, answering the question in Aoife’s eyes.  “Okay, now I’ll show you how to walk tall.”

                Grinning like a child who had just been told he could go out to play, Caoilte started off down the trail.  But not, Aoife observed with relief, any faster than she was comfortable moving.  She was sure that some semblance of Caoilte’s legendary speed was true and knew he’d be able to outdistance her without any effort (even if she won the 100 yard dash as a ten year old.)

                “The first thing to understand is that it’s never productive to compare yourself with others,” Caoilte was saying.

                Aoife wondered if he could read her mind.  That would be actually frightening, she thought.  “How did you know what I was thinking,” she asked.  She had to know.

                “I watched how you moved,” Caoilte explained.  “You were walking a lot faster than you were earlier and you went back to your closed off small less than look again,” he continued, “It’s true that I’m faster than you.  I’m faster than most people who have ever lived.  Why should that make you less of a person?  You’re not living in the time in which I lived, and you don’t have the responsibilities I had.  You’ve learned things I’ll never know about.  You didn’t learn to be a runner, but you had no reason to.  You didn’t even want to.  That is an acceptable and worthy preference to have.  Running was not just a necessity for me, it was what my entire being yearned for.  Besides, it would be impractical for you to try to run as fast as I can, and being me is already taken.  It’s absurd to try to imitate me, or your perception of me.  The world and I need you to be yourself.  Only yourself.”

                “But I’ve always been told I am slow,” Aoife interrupted, the words appearing in the world before she had time to sensor them.  This time, she was aware when her body started crumbling in on itself trying to stamp her out, as if she was a bad little thing for wanting to take up space.  With great concentration, she corrected her posture so that she was standing tall, now despite herself.

                When Aoife was two, she had been in the car with her mom when they slipped on a patch of ice and skidded off road.  The car had flipped over.  Her mother was hurt but not severely.  Onlookers said that the large section of glass from the windshield that they found shredded and fractured like a thousand glittering tears covering the toddler’s head, had missed her mother by only a sliver of distance.  Mother and toddler were whisked to the emergency room, and the toddler fell unconscious on arrival. 

                “Will she live?” the desperate mother asked the white coated doctor hovering over her once she was allowed to hold her little girl.  For a week, it had seemed that the child wasn’t long for this world.  The force of the crash caused several pieces of glass to lodge in the child’s skull.  If she would live at all, she was bound to have brain injuries, and the longer she remained comatose, the worse her prognosis for survival would be.

                “She’s going to make it.” The doctor gently put his hand on the weeping mother’s shoulder.  “You have a strong, vibrant little girl.  Her will to live is stronger than her desire to return to the world beyond this world.  Just continue to hold her and love her.”  And although the mother tried to find the doctor to thank him for the faith and hope he had helped her rekindle in her grieving heart, so she could share with him how right he was once her girl came back into herself and smiled, she never found him, or anyone who knew of him.

                Aoife did recover, perhaps miraculously from the trauma that had so suddenly plastered a question mark over the tenuous existence of her little life.  However, she did not recover unscathed.  She often suffered from sensory overload and would get migraines if there were too many lights flashing, or if a leaf blower and a train tried to have a noise contest outside her window.  She had an incredibly horrid sense of direction and had, she recalled with a sense of shame, even gotten lost in her living room.  She also literally could not multitask, perform complex math problems, or easily coordinate simple motor tasks like tying her shoes without overtly thinking about it.  Her family must have had reasons, Aoife knew, but even so it always hurt to hear one of them remark on how slow she was.  Such remarks seemed to only increase with her age, or perhaps it was just that she was old enough to really listen to her family’s estimations of her.  At first Aoife had thought their comments were intended to lovingly make her aware of things she needed to work on, so she could assimilate into her culture and not be ostracized more than she already was.   When the accusations did not stop when she reached adulthood, however, they began to take a toll on her self-esteem that she could only now begin to acknowledge.

                No wonder she felt like she had to compare herself with everyone, even someone like Caoilte who “everyone else” could never compete with if they tried.   Her whole life, or perhaps more accurately, much of her childhood, was spent putting energy into becoming like everyone else.  Whoever this everyone else was, Aoife never measured up to them.  When occasionally she indeed did do something better than everyone else, such as get the highest grade in the class, her parents would congratulate her, but such circumstances never seemed to make up for what she could not do.  Aoife had started to internalize the message that she was never good enough, that in order to make up for what she lacked she must try endlessly to do more, more, more.  There was always a better, more normal, and definitely faster way.  She came to believe that the only antidote to her imperfections due to her accident was perfection.  It was an inevitability that she would fail, every single time, at being perfect. 

                Caoilte was looking at Aoife sympathetically.  “It is not right that others would tell you that,” he began, “Perhaps you don’t fit the measure of excellence that they prescribed for you regardless of whether it was warranted.  Perhaps they don’t feel good enough, and it is safer to make it your problem.”

                “I don’t know.  I’ll have to think on that awhile.” Aoife answered honestly.  “I could walk tall if I was good enough, but I don’t always meet my own standards.”  She hated admitting this, but somehow the fact that she was speaking to someone in another world made her less guarded. 

                Caoilte changed from his interested curiosity look to his less frequent grave and serious look.  “I certainly have not met my own standards in the past, either.” He said.  “I have worked through this, but even I have made terrible mistakes, mistakes that have cost many many lives, and there are things I did that I died regretting.”

                Aoife was baffled.  She found it hard to believe that someone whose deeds , whether real, exaggerated, or imaginary, had been celebrated for over a millennium would have not lived up to his own standards.  Caoilte must have seen the disbelief on her face because he added, “You’ll have to believe me because honesty is one of the few standards I have met excellently without fail.  I have never spoken falsely.”

                Aoife nodded solemnly.  It would be interesting, she thought, to see just how many painful yet pervasive beliefs about herself she would be forced to let go of because she was told they were false by some of the most honest people who had ever lived.  On that point, this was just the beginning.

                “Why worry about being fast?” Caoilte wondered aloud.  “Life isn’t a race.  What’s the hurry for you?  Those people who say you’re too slow are afraid.  It’s true.  It takes courage to meet the world slowly.  Next time someone tells you that you’re slow, really contemplate how that person lives her life.  Such people have an opposite difficulty: they don’t know how to slow down.  Have you ever thought of what a disadvantage on someone it is to be incapable of doing one thing at a time,  or to literally be unable to wind down long enough to appreciate what they have, count their blessings, hear their own thoughts, or listen to the voice of their soul?”

                Aoife was astonished.  She had never thought of her limitations of being any more than just that, limits, problems, defects.  Suddenly there was another perspective to consider.  It was a perspective that, as a matter of fact had never crossed her mind until Caoilte pointed it out to her.  But now that he had, a tiny flicker of hope, and something like joy, overtook her.  Could she allow herself to feel this way, she wondered.  Yet there it was, permission to just be herself in this respect without apologizing to people, without having to hide, without having to carry around the burden of believing she was less than everyone she met because of something that wasn’t her fault,  that was completely out of her control…something that might even be a gift.  There was a flicker of a suspicion that a better person wouldn’t have needed permission, but she told that part of herself which realm of Dante’s inferno it could take a hike to.  After all, in the ugly duckling story, the “duck” didn’t learn he was beautiful until he saw a swan with which he could compare his reflection.  A person who is told all her life that she is “just a woman” and so can’t follow her dream of becoming an astronaut won’t usually believe otherwise unless someone tells, or better shows her otherwise.  Those who achieve great things without guidance from anyone are (often retrospectively) deemed heroes or geniuses.

“Thank you,”  she whispered.

                They had left the forest and were walking along the road now.  The sun was slowly making its way westward across the sky.  Aoife guessed it was around four in the afternoon, but couldn’t be sure.  She was standing, and walking tall now.  She was already beginning to appreciate this way of holding herself in the world.  She could take up space, she could have a voice in the world, she could share and participate in what went on around her, because she was already here, because to be here was her right.  This had nothing to do with being arrogant or holier than thou or falsely coming across as greater than anyone.  It was simply the way a person literally embodies the truth that she is, and never has been, less than anyone.  For Aoife, it was the first time she took the idea that she was enough, good enough, seriously.

                “You won’t always feel like standing tall,” Caoilte said, breaking into her thoughts.  “The important thing is to stand tall whether you feel strong or afraid, whether you believe at the moment that you are good enough or start to worry that you are inadequate.  If you meet someone while feeling unworthy, your standing tall will show the other person that you will back yourself up, that you believe in who you are, and you are someone worthy of consideration and respect, someone who has things to say and valuable contributions to make.  Then, while you literally demonstrate how you take ownership of all you do and are the one to account for yourself, you can get your thoughts together and dispel any beliefs that are vying for you to think otherwise.”

                “I understand,” Aoife said excitedly.  “And I suppose it gets easier, the more you practice.”

                “Exactly!” Caoilte beamed at her. 

                At that moment, Aoife’s cell phone rang again.  She froze, terrified that the glaring this-worldly intrusion would break their connection and that she’d be alone, before the conversation was over.  She said, “Don’t worry, I’m not going to answer that.  I should never have brought it with me on the walk in the first place.”

                In response, Aoife was in for two further startling occurrences.  First, she was relieved to find that, after the ringing ceased, Caoilte was still there.  He had stopped a few paces ahead of her on the sidewalk, and had turned to face her.  Secondly, as impossible as it might seem, he had changed from standing tall to appearing rather shy and uncertain.  Aoife blinked.  The sight was actually unnerving.  “What is it,” she asked cautiously.

                Caoilte looked as though he was conflicted over how to proceed.  In truth, his curiosity was threatening to overwhelm him.  He managed to show a completely unconvincing amount of restraint while his eyes went wide and a grin spread across his face, “Can you show me how it works?”

                Aoife laughed.  If he had been of this world, she imagined he would have perhaps, if no one was looking, actually jumped up and down with joy.  His pure wonder at the world, as if, at every moment, he saw it anew through the eyes of a child, was wondrous, perhaps even awe inspiring.  “Sure,” Aoife said, with an equally big smile, this time actually embodied on a face.  She pulled out the cell phone and showed Caoilte how the buttons worked, how to call someone, explained about texting, and how the screen responded to taps of your fingers so you could communicate with someone hours, even countries away.  Caoilte didn’t understand how you could talk to someone without having a visible connection between you and the other person.  In the end, Aoife settled on an analogy that it was similar to the two of them speaking to each other even though they were separated by an entire world.  It was not at all the same, but it was the best she could do.

                “So how does the signal get sent across to the other person?  How can something so small do so many things?  How does it do what you want it to do?”  Admittedly, most otherworld people were not this fascinated with manifest world gadgets, and even were wary of them, but Caoilte had always been fascinated by how things worked.  He surmised that had he lived in this time period, he would have liked to build things.  He would certainly have tried to learn everything there was to know, if that was possible.

                Aoife was sorry that she would have to disappoint him, “I don’t know how the phone is actually built.” she said finally.  “I can give you some very rough details, but I don’t know more than that.  And I can tell that you’re as fast at learning as at running, and you’ll out question me in less than a minute.”

                Caoilte nodded.  “It’s of no matter.  You’ve already told me more than I’ve ever gotten to learn before.”

                He was harder to see now, Aoife noticed.  It takes a great deal of energy for someone in the other world to manifest with an image of themselves in this world, and Caoilte had kept up an image in this world longer than any otherworld person she knew.  He must have been thinking something similar because he said, “I can’t stay now.  I need to go back to my own world, and rest.”

                “I know,” Aoife replied, but she held up her hand, then, to gesture that she hoped he’d stay a moment longer.  “I just wanted to thank you again before you left,” she said.

                “Think nothing of it,” Caoilte replied, “You have all you need within yourself.  We are simply sharing with you, in a way you can understand, what your spirit already knows.  That you are already whole, that you lack nothing.”  Then, just before disappearing he added, with light dancing in his eyes, “If you want, purely just for fun at another time, I’ll run with you.”

                “I would be delighted, son of Ronan.” Aoife responded, and she thought she now could discern another sound of what happens.  It was the sound worlds make when they intertwine and then fold back into themselves.  Aoife thought long about this, and about the importance of standing tall, all the way back to her apartment and into the remainder of the day.  That night, she fell asleep to the sound of darkness enfolding the world in its arms.

For a version of the story of Fionn Mac Cumhaill and the music of what happens, click here:

http://siblingofdaedalus.wordpress.com/2013/01/20/the-music-of-what-happens/.

Watch a tribute to the music of what happens in action.
“The Music of What Happens” – RTÉ – Big Music Week 2010