An Excerpt from My Novel: The Keeper’s House, Chapter 37

The-Mermaid

Synopsis: The Keeper’s House is based on the Celtic myth that beneath their skins, seals are a beautiful lost race of humans called the Selchie (or Selkie).  See The Story of the Queen and the Selchie for my own take on this myth. In previous chapters, sixteen year old Nula O’Malley’s solitary life on Lighthouse Island takes a surprising turn when she develops a budding romance with her only friend Sam. When Sam is lost at sea, Nula uses her hidden seal skin to find him, a choice that will leave her permanently tied to the life of a Selchie. During her journey to save Sam, Nula meets Baruch, who is also a creature from Celtic myth. Baruch is a Fin, powerful sorcerers and shape shifters (and supposedly quite alluring to human women).  I’ve imagined the Fin as angels of the sea, with fins like wings on their backs. These two romantic interests represent Nula’s choice between the familiar world of the lighthouse and the lure to discover the mysterious world beneath the waves…although neither can offer her true destiny…the story only she can tell…

“Didn’t he ever think it would have been better if he never met Maria, and neither of them had been hurt?” I thought of how much easier it would be to step back in the ocean if there was no one to leave behind.

Mother smiled. “I don’t know about that. I can tell you that among the seal folk, we do not say ‘falling in love’. We say ‘learning to swim’ because love is like finding the warmth in a current that points you toward your destination.” Mother reached out and tucked a section of my hair behind my ear. A simple gesture, but it brought me warmth.

“When your Sam was in my arms that day I named him, I was pregnant with you. I saw him the way you would. I felt it in my heart that you two would teach each other to swim.”

“I don’t know that Sam loves me.”

“There is one way to find out, but it is frightening. It might be even harder than the journey you just faced.”

“You mean I have to tell him how I feel.”

“…or accept that you may never really know. And then there’s Baruch.”

“Baruch is different. He really did teach me how to swim. I’d like to find out what he truly means to me, but, what am I offering either of them really? I can’t even know that yet.”

“Oh, Nula, there you have your current, right in that question.” She stood up. I knew she would leave. I didn’t want her to, but I could not say it. “You should go home now. Tell your father I will see him soon. Tell him I could not be more proud of you, and I will never be far. I love you, Nula. Never waste a chance to say those words.”

She dove into the water, and I watched her, nothing more than a shadow beneath the moonlit waves. I followed her shadow until it disappeared, and I was alone.

I walked back to the keeper’s house. The beacon pulsed as always, one long, two short, one long. I felt torn, anxious to see Da and know Sam was safe but hesitant and shy to present myself so transformed in front of them. How would I tell them I might choose a path that took me away from them? I stood at the top of the wood steps to the little beach, lingered under the moon and listened to the ocean’s gentle lullaby.

I closed my eyes and felt him out on the waves.

Baruch.

I was happy to see him and have him as an excuse to stay out in the night a bit longer before I faced my family. I ran down to the beach but stopped short of the water, uncertain what might happen if I were to cross that line. Baruch stood in a bright silver boat that he steered with a long, silver staff. He floated across the surface like a twin of the luminous moon, and the sea lifted him from shoulder to shoulder until the boat rested on the beach before me. Baruch leapt onto the sand. He carried a bow and a pack of arrows strapped to his back.

“You look like a Selchie,” he said. His face was as fierce and unreadable as always.

“Maybe. I doubt it will be as easy as that.” I shrugged and the movement sent fire hot pain from the wound in my shoulder. I clenched my jaw to keep myself from crying out.

“It rarely is.” I saw him read the pain in my face. He lifted my sealskin cloak and let it fall behind my shoulders.

“My goodness Nula, what happened to you?”

“Ach, don’t touch it! You’ll make me see black again.”

“It looks like a bite.” He ran his thumb along the edge of it.

“It is a bite.”

“What bit you?”

“Myself. It’s my own bite.”

He tilted his head.

“I had to improvise,” I groaned. “Now, please stop touching it. The pain takes my breath away.”

“Brave girl.” There was almost a gentleness and awe to the way he said it.

Baruch leaned forward and held my shoulder steady in the palm of his hand.

“You’re hurting me awful,” I cried.

He didn’t answer. Instead, he blew against my wound. His familiar warm tingle moved down my arm. The pain was worse at first, but then it tumbled away on the force of his breath.

He stood. “You’ll have a scar.”

I looked down at the circle of angry red puncture wounds. “Oh, it is going to be ugly.”

“No.” Baruch took me by the shoulders again, but this time there was no pain to it. He angled me into the moonlight. “I like your scar best of all of you. It’s a part of your story.”

We stood in an awkward silence under the moon.

“Thank you for coming here tonight, Baruch. You are a good friend.”

“I am your friend, but I didn’t just come here to see you safely home. I came because I need your help.”

“My help?”

Baruch took my arm and led me down to the boat. I stood on tip toe and peered inside, careful to keep my feet safe of the water.

And there lay Mrs. O’Malley. Not the young, copper haired woman I’d seen in Tir na Nog, but the old one I’d always known. Her gray braids tumbled over her usual faded and patched brown dress. Her hands were folded over her chest, and she had a silver coin over each eye. She was still and radiant…

I’d never seen a human death before. Only the goats and chickens. I’d never felt the cool emptiness that hung all around what was once Mrs. O’Malley. I sat back on my heels and pressed my forehead against the cool metal of the boat.

“I found her like this,” Baruch said.

“I’m sorry.” I lifted my head. “You must be very sad.”

“For myself, I suppose I am. For Mother…she had such high hopes for the world beyond this one. I wonder if she will find what she is looking for.”

“You mean Erinan. Your father.”

Baruch looked out over the water. “Yes.” He put his hand on the ornate silver dragon that wound its way up the prow of the boat. “I wanted to give her a proper funeral. The kind that would have meaning to her. I couldn’t think of anywhere else to go, or of anyone else who could appreciate what it meant and stand beside me.”

“Yes. I do know what it means.”

“I couldn’t think of anyone else I wanted to stand beside me.” Before I could answer, he turned away and gave the boat a shove. It shot out into the sea and cut through the thick surf as if it were pushed by a thousand hands. It drifted away from us beyond the waves to the open water.

Baruch pulled out an arrow, fitted it into the bow and pointed it toward the sky. When he pulled back on the bowstring, the tip of the arrow caught fire and arced across the night. It fell like a whisper into the boat.

There was a moment when nothing happened, and then the flame took hold and blazed to life. The fire rose up and reached orange and red arms out to the night like a prayer.

Baruch opened his arms wide and called out over the waves.

Open your eyes

Find me in the wild ocean

Find me in the burning flame

Unravel me and spread me across the sky

Like a string of stars

The horizon swallowed the boat and the flame little by little until all was silver and peace again.

“That was beautiful,” I whispered. “Thank you for coming tonight.”

“You already said that.”

“Now I mean it more than twofold. Thank you.”

Baruch looked up toward the keeper’s house. “I am sure you are anxious to see your family…and Sam.”

Da and Sam did tug at the back of my mind, but I was also disappointed that the moment I’d just shared with Baruch was gone. “Baruch…”

He put up a hand. “I need to say something that you might find biased coming from me. I offer it up for consideration because I think it is for your own happiness. Sam might love you, but how long could he be happy on this island? He has his destiny as much as you have yours. Would you really risk so much to bring him out of the water, just to offer him a life by the sea? And if you left the sea entirely… went away with him… what would become of you? Would you be the girl he knows right now?”

“I was thinking…well…what if…”

Baruch stuck his raised hand in front of me. “Here, Nula,” he said quickly, “let’s shake hands as friends.”

“You are going to shake my hand and leave?” I asked, but I had wanted so much more from our parting.

“That is what human friends do when they part, is it not?”

“I wouldn’t know.” I put my hand in his. The usual current of warmth moved between us and I knew, now that I’d experienced Tir na Nog and the magic of the sea, that there was more between us than that. Baruch must have felt it too, because he pulled me toward him, wrapped his arms around me and held me close against his chest. He smelled of the sea and the air but also of the sweet flowers and rich soil of Tir na Nog. It was familiar and mysterious all at the same time. We stood there, the two of us, leaned against one another as the sky grew dusky with morning and the world turned toward goodbye.

“When I first saw you…” Baruch paused.  “When we first met, I felt right away that there was something kindred between us. In the beginning, I wanted you so badly, I’d have done anything, said anything, behaved any way that would allow me to possess you. Yet every time I came close to your body and your time, I’d inexplicably stop myself.”

“Because it isn’t really what you want…”

“Oh, no. I want both of those things very much. Desperately sometimes, but there is something I want even more.” He pulled away and put his hand on my chest. “I want more than one small piece of your heart. I wish for you to know with complete certainty that I am the one for you. I don’t know if I deserve it, but I wish it.”

“You do deserve that.” I knew as I said it that it meant I was nowhere near ready to discover the other side of his kiss.

He stepped away from me but held my gaze. The energy of our embrace still hummed between us.

“Aren’t you going to say you hope I find the story only I was meant to tell?” I asked.

“You’ve learned a great deal about the ways of the sea folk, but no, I will not wish that for you. I don’t have to wish. I know you will find your story.”

“Then can I say that I hope that our stories will lead us to the same place at the same time again someday?”

“Maybe someday,” he said, and there was almost a smile in it, “we will meet in Tir na Nog.”

“What will you say to me when you see me there?”

“I don’t know. What does a human man say when he wishes to court a woman?”

“Now that…I really have no idea.” I laughed uncomfortably.

“Well, then maybe I will just say, ‘Are you that Nula?’”

I laughed again, but this time it felt deep and real. “Do you really know so many Nulas?”

“That isn’t what I would mean,” Baruch shrugged. “Good bye.” He started to wrap his fins around himself.

“Baruch, wait…”

He let his fins fall.

“My answer is yes. I am that Nula. I always will be.”

“I know.”

I put my palm against Baruch’s cheek. He spread his fins wide. The light grew brighter all around him, it engulfed him, and he was gone.

Part One: The Story of the Birth of the King of Pirates

The midwife hurried through a cold, foggy night. She came with an empty stomach, because a family who lived in the sailors’ district could hardly be expected to offer more than dinner as payment. She would roll her eyes, say she could think better with food in her belly, and food she would get. It was always better when there were already children in the house with older girls who could tend to a good meal, but it would have to do.
It will have to do, she mumbled to herself as she knocked at the door. A woman’s shrill cry cut the thick air. The midwife pushed the door open. It looked like dinner would have to wait.
An old sailor, sea-battered and red faced, held his young wife around the shoulders. He wore a red coat and she was in a white nightgown. It seemed to the midwife more like a murder scene than a birth.
“What are you doing to that poor girl,” the midwife cried.
“She will not stay in the bed. She says she wants to have the baby in the waves.”
The midwife looked out the tiny cottage window. Beyond were the cliffs, and the sea below. None of that could be seen through the fog. The midwife shook her head. “She will catch her death down there. And people would talk.”
The young woman moaned.
“Don’t worry love,” said the midwife. She stepped forward into the firelight. The mother to be was hardly more than a child. “We will not take you to the sea,” she whispered to the girl, “but there cannot be anything wrong with bringing a bit of the sea to you.” She turned to the husband. “Take a bucket down to the beach and fill it with water.”
“She will flee if I let her go.”
“She will die if she tries to fight you and birth at the same time.” The midwife looked the girl in the eye. “Will you stay if we bring you a bit of the sea?” The girl’s shoulders sagged. She nodded once, very slowly.
It was not the way things were done, the midwife thought, but if it settled the mother and gave the husband something to do…what could it hurt?
What could it hurt?
It was a quick and easy birth after that. The mother delivered a beautiful baby boy with jet black hair.
“He looks just like you,” the midwife cooed as she laid the babe on his mother’s chest.
“That is what I was afraid of.” The mother sighed.
“You are young, with a good birth and a healthy baby. There is nothing in the world to be afraid of.”
The mother sighed again.
The midwife sent the husband out to register the new child at the church while she tidied the room and waited for the afterbirth. She waited and waited, but nothing came.
“Maybe he is human after all,” the new mother murmured as she stroked the baby’s cheek.
“Of course he is a human baby,” the midwife tisked. A tired new mother might say strange things now and then, the midwife assured herself.
The mother jerked forward. The baby cried. The midwife took up the mess.
Except it was not a mess at all. It was a skin, soft and sleek and as silver as the moon. This was not right. Not right at all. The midwife took it to the fire. It was an unnatural thing, and it would be better to destroy it. She threw it on top of the flames.
“It cannot be destroyed,” the mother groaned from the bed. “Take it out with the tongs and drop it in the bucket of sea water. When you leave here, take it with you. Throw it over the cliffs, out into the waves.”
The midwife stood her ground. She crossed her arms and left the thing in the flames, but the mother was right, it did not catch fire.
“You should do as I say.” The mother’s voice was stronger this time, and carried an authority that belied her years. “There will be bad luck if you do not, for you and for your men. There are unseen things out beyond the waves that can take the fish from the nets. They can empty the cages. You do not want to be responsible.”
Oh, how the midwife wished she had never come to that house. She did not want their dinner. She did not want anything to do with these otherworldly things. Things one heard about in whispers. Things that lurked in fog and foam. She pulled the mass of silver from the flames, dropped it in the bucket and ran to the cliffs as fast as she could. She flung it far into the water. She made the sign of the cross. She made the pagan sign against the evil eye, the one her grandmother used to make. She tried to remove the notion from her mind of that beautiful baby boy with the jet black hair.
The next morning the fog lifted. It was unusually bright and sunny. The midwife looked out her window. She saw the husband in his bright, red coat walk down to the docks. He stepped onto a ship. He wore something strapped to his back. That something was topped with a tuft of jet black hair. The mother was nowhere to be seen.
Again, the midwife could not stop thinking of that boy. He would need praying for, if anyone ever did. The midwife went to the church and asked the priest to open the large dusty ledger that recorded all births and deaths. She told him to point to the name he had added the day before, and then to read that name. The priest lifted his thick finger from the spot. He read the name.
“Samuel.”

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