Grandmother knelt in front of her loom by the fire. Her fingers danced across the strings like a harpist. A beautiful pattern grew into a tapestry from nothing more than the tidy balls of colorful yarn beside her. She came to the end of a white strand and worked in a thread of black until I couldn’t see where one began and the other ended.
A log caved in two, and the orange flames of the fire leapt higher. The light caught the age marks of my grandmother’s hands. I turned away to look out the window. Was my life destined to be like her life…endless work until I was too old to wonder anymore?
Her house perched on the ridge of a mountain as solitary and stubborn as she was. Only the moon could climb higher than grandmother’s house, and that night it hung silver and round and pregnant with possibilities. Below the window was a thick forest of evergreen trees and beyond that a bog. The bog was usually wrapped in a thick mist, but that night everything was clear. The land lay barren and unprotected, vulnerable as a secret in an open palm. I thought if I were a decent sort of person I’d look away, but I couldn’t.
On that night, in that brazen circle of moonlight, a woman appeared from the forest and into the bog with her hair wild and silver in the wind. Two wolves loped behind her. One was white and the other black. If they followed her or chased her, I couldn’t tell. The wolves stopped at the edge of the tree line and took up a fight. The woman dropped to her hands and knees and clawed the dark earth with the her bare hands. The wolves rolled and bit until they fell into the bog in a patch of black and white as seamless as grandmother’s weaving. The woman took no notice. She left the hole she’d dug and crawled forward to start another.
“Who is she?” I whispered.
“Ach,” Grandmother kept her weaving in and out in steady rhythm. “The moon is full and you’ve grown old enough to see the world as it truly is. I’ll wager you’ve caught your first glimpse of the bog woman.”
“Where does she come from?”
The wind moaned. The wolves howled. I felt the chill of the night move across my skin.
Grandmother took a ball of yarn from floor and weighed it in her withered hand. The yarn was as dark and rich as the peat soil of the bog. “That answer is buried in the past, all the way down to the first women who ever lived and loved and wished she was better than she’d been.”
“What is she doing?” I asked.
Grandmother cut her dark yarn and took up a line of red.“Long ago, my grandmother told me the bog woman used to meet a man out there at the edge of the forest. It has always been a clandestine spot. When he was young, that man had found a bag of gold on a bench in the courtyard of the market. It had a name on it, but instead of finding the owner, he concealed it in his pocket. On his way home, he saw the hat maker. A hat! He’d never bought a hat before. He’d never needed one.
“The thrill of the purchase made the trees greener, the sky bluer. For a moment in time, he was full of a power he’d never known before. He told the hat maker that his father had sent him to pick it out, because he would need it for a journey they would take together. He wasn’t going anywhere with his father, of course. In fact, the hat would never be any use to him at all. If he ever wore it, his parents would know he hadn’t come by it honestly. When he got home, he hid it under his bed.
“That silly, stolen hat tormented him. Every time there was a knock at the door, he was sure it was the owner of the gold come to tell his parents what he’d done. The shame of his parents knowing his wrong doing frightened him where the theft had not. He buried the hat and the empty bag in the bog like dead men. Even when it was lost in the earth, he feared the owner of the bag would find him and give him away. He’d not minded being a thief, but he couldn’t stand to be known as one.”
Grandmother ran the shuttle through her tapestry. “Of course one day the man left the woman in the bog too. He married a wealthy girl and never returned, but a stolen heart can’t be left behind as easily as a hat. Whatever became of the man, I’m sure he met his fate. The woman stayed in the bog ever since, digging for the lost burdens of someone else’s shame. While she digs, her wolves fight untended.”
“Are those wolves good or evil?” I asked. They both looked wild and dangerous.
“Neither. Everyone lives with their own two wolves, but the rest of us keep them hidden inside. One wolf is called Forgiveness.The other is Fear. Our wolves must fight to the death.”
The woman was bent and old and desperate, but I still saw the beauty in her. If she could find solace from such a battle, certainly I could too.
“Which wolf will win?” I asked.
“That’s her choice. “Grandmother tied a knot at the end of her work. “It will depend on which wolf she feeds.”
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.
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.”
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.
He let his fins fall.
“My answer is yes. I am that Nula. I always will be.”
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.
Long ago, the greatness of a warrior was measured by the strength of his adversaries. In all the known lands, the children of the Lochlann king were by far the best fighters. There were eight of them, four boys and four girls, all of them beautiful to behold with their fair skin, dark hair and wide, brown eyes.
At that time, and in that place, the mothers were responsible for training their children in combat, and the Lochlann queen was an unrivaled teacher. Each of her children held a special gift in endurance, strength, speed, grace and many other qualities beside, so that a band of eight of them might defeat a whole army. As they grew, they became the target of many who wished to be remembered in the songs for their bravery.
But the children were still quite young when their mother was laid to rest on a great flaming ship sent out to sea, as was befitting such a queen. She had been as beautiful and strong as the children she bore, and when she died the King had no eye for a woman for many years. In the end, it was his own children who persuaded him to search for someone to fill his loneliness. He left half-heartedly, but returned with a renewed glow in his eyes and a beautiful wife. Although still very young, she was already a widow left frail from the disease that had killed her first husband.
It was not hard for the new wife to take the children into her heart as if they were her own. She loved the king dearly and his children were an extension of that love. But there was always a distance between them, because the children saw no strength or bravery in the new queen.
Even with their differences, the family might have found contentment if a great force had not gathered to attack Lochlann. The Lochlannach, each and every one, prepared for the upcoming fight. The fragile queen was the only one unfit for battle, and the king was uncertain how best to protect her. At last he decided to send her to a remote cave in the cliffs high above the sea. He trusted only his own children to act as her guards. The children did know all the love and happiness the new queen had given to their father, and for this they cared for her, but they cried out and rebelled against being left out of the clash. Surely the Lachlannach could defeat anyone before they came so far as such a remote cave.
The queen also fought the plan. If the invaders were able to cross to her, it would mean her husband must be dead. How could he let her live a second time as a widow? She called attention to the fact that her life in the hands of the enemy might be far worse than death. But her husband would not be swayed from his plans. He did not have the heart to lose another wife.
When she saw her persuasions had failed, the queen contrived a plan of her own. The Lochlannach did not understand that courage is not only found in battle. One day, as she walked among a group of rocks exposed at low tide, she spotted one of the Finnfolk who are powerful magicians and shape shifters. This Finn looked young, which might have deceived her. Even a young Finn has been around a long time by human standards. They are not immortals, but because they make their homes in the Otherworld, they do not age at an Earthly speed. This Finn had assumed the shape of a man, with his head and torso in human form, but his lower half he had shaped into a thin pointed boat.
Not many humans would call out to a Finn, especially a woman alone, for the Finn men are known as powerful seducers. The queen called out to him because she also knew they were gifted in sorcery. If the queen could learn his secrets, she might contribute to her new family even if she was physically weak. And so she called out to him until he turned to her. Once he saw her, he was beside her before she could blink an eye. The Finn are powerful oarsmen.
The queen pulled three silver pieces from a purse she carried at her hip and held them out for the Finn to see. Finn folk have a great weakness for silver and can’t resist it.
“Three silver coins for three magical secrets,” she said.
The Finn had a dilemma. What did he wish for more, the beautiful human or her silver?
“Lie down with me here on the rocks, he offered, “and that will be all the magic a human would need for her lifetime.”
The queen kept her hand out and made her bid again. Three silver coins for three magical secrets. The Finn stroked at his chin.
“Are you aware that my magic will be considered dark arts in your world?”
The queen nodded her head.
“Don’t you believe your soul will be tarnished? And to what purpose? For children who hardly notice you?”
The Finn folk are mind readers. They understand thoughts better than emotions. He searched for the queen’s weakness in the hope that he might attain both her and the coins. But the queen was not swayed.
“Three silver coins for three magical secrets.”
Too fast for human eyes, the Finn snatched the silver from the queen’s hand and took hold of her face. He blew a magic breath into her as they plunged into the sea. They dove deep into the black water far from the sun and the air. The queen thought she was stolen for sure and would never see the surface again.
But the Finn kept to the queen’s bargain. He took her to a place where she might learn from him for more than a year, while in her own world only minutes had passed. When the queen reappeared on the shore, she was, by mere human standards, a powerful sorceress in her own right.
She returned with eyes that radiated bright understanding of our true world. The king, too smitten with her, was blind to the change. His children noticed, and they shivered whenever they were near her. They tried to warn their father that their stepmother was different, but he would not listen.
The day came for the queen to hide in the remote cave with her stepchildren as her defenders. Before she left, she put a spell over the king that would make him untouchable in battle. She told him it was just a small prayer she had brought with her from her own land, but it was really something much more powerful. She left with confidence that she would see her husband again. From the far-away cave, children and stepmother waited out the uncomfortable silence. For three days they watched their army as it camped unmolested below them.
It was daybreak on the fourth day when the attackers swarmed, but it was not the camp they sought. The enemy had arrived on the other side of the rock, hidden from the view of the Lochlann army. They had not come to do battle with the people of Lochlann; they had come for the king’s children.
The Lochlannoch children formed a circle around the queen. Soon she was surrounded by the cries of battle, the crash of metal, the smell of blood and sweat and fear. She formed her own circle of enchantment around her family and held it as long as her mind would allow.
The children fought well. The floor of the cave could not be seen beneath the bodies of fallen warriors, yet more lined up to meet the children in combat. The queen felt the strength of her magic begin to fade, and though they were not injured, the children were spent from the fight. She raised her arms and, in front of all who were present, she began to chant a powerful spell. The winds swirled and the waves smashed against the rock. The warriors dropped their swords to their sides, and the fighting stopped as they watched her. After a time, the seas became calm and stretched smooth as the best woven fabric. The queen opened her eyes and looked to her stepchildren.
“Make haste for the sea,” she commanded them. “I have cast a great spell that will allow you to hide deep in the ocean, as strong and swift and courageous in the water as you have been on the land. If your captors wish to follow you, they will drown in the attempt.”
The children knew they could fight no longer. They clambered down the rocks with their approaching captors at their heels. As soon as the feet of the children hit the sea, they cried out in pain, but they did not stop. By the time they were neck deep in the waves, their human forms were gone and in their place the heads of seals bobbed up and down in the waves. Some of the enemy did attempt to catch them, but each one who tried was pulled under by the powerful current. Many were more prudent. They did not give chase as the children ran to the sea. Instead, they turned their swords on the queen. In her haste she had protected everyone in her family but herself.
She knew she could not defend herself and return the children to their human form at the same time. Even if she did turn them human again, who would protect them until their father’s army arrived? She turned with uncertainty out toward the sea.
An enemy near the queen saw the indecision cross her face. He made his move, plunging a knife deep into her chest while her guard was down.
The air grew hot and still. No birds called from the sky. No waves crashed against the rocks. Every human breath suspended.
Something…or rather someone…emerged above the taut surface of the ocean. He appeared without causing so much as one ripple on the water around him, and his presence seemed tied to the stagnant suppression of life that had settled upon the world. The face that stared up at the group on the cliff was inhumanly emotionless, but when his sharp eyes fell on the limp body of the queen, the sea began to churn and froth around him, clouds gathered in the sky and great gray waves rose toward the opening high above in the cave.
The terrified warriors ran as fast as they could from their destruction, for they knew that it was unlucky to cross the sea folk. They hoisted their sails and sped away, only to face storms the likes of which have not been seen before or since. The abandoned body of the poor queen dangled over a rock high above the wild sea.
A drop of blood rolled from her chest down the smooth curve of her arm, over her hand, along her finger until it hovered for a moment like a teardrop from the tip of her nail. It fell reluctantly into the water. One spot of red suspended in a wild gray sea. One spot of red, a combination of the queen’s own life force and the force of the magic she had created, merged with the rage of a Finn. The unspoken spell to bring the children back to human form was forever altered by the sea.
The children and their descendants became the seal folk, neither meant for land nor made for sea. Each full moon, the seal folk shed their sealskin to walk once more in human form upon the earth. They live between two worlds, always wishing for land while in the water and for the water while on the land. If they are held to the land, the wild ocean will always call to them. They might close their eyes, but no dreams will come, because with sleep their souls will return to the sea.”