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.”
There. Just over the horizon. Hidden behind the loping gallop of grey waves against a grey sky. There was land. None knew it but the captain and his navigator…and Samuel Bellamy, a lowly sailor, though his good looks were unsullied by the hard life of his rank. Samuel paid no mind to the constant sway of the ship beneath his feet. He did not bother with the smell of rotten wood and flesh and food or briny air with the metallic threat of rain.
A calling as strong as the sea, a scent that rose in the air. Loamy and dusty. A tender shoot, brand new that fluttered on the spring wind and sang to Samuel of earthly things. That place of new beginnings, opposite of the ancient sea. Samuel felt his heart rise in his chest the way the gulls rose to the sky.
“Land ahead!” he cried before he could stop himself.
The first mate spit over the side of the boat. “You mind your place, boy, or it will be a lashing for you again.” The first mate pointed a finger swollen with gout. “Land ahead!” he cried.
Land. Samuel tripped his way down the docks, but the ocean called out to him as old friends do when they part. He stopped to watch twilight spread over the harbor.
“You are my last,” he said to the decrepit ship that had been more a home to him than anywhere else. He turned his back on ship and sea. The town streets lit happy and yellow. The townspeople dressed bright and lively. Out on the cliffs beyond the city a white clapboard cottage stood dark and silent.
“When I have the money,” said Samuel. “I will buy that cottage. I will fill it with food and furniture and neither of us will ever be empty again.”
He found a tavern to drink off his sea legs. His first steps on the soil of the American colonies, where a man might work hard enough to own a bit of soil for himself.
Can land be owned? A voice poked at the back of Samuel’s mind. Can you really own something that can’t be carried away on your back?
“Ach,” Samuel yelled at himself as he stumbled through cobbled Cape Cod streets, “that is nothing more than the drink talking. Men own land. That’s what men do. Land isn’t like the ever changing sea. And it isn’t plate or a fork or a farthing either.”
You haven’t told me one thing about land but what it isn’t, said the voice. You know nothing of land. It is a thing as living and breathing as the sea. Your ancestors gave up the land long ago, Samuel Bellamy. You will never own one speck of dirt because you are of the sea.
“No, not anymore I’m not. I’m a man.”
Are you now?
Samuel took another beer and drank it fast. The voice drown beneath it, but that night Samuel dreamt that he swam inside the dark and endless sea. The dark was frightening, but he was free. Free of the smell of rot. Free from being owned by the ship’s log and captain and company.
The land ties you down, Samuel Bellamy. The ocean sets you free.
Day came bright and sunny. Samuel’s head barely hurt from the night before. He walked down a path that wound into an orchard of apples. The blossoms on the trees blew everywhere in clouds of white against a blue sky. Here was a world fresh with spring. The call of the dark and endless sea faded from his memory.
Today holds promise, he said to himself. I can feel it in my bones. No voice invaded his mind to tell him he was wrong. Maybe that voice was dead and gone.
“Would I walk down that path again?” Samuel often asked himself when the apple orchard was far behind him. “If I knew then that the feeling in my bones was the promise of love. If I knew then that with love comes the torment of hope…would I walk down that path again?
Maria sat on a bench in the middle of the orchard. She started to sing, her voice as pure and light as the apple blossoms that fell all around her.
Here is my hidden place
Where I grow the dark
To shroud the light of love
That mythic, burning passion
Acceptance and desire
Hope and longing
The push and pull of twin souls
Kisses turned to constellations
I will not share the lost belief
Hopeless hope grown timeworn
She looked up from the reverie of her song. “Who are you?” she asked.
Samuel smoothed down his tattered clothes. He ran his fingers through hair that needed cutting. I am not worthy of her, he thought.
“Samuel,” he said.
“Why are you walking so fast on such a beautiful day?”
He wanted to leave her before she laughed at him.
“I am walking so fast because I haven’t got any place as pretty to sit,” he said.
“This half of my bench is free.” Maria slid to the edge.
“I have found very little in life to be free.”
“Hmmm,” Maria tilted her head, and blond curls fell across her face in a way that made Samuel hold his breath. “You are more than welcome to pay for it if that makes you more comfortable.”
“Do I look like someone who has much to pay you with?”
“There is more a girl might want than money.”
“What else might a girl want?” What else in the world could there be?
“If a girl asks a man to sit with her on a bench, chances are she might only wish to be repaid with a kiss.” Her words were bold, but she blushed and looked away.
That bench, which was the only place Samuel wanted to be, seemed a million miles away. It would take an eternity of steps to get there. Yet somehow Maria’s lips pressed soft against his, she laughed (not at his expense but at her pleasure), and then she was gone. The best day of his life stretched a lifetime and over too soon all at once.
Samuel thought every meeting with Maria would be his last. He woke from his endless ocean dreams in the middle of the night and burned with the thought of her.
“Send Maria to me one more time,” he prayed to the stars. “Let me kiss her once more, and I will give you anything in return.”
With all of his bartering and promises to heaven, it never dawned on Samuel that Maria came to him each time of her own free will and simply because she liked him too.
But she was rich and he very poor. Her parents didn’t approve of the match.
“I want run away with you,” Maria whispered to him under the moonlight.
“To be a poor man’s wife?”
“You will not be poor for long. I know it.”
“But I am poor now, and I have not got any prospects for that to change. I will not have you alone to scrub the floors with a baby tied to your back and another at your knee and another in your belly. I won’t have you miss meals for children that keep coming. I will not listen to the crying and see them ask for more, and you look up at me with eyes that know I have nothing more to give.”
“Oh, Sam. I would never look at you that way.”
“You say that now because you can kiss me and then go back to your safe and comfortable home.”
“That is not my home. Not anymore. My home is with you.”
Samuel kissed every part of her face.
Tell her you love her. Every part of him ached to say it, but he would not let himself. He spread her out below him instead, and they both learned how to take the ache out between their legs.
Maria sang with joy the whole way back to her parent’s house. Samuel dragged his feet with dread beside her. What if he had made a child that would grow up as hungry and scared as he did? What if Maria was taken from him as his own mother had been?
She is not like your mother, said the old voice.
Samuel pushed the voice away, kissed Maria goodbye and tried to meet her radiant smile with one of his own. He walked to the cliffs and let himself feel the pull of the tide under the full moon.
You are a prince of the sea, the waves sighed. Come back to us. Come back.
“I will only come back if I can bring wealth right up to these cliffs.”
Oh, we will give you wealth. We will bring you back, right here in this place where the moon gives light to the sea foam. It is your destiny, Samuel Bellamy. Will you come back to us?
The smell of apple blossoms danced all around him, and the feel of Maria still clung to his skin. Maria wove deep into every dream he had for his future, and the waves offered all the answers.
“Yes,” he said.
Come. The sea swelled higher. We will make you King of the Pirates.
Maria woke with a lover gone to sea, and the first spark of new life in her belly. She went to the cliffs and looked out over the waves with only one song on her lips.
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.”