From The Keeper’s House…a story I’ve been writing forever…
From The Keeper’s House…a story I’ve been writing forever…
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.
The ocean inhaled. It rose toward a pale half moon that hung heavy and low in the dark sky. A line of foaming waves rolled back from the shore like a beckoning hand. The lighthouse pulsed in rhythmic beams of illumination.
Smooth, wet sand sprang to life under the beacon’s ray. A small bit of white appeared, half buried in the distance. It winked at me in the light, and I sighed. Another of the ocean’s tiny temptations. There was no way to resist.
I ran toward it, and the hair on my neck stood upright, making me aware of the pull of the tide. I snatched the small white shell from the sand and held my breath. The wave rolled against me and soaked the edge of my nightgown. Same as always, salt water burned my skin. The burning hurt, but it also hummed with a pulsing temptation. My mind went out to the dark depths of the ocean, cold and terrifying.
It would steal me away.
Maybe I wanted it to.
I lifted the edge of my nightgown and ran back to the beach, splashing through the surf as fast as I could to the safety of dry land. The heaving ocean was pearlescent under the low moon and the beacon, glittering like a fairy world full of beauty and remorseless power. I loved it as much as I feared it.
The shell felt cool in my hand. I wiped a clump of sand from its center with the wet edge of my nightgown and held it to my ear. Da said that no matter how far a shell traveled from the sea, it would always carry the song of the waves inside. Sam said it was nothing more than air.
I looked back toward the horizon. He was right on the other side of it, only a few miles out on the mainland, sleeping and dreaming of who knew what. I wondered, not for the first time, if he ever thought of me as I thought of him in the times between our seeing each other. Surely he had better things to think of, his mainland friends and school and plans for the world.
A seal cried out long and low. I shivered.
The keeper’s house stood on a hill overlooking the ocean. Although the windows looked dark and empty compared to the wide expanse of moonlight at my back, there was a warmth within that drew me across the beach and up the old wood steps. I climbed in through my bedroom window and dropped the shell with the rest of my collection on the little shelf Da made me for my birthday. Without bothering to light the kerosene lamp, I fished for my clothes on the dark floor of my room, slipped on an old work shirt, a hand-me-down from Sam, and then my usual overalls.
I sat on the edge of my bed and fought the need to sleep. I couldn’t stand to go into my lonely dreams, always the same, of the cold endless water. Not again.
Da said there was a big battle that raged in the sky every dawn and dusk. Night fought Day and Day battled Night and every clash must be to the death. The victor got to cut loose the sky, so when Day won, he would take his sword and cut off the dark to make room for the Sun.
Sam said there wasn’t any truth in that. He said the Earth turned in a circle around the Sun and that’s what made it night or day.
When I told Da Sam’s scientific version of Night and Day, he said I wasn’t really listening if I couldn’t see for myself that they were one and the same tale. Something dies so that something else can be born, over and over again in a circle. Night and Day didn’t really have to carry swords to make that true.
It was a long wait, but sword or not, Day won his struggle yet again. The sky glowed faintly, and a golden halo appeared along the edge of the world. I stepped out of our long, low stone house. The old wooden door, rough under my fingers, was so familiar and real that it was easy to put the night behind me. Chickens and goats in the yard chattered and griped for food. Across the yard, the red lighthouse door was open, and so was the door to the supply shed that stood next to the lighthouse. Yellow light glowed inside the shed, and Da’s shadow moved from one side to the other. I gave the baby goat a quick kiss on the nose and then ran to help him. Da met me at the door. A deep, sorrowful moan filled the air. I stopped and held my breath.
“Just the seals, Nula. Same as always. They are sure to be holding court on the far side of the island,” Da said.
“I know,” And I did know, because in all my sixteen years I had heard the sound many times, “But it does take the heart across you to hear them.”
Da turned away from me, back to his work. “Aye,” he said softly, almost like he was answering himself. “They do take the heart across you.”
Da’s accent was thick with Irish. It rose and fell like the albatross when he hunts. It set him even further apart from the flat, nasal New Englanders who lived a few miles west of our island.
I grabbed a metal pail from the shelf behind me, threw a scoop of soap flakes and a handful of rags in the bottom and ran back up the hill to the house. I filled the bucket with rainwater collected in the cistern and turned back toward the lighthouse.
I lugged the frothing, soapy water to the red door as fast as I could without spilling. Da hovered above me as he wound up the spiral staircase with the heavy five gallon oil can. It made a dull metallic chime as it hit the stairs between each of his steps. The last nine steps were the only straight ones, but they were much narrower than the rest. It was hard for Da to get his large shoulders through, even without the oil can. He grunted and grumbled in Gaelic, both of us pretending I couldn’t understand the foreign curses.
I dropped my pail on the plank floor of the lantern room and wrung the rags out to attack the windows. Before I put the rag to glass, I greeted the vast water below me, as I had every morning of my life.
Unlike the dark world of my dreams, in daylight the sea from my bird’s eye view was vibrant and ever changing. Sometimes the sea consumes her color in her own emotion. Tranquil blue for a day when she is happy with the world she is wrapped around, or frustrated gray when she rages and threatens to destroy the fragile beings in her embrace.
But days like this one were the best, when the sea let her colors spread out the way they wanted. Sparkling light blues and greens where the water was deep, with little white caps of foam that came and went along the surface. Just below me was my favorite. Dark granite rocks reached from the base of the lighthouse into the sea like the arthritic hand of an old woman. I loved the way waves churned and sprayed between those gnarled fingers. Nathanial and Sam brought four bottles of green olives to us once. They were the closest I ever came to tasting the color of the water that danced within our rocky shore.
The glass lens of the beacon reflected the ocean’s green hues. It took up most of the space in the lantern room and turned slow and sure, like a woman who knows her new clothes are worth a good look. It was hard to believe men had built something so beautiful and exacting, as fine-looking as it was life-saving. To think that a human mind had made up such a thing, to know a human hand put it all together, well, I was in awe of it. Even just to wash the windows made me proud of my little part. The man who invented that lens died before he knew he’d changed the world. I thought that was sad, but Da said when you put your mind or your sweat into something long enough, it became a part of you and you of it. He could think of no finer bit of immortality than to live on as a piece of the beacon that brought men home.
I went back out to the yard to collect eggs while Da rewound the clockwork. With four eggs in my apron pocket, I climbed back up to the house and cracked them into an iron skillet. When they began to sizzle, I stirred the pot of oats and started water to boil for coffee.
The old door moaned when Da pushed it open and stepped inside. He pulled off his cap and dropped it next to him at the table. I flipped the eggs out of the pan onto plates and then took my place across from Da. The pock marked oak table smelled of linseed oil. The only sound in the room was the scraping of our forks against our plates and the dull ring of my spoon as I swirled goat’s milk into my coffee. It was a silent room, but it wasn’t uncomfortable to sit quiet with Da. I pulled back the empty chair where I had stashed a book, thumbing through to the page where I left off.
“You went through that one fast.” Da said.
“Oh, it was an easy read,” I shrugged. “Sam borrowed it from Mrs. O’Malley for me. I have to give it back when they come today.”
Da stood up with his plate and mug. He took them to wash in a bucket of water on the counter.
I turned back to my page, where the mermaid lamented, “…Oh if he could only know that! I have given away my voice forever, to be with him.” I snorted. She might have thought that through better.
“What book is this?” Da leaned over my shoulder.
“The Little Mermaid and Other Tales.” It’s by Hans Christian Anderson. I think he’s Danish. Mrs. O’Malley thought I might like it.”
“I wasn’t aware that the Danish were so humorous.”
“Oh, it’s just a bit dramatic is all. It’s about a little mermaid who wants to be human so that she can love a prince and have an immortal soul.”
“What becomes of her?”
I was surprised Da was so interested in my story.
“Well, I haven’t quite finished, but it doesn’t look good for her. A sea witch took her voice in exchange for legs so she isn’t really able to tell the prince she’s the one who saved him. He thinks another girl did. If he marries someone else, the Little Mermaid will die and fade away into sea foam.”
“Sea foam?” Da patted his breast pocket in search of his tobacco pouch and looked out the window. “Is that really the worst of fates?”
“She won’t have an immortal soul.”
“There is a great deal of soul in the ocean if you ask me.” I felt Da over my shoulder scanning the words on the page.
“Not a bad little tale.” He patted my shoulder. “You still won’t go to the school? I could handle things here on my own.”
“Oh, no you couldn’t Da. Besides, I like how things are. I don’t want to go off to school at my age. Sam brings me anything interesting.”
“You shouldn’t have to lean on him for your learning.”
“I don’t lean on him, Da, I just trust him to sort through the boring stuff for me.” I smiled up at him, but he didn’t smile back.
“There is more to life than you can experience on this little island.”
“I know that.” I held up my book and waved it in front of him. “I’ve read it in plenty of books, but I’m still quite content to give myself time.”
Da patted me on the shoulder. “Time,” he said with a grunt.
I turned back to my book and thought nothing more of it. I had time in abundance. What did it matter to me?