Liam realized he was babbling, but he couldn’t help himself. He had been terrified when he’d seen her caught in the net with the young boys poking the gaff at her and hurting her. He had no idea where he’d found the courage to face the possible wrath of the fishermen and free her. Now that the adrenaline was fading, he was shaking and all he could think about was her safety. He smiled at her and told her she already looked better. It was true; she didn’t look scared, and she wasn’t floundering and looking like she was on the verge of drowning. He swallowed hard. He didn’t want to think about that look in her eyes ever again. So he just smiled at her and kept asking her how she was. 


He remembered the first time he’d seen her. He’d come down to the beach to relax and play. He wasn’t a child by any means, but he still enjoyed the chance to build castles and stretch his bare toes into the sand without worrying about any responsibilities. He knew by the time he turned 16 next year he would be old enough that he’d stop going to school and take over a share of the farm or get a job in the village and these stops by the beach in the afternoons would stop. While it never occurred to Liam to push to stay in school longer, or to look further afield than farming or being a shop clerk in the small village, he did yearn for something more, even if he couldn’t imagine what it was. 

Then one day he’d seen Máiréad. He didn’t know how he knew she was different when he first saw her, he just knew. It was like he could see into her soul when he looked at her. Then when he’d seen the seal looking at him from the sea, he’d known it was her even as his rational mind was telling him he was imagining things.

When he asked his Auntie about Selkies she had looked at him oddly but had told him what she knew. She also told him a story about a Selkie and the seer who had told the village who she was. He remembered being horrified to think of Máiréad being the focus of as much anger and fear as the Selkie in the story had been. That was the first time he’d been afraid for her, but it had been fears he had imagined. Today was the second time, and the fears had been very real because she was really in danger. Now the danger was gone, but he couldn’t seem to calm down. He took some deep breaths and decided he needed to stop asking, “Are you ok?” and, “Are you sure?” so instead he started telling her she was going to be ok. He didn’t know how to tell her he needed her to be ok. 

When the creature had opened her eyes, he knew he’d been right. Somehow this seal was Máiréad. When she started to transform before his very eyes, he’d stopped breathing and couldn’t get his jumbled thoughts in order. When she spoke and asked him to get her clothes and told him where they were hidden in the rocks, he did as he was asked. As Liam was walking away to give her some privacy, he realized he had better say something, so she knew he wanted to help her get home. So he told her to call when she was ready and after a split second thought he wondered if she was strong enough to get herself back into her human form and added she could also call if she needed help.

Liam was relieved when she called his name. He had half thought she might run away, thinking he was like the others and being afraid of him after the horrible things the villagers had done to her. He knew he needed to be gentle, so he offered her his arm and walked slowly so she could keep up. He knew she must be physically sore, not just mentally hurt by what had happened and, because she was barefoot, he could see the welts on her ankles where the rope had rubbed against her skin while she’d been tied up to the boat. 

They didn’t really say anything on the way back to the old woman’s house. His brain was going a mile a minute, but Liam decided to keep his questions to himself for now. The only thing he asked her at one point was if she needed to rest, but she shook her head and pushed on, clearly wanting to get home and out of sight. He didn’t blame her. He could remember the look in her eyes and couldn’t imagine how terrified she had been.


When they crossed the field next to the house, Máiréad stumbled and almost fell. Liam caught her though and let her lean on him for the walk across the grass and up the path to the little thatch-roofed cottage. When they approached the gate, the door flew open and the old woman ran out. She wasn’t sure what had happened, but she gathered Máiréad up in her arms and cooed at her that everything would be alright and she was home now. She looked at Liam and narrowed her eyes as if to question if he was the cause of the problem. Liam held his hands up in front of him and shook his head, adding that he’d found her hurt and knew she needed to get home. He would have told her the whole story, but he wasn’t sure if Máiréad wanted him to or if the old woman knew Máiréad’s secret and he didn’t want to betray her trust. 

Máiréad caught his eye and nodded in appreciation but added, “She knows, it’s alright”. The old woman’s eyes widened, but she didn’t say anything as Liam, looking relieved, walked inside with them and told her what had happened. The Seanmháthair was listening while she was examining Máiréad’s ankles and putting a salve on them to help the bruising go down so the skin could start to heal. When she was done and Liam had finished telling her how they had showed up at the door looking like they had, she nodded at him and told him it was getting close to sunset and he should get going so his Aunt and Uncle didn’t worry. Liam didn’t like to leave Máiréad, but he knew the old woman was right, if he was too late his Auntie would be upset. He told Máiréad he’d see her tomorrow and then ran out the door before either she or the old woman could say anything. 

As Liam was walking home, he thought about Máiréad and how protective he felt of her. He had always wondered what it would feel like to have siblings, and he guessed this must be how it would feel to have people you were that close to. Liam didn’t know why his Auntie and Uncle had never had children, and he would never invade their privacy by asking, but he had always wished for a houseful of people so he would never feel alone or lonely. Maybe it was because he lived so far from the village and didn’t have any close friends, but he felt the impact of knowing Máiréad deeply, even if he didn’t know why.

When he made it home, he explained to his Auntie that he’d been with Máiréad and her Seanmháthair, seeing no reason to hide it, and simply didn’t mention school or what he had done that day. When it was time for bed, Liam found himself sitting on the trunk at the foot of the bed and realized what a big day this had been. He fell asleep thinking about tomorrow and what it might bring. 


The day dawned bright and sunny. Liam rushed through breakfast and his chores so he could go by Máiréad’s before he went to school. He didn’t know how she’d be feeling so he didn’t know if she would want to go to school but if she decided to go he wanted to walk with her. He didn’t know if he was worried about her ability to walk or her ability to handle seeing all the boys who had attacked her yesterday but he knew he didn’t want her to think she was alone so he worked as quickly as possible and ran nearly the whole way to Máiréad’s house. 

When he arrived, Máiréad was already on her way, her high boots covering the bruising from yesterday. She seemed surprised to see him, so Liam explained that he had been concerned about her walking alone and wanted to go with her. She nodded and thanked him but didn’t seem to want to talk, so they walked in companionable silence. When they arrived at school they got some attention, but Liam thought that was because they were both older than the rest and he had a feeling the children were assuming they had decided to pair off because they liked each other. He thought about it for a minute. Máiréad was smart and fun and literally magical, so he couldn’t see why they wouldn’t like each other. If he was being honest, Liam knew he liked her after the time they had spent at the beach together before yesterday, but now he was wondering if she liked him too. He decided it didn’t matter because whatever they were or however they felt; it was good enough for him.

They walked up the steps together and separated to go to opposite sides of the classroom. Máiréad sat with the girl she always sat with, and Liam sat with the boy he always sat with. He thought about Máiréad during the day, looking over the check on her from time to time but gradually relaxing and focusing on the lessons. By the end of the day, it felt like just another day of classes. She didn’t seem afraid of the boys who had been so horrible to her and was smiling like she always did. Instead of raising eyebrows by asking her to walk home with him, he just waited by the gate until she was ready to leave and then joined her when she went through it. They talked about inconsequential things the whole way home and when she reached her turnoff; she stopped and thanked him and then turned to go. Liam needed to get home, but he didn’t really want to leave her. Abruptly, he asked her if she thought they could be friends. Máiréad seemed a little surprised, but she smiled and agreed they could be. When they both turned towards home, Liam felt good. He thought Máiréad was going to be a good friend. 


They went on this same way, becoming better and better friends while walking to and from school together for the rest of the Fall and into the Winter. Talking about their lives and what they thought about the things going on around them. Then one morning Máiréad wasn’t at the crossroads. Liam thought she might have stayed home sick. She was so rarely ill he decided it wasn’t anything to worry about, so he went on his way. When she wasn’t there the next morning either, however, Liam decided to go see her after school. 

When school was dismissed, he set out towards the old woman’s farm. After the long cold walk to Máiréad’s house, he was glad to see lights in the windows. He was tired and hungry, and he could use a cup of tea to warm his insides. As he knocked on the door, he saw Máiréad in the window, looking small and pale and worried. When she opened the door, he hurried in so as not to let out the warmth, slapping his arms and stretching to get the scarf unwound from his hat and then peeling off his heavy coat, all while trying to figure out what to say. When Liam turned around, he saw her eyes were bright with unshed tears and all he could do was swallow hard. She began to make small talk about nothing at all, commenting on the weather and what has happened at school while she’d been out. She offered Liam a chair and put the kettle on, and as she went back by the table, Liam caught her hand and gently asked her what was wrong. Máiréad burst into tears. He was surprised, and she was embarrassed. He tried to get her to sit down and talk to him, and she tried to get away from him so she could pull herself together. When he wouldn’t let her go, she finally stopped trying to get away and collapsed into a chair. Liam took the kettle off and poured them both a cup of tea, adding a generous splash of cream and plenty of sugar like his Auntie had taught him to do when someone looks like they’re in shock. 

After a while, Máiréad stopped sobbing and lifted her head off her folded arms and wiped her face on her apron. She looked at Liam and smiled wanly. She thanked him for the tea and they drank in companionable silence for a while. Liam was trying to figure out how to ask her what had brought about the tears when she started to talk. She told him about waking up to the Seanmháthair calling her name in the middle of the night and the rush to get her help from the doctor. She told him how sick she had gotten and how fast it had happened. He could see the fear in her face as she talked about it. 

The doctor had told her the old woman was dying. Máiréad could barely get the words out to tell Liam. She had known for two days and thought she had come to grips with it, but saying it to someone else made it real and saying it to Liam made her burst into tears all over again. 

Liam was at a loss. He wanted to comfort her. He wanted to tell her she was going to be alright. He wanted her to stop crying. Unfortunately, he didn’t know how to do any of those things. So instead he just waited. He sat with her until there were no more tears left, and then he got up and put the kettle on again to make fresh tea. When he came back to the table he asked, “How long?” Máiréad shook her head and shrugged. The doctor hadn’t been able to predict if it would be a day or two or a week or two or a month or two, but he had cautioned her to keep her expectations low. All she knew was that the only home she had ever known was with the Seanmháthair, and without her Máiréad didn’t know where or what home would be.  

By the time Liam left, Máiréad was exhausted but felt better for having told someone. She slept in a chair next to her Seanmháthair’s bed that night, and when she woke up in the morning, she saw the smiling face of her only family. Máiréad smiled back and was happy to see her looking better. She knew ‘better’ didn’t mean the old woman was no longer sick, but for today she’d take better.


Later that day, when Máiréad was cleaning up and straightening the house, the Seanmháthair called her over and asked her to go into the trunk at the foot of the bed. Máiréad did as she was asked and, following the directions she was given, unearthed a stiff old piece of parchment tied together with a silky golden ribbon. Máiréad could feel that there was something inside the parchment, but as curious as she was, she didn’t open it, but instead gave it to the old woman. The Seanmháthair smiled as Máiréad handed it to her. She motioned for Máiréad to sit down in the chair next to the bed and told her she had a story she needed Máiréad to hear. 

The old woman sighed, this would not be easy, she probably should have told Máiréad before now but the Selkie who had come to see her after she rescued Máiréad was adamant that Máiréad should not know about the contents of the parchment packet until the old woman was dying. And she knew she was dying. The doctor had told her, but she had known it was coming, she had felt it coming. Which was why she was here, about to tell Máiréad about her Selkie family. 

When she started talking, Máiréad was only half listening, thinking about how hard it was going to be to live without the old woman. But when Máiréad heard the words ‘your family’, suddenly her whole attention was on the conversation. The old woman told her about the rainy night there had been a knock on the door and, when she had answered it, there had been a dark-haired woman standing there, holding the parchment. She had introduced herself as Máiréad’s caomhnóir teaghlaigh, her family guardian, and asked to come in. The old woman was reluctant to let her in, but there was something about the guardian that made it impossible to refuse. The old woman offered the guardian tea, and the women sat down to talk. The guardian explained that Máiréad’s family was special because they were nobles in the Selkie hierarchy. The guardian explained all of the social structure the old woman needed to understand and answered her questions until almost dawn. When they were done talking, the old woman understood that Máiréad would need a safe place to grow up while the guardian figured out what had happened to her parents. Even though it was possible they had drowned or been caught in a net somewhere, it seemed unlikely it would happen to both of them at the same time, leaving Máiréad unprotected. The guardian was suspicious that something had happened to them and wanted time to investigate. She could have taken Máiréad home that night, but if someone were trying to eliminate that line of the family, Máiréad would not be safe living as a Selkie. The guardian thanked the old woman for finding Máiréad and taking care of her, and then handed her a small drawstring pouch filled with handfuls of pearls so luminous that they glowed by the firelight. The guardian told the old woman she could trade or sell them if she or Máiréad needed anything and that she would come back periodically to check on them to be sure she and Máiréad wanted for nothing. As their visit had drawn to a close, the guardian handed the old woman the parchment and told her that unless she came back to take it, she should give it to Máiréad right before she died so Máiréad would know who she was and be able to make choices about what her next steps would be. The guardian didn’t tell the old woman what was inside and the old woman never asked, it was none of her business, it was Máiréad’s package. And when it was time to give it to her, she would get it unopened.

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