Máiréad sat there, dumbstruck, listening to the old woman tell the story of the night she had met the guardian. She couldn’t even begin to organize her thoughts enough to ask any questions. She wanted to know more, but she realized she was also angry that the old woman had kept the story and the parchment from her. She needed to understand why the guardian and the old woman had denied her the family she craved. The Seanmháthair told Máiréad she had no way of contacting the guardian so Máiréad could hear the story from her firsthand, but suggested there might be information that in the parchment package that would answer her questions. Máiréad realized that in feeling so overwhelmed by everything, she had completely forgotten about the packet.
Máiréad decided the first thing she should do was see what was inside the parchment wrapping. She pulled the end of the golden ribbon and it slid off and pooled in her lap. She absentmindedly played with it while she looked at the packet and built up her courage. When she unwrapped the parchment it turned out to be a family tree and a map, not just a wrapping for the parcel she was now looking at. Inside the parchment was a long slim flat silver box. Underneath that was a letter. Máiréad decided to open the letter first.
The envelope said her name. The beautifully curved handwriting was elegant and graceful, each curl and swoop like a wave in the ocean. Máiréad looked up at the old woman and she looked back. The old woman nodded and waved her hand as if to give her permission to read. Máiréad didn’t want to yet, though. What if it was something horrible? What if she had been given up by her larger family because she was an orphan? What if this was to tell her not to come see them? Her stomach churned and she felt slightly ill. Finally she marshaled her courage and opened the envelope and took out the letter inside. She realized she was holding her breath and admonished herself to breathe. She had nothing to be afraid of, it was just a letter.
As she started to read, everything around her faded away and her sole focus was on the letter. It read…
My Darling Máirèad,
I am sure you did not expect to get this letter, so I must apologize for not being there to help you through this. My name is Maeve and I am your caomhnóir teaghlaigh, your family’s guardian. It is my job to protect you. I couldn’t save your parents, but I have committed myself to protect you with every resource in my power, including my life if need be.
I’m sure that sounds dramatic, but if you will permit me to summarize what has happened from the time of your birth through to my writing this letter, I will explain. Someday I hope to come back to get you and bring you home to the place that is rightfully yours, and at that time I shall undertake to tell you the entire story if you wish to hear it. For now, however, I will provide you with the details you need to know immediately and explain the contents of the box and the purpose of the map and family tree.
When you were born, you were dearly loved. Your parents and your whole extended family adored you. That is when I met you. I was appointed to be your family’s guardian because your existence put your parent’s lives in danger.
Allow me to explain, as you will see in the family tree, there is a path of succession through the Selkie hierarchy towards ruling the Selkie kingdom. You and your parents are of noble blood, but since the line of ascension is matrilineal, your mother and her sisters were all in line to the throne until one by one they died or had only sons. The catch to being in line for the Selkie throne is that you must have borne a daughter in order to rule. None of your mother’s sisters had a girl, so it fell to your mother to be next in line to rule the Selkies. And you would be after her, as would any sisters you had until one of you bore a daughter.
Your birth caused great joy and great envy. Your mother’s sisters were a greedy lot and coveted the throne for themselves. They knew they were not entitled to it, but they wanted it, anyway. That is, alas, where the story becomes tragic. Your parents were out one night swimming and enjoying an escape while you were left in the care of an older childless Aunt who they thought was above the palace intrigue.
When your parents did not come home that night, I went out in search of them. I tracked them through the oceans for several days until the trail went cold and I ran out of seals to question.When I came home you were gone, and they told me you had escaped from your Aunt and had disappeared. I searched for you and, luckily, found you just as the old woman was picking you up to bring you home. I followed her to be sure she would treat you well and followed that visit with several a year since then. I was nearby in the ocean when you swam several times, and I was glad to see the old woman hadn’t denied you your rightful heritage as a Selkie. Shortly after you turned 13, I came to see the old woman so she would know your story. I gave her some pearls so you two would want for nothing and promised to always check on you until it was safe to take you home. The only way she was allowed to tell you your story before I did was if she were to die. I gave her permission to share all of this if she found herself on her deathbed and I was not around.
Sadly, if you are reading this, it means that has come to pass and now you are about to be alone. Please hear me when I say to you, it is unwise to come home right now. I am aware of how lonely and frightening this time must be for you, but I need you to stay strong and stay where you are. I come to see the old woman several times a year. If you leave a sheet on the clothesline, I’ll know it means you are alone and I will come and knock on the door and we will figure out what to do next.
Before I close, I need to explain what is in the silver box. If you open it now, you will see what is inside and then I can clarify why you have it.
Máiréad did as the letter asked and opened the box. It was a long silver chain with pearls strung on it. As a girl, it was much too big for her. But as a seal, it would fit around her neck and body perfectly. She looked down at the links and could imagine how it would feel to wear it.
The old woman just watched as a thousand questions and expressions flickered across Máiréad’s face. She wished it had been an easier life for Máiréad, but she was so pleased with how she had grown up. Máiréad was kind and thoughtful and smart and funny and beautiful, and she was so proud of her. Máiréad looked at the old woman looking at her and could see the thoughts flitting across her face as well. Máiréad picked up the letter again and reread the last part…
…Before I close, I need to explain what is in the silver box. If you open it now, you will see what is inside and then I can clarify why you have it.
What you see is the real ascension jewelry. Only the heir to the throne is allowed to wear it so I took it when your mother disappeared and I knew you were alive. The Selkie currently on the throne told everyone your mother was wearing it when she disappeared so they don’t suspect it was taken, they think it is lost. When you decide the time is right to return, you’ll need this piece as part of the proof that you are your mother’s daughter. The second piece of proof is the family tree. Each descendent puts their mark on the tree and they are kept strictly secret outside the family, so the fact that you have this tree will also help prove who you are. Finally, there is the map. It is a map to where the Selkie treasure is kept. This is only given to the woman that rules, so there is no way you could have this map, or know what it means, if you had not been her daughter.
It is very important that you do not let any of it out of your sight, or that you find someone trustworthy to hold it for you like the old woman has been doing all these years. If you lose it, you will never be able to reclaim your rightful place in Selkie society. It is equally important that you not try to return home before we talk. Hang a sheet on the line and I will come. I promise.
Máiréad let the letter slip into her lap, staring into the distance through unseeing eyes. She didn’t know what to think anymore. Her whole world had been turned upside down.
After a while she looked at the old woman, but she was fast asleep. Máiréad knew she needed to think through some of the fantastical thing she had learned about herself and her past and her family that night. The only person she could talk about this with was asleep and knew nothing more than she did. Until she realized the old woman wasn’t the only person she could talk to. She could talk to Liam. If he really was a Seer, he might be able to figure out things she needed to know.
After a restless night’s sleep, Máiréad was up before dawn, heading towards Liam’s house. She waited at the crossroad for him to come and then realized it was far too early for him to be coming this way. She thought about it and decided she couldn’t wait, so she took the road that would run right by his door. She couldn’t knock and risk waking up his whole family, but when he went to milk the cow, she’d catch up with him and ask him to skip school that day and come with her. So she settled into the byre to wait for Liam to come out of the house.
Liam jumped like he’d been stung when Máiréad’s voice came out of the darkness at the back of the barn. He was glad he’d managed not to yelp. His Auntie had the hearing of a bat and would have been extremely displeased to find a girl in the barn this early in the morning. He followed her voice and found her sitting on the milking stool. He wasn’t sure what had happened, but he was sure it was something because as long as he’d known her she had never once come to his house and she had certainly never showed up anywhere at dawn and she had never looked so confused and sad and angry all at once.
He told her to go home and wait, and he’d be there as soon as he could. She stared at him and shook her head. She needed to talk right now. Liam sighed, he knew when he was beat so he simply shrugged and told her to find another place to sit or milk the cow. Máiréad laughed at that and felt a little better. She knew she had been right to come to Liam.
While Máiréad broadly outlined the story, Liam quickly milked the cow, mucked the stall and put fresh hay in the trough. When he was done she waited impatiently for him to get his school things and then they slipped out a side door so they wouldn’t have to walk in front of the kitchen window. When they finally set out for Máiréad’s house, she took a deep breath. She desperately needed to be in a place where they could talk freely and focus their attention on what to do.
The first thing Máiréad did when she got home was to tiptoe in to check on the old woman. Thankfully, she was still asleep. Liam had put the kettle on and pulled out some eggs and a rasher of bacon while Máiréad had been away. When she returned, he raised an eyebrow, Máiréad shook her head, the old woman was still asleep. Liam broke open the eggs and put the bacon into the skillet and, since it was just the two of them he pulled plates off the shelf but didn’t bother to set the table since he knew they’d end up sitting in front of the fire. Máiréad collected silverware and teacups and napkins and laid them on the low bench in front of the fireplace. She kept fidgeting with the napkins, folding and unfolding them. As Liam watched her, he sensed she was struggling deeply with the news she’d received about her family. If he was being honest with himself, he was struggling a bit as well. He knew she had to have one somewhere, but finding out she was in line to inherit the throne of a place he could never go made him feel hollow. He was afraid he was losing his best friend. Still, he owed it to her to be a real friend and listen as objectively as he could.
He scooped the eggs and bacon out of the skillet and went over the sit on the floor. Máiréad looked up and smiled and then laughed self-consciously when she handed him his wrinkled napkin. He smiled at her as he dropped to the rug and settled in with his back against the heavy old chair so he could prop his plate on his knees. Máiréad hunched over the bench and started eating. They ate in an easy silence and when they had finished and were drinking their tea, Liam asked if she would go over the story in more detail now that they didn’t have to worry about being seen or overheard. Máiréad jumped up and went to get the parchment, the letter, and the package.
As she told him the story, he looked at the family tree and the map with interest. He found Máiréad marked in and assumed the woman listed above her was her mother. It was funny to imagine her with a mother. He had never seen her with anyone other than the old woman but he knew what it was like to grow up without parents so he was sure she had missed that bond, the closeness he had always seen between the children in the village and their parents.
As she talked, Liam realized several things almost at once. First, he needed to watch over her until Maeve came to get Máiréad. He remembered the feeling of terror he’d had when he saw her tied up to the fishermen’s boat, about to drown, and he never wanted to experience that feeling ever again. Second, they needed to hang a sheet right away. If they waited to hand the sheet on the clothesline until after the old woman had passed, they might miss Maeve. She could be out there right now. Third, and finally, Máiréad was going to leave. The only friend he’d ever really had, and he knew she was going to leave as surely as if she’d already told him. He also knew she would need his help.
He got up from the floor and asked Máiréad to bring a sheet so they could put it on the line so they didn’t miss her if she was there or came soon. Liam went to the cupboard in the kitchen and got a handful of clothes pegs so when Máiréad came back with an old sheet that had been waiting to get torn into rags Liam was at the door ready to go. Máiréad offered to go with him, but Liam made a dismissive sound and went out the door. While he was outside securing the sheet so it wouldn’t blow away in the cold winds, Máiréad did the dishes and put more water in the kettle in case Liam wanted more tea. She finished as Liam walked in and took a minute to really look at him while he was taking off his coat. When he looked up, he caught her eye and smiled and said,
“Don’t worry Máiréad, we’ll figure it out.”
She nodded with appreciation and they sat down again. Liam had not yet seen what was in the box so Máiréad opened it for him, and held it out so he could see the chain of flat silver links and the elegant pearls which were set in place in different spots. He was confused until he realized it wasn’t for her to wear as a human. That made the reality of her leaving eventually all the more obvious, to him at least. As she read the letter, Liam realized he would not get her to stay here for more than a month at most after the old woman’s passing. Máiréad was not the most patient of people during the best of times and, if this morning when she was already waiting for him to come milk the cow was any indication, this was not one of her best times.
He needed a minute to figure out what to say, so he asked her for a new cup of tea and by the time she was back he had realized it didn’t matter what he thought. This was her life and her choice. He could tell her what he would do if it were him, but the decision was up to her. So he asked her what she thought. She smiled at him appreciatively, knowing what it must have taken not to tell her what to do, and instead to ask her.