As she came to the end of one of the stories, she felt the Seanmháthair go slack and heard the deafening silence where her short breaths used to be, and knew that the Seanmháthair had breathed her last.
When she had mourned on her own for a time and finally felt the strength to get up, she went downstairs to tell Liam. “She’s gone” Máiréad said and then collapsed into the chair by the fire. Liam went over and sat in the other chair and looked at her, seeing her exhaustion and the under layer of fear about the future. He gently offered her a cup of tea before he went to get the doctor. She was startled when she realized there were now things to do and people who needed to be told. It felt too soon to expose the raw wound of her loss to other people. She put a hand up to stop Liam and shook her head, “Not yet. I need some time to myself before people come”. Liam went to get up, and she looked at him, confused. Where was he going now? She wondered. When she realized he was going to get his coat, she realized he had misunderstood her and thought she meant for him to leave. She hadn’t thought about Liam not being there. She wasn’t afraid to be alone with the Seanmháthair’s body, but she wasn’t used to being anywhere recently without Liam. He came back from the door, bundled up against the cold and told her he’d be back to milk the cow and that she could tell him then what she wanted to do. She considered telling him he didn’t have to leave, but then realized it would be good for her to have time to think about what she would do next.
After Liam left, Máiréad took one of the Seanmháthair’s shawls off the peg next to the door and curled up in the chair next to the fire, drawing the shawl around her like a hug from the old woman. Máiréad had several hours until Liam came back so she felt no sense of urgency, but instead decided to just let her mind drift, and promptly fell sound asleep. Nearly three hours later, she was awakened by Liam shaking her shoulder. She sat bolt upright as he said, “Máiréad! You were having a bad dream. You’re safe.” It took her a minute to blink away the remnants of sleep and realize where she was. She hadn’t expected to fall asleep, but she’d been awake so many nights sitting up with the old woman that sleep had claimed her as soon as she had relaxed. Now that she was awake, she tried to remember what she had been dreaming. It was a mix of deep ocean waves crashing around her and trying to pull her down into the depths, and the locals finding out her secret and poking at her like the boys at the harbor had done that day. She felt like no matter which place she decided was where she belonged next in her life there was the possibility of serious danger. For a moment she resented the history she now knew about and felt so compelled to investigate. Why couldn’t she have had time to meet with Maeve before the old woman had died? How was she supposed to wait patiently for Maeve to show up when she was so ready to know more? Then she shook her head and cleared her mind and realized she was, as the Seanmháthair used to say, ‘borrowing trouble’. There would be plenty of time to think about all of this after she had done what she needed to do to send the old woman off to the hereafter with the dignity and respect she deserved.
Liam helped Máiréad over the next day and a half as she reached out to the villagers and the priest to give the Seanmháthair last rites and the local Cailleach, who everyone knew kept the old ways even though nobody said anything outright, to have her blessing as well. Several of the older women showed up to wash and dress her for the wake the whole village would attend to pay their respects. Máiréad felt useless. As much as she knew she could not have done it all by herself, she resented the intrusion of the women because it made it seem all too real that the Seanmháthair was gone from her life. She knew the old woman would always be in her heart and the lessons she had taught her would always stay with Máiréad, but her real life felt very empty without the old woman in it.
The day of the wake came and with the house so full of people that it seemed sometimes that it might burst. Liam was everywhere. Talking to the men and shooing the boys out into the yard. Bringing tea to the elderly sitting near the fire and pouring cider for the women telling stories of times long ago when the old woman hadn’t been old, and they had all played tag in the fields next to the school and later how they had kicked up their heels at dances. There was laughter mixed in with the tears, as it was supposed to be. This was a time for everyone left behind to share stories so they could all remember and share their sadness, but also their joy at having known her. But when the last of the guests had gone, Máiréad stood in the silence and realized she was alone in the world. No amount of memories would change that. She was going to be sixteen soon, and she had her whole life ahead of her and no idea what would come next. Just as she started to cry, she heard the door latch click. She looked up and saw Liam in the doorway. He was hesitant to come in, but one look at her eyes full of unshed tears made his mind up for him. He hugged her, and she cried into his shoulder until she had no tears left. When she was done he told her to go sit and he’d piece together some dinner for her from the leftovers from the wake and in a few minutes he had a plate of food in front of her. She picked at it for a few minutes until Liam told her to eat, “I watched you all day and you haven’t had a bite. If you don’t eat you won’t be able to handle the funeral tomorrow”. Máiréad knew he was right, so she began to eat and as the food crossed her lips, she began to feel her hunger. She finished the plate and smiled in thanks. Liam smiled back. They sat in a companionable silence while the fire burned lower and lower and Máiréad’s head began to drop. Liam gently called her name and got her to go upstairs to bed, telling her he would clean up and then go home so she shouldn’t worry about anything. She nodded, sleepily mumbling good night and climbing the stairs one at a time, the previous days having taken their toll.
Liam cleaned and dried the plate and placed it back on the shelf. He then went to bank the fire and decided to sit for a minute in the pleasantly warm chair before the long cold walk home. As he sat, he thought about Máiréad. She was very dear to him and he wanted to protect her, but he knew he could only do so much. She had to survive the next part of her life on her own. He thought about some of the gossip he had heard today that he hoped she hadn’t. People were talking about the two of them and how they would make a good match. Not that Liam disagreed, but he knew what they didn’t, that Máiréad had a big change coming into her life and he couldn’t go with her. He thought about how natural it had felt over the last weeks to be here and help her with chores and make sure she ate and bring her tea at the end of the day as they sat in front of the fire. He genuinely liked spending time with Máiréad, unlike the other girls in the village who were silly, vain little children by comparison. He thought about what it would be like to come home from work to this home, a home with Máiréad. He was lost in the thought and starting to doze when all of a sudden he heard an awful cry. He jumped from the chair, sure it had been Máiréad, ready to wake her if she was having another bad dream. At that moment there was a knock at the door and the hair on the back of his neck stood up. He didn’t know how he knew, but he knew something momentous was about to happen.
When he opened the door, the Cailleach was standing there. He opened the door wider to let her in as she said, “I’m glad you’re still here boy, this has more to do with you than you might think.” He wasn’t sure what she meant, but gestured towards a chair anyway, and they sat. Liam had no idea what to say, so he waited for her to speak. She put her hands out in front of the fire and warmed them, but it also seemed like she was making shapes with her fingers. She looked over at him and said, “I’m making sigils. They are designs meant to protect you and Máiréad.” Liam had no idea what to say to that, so he decided to stay quiet and see what she said next. It didn’t take long. She leaned in and said there were things he needed to know before things changed for Máiréad, and therefore also for him. She eyed him for a long minute before telling him she knew things about both of them that he needed to hear. Liam sat up, curious but cautious. He would never betray Máiréad’s confidence by saying anything about her selkie side, so he was wary of what the woman would say.
She leaned back and began to tell him the story of his birth and the death of his parents and the day his Auntie and Uncle had taken him in. She told him details he had never heard before about the carving of his cradle and how funny it looked to the villagers because it was shaped like a boat. Liam felt a chill go down his spine for some reason. The woman looked at him and said, “Yes, your father was a Seer. He knew the day would come when the oddly shaped cradle would save your life, even if he couldn’t save his own or your mother’s. He talked to me about what to care into the design as protection symbols and told me what he knew and what he hoped, and I kept it to myself until tonight.”
Liam was speechless. He knew he had been in a cradle when the ship he and his parents were on had capsized and he knew they had been dragged under by the tide before anyone could get to them. He also knew he had been plucked from his floating cradle by the fisherman who had seen the boat go over and had hurried to see if he could help the couple, not knowing Liam was even there because the cradle had been out of his line of vision below the railing. Liam had met the man when he was about ten and had thanked him for saving his life, but had never thought to ask him what he remembered of that day. To hear more of the story now made Liam glad he was sitting down. The idea that his father had known he would need protection from the ocean gave Liam a sharp pang of regret that his father had not been able to take equal measures to protect himself and Liam’s mother.
As the witch told him about his story, she looked at him and asked if he ever felt like he knew what was going to happen before it happened, or if he felt like he had already experienced something before an event had occurred. He shook his head no, and she looked at him harder, skepticism on her face. He wanted to deny it again, but he knew she didn’t believe him. Reluctantly, he nodded. She did as well, looking satisfied now. She told him because his father had been a Seer it was possible he had the gift of Sight too. Liam stared into the fire, thinking about the things he had felt like he’d known before they happened lately. He had wished he was secretly a Seer, but he hadn’t considered what it would actually be like to be told that he very likely was one. He thought about what that would mean for him, living in a small town and knowing everyone. Would he find out things he didn’t want to know? How did this work? He had a dozen questions running around inside his brain. “How does it work?” He asked the Cailleach. “I mean, is it just something that I have or do I have to train to get better at using it?” She nodded and said, “You’ll have to practice, boy. And it won’t be easy. When she leaves, the Cailleach rolled her eyes up to the ceiling to indicate she was talking about Máiréad, you’ll be the only one with a gift.” Liam struggled to keep his composure. Was she trying to trick him? How could she know? The Cailleach stood up abruptly and went into the kitchen and put on the kettle. Liam was confused until he heard the sounds of footsteps on the floor above his head. Máiréad must have woken up. But how could she have known? Did she have the gift of Sight too? He was confused and his head hurt from trying to absorb so much. He decided to leave it until later when he saw Máiréad come down the stairs from the loft, looking small and fragile in her dressing gown and with her hair pulled back. There were deep shadows under her eyes because she hadn’t had enough sleep for weeks.
Máiréad looked back and forth between them, sensing she had interrupted something. However, since neither of them appeared to be ready to speak, she decided she’d have something to eat and then figure out what was going on between the two of them. She settled herself into the large wooden chair at the kitchen table, and unthinkingly hooked her feet around the legs like a little child who couldn’t reach the floor. Liam looked at her and suddenly knew exactly what she’d been like as a young child. It was a strange sensation, knowing something so completely when you also knew there was no way you could have experienced it. He inadvertently caught the eye of the Cailleach as she watched him and wondered if she was the real Cailleach or just the old village witch. He’d never thought about it before, but looking at her now, he wondered. She smiled a mysterious smile before she turned back to the fire to add some wood and asked Máiréad if she wanted to talk. Máiréad looked up from her meal and looked at her blankly. “My sweet” the Cailleach almost whispered, “you know there are things to be done and the time to do them has come.”
Máiréad blinked and thought for a minute that she had imagined the woman’s soft low voice.
“What?”, she asked.
“We need to talk about what you’re going to do next.” the Cailleach replied.
“I’m not sure what you mean.”
“Yes, you are, child. I know Maeve and I was to make sure you got the map and letter and jewelry when the Seanmháthair passed to the other side. I can tell you did. Some of its magic is still floating around you like a fine silver mist.”
Máiréad’s jaw dropped. Liam found himself sitting down hard in shock.
They were both thinking it was impossible, but she seemed so sure.
The Cailleach sighed. She had expected some reluctance, but not the completely dumbfounded looks the two of them had on their faces.
“Do you hear me, child?” She looked from one to the other and shook her head and snapped her fingers to get them to look at her and focus on what she was saying. “We need to make a plan so when Maeve comes, you’re ready to go.”