Máiréad got up and walked over to the fire. She was clearly weighing her words carefully. When she spoke, she asked the Cailleach if she would explain what she meant. Mindful of the old woman’s warning before her death to keep things to herself, Máiréad asked without giving anything away. 

The Cailleach sighed again and sat in the big chair closest to the fire to warm her old bones. She motioned them over and told them to sit. Máiréad looked at Liam and shrugged. They might as well talk to her and hear her story. It couldn’t do any harm to listen after all. Liam nodded back and pulled over a chair from the kitchen and seated himself next to Máiréad. Once they were seated, the Cailleach started telling the story of how she had been here the might that Maeve had come to meet with the Seanmháthair and check on Máiréad. She left nothing out. Telling of the times she and Maeve had walked the coastline and talked of the future that Máiréad would have to face one day and the choices she would have to make. She finished by mentioning that she had seen the sheet on the line and that it was necessary, but that it could be some time before Maeve came to check on her because she had just been there a short time ago. 

Now it was Máiréad’s turn to sigh deeply. She just couldn’t stay here waiting for someone who might never come. She looked at Liam, his thoughts were turned inward, but his feelings about the matter were obvious. She hated to hurt him, but she had to go and find out what had happened to her as a young child that had left her on the beach in the Seanmháthair’s path. She had to know what had happened to her parents. She had to know who she was. 

Máiréad straightened up in her chair, looked the Cailleach in the eye and said if Maeve didn’t return soon she would be going to head out on her own. The Cailleach nodded, as if she were confirming what she already knew, and looked at Liam. Seeing his poorly masked dismay she chuckled a bit and said, “Don’t you worry little lamb, you’ll be busy with your own adventures while she’s away.” Liam was startled but decided not to ask what she meant since he wasn’t sure he wanted to know. He heard the words “while she’s away” though and hoped that meant she wasn’t going to disappear from his life for good. He didn’t have any friends except Máiréad, so her loss would be sharply felt if she were to stay away forever.

The Cailleach spent the hours of early evening straight into the inky darkness of midnight, telling them all the things she thought they needed to know. She answered their questions and helped them understand the expectations both of them would have to live with. Máiréad would have to hide her time spent with humans or she would be suspect from the start, and Liam would have to hide his knowledge of almost every part of this from everyone but the Cailleach. At midnight the Cailleach sent Liam home, reminding him he couldn’t make people question anything Máiréad did, and that included spending the night under her roof and the gossip that would follow. Liam blushed furiously and stammered he’d never… and then decided he was safer off keeping his mouth shut lest he put his foot in it. As Liam picked up his things, Máiréad watched him, smiling a little because even his ears were red with embarrassment. Liam was a good person, and she was sure he’d find a girl in the village who made him blush like that. Máiréad felt a little twinge of regret that things couldn’t stay as they were. She knew she was leaving, but that didn’t mean she wouldn’t miss her old life and her only friend. 

When Liam had trundled off into the darkness, they stood in the doorway until the light from his lantern was gone. Then the Cailleach turned to Máiréad, looking more serious, and a little saddened by something, and touched her face. Gently, as if memorizing her features. She didn’t know what to think but Máiréad knew better than to question the Cailleach so she just stood there while the woman muttered “so much like her…” After they went inside they sat by the fire for a long time before the Cailleach said out loud, “Ask me what you really want to know.” and waited for Máiréad to summon the courage to ask the things she didn’t want to share with Liam. Máiréad asked question after question about selkies, Maeve, and everything related to her pending trip. After she was quiet for a while, the Cailleach asked her if she had a different question. Máiréad was squirming in her seat a little, but bravely said she wanted to know what would happen to Liam after she left. 

The Cailleach took a deep breath and told her she couldn’t share his future with her but that she should know there there would come a time when Liam would need her and that if she heard from him, she should come back to help him, otherwise there would be trouble. Máiréad was troubled by this revelation and considered the possibilities for a moment before asking if she came back if things would be ok. The Cailleach looked into the fire and didn’t answer for a long time. Finally, when Máiréad was almost sure she was asleep, she answered. She said, “He will be fine as long as you come. It is you that will lose everything.” Máiréad felt a chill run down her spine at the ominous sounding prediction. 

The next thing she knew, the Cailleach was up and reaching for her coat and shawl and talking about the long walk home as if nothing else had happened that evening. When she was at the door, she put her hand on Máiréad’s and told her not to worry, that as long as she listened to her heart and not her head everything would be fine. And with that she walked off, her shape blending into the darkness almost immediately. Watching her disappear, Máiréad was left shivering for more reasons than just the cold. However, since the future wasn’t something she could change tonight, she decided to go back to bed and rest up for the next day. It was already the middle of the night, and if she wanted to appear composed at the funeral, she would need her wits about her. As she climbed into bed, she thought about all the things the Cailleach had told them and drifted off to sleep thinking about what kind of emergency would have Liam ask her for help.

The morning dawned bright and crystal clear. The air was so cold it made sounds carry for miles, so when Máiréad heard the approaching horse and its jangling harness she knew it was the mortician come to get the Seanmháthair for today’s funeral. She didn’t want to get up. She was warm under the covers and for a second she thought that maybe if she just ignored the world all her problems would go away. She snorted, laughing at herself, and rolled back the comforter and hopped out of bed. Her feet cold on the wood floor, she quickly washed her face and slipped on the only dark color she owned, a deep green dress that had been the Seanmháthair’s. Máiréad felt comforted by the feel of it, and the scent that clung to the fabric brought tears to her eyes. She didn’t know if she could do this; she thought. When the knock on the door came, she swallowed hard and went to let the mortician in. 

Within an hour it seemed like half the town was in her living room and kitchen. Women had left their older children home to watch out for the younger ones, so nobody there was from Máiréad’s class at school. She was beginning to feel like an oddity when Liam and his Aunt and Uncle came in the door. She smiled in relief and found several pairs of eyes watching her watch their approach. Liam’s Aunt and Uncle gave her their sympathies and told her they were happy to help any way they could. Liam stood back and waited until they were done to talk to her. He asked if the Cailleach had stayed the night and what they had talked about after he had gone. Máiréad didn’t want to tell him there would be a day he would call on her and if she came to help him, she would lose everything because she didn’t know what that meant yet. She also didn’t want to tell him in case he came to a point where he would have reached out to her for help and decided not to in order to spare her the loss of anything. She couldn’t help but think this was as confusing as it had been trying to figure out what to do about the loss of the Seanmháthair. She took a deep breath and clenched her fist in the folds of her skirt. Steeling her resolve, she told him she would talk to him later when there weren’t so many prying eyes. At that, he turned and realized how many people were watching them. He could almost see the curiosity in their eyes. He knew it wasn’t unheard of for a girl left on her own at a young age to marry, to have someone to take care of her, but he hadn’t considered that the village would think the two of them a good match. He thought about it for a minute, considering the fact that many marriages started with less than friendship. Then he shook his head a little and realized what he was thinking. Máiréad didn’t want to be married. She wanted to go off on her adventure and find her family, not marry into a new one. Even if it was one she enjoyed, like his. It had put the thought in his mind though and it was hard not to think about how much he would enjoy always having Máiréad to talk to and how dull the days would be if she were to marry and follow in the footsteps of the village women, rounded with pregnancy after pregnancy until her childbearing days were over with nothing to talk about but nappies and feedings and teeth coming in.

He went to join his Auntie and Uncle to save her from the speculating looks they were getting as he stood near Máiréad and tried to appear untroubled. The priest eventually arrived and said the Funeral Mass, at which point everyone exited the house almost en masse to go to the cemetery for the Rite of Committal, the last words that would be spoken over the Seanmháthair in this world. Máiréad wondered if the Cailleach would be at the cemetery or if she would arrive later when people had gone so she could talk to the Seanmháthair one last time and conduct her own rites of passage from pre-christian days when Ireland was full or Pagans and magic. Máiréad realized she was stalling. She didn’t want to go to the cemetery. She didn’t want to say goodbye. Tears started to roll down her cheeks and Liam felt his guts twist at the sight of pure sadness. He had never thought of Máiréad as either alone or lonely, but today she looked both. He itched to go comfort her but didn’t want to create a scene. When the last of the mourners had said their piece and left the house, Liam went over to her and held his arms open. Máiréad collapsed into them and cried until his shirt was wet and she was exhausted. Liam’s Aunt came up and offered Máiréad her coat and shawl and told her it was time to go. Máiréad appreciated her kindness and smiled in gratitude while she sniffled. Liam laughed and handed her his handkerchief. She giggled for a second, aware of how she probably looked and put her hand on his shoulder. “Thank you”, she said. “I’d been trying not to, and somehow I just couldn’t hold it in anymore.” He smiled and shook his head as if to negate what he had done by offering her a safe place to cry. She smiled again. He really was a good friend. With that, she straightened and put on her coat and shawl and went outside to say goodbye.

All of a sudden, it seemed, she was in the cemetery surrounded by people she barely knew. Equally sudden was the end of the rites and the internment of the Seanmháthair. Máiréad was numb as she watched the simple casket go into the ground and couldn’t make herself walk away. Finally, Liam’s Aunt and a couple of the older women in the village put their arms around her and drew her back from the edge of the grave. She couldn’t look away, but she knew she needed to leave. She whispered her last words to the woman that had cared for her for her whole life as she knew it, “Goodbye Grandmother.” and allowed herself to be taken away.

2 thoughts on “Máiréad the Selkie Queen (part 6)

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