The Cailleach waited for them to tell her what they wanted to know, and it only took them a second of eye contact with each other for Liam to understand he was going to ask his questions first. Máiréad sat back and watched as he stammered and stuttered about seeing things and not knowing if he was imagining them, or if they were real, and how was he supposed to know? His question seemed to turn into a monologue that went on and on, so the Cailleach finally stopped him and asked if what he was asking about was how to know if he was a Seer. Liam looked at her for a minute and said, “Well, yes, I suppose that’s it”. The Cailleach nodded gently and said, “You do appear to have the gift. But you’re the only one who will know if you are a Seer or not. And that will only come with time and practice.” Liam looked supremely dissatisfied with her answer, but knew better than to actually question the Cailleach. Whether she was the village hag, or a witch, or the Cailleach was immaterial, she scared him, and rightly so. The stories he had heard of the Cailleach from his Auntie always came with a lesson and it was almost always to beware making the Cailleach angry else she take out her hammer and destroy the land and bring in winter to make it unbearable for man and beast alike. He may not know everything, but he knew enough to listen when his Auntie warned him that something could be dangerous because she was almost always right.
In the time between Liam starting talking and that moment was a minute at most, but in that minute something started to brew in his head. He thought his eyesight had gotten blurry and then realized it was his other sight that he was using now; it surprised him to have the knowledge, but suddenly he just knew it. In his mind’s eye, he saw Máiréad and then saw her jump off a cliff and plunge into the ocean. He strained his vision but couldn’t see her come up. He shuddered, and the Cailleach touched his arm. Liam froze because in that split second he could see who she really was. He saw her icy pale blue skin and black teeth and her wild white hair flowing around her. He jumped when she spoke, momentarily unsure which one of the two Cailleachs he could see was speaking. She must have sensed it because she told him, “Relax little lamb Seeing isn’t easy to learn and in the beginning it is hard to manage it when the two sights overlap. You’ll figure it out.”
Liam blinked his eyes furiously, trying to get the frightening image of the Cailleach out of his head. He knew he could never look at the woman the same way again now that he had seen her as An Chailleach Bhéara, the goddess of winter and the weather and one of the most powerful deities there was. The Cailleach squinted her eyes a bit, looked at him, and cautioned softly, “That little secret is best kept between us”.
While Liam’s face changed from one expression to another, Máiréad looked from him to the Cailleach and tried to pay attention to what they were talking about. She knew she should care because Liam had serious questions just like she did, but they were speaking softly and she couldn’t get her thoughts in order. She wasn’t trying to belittle the importance of his new gift, of course, but she did feel that her issue was the more urgent of the two problems at the moment. A thought which led her back to focusing on herself again. She had been starting to tune out the conversation again and shook herself a little. ‘Pay attention!’ she thought. When the Cailleach looked at her, Máiréad gave a half smile and the Cailleach caught a faraway look in her eye that made her revise her guess as to how long Máiréad would stay now that she was alone. She had been thinking the girl might make it until Maeve came again, but now she guessed Máiréad would make it no further than three weeks at the most. As for Máiréad being alone, the Cailleach looked from Liam to her and thought she might have to revise that statement too.
The Cailleach knew some of Máiréad’s questions would be impossible to answer but she supposed it was best to get the ones she could answer out of the way today since she had just realized that with limited time she would have to teach Máiréad quickly before she left. So she asked Máiréad what questions she had and sat back to wait for the river of words she was sure was coming. Máiréad had so many questions she wasn’t sure what to ask at first, but quickly focused on Maeve and what the Cailleach knew of her. Máiréad asked what she was like, when they had met, and she asked for details about her interactions with the Seanmháthair, what she looked like, if there was anything ‘unusual’ about her and a dozen more questions. The Cailleach took her time and answered as best she could. My the end of the barrage of questions and their answers Máiréad knew that Maeve was a tall, strong woman with the black hair of the coastline where Iberian invaders had come and stayed and mingled their dark-haired genes into the light-skinned and light eyed locals. Máiréad learned that Maeve was ageless but appeared to be around 30. She also found out that Maeve was chosen for her role of caomhnóir teaghlaigh, the family guardian, as her mother had been before her and her grandmother before that. The role was one of honor and one most families held onto for generations. The Cailleach finally running out of details when Máiréad asked her about the relationship between Maeve and the Seanmháthair. She explained that was something Maeve had kept to herself. The Cailleach looked Máiréad in the eye and said that was why she had never said anything to her as she was growing up, she had promised Maeve that she would only get involved if Máiréad needed her.
Liam sat there with his jaw slack. He couldn’t believe what he’d seen, and the low voiced warning to keep it to himself made him want to ask if the ‘us’ they were keeping it between included Máiréad because he was going to want to talk about it with her. He waited for the Cailleach to tell Máiréad she was An Chailleach Bhéara. The Cailleach. That was going to take some getting used to, he thought. But the Cailleach said nothing about it. She didn’t reveal herself in any way. Liam took a deep breath and supposed he’d have to ask the Cailleach directly when Máiréad wasn’t around.
Máiréad had one final question. She wanted to know if Maeve had any ‘unusual’ characteristics. The Cailleach knew what Máiréad was asking. She wanted to know if Maeve was a selkie too. The Cailleach had been withholding that piece of information to see what lengths Máiréad and Liam would go to in order to protect her secret. Máiréad said nothing and the Cailleach finally said, “You might as well just ask it girl, you want to know if Maeve is a selkie just like you. She paused, Well, she is a selkie, but not just like you. Nobody is quite like you”. Máiréad felt her stomach drop, and she thought for a minute she was going to be sick. Nobody was supposed to know that. The letter from Maeve and the warnings of the Seanmháthair were fresh in her mind and she knew neither woman would have shared her secret lightly, but the fact that it had been shared at all made her feel uncomfortable. Liam came to her chair and put his hand on her shoulder, offering his support with whatever she decided to say.
Máiréad swallowed past the lump in her throat and squeaked out, “What?”
I said, “You are a selkie but there is nobody quite like you and you have the jewelry and the family tree to prove it.” Máiréad stared at her. The Cailleach continued, “I know Liam knows so I think we should stop pretending so we can get you ready for your journey”.
Again, Máiréad swallowed hard. She managed to ask, “What do you mean?” before she looked over her shoulder and up towards Liam. He shook his head just the tiniest bit. He had said nothing. Not that Máiréad really thought he would, but if he hadn’t said anything then the only other possibility was that the Cailleach knew her secret because she was supposed to. Máiréad decided to take the chance and admit her dual nature to the Cailleach.
“So it seems that you know…” Máiréad let the statement hang in the air, waiting to see what the Cailleach would say. She didn’t have to wait for long. The old woman nodded and breathed out long and slow and then began to tell her the story of Maeve and her quest to find the answers to the misfortunes of Máiréad’s early life.