“I’m not sure I’d fully considered it before, but I am now. What can I do to prepare?”, she asked.
The Cailleach chuckled a little to herself and said, “At least you asked and you’ve begun to think about it, that is a good start.” She then turned and faced Máiréad, stopping the girl in her tracks, looked her in the eye and told her, “If you want to prepare the right way, you’ll need time. Can you wait? Can you give me a month? Or do you not have that kind of patience in you?”
Máiréad considered what the Cailleach was asking her for and decided that the weather would improve in the next month, she would have a chance to learn what she needed to know in order to survive the trip, and she would have time to say goodbye to a life she might not return to. At that thought, her face sobered, she thought about never seeing Liam again and it felt too sad to consider at length so she shook her head as if to clear out that thought and said, “Yes, I can wait a month and take the time to learn what I need to know.” The Cailleach nodded at her and motioned to their left. Máiréad looked around and saw the shop where they would trade in her pearls.
They went inside and chatted with the proprietor over tea as he explained the deal he had made with the old woman when she had first come into his shop. Detailing the agreement that he would take as many as three pearls at a time and never reveal where they came from, he explained it would keep the prices stable and not glut the market. Máiréad nodded, understanding that she would have to make it possible for Liam or the Cailleach to trade in her name, as the old woman had done for her. She discussed it with the shop owner and they agreed she could leave him with three this time, and three more before she left and then the Cailleach would be her representative. The Cailleach, in turn, suggested she bring Liam the next time that she came so he and the man could meet in case Liam needed to come with some pearls someday. Máiréad explained that she didn’t think Liam would want to do that but the Cailleach said she would talk to him and explain the need to have both of them have the ability to trade the pearls in case something happened and one of them wasn’t able to come. The shopkeeper nodded and asked if they would like to set up an account to hold the money until it was needed or if they wanted to take home pound notes like the old woman had always done. Máiréad thought for a moment and decided if the old woman had thought it was better to take the notes, then she would stick with the same plan. The shopkeeper nodded and got up to get her the payment for her pearls. When he came back her eyes widened, Máiréad had never seen so much money and couldn’t imagine spending enough to ever need more. The Cailleach got up and Máiréad realized their time was over. She wasn’t sure what to do with the money and looked at the Cailleach as if to ask. The Cailleach smiled slightly and held out her bag. Máiréad realized this was just one way the Cailleach had known she was not ready to leave on her trip yet. If she wasn’t able to think ahead far enough to realize she would need to carry home her payment, then how could she be expected to protect herself on the long journey and in the Selkie Kingdom itself?
The Cailleach waited until they were outside before she stopped Máiréad and pointed to a bench and asked her to sit. Máiréad was slightly surprised, but did as she was bid. When she looked at the Cailleach, the woman’s eyes were softer than Máiréad had ever seen them. She wasn’t sure why, but it startled her. The Cailleach sighed, as if she understood Máiréad’s confusion and put her hand on the girl’s arm, as if to comfort her. “Listen child, you are a remarkable being, there is nothing wrong with not knowing everything you need to know right away. I know you may be feeling like you’re out of your depth, but that is just because you haven’t had time to learn what you need to know yet. But you will. I will teach you, and if we need other help, I’ll find it. And maybe, just maybe, by the time you’re ready to go Maeve will have come and you’ll be doubly prepared for your journey. However, even if she hasn’t, I believe that we can get you ready in the next month. You’re smart and you have an intuitive understanding of both of the worlds in which you live. I have faith in your ability to become the woman you need to be in order to take your rightful place in the Selkie hierarchy as it’s Queen. But I saw your face inside, and it looked like you might have felt uninformed and overwhelmed. I just wanted to take a minute to assure you there is no way you could have been prepared for this.”
Máiréad could feel tears shimmering at the edge of her lashes and tried to keep them from falling, but couldn’t. As welled up and then plopped down on her lap, the Cailleach handed her a handkerchief and then put her hand on Máiréad’s shoulder. Her touch was soothing. It reminded Máiréad of how the old woman used to reassure her, and she felt better. She smiled up at the Cailleach and realized how important she had become in the short time they had known each other. “Thank you” Máiréad said, appreciating the Cailleach’s willingness to be here and to help her. Without her guidance, Máiréad might have gone off without an inkling of the kinds of things she needed to know in order to survive her journey and her arrival in the Selkie Kingdom. Just knowing she was not alone on this journey, even if the Cailleach could only be there for the first part, made her feel better. As the two of them started the walk home, Máiréad realized how lucky she was to know people who were so willing to help her instead of telling her what to do or expecting her to be unable to take responsibility for her own life.
As dusk descended, they arrived back in the village and Máiréad headed back to the cottage, tired but feeling better about the days to come now that she didn’t have to pretend she had everything figured out. She thought about Liam and how upset she had been with him for suggesting she might not have everything figured out, and decided she needed to talk to him first thing in the morning. She didn’t want him to think she didn’t appreciate all his help, so she needed to explain everything that had happened and how it had felt to realize she was going off on her own. How it was scary and exhilarating, and how it felt strange and normal all at once. The only thing that had ever confused her more was Liam. Which was another thing she needed to think through. She knew the dream that she had about him had also affected the way she had been behaving towards him and that she needed to come to terms with it. Máiréad sighed deeply and continued to put one foot in front of the other, trudging along the worn path back to the cottage, wishing Liam was here to keep her company and then realizing she was thinking of him because she was wondering what would happen if she told him about her dream. Yet again she was torn between two sets of feelings. Fear that Liam would think her dream and her curiosity were misplaced or ridiculous, and a deep awareness that she did not think that would be his reaction and what might happen if she told him she had imagined them together.
When she finally made it back to the cottage, she found a note from Liam that he’d taken care of the cow and the other chores and that he’d be back in the morning to hear about her trip to sell the pearls. She smiled, relieved that she could just drop into bed, and thought to herself that Liam truly was a good friend. As soon as she thought that, she realized that might be where some of her fear was in thinking of him as more than a friend. If he didn’t feel the same way, she risked losing the friendship by interjecting her late night thoughts about him that came from her dream. As Máiréad got ready for bed, she realized she was too tired to think anymore and decided to worry about everything in the morning when she was rested and could think clearly again.
The next morning dawned clear and bright, but Máiréad was still tired. She had dreamed about choppy seas and being attacked by a school of sharks out on the hunt for food and coming home to a court of angry selkies who did not want her there. She had woken several times during the night and she felt exhausted instead of rested. The bright sunshine was almost an affront, and she dearly wished for a rainy day to blow in off the ocean. Since it didn’t look like that was happening she decided to start her day by checking the line to be sure the bed sheet was still firmly attached to the line in case Maeve came and then getting some milk for her tea and some eggs for breakfast. She wrapped a shawl around her shoulders to ward off the early morning chill and opened the door only to come face to face with Liam. She yelped in surprise, and her surprise startled him so much that he almost dropped the pail of milk and the basket of eggs he had in his hands. “What in the world…?” She managed to squeak out. His lopsided grin was endearing, but she was grumpy and couldn’t quite let go of being startled while she was still not fully awake. She snapped at him, “What are you doing here this early?”
Liam looked crestfallen and replied, “I just wanted to hear about yesterday.” As he looked down at his feet, not meeting her gaze, she felt awful. She was blaming him for things that were not his fault and decided she needed to start again.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t sleep well, and I woke up feeling tired. I didn’t mean to make you feel unwelcome.”
Liam looked up and caught her eyes, still looking unsure. “Do you want me to come back later?”, he asked tentatively.
“No. No, come in. You’ve made my morning easier and I appreciate that even if I’m making a mess out of showing it.”
Liam nodded and wiped his boots, handing her the eggs and milk so he could close the door behind him and take off his coat and hat. Máiréad carefully walked into the kitchen so she wouldn’t spill the milk and once she had everything set down she took a minute to decide what needed to come first. First, she decided was putting water on to boil for tea. Then she’d cook up some eggs for them so they could eat while they talked. After the kettle was on the hob, she cut two thick slices of bread to toast and cracked several eggs into the cast iron pan that was already on the stove warming up. As she worked, Liam got out plates and cups and got the teapot ready for the boiling water. Máiréad was aware of the easy and companionable silence as they worked around each other and felt the same tears that had welled up in her eyes the other day with the Cailleach start to build up again. She blinked rapidly, trying desperately not to let them fall. Máiréad didn’t want to cry right now. She just wanted a peaceful breakfast. The hard she tried to convince herself not to cry, the harder her body seems to fight her. She felt her throat close up and her nose start to run and finally the tears burst through and she stifled a quick sob, determined to get a rag and wipe her face before Liam noticed. She should have known that wouldn’t work. Liam, ever aware of what was going on around him, and coming into his power as a Seer, was acutely aware of how Máiréad was feeling this morning. He wasn’t sure what to do, but he knew she was upset so when he heard the tiny soft sob she let escape he was sure he needed to do something. So he did what his Auntie always did. It was instinctive; he had known her so long it just made sense to go and hug her tight. Máiréad didn’t fight it. She needed the comfort after her disturbing dreams and the intense day she had with the Cailleach yesterday. She needed some peace, and Liam offered that.
They stood, hugging each other and just breathing for several long minutes. When Máiréad stopped crying, she sniffled a couple of times before Liam reached into his pocket and slipped her his handkerchief. She almost laughed at how much this felt like being hugged by the old woman or touched on the shoulder by the Cailleach the other day. It relieved her to find their friendship was clearly still intact despite her strange dream earlier. Until she looked up and realized Liam was staring at her. She flushed from the intensity of his gaze and looked away quickly. When she took a half step back, Liam let go of her, but he stood there, not moving away as she had thought he would. He seemed reluctant to leave the tiny space they had created for themselves against the encroaching world when they had wrapped their arms around each other. Máiréad wiped her eyes and forced a little laugh and offered him what she hoped was a normal smile. She didn’t know what he had been thinking, but when he had looked at her like that she had felt the way she had in her dream the other night, hot and cold and shaky and confused. It was such a mixed up combination of feelings that she decided breakfast was definitely safer to think about right now. Maybe later, when she was alone, she would try to figure out what had happened, why the intensity of his eyes had made her feel so comfortable and so uncomfortable at the same time. For now, she moved to the stove and realized thankfully that the eggs she had put in the pan were just a little overcooked but not inedible. She took the toast out of the oven and the kettle off the hob and assembled the meal quickly so nothing would get cold. When they sat down together, it seemed both of them had decided to put the hug aside and focus on the normalcy of sitting down for a meal.