The conclusion of my strange little tale.
We seldom receive visitors from the outside world. What, after all, would anyone come here seeking? We attract vagabonds, and drifters, and storytellers. The flotsam and jetsam of society, and those seeking their own truth in the lives of others.
My mother and I are pegging our nightgowns when I spy a horse the colour of sea foam on the coastal path. As she clips nearer her rider raises his head and looks at us. From this distance I can tell the gaze is piercing with intent, and my mother slops her dishrags onto the line with narrow eyes.
I go to the door, but no further. My mother steps forward to meet the stranger as he dismounts. Words are exchanged, and though my mother keeps her stance relaxed her voice is tempered by the murmuring tone of caution.
The stranger looks straight at me, and I straight back at him, into his mourners’ black eyes, bereft of human happiness. He steps forward as my mother steps between us, and I remember lips like his upon my own.
He bows his head and turns away, back to his horse.
“They will keep doing this,” I tell her.
“Let them,” she replies.
Her face says she will meet them all the same, but she is pale.
Selkie men are sad, curious creatures. One of my hands will bind me to my mother’s dead body, but the other will take his, and ride the white horse into the sea.
What is love, when it is so easily overtaken by madness?
My mother has only half of me, and at times I think she has the weaker of the two pieces. Hers is a life of fear – one slip and she’ll lose what is left.
It has to happen. The selkies know this, hence their calm patience, and perhaps I know this too. Perhaps it is the only thing keeping me from fighting her efforts.
Days pass, each one like the last. I do not worsen. I do not heal. Sometimes she cries in her sleep. I cannot help either of us.
The inevitable has happened. My mother’s face is glossed by the dull, pallid sheen of a fever. When I go to her she clings to me, but her eyes roam and roll back into her head so that only slivers of her irises are visible.
She murmurs something, but I can’t tell what she is trying to say. Fevers talk for their victims.
Her brow is aflame with a devil’s breath of heat, and she is shaking. I tie the silver thread between her wrist and mine, and this seems to quieten her. She lets me wrap her in her blanket, and her sweat has a sweet, fermenting odour.
“I’m still here.”
I can’t promise anything more.
The wind is high and northerly. It sweeps up the hill and beats the shutters with the violence of a trapped cat. I huddle beside my mother. The fever must be sweated out. The storm must be endured. I can do this, I tell myself. My mother begins to weep. She calls for my father, who will never come home. My eyes weep for her, for the fears I ought to possess, and a fist pounds the door.
Outside is a horse with a mane like ocean foam. If I go to it, and him, I will never see my mother again.
The sea screams, the wind shrieks. All the elements of the world are calling. Go, or stay. Decide, child, decide.
The door holds, but he is waiting. He senses my weakness, my indecision, my lack of power to say enough and send him back to his brothers. I am a coward. Unable to reject him or embrace him for fear of the decision’s consequences. I am empty. The strength which would make me human in a moment like this is lacking, corked away on the seabed.
What misery is this? Whose joke am I?
And at the window, his face! The same familiar stranger who rode up yesterday, and in his eyes the same sadness, so sympathetic to my own. He stares without hope, with every expectation. He does not speak, but he does not need to.
Adeline, I know you cannot leave her, but don’t you see that you are lost?
Only he can give back what he and his brethren took.
Only my mother can hold me back from him.
Only I can decide which is the greater power, and which path is forward from this shade-like half existence.
They both call just the same, and how can I choose between them? Everything I had, and everything I have left. Which means more? Which would my heart choose, if it could stir to feeling again?
Thunder rocks the house, and wooden crockery clatters across the floor. The roof shudders, groans as it fights to bear the weight of the elements. I throw myself over my mother, and the storm tears our house apart like a fox on a chicken.
It is a parallel situation. Debris and rubble surround me as the walls buckle, sagging inwards. Above the roar of falling stone I hear a horse scream. I see a flash of white, a mane ripped by the wind’s cruel fingers, and the dust is as the water was – in my lungs, filling the spaces of my body with possessive force.
I am beaten, attacked by a barrage of brick and wood. Bruises blossom across my back, and I am trapped as one of the great roof beams plummets. I cannot tell if my mother is alive. Beneath me she is soft and limp, but my ribs grate against hers. I cannot lift my head to see her, and though my soul is gone my body responds to the situation with something primal and agitated.
I spit, and the spittle is red. When I try to shift the load upon my back a hot lance of pain shoots up the bone, pinning me by the back of the neck. Black dots swarm on the edge of my vision. Whose joke is it, that now life seems worth living, soulless or no?
He is there, beside me, and as the invisible liquid of pain submerges me I can feel his hands upon me, easing me out of my trapped position, carrying me, bearing me up to his white horse. The time for choice has ended. I have waited too long, and now fate is deciding for me. How horrible, how vile it is, to be so weak as to be blown this way and that in life like a dandelion seed! My only life, and I cannot, will not dictate which way it goes. Is this the misery of womanhood? Is this all that I am?
I am a sick and sorry child, but even now I can imagine no greater humiliation than being rescued. I should be able to save myself. Others have, others will. My failure is a single failure. It will sway no one else’s fate.
The ragged cry passes between bloody lips. Its price is high. I look back, and she falls. He pauses, but he is not human. He puts me on the horse’s bare back, slips up behind me, and this is it. This is the last moment to make my choice. My defining moment, the single instance of my life in which a decision can change everything. What will I be, if I surrender? Can I wrench myself away? Do I even have the strength?
No. Of course not, but across the worlds my father reaches. Mortal, my mother calls, but it is the dead who speak to me. There is blood in my mouth. It is warm and fresh and living. The hands on my waist are not holding a corpse. Unlike my father, I am alive. Maybe not complete, but there is breath in my lungs where there is water in his.
Empty shells can be filled again, but not if they allow themselves to crumble.
I push his hands from mine, and slide to the wet earth as rain beats my forehead. For an instant, there is clarity. The fog which has for so long wrapped me in its folds clears away. I see my mother lying before the steps, having dragged her broken limbs over the ground to cry my name. I see the bloody gash on her forehead. I feel my own hurts, the bruises coming into flower, the trembling pressure that threatens my composure. Our broken house lies in pieces, a mound of rubble, and it is an ending. Limbo has broken. If I am to exist, I cannot be what I was, or linger where I am.
Now is the time for running headlong into whatever fate lies ahead, for breaking through the mist and finding what lies beyond. So I run.
My soul is gone, and what remains of me has grown old, but even in its wounded state my body is young, and it remembers how to fly over the slick earth. As a child I ran to the boats, to my father’s arms and the freedoms of the open sea. Then the night was a feared thing, and I revelled in daylight. Now all liberty lies far from here. I run away, and the night is my friend, the darkness my cloak and shield from the white horse and rider who charge on my shadow.
I go to the trees and the fairies. I go and do not reflect on what is behind me. For the first time I am a step ahead of the past. It breathes on my neck. If I break a pace it will catch me again, but for now I am with the moment, as I have not been for time beyond counting.
He follows. My mother has fallen out of our story, and this is the way it must be. No more hiding. If the spell is to be broken it must be by my own will.
I do not look back. If I do I will stumble, and he will scoop me up and bear me off to the ocean.
The leaves are black. They whip my hands and face. The rain drums ever harder. The storm rises to a tempest, and the trees stretch their arms towards me, hauling me onward even as he gallops behind. I go into the thickets and deeper reaches of the wood, where even a steed as fey as his will not ride.
The horse screams.
Now we are even matched in this chase, and even if my breath pours from my lungs in hungry gasps, I remain a few paces ahead.
The thorns rake my shoulders. They bleed me. It is another bargain. To survive the sea one must surrender their soul, but the wood asks a more earthly price. Passage by pain and blood. It is a toll I welcome. Every scratch is a reminder of what I have left to lose. My body will have life, whether it means happiness or not.
The foliage breaks into open ground. The flowers lie trampled by the heavy footfalls of the wind, and the grass is so sodden that it forgoes its footing in the soil under my steps. Ahead I see the edge of the cliffs, and beyond that the foaming chasm of the leaden ocean.
The familiar tug brings me to the edge, and below I see the tumultuous waves hurrying over one another in their efforts to reach me. Rain and spray bathe my wounds, and he steps from the trees behind me with all haste forgotten. Again he is patient, and when I look back his eyes are the same black eyes, devoid of all feeling.
We stand together, and look out at the storm.
“Why will you not come to us?” he asks. He is not curious. He asks because stories must have endings. All madness must be reasoned, and all truths told. We are loose threads. He is gathering us together, authoring my tale so that it remains twined with his.
“Because you can wait,” I tell him. “Before that I have a life to live.”
His face betrays neither confusion nor comprehension. He just blinks, long lashes curling down over the liquid of his eyes.
“One day you will have finished such affairs.” In his statement he asks a question. A bargain is being struck. How this story ends depends upon it.
“When I have sung my songs, loved my loves, and danced my dance. Then,” I agree. He nods, takes my face in his hands, and kisses me on the mouth. It is the only kiss I will ever have. When I take my lovers to the heather in spring I will repeat this moment through their lips. I will hear his voice in theirs, and when I have extinguished them it is he and his brothers who will remain, waiting. They will take these mortal bones to the sands off Redruth, and there I will remain until the world is changed.
I kiss him in return. His heart stirs, as mine quickens. Our bodies remember one another. They both welcome the familiarity of a known presence. I give, and receive, and our hands grasp at one another in desperate hope of unity. As our fingers twine I break our lips from contact, and he smiles. It is the first time I have seen him adopt such an expression, and something passes from his palm to mine. Something lost makes passage through the well-known corridors of my heart and settles in its rightful place. He blinks, and when his eyes open I could believe he loves me. Almost.
Some gifts are given in the expectation of a return favour.
The wind whips my hair back from my face. I hold it there, and our hands part. In this life, I will never know his touch again.
“We will wait for you,” he promises.
“Thank you.” I bow my head, and as the rain wets his face anew he is anointed with a silken gleam. His eyes do not waver from mine, and a moment passes thus.
“When you have sung your song, we will sing one together,” he says.
“Yes. We will,” I promise, and again he flicks his mouth into that same rueful smile. It is this face I remember as he turns his back and wanders along the ragged cliff to find his brothers in the sea.
We are parted, for this life, and the storm abates as the night wanes.
My heart beats, and as the rain falls down over my home I feel the exhilaration of the storm. It shivers my bones, runs my bloodstream, and holds me by the throat.
I am alive and feeling, alive and hurting, bleeding, and as I go to find my mother I gather these sensations. They culminate in strength, and though my body is tired my soul is buoyant with the anguished sweetness of mixed sentiment.
What will happen between this and the ending I have agreed upon?
I will find a path in the endless changing winds. I will write my own story, a life that is sad and joyous and like no other. I will be a full human being, and when I go to the sea foam, the song I sing with him will be a song worthy of other tales.
© Deanna Scutt, 2016