“So your great, great, great – how many greats – grandmother?” Brand asked.
“Six,” Aveny said, snuggling deeper into the crook of his arm and gazing out across the protected inlet of Deadman’s Cove. “Rionach.”
Brand nodded. “So Rionach wants you to return the skin to her, even though she died, like, 60 years ago?”
“And she was already, like, 200 years old when she died?” Brand asked.
“I think so,” Aveny, confirmed. “It’s hard to say for sure. She always looked young but she had to be well over a century. When Múireann – or Mary Catherine – died, she was an old white-haired lady, but Rionach still looked young. The whole selkie thing, I think longevity is part of it.”
“I always figured you’d outlive me,” Brand said with a smile. “She is dead now though, right?” he asked.
“Maybe she’ll act like it and give you a little peace now,” he posed.
Aveny felt strangely sad at the thought. She reached into her pocket and pulled out the original stone, an cloc cosanta. She’d found it at the sound, hidden among the multitude of rocks along the shoreline the night her transformation was complete. She smiled at the memory and rolled it between her fingers, relishing its soft polish.
The wind whipped through the trees above but all was still and quiet in the alcove. They could only just hear Luca, Brecken and Tali hauling driftwood industriously behind them. Aveny glanced back, confirming they were exactly where she’d commanded them to be, but she no longer feared for them in the sea. She knew the keen awareness that now accompanied their condition. She also felt the material and psychic bond stretched between them. They’d never be lost again.
Slowly, Aveny stood, pulling the skin from her backpack as she went. She ran her hands over its soft, furry surface, lifted it to her nose and inhaled its scent. Then she hugged it tightly to her chest and strode purposefully toward the sea. “I’m ready,” she said aloud.
And then Rionach was there, standing just inside her mind. “You’re human again, I see,” she said.
“And you’ve brought my skin?”
Yes, Aveny replied, proffering the silky form as evidence.
Rionach paused and pursed her lips. “Thank you.”
Aveny nodded. Thank you. I feel … better. I didn’t even know I wasn’t. The rift … I think it really is healed.
Rionach nodded in response, a small smile toying with the corners of her mouth. “It is. I feel it. Our family line is restored.”
Can I ask one question?
Rionach inclined her head.
Why did you attack that ship?
Rionach smiled, her grin broader and brighter than Aveny had ever seen it. The image was both breathtaking and unsettling.
“Those ships,” Rionach corrected.
There was more than one? Aveny queried, her heart sinking. She still felt betrayed somehow. Even the generations separating her from her ancestor did not alleviate the shame.
“Many more,” Rionach said, a powerful joy swelling inside her.
Aveny shied away. Why? she pressed, not sure if she really wanted the answer.
Rionach paused, her eyes twinkling as she gazed out to sea. Aveny could almost see the battles raging in her mind. And then she saw something else reflected in the dark pool of those unwieldy eyes; a young, green-eyed girl, gazing up through a trap door, her wrists and ankles shackled.
A boy locked in the hold of a burning ship, shielding his eyes from the blaze’s unexpected light.
A woman backed into the corner of a filthy brig, her infant child clutched tightly to her chest. An unyielding door finally wrenched ajar.
In each, the expression of terror melting into relief, into the joy of salvation.
“Almost since the beginning,” Rionach intoned, “our people have been peaceful. We dislike conflict.” She grimaced. “We are much more comfortable being victims than victors.”
Her face smoothed. “I was not.”
Aveny could see the memories unraveling in Rionach’s eyes as she spoke. “The sapiens – human beings – are conquerors,” she continued. “They lay claim to all. Anything they cannot use or tame, they annihilate. When they first sent ships out into the sea, they came back loaded with seal pelts. Whole colonies were decimated. Then, one netted and killed a selkie.
“The flames of their greed and power lust were stoked. More ships followed, this time specifically searching for the most desirable prey. They slaughtered millions of seals and sea lions in their quest to find us. And sometimes they did.
“Those they captured were killed, experimented on, sold into bondage for amusement and profiteering, and much worse. Our people fled, disappearing further and further into the far reaches of this planet.
“They followed everywhere we went – finding those that hid …. Until I found them.”
You attacked them to save your people? Aveny asked, her heart lifting.
Rionach raised her chin, her face alive with power. “I did,” she said. “Although, I was not without mercy. Like I said, I never stopped a man from throwing himself into the sea.” She smirked at the thought.
Why didn’t you just tell Mary Catherine – I mean Múireann?
Rionach sighed, gazing into the lapping cerulean waters. Aveny thought she saw a solitary tear brimming on the black rim of her eye.
“It was too late. The act was done. There was no going back.”
Rionach smiled ruefully and whispered, “She took great risks to find me, in the beginning. The joy of our reunion was infinite. But when she saw the battle, it confirmed what she had long been taught to believe – that our family’s heritage was an abomination, a sin against the God of her father. She felt betrayed – by me, by our people, by her own nature. She was filled with rage. She acted before I could reach her. And then, there was no turning back.”
Rionach’s eyes skimmed the horizon, as if still searching for an answer to the past.
“Her anger healed over time. She built a life for herself. But there was no undoing what had been done. Not then. So I left her to the life she chose. Undisturbed peace was the only gift I had left to give.
“If only ….” Rionach sighed and evaporated into glittering mist.
The gentle waves lapping softly against the shore hesitated, surged forward and encircled Aveny’s feet in a great rush of foamy teal.
As she lowered the skin gently into the surf, she felt a chorus of voices rising up to receive it; the great host of her ancestors, all individual beads strung together on a strand of which she and her family were now part.
As the skin slid out to sea, Aveny saw it unfurl and expand, transforming into a hazy gray shadow, roughly the shape of a seal.
“Thank you, Rionach,” she called into the expanse. The form rose gently on the tide, then dove down and dissipated into the dark beyond.
Aveny didn’t have all the answers but she felt confident – perhaps for the first time ever – that the answers would come.
She glanced over her shoulder and smiled at Brand, Luca, Brecken and Tali playing happily on the shore.
Aveny found herself deeply aware of the solid ground beneath her feet. She inhaled and the atmosphere felt full and hearty in her lungs. A revitalizing scent of salted evergreen sashayed past her nose and she felt a wild invigoration welling inside her. She didn’t hesitate.
She locked eyes with Brand, casting him a wide-mouthed grin. He smiled easily back. Then, she leapt forward and dove headfirst into the sea, transforming effortlessly as she went. For the first time, she felt whole; full in the knowledge of who she was and ready for whatever was yet to come.