“Mommy, can you tell me a story before bed?”
Iris glanced at the small brown bookcase across the room. Now that she’d become aware of the cold, she was reluctant to leave the warmth of the bed.
“Sure,” she said after a moment. “What would you like?”
Ella seemed to hesitate. “Is daddy going to be home soon?”
Iris gave her a curious look and spoke slowly. “I don’t think so…”
Ella’s expression brightened in that way that only seems to happen when you feel delighted and mischievous. “Can we read one of the fairy stories?”
A laugh tickled at Iris’s throat, but she just smiled at the pleading green eyes with flecks of golden brown.
She reached over the edge of the bed and pulled out a small pink shoe-box decorated with plastic beads and glitter-glue from underneath it.
Ella had fallen in love with fairy tales as soon as she could understand them. But despite her grandmother’s insistence that she only watch the Disney versions, she’d always been fascinated with the much older, mature classics. The perfect gift for her was a new Grimm story, or one of the Andrew Lang Coloured Fairy collections.
Like his mother, Jon had never been impressed by the gruesome, tragic nature of many of the original tales, and refused to consider allowing Ella to read them. But Iris encouraged it.
They were darker than she’d like, for a six-year-old girl, but Ella’s favorites always seemed to be the ones where the frightening, depressing elements were somehow overcome in the end. Often this resolution was not what she expected, but she liked the surprise even more.
Iris liked to believe that, even at her age, Ella appreciated that you have to go through a lot of struggles before you can get to your happy endings. Maybe she even understood in some way that so-called “happy endings” weren’t ever what you expected them to be, too.
Sometimes she figured she was probably over-thinking it, or even that she was giving Ella too much credit. But other times, while she read to her, she saw a glint of quiet, patient understanding in her eyes, and Iris knew she that neither of those things were true. Ella was smart. Ella was amazing.
“Okay,” she said, sifting through the books in the box, “what do you want to hear?”
Iris nodded, searching. One book, near the bottom, still had a bookmark only a few pages into it. The cover was a faded green with Celtic knots around the edges. The pages were yellowed with age and Iris turned them carefully.
She hadn’t gone through the book of Irish tales to weed out the ones that were a little too mature, but the story right after the bookmark looked good enough.
“The Selkie,” she read, her voice soft but commanding, and she began to read.
“Once there was a man who lived in a farmhouse at the edge of the sea. The nearest village was half a days walk, and the man had no one to keep him company. But he lived happily enough, even though he was lonely.One day the man was fishing in a hidden cove just as the sun was beginning to set on the horizon. As he was preparing to leave after a day without any fish, he came across a selkie skin. It was dark brown and thick like leather, but smooth and slippery. The man had heard tales of selkies before, and he knew that they were shape-shifters who lived in the ocean. They looked like seals, but when they chose to, they could shed their animal skin and walk on the land in the guise of a human. Selkie women were said to be beautiful, and the lonely man grew excited. He knew that if he’d found this skin, there must be a selkie woman nearby.”
“What’s a selkie?” Ella asked in a hushed voice. She knew to only interrupt a story when she didn’t understand something, and she’d become very polite about it.
“It just said that, baby,” Iris said. “It’s like a seal, but it can become a person. You remember the seals at the zoo?”
“Well they look like that when they’re in the ocean. Then when they want to, they come out of the water and look like people.”
“Are they real?”
Iris frowned and pursed her lips. Ella often understood the line between real and imaginary, but Iris had never wanted to take the possibility of magic away from her little girl.
“I don’t know,” she said finally. “Do you think so?”
Ella’s shoulders rose and fell in an expressive shrug and she took another sip of her tea.
“Should we keep going?”
Ella nodded and Iris continued.
“So, packing up his things, the man took the selkie skin and explored the cove, hoping to find the woman and relieve his loneliness for a while. He soon found the owner of the skin, and she was indeed beautiful. She stood on the rocks, basking in the light of the setting sun. Her long red hair gleamed and her eyes shone bright.Seeing her beauty, the man wished that she were his, and made himself known to her. When he expressed his feelings, she told him that she would stay for a while, but asked that he return her skin so she could go back to her people when she chose.In his loneliness, the man became selfish. He refused and demanded that the woman be his bride so he would never have to be alone again. The selkie had no wish to stay on land and again begged for her skin. But the man knew that as long as he kept the skin from her, she would have no choice but to stay with him. So he kept it.So, having no other choice but to wander the beach alone, and no other place to go, the selkie agreed to go with him.Soon they were married in the village, though no one knew that she was a creature of magic, and the man hid the selkie’s skin in a locked chest. The selkie was a good wife, but she often spent long days watching the sea through the window, or sitting beside the trunk with her skin inside, wishing to go back back to her people.”
“Does that mean she didn’t want to marry the man?” Ella whispered suddenly.
The question made Iris smile. She might have heard the story of the selkie at some point in her life, but she didn’t remember it, and she wasn’t sure how she liked it so far. With her own dislike in mind, she thought it was amusing that her kindergartner was picking up on it, too.
“Yes, I think it does.”
“But why would they get married if she didn’t want to.”
“I don’t know,” Iris said, choosing her words carefully. “The man was lonely, I guess. He wanted to marry her so he wouldn’t be lonely.”
Ella wasn’t convinced. Her face scrunched up, her lips pursed to one side.
“Not a good reason, huh?” Iris asked.
Ella shook her head with a careful slowness.
Iris shook her head in time with her, agreeing. When there wasn’t a response, she went on.
“Time passed and the woman gave birth to three children. She loved them very much, even though she still missed the ocean and her home there. One day when the children had grown quite a bit, the man took the older children to fish in his new boat.While they were away, the youngest child caught his mother staring out of the window towards the shimmering beach. He asked her why she was sad, and if she was worried about their family in the boat. His mother told him no, she wasn’t worried. But when he pressed her further, she said that she was sad because she’d once come from the ocean, and even though it was long ago, she missed it very much.The young boy asked why she couldn’t go back if it made her sad, but she would only say that his father kept something of hers, and she couldn’t go home without it. But her youngest child was smart for a boy of his age, and when he heard this, he remembered stories he’d heard in the village about magical creatures who shed their watery skins to walk on land.He also remembered something else.Running to the fireplace, he reached up into the chimney and pulled down an old key made of iron. He gave it to his mother. Her eyes near tears, she asked how he knew where this key was, and he told her that he’d seen his father take it from its hiding place once, late at night. He had opened the large chest in their bedroom with it and stared at it for a long time. When he pulled out its contents, it looked like shining leather. The man held it in his hands for a long time before putting it back, locking the chest and hiding the key once more. The boy hadn’t known what it was until he realized the secret of his mother.Her heart bursting with both joy and sorrow, the selkie rushed to the chest and pulled out her own skin, holding it to herself like a lost lover.Leaning down to kiss her youngest son’s cheek, she told him that she would alway love him, and she would always be near to keep him safe. With his blessing, she ran to the beach and slid back into her true skin, transforming back into her own magical self and leaping into the sea.When the man and his children came home to find what had happened, he felt lost without his wife. But their children took comfort in the fact that she had gone back to her own people and was happy.And for many years after that, a beautiful seal could often be seen circling the coves near the farm, her dark auburn skin glinting in the sunlight as she kept watch over her human family.”
For a moment, Iris was overcome by that hollow sensation all over again. Her chest felt empty, her thoughts fuzzy and fractured. She clenched her eyes shut and took a deep breath, opening them to watch Ella as the book closed.
As if on cue, she heard the front door open and close, followed by footsteps in the hall. She seemed to snap back into herself, her mind clear and her vision sharp. She slid the book back into the box and pushed it under the bed.
The click of the bathroom door closing echoed through the hallway.
“So,” she said finally, snuggling closer to Ella, “what do you think?”
Ella seemed to think about it for a while, but Iris could see the exhaustion settling into her cool green eyes. She yawned.
“Did she really leave her family?” she asked over a second yawn.
“I guess so,” Iris answered.
“Didn’t she miss them?”
“I’m sure she did. She watched over them afterwords, right?”
“They why did she leave them alone?”
Iris paused, afraid of what she might say.
“Why do you think she did?” she finally asked.
Ella looked up at the glow-in-the-dark stars taped to the chipped ceiling, her eyelids drooping. “Because she wanted to go home.”
Iris gave her a wry grin. “Yeah, I guess she did.”
Ella seemed to think some more, then looked directly at her mother.
“Would you leave me to go home?”
Iris’s breath caught in her throat and there was suddenly an aching weight in her chest. She didn’t bother to ask her little girl why she would ever ask such a thing, or even tease her about such a fear. Even at her age, Ella knew the cost of abandonment.
Instead, Iris leaned closer, her eyes closing. She rested her forehead against Ella’s, the tips of their noses touching. She took a deep breath, taking in the light powdery scent of her daughter.
“You are my home, baby girl.”