Ellen realized for the first time how much her husband had changed when she took the tea into his office.
There is such a thing as the force of habit. One goes along, in life, and life itself has a certain force and a certain pull. Ever since she’d married Lir, she looked at him and saw the young man she’d once seen, coming out of the waves, his skin glistening gold under the California moon. A glance at the calendar told her it was thirty three years now since that night, and that foolish young girl sitting on the soft sand, watching the young men.
There were threads of white on Lir’s hair now. Not many, but quite a few. And traces of white on his well trimmed beard. There were wrinkles at the corners of his green-blue oceanic eyes. Laughter wrinkles, mostly. They’d had a good life, she thought.
But there was also a sadness, a listlessness, a look of distant and unavoidable longing.
She went behind his shoulder and set the cup down at his right hand. He looked up and smiled at her. His hands rested on the laptop keyboard, but she couldn’t help but see the document he had open was blank. First page, first line and nothing on it. He’d taken a sabbatical from his teaching job to write a book on little known myth. He’d been in the office twelve ours a day for two weeks. But there was nothing on the page. And he sat there with his longing look.
She’d had her doubts, many times, when they were first married. Sometimes she caught a look in his eyes that made her wonder if everything she’d done was justified. It had seemed so at the time, but young love as a way of deceiving everyone. Particularly those in love.
Later, when Murdoch and Muriann were born, she’d seen his delight in them. And he seemed so happy. But now, with Murdoch married and living across the country and Muriann away in London doing her post grad… And he looked so tired. So very tired.
Instead of going out the door as she usually did after leaving him his herbal tea, designed to help him sleep, she slipped into a chair in front of the desk. He looked surprised, but smiled at her, his eyes crinkling.
“Is it being difficult?” she asked, striving for a light tone. “Your book?”
He smiled, and shrugged, as if to say it didn’t matter. “Not precisely But for all these years, I thought it was the most important thing to do. I’ve studied so many of these obscure myths, kindled so many students’ interest and curiosity in them, but… I don’t know. I think it’s depression.” He hesitated. “I’ve been seeing a doctor.”
“A doctor?” she asked, surprised. This was the man for whom she’d had to book every dental appointment and every checkup for years. It was as if the concept of doctors and illness had been completely foreign to him. She didn’t pursue that thought.
“Well, a shrink, really,” he said. “For about five years.” He smiled at her surprise. “I didn’t want it to hit you, or the kids. He prescribed some things, and at first it was …. It worked very well. It was like being young and full of fire, again. But lately–” He rubbed at his nose bridge. “Maybe I’m just getting old. I keep wondering who my parents were, and where I came from. At first, the whole…. not knowing anything about myself before the age of 17 was strange, but not…. not that strange. I built myself a life… we built ourselves a life. But now–“
“Yes,” she said. “Yes.” But she wasn’t sure what she meant. She’d loved Lir from the first time she’d seen him, 33 years ago, under a September moon, coming out of the cold waters, the moonlight sparkling on his skin like magic dust.
She still loved him. She couldn’t imagine life without him. But he looked tired, and old. And he’d been seeing a shrink, dosing himself with tablets. The wrongness of it made her wish to cry, but it was now too late for tears.
She lay in bed, staring at the ceiling, and got up before he did. At the break of day. She was fully dressed when he woke, and looked at her with wondering, sleep-fogged eyes. Then he reached for his glasses from the bedside and put them on. “You are fully dressed!” he said, and smiled teasingly. “So early!”
“I need to run an errand,” she said, and came to the bed, and kissed him on the lips, lightly. She was going to miss this. “It is nothing much,” she said. “I’ll be back before lunch.”
Before lunch… Her heart shrunk within her at the thought. But this was all wrong. Lir should not need glasses. He should not have wrinkles and gray hair. She did not mind them, but he did.
She must do what she had to do.
The people at the bank showed no surprise. Why should they? The safe deposit box had been paid for — had been paid for faithfully, every year — since they’d moved here twenty five years ago. She paid it in cash. Lir didn’t even know about it. Almost the only secret she kept from him.
It had been her intention to leave him the key and a note, and she’d long since given his name and ID as an alternate. If she died, if anything happened to her, she wanted him to be able to reclaim his inheritance.
She hadn’t thought she was selfish. Not really. She thought she’d die before him, and he’d go on to live his life, not the worse for the few years stolen from him.
But what if he died before her, in the high, dry reaches of Colorado, so far from all that was natural? No.
Steeling herself, she opened the box the solemn clerk handed her. It was one of the larger ones, in a vault filled with boxes, secret compartments. How many secrets were as odd and unbelievable as hers?
She opened it, took the bulky item, folded it carefully, feeling its silky folds, and put it reverently in a bag.
The box was now empty. There were no more secrets. Or there wouldn’t be soon.
It was ten am when she got home, and the house was silent, the kitchen clean, Lir’s juice glass rinsed and upside down by the sink.
And it came to her she would miss that. Which was stupid. Well, there would be time for crying later.
He looked up as she came in the office, and spared a puzzled glass at her large bag.
She sat down on the chair. “I want to talk to you about the first time we met,” she said.
He blinked at her. “At the college party?” she asked.
She shook her head. “No, before that.”
“I don’t remember meeting before that. Did we? Did I forget that? I’m sorry, I–“
“No, not your fault. It is mine. You see, when I was little, as you know, my parents had a house they rented every late summer and fall. By the sea, in California.”
“Yes, I remember you–“
“Listen, please. You must let me tell this story.”
He looked surprised at her unusual vehemence but inclined his head, in assent.
She took a deep breath. This was difficult enough. “When I was in high school, I wanted to be a marine biologist. So I was very happy when I realized a group of sea otters frolicked in the sea, near my parents’ house. I went there to watch them, early morning, sometime in the evening. They are beautiful creatures and their antics made me happy.
“So one night I decided to watch them in the middle of the night. It was exactly 33 years ago last night. I slipped out to the beach, and I sat on a rock, and watched them. And then suddenly, the otters started taking off their pelts, while still in the water. Suddenly there was a group of young men, swimming and playing like children in the water, even though the water is very cold there. They didn’t seem to mind. They were all in good shape, beautiful really–“
“My dear, if you’re telling a Selkie story, you’re telling it wrong. They’re always female. And the animal they change into are seals, not otters. In fact, the conservation of mass–“
“No. Please listen. All of the young men were very beautiful, and I’d never watched a group of young men, not like that. They were all unself-conscious, and playing, really, like children, with no malice in them. None of the grown up stuff. They didn’t see me, because I was up on the cliff, you know.” She paused, and looked at him, and remembered how young and beautiful he had been. Would be. “One of them, to whom they all deferred, was particularly handsome and powerful… I…. This is very hard to tell. I went back several times to watch him. Not them, him.”
“I’m sure,” he said, with mock gravity. “I can forbid your teen follies.”
“Maybe you can,” she said. “Wait till you hear them. Every time these young men came from the water, they took the pelts, and folded them, and put them each in a place.”
“I’m sure you dreamed that part because–“
“Please, I don’t know if I have the courage to continue, but here it goes. One night, after they came out of the water, I went down and took the pelt of the most handsome one. And I…. hid it. I made sure it was really hidden. I have no excuse. I just wanted him to stay. I wanted to look at him more.” Lir frowned and she wasn’t sure what he was thinking, but she went on, “And you know, I wanted to– Anyway. At sunrise, when the others went back to the sea, he stayed on the shore looking bewildered, and I was scared, so I ran home. After a while the local papers were full of a young man who’d wandered into town, mother naked and having no idea what his name was.”
He opened his mouth, then closed it, thoughtfully.
“I kept track of you,” she said, rushing, afraid of stopping, afraid of reason reasserting itself. “I kept track of you, as you …. well, you learn very fast, so you did high school in a year, and then I met you at college, and you know the rest.”
He was frowning up at her. With the habit of decades, she could see him forming a joke, something to ease the tension. She could see he thought she’d gone insane. Before she lost courage, she stood up and pulled the glossy pelt from her bag and set it on the desk. “Here it is. You are free again. I should never have taken it. Magical creatures should never be forced to live and age in the world of mortals.”
His expression had changed when he saw the pelt. All thought, all worry for her vanished from his face, and something like a light kindled in his eyes. He extended his hand and touched the pelt. Sparks flew, not fire but…. visible. Like tiny stars dancing around his hand. The longing in his eyes was unbearable.
She worried he’d put it on and shift right then and there. After all, they’d moved to Colorado, partly at her instigation, granted, to stop the possibility of his …. of his remembering? But if he shifted now, she’d have to drive most of a day with an otter in the car, to restore him home.
He didn’t put it on or shift though. His eyes shone. His hair became dark again. The wrinkles disappeared. He smiled at her, a smile full of joy.
But enough remained of the human. He took his keys, his cellphone, his wallet. He held the pelt, walked around the desk, put it back in the bag. He hesitated for a moment, then bent and kissed the top of her head.
And then he rushed out. Out the door.
The house was very quiet. Very empty. It was like when the children moved out, first. Very silent, very empty. Almost like a house where someone had died. Which now she thought about it, was true. Lir, as she’d known him, was dead.
Oh, she hadn’t thought of it, but she supposed she had to report him as a missing person, or the police would think she’d done away with him. As it was, they’d find his trail and the car, and they’d probably decide he’d disappeared on purpose.
It was going to be hard on the children, but it couldn’t be helped. At least Lir would be happy again.
She cleaned the house that didn’t need cleaning, and she thought about what she’d do with the rest of her life. Sure, she’d never become a marine biologist. And her business degree was quite rusty after years spent raising children. But maybe she could find something. They had savings. She could, at least, go back to school. Maybe study marine biology.
What she wouldn’t do, what she couldn’t do, was go back to that beach and watch the young men frolic in the waves.
The thought came that there were probably selkie females. Maybe he had someone waiting for him. She had a deep rooted conviction that they lived much longer lives than humans. What was 33 years out of eternity?
On the second day she organized their photos, started digitizing by scanning them into her computer. Maybe they’d bring some comfort to the kids, when the news came.
She didn’t want to think of Lir, of where he was, of what he might be doing. Lir, as she’d known him had stopped existing. Perhaps he had forgotten his human life, just like the human had forgotten his magical life.
She’d decided she’d call in his disappearance after a week. Though depending on where the car was, she thought he might call her first.
But she wanted to postpone the intrusion into their lives, and the inevitable shocked and pained phone calls from friends. And hurting the children.
It would have to be done. But she’d give it a week.
All of which would be easier if every time she closed her eyes at night, she didn’t see young men frolicking in the waves under a golden moon, impervious to the cold air.
She moved through her days, like a shadow, feeling lost. The thing about a long-lasting marriage was that you stopped being just herself. They’d been Ellen and Lir. And now he was gone, and she felt as though one of her limbs, one of her essential parts had been amputated.
But she felt the phantom pain.
She woke up, without knowing she’d slept at all. There was a feeling she’d heard a door close, stealthily.
Someone had broken in.
She got up, put her glasses on, reached for her robe. The gun was still in the safe in the office. She–
There was a shadow in the doorway. A smell filled the room, one she associated with salt water and sun.
“I didn’t mean to wake you, honey,” Lir’s voice said, very gentle.
“I– No. You–“
He walked towards the bed. He was carrying the bag, the same bag she’d given him and by the look of it with the pelt inside. He went into the closet, and came back out, without the bag.
He opened the dresser and took out his pajamas.
She was dreaming. She knew she was dreaming. She heard him shower and brush his teeth. After a while, he was in the doorway.
The light coming from the window shone on him, and she saw Lir…. Her Lir. There were white threads in his hair, and wrinkles at the corner of his eyes, and she had been there for each of those, for every moment that was marked on her face. He was wearing his glasses, which he took off and put on the bedside.
Her heart was hammering so hard she could hardly speak. “But I let you go,” she said. “I gave you the pelt. I–“
He smiled. His hand — the left one, with the wedding band — reached across the bed to hold hers. His was a little cold. As though the coldness of the sea water lingered in it. Which was impossible of course. “I know,” he said. “And thank you. I now know where I am, where I came from. I went back….” He closed his eyes. “It was….” He also seemed to have no words.
And she thought that it was kind, that it was like Lir to come back and say goodbye, to come back and try to leave her in a better place.
“I understand,” she said. “I should never–“
“No, you listen. It is my turn to talk. It was lovely. Wonderful, really. And I remember many nights like that, sometimes frolicking with my people — all my people, of both sexes — on the edge between shore and sea. Many many nights. Hundreds of thousands of them. Frolicking in a state of innocence and happiness. You were right. I was a prince of the sea. I was…. oh, it’s hard to explain.”
“I know, you didn’t need–“
“No, listen. Only I remembered our life too. Here, where the days change, where the years count. I remembered out life and our children, our happiness, our home. I remembered you.” The hand holding hers squeezed. He bent, awkwardly, as if he hadn’t done this thousands of times, and kissed her lips, gently. “And after two nights I grew restless. I wanted my magic, and my kingdom back.”
“So, you’re going back?” she said. “I know–“
His hand caressed her hair — which she knew also had white in it — and nestled in the curve of her shoulder, which had gotten rounded over the years. She knew an overweight middle aged housewife was nothing to the prince of the seas, but it was kind of him. So kind.
“I am back,” he said. “I am back in my magic kingdom. The real one. I will never leave you. I could not. Leaving you hurt more than losing my pelt. You are my magic, Ellen.”
Before she could find a word, or even get over her surprise, he kissed her.
His kiss tasted of the sea and moonlight.