I uncork and pour a glass of white wine to go with the Chicken Marbella I serve to a distracted Melissa.
“Do you mind,” I ask, “if I be a tad romantic and light a candle?”
Melissa comes out of her self-absorption and smiles. “Please do.”
“Now,” I say, when things are settled and we pick up our forks, “what is this story that has so disturbed you?”
Melissa takes a bite before she says, “I stayed up too late last night reading Irish Tales of the Fairy and the Ghost Worlds by Jeremiah Curtin, and I came upon Tom Moore and the Seal Woman.”
Tom Moore, a goodly fellow, lived with his parents until they died and he found himself in need of a wife.
One day, while working along the seaside, he spotted a remarkable woman sleeping on a rock. He called to the woman, waking and warning her against the coming tide. She only laughed at him. He kept an eye on her and when the tide looked threatening, he tried to rescue her. She only slipped off into the sea.
After a sleepless night, obsessed by her beauty, he returned to the shore and there she sat upon her rock. Boldly, he snatched her hood. She demanded it back, but he refused, saying, “God sent you to me.”
That very day, after she made breakfast, Tom had them married. She was as good a wife as anyone could want, bearing him five children, three sons and two daughters.
One day Tom was in the loft of the cottage, throwing down bags and bunches of things, looking for some bolts he needed for a repair, forgetting that among the debris was the hood he took from his wife. She saw and snatched it back. From the sea came the bellowing of a seal. She knew it was her brother calling to her.
At the same time some of the village fishermen had killed three seals. Tom’s wife threw herself upon the bodies, crying murder. For her sake the bodies were buried, but during the night some of the fishermen tried to dig them back up, only to find the carcasses had disappeared.
The next day, while Tom was away working, she cleaned the house, washed her children, and kissed them, then put on her hood, returning to the sea.
For generations after that the progeny of her children all had the same peculiar webbing between their fingers and toes, although it diminished over time.
“That’s a delightful story,” I say. “However, we both know there are a hundred variations on it. The mermaid wife, abducted by a mortal, who bears his children, then escapes back to the sea, is pretty universal. What is it about this story that strikes you differently?”
“One,” Melissa takes another bite of the Marbella, “she’s not a mermaid. She‘s a seal. Two, it’s Jeremiah Curtin’s introduction to the tale that caught me.
“He talks about the MacCodrum clan, known as ‘The Race of the Seals,’ who once made their home in the Hebrides, and claimed to be descended from a seal woman. They all had the webbing of the fingers and toes. “
“OK,” I say, “and . . . ?”
Melissa holds up her hand, spreading out her fingers. Low, between them is a very fine webbing of skin I have never noticed before.
“My great, great, grandmother was a MacCodrum, but I didn’t know about the webbing until I read Curtin’s book. I need to talk again with your nixie.”
Fairy Tale of the Month: July 2019 Tom Moore and the Seal Woman – Part Two
I dragged out the popcorn maker even before we finished our meal.
Earlier this morning I woke up feeling unsettled. I put it to Thalia and her mother being away to Brighton for summer vacation, but by noon I knew it was Melissa projecting her anxiety. I hustled down to the bookshop to find it actually busy for once.
Melissa’s eyes widened when she saw me. “I was going to call . . .”
“You did call. I see you have customers. Supper at my place?”
“Yes. Thank you. I close the shop at six.”
I proceeded to market to buy chicken, dates, capers, kale, and some wine.
But now, we pour the popcorn into a bag and head for the Magic Forest. I feel a bit in a rush. We need to finish our business before sunset. After dusk in the Magic Forest? Well, I’ve made that mistake.
I believe the nixie always knows when I am coming. Melissa and I peer over the rim of the high bank that surrounds the nixie pond, where she already floats below us, her pale-greenish body part of the rippling water.
“Melissa,” her reedy voice intones, “you come with my smiling, human friend for a reason, but with a face that is dour.”
“I bring questions and popcorn,” says Melissa, as she starts to throw the nixie a stream of kernels as is our tradition. Deftly, the creature catches each one in her mouth.
“Who are the seal people?” Melissa asks.
“Peoples,” corrects the nixie between catches. “They are, some of them, fallen angels like myself. Others are of the elven race taken to the ocean. Still more are mariners drowned at sea, or condemned souls.
“In Scotland they are called the selkies. In Ireland, the merrow. I think all seals have a bit of human or fallen angel in them. One can tell by the eyes.”
“By the eyes,” Melissa echoes, then says, “What is the seal peoples’ nature?”
“They are changelings.” The nixie’s eyes narrow. “Not as stable as the rest of the fay. They have a foot in both the mundane and the fairy worlds. They cannot, for their very existence, decide which world they prefer.
“Though spending most of their time in the sea, still the land calls to them. At certain times of the moon, or of the year, or even cycles of the years—depending on the tribe—they must shed their seal skins, take their human form, and dance upon the earth.
“Then is their most vulnerable time, especially for the seal women. Mortal men, who wander around more than mortal women, chance upon the seal peoples’ dance. If one of these gadabouts grabs a seal woman’s skin, she belongs to him.
“That is not to say there are not liaisons between mortal women and seal men, but that comes about in a different fashion. The seal men, I will say, tend to be terribly handsome.”
For a while, Melissa and the nixie play the game of throwing and catching popcorn before Melissa asks, “Am I descended from the seal people?”
She holds up her hand with outstretched fingers. “I have the webbing and am related to the MacC . . .”
To my horror, the nixie nimbly skitters up the steep bank toward Melissa until they sit nose to nose. The nixie places her greenish hand under Melissa’s chin, with a searching stare into her eyes.
“Yes,” the nixie replies, then slips back down the bank into the pond, but not before nicking the bag of popcorn. She floats on her back, the bag on her stomach as she gorges herself, giggling.
Melissa has the look of someone struck by lightning.
Fairy Tale of the Month: July 2019 Tom Moore and the Seal Woman – Part Three
“It’s little wonder that I entered your fairy world so easily.”
Melissa takes the glass of white wine I pour for her. We didn’t have time to finish the bottle during supper.
“The veil is thin,” I say. “Anyone can pass through it. I did. But you, you actually have credentials.”
Melissa laughs. “I am not sure ‘credentials’ is the right word. ‘Blood’ may be closer.”
We sit in my study, the bay windows open to invite in the evening breeze. The last vestige of sunlight fades over the distant outline of the Magic Forest.
“You know,” I say, “you can’t imagine my terror when the nixie actually touched you. I thought the steep bank to be a barrier between our world and hers. I should have known, being in the Magic Forest, we were in her world with no safe space.
Melissa waves that off. “Her touch did not frighten me. Her eyes, looking into the house of my soul, still haunt me. All my secrets and deeply-held fears that I thought lay at the center of my being were cobwebs in the rooms she passed through looking for my unnatural origins.”
“The nixie said she thought every seal had a bit of human or fallen angel in them. Do we, humans, all have a bit of the fay in us?”
“I am going to say ‘no.’” Melissa looks at her empty wine glass. “I am sure there are those humans of ‘pure blood’ that have never been tainted by the fairy world. But they lack imagination. Their sight does not go beyond the corporeal world, to the realm where toads talk and money means nothing.”
I pour us more wine. “I propose a toast to us mutts, and thumb our noses at pure bloods.”
We clink our glasses.
“What of,” I ask, “you, me, and many others, being between two worlds, the worlds of the mundane and the fairy?”
“That is manifest in our dreams. We, humans, all dream. We have to. What we dream reflects who we are. I dream of the sea. Now I know why. I am doomed to be as unstable as the shifting sands.”
“Cannot,” I ask, “our dreams that draw us into the fairy world serve to find our path forward?”
“It is not that simple.” Melissa empties her glass. “In our dreams, the fairy world only gives us evasive hints, which is more than they are required to do. They are being generous to us mortals. It is ours to reason out the hints they give us.
“But then,” Melissa regards her, again, empty glass, “do the fairies know what is best for us, or even care? Do I give them too much credit? Should I allow the fay to be my guide?”
“You sound,” I say, “like the changeling our nixie described, not content to stay in the sea and must dance on the land.”
“Or,” says Melissa, “have danced upon the land too long and crave the sea. The fairy tales mirror our desires. They tell us that peasants can rise to royalty. A simpleton is smarter than his elder brothers. For every young girl there is a prince seeking her.”
Melissa’s eyes drift off toward the ceiling. “But beyond that, the fairy tales whisper secrets into our ears during dreaming, which are hard to remember upon waking. Fairy tales come from a dimension a little beyond our understanding.”
I pour the last of the wine into our glasses.
“Oh, by the way,” she says, “the Chicken Marbella was excellent.”
I am so glad she noticed.