At the Ocean's Edge
Lisa Nichols

There's usually no way of knowing any time is the last time until it's much too late.

Full fathom five thy father lies
Of his bones are coral made;
Those are pearls that were his eyes:
Nothing of him that doth fade
But doth suffer a sea-change
Into something rich and strange.
--The Tempest, Act I, Scene 2

Tonight I go down to the sea, where it all began. Not this sea, true, but there seems an odd sort of symmetry to it, that what began on one shore should end on the other. I'll take my daughters with me, walking between them and holding their hands. From where I sit I can see them: Elen, the faerie child I adopted so long ago, and Aislinn, my baby.

"Push me higher, Elen!" Aislinn giggles, trying to reach the oak limb above her head.

Elen, ever the dutiful big sister, stretches up on her tiptoes, standing at the base of the tallest tree in Cill Dara. "Don't go too high, Aislinn, or I'll have to climb up and get you." Nearly nineteen, Elen is a young woman now. Although she doesn't know it, she's ready to step into my shoes as the ruler of Cill Dara. One of the brownie-folk, short and round and stubborn with dark eyes and dark hair, she has grown into a strong and beautiful woman. I can hear her laugh as she helps Aislinn grab one of the oak's lowest branches.

Aislinn. She looks so much like her father that it hurts to see her at times. She has his golden hair and his azure eyes, set into features that could almost be my own. I've done what I can to prepare her for this night. She knows as much of my tale as I felt she could understand, as much as I could bear to tell her while looking into those eyes. She knows about the Fair Folk, raised here in Cill Dara, in the space just beyond the mortal world. She knows who her father was, and how he died saving Cill Dara. What she doesn't know is that she was my salvation during that wild, grieving time. When Elathan died, I thought about passing on my sealskin to another then and there, surrendering my life as a selkie in exchange for a chance to leave everything behind, to forget. Before I could, I learned that I was carrying Aislinn. Knowing she was with me, part of me and part of my love, gave me the hope, the purpose I needed to continue on. Aislinn is eleven now, a mixture of all the good and bad of her father and me. Most people see only him in her, but I know differently. While Aislinn bears the blood of the sidhe, the blood of her father, she comes from a long line of selkies as well, and the sea calls to her as it always did to me. In a way, that makes this so much easier.

"Momma!" Aislinn cries from her perch in the tree. "Look! Look at me! I did it!" "I see," I smile, giving a wink to Elen, who stands beneath the tree, ready to catch Aislinn if she falls. They're so different from each other, and yet both so much a part of me. I'm wondering if I'll truly be able to leave them tonight. The sun is low in the sky. It's time for us to go.

"I met your father here, Aislinn. Did i tell you that story?" My eyes go to the blue of the water as we reach the shore, as they always have, drawn there by instinct. An ordinary beach in the mortal world, on the shore of the Pacific Ocean, it is empty except for Aislinn, Elen and me. Nearly sunset. Almost time.

"Yes, momma. You said he was like an angel." Unlike most children, Aislinn never seems to get tired of my stories. Not the ones about her father, at least. Skipping at my side her feet toss up little puffs of sand, forming a pattern like the tracings of feathers wherever she passes.

Elen chuckles and chimes in, "I thought he was too, the first time I saw him. He seemed so tall and beautiful, I thought Cill Dara was heaven, and he was there to greet me. In fact, I think I asked him that. He smiled and said that Cill Dara was the closest he'd ever been to heaven and that he was very happy to welcome me there."

Aislinn grins up at Elen, each of them on either side of me, as I wished. "But he didn't have his wings back when you met him, right?"

I close my eyes and listen to these two, our daughters. Elen's always made such a good big sister. I know I can leave Aislinn and Cill Dara in her hands. I hear her reply, "Well no, he didn't... but he still looked like an angel, even without his wings."

"Why did he ever lose them?" Aislinn asks. She knows the answer, but asks anyway.

I can feel Elen glancing at me, as if waiting for me to answer. When I don't, she sighs, "Well... once he and Momma were very upset with each other, and he went away for a while, on a quest. While he was gone, he started to believe that Momma didn't love him anymore, and his wings went away."

Breathless, Aislinn nods, "And how did he get them back?" Her favorite part of the story.

My eyes remain on the darkening water, listening to the girls, but focusing my thoughts on what I came here to do. I can hear a smile in Elen's voice as she answers, "When he came back from his quest, he realized that Momma had never stopped loving him, and when they made their oaths to each other, his wings came back."

My eyes lift to follow the path of a gull, winging its way over the mythical ninth wave, the one Elathan always seemed to be seeking. I think back to that night, letting the memory of it, the awe and the wonder and the pure blinding joy, warm me for the last time.

Aislinn claps her hands, as she always does, "And then he looked like the stained glass window at St. Brighid's again!"

How many hours did I spend praying beneath that stained glass window after he was gone? Past and present almost seem to blur slowly, like thick oil paints swirling together. The weight of memory presses down on me, making it hard to breathe. To protect our home from an invasion of the Fomhiore, dark creatures older than the Fair Folk themselves, Elathan led a small band of warriors down into the abyss that held the gate to the Sunless Sea, where the Fomhiore had been imprisoned for millennia. I waited with my own small company in Cill Dara, ready to protect our home from a surprise attack. I knew the battle had ended when Elathan appeared to me in a vision. I stood still and silent as my oathbound love spoke to me in a voice only I could hear. Activity bustled around me, but I saw only him. Sad-eyed and distant, he told me the sacrifice he had made. The gateway was closed, locked from the far side and resealed with my love's blood. I felt the link between us fray and then snap not long afterward, and with it went the last of my hope that he still lived. Elathan was gone.

Surrounded by life, by the present, my attention is drawn back to it: my daughters on either side, the rich smell of the sea surrounding us all. In the deepening twilight, a seal barks from the shadows, a sharp sound in the soft evening. The sun slips below the horizon. I look over at Elen and say quietly, "Remember what you promised me." No matter what happens, once everything is over, she is to take Aislinn immediately back to Cill Dara, with no looking back. Elen nods at me, a short sharp motion of discontent. She looks afraid. Aislinn knows something important is going to happen tonight, but not what. She looks excited.

The darkening sky is like burnt orange and spilt wine, purple and sienna melting into wonder at the edge of my eyes. The sea smells so sharp, so pure. One last breath of it, and then it is time.

I release their hands, and kneel in the sand in front of Aislinn. My baby. "Aislinn, love. You've always known you were special. And I've always told you one day I would give you what was mine, what my mother gave to me." Aislinn nods, her eyes shining. I rest my hands on her shoulders. Now comes the hard part. "But love, this gift comes at a price. You remember what I told you about us: as we grow older, we forget, and eventually we have to leave the ones we love behind..." I think, How can I stay when I won't remember you anymore? "...and the ones we leave behind have to move on." She nods again, a trace of worry in her blue eyes now. So like his. I take a deep breath and move my hands to my sealskin, unfastening it.

Aislinn's eyes go wide, "Momma, no!" I look to Elen, my hands starting to shake. Rock that she is, she nods, and moves to stand behind Aislinn, her hands resting where mine just were. "Aislinn." How is it that my voice sounds so calm? "It's time for me. I love you. I will always love you, but the longer I stay, the more harm I do to this sealskin. There are some who say I've stayed too long as it is. One way or the other, it's time for me to go. Please... let me go knowing that my daughter is carrying on the tradition?" I sound calm, but I feel the tears threatening to fall. I don't want to frighten her any worse, so I keep them back. Instead, my hands extend, holding my sealskin, my faerie soul. Offering it. "Aislinn, please. Take it."

She reaches up. Our hands meet, then separate. I hear myself cry out. Gods, why did no one tell me it would feel this way? This burning like cold iron. Letting go. I'm letting it all go. I want to tell them that, but I cannot form the words. The burning changes. I see Aislinn change. The sky itself changes, colors washed out and fading, the sharp, dreamlike smell of the sea fading to the mortal, mundane odor of dying kelp and fish. I see Elen pull Aislinn away as if in slow motion. Aislinn is crying, they both are crying. Then I see the sand coming up to meet me. Burned clean. I am burned clean. I dream for a while.

It's dark. The sand is cold. How long have I been out here? I sit up and look around. Nothing looks familiar. Nothing feels familiar, either. How did I get here? For a long, long moment, I sit and listen to the surf crashing, and realize that I can recall nothing at all. Fear rises up, threatening to overtake me. "Take it easy," I hear myself say, followed by laughter bubbling up, edged with hysteria. I'm talking to myself, and I don't even know who I am.

A man's soft voice sounds behind me. "I thought I would find you here." I stumble to my feet and turn, trying to see owner of that voice. All I can see is a tall shadow.

"Do I know you?" I ask cautiously.

With a soft, lingering laugh, the shadow nods. "You did once." He pauses. "You do not remember me, do you? You might not. It has been a while."

Fear threatens again. The beach is empty except for the two of us. Alone and confused, I wonder if I can trust him, this shadowy figure who claims to know me. "I don't remember anything," I confess. "You know me? Honestly?" Perhaps he will be honest. There seems little else for me to do but trust, for now.

The answering voice is gentle. "I do know you. Perhaps in time things will come back to you. Perhaps not, but either way..." He pauses, sounding somehow sad when he asks, "You do not remember anything at all?"

For a moment, I get a glimpse of golden hair in the starlight and I feel an impending memory. Almost, almost... Then the epiphany falls flat, leaving nothing. I sigh and shake my head. "No... not really."

"In time," he repeats. "There is always time, it is the one thing we can never run out of." He leans over, giving me a brief glimpse of pale skin and bright eyes, before he scoops something up from the sand. "I think you dropped this." He extends it to me, the shape hidden in the shadow of his hand. Unthinking, I reach for it. My hand closes over a ring of white gold, and I blink as the world doubles. I feel the magic washing over me, seeping into my skin. The sea smells sharp again, the colors brilliant in my eyes, dazzling me and blinding me with memory. I remember it all. And then I look at him again.

Wings. White and silver traced, sweeping down about him.

Oh God, I see wings. I see wings. His hand remains extended. "Come with me, Joanna. Please." So many years and I still can feel that voice. How could I ever have forgotten? "Trust me." How could I not? This might be dream, I don't know for certain. It doesn't matter. It feels real though, as I take Elathan's pale hand, smiling through tears. Quietly I answer, "Always."

Aislinn pleaded with Elen all the way back to Cill Dara. "Elen, we have to go back! I have to make sure Momma's okay!"

Elen replied with a tired, troubled sigh, "I swore to her, Aislinn. We can't go back."

As they took the blurring step through the stained glass window, stepping from the mortal world to the one just beside it, Aislinn was still protesting, "But what if she tries to go swimming? She's used to... being able to swim better than she can now. We have to watch her..." Elen shook her head wearily. Like it or not, she had made a promise, and she was determined to stick to it. Elen took Aislinn to her room, and as she turned to go she stopped in the doorway, her voice very sad, "I promised, Aislinn. It was the last thing she asked of me."

For a long time, or what seemed like it, Aislinn lay still in the darkness. The room should have been comforting, familiar, but she kept hearing a voice calling to her. Everywhere she looked, white wings framed her vision, just beyond her line of sight. Tears stung at her eyes, her father had wings like that. Wings she had never seen, never been able to touch so much as a feather. "I didn't promise anything," she mouthed to herself. She sat up, slipped out of the room and out of Cill Dara.

Aislinn ran all the way back to the beach, panting as she stumbled onto the sand once again. She knew, she remembered, that often selkies who'd given up their skins had to be watched, lest they overestimate their non-magical abilities in the water and drown. The beach was empty. Aislinn soon found the place where her mother had fallen to the sand, the scuffs and indentation there. Leading away from it, toward the water, were a single pair of footprints, slender and feminine, with a hint of webbing to the toes.

"Oh no, Momma, no," Aislinn prayed, already slipping her sealskin over her shoulders as she followed the lone footsteps to the water. She reached the water's edge, where the prints disappeared into the sea. Bright eyes scanning the waters for any disturbance, she suddenly came up short, her eyes going wide. There, in the foam near the shore a silver-white guard feather floated, its brightness shimmering against the darkened water. Aislinn leaned down and pulled it from the water, rolling the stem between her fingers as she sat down at the water's edge. She looked at it for a long time, drifting.

Elen found her there, hours later, nearly at dawn. Aislinn's eyes were on the sea, watching the light change from darkness to day, that single feather cradled in her hands in her lap. Elen touched the girl's shoulder, struck by how seamless a mixture she was of both her parents. She didn't look up at all, nor did she respond. "Aislinn?" Elen asked quietly.

The girl still didn't move, save to shift her eyes from sea to feather and back again. In a distant dreaming voice she answered the unspoken question: "They're together now."

"The soul takes flight to the world that is invisible. But there arriving she is sure of bliss, and forever dwells in paradise."

Lisa Nichols ( lives with her cat in largely landlocked Michigan--at least she's never seen a seal there. When she's not writing, she works for an accounting software company. A long time fan of role-playing games, she has written a book for Dream Pod 9 due out in February 2001.

InterText Copyright © 1991-2000 Jason Snell. This story may only be distributed as part of the collected whole of Volume 10, Number 3 of InterText. This story Copyright © 2000 Lisa Nichols.