2nd Place Halloween Short Story Contest “Aoife and the Seal People” by Bennett Anderson

2nd Place Halloween Short Story Contest

Artwork by Greer Leleux

Listen to me, and I shall tell you the story of my legacy as my mother told it to me, as her mother told it to her, and on and on, as far back as our memories reach. And the memories of my people reach far past those of yours, back to the days when spirits and beings of myth walked the earth. So listen well.

Back in the land of Éire, which you Americans call Ireland, the rules were different. I suppose they still are different in certain ways, but even in the past Éire was unique. It amuses me that you consider America to be a melting pot simply because your country is filled with people of different nationalities and colors. Éire was a true melting pot, for our people have the blood of spirits and of gods, of creatures long since forgotten and of those whose names have been lost over time.

It would take a library to explain the history of Éire, and I have neither the time nor the inclination to enlighten you, but I suppose a brief explanation is necessary. In the beginning of time the land was bare and nothing lived nor even visited its shores. Then came the Flood, and with the Deluge came the seeds of life, along with the wild Fomorian beings who had escaped the wrath of the water. Centuries later came the first humans, Partholon and his people, and they were killed by the Fomorians. Then came another attempt by humans to settle in Éire, and again they were slaughtered by the Fomorians. This cycle continued until one day another group of spirit beings known as the Tuatha dé Danaan came and, utilizing their powerful magic, defeated the Fomorians, cleansing the land of millennia of evil influence. Humans known as the Milesians came from the coasts of Iberia, which you would know of as Spain, and settled in Éire, and the Tuatha dé Danaan retreated into the underworld, the land of the spirits. However, they were not gone, and the ghosts and creatures for which Éire is famous all came from the world of the Tuatha under the hills. The oceans were filled with them, including the terrible Finnfolk and their gentle cousins the seal-people. Some of the more humanoid ones even interbred with the humans, and this is where my story begins.

***
Everyone knew that the land had long memories and that ghosts could get you. That was obvious.

So it was understandable why everybody went a little overboard on Samhain, which they sometimes

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called Hallowe’en, because that was when the walls between the worlds were thinnest. That’s what Mama always told them anyway.

“Mama,” began Aoife, who was the youngest, “I thought the Fomorians were bad. The Tuatha were good, weren’t they? So why are we afraid of them?”

“It isn’t the Tuatha we’re afraid of,” answered her mother, who was more preoccupied with how much food she’d have to make for the celebrations that night than her daughter’s question, “it’s the other beings. Nasty things come out of the underworld. Some are evil. Some are helpful. Some are mischievous. None are human. Best to be safe.”

“The Finnfolk will get you,” teased Aidan, who was the middle child. “The Finnfolk will drag you down, and if they like you they’ll keep you but if they don’t they’ll eat you! A few years ago, Farmer Giles’s daughter went missing and everybody said — ”

“That is enough,” said the mother sternly. Her husband had disappeared years before at sea, and she had always blamed the malicious spirits of the sea. “There will be no talk about the Finnfolk here.”

“Besides,” added Arc’hantael, who was the oldest, “you can’t listen to anything Farmer Giles says, unless he’s advising you on whiskey selection. He’s blind drunk most of the time, and — ”

“You can go to the market and pick up some turnips,” interrupted the mother, who was wondering again what on earth she had done to merit the punishment of raising three children. “and none of that cheap stuff, mind.”

“What can I do, Mama?” asked Aoife excitedly.

“Go gather shellfish on the shore,” said the mother tiredly, handing her erstwhile daughter a bucket. “The MacDonalds are coming over later, and you know what O’Malley’s appetite is like.” She grimaced, leaving Aoife in little doubt about the state of this O’Malley person’s dietary habits.

“Ok,” said Aoife. “Shellfish. I can do shellfish.” She marched out determinedly, ready to contribute just as much as her brothers. It wouldn’t do to be outdone by Aidan.

“Watch out for Finnfolk!” called Aidan as she left. ***

For the record, her family never saw her again. At the Samhain festival that night, everybody in town searched and searched, armed with torches and pitchforks and roaming the land in search of Aoife.

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Her bucket turned up on the seashore, but her body was never found, and the general consensus was that the Finnfolk had taken her. Aidan spent the rest of his life torn with regret about teasing his sister about the Finnfolk, and her mother never forgave herself for allowing her daughter to collect shellfish on her own, unsupervised and unguarded.

This all men know. But I can tell you more. ***

“Finnfolk,” muttered Aoife as she walked along the shore, checking the bottoms of rocks for mussels and other edibles. “As if!”

The seals who sometimes visited the harbor were barking on the rocks on the other side of the water. Aoife liked seals all right — they were cute — but she didn’t have time for seals right now.

Hours passed, but pickings were slim, and by time the sun began to set Aoife’s bucket was only half full. She sat on the rocks, watching the sunlight glint off the waves. To an outside observer, she may have seemed relaxed, but the truth was that she was simply steeling herself up for a difficult decision.

“The Giants’ Causeway,” she murmured as she watched the waves roll along the shore. “There are always plenty of mussels there. I’ll have enough for us all, even for the MacDonalds and O’Malley. And Papa always said the brave were rewarded. Yes, the Giants’ Causeway — that’s where I’ll go.”

Now the Giants’ Causeway was a lonely structure of rock in Northern Éire overlooking the coast. Its rippling, geometric shape was said to be a remnant of the great battle between the Fomorians and the Tuatha, but nobody had ever told Aoife that. What she did know was that the rock was treacherous, and the waves crashed and pounded on the rock relentlessly, and that the best mussels in the county were found there. She knew her mother would be unhappy to know she was adventuring there, but all the shellfish would more than make up for it, and even her brothers would have to admit that she was brave.

She set off, and did not notice that the seals slipped into the water and followed. ***

“Ah!” said Aoife, prying off another mussel from the bottom of the rock. “There we go.”

Her bucket was very nearly filled, and the soft blanket of twilight was beginning to softly settle over Éire. Aoife knew she’d be expected home soon. As she scanned the rocks yet again, a particularly large mussel caught her eye. It was right on the edge of the Causeway. She was short, but she was sure

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she could reach. She kneeled on the cold, wet rock and reached out. Her fingers scraped against its shell. She stretched further. Her fingers scrabbled against the shellfish. She adjusted her grip and leaned out just a bit further.

Perhaps it was the malicious influence of the Finnfolk on Samhain, and perhaps it was bad luck. I do not know. But what I can tell you is that a particularly large wave swept over the causeway, and with a final cry, little Aoife was swept out to sea.

She was drowning. She could feel it. Seawater was choking her, and she was being pulled under. The undertow was too much. She was drowning. Just like Papa. She couldn’t see. She needed to breathe. She was drowning. Drowning.

On the surface, on the Giants’ Causeway, all was quiet. Nothing could be heard except the wind and the waves.

Ten Years Later
The people of Orkney Isle in Northern Scotland crowded around the girl. She had auburn brown

hair, like so many in the region, pale skin, and green eyes. Her speech was strange to them, though, and the people of Orkney frowned. They could hardly understand anything she said. A seasoned traveler among them thought she might be from the mysterious land to the West, called Éire by its inhabitants. But of that even he was not sure. The only word they could really understand was “selkie” — seal. And what on earth did that mean? What’s more, everybody could tell she was pregnant. And she was what, only nineteen? The good people of Orkney tutted and shook their heads. Disgraceful.

Months passed, and the girl made no effort to leave the village. She slowly learned the language of the Scots, and in time she gave birth to a young boy. He was markedly different from his mother and the villagers. His hair was a dark black, and while he had light skin like his mother, his eyes were beautiful and dark. This was my ancestor, my great-times-thirty grandfather. She never told any of the other villagers who his father was. But I can tell you. It was revealed when the son reached his twelfth birthday, and that Samhain she took him to the shore.

A man waited for them on the beach, with hair as dark as sin and skin as light as the boy’s own. The girl, who was truly a young woman now, ran and embraced him. The boy was shocked. His mother had never embraced a man before, or at least not that he had seen.

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And the boy’s mother told him for the first time of her childhood in Éire-across-the-Sea, and of the fateful day when she was swept into the ocean. Any other day that would have been the end of her, but Aoife’s mother had told the truth about the thinning of the walls between the worlds on Hallowe’en, and the seal people rescued her. She spent ten long years among them in the worlds of myth and legend, and even took a mate — the same seal that had saved her ten years before, and their union had produced a child who looked like a selkie, one of the seal people in human form. She explained to him that he had learned how to be a boy, and now it was time for him to learn how to be a seal. The man — no, the boy’s father — said little, but there was warmth in his dark eyes.

The young woman, Aoife, bid good-bye to her husband and son. She turned to look at the land, the beautiful trees and the green grass. She looked at the beautiful waxing crescent moon, so remote and yet so bright on this most magical of nights, when creatures of myth and reality — and, she realized, her son was both — could touch and interact and change the course of each other’s lives. A tear rolled down her cheek, for the life she had experienced and for the boy she would not see for another long, long year. She turned to watch her husband and son leave her, and yet all she saw were two grey seals leaping through the waves.

***
This is the tale that has been passed down in my family for centuries. I cannot say whether this is

true or not, but I can tell you this. Éire is the eldest name for Ireland, in the Gaelic language of the native Irish themselves. Samhain is the Celtic festival which evolved into Halloween, and is truly was and remains the time when the walls between the worlds are most permeable. The Giants’ Causeway exists, in what you would call Northern Ireland, and it has long been reputed to be a place of myth and magic. The invasions of Ireland by Patholon, the Tuatha dé Danaan, and the Milesians are just as I have already told you and were well chronicled by Medieval Irish monks. The people of Orkney have long seen the visage of the sea fey in the round, dark eyes of the seals that frequent the waters around their home. And there has always been a recessive phenotype among the Celtic peoples, for which there is still no definitive genetic explanation, for a black haired, dark eyed and light skinned child. People still attribute this phenomenon to the blood of the mischievous yet kind seal people, the seal people, who have frequented the bays and harbors of Éire since time immemorial.