At that moment, Patrick wasn’t thinking about the cosmos. He wasn’t even thinking about the world. He was certainly no philosopher, but he was born and bred in Ireland and he knew what that skin meant … change.
His thoughts raced ahead of him, sputtering denial. Surely such things as that did not exist anymore. He could remember when anything misplaced really could have been a hobgoblin, or seemed so; when there were pots of gold at the end of each rainbow. That had been thirty-odd years ago, though. The whole fantasy thing just didn’t work anymore, because now it was chemicals in the many-hued mist, and corporations robbing Eire, not leprechauns.
But here, now … that skin. He marveled that she was still alive – no fish left, certainly not in San Francisco. He wondered if it would kill her to be long out of the water. He had no idea. He’d never really paid attention to those legends, in Ireland. After all, he was only a boy then; there had been pretty girls aplenty in his hometown, and many after him. No need to go borrowing trouble from the sea.
He wondered if he should just go home and leave the skin behind. A selkie was a selkie, and selkies brought trouble. He had a good life, a trifle boring, but his apartment was snug and his job kept his family in it and eating. His family. In Gaelic, someone had told him, "family" was no different than "clan", but were there any clans at all in America? Only daycares and nursing homes. He and Daniel, his son, undoubtedly didn’t qualify as one, either.
Six years since Min had died. It had certainly felt more like a clan with her there. Always the light in a room, the life of the house. But he had grown farther and farther from her memory as the months had trickled by. Time he started dating again, he supposed –
dating? A selkie? More like holding a prisoner. Too much violence in the world already. Too much trouble. But … Daniel would like her. Everyone always liked a selkie.
He is standing at the skin now, he realizes. Still no philosopher, no experienced judge of right and wrong. But he needs a little mystery. And Daniel will like her.
Patrick gathers up the silvery folds, surprisingly weighty, and sits down to wait.
Who are you!
The voice echoes in his ears, in his head.
Who are you!
A woman, naked. Of course, Patrick thinks, almost sardonically. I hadn’t thought about the fact that all selkies wear is their skin – seal or human. Well, this will make an interesting parade through the city.
She is pale, he notices suddenly, and looks weak. But she is still imposing, and does not seem awkward in her skin. Patrick stands up and laughs when the regal woman barely comes up to his shoulder.
Her eyes narrow. Who are you!
This time he realizes it’s not coming through the air – the sound is coming direct, and so loud it hurts. ‘Patrick,’ he says hastily, ‘I’m Patrick.’
‘Paedrg,’ she says aloud, tasting the word. Again in his head: do you scout for traders, Paedrg?
The English is clear enough, without accent, though his name sounds strange to him. ‘No,’ he says.
For the fishing fleet, then?
He realizes she's serious. How long has it been since she's been on land? ‘The traders travel in iron ships. They need no one to scout for them, and there are no more fishing fleets, either. There is nothing left to fish for.’
There have been fish.
‘Not enough to support the fishermen. Barely enough to support the sea.’
She considers. Yes. Very few.
- You have my skin. Let me have it, let me swim again.
‘Selkie, you will starve.’
She tosses her long, wild hair proudly. Then I will die free.
‘You won’t die at all if I can help it. Not soon.’
Paedrg, everything will die soon. I wish to go free. Let me go free.
‘No! I have your skin – you know the rules. Come, selkie.’
Daniel is shouting joyfully as soon as the door opens. ‘Daddy! Daddyyyy!’ Patrick scoops him up for a hug, but his son tenses when he notices the selkie. I still don’t know her name, he thinks. She won’t give it to me anyway. Names are powerful, among the other folk.
‘Daddy? Who is she?’
Rapid Gaelic flows from her mouth, no doubt intelligible to Daniel alone. He is intent on her, his eyes alight with a kind of wary wonder.
‘Daddy, she says she’s my mother. She isn’t, is she? Mommy was my mother.’
His father flinches. ‘Selkie – I did not mean for that. I - you - that was not my purpose. I only mean to keep you here because the sea – didn’t you notice? It’s orange!’
But you find me beautiful, do you not?
Patrick flushes, remembering what’s under his baggy overcoat. ‘Um … let’s get you some clothes. We have … we have some of Min’s, still.’
I need nothing but my skin, Paedrg. My silverskin. Let me swim.
‘I ca – it’s not – forget it, we’ve had this conversation. Daniel, show her where Mommy’s old clothes are, OK?
‘Oh, and selkie, what can I call you?’
Her eyes roam before settling on the pasta cabinet. Farfalle, she says.
Patrick bursts out laughing. ‘Well … at least it’s not Elbow Macaroni.’
That night, Farfalle takes Daniel’s bed, and he and his father share the king size. Patrick wonders how she’s doing. He wonders if she’s okay. It’s my right … I have her skin – he thinks, and hastily cuts it off. Only because the sea is dead. Only because she would die, too. But what will he do with her in the end? He cannot keep her forever … forever is a long time.
He is not immortal, but many of the Folk are. Can they die now that there is no place left? he wonders. Can they be killed? What will happen to them when there’s nothing left at all?
A week passes quickly. Patrick and Daniel take Farfalle into the city, having found her decent clothes. She’s impressed sometimes, with the sheer size of it all, but mostly she’s frightened. So much noise, so many mudlings! She seems secure in Patrick, huddling close to him.
On the fourth day she visits her first supermarket. The food is not so good as it used to be. Farfalle’s senses are keen and she recoils from the chemical odor, but at the same time she cannot help but stare. So much land-food all in one place! Patrick does not ask if she has been landbound before. Wherever she was, it was Scotland, or Ireland – nothing like this. He simply guides her through the wonder, Daniel on his shoulders.
The little boy has begun to let Farfalle hold his hand. By the sixth day, he expects the selkie to sing him to sleep every night, crooning sea tunes until his eyes have closed. He keeps them open as long as he can.
The skin is locked up, now. Patrick more than ever wants Farfalle to live.
And so it was, Patrick thinks, years later. Daniel is in high school. Farfalle still sings him to sleep, but not so long now, nor so often. Daniel is growing too old, and logic has taken over. The ocean songs don’t hold the same thrill for him – instead, they scare him. The unknown scares everyone now, because there is little of it left.
Patrick pauses in the evenings, when Daniel is doing his homework, and listens to him mutter – processes he can’t grasp, words he can’t understand. They cloned humans long ago. Some of the new children are super fast, super strong, super smart. Men landed on Europa two months past. There is a push for a universal language – newspeak, it will be called; a few of the older generation will have nightmares about that, but the young push forward mercilessly, as the young always do. The Old Ones, as they are called now, will soon number among the last of the dead. Immortality won’t come quite fast enough to save them. But soon after, the scientists say. Within a century we will defeat Death. Modern magic, and the old is dying out.
He thinks Farfalle is dying, too, but she won’t admit it. She’s started going through his stuff. Looking for her skin. He wonders if she means even to tell him when she goes. She will not want to hurt him. After the first years, they stopped arguing about it. Patrick isn’t sure whether she gave in or just stopped bothering, because he had quickly grown to love her, and he could not let her go. Not into that sea. Not into any sea, anymore.
Would he give it to her now? He searches for an answer, but it was there at the first. Never. Never.
He’s grown used to the corruption of his name; it feels more natural than Patrick now. He’s even grown used to hers. Pasta! But after choosing it, she wouldn’t back down from her choice, and she has told him never to use her true name, her Folk name. He can’t pronounce it anyway.
Paedrg, the last of my people are dying.
‘But not the land-bound. Not you.’
I too, soon. Not as soon as those in the seas. But Paedrg, I don’t want to die alone.
‘I will hold you. You won’t die alone.’
I … Paedrg … I love you. You know I love you.
Patrick feels wooden. ‘But.’
I must go. I must die among my people. Paedrg! Give me my skin. My freedom. All I ask of you. Is it so hard?
But he will give in, he knows it. Forever may be a long time, but his "never" has dissolved. Never will be a few days at most.
Daniel comes with them to the shore, because he knows his father will get mad if he doesn't. Patrick sees it all too well and is infinitely sad. No one is immortal, not quite yet, and he is not a Super. So shouldn’t there still be a connection? Is this just because he’s a teenager? Patrick can’t remember very much of his own childhood, but then again, he didn’t go to school for long. Perhaps it is only his age. Yes, that must be it. Patrick feels better, even knowing he's fooling himself.
Daniel holds the skin. Maybe the magic will rub off on him, his father thinks. Patrick, Paedrg, will help Farfalle dress.
The sea is pink today. It looks like blood where the water kisses the sand. At the last minute:
‘Selkie. Farfalle. I can’t let you go.’
I must go.
‘There are no fish to support the fishermen, and none to support the sea. You will starve.’
I must go.
‘The sea is orange. You’ll be poisoned!’
It is not orange, she points out reasonably. It is pink. Give me my skin, Paedrg! I must go.
‘Farfalle … selkie …’
The skin ripples over her and she dives. He doesn’t know how far his voice can reach, but he stands and shouts, raggedly, until she is long into the sea.
At the last, he hopes for some sort of message. An I love you. Even just his name.
Nothing comes. Daniel is silent, and the only sound is the breaking of the waves, and the drone of the oil rigs offshore.
I like to think that there is a heaven, somewhere in the future. Somewhere clean, where she may swim in clean blue water, and he may breathe clean blue air. Somewhere the immortal Folk go when it’s time to rest.
I like to think that Paedrg may have found this place, if it exists; Farfalle, as well. Daniel, though, will never rest, never die, eventually rising among the immortals. He will be a Super, too. Everyone will.
I must ask:
Can they die when there is no place left, not even Jupiter’s distant moons? Can they be killed? What will happen to them when there’s nothing left at all?
… forever is a long time.