He carried one bag, thrown over his shoulder. He caught a train from Cork that carried him as far as Bantry. He approached the train, steam rising from the enormous engine. The tremendous weight, size, and sound of the engine captured Niall’s attention. It was this modern steel horse that would carry him to the farthest fringes of the rural country that he longed for. The train carried more freight cars than passengers. A car carried piles of coal and on another, stacks of raw tree trucks stripped of all branches.
As the whistle sounded, he hopped nimbly into one of the few passenger trains and found a seat. He looked out the small window at the city he was leaving behind. No part of him doubted. He was certain that the path ahead of him was the one for him. Still, guilt tugged at him that he was leaving behind his family who had such high hopes for him.
He rode the train as far as Bantry, as close as he could get to the Beara peninsula from where he came. Rock-strewn mountains rolled down steep slopes and ended at the bay that rose to the edge of the village. The village was a fishing port, defined by the bay’s central location. The village had only a couple of years ago been freed from British control. Even after Ireland had become a free state, this village remained occupied. Niall felt he could sense this pained history as he looked over the village which seemed haunted as if a gray sheen were cast over all the buildings, in a miasma. It was as if the ghosts of the British still lingered in the town, the violent intruders on these streets remained as foggy presences strolling down the street.
He disembarked the train and walked out toward the waters of Bantry Bay. He reflected on how little he carried. Only his single pack. He felt as free as a wild animal, not bound to the burden of material possession and free to caper about nimbly. He threw his pack over his shoulder and walked out to the bay. He spotted grey seals congregating around more exposed outer edges of the bay. Some were pups with distinctive white fur coats. The pups playfully splashed at the edge of the water, their heads bobbing and their mothers sitting by. There were at least ten of them in all, most huddled close to each other. Watching them splash on the beach, he recalled the selkie tales he’d learned of as a boy. He’d heard the tale from fishermen who frequented the pub near his house. They’d coarsely described the seal who would shed its coat while resting on the rocks. From out of that skin, a dark-haired woman would emerge. The man who spotted the selkie-woman stole her seal-skin coat, so she would be forced to remain in their human form, and soon seduced by the thief. It was only through the coat that they could return to the water and become sealed. It seemed cruel to Niall for taking the coat forced the woman to follow the man at least as far as his house, to retrieve the coat. Inevitably in the tale, the woman would fall for the man and become bound to her life on the land, as if in an amnesia about the life she’d come from.
It bothered Niall that the man hid the coat, so she became dependent on him, for she’d never lived among humans before. The deception of it. He wondered if he might see a selkie himself. If he saw one, would he fall for her? Would he, in the throes of his passion, feel compelled to hide the coat as in the old tales? He hoped he would have the fortitude to do right by a selkie wife and let her go as she pleased. If it was the sea that she desired and not his home, he would let her go. This he resolved. If he could even have a selkie wife. He closed his eyes for a moment and wished for one to appear, feeling foolish even as he had the thought. But when he opened his eyes, none of the seals had shed their spotted smooth coats and turned to a woman before his eyes. They remained as seals on the shore, flopping their tails against the rocks, and wiggling their bodies to move closer to each other. He felt silly for having had the thought, and continued on his way, turning back toward the villages.
By Paul DeLong
On December 12, 2022
Your precise use of vocabulary continues to be notable. “raw trees,” “rock-strewn,’ “guilt tugged,” “foggy presences,” are just a few examples of your style that reveal your voice and make the places and story real.
By Erin Esaryk
On December 13, 2022
Thank you, Paul 🙂