The Selkie Song
Chapter 1 Leana Murphy
Fiona felt as though the world was suddenly very far away. The sound of the ocean outside her father’s window disappeared, and everything went quiet as the truth hurtled through Fiona’s mind.
Then came the questions, hundreds of them, far too many for Fiona to process at once. She opened her mouth, but before she could speak, Dad placed his hand on her arm.
“I’m going to make some tea,” he said.
“Tea?” Fiona repeated.
“I think we could both use a cup for the conversation we’re about to have.”
And then, just like that, Fiona was all alone. More alone than she’d been in weeks, actually; it didn’t escape her notice that Dad had taken the selkie cloak with him. What if he never gives it back?
Then Fiona shook her head. Don’t think like that, she scolded herself.
Fiona’s gaze drifted to the stack of photos that Dad had been looking at when she’d burst into the room. They were everywhere: the bureau, the bedspread, the floor. Fiona knelt down to pick them up. There was Mom, reading a book to baby Fiona; there was Mom, laughing as Dad fed her a bite of cake at their wedding; there was Mom, sitting on Broad Rock, staring wistfully at the ocean.
That photo was enough to make Fiona sit down hard on the edge of the bed. Broad Rock was Fiona’s favorite place to go when she wanted to be alone; it had been for as long as she could remember. How many times had Fiona sat there, just like Mom, staring out at the ocean with a longing that could never be put into words?
This is so much bigger than I ever imagined, Fiona realized. All the wondering and worrying that had
consumed her since she first discovered her selkie cloak didn’t even begin to scratch the surface.
Fiona stood up abruptly and neatly stacked the rest of the photos in an old shoebox. She had questions—so many questions! Now it was time to get some answers.
In the kitchen Dad was sitting at the table, waiting for her. His smile was crooked, as though he couldn’t quite manage it, but was trying as hard as he could.
Like he always has, Fiona thought suddenly, thinking back on all the years that Dad had been like a father and a mother to her.
“Just how you like it,” Dad said as he pushed a blue mug across the table. Fiona took a small sip. The tea had plenty of sugar and rich cream, and the warm comfort of it was exactly what she needed.
“The photos,” Dad said, reaching for the box that Fiona had placed on the table between them. “I always figured the day would come when you’d want—need—to see them. Go ahead. Ask me anything. I promise I’ll do my best to answer.”
Fiona opened her mouth, then closed it, then opened it again. “I don’t even know where to begin,” she finally said.
“I understand,” Dad told her. “Maybe I should just . . . begin at the beginning.”
Dad rummaged through the photos; when he found the one he was looking for, his whole face lit up. “Your mother and I met at the New Brighton Gaelic Traditions Festival,” he said as he handed the photo to Fiona.
Fiona stared at the picture, which showed Mom standing at a microphone. Her red hair gleamed brightly in the sun from beneath a crown of blue wildflowers.
“I was still in graduate school back then,” Dad continued. “Not many people cared about ancient Gaelic storytelling, but I was determined to change that. I’d started a small journal about local artists who celebrated world cultures. It was about as popular as my field of study—which is to say, not very popular at all.” Dad chuckled at the memory.
“Anyway, I was wandering around the festival all by myself, when I paused at a tent that was dedicated to storytelling. And there was Leana—your mother—captivating the audience with her story about the lost selkie queen, Caileigh. I’d never been in love before— To be honest, I had started to think that maybe romantic love didn’t even exist.”
Fiona hid her smile; Dad was a professor, and sometimes it was all too easy for his logical side to take over. “And Mom changed your mind?” she asked.
“It was love at first sight,” Dad confessed, a rueful smile on his face.
“Did Mom feel it too?”
“Amazingly, yes,” Dad said. “It’s as hard for me to believe now as it was then. The moment Leana finished her story, our eyes met, and that was it. We were inseparable.” He held out another photo of them walking on the beach, arm in arm.
“I’d never known anyone like Leana before,” Dad continued. “She was free, in every way—wild, almost. She followed her heart in all things. I found her inspirational. And somehow, your mother had fallen in love with me—someone her polar opposite, who was very much constrained by research and study. That was when I realized that my life wouldn’t be complete without your mother in it. Perhaps her impulsive nature was rubbing off on me, but I proposed to her just months after we met.”
“It sounds like a fairy tale,” Fiona said.
“I suppose it was, in many ways,” Dad replied. “It
certainly felt that way at the time. Unfortunately, though, Leana and I weren’t destined to have a happy ending. Not the way we expected, anyway.”
A feeling of dread crept over Fiona; she took another sip of her tea. “What happened?” she said. If she hadn’t longed for answers for such a long time, she might never have had the courage to ask.
“A few months after we got married, I woke up in the middle of the night. To this day I don’t know why, but I could feel, in my heart, that something was about to happen. I found Mom down at the beach,” Dad said. “She was barefoot, trembling, as pale as the full moon reflecting off the water. And pacing back and forth, wearing a deep trench into the damp sand.”
“What was wrong with her?” Fiona asked.
“Nothing was wrong,” Dad said; it was clear he was choosing his words carefully. “Your mother had found out that she was pregnant with you, Fiona. And she knew exactly what that would mean—how everything was going to change.”
“So it was my fault she left?” Fiona asked, her voice barely louder than a whisper.
“Absolutely not,” Dad said at once. “No, Fiona. Not at all. Perhaps I wasn’t entirely clear before. I had no idea that your mother was a selkie when we married.”
Fiona’s mouth dropped open in shock. “She didn’t tell you?”
Dad shook his head. “I’m sure it sounds incredible,” he replied. “But you have to understand, she’d been sworn to secrecy for her entire life, as I’m sure you have.”
All Fiona could do was nod.
“But that changed as soon as Leana learned she was expecting a child,” Dad explained. “She knew there was a chance that the baby would be a selkie, and so she could no longer conceal the truth about her identity. She told me everything—about selkies, about Changers, even about witches and warlocks—right there on the beach.”
“Were you angry with her for keeping so many secrets?” Fiona asked.
“Angry?” asked Dad. “Not at all. I loved her. And besides, can you imagine devoting your life to studying myths and then learning that they were all true? That selkies were real? Their world would be my world, even if I could only ever exist on the edges of it.”
A wide smile crossed Dad’s face as he looked at Fiona. “And seven months later you were born, Fee, wrapped in your beautiful cloak. Your mother and I both knew exactly what that meant.”
But Fiona knew that wasn’t the end of the story—not yet, at least. “What happened next?” she asked. “Was Mom okay? Did she—”
“Everything was fine at first,” Dad interrupted. “Better than fine, really. I’d thought Leana and I couldn’t possibly be happier, but once you were born, our joy increased tenfold.”
Fiona let herself smile, but only for a moment; her next question was already on the tip of her tongue. “How come it didn’t last?” she asked.
“I’ve asked myself that question hundreds of times,” Dad said. “And the truth, Fiona, is that I don’t really know. I’ve been able to piece some of it together over the years, but there are things that only your mother knows. And she took that knowledge with her when she disappeared.”
Disappeared—not died, Fiona thought. But she didn’t say a word.
“One night, very late, when you were still just a toddler, there was a knock at the door,” Dad continued. The words seemed hard for him to say. Fiona watched his face carefully, but he couldn’t seem to meet her gaze. “There was a woman on the doorstep, drenched to the bone, tendrils of seaweed clinging to her bare feet.”
“A selkie,” Fiona said.
“Yes,” Dad replied. “A messenger. She wouldn’t speak to me. To be honest, her eyes were filled with disgust when I answered the door. She had come bearing a message for your mother: The selkies were splitting from the Changers to form a separate nation, to be governed under their own authority. She had one word for Leana before she left, as mysteriously as she’d arrived.”
“What was it?” Fiona asked breathlessly.
“ ‘Choose.’ ”
Fiona clutched her mug of tea, but it had grown cold. Of course there had been a choice to make, and it was very clear, wasn’t it, how Mom had chosen?
But Fiona had to hear it. She had to hear Dad say it.
“Leana left that night,” Dad continued. “She told me that the selkies needed her, that whatever happened next,
she had a responsibility—a duty—to her kind. I didn’t understand. Didn’t she have a duty to her family, too? To her daughter? But she promised she would return, so I didn’t try to stop her.”
“Did she?” asked Fiona.
“In a way,” Dad said. “The first week she was gone was unbearable. I couldn’t imagine how you and I could possibly go on without her. But then, just as I had begun to despair, Leana came home.”
“But she didn’t stay,” Fiona said.
“No,” Dad replied. “She returned for one day. Looking back on it now, she had changed, though I was too foolish, too in love to see it. Leana had already made her choice, I think. She came back not for good . . . but for good-bye.”
Dad rested his hand on Fiona’s selkie cloak. “That was when she hid this,” he explained. “I wasn’t sure I’d ever see it again. For some reason, Fiona, it was exceedingly important to her that you not have your selkie cloak, that you not know the truth about yourself.”
“How come?” asked Fiona.
“That’s another secret she took with her,” Dad said. “I begged her for answers. For the truth. And above all,
for her to stay. But she wouldn’t. Sometimes, when I think about it, I wonder if it was really a choice, after all.”
“And you never saw her again?” asked Fiona.
“Not exactly,” Dad said. “Nine years have passed, but I still think I see her from time to time—but only in her seal form. She’s quite lovely, you know, with a copper-colored pelt that gleams in the sunlight.”
“The copper-colored seal!” Fiona gasped. “I’ve seen her!”
Dad’s whole face broke into a smile. “I’m glad to hear that,” he said. “I always had a feeling that she checks in on us.”
“But . . . if you knew she was out there, if you knew she was coming around, why did you tell me she died?” asked Fiona.
“Because she asked me to,” Dad replied. “Leana said that when you were old enough, she would explain everything. Perhaps I should’ve waited for her to come back, to let her tell you all this. But to be honest, I feel like I waited too long to speak up. It wouldn’t be right to keep the truth from you any longer.
“If you want to find your mother, Fiona, I won’t stop
you,” Dad continued. “I wouldn’t even try. And she must be close, for both of us to have seen her in the ocean. There is one thing I’d ask of you, though.”
“Be sure you’re ready,” Dad told her. “I can’t prepare you for what Leana might be like now—or how it might feel to see her again after all these years. Only you will know if you’re prepared.”
With that, Dad placed the selkie cloak in Fiona’s lap.
And she burst into tears.
Dad wrapped his arms around Fiona. “You must feel like your whole world’s been turned upside down. But I know you can get through this, Fiona. You’re strong.”
Fiona buried her face in her dad’s shoulder. A strange mix of emotions was fighting inside her. She cried for her brokenhearted father, who had worked so hard to raise her all these lonely years. She cried thinking of the things her mother had missed, moments that the two of them would never get back.
But more than anything, Fiona cried from joy, from relief, from glee—Mom was alive! Every time Fiona had longed to see her, Mom had been just out in the
ocean, keeping a watchful eye. The questions that had consumed Fiona no longer seemed so impossible to answer. In fact, the answers she needed now seemed closer than ever.
Just like Mom herself.
The shift in Fiona’s emotions was sudden. She’s been close this whole time, she thought. What—what was she waiting for?
Didn’t she know that Fiona missed her? Didn’t she know that Fiona needed her?
Didn’t she know that Fiona was twelve years old now, and facing all the marvelous, terrifying realities of being a Changer?
Fiona forced herself to stop crying and took a deep, shuddering breath. She looked up, over Dad’s shoulder, toward the kitchen window, where she could see the ocean glittering under the morning sun. There was still one question, Fiona realized, that was troubling her more than all the others.
Mom, she thought. Why did you leave us?