The Waves of Éire
Legends tell of a beautiful land, known as Tír Fo Thuinn, that exists on the ocean floor just off the western shores of Éire. Sometimes fairy tales are lies, told to children who cannot be trusted to do what they’re told out of love or respect for their parents, in hopes that fear of punishment or the promise of reward might keep them in line. Sometimes they are superstitions, a rustling branch in the howling wind mistaken for a woman, come to foretell of the death that would be discovered the next day, or a misplaced gold piece that could only be the fault of some mischievous sidhe thief.
But Áine knew Merrow were real. She had seen one when she was six years old. She had been playing too close to the cliff, and as the tide rolled out, she spotted something sitting on a rock that was barely poking out of the water. She turned and called to her father, but by the time she turned back around, it was gone. At the time, she thought it was a Selkie, and her father almost convinced her that it had just been a seal. But there were aspects of the creature that didn’t line up with either — the tail looked scaled, and the top half looked very much like a lady, for instance.
While she took every opportunity she could to try and spot the creature on the rock again, which was a challenge after the trouble she had gotten into for being so close to the cliff, it was not until she was ten that saw another one. By that time, she not only knew what a Merrow was, she had spent countless hours poring over legends and fairy tales about them.
The second Merrow she saw wasn’t on the rock, and it wasn’t at a time when she had been expecting to see one. Instead, while playing on a beach not far from her home, she had wandered into a small cave to explore. There, in the cave, near a pool that likely led under the rocks and out into the ocean, was a beautiful woman with a long red robe and a red knitted cap in her hand. Her robe dragged the ground, but it was neither wet nor dirty. The woman looked at Áine with surprise and began swiftly walking toward the mouth of the cave.
“Wait, please,” Áine called after her. The woman did not stop. Instead, her steps seemed to hasten. Áine began to run after her. “Please, are you a Merrow? I’ve read so much about you. I think I saw one of your kind once near my home.” The woman continued swiftly moving out of the cave and toward the land. Áine kept pace beside her. “I saw one of your kind once, and I thought you were a Selkie. How ridiculous of me, I know. But you have to understand, I didn’t even know about Merrows then. I wish you would stop and talk to me. I only want to know more about Tír Fo Thuinn. It sounds like such a wonderful place, not like this boring place where I’m confined to the ground and everyone fears the freedom of the open sea. Everyone goes on about the beauty, but all I see is green.”
When they reached the edge of the beach, Áine’s mother called out for her. She stopped and turned back to see her mother walking toward the cave. She hadn’t seen her yet, but there might be trouble if she did not hurry back. When she turned back around, the woman was gone.
The cliffside rose thirty meters above the sea at high tide. The waves crashed against the rocks below and Áine stood along the edge. After six years of coming out here to the edge, she had become familiar with the winds and the shape of the ground. Any fear that may have once held her back was long since replaced with the certainty that came from an intimate bond with the world around her.
She stood on the ledge, her toes hanging over, dangling in the air, her arms held out to her sides. With her eyes closed and a strong wind blowing rain into her face, she imagined falling to the waters below. She was a bird, and the sea was her sky. She could plunge to unfathomable depths then return to the surface and leap into the air, only to be cradled once more in the loving embrace of the waves.
She leaned back and fell into the grass, blissfully unaware of the world around her, entranced in her own imagination. Then she heard it.
“Áine!” Was the sea calling her name? Had it finally heard her prayer and come to take her to Tír Fo Thuinn?
“Áine!” She opened her eyes to see a woman standing over her. It wasn’t the sea or a beautiful Merrow. It was only her mother, her hands on her hips, clearly annoyed.
“I am sorry, Máthair.”
“I know, Iníon. You shouldn’t be so close to the edge. One change of wind, and you could fall.”
“If I fall, the sea will catch me. Besides, I know these winds like a sister. They would never betray me.”
Her mother shook her head. “Come. Supper is ready, and then to bed.”
The next day was Áine’s thirteenth birthday. The morning was met with a small feast followed by opening gifts from her parents. For the afternoon, a trip to the beach. The water was cold, but that did nothing to prevent her from enjoying the waves as they crashed up against her. She swam for a while, imagining as always that she was a Merrow out on the open sea, free to explore the world without fear of the storms or sea monsters.
After a short time, she looked to the beach to see her parents both fast asleep. She made her way out of the water, moving at an angle that would put her directly in front of the cave where she had seen the woman two years ago. She had returned to this cave a few times — once, she even left a note which was gone the next time she visited — but she had seen no real signs that another Merrow had come through, and her note remained unanswered.
As she made her way into the cave, she could see that it was, as usual, unoccupied. She sat on the ground near the pool of water and hummed a tune. It was a song that she had heard once about a sailor who fell in love out at sea. She didn’t know the words, but she imagined someone had heard the tune being sung by a Merrow and fallen in love with her. Finally, she jumped in the pool and swam to the other side.
The pool was deep, far too deep to stand in. In fact, she had never even been able to swim to the bottom. She couldn’t hold her breath for long, which was the only thing about herself that made her feel like a failure as a would-be Marrow. She had tried many times to find the place where the hole led back out of the cave and into the ocean. By this point, she had begun to imagine it as a mysterious portal. Perhaps it led directly to Tír Fo Thuinn.
She pushed down under the water, releasing an kicking to prevent herself from floating mercilessly back up to the top. It was only a matter of seconds before she started to feel the pain in her chest. She kept pushing, further and further down. She had never been down this far before but there was still no sign of the hole she was searching for. All around her was black as pitch. There was no use, she had to get back up to the surface. She kicked her feet and flung her arms wildly, and just as she felt like she might not make it to the top this time, she surfaced.
Exhausted, she made her way back to the edge and pulled herself out of the water, stretching out over the dirt, unwilling to move another muscle. She turned her head to the right and saw something in a corner of the cave. What was it? It definitely wasn’t a rock. As she focussed a little harder, her heart sunk. It was her letter. Any hope she had that some Marrow had taken it into the sea was gone.
She sat up and moved over to retrieve it. If they did not want her, perhaps she did not want them either. As she picked it up and began looking over it, though, she realized this was not her letter. The look and feel of the paper were unlike anything she had seen before. It was firm, but soft to the touch, and it had lines running diagonally across it, each spaced about five centimeters apart. The lines resembled the bones running through a fish’s fins.
When she opened the letter, in a shining blue and purple ink, she read:
My dearest child who dreams of the sea Longing to live where she can be free I grant you this one chance to change your course To start a new life on Tír Fo Thuinn’s shores From the place where you saw my wandering child On the rock in the sea that set your heart wild When the tide is high and the stars above dance On this night I will give but a single chance When the arms of the sea are stretched before Waiting to hold you close once more Faith will carry you to her heart And from her love you will never part But be warned that you leave your world above Everything that you have, everything that you love For once you accept my gift to be free Your first love will evermore be the sea
Áine looked out over the sea, the waves 15 meters high and crashing against the cliffside below. It was now or never.
When the arms of the sea are stretched before
Waiting to hold you close once more
Faith will carry you to her heart
And from her love you will never part.
She had never seen the waves stretch up this high, like they were reaching for her.
She turned to take one last look at the world she knew. The patchwork quilt of farmlands stretched across hills as far as her eyes could see. Infinite shades of green were crisscrossed with stone walls. She had always been amazed at how each field seemed to have its own individual shade so strikingly different from all of the rest.
The winds were calm in every direction but the sea. She turned to the right to see the house where she had always lived. Her mother would be inside finishing a shepherd’s pie for dinner. Her father had gone out to tend to the sheep. A single tear ran down her cheek. How could she say goodbye to everything she had known, to everyone she had loved. But how could she stay here in this place when the promise of everything she had dreamed lay before her.
This was her only chance.
“Slán, Máthair. Slán, Athair. Slán go fóill. Slán go deo.” She turned back to the sea, took one step back, ran to the edge and jumped.
The fall toward the water felt like an eternity. She thought about her mother and father and how they would feel, how they would react when they realized that she was gone. What had she done? She thought about how she might never get to see them or her home again. For a moment, she wanted to go back, but it was far too late for that.
She did not so much hit the water as get swept into it. It felt very much like it had caught her and eased her into its bosom. Once she got there, she continued to go down. Even after the momentum of her fall had stopped, she continued to sink. It was as though she was being pulled downward. She was concerned about running out of air, but she had not yet felt the familiar kick of her lungs trying to force her to breathe again.
Things stayed that way for quite some time. By now she knew that if whatever was keeping her safe now were to release her, she could not possibly make it back to the surface before she drowned.
Then, after a long period in the darkness of the ocean depths, she saw something coming toward her. It was odd because the creature did not appear to be emanating any light, but she could see it as clearly as if a light were shining on it. The sea around it was still pitch black, but as it approached she could see that it appeared to be a Merrow, much like the one she had seen on the rock more than six years ago.
Elation consumed her entire being. If the strangeness of what had been happening had not been enough, this confirmed it. The message was real. Her dreams were coming true. Three more Merrows approached. They surrounded her, and one placed a small cap on her head. The cap was exactly like the ones they were each wearing, just like the one being warn by the lady in the cave.
She realized as they all floated around her that whatever had been pulling her down had stopped. One at a time, the Merrows took off in the same direction. The last one motioned with a slightly webbed hand for her to follow. She tried to kick her legs like she had learned to when her mother taught her how to swim, but she no longer had legs. She had been staying completely still and had not realized the change. She looked over her body and saw that she no longer looked like herself. Her legs had been replaced by a large fin. Her hands had webbing at the base of the fingers. And her hair, as it flowed in front of her face appeared to be an emerald green.
She kicked off the best that she could and followed the Merrows. Soon, she saw where they were headed. She had read about it, but unprepared for what she saw. Here on the ocean floor was a giant, beautiful area of dry land. There were lush green fields, hills and mountains, trees, sheep and even a stream that ran through it. The sea around it looked like a mountain giving way to a beautiful blue sky. It was so much like her home, but yet so different.
As they exited the water and entered this land, their appearance changed. She had legs again, and instead of what she had been wearing, now she wore a long red robe. The others took off their hats, so she took off hers as well. Her hair had changed back to a golden blonde.
“Welcome to Tír Fo Thuinn, The Land Under the Waves. Bradán Feasa, the Salmon of Knowledge, has seen fit to grant your wish and allow you to be as one of us. The land is vast, and the ocean is yours to explore. I am sure you will soon learn our ways and be happy among your new family.”
In Tír Fo Thuinn, Áine lived freely. She explored the mountains and played among the brightly colored trees. She made friends with creatures that she had never heard of. But best of all, every day, often for many hours at a time, she would put on her new cap and go out into the ocean. She would swim and explore and make friends with all manner of fishes. This was truly everything that she has dreamed of.
Every morning would be spent with Bradán Feasa, a giant salmon who ruled this land and knew everything there was to know about the world. She learned much from the salmon, though mostly she was concerned with the secrets of Tír Fo Thuinn, the history of its people and the wonders of the ocean depths.
It was several months before the thought of her parents re-entered her mind. She wondered how they were and what they were doing. She kept her growing desire to see them again held down, both in hopes that she might move on from it and, foolishly, so Bradán Feasa would not know. But the salmon knew the moment the thoughts entered her head. He allowed her to stew over her feelings for a time for he also knew that, soon enough, she would ask.
Finally, when the pain of not knowing was too much, she broke and went to see if he knew how they had faired after her departure.
“Your parents are well. They live happy lives. Their only pain is that they were never able to have a child.”
“But they had a child,” she refuted. “I am their child.” Her voice betrayed her desperation.
“Your parents have forgotten about you. From the moment you jumped from that cliff, their memories of you disappeared.”
For the first time since she had arrived, Áine wept.
Understanding her pain of the thought that she would never seen her parents again, the salmon offered comfort.
“You will see your parents two more times,” he told her. She removed her hands from her face and looked at him. “They will not remember you, but they will welcome you.”
She stood, intending to rush immediately up to see them.
“You will know the way when the time comes. But remember, you will only see them twice more and never again.”
Áine waited two days before making her way to the surface. She developed a plan to circumvent the restrictions the salmon had placed on her. She had been told that she would only see her parents twice more, but she had not been told for how long.
When she returned to the surface, she looked east and saw the beach with the cave where she had found the note. She ducked under the water and made her way toward it. The hole that led into the cave was not hard to find, but it was clear that it would have been far too deep for her to ever reach it if she was not a Marrow.
She surfaced inside the cave and took off her hat, immediately transforming back into a young woman with a long red robe. She quickly exited the cave, stopping for a moment to remember what seemed like a lifetime ago — playing on the beach and swimming with her parents — before making her way to the shore and back home.
When she saw her house rising over the road, she forgot that her parents no longer remembered her, and she began to run as hard as she could. As she approached, she saw her father walking toward the house. She ran to him and threw her arms around him, nearly knocking him over.
“Whoah, child,” he said with a familiar chuckle. She pulled back and looked at his face longingly. His face held no such love. There was kindness, but there was no recognition, no elation for the return of a lost child.
“And whose might you be?” The reality struck her again. Her knees nearly buckled as she fought back the urge to fall on her face and cry. She knew this would happen. She had accepted it before, and she needed to accept it again. All that mattered was that she was here with her parents again, and she had a plan to stay here for a long time.
She pulled a letter out of her robe and gave it to him. It was of the same paper that her invitation had been written on, but he did not seem to notice the strangeness. On the paper it read:
My dearest cousin, William It has been a long time since we met, I know, and you probably do not remember me. Your father’s sister, Elva, is my mother. I have come into much trouble and am no longer able to provide for my daughter, Áine. You are my closest relative, and I pray that you can take care of her until I am able to come collect her again. She is not accustomed to hard work, but I am sure that she can be trained and be of use to you. All my love, Your cousin, Alayna P.S. I have sent a hat along with her. This hat is important to my family, and I would ask that you take it and keep it somewhere safe.
He looked the paper over a couple of times then turned his face back to the child, took a deep breath and smiled.
“Well, it looks like you are staying with us for a while. Come on in the house and get washed up for supper.” He reached down to take the hat from her and turned toward the house.
As she followed him to the house, she looked out over the fields and hills to the East. They seemed so much more beautiful, under the fading light of the setting sun, than she had ever remembered.
She stayed with her parents, and they treated her like she was their own. They did not remember any of the years that she cherished with them, but it felt to her almost as though she had never left. Many times she forgot and brought up memories that only she held, frustrated at their refusal that such things ever happened. She was periodically reminded of her deceit when they would discuss her fake mother’s return or ask questions about her early childhood. She had to come up with a more elaborate history for herself than she had originally imagined.
From time to time, her father would write letters to his cousin, and Áine was quick to intercept them, offering to take responsibility for sending them along and writing responses which would arrive a few weeks later. This life went on for more than two years, and she had long ago decided that it would likely go on for many more. But on her sixteenth birthday, she heard the call of the sea.
She had heard the call many times before, but it was faint and she was good at ignoring it. Now, it rang loud in her heart. Once again, she began to feel the longing to return. Trips to the beach gave temporary relief, but she feared they may have intensified the longing she felt while she was away.
Within six months, she could feel nothing but a constant sorrow gripping at her. She barely ate, and she spent most of her time staring into the vast ocean or daydreaming. Her father, understanding that she was missing home, wrote another letter beseeching her mother to come take her back home. This was her opportunity to return. She did not want to leave her parents again, knowing that she would only be able to see them one more time, but her longing for the sea had far outgrown any other.
She did not wait long before delivering a note that she was to head back home. Her father gave her cap back, and she said goodbye to her parents. They offered to take her, but she refused, insisting on going by herself. As she crossed over a hill where she was sure they could not longer see her, she ran straight toward the edge of the land and jumped into the sea.
Her relief at being back in the sea once again helped her to ignore some of the pain of leaving her family. She returned to Tír Fo Thuinn, back to the life that she had lived for a short while. There was still much to keep her occupied. She continued to speak with Bradán Feasa daily, learning from him about numerous things under and above the sea. She explored the mountains and found some caves where she enjoyed sitting and playing with her animal friends.
In particular, there was a young fawn who she began visiting regularly where it played out in the field. They became very attached to one another, and, when it was old enough to feel comfortable being away from its family for a long time, she led it to a cave where there was a large grassy patch with beautiful pink flowers. A small stream flowed out of the cave from a pool deep inside.
The fawn could not speak, as was the case with all deer, here or anywhere else, but she understood it as though it could. It enjoyed the grass here, and the flowers were the best it had ever tasted. They drank from the stream, played various games, such as hide-and-seek, and laid on the ground next to each other for hours.
She appreciated the dry parts of the kingdom more this time, taking time to climb the trees and examine the purple, red, orange and blue leaves, and getting to know more of the vast array of creatures who were incapable of moving beyond the walls into the sea.
Her parents stayed in her mind, but this time the thoughts were mostly happy. She had been able to spend some quality time with them, and she had given a proper goodbye.
She spent time in the ocean, but she avoided going to the surface for fear that she might accidentally see her parents and that would be the last time. She debated over the timing of when she would see them again. Perhaps if she spent longer down here this time, she would be able to stay longer on the surface. Also, going up earlier would mean having to say her final goodbyes earlier, and she wanted to put that moment off for as long as she could.
She spent five years in Tír Fo Thuinn before she began to feel the strong urge to see her parents again. It was never anything like the urge she had felt to return to the sea, and for that she felt guilty. She held off for two more years before she finally decided she could not wait any longer. If six months here had given her two and a half years above, perhaps seven years would give her thirty-five. Perhaps it wouldn’t, but now was as good of a time as any to return.
Áine made her way back to the cave early in the morning. It had been seven years since she had seen the sky. After exiting the cave, she took her time looking over the beach. Memories flooded through her brain of her time here. She watched the first sunrise that she had seen in years as she made her way inland.
The beauty of this place was different from Tír Fo Thuinn, but it was still captivating. The green hills rolled on forever. The air smelled of wet grass. The sun seeped through the clouds in beautiful shades of yellow, orange and red.
She slowly made her way to her home. There was no one outside this time as she made her way to the door. Her knocking was not met with an answer, so she made her way over to the cliff where she had begun this course. The tide was low, and the rock where she had seen the Marrow jutted out of the water as waves crashed against it. For nearly half of her life now she had been a Marrow. The feelings and inclinations that pushed her over this edge were distant memories, disconnected by time, life and the developments of adulthood.
After some time she made her way back to the house and sat on the steps in front of the door. Soon, someone approached. It was not her mother. As the woman neared her, Áine could see a strange fear in her eyes.
“Oh, please,” the woman said as she approached. “Are you here for them? The masters of this house?”
“Yes.” Áine stood up. “When will they be here?”
The woman moved around her and opened the door. “They are already inside, but they are not well. I went to get some food.” She lifted the sack in her hand and placed it on a table near the door. “Thank you for waiting for my return before going in. I wish to say goodbye.”
Áine was confused as she quickly made her way in to the room where her parents lay. They were clearly sick and looked near to death. “What has happened? And who are you?”
“I am Alayna, William’s cousin. A few years ago, a girl came to stay with them for a time pretending to be my daughter. But I am not married, you see, and I have no daughter. He wouldn’t have known that, though, since our families have not spoken in quite some time. I received a letter a few months after the girl left and eventually made my way here to see them.” Áine’s heart sank. She had never considered that they might try to contact her again.
“Two years ago, William and Mada fell suddenly ill. They recovered, but the illness came back a few more times. This one is the worst I have seen. It hit early this morning and just kept getting worse. I was unsure if this would be the end, and when I saw you on the step, a Marrow, a harbinger of death, I knew. Thankfully, now they can finally rest.”
She had heard that Marrows sometimes foretold death. This was why she had been drawn here. Waiting for two years had given her parents more time, but waiting any longer would have only served to increase their suffering. She understood the duty of the life that she had chosen, and she was suddenly at peace with it. With tears in her eyes she took each of them by the hand and kissed them on the mouth.
“Áine, my dear daughter,” her father said, a smile filling his face with joy as he drew his last breath. “I am so happy to see you again.”