The Longing: A Love Story by Joseph H.J. Liaigh

The Morning After the Storm

Frankie sought his sister in the fog of the early morning, when the cool, autumn air moved over a sea still warm from the summer sun. He found her among the sand dunes, a grey figure in the mist, standing still and staring out into the fog. She took his hand when he came up to her and gave him a sad little smile.
The Longing: A Love Story
The Longing: A Love Story by Joseph H.J. Liaigh
“It’s just her nature,” she said. “It’s nothing to do with us really. She can only be what she is. You need to understand that.” She paused and looked out to sea again. “For her, to come at all is a sign of great love.” “Why Lizzie?” he asked. “Why does she have to be like that? Why does she have to be one of them?” She just gave a shrug of her shoulders, shook her head and went on staring into the fog. She didn’t know. This was a question that his big sister, the one who had always looked after him, the one who cooked and cleaned for him, couldn’t answer. A thought suddenly occurred to him. “You won’t leave will you, Lizzie?” he asked. She put her arm around him and pulled him closer to her. “Don’t worry, Frankie. I’ll be here as long as you need me,” she said. They looked back at the mist covered sea. The storm had passed in the night and there was an unnatural seeming calm in its wake, with only small, half-hearted waves breaking softly on the sand. After a while, Lizzie gave a sudden cry of delight. “There he is!” she yelled, waving franticly. “Da! Da!” He came up the beach towards them, a big, angular man: bone weary from his night of wandering. He didn’t speak and his eyes were sad, but his smile was warm. He picked up Frankie with one arm and held Lizzie’s hand with the other. Normally, Frankie would have objected that he was too big to be carried but not this morning. This morning he clung to the rough tweed of his father’s coat as they walked home and Lizzie skipped along, speaking of the bread she had made for their breakfast. The Meeting The day before had been different. Then the beach had been battered by a storm worried sea and dark clouds had piled up against the horizon. A fresh wind had brought the promise of the storm to come. Frankie had walked along, looking for small treasures in the wrack. He often did this and it was a good time to look, when the sea was rough. He had once found a seahorse but more often it was a piece of coral or an unusual shell. He was a lonely figure, although he didn’t know it, so used was he to his own company. The other kids were up playing soccer in the school yard and he could hear their happy cries in the distance. They hadn’t asked him, they never did. It wasn’t that they were mean, unless ignoring someone could be considered mean. It was just that they avoided him, just like they avoided his sister. They would stare but no one would ever say anything. He had long ago decided that there must be something wrong with him, something so awful that they were afraid to come near him: perhaps he had a disease he didn’t know about or maybe he was ugly – even uglier than Billy Maguire. He didn’t notice her sitting on the beach, wrapped in what seemed to be a seal skin cloak, and wouldn’t have paid any attention to her if he had, but she had called to him, called him over. He had gone cautiously, making sure he stayed out of arm’s reach. She was a striking looking woman with long silver hair, pale skin and large eyes as dark as the midnight sea. He was sure he had never seen her before and yet there was something familiar about her face. “You are Francis O’Rouke, Francis John O’Rouke?” she asked. He nodded, still staying a safe distance away. She looked at him with an intense longing, almost a hunger and her words were not those he expected to hear from a stranger. “Oh Frankie, I’m sorry,” she said. “I’m so very sorry. I should be there to care for you, you deserve that, but I am what I am. I can’t be anything else. Please understand that I can’t live any other way. I do love you and I miss you more than anything. Please tell your father that I still love him. In my heart, I still love him. It is so good to see you, my lovely boy…” She had reached out an arm towards him then and he realised that she was naked under that cloak. He bolted back down the beach, towards home, as fast as his legs would carry him. Supper That night the storm struck early and shook the cottage as they sat down to dinner. Rain lashed hard against the windows and gusts of wind would come down the chimney, disturbing the fire in the hearth. Frankie played with his soup, distracted and anxious. “Da,” he said eventually. “There was a very strange woman on the beach today.” His father smiled. “That’s hardy a major news event,” he said. “There are often some very strange people on that beach.” His father, like many of the locals, had a low opinion of the tourists who came to their town, even as they gladly took their money off them. “But this one was really strange,” Frankie continued. “She knew my name and she was wrapped in this seal skin cloak…” It was as if time stopped in that second. The storm still raged but inside the cottage there was a painful stillness. His father stared silently at the soup in front of him and Lizzie watched him anxiously with tears in her eyes. “What did she say?” his father asked eventually, without looking up from his soup. “She said that she was sorry and to tell you that she loves you,” Frankie whispered, afraid of the unexpected silence. “In her heart she still loves you.” His father dropped his spoon into the soup and stood up so violently that he knocked over his chair. Without looking behind him, he strode out into the hall to grab his coat. “No Da!” Lizzie yelled. “Not in this storm.” He took no notice of her and turned towards the door. “What’s wrong?” Frankie called fearfully. “What’s going on?” “Da, she’ll be gone! She’ll be gone. There’s no point!” Lizzie screamed. The storm shook the cottage as the front door opened and rain filled the hall as their father disappeared into the night. It took both brother and sister together to close the door after their father had left. Lizzie sat on the wet floor with her back to the door sobbing. “Not in this storm,” she said to desperately to herself. “That’s a mad thing to do.” Frankie didn’t understand. Why would his father, who was always quiet and gentle, who always had time for him, go off into the raging night without a word. “What is it, Lizzie?” he cried. “What have I done wrong?” She looked up at him and tried to smile. Then she pulled him down to sit next to her and put her arm around him. “Don’t you worry Frankie,” she said. “You’ve done nothing wrong. He’s just gone to look for her.” A wind gust shook the house, rattling the windows in their frames. “Why?” he asked. “Who is she?” “She’s our mother, Frankie,” Lizzie said quietly. Explanations Frankie looked at his sister in surprise. It was then that he saw why the woman’s face seemed familiar. It was his sister’s face. Her hair was red rather than silver, but it was the same face, with the same dark eyes. “I thought she was dead,” he whispered. Lizzie gave him a sad little smile. “No, It’s a lot worse than that, I’m afraid,” she said. She paused, then she asked, “Why do you think Da stopped being a fisherman?” Frankie shook his head. He had never really thought about it. “It was because he couldn’t stand seeing the seals that occasionally get caught in the nets and drown. He was always afraid that one of them might be her.” Frankie looked at her without any understanding. “Frankie, our mother is a selkie and she left us for the sea. It’s what selkies do.” Frankie was quiet but he thought and remembered. He knew about selkies, of course. This was a fishing village and they were whispered about in the darker corners of conversation. He knew that they were strange, magical creatures: seals who could sometimes be human or humans who were sometimes seals. They were strange and wild things that belonged in the tales told around the fireside at night. Yet, he easily accepted that his mother was a selkie. The simple openness of the very young meant that, to him, this was not only possible but plausible – it explained so much. This explained why the other kids avoided him, why none of the fishermen would look him in the eye. It would explain the conversations that suddenly stopped when he and Lizzie walked into a room. It would explain why gentle Fr. O’Brian had that terrible fight with Mrs Bruin over his upcoming first communion. “Don’t be silly woman,” he had said. “I baptised him myself. He has as good a soul as you or I. It’s not for you to be judging, saying who’s in or out of the kingdom.” Outside his family, old Fr. O’Brian was his one friend in all the village. A sudden gust of wind shook the cottage and Frankie looked out the window at the storm, although the dark night meant that he was only looking at his own reflection. “She said she loves us,” he said. “If she loves us, why would she leave us? Lizzie wiped something away from her eyes. “It’s just what she is,” she replied. “The sea always calls to the selkies. They come from the sea and they never stop hearing its call. It’s like a disease. Eventually they leave home and love to go off and answer that call. Our Ma is strange because she still remembers us. She still tries to return. There’s not many of them that do.” “Will that happen to me?” he asked. “Will I leave you and Da to go off into the sea?” Lizzie gave him a sad smile. “Oh, I don’t think so,” she said. “I think you’ll be strong, like Da. You are your father’s son.” He put that aside with the ease of a child. In any case. he was, in fact, far more concerned about the strange behaviour of his father. “If she left us for the sea, why has he gone looking for her?” he asked quietly. “Because she’s his wife,” she replied sadly. “Because he made a promise and he still holds to it. Whenever she comes back, he goes looking for her – but always too late. I don’t think he has ever seen her since she left, although I think maybe sometimes she watches us from out at sea.” Lizzie was quiet for a long time. Then she said: “I don’t know what would happen if they ever met. I don’t know that either of them could stand the pain.” She gave a deep sigh and then turned all matter of fact and made him finish his supper and go up to bed. Prayers That night, as he was saying his prayers by his bed, he added a new one: “and God bless my Ma, wherever she is in the wild sea.” “That’s good Frankie,” Lizzie said with a strange break in her voice, “That’s good. Now go to sleep. I’ve put some bread in the oven and I’ll let it rise overnight. It’ll be ready, all fresh and new, by morning.” The storm wind shook the house and rain lashed loudly against the window. “Lizzie, will Da be alright in this storm?” he asked. “I hope so,” she replied. “I think so,” she quickly amended. “He’s strong and he’s lived on this coast all his life. He’ll not get caught unawares or tumble over any cliffs. So don’t you worry.” He climbed into bed and pulled the warmth of the covers over him. Lizzie turned out the light and was turning to go when she heard his voice, small in the darkness. “Why Lizzie? He didn’t even say goodbye or where he was going. Why did he do that?” “Because he still loves her, silly,” Lizzie said with tears running down her cheeks. “God help us all, in his heart, he still loves her.”


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