Authors: Shelley Moore Thomas
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To Noel, Isabelle, and Caledonia, for the little bits and pieces I borrowed.
And to Susan, who taught me what it means to be a sister.
UMB IS THAT FEELING YOU GET
when you forget your mittens because it is late spring so the mittens are all put away, and the wind howls like a flock of banshees and the air is wet with spray and you have to take a note to your da at the bad end of the docks. You can't put your hands in your pockets because you have to push your baby sister in the pram. And your other sister doesn't help because, well, she just doesn't. And you have to take a note in the first place because your mum said to and besides, no one ever answers a phone at the bad end of the docks. That feeling in your fingers, the very tips, where it's cold, then hot, then nothing. That's numb.
Numb is also the feeling you get when you come home and your mum's gone and then your da has to tell you that he doesn't know when she's coming back. And if he knows why she left or where she went, he doesn't tell you because there just aren't that many words left anymore.
That's what numb feels like.
UM HAD BEEN GONE
for two months when I found the letter.
I don't know why I didn't notice the old book there before, sticking out of my bookshelf like a tall, thin soldier among its shorter, thicker companions. But there it was. So I pulled it out.
A Child's Book of Selkiesâ
my mum's old folklore collection
was stuffed right between
The Yellow Fairy Book.
I hadn't seen it in years. The cover was worn and frail, probably from all the times I'd asked Mum to read it to me, back when I believed in fairy stories. Back when I believed in magic and happily-ever-afters. But somewhere around the time Ione came along, the book had disappeared. I always figured Ione had shredded it up to make doll clothes, or buried it in the yard, pretending it was treasure, or maybe even eaten a page or two. Not that my eight-year-old sister would eat a book
, but as a baby, she ate a lot of paper.
Carefully, so the cover wouldn't crumble away, I opened it.
A Child's Book of Selkies
A COLLECTION OF FOLKLORE FROM THE ISLES
Lady Evangeline McFie
Framing the title page was a border of intertwined seals, as well as long ropes of seaweed, and a sprinkling of pearls and shells. It looked incredibly old-fashioned and I remembered how much I loved it. I had named each of the seals around the edges, fifteen of them, but I couldn't even remember one of their names now.
And then there was the smell. Salt, seaweed, musty old paper. The scent reminded me of Mum, except for the musty part. I closed it gently and, not wanting to put it back on the shelf yet, carried it with me as I tidied the house. Someone had to pick up, since Da left his things everywhereâsocks that were on the floor and never found the hamper, and waterfalls of blankets that trailed down the side of his unmade bed.
I was making his bed when the letter fell out of the book. The tight, scrolling, curved writing could only belong to my mum. My stomach clenched, like some invisible fist had just squeezed and twisted it.
I let the treasured, fragile
A Child's Book of Selkies
fall to the floor.
To my darling Cordie,
I know you will find this, sooner or later, my reader girl. You couldn't stay away from this book when you were a tot. I wish I were brave enough to hand this note to you in person, but I have to do it this way. Someday you will understand.
The first thing you must know is that I love your father with the same love that stars have for the night or that trees have for the rich soil that nourishes their roots. Had I been a star or a tree, I'd not be writing this letter, for I would still be there with your father.
And with you.
But I am not made of stardust nor sturdy bark. And sometimes one is not as strong as one wishes to be. And so I have to go. I am not certain how long I will be gone, but I will try to come back to you as soon as I can.
While I am away, take care of your da. Don't let him work too hard. Don't spend the money in the sugar jar too quickly. Use what you need, but try to make it last. And keep the
seaworthy. Don't let Ione and Neevy forget the taste of salt spray on their tongues.
And please, Cordie, do not worry about me. Watch over your sisters. Keep them safe.
“Whatcha got there?” Ione asked, trying to grab the letter from my hand as she barged into my parents' room. Since school had let out for the summer, Ione was forever on my heels. There were no friends' houses I could send her to, since Ione refused to step outside the door for very long. She was convinced Mum would pop back home the instant she left. Besides, neither of us had many friends anymore. Kids are afraid when something bad happens to you, like it is contagious or something. As if the fact that my mum had gone would make every mum in town disappear.
I didn't have much time for friends, anyway.
I held the letter up high so Ione couldn't reach. Not that I really needed to hide the letter from her. She couldn't read near as well as me. She claimed that words, when written close and small, ran together in her mind like they were dancing or playing a game upon the page.
Mum knew this. That's why she wrote the words so close and small, I think.
“Come on! Let me take a peek!” Ione begged, still trying to grab it. “Is it from a boy? You're too young to have a boyfriend, Cordie. Wait until Da hears about this!” Ione danced about the room with her usual grace. Everything Ione did was graceful, as if an invisible breeze held her up and controlled her moves. As if she were part of the air. “Cordie's got a boyfriend! Cordie's got a boyfriend!” she sang.
Even her teasing voice was pleasant, floating across our cottage on fairy wings. I wanted to slug her. But instead, I remained calm. It was best, when Ione got herself all wound up, to bring her back down to earth in a gentle way. Otherwise, she'd be singing songs about me and imaginary boys for the rest of the day.
“I don't have a boyfriend. Eleven-year-olds don't have boyfriends,” I said simply, even though I was almost twelve. “It's just aÂ â¦ a note from the landlord. The rent will be due soon. Da will need to remember this time,” I lied. Though the part about remembering to pay wasn't a lie. Since Mum left, Da had forgotten many things. I didn't want to think about the fact that we probably didn't have any money for the rent this month at all.
“Oh.” Ione stopped her dancing. “Well, that's not very interesting, is it?”
“No, I'm afraid it isn't,” I agreed. “Now, go and do something quiet before you wake the wee beast.” I hoped she didn't see my hand shake as I folded the letter and put it in my pocket.
“Remember when she took long naps? Babies shouldn't be allowed to stop taking long naps. Hey, what's that old book on the floor?”
And as if she were psychic, our baby sister roused with a pterodactyl-like cry from her tiny room down the tinier hallway. I gave Ione the
it's your turn
look. She huffed off as I picked up the old book. The faded seal smiled at me from the cover.
For the first time in a long time, when I thought of Mum, I smiled.
And that's what hope feels like.
HERE ARE MY GIRLS?”
Da called when he got home an hour later. “Where are the Sullivan sisters?”
He took Neevy from my arms, gave each of us a hug, and snuggled our cheeks with his stubbly ones. He was always scruffy by the end of the day. Mum once said that if he put his mind to it, he could grow a beard by sundown. The sharp tang of the resin he used on the boats he repaired enveloped us all.
“Phew,” Ione said, holding her nose. I didn't mind the smell.
Da hoisted Neevy in the air in front of his face and took a whiff. “Speaking of
,” he said, passing the baby off to Ione.
“I made your favorite for dinner,” I said.
“Everything you make is my favorite, Cordie,” Da said. “It's better thanâ” But he didn't finish. We all used to joke about Mum's cooking before she left, even Mum herself. She made excellent shrimp-and-pesto pasta, and a lovely blackberry cobbler from the berries we picked outside our window, but the rest of her meals were not very tasty. A pained look crossed Da's face for an instant, then he lifted the lid of the pot on the stove.
“Mmm. Potato soup.” He sniffed a big sniff, then lowered the lid and looked at me squarely. “Thank you, my dear.”
We ate to the sound of spoons hitting bowls, and slurps, but no words.
After supper, I set Ione to washing up and I looked after little Neevy.
That was the saddest part of Mum leaving. Neevy was only ten months old now. After two months of Mum being gone, I bet Neevy didn't even remember her. At least Ione and I could still picture Mum in our minds, with her deep black hair that looked almost blue in the twilight, and her eyes, dark and large like onyx.
Ione has the look of Mum, hair and eyes and all. I have the eyes, too, but my hair is a dull copper, like Da's. As for Neevy, it's too early to tell, her head still being bald as an egg. Mum's boss at the hair salon, Maura, said not to worry until her first birthday, which was still a couple months off. But if no hair had appeared by then, well, that'd mean bad luck. Poor Neevy's bad luck came early, I guess, not having a mum around to watch over her and coax her little hairs to grow.
From the kitchen, I could hear the difference between Ione's splashing in the suds and Da's methodical scrubbing. We had a deal, Da and I. Whenever Ione washed the dishes, one of us would check and rewash what needed it. Ione never managed to scrub all the bits of food out of the bowls, especially if it was potato soup. And if the potato soup dried on the bowl, it would take more than the wire brushes Da used on his boats to pry it off. I waited for him to start whistling some old sailing tune he'd heard from the men at the dock, until I remembered he didn't whistle much anymore. I looked at Neevy, lying on her tum, kicking her legs and moving across the floor as if she were swimming on the carpet. She'd be fine for a minute. I went into the kitchen.