Of Souls and Selkies
t's one year today that Dad departed this life and is no more. Ma doesn't realize I remember, but I do. In fact, I'll never forget the date; we lost him on the third Friday in a sweltering July, the day before Eileen McCarthy's thirteenth birthday party. It was to be a humdinger of a party too. The Episcopalians had hired Mr. McCarthy, a stonemason, for the building of their Fifth Avenue Heavenly Rest and he was making good money. He had rented the back room of O'Dooley's, ordered shaved ice from the iceman to flavor with a rainbow of syrups and given Mrs. McCarthy money to rent a gramophone. And, for the first time, boys were invited -- something Ma would never do. To top it off, Maggie O'Prey's older brother, Eammon, was coming.
I was thrilled.
But. I never went.
The night before the party, Dad didn't come home after work at his usual hour. Typically, he was like clockwork, never shaming us, honoring his vow to Ma made on the boat from Londonderry. Only once before, when I was nine, Dad didn't return from the dry-docks of the Brooklyn Navy Yard on time. Then, we waited dinner on him. Stew bubbled thick on the stove and Ma plied our little bellies with bread and butter, muttering all the while about families taking their evening meal together. However, once Ma persuaded Mrs. Ryan to mind us, she ladled out the stew and went to search for Dad.
Rigid as nails, Brendan, Niall and I (Noreen was still a prayer on Ma's lips) had sat at the kitchen table while Mrs. Ryan lectured us on Sin, the Devil and the Bottle. None of us fully understood her meaning but Niall, who wasn't more than two at the time, was terrified. In the course of that one dinner, he rejected his baby bottle forever and would only drink from a cup, wasting most of his milk down his shirtfront.
When they came home, Dad, who was stinky from drink, proclaimed Niall's use of a cup a miracle, Mrs. Ryan a saint and requested her services in potty training Niall 'who was a little behind' schedule. Then he patted Niall's bum and laughed himself silly. Ma's face reddened. She thanked Mrs. Ryan for her help, put Dad to bed, told us to 'shush' and was silent the remainder of that night. For a week after, however, whenever Dad opened his mouth to share his thoughts, Ma took a cue from Mrs. Ryan and prayed her rosaries, asking The Holy Mother for strength. He'd never been late since.
But, on the eve of Eileen's party, as the hour got later, Ma left our house and headed to the docks once more. A storm of thunder and lightening would have been a pleasanter evening. For sure, Ma had every right to be angry. Poor or not, ours was a proper home but I hated for Dad to be in the doghouse. So, expecting him to reek worse than boiled cabbage and Ma to be fierce for smelling things up, I put Brendan in charge, snatched the penny I'd saved inside my shoe for Coney Island and ran to Thornton's market on Flushing Avenue where I bought a lemon. At home again, I heated a pot of water, sliced the lemon up, letting it's juice spray my hands and imagined I'd scented the apartment like the wind in Calabria based on stories of our neighbor, Mr. Catanzariti, and his exotic groves back in Italy.
With the citrus boiling and Brendan yammering to Niall about the Dodgers, we waited for Ma to haul Dad home. Shadows from the nearby buildings crept into our parlor as day turned to dusk and as the sun disappeared altogether, we sat in the cooling moonlight making wishes on the few stars visible through the skyline of jagged roofs. Finally, the apartment door opened but, instead of two figures, there was only one. Ma had returned alone. Our Dad wasn't with her. Nor was he below on the sidewalk where you'd sometimes catch Mr. Ryan, waiting and pleading to Mrs. Ryan for admittance into his house if he arrived home past supper hour.
Something was very wrong. Brendan shut up and Noreen put down her bread and jam and climbed onto my lap. Ma then traipsed herself into the small parlor and collapsed onto a chair. Her face was gray as the ashes we shook from the stove each morning.
"It's bad news I have for you children," she said, each word a strain weighting down the air around her. "Your father, well loves, he's no longer with us."
Our answer was our silence. Too petrified to speak, we stood as though we'd been turned to pillars of salt, for the sight before of us our Ma, sad and broken, was a terrible one.
"What do you mean, Ma," I finally asked. We had to know.
Ma took a moment.
"What I'm meaning to say," she began, the dew of tears rimming her eyes, "is that I went to the docks and your Dad wasn't there." She focused her gaze tenderly on us, "So, I went to the night foreman, Mr. O'Connell, and asked if he'd seen your Dad. He said he had not and asked me if I had checked O'Dooley's."
Ma, never one for the drama of emotions, rolled her eyes dry but in such a manner as to also mean Mr. O'Connell wasn't one of God's grandest creations. "I told him straight," she said in a voice drawn from ancient wells, "your father wasn't in any pub. Your father was a man of his word, a man to respect. He'd made a mistake once, but he loved his family too much to shame them again. So, that's when Mr. O'Connell began shaking his head. 'It's as I feared,' he says to me. 'Feared what, Mr. O'Connell? Tell me now. I'm the wife and I have a right to know,' I says back to him."
"Then he tells me how just before quittin' time, Mr. O'Connell had spied your sainted father at the edge of the pier, leaning out his ear as if listening to a fancy musicale. 'I don't pay you for sunbathing Cormac,' Mr. O'Connell said he yelled to your Dad. 'Get back to unloading those crates.' But next time he looked, your Dad had disappeared. Mr. O'Connell figured he'd snuck out early to O'Dooley's for a pint. He'd even nabbed his timecard so none could punch it for him. But, after speaking with me, he knew exactly what occurred." Here Ma stopped, her strong speech couldn't conceal that her was face washed to a pale whiter than Noreen's Christening gown.
"Peggy," she said to me, "be a love and get me a glass of water while I catch my breath?" I ran to the sink, bringing back a tepid glass of water so as not to miss a word about where my Dad had gone.
"There's a girl," Ma said, her voice sounding older than only moments before, while Niall and Noreen crawled onto the chair with her. She drank the water and continued.
"It was the Selkies. They've taken your Dad."
Noreen was crying. "Poor Daddy," she wailed.
Niall looked scared and asked, "Who are Selkies, Ma?"
I turned to Brendan, his face registering disbelief. He answered first. "Fairy tales, that's what they are..."
Ma quickly interrupted Brendan. Her face went stern even as she comforted Niall and Noreen with her kisses. "They might be fairy tales for you, Brendan Morgan O'Shea, but that's because you're an American." She sighed deeply, more from her heart than her lungs. "Your Daddy was an Irishman and he forsake his land so as you could be born of this country, safe and sound. Donegal is another world. Back there, where he was born, a Selkie is just as real as Papadopoulos' are here in Brooklyn. Whoever heard of a Papadopoulos in Ireland for Heaven's sake."
Then she explained, "The Selkie, Niall, are sea creatures, magical ones -- sometimes ordinary like seals, sometimes like mermaids who sing beautiful songs. Your father must have heard one. Their voices float on the breezes of currents from Donegal Bay. It must have broke your father's heart to hear such a noise, enough to jump into the ocean and swim home to Ireland."
"Daddy can't swim," I exclaimed. I knew from last summer's trip to Coney Island; he wouldn't step foot in the water on a steamy hot day and Ma had taken extreme delight in splashing him.
"No, he can't love, he never learned and there's the sadness. We've lost him to the sea."
We were all crying now. Brendan looked mad as well. Ma blotted her eyes with her hankie in one hand and stroked Noreen's hair with the other. Niall let out a big sniffle, his lips quivering. "Ma, will the Selkies come and get us too?"
"Pshaw," spurted Brendan. "Let's turn on the faucet and tell me if you hear anything."
Ma reached from her chair and grabbed Brendan by the shirtsleeve, whispering but loud enough for me to hear, "Brendan, I'll make an exception for your thickness as this is a sorrowful day but another comment like that to your brother and I'll box your ears." Then she released him and brushed the tears from his cheeks sweetly. I could see her own eyes glistening.
"And, no Niall, Selkies don't want American children. There's no worry for the lot of you. Why even if you heard their songs by accident, their words would have no appeal to you, it's a different tongue they speak. Anyway, they'd have me to reckon with; I'll not abide my family being torn from me. Now, Brendan, you take Noreen and Niall to their beds and say prayers with them." She hugged all three tightly and kissed them off to bed.
Turning to me, her voice wavering, she then said, "Wipe your eyes, Peggy, love, I'll be needing to rely on you. Come with me into the kitchen; we've got some baking to do." She pulled me close, leaning her cheek against my head. "Tomorrow will be full of people stopping by and the like. We need to receive them properly. Also, you'll come with me tomorrow to request Monsignor Quinn say a memorial service for your Dad. It's only right. They'll be no funeral of course...", she trailed off but quickly steadied herself, "but, he deserves to be remembered for the man he was."
She lifted flour and sugar from the cupboard and, to my surprise, didn't make me turn around when she retrieved the currants from their concealment. "A dozen loaves of soda bread for the visitors," she said. "Remind me to pick up butter on our way back from the parish house." Then, we baked; counting out each of the currants so no batter was richer than another.
The next morning, when we woke, a section of Ma's hair had turned white. Noreen kept trying to touch it. We baked four more loaves of bread and, under the circumstances, Mrs. Ryan came over to mind Brendan and the little ones while Ma and I went to St. Bernadette's to discuss arrangements with Monsignor Quinn.
After Ma presented me to Monsignor, although I'd met him many times before, I never spoke with him, only Ma did. She entered his office but sat me in a small sitting room on a lovely green couch with lace antimacassars on the arms. Through the door, I heard their conversation in muffled tones. A few times, it seemed Ma's voice raised a bit. Then I remembered the Monsignor was hard of hearing and Ma was probably speaking loudly for his benefit. A little after, the door opened and Ma stepped out.
"Peggy, dear, so I don't forget, I'll take the butter money from you now while the Monsignor looks for passages from The Bible to read on your father's behalf." Then she popped back into his office.
Once Ma finished, we left St. Bernadette's in quiet. On the street, I reminded her of the butter. She looked at me blankly and then smiled, a little bit of pink returning to her cheeks. "What would I do without you, my little Pegeen? Why don't I go to Thornton's and why don't you go home, get Eileen's gift and stop by O'Dooley's before her party starts. I'm sure Mr. McCarthy will be there getting things ready and can give it to Eileen for you. It would be the right thing to do."
Mr. McCarthy was there, setting chairs and tables about, and he thanked me for Eileen's gift. He gave his condolences as well, having heard of Dad's unfortunate incident with the Selkies from Mrs. McCarthy. Along with his sympathy, he handed me a taste of the shaved ice drizzled with red. For a moment, I imagined myself in a lavender party dress on a nice summer day with Eammon O'Prey smiling in my general direction. Then, my heart sank. I chided myself for enjoying something so much while grieving for my Dad. I hoped Mr. McCarthy didn't notice. But, as I look back, it really doesn't matter. Since I transferred from St. Bernadette's Parochial School to P.S. 119, I don't see much of Eileen any longer.
On Sunday after Mass, Monsignor Quinn said the memorial for Dad. It was a private service just for Ma and us children, not announced in the church bulletin or during Monsignor's homily probably on account of the fairy heathens that lured our Dad away. Still, Mr. O'Connell came by at the end to pay his respects. He gave Ma an envelope. Later Ma told me what it contained: the fellows at work had taken up a collection as when Dad went to swim back to Donegal, his Friday pay had been in his pocket.
After the service, Ma took us home, fed us lunch and read us the funny papers just as we did every Sunday. We didn't laugh though. The lumps in our throats made it hard to hear her words. It was all so different. Without Dad whistling, thumping around, and bellowing to Brendan to bring him his smokes, her voice echoed off the plastered walls. Even my favorite, Little Lulu had changed; what a ridiculous thing she was. Certainly, she deserved all her silly troubles.
Other things changed as well. We moved to a smaller apartment and Niall made First Holy Communion in borrowed clothes. And, Ma works now. She spends her days baking bread and barmbrack to sell to the local pubs. At night, she takes the tram across the Manhattan Bridge to wash floors in a very important skyscraper where very important businessmen conduct very important business. She boasts how the floors she's polishing are made of limestone quarried from her very own county, Sligo, and that she's keeping them clean for the day Brendan becomes a New York City Businessman with shiny shoes and crisp, cuffed pants.
Despite all the changes though, Ma acted as if today was no different than any other day. But, I knew she remembered. I did. Her mind was heavy in thought and she left a full half hour early for work. That means only one thing; she's lighting a candle at St. Bernadette's for our father's soul. I thought she might. So, I'd had the house in good order, sparkling even, all of us with clean hands and clean faces so that she could leave without giving it another thought.
You see, when she leaves, I'm in charge and I do my best. Ma's burdens are great enough. I keep the house tidy and make certain that Brendan and the little ones keep to a schedule for meals and baths and homework and chores. Each night I check their catechism books as well. This is a good Catholic home. Despite how we lost our father, we're still true believers. None of us have gone wild like Mrs. Ryan predicted and there's been no need to ship the little ones off to Ma's cousin in Boston who offered to raise them as her own. It's been close, though. I've had to have very serious discussions with the children not to discuss Ma's job with the teachers at school and not to linger on the streets. You might say I've educated them about the Selkie ways of Public Services people. It gave them a bit of a fright, even Brendan.
But, I'm not scared. No one's going to take anyone away. Not anymore. We're being watched over. For One, The Lord Almighty is watching over us. Ma says so. Then there's Mrs. Ryan, who if God's right hand wasn't already spoken for, she would certainly be in the running.
Finally, there's Dad. I know for a fact he's watching too -- very recently and not exactly from heaven, either. More like from across the street. I've seen him. Well, not exactly him as he's dead. His ghost. Yes, I've seen his ghost across the street in the shadows gazing up at our apartment. Quiet. Watching. Always with a bit of mist circling him. His ghost never ventures closer but I know it's him back from the sea to protect us.
I've not told the others; Brendan would just think I was telling tales to make the little ones feel better. I haven't told Ma either. If I tell her I see the ghost of my sainted father, then she'll know how much of Ireland I have in me and I don't want to scare her. It's just not all-American. But neither am I. You see the girls at P.S. 119 are a bit more forthcoming than the nuns at St. Bernadette's about earthly topics. Babies and marriage and the like. I might have been born here in America but my soul entered this world before Ma and Dad shipped from Ireland to Brooklyn.
And, I don't want Ma worrying that it wants to go back.
About the author:
Patti Weisgerber is a novice writer living in New England. Her stories have most recently appeared in SmokeLong Quarterly, Whim's Place, The Glut, Flashquake, and Insolent Rudder. When not writing, she likes to paint coastline scenes complete with frolicking whales and mermaids and will be participating in the 2004 Beacon Hill Artwalk.