By Cathal Kehoe

 

My mother hated the sea. Our family holidays took us only inland, and when it came time for swimming lessons in school, my permission slip went unsigned. Yet, the day after her treatment ended in disappointment, the sea was where she asked me to take her.

I bundled her into the car, her small frame closing up like a folding chair. When we reached Sandymount Strand I helped her out, cradling her bony arm in my cautious hands. Fearful for her, as if she would break.

'Cold,' she said simply. She was right, the chill air blowing in made us shiver in our heavy winter coats. I mumbled in agreement. How our roles had reversed: I wanted to warn her not to go too close to the water. As if she could, as if she had the energy to carry herself that far.

'Do you remember the last time we went to the sea?'

'I do...' That time, it was the Atlantic we'd looked out on. But the sea is always the sea.

 'If I could,' she said, 'I'd take everything back.'

 

We drove out west, Mammy and myself, to see Aunt Maria before she left for America. Her husband, a lecturer in Galway City, got a job there. We drove through that stony landscape dotted with pale towns, not knowing the next time we'd be coming out here. But it didn't seem so final then, it was just another tedious family visit to be suffered through.

'She'll be back,' Mammy kept saying on the drive. 'She won't be able to leave that house.' The house they'd all grown up in. The old B&B. But my mother was wrong, as it happened. Maria never came back.

What a picture we made, the three of us on the stony beach below the B&B. Maria's shrill hoot followed us as we trekked our way down uncertainly, neither of us confident on the steep rocky slope.

'We shouldn't call this a beach,' said Mammy. Her irritation with everything punctured my sense of pride at a successful drive. I'd just gotten my full license, and the drive we'd just completed was my record so far.

'Mammy, just relax.'

'Relax!' She gave me a sharp look, then looked at the Atlantic, a mass of glinting white, and scoffed. As if the ocean had done something to earn her disapproval.

Then, surefooted, Maria arrived behind us. 'Isn't it beautiful today!'

'It's lovely,' I said, making the effort. My reluctance to visit my aunt had evaporated when I saw her again, a shock of colour against the grey day. Her purple sari, her red hair flowing, bangles stacked on her wrists, jangling and singing as she walked. I liked her - why did I always forget how much I liked her? She was so different from my own mother, she was a sort of miracle.

'Why,' said Mammy, 'did you insist we came out here.'

Maria, offended, said, 'I wanted you to see it.'

'I know what water looks like!' Mammy started back up the hill, stumbling slightly in her sensible shoes. 'I'm going to make myself a cup of tea, since no one else is going to offer us one!' She made her exit.

Maria just looked at me and smiled.

'It was a long drive,' I said flatly. Just five minutes before they'd been embracing, kissing on the cheek and delighting in each other.

'Oh, your mother just likes to argue with me.' Maria swept serenely across the rocks. 'Sisters. You know.' She looked at me anew, as if she just realised I was a boy, with no sisters to boot. 'I guess you don't.' A shrug. A tilt of the head. 'Don't you just love it here?'

'I do.' I didn't really. It was cold, the rain perpetual, an ache in my bones. I couldn't decide whether to enjoy her company or to feel abject misery at my surrounds, at the days of boredom that awaited me.

'I'll be sad to leave. I'll miss it here.' She bent over and picked up one of the stones. 'They're all different you know. But they're all smooth.'

To be with Maria was to go with the flow, and nothing flowed faster or more unexpectedly than her stream of thought. Dutifully I looked down at the rocks underfoot and saw that she was right. All the rocks were different: many-coloured, all smoothed by centuries of waves, with their own unique dimensions, each a fingerprint left behind by time. I chose one of pale purple-grey, so round it was almost a marble. I pocketed it, cool and damp against my leg.

'Should we be getting back?' I asked. Weary with the uninviting beach, I wanted the warmth of the kitchen where soup was bubbling on the stove.

Maria looked back at me absently. 'I suppose we should. Can't leave your mother on her own.' But as soon as we started back she stopped again. 'Look at this. It's the rock pool. You remember it.'

Maria's confidence in my memory almost made me believe I did have some recollection of standing by the pool, perhaps when I'd come here some years before as a child. Really, it was just a deep puddle. My face must have betrayed that I was unimpressed. The pool, Maria reminded me, held all kinds of life we couldn't see. Microbes, amoeba. Millions of them, living their tiny lives. The only life we could see was a little earth-coloured crab scuttling its way along the pool's edge. It came to a stop. My heart fluttered to see its pincers pinch the air - a warning to us? We must have seemed like behemoths. Or maybe we were so big we were beyond noticing.

'You know Geraldine doesn't like the sea.'

'I know.' That much was obvious I thought, hardly worth pointing out.

Maria sighed and stood up straight. We turned away from the rock pool. 'I suppose she has her reasons.' And she gave a me quiet, unnerving smile.

Before I could ask what the reason was, before I could fight the words out, she said, 'There's nothing between us and America but the Atlantic. Not long now before I'm gone.'

'You make it sound like you'll be dead.'

She laughed, unexpectedly. 'Oh, this place will be here long after I'm dead.' I tried to puzzle that one out. Maybe that was the fundamental difference between my mother and Maria. Mammy moulded her surroundings to her liking, everything carefully selected and arranged just so. Maria simply perched in the wilderness, and if she got swept away so be it.

She said one final thing that day, something beyond my understanding then, later remembered as a sign of her peculiar brand of madness and an early glimpse of what I was to discover about my mother on that visit. 'There's a seal colony nearby. Maybe one of them will come to say goodbye to me.'

 

The next day dawned after a night of troubled sleep. In the middle of the night, I was snapped into wakefulness by the back door, right under my bedroom, snapping shut. Getting out of bed, I went to the window where I saw a figure in the darkness. Maria, in wellies and an oversize rain jacket. Going to the beach again? Why at this time of night? In my state of tired irritation, I made no attempt to answer the questions that registered in my dull brain. Maria disappeared into the night.

'Mary O'Leary was asking for you,' my mother reported that day, with the air of someone making great effort.

'Who?' Maria chewed on her sandwich. We were eating lunch and drinking tea at the big kitchen table. 

Mammy looked at her incredulously. 'You went to school with her!'

'I went to school with a lot of people.' Maria looked to me. 'What do you think of my salt and pepper shakers?'

On the table between us grinned two ceramic gnomes. The salt gnome wore a green cap, the pepper gnome a red one.

'Never mind your salt and pepper shakers! Mary always asks after you. It's nice to remember people.'

'Yes,' said Maria with a sudden intensity that was unusual for her. 'It is nice to remember people. I've been remembering people out here for years.'

Mammy felt silent, pale. Fear struck me: here was a truth I couldn't see.

Finished eating, I stood and said, 'Let's go see what's on TV.' Playing protector. Protecting them from each other, and myself from them.

I expected Mammy to follow but instead heard her thundering up the stairs. They scared me, and their history scared me. Behind the two sisters stood a vast, unknowable darkness. An only child, me. How could I understand the way they were to each other?

I put some show on but barely saw it. Surrounded by packing boxes, I throbbed with a dull incomprehension.

The boxes were full of old bric-a-brac. It all looked like junk to me. Was she really planning on taking her collection of gemstones with her to the States? No knowing with Maria. One box was filled with old guestbooks. I wondered when the last guest had been here. Months surely, not since the for-sale sign went up. Another box was filled with photographs, still in their frames. And it was there that something caught my attention, made me snap out of my stupor.

I went to grab it: a black and white picture, an old one, of three girls standing on the beach I'd just been standing on myself. I knew my mother instantly, and Aunt Maria. Both in their early teens, gangly and long-limbed. But the girl between them was a stranger to me. Or was she? Her face was somehow familiar to me. And then I realised, it was the same basic face as the girls on either side of her. Mammy and Maria and this girl - the knowledge travelled from my brain to the tips of my toes, remaking me along the way. The three of them, sisters. Two alive. One dead.

'Attracta was her name.'

My heart leapt and I spun around. Maria had snuck up behind me and peered over my shoulder.

'Did you ever know about her?'

'No,' I stammered.

'We were teaching her to swim,' Maria said simply, as if that were all the explanation needed.

Drowned? I wanted to ask but couldn't bring myself to.

Maria smiled, making me uncertain. 'No body. But she came back to us. She swims now. She swims all day.' She waited for me to respond. But I had no response to give. And before she could say anymore we heard those thundering footsteps again, coming downstairs this time. I scrambled to hide the picture.

Mammy dropped her suitcase on the floor with a bang, where it fell open and its contents spilled out. 'Right! We're leaving.'

Maria and I stared at her slack-mouthed.

Maria spoke first. 'But you just got here!'

'I can't be dealing with this anymore. Any of it.'

'Mammy,' I said. Yearning for her, loving her even more than I had before.

She looked at me with red eyes. 'I don't like it here.'

'Geraldine.' Maria moved toward her placatingly. 'We don't know when we'll see each other again.'

They embraced with a slight reluctance. After some cajoling, Mammy agreed to stay for two more nights.

 

On Sandymount Strand Mammy huddled close to me. Her closeness was still strange to me. We had never really hugged or kissed as I was growing up. Helping her during the days of her illness, I felt the alienness of her body keenly. 

I produced the ham sandwiches I had packed. She took a bite and chewed ruefully. Her skin as grey as the sea.

 

In truth, I didn't mind staying another night or two, despite the tension and the sense of things shifting beneath my feet. Everything changing, everything staying the same.

Mammy was upstairs again, unpacking. Maria and I sat looking at the television in a dense silence, each in our own private worlds.

Until Maria turned to me with a glassy-eyed look and said, 'I think I have to do it myself tonight. Go out to her to say goodbye.' She ran a finger delicately along her earlobe, full of punctures where her earrings usually went.

'To Mammy?' 

'To Attracta.' She said this with impatience, as if it should be obvious.

I didn't point out that Attracta was dead, drowned at sea and no trace. Thinking about her, I felt the coldness of the sea inside me, and its emptiness. I was, in my own way, mourning the aunt I never knew. 

'How?' I wanted so much to understand Maria, to get to know her properly before she went away for good.

'The beach. I'll go down to the beach. These next few nights are going to be clear. And it's a full moon too.'

That night, I waited up to watch Maria go down to the beach in the silver dark. And she did, pulling the coat around her tightly. My first impulse was to follow her. But I didn't. What right did I have to intrude on her private ritual?

 

It was the next night that was my chance. Bundling up coats and scarves against the cold, I ventured out, stopping at each of the women's doors to make sure I could hear their slow, steady breathing. I stepped cautiously down the slope, hardly wanting to put one stone out of place, wanting to be as silent a witness as possible. And wondering also, if some of Maria's weirdness was rubbing off on me. I barely knew why I was doing this or what I was hoping to see but in some part of me I felt a strange sense of purpose. 

High tide had swallowed the beach almost entirely. I was wet up to my shins, cold and angry with myself. But on I went, pressing myself against the wall of rock and making my way along the strip of beach that remained, towards I knew not what.

She came back to us. She swims all day. Maria's words rang in my mind.

There's a seal colony nearby. Yes, of course. That was where Maria had been going these past nights. The madness of this almost made me turn back. It was like peering into someone else's dream. Maria believed her sister had come back to her as a seal. 

Eventually my path widened out again and I found myself standing in a small cove, the rocks glistening in the moonlight. 

Dark, hulking shapes rose from the ground right in front of me, startling me. Were those the seals? 

But no. They were just large, rounded rocks, sitting around the central pool. They refused to spring to life for me. There was an odd sort of sadness to it, and a disappointment I knew made no real sense.

Had the seal left for good, or had Maria imagined it all? It would be no surprise. A woman like that on her own out here, visited by her husband only on the weekends. All the time in the world to go off on your private reveries. Swathes of time in which to remember. Mammy said Maria was soft in the head. She would have said the same thing about me for being taken in by all of this.

But as I turned to leave I did see something that made my heart leap. A dark, round shape, bobbing on the surface of the water. I went to call out to her, to say hello and goodbye all at once, to promise that I would remember her too. But in a flash of silken movement the shape disappeared.

I stood entranced. Maybe she had come back, to see her sister one last time. But seeing me, the seal-girl had fled. Or just maybe, she saw me and knew her memory was safe and swam away contented.

 

'Let's go, Mammy.' 

She nodded, absently, not really hearing me. Was she remembering too?

The past overwhelmed me like a sudden wave. Not just my past, but my mother's and Maria's too. I was the only one who made it to America for Maria's funeral. Mammy was already too ill by then and we all agreed she couldn't manage it. I took a handful of my aunt's ashes and scattered them along the golden beach, so unlike the one Maria had probably imagined in her will.

'I should have tried harder with her. With my sister.'

Which one? I could have asked. But I never once mentioned Attracta in my mother's presence. If I knew anything about my mother it was this: that as much as she liked to talk, she preferred silence in the end. She held her secrets fast. And I knew then, as I know now, that the people we love are full of life we can't see.

'It's alright Mammy,' I said softly. Something passed between us. Something she had carried that I now had to carry, and do. Call it the family sadness. My only inheritance, a sound inside like the bark of a seal, a mournful call out to the sea.

 

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Cathal Kehoe grew up in County Laois. After studying English and Film in NUI Galway, he moved to Dublin where he currently lives. He works in Marketing and runs a regular group of like-minded writers who meet every two weeks in Dublin City Centre. In addition to the 9-5, his job on the evenings and weekends is to write short stories and work towards completing his first novel. He has previously had work published in Headstuff.org's Fortnightly Fiction series.