Aisling took a deep breath, trying to draw in as much oxygen as possible. The rich scents of the spring meadow filled her lungs. Clover flowers, wild primroses and dust that had been picked up off the hot ground by the wind. She knelt in the dirt path that she herself had forged. It led from her small stone cabin, to the trout pond up the hill. Laying before her in the lush green grass, just off the path, was a wounded hare. The poor hare was breathing sharply, its eyes darted from Aisling to the surroundings, calculating an escape should Aisling make one wrong move.
It was important that Aisling work slowly. Silently with her eyes, she communicated to the hare, that she was no threat. She continued to draw in her breath the way Darragh had shown her many moons ago. She puffed her stomach out and kept her focus there as she held the breath for a count of twenty-nine. As she did this, she envisioned the words for healing and strength.
Aisling held the words strong in her mind for the full count of twenty-nine, a sacred number representing the days in the lunar cycle. She then let the words flow out of her lungs on an exhale, straight into her cupped hands. Holding the hare’s gaze, she moved toward its shaking body. The hare’s eyes darkened with a flash of fear, but then gave way to hesitant trust. Aisling turned her hands toward the hare and held them over the injured back leg. She whispered the words of release and carefully brushed both hands over the wound. Aisling looked up expectantly at the hare. A breeze rattled through the blossoming hawthorn trees, it carried air unusually cool for the warm spring day. The hair on Aisling’s arms rose, but she paid no attention, her focus was wholly on the small creature in front of her and what would happen next. The hare seemed to be expectant as well, it pricked up its ears and began to prop itself more upright. The sounds of the meadow, chirping crossbills and croaking bull frogs, filled the space between them. As the moment stretched on and on, the hopeful spirit in both Aisling and the hare began to fade.
“Shit.” Frustration bit at Aisling and her hands balled into fists. In an instant, the trust she had built with this frightened creature was crushed. The hare began to thrash. It had trouble getting to all four feet but it was determined to get away, and soon its back legs were underneath it. Just before it darted away, Aisling snatched its body, holding it firm around the middle. She laid it back down and pressed it to the ground with her left hand, preventing it from fleeing.
“I am sorry, little one. Please, let me try again. One more time.” The hare eyed Aisling warily. This time it did not look as willing to participate, but it had little choice. Its body went slack against Aisling’s palm. Aisling shoved her free right hand into her pocket and felt the familiar glass bottle. She pulled it out and held it up, gazing at it for a moment. The sun danced through the pearlescent tinted glass of the small vial. Delicate silver wire wove around it in intricate knotted patterns. Within the vial was a clear liquid. Aisling clenched her teeth. The substance the vial held was a solution she hadn’t wanted to use. She popped the cork stopper off with her thumb and began the ritual of breath. This time, when she had neared the count of twenty-nine, she removed her hand from the hare and poured a few drops from the vial into her cupped hand. She exhaled into the pool of water now in her palm.
The smell of the ocean drifted up from the water she held. Salt. Kelp. Creatures of the sea. Aisling poured the water directly into the hare’s open wound. It went rigid for a moment. Its little lungs puffed alarmingly fast, even for a rabbit. Aisling smiled softly and waited for what she knew would come next. The hare seemed to vibrate from head to toe. It hopped to all four feet and shook itself, as though it were shaking water off of wet fur. For a moment it was still, looking dumbfoundedly delighted. Then, with a twitch of its nose it hopped off into the thick meadow grass.
Aisling flopped back onto the soft ground with a sigh. Three years. Three years Darragh had been gone. Three years she had been away from the sea. Three years and she still couldn’t work the magic without the water. She knew why. It was really rather obscene she would even hope to do the sacred work so far away from the coast. As a sea keeper, she had no business living in a cottage in the woods. She should be tending to the animals of the waters, not playing pretend with hares in a spring meadow.
A familiar pain spread through Aisling’s chest and clamped at her throat. She swallowed back the grief that hid under the surface. She hadn’t been able to return home since Darragh had disappeared. This wasn’t how it was supposed to go. Darragh was her mentor. When the time was right, he would pass the sacred duty to her, but he hadn’t. He hadn’t passed it, and now the sea was wild and wretched. It had taken him. She knew it must be true. Aisling wrenched her teeth together once again and bid her memories leave her alone. She focused on the warm sun on her face and the fragrant scent of the bluebells that surrounded her. A wave of sweet sleep washed over her body and she nodded off.
Aisling’s feet crunched over broken bits of shell and coral that mixed with black sand. She blinked, trying to focus her vision. The dark sand seemed to stretch onward endlessly. Was she in some sort of desert? A dried-up sea bed? Aisling moved forward to explore her surroundings, but did so at a painstakingly slow pace. It was as though she had fallen into a thick bog. She strained with all her might to take one small step at a time. The sandy horizon stretched on forebodingly to all sides. Sweat began to pool in the crook of Aisling’s neck from the sheer effort of walking. She took one more excruciating step forward and her left foot submerged in water.
Shocked, Aisling realized that she had just stepped into a shadowy sea. A low whistle rang from behind her and the sea began to toss violently. Frothy caps of white roared straight towards the sky, and crashed back down to re-join the raging whole they had just departed. Aisling’s body was quaking with fear. All the knowledge from her many years spent training, her entire life’s dedication, drained from her mind. Her face was wet and salty, tears mixed with sea water. Aisling saw that the water level had risen to her waist. Her eyes darted wildly across the horizon, and stopped when they saw a blurry shape in the far-off distance. She squinted trying to get a better view. The blurry mass began to focus into a ship. It looked to be a traditional Celtic sailing ship, adorned in sacred knotted patterns.
A sudden pang shot through Aisling’s abdomen. Her heart was being wrenched, her chest arched forward and her entire being was compelled to move against her own freewill. Darragh. He was calling her to him. Aisling’s mind raced with conflicting emotions. She was now cemented to the spot and the water level had risen to her neck. Salty waves slapped her across the face. An uncontrollable fear had complete hold of her, but now, a seed of undeniable hope was sprouting in her heart. Darragh. How could this be? She had not felt his pull in over 3 years. Aisling tried to catch sight of the sailing ship again but the waves now thrashed over her head. Her feet had left the ground, she was now floating in the open sea. Salt water filled Aisling’s lungs and she choked, gasping for air.
A sharp pain once again tore through Aisling’s insides. It was as if a large invisible fist wrapped around her chest, crushing her lungs. The fist was pulling her downward into the murky sea below. Aisling heard one of her ribs pop. She let out a savage scream that pierced the roar of the waves. Her arms flew up in the air attempting to keep her head above water, but it was too late. Aisling was dragged straight down into the depths of the sea.
When Aisling opened her eyes, she was floating. Suspended in grey-green sea water. Very little light filtered through to these depths and she was surrounded by shadows. When she gasped for a breath of air, she was stunned to be able to breathe somehow. A quick scan of her body revealed no pain in her chest, but she swore she had heard her rib snap.
“Aisling.” Every fibre in Aisling’s being stood at attention. It was him. Darragh. But she couldn’t see him.
Where are you? Aisling thought, unable to speak.
“Have you forgot your duty to the sea?” Aisling’s body flooded with shame.
No. No… but it took you. You left. How was I supposed to continue?
“You are the keeper now. You have been training your whole life for this, oileanach. You must fulfill the sacred covenant.”
I’m not! You never passed the power to me. We never completed the ritual. Aisling’s body shook, overcome by grief.
“Acushla.” Darragh’s voice softened. Aisling felt his warm presence in her bones. “Acushla. Darling. This is the ritual. As the keeper, you cannot belong to anyone but the sea.” Aisling surrendered to his words, knowing them to be true.
I can’t. I’m not ready.
“Yes. Yes, my acushla, you are. I will always be here with you. I am now one with the sea.” Aisling closed her eyes and felt the seed of hope that had sprouted in heart, taking root. She could feel Darragh, there with her in the gentle motion of the waves. “You have to go now. Return to the sea.” Aisling wished there was something of him to grab, to hold onto, but it was just her and the endless sea.
Darragh’s voice echoed through the murky water, uttering the magic words. Aisling savoured the sound.
The bright spring sun warmed the back of Aisling’s eyelids, making her vision go pink. She fluttered her eyes opened and gasped for air. A crisp, blue-bell scented breeze filled her lungs. Shaking, Aisling got to her feet. She was soaking wet and reeked of the ocean. She looked down and took in her state and began to laugh uncontrollably. A big belly laugh that shook her to the core. Salty tears streamed down her face and into her smile. All this time, she had feared he was gone for good, now she knew he was, but it was a relief to know for sure.
Aisling put her hand in her pocket and felt the small vial that was still there. She took it out and once again held it up to the sun. Still a few drops left. She removed the stopper and poured the remainder of the sacred water onto the earth. A final offering for the place that had held her, when she couldn’t hold herself. Aisling slowly breathed in for a count of twenty-nine, and then crouched down to blow directly on the water soaked dirt.