19. OWEN

The first name I ever learnt was Kit’s.

I didn’t have a name back then. No Seelie does; names hold power over you, and if you don’t have a name, no one can turn it against you.

I had one once, when I was human. But that was so long ago that I’ve forgotten it. It crumbled with the years, one of the many words that got carried away on the winds of time and then buried deep under the hills where I hid with the rest of my kind in perpetual damp darkness.

We were supposed to be better than men. We were supposed to be safe.

But what’s a life spent buried alive?

When I left — when I finally slipped away from the neverending dancing and feasts and chiming music and drunken laughter that I’ve lived in for an eternity — I climbed up through the earth and out through the narrow chasm in the hill near the sea cave, just to try to remember what the world was like. I knew nothing. I expected nothing.

It had been so long since I’d walked on top of the grass that I’d lost count of the centuries. The cave was still there — the only dim memory I have from my time as a human — and the sea was still turning, the island still lonely and deserted.

But the humans were different. The boys were the first thing I saw, lying in the sun near where I emerged. The clouds were forming, moving across the crisp blue sky, threatening rain, but the boys still didn’t move. They were laughing at something.

I approached them slowly. I tried to wade through the moss that had grown over my memory, tried to open myself up and let the sun and wind and fresh air clean out the cobwebs, and looked to remember what I knew about humans. I’d been one at some point, hadn’t I? I’d been a boy like this, before the Seelie learnt my name and took me away underground to become one of them.

The taller boy — the one with the curly brown hair — saw me first, and frowned. He sat up on his elbows and nudged his friend and pointed at me, and I knew it was useless. I’d been seen.

“Hello?” he asked.

“Hello,” I mimicked. It surprised me how easily the words came back. I knew this routine. I knew how I was meant to interact with humans. “What are your names?”

“I’m Kit Macrae,” the stockier boy said. “This is Thomas Madigan.”

They just gave them to me. No hesitation. No suspicion. My kind had been hidden so long that the people of this island no longer feared us. They no longer hid their names. They had grown complacent and docile.

I couldn’t believe it. We’d been hiding for this? I’d been living in the endless dusk of underground summer, when there were clouds and grass and names for the taking up here?

“Why do you look like that?” Thomas asked. So direct.

“What do I look like?”

“I dunno,” he shrugged, then waved a lazy hand. “Weird. What’s your name?”

What was my name?

What was I going to call myself?

I’d come above to find humans. To find my memories. To remember what it felt like to live. To remember what it felt like to be free, to have a choice.

This was my first one.

I looked to the distance, to the sea, to the rolling hills and jagged cliffs, to Eòghan's Cave. The only thing I remember from when I was a human.

“Eòghan,” I told them, my voice barely a whisper. It wasn’t a lie. I was naming myself.

Kit grinned and waved at me. I don’t think a human had ever waved at me before that. Not in this form.

“Nice to meet you, Owen,” he said. “Want a Rolo?”

I spent the afternoon lying in the sun watching the storm move in, eating food not made of moss and lichen, and feeling the wind in my hair. Hearing voices that didn’t ring in my ears like bells and thunder.

When the storm came in and the boys went home, I had them take me with them. And then I didn’t leave. I crawled in and dug myself a home. I made myself a family. I clawed my way out of the dirt and scratched out a life. I read. I ate. I sought out experiences, and some days I laid in the grass and did nothing at all.

I never planned to leave. I couldn’t leave, not really; Seelies can’t leave the island, and why would I want to? I had everything I wanted there. A life. An opportunity to be human. Friends, family, adventure, choice. Kit gave me the blood to look human and Thomas gave me the magic to keep mine from fading and decaying.

It should have been enough.

Some days I feel so human that it hurts. The new human words I’ve learnt roll off my tongue and the pain and joy of living thunders through me. But then my hands begin to change, my bones grow hollow, and I’m reminded of what I am. I may look human, but I’ll never truly be human. I can pretend all I want, but all I’m doing is suppressing my real form.

When Thomas left, I knew I was running out of time. I couldn’t keep living with one foot on either side of humanity. My magic was growing weak. It was now or never: become human, or fade back into the heather and thistle and let my hollow bones be carried away by the oncoming centuries.

I should be terrified about what’s about to happen.

But all I feel is relief.

They’ve brought me back to almost the exact place I first emerged: the hilltop near Eòghan's Cave, where the purple heather turns into white. A pure place of magic that’s never seen bloodshed. I suppose that’s about to change.

Kit and Thomas aren’t here, though, and that disappoints me. They were the first people I knew in this life. I wish they would be the first people I’ll know in my new one. I want their names to be the first I learn again.

I was their friend. They’ll never believe that, but they meant everything to me. They taught me how to be human. I can smooth out my features and pick up the lingo, but what’s the point of being a man of flesh and bone if I never learnt how to enjoy it?

What’s the point of being human, if not for other humans?

The women are preparing me for the rite, but it feels like I’m about to be burnt at the stake. The two small ones — the twins — hammer stakes into the ground to keep my chains down, while the selkie builds the fire in front of me. The magician who called herself Hermione keeps pulling jars out of her large bag.

I hope that when I’m human, I’ll still understand that reference. Will I forget all the books I’ve ever read? Will I have to read them again?

Only Tanis isn’t active. She stands in front of me, the flames reflecting in her golden eyes, prepared to strike at any moment. Tanis is the only one I’ve ever been scared of. She’s of my kin; not human, not monster, but something in between. Caught in that middle of eternity and humanity. She’s discovered my secret more than anyone over the years, more times even than Kit, and I always regret making her forget it. I think she’s the only one who would understand.

Tanis knows what it’s like to look in on humanity from the outside and feel that deep ache of loneliness.

Maybe that’s why I was willing to bury her. Because she’s stronger than me, and she feels what I feel, and she’s never done what I did.

“We’re ready,” the magician says finally, taking off her shoes. The rest of the women follow suit and arrange themselves in a pentagram around me, split apples at their feet, crowns of bramble, ivy, and rowan on their heads. To protect them from the magic. To protect them from me.

I wonder what name I should pick for myself this time. Will I remember my old one? Will I revert to the boy I was before I was taken underground? Will I keep going by Owen?

Probably not. I probably won’t remember.

Whatever I go by, I hope I choose it. I like Owen, but I didn’t choose it; Kit gave it to me. But that’s being human, isn’t it? When you’re born, someone gives you a name. You can choose to keep it or discard it, but you’re still named. That’s where the power comes from.

I wonder if one of these women will name me when I wake.

The magician is chanting something, invoking the fates, the great powers. Calling on the energy of Samhain. The start of winter. A liminal time, when my kind can pass through.

I’m glad we’re doing this today, Oidhche Shamhna, the eve of November. I came to the surface on this day all those years ago. I renewed my human appearance and refreshed my magical stores with Kit and Thomas’s blood on this day. I’ve always thought of it a bit like my personal feast day.

The sun is setting behind the magician now, the fire sending flickering shadows across her face. She’s powerful. And she’s knowledgeable. I didn’t expect that. None of the magicians I’ve met thus far have known the Old Ways. Cormac and Thomas just felt their way through magic, thinking that they had to be present and ask the universe to accept a sacrifice in exchange for their will. Magic to them is blood and sacrifice. They didn’t understand the balance.

But this magician understands. She knows. She understands she has to feel the earth beneath her bare feet. I can sense her energy, taste her power as it gathers around the circle, mixes with the other women, climbs up through the dirt under the soles of my feet.

The selkie steps forward finally, her pelt draped over her shoulders, and hands me a knife.

“Do you relinquish your life below the hills?” the magician asks me. Her accent is smooth and thick like honey. It’s different than what I hear on the island. It’s new.

“I do,” I answer.

“Then give your sacrifice.”

I take the knife from the selkie and score a deep cut down my palm, just as I did for so many years of pacts with Thomas and Kit. My blood drips into the white heather as I reach out toward the fire. It sizzles when it makes contact, and the sharp tang of copper fills my senses.

“Isla,” the magician says. “Do you relinquish your life beneath the ocean?”

“I do,” Isla says. She stares me down, never breaking eye contact. She’s fearsome like this. The flames dance across her face like waves, and in her bramble crown and pelt she looks like a queen out of her time. Prepared to stride into battle.

“Then give your sacrifice.”

Isla carefully unwraps the pelt from around her shoulders and reaches over the bonfire before us, and drops it in.

“I give up my life below the waves as a selkie so that you can walk on the land as a man,” she says. Her voice is stilted. She’s been told the words to say, rehearsed them. They feel awkward on her tongue. Uncomfortable. “It is my will the universe accept this offering.”

The latter part sounds more confident. Demanding. Brooking no argument.

This selkie is a person who could bend the universe to her will without a sacrifice, I think.

We watch as the flames devour the rubbery seal pelt, sending great plumes of smoke up into the purpling sky, and then the selkie steps back and the magician steps forward. She pulls a charred stick from the flames, grabs my hand, and presses it to my flesh. The heat burns but she doesn’t hesitate, writing the runes across my skin with the black kohl as the flesh turns pink and raw. She digs her thumb into the cut on my hand and more blood wells up, and she drags her fingers through it to gather more ink for her writings.

“It’s time to be reborn,” she tells me, and steps back. She pulls up the stakes keeping me in place, and returns to her point on the pentagram.

I don’t know what life is going to bring me. I know I’ll wake into it alone. And confused. I won’t be able to control anything that comes, and that terrifies me.

But I’ll be free.

Closing my eyes, I gather the courage of my centuries and step into the flames.

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B. GILMARTINComment