“Listen papa, do you hear that?”
“Shhh, lass,” after a moment’s silence, “It must be the wind whisperin’ it’s many tales.” Rory Higgins looked over and gave his daughter a playful smile.
Aisling looked at her father. He was a strong, tough brute of a man, but he was kind. He told her many stories when they were out at sea. Many involved princesses, warriors, dragons, evil queens, and the like; Rory Higgins was well known for his imagination among his friends. It never went unnoticed to Aisling that the princesses and warriors always resembled her in description and manner. She was his world, and he hers; it made sense she was often the hero of his stories.
The fishing boat they took out every night was as sea-beaten as the man who steered it. Now, the only sound Aisling heard was the slapping of the waves against the sides of the small boat.
“Did I ever tell you the story of that necklace you’re wearin’?”
Aisling softly touched the single-pearl necklace, “No papa I don't think so.”
That of course was a lie. She had heard this story before, many times, and wanted to hear it again. Every story was different, and her father had a funny way of telling it. The only thing that didn’t change was the look in his eye when he spoke of her mother. She loved the stories he told of the stunning Órla Higgins. Every story was like uncovering a new secret about her; these were the times when she felt the nearest.
Rory began,“She was sittin’ on a rock looking towards the ocean. She was the most beautiful creature I ever laid my eyes on.”
He smiled, lost in the memory.
“Then what happened papa?” Aisling asked, bringing him back.
“Well ya’ see lass, she was combin’ her hair. The loveliest and longest hair you’ve ever seen. It was as if you were starin’ directly at the sun; her beauty almost blindin’ me.” Her father, now pretending to be blind, then started feeling his way around the boat in a rather dramatic fashion. Aisling giggled. He always knew how to make her laugh.
“As I approached, I noticed tears runnin’ down her lovely cheek. Gettin’ on my knees, I begged her to stop. You see, I actually felt my heart breaking. When one ya’ love is sad, you can feel it too. And she was in such a miserable state, I would have cut off my own hand to prevent one more tear from fallin’.
“This beautiful creature looked at me and said ‘I cannot bear it any longer, I must escape. Will you help me?’ She then asked if I were kind, and if I were married. I told her I was a good man, and the only woman I would ever, for all my life, desire to marry was standin’ directly in front of me. I told her I would give my life if it meant her happiness.
“Smilin’ the loveliest smile, she then pointed at a small golden cap next to her and told me to take it. I obeyed her at once.
“Then the most astonishin’ thing happened. She told me we were to be married at once, and she was to live with me! I couldn’t believe my ears, this beauty was to be mine! But I realized, I didn’t even know this woman’s name. So I asked her…
“Órla, she told me. I pulled her close and said to her, ‘Órla Higgins, you have made me the happiest man across eternity.’”
“Did you kiss her papa?”
“When we were married by Father Kelly, ay’ I kissed her plenty.” Rory then grabbed his daughter and planted numerous kisses on her cheeks. Aisling laughed in delight. She felt the boat rock after the sudden movement.
“Then what happened?”
“Well, we lived in such bliss we didn’t think we could get any happier. But God has a way of challengin’ you, and we soon found out she was with child. If I wasn’t such a large man, I swear my heart wouldn’t have been able to fit inside my chest when she gave birth to a beautiful baby girl.”
Aisling blushed, looking down at her feet.
“Well, I came up with the name Aisling. It means ‘dream’, and since I felt like I was livin’ one, it seemed the perfect fit.”
“Why’d she leave papa?” Aisling asked, noticing the familiar melancholy shadow his features.
“Well, she was incredibly sad when I found her. She said she couldn't go back to where she came from. After you were a year old, I walked into the nursery and saw her staring out the window towards the sea. She had that same sad expression on her face. I asked her what was wrong and she told me she had to go back. I didn’t understand and asked her why, pleadin’ with her not to leave. She told me that they knew where she was and they would hurt us if she didn’t go back.”
“She never explained, said I would never believe her, and that it was safer if I didn’t know.” Rory looked away with such despair, Aisling thought her own heart might break.
“She asked me for her golden cap back. I thought for a second about not givin’ it to her, but she looked at me with such pain that I couldn’t help but obey her one last time. I went into our room and took it out of a wooden box I kept hidden in the closet. I gave it back to her without meetin’ her eyes, and she softly took it from my hand.”
“Did she leave right after?”
“Soon after. She gave me a kiss and told me I had saved her, and she would always love me. She then went over to your crib and cried for a moment. She kissed you and told you she loved you more than anythin’. Taking off her single pearl necklace, she placed around your neck. She then told me that you were never to take it off. It would protect you and keep her near.”
Aisling, touching the delicate pearl, began to lose herself in thought.
Her father continued, “I watched her leave, knowin’ there was nothin’ I could do to convince her to stay. Your mother was extremely stubborn, and I could tell her mind was set. I watched her walk out from your nursery window. It was so strange, she started walkin’ towards the water. She stopped at the ocean’s edge for a moment, and then continued forward. She waded out past her knees and then stopped, placin’ the golden cap on her head.”
He paused for a moment, reflecting. Aisling felt this story was different. From her father’s expressions, this story seemed closer to the truth than the others had been.
“She then leapt into the ocean and started to swim away. But the oddest thing! I didn’t see her feet come up, but instead a golden tail with one large, brilliant fin, reflectin’ the sunlight so vividly it glowed.
“That was the last time I saw your mother. I was so shocked at what I just witnessed, I forgot about my own heartache. I looked down at you, asleep in your crib, and knew we were goin’ to be alright.”
“Do you miss her?” Aisling asked, of course, already knowing the answer.
“Every moment of every day, but I figured one man couldn’t go on lovin’ that much, or else his heart would give out. But I see her in you, and I wouldn't change anythin’.” Aisling noticed the sudden thickness of her father’s voice when he spoke those last words.
Aisling thought for a moment. “Is that why we fish every night papa? Do you think we might find her?”
Her father smiled, without giving an answer, and looked off into the distance.
The night was still and Aisling felt the cool, salty mist caress her face. She thought of her mother, and wondered if she thought about them. She touched the pearl again, and felt her body relax, comforted by the lulling of the waves and gentle rocking of the boat.
Her father interrupting her deep thought, “Well lass, I think it’s time to pull up the net and see what we caught.”
Aisling watched her father roll up his sleeves, stand up slowly to keep his balance, and carefully turn to the side of the boat. He began pulling up the net, one hand over the other, until the bottom came into view. Aisling saw the flapping of the fish who were unlucky enough to wander into their net. She saw something glimmer, half expecting it to be the enchanted golden cap, but it turned out to be the moon’s light reflecting off moving scales.
Her father sat the net down with a heavy thud, and both he and his daughter, all too eagerly, peered at what they caught.
“Just fish and seaweed,” her father said quietly to himself.
Aisling looked back at their loot, and couldn’t help feeling a little disappointed. Looking at her father, she recognized a similar expression.
Her father’s face brightened, “Well, I think it’s time we headed home.” He looked at his daughter and smiled. Aisling smiled back, watching her father start the motor. He took one more look at his surroundings, shook his head, and began steering them towards shore.