Note: Saoirse is pronounced “seer-sha” It’s an Irish name that was popular in the 1920’s. It means “freedom”.
To her left, the mist-touched ocean sent gentle wavelets to the rocks on the shore. At the horizon, the impression of a ship, not much more than a shadow, blemished the long grey line of the sky. To her right, a lonely castle stood on a lucent green hill. There was nothing to break that green; no cows, no rock walls, not for a long walk, anyway. Shrouded in a fall of dark hair over grey wool, Saoirse stood and looked at the castle with a wary eye. She wasn’t exactly proud to call it home.
She turned back towards the ocean and continued her roving among the rocks, stopping every so often to pick up a shell or an interesting stone. She kept the shells. Her pocket creaked with them and carried the white dust of their grinding against each other. There was only room for a few more. She looked out to sea at the receding ship and sighed.
“Come back, ship! Come and take me somewhere sunny!” The ship responded by slipping quietly away into the uniform nothing at the edge of the world. Saoirse frowned. “There’s no need to be rude!” she shouted. Disappointed but not surprised, she continued her collecting until her pocket threatened to burst.
From the direction of the castle, she heard a strange sound. Mrs. O’Reilly, the housekeeper, nurse, and general woman in charge of everything, had come out of the castle and was calling her name. In Saoirse’s entire life this had only happened one other time, and that was the worst day of her young life. Nothing and no one could match the devastation of that day, so now she looked at Mrs. O’Reilly’s distant, frantically waving figure with pure curiosity. She trotted up the hill towards the castle.
“What is it?” Saoirse asked, breathless, as she approached.
“Oh, look at you, Saoirse. You look like a fishwife’s orphan. Go on and get yourself cleaned up and see if you can put a brush through that hair… and change out of that damp dress, and give your face a wash. Go on then,” Mrs. O’Reilly said.
“Why?” Saoirse asked. She made no move towards the house and stood waiting for an answer. Mrs. O’Reilly looked conflicted and fretful. She pursed her lips back and forth like a fish, trying to hold back all the things she wanted to say. Finally, she twisted her handkerchief into a tight bit of rope and said,
“We’re having a visitor…a permanent visitor.” Mrs. O’Reilly took a deep breath and stood a bit taller, gathering strength to speak. “A young man is coming to stay with us…well, two years younger than you; he was fourteen last month…and anyway he’ll be… he’ll be a guest of your father, you see. He’ll be here within the hour and you must be…presentable and pleasant. Saoirse, please.” Her pale face was so lined with fear, Saoirse felt sorry for her and did as she was told.
Saoirse stood on the edge of the gravel drive in her Sunday dress with Mrs. O’Reilly and Mr. Dolan, the groundskeeper, driver, and general man in charge of everything outside the castle. Mrs. O’Reilly looked like her rabbit’s heart would burst. She dabbed at her little red nose with her handkerchief. Mr. Dolan looked tipsy, which was normal.
After many awkward and silent minutes, a black car could be seen trundling along the gravel drive to the castle door. It was a fine car, black and shiny as if it had just been polished. The driver wore a cap and gloves. At a certain point, Mrs. O’Reilly sighed heavily in relief and said, “Oh, thanks be to Jesus,” under her breath. Saoirse gave her a questioning look.“I thought your father was coming too, but the young lad is alone, god bless us,” Mrs. O’Reilly said. Saoirse frowned but said nothing.
The car pulled to a well-oiled stop in front of them and the driver promptly got out to open the passenger door. As the passenger stepped out of the car to stand before them, Mrs. O’Reilly gasped. Saoirse instantly understood why. He was the spitting image of Saoirse’s father, in his younger years. He wasn’t a guest, he was a love child, undoubtedly her half-brother. Saoirse wondered what happened, what had changed in his life that her father decided to leave him at the castle. The castle was a closet where Saoirse’s father kept unwanted things; her invalid mother, herself, and now this boy. What had he done?
Mr. Dolan looked at Mrs. O’Reilly, who seemed to be just figuring out how to breathe again, and cleared his throat.
“Ah, well, welcome young man, to your new home. Ah, Peter, is it?” Mr. Dolan croaked.
“Yes, I’m Peter, Peter Flynn. Pleased to meet you, all of you,” Peter said. His accent was too posh, pure London. Mr. Dolan raised his eyebrows and looked at Mrs. O’Reilly, who was still struggling with herself. He rolled his eyes and spoke again. “Right then, this is Mrs. O’Reilly, she runs everything in the house there. I’m Mr. Dolan, I do all the outside stuff, like, and this is Mr. Brennan’s daughter, Saoirse,” said Mr. Dolan.
“Welcome!” Mrs. O’Reilly finally managed to stammer. Peter gave her a polite smile then turned to Saoirse. They looked intently at each other’s faces. Saoirse favored her mother, but she had her father’s dark hair and seagull-grey eyes. There was enough of her father in her features that Peter had to see it. He gave a little nod as if he understood. There was an awkward silence. Finally, Mrs. O’Reilly returned to her senses.
“Alright then, Master Flynn, let us show you to your room now and get you settled. Then we’ll see about some lunch, yes, alright then.” She motioned for Mr. Dolan to take Peter’s luggage and herded them into the castle, prattling the entire time. Saoirse was left standing on the gravel drive alone. She looked towards the seashore.
“Well, that was interesting,” she said to no one in particular. Her hand wandered to her pocket, bursting with sea shells. She decided to go to her cave by the shore and build a fire. It seemed as good a time as any to do her magic.
Saoirse sat in her cave feeding driftwood to a small fire. It wasn’t exactly a proper cave, more like a depression in the side of a cliff. It gave her a bit of privacy and was out of the wind and mist enough that the wood she collected would dry out and her fires would keep. She sat poking at orange embers with a stick and contemplated the new person in her household: Peter the half-brother.
For several days now she had managed to avoid him. He slept late, breakfasted late, never ate lunch that she saw, and ate dinner somewhere else; in his room, in the rarely used dining room, or who knew. Maybe he ate in bed. Saoirse imagined him having dinner whilst sitting in his bed, wearing a tuxedo, and ringing a bell for the next course. She giggled.
“What’s so funny?” a voice said from outside the cave. Saoirse jumped and rushed to the opening. She poked her head out into the wind and rain only to find her own grey eyes looking back at her.
“Get away from here. Go on. This is my place. You’re not welcome!” Saoirse said. Peter stood outside the cave, looking skinny and damp. His dark hair dripped in front of his eyes.
“Please, Saoirse, can I just get dry a minute? I’m soaked,” he said. Saoirse looked back into her cave at the piles of sea shells on the floor and the nest of iron keys in the corner. She might hide the keys under her skirts or her scarf, but never the shells. No one had found her in this place yet. She didn’t have a good lie ready. Still, she nodded her head ‘yes’.
As they went in to the small space, Saoirse sat down on her usual rock and casually dropped her scarf on the nest of keys behind her. Peter found a dry place to sit near the fire and held out his hands to its warmth. Saoirse gave him her best steel-eyed glare.
“You were following me?” she asked. Peter looked up from the fire.
“Well, sort of. I saw you leave the house and called after you, but you didn’t answer so…I just kept going,” he said. His voice held a hint of apology.
“And what did you want?” Saoirse asked, still stern. Peter shrugged.
“Just to talk to you, I suppose. I mean…” he waved his hand at her but failed to finish the sentence. Saoirse frowned.
“You sound like you’re from England and anyway, Peter sounds like an English name.” She looked at Peter to see if her words hit a note. They did. He frowned.
“Well it isn’t…or anyway it doesn’t need to be. I’m as Irish as you or anyone else here. I was born in Dublin and my mother’s from Cookstown. I just went to school in London, that’s all.
“Cookstown is in Northern Ireland,” Saoirse said with a cold smile.
“It’s still Ireland and we’re still Irish. Hell’s bells, Saoirse. You’re my sister. I’m just trying to talk to you,” Peter said, exasperated.
The outright statement of their relation took her aback. She looked at his face, so like her father. Though Peter seemed to have things their father didn’t have. There was some kindness in his face, some humility. He was lonely and wanted some comfort. Saoirse softened.
“I’m sorry, Peter. I shouldn’t have been so cruel. I’m used to being alone here… and to Mrs. O’Reilly,” she said. Peter chuckled.
“True, she’s a pill, but…she’s alright in the end, isn’t she? I mean she cares,” Peter said.
“I suppose that’s true,” Saoirse agreed.
“And listen, Saoirse, I know…before I came here I knew about what happened to your mother. So…well, I never expected you to be a happy-go-lucky sort, not after that,” Peter said. Saoirse nodded but gave no reply. “You know how he told me, our father, you know what he said? He said that your mother wouldn’t give me any trouble because after all those years of talking, the accident finally made her quiet.”
Saoirse might have been angry once, but she had heard many such statements from her father. She had come to understand that the bitterness and grief in his heart spoke for him. There was no point in hoping for his recovery either.
“Peter, why did he send you here?” Saoirse asked. Peter’s face began to turn pink. He looked embarrassed.
“I uh…well you see,” he looked around the cave and suddenly noticed all the piles of shells, as if seeing them for the first time. “Say, what’s going on with all these shells? Is it your collection?
“Yes,” she answered.
“But they all look the same. Some are broken.” He picked up a shell from a nearby pile and looked at it. “Why would you need such a number of the same shell?”
“That’s all that you find around here, that kind. There’s nothing else to be found,” Saoirse said. She wasn’t a good liar and Peter gave her a doubtful look.
“Saoirse, our father maybe an heartless arse, but he isn’t stupid and neither am I. You don’t seem so either, maybe a bit touched…” he said. Saoirse stood up, angry.
“I’m not touched!” she said.
“Well, then?” Peter asked.
“If you tell me why father sent you here, I’ll tell you why I collect shells,” Saoirse said. Peter’s shoulders dropped. He looked at the fire and considered.
“Alright then,” he said finally. “I’ve been expelled from school.” Saoirse’s eyes widened.
“What did you do?”
“I was caught with my friend Mary Jane, behind the groundsman’s shed.” Saoirse frowned.
“Is she in trouble? Will you get married then?” she asked. Peter laughed.
“No, no. Mary Jane. It’s what they call Marijuana. You smoke it,” he said.
“Oh,” she said, embarrassed. “Well, what will you do now?”
“Father will find a different school for me, in Dublin. I’ll go in September. I’ll have to learn to talk like you if I don’t want to get it from the other lads,” Peter said and grinned.
“What about your mum?” Saoirse asked. Peter looked down at the fire, disappointment in his face.
“Mum lives with father now and I suppose…well I suppose we can’t both live with father,” Peter said. Saoirse nodded.
“I’m surprised that anyone can,” she said and smiled. Peter smiled back. His eyes turned back to the fire and his smile faded. As if startled, he seemed to remember the shells. He looked at the piles of them along the wall and pointed at them.
“So, should I be frightened? Are you some sort of witch?” he asked. Saoirse smiled.
She picked up one of the shells and closed her hand around it. After a moment, she opened her hand. The shell was gone, replaced by an ordinary iron key. Peter looked at her with wide eyes.
“Is it a trick? How do you do it?” he asked.
“It’s not a trick,” she said. She gave him the key and picked up another shell. Again she closed her hand around it and again it transformed into the same key. She then stood and picked her scarf up from the pile of keys behind her and showed Peter.
“Do it again,” he said. She took another shell, held it for a moment, then gave him the key. He sat staring at the key for some time before he spoke.
“How long have you been able to do this?” Saoirse looked at the fire.
“Since mother’s accident,” she said, her face solemn. Peter nodded but stayed quiet, contemplating the key. He suddenly stood up.
“So, you can turn calcium carbonate into metal? Saoirse, this is tremendous! Next thing you know you’ll be able to transmute lead into gold, or make the philosopher’s stone! It’s amazing!” he said, excitement ringing clear in his voice. Saoirse sat on her rock shaking her head.
“No, it’s not amazing or tremendous, it’s rubbish. Yes, I can change one thing into another, but only seashells and only keys…and only one key at that! And the key doesn’t do anything. It doesn’t fit any door. The whole thing is useless.”
“Have you tried all the doors in the castle?” Peter asked.
“Every door, you didn’t skip one?”
“Well, I…” Saoirse thought a moment.
“Name them,” Peter said.
“Name all the doors you tried,” Peter said. Saoirse frowned and poked at the fire with a stick.
“Come on, Saoirse. This can’t be for nothing. Please.” Saoirse sighed and gave in.
“I tried my bedroom, all the bedrooms in fact, the kitchen, the larder, the old garden gate on the back side of it, the big closet under the stairs, the attic, the library, the big bath, the small one doesn’t have a lock…It’s no use, Peter, I tried them all,” she said.
“Did you try your mum’s room?” Peter asked. She gave him a hard look.
“I tried that one first,” she said.
“Oh…I’m sorry. Of course you did.” He paced a little in the cave, as much as he could in the small space. He touched the key to his lips while he thought. “What about the front door?” Peter asked. Saoirse thought. She couldn’t remember if she’d tried that one or not. It wasn’t a door they used very much. Most of the time, she and Mrs. O’Reilly came in through the back door into the kitchen. Mr. Dolan almost never came in at all.
“I don’t…I think so but…” she said, thoughtful. Peter looked at the key in his open palm and seemed to make a decision. He ran out of the cave.
“Come on!” she heard him shout, already from down the shore.
“Wait!” she cried, and ran out after him.
Peter was lanky and quite a fast runner. He was practically to the front door of the castle before Saoirse caught up with him. He stopped before the door and looked at the key in his hand.
“Saoirse, you open it,” he said. Saoirse took the key from his hand and nodded. She was half starting to believe that something different would happen, if only because Peter’s excitement was catching. She put the key in the lock and turned it. The door swung open.
The castle foyer, a small, dim business with wooden benches and rows of boots, was gone. In its place there was now a forest. To make matters stranger, the forest inside the castle was sunny and dry. Saoirse and Peter turned to look out at the grey skies and mist behind them, then turned back to the enticing woods beyond the door.
“Shall we go in?" Peter asked.
"Yes, I suppose...I suppose we must," she said.
"Do you still have the key? It didn't disappear or transform or anything strange, did it?" Peter asked. Saoirse held the key out on her palm. It was exactly the same.
"Well then, let's go in see what this mystery is all about," Peter said.
The two siblings entered a wood unlike any they had ever seen. In every direction, giant trees stood sentinel in the quiet. Sunlight shining through the bright green canopy of leaves, impossibly high, imparted a green glow to everything under it. In places where the canopy was broken, white beams of light shone on blankets of viridian moss or orange-brown pine needles. Here and there, yellow or sometimes white flowers peaked from around and under the gnarled roots of the trees. A path of grey stones curved away through the trees in front of them. Saoirse felt something in her chest; a numinous awe, a lightness of spirit. She put her hand to her chest and looked at Peter. He met her gaze with wide eyes and nodded. He felt it too.
Peter looked back at the door. On this side of it, the door appeared to be embedded in one of the trees. They stood together on the first stone of the path and looked all around.
“Let’s keep going,” Saoirse whispered.
“Why are you whispering?” Peter whispered back.
“I don’t really know. It seemed the right thing,” Saoirse whispered again and smiled. She walked and Peter followed.
The stone path gently curved through the woods. As they walked, grey standing stones began to appear among the trees, scattered and tilting, or laid flat against the ground. A brightness in the trees ahead indicated a clearing. Saoirse pointed and Peter nodded, but they didn’t speak. As they approached the clearing, the standing stones became taller until finally, two very tall stones, like sentries at a gate, stood dark-grey and grizzled on either side of the stone path.
They stepped past the two stones and out onto a green field. It was bordered on all sides by the same forest and had three more points of entry: north, south, and east. They appeared to have come in through the western entrance. In the center of the clearing there was a ring of standing stones, also weathered and venerable like their cousins at the gates. Saoirse and Peter approached the stones with caution, still trying to be quiet.
In the center of the circle of standing stones, there was a round pedestal of the same weathered stone. Directly in the center of its flat surface, there was a seashell. It was round, whitish-tan, and small enough to fit on Saoirse’s palm. It looked ordinary, like any one of a thousand shells she had picked up on her stretch of shore. She picked it up and turned it over, then gasped. On the underside of the shell, it was covered with dark mother of pearl. As she looked at the swirling patterns of silver and muted rainbows, she thought she saw it move and sparkle, as if for a moment, the brightest night of stars imaginable, lived in the currents of color in the shell. Peter watched, a growing smile on his face.
“Go on, then,” he said. Saoirse looked at him and then back at the shell.
“I don’t know if I should,” she said.
“None of this makes sense,” he said looking around, “but it makes even less sense if you don’t try.”
Saoirse looked at the shell in her palm and hesitated a moment before enclosing it in her hands. She felt the change happen and gasped.
“What is it?” Peter asked. She held open her hand to reveal a small glass vial. In the vial was a liquid, sea-green and almost luminous, as if all the magic of Ireland had been distilled into these precious few drops. “What do you suppose it’s…” Peter began to ask, but before he could finish, Saoirse’s eyes widened and she turned and ran. “Saoirse!” Peter called after her.
She ran back across the field and through the stone-guarded gate. She followed the path back to the door in the tree and hopped back through it. Peter caught up with her just as she was rounding the outside of the castle and heading for the back kitchen door.
“Saoirse, what are you doing?” Peter shouted as he ran after her. Saoirse didn’t answer but ran through the garden gate. She was stopped, however, by the stooped, growly presence of Mr. Dolan, who appeared to have passed the finish line from tipsy to drunk. He sat on a stump to the left of the kitchen door and eyed them both warily. His head wobbled just a little as he looked up at them.
“What are you two up to?” he growled.
“Just going in,” Saoirse said. She moved to open the door, but Mr. Dolan stood up and moved in front of it. Saoirse frowned. “Mr. Dolan, will you please move aside. I need to go in,” Saoirse said.
“What have you got in your hand, little Freedom,” Mr. Dolan said. ‘Little Freedom’ was a nickname he had for her when she was much younger. She hadn’t heard him use it in years. Mr. Dolan’s face went hard as he looked at Peter.
“I know about you…been told what you got up to in the city. Have you given her summat? Are you trying to corrupt our girl to your sinful ways? Give it here!” he demanded. Saoirse turned away but Mr. Dolan’s tough gardener’s hands found hers and squeezed the vial away from her. Peter grabbed one of Mr. Dolan's arms and in the ensuing scuffle, Mr. Dolan dropped the vial on the gravel. It cracked with a tinkling sound. Saoirse gasped and dropped to the ground. Mr. Dolan backed away.
“It’s not a drug, you fool!” she cried at him. Frantically, she sorted through the little pieces of glass until she found one, a bit of the unbroken bottom of the vial, which still held a little bit of the liquid. She gathered it up and, holding the piece of glass carefully, went inside the house, ignoring Mr. Dolan’s calls. Peter followed.Saoirse went straight up the stairs and burst through the door into her mother’s room.
“Saoirse, what on earth?” Mrs. O’Reilly asked. Saoirse walked past her and sat on the edge of the bed. Her mother, pale and withered, lay on the bed asleep under a cloud of the medicines they used to keep her sedate. Otherwise she was brain damaged and empty. She drooled or stared at nothing, a state considered undignified by her father, so he ordered that she stay sedated most of the time. Saoirse took the piece of broken glass and held it over her mother’s lips. One green drop fell onto her lip and then slid into her mouth.
“What have you done to her?” Mrs. O’Reilly screeched, frantic. “What have you done, you ungrateful child?” She moved towards the bed, but Peter grabbed her harm and held her back.
For a moment nothing happened. The air was thick with tension as they watched Saoirse’s mother intently. Then slowly, her eyelids fluttered. She opened her eyes and blinked a few times, as if to clear them. Her gaze focused on Mrs. O’Reilly.
“Mrs. O’Reilly,” she said, her voice hoarse from disuse, “How…how did you get so old?”
Mrs. O’Reilly fainted into Peter’s arms. Saoirse took her mother’s hand.
“Welcome back,” she said. Her mother blinked.
“Oh, look at you, Saoirse. You’ve grown so lovely…but you still look like a fishwife’s orphan. Go and get your hairbrush and let’s see what we can do,” she said and gave her a weak smile. Saoirse turned to Peter and smiled.
A few days later, Peter and Saoirse sat in her cavel, making a fire with driftwood. Saoirse’s mother was doing much better and had even taken a few tentative steps on the carpet of her bedroom. Mrs. O’Reilly was over the moon. Even Mr. Dolan smiled at Saoirse and Peter when they happened by him. The whole castle seemed to have come alive along with Saoirse’s mother. Happiness lived in every corner.
Peter sat and poked at the fire but his eyes were far away. Finally he spoke.
“Can you imagine, Saoirse, what would have happened had you given her the whole vial?” he asked. Saoirse shook her head but didn’t answer. Peter’s eyes turned to the piles of shells along the cave edge. “Say, have you tried your magic since she woke? With your piles of shells, there?” Peter asked suddenly curious. Saoirse hadn’t touched a shell at all since then.
“No, I hadn’t bothered. I thought that was all done,” she said.
“Well, try it,” Peter said. Saoirse frowned.
“There’s no need. One miracle is all I ever needed, Peter. I thought to leave it alone,” she said. Peter looked disappointed.
“Would you just have a go…to stop my curiosity? I mean, aren’t you?” he asked.
“Aren't I what?” she asked absent-mindedly as she stacked driftwood by the wall of the cave.
“Hell’s bells, Saoirse. Even when you’re happy, you’re as stubborn as a goat,” Peter said. Saoirse smiled. She picked up one of the shells and enclosed it in her hands. It felt like nothing happened, so she held her palm out for Peter’s inspection.
“You see, Peter. It’s just a shell. The power had a purpose and now it’s gone. I just wish…I wish I’d done it sooner so that…” Saoirse stopped talking as she saw Peter’s eyes widen when he looked at her palm.
“Saoirse, look,” he said.
In her palm the seashell had indeed transformed, but not into a large, iron key. Instead, a small silver key, almost the same size as the shell, lay in her palm, shining as if it had just come out of the mold.
“Well now, “Peter said, looking at the key, “Do you know of any little doors around the castle?” Saoirse thought for a moment and with a smile she realized, she did indeed.