Mam always said that a child born with a caul across its face would never drown. Of all her seven children, only the second-youngest, Francis, had been blessed with this gift.
We lived in a small fishing village on the west coast of Ireland, a place where one road took you in and the same road took you back out again. My brothers had my father’s coloring, pale-skinned and dark-haired with flecks of salty white. I took after my mother. “Hair as red as a rowan berry,” she liked to say. “Your namesake.”
We grew up with the salt air in our lungs, in our hair, and dusting our milk-bottle skin. Fishing was what the men knew, and our father was no different. He worked boats, stout vessels with weather-worn hulls bobbing up and down on the sea, traveling up from the south looking for fat Atlantic quarry. When the days were good, he’d come home with fish guts under his fingernails and buckets of mackerel, coalfish, and once, a blue shark with cold, dead eyes tucked under his arm. When the days were bad he’d come home with nothing but salt brine on his breath and a pocketful of trinkets.
“Can’t eat none of that, Breandán,” said Mam.
Our father liked to collect things: rocks that glittered in the sunlight, frosted blue and green sea glass rubbed smooth by the fractious currents, discarded mussel, oyster and crab shells, and any other curiosities that washed up on the shore. He kept them on the mantelpiece, lined up like trophies. When the trips were harsh, Mam would light a fire, pour him half a glass of strong whiskey, and fill his pipe, and we would gather round him to hear the stories behind his treasure. His favorite was a perfectly round stone of stippled gray-and-white granite that fit in the palm of his calloused hand. I’d nestle into the crook of his arm and he’d hold it up in front of me and ask, “You know what this is, Rowan?” and sometimes I’d say yes because I did, and sometimes I’d say no because I wanted to listen to him talk until the fire died.
“This was a cannonball once,” he said, “hundreds of years ago, when the Spanish sailed up the Channel fleeing the English. The English attacked them in the night with fire ships, flames burning higher than you could imagine. They scattered the Spaniards, and the captains set a course around Scotland trying to find their way back home. Some went the wrong way. Ended up here. More’n a few were wrecked off the coast. Wrecked, an’ thousands of men drowned.”
“Them captains mustn’t’ve known the waters like you, Da,” said Francis.
My father sucked on his pipe and stared at the dying fire. “Some did an’ some didn’t. Makes no difference sometimes. The sea has its own way of doing things.”
When each of my brothers came of age, he took them out on the water, first on his old sailboat Rockabill so they could get their bearings, then on the trawlers that docked looking for able-bodied sea hands. There they learned how to make a living. Mam worried some, but she was a fishwife, and fishwives “know only three things, Rowan: raising children, gutting fish, and how to keep their tongue.”
But she never worried about Francis.
“Came into this world with a caul across his face,” she’d boast to the other wives. “A born sailor.”
I’d cry when another brother left us for the ocean. They’d be gone for days, father and son, sometimes weeks, and when they came back it was as two tired old men. Eventually my brothers grew weary of our small village and spread out across Ireland looking for work, settling in Kilkeel, Galway, and Killybegs.
But Francis was the youngest son and so was last to leave.
When his time came, our father took him out on the Rockabill like all the rest. He taught Francis how to knot a figure of eight, a blood knot bend, and a hangman’s noose. He showed him how to read a chart and jibe a sail and move the tiller to steer the boat. In the winter, Francis practiced his knots by the fire, then took his rope and knowledge outside in the summer where the sun beat down on our faces and a northern wind tickled the tops of trees. He recited all the different sailing terms and their meanings, like holding ground, pitchpole, and luffing.
I asked Mam when it would be my turn.
“A ship’s no place for a girl, Rowan,” she said, running her knife through the belly of a young pollock. “Bad luck’s what it is.”
It was still summer when my father called Francis to get ready to go out on the water. I sat rigid in the armchair opposite Mam, clutching her spool of gray wool in my fist, the click clack click clack of her knitting needles filling the room. My father stopped in the doorway, his head cocked to the side. “Do you want to come?” he asked me. I threw the wool onto the chair and scrambled to my feet. Mam pressed her lips into a thin line.
“We’re not going far, Nora,” said my father.
As I clambered over the side of the Rockabill, Francis raised one dark eyebrow and smirked, but he said nothing.
We sailed to the old lighthouse on the edge of Clew Bay. Francis had our father’s keen eye, and after a few minutes ashore, he bent down and found his own treasure amongst the brittle crab skeletons and gray-green seaweed.
“Look at this rock, Da,” he yelled. “There’s a hole gone through it!”
Father held the stone in his hand, turned it once or twice, held it up in the air, and looked through the hole. He pressed it into Francis’s palm. “Keep that, lad. It’s a lucky stone.”
“Why?” I asked.
“It’s a rare thing to find,” he said.
We stayed there a while, and I searched for my own lucky stone. I stared hard at the shingle, scrutinizing every rock, every pebble. But they all looked the same: round, gray, and solid. I moved closer to the water and slipped on a rock covered in slimy seaweed and fell, cutting my knee open where the skin was thinnest. I bit my lip and held back tears, not wanting to cry in front of them.
“Here, now. Let the sea make it better,” said my father. He scooped up water in his hands and splashed it onto my knee. The cold helped dull the sting. In the distance, the sun glowed dark orange on the water.
“Time to go, I reckon,” Father said, and he picked me up and carried me back to the boat.
At home, Francis showed Mam his find and she admired it, holding it up to the light just like Father had done.
“Sure, that’s a lucky stone,” she said. She found a piece of green ribbon from her sewing box, threaded it through the hole and tied both ends together. “Now you can wear it around your neck.”
That evening, I accidently scratched the cut on my knee and it bled again, only a little, but enough to create fresh salt tears that I couldn’t contain in the safety and comfort of home. Francis took off his lucky stone and put it round my neck, where it stayed for years.
“You need this more than me,” he said. “I was born with the caul.”
Most folks were born, lived and died in the village. The elders, with their mottled skin like the dried white turbots that hung in their pantries, called us the Sea Children because we played on the shingle collecting shells, driftwood, or small stones to throw at each other when we were bored. We’d play as long as we could, feeling the spray across our faces, before the waves licked the flood walls and we had to slope back to our fatherless houses.
One day, when Francis was 14 and I was 12, the Sea Children gathered on a part of the beach where only the gulls could see us.
“I’ll never drown,” said Francis. “Me Mam says so.”
“Yeah, right,” sneered one, a green city boy with bright blond hair. His family had traveled from one of the big towns inland, looking for work on the boats. “What makes you so special?”
“Was born with a caul,” Francis said. A few children nodded respectfully; they understood this magic, having been born and shaped by the sea.
The blond boy twisted his face. “Prove it,” he said.
“How?” said Francis.
“Swim down to the bottom of the sea and bring back a shell.”
“What if there isn’t any shells?”
The blond boy considered this. “Well, bring up something up from the bottom. Else we’ll know you didn’t go all the way down.”
Francis nodded. The children who hadn’t already drifted over to watch as Francis took off his shoes, socks, and then his cotton shirt. He made to set them on the ground, but I swooped in, picked them up off the rocks, and clutched them to my chest. Francis swung his arms from side to side then round in big, slow circles.
“Gotta warm up first,” he said. Some girls a year or so older than me giggled and blushed. I scowled at them — my brother was a born sailor; he had no interest in silly schoolgirls.
“Go on,” someone urged.
“Yeah, what you waiting for?”
My brother shrugged and started towards the water. He’d barely dipped a toe when the blond boy shouted.
“No, that’s too easy. You should jump in. From somewhere high.”
“Yeah!” came a chorus of voices.
“Okay,” Francis said. “From where?”
“The jetty,” said the blond boy. “Jump from the end of the jetty.”
We moved as one across the stones, Francis leading the way along the edge of the world. There was a chill in the air and I shivered, but Francis didn’t seem to notice the cold. The older kids walked slowly, holding younger siblings’ hands tight, knowing that if a small ankle should twist or snap between the spaces in the large pebbles they, the older ones, might never see daylight again.
The jetty stretched out across the water. Its spindly legs had bent and warped with time and constant lashings from storms. The sun hung low on the horizon but it didn’t matter; the water hadn’t reached the flood walls and it was the sea that told us when to go home.
We picked our way along the jetty, some confidently leaping over holes made by missing planks, others skirting around them, not daring to look up in case they slipped through and vanished.
Francis reached the end first. He stood looking out across the water, assessing its depths. The other children formed a crowd behind him. A small boy leant against one of the support pillars but heard a sharp snap and jumped up again, blushing. Above our heads, the sky bled navy in the east, creeping and swallowing the gray clouds.
“Okay, here’s good,” said the blond boy. Francis nodded. He stretched his arms out again and took a few deep breaths. He glanced behind him and grinned at us all. Then he swung his arms into the air, arched his back, and jumped headfirst into the sea. The slap of skin against water made me shiver. A few people clapped. Somebody whistled, impressed. The boy who’d snapped the pillar ran to the spot where Francis hit the water, white froth churning and fizzing in a circle. The boy lay on his belly with his head sticking out over the edge. “He’s gone!” he cried.
The blond boy folded his arms and hardened his face. I crossed my fingers underneath Francis’s shirt, so none of the other children could see. The sun had disappeared completely, and the wind took advantage, pushing the waves higher and higher. An older boy in his father’s oversized coat stood near the back and held his sister’s hand to keep her from wandering too close. Her bare legs were slapped pink from the cold, but she didn’t cry, didn’t complain. Her brother glanced at the stone wall, our designated keeper of time.
Without thinking, I squeezed the stone around my neck and said a silent prayer. It felt cold in my hand.
“I don’t think he’s gonna make it,” whispered a girl with smooth copper-colored hair, another green city dweller whose father had come to earn a summer’s living from the sea.
“Shut up!” I hissed, whirling on the spot. “He’ll be back. He’s a born sailor! He had the caul.”
No one spoke. The boy on his belly counted out loud so we could all hear: “one Mississippi, two Mississippi, three Mississippi …”
I wanted to tell him to stop, to shut up just like I’d told that stupid copper-haired girl who was born in the city, who didn’t know anything about anything. But my lungs were empty, and I’d pressed my lips together so hard I thought I might slip and bite them.
“… eleven Mississippi, twelve Mississippi, thirteen Mississippi …”
The blond boy uncrossed his arms and stared at the spot, eyes narrowed. He chewed on his lip, then shook his head and looked around at the other faces as though daring them to accuse him of something.
In my mind, I thought about what would happen if Francis didn’t come back up, if the sea kept him for itself. I wondered, for a moment, if our father would shout for me when the fishing ships came calling.
Somebody coughed, the older boy, our time keeper. The waves came in across the beach, white foamy fingers slapping against the stones of the flood walls. He turned around and began to walk back towards the village, pulling his sister behind him. No one else followed.
“… twenty-one Mississippi, twenty-two Mississippi, twenty-three Mississi—” A splash and a strangled cry made us jump. The boy on his belly bucked up on all fours in fright. The rest of us rushed forward, pushing and shoving for space on the narrow platform.
My brother bobbed up and down in the water, shaking his head and blinking the salt water out of his eyes, adjusting to the dryness in the air. His skin looked pale in the semi-darkness.
“Quick, somebody help me get him up.”
A few of the older boys leaned over, grabbed Francis under the shoulders and hoisted him up onto the jetty. He coughed and slapped his fist against the wood, but when he stopped he pushed himself up onto shaky legs, chest heaving. He thrust something into the blond boy’s hands and shook himself off like a dog. The girls who’d giggled and blushed squealed as ice-cold droplets hit their skin.
I beamed. “Told you he could do it,” I said to the girl with the copper hair.
I handed Francis his clothes, and he pulled them on, not caring about getting them wet. I followed him back along the jetty and the Sea Children parted to let us through. Behind us, voices struggled to be heard above the waves.
“What you got there?”
“Let us see!”
And though I didn’t turn to look, I could imagine the blond boy’s sour face as the Sea Children pushed and shoved to see the bright white whelk shell in his hands.
Years later our father captained his own ship, the Kilamara, and he and Francis and a handful of other sailors traveled far out on the ocean. Mam kissed Francis on the forehead, like she’d done with all her sons whenever they went out to sea.
“My born sailor,” she said. “Come home to me safe.”
When their fishing boat capsized a week later in a freak hurricane, people laid flowers tied with seaweed at our door while we waited for the ocean to return what had once been ours. Tides came and went. Three young sailors survived for two days in an oarless lifeboat, half-dead from thirst and exposure. They found my father’s body a hundred miles south, and that was all.
Mam said it was just my father’s time, that the sea took back what it was owed. She sat in her rocking chair by the fireplace which was unlit and black and cold. “When the sea takes a man,” she said, “sometimes it gives him back. Sometimes alive, sometimes not. Makes no difference to the sea.” She rocked slowly back and forth. “And sometimes it doesn’t give anything back at all.”
Time passed and I grew older. As soon as I was able, I moved away from the village and made my home inland, where the musty, heavy perfume of earth and leaves stuck to my hair and country dust settled on my skin. I married a man with copper-colored hair and kind eyes, and we had our own children, two boys. They played in the dirt beneath a sturdy oak tree, digging holes just for the pleasure of it, sometimes filling them back in again, sometimes not. They brought back the treasures they found and kept them by the sides of their beds, clusters of tiny brown acorns, waxy red and green leaves, rough pine cones still with mud caught in the folds. They trapped moths that stopped to rest on the mint bush and corralled them into old jam jars with tiny pinpricks in the lids.
“You can keep them for the night,” I said, “but tomorrow we will set them free.”
I hung my brother’s lucky stone — for it was truly his, and not mine — on the mantelpiece, above crackling fires in winter, and when it was too warm for a fire, a vase of fresh-cut garden flowers. One evening, on a night no more special than any other, Francis fidgeted restlessly in the armchair, the way all little boys do when they need their sleep but don’t want to draw attention to themselves for fear of being put to bed.
“I heard on telly that sometimes people go missing, and they turn up in a place but don’t remember who they were or where they’re from.”
“I’ve heard that too.”
“Do you think maybe that’s what happened to your brother? Uncle Francis?”
“I don’t know, pet. Maybe.”
He loitered in the doorway. “Night, Mam.”
Sometimes I lay awake and imagine the Sea Children waiting for their fathers and brothers on the beaches, their pockets heavy with stones. I think of Francis: born, raised, and returned to his true father, the sea.
And then I remember him standing on the jetty, tall and proud, impervious to the saltwater racing down his back and chest. And I cross my fingers under the bedcovers, in the dark, where no one else can see.