BY FERGUS EGAN
This is an excerpt from a novella in slipstream genre, Lanta: Song of the Sea, published in 2022. Copyright is held by the author.
WHEN THE gardai and Tusla officials left, I remained at the cottage. I felt helpless, but I could not bring myself to leave the place of misfortune. I sat in silence by the dead fire. Kevin worked at his desk writing copiously. Every few minutes he muttered to himself. “She is not dead. She is with the seals.” I pitied him. He was in denial. I feared that he was losing his grip on reality and would fall into another state of depression. The progress of the previous months would be erased and his new state would be worse than before. I decided to stay with him until the following day. I did not trust him to be alone at this time.
I awoke at dawn. I was still propped up in the chair by the fireplace. I was stiff from sleeping in a sitting position. I stretched and yawned and limbered up my joints. Kevin was still at his desk. I guessed that he had spent the entire night there, writing in his journal. I did not detect any sign of grief in him. Was he taking comfort in a mundane routine exercise? This was not a good sign. I stirred and walked around. I noticed Lanta’s yellow dress, her favourite, lying on the floor. It was torn at one side. I lifted it, folded it gently and placed it on her bed. I don’t know why I did it. It seemed like the right thing to do. Afterwards, I walked as far as the gatepost where I collected the morning’s supply of milk and eggs. Back in the cottage, I prepared breakfast. I served Kevin a cup of tea and a plate of fried eggs, baked beans and sardines. In my opinion, it was an unappetizing meal, but Kevin liked it. I left him to his meal and his writing. I promised to phone him throughout the day. He grunted in acknowledgement. Then, I drove back to town. I phoned him later but he did not pick up. I remembered that, without electricity, Kevin charged his mobile phone while driving his car. I assumed that his phone battery was dead, as was often the case, and that he was unable to answer his calls.
The next day, I visited him. Except that he was not at the cottage. I noticed that he had neglected to collect his morning’s milk and eggs. His car was parked in its usual spot. His phone was lying on the desk. I checked it. The battery was dead — no surprise. Assuming that he was out walking on the heath, I made breakfast of tea and boiled eggs and awaited his return. An hour later, I was anxious. I went in search of him. He was not visible on the headland. I scanned the inlet from the clifftop. There was no sign of him aboard his boat. I walked along the cliff path to the caves and descended to Maghera Beach, to the area hidden from view from the cottage. It was deserted. I walked along the line of wrack at the high-tide mark. I saw flotsam of wrecked fishing gear that had washed ashore, but no sign of Kevin. I returned to the pathway over the caves and returned to the cottage. This time, I descended the path to Kevin’s secluded cove. I was surprised to find the boat gone. If the boat was gone and it was not visible in the inlet, could Kevin have ventured out to sea? He knew that his boat was not seaworthy. He would not venture beyond the shelter of the bay. But I was worried that in his present state of mind he may have acted irresponsibly. I searched my mind for an explanation for the boat’s absence. It came to me. I surmised that when the guards returned the boat to the cove, they beached it above the waterline. However, it was half-tide at the time and the boat was beached on dry land but below the high-tide level. Later, the incoming tide floated the boat and it drifted away. And after the tide turned, the outgoing current carried the boat out to sea. That was the most likely explanation. I felt better. I returned to the cottage. Kevin would turn up sooner or later during the day — or so I hoped.
Throughout the day I busied myself in the house. I read Kevin’s journal — the decipherable parts. I tidied the kitchen and the other rooms. In doing so, I discovered that Lanta’s yellow dress was missing. I checked through her belongings and realized that she did not have any personal items — and never had — except for the items presented to her by Maura Doherty. What were they? The lace-up trainers and undergarments. And these were missing too. In fact, there were none of Lanta’s possessions in the house. It was as if she had never been here or even existed. I shivered at the thought. Of course, she had been here. I treated her as my patient. And Kevin’s journal can attest to it.
At mid-afternoon, I was deep in thought. My thoughts were wandering, taking me to unfamiliar places. I heard a distant sound. It was Lanta’s Song of the Sea. I shook myself to an alert state. The song remained audible, albeit faint and distant. I shivered. Kevin, I suspected, had a fragile grip on reality. Was I also losing my grip? I ran outside and hurried to the source of the sound, the place from where the song emanated. I slowed my pace to a walk. I hesitated. I was afraid to face the source of the plaintive vowels rising and falling mournfully from the headland. Could it be Lanta? I berated myself for my foolishness. It was most likely Kevin on the headland. He had learned Lanta’s Song of the Sea and was intoning it in a falsetto voice. With this understanding, I renewed my journey to the source of the sound. But when I reached the cliff-edge location, there was no one there and the sound ceased. I remembered that Brian McCann described the same phenomenon. It also happened to the Inuit elder on Baffin Island. Once again, I experienced a shiver. This was an eerie experience. I slowly retreated backwards from the cliff edge. The sound recommenced, although there was no one there. I fell to my knees and laughed in relief. All along, I had been listening to the sound of the ocean breeze whistling through the heather at the cliff edge. But how did the breeze know Lanta’s song? Of course, it was the other way around. Lanta’s song was inspired by the sound of the wind blowing inland from the sea. It truly was a “Song of the Sea”.
I returned to the cottage with mixed feelings. I was relieved at discovering a rational explanation for the song I heard. But the circumstances were peculiar. And Kevin was still absent without explanation. I brewed a pot of tea, hoping that the beverage would relax me. I, a doctor, consumed caffeine to relax. It was indicative of my unsettled state.
My phone rang. I jumped in alarm. A ringing phone is not usually disturbing. I was on edge. I accepted the call. It was Sergeant O’Dowd.
“Sergeant O’Dowd, here. Listen, I’m trying to get in touch with Kevin Doherty, but he is not answering his phone. Do you know where he is?”
“No, I don’t know exactly where he is. I am at his cottage now. His phone is here – dead battery, as usual. He can’t be far away. His car is parked outside. Why do you ask?”
“The Search and Rescue Unit . . .”
“What? They found Lanta?”
“No. They are still searching for her. But they found something else of interest — an empty boat floating in Gweebarra Bay, not far from Dooey Beach. It was pushed in by the prevailing winds. So, Doctor, if you are at Doherty’s cottage now, see if his boat is there. The one we found looks like his.”
I experienced another unwelcome shiver. “I don’t need to look. I know with certainty that Kevin’s boat is not here, or anywhere in Maghera Bay. I already looked for it. I figured that it drifted away in the tide after your officers beached it in the cove. I don’t think they placed it high enough above the high-tide mark.”
“That’s possible. I remember tipping the boat to empty it of water. But, I don’t remember placing it above the high-tide mark. So, you think it just drifted away in the outgoing tide and the prevailing wind blew it into Gweebarra Bay? That’s very likely.”
“I think that’s the most reasonable explanation.” Inwardly, I considered a more ominous explanation, I suppressed it.
“Anyway, it might not be Doherty’s boat at all. This boat, like his, has no markings. The only identifiable item found on board was a pair of shoes — ratty deck shoes with a tear at the side. Could be castoff shoes.”
“A tear on the right of the toe of the right shoe? Mended, unsuccessfully, with black pitch?”
“Kevin’s boating shoes. That means that Kevin was out in the boat in Gweebarra Bay.”
“Hold on, Fred. Don’t jump to conclusions. Kevin Doherty’s boat may have drifted away like you say, unmanned. Except . . . except that we tipped everything out of the boat with the water. How did his shoes subsequently get on board?”
“Kevin was in the boat afterwards.”
“Lord, I believe we have another situation for Search and Rescue.” Sergeant O’Dowd terminated the call before I speculated any further.
Alone in the cottage, I paced back and forth in anxiety. Could Kevin have committed suicide, I wondered? Yes, he was in denial of Lanta’s death. But he did not display derealization or the risk of suicidal thoughts or actions. If he were to take his life, would he not simply throw himself off the cliff and into the tidal currents? Why go to the trouble of sailing out to sea? If it were suicide, there would be a suicide note. I laughed aloud at this. Suicide notes are not always in evidence. That only happens in fictional stories. This was real life. I laughed again. What was “real” in Kevin’s life? Or in the events of the past three months? Still, suicide does not come out of the blue. There had to be clues.
I searched through Kevin’s desk in the hope of finding an answer. I spied the journal. Kevin was writing reams in his journal on the night before his disappearance. This might contain a substitute for his “suicide note”. I sat at the desk and proceeded to read the recent entries. Only a third of the text was intelligible. I encountered a remark written in the margin in red ink. It referred to “three items that form a pattern” — the seals at Baffin Island, the seals at Sable Island and the seals at Raoninish (Irish for “Seal-Island”). I had no recollection of any previous reference to Roaninish. I don’t know where it came from, but I sure knew where it was headed. Kevin, in denying Lanta’s death, said, “She is not dead; she is with the seals.” And he referred to a pattern as “a map”. There is a seal colony on Roaninish. It lies a mere14 kilometres due north of Knockfola headland, at the mouth of Gweebarra Bay. I walked to the backdoor and looked out to sea. Roaninish was visible from the cottage – a flat rocky inhospitable islet. A daunting environment — except for seals. With shaking hands, I phoned Sergeant O’Dowd. It took me three attempts to correctly enter his number. He answered immediately. I breathed a sigh of relief.
He spoke. “Doctor Harrison? I recognized your caller identification —”
I interrupted him. “Roaninish!” I was panting.
“Roaninish? What about Roaninish?”
“That’s where he went — or attempted to.”
“Kevin, of course. I saw it in his journal.”
“He left a note?”
“Not a note. More of a message. Do you remember him saying that Lanta was not dead; that she was with the seals?”
“In his daily journal he wrote a reference to a pattern; he referred to it as a map. Listen. “Baffin Island”, “Sable Island”, “Roaninish”. Sergeant, these are sites of significant seal colonies.”
“Roaninish? It’s a barren isle. There’s nothing there, not even a landing spot for a boat. However, it has a seal colony at certain times of the year — like now. Look, Fred, I’m on it. I’ll contact Search and Rescue right away.” He terminated the call.
I needed to relax. I brewed a pot of tea — double strength. Extra caffeine to relax. I laughed at the irony. Later, I mused over the significance of Lanta’s missing belongings. Did Kevin hope to reunite with her and restore them to her? I spied, on the desk, a copy of Irish Myths and Legends. It had been Lanta’s favourite book. Was this the only thing remaining in the house that had a connection to her? I noticed a bookmark — perhaps marking the last page she had read. Or, possibly it was Kevin’s bookmark. I opened the book to the marked page. It was a tale of a selkie. At the end of the tale, the page described the source and tradition of the story. This reference was underlined in red:
In Celtic mythology, selkies (or selkie folk, meaning “seal folk”) are mythological beings capable of therianthropy, changing from seal to human. There is the tradition that the Conneely clan of Connemara was descended from seals, and it was offensive for them to hunt or harm the animals. Selkies have a particular connection with Roaninish (Rón-inis, meaning “seal island”) outside Gweebarra Bay off the west coast of Donegal in Ulster.
I was shocked upon reading this. I reflected on Lanta’s peculiar behaviour and her understanding of what she encountered. She had a dread of “men in coats”. Seal hunters? This was too fantastic to be credible. Selkies exist solely in mythology. But, perhaps Kevin, whose grip on reality was fragile, believed it to be true. He did not display grief at Lanta’s disappearance, because he truly believed that she joined the pod of seals. What I perceived in Kevin’s demeanour was determination, not simply denial.
I urgently needed confirmation on the only remaining personal item of Lanta – her DNA results. I phoned Brian McCann. I trembled so vigorously that I was unable to enter his number. I scrolled to his most recent call and hit “reply”. I listened to his phone ringing. “Pick up! Pick up!” I shouted at the device. He answered on the fourth ring. I did not wait for him to speak. I shouted “Brian? Is that you?”
“Yes. Who is this?”
“Oh, hello Fred. If you are inquiring about any further progress —”
“Brian, the DNA test. You told me that it was contaminated; that it was not from a 12-year-old girl.”
“No. Not literally. The lab tech was joking. Hey, it was off the record. This is not in the report.”
“How did he describe it?”
“He did not say. He was just joking about the degree of contamination.”
“WHAT DID HE SAY in the joke?”
“He laughed and said that we must have mixed up the sample with one from a marine mammal. But it was a joke. An insensitive joke, I admit. Don’t give it any credence.”
“He said ‘marine mammal’?”
“Yes . . .”
I disconnected the call. I sat at Kevin’s desk. I needed to gather my thoughts. I read through his journal from his first entry to his last. Much of the later entries were indecipherable. I scoured my memory for information on Lanta. And I wrote, and wrote, and wrote. When I finished writing, I was exhausted. My phone was dead. How long had I been here, writing in solitude in Kevin’s remote cottage accompanied solely by the sounds of the crashing waves and the plaintive moaning of the Song of the Sea? A day? Or more? I evaluated the content of my manuscript. I could not state the inescapable conclusion. I dared not even think it. It was implied clearly, nevertheless.
* * * * * * *
I conclude my account as follows:
The story of Lanta is finished. I will place my written account of the life of Lanta with Kevin’s journal. These two documents I will seal in an envelope and conceal in the cottage. I will choose a place that Sergeant O’Dowd will not discover. Once sealed and secreted, the recorded events will be erased from my memory. They never occurred. This technique of memory-purging worked for me in Afghanistan; it will work for me here in Ireland. The only thing I am unable to lock away is the recurring Song of the Sea.
I, Frederick Harrison, being of sound mind, attest to the truthfulness of this document and in so doing, place my signature as my pledge.
Dated this 31 day of July 2022, at Maghera in the County of Donegal, Ireland
Fergus Patrick Egan was born in 1945 in Donegal in the northwest of Ireland where he spent his early childhood. He was engaged in retail banking for 20 years, including 10 years in Toronto, Canada. For 30 years, he worked in the Canadian travel industry. He currently resides in Ontario, Canada. Books by the author: Black Donnelly, Rats and Pigs; The Coin and the Key; The Famine Field; Dorinda Trapper of Red Rapids; Field of Endeavour and Death; and Lanta: Song of the Sea.