The sea rules this part of the world, terrible and beautiful but if given its way it’d break from the confines of tides and shores and submit to its desire to consume all. There are those that control the mad beast that dwells within the tides and above all these, Manawydan was one that was powerful enough. No lord could hold the whole sea but of the sea lords he reigned supreme. Now, all his years under the waves had begun to weigh on Manawydan. His brother, Bendigeidfran, was a great leader on land and more and more often he began to visit him, intent on making peace with that which would not settle within him. On one such journey, as he made his way back to his watery home he came upon a fair maiden. She was singing songs to the fair folk, as she searched for something among the rocks of the shore.
“What are you looking for, fair maid?” Manawydan called, unable to stop himself.
She turned and smiled, for he did not look like a sea king but instead a simple sailor. “The last traces of rock samphire, sir. I mean to have the best samphire come this fall and everyone knows rock samphire is far superior to golden.”
Manawydan knew not about which plant was superior in flavour but the life and vivacity that this young woman displayed spoke to his very soul. Still,he was the king of the sea and had much to consider before he pursued this interest further. Nevertheless, before he returned to his domain, he encouraged a small gathering of rock samphire to mature and grow secretly just out of her eye sight, sure she’d discover it in her search.
Many such pleasantries were found by the maiden in the weeks following. Hand picked flowers or gleaming pearls, or much more practically, a new basket or a pair of freshly caught salmon were all left at her door. Her parents questioned her of a suitor but the maiden was just a bewildered as to the source of these lovely gifts. Her mind would wander to the sailor that often walked the shore and how she enjoyed their conversations. But she was quite certain a sailor could not afford some of the more generous presents she had received.
Manawydan, for his part, could not clear the maiden from his thoughts. It had been centuries since he’d felt so full of life, so full of enthusiasm for anything. And though he was unsure if he could leave his kingdom behind, he finally went to the maiden and told her of his love.
She was stunned, of course, to learn this humble man was the king of the sea but when he shed his mortal disguise she recognized him as one of the fair folk and knew his tale to be true. Though distracted by his shining beauty, she listened as he explained his desire to come to live on land and make her his wife. He described the home he’d build for her and how they two could exist between both realms. The maiden felt at once this to be a true love. Though she had never met the sea folk herself, her family had live for generations on the coast and were more familiar than most with their inner workings.
And so, she accepted his hand and the sacrifice that he would make by coming to live on land, though he assured her it was no sacrifice at all. However, he warned her, as his lips met her hand, he was still under the laws of the sea folk. This meant that should she touch iron to his flesh three times, he’d have to return to the sea and only be able to visit once every seven years.
The first years flew by and the maiden was careful, though she grew and was no longer a maid but a woman now. She and Manawydan were happy and he was able to divide his time between being with her and the ruling of the sea. Though tiring, she was worth every breath. And soon they had a child. They both were thrilled and received many gifts and well wishes. One such among them was a rattle. One day, as the woman cooed to her child, the babe became hungry and began to cry. The woman went to set the toy down in haste and her hand knocked into Manawydan coming to see what was wrong.
He stood as if frozen and looked down at his bride. With sorrow in his voice, he told her that that was the first time. For the rattle was made of iron. The woman cried out and threw the accursed object away but the damage had been done. She swore to increase her vigilance.
The years wore on and soon the couple had another child. And though it seemed impossible, their happiness continued to grow, as did their love. However, one day one of the children came home with a key, found in the garden. The dreaded and dirty thing was discovered to be made of brass and thus allowed in the home but the women could not understand what it was a key to. She gave it to her husband to inspect. As she placed it in his hand, he froze and told her that that was the second time. The woman cried out. How could it be the second time, was the key not made of brass? But as she rinsed away the dirt she saw a design of a star worked into the key. A star of iron.
Now the woman became sure that an unforeseen entity was trying to tear them apart. She became so vigilant that nothing made of metal was brought into the home and the kitchen was her domain alone. Manawydan too was worried, not only about his remaining time on land but of the health of his bride and the identity of this unknown force. But such was his love for her and their love for each other that in the end, they loved each other even more. And though vigilant the family was happy.
It was not to last though. Now that the children were grown older and were on the cusp of adulthood, Manawydan began to take them to the sea. To teach them the ways of his people, which were the children’s ways as well. It began to become a routine for on days that they accompanied him, that his wife would meet them on the beach with dinner and together they would picnic. On one such outing as they all laughed and spoke of their day but the woman noticed something near Manawydan and she stilled. There in the grass, ready to strike was an adder. The woman cried out and reached for something to save her love. Her hand closed on a branch and she whipped it round and caught the snake on the head but also Manawydan on the leg. He was not bitten but froze and looked at her with the sorrow of a thousand tears. The branch in her hand was no branch at all but an iron bar and the snake was now, nowhere to be seen.
The woman’s heart tore and she swore, swore there had been an adder there, though now there was no evidence of one. But her husband told her be that as it may, it had been the third time and now he must return to the sea after nineteen years on land with her. She clung to him racked with grief, though she was no match for the sea which came and dragged him away as he said farewell to his children. The woman was overcome and tried to wade into the depths to retrieve him but her children held her back. She collapsed in the shallows and was finally persuaded to return home, now sick not only with grief but a terrible chill. And the chill, though eventually, beaten back, lingered in the house. For neither child had seen the serpent that their mother had struck out at. And though they could see that she was distraught they could not but blame her for the turn of events.
And so, in a few years, when the children reached their majority they left the cottage, the town and the sea. They made their way in the world, vowing never to return nor to let their children bear the same bitter grief that the sea had brought.
But the woman stayed, for though she could not see Manawydan and hold his hand, she heard his voice in the waves, felt his caress in the wind, or saw a flash of his eyes in a storm over the waves. And in seven years time, her love returned to her, for a day. From sunset to sunset. To have her love renewed to her heart, only to have it also ripped away again. And so it will go until her time comes to be beaten under the ever moving tide of time.
And Manawydan, he was not forgotten in their town by the sea. He’d been beloved and though not all had known of his identity, they knew him lost to the sea. And so they began to leave trinkets for the sea king. To wish him well and to set store in the remembrance of the love he’d shared, which had been a love of the ages. It is his curse that is yet greater, for when the time comes for his love to go, he shall but exist again as he was. Lonely, lost, adrift, for now his children and descendants are lost to him, as is all promise of future love.
The damp on my cheeks was palpable and as I scrubbed at my face, I was shocked to see Genny sitting sullen and almost angry. Mr. Sarffer merely continued working, the spoon he’d been carving even more beautiful and rife with detail. He said nothing to us and, unsure of what to do, I tentatively glanced at Genny who just shrugged and jerked her head toward the door.
We walked in silence back down the terrible hill, until we reached the more manageable wooden path. Genny burst through the undergrowth and with a piercing cry, snatched a rock and hurled it towards the water. It landed, unsatisfactorily, only yards away with a frustratingly mild thunk. This only served to further enrage her and a myriad of leaves, sticks, and other items that happened to be on hand followed. I stood back, clasping the basket to me, and let her finish. When she had no will to continue, she whirled, fists clenched and screamed at the world around her. A harsh, deafening cry of pain that seemed to echo the loneliness that darted hauntingly about the landscape. Seemingly exhausted she fell to her knees, head bowed. I didn’t realise she was crying until I knelt down to place a comforting hand on her shoulder.
I didn’t ask. Just waited for her to release whatever it was that had driven her to such a rage.
“If Mr. Ilyr told you about our long ago grandfather this morning,” she began, the only hint of tears were the wet tracks now staining her cheeks. “Then Mr. Sarffer just told us about Nainy, about our parents.” I pressed my lips together whilst I watched her.
“Don’t you see?” Genny continued. “Neither of our parents will come back here. They both dislike Nainy. This is the answer, Viv.”
“If it’s the answer you’ve been looking for then why are you so upset? You knew they didn’t get on. This isn’t a shock.” I had a feeling I knew the answer knew that she needed to be the one to tell me.
Genny sighed and sat back, leaning against a tree near the path. She took a moment to scrub at her eyes, reminding me for a moment how young she was. How young we both were, still stumbling along into the craziness of this all. Remembering herself, she pulled a handkerchief from her pocket and daintily dabbed her cheeks.
“Really. Crying such an abominable reaction.” She took a breath and looked out at the sea turning her thoughts over in her mind, “This was all almost ours. I know they’re all just stories but there’s true bits too, don’t you think? The bits about them all being happy and full of love and willing to overcome anything. And then like that, it’s gone.” She snapped her fingers at the ocean. “Now there’s none left. My mother doesn’t carry any of this with her. She’s everything opposite. She’s not cruel but…”
“She doesn’t want to be hurt again.” Genny glanced at me sharply. I took a deep breath, “I’m sorry. It just slipped out. It’s just…” I slid down next to her and wrapped my arms around my knees. “It’s like Aaron.” I could feel Genny freeze beside me. I’d spoken the forbidden word. “Ever since the accident no one speaks of him. Or if they do, it’s so forced. They walk around like I’m made of glass. As if any moment a car might come zipping along and knock me down too. That it might happen even in the house or in the forest. My mother and father love me but if I hadn’t been born when Aaron was killed, they’d have never had another child. It hurts too much. I think it hurts them to look at me and see what Aaron might have been like and then they feel bad and smother me instead.” I refused to look anywhere but the sea. “It’s been three years and I thought it might start to be like it was before, easy to be together and fun. But they’re both so afraid of what might happen that they don’t dare to breathe around me. The stuffiness of it all, the hurt and pain, it feels like a muggy day with a sticky layer of fear stuck to your skin.”
It was Genny’s turn to offer a comforting hand.
“Do you think that’s how it was after Grandfather died?”
I shrugged. “I don’t think it’s ever the same. But my father knew how it could be, that sort of loss, what it could do to those left. And he just… he let it change us. It’s not something that happened to us now, it’s who we are. I just…ugh.” I snatched a rock and leapt to my feet, throwing it out towards the horizon.
“Feels good doesn’t it?” Genny said smiling half-heartedly. We sat there and watched the sun sink lower in the sky, not needing to speak but just steep in our own thoughts. The cool breeze swept past intermittently, bringing with it understanding and acceptance. And as the sun seemed to melt into the ocean, extinguishing the beautiful bouquet of colours in a pool of deep purple, I felt my anger slip from me and dissipate into the darkness.