The past and present are stitched together with threads of magic, if we could only open our eyes to see them…

Welcome to aliisaacstoryteller!

I blog about my writing, my experiences living with a special needs child, and anything else which takes my fancy. Feel free to have a look around.

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Perfect

Nobody's Perfect Concept

I first became aware of this strange human condition in junior school. We had been set a project by the art teacher. I wanted my picture to be perfect, the best I could make it, so I was most taken aback when she instructed me to put down my ruler. “Nothing in nature has a perfectly straight line.,she said. She pointed out the curve of the horizon, the undulation of the playing field, and I realized she was right. I was to find in later years, that even things man-made are not always perfectly straight, when it came to decorating my first home.

This search for perfection can be quite destructive. We’ve all witnessed the pushy parent, the anorexic, the ‘keeping up with the Jones’ types; they’re all sad reflections of our insecurity and desire for perfection. Yet nature saw fit, (or God did, depending on your viewpoint), to gift mankind with all the flaws of what it is to be human. Some of us were made more flawed than others.

Take my daughter, Carys; she was born with CFC syndrome. Cardio Facio Cutaneous Syndrome. Quite a mouthful. It has to be. Anything less would not do it justice. It makes her less than perfect. But what does it mean?

Medical literature may tell you that it is a spontaneous mutation of the BRAF, MEK1 and MEK2 genes. With Carys, her BRAF gene is affected. You don’t know what that means. I don’t know what that means. I don’t need to. It’s an after thought, you know, an ‘after- the- horse-has-bolted’ kind of statement. It doesn’t change anything. It’s not hereditary. We can’t pass it on to future generations. It was a once off thing. It just happened, and no-one knows why. Apparently, genes don’t have a perfect replication process.

Carys is nearly nine now. She goes to special school, and she loves it. She can’t talk or sign, so how do I know? Believe me, I know, and so would you if you could see her going onto the school bus in the morning. She can’t walk but she can crawl, and manages somehow to move about after her toys well enough. She has a smile brighter than the sun. She is interested in everyone. More than once I have been told that she brings out the best in people, and it’s true, I have seen it happen so many times. Young children in particular, love her, are fascinated by her, want to take care of her.

The question is, would I swap her for a ‘perfect’ child? One that walks and talks, can feed itself and use a toilet. One that can learn to read and write, form independent relationships, with potential for a career, marriage, children of it’s own. One who will be able to offer me a normal life as I get older, my body weaker, and I head on into retirement.

To you, the answer may be obvious, but believe me, it is such a loaded question.

I want the best for Carys, but if I replied yes, I would be betraying her; I would be admitting that she is not good enough for me, not perfect. But I am a mother, and we all know how imperfect moms are. Of course, I would be lying if I said I didn’t want for her everything other children have. I have mourned that, often. It has taken a long time to come to terms with what, and who, Carys is. But I have had the strength of something amazing to guide me; a mother’s love, and I have learned to love Carys just as she is.

If I said no, would you even believe me? You may think me a bad or cruel mother, condemning my daughter to such a difficult life. The fact is, I didn’t decide on the route her life would take. It is as it is, whatever my feelings. It would certainly make my life immeasurably easier if the CFC was magicked away. But it wouldn’t make me happier. And for the most part, Carys enjoys her life so much, even within its limitations.

So, day to day, how does CFC impact on us? OK, the obvious ones first. Carys is nearly nine, and she can walk only a little way in her walker before tiring. She can’t steer it. She has to wear splints, which are little leg braces, every day, as her muscles and ankles are weak, and her feet turned in. If we go out, she is in a wheelchair or has to be carried, and she is heavy. She can crawl around the floor to get where she wants to go. She can sit up, lie down, pull to stand, and is on the verge of cruising. This is all thanks to ongoing physiotherapy.

She can’t speak, although she is very vocal, makes lots of sounds, and loves to hear her own voice. She can only communicate on a very basic level, such as smiling, crying, clapping, screaming, and making eye contact. She understands some words, such as kiss, hug, music, dancing, up, sleep, school. She can follow a simple instruction, such as stand up, sit down, kiss mama, hug mama (very important, these last two, because they make all the hardship worthwhile).

She doesn’t get signing, and has very little hand function or fine motor skills anyway. She smiles at picture cards, but I know she doesn’t understand them as a means of communication. She adores music, and will sway from side to side, kicking her feet up to dance. She loves playing with anything that makes a noise if you hit it, throw it, bang it or drop it, particularly if it is something musical.

For many years, she didn’t drink fluids at all, but now she drinks about a litre a day, and holds her beaker herself. She can’t feed herself, and can’t chew, so all her food has to be mashed, but at least she doesn’t need a feeding tube like so many others. Speech, occupational, and physio therapies have been intense, daily routines. Her delayed development has been graded as moderate, equivalent to age around 10 months. But she is nine. It feels profound.

Her looks are typical of a child with CFC. She has thick black brittle curly hair. Her eyes are the palest pale blue. Her skin is golden as she has so much pigmentation. It is also very dry and thick, and prone to breaking up on hands and feet. She has no eyebrows, and short sparse eyelashes. Her eyes are wide set, slightly drooping. Her ears are low, and slightly rotated . She has no bridge to her nose, just a round little stubby upturned thing. Her forehead is wide, and she has a large scar above her left eye, where a haemangioma (birthmark) grew so big, it had to be surgically removed at four months old for fear of losing her sight. She has slight hearing and sight loss, but nothing significant enough to warrant correction as yet.

Despite all this, children with CFC are very pretty. I think the personality animates the features anyway, in which case the features themselves take second place, become less obvious. You think I’m just being brave? Then you have clearly never got to know a child with special needs. If you have, you’ll know exactly what I mean. That’s nature showing it’s perfection yet again.

Unfortunately, there is a danger, which lies within. Carys has a serious, and severe heart condition, called Hypertrophic Cardiomyopathy. It’s a killer. Think of all the stories you have heard of football players dropping dead on the field; the cause is usually Cardiomyopathy. Many CFC children have this condition to varying degrees. Its a black cloud we have to learn to live under, which will never go away. She will never be able to play active sport. We have to be constantly on the lookout for signs of heart failure. When she’s older she may have to have heart surgery, but its a last resort. Surgeons don’t like doing it, as in so many cases, the condition soon returns.

She has epilepsy, although she has been seizure free for five years now. She also has cortisol insufficiency, so she can’t fight off illnesses very well. And she is being monitored for growth hormone, as her levels are border-line. As you might expect from all this, she is on many medications, which she must have daily for the rest of her life. But she can’t take them orally, unless I crush them and mix them with her food, which tastes vile. It’s like chewing on paracetamol, I know, I’ve tried it. She has been in hospital many times in her short lifetime so far, but thankfully, our experience of children’s medicine and medical staff in Ireland is very positive.

Every day, Carys goes to ‘special’ school, which is just perfect for both of us; we need a break fro each other now and again! The bus picks her up around 845 and returns her at 320pm. All her needs are met with regard to therapies, and I can concentrate on the fun and the social with her. I can’t explain the weight this has lifted from my shoulders.

I couldn’t feel this new freedom if Carys had not approached school in such a positive and happy way. She has her moments, which can be hard to deal with. She goes through phases. Like the terrible screaming fits every mealtime when I am trying to feed her. Or the nights when she just won’t sleep. And the times when she would get upset for no apparent reason, and hit herself repeatedly in the face with the back of her right hand. Pain? Boredom? Frustration? Despair? It’s very hard to know for sure. Does she know she’s different? Possibly. She can’t say, and I can’t read minds. What would I see anyway, if I was to look inside Carys’ head? Her EEG’s show ‘abnormal’ activity. Well, who wants to be normal, anyway?

Carys may not be what others would call perfect, but to her family, that is exactly what she is. Not only is she the most perfect person I know, she is also the happiest. Now there is something to aspire to…

The Serpent in Irish Mythology

Иллюстрация к греческому мифу, монотипия.

Ireland has no indigenous snakes. The story goes that they were banished by St Patrick. You would think he was rather busy converting the pagan masses, establishing monasteries and churches, and driving out demons, yet he still found time to save us from dangerous creatures. Wasn’t that kind of him?

According to a Welsh monk by the name of Jocelin (1185AD), Patrick gathered all snakes, serpents, and venomous creatures alike onto a mountain in West Connacht, where he had spent the previous forty days and nights fasting and gaining great power, and drove them from there into the sea. Croagh Patrick is said to be that illustrious mountain, and today thousands of pilgrims walk its rugged path every year in celebration of this event, and in penance, many in bare feet or on their knees.

Of course, this story is the subject of controversy. It has been claimed that the tale was never meant to be taken literally, that the serpents referred to symbolised the Druids and their pagan religion. In modern Irish, the word for ‘snake’ is nathair, said to derive from the old Gaelic word naddred, meaning ‘serpent’. In fact, adding the letter ‘G’ turns the word into Gnaddr, meaning ‘serpent priest’. I am relying on other people’s translations here, not being fluent with the native lingo myself, so don’t have a go at me if I get this wrong. It gets interesting to me personally here, living just a few minutes away from a pair of lakes curled around each other in a rather sinuous and snake-like way, known as the Nadrageel Lakes… notice any similarity in the words? The serpent was important to the Druids for healing purposes, among others, and the ancient symbol of the serpent circle in which the snake devours its own tail symbolises the never-ending circle of life.

However, there are those more recently who argue that this version of the story is inaccurate, that Patrick openly lambasted the Druids and set out to convert them at every opportunity, that the stories are full of his (sometimes brutal) acts of doing so, most usually involving smashing their idols with his crozier, and disrespecting their customs with defiance, as when he lit the fire at Slane on the Eve of Beltaine. Why then, would he be so cryptic with his serpent banishing story?

Actually, Saint Patrick made no mention of this important and powerful event at all in his own writings, which begs the question, did it ever take place at all?

Apparently, he wasn’t the only Christian to have banished snakes in Europe;  St Cado of Brittany banished snakes from Gaul; St Paul from Malta; St Columba from Iona; St Clement from Metz; St Marcel from Paris; St Romain from Germany, Spain and Russia… it was quite the popular past-time! And not only by saints; Irish High King Brian Boru’s son, Murchad, is also credited with destroying all the serpents in Ireland in one version of The Battle of Clontarf. A stone which used to sit under the east window of Glendalough church, depicted St Kevin’s dog, Lupus, in a mighty battle with the the last snake in Ireland. Needless to say, the holy hound was victorious. Mysteriously, the stone is reputed to have been stolen on the 28th August 1839.

For a land devoid of slithering creatures, we certainly seem to have a lot of stories about them. In one myth, Nial and Scota, a Pharoah’s daughter, had a son named Gaoidhial who was bitten by a snake while wandering in the wilderness. He was healed by Moses, and told that no serpent would flourish where he or his progeny lived. Of course, they were the Milesians, also known as the first Gaels, who later invaded Ireland, defeating the Tuatha de Denann, thus settling in our serpent-free land. This would imply that Ireland already had no snakes at that time. Confusingly, I came across a reference in Irish Druids and Old Irish Religions which tells of a ‘green God-snake’ known as Gad-el-Glas, but in the Lebor Gabála Érenn (an ancient manuscript documenting the Invasions of Ireland), Gadel Glas is another name for Nial and Scota’s son. The old Milesian standard was a snake wrapped around a rod, allegedly.

The truth is, snakes are cold blooded creatures, unable to live through extreme cold climatic conditions. When Ireland emerged from its last ice age, about fifteen thousand years ago, finally free and unfettered from its nearest land mass (Scotland), it is unlikely any snakes managed to survive. Certainly, they were no longer able to cross by land bridge. I know, it’s a lot less dramatic and somewhat disappointing compared with all the other stories.

Most surprising of all to me, is Fionn mac Cumhall‘s involvement in all this. Yes, that’s right, your eyes do not deceive you. According to a poem called The Pursuit of Sliabh Druim, found in a book known as the Duanaire Finn (c. C17th), the great hero himself slew many huge serpents as big as mountains called péista (meaning ‘beast’ or ‘pest’) which lived in lakes. Caoilte, Fionn’s nephew, relates how the monsters were slain at Lough Cuilinn, Lough Neagh, Lough Rea, Lough Corra, Lough Laoghaire, at Howth, at the Glenn Inny, and the River Bann. Is this a ploy to show Fionn in a Christian light, doing God’s work by destroying the pagan priests? It’s intriguing, because the way into the Otherworld lies through water; were these serpents seen as Guardians to the gates of Tir na Nog, and by his violent actions, was Fionn putting these entrances out of action, denying the Sidhe access to the new Christian Ireland?

Enough speculation; I’m going to leave you with my favourite Irish serpent myth…

Fergus mac Leti was a King of Ulster who fell asleep one day on the beach. Three little sprites called lúchorpáin (meaning ‘little bodies’) came up out of the water and tried to steal him away. The coldness of the sea awoke him, and he lunged at the creatures, catching one in each hand and crushing the third to his chest. They promised to grant him one wish if he let them go, to which he agreed, and asked for the power to be able to swim deep under water without having to surface for air. They gave him magical herbs with which to plug his ears, but warned him not to swim under Lough Rudraige (Dundrum Bay). Being a King, Fergus was used to doing as he liked, so of course he disregarded their advice, and encountered a massive, fearsome sea-serpent called Muirdris. His terror caused a facial disfigurement, which his people kept secret from him, as a king must be whole and perfectly formed. One day, seven years later, a spiteful servant girl revealed the truth after he beat her unfairly. Shocked, Fergus decided to confront Muirdris once again. They battled for a night and a day, the sea turning red with blood about them, but Fergus emerged onto the shore victorious, bearing the great brute’s head. Fergus’s good looks were restored, but he immediately collapsed and dropped dead from his efforts.

You can expect to see more of this story in my third book…

Book Review | PANAMA by Craig Boyack

panama

Click image to buy this book. You can find Craig on his website http://coldhandboyack.wordpress.com/

I took Craig Boyack’s Panama with me on holiday, and it proved to be a great choice for a holiday read. It bowls along at a fair old pace with plenty of action and a good helping of dialogue, all of which combine to keep the plot flowing nicely.

The two main characters, Ethan and Coop, are instantly likeable. Ethan is an ex-army cowboy working in the freight business, who is selected by President Roosevelt specifically for his unique ability to see and communicate with the dead. Ethan recruits Coop, a wannabe voodoo witch doctor, as his trusty sidekick and together they are tasked with an under-cover mission to prevent civil war from breaking out over the Panama Canal whilst also investigating some rather sinister supernatural goings on.

The story takes several surreal twists and turns as it navigates its way through the unlikely pair’s adventures. It’s clear they don’t have a clue about what they’re doing, which is what makes them so endearing, and which leads them into many a scrape, but they muddle along, making enemies, friends and allies as they go.

Roosevelt is not the only character you will recognise; Billy the Kid makes an appearance, and Auntie Natalie is the 1903 answer to Bond’s ‘Q’, providing them with all the guns and gadgetry they might need to fulfil their task.

As the story unfolded, I began to wonder about the enigmatic Bento; could he be the bad guy? What dark secret could Henry Antrim be hiding? Who had unleashed the dread demon El Chivato? Then there’s the Spaniards, the Columbian terrorists, the Jungle men…

Boyack’s style is sparse, stripped back to the bone. He lets his characters speak for themselves. There is no fluff, there are no fillers, every word earns its place, and the story is stronger for it. The author has a unique imagination, weaving together many seemingly un-connected strands effortlessly and with a soft touch of humour into a cohesive and well researched tale.

This is an era and a part of the world I know very little about, yet I got a strong sense of place and time through the author’s representation of it. I also learned a few things I didn’t know, for example, the segregation of  gold dollar and silver dollar workers on the canal, and the conditions they lived in, or ‘were kept’ in.

All in all, this was a fun, action-packed, riveting read which I could not put down, and when I did, I spent most of my time away from the book looking forward to getting back to it. To me, that is the sign of a great story, and one that I would heartily recommend.

The Friday Fiction Featuring Jane Dougherty

jane

 

“Ali has very kindly invited me to her blog to bend your collective ear about my books,” says author of  The Green Woman Trilogy, Jane Dougherty. “We have similar influences, Ali and I, both steeped in the magic of Irish legend and history. Culture is like a genetic marker; it finds its way into our writing, inviting itself in even when it wasn’t asked.

“This August, I published the third volume of my Green Woman trilogy, a fantasy series aimed at mature young adults and old adults who like a good yarn with mythical heroes and villains. It’s a story I started years ago for my own kids, only one of whom was old enough to be considered young adult at the time. The goal posts have moved since then, and almost every kid out of nappies is considered YA. My definition hasn’t though; you need a certain maturity to enjoy my books. The story isn’t a high school romp and the issues go beyond boyfriends and nail varnish. In fact neither of those things exist in Providence; the Elders wouldn’t allow it.

“The world of The Green Woman is post-apocalyptic, a survivor city beneath a hermetic dome, run by priests and a brutal police force. Women are vessels, to be filled and emptied. Nothing more. To stamp on any objections, there are the Black Boys, a brutish militia, and the sinister Pure Ones, secret police who call at midnight.

dark Citadel

“But things are about to change. The nuclear desert Outside is greening, unrest is stirring within Providence, and the Green Woman is giving life to memories of the world as it ought to have been. The Dark Citadel is the story of Deborah, the Green Woman’s daughter, and her escape from the nightmare of Providence to track down her mother. But there’s a bigger picture, a hellish, metaphysical picture. The man-made evils of war and the Elders’ brutal repression have opened the gates of Hell. The old bogeymen are on the loose, those of popular imagination. But this time they mean to claim their rightful inheritance—the earth.

“The Green Woman is the force that will redress the balance, and Deborah is the next in line to carry the burden. Thank goodness she meets a force of nature to stand by her when things get tough—Jonah.

“In this story, I wanted to get across the idea that totalitarianism—political and religious—brutality, misogyny, ignorance are not just the fault of ‘society’ or ‘the devil’, they are found in the actions of ordinary human beings too. We all, no matter how young or old, have to stand up and defy what we know to be wrong. The Green Woman could be called eco-fantasy, utopian or dystopian fantasy, allegorical, or metaphysical (if you’re into Amazon categories). Whatever it’s called, it has a message that I hope will uplift and sweep readers away.”

Here’s an excerpt from beginning of The Dark Citadel


 

Shrill voices shattered the orderly silence as the pupils from Providence Central Institute for Girls made their way home from school. As they approached the corner of a narrow, dusty street, a tall figure broke away from the group and turned aside with a determined stride. The other schoolgirls bunched together at the corner to watch her go, then carried on up the main thoroughfare, their shapeless garments fluttering.

“My name is Deborah, not Serpentspawn, you foul-mouthed bunch of bitches!” the girl shouted over her shoulder after her departing classmates. “You think I care what your cretins of parents say about me?”

“Serpentspawn!” The catcall, followed by a burst of nervous giggling, wafted faintly back to her.

“You think I care that you all asked that I be moved to another class?” she whispered. Her cheeks were flushed and her eyes glittered. A grey-robed man hurrying by on the opposite pavement caught her eye and clicked his tongue in disapproval. The girl held her head high and glared at him, the budding tears drying as hurt gave way to anger. With a defiant gesture she wrenched off the hated headscarf and shook her hair free.

“Get yourself home, little trollop,” the man gasped in indignation.

“If you don’t like what you see, don’t look,” the girl spat at him and, hitching up her flapping robes, ran towards the unlit end of the street.

She ran, her hair streaming behind, feet clattering loudly, defying the silent watchers from dark windows. No voice snapped at her, no window opened to let fly insults. If they had, the tears would surely have come. It was too much to bear. First there had been the humiliation of the snide comments from the sewing matron about how she probably got her sewing skills from her father. Then those bitches had taunted her with their moronic jokes about how many sacks her imprisoned father had sewn that afternoon. Was it her fault if they were all too stupid to see that their own fathers were just pig ignorant brutes? The pious temple creeper insulting her like that had been the last straw.

Get yourself home, he said. The girl shot a glance full of loathing up and down the shabby street. Home!

Dust clouds rolled up over the crystal dome, and the light dimmed further. The dark end of the street, where the girl lived, seemed unusually menacing in the gathering gloom. The sound of her running feet was suddenly too loud, too lonely. She stopped.

A scream rang out, a harsh, evil cry from the depths of the cloud. She clutched the headscarf, wanting to hide in its folds but refusing to show her fear, and cast about, searching for the source of the cry. Standing firmly in the middle of the street, with clenched fists, hair loose and wild, she raised her eyes to the unseen crystal dome, defying whatever was hiding in the murk to show itself. The cry came again, harsher, strident, and the girl, with a last angry glare at the blanket of cloud, ran for the shelter of a tenement doorway.


 

“Thank you, Ali, for letting me loose on your blog to spout about myself and my creations. Below are the links to my Amazon author pages where you can find links to the books in The Green Woman series. There are also several short stories that give an introduction to her world. I should point out that as the story unfolds, the tangential stories have become more adult. No, not dirty, just about grown-ups.”

You can find all Jane’s books on Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.com. You can read more of Jane’s writing, including her wonderful poetry, on her blog, and you can tweet tunefully to her on Twitter.

Thanks, Jane, for dropping by Aliisaacstoryteller, I am delighted to feature your writing on this week’s Friday Fiction!

If you are an independent author, and would like to see your writing appear on the Friday Fiction, please do contact me here. Have a great weekend, everyone, and happy reading!

 

Lough na Suil | Mysterious Disappearing Lake of Irish Mythology

 
 

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I first came to Moytura in Co Sligo in search of the places linked with the tales of Irish mythology upon which I was basing my books. Moytura, or Moytirra as it is still called today, is reputedly the site of the Second Battle of Moytura between the Tuatha de Denann and their long-time enemies, the Fomori.

Located between Geevagh and Riverstown in the townland of Ballinphuill, Lough na Suil (which means ‘Lake of the Eye’) lies on the edge of the battle site, not far from Heapstown Cairn. It is said that once in every hundred years the lake mysteriously empties overnight and refills itself. Records show that this did indeed occur in 1833, 1933, and then at intervals of twenty years or so, until most recently in 2006 and 2012.

The most popular reason given for this sudden mysterious draining of the lake lies in the structure of the ground beneath it. The basin of the Lough rests in a karst limestone layer which is full of underground caverns and rivers. As water seeps through cracks and fissures in the limestone, they eventually widen over time to become sink holes. These holes often become blocked with mud, silt and other debris which on occasion collapses, causing the Lough to appear to empty almost overnight.

There is another reason, though. Some believe that the lake empties once in every hundred years to ensure people never forget the atrocities of the Battle of Moytura which took place there. Needless to say, I like this idea!

In mythology, Lough na Súil is where Denann High King and Master of All Arts, Lugh Lámfhada defeated his grandfather, the Fomori Giant-King, Balor of the Evil Eye. He killed him by famously throwing his spear (although some versions of the story claim it was a sling-stone) an incredibly long distance into Balor’s eye, thus earning himself the epithet ‘Long Arm’, or in Irish Lámfhada (pronounced La-wa-tha). Balor fell face down into the ground, his evil eye burning a great crater in the earth which filled up with water, and so the Lough was formed.

After the battle, Lugh cut off Balor’s head and hung it in a nearby hazel tree. Over the course of many years, the poison from his evil eye dripped down into the tree’s roots. Finally, the tree was overcome by the poison and split apart. Seeing this, the sea god Manannán decided to harness the powerful properties of the wood and make a shield from it. Unfortunately, in the felling of the tree, eighteen men were killed by its poison, and a further nine killed as they fashioned the wood into the shield. Manannán covered it with the skin of a sacred bull and marked it with druidic symbols, probably Ogham. Eventually, he gave the shield as a gift to Fionn mac Cumhall.

There is a Neolithic court tomb with a U-shaped court leading to a gallery of four chambers located on the battle site, known as The Giant’s Grave. The cairn infill material is long since gone, but the stone outline can still be seen. As Balor is the only giant mentioned in the mythology of the battle, it is quite possible that his body was carried here by his men and the cairn raised over him.

In 1929, Fr Sharkey, a local parish priest marked the 3000th anniversary of the Battle of Moytura by predicting the emptying of the Lough, and organised a huge festival in celebration of the event. Unfortunately, the waters failed to recede to order, and the Lough did not drain until 1933, four years later. Apparently, a huge number of fish were found wedged in a muddy hole in the lake bed some fourteen feet deep, and consequently shared out amongst the astonished local population.

Merman | A Poem

Merman with TridentI haul you in,

I, the Fisher Girl

and you, my greatest prize.

 

You lie, wet and shining,

in the bottom of my boat,

weak, frail, spent.

 

You are dying.

Caught in my net, trapped too long.

You flounder feebly in the bilge.

 

You open your mouth,

whistle, like a dolphin, or a bird.

Accusations I half understand.

 

I give you back to the ocean,

watch you drift away,

each of us in our element

both gasping like fish out of water.

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