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The Man Who Watched Seals
The sea had been Andreas' life. True, other than fishing, there were few career options open to a young man living in a coastal town. No-one else however, had embraced it as passionately as he. As he hauled in the nets with his crewmates, fuelled by the salt air and the smell of fish, he would marvel in childlike wonder at the vastness of the ocean and the endless variety of life that dwelled in it, his thoughts in rhythm with the pitch and yaw of the boat.
But Andreas had always wanted more. Day after day, amid the surf, the sea winds and the cries of the gulls, he had dreamed of captaining his own personal voyage, navigating the waters and discovering strange uncharted lands, until the accident which had shattered his right leg and left him crippled. Even after months of recovery it had never quite properly healed. He was able to walk and do his daily business with the aid of a stick, but his fishing days were well behind him after that. Out of work and robbed of the love of his life, he took to becoming a recluse, living in a hut on the cliff top where there was an easy passage down to the beach, having as little as possible to do with the rest of civilisation. With the savings built up from his fishing years he could just about get by, and that was enough for him.
Andreas now spent his days watching the sea life revolve around him. Every morning he would make his way down to the shore where a number of seals gathered to sun themselves on the beach and play in the water, and he would remain there until the sun went down. They were almost kindred spirits, he and they; he almost felt he could talk with them, share his problems with them, and they would crowd around him as if to express their sympathy. He in turn always made sure to bring titbits of fish to reward them with. He would sit on the rocks, and watch the seals, and they would watch him, and nobody would make a sound.
One evening when the dusk was red and the sea-breeze cool, Andreas was making his way back along the reef, when a figure sprawled across the rocks caught his eye, the cold waves lapping around it. That was odd. Nobody with any sense ever went swimming near this area of coastline, the rocks and the tide were far too treacherous. It didn't look like anybody he recognised. He clambered over to investigate.
Closer up, the figure revealed itself to be a girl. No, a woman; young, slender, with sun-coloured hair and tanned skin. She was still breathing; a cursory inspection suggested that no bones were broken. She looked more exhausted, and suffering from exposure rather than physically damaged, but still in a pitiful state. Her skin was cold; she must have be lying here for several hours. It was a wonder she hadn't perished. Where had she come from? Andreas took a closer look at her, searching for answers. His gaze was caught by her outstretched hand; looking at her fingers, he could see that they were webbed. He then examined her garments. They were made of sealskin.
She was a sea-maiden, a being who could shape-shift between a woman and a seal. Andreas had never seen one before, nor had anyone else he knew. He had heard stories about these people, every fisherman had. The legends said that they lured unwary sailors to their doom, and that those who were foolish enough to go with them never returned. No-one knew what became of them. But she was just lying there, so beautiful, so helpless, and so alone. He couldn't simply her here to die.
At that moment, the sea-maiden's eyes fluttered open. Her first vision was of Andreas' face peering at her. Naturally, she gasped.
"It's all right," he said quickly, "I'm not going to hurt you. I'm going to take you to my house. You can rest there. Do you think you can stand?"
She tried woozily, but after swaying a couple of times she pitched forward. Hurriedly Andreas caught her, trying to ignore the pain shrieked at him by his leg. He gritted his teeth, shifted the sea-maiden's weight and leaned her on his shoulder; together with their combined strength, they just about managed the walk back to Andreas' hut. There he settled her on his bed, tucked her in, and went to boil up some broth. He had a spare blanket; he could sleep on the floor.
Over the next week, Andreas forewent his usual trips to his seal friends as he cared for the sea-maiden. Each morning he ventured into the town to stock up on provisions for the pair of them. The townsfolk who before had paid little attention to him were surprised to see his face return so often, but none bothered to say so, and he didn't care. Then he would go home, and cook for and feed his guest, and sit by her bedside telling her his tales, and listen while she told hers.
Rheanna was her name. She and her sea-sister Minu had been playing seal-games, chasing and nipping at each other, oblivious to the approaching danger. A shark had attacked without warning. In an instant, Minu was torn to pieces; in a blind frenzy Rheanna had fled, and swam and swam and swam until she could swim no more.
And as Rheanna recovered, a bond grew between the pair; subtly at first, but steadily stronger day by day. Each instinctively knew how the other felt, how they needed and craved for the same thing. Deep down something fought back, tried to tell them it wasn't right, it wouldn't work, but the love between them expanded until it was too great to be contained, and they melted. He had shunned company for far too long, and she was still too weak to resist.
Nature took its course.
Rheanna made to leave the morning after. She did not belong here, she explained. She had to get back to her own people, to let them know that she was safe and well and what had happened to Minu, so that they could grieve for her. She and Andreas couldn't stay with each other any longer.
"Take me with you," Andreas asked. "I know where there is a boat. I've looked after it since my accident, though its owner hardly uses it anymore. It has a sail and oars, and I still have the strength in my arms. You could guide us."
"I... I can't." Her eyes were moist; she turned away from him.
"Please. You're the only thing I have left to live for. There's nothing else for me here. Please."
Reluctantly, Rheanna relented. She sat on the bed in silence as Andreas bustled around the hut, gathering food and water for the journey and packing his few treasured possessions. Then he took her to the bay where the boat was tied. It was a small but well-built and sturdy craft, ideally suited for a couple, with a small, neat sail tidily folded up, and a rudder at the stern. One could row if the wind died down, and one could steer. The tide always kept the boat afloat; it was easy enough to climb aboard. With a bit of effort, the two were able to tie up a makeshift rigging, hoist the sail and cast off.
With a healthy breeze behind them, the journey was much quicker than Andreas had expected. As night began to fall, an island came into view; small, perhaps a couple of miles across. It looked beautiful, even in the fading light. He wondered how such a place could manage to remain untouched by human contact. That was nothing however, compared to the sight which greeted him on the beach.
Seals. Many scores of them; an entire colony of all sizes and colours, both male and female. It was quite dark by the time the boat reached the shore, and most of the seals were already dozing under the starlight. The few that awoke as Andreas and Rheanna disembarked and tied up the boat merely turned their heads to acknowledge them and settled down again, not the least perturbed by their presence.
Picking their way through the slumbering bodies, Rheanna led Andreas further inland to where there was a small village of huts around a central burnt-out campfire; a modest habitation, housing no more than a dozen or so people. Faces appeared round doorways as the pair approached, and the other sea-maidens came out to greet Rheanna, plainly overjoyed to see her. A few gazed at Andreas in curious wonder, and proceeded to quiz Rheanna about him, their questions becoming quite intimate. Andreas mustered as much dignity as he could, and tried not to let his embarrassment show.
The mood changed when Rheanna broke the news about Minu. The other sea-maidens had suspected of course, but were still unprepared for the savagery of her death. At least it had been mercifully quick. Stricken with grief, they filed silently around the campfire, while one sombrely walked into one of the huts and emerged carrying an assortment of trinkets, stones and clothing. These were then laid with great reverence on the campfire, as though a funeral pyre was being prepared. Rheanna explained quietly to Andreus that the sea-maidens were beginning a last-rites ceremony, and would send M inu's possessions into the great beyond to join her in the afterlife. It was to be a private ceremony; Andreas would not be welcome, because he wasn't one of them. He nodded; the day had taken a lot out of him, and all he really wanted to do right now was get some sleep. Rheanna took him into a hut that had been set aside specially for him, and went back to join the others in prayer.
The next day was spent joyfully exploring the island with Rheanna by his side. A cluster of hills in the centre gathered fresh rainwater into streams and pools. In the daylight, the beaches and rockfaces were more picturesque than anything he had witnessed back home. The trees bore coconuts and sweet exotic fruits, and there were any number of excellent fishing spots. The island was a small paradise; a perfectly-formed, secluded little world, almost too idyllic to be true. One could live quite contentedly in such a place, without want for anything. And of course, there were his new-found seal friends to share it with.
That evening, when he returned to the village, the other sea-maidens pampered him and fawned over him, though they made no attempt to steal or seduce him, for he was already Rheanna's prize, and they respected her. In his dreamy, lotus-blossom haze, Andreas hardly noticed her look of sadness, or the fact that she wasn't paying nearly as much attention to him as the others, as if she were guilty or ashamed of something. And yet one nagging question refused to vacate the back of his mind.
Why were there no sea-men?
It was the morning after when Andreas discovered that something was terribly wrong. He awoke slowly in his comfortable bed, and winced as the bright light struck his eyes. Still half in a stupor he stretched his arms, and rubbed his face.
Something hairy was beginning to grow around his nose. It didn't feel like the start of a moustache. It was oddly sensitive. He reached down to the side of the bed and picked up a piece of glass that was used as a makeshift mirror, and peered at his reflection.
They were hairs. But they were like nothing ever seen on a human face. Their position was all wrong, they were growing out to the side, and the filaments were too thick. They looked more like whiskers.
He brought his hands to his face and found that they too were different. The skin was taking on a greyish tint, and the flesh between the fingers was unmistakable.
And suddenly Andreas realised why nobody came here, and that the legends were true.
Hurriedly Andreas dressed, grabbed his stick and rushed out into the village. It was deserted, as he had somehow half-expected it to be. In a panic, he scrambled towards the beach where he had par ked his boat. Something dreadful was happening to him. He had to get away from this place. Thoughts of escape whirled madly through his head... Maybe he could find his way home again. Maybe somebody back there knew a cure. Maybe... But when he found the boat, smashed beyond repair with the mast and sail lying in a tattered and forlorn heap, the adrenaline rush drained away, leaving him hollow, e mpty and numb. He stood there and stared at it, not knowing what else to do. He was trapped.
But not alone. Someone was kneeling beside the wreckage, her face in her hands. It was Rheanna. When she turned to look at him, he could see her eyes were red and her face streaked with tears.
Andreas pointed limply at the shattered boat. "Did you-?"
Rheanna shook her head. "My sisters. I couldn't stop them. They didn't see you the way I- the way I- oh God, I'm so sorry, I'm so sorry..." Unable to hold back her choking sobs, she collapsed into Andreas' arms and buried her face in the soft growth of chest fur beneath his open shirt. He cradled her gently, until she had regained her composure enough to tell her story.
"My sea-sisters and I were born with magic in our veins," Rheanna began, "but that magic carries with it a great price. There are groups of us, scattered here and there, but our people are few in number, and our children are always female. We take for our partners those men who are shipwrecked or cast adrift, washed onto our shores, who would die if they were left by themselves. When we mate, some of our magic is transferred- but only we are able to control it. The man is happy for a couple of days, but then...
"So it has continued over the generations. We have mated simply to survive, knowing the fate that befell those we lay with. My race had all but forgotten what 'love' truly meant... But then it came back to me when you saved my life. I couldn't help myself. You showed me such kindness- and this is what I've given you in return..." The words degenerated as she burst into tears again.
"How much longer will it take?" Andreas asked. He spoke calmly with no trace of fear or anger, as he had exhausted all his available emotion.
"Not long. Once it starts, the change takes but a few hours. If it's any comfort, it will be completely painless."
She broke away from him. "I have to leave now. My sisters are calling for me, our magic binds us together as we travel around our islands. But I had to see you one last time before it was too late . I needed to say- goodbye."
The air shimmered around the sea-maiden as she assumed her other form, and with a splash she was gone. Andreas had made no move to stop her, nor any protest at his abandonment, because in spite of what she had done to him, he still loved her. And he was as much to blame as she was.
Alone on a clifftop, Andreas stood for several minutes gazing at the expanse of ocean that would shortly once again be his home. In a strange way, he thought, the sea-maiden had given his life back to him.
Down on the beach he calmly disrobed, while he still had fingers to do so, and set his clothes in a neat pile beside him. Almost as an afterthought, he took his stick and hurled it into the water. He would not be needing it anymore.
Then he sat on the rocks, and watched the seals, and they watched him, and nobody made a sound.
The Man Who Watched Seals copyright 1998 by Eala Dubh.
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