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The Finest Catch

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Cargill I'm the finest catch that you'll land.

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On the Long Beach, as the sun began to pick at the edges of the Holy Isles, a young man stood and gazed upon the smoothly shifting surface of the sea. Along the shore, two oystercatchers picked through the pebbles with their long red bills, and a gaggle of sanderlings scuttled back and forth with the swell of the tide. It was a fine morning, the stillness only broken by the hush hush of water and the calling of the birds.

The man clutched in his hand an object. It looked like a finely woven blanket, or perhaps a piece of kidskin, so soft it appeared. It was a mottled greyish brown colour, and it gleamed where it caught the early morning light, swaying gently this way and that. It was not caught by a breeze, for there was no breeze. In fact, it moved almost as though it were underwater, being pushed and pulled by a gentle current.

Gathering it toward his chest, the man stepped nimbly over stone and rock until his bare feet found a patch of soft sand, and here the little rushing waves lapped at his toes. Shortly, the sleek brown head of a seal emerged from the water, its eyes as black and round as pieces of polished jet. It bobbed for a few moments and snuffed water from its nostrils. Another appeared, then another, until there were over a dozen round dark heads all blinking their matching eyes at him, whiskers twitching. The soft animal sounds of their breathing drifted from the gathering, the burble of disturbed water. A few neat little gulls circled, hopeful of fish.

Still the man stood, and clutched at his skin, for so it was; the browns and greys mirrored in the backs of the seals as they turned from him one by one and slid back beneath the surface of the water. And soon, the man turned his own back to the sea and made toward the little gathering of houses at the far end of the beach.

The village itself stood upon a narrow ledge between the base of the cliffs forming the east side of the bay and the sea. There was a steep sea wall that doubled as a narrow pathway, curving in front of the houses until it met the long arm of the pier, and on it the fishwives sat mending their nets, their voices rising and falling, laughter and snatches of song on their lips.

Long had the boats of this little village been known to have the luck of the Good People upon them, for no matter how great the swell, or how fierce the storm, no man nor catch was lost. Not in seven winters had a child been swept from the sea wall, and the folk knew that they were protected and were thankful.

And so it was that when the young man who held a sealskin against his breast came upon the fishwives as bare as a suckling babe, they knew that he was of the selkie-folk, and they welcomed him as warmly as they would their own kin. He did not speak, but he accepted their gifts of salted herring gladly, and allowed them to dress him as was customary of the land-folk.

A red-sailed scaffie boat soon bobbed on the horizon, and as if in reaction to its appearance a sudden wind whipped up, sharp and cold. The scaffie’s lugsail lashed briefly back and forth before filling tight and round, and the little boat was tugged suddenly landward, its occupants scrambling to abandon their oars and ready to tack. Behind it, more boats appeared, dipping and swaying as they too caught the wind that would carry them back to shore. Through it all, the selkie-man stood upon the pier and watched with his large, dark eyes, and the fishwives forgot their nets for watching him in turn.

Upon the first scaffie was a man named Cargill. He was a good man, with two pretty sisters who he cared for, and who loved him for his sweet nature. As a lad he had nearly drowned, swept from his boat in a storm that took his father and two brothers besides. When Cargill had awoken some days later, he was puzzled to see his distraught sister’s lips moving when all he could hear was the rushing of water in his ears. He dreamed often of the cold sea, and of a pair of beautiful eyes as black as fresh cut peat.

Above their heads, herring gulls began to circle and call their mournful calls. The fishwives abandoned their nets and creels to gather along the pier and count home the boats that held their husbands, fathers and sons, and as they passed they each made a nod or a curtsey to the selkie, for it was wise to always be courteous to the fair folk lest they turn themselves against you.

The red scaffie was the first to reach the harbour, borne as it was with an unnatural speed, the wind dying as soon as it was tied fast. It was hard to say what it was that turned Cargill’s head. Perhaps the sudden dropping of the wind, or some other sense that is known only to those touched by the fair folk, but turn his head he did, and his eyes fell upon the selkie. His catch fell at his feet.

The seal-people and other fair folk are not known for their easy forgiveness of debts, and so it was that Cargill knew that the selkie had come for him, for who else could have pulled him from the wild sea that night? He stepped over the piles of softly gaping herring, and past the whispering fishwives until he stood before the seal-man. He had no wife nor sweetheart awaiting him at his hearth, and his sisters were grown. If this was to be his fate then he would accept it gladly, for he should have surely perished those seven years ago and left his young sisters with naught but a name to remember him by.

The selkie lifted his hand to Cargill’s face, and any who observed closely would have seen that the fingers were webbed like a seal’s. His touch was tender, and Cargill closed his eyes, the sound of water in his ears as constant as it ever was. Whether he was to be made a prize or a meal of he did not know, but he was thankful for the creature’s kind touch upon his brow.

He startled, then, to feel the cool weight of some soft fabric being pressed into his hands. When he opened his eyes he saw that it was that fine sealskin he held, and Cargill’s heart did lift in his breast as he gathered it close.

For it is known, on the islands and in the villages where there are seal-folk, that for them to give their skin willingly was an act of the truest love. Long had the selkie watched the fair young man he had pulled from the sea, and long had he sung the song of the seals from the low island as the men sailed out each night, knowing his love could not hear it. And in the seventh month of the seventh year, he had shed his skin and left the sea behind.

Still the sound of the sea ebbed and flowed in Cargill’s ears, but as he held the soft skin in his arms, he thought that above it all he could hear a sweet voice singing.