At first she was nothing more than a bulge in the water and he thought, I’ve been waiting for you, creature who lives in this breathing pond, to reveal yourself to me. He was waiting for a grand monster but it was a seal who rose to the surface. Her whiskers twitched and she snorted away a mist of water and looked at him with black eyes. He put down the violin and she turned and rolled under the surface. He picked up the violin and she appeared again. It was the first time he’d laughed out loud in weeks. He played to her then, Basket of Turf and The Devil’s Dream. She rolled and flipped and twitched her ears. He did not think of her meat or her skin that would warm him. He needed the company more.
After that he played every day, glad for an audience. She swam closer and closer until he could see the oil glaze that protected her eyes and the way she wrinkled her skin sometimes.
The nights were better with a fireplace and shelter to keep the dew off his body. There was plenty of wood to burn, strewn under the big hedges of the heart shaped leaf bush. But he was always hungry. The river mussels growing on the silty bed made him ill, loosening up his bowels. He ate bark, ground to a powder, to compensate and it clogged his stomach. The periwinkles were a staple but there were few left now around his camp. He went further every day. Once he chanced upon some limpets, abandoned by the tide near the entrance to the inlet. He prised two away and ate them raw, after pounding their bodies against rock to soften them. Down by the water, close to the reed beds a little green plant with yellow daisy flowers tasted to him almost like celery but bitter. Some days this was all he ate, grazing like a sheep and then wandering on with the sea celery acrid upon his tongue.
He sharpened a piece of wire, the piece he’d use to mend the hinges of the violin case. As he extracted the wire from the holes in the wood, he remembered fixing the case one evening at home. Frannie swelled heavy with their second child and sat watching him. Now he didn’t know whether it was hunger hurting his stomach or the ache for his wife that left him for a moment almost paralysed with pain. He breathed heavily. He fashioned the wire into a fish hook and then sat, thinking about line. He’d seen what the blacks did with reeds, grasses and hair. He looked at the fiddle strings.
He found himself talking to the seal when he put down the fiddle. His voice needed warming. Sometimes she stayed to listen and sometimes she surfed away mid sentence. A flippered thrust was the last he would see of her until he spoke again. His voice covered for the silence of other creatures. He did not mind if she went. She always came back. Then he told her stories that his mother brought from the home country, stories she carried with her as she carried linen and copper pans. He took the fiddle from its case. He ran his nose along the horse hair, rosin dusting his nostrils. He plucked an open A and listened to it reverberate.
I am a man upon the land
I am a selkie upon the sea
And when I’m far from every strand
My home is Sule Skerry.
She hurled herself out of the water in one jubilant twist, landing on her broad, silky back. “Now, Selkie,” he sighed and loosened the pegs of their strings. The instrument fell apart. The ornate bridge flopped uselessly against the body of the fiddle and he put the empty carcass back into its case. He tried to sing again, to keep her around but she tired of his lacerated voice and left.
As the sun tipped toward the mountain, he threaded wire and hook into the water near the channel and caught three skip jack on a gathering tide. She was nowhere to be seen but he knew she was watching. He wrapped the fish in paperbark and bound it with reeds, cooking it in the hot ashes of his fire. He peeled away the steaming bark that was soft as chamois and then the first sliver of silver skin. He eased a strip of white, juicy flesh between his lips.
He slept, warm and full by the fire, dreaming of the breathing inlet.
For two days in a row he fished at dawn and then made forays into the bush upstream. There lay strange little trails that he followed along the riverbank then out of the trees and into the open ridges that folded against the mountain. On the second day, in a secluded copse, he found the remains of a camp; sturdy beehive shaped huts lined with paperbark, each facing a cold fireplace. He wondered about these people and where they were, whether they watched him. They must like this place. He did. Sometimes the bush felt closed in, joined with these folk, muttering against him. He felt a desire to get out and head back down to the open water, where he could see everything. Never turn your back on the sea. He’d turned his back on the bush and he knew that was not wise either. Still, with food in his belly, he was an optimistic man again.
On the third day he woke to see the silky trails of smoke in the pale autumn sky. Fires burned at three points around him, one on the slopes of the mountain overlooking his hut. He waited.