Northwords Now

New writing, fresh from Scotland and the wider North
Sgrìobhadh ùr à Alba agus an Àird a Tuath Twitter Facebook Search


by Rebecca Ferrier

The seal’s eyes are large and round and polished. I could live off eyes like that. Accept a pint and turn on the lamps, no charge, “Keep your change, Jim,” and I would. It’s a small creature, not fully grown, with downy marbling along its back. It bites, or tries to, fixing its teeth on my glove (I feel nothing).

It’s afraid. Of course it is.

You see a lot with large eyes. You see a lot to fear.

“It’s alright,” I tell it. “I’ll be quick.”

I do what I was sent here to do: unwind the ghost gear caught around the seal’s neck. It’s fishing line—it usually is—and I begin. One loop, two, I bind knuckles and loose the tie upon the mammal. Its wound is superficial and there’s no need to call the wildlife vet.

Good, I hate that woman. She gives me paperwork.

            When I say ghost gear, I mean any spent fishing equipment that’s been abandoned or lost or thrown overboard. It’s what we call it. All that junk is harmful to the marine ecosystem, though I s’pose it keeps me in a job.

Each morning begins with a sighting, reported to me. I go out, clean up and take back all I find. I used to haul it to the dump, until the local arts centre got involved. Now they use it - the ropes and buoys and fenders - to make crap. I went to an exhibition in Truro once and saw all the ghost gear arranged in abstract shapes. It’s art, apparently.

All I wanted to do was clean it up.

It stills, the seal, it stills beside me where I crouch on the beach. As if it knows, somehow, I’m trying to free it.

When animals have patience, they don’t feel like animals.

I think I feel like an animal sometimes, in the alone hours, when I’ve been too long with myself. I think the sea could drive a man mad, that churning, endless tidal whisper. And there are times I think it’s telling me something, the same way the seal’s eyes are telling me something.

As soon as the line is gone, the seal knows: feels it, leaves.

Slides into the water like soap running down a bathtub’s side.  

            The line that trapped the seal is long and reaches all the way into the ocean. I pull and do not find the end. How long into the Atlantic does it go? I could cut it, heave the remaining tangle onto my shoulder, take it back and call it a day.

I almost do, ‘til the line tugs back.

There must be another creature at the end. One who needs help.

I follow it.

In the distance, the sun’s belly sits on the horizon. It has been there a while now, low and heavy. I free the dingy from the harbour and follow the line round the cove. Row, tug, row, tug. The line spools in a translucent thread to halo round my ankles. It sticks close to the cliffs, this line, and leads me to a place I have never gone and yet have been to before. The two are confused in my head.

I didn’t even drink last night. I can’t remember last night.

There’s a seal following me—its eyes are following me—and if I look too long at them I’ll die. Don’t ask me how I know this, I can’t tell you.

Sea meets shingle and I haul the dingy up. It’s quiet. Only the tide—in—out—telling me: No one has been here in centuries. No one has ever been here.

Only, I know that’s not true: there are footprints.

I slot my wader’s boots into them. We are the same size, me and this other man. He must be here still, for the brine has yet to take his tracks.

            The line is growing heavy, wrapped around me, a fisherman’s cocoon.

When I look back to the sea, the dingy is missing. And there are seals, a hundred seals and all their fearful eyes, which tell me: I’ve gone and lost the dingy. It’s as good as ghost gear now. And I think I have done this before.

            Again, the sea whispers. It tells me to turn around. Find the line’s other end.

I do.

I am holding it: I was always holding it.

I see myself, washed pale.

When I raise a hand, this other me raises his. He is a mirror polished into slate and I am here, in the cove where I drowned after I sought to save a seal.

I have done this a hundred times.

The line—always this line—leads back to me.

Northwords Now acknowledges the vital support of Creative Scotland and Bòrd na Gàidhlig.
ISSN 1750-7928 - Print Design by Gustaf Eriksson - Website by Plexus Media