Short story IX

An uncustomary calm lay over the islands. Like smoke trailing from a chimney stack, clouds lay over the tops of the hills. Presently, they sank down to sealevel, shrouding all from view. Nothing stirred. The steady beat of a ship's engine pulsated through the murk, its crew monitoring echoes on the radar screen. Even the swell was absent, as the vessel carved a wake across the sea. Visibility was down to only a few dozen yards, fog being so dense that the bow of the ship was barely visible from the bridge. The VHF crackled into life and the accented voice of a local fisherman echoed amidst the static, asking about conditions in the North Minch - but all the responses were: dense fog.

The small boat slowly made its way east under the lee of the island. Visibility was poor, and only the lower parts of the hills could be made out under the pall of low cloud. And it wasn't long before the cloud sank right down to sealevel. No swell came round to rock the craft, and what wind there had been to fill its sail soon vanished. Becalmed, the boatman pulled the cord to start his outboard engine. But that elicited no response. Muttering under his breath, he pulled out his mobile phone, which showed a black screen. He had forgotten to charge it up before going to sea. Cursing his luck, the man put his mobile back in his pocket, gave one half-hearted yank on the starting cord of the outboard (no result), then stood momentarily, as if to consider his options. He presently shrugged and cast out a line with hooks. Might as well take advantage of the opportunity to get some mackerel. A little while later, a noise caught his attention. The persistent throb of a ship's engine. As the minutes ticked by, the sound grew louder, but was always coming from the same direction. The ship was headed straight for his position.

The passengers on the ferry were dozing on the couches in the observation lounge. Some were staring out of the windows, which only showed the whiteness of fog. Even the small flag on the bow of the ship was barely visible. It wasn't busy, and there was only a low murmur of people talking here and there, with the sounds of the cafetaria in the background. Still about half an hour to go till Stornoway. The crossing was as smooth as glass, with no swell worthy of the mention. Although Point should have been visible to starboard, and the Lochs coast to port, both were hidden from view. Only the flag fluttered on the bow. Suddenly, a small boat loomed up out of the fog, a few yards ahead of the ferry. Passengers jumped to the windows in horror as the mast keeled over and the craft was run down under the bow of the ship.

The sound of the engine grew steadily and presently, the sound of a bow wave mingling in. Without any means of getting out of the way, other than that pair of oars, the man was getting increasingly concerned. Worried. Desperate. Panicking. A few moments later, a huge wall of steel loomed up out of the fog and slammed into the small craft. The mast collapsed and struck the hapless sailor a glancing blow across the head. He was thrown into the water, and disappeared under the surface. The cold enveloped him, the darkness followed quickly.

He resurfaced a few moments later - or so it appeared. The fog had disappeared, as had the ship that had run him over. A pale sun hung low in the sky, with mild breezes wafting off the land ahead. The water was not as cold as he had expected it to be. A broad strand of yellow sand stretched ahead of him, with distant mountains appearing to float in the distance above. After a few minutes of swimming , his feet touched the bottom, and he was able to walk through the surf and onto the land. There was but one problem. No sandy beaches of the extent that presented itself in front of the fisherman existed in his home island, or at least not in the vicinity of where his boat had gone down. But it was not a problem for him. He was not aware of that.

Passengers ran onto the outside deck of the ferry, and stared at the wreckage that floated past. “We have run down a boat”, the word was going round. Crew members were hurriedly lowering the fast rescue boat to search for any survivors. However, it had taken a while for the ferry to come to a halt, and the broken remains of the boat had become obscured by the fog. “That fog”, someone added with an expletive. “They won’t be able to send for the chopper now.” A passing crew member overheard the comment and replied that the lifeboat was now en route from Stornoway, and would be there within twenty minutes.

Slowly, the fisherman made his way up through the surf, on his knees, finally standing fully upright. The sun stood high above the beach, and the warm breeze wafted into his face. A line of dunes, crowned with waving grasses, closed the view of the land beyond. Seabirds wheeled overhead, crying mournfully. The beach seemed to stretch interminably in either direction. A group of people made their way down from the top of the dunes and onto the beach. The surf continued its intermittent yet endless song in the background. Yet, the fisherman did not pay much attention to his surroundings. It was the people that were now approaching him. The faces were all familiar, or had been familiar to him. Yet it did not appear odd to the sailor to see them again. He had had to say farewell to them all at differing stages in his life. "We heard you were coming", his father said. "But we weren't expecting you just now."

The black bulk of the ferry rose up from the sea, its superstructure virtually invisible from the surface. Fog continued to wreathe the area of the incident, but the wreckage floated near the ship. A bright orange shape presently materialised from the west, the RNLI lifeboat. They conducted a search of the broken boat, which had almost been snapped in two by the collision. However, its crew was nowhere to be seen. The question whether the boat had adrift empty was quickly answered in the negative when a line with mackerel was discovered as well as a mobile phone in the bottom of the craft. It would not switch on. "I think I know this boat", one of the lifeboatmen said to his coxswain. "And I was talking to him just last night. Said he was going out this morning. Told him that fog was in the offing, but that wouldn't bother him." The coxswain gloomily acknowledged the information, then went on the VHF to thank the ferry for standing by, and to inform the Coastguard of the state of affairs. No, a helicopter was not going to be useful, it was a complete peasouper.

From the right, a shape emerged from the waves crashing ashore. It looked like a woman, but her nakedness elicited no response in the sailor. For where her abdomen would be joined to her legs, her skin became scaly and her legs were in fact a fish's tail. Through some incomprehensible mechanism, she moved across the strand, converging with the man and the people who had crossed over the dunes. "Son," his father said, "it is not yet time. But we can only let you go back on one condition". The sailor looked at the other figures that stood behind his father, actually surrounded by a haze of indistinction. His grandparents were there as well, but those standing further back were beyond his recognition. His father spoke again, but without offering any explanation. "It has been put to us that you should be taken earlier than the appointed time. I have pledged that you are worthy of your allotted time. You must honour my pledge. Do you understand?" The fisherman could not speak, but a movement from the woman to his right appeared to cause the sky to darken behind the group. "For if you don't, we shall all be dishonoured, and your time will end in agony and despair. If you do, you may even be allotted a longer spell. It all depends on your actions." His father turned to the woman. "Take him back. I know he understands." The mermaid smiled at the sailor and took him by the hand. The figures in front of him faded as they retreated across the dunes. The sea behind him rose up as he was taken back, the mermaid taking his hand in an iron grasp. The water washed around his feet, quickly rising up as the mermaid dived into the increasingly icy waves. Darkness enveloped him once more...

The sound of the surf, booming on to the long beach faded, then strengthened into a confused babble of waves and breaking crests. Shouting voices and the movement of boats around, the resumption of life. The man felt himself being hauled out of the water and onto the deck of a boat. It was bright orange, and his brain managed to register that it could only be the RNLI lifeboat. He turned over to empty his stomach of seawater, and as he did so, he thought he could see a movement in the water beside the lifeboat. There were dolphins around in the Minch, but he somehow knew that this was not one of those. Neither was he certain of the female contours that quickly disappeared into the depths.

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