The end of an era

Joseph was tired. For the last twelve months he had been to-ing and fro-ing to the Passamaquoddy reservation, bringing in supplies purchased by the ex- Night Soil Man, Randall Middlestreet. These trips had taken their toll on him.

“You’re not a youngster any more,” Betty had scolded.

“It’s high time you moored that old canoe for good.”

It was true. Joseph was over seventy and had paddled across the treacherous channel more times than he cared to remember.

“You’re right,” he conceded, wearily.

“One more trip to say goodbye to everyone and then I’ll retire. It’s sad, though. My family has been alone in regularly trading with this island for generations – even before the founding families reached here. It will be the end of an era.”

Betty knew that Joseph wished he had a son to carry on the tradition. They had not been blessed with children. She smiled to herself ruefully and reflected that this was not for the want of trying.

“Okay. Just one more trip and then you finish,” she said, in a voice that would brook no opposition.

 

Although, in the past year, Hopeless had acquired enough Indian-made goods to last an eternity, Randall had asked that Joseph bring more over. It was his altruistic way of transferring his new-found and unexpected wealth, inherited from his mother, into the economy of the impoverished reservation.

Jingling with the money Randall had given him, Joseph kissed his wife goodbye and set off on his farewell trip with mixed feelings. It would be hard to say goodbye to his old friends on the mainland and give up his lifelong trade. On the other hand, the prospect of never again having to negotiate the hazards and eternal fog that beset the treacherous channel was appealing.

 

His days on the reservation went very much as expected. There were hand-shakes, back-slaps and manly hugs a-plenty, shared between Joseph and his friends and relations. At last the appointed day arrived for him to leave the mainland for the very last time and return to the cabin that he and Betty shared on Hopeless.

 

The morning was grey and dismal and a harsh north-east wind was freshening by the hour. These were not ideal conditions to cross the channel but there was every indication that this weather was hunkering down for the duration.  If he left his departure any later Joseph feared that he could be stuck here for another week and Betty would be frantic with worry. Throwing caution to the wind – quite literally on this occasion – and, with his last ever cargo lashed securely down, Joseph paddled into the foggy channel.

 

Betty Butterow looked at the worsening weather with a troubled eye. While she had every faith in Joseph’s abilities, it would need more than his considerable skills to ensure his safe arrival home. Maybe she could help. She made her way to the rocky shore where, years before, she had first learned of her true identity, that she was a seal-woman, one of the legendary selkie people.

Hidden in a cleft in the rocks was her seal-pelt. Betty could not remember the last time she had donned it. She had heard tales of seal-women who had gradually become less human with every transformation. That is why she was loathe to shape-shift too often. It always worried her that one day she would be unable to change back.

Stripping off her clothing, Betty resolved there and then to go as a seal and look for Joseph, to bring him home safely, whatever the consequences. If, as she feared, Joseph was dead, then there would be nothing to return to. No reason to be Betty Butterow any longer. She would become a seal forever and little by little, all recollections of her human life would be no more than a distant dream.

 

The selkie scoured the treacherous channel for hours. There was no sign of Joseph. She had twice circled the island, desperately hoping that he had moored somewhere other than his usual spot but to no avail. Then she spotted something floating close to the shore. It looked like a canoe. Full of hope, she raced towards it.  “Please, let him be alive… please, please…” she prayed; prayed to who or whatever might be there to listen. Then an icy hand gripped her heart; it was indeed Joseph’s canoe, but smashed and ruined. There was no sign of Joseph.

 

The island echoed with the mournful wail of the seal-woman. She raised her dark head above the churning waves and threw her anguished soul upon the wind.

Then, her heart breaking, she flipped over, dived through the icy water and turned her back upon the foggy shores of Hopeless, Maine.

 

In her haste to leave she had not seen the figure of a man on the shore. Dazed and confused, he rose groggily to his feet, her bellow of grief having dragged him from the murky shadowlands of unconsciousness. Joseph looked helplessly across the foggy channel, somehow knowing that the unearthly cry that had woken him and shattered the peace of the day had been that of his beloved Betty. Tears rolled down his cheeks as he watched the dark, sinuous shape of a harbor seal disappear into the foggy distance.

 

The ocean boiled and churned. Startled, the selkie came to a halt as the huge bulk of the Kraken erupted through the water and caught her in its deep and unswerving gaze.

It spoke, not in words but in thoughts that echoed in her head with a voice as deep and sonorous as the ocean itself. It was a voice that she had heard before, many years ago.

“Go back, selkie. It is not quite time yet. Not yours, nor his. Go back. He is safe. As I have said, Betty Butterow, the sea looks after her own.”

With that she felt a suckered arm entwined around her sleek body. The kraken gently hoisted her high into the misty air, above the angry waves and jagged stone teeth that have brought many a ship to its doom around the coast of Hopeless. The creature lifted her trembling body to the rocks where Joseph stood weeping.

With her heart-beating fit to burst, Betty sloughed off the seal-skin, her body shaking with a mixture of cold and emotion. With an effort she rose to her feet and stood, shivering and naked in Joseph’s embrace. Every minute of every day would now would be precious. Betty could feel the tears running down her husband’s face as he laid a soft kiss upon her lips.

“Let’s go home,” she whispered.

Art by Tom Brown

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