In the early hours of May 8th, 1884 the passenger ship ‘The City of Portland’, bound from Boston to St.John, New Brunswick, came to grief on North West Ledge, by Owl’s Head, off the coast of Maine. Happily, thanks to the cool-headedness of the captain and crew, there was no loss of life. In worsening weather conditions most of the passengers were safely ferried to the steamer, Rockland, but in the confusion the ship’s carpenter, Amos Gannicox, found himself adrift upon the open ocean, along with five very different companions. Sitting in the bows of the lifeboat was the recently ordained missionary, the Reverend Malachi Crackstone. Next to him was Tobias Thrupp, a solicitor’s clerk from England, a man given to long spells of moody silence, while huddled in the rear of the little craft were Jethro and Maybelle Bussage and their eight year old son, Elmer.
A small life-raft is not the most comfortable place in an angry sea. The six bedraggled survivors were relieved, therefore, when, through the mist, they spotted land. Although the dark rocks looked forbidding they were as welcome a sight as any golden beach or tropical paradise.
There had been little time to grab any personal belongings before ‘The City of Portland” capsized but Amos had managed to salvage his beloved tool chest. The assortment of saws, planes, chisels, files and numerous, esoteric-looking gadgets of the carpenter’s trade contained therein were his pride and joy. On reaching land, however, the chest became an encumbrance and it was only with the aid of the young parson was he able to carry it over the rocky terrain. The Bussage child, Elmer, walked with them while his parents and Thrupp went on ahead, scanning the horizon for any sign of human habitation.
It was not long before they came upon a small stone cottage. A girl, no more than two years old, was playing outside. As the party drew near, a pale, worried looking woman came out of the doorway and gathered the child up, into her arms.
“Amelia, you need to come in now… ,” she eyed the strangers warily.
“My dear madam, you have nothing to fear from us,” Reverend Crackstone’s tone was one of reassurance. “We are castaways, looking for shelter. We mean no harm.”
The woman was obviously agitated and reluctant to let them in but seeing that Crackstone was a man of the cloth, she felt somewhat happier and relented, all the time apologising for the poor state of her home.
The inside of the cottage was clean but in dire need of repair and sparsely furnished. The castaways, however, were only too glad to find somewhere dry and warm in which to rest. Amos found a pack of coffee that he had managed to rescue and soon the inviting aroma of strong coffee filled the air in the tiny room for the first time in many a long year.
The woman, who introduced herself as Harriet Butterow, told them of a nearby inn, The Squid and Teapot, which habitually welcomed strangers. It appeared that until such times as they could support themselves, the landlord, one Bartholomew Middlestreet, a kind and generous man, offered board and lodgings in exchange for any skills their customers might offer in return.
This was music to their ears and the little band wasted no time in making their way to the shelter of the curiously named Squid and Teapot and into the care of the kindly Mr Middlestreet.
A few days later Amos decided to pay a call on Harriet to thank her for her hospitality. He sensed that there was no Mr Butterow in evidence. The least he could do to repay the lady’s kindness would be to offer some help in repairing the cottage. It was an offer that Harriet was quick to agree to but if Amos had entertained any hopes of something of a more romantic relationship evolving from their arrangement, he was to be sadly disappointed.
Over the coming days Harriet unfolded her strange history to the ever-attentive carpenter.
Until five years ago she had been living with her maternal grandmother, Colleen O’Stoat, a fierce old lady with a dark reputation. When Colleen died there was no real funeral, for even her own family had disowned her. It had been Colleen’s wish that, upon her death, her body be put into a small open boat and given to the wild ocean. In the absence of other mourners, Rhys Cranham, the Night Soil Man, carried the corpse to the shore and gently laid the old lady to rest in a rickety and somewhat decrepit rowing boat that had been lying, half submerged for years, in the inky waters that filled the inlet beneath Tragedy Ridge. This is how, early on one spring morning, Harriet was left to cast her grandmother out to sea, back towards the land of her birth.
Despite its apparent unseaworthiness, the tiny craft was borne easily upon the waves, drifting eastwards, unharmed, until it became but a speck upon the pale sun that was beginning to rise out of the ocean. As a tearful Harriet turned to leave, a movement in the nearby rocks made her freeze in her tracks. She held her breath; strange and perilous terrors were known to inhabit these waters.
Of all the creatures that might emerge from the waves, the last thing Harriet expected to see was a man. This particular specimen, though lean and muscular, looked totally exhausted. He was also completely naked. Harriet blushed and lowered her eyes to the ground. The naked newcomer staggered unsteadily towards her, arms outstretched, then, with a groan collapsed at her feet.
Putting her embarrassment to one side, the young woman persuaded the stranger to get up and with a great effort of will from both of them, managed to stagger back to her cottage.
With rest and recuperation, plus some dutiful nursing from Harriet Butterow, the man from the sea soon recovered. His modesty was not fully retrieved, however, until the landlord of The Squid and Teapot kindly contributed some odds and ends of clothing and a fine pair of boots.
Within a very short space the two inevitably, became lovers. Strangely, in all their time together, he uttered not a single word. She never learned his name or heard him speak her own. That was her great sorrow.
For two years they lived this way. Sometimes he would disappear for days, only to return home laden down with mussels and lobsters and enough fish to feed them for a week. Their life together was simple and contented, though Harriet, in the back of her mind, was only too aware that this happiness would soon end.
In the winter of 1881 there was a great storm that blasted the island for days. As it raged, the man from the sea seemed to become more restless, like the ocean itself. He would sit upon the rocks, seemingly unaffected by the the howling winds and lashing rain, and gaze, with melancholic eyes, out into the tempest. Harriet knew that she was losing him and felt helpless to stop it.
A few nights after the storm had passed Harriet was awoken by an eerie, almost unearthly sound. Recognising the cries as being the call of harbor seals, she lay in the darkness, a sense of dread clutching at her heart. She could tell by his breathing that her lover was awake too. His body was as tense as a coiled spring. The mournful barking of the seals filled the air again, plaintive and urgent. With tears in her eyes, Harriet felt him arise from their bed. Moonlight poured through the open door of the cottage as he slipped silently out of her life and into the night.
Quickly throwing on some clothing Harriet followed from a distance, stumbling over the uneven ground.
He seemed to have no idea she was there and continued, like one in a trance, towards the shoreline, his naked flesh ivory in the moonlight. Without looking back he paused by the edge of the ocean and searching among the rocks, retrieved a package which he carefully unfurled and slung over his shoulders. Only then did he turn; he must have seen her for he faltered, as if his intention was to go back. Suddenly, the siren-song of the harbor seals rent the air once more and the spell was broken. The last Harriet saw of her silent lover was a flash of white as he dived beneath the waves. A second or two later the unmistakable head of a seal bobbed to the surface, stopped for an instant to look at her, then disappeared forever.
“It wasn’t until then did I know what he truly was, Mr Gannicox,” said Harriet. “Granny O’Stoat had told me tales of the seal people but I never really believed her. But I do now. He was a Selkie, to be sure.”
Amos said nothing. It sounded all very improbable. After all was said and done, they were within sight of a new century, a modern age where such fairy-tales had little place. The woman was obviously deranged. That was still no reason for her lover to desert her, he reflected.
“It was only after he left I found I was pregnant,” Harriet confided, unaware of the carpenter’s scepticism. “Do you think Amelia is similarly cursed? When she’s older I’ll forbid her to go anywhere near the ocean. It scares me, sir. I’m terrified she’ll go and never come back”
Amos made some soothing comments and wondered why a grown woman should believe in such things.
Night was falling as he made his way back to the Squid and Teapot. Somewhere, far away in the vast Atlantic ocean, a seal called to its mate.
Amos smiled to himself.