Rhys Cranham looked aghast as he witnessed his apprentice of two weeks topple from the ruins of Chapel Rock. Young Gruffyd had been standing atop of the ruins when the wraith of Obadiah Hyde, the Mad Parson, had burst screaming from nowhere, causing the boy to lose his balance.
Rhys knew that there was nothing that he could do. It was a drop of a hundred feet, or more, to the sea, which boiled and frothed over hidden rocks. No one could survive a fall like that. The Night-Soil Man dropped to his knees and wept.
Rhys dreaded breaking the news to Miss Calder. She had brought Griff to his door and entrusted him with the boy’s life. He expected anger and disappointment from her; he found neither.
“It was not your fault,” said Miss Calder, laying a spectral hand on Rhys’ shoulder.
“I should have been there… I should not have left him,” said Rhys, bitterly.
The ghostly guardian of the orphanage sighed.
“Rhys…,” she said hesitantly, she rarely called him by his first name. “There’s something not right about any of this. It sounds a strange thing to say, but I don’t think that Gruffyd is dead.”
“No, you’re wrong. You’re just trying to make me feel better. That was too much of a fall.”
“I don’t know what has happened,” she said, “but believe me, I can sense the recently departed, and Gruffyd is not among them.”
Gruffyd Davies had been so shocked by the sudden and noisy manifestation of Obadiah Hyde that it had not crossed his mind that he was imminent danger of falling to his death. Only when he lurched backwards into thin air did the realisation dawn that all was not well. Then the breath was knocked out of him as he landed on something hard; this was not, as he expected, One-Hundred-Feet-On-To-Granite hard but something more organic, more muscular and worryingly suckered.
A tentacle, thicker by far than his own body, held him securely in its grip. This was followed by another that coiled in a serpentine fashion around him, pinning his arms and restricting all movement. He was beginning to wish that he had been dashed on the rocks; it would all have been over by now.
Little by little he was drawn into the bosom, or whatever bit it was, of the creature that held him; all arms, pale eyes and a massive beak. What was it? Then the cold North Atlantic swept over his head. He held his breath, trying to cling desperately on to life for a few more precious seconds. Griff’s fourteen years had been no one’s idea of a perfect childhood, but it had been good to be alive. Alive! It made him think of the song with that chorus ‘Alive, alive-o!’, which, in turn, reminded him of Drury, the skeletal dog. Good old Drury. He would be a good thought to die with. Griff smiled, and as he did, the breath he had been holding on to for so long left his body.
His Body? What was wrong with his body? How wasn’t he dead? Griff – he had liked the way the Night-Soil Man had abbreviated his name – felt himself move within the coils that held him. They were no less tight, but he had become slick and sinewy, fluid as the water itself. He knew that by writhing a little he could easily get free, but strangely, he had no desire to. The constriction had become a loving embrace.
A voice slipped quietly inside his head, an ancient voice, that thrilled him to his very core.
“The sea looks after its own, Gruffyd Davies.”
Then the coils slackened, and suddenly he was alone in the dark water.
For a moment Griff panicked, convinced that he would drown, or freeze to death. But then he realised that he wasn’t cold and his body felt strong and buoyant, and very, very different.
Somewhere close by Griff heard the cries of harbour seals, and something deep within him responded to their call. He called back, but his voice had now become a plaintive bark. The seals answered, as if they had been waiting for him. Dark heads came bobbing through the sea, in welcome. He was home.
There have long been tales of Selkies, seal-people, living around the coast of Maine. Some say that they arrived with the early European settlers. While many would dismiss these stories as no more than folklore, the inhabitants of the island of Hopeless know better. Skin-changers and shapeshifters are a fact of life for them; indeed, one of The Squid and Teapot’s best-loved and most famous barmaids was a Selkie, though few knew it. Like Griff, Betty Butterow grew up in the orphanage and was unaware of her heritage until she was in her teens. Unlike Griff, she stayed on Hopeless.
A year had passed since Griff had fallen from Chapel Rock. During that time Rhys Cranham had shown little desire to replace his apprentice, not trusting that he was capable of keeping anyone safe from harm. If it was possible for a Night-Soil man to become more introverted than his calling demands, then Rhys was that man.
Prior to Griff’s fall, the cottage at the foot of Chapel Rock was one of Rhys’ favourite stops. These days it was his most detested. He would service it with a heavy heart, and leave as quickly as possible, and this midsummer night was no different.
Lost in his thoughts, Rhys made his way down the stony pathway towards the cottage.
The surprise of hearing his name being called tore the Night-Soil Man from his reverie. Who could it be? No one was ever about on the island at this hour… and then he saw him.
The figure standing on the beach was naked, clutching a pelt that gleamed silver in the moonlight.
“Griff… is that you? Where have you been? Miss Calder said you were alive. How…?”
Rhys started to walk towards the boy, then stopped in his tracks.
“Sorry. I forgot about the smell.”
“That’s okay,” said Griff, “I’ll manage. That’s the least I owe you.”
Griff told his strange tale to the bemused Night-Soil Man, who sat in silence while the boy spoke. When Griff finished speaking, Rhys plucked up his courage and asked the question that was hanging in the air.
“So… will you be coming back? To Hopeless, I mean.”
“Not permanently,” said Griff, sadly. “I can’t, not as a human, anyway. Sorry Rhys.”
“I know,” said Rhys. “You’ve found your family. I’m glad for you.”
“I’ll be around, maybe I can turn up here occasionally. Keep an eye out for me.”
“I’ll put some clothes in an oilskin under a rock. You can’t sit here naked. It’s not proper.”
Rhys smiled at his old mentor.
“Thank you,” he said. “And put a clothes peg in as well, please.”