Johannes stretched out his legs and breathed in the warm sea air which mingled with the smell of freshly-landed fish and diesel. He smiled to himself. This is the life, he thought, far away from all his cares and responsibilities. It had been a stroke of luck that Robert, his brother, who had landed a two month contract working up-country, had asked him if he would like to come and mind his little house on the coast while he was away. Robert, a long-time widower, lived alone now that his family had grown up and moved to Cape Town, and he didn’t want to leave his house unoccupied. People were for the most part honest, but with such high unemployment and poverty, no-one’s property was safe for long.
Johannes had his own problems back home. Much as he loved his extended family, it was all becoming too much. What with his own grown up children, their children and assorted aunties, nephews and nieces who were constantly calling upon him for help, he’d really had enough. It wasn’t as if they couldn’t manage without him. It would be good for them, especially his four sons, to stand on their own two feet for a change. He’d even gone to the extent of switching his cell phone off.
He cast his eyes over the small harbour, looking out for Sam in his little fishing boat, Porcupine, which he’d helped him repair over a week or two when he first arrived. Johannes liked to keep busy, and was pleased to be able to use the skills he’d gained during his fifteen years at sea. But there was no sign of Sam or little Porcupine. Perhaps they’d gone further up the coast for a while. There were other harbours on the West Coast where Sam might turn a better profit for his catch.
Johannes chuckled to himself and closed his eyes, remembering the past. He’d run away to sea with his friend when they were just twelve years old. Carrying a little bag of warm clothes, he’d snuck out of his mother’s shack while she was sleeping and met his older sister up by the highway. She had a job in a bar next to Cape Town harbour, and she knew an officer on one of the deep sea fishing boats who would help them once they were on board. Johannes recalled standing in the almost pitch black on the quayside, his body swaying, thinking it was the ground under him which was moving, when in fact it was the looming steel hull of the ship in front of him. And oh, they had been so sick once the ship was underway…
Shouts and running feet jolted Johannes back to the present. The harbour master, jamming his peaked cap on his head, rushed past Johannes towards the southern end of the harbour where a small group of people had gathered. Johannes stood up and shook himself, then hurried after the harbour master to join the gathering crowd, jumping up onto the harbour wall to get a better view of what had caught their interest.
A tall, slender woman in long skirts was standing on the edge of the headland across the estuary. Her arms were held out in a welcoming gesture as dozens of whales were breaking the surface of the waves before her. She lifted her head skywards, spreading her arms out widely, in a pose which reminded Johannes of the statue of he’d so admired long ago in Rio de Janeiro.
The woman opened her mouth and a loud, ululating song resonated across the ocean. Suddenly the whales took to the air; wave upon wave of them. Johannes blinked and shook his head. What was going on? The woman’s song grew louder. The whales were flying! Johannes pinched himself.
The sky darkened, filled with the huge creatures. Then the song stopped.
A close up of the woman’s face appeared before Johannes’s eyes. She smiled, revealing a row of pointed teeth. A selkie! He’d seen one before when his ship had been in far northern waters. Johannes felt the harbour wall ripple beneath his feet.
Her face disappeared and back on the headland he watched her dive into the ocean. Her silver seal tail flapped once above the waves, and then she was gone.
Johannes looked around. He was alone on the harbour wall. Behind him, people were going about their business as usual. He sat down and rubbed his eyes. The headland was deserted. Far out in the ocean he saw a solitary whale breaching.
©2019 Chris Hall
This little story was inspired partly by many conversations I’ve had over the years with my friend Johannes, and partly by the photo of the artwork above posted earlier this week by Jason H Abbott, the Aetheral Engineer. It also links another story of mine from a couple of weeks ago. I hope you enjoy!