The sun began to melt into the ocean and the sand on the beach slowly changed colour from pale gold to a washed-out pink, as if it were soaking up blood. The weathered dune grass swayed in the swells of wind that blew in from the cold Atlantic and rustled constantly, sounding out a symphony of wildness. Coll watched from the window of the cabin and felt the stirring of something deep within him. It didn’t show physically. He didn’t smile or relax his shoulders. He simply let out a long-harboured sigh that echoed the sadness that enveloped him. He had come here looking for hope, but now, as the light slowly died, it seemed intangible and gone from him.
Coll had holidayed on the Isle of Mull as a boy. In his youth he had fallen in love with the magical scenery, the wildlife and the people of the island. Now, he had returned to it, the last glimmer of love in his life. He had sought it out as a refuge, daring to hope he could feel love again, even if it was for a place rather than a person. The small rundown croft he had acquired sat on the cliffs above Calgary bay, two miles from the small village of the same name. An overgrown coastal path led up to the croft, where it split into a fork down onto the beach. It was as remote and as westerly as it was possible to be on Mull. Even the islanders referred to it as the wilderness.
He had taken a tiny salary to watch over the rare salt meadows that lay behind the dunes of the beach. He hadn’t been able to put a word to a page for over a year and he knew his readers, not to mention his publishers, were growing anxious. They would have to wait. As he watched the final glimmer of light retreat beyond the horizon, he gave up on the idea of writing again and settled for the pleasure of reading the words of others. Reading had become his second refuge. As he buried himself in the worlds he encountered within the pages, the hurts of his own were numbed. Tonight, he sat with his favourite, White Fang by Jack London. The light blue cloth of the first edition glinted in the first silvery rays of the newly-emerged moon as he settled down on the leather chair, its weathered golden hide and softened, torn arms taking him in as if an old friend. He brought the paraffin lamp closer to the chair and turned slightly towards the wood burning stove, where two logs crackled together as the room grew dark. He looked out through the window across the bay. The light of a ship far out to sea flickered in the distance. As he lowered his eyes to the first page, the howl of the winter wind helped transport him to the Alaskan wilderness of London’s story.
Many hours later, he turned the last page over and set the book down on the table next to the lamp. The table was a beautiful old cast iron sewing table with a wooden top. The table, the chair and the oak framed bed in one corner represented the sum total of the furniture in the croft. The stove sat inside a wide and tall chimney breast, above which hung a collection of heavy iron pans. The stove not only served as the heat source for the croft, but also fed into the hot water system, and for that modern touch, Coll was grateful. The claw-footed bath that sat in the only other room of the croft, along with a basin and plumbed in toilet, were necessary luxuries. The croft also had electricity, but he had yet to buy light bulbs or lights for that matter. The main town on Mull, Tobermory, had an ironmongers and general shop that he planned to visit in the morning. It would be his first venture out since his arrival two days ago and he needed fresh supplies to start the work on the croft. He would also stock up on food whilst he was there. He padded across the stone clad floor and sat down on the bed, stripping socks and shoes and snuggling into the blankets in the remainder of his clothes. He waited for the lamp to burn itself out as he fixed his gaze on the ceiling above him, listening to the night and waiting for morning to come.
He slept as he had come to do so in the past year, a little at a time as exhaustion took him. At first he thought the mournful cry he heard was in his dreams, but as he watched the ceiling come back into focus, he realised that the sound rose up from the beach below the croft. As he lay there, he tried to place the sound. He first considered it to be the moaning of a whale out to sea, but as he awakened further, he realised the sound was close by. It eventually came to him what it was. Somewhere on the beach, a seal was crying. As the voice rose up over the wind that rattled the windows and the rain that spat against the glass, Lucas became agitated. He sat up on the bed, looking out towards the beach, where he could make out the white of the surf. The cry came again and he could not help but feel the sorrow it spoke of in his heart. The sadness it invoked gripped him, as if threatening the fragile peace he clung to in the croft. He knew then that he would have to go to it. He stuffed his sockless feet into his shoes and picked his coat up off the peg on the door. He bent down to his duffle bag and grabbed his torch before opening the door and stepping out into the night.
The cry stopped as soon as he stepped outside and as it did, the storm ebbed and moonlight broke from behind the clouds. The sand sparkled in the light as Lucas walked down the path to the beach. As he neared the first dunes the crying started again, more insistently than before and he began to sweep the dunes with his torchlight. Each step took him closer until he noticed a dark form lying between two dunes a little way up the beach. As he approached, the crying became almost riotous then suddenly, it stopped. He then heard great sniffs coming from the animal. He took another step and as he did so, the sniffs became quieter. They seemed almost humanlike to him, as if a woman were trying not to cry. As he rounded the next dune his torch beam fell upon two large and magnificent eyes peering up at him from a pale, mottled, dog-like face. It was a female grey seal and it did indeed seem that she had been crying, as great watery tears ran down her cheeks. She made no sound as Lucas approached, but watched him intently. When he was a few feet away, he saw the cause of her torment. A strange harpoon-shaped hook had imbedded itself in one of her hind limbs and had dragged with it a tangle of netting that had wrapped itself around her hind quarters, making it very difficult for her to swim. Lucas imagined her struggling onto the beach from sheer exhaustion and he pitied the animal. He knelt down and considered how he could free her.
The seal was about five and a half feet long and he was familiar enough with them to know that they had impressive teeth and strength. He didn’t want to approach the seal as he feared she would attack him, but as he looked into the eyes of the animal he felt even more urged to help it. The dark, moist eyes looked back into his and for a moment he thought he recognised something of a pleading look. As if to press this, the seal whined weakly and let its head fall to the sand. Lucas sighed. Then he spoke to her in a gentle voice.
“It’s okay girl. I promise I won’t hurt you. I’m going to help you if you’ll let me. And I’d really appreciate it if you didn’t bite me”.
Staying crouched, he crept around the seal to her tail end, where the hook and net were. The seal raised her head and twisted round to look at him. Lucas could see that the hook had gone right through and was caught by its barb on the other side of the seal’s hind flipper. He looked back at the seal, knowing what he had to do and how she would probably react. His eyes met hers again and he spoke in the same gentle tone.
“I’m going to break the barb so I can pull the hook out. You’re not going to like it, but I don’t know what else to do”.
The seal whined again but didn’t look away. Lucas bent down and took the barb in his hand. He noticed it was made from some kind of bone, and where he had first thought that it had become entangled in the net, he now saw that it was attached to it. The net itself was strange too and felt like tough, dry seaweed. As he pulled it up and away from the flesh, the seal yelped and snapped round. She moved too quickly for him and before Lucas could let go and move back, her jaws clamped round his wrist. Lucas had closed his eyes, not wanting to see his hand mauled, but although he felt the pressure on his wrist, he felt no further pain. Slowly, he opened his eyes.
Once more, he was met with the beautiful unblinking eyes of the seal. She held his wrist tight within her jaws but she had not broken the skin. As he knelt beside her, his body touching her own and their gaze unbroken, he seemed to realise her meaning.
“You’re not taking any chances are you? If I hurt you, you’ll hurt me?”
There seemed to be a flicker in the seals eyes. For a second he felt as if she had smiled at him. Lucas slowly and deliberately took the barb in his free hand and brought the point up and gripped it between the thumb and forefinger of the hand that rested within the seals jaws. With one quick movement he snapped it in half and threw the barbed end away. He then pulled at the rod of bone that was left with his free hand, sliding it back through the flesh until it fell out on the other side. The seal whimpered once as he did this and exerted a little more pressure on his wrist as if in reflex, but still did not break the skin. As Lucas pulled the netting away from her flank, he did not break his gaze with the seal. As soon as she was free, she released his wrist and reared up on her stomach. Again, their eyes met and Lucas took an involuntary breath as he revelled in her expressive eyes. She dropped her face close to his and let out a gentle salty breath from her nostrils, so close that he felt the warm air on his own. Then she fell to the sand again and lumbered awkwardly back towards the sea. She slid effortlessly into the water and disappeared beneath the inky surface. Lucas stood up and watched her head reappear a little further out. Her moist eyes met his, and this time he was sure he saw the warm joy of a smile in them. He didn’t know why, but he held up his hand as if to wave at the seal as he walked back up the path. As his head hit the pillow for the second time that night, he drifted off into deep and comfortable sleep for the first time in months.