This story was triggered by something I read during the coverage of the tragedy of the downed Russian submarine ‘Kursk’ in the Barents Sea in 2000. It was noted that there had been other such incidents during Soviet times, and that the few submariners who had survived accidents of this sort reported feeling that when they were going up through the escape hatch through the layers of water above, they were entering a different world, out of time..
It is also very much inspired by traditional stories of selkies, which have fascinated me ever since I was a child.
Originally published in ‘The Mutant Files’ anthology(USA) in 2001, it was also republished in my collection, The Great Deep and Other Tales of the Uncanny. I hope you enjoy it–and a very happy and peaceful festive season to one and all!
The Great Deep
by Sophie Masson.
Full fathom five thy father lies;
Of his bones are coral made;
Those are pearls that were his eyes;
Nothing of him that does fade
But doth suffer a sea-change
Into something rich and strange.
(from The Tempest, by William Shakespeare)
If it had not been for his son Henry’s broken heart, the Reverend Doctor William Featherstone would never have been on the remote little Welsh beach on that bright, fateful summer morning in the year 1712. If poor naive Henry had understood the nature of the light-footed, light-headed Imogen he had set his heart and soul on, Dr Featherstone would have been comfortably ensconced that day in his lodgings in Oxford, working busily on the notes for the latest chapter of his vast compendium of natural and unnatural history.
Now, a broken heart, despite the sufferer’s perception of it, is not usually fatal. But in Henry’s case, it very nearly was. The night after Imogen had laughed his love to scorn, Henry’s manservant Roley had found his young master insensible in his room, having taken what he presumed to be a lethal dose of laudananum—which fortunately it had not been, only enough to make him very ill indeed.
Henry had shown little gratitude at being pushed back into the world. ‘Why didn’t you leave me to die?’ he had cried out to his father from his sickbed.
‘You could hardly expect me to do that,’ pointed out his father, reasonably. ‘You are my only child, after all.’
Henry sighed bitterly.’Nothing in life has any savour any more, for Imogen will never love me; worse, she despises me.’
‘Why then, return the compliment, with interest,’ said Dr Featherstone, briskly.
‘Oh, father, how can you speak thus! But then, you don’t understand about love, at your age,’ said his son, closing his eyes .
Foolish, commonplace words: but they had stung Dr Featherstone deep inside a place he had thought carapaced long ago. He looked at his son’s face—the skin very pale, the dark, soft, cropped hair, the long, dark eyelashes curving on the hollow cheeks—and for one terrible moment, saw the face of his beloved wife Cristin, Henry’s mother, lying there in her last illness. ‘Water on the lungs,’ some quack doctor had called the strange illness that had made her waste away so quickly. He had not thought of her for years; had blocked her picture away from his mind. But now he spoke quickly, sharply, words he had not thought through, that he had no idea had been in his mind at all.
‘As soon as you are quite well, we will leave for Wales,’ he had said to Henry, making the young man’s eyes fly open again, and dispelling the grievous illusion, for Henry’s eyes were blue as Cristin’s had been dark brown and combative as hers had been gentle.
‘Wales! Why, Father…’ Henry stopped, confusedly. Perhaps he regretted the words he’d uttered; or perhaps he merely thought his father was acting as fathers do, according to their sons: in the way of another alien kind, another, mutant race.
‘I intended to go there this summer, in any case,’ said Dr Featherstone, in a willed return of his earlier briskness. ‘And now is as good a time as any. ‘
‘We will stay at the Red House, like in the old days?’ Henry’s sudden smile was as sweet as Cristin’s had been, and Dr Featherstone’s heart turned over most painfully.
‘Of course..’ Fussily, to hide his feelings, he went on, ‘And I hope that Mistress Llewellyn will have aired it well this spring, or we may look forward to some rather damp evenings.’
‘I am sure she will have done,’ said his son, listlessly, closing his eyes again; and Dr Featherstone saw that though Henry had him fixed again as an old fusspot, at least now the danger—to both of them–was past. Henry had not forgotten Imogen, of course; but he had something to look forward to, again. The Welsh coast; the Red House; and the smells and sights and sounds of a happy childhood. The young can easily start again, thought Dr Featherstone, rather bitterly, as he tiptoed out from the sick-room, leaving the rest of Henry’s recovery in Roley’s capable hands. Not so easy for us older folks, who must forget, for sheer survival’s sake, what it was really like to live for love.
And so it was that both Featherstones, senior and junior, found themselves back in the cliff-top Red House, on the remote south-west coast of Wales, facing the Irish Sea. The house had reputedly been built some two hundred and fifty years previously by Cristin’s legendary ancestor, Morgan Meredith. Sealmen and women, strange and wondrous mutants of the deep, were not unknown on that coast of marvels, and all who knew Morgan had no doubt he was one of them. As a baby, he had been recovered from the sea by the fisherman who became his adoptive father. More, he swam just like a sea-creature, and was always to be found in or near that element.
When he reached manhood, Morgan had taken employ in the King’s navy; and the stories of his bold exploits at sea came home to his own place, and filled the people there with pride. When he returned home, he took a bride from amongst the villagers, and built the Red House on the cliff overlooking the great green deep. None knew exactly when he had died; for one day, in old age, he had simply disappeared, never to be seen again. It was said by all that he had returned to the sea whence he had come.
Despite—or perhaps because of—the strange stories about their legendary ancestor, the Merediths were well-liked and respected in the area. Cristin, last of the Meredith line, had been loved too, and her English husband accepted, for her sake at first; and later for his own.
The Red House, Morgan’s creation, was set at a considerable distance from the village. In structure, it was similar to many of the larger cottages in the area. But instead of being washed with the usual caustic white paste, it had been painted bright red, and the red silk banner of the Meredith family flew proudly from its roof ridge. Red was a most auspicious colour in Wales; it protected a house and its inhabitants from demons and evil spirits and any other ill-intentioned supernatural things that should come nosing at the corners of the mortal world. Red contrasted too with the dominant green of the world around the house: the green of the hissing, whispering sea, deep-coloured and clear as ancient Roman glass, and the wild-scented dark green of the heather, splashed with white and pink and yellow flowers, that surrounded the house like a secondary tide.
Though most years the winds howled and wailed around the Welsh cliffs, that year, by a most fortunate chance, their fury was stilled. Such a beautiful summer, it was said, had not been seen since the Red House itself was built. Henry spent his days rediscovering the little beaches and coves and secret caves that honeycombed the cliffs, whilst Dr Featherstone either worked on his book, or discussed the world’s affairs with his good friend in the village, Cristin’s cousin Dafydd ap Rhys, who had once travelled all over Europe in his capacity as surgeon-infirmer in the Army.
As a man of both science and religion, whose double degree had been in divinity and natural history, Dr Featherstone had a great deal of interest in the places, such as this one, where the physical and the metaphysical met. He did not, of course, believe literally in stories such as that of Morgan Meredith’s origin, but wanted to express the poetry of them nevertheless. So far the fullness of what he sought had eluded him. But he was content enough for the moment with writing copious notes, and puzzling over ideas, and revelling in nature.
And if the kindly ghost of Cristin and the petulant shade of Imogen stalked with the Featherstones at times that summer, they did not allow themselves to be unduly troubled. For Cristin walked often enough with her husband, whilst in Henry’s heart Imogen’s memory was being steadily bleached away by the summer days, and the ghost of her voice blown away by the sound of Welsh laughter. All about them seemed stilled, peaceful, timeless in harmony.
It was on one of those bright, peaceful days that the sealmen came. They came unannounced and unexpected, breaking out of the calm water of the rocky little cove below the Red House, where Dr Featherstone had been spending a happy morning exploring rock pools. That was the first thing that was extraordinary about the whole event: there had been no change in the day’s placid tempo, no strange lights, no trumpet of judgement, nothing to warn an unwary world—or at least, as the world was represented by that solitary gentleman, the Reverend Doctor William Featherstone. No; one minute the sea was empty, innocent of anything other than heaving waves, and the next, two black dots had broken the cold green surface and come gasping up into what for them must have been a brave new world.
At first, because of their sleek, shiny dark skin, Dr Featherstone thought they were indeed common seals. An interesting enough sight, to be sure, and Dr Featherstone watched them happily for a moment or two, until it became quite clear that they were unlike any seals he had ever heard of, for one of them was shouting to the other as they bobbed about. The words were carried loudly, but totally unintelligibly, over the water. It was not English, or Welsh, or French, or German, or any of the other languages Dr Featherstone had ever heard. Even as his sensible mind tried to categorise and search for vocabulary lists, his wild fancy took an instant leap into fairytale, and the strange story of Morgan Meredith. These were creatures from the green underworld of the sea, he thought, dazedly. And that was the second strange thing about the coming of the sealmen. For Dr Featherstone, the sudden disarranging of the sensible world he had believed in for so long was not wholly frightening. No; there was excitement and glee and a kind of weird, remote wonder, too, mixed in with the disbelieving fear. ‘Such things are not meant to happen,’ he told himself, very quietly. ‘One does not go down to the beach and see mutant creatures of dream and legend bob up from a perfectly innocent and sensible sea!’ But as he spoke the words, he hugged himself for glee that it was so; that such things did happen, and always had done, for as long as the world was the strange, strange world; and he watched, carefully, not revealing himself for the moment.
The sealmen—for thus the thought of them swam up into his mind as well as his heart—came closer to shore, their sleek dark bodies now breaking the surface, now submerged in the green. They were quiet at present; their movements strange, both natural and not, both graceful and clumsy. Now Dr Featherstone saw that their faces were not seals’ faces, but humanlike, and of the greenish pallor of things that have long been in the sea. One of them sported a pair of yellowy-green whiskers as finely sodden as some old grampus’, but the other’s face looked very young and hairless indeed. Their heads were round and dark, like seals’ heads, and Dr Featherstone could see no fish’s tail, though once or twice he caught a glimpse of thrashing feet flippered like those of seals.
Closer they came, closer; and now it became apparent to Dr Featherstone that the sealmen were not playing, as he had assumed them to be. One of them, the young one, seemed to be in some kind of trouble, for he—it?–was flopping around like a dying fish, supported by its—his?–whiskery friend, who was swimming along, with a black upper limb supporting the other under what looked like its shoulders. Dr Featherstone saw that the whiskered one was having difficulty; and then, all at once, he realised that blood red as any human’s was pouring out of the young sealman’s mouth.
Dr Featherstone did not stop to hear the urgings of his sane mind. From his earliest childhood, he had hated seeing any creature in trouble. He came out of hiding, calling out in firm, clear tones, ‘Do not be afraid! I only wish to help you. You have come to Meredith country here, where sealmen are not reviled. ‘
The sealmen froze—or at least, the healthy one did. The wounded one flopped about, and rolled his eyes. Dr Featherstone took off his buckled shoes and silk stockings and rolled up his breeches, and came towards the sealmen. They did not move, but stared at him as if it was he, not they, who was the weird mutant. The water—even in summer cold as the glass whose colour it imitated so well—gripped painfully at Dr Featherstone’s calves and thighs, but he ignored the discomfort. ‘Allow me to carry your friend too,’ he said, and helpfully mimed the action.
After a wary instant, the whiskered one nodded. Together, very gently, they heaved the wounded sealman up out of the water. Carefully, they carried him—it?–up onto the sand. It was a very odd experience, and Dr Featherstone would never forget it for as long as he lived: the thick, slippery touch of the wounded sealman’s sleek skin, the deepwater smell coming from his—yes, his, Dr Featherstone had definitely decided—body, the strangely human, yet weirdly remote gaze of his grey-green eyes, the flopping flippered feet…And the other one, the whiskered one, working in silence, grunting very humanly, yet once on the sand, hampered and awkward as a seal is on land.
Once the wounded sealman was on the beach, Dr Featherstone looked closely at him. His skin was grey from loss of blood now, his eyes closed, a trail of blood still oozing from the side of his mouth. Dr Featherstone wondered how long the creature had to live. He could see the mark of death on his features, just as he had seen it on Cristin’s face in her last days. It did not seem wrong, somehow, to think of Cristin and the sealman in the same breath, not with the knowledge of her ancestor Morgan Meredith..
All at once, the whiskered one said something incomprehensible but unmistakably urgent. William looked at him and tried to smile reassuringly. ‘I will go and get help,’ he said, and pointed up to the cliff. The sealman’s eyes followed the direction of his gesture, towards the Red House on the cliff, its silk banner fluttering bravely in the breeze, then looked down at his friend. With a kind of stricken astonishment, Dr Featherstone saw that the older sealman was weeping, tears rolling out of his dark eyes, and into the already-sodden depths of his whiskers. Dr Featherstone swallowed at the sudden fiercely-hot lump that had come into his own throat, and the turmoil that surged up from the deepest part of him. He put a timid hand briefly on the sealman’s shining dark shoulder. ‘A doctor—I have a friend,’ he stammered. He mimed the administering of medicine. ‘I will be back. I promise.’
The whiskered sealman stared at him, his dark eyes fathomless; then he got to his knees beside his friend and took the wounded man’s head in his lap. It was clear he was going to wait. Without stopping to put on his shoes or stockings, Dr Featherstone hurried away up the beach towards the cliff path. His thumping heart and whirling mind throbbed with strange questions; he felt like weeping and screaming and laughing aloud, all at once, whilst the back of his neck prickled with an odd kind of fear. Out of the old stories those sealmen had stepped: submarine legends, swimming out of the ocean of mystery, the fathomless depths of the great green deep, they had come to break the surface of the ordinary. And he, William Featherstone, would never be the same again. The world would never look the same again to him.
Panting and gasping, he reached the top of the cliff, and stood for a moment to catch his breath. The whiskery sealman was still sitting motionless on the sand, his companion’s head cradled in his lap. There was something both piteous and noble about his posture, something stilled and fated, too, and it made Dr Featherstone shiver a little. Some said the first sealmen had been humans who had somehow mutated, grown flippers, and slipped into the sea. How different did that make them from ordinary humans? How far apart from us were they? Not so far that they could not mate with humans—like Morgan Meredith had; but far enough perhaps for their feelings to be truly strange and maybe forever incomprehensible to us..
He hurried on, down the hill, and into the village, where people stared curiously at him. In a mixture of glee and wryness, he thought that he must indeed look a weird sight, wild-eyed, dishevelled, wigless, barefoot, his breeches rolled up over his salt-encrusted bare legs like some tinker. The gossips would have a field day about the metamorphosis of Dr William Featherstone. But that was the third strange thing about that strange day: he did not care about what any of them might think, or say. For the wild, ardent young man who had been William, who had wooed and won Cristin, and had seemingly died with her years ago, had stirred into life again.
There was Dafydd’s house. William knocked at the door, and Dafydd opened it at once. ‘Gwilym!’ he exclaimed, using the Welsh form of William. ‘What ails thee, friend?’
‘Sealmen,’ gasped William. ‘On the beach..wounded..come..quick..please..’
Dafydd’s eyes widened, but all he said was, ‘Just let me get my instruments. See thee, it will take me a little time to gather everything, but I will be as quick as I can be. ‘
All the way back to the cliff, the two men barely spoke. After a few words of explanation, William had fallen silent, unable to put into proper words the emotions of the morning. Dafydd did not question him; he seemed quite calm, as if it was some simple shipwrecked sailor they were going to tend, and not some fabulous creature from the green deep. But William felt anything but calm. Waiting for Dafydd to gather his instruments had seemed an agony to him; and he wished wildly that they could have mutated themselves, grown wings and flown back to the cove. In the time from seeing the sealmen to fetching Dafydd, he had changed, and the whole world seemed bright and mad and strange and marvellous to him. Cristin’s ghost no longer walked with him; her presence seemed instead to fill the air, so that he felt as if he could smell the nightsea darkness of her hair, as if he could hear the very words she used to speak to him in her love. She was of the sea, he thought wildly, like her ancestor Morgan Meredith, like the sealmen; and surging out of the great deep, her people, her kin had somehow reawakened his soul.
Presently, they reached the Red House, and the cliff-top. ‘See,’ said William, pointing down, ‘there they are, and..’ He stopped suddenly.
‘Why, Gwilym,’ said Dafydd, ‘whatever is the matter?’
Then he saw. He looked at the beach, then back at William. He opened his mouth. ‘My friend, I..’
But whatever he had been about to say was never spoken, for William gave an inarticulate cry and tore off down the path, so that all Dafydd could do was hurry after him.
‘Gwilym,’ he panted, when they stood on the sand near the rocks where William had left the two sealmen, ‘there is no-one here, thou can see that. ‘
William did not answer. He swung his head from side to side, looking, looking, wildly, almost desperately; and Dafydd, distressed and a little frightened by the expression on his friend’s face, said, softly, ‘They’re gone, Gwilym . Gone back to the sea. To their own kind.’
‘You believe me, then,’ said William, swinging his gaze—a stormy, stormy gaze such as had never been seen on the face of Dr Featherstone—back to Dafydd.
‘Ie, Gwilym, bach, ‘ whispered Dafydd, forgetting to speak English in his agitation. ‘Yes, William, friend.’
Wiliam gave a great sigh. His face, Dafydd saw, was strained and tight as a mask. He began to say, ‘He was terribly hurt, somehow, probably dying. He could not possibly..’ and stopped speaking, for Dafydd had silently pointed out a red trail, faint but definite, on the wet sand at some distance away. They followed the trail to where it stopped, at the edge of the water, and for a long while said nothing, looking out to sea, trying desperately to see signs of life out there, to catch a glimpse of two black dots, at the very least. But there was nothing. Nothing except the small glassy-green waves, and the ragged-lace foam, and nothing to be heard but the seabirds crying over the water.
‘His friend carried him back to the sea,’ said William, dully, at last. ‘Why? He couldn’t have survived it. Why didn’t they wait for me? Oh, why, why did I leave them? They were afraid and alone, you could see that—in great trouble, and landed on a strange shore, with a stranger gobbling foolishly at them..’ The deep black sorrow in him was almost too great to be borne. He did not know why he felt like this over the fate of two mutant strangers who had barely touched his life except in that odd, glancing way, but he knew the sorrow was a real, real thing, bitter and strong as the ocean itself.
Very quietly, Dafydd said, ‘You did all that you could do, Gwilym. We on land, we can only offer our trust and our friendship—and if they will not take it, why, there is nothing to be done.’
William opened his mouth, then closed it again, for he could not explain all the emotions he had been drowned in today, not to Dafydd, not to anyone. To no-one—except for Cristin. And she was dead. Dead forever, returned to the great dark ocean whence we all emerged and all vanished, and he would never, never see her again. At this thought, new-minted it seemed, this ferocious feeling, bloodily burst from under the shattered carapace of his carefully manufactured middle-aged calm, he gave a great cry, and flung away from the beach, and the shore, and up the cliff path towards the Red House, the house that had once been hers.
The door was open. He noticed that, even through the fog of long-suppressed grief that overwhelmed him. He did not remember having left it open, when he had left that morning. But what did it matter? He stumbled into the house, and cried aloud to the walls. They caught his cries and swallowed them, as they had caught the cries of so many Merediths over two hundred and fifty years. He sank to his knees, the tears pouring down his face, crying as he had not done since he was a child, seeing in his mind’s eye the whiskered sealman, with the tears pouring down his face, and rolling into his already-sodden yellowing moustache, the sand graining on his flipper-feet and..
Sand. There was sand here, at the corner of the table, a little pile of it..and there wet patches..wet patches..where he had not stepped himself. William rose abruptly, almost hitting his head on the table in his haste. He looked around wildly. Suddenly, the familiar house looked strange to him; subtly different. Someone had been here..He did not stop to speculate, but went quickly around the room, looking for what was missing, what was changed, what was, perhaps, added. Nothing—nothing that he could put his finger on. Yet he could see, in his mind’s eye, a dark seal-shape moving restlessly, awkwardly, perhaps fearfully through the house, looking at this, looking at that, looking for something..
He moved from the main room into the little room at the back, which he used as a study, and where indeed his manuscript was still sitting on the desk. He gave an exclamation, and started forward.
He had begun on a new page only this morning, before going down to the beach. As was his custom, he had headed it with the date: Midsummer Eve, June 22, 1712. He had begun writing about the cloud formations he could see from the window, before abandoning his task, lured by the wild brightness of the air outside.
But now, under the entry in his own hand, he saw that someone had written something else, something that made no sense: HET, it looked like, repeated over and over, as if for practice, three jumbled letters, not even properly written, but scrawled, tentative at first, then deeper, darker, frenzied, the quill wielded by someone with no skill in penmanship: HET, HET, HET HET..
He was still looking at it when Dafydd burst in through the door. ‘Gwilym, I..’ he began, then stopped when he saw William’s expression, and then the manuscript.
‘I think,’ said William, haltingly, ‘I think he came here..perhaps looking for me. I’d pointed up at the cliff, you see..he saw the house..perhaps he thought I was here. ‘
‘But..why..’ said Dafydd, pointing at the manuscript.
William shook his head, very slowly. ‘I do not know,’ he said. ‘I have no idea at all. ‘
‘HET,’ said Dafydd, frowning. ‘HET. That means hat, in my language. But why would he write that? It makes no sense.’
‘I am sure he did not mean hat, ‘ said William, smiling a little. ‘You are right—it makes no sense. It’s curious, Dafydd, how letters together may mean everything, or nothing. If they’d been changed around, we could have THE, for instance. ‘
‘If you look at it a certain way, ‘ Dafydd said, peering at the letters with one eye closed, ‘awkwardly written as it is, it looks a little like that Cyrillic script I saw in the realm of the Russian Tsar, when I was in the Army. It looks like the Russian word for NO. Yet of course it cannot mean that at all, any more than it means HAT, or THE wrong way around. ‘
‘I had no notion seal-men could write, ‘ William said. ‘The old stories do not say so, do they, Dafydd?’
‘They do not..’ began Dafydd, when all at once Henry’s fresh young voice came floating in from outside. ‘Father! Father! Are you there, Father?’
‘Yes, Henry, I am here,’ said William, patiently; and in the next moment, Henry came breezing into the room, his face all flushed with excitement. Behind him, shyly smiling, followed Dafydd’s own pretty niece, Rhiannon.
‘Father, I am so glad you are here! ‘ said Henry, and William saw with a jolt of tender surprise that his son’s summersea eyes were sparkling with genuine pleasure. ‘Rhiannon and I, we have seen such a sight, Father! ‘
‘Really, Henry?’ His son looked happy, William thought; truly happy, for the first time in weeks.
‘Yes, Father—we were looking for shells on the next cove round and we ..well, we had..er.. stopped for a moment to rest on the sand when all at once, we heard the strangest sound, far out at sea..like insistent bells pealing underwater, or a kind of weird, weird siren song. Then, on the water, came two black things, which looked like..’
‘Morlo,’ said Rhiannon, quietly.
‘Seals,’ translated her uncle, just as quietly.
‘There was a brightness around them, a kind of wild brightness..they seemed to be following the sound..and then..they just reached a spot on the sea, and disappeared, completely,’ said Henry, Suddenly, his clear young face was clouded with bewilderment. ‘I did not even see them go,’ he murmured. ‘One minute they were there—the next, gone, as if the sea, or time itself had swallowed them.’
William thought, two seal-men, one either dying or already dead, the other paddling away with a desperate kind of courage..Yet there was no pain in the thought, not any more, just a kind of pity, and a sad admiration for the courage of the other, who had tried so hard to take the young seal-man home to the great deep..Perhaps, he thought, with a jolt, they were father and son. And perhaps not. All that was sure was that they had not been at home, here in this place; and could not stay. Something had frightened them, perhaps; something had told them they would never belong here. William might never know exactly what that had been. But he thought that now he might find the clear, beautiful way of writing he had sought for so long: for the sealmen had brought it with them, from the great deep, and he would never, ever forget them.
‘Henry, my dear son, ‘ he said, putting an arm around the boy’s shoulders. ‘Don’t be afraid—for you have seen a wonder, true enough.’
‘True enough,’ echoed Henry, and smiled into his father’s eyes. Then he coloured. ‘Father—Master Dafydd—Rhiannon and I, there is something else..you see..we..we wish to be engaged..and we wish for your blessing..’
And in the explanations and exclamations that followed, the thought that had so suddenly flashed into Dafydd’s mind, about how the strange letters scrawled over and over on the clean sheet of manuscript looked almost like the Russian word for ‘no’, was forever forgotten.
Copyright Sophie Masson 2001–2014.