About the Buoy

A short story belated finished to mark the summer solstice. For readers unfamiliar with the area, Dunwich is a coastal village in Suffolk (once a thriving medieval town). This is the second story it has inspired for me - I'll post the other one at some stage.





About the Buoy

Charles, never Charlie even when he was young, stood on the shore and listened to the mournful dolling of the bell on the buoy. The early morning sea mist hid the distant float, but could do nothing to muffle the sound. The longest day would shortly dawn, and old Charles would mark it as he had done since his own grandfather had dragged him from bed at the age of ten. Fifty-eight solstices he has witnessed since then, come rain or dry, come joy or grief. Born and raised in Dunwich, there was a special joy in being the farthest east and so the first to witness the spectacle.
The solitary buoy marks the tides both lugubrious and tumultuous as surely as it marks Charles’s solitude, whether contented or despairing. The tolling of the bell has commended the souls of his entire kin, gone on before him. What few friends he ever had have likewise departed for the unseen western shore. A loveless and ill-judged marriage sank into the mists of memory, now so insubstantial that the colour of her hair escapes him. Only the shrillness of her unfulfilled voice caws as clearly as the gulls.
As the pre-dawn light stirs the water, it seems to form the pattern of a shape. His shape. The lad whose name Charles never dared find out. A face, a form seen only on one single day five decades ago, bringing in the catch from a returning fishing boat, and yet still he comes more clearly than so many others. He has returned so often, at the strangest of times. In darkness, a dream figure with the sweat running down the nape of his neck, the torn shirt sleeve revealing a glimpse of tattoo on bicep. The nameless fisherman often appeared to him when walking his late dog in the woods, when praying in church, even when filing writs and writing wills. There had been others since then, men who had stirred his heart with yearnings he could never admit to nor act upon. Yet now, when age and a lifetime of respectability made him acutely conscious of the approaching grave, it was that fire-haired stranger with the hyacinth eyes that drifted back to him. A smile was all he’d received, but how he’d made a lifelong feast of such a dry morsel!
Charles’ polished boots crunched along the pebbles of the beach until he came to the familiar flat-topped boulders where he liked to perch. It had been his favourite place to come during the lunch break from the tedium of the solicitor’s office, and though now retired still he would sit an hour or so each day and just watch the waves. The head broke the surface of the waters and watched him back, as it did on many days. Not all, but often enough for the old man to have a hopeful expectancy of seeing the seal. Charles wondered if it was the same creature every time, or if different members of a colony took it in turns. He had the comical idea that they gossiped about the strange human keeping a lonely vigil amongst themselves. The sun crested the low lying cloud bank, intense golden fire at the centre of a spreading band of rose light. Charles drew in his breath – it had always been a beautiful sight, but this year it seemed more vibrant than ever.
Medieval Dunwich was somewhere out there, on the ocean bed with fish swimming between the mouldering houses. Crumbling coastlines had long since done away with the original Dunwich. Legend had it that the old church bell could be heard from beneath the waves on stormy nights, but Charles had only ever heard the buoy.
As the full sphere rose above the mist, it cast a red-gold path across the sea reaching to the shingle. The seal head bobbed along the path of sunlight closer to shore, till it was close enough for Charles to clearly see the beautiful brown eyes. On impulse Charles patted his pockets in search of the bread rolls he always brought as a midsummer offering to the gulls. Did seals eat bread? He had no idea. Fish presumably, but they might like to try something different. Breaking one of the rolls in two, he gently walked the water’s edge trying hard not to alarm the creature.
Far from being disturbed the seal swam close enough for the old man to toss the half roll to it, which was quickly eaten. The seal barked and swam closer. Charles was about to throw another half when he saw the seal emerge higher from the ocean, rearing up to a height no seal ought to be able to reach. It moved strangely, the old man watching bewildered as to what was going on. Wading into the shallows, silhouetted against the dawn sun the darkened shape seemed no longer like the animal he had been observing. Human arms emerged from the shifting bulk and reached up to the seal’s neck, moving like a man shucking off a hooded cloak. As the sealskin fell away, Charles realised he was staring in shock at a brawny young man with the same liquid brown eyes as the being he had been just a moment before.
“What are you?”
“You must know what I am,” the voice was deep with an accent Charles couldn’t place.
“A selkie? But they’re creatures of myth. The priest says you can’t exist.”
“He’d say the same of you, if he knew.”
“Knew what?” Charles backed away up the shingle as the seal-man waded towards him. The sun rose a little higher and made the handsome features plain.
“What you cannot confess to yourself, you will never confess to a priest. How long have you been alone, Charles?” The strange creature stopped just shy of dry land. Aside from the sealskin flung over one shoulder he was quite naked.
“Am I going mad?” He reached out a tentative hand, though whether to test the reality of the phantasmal creature, to ward it off, or simply to touch so beautiful a being Charles himself did not know. The sea bell tolled seven times, yet the waves did not seem especially choppy.
“My kin are calling Charles, I must return. Will you come with me?”
“I can’t swim!”
“Then walk upon the red-gold path of the sun. Trust me and I will be with you for as long as you want.” The selkie was already wading slowly back along the road to the east. “Have you anything to stay for, any reason left to hold back? The church beneath the waves is empty, the pulpit long since rotted away.”
“I’m too old!” Charles cried plaintively, feeling every one of his sixty-eight years and then some. “I’ve always held back… what’s the point of changing now?”
The man from the ocean continued to walk for some way before pausing, now just a head and shoulders bobbing above the waves. The voice, when it came, felt as if the selkie were standing alongside him.
“What do you fear most Charles, venturing forth or staying put?”
“Wait!” the old man cried out as the head disappeared beneath the brine. “Don’t leave me! I want to come, I want to!”
Better to drown in the ocean than to drown in loneliness – at least the end came quicker. Charles dropped his walking stick and lurched into the shallows, salt water forever excoriating the shine on his patent leather boots. His voice grew hoarse as he called and called, wading deeper along the fading roadway of sunlight. The coldness of the sea shocked his breath away as the seabed suddenly dipped and the water came up to chest height. The selkie emerged inches from him, great brown eyes as fluid as the ocean. A hand on each shoulder stilled him and for a brief moment Charles noticed the webs between the fingers and the claws where nails should be. Then the selkie leaned forward and kissed him, salt upon his lips. For all the cold, his heart blazed like a furnace.
Charles reached out his own hands to clasp the velvet-furred shoulders and saw not the gnarled, veined hands of an old man but the hands of five decades ago.
“I’m young again!” he declared, pulling a single hand away from the muscled shoulder to caress the firm, smooth skin of his own face. He recalled a tall tale of his grandmother about the blessed waters of midsummer restoring people to their youth. A small waves broke across his face, filling his mouth with brine but instead of choking he found himself laughing hysterically. It tasted wonderful. “And quite insane!”
“There is neither sanity nor insanity in the deep, just above and below. You may visit the land once a year when the sun lays down the drawbridge at the summer solstice, if you wish.” A webbed paw cupped Charles’ face, sending a burning blush throughout his entire body. The cold left him entirely, and the once-old man became aware of how uncomfortable his clothes felt against his thickening, furred skin. His spectacles had fallen off somewhere in the sea, but Charles knew his eyes were becoming so large now that he needed no aides with to see anyway.
“I don’t think I will ever want to go back again!” The selkie’s hands pulled at the tweed jacket and sodden shirt, and Charles dived below with the nameless creature.

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