Near Pen-clawdd, 1854
A girl’s scream stills two dozen sieving hands. The sound carries across the sand flats and salt water pools, catching in the cliffs that confine the bay. Women, previously bent double and scattered along the shore, cluster around the girl. They come bearing their sieves and baskets of cockles.
From a distance, the creature at the girl’s feet could be mistaken for driftwood. It is no bigger than a house cat but is entirely strange, all sleek body and quicksilver scales. Its gaze roves over the women, holding them fast, until their boots sink down into the waterlogged sand, down where the cockles bubble.
They look to each other, uncertainty creasing brows already weathered by sea spray and untempered wind. Should they carry the creature away with them in a cockle basket, before the tide turns back towards the cliffs? Perhaps they ought not touch it at all, in case their scent puts off its own kind, as happens with chicks fallen from nests. Yet there is a pleading in its eyes that cannot be ignored. The look of it suggests it should be in the water. It is one of God’s own creatures no doubt, but not one they know or have seen on land.
The oldest of the women comes forward, past the girl who drew them all with her scream. Unlike the girl, this woman has spent enough time collecting cockles to know that the sea is a giver of strange gifts. When the wind whips her words away, she points out to the horizon, then takes the felt hat from her head and nudges the creature towards the waves with the brim of it.
For a moment it seems the tide will take the creature. Then its body is rolled back to them, undignified in the surf. Sunk to their ankles in sand, the women stand observing and unmoving. Who among them would risk a drowning by walking out past their knees’ depth and carrying the creature beyond the shallows? Not the old woman, who puts her sea-soaked hat back on her head, lips pressed together.
Above them, gulls begin to circle. There is a sharpness in their shrieks that expresses interest and intent. They shift and tilt through the sky, taking in the helplessness below from all possible angles, ready to marry it to opportunity.
No one catches the moment the girl lifts the creature up and ducks away from the gulls. The basket she leaves on the beach is near empty of cockles, but she wades fast and reckless into the waves, her skirts spreading dark behind her, like a stain. Nor does anyone catch the moment when the creature slips from her arms to sanctuary. Only, the women know it is gone by her cry of joy, carried back to them on the wind.
Hetty lives in Scotland and works in publishing. Her writing has been published by Writers’ HQ and the Stonecrop Review. When not reading or writing, she likes swimming in lakes and exploring new places.