Here is the winning entry from the 2011 open short story competition. You can also see the full results list including judging notes.
First Prize Winner
Assipattle by Barbara Smith
There are many tales passed down through the generations of the selkies that swim in Scapa Flow. These are the shy, gentle creatures who are seals by day and shed their skins to become men and women by night. Over the years, Orkney story-tellers have gathered round their peat fires, while the shadows danced on low, smoke-blackened ceilings in the dim flickering light of oil lamps, recounting tales of fearsome storms, when the fury of the wind cracked ships on the rocks like eggshells and many brave sailors lost their lives.
There were said to be mysterious creatures of nature living in the hidden depths of the ocean, some of which sidled crabwise up the beach on moonlit nights to devour anyone foolish enough to be abroad. The boy, Assipattle, was a dreamer and spent many hours watching the grey seals basking in the sun on the rocks littering the beach below his parent's cottage at low tide.
As a child, he had listened to many legends recounted by his grandfather and although he found them fascinating, he knew they were far too outlandish to be true, and just nodded, while keeping his thoughts to himself when his grandfather told him that even though selkie nymphs were said to discard their skins and come ashore to live with men of the islands, they always returned to the sea.
One bright morning Assipattle sat on the wall above the beach, his legs dangling above the seaweed-strewn sand, waiting for his father and brothers to come down to the boat for a day's fishing. The sun-dappled sea was still and calm, and the balls of orange and green plastic buoys marking the place where lobster pots lay on the seabed, hardly moved on the surface.
A low grumble of sound caught his attention and he looked along the beach to where a huddle of black rocks were left partly exposed by the ebbing tide. A group of seals lay basking in the early sun, their grey coats shining as they "talked" to each other like women in a queue at the Co-op check-out.
He jumped down from the wall and walked towards them across the wet sand. Always curious, they turned to face him as he approached, then one by one they slid from the rocks into the sea and soon disappeared. All but one. A young seal stayed on her rock, eyes warily following his progress.
Assipattle picked his way slowly across some slippery clumps of seaweed towards her rock, making sure that she could see him at each step of the way. The ebb tide would shortly leave her high and dry. He hummed softly as he neared her and could soon see why she hadn't followed her kin into the sea. Her flippers were entangled in a strip of netting caught on a spur of the jutting rock. The strong nylon net must have tightened with each effort she made to free herself.
She regarded him, resigned dark eyes pleading as she lay her muzzle on the rock. They eyed each other for long moments until she lifted her head and huffed at him. He called to her softly as he would to an upset child, and sang quietly, as his mother had sung to him when he was a child.
"Having a bit of bother?" he asked.
She stared at him.
"Want a hand?"
"Is that a yes or a no?"
The seal rolled on her side as if to show him where the hurt was, and he saw where the net had cut into her, and that the rock was red with her blood.
He took a sheath knife from his pocket, his every move slow and purposeful. Leaning towards her he pulled out the blade, and slid it under the net. For a moment she pulled away from him, fear in her eyes. The net snapped apart as the pressure of the blade cut into the mesh.
"You'll soon be free," he said.
As the grip on her body eased she tentatively moved her flippers, testing their new-found freedom but making no attempt to back away from her rescuer. He moved aside, but still she didn't shift.
He waited patiently for her to ease herself from the rock and slither down to the sea. Still she stayed. The boy thought her struggle against the net as it bit into her, must have exhausted the seal.
"Want a lift?" he asked, his voice low.
Again she huffed. Gently he slid his hands beneath her body, lifting her until she rested on his strong chest. He carried her the few steps down to the sea and when he was waist deep in the cold water he lowered his burden. At once she swam away into the deep waters of Scapa Flow.
His mother, Leona, was puzzled when he returned to the croft to change his wet clothes, but asked no questions. Her thoughts went back to a night sixteen years ago. When Assipattle was born, the midwife had shaken her head and said: "He's a bonnie wee lad right enough, but he's not…"
She never finished the sentence, but it hadn't seemed to matter at the time, and he had grown into a strong and cheerful boy. Though never quite as bright as his two elder brothers and a bit slow with reading, writing and arithmetic at the little village school, that didn't seem to matter either, for he was kind and gentle and much loved by all the fishermen and crofters on the island.
His quietly-spoken mother, spun wool from her own sheep and knitted soft woollen jumpers for Assipattle's father, Jonnie, and their three boys to wear under the thick oilskins worn when sailing out into the bay to pull up the lobster pots or heading out to deeper waters to fish.
One after the other, Jonnie taught his boys the best place to throw out the nets and to haul them in full of the gleaming silver bounty from the sea. During the weeks following his rescue of the seal, Assipattle thought much about the fables he'd heard of the selkies though he knew they were conjured from the minds of story-tellers and had no foundation in truth. But still, a young man could dream… and he did.
He called his seal Grace, remembering the poise of her lithe young body as she had disappeared into the sea. He remembered touching her smooth skin and the look she had given him from her coal black eyes before returning to her watery home.
Often when he went out alone to haul in the lobster pots, he noticed one or other of the green and orange buoys danced on the surface as if being tugged from below, and one day when the sun's reflection was like slivers of a broken mirror on the surface of the sea, he dived beneath the waves.
It was as he suspected, Grace, his seal friend, was tugging at the stout cord with the claws at the end of her flippers. As soon as she saw him she swam away, though not so fast that he could not catch up with her. For a while they played hide and seek in the sea like children, until Assipattle remembered what he was supposed to be doing and returned to the boat to pull in the lobster pots before heading home.
His meetings with Grace gradually became an almost daily event and the young fisherman soon found he could spend more and more time beneath the waves without having to come to the surface to fill his lungs with cold salty air. His mother saw that her youngest son had acquired a secret happiness and assumed he had met a lassie when drinking down at the Harbour Inn with his elder brothers, who were both soon to be married.
Then one bitterly cold evening, despite a threatening storm, Jonnie Trenabie and his sons headed their boat out into the phosphorescent waters of the fishing ground. The catch was good and they were well satisfied, but when they turned the boat for home the storm broke.
The vessel was buffeted this way and that but she was a sturdy little craft and was soon safe in the lee of the harbour wall when a freak wave swept Assipattle from the deck. A strong swimmer, he was not alarmed, knowing that he could soon strike out and reach the safety of the beach.
But beneath the commotion of the waves Grace was waiting for him. She slipped a warm seal skin round his shoulders, and as the tail of the skin wrapped around his feet, they swam away together back out into deep water.
"The lad seemed to be living in a world of his own before he disappeared," his father remarked sadly to Leona one evening a few months later.
Leona nodded but she did not reply. In her heart she knew what the midwife had been going to say when she left the sentence unfinished: "He's a bonnie wee lad right enough, but he's not one of us."
For Leona knew her own great-grandmother had been a selkie who had chosen to stay by the side of her beloved human rather than to return to the sea.
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|Author:||Pam Fish||Date:||January 6, 2012 12:24 am|
|Comments:||2 – permitted||Article:||1525 – published|
|I was totally fascinated by this well-written …||14-Mar-12||joyce mackenzie||Comment||Approved||1760|
|Thank you Joyce for your encouraging comment, I'…||15-Mar-12||Pam Fish||Comment||Approved||1762|