Authors: Janis Mackay
As Miranda spoke, the seal folk wept so much that Magnus Fin wondered whether that was why the sea was salty. After a pause his grandmother carried on with her story.
“The sharks captured twenty of our maidens and took them back to the monster’s palace. Our bravest seal men went to King Neptune’s cavern to enlist his help but by this time the false king had become too powerful. He had bullied all the sharks into joining his army. He threatened the lobsters with broken claws unless they became his police force, and he promised riches for the killer whales if they became his bodyguards. They were told they would feast like kings every night. And they do, Magnus Fin. They’re eating the sea.”
Magnus Fin saw one old walrus cry so much he looked as though he could never be consoled. The boy in his wetsuit, with his moon-stone dangling round his neck, held tight to his chair and breathed deeply. He too wanted to cry but sensed some adventure lay before him and, if he didn’t feel brave he should at least try and look brave. The seals gazed at Magnus with hope, as though this small boy could put an end to their sorrows. Magnus Fin bit his lip and couldn’t imagine what a lad like himself could possibly do to overcome monsters, killer whales, sharks and lobsters. Miranda’s voice grew louder and more urgent.
“With the strongest creatures on the false king’s side, Neptune was powerless to fight the monster. You will have heard of King Neptune?”
Fin nodded. Of course he’d heard of Neptune.
His own room was named after him.
“Great King Neptune is the true king of the sea. He is good and strong and loves the ocean and the creatures in it. But, Fin, the monster’s power has grown so terrible that even the mighty Neptune was forced to return to his cavern, where the sharks poisoned him then locked him up. They would have killed him. The monster and his army are powerful but, thank Neptune, not that powerful. Our king and all his loyal companions lie in his cavern in a deep sleep, and a terrible, noxious aura surrounds them, so that no sea creature can enter to waken them. And there he is to this day. King Neptune makes the waves and the waves bring freshness and life. His great work is not being done and so the sea is slowly dying.”
Magnus Fin gulped. Miranda carried on. “With every new moon the sharks come to the gates demanding more and more maidens. We haven’t let them in but it’s only a matter of time. The gates are rusting. The locks are breaking. The next time they come I think the gates will burst open. Help us, son of Ragnor.”
Magnus Fin stared at Miranda. Her eyes were closed now. He turned to look upon the circle of seal folk. Their many voices seemed to be begging, ringing, screeching, “Help us, son of Ragnor, help us.”
His head clamoured with their chants. His heart kicked in his ribs. His eyelids drooped and his chin dropped to his chest. He felt so, so tired, but still the chanting went on, “Help us, son of Ragnor, help us!”
“I thought I came here to get my birthday gift,” Magnus said. “I thought I’d get my hansel.” But as he spoke the words, he felt how small and unimportant they seemed compared with the loss of the young selkies and the dying of the sea.
, he thought to himself, his eyelids closing and everything blurring,
and how tired I feel, how very, very ti—
Ragnor spooned hot chocolate into his wife’s favourite mug. He heaped in two spoonfuls of sugar and stirred it. As the hot chocolate made its own tiny whirlpool, his thoughts raced to his son and the whirlpool at the black rock. He glanced up at the kitchen clock. 10.23 pm. Ragnor blew on the hot chocolate, making creamy bubbles form on the surface, wishing with all his selkie heart that all would be well for Fin.
“This hot chocolate is taking for ever,” Barbara called from her room, though it was Magnus Fin she really cared about, not the hot chocolate.
“Just a minute,” Ragnor called, “you don’t want to burn your lips.” He blew again and his breath rippled over the thick brown liquid, making little crinkled waves.
The moon rose through the slit in the curtain so that Barbara could see it, full and silvery white. “I don’t want to die of starvation,” she called, and a tremble of worry shook her voice.
Ragnor entered the room and handed his wife the steaming mug. “The moon is full,” said Ragnor, sitting on the edge of her bed. Then he stood up slowly, walked over to the window and opened the curtains. “Let’s allow the night in,” he said, flooding the room with silvery light. Barbara
cupped her hands around the mug, stared at the moon, sipped her drink then looked across at her husband.
“That’s good,” she said, “and, Ragnor, I know I have said this before and perhaps I’ll die saying it – but believe me – I am truly sorry for burning your seal skin.”
“I know,” said Ragnor, nodding his grey head, “I know.”
“Here’s to our son,” she said gently, lifting the mug to her lips. Ragnor closed his eyes and echoed her words.
“Our son,” he said, “our son.”
Miranda let Magnus Fin sleep. With a wave of her hand the circle of seal-people twisted round, their tails swishing the water into bubbles, and swam swiftly away. While the boy slept, curled up at the foot of the scallop-shell chair with a stone on his lap to keep him down, Miranda gathered dulse and carrageen from her seaweed kitchen, collecting the tasty leaves in a deep-bottomed scallop shell. She mashed it with a stone, mixing it into a fine pulp. A strong smell drifted into Magnus Fin’s slumber. The tang reminded him of the beach at low tide.
“Here, it’ll give you strength,” Miranda said, seeing Magnus Fin’s eyes slowly open. She handed him a white china bowl full of the
soup. “The bowl I took from a sunken ship,” she said, with laughter in her voice, “but the soup is my own.”
“It wasn’t the
, was it?” he said, taking the bowl.
“Well now – all seas join up eventually – so it might have been …”
!” said Magnus Fin, brightening up. “Wow! I’ve got a sign from the
. It says ‘Ballroom’.”
“And when it is time for you to return,” said his grandmother, “I will give you another sign. I have
one that says ‘Captain’s Quarters’. That’ll be a good hansel, eh?”
Fin nodded and his eyes grew wide. He became so excited about having another sign that he almost forgot the tale of woe he had been told. Was it yesterday? Everything seemed like a dream.
As he brought the spoon to his mouth he thought,
But if this is a dream, it’s going on for a very long time
. He recalled he had never eaten in a dream before and although the soup smelled horrible he took it and drank it. He could feel the strong seaweed taste on his tongue. He felt the soup going down his throat. As he swallowed strength seeped into him. If this was a dream – it was vivid. But it must be a dream; never in real life would he eat soup as disgusting as that.
“Come now,” said Miranda, putting the empty bowl and the stay-down stone aside and guiding the boy up. “We have work to do.” She picked up a small sponge called “mermaid’s purse” and took something out of it, then with her other hand she pulled her grandson through the water. As before, she swam behind and propelled him through the water with her nose. They journeyed back through the caverns of the seal people, back along the Emerald Valley they had travelled down – when? Was it only yesterday?
Magnus Fin peered into fantastical chambers with whorled shells the size of footballs decorating the floors. Down alleyways he saw shoals of fish darting over swaying pink sea anemones, rainbow trout and salmon, silver eels and flat fish. From
rocky shadows and dim waters seal women and men peered. When they reached the old iron gate Magnus could feel Miranda’s flipper push against his hand.
“We are venturing beyond our realm now,” she said as she unlocked the great iron lock and pushed the iron bars aside. “If you feel fear, grasp the moon-stone you have around your neck. It will help you. You are going to need great strength, Fin.”
Magnus had forgotten about his birthday stone, dangling now on a lace around his neck. This seal woman guiding him through the sea was his father’s mother. He said it to himself several times. Sometimes the idea sounded ridiculous and sometimes it felt completely normal.
Magnus Fin reached up to touch the stone and as he did he felt his father near him. “Be strong,” he was saying. “Be brave, my son.” So it was true. The door at low tide was real. He, Magnus Fin, was half human and half selkie. This journey was no dream.
As though divining his thoughts, Miranda nuzzled his back tenderly. As they travelled, she told her grandson more of her story.
“Don’t you notice how still everything is down here? Haven’t you asked yourself where the mighty waves are, the surging sea? Can’t you smell stagnation in the water?”
With each question some slumbering sense in Magnus Fin awoke. He recalled his father telling him that the sea was dying, and that his teacher, Mrs Mcleod, had said the same thing. Yes, it
eerily still, there was a whiff of decay, even the fronds of seaweed seemed to sway in a forlorn motion, and the dogfish lazing on the ocean bed looked listless. Magnus had simply assumed that’s how it was deep under the sea – dank, dark and dreary. Miranda read his thoughts, or was it that Magnus Fin spoke aloud? He wasn’t sure any more.
“Ah, Fin, you think this dull murky green-grey is the true shade of our world? You think this stench of slow rotting is the true scent of the sea? Son of Ragnor, I hope with all my selkie heart you will see our world in its true flashing and vibrant colours. Before Neptune fell asleep, every pounding wave and crashing breaker was like a shower for us. Great waves would sway our world with blues, greens, translucent emeralds, turquoise, shimmering silver and sparkling gold. The sun filtered a rainbow down through the ocean and everything was so clean and fresh. But now King Neptune does not thrash the deep. If he does not waken soon the sea as we know it will die.”
Questions bumped themselves up against Magnus Fin’s brain like dodgem cars. Some of them tumbled out: “But why? Why did the false king win? Why was Neptune not strong enough to fight back? It’s not our fault, is it? We’re going to clean the beach soon. Mrs McLeod says that will help.”
Miranda sent her thoughts back to her grandson while all the time they journeyed on: “It is good to ask why, Fin, and often I have asked the same thing. Why is the false king so powerful? How did he trick the great King Neptune? I have
come up with one word. It is the only word that makes sense. Fear. We under the sea are no more puppets than you are on land. It seems we, like you, have a choice – love or fear. Many are afraid, Fin, so many. The sharks are afraid, the lobsters are afraid, yes, even the false king is afraid. You, Magnus Fin? Are you afraid?”
Magnus Fin gulped and felt his heart kick in his ribs. The very mention of monsters made him almost faint. He had felt afraid when Tarkin had gone on so easily about the Loch Ness Monster. He nodded his head. He couldn’t pretend he was brave when he wasn’t.
“Then grasp your moon-stone, Fin, and the fear will leave you.”
Magnus took hold of his precious stone, and as he did he felt the fear melt away, like snow in the warm sun.
On they journeyed, through dark valleys choked with weeds and sunken ships, through vast deserts of sand and skeletons, between long dim crevices where plastic bottles, car parts, first-aid kits and broken bicycles floated around like ghosts. If it was not for his torch-like eyes, Magnus Fin wouldn’t have seen a thing. His eyes lit up the dim, eerie wreck of a submarine, covered in barnacles and seaweed. Magnus wanted to dive deeper and examine it, but Miranda was in a hurry and in moments the ghostly submarine was far behind them. Miranda pushed on through the water. Boats lay smashed in their final harbour. Magnus Fin thought of the treasures that must surely be stacked up in the holds of these sunken
ships. He wanted to explore. But they swam on, on and on.
They rarely met a fish or living creature now, though sometimes Magnus Fin heard deep bellowing sounds. “It’s the call of the false king’s bodyguards, the killer whales,” said Miranda. “Their terrifying bellow reaches hundreds of miles through the water.”
Miranda slowed down. “Don’t worry, Fin, they are far from here.” But turning from her grandson she looked anxiously around her. She hoped the monster’s army was far away – but suddenly she felt tremors in the sea. The smooth water rocked. Miranda sniffed the stench of the monster’s army. She could hear way up in the distance a crashing, smashing noise. Quickly she grasped Fin’s arm and propelled him up towards the surface.
“Fin, I hear the false king’s army. They are wrecking boats again. It is sport for them. Quick – we might be able to save some poor people from drowning. Oh, Fin – your strength is already to be tested.”
Miranda the seal swam now like a lightning streak, with Magnus Fin wrapping his small arms around her tail and clinging on for dear life. In no time they had arrived close to the sea’s surface. Disturbed, the killer whales, thankfully, had gone. Magnus saw a rosy glow dapple the water’s surface above him. Then suddenly, breaking the smooth surface, he saw bodies drop down through the water, their arms thrashing, their legs kicking, their faces distorted with drowning.
“Go, Fin! Use every ounce of strength you have. Push them back up to the surface. Quick!”
Miranda left him. She swam towards the man who was falling the deepest. She pressed her head under him and propelled him upwards.
Magnus Fin panicked.
, he thought desperately,
could he do?
He saw a young boy float towards him, his face all puffed up, his arms thrashing out ahead of him. Without thinking, Magnus reached out, grabbed the boy by his t-shirt then swam upwards with all his strength to return him to the air. The boy thrashed his arms so much that he hit Magnus across the face, but still Magnus held him tight. He brought him to the surface where he heard the boy gasp loudly. Magnus Fin left him there, clutching a spar of the shattered hull, and dived back under the sea. There was no time to lose.
Another boy, a bigger one, was sinking fast through the water. Magnus dived down to him then pulled at his heavy jacket and dragged him upwards. This boy was heavy, much heavier than the other boy, and much heavier than Magnus. He struggled to make any headway. He felt his arms weaken. He wanted to let go. He couldn’t lift any more. He wanted to scream from the pain in his arms. He wanted to drop this drowning boy.
But then he saw into the boy’s panicked, staring eyes and remembered how he had pulled Tarkin from the water. Tarkin! Tarkin who said he’d be chanting for him.
I hope you are chanting now, Tarkin
, Fin thought, his arms in agony but determined now to hold on. With an almighty
effort he dragged the boy up. The surface was close now. The light rays were streaming through the water. With a last huge heave Fin hoisted the boy to the surface.
In seconds Miranda was by his side. “Good. If it is not their time to die they will survive. Come, Fin, we must go.” And again Magnus clasped her tail and they dived deep down under the sea.
“You were strong, Magnus Fin,” he heard her say. “You’ll need more of that for what lies ahead. Soon we will reach King Neptune’s cavern. Waken him, Fin. You are half human. Do you understand? So much strength from the land you bring down to our watery world. I would not survive. Even now as we approach I feel my strength sap away. Here, Fin, take this salmon bone – the key to the cavern. Please, son of Ragnor, waken Neptune, and help us fight the false king.”
Magnus Fin felt his grandmother push a small bone into the palm of his hand. He grasped it, looking as he did at Miranda. She seemed older and slower. Her voice was growing fainter.
“We have no time to waste, Fin. Hold the bone tight and let’s go on.”