Authors: Emily Diamand
For Mum and Dad
Cat puts up his nose to sniff the breath of wind barely filling the sail, and opens his small pink mouth to speak.
“Yow yow,” he says, and I know what he's thinking: We're nearly there.
He's in a funny old mood: twitchy and nervous, like when a bad wind's coming. Maybe it's just us being out a whole day with nothing caught, which ain't like us. I'll get some stick for it from the captains when I get back: “What have you done to that cat, then, stuffed his nose with sand?” Another excuse to keep me off the big boats and stuck in this dinghy with hardly room for nets and baskets and us, as well.
We're running along past the coastline, as fast as this little wind will push us. Round here it's all hills, cliffs, and thin pebbly beaches. None of the wide brown marshes or fallen-in towns you get farther east. Not long we'll be at the headland,
and as soon as we peek round it, we'll see the little rocky harbor. And our village climbing up the hillside away from it.
Maybe Cat can smell fish? Fish guts curling off the harborside into the water; fish scales decorating the stones like pearls. Scrape, slice, pack: the daily chore of fisherfolk. And Cat's a favorite, with his pretty gray markings and his seaweed eyes. Any one of 'em, man or woman, would give him a tidbit, hoping to steal him away. He makes the most of it, gets a bellyful whenever he can, but it doesn't matter what they do, how much fish they give him; he'll thank 'em, eat it neatly, then come straight back to me.
I swing the sail out a bit more, trying to catch the sharp, salty wind. But we're only jogging through the water, jouncing over tiny waves, sparkle-bright in the sun.
Cat meows again.
“What's wrong?” I ask him, but he won't tell me. Just puts his front paws on the bow and stands there, flicking his tail, like he can't get home soon enough.
Back home, Granny'll be waiting. She doesn't make it to the harbor these days, what with her rheumatics, but she'll see us from the window.
“I'm just watching the sails,” she always says. Watching the boats go out and counting them back in again. Every day, she always counts them back. “Cos you can never trust the sea.” And I reckon she should know, what with Grampy going down the way he did.
Granny was a fisher herself when she was younger â worked with Captain Grayhand on the
But she doesn't want me to do it.
“Wears you down and wears you out,” she says. “Look at me â fifty-four and crippled with rheumatics. Is that really what you want, girl? A hard, windy life and not much more than rusty joints at the end of it?”
But what else is there? Life in a cobbledy old village, gutting and scraping and earning tuppence a week? Or having to marry a farmer and go and plow fields? Well, no thank you! Not for me. Anyway, Cat picked me, didn't he? That's got to say something.
The little wind pushes us past Station Point, a dank green lump of land with the sea eating at its roots. In olden times, before the Collapse, there was a great building there with huge towers and steam coming out all day long. Used to make lights and heat for all the houses in all the land. But maybe that's just one of Granny's stories, cos the old power station's nothing but moldy old concrete now, and every winter a bit more falls into the sea.
Cat turns his head and looks back at me.
“Yow yow, prup yow,” he says. But I still don't know what he's trying to tell me. He drops down from his perch and leaps daintily over.
“Mee yow!” he says, looking right in my face. And then he reaches up and sinks his teeth right into my hand on the tiller.
“Ow!” I cry. “What was that for?” But all I can work out is he's upset about something. Could be anything: a storm; whales; me missing a good shoal of fish; him thinking I'm not going fast enough.
“Tell me what the matter is!” I say. But he's too worked up, just paces in circles, growling.
I should be able to work out what Cat's saying by now. That's the whole point, cos a seacat's meant to help with sailing and fishing, to tell what's rumbling in the sea and sniff out good catches under the waves. But I still haven't got it. Lun Hindle says that's all the more reason why I shouldn't be allowed to keep him. Went round pretty much everyone in the village, telling how Cat should be taken off me. But luckily Granny stood up for us, and there's none of them captains who'd cross her.
“He chose Lilly hisself. And you know it can't be undone if the cat chooses.” That's what she said; hobbled her way down to the Old Moon where everyone was drinking and smoking and discussing it. I wasn't allowed in, of course, what with “being only a girl,” but I peeked through the window and saw all the captains nodding in agreement, like the Wise Men at Christmas. Lun kept on grumbling and whining, though. He even went to ask the vicar about it â probably hoping I'd get cast out as a witch or something. Andy was clipping the grass edges in the churchyard, and he told me about it.
Lun comes running up: “Vicar Reynolds! Lilly Melkun's gone and swiped herself a seacat â lured it from the litter
with fish!” As if I did any such thing! “And I've been waiting for two years now, had my name down and everything!”
And ever wonder why you've been waiting so long, Lun? Probably no cat would have you, that's why.
Anyway, Andy told me the vicar just said it was God's will if it was anything, and then went off in a huff. I don't know what else Lun was expecting; I should think the vicar would denounce seacats as the Devil's helpers if he had a church inland. But he can't hardly do it in a fishing village, can he? Not when everyone depends on them to keep safe.
It's when we're level with the tip of the headland I see it. An angel's head, bobbing by on the water. It's carved out of wood, not very well, and its hair is painted a strange reddish color, like you've never seen on a real person. I only know it's an angel head cos it's usually stuck on the front of Andy's dinghy, which he named
But Andy'd never take it off his boat! He carved that head himself, sitting out on his doorstep, whittling away. Even when the old boys who sit down by the harbor laughed and said it looked more like a pig than an angel, he still kept on at it.
By now Cat's growling and yowling and leaping about like a crazy thing. It's all I can do to keep him from climbing up on top of my head. And while I'm fighting him off and staring open-gobbed at the head, which is floating south, headed for Espana, I hear a noise like
Up on the headland. And the old station's on fire.
Of course, the station ain't actually burning. It's the beacon. A great pile of wood and kindling kept dry and stacked up on a raised platform. Cos a fire at Station Point can be seen at Wytham, and then they'll light their beacon. And then the fires'll be lit all along the coast until they reach the garrison at Chichester.
But there's only one reason to light the beacon, and that's raiders.
Now I know why Cat's been in such a frenzy, and my hands go sweaty cold. And when we turn the point of the headland, I can see the broken boats in the harbor and the smoke rising from the village. Too much smoke, smoke like houses on fire.
I look from the smoke to the wreckage of the village boats floating in the water to the beacon blazing on the headland, and I can't hardly believe it. I only went away for a day! How could this have happened in just a day?
More scrips and scraps of wood come floating by, then a fishbasket, then a slick hummock of something floating in the water. My breath stops in my mouth, till the waves move again and show it's just clothing, not a body. But it could have been. And there's probably bodies in the village right now if the raiders came down with no warning. Oh don't let it be Granny, or Andy, or Hetty, or â¦